The popularity and pervasiveness of the gangster films, the fallen-women films, and West's brazen comedies played a significant role in the protests by a variety of pressure groups against the movie industry between 1932 and early 1934. Among the most prominent of the protesters was the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization that sought to pressure the movie industry to follow the guidelines of the Hollywood Production Code of 1930. The Studio Relations Committee, an industry self-regulation body, was ostensibly charged with seeing that the studios followed that code, but it did not possess adequate power to compel the studios to adhere to it. Desperately seeking to find ways to reverse the decline in attendance, the studios regularly ignored the code in many of their productions. When the Legion of Decency began to threaten a widespread national boycott of the movies early in 1934, however, the studios decided that it would be in their best interests to set up a body that would enforce the code more strictly. They did so in June 1934 by establishing the Production Code Administration (PCA) and appointing as its director Joseph Breen. From that point on, the PCA more strictly enforced the code by reviewing and making suggestions on all studio scripts before they went into production, then doing the same with all completed films before issuing a PCA certificate. Member studios agreed not to release any film before the PCA granted it a certificate.
Regular monitoring of studio films by the PCA, as well as a gradual restoration of national confidence engendered by Roosevelt's New Deal programs between 1933 and 1935, contributed to some shifts in movie cycles after 1934. For example, Warner Bros. revised the gangster formula by making the protagonist not a gangster but a law-enforcement official in G-Men (1935), starring James Cagney. It was one of the top ten highest-grossing films of 1935 and paved the way for similar films, such as Bullets or Ballots (1936), starring Edward G. Robinson as a police detective, and Marked Woman (1937), starring Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) as a crusading district attorney. The fallen-woman and Mae West films, which were either forbidden or seriously constrained by the PCA, made way for one of the most popular and accomplished genres in the late 1930s, the screwball comedy. The surprise success of Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), which was made before the PCA was established, helped establish the cycle. An unlikely comic romance about a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) and a gruff and pragmatic newspaper reporter (Clark Gable), the film became the first movie to win the five major Oscars ® —for film, director, actress, actor, and screenplay (Robert Riskin)—and set the stage for a variety of successful screwball comedies. Noting the code's prohibitions against overt portrayals of sexuality, Andrew Sarris has called the genre the "sex comedy without sex," suggesting that instead of turning the female protagonists into sex objects, the screwball comedy endowed them with spontaneity, wit, vitality, and often professional achievements in the working world (p. 8). Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Gregory La Cava's (1892–1952) My Man Godfrey (1936), Leo McCarey's (1898–1969) The Awful Truth (1937), George Cukor's Holiday (1938), and two films by Howard Hawks (1896–1977), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), are among the many accomplished films of the genre. In their focus on a rocky but ultimately successful romance, these screwball comedies resembled the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers musicals of the middle and late 1930s—including Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937)—which replaced the backstage musicals popular in the early 1930s. Each of these emerging cycles—law-official crime films, screwball comedies, and romantic musicals—exhibited more confidence in the prevailing order than had many of the popular cycles of the early 1930s.
Another shift following the establishment of the PCA (and the gradual improvement of economic conditions) was the move toward more expensive, "prestige films." These films were expensive to make, but they also were most likely to appear on Variety 's list of the top ten
The popularity of two child stars in the middle and latter part of the decade suggests that American movies were playing a role in the reconsolidation of American culture—in restoring confidence in the system—as the country began to pull out of the Depression. From 1935 to 1938 Shirley Temple (b. 1928), thanks to the success of such films as Curly Top (1935) and The Littlest Rebel (1936), topped the Quigley Publications poll of top box-office stars in the United States. From 1939 to 1941, Mickey Rooney (b. 1920)—MGM star of the Andy Hardy series, Boys Town (1938), and "let's put on a show" musicals such as Babes in Arms (1939)—topped the list. In both cases the child actors showed vitality, resilience, and good cheer in overcoming whatever obstacles they confronted.
As the United States moved into the latter part of the decade, Hollywood, like American culture as a whole, began to exhibit a reawakened interest in defining national traditions and values. This trend emerged in part as a response to the growing international threat of fascism in Germany and Italy. The Los Angeles area, which became home to many prominent refugees from Germany, became a center of antifascist activity in the United States, led by groups such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. The movies participated in this exploration of national traditions and critique of fascism both domestic and, eventually, foreign. Fury (1937), directed by refugee Fritz Lang (1890–1976), explored the psychology of a mob action that led to lynching. Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) confronted a prototypically American hero with a sinister antagonist whose wealth, power, and ambition threatened to disrupt the democratic system. The historical settings of films such as Young Mr. Lincoln , Drums Along the Mohawk , and Gone With the Wind (all 1939) were central to their narrative concerns. The reappearance of the "A" western in late-1930s movies such as Dodge City , Union Pacific , and Stagecoach (all 1939) also contributed to the interest in American national traditions. Other important films from the end of this period include The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which shows how the Joad family are victimized by the dust bowl and a harsh economic system, and Orson Welles's (1915–1985) audacious, probing critique of an American tycoon, Citizen Kane (1941). Although the PCA discouraged filmmakers from making films that criticized other nations—in part because it hurt foreign rentals—overtly anti-Nazi films gradually began to appear even before the United States declared war in December 1941, most notably in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Chaplin's satiric attack on fascism, The Great Dictator (1940).
If one surveys American movies during the Depression in an extreme long shot, two impulses come into clear focus. One impulse, an aesthetic of movies as entertainment, which had established itself firmly during the 1920s, held that movies should enable viewers to escape from their problems for two hours. However, a counter impulse, which emerged from the distressing social and economic conditions following the stock market crash, pressured filmmakers to acknowledge and grapple with the social realities of the day. Although the latter impulse never became dominant, in part because of the industry's constant attention to the box-office potential of projects, it did lead to some of the most disturbing and powerful films of pre-code Hollywood and to the most critically acclaimed and widely discussed films later in the decade. With the American entry to World War II in December 1941, the industry officially moved out of the Depression and into a new era.
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Charles J. Maland