Great Depression


The period from the 1929 stock market crash until the establishment of the Production Code Administration in June 1934 has been called "pre-code Hollywood." Although film historians have argued about how different pre-code films were from films made later in the decade, a solid argument can be made that there was a distinctive difference. Andrew Bergman suggests in We're in the Money that the popular cycles of pre-code Hollywood—such as gangster films, fallen-women films, backstage musicals, social-problem films, and "anarchic" comedies—were distinctly connected to the economic distress of the early 1930s and the social-psychological anxieties it produced. Robert Sklar extends this argument in Movie-Made America , labeling the early 1930s the "golden age of turbulence" and the post-code Depression films the "golden age of order." Although Richard Malt by has usefully suggested that the majority of films in pre-code Hollywood were tamer and more conventional than the films Bergman and Sklar highlight, it does seem that during the early 1930s, more so than just before and just after that period, filmmakers were more likely to make, and audiences were more likely to respond to, films that called into question dominant attitudes toward sexuality, upper-class respectability, and the institutions of law and order.

b. Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz, Clarksburg, West Virginia, 11 December 1905,
d. 4 March 1992

Pare Lorentz was the most influential maker of and advocate for government-sponsored documentary films in the United States during the Great Depression. After studying journalism at West Virginia Wesleyan College and the University of West Virginia, Lorentz left for New York in 1925 and adopted his father's first name, Pare. From 1927 to 1932 he reviewed films for the magazine Judge . After that, he continued to write movie reviews and essays for a variety of publications for the rest of the decade. Some of this work was collected in Lorentz on Film (1975).

In 1934 Lorentz published The Roosevelt Year: 1933 , a book of photographs with accompanying text that sought to dramatize the Depression and the emergence of the New Deal. Lorentz originally had hoped to make a film, but had been unable to arrange financing. However, in June 1935 Rexford Tugwell, head of the US Resettlement Administration, hired him to make films about the plight of farmers in the Depression. The first film project focused on the Dust Bowl. Made for less than $20,000, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) demonstrated how the drought, dust storms, and market collapse forced Great Plains farmers to leave the land, then concluded with the government's plan of resettlement and soil conservation. Although the film garnered generally positive reviews, Hollywood caused difficulties for Lorentz, making it hard for him to obtain stock footage and discouraging theaters from showing a government-sponsored film that would compete with its newsreels. Lorentz's next film, The River (1938), featured footage of the devastating floods in early 1937 to depict the problems of flooding, soil erosion, and poverty in the Tennessee and Mississippi Valleys and to suggest how the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority confronted those problems through flood control, electrification, and conservation measures. More positively reviewed and widely distributed than Plow , The River received the best documentary award at the Venice Film Festival in 1938, winning over Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia .

That year President Roosevelt named Lorentz director of the US Film Service. In that capacity he oversaw the making of Joris Iven's The Power and the Land (1940) and Robert Flaherty's The Land (1940) and made one film himself, The Fight for Life (1940), an account of infant mortality, malnutrition, and child poverty in the United States that won the National Board of Review's best documentary award. Its controversial topic and critical subject matter angered many congressmen, however, and the US Film Service was eliminated when Congress refused to fund it in the spring of 1940. Lorentz's next project, a documentary on unemployment called Ecco Homo , was never made.


The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), The River (1938), The Fight for Life (1940)


Lorentz, Pare. FDR's Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts . Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1992.

——. Lorentz on Film: Movies 1927–1941 . New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1975.

Snyder, Robert L. Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film . 2nd ed. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1993. The original edition was published in 1968.

Charles J. Maland

The classic gangster films, whose plots were drawn to a greater or lesser extent from headlines about real gangsters such as Chicago's Al Capone, offer a good example. In them an ethnic American, usually of Italian descent, such as Rico in Little Caesar (1931) or Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932), or Irish extraction, such as Tommy Powers in Public Enemy (1931), rises from rags to riches by consolidating power in the prohibited liquor trade, only to be killed in the film's climax, a victim of his ambition, ruthlessness, and notoriety. James Cagney (1899–1986) and Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973) became closely associated with this genre. In the fallen-women films a woman is driven by economic circumstances to become a prostitute or kept woman. Greta Garbo (1905–1990) ( Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise , 1931), Joan Crawford (1904–1977) ( Possessed , 1931, and Rain , 1932), Marlene Dietrich ( Blonde Venus , 1932), Jean Harlow (1911–1937) ( Red Dust and Red-Headed Woman , both 1932), and Barbara Stanwyck (1907–1990) ( Baby Face , 1932) were among the best-known actresses who appeared in films of this cycle. The backstage musicals, most notably The Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street (both 1933), achieved popularity by combining Busby Berkeley's production numbers with a plot about a producer and cast working together to put on a show despite the depression economy. The story type from pre-code Hollywood that embraced the era most directly was the social-problem film, a type common in the 1910s but much less so in the 1920s. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) was one of the most acclaimed at the time, but also noteworthy were Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and the independently financed Our Daily Bread (1934). Finally, the irreverence of the anarchic comedies such as the Marx Brothers's Duck Soup (1933) satirized political authority and respectability, while Mae West's (1893–1980) comedies such as She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1934)—which she both wrote and starred in—featured a self-confident, voluptuous woman who openly uses her charm and physical allure to wrap men around her finger, refusing to accept the culture's prescribed role for female respectability.

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