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Why Hard Times Won't Mean Good Times at the Movies Again

Brother, can you spare $12?

"We have seen that our product is, at worst, recession-resistant." So DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg assured a conclave of Hollywood studio execs and Wall Street investors, hosted by Goldman Sachs last September amid the din of falling stock prices.

The movie industry had already endured a year-long credit crunch. Two days later, Universal backed away from DreamWorks' $130 million 3-D animation Tintin (and within a week, Goldman Sachs ceased to be an investment bank), but, as Katzenberg explained, time was on their side. "More optimistically and historically," he recalled, the motion-picture product "has actually been recession-proof." Optimistic? You bet: Back in 1930, Hollywood had considered itself "depression-proof," too.

For the American people, the first five years of the Great Depression—1930 through 1934—were the worst of times and the really worst of times. For the American movie industry, the period would also bring the worst of economic times. In another way, though, it was the best. The early '30s were the days of "Breadlines & Champagne," as Film Forum has dubbed its month-long, all-35mm celebration of the pre-Code, the Socially Conscious, and the Screwball—three manifestations of the richest period in Hollywood history.

A Busby Berkeley assembly line in Footlight Parade
Photofest
A Busby Berkeley assembly line in Footlight Parade

Crisis may be stimulus to popular art—the Nixon years were great for movies as well—and the Great Depression created chaos for all. Busily rewiring their theaters for newly developed "talking pictures" and importing verbally adroit talent from the Broadway stage to make them, the Hollywood studios initially ignored the stock market crash. The crash, however, did not ignore them. The novelty of sound soon faded. By the end of 1931, the record motion-picture audience of the previous year was down by a third and falling. So were ticket prices. Production costs, however, had doubled.

Warner Bros., the studio that led the initially profitable shift to talking pictures, was now hemorrhaging money. Universal terminated hundreds of employees and would soon join RKO in receivership—followed by Fox and, in what was then America's second largest bankruptcy to date, Paramount. As movie houses darkened, exhibitors played exploitation angles, promoting double features, dish giveaways, and weekly lotteries called "bank nights"—which, as part of its retro, Film Forum plans to revive. By the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in March 1933, theaters were empty, production slates slashed, cash flow dried up. The industry was near collapse. But the product was better than ever.

Sound brought a new hyper-verbal cinema, racy and insolent. The talkies also changed the nature of stardom. (The great voices of the early '30s are recycled to this day: Cagney, Hepburn, Peter Lorre, Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, and Mae West.) Hard times pushed desperate producers toward sensationalism. The studios ignored their own Production Code. Crime paid, so did sin. Street-smart criminals traded brazen double entendres with fast-talking chorines. Gangsters ruled the 1931-32 season; bad girls followed, as Variety estimated 80 percent of the pictures released in the 1932-33 season had a "sex slant." The trend peaked with West, whose first feature, She Done Him Wrong, was the biggest hit of 1933, returning 10 times its production costs in North America alone and precipitating a national crusade to clean up the movies. Fittingly, "Breadlines & Champagne" opens with West's follow-up, I'm No Angel—selling tickets at the Depression price of 35 cents.

The movies of the early '30s were at once more naturalistic and more theatrical than silent movies—and, thanks to tight budgets and the exigencies of the double feature, far snappier. In addition to trafficking in sex and violence, talkies assimilated the vaudeville aesthetic of ethnic stereotype and crazy comedy, creating a rowdy new American idiom in which every other line seemed to include an appreciative "Swell!" or questioning "On the level?" Extravagant fantasies alternated with cynical realism. The period brought forth a remarkable number of enduring celluloid archetypes: Paul Muni's Scarface and Jean Harlow's Platinum Blonde, the Universal horrors Dracula and Frankenstein, Tarzan and King Kong, Betty Boop and even Mickey Mouse. The chaos (and lack of supervision) allowed filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, and Busby Berkeley to do their best work—unlike today, when every project is necessarily pre-sold and vetted.

"Breadlines & Champagne" doesn't showcase the full range of early-'30s Hollywood, but it is particularly rich in "preachment yarns"—movies that trafficked in lurid topicality while expressing a measure of passionately confused social protest. Banks go kerflooey in Frank Capra's American Madness, teenage hobos ride the rails in William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road, and the unemployed turn to collective farming in King Vidor's Our Daily Bread. The countryside was in turmoil, yet Hollywood was never more urban. The movies at Film Forum are mainly set in big cities—nearly half in New York, four among the homeless inhabitants of Manhattan's Hoovervilles. Not since the days of the nickelodeon had audiences been so encouraged to identify with the destitute and the desperate. Class warfare was rife. Capitalism was equated with crime. Predatory businessmen debauched their innocent employees—although with the New Deal's new order, sexual relations between capital and labor became a subject for comedy.

As the 1932 election neared, with nearly half the nation's labor force out of work or marginally employed, the call resounded for "strong" leadership. Hollywood shifted from the outrageously cynical to the hysterically crypto-fascist—Washington Merry-Go-Round (the government is run by lobbyists and crooked pols) gave way to Gabriel Over the White House (new president divinely inspired to declare martial law) and This Day and Age (teenage vigilantes wage a war against crime), both of which opened near the beginning of Roosevelt's term. In early 1933, Warner Bros., the studio most identified with FDR, declared its own "New Deal in Entertainment": In 42nd Street, Warner Baxter's tyrannical stage director demonstrates that one might defeat the Depression by making a Broadway show. The utopia of full employment had never been more vividly dramatized than by Busby Berkeley's screen-filling dance formations.

The following year's Stand Up and Cheer! had Baxter tapped by FDR himself to head the new Federal Department of Amusement, a cross between Hollywood and the WPA. The new agency's first mega-production, "I'm Laughing," featured everyone in America—welders and seamstresses, cops and chorus girls, blacksmiths, hillbillies, and the white actress who performs in burnt cork under the name "Aunt Jemima"—united against self-pity. "I'm laughing, and I have nothing to laugh about," is the new anthem. "But if I can laugh and sing and shout—brother, so can you!"

After a dozen more numbers, including one introducing five-year-old Shirley Temple (embodiment of optimism and, soon, Hollywood's biggest star), Stand Up and Cheer! ends by proclaiming the end of the Depression. The movie's visceral metaphors of social organization have cured the malaise.

Can Hollywood do it again?

The U.S. suffered through three and a half years of economic misery before the New Deal arrived; the Obama administration arrives after only three and a half months. Since October, Hollywood studios have been terminating franchises and buying out employees. The audience has remained constant, although revenues have declined. Warner Bros. saw a 9 percent fall in its third-quarter earnings—despite the colossal success of The Dark Knight. Stock prices are down, but much scarier, from the industry's point of view, has been the drop in DVD sales. (Especially scary since a movie's theatrical release is largely a means of promoting DVD sales.)

This is only the beginning. Fox has announced a sequel to Oliver Stone's Wall Street (yawn), but nothing like Depression-era topical showmanship has begun to kick in. The independent Wendy and Lucy, with Michelle Williams as a jobless vagrant, now seems prescient, and recent releases ranging from WALL-E and Milk to The Wrestler and Gran Torino have certainly profited from the current mood of anxious Obamoptimism. The rags-to-riches romance Slumdog Millionaire is the prime beneficiary, although the 13 Oscar nominations accorded $150 million bummer Benjamin Button suggest the industry's touching vote of confidence in itself. And therein lies the rub. Hooked on tent poles and blockbusters, dreaming of dinosaurs, the movie industry has long since ceased to be nimble enough to adapt to crisis.

A reorganized and self-regulated Hollywood bounced back in 1935, but times were different then. Movies were America's universal culture. Now, they're not even close. Like then, the technology is changing—but in a far different way. Movies are expendable. Folks will give up $12 tickets, cancel Netflix, and cut cable to save their high-speed Internet connection. With the president's fireside chats posted online, the new Hoovervilles will certainly have broadband. Is there a downsized future for Katzenberg's product? As one bankrupt mogul said to another, "YouTube?!"

Maybe free online movies are strictly for the indies. But if times get worse and the studios want to get real, they'll have to find the audience where it lives: Hulu for Hollywood.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com
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