Hollywood 1930s: Small-Town, Big City, Men and Women

During the Depression, one “solution” to the nation’s socio-economic problems was what could be described as “Return to the Soil.” Indeed, most films praised the virtues of small-town life and criticized urbanization and industrialization. Despite the demographic evidence (a growing urbanization from the 1920s on), the Big City has continued to feature as a “villain” in American films.

Populism and Return to the Soil

The scholars Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy have noted that, according to the populist ideology of these films, “the city is an entirely negative environment, the epitome of modern progress,” whereas “the country, or more directly, the soil, is the direct antithesis to the city, a symbol of the past, of self-help, rugged individualism, and good neighborliness.”

Frank Capra’s populist comedies contrasted small towns with the Big City, condemning the City’s corruption, greed, superficiality, and impersonality. King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread” was the only movie to propose the radical solution of establishing cooperatives, but even that movie could not reconcile the tension between collectivism as utopian ideal and individualism as reality. Commitment to the Land: Scarlett O’Hara

Unconditional faith in the land and the commitment to preserve it at all costs were two prevalent values in the Depression that continued to dominate films of later decades. Even Gone with the Wind” (1939) romanticized the Old South by celebrating the importance of the land, not just for the economy, but also for one’s solid identity and mental welfare.

Broken down and desperate, Scarlett O’Hara decides to go back to Tara and save her family’s land. That she succeeds, the film suggests, is a measure of her strong-willed personality. Moreover, a good cause justifies the means used. As a self-absorbed and determined Southern belle, Scarlett is a predecessor of the strong heroines in future farm movies. In this respect, “Gone With the Wind” featured a feminist heroine for its times, but continued to propagate traditional values, such as romantic individualism and hard work.

In the musical The Wizard of Oz” (1939), too, Scarecrow and Tin Man are in favor of collective, group support, longing for a populist alliance between the farmers and other workers.

The best films of the decade, cinematically and narratively, often ran against dominant ideology. With the possible exception of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the other idealistic films have not aged well. By contrast, Fury,” Theodora Goes Wild,” and Nothing Sacred” have assumed the status of classics because of their thematic or stylistic audacity.

Individual and Community

In the 1930s, many small-town films featured a comic sensibility. In fact, the decade’s best movies were screwball comedies: Mr. Deeds,” Theodora,” Nothing Sacred”). They upheld traditional virtues of family life and almost invariably contained happy endings, in which their heroes (and heroines) were integrated, usually by marriage, into the established social order.

Their narratives suggested that stability was the rule of the game, and that the most individualistic and eccentric protagonists could find their place within mainstream arrangements. Thus, the inherent tension between individual and community was resolved in a way that satisfied and benefited both individuals and society. But while towns in films of the 1930s had a clear moral center, a collective conscience, which was abiding, there was an equal emphasis on creative and even rebellious personalities.

Strong Women

Small-town films of the Depression featured both male and female protagonists. Most films had strong male and female characters. More importantly, women were portrayed as equal to men; in screwball comedies, they were often stronger than men. In Mr. Deeds” (and other Capra films), it’s the woman who is manipulative and the sexual aggressor. And as its title indicates, in Nothing Sacred,” nothing is sacred, including the behavior of a small-town woman. Hence, actresses who specialized in screwball comedies (Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunn, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert) often taught men a lesson or two in courtship, romance and lovemaking.

By contrast, in melodramas and musicals, the more traditional mythology, of the good small-town versus the bad Big City, was maintained. For example, numerous narratives depicted naive and unsophisticated small-town girls who come to the Big City (usually New York’s Manhattan) to pursue their showbusiness career: Morning Glory” in 1932; Forty Second Street” in l933; Stage Door” in 1937.

The thematic unit of Depression films was the individual (usually one protagonist). The few films which dealt with larger groups centered on the nuclear family (Little Women,” Four Daughters”). The prevalence of screen names such as Adams, as either first (the father in Four Daughters”) or last (Alice Adams”) name is also noteworthy. The original title of Dr. Bull” was The Last Adam.” This was not a coincidence: With all their eccentricities, the protagonists of these films were meant to be average and typical. Mr. Deeds (and other Capra heroes) were conceived as prototypes of the “little men,” though they were never convincing as such, n large part a function of the performers’ immense talent and charisma.

New Male Stars

The decade of the l930s is also important for launching the careers of four male movie stars associated with small-town values: Will Rogers, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. The small-town heroes they played left such indelible images that, no matter what specific roles they later portrayed, they were forever associated with the earlier, small-town images. Will Rogers

Will Rogers was the most popular star during the Depression; his 1935 untimely death, in an aircrash, terminated his career at its height. Rogers was much more than a movie star, he was a folk hero, an icon. Previously a vaudeville performer, newspaper columnist, and radio personality, Rogers functioned as a homespun philosopher, or as the critic Andrew Sarris noted, “a combination of Norman Mailer and Woody Allen, from a somewhat broader base of audience identification.”

The impressive volume of his film output (between 1930 and 1935, he appeared in 19 films), which enabled him to repeat his philosophy with a good deal of consistency. An ambassador of rural America and spokesman of common folk, Rogers was often cast as a small-town judge or doctor who lived a simple life. He cherished the American Way of Life with his two foremost weapons: acerbic humor and commonsensical wit.

Will Rogers embodied symbols of the American Dream, at a time when it was increasingly hard to believe in such values: The dignity of common individuals; democracy as the guarantee of equality; and the ethics of hard work. In his films, Rogers stood against “governmental corruption, financial greed, and changes in morals. These values were extremely important, when farmers were suffering a severe decline in their power (and prestige), and when farming was gradually incorporated into a vast technological market economy. At a time when the American system might have been redirected, with the old values deemed inadequate, Rogers showed that there was still vitality in the traditional values.

Rogers’s political commentary (in films, radio programs, newspapers), was instrumental in helping F. D. Roosevelt win the l932 Elections. “There was something infectious about his humor,” Roosevelt said in his eulogy, “In a time grown too solemn and somber, he brought his countrymen back to a sense of proportion.”

Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda made his screen debut the year Rogers died, in 1935, in The Farmer Takes a Wife,” and he played another farmer in his second film Way Down East” (same year). In The Farmer,” a comedy of manners, Fonda repeated his stage role as Dan Harrow, a virtuous farmer on the Erie Canal whose ambition is to save enough money to buy his own land and live there peacefully with his girl (Janet Gaynor).

In his screen persona, Fonda embodied the virtues of a small-town hero: shy, decent, ingenuous, and honest. At the center of his myth was the self-reliant farmer, the mainstay of American economy until industrialization. But the mythological significance of farmers continued to prevail, as evident in Young Mr. Lincoln,” Drums Along the Mohawk” (all in 1939), and in Fonda’s best-known role, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath” (l940), all directed by John Ford.

Fonda’s social backgrounds, born in the small town of Omaha, Nebraska, made his screen persona all the more credible. “I’m Mid-West and proud of it,” he once observed, “I’ve never tried hard to get away from that. When I have tried, I’ve felt phony.” Fonda embodied the ideal common man, standing for democratic values and domestic ideals.

Jimmy Stewart

If Fonda epitomized farmers, James Stewart was most effectively cast as a small-town lawyer, establishing himself as another all-American hero in his films with Capra, the director of “the American Dream.” Stewart usually played folks who found pleasure and fulfillment in an unglamorous, ordinary existence. Stewart’s Jefferson Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) is a nave Wisconsin Senator committed to fighting graft and corruption.

Stewart’s young sheriff in Destry Rides Again” (also 1939), Thomas Jefferson Destry (note the similarity in the protagonists’ names), looks soft and easygoing, as many small-town heroes, but is hard as nails when he has to fight. In Capra’s masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), Stewart is cast as the simple but honest George Bailey who, all his life, has been dreaming of breaking away from his small town, doing “big things,” only to realize how meaningful that small-town life was to him.

Gary Cooper

Capra also contributed to Gary Cooper’s image as the spokesman of ordinary people and ordinary life. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” the movie that catapulted Cooper to national stardom, his tuba-playing country boy suddenly finds himself fighting Big City crooks and swindlers. And in another Capra film, Meet John Doe” (1941), Cooper starts as a desperate former bush league pitcher, but ends up fighting a Fascist publisher and a corrupt political system. In Sergeant York,” Cooper played a farmer-turned war hero

New Female Stars

The Depression also introduced a number of new and significant female stars to the public, stars that differed in their screen images from their predecessors. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the popular stars embodied glamor, sophistication, and explicitly erotic sexuality, all situated in distinctly urban locales. Garbo, Dietrich, Harlow, and Mae West wereall popular in the early 1930s, but they declined in stature as the decade progressed. The new stars that replaced them (Janet Gaynor, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, and Barbara Stanwyck) embodied a romantic, though not excessively sexual, image, and they were more down-to-earth.