A DECADE IN LOVE WITH ITSELF
The 1930s are gone...but oh, how their memories linger on!
It is only in retrospect that the year 1939 is sited as the single most influential and probably, most artistic moment in the history of Hollywood; a flourish of technical prowess awash in a zenith of star talent. Yet, it is important to recognize that neither Hollywood nor its critics then regarded film with much appreciation. In fact, there was a considerable disdain applied by both critics and intellectuals to the Friday night ritual of ‘going to the movies.’
If films were regarded at all outside of the glittering Mecca that produced them, and, apart from their diversionary effectiveness on the masses, then the stories Hollywood told were viewed as incendiary and needlessly flamboyant.
No, the movies were an honorable estate – at least, so far as the studio dream merchants were concerned. Indeed, it was difficult to argue with their success. By 1934, Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (the most technically proficient and artistically accomplished of all dream factories) was the highest paid individual in America. Mayer, who scarcely a decade before had been the son of a struggling junk dealer and modest investor in a string of movie houses and his own fledgling production company, ascended to the throne as undisputed ruler of his kingdom – Hollywood’s Raja, so aptly dubbed, for his authoritarian rule dictated the continued success of MGM for many years to come.
The studio system, less than ten years old, a mere neophyte in the art of motion pictures had become an industrial/artistic colossus; a cultural leviathan; an factory-like complex with each studio producing and releasing one movie per week – to say nothing of the countless short subjects, cartoons, news reels and B-pictures that became main staples throughout the 1930s. Mayer and his contemporaries (Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner, Carle Lemmle, et al) wielded their autonomous scrutiny and control over public tastes.
There was no television, no foreign market to intervene in these halcyon days. If anything Hollywood had monopolized its foreign market – circling and saturating the globe with the celluloid likenesses of Gable, Crawford and Cooper until they and the system were the envy of the world.
Perhaps, in part because Hollywood studios were mass entertainment personified, those seated behind their imposing desks inside the front offices were more nuanced in generating diversity in their product, marking their territory with a distinction in costume, lighting and set design that undeniably established each studio’s output distinctly from its competition.
They were, of course, working from extraordinary material and from a seemingly untapped infinite wealth of contracted thespian talent unequaled in their diversity and proficiency since. Though Hollywood has always been a sucker for pretty faces, in the thirties at least, good looks and youth were not everything.
One of the most endearing aspects about films of the 1930s is their rich affinity for grandfatherly/motherly and parental figures, helmed by old hands (Will Rogers, Lionel Barrymore, Charles Grapewin) and hams (Marie Dressler, Edna May Oliver, Charles Winninger) with equal aplomb. These dexterous performers both looked and behaved according their years. Theirs was a celebration of the twilight of life that Hollywood sought, if not to place at the forefront of its motion picture output, then as solid backup to anchor their stories in a sort of cultural permanence strangely absent from today’s film culture.
In fact, the spectrum of talent acquired and fostered by the studios throughout the ‘30s ran the gamut in maturity, from child star Shirley Temple to aged George Arliss; from teenage Judy Garland to established Flora Robson; from dashing twenty-something Robert Taylor to wily boulevardier Frank Morgan. Diversity also was reflected in the background that actors possessed before becoming stars; from the seemingly overnight discovery of sweater girl Lana Turner inside Schwab’s drug store to the dedicated athleticism of ice skater Sonja Henie or from champion Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmueller; to radio personality Bing Crosby – each new star was a total original in this burgeoning firmament.
If American talent was in more high demand than the sultry Europeans who had been the main staples less than a decade before, this new surge of flag wavers did little to fade the popularity of intercontinental charmers like Maurice Chevalier, Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and of course, the ever-mysterious and illusive Garbo. Talent was where one found it, and Hollywood proved Dorothy’s adage; that there indeed was “no place like home”.
That philosophy extended to shooting schedules as well. Except for the occasional trek ‘on location’ to a handful of privately owned and appropriately rustic ‘ranches’ in the general vicinity, all film production resumed on the studio’s illustrious backlots or inside their cavernous stages that had been erected to accommodate sound recording in late 1929.
Whatever the mood, flavor or background of a particular project, the studios relied on their armies behind the curtain; craftsman, set designers, construction workman, engineers and their formidable art departments to evoke the flair of a stylized New York or ultra chic Paris. If what was depicted on screen was not historically ‘accurate’ it at least represented a reconstitution of places that most of the paying public, recovering from the great depression, were not likely to witness first hand in their lifetimes.
Necessity and healthy competition expedited the film factory’s journey from one reel silent features to lavish sound and Technicolor spectacles. Yet the transition had not been a smooth one. For example, few sitting inside those mausoleum-like early recording booths, fretting over the heartbeat of an actress overpowering her dialogue, could have predicted how efficiently movies graduated from the early stilted complexities of The Jazz Singer (1929) to the swirling smoothness in The Great Waltz (1938). Nor could anyone have forecast that the cumbersome two strip Technicolor process used to photograph key sequences in the silent, Ben-Hur (1929) would eventually eclipse the artistry of black and white photography, the then presumed enduring main staple for the industry.
What is remarkable about the 1930s; that brief span culminating with the penultimate moment that was 1939 – now, almost a forgotten flicker in that immense cavalcade of movie art - is how effortlessly steeped in positivism the output was. In part, due to that self-regulating ‘code’ of ethics that precluded the movies from offering anything but life-affirming, sexless, ‘justice will overcome’ edicts, sanctioned by the Breen office, film art presented the world to the world as a wonderland full of extraordinary possibilities; a luminous manufactured dreamscape that one quickly became disillusioned not to find in nature.
The early days of the gritty gangster, typified by The Public Enemy or Little Caesar (both in 1931), were translated into more glamorous – if tempered - fare about the underworld by the end of the decade (The Roaring Twenties 1939). But more to the point, such explorations into corruption, and those investigating fear – perhaps best exemplified by Universal’s monster series (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy et al) - were increasingly being replaced in popularity by the fanciful Astaire/Rogers or Busby Berkeley musicals, sumptuous costume dramas (Anna Karenina 1935, Maytime 1937) and light-hearted all-star comedies (Dinner At Eight 1933, The Women 1939).
Not surprising then, the alternatives Hollywood cultivated for its patrons were in essence regressive portraits of positivism that systematically ignored the forward looming motion of world events. Thirties films took on history, but with a glittering sheen and star studded patina that extolled the greatness of mankind while discounting its perverse atrocities. They deified historical vignettes, sufficiently removed from the present to allow for a re-visitation through rose-colored glasses.
As a rule of thumb minorities were excluded from the ‘30s white paradise. Those who had made modest inroads into the community during the ‘20s, like the less offensive Anna May Wong gave way to the more atypical stereotype of Charlie Chan. Native Americans were perennially depicted as blood-thirsty cutthroat savages; orientals, to be mistrusted; Mexicans quaint, though feeble-minded. African Americans, arguably the most highly visible and profiled minority in 30s films were background fodder and comic relief; butlers, valets, maids or other menial labor.
To illustrate these shortcomings is to accept them as part of the American tapestry of life rather than stand in contemporary judgment to condemn the cultural mindset that went into crafting its works of art. The Hollywood product of the ‘30s is distinctly American for that period in American history. The best American films of this vintage are unique in that even today they retain their ability to entertain us.
Long after the death of individual craftsman and the studio system - under which such confections of ‘light’ entertainment could only have been made possible – Hollywood’s best loved and most fondly remembered 30s films exist as enduring reflections. In the final analysis, 30s cinema presented the world not as it was, but as we would have liked it to have been and continue, at least on some subliminal level, to hope in vain that it may someday become.
The movies offer glimpses into imperfect moments in history, yet always with the most idyllic frames of reference. We are entertained, not indoctrinated, and led to no finite conclusions – apolitical or otherwise – other than coming to the realization that we have been made a little bit better for the experience. The recent compost that is our movie-going exercise is perhaps more culturally sensitive, though far from being more culturally advanced.
What the 1930s represent best is a level of craftsmanship and artistry that can never be equaled. True, it is a world of cliché, but presented to the paying public at a time before ‘cliché’ itself could be applied with any degree of certainty.
After a chaotic period of retooling their dream factories for sound recording, the movies settled in for a heady decade of production. Ironically, war pictures proved the most popular with Universal’s All Quiet On The Western Front winning the Best Picture Oscar. As Hollywood struggled with the fact that many of their greatest silent stars spoke with thick foreign accents or perceivable lisps exaggerated by early microphones, the era of the talent scout was born. Actors with even the most scant résumé made the journey to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming famous. While Broadway experience was still regarded as the golden ticket – many on the Great White Way regarded film as ‘dumb show’ and downgrade from their present artistic stature.
Burgeoning new talents were Jean Harlow and John Wayne. Harlow’s inexperience was painfully on display in Howard Hughes’ Hells Angels – though two-strip Technicolor and a harrowing bi-plane action sequence seemed to mask her shortcomings where the public was concerned. Wayne appeared as a western extra and stunt rider, churning out an endless string of ‘B’ movies for Monogram – a poverty row studio. Director John Ford saw something in the lanky young man and recommended him to Raoul Walsh for The Big Trail – a film shot in an experimental widescreen process (a precursor to Cinemascope that would stay buried until the 50s).
Wayne was such an abysmal bomb that his fledgling career practically ended before it had begun. Comedian Harold Lloyd made one of his last great comedies, Feet First. The man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney starred in his only ‘talkie’ The Unholy Three before succumbing to cancer on Aug. 26. Marlene Dietrich and Humphrey Bogart were signed to studio contracts – she at Paramount, he at Warner Bros. By all accounts, and the ledgers, it was full steam ahead.
James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson exploded onto the screen in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Moral activists decried both films as glorification of the gangster life. By now, 85% of movie houses in the United States were equipped for sound. Working with inferior equipment, studios nevertheless managed to refine their recording techniques.
Meanwhile at MGM, a rivalry developed between reigning ‘queen of the lot’ Norma Shearer and aspiring social climber Joan Crawford. “How can I complete with that?” Crawford loudly objected, “She sleeps with the boss!” True – but Norma was also the wife of VP Irving Thalberg. Relatively soft spoken English actor, Boris Karloff and Hungarian born Bela Lugosi terrorized audiences with definitive versions of Frankenstein and Dracula.
Under Thalberg’s guidance, Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel became the first all-star movie masterpiece. MGM threw every major talent it had into the production including Joan Crawford, Lionel and John Barrymore and Garbo. At first assuming that Garbo’s reclusive nature was akin to snobbishness, John Barrymore soon became a life long admirer and friend after realizing that the screen’s most enigmatic star suffered from acute insecurity in front of the camera. “You have no idea what it means to me to appear opposite so great a star as you,” Garbo reportedly told Barrymore on the set.
Joan Crawford, who regretted that her co-star billing offered her no scenes opposite Garbo, gave her most startling performance as Sadie Thompson in Rain – a colossal flop. New England blue blood, Katherine Hepburn appeared in Bill of Divorcement for RKO and was hailed “the find of the year.” But her subsequent appearance in Christopher Strong did much to brand her box office poison a few short years later. Cecil B. DeMille made the Biblical epic, The Sign of the Cross.
Following the resounding success of 42nd Street, Busby Berkeley became the most celebrated hot property on the Warner backlot. Olympic swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller debuted opposite Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan The Ape Man, Their skimpy costumes prompted outrage from the Catholic League of Decency. In Germany, Chancellor Adolph Hitler banned the film. At Oscar time, Walt Disney received a special citation for the creation of Mickey Mouse – then as big a star as any in Hollywood. Oscars too for Fredric March’s chilling performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Grand Hotel – Best Picture.
Mary Pickford – once dubbed America’s sweetheart – made her last screen appearance in Secrets. Pickford’s popularity had waned since the talkies and with all her wealth and popularity in tact she wisely chose the private life instead. Barbara Stanwyck’s sexual escapades in Baby Face prompted cries of moral outrage from the pulpit. The Three Stooges debuted minus their former boss, Ted Healy in a Columbia 2-reel comedy – Women Haters. It would be the first of over 200 shorts made at the studio.
Rival producer on the MGM backlot, David O. Selznick made his own all-star spectacle; the delightful drawing room comedy, Dinner At Eight. Director Frank Capra produced two films of artistic merit; the epic The Bitter Tea of General Yen and poignantly sentimental Lady for A Day – only the latter was successful.
Garbo gave a towering performance as Queen Christina – her sexual ambivalence and hinted lesbianism prompted a growing need for film censorship. Kate Hepburn scored in Morning Glory – taking home the Best Actress Oscar. Charles Laughton in The Private Lives of Henry VIII won Best Actor. 20th Century-Fox’s familial tragedy, Cavalcade – Best Picture. Silent star Renee Adoree died of a respiratory ailment. Disgraced pie-face and rotund comedian Fatty Arbuckle was stricken by a fatal heart attack.
W.S. Van Dyke made Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man in 12 days on a shoe string budget; one of the most adroit detective pictures to emerge from Hollywood in years. Shirley Temple became Fox’s number one star after Stand Up and Cheer and Little Miss Marker – outranking such heavy weights in screen popularity and fan mail as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Mickey Rooney. Of his pint size costar, Adolph Menjou commented, “She knows all the tricks. She’s Ethel Barrymore at age six!”
On the more lavish side was Thalberg’s The Merry Widow with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald – a titanic hit. Success reigned with such intoxicating confections as The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Broadway Bill, Imitation of Life and Twentieth Century.
George Bernard Shaw put in his own two cents about the movies popularity with “Cedric Hardwicke is my fifth favorite actor, the first four being The Marx Brothers!”
After defying studio edict and attempting to make a film away from Warner Bros. Bette Davis was corralled back into the fold, winning an Oscar as the incendiary bitch in Dangerous. In the trades: Joseph Schenck appointed Darryl F. Zanuck production head of 20th Century-Fox. Zanuck, a film maker at heart, would be the driving force of that studio for the next 3 decades. David O. Selznick launched his own independent production company – Selznick International.
Amiable Fred MacMurray, suave Charles Boyer and wholesome Ann Sheridan were three new faces who debuted with a bright future ahead of them. Robert Taylor became MGM’s latest heartthrob. Musicals and costume dramas proved the most satisfying to audiences; David O. Selznick’s meticulously crafted David Copperfield; Garbo’s version of Anna Karenina; Gary Cooper’s star turn in Lives of a Bengal Lancer; Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald’s most glorious operetta, Naughty Marietta and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers best film to day - Top Hat among the year’s most illustrious output.
Only three years earlier – Astaire’s screen test had come back with the hand written note; “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” He was, by 1935, already considered the premiere dancer in American movies. Time has done little to diminish that latter assessment of the Astaire style.
Best Picture to MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty – a thrilling sea epic starring Clark Gable. America’s most celebrated moralist, Will Rogers tragically died in a plane crash. More mysterious was the sudden passing of gifted, Thelma Todd – a death/murder never fully explained away.
As far as product was concerned – few years in recent history compared in quality; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; William Powell’s refreshing and adroit, My Man Godfrey, Universal’s version of Show Boat; Gable’s celebrated disaster epic, San Francisco; Garbo’s greatest tragedy, Camille; Astaire and Rogers best musical - Swing Time; Romeo & Juliet; Rose Marie and The Great Ziegfeld topping everyone’s favorite ‘must see’ list. ‘Ziegfeld’ won the Best Picture Oscar.
Its heroine, Viennese Luise Rainer took home the first of her two consecutive statuettes as the year’s Best Actress. Color photography, publicly denounced as inconsequential by producer Irving Thalberg, made a splashing addendum to the otherwise leaden offerings of Ramona and The Garden of Allah – the latter an over blown melodrama produced by Selznick that bore the unmistakable producer’s hallmark of meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail. Two shake ups in management rounded out the year – top heavy mismanagement deposed Carle Lemmle from Universal Pictures in favor of Charles R. Rogers. MGM’s V.P, Irving Thalberg died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 35 years old.
Seventy percent of the world’s entertainment was being made in Hollywood. The best of the lot; the Oscar-winning, The Good Earth; Selznick’s The Prisoner of Zenda; Columbia’s zany screwball, The Awful Truth; RKO’s frank Stage Door, The Hurricane, MGM’s Captain’s Courageous and Frank Capra’s most ambitious project, Lost Horizon all attested to a high standard of quality and craftsmanship.
Borrowing against his own life insurance policy, Walt staked both his reputation and future success on the first full length animated feature. The gamble paid off handsomely. MGM’s A Family Affair launched a successful film series with Mickey Rooney playing the irrepressible teenager in perpetual love and heartache, Andy Hardy. Screen siren Jean Harlow collapsed on the set of Saratoga and died at the age of 26 from uremia three days later, forcing MGM to use a double in long shot to complete the film. Clark Gable, Harlow’s costar followed up this project with his only flop for MGM; Parnell.
A new discovery, Hedy LaMarr made her American screen debut. By now the film censorship production code wielded absolute authority over what was seen on the screen. When L.B. Mayer discovered LaMarr had appeared in the raw in a Czechoslovakian film his first question was “Did you look good?” “Of course,” LaMarr replied. “Then everything’s alright!” Mayer reasoned.
Marie Antoinette – a project begun in earnest under Thalberg’s regime in 1936, and starring his widow, Norma Shearer finally made it to the screen; heavily revised, shortened, and, shot in B&W instead of color. It was a success but one whose extravagances L.B. Mayer was determined not to repeat. Television was in its experimental stages. It would debut at the New York World’s Fair one year later before being quashed by the onslaught of WWII.
Big ticket items of the year were Boy’s Town (for which Spencer Tracy won an Oscar), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, George Cukor’s sublime anti-capitalist, Holiday and Errol Flynn’s most lavish swashbuckler to date; in Technicolor - The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Determined to rival MGM’s supremacy in musicals, Darryl F. Zanuck premiered his costliest film to date; 20th Century-Fox’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Gable’s reputation as a he-man was kept in tact with Test Pilot – a high flying adventure flick. New faces with a bright future ahead of them included William Holden, John Garfield, Betty Grable, Roy Rogers, John Payne and David Niven – briefly glimpsed the year before in The Prisoner of Zenda.
The year it all came together. Hollywood produced more contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in this single year than at any other time. The list is endless, but the best of the best included George Steven’s Gunga Din; Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Samuel Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights; George Cukor’s The Women, and, Merian C. Cooper’s Stagecoach that finally made a star out of John Wayne – cast as the loveable desperado; the Ringo Kid.
Series film making was at its zenith with stellar installments to Andy Hardy, Tarzan, The Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes, Maise and Dr. Kildare immensely contributing to the studios coffers. Garbo finally appeared in a comedy, and one of the best – Ninotchka. A year later she would retire from the screen.
GWTW’s Vivien Leigh – a virtual unknown to American audiences towered above the rest to win Best Actress as Scarlett O’Hara. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American so honored with a statuette – as the defiant Mammie.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).