American Memories: The Great Depression and Cinema

great depression make way for tomorrowI love My Man Godfrey (1936).  How could you not?  It has William Powell at his most suave, Carole Lombard at her most adorable.  It’s got Eugene Pallette, for crying out loud.  But I wouldn’t hold it up as an incisive and accurate depiction of America in the 1930s.  Though it actually is one of the few mainstream Hollywood films of the decade to make reference to the Great Depression, its Depression is a game to be played and, rather easily, won.

Movie studios during the darkest days of the century did not see themselves as part of the political or moral discussion.  They saw themselves, as many do to this day, as purveyors of escapism.  They provided the place to go to take your mind off your troubles for a few hours.  And it’s hard to argue with their success.  America came to the movies in record numbers throughout the 1930s, a trend which continued through the war years, before falling off mid-century.  1939 is generally recognised as the watershed in American film, when the studios were operating at their maximum capacity.

But if you want to see contemporary stories from the 1930s that dramatised the decade’s struggles somewhat more realistically, they do exist.  You just have to look a little harder.  Here are three you might want to check out:

Wild Boys of the Road (Dir. William Wellman, 1933)

Wellman had a fascinating career, one much in need of reassessment.  As a virtually unknown director, he made the first Oscar-winning Best Picture, Wings (1927).  He then cranked out plenty of pre-code titillation for Warners with titles like Night Nurse and Other Men’s Women.  Later in the decade, he would make the sublime screwball Nothing Sacred (1937), and a host of strong films into the war years.  But in 1933, he made what is probably his most intriguing movie.  Wild Boys does nothing to hide the Depression and its effects.  Two young men – boys, really – Eddie and Tommy, are forced to hit the road to seek a means of survival.  Their bond, and the bond they form with other displaced youth, is rarely seen in American film.  The movie has comic relief from Sterling Holloway, and Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips are very engaging in the leads.  If you like it, you might check out another Wellman film from the same year, Heroes For Sale, an eclectic social issue drama with Richard Barthelmess.

Our Daily Bread (Dir. King Vidor, 1934)

Vidor was a very big name at MGM in the silent era, directing the enormous hit The Big Parade (1925) and following it up with the critically acclaimed The Crowd (1928).  But The Crowd was not a commercial success and thus MGM was reluctant to finance a story that picked up the thread of its lead couple, John and Mary Sims, and followed them through the travails of the Depression.  So Vidor financed it himself with mostly unknowns (though film fans will no doubt notice Canadian John Qualen delivering one of his first Swedish farmers, an archetype he would own for many years). This is pure Populism, or Socialism, or Communism, depending on your definition, and it is extremely rare to see that on American screens in any era.  The story concerns a farm collective and much of the cinematography is highly evocative.  If you are taken by that sort of imagery, you might look at the Pare Lorentz documentaries financed by FDR’s Resettlement Administration later in the decade, such as The Plough That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938).

Make Way for Tomorrow (Dir. Leo McCarey, 1937)

There’s a famous story about Leo McCarey, accepting the 1937 Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth.  He told the Academy that he appreciated the award, but they gave it to him for the wrong movie.  He was referencing the box office failure Make Way for Tomorrow.  In 1911, D.W. Griffith had made a short called What Shall We Do With Our Old.  To the best of my knowledge, American film did not deal with the issue of ageing parents in a serious manner again until McCarey tackled it.  The set pieces are extraordinary.  Beulah Bondi, as the elderly mother separated from her husband by economic difficulty, has at least three scenes during which I dare you not to cry.  Victor Moore is equally effective as her husband.  They are not maudlin.  They are actually entertaining (Moore could not help but be funny), but their plight is among the most heartfelt in American cinema.  McCarey doesn’t even necessarily condemn their children.  He allows them, in the person of Thomas Mitchell, to condemn themselves.  If you are moved by Make Way for Tomorrow and want to see more like it, I wish I could help.  I don’t know of anything like it.  If you do, please share the information.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

12 thoughts on “American Memories: The Great Depression and Cinema

  1. a few more titles from the era that reflect the era:
    hard to handle (33)
    I am a fugitive from a Chain Gang (36)
    Modern times (36)
    Little Caesar (31)
    American madness (32)
    No man of her own (32)
    Heroes for Sale (33)

    • Good list, Bill. I think No Man of Her Own points out the problem I have with a lot of Hollywood takes on the era. I’d find it far more plausible to believe that Lombard would turn bad for Gable than Gable would go honest for Lombard, but that can’t happen and so we get the optimistic artifice. Still, I could probably forgive that if Lombard’s hair weren’t so damn flat.

      I’ve never seen American Madness. I know it is Capra/Riskin which would lead me to assume that it’s more comic, but from what I’ve read, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

    • Thank you, Simon. It’s funny, I am such a big fan of McCarey right up until 1937, and then I don’t much care for the rest of his career. The two versions of “Affair” are OK, the two Bing Crosby’s have never done anything for me, and Once Upon a Honeymoon I consider to be a catastrophe. It’s as if Make Way for Tomorrow and The Awful Truth sapped him of all his previous brilliance. (and BTW, if you knew one was a screwball comedy and the other a poignant story about old age, wouldn’t you think the titles would be reversed?)

  2. I have only seen one of these, and that was a very long time ago. The two depression-era movies that remain in my thoughts are ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ (1940) and ‘The Cradle Will Rock’, written and directed by Tim Robbins, in 1999. There are references in many other films of course, notably ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967) where we see farmers driven off the land by Banks foreclosing on loans.
    An intriguing theme Jon, and one deserving of more exploration.
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I was thinking primarily about films from the ’30s that dealt with Depression-related issues, and Grapes of Wrath, despite its 1940 release date, would obviously be a leading example. But your comment got me thinking how few films — of any quality and at any time — have been made about the Depression. In the wake of Viet Nam, for instance, there was a period of understandable aversion from the studios to putting such a fresh wound on screen. But in relatively short order, we began to see the movies come out, and without doing any research on this, I would venture to guess that from 1975-2000, there were more movies produced about Viet Nam than there were about the Great Depression from 1945-2000.

      • I have to agree that the 1930’s were something of an ’embarrassment’, and by the time of the slew of Vietnam films, chests were bared, and responsibility was beginning to be accepted.
        I will say no more, as I have a ‘Vietnam’ post in the pipeline!
        Best wishes, Pete.

  3. three masterpieces. wellman is truly one of the most neglected of american directors. scene for scene, he may be the best of them all. his ideas seem limitless. after the set including wild boys was released, i watched all the wellman i could find and was amazed at how imaginatively he would stage the most generic scenes. as for make way for tomorrow, the first time i saw it, on television with commercials in 1974, i broke down in tears. after a couple dozen viewings through the years, it still never fails to move me. the obvious comparison would be to ozu’s tokyo story, and the last date sequenceis reminiscent of sunrise, but this is still a one of a kind experience. our daily bread is the most acclaimed of the three films , and vidor is a fine director, but i think it is outclassed by your other two selections. thanks jon for bringing these three exceptional pictures into the light. they go a long way in refuting the popular idea (one that i myself have helped to perpetuate) that the thirties were a lousy decade for the movies.

    • I had to chuckle at your last sentence, Bill. In what circles is the idea that “the thirties were a lousy decade for the movies” actually “popular” … and why in the world would you help “perpetuate” that bizarre notion? Surely you don’t mean in terms of quality? If you do, you’d be wrong, of course. Generalizing about the quality of art produced in any era is a sophistic perspective, anyway, but I don’t know of anyone who thinks the 1930s were a desert in terms of great cinema.

      • To be fair, I think that the 1930’s musicals are part of the golden age of cinema. But still, I kind of know what Bill means. It is certainly an often forgotten period. Perhaps we all need to examine that decade? There’s a challenge for you! Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Bill. I’ll leave it to others to debate your last sentence, but otherwise, I agree with everything you say.. about Wellman… about Our Daily Bread. As for Make Way for Tomorrow, I was reminded of something I was told many years ago when I began flirting with the idea of working in Hollywood. Racism and sexism are very real and potent forces in the American film business, but ageism trumps them all. Hollywood just shows no interest in confronting old age. To the north, Canadian director Cynthia Scott made the interesting Strangers in Good Company, and to the south Mexican director Michel Lipkes did the very difficult Malaventura. Those are not mainstream movies, but at least they try to tackle something. When Hollywood looks at the elderly, it’s with dreck like The Bucket List.

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