I 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.