How the Great Depression reshaped Hollywood studios’ ties to working people – The Hollywood Reporter


“The motion picture industry is neither depression-proof nor foolproof,” observed Abram F. Myers in the pages of Daily Movie and The Daily Film Yearbook at the dawn of 1932. The occasion was reflections from industry leaders on the past year, and Myers, the president of the Association of Allied States and longtime opponent of vertical integration, was in no mood to fire his punches. Indeed, no sector of American life was truly safe from the Depression in 1932.

The Great Depression was also boldly invoked in Hollywood newspaper advertisements. Paramount promised exhibitors booking their pictures that “Your box office depression is ending.” MGM went further in its 1932 campaign, “The Hell with Depression!”, which featured cartoon illustrations of Leo the Lion dancing excitedly and, in another ad, punching a man wearing a tuxedo and top. -deformed.

An MGM advertisement in Film Daily in 1932.

Unlike its relatively quick rebounds from previous financial panics, the United States was now two full years into this depression, and conditions were only getting worse. The unemployment rate was over 20%, hitting African-American communities and working-class whites particularly hard.

People who considered themselves middle-class now worried about how they would fare; those who had always worried about how they would get by and had no safety nets were plunged into new depths of poverty. Inexpensive forms of entertainment that were once considered depression-proof, such as going to the movies, are increasingly seen as a luxury, one more thing that had to be rationed.

In this context, the country’s cinema exhibition sector has experienced huge losses and closures. Film historian Kathryn Fuller-Seeley points out that small town theaters were particularly hard hit; she estimates that “in 1932, about 8,000 of the country’s 23,000 movie theaters were closed. Densely populated urban areas on the East Coast and West Coast saw a relatively minor cinema closure rate of 7% to 20%, but the Midwest, Plains, South and Northern New England lost from 22% to 47.7% of all their cinemas. .” Small-town theaters fought to stay afloat by offering discounted admissions, double features and “flat night” promotions (which were eventually overtaken by “bank night” cash prize draws ).

These practices were viewed with contempt by major distributors and frequently criticized in the pages of film herald for how they seemed to devalue industry staples and, in the case of dual features, keep kids up too late at night. But the promotions clicked with Depression-era audiences, and they brought hot bodies and much-needed revenue to theaters on nights they might otherwise sit empty.

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CPU Press

To inexpensively reserve the content needed for a plate night, bank night or the second half of a double bill, exhibitors turned to Poverty Row producer-distributors such as Monogram, Tiffany and Astor. The same theaters that big companies resented double feature and flat nights had their own long list of grievances coming their way. Independent exhibitors complained about block bookings, high rental fees and an abundance of imagery they considered too “urban” – a term that could mean something too racy and risque or too highbrow and sophisticated – to the tastes of their audience. These exhibitors were looking for professional journals that would keep them informed, give them forums to discuss problems and solutions, and strongly represent their interests.

They also found a champion in Abram F. Myers, who as a former federal trade commissioner understood how to pressure the government to investigate and monitor more antitrust practices within the industry. ‘Film Industry. Of course, the effects of the Depression also extended to theaters located in major American cities. Owning a theater has proven financially disastrous for some of the biggest corporations in the industry. In January 1933, Paramount-Publix and RKO both went into receivership, the result of a depressed box office and the huge debts the two companies had incurred during their massive acquisitions of theaters in the late 1920s. noted Tino Balio, “Paramount’s bankruptcy was the second largest the country had ever known and one of the most complicated”. In the weeks following the announcements, Paramount ran full-page advertisements in several trade newspapers to highlight that its subsidiaries, Paramount Productions Inc. and Paramount Pictures Distributing Corp. were “NOT in receivership. They will continue to produce and distribute quality films under the same management and staff as before.

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Adolph Zukor in an undated photo from the 1930s.

Yet the power structure had changed. Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, who had long been seen as the human embodiment of the movie industry’s rampant expansion and monopoly, was no longer in charge of the company he had built. Universal’s William Fox and Carl Laemmle also lost control due to major financial restructurings of their companies. Ironically, just as the nation’s prohibition laws were coming to an end, a more restrained and cautious approach to the corporate management of major film companies was in order.

The bankruptcies of RKO and Paramount were both announced during the period now widely considered the lowest point of the entire Great Depression – the four months between the November 8, 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidency and his inauguration on March 4, 1933. Incumbent President Herbert Hoover resisted helping Roosevelt implement the bold policies he had campaigned on and defeated the incumbent. A stressed financial sector became even more uncertain and the general public worried about the solvency of local banks and the security of their savings accounts. Although thousands of American banks had already closed during the Depression, a new wave of bank runs – customers massively withdrawing their money from the banks – created an all-out crisis in February 1933 that threatened to decimate the institutions that remained.

Roosevelt referred to panic in his inaugural speech, stating that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Yet, words alone were not enough. A few days after taking the Oval Office, Roosevelt declared a holiday, temporarily closing all banks to try to avoid their permanent collapse.

The March 1933 holiday proved to be a pivotal moment in Hollywood history, particularly in the relationship between the studios and their creators. In response to the holiday, the studios applied 50% pay cuts to most of their production employees. The studios claimed the cuts were a temporary necessity stemming from the credit crunch and a lack of cash to meet salary obligations.

But as banks reopened and pay cuts remained in place, Hollywood writers, actors and other creatives came to believe they had been duped. They felt the studios cynically and opportunistically used the banking crisis to cut wages and boost corporate profits, all at the expense of the people who actually made the movies that audiences paid their hard-earned money to see. . Galvanized, the writers organized and formed the Screen Writers Guild in April 1933. Actors followed soon after with the Screen Actors Guild.

All of these groups read local trade papers carefully, seeking voices in the press to affirm their views and denounce the greed of their adversaries. Somehow, in the midst of so much upheaval, these studios and their employees managed to produce some of the most spectacular and memorable films ever made.

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Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in 1935’s “Top Hat.”

Depression audiences were temporarily transported watching King Kong (1933) climb the Empire State Building, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in top hat(1935) Art-Deco Venice and Clark Gable lead a Mutiny on the Bounty against Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh. The energetic, unmissable spirit of behind-the-scenes musicals at Warner Bros. 42nd street (1932) and 1933 Gold Diggers (1933), featuring a mix of new and seasoned chorus girls, presented the enduring American dream of upward mobility alongside a jaded knowledge that life isn’t fair, boy.

The real hits always came at the end: Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic musical numbers, using massive sets, high camera angles, dozens of dancers and intricate editing to turn the cast into plastic abstractions. The style, energy and ambition dramatized and embodied in the backstage musical have also found their way into show business journalism.

The film industry’s trade papers found new ways to compete, and those that survived lasted for decades.

This column is edited and excerpted from Eric Hoyt’s article inky hollywood (UC Press, March 22), which examines the most heterogeneous and tumultuous period in the motion picture industry – from the early feature film era through the mid-1910s to the strained vertically integrated studio system by the Great Depression of the mid-1930s.


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