As the Great Depression hit bottom in 1933, tens of millions of Americans found solace in the movies, where 15 cents bought admission to an infinite range of alternative realities. Some films offered escapism and reassurance, others offered hypothetical solutions to social problems across the political spectrum. Presented in four thematic groupings, the films in this series—all drawn from MoMA’s collection—present a cinematic portrait of 1933, a year when movie make-believe was truly indispensable.
By 1933, the Motion Picture Production Code existed only as a list of selectively enforced suggestions, allowing the studios an unprecedented (albeit temporary) degree of freedom to explore sensationalistic subjects. But boundaries remained: although the protagonists of the pre-Code era were often reckless and hedonistic, plots still tended toward conventionally moralistic resolutions. The four films in this group are linked by last-minute reversals that reassert traditional social standards. In Hoop-La, Clara Bow’s cynical hoochie-coochie dancer falls in love with a naïve young man and helps him work his way through law school. In The Story of Temple Drake, a rebellious Southern belle pays a dear price for her transgressive behavior. The eternally feuding frontier families of To the Last Man are reconciled by an unexpected romantic alliance, while the scientist hero of The Invisible Man discovers that the secret formula that grants him power also drives him mad.
For obvious reasons, rags-to-riches stories abounded in 1933. Yet the reverse, prince-to-pauper fantasy also stoked optimistic dreams of financial and social ascension. This chapter examines the desire of the affluent to be ordinary folk, as in Adorable, wherein a princess claims to be a manicurist when she falls in love with a delicatessen worker (or is he?). In The Emperor Jones, the majestic Paul Robeson is a railroad porter content with his fate, until a distorted destiny makes him a “king.” Contentment is also pervasive in Man’s Castle, in which a couple adapt to shantytown life but leave to pursue a better life once a baby is on the way. And it seems as if Golddiggers of 1933 exists solely to provide hope to a troupe of Broadway babies who are sick and tired of being sick and tired. When they sing “We’re in the Money,” the lyric “Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong” is the battle cry for a prosperous future.
People need a refuge or a common place, public or private, that provides a safe, convivial atmosphere—such as the neighborhood pub. Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery is situated in a raucous “Gay Nineties” bar, where rivals Chuck and Steve continually try to one-up each other. In another watering hole, Mae West is a chanteuse who knows how to break men’s hearts, in the campy She Done Him Wrong. Disregarding the world outside and forming their own commune, Tom, George, and Gilda decide to live together without letting romance enter into their experiment in Design for Living. (Good luck with that when you’re in an Ernst Lubitsch film!)
Even if the destination was the county fair, the journey from the familiar to the possibility of discovery, to novel and mysterious experiences, characterizes the sextet of films in this group. In Henry King’s State Fair, the Frake family breaks free of their claustrophobic small town during their week at the titular celebration. On faraway Skull Island, The Son of Kong proves to be slightly less aggressive than dad. In Trick for Trick the protagonists only go as far as New Jersey, but the emphasis is on the strange and mysterious when magicians La Tour and Azrah duke it out to save a damsel in distress. Not unlike Kong, Zani has been raised among the animals at the Zoo in Budapest, where he befriends an orphaned runaway named Eve. This unlikely love story compares the regimentation of orphanages to the life of a caged animal. Escape and exoticism propel Flying Down to Rio, as band leader/aviator Roger Bond woos the Brazilian beauty Belinha de Rezende in a good-time, misery-busting musical.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.
The exhibition is supported by the Annual Film Fund.