The Chronicle Review

The Buoyancy of Depression Entertainment

April 03, 2009

When the 2008 economic crisis hit, I was surprised at how eager people were to compare it to the Great Depression and brace themselves for the worst. Paul Krugman and Fox News commentators alike speculated on whether cyclical recession would become worldwide depression, and whether unemployment might grow from the forecast 7 percent to 10 percent to reach the Great Depression's jaw-dropping 25 percent. Columnists compared Barack Obama to Franklin Roosevelt and cartoonists showed Obama flashing an FDR grin and waving the famous New Dealer's signature cigarette holder. And almost everyone cut back on spending.

People of all ages — most of them many decades too young to have any direct memory of the 1930s — have seemed anxious to recall the New Deal and Roosevelt's first two terms, with books on the topics enjoying a miniboom. We're feeling fearful about the future but also nostalgic somehow for a past that lives in generational memory as synonymous with "bad times." We seem to intuit that some good can come from rough sledding.

What's the source of that intuition? I think it's hiding in plain sight: Depression-era arts and entertainment. After all, isn't that where our images of the period mostly come from?

We need to look beyond analogies from the 1930s based solely on hard, cold economic facts. For, compelling as such analogies may be, they mislead as often as they inform. Now, as in 1929, to be sure, unprecedented things have gone wrong at the heart of the financial system. And yet, as pundits have recently reminded us, not all comparisons between the Great Depression and the current crisis fit. While reeling, the current stock market has not yet fallen the Depression's 75 percent. And, of course, the slump after 1929 had lasted almost four years before the New Deal began and had come to seem like a permanent condition, while the current recession dates from December 2007 and was fully recognized only in the fall of 2008.

And yet day after day, month after month, newspapers, magazines, and television have covered the housing and mortgage crisis, the recession, job losses, and a possible depression in incredible detail and from almost every angle. Women's magazines that usually spur luxury spending started running features on updating old clothing or replacing commercial cosmetics with homemade substitutes. Even people lucky enough to have jobs and plenty of time to recover from financial losses feel guilty. The collective shudder reaches a point at which we may not just be reacting to the news, but also creating a mood in which individuals and businesses all hunker down simultaneously, stimulating, experts say, rather than averting a depression. It's as though Americans don't just fear a clearing of the economic slate but may actually be courting one. Why?

Polls leading up to the 2008 election showed that a majority of Americans disliked the past eight years: the increasing gap between rich and poor, the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, and immersion in two wars. Could it be that Americans leapt from the idea of cyclical, if profound, recession to epoch-changing depression not just because the economic facts were bad and even scary, but because we wanted a change, and we knew that only a strong reversal of business as usual could provide one? The economic downturn is seen as catastrophic, but also felt as an opportunity.

A consideration of Depression entertainment might yield some insights into what kind of opportunity we're looking for.

Consider, for a moment, the following list, and gauge your degree of familiarity with each item: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, King Kong, Dick Tracy, the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Will Rogers, Joe DiMaggio, Amelia Earhart, Dracula films, the Lone Ranger, Superman, Shangri-la, Nancy Drew, Orson Welles and "The War of the Worlds," Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Bingo, Monopoly, miniature golf, and swing. If you are a typical college-educated person or even someone who just plain watches a lot of TV, almost everything on this list is not just a name but something you have experienced firsthand and with pleasure. They seem urbane or cool or, at the very least, all-American, even though the list is composed, first to last, of Depression icons.

Even Depression entertainment that has not quite survived in the same direct way rings at least a bell of recognition in tone or mood: for example, in the way that today's comic ensembles, such as on 30 Rock, build on the verbal structures of Depression duos like Burns and Allen. In the category of residual memory I'd include: The Goldbergs, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Dead End Kids, Jack Benny, Perry Mason, and Benny Goodman.

Despite, and perhaps because of, the economic troubles, the arts and entertainment thrived during the Great Depression in ways that, in large part, created today's cultural universe. Film exploited innovations from sound (still fairly new in 1930) and special effects, through double features and drive-ins, to the Technicolor so notable in 1939 movies like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Although plans established earlier sometimes had to be modified, the 1930s also saw the expansion or founding of many major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Frick, and the Guggenheim in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

In the 1930s, radio assumed the role of family hearth, with roughly 80 percent of households owning one by 1939, often prominently displayed in the living room. Daily radio news (beyond the medium's capacity early in the decade) became a staple. Jukeboxes brought swing, a multiracial phenomenon, into clubs and bars reopened after Prohibition. And the New Deal's Works Progress Administration helped keep artists and theater people working as part of the national economic plan.

Depression entertainment could be gritty and realistic, to be sure — with gangsters and shantytowns and dust bowls and drifters aplenty, especially at the movies and in novels. But the tone and spirit of the best-loved and most remembered Depression entertainment was downright buoyant, affirming a sense that the times are always only as bad as we make them. "Life is just a bowl of cherries./Don't take it serious; life's so mysterious," one of the best-known songs of 1931 suggested — and its Zen-like sentiment was widespread.

Gold Diggers of 1933 begins with a Busby Berkeley over-the-top song and dance number in which Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell wear costumes that look like silver dollars:

We're in the money, we're in the money, We've got a lot of what it takes to get along!

The lyrics claim that "the sky is sunny" and that "Old Man Depression, you are through," even though the show in which the song appears is about to be closed by the police for lack of cash. As in the Wizard of Oz's wistful comment that "times being what they were" in the land of E Pluribus Unum, he accepted his job in Emerald City, the tone is funny as well as serious and is played that way, tongue in cheek.

In the same way, Frank Capra's 1930s films portray economic woes amid the machinery of romantic comedy, frequently referencing a more inclusive American "we." In the 1934 Academy Award-winning best film, It Happened One Night, the wealthy heiress played by Claudette Colbert shows what she's learned from Clark Gable's proletarian hero when she shares her food with poor people, including African-American children on a bus. Millionaires get transformed or rejected by others quite reliably in Depression plots, including Platinum Blonde (1931), Three-Cornered Moon (1933), and My Man Godfrey (1936).

Timed almost to perfection with the decade's end — and current enough to be referenced recently by the impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich — Jimmy Stewart's character in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) affirms a wholesale faith in American values. Appointed as senator by men who expect him to be a pushover, Smith finds his reputation smeared when he speaks his own mind. His idealism inspires a wisecracking girl Friday (another Depression staple, in this case played by Jean Arthur) and a diverse group of citizens to help him defeat corruption in business and government and to reinvigorate a compliant media — conditions strikingly similar to those that motivated the 2008 vote. Working together, people of all ages and backgrounds feel their patriotic spirit rise and help Smith make an awfully familiar looking delinquent Congress buckle down.

As the movie approaches its climax, the camera cuts repeatedly to African-American characters who play subliminally subversive roles. Multiple frames single out, for example, an African-American boy wearing a crownlike hat among the group of youths helping Smith. And, in a scene mined for humor, a black train porter quite literally leaves a corrupt politician holding his own bags. The movie returns several times to the Lincoln Memorial, frequented by Americans of different ages, backgrounds, and races who gaze respectfully at the martyred president.

Depression entertainment reflected how economic hardship, while certainly not unknown in the past, cut across social classes, regions, ethnic groups, and races as never before. It fostered a collective, inclusive sense of what it means to be American and the feeling that we — immigrants and blue bloods, Southern whites and African-Americans, city folk and farmers, vaudevillians and businessmen, people from the West and East — were all in this together. Its freshness and sassiness and abiding love of irony and humor speak to us today; and despite frustration and even outright hardship, so might its buoyancy.

Although in unpredictable and even inchoate ways, the Depression's arts and entertainment helped bring about change and progress. The arts and media set the stage for developments that happened gradually but came to seem inevitable after World War II — the assimilation of 1920s immigrant groups like Italian and Jewish Americans, girl Fridays who became career women, and the desegregation of the military and, eventually, of civilian life. Radio made possible Roosevelt's legendary fireside chats from 1933 to 1944, reserved for times of crisis. Like those talks, Depression entertainment brought the nation together around a common message and a sense of shared experience.

Something similar is surely happening today. Films have registered for some time now suspiciousness of business and government, especially when the two are in cahoots — think Syriana, The Constant Gardener, Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading, The International, and the upcoming State of Play, or TV's 24. Films take years to make, so they have not yet directly referred to the financial events of late 2008. Still, we can already see a call and response among entertainment, advertising, and a public preoccupied with financial crisis. Jon Stewart's Daily Show, Stephen Colbert's Report, and The Rachel Maddow Show treat the news, including the bad economy, in a humorous tone reminiscent of the 1930s. In a recent episode of 30 Rock, some rowdy young investment bankers become NBC interns when their firm goes belly up. Bank ads spurn conspicuous consumption and trumpet the more lasting treasures of a well-balanced life.

Now, as in the Great Depression, entertainment increasingly has begun to stake out not just gentle criticism of government ineptitude and corporate greed but also a willfully optimistic, or at least a lighter mood, like Roosevelt's, which by the end of the 30s and despite continued high unemployment, forged a new sense of what it meant to be an American. Like the New Deal, Depression entertainment helped avoid the turn to dictatorship and scapegoats so damaging in Germany. Today's culture might also turn uncommon concern to common cause.

We use the Great Depression as an economic marker — though if we're wise, or just lucky, the current recession will be far shorter and shallower. But the Depression may be more important as a societal reference because we feel the urge to break with the recent past and to establish, against the odds, something new, something shared, something intangible that makes itself felt not just in elections but also in the pulse of daily life. We have a historical memory of hard times. But more — and perhaps this explains the strange bittersweet crosscurrents of nostalgia — we long for the Depression's innovative, resilient, and lasting entertainment, expressing the nation's every intention to go forward jauntily, and with confidence.

Marianna Torgovnick is a professor of English at Duke University and director of the Duke in New York Arts and Media Program. Her books include The War Complex: World War II in Our Time (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 55, Issue 30, Page B9