Hollywood responded to the Great Depression almost immediately after the crash of 1929. The films produced were either “social conscious” dramas that reflected the plight of the farmers and white-collar workers who suddenly found themselves in a bread line, screwball comedies or escapist musicals.
Though the Depression ended nearly 50 years ago, Hollywood always has retained its fascination with this bleak era of American history.
Several quintessential Depression films are available on video:
* Produced in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath ($19.98, Key Video) is considered the finest film made about the Great Depression. Based on John Steinbeck’s landmark novel, the drama chronicles the migration of the Okies (farmers and workers from Oklahoma), driven from their homes by the ravages of the Dust Bowl, to California.
Adapted for the screen by Nunnally Johnson, the film won director John Ford an Oscar. The performances also are first-rate, especially Henry Fonda’s. He received an Oscar nomination for his memorable Tom Joad, an ex-con who is head of the family, and Oscar-winner Jane Darwell as his beloved Ma Joad.
* My Man Godfrey (public domain) is the flip side of “Grapes of Wrath” and one of the best screwball comedies ever made. William Powell and Carole Lombard--who were married from 1931 to 1933--star in this 1936 comedy about a wealthy young woman who is asked to find a “forgotten man"--a term for the unemployed--for a scavenger hunt. She discovers one named Godfrey living in a shanty area in New York City. He charms the family into hiring him as their butler and teaches them all that money isn’t everything.
* In Gold Diggers of 1933 ($29.95, MGM/UA Home Video), Joan Blondell performs the evocative “Forgotten Man” number which illustrates the plight of the World War I veteran during the Depression.
“Forgotten Man” is the one dark, stark moment in the rollicking, fast-paced musical about several struggling performers who put on a Broadway show. The cast includes Ruby Keeler, the very acerbic Aline MacMahon, Dick Powell, Warren William and Ginger Rogers performing “We’re in the Money” in pig-Latin. Busby Berkeley staged the garish, outlandish dance numbers.
* It would be stretching the truth to say that 1934’s Stand Up and Cheer ($19.98, Playhouse Video) is a good movie. In fact, it’s pretty awful. But this musical made Shirley Temple a star.
Warner Baxter stars as a big producer who is made Secretary of Amusement by President Roosevelt to help the country get over the Depression. Temple and James Dunnperform “Baby Take a Bow.”
* With the outbreak of World War II in Europe, several European directors fled to America. One of those was France’s great Jean Renoir. His best American film is 1945’s The Southerner (public domain) based on George Sessions Perry’s novel “Hold Autumn in Your Hand.”
Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beluah Bondi and J. Carroll Naish star in this lyrical drama about a poor Southern family fighting the odds while trying to make their farm succeed.
* King Vidor’s 1934 drama Our Daily Bread ($59.98, Nelson Entertainment) deals with a young couple who inherit a broken-down farm and struggle to make it work. The film’s highlight is the irrigation sequence finale. Tom Keene and Karen Morley, who was later blacklisted, star.
* In Frank Capra’s endearing, Oscar-winning 1936 comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ($19.95, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video), Gary Cooper is perfection as a naive, small-town poet and tuba player who finds himself inheriting $20 million. When he decides to give all his money away to the poor and homeless, his greedy relatives put him on trial for his sanity.
* In 1937’s Dead End ($14.98, Nelson Entertainment), gangsters and slum kids live on a New York City river street next to a block of ritzy apartments.
Lillian Hellman adapted Sidney Kingsley’s hit Broadway play; William Wyler directed. Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor star. The film introduced audiences to the Dead End Kids, who made several movies and later evolved into the Bowery Boys.
* There are several Depression-era movies not yet available on tape, but definitely worth catching on TV.
James Cagney and Loretta Young play a struggling young couple in the 1932 melodrama Taxi; Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy are memorable in Frank Borzage’s 1933 drama A Man’s Castle; Walter Huston is a big city banker in Frank Capra’s 1932 drama American Madness; three friends can’t find work so they ride the rails and panhandle and steal in director William Wellman’s 1933 drama Wild Boys of the Road.