/students/features/grapes-of-wrath/hollywood-and-radio-in-the-1930s

For the Educator

It is hard to realize, from the contemporary view of the 21st century, that when the traumas of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl hit America at the beginning of the 1930’s decade, both Hollywood and radio were newcomers to the entertainment industry. Silent films had captured audiences in the early 1900s, but the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer, was not released until 1924. In fact, it was not until 1927 that sound movies began to dominate the industry. Radio technology, as it came together at the end of the 19th century, had served purposes related to wireless communication, such as aid to navigation at sea and significant support in World War I efforts, but radio shows as home entertainment would not be introduced until 1920.

Hollywood film narratives and themes were varied in the days of silent films–mysteries, comedies, cowboy movies, melodramas, love and adventure stories–the main goal being entertainment. And from its inception, Hollywood had increasingly become a shaping force in American culture, influencing such aspects as clothes fashion, hair design, tastes in interior design, manners, and language idioms. Radio, also, focused largely on entertainment and became increasingly an agent of consumer ads and dissemination of news.

The environmental, economic, social and political disasters of the 1930s, however, would have far-reaching impact on the redefining of roles and the reshaping of the nature of the influences both Hollywood and radio would assume in American life. Social and political themes, interlaced with overt implications and innuendo related to the economic patterns and economic health of the nation, would begin to come to the foreground. The following suggested questions and activities are crafted to help students understand the changes in mission these two cultural forces served, starting in the 1930s.

For the Student

Movies in the 1930s offered different avenues of “escape”. For a 25 cent admission to an evening showing or a 10 cent admission to a matinee, a patron could “get away from it all” and lose oneself in a few hours of imaginative identification with a different place, a different time, a different situation, momentarily forgetting the hunger, anxiety and misery of dust and Depression. Some theatres would even accept the trade-in of one or two glass milk bottles for matinee fare. For some, a movie house was the only place to get warm, to rest before pushing on to the next search for a square meal, or a job.

Hollywood films, in the 1930s, continued to grow as a prominent center of entertainment. But as the industry became increasingly conscious of and impacted by the agonies of the 1930s, it took on the challenge of serving other purposes. One purpose was to document the realities of American life in the 1930 decade, implanting awareness of “we are all in this together”. The “escape” factor now would have undercurrents calculated to encourage looking beyond the realities, to lift spirits, to recapture hope and belief in the future of American life and the American Dream. The rapid growth of technology, such as portable camera devices, technicolor, multiple sound recording capabilities, and more sophisticated editing techniques gave support to these efforts,

  • Working with a collaborative partner, gather information about some of the 1930 films listed below that are celebrated as “escape” films of that time period. If possible, view clips or a complete showing of one or more of these celebrated “escape” films:

    Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935
    Forty-Second Street
    Flying Down to Rio
    The Tarzan series
    It Happened One Night
    Call of the Wild
    Cowboy Westerns
    Andy Hardy series
    The Wizard of Oz
    Mutiny on the Bounty
    (Other options)

  • Define some of the specific ways Hollywood films served as a “morale” builder. For instance, consider:

    What aspects of the American psyche did various elements of films (narrative; setting; relationships; characterization; fashions, etc.) particularly target? For instance, was the “message”:

    empathy for the downtrodden and displaced?
    money as the “root of all evil” or as the key to “happiness”?
    taking on the odds?
    overcoming difficult odds through perseverance, extraordinary courage and determination? a positive resolve of troubles through unexpected intervention
    destructive forces of a consumer society
    wanderlust – the “promise” of another geographical (or imaginative) place
    identification with luxury and wealth?
    other?

    How did lyrics, music and dance reinforce the “escape” message of some films”? List some of the titles of the songs, particularly from the “Gold Digger” series, and briefly explain the theme of one or two that you think reinforce the “escape” or “promise” message of the film. Consider performing one or two of the songs or demonstrating the type of dance of the time period or encouraging a classmate(s) to perform.

  • Hollywood played another role during the 1930s. It enhanced the perception of California as the “promised” land – a haven, a land of opportunity for the displaced seeking jobs, particularly for talented artists wanting to be “discovered”, and for entrepreneurs down on their luck but driven by the vision of “opportunity.”

    Develop a few paragraphs in which you sum up your perception of factors related to Hollywood that helped promote this image of California as the “promised land”. Consider the historical perspective of the West, in addition to the“mystique” implanted by Hollywood films and marketing techniques (for instance, the “rumors” of talent scouts searching for “star” material throughout the nation and talent “contests “for children)

  • Radio served many of the same purposes as Hollywood films. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in introducing his “Fireside Chats”, had brought a whole new level of consciousness about the power of radio as an agent of communication and psychological influence. Programs such as soap operas, comedian shows, adventure thrillers, sports events, detective stories and “live” Big Band performances beamed from ballrooms across the country also provided “escape” while celebrating patience, courage, perseverance, empathy, and offering uplifting moments and promise for the future.

    Working with a collaborative partner(s), gather data about the types of radio shows, and some specific examples, that were popular during the 1930s. If possible, listen to a few radio clips from the 1930s, and consider specific ways they served the “mission” of “escape” in the 1930s. For example:

    Little Orphan Annie
    the Flash Gordon series
    Stella Dallas
    The Lone Ranger
    series
    George Burns and Gracie Allen
    Amos and Andy
    Fred Allen
    Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians

  • Develop an informal “free-write” essay in which discuss the specific impact of a Hollywood film (or TV show) that you have seen lately that you think serves a purpose beyond “entertainment” – or argue that films or TV shows no longer serve a mission beyond “entertainment”.

Next: The Hollywood Film

Credits

Writers

Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Producer

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