Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

Over the course of the 1930’s, the motion-picture studios—already extremely successful commercial and artistic enterprises—developed the new medium of the “talking picture” into a popular art form at least equal to its silent forebear. By the end of the decade, Hollywood had reached the height of its powers, creating films of lasting cultural and artistic power, featuring movie stars as famous as world leaders.

Summary of Event

In the same decade that the Great Depression wracked the world’s economy, the film industry of the United States enjoyed its golden age. The Hollywood studios achieved an extremely efficient level of organization, employing actors, writers, directors, and technical crew members under exclusive contracts that resulted in each studio enjoying continuous access to a specific pool of talent from which to assemble the crews of specific motion pictures. This talent realized technical innovations that captivated audiences at the same time that individual stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and the Marx Brothers achieved a public following that was the envy of political and business leaders. [kw]Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age (1930’s)
[kw]Golden Age, Hollywood Enters Its (1930’s)
Motion pictures;Golden Age of Hollywood
Golden Age of Hollywood
Great Depression;motion-picture industry[motion picture industry]
[g]United States;1930’s: Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age[07420]
[c]Motion pictures;1930’s: Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age[07420]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;1930’s: Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age[07420]
[c]Trade and commerce;1930’s: Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age[07420]
Capra, Frank
Colbert, Claudette
Gable, Clark
Garbo, Greta
Marx, Chico
Marx, Groucho
Marx, Harpo
Marx, Zeppo
Mayer, Louis B.

The introduction of synchronized sound to motion pictures was one of the most revolutionary changes in the history of the film industry, and, like most revolutions, it was accompanied by uncertainty, confusion, and excitement. Sound recording technology;motion pictures The Warner Bros. studio was pleased by the enthusiastic response to the 1927 premiere of The Jazz Singer, Jazz Singer, The (film) the first full-length film with synchronized sound, but the technology of “talking movies” remained experimental for several years. In The Jazz Singer, vaudevillian Al Jolson was shown speaking and singing a few words through the use of a recorded disc system that was synchronized with his image on the screen. This disc system and its rivals had their flaws; silent-screen stars faced the challenge of speaking into equipment that was often unmerciful to the human voice. By the early 1930’s, however, this technology had improved considerably, as sound came to be encoded optically on a track that was part of the film itself. By 1932, nearly all Hollywood productions were “all talking”; the era of the silent screen had passed.

Although improved sound systems became common in motion pictures during the decade, high-quality special effects were rare. Special effects, motion pictures
King Kong (1933), King Kong (film) therefore, was a remarkable film. An adventure tale in which a greedy entrepreneur captured a giant ape became a vehicle for the creative genius of a team of directors and technicians. The real stars were neither human nor ape; the film’s miniature animal figures, made from latex rubber over metal skeletons, the huge mechanized face and upper torso of the ape, and the painstaking stop-motion and rear-projection photography instead stole the show. Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) directors Merian Cooper Cooper, Merian and Ernest B. Schoesdack Schoesdack, Ernest B. turned to Willis O’Brien O’Brien, Willis for special effects and Marcel Delgado Delgado, Marcel for the construction of the animated models. In addition to the giant ape, dinosaurs inhabited the screen and held audiences in awe with displays of savage combat.

The use of color also reached a critical phase in the 1930’s. The Technicolor Corporation Technicolor Corporation devised a system of color photography and projection as early as 1915, but its complexity and expense delayed its successful commercial exploitation. The Technicolor system evolved into the “three-strip” process, in which chemical treatment added color to the film. In 1935, director Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp
Becky Sharp (film) appeared in vibrant—perhaps overdone—color. By 1939, this problem had disappeared, and producer David O. Selznick and director Victor Fleming brought Gone with the Wind
Gone with the Wind (film) to the screen with an improved Technicolor process.

The attraction of Hollywood films went far beyond innovations in technology. The most powerful phenomenon, stardom, was also the most nebulous. Film stars had a national and even international status that rivaled that of political and business leaders of the day. Although numerous stars had large and devoted followings, two stood out: the tall, dark, mustachioed Clark Gable and the svelte, blond, stunning Greta Garbo. Both achieved acclaim at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM), where performers had to submit to the rules and expectations of powerful studio bosses, yet both projected qualities into their screen appearances that went beyond what executives and directors could control. Gable’s and Garbo’s individual films came to mean less than did their personal appeal to the mass audience.

Gable and Garbo manifested different qualities on the screen. Gable was the rough, sometimes brash American male who generally had his way with women and with life. Garbo was often the victim of circumstances, the fallen woman or the self-sacrificing lover who somehow suffered through her anguish with subdued resolve. Gable’s image was that of the pragmatic, bullish, determined American hero; Garbo’s was that of the disdainful, worldly cosmopolitan. Fan magazines and gossip columnists relished tidbits of information from their private lives but seldom grasped their personal responses to stardom. Gable was surprised and even amused by his celebrity, but Garbo, whose reclusive nature created an air of mystery, rarely revealed her inner feelings.

The Marx Brothers Marx Brothers achieved another type of stardom as they cavorted through a series of uproarious, chaotic comedies. Their quick minds and lack of inhibition pushed comedy beyond traditional boundaries. Veterans of vaudeville and the stage who broke into films when sound allowed for the spoken joke, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo used the new medium to improvise and improve on old tricks. Double entendres, painful puns, manic chases, and risible pantomimes conveyed their sometimes whimsical, often cynical views of institutions ranging from real estate brokerage to university administrations to the national government. Their wild antics matched spoken humor with visual comedy in a balance suited for talking pictures.

Frank Capra, a young, relatively unknown director for financially embattled Columbia, emerged in the 1930’s as one of Hollywood’s major filmmakers. Working with a small budget and barely a month to complete shooting, Capra brought together Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable (on loan from MGM to Columbia as punishment for standing up to MGM boss Louis B. Mayer) to form one of the screen’s most electric duos in 1934’s It Happened One Night. It Happened One Night (film) Colbert played a New York socialite opposite Gable’s pushy journalist. At first on the trail of a news story about the idle rich, Gable took a personal interest in Colbert and, after some brisk exchanges in risque situations, the two forgot their class differences to become enamored of each other. This unlikely matching of a daughter of the social elite and a hardworking journalist bridged the barriers of status and, during the Great Depression, represented an unorthodox reconciliation between haves and have-nots. This prototypical “screwball comedy” Screwball comedy set a much-imitated formula and made Capra an influential director.

Gable and Colbert’s characters had broken the barriers between great wealth and middling income, but such differences were not always so gracefully overcome. In the early 1930’s, Warner Bros. released a series of gangster films in which the protagonists were hard-bitten, violent products of urban mean streets. Edward G. Robinson’s Robinson, Edward G. “Rico” was gunned down at the end of 1931’s Little Caesar, Little Caesar (film) but he left an unforgettable impression as to how an aggressive, unscrupulous individual could grab wealth and power, at least for a short time. Reflecting headlines in the daily press, gangster films such as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy (1931) Public Enemy, The (film) with James Cagney, Cagney, James and Paul Muni’s Muni, Paul evocation of Chicago’s Al Capone in Scarface (1932) Scarface (film) remain as a lasting legacy of a turbulent era in which criminal activity took on disturbing proportions.

Social structure and cultural values were unstable in many films of the 1930’s, but only rarely did studio executives allow their motion pictures to slash respected institutions to the core. The Marx Brothers, however, did just that. In five films made for Paramount between 1929 and 1933, they called into question the rationality and legitimacy of some of the basic components of American national life. The Cocoanuts (1929) Cocoanuts, The (film) ridiculed the Florida real estate industry at a time when the country was beginning to skid into depression. The culmination of their anarchistic comedy was Duck Soup (1933), Duck Soup (film) which portrayed political leaders as demagogues, government as their pernicious plaything, and war as a result of scoundrel-dominated diplomacy.

The biting humor of the Marx Brothers was at times too much for 1930’s film audiences, who often sought relief from the bleak reality of Depression life. Audiences found escape in films of glamour and excitement that featured stars who approximated a kind of royalty in the public mind. Although the lustre of her image would fade over the years following her unexpected retirement in 1941, Garbo’s presence in motion pictures went far beyond sex appeal and skillful acting to construct a persona that held fascination for the public. She combined an air of sophistication with a tinge of sadness at lost opportunities; in many of her films, Garbo did not live happily every after. Anna Christie (1930), Anna Christie (film)
Anna Karenina (1935), Anna Karenina (film) and Camille (1937) Camille (film) defined the image of this reclusive and enigmatic star. Entangled in a contract with MGM’s autocratic Louis B. Mayer, Garbo played redundant roles for the sake of the box office. Only in Ninotchka (1939), Ninotchka (film) a comedic tour de force that starred Garbo as a bland, low-key Soviet agent whose personal liberation offered commentary on the pretensions of ideological purity, was Garbo able to break loose from such typecasting. Ironically, the adoring public that found escape in her films ensured her entrapment in roles that limited her development as an actor.

Whereas Garbo’s magnetism stemmed from her aloofness and subtlety, Clark Gable built his star image by projecting an aggressive directness. He and Garbo costarred in Susan Lenox, a 1931 Susan Lenox (film) MGM production for Mayer. Garbo, the fallen woman, pursued engineer Gable as her last hope for the good life. Many female fans, too, pursued Gable throughout the decade. His work in It Happened One Night confirmed his position at the top of Hollywood’s list of stars, and Gone with the Wind gave him the quintessential male role of the decade as the charming Rhett Butler, a cool realist who used his wits to survive the Civil War but who never found happiness with the mercurial Scarlett O’Hara. His parting thrust at her—“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”—remains one of the best-known lines in film history. Unlike Garbo, Gable remained active in films all of his life, but the roots of his public persona and much of his film legacy are contained in his work of the 1930’s.


The launching of new technologies and the luster of the stars helped the Hollywood studios weather the storms of the Great Depression. Indeed, the output of Hollywood during the Depression has come to symbolize escapist entertainment at its best. The term “escapist” is often used in a pejorative sense, but the image of downtrodden masses enjoying momentary respites from their problems in the darkness of the nation’s movie theaters has been used to counteract the term’s negative connotations. The image has been used by Hollywood itself, in fact: It represents the climax of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (film)[Sullivans Travels] in which the title character discovers that it may do greater good to produce an escapist comedy for the enjoyment of the poor and suffering than it would be to produce a weighty social tragedy dramatizing their plight.

MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO led the way during the Depression years, but Fox, Paramount, Universal, Columbia, and United Artists also survived the nation’s worst economic crisis. Established as the world’s center of commercial film production, Hollywood was a major contributor to popular culture, an occasional contributor to high culture, and a dynamic, if unsteady, force in the nation’s economy. The essential vocabulary and conventions particular to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking had been well established even before the advent of sound. Over the course of the 1930’s, the studios incorporated the new technology into their films, as they learned how best to modify the conventions of the silent era to accomodate synchronized speech and sound tracks. By the end of the decade, Hollywood’s version of the cinematic art had reached its apex, as most later critics would list the years from 1939 to 1941 as the greatest in the history of classical Hollywood cinema. Motion pictures;Golden Age of Hollywood
Golden Age of Hollywood
Great Depression;motion-picture industry[motion picture industry]

Further Reading

  • Balio, Tino, ed. Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Comprehensive survey of all aspects of Hollywood’s output during the 1930’s. Part of a decade-by-decade series on the history of American cinema. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: New York University Press, 1971. General overview of film and society in the 1930’s, with brief but insightful discussions of the Marx Brothers, women’s roles in film, and Frank Capra’s contributions to the screwball comedy and political dramas.
  • Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title. New York: Macmillan, 1971. Lengthy, detailed, unusually frank autobiography that covers Capra’s life, from his beginnings among Sicilian peasantry through his ascension to the top of Hollywood’s motion-picture elite in the 1930’s to his decline after World War II. Fast-paced writing, with numerous quotations from reviews.
  • Currell, Susan. The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depression. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Detailed study of leisure-time activities during the Depression, including a chapter on motion pictures and music halls. Places Hollywood’s role in Depression-era culture in the context of other cultural activities and products of the same period.
  • Dooley, Roger. From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930’s. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. Discusses a wide selection of films, organized in thematic sections. For example, “Continental Style” places Garbo and several of her films in the context of Hollywood’s image of European history and culture.
  • Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. New York: Crown, 1988. Interesting biographical sketches of studio executives. The author is more sympathetic to Louis B. Mayer than are most students of the era.
  • Gronowicz, Antoni. Garbo: Her Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Fascinating but controversial perspective on Garbo’s life, ostensibly from Garbo’s point of view. Too valuable to ignore in any study of her career, but readers should use with awareness of its subjectivity. Richard Schickel’s afterword is a model of carefully considered judgment on the strengths and weaknesses of Garbo’s work in Hollywood.
  • Marx, Groucho. Groucho and Me. New York: Bernard Geis, 1959. Rambling, autobiographical reminiscence replete with anecdotes, wisecracks, and some valuable observations on the Marx Brothers’ rise from vaudeville to Hollywood stardom.
  • Tornabene, Lyn. Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable. New York: Putnam, 1976. Traces Gable’s rise to stardom, with more attention to his personal life than to his screen performances. Emphasizes the insecurities of stardom, Gable’s combative personality, and his troubled relationship with Louis B. Mayer.
  • Weales, Gerald. Canned Goods as Caviar: American Film Comedy of the 1930’s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. A critical analysis of a dozen comedies, including a challenging critique of Duck Soup.

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