By Ann Silverthorn
The Great Recession, which started in 2008, lasted about a year in the United States. For countries like Greece and Italy, recovery took much longer. This was certainly a difficult time for many, but it was just a financial blip compared to the Great Depression, which lasted an entire decade, from 1929 to 1939.
Numerous movies and documentaries have been made about this period of time, but what movies were made during the Great Depression that reflected the economic and social climate, without the benefit of analysis and reflection down the road?
Many of the movie themes from the 1930s focused on prosperity. Witnessing success on the big screen removed audience members from their financial and social troubles, at least for a couple of hours. It’s a bit challenging to find movies from the 1930s that dealt with the problems of the time—as they were happening. Here are seven discs available from DVD Netflix that give us a peek into what the Depression was like in the 1930s.
Here’s a collection of short films and full-length features from the 1930s. The title piece, Our Daily Bread, is about a couple seeking a way out of urban poverty. They move to the country and set up a sort of farming commune with bread as its main commodity. The Great Depression occurred simultaneously with a massive drought (Dust Bowl), so this was not the ideal time to try one’s hand at farming. With the help of others, also down on their luck, they create a society to try to save their budding enterprise. King Vidor directed and partially financed Our Daily Bread. Charlie Chaplin also backed the film. This disc also includes The Plow that Broke the Plains, which takes a close look at the causes of the Dust Bowl.
In the 1930s, many people lost their fortunes, and many of them were senior citizens. In Make Way for Tomorrow, a couple loses their home to foreclosure, and none of their five grown children are very enthused about taking them in. Reluctantly, two of them concede, but this means that Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beula Bondi) must separate after many years of marriage. What’s worse is that neither parent is made to feel welcome in their new accommodations. Of the film, Orson Welles said it “would make a stone cry.”
This is the first film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men. The novel had also been adapted to a play, which ran on Broadway quite successfully before the film version was released. The topic of home is front and center in this story, in which a couple of migrant workers, Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr., long for a home of their own, where they can be independent and raise rabbits. One of the men has an intellectual disability, and his poor decision threatens the big dream.
In Stella Dallas, the title character (Barbara Stanwyck) pulls herself out of poverty by marrying well, but her past is never far behind her. She doesn’t fool the members of high society and she fails to fit in. After she and her husband split up, she’s determined that her daughter will continue to live the good life and Stella is faced with a difficult predicament. Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award in this film, directed by King Vidor.
In Imitation of Life, a down-on-her-luck widowed mother of a young girl takes in a homeless black woman and her daughter, exchanging housekeeping for room and board. Teaming together, the two women create a pancake empire, but the partnership is not quite equal. Issues of race and class cloud the household’s happiness and strain the relationships between mothers and daughters. Claudette Colbert stars in this version, and another version with a slight plot variation, starring Lana Turner, was released in the 1950s. Both movies provide a tragic view into racism, family relationships, and faulty perceptions of self-worth.
First came the American comic strip, and then the Blondie movie franchise, spanning 1938 to 1950. The first five films can be found on the volume-one disc, and although they begin at the end of the Great Depression, we get a view into the world of the middle class during that time. Husband Dagwood Bumstead has a good job, and he and Blondie live in a pleasant house on a pleasant street. They have all the typical concerns of a young couple—staying employed, providing for the family, and making ends meet—all complicated by a nation in crisis. Although Blondie is a stay-at-home mom, she clearly plays a dominant role in the operations of the household.
This disc contains two movies made during the Great Depression that depict the desperation and devastation from this period. In Heroes for Sale, Tom Holmes, a World War I unrecognized hero, who struggled with drug addiction, spends time behind bars, and when he finally gets out and tries to make something of his life, the Great Depression hits. The second film on the disc, Wild Boys of the Road, portrays midwestern families in the very depths of the Depression. Two teenage friends decide to venture to New York to find work and discover that life hopping trains is less appealing, and more dangerous, than they anticipated.
If those movies ignite your interest in the Great Depression, DVD Netflix has a rich library of documentaries, dramas, and comedies that were made after the Depression, but provide further views of life in the 1930s. The Great Depression is a four-part 2009 documentary narrated by Maya Angelou and Harry Belafonte. The Dust Bowl is a Ken Burns series from 2012. Serious films include The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird. For a lighter fare, there’s Paper Moon, Annie, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?