By the 1930s, Hollywood was one of the most visible businesses in America, and most people were attending films at least once a week. With better sound and film technology emerging, the industry was able to pursue new creative directions, entering a “Golden Age” of creativity and exploration. Although partly fettered by censorship, the film industry attracted audiences with strong narratives involving romantic characters struggling to overcome heavy odds. Products of the Golden Age include a long list of what are today seen as classics — The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, King Kong, Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, All About Eve, Duck Soup, Singin’ in the Rain, Roman Holiday, and many more.
Many critics say 1939 was the high water mark; Gone with the Wind and the Wizard of Oz were the two best pictures of the age:
But Hollywood movies weren’t all just glitzy entertainment and Southern myths. Stephen J. Ross, history professor at UCLA, talks about the social conscience of the Warner Brothers and how it was expressed in some of their films:
It’s interesting that the most widely discussed film of the Golden Age was produced not only through the studio system, but also in spite of it. Citizen Kane, voted the most influential film of the twentieth century by the American Film Institute, was produced and directed for RKO Pictures in 1941 by Orson Wells, a brash and volatile radio and theater director famed for scaring American radio listeners with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast of 1938. Wells had never before produced or directed a film in his life, but he threw all of his genius into making the movie.
Citizen Kane is about the search for the identity of a newspaper tycoon who used his family wealth to build a powerful empire, promote his mistress and crush his opponents. The film was intended to be a biting parody of the life of William Randolph Hearst, a powerful newspaper publisher who did in fact use his newspapers to promote his mistress and crush his opponents. Hearst saw the movie as a frontal assault on his reputation, and he did everything in his power to wreck the emerging career of Orson Wells. RKO “retired” the film after a few weeks, and both Wells and Hearst ended up losing, according to an excellent documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane.
One of Warner’s iconic social films was Casablanca, released in 1942. In this scene, Nazi soldiers are singing in a bar, celebrating their occupation of French North Africa. French citizens respond in kind. The film reminded US audiences that some French people were resisting Nazi occupation even if, in fact, some of the “Vichy French” were shooting at American and British soldiers on the beaches of North Africa at the time the film was released.
Grapes of Wrath
Another Golden Age film worth a special mention is The Grapes of Wrath, filmed in 1940, starring Henry Fonda as a farmer who takes his family from the “dust bowl” of Oklahoma to the promised land of California. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck, the film used a style of cinematography based closely on the Depression era photography of Dorothea Lange, especially her “Migrant Mother” series. Even the few critics who scoffed at the Depression-era political message conceded that the film transcended social issues of the time with an enduring human story.
Here’s the trailer for the Grapes of Wrath: