We aren’t the first humans to have faced hardship and uncertainty, and those who came before us have left all sorts of survival manuals. The movies of Depression-era Hollywood—melodramas and gangster stories, comedies and musicals—constitute just one of those guides.
The history of movies is the history of looking at people: People more beautiful and charismatic than we are, people who are having fun in extravagant ways that we ourselves may not be able to afford. Then there are people stuck in predicaments familiar to us either from direct experience or from some mysterious universal shared memory: Mothers who would make any sacrifice for their children, or men gone wrong who just cannot make themselves right. And then there are people whose wit and style serve as examples of all the things money can’t buy—and who remind us that getting through life always boils down to some version of this mantra: Let’s face the music and dance.
That line is from a 1936 song of the same name, penned by American songwriter Irving Berlin; movie audiences first heard it in Follow the Fleet, featuring the electrically charismatic dance superstars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The film, like all Astaire-Rogers movies of the era, is delightful. But the movies of Depression-era Hollywood are too easily, and too often, characterized as merely escapist. It’s true that in the 1930s, if you had a nickel left to your name, you might have spent it on a movie; that’s how much these pictures meant to their audience. But it might be more helpful, today, to think of these pictures—made in a time of bread lines and shantytowns, when many men with families were out of work for years at a stretch—as symbols of resistance and resilience. Movies aren’t reality, but during rough times they often reflect the reality of our moods, our fears, our desires, even if those patterns are easy to see only years after the fact.
The pictures mentioned here are just a tiny sampling of movies that helped people in the United States, and elsewhere, get through one of the our most emotionally debilitating eras. All are available to stream from Amazon, and many are available for free on the streaming service Kanopy, if your local library offers it. Once you’re hooked—or if you already have been—you might investigate a paid movie-specific streaming service, like The Criterion Channel.
If these movies worked for our forebears, they surely have something to tell us.
Top Hat, 1935
By 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were already audience favorites, but Top Hat reached new heights of fantasy extravagance. Set partly in a gorgeously phony, sparkling-white dream Venice—with bathing beauties actually swimming in the canals—Top Hat features some of the most sublime dances Astaire and Rogers ever scaled, including the floaty dreamscape designed around Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” That’s the one in which Rogers wears a dress almost completely covered in ostrich feathers, itself a visual metaphor for the tremulousness of new romance. All of the 1930s Astaire-Rogers films are great, but Top Hat, with its thrumming undertones of joy and wistfulness, is special.
The Thin Man, 1934
As wife-and-husband detective team Nick and Nora Charles, Myrna Loy and William Powell are the picture of louche elegance: She’s the one with the money; he’s the one who formerly made his living as a private eye. Now they solve mysteries for fun, and The Thin Man—the first film in what would become a popular series—shows the duo swanning about a hotel suite in luxe loungewear, and also swilling martinis with abandon. Even if Nick and Nora’s life of ease and luxury was pure fantasy, their affectionate bickering and rapid-fire trading of wisecracks still presented a model of how like-minded people, conjoined in holy matrimony or something like it, might weather rough times in close quarters. Plus, the vision of Powell’s Nick shooting the bulbs off a Christmas tree with the air rifle he’s just received as a present is nothing but cathartic.
Stage Door, 1937
Young people just starting out always have it the hardest, and Stage Door reminds us that that’s nothing new: In this exuberant picture about women sticking together as they try to make it in a hostile show-business climate, Katharine Hepburn plays spoiled rich girl Terry Randall, one of a group of women living in a boarding house for aspiring actresses. The others—they include Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and a very young Lucille Ball—resent her. Unlike them, she’s just roughing it; she can go back to a life of leisure if she pleases. But generosity cuts across class divisions, and the realization that we all have specific and intense problems of our own is what holds us together in a pinch. Stage Door is great fun, but it also draws sharp distinctions between snap judgments and the value of those that are more carefully weighed.
We early-21st-century beings may believe we’re wholly responsible for Kardashianmania, but the impulse to worship celebrities may be in our DNA. It was certainly around when Jean Harlow, of the lunar-halo hair, made the star-machine satire Bombshell. Harlow plays Lola Burns, a Hollywood megastar adored by men and women alike. She amuses herself with Euro-aristocratic boy toys, and, after visiting an orphanage and cuddling a random infant, aggressively pursues the adoption of a baby, though it’s just the idea-du-jour. She has her burdens, too: An intrusive, bumbling father (played by Frank Morgan, later the wizard in The Wizard of Oz), three sheepdogs that are constantly underfoot, a creepy stalker who keeps asserting that she’s his wife. Harlow was a magnificent comic actor with a tragically short life: She died of kidney failure in 1937, at age 26. But even today, Bombshell is a startlingly relevant picture of the celebrity creation-and-maintenance apparatus—and a reflection of how easy it is for celebrities to begin buying the hype themselves. Think, perhaps, of Vanessa Hudgens’ clueless Covid-19 observations on social media; then see how Harlow lampooned similar behavior almost 90 years ago.
My Man Godfrey, 1936
Carole Lombard stars as a spacey heiress, Irene Bullock, who wins the prize in a parlour game invented by bored, rich New York City folk: As part of a treasure hunt that spans the whole city, she comes home with a “forgotten man,” William Powell’s Godfrey. (He’s been hunkered down, with masses of other homeless people, under a bridge.) Irene takes a liking to Godfrey, and magnanimously gives him a job as the family butler. She also falls in love with him, and though it’s not hard to see why, she needs to learn that she can’t have everything she wants, when she wants it. The movie, even within its irresistible buoyancy, is clear about that. Both Lombard and Powell are spectacular here: Her loopy breathlessness is the teeter-totter balance to his reserved courtliness and understated wry humor. Together, they’re bliss, a complicated, precarious couple for an equally complicated, precarious world.
Stella Dallas, 1937
Barbara Stanwyck, one of the finest actors of the 1930s and well beyond, gives a shattering performance as a woman from a working-class family who starts out as a conniving climber and becomes a reluctant mother—only to find herself so devoted to her child that she’d do anything for her. Even today, Stella Dallas—once you connect with its somewhat stylized filmmaking language—is so wrenching that it may reduce you to tears. But again, that’s why “escapist entertainment” is such a loaded phrase. Because melodramas are all about heightened emotions, they give us a place to put feelings we don’t otherwise know how to deal with. Few actors, ever, have matched Stanwyck’s rich reserves of steel and grace. She could unlock secrets we didn’t know we were keeping.
The Public Enemy, 1931
James Cagney was a superb song-and-dance man before and after he made a name for himself in gangster roles. In The Public Enemy, unless you count one spontaneous little jig, he doesn’t get to dance at all. Yet his portrayal of Tom Powers, a street thug who rises to become a powerful player in Prohibition-era Chicago, is one lithe, pithy, leonine strut. Tom is unlikable as hell—the movie makes no bones about his cruelty, especially toward women. (There’s a famous clip from the movie that’s often shown for laughs, in which Tom smears a grapefruit half into the face of his breakfast companion, played by Mae Clarke. But in context, the sequence isn’t funny; its depiction of domestic savagery is unsettling.) Tom is beyond redemption: This is a tough little picture, a product of Warner Bros., a studio known for its unvarnished depictions of criminality and basic bad-seed behavior. And you should brace yourself for the chilly, cautionary horror of its final scene. But there are reasons fictional criminals like Tom Powers—as well as real-life ones, like Bonnie and Clyde—resonated with a suffering populace in the 1930s: Tom lashes out at an unfair world in the most extreme way. In the grip of his own selfish impulses, he does things we’d never dream of—but that doesn’t mean we should underestimate the desires that drive him in the first place.
Gold Diggers of 1933, 1933
Half-musical, half naughty tale of showgirls plying their charms to get rich gents to buy them all manner of treats, Gold Diggers of 1933 is one of the most jubilant films about being broke ever made. (Note I didn’t say “most realistic.”) The movie opens with a bevy of scantily clad beauties hoofing and warbling their way through a song called “We’re in the Money”—except they’re not. The show they’re rehearsing has been shut down. The Depression is depressing everyone. Three of those performers, Carol, Trixie and Polly (Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler), go back to just scraping by. (Their wily methods include leaning out the window of their city apartment and using a set of enormous tongs to steal their neighbors’ milk bottles. Immoral—but wonderful.) The delightfully woolly plot involves a new show bankrolled by a secretly rich songwriter and performer (Dick Powell). And in case you haven’t guessed, the showgirls’ aforementioned mercenary exploits lead them to true love. Yet the movie’s finale—an elaborate number, designed, like all the others in the show, by Busby Berkeley—is yet another meditation on “the forgotten man,” a somber coda to the movie’s otherwise unfettered jauntiness. Nothing is simply one thing, as Virginia Woolf noted. And that goes for effervescent ‘30s musicals too.