Movies and the Movie-going Experience of the 1930's
No other decade in film history can touch the 1930s. Dubbed the "Golden Age" of cinema, this decade produced some of Hollywood's finest work, during an era that saw calamity and poverty spread across the nation, commonly known as the Great Depression. With films that include Public Enemy (1931), Dracula (1931), American Madness (1932), I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), King Kong (1933), 42nd Street (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Stagecoach (1939), and Gone With the Wind (1939), the decade is unparalleled in regards to film history, the movie-going experience, and the effect the films had on the children that came of age during the era, fought in World War II, and would become known as the "Greatest Generation."
An essential part of the movie watching experience during the decade had to do with the theaters in which the films were shown. Spectacular architecture, innovative technology, and the ability to accommodate large numbers of moviegoers-some theaters were capable of seating upwards of 4,500 patrons-were all staples of the great movie houses of the 1930s. Film historian Ben Hall described these movie palaces as "an acre of seats in a garden of dreams," (ii) while Henry James Forman, author of the influential 1934 book Our Movie Made Children , referred to them as "the temple of our modern muses."
Like most major cities in the United States during the 1930s, the Twin Cities had its fair share of elegant movie theaters. The Minnesota Theater, built in Minneapolis in 1928, was the fifth largest theater in America at the time of its completion, capable of seating 4,000 patrons. Like the Minnesota Theater, most of the grandiose movie houses of the 1930's were built prior to the onset of the Great Depression, in the 1920's. Many of these movie palaces were designed in the Spanish, Beaux-Arts, or Art Moderne styles, and featured some of the newest innovations in theater construction. The State Theater, located on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, opened in 1921 and was designed by an architectural firm from Chicago. Upon completion, the State was widely considered the most technologically advanced theater in the United States. Costing close to $1 million dollars to build, the State Theater included a glass floor, allowing for direct lighting from underneath, seated nearly 2,000 patrons in the main level and balcony, and contained one of the first "well-driven air-conditioning system[s] in Minneapolis. pumps, pipes and vents . delivered cool air using artesian well water 840 feet underground, keeping the temperature at 72 degrees."
Attending a film in one of these movie palaces was a remarkable experience. More than just watching a film, patrons were able to partake of an experience of being entertained by an increasingly popular art form in extravagant theaters. The elegance of the movie palaces, as author Lary May wrote, "evoked 'fantasy' removed from the 'daily round' of work and civic life." Both the film itself and the environment in which it was screened allowed for an escape, albeit brief, from the turmoil of the Great Depression.
One of the era's most popular films was King Kong (1933), directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack. Cooper, a former Minneapolis Daily News reporter, conceived the idea for the film after seeing a drawing of a prehistoric scene in the office of a colleague, and not long after a classic was born. King Kong pitted the ancient against the new, and featured the recent innovation of stop-motion special effect techniques that captivated audiences young and old. A review in the St. Paul Pioneer Press stated
We admit reacting to "King Kong" much as a school boy would. His enormous size, strength, mechanism, savagery, and fitness to rule intrigued us to the point where we completely overlooked the plot's liberties in connecting the modern with the ancient.
Opening in March 1933 in New York and a month later nationally (the film opened in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theater on April 12 th ) , King Kong broke previous box-office records, and was the first film to be heavily promoted on the radio. It was a film enjoyed by nearly all ages and its groundbreaking special effects only increased the film's popularity.
Film in the 1930s increasingly became a more popular form of entertainment. By 1934, movie attendance reached 77 million Americans per week, and of those, nearly 29 million were children. Put another way, 31% of the nation's population in 1934 was between the ages of five and twenty-years-old, and that age group made up 37% of the movie-going population. These same children, coincidentally, would grow up to fight in World War II, earning the distinction of being America's "Greatest Generation."
For young boys and teens of the era, the Gangster film and the Western were the most popular. Films like Scarface (1931) , Public Enemy, Cimarron ( 1931 ) , and Stagecoach made iconic heroes out of their stars Paul Muni, James Cagney, Richard Dix, and John Wayne. Some teenage girls of the decade were more intrigued by the actresses they saw on screen, and how they were looked at and treated by the men. These young women began to emulate leading ladies like Mae Clarke in Public Enemy and Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), in which Mae West attaches herself to wealthy men to pursue her "hobby" of collecting diamonds.
With large numbers of children attending these types of pictures, parents and adults began questioning the effect the movies had on their children. As one 1930s screenwriter, Dudley Nichols, put it: "Our exposure to the theatre is either helping us to resolve our own conflicts and the conflicts of society by making us understand them, or it is engendering more conflicts." Many studies were soon undertaken. One such study was Our Movie Made Children , conducted by Henry James Forman in 1933 and published the following year. Forman's study showed the effect movies were having on some of the children seeing them. The following is an account of the influence the movies had on one particular seventeen-year-old girl:
Love pictures, wild west pictures, murder cases are the pictures I like best, because I like to love, myself, and I know others want to do the same. After I see them I go out and make love and go on wild parties and only do worse. Movies teach me how to treat my men and fool them.
The results of the study were shocking to some, and excerpts like the one above were not unique. Many of the children in the study reacted to the films in much the same way. Some teenage boys were excited by crime and got many ideas of thievery, among other things, from the Gangster films they saw. And, as evidenced above, teenage girls took lessons from the actresses regarding behavior with men.
Such studies could not prevent children from seeing these types of movies of course. But the growing explicitness of the films and the shocking results of Our Movie Made Children led to the formation of the National Legion of Decency in 1933 and the rewriting of the 1927 Production Code. The new Production Code instituted a $25,000 fine to any film released without pre-censorship by the newly formed Legion of Decency. After the advent of the new Production Code, Hollywood moved away from violent and suggestive films about contemporary life and began producing more family-style films, such as David Copperfield (1935), Pepper (1936), and Little Miss Marker (1934), starring a young Shirley Temple, who would quickly become one of the decade's biggest box-office stars.
The 1930s were a unique era in film history. It was a decade when the popularity of both movies and their stars grew rapidly, and their monumental influence resulted in unprecedented pre-censorship and regulations. It was an era dominated by the despondency of the Great Depression. But film gave moviegoers a brief escape from their usual desperate financial circumstances, and the Twin Cities were no exception. From a twenty-cent matinee to a thirty-cent main feature, both children and adults alike could escape reality in any one of the fifty-plus area movie theaters.
For the children of the generation however, it turned out to be much more. Older teenage boys and girls were going out together to see movies, whether in groups or in pairs, and were no longer accompanied by their parents. The movies, along with specialized radio programs and the advent of the superhero comic book, molded these kids into a rare generation in American history. They became the first generation of steady moviegoers and young mass consumers.
Film's popularity in the 1930s had no racial boundaries. In spite of segregation in some American cities that forced African-Americans and other minorities to the balconies and back rows of theaters, the art of film reached a wide audience. By 1939 there were 430 "Negro" theaters, independent of Hollywood, operating in the United States, at which many showed films referred to as "race movies," starring strictly African-American actors and directors. The attractiveness of the art form was open to all.
Seeing a movie in the 1930s was more than just visual. Amid the bright lights of the beautifully constructed movie palaces, audiences witnessed the gamut of human emotion, folly, fantasy, and intrigue on the big screen, surrounded by thousands of others there for the same purpose. Movies were more than just seen, they were experienced . And, during an era as tumultuous as the Great Depression, the movie-going experience was something on which people were more than happy to spend their time and hard earned money.
- Tim Gihring, "Cinema Prairiediso," Minnesota Monthly, February 26, Volume 40 n.2
- Henry James Forman, Our Movie Made Children (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934)
- Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)
- Minneapolis Star , "Cooper, Former Minneapolis Man, Tells how 'King Kong' was 'Born,'" April 12, 1933
- Harry L. Pratt, St. Paul Pioneer Press , "Variety and Quality Join Hands to Give This Week High Place in Film Annals" April 16, 1933