This decade features the strongest female characters that Hollywood had ever seen – from the witty, feisty female leads in screwball comedies to the calculating, ruthless femme fatales of early film noirs. The queen of screwball comedies was Carole Lombard (seen above), the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s.
Jean Harlow came to fame as the first ever “Blond Bombshell” and other female leads were lauded for their warmth and audacity, including the notoriously bawdy comedian Mae West.
Louise Brooks, the iconic symbol of the flapper, became famous for her cheeky, assertive humour, her bobbed haircut and her androgynous fashions, also popularised by Marlene Dietrich. These sassy characters made double entendres, innuendos, racy remarks and were not afraid to challenge authority and call the shots – so how did we get from the ‘blond bombshell’ of the 1930s to the ‘dumb blonde’ of the 1950s?
One of many reasons is the Code. Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the period between the introduction of sound pictures in 1927 and the enforcement of censorship guidelines in 1934.
In the late ’20s, Martin Quigley began lobbying for a code that not only listed banned material but imposed a system of Catholic theology onto ‘immoral’ modern movies, and recruited a Jesuit priest to help write it. The campaign got momentum from conservatives and after July 1 1934, all American movies had to obtain a certificate of approval before release. Until the mid ’60s, virtually all movies made in the US adhered to the code.
What’s in the code? Characters can’t be shown to break or ridicule any laws (unless the criminals are punished), no swearing, nudity, homosexuality, interracial relationships, extramarital sex (again, unless they’re punished), authority figures had to be respected, and the clergy couldn’t be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Fun, right?
It was a death knell for a lot of the progressive, racy content and morally ambiguous characters that had made Hollywood great. Though the censorship of nipples and nihilism on the American screen was a set-back, the film industry found ways to subtlety challenge it.
One of the last great pre-Code hits was the rom-com It Happened One Night (1934), starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, the nation’s favourite male sex symbol. In the ’20s and ’30s it was normal for men to wear a singlet under their work shirts, but in the scene where Gable undresses for bed he takes off his shirt to reveal he’s bare-chested. The American undershirt industry apparently spiralled into decline when millions of American men gasped, “Why do I wear an undershirt if Clark Gable doesn’t?”
What else was interesting about Gable? He was talking! Seven years earlier Hollywood sponsored one of the greatest advances the film industry has ever made; Warners released The Jazz Singer (1927), the world’s first full sound film. It starred Al Jolson who was America’s most famous and highest-paid entertainer in the 1930s, and was popular for his blackface performances. (Awkward. Though as early as 1911 he became known for fighting against black discrimination on Broadway).
The change was swift and by the end of 1929, Hollywood was almost all-talkie. Few major silent actors survived the transition to sound, as it required a different style of performance and many actors had never received voice coaching. This transition is the subject of many famous scenes in Singin’ in the Rain as the cast and crew struggle to get used to the new technology, and the beautiful actress with the horrible voice finds her career over.
In 1930s Germany, political unrest forced mass emigration and many German and Austrian filmmakers resettled in Hollywood. German Expressionism had a huge influence on the development of film noir. German-Austrian directors such as Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Erich von Stroheim came to embody the stereotype of the tyrannical German director, and Lang allegedly threw actor Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs to give more authenticity to Lorre’s battered look. Lang, dubbed the “Master of Darkness”, created the epic science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and sinister psychological drama M (1931).
Although this era of Hollywood focused mostly on glamorous escapism in reaction to the Great Depression, there were also directors striving to depict the hardships and ugliness in American life. The prohibition of alcohol between 1920 and 1933 lead to a spike in crime which inspired gangster films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931).
The boom in the film industry saw an incredible diversification of genres, including gothic horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931), and the dazzling group dance features of Busby Berkeley (42nd Street, 1933, Dames, 1934). Musicals became incredibly popular, particularly those starring dance superstars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The trend for musicals thrived in India, where the country’s tradition of song-and-dance drama made an easy transition to film and grew into a huge industry; what we know today as Bollywood.
The addition of dialogue to film also sparked a transformation in comedy, away from visual gags, stunts and slapstick towards verbal puns and plays-on-words, a style dominated by the Marx Brothers.
In our final instalment next week – Technicolour comes to cinema! World events between 1935 and 1945 became a backdrop for some of America’s most surreal family favourites, like The Wizard of Oz, while gritty, morbid film noirs reflected the nation’s insecurities. We’ll review some of Western cinema’s greatest masterpieces and learn about the take-off of animation as Walt Disney arrives on the scene, changing sing-a-longs forever.