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Book Excerpt: Dancing in the Dark

With its serious themes yet fireworks atmosphere, flush with technical innovations, Citizen Kane brought together many threads of Depression culture. The movie encompasses success and failure, power and wealth, ambition and dominance, yet it feels like a sound-and-light show, a magician’s sleight of hand.

Its showmanship goes back to the early years of the decade, especially the vibrant film scene, still under the influence of vaudeville. Socially committed scholars, drawn to the 1930s, have paid little attention to the seemingly frivolous, freewheeling side of the decade, the entertainment culture often seen merely as escapist. Foraging for serious political criticism, they focus instead on proletarian novels, documentaries, and socially conscious films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

But despite the economic crisis, the popular art of the 1930s was striking for its lightheartedness and frivolity. This was one of the paradoxes of the decade.

During the period from 1930 to 1934, when the Depression was at its worst, Hollywood, not yet subject to the strict rigors of the Production Code, enjoyed its greatest freedom. Broadway musicals—with a few exceptions like the Gershwins’ mordant but lovable satire Of Thee I Sing in 1931—were still afloat in the bubbly aftermath of the 1920s. Sometimes the fun in these years was anarchic in a way that bordered on savagery.

The Gershwins went over the top with their sequel to Of Thee I Sing called Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933), a great musical achievement that repelled audiences with its cynical, almost nihilistic book. (Both shows were written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, two biting yet commercially successful Broadway satirists.)

The Marx brothers were at their zaniest in the films that led up to their most madcap work, Duck Soup, in 1934 (their only commercial failure). One of their scenarists, S.J. Perelman, was practicing his own brand of surrealism and verbal phantasmagoria in The New Yorker as his brother-in-law, Nathanael West, was virtually creating black humor in Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million.

The snidely insinuating comedy of Mae West and W.C. Fields reached its peak before West was constrained by the censor and Fields by Hollywood’s growing suspicion of physical comedy and haphazard storytelling, let alone a sly cynicism bordering on misanthropy.

At other times this popular culture was grown-up and sophisticated, as in the witty lyrics and clever patter songs of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins, as well as the screwball humor of It Happened One Night, the Thin Man series, and the many breakneck romantic comedies that followed.

The same period that produced the histrionic Paul Muni, who clumped through Scarface like a childish, menacing oaf, also gave us one of its icons, the lean, light-footed, whimsical figure of Fred Astaire, who embodied the grace and filigree of the era as definitively as Muni conveyed its heavy, brooding seriousness.

Thus the conventional picture of Depression audiences that we find in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo or Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, of people going to the movies or listening to the radio to escape their troubles—to daydream or simply fantasize—scarcely holds up. Though Bing Crosby sang wishfully about how his “pocketful of dreams” made up for his “empty purse,” the relation of the arts to the social mood was far more complex.

A culture’s form of escape, if they can be called escape, are as significant and revealing as its social criticism. Under the guise of mere entertainment, Amos ‘n’ Andy transposed people’s daily problems, especially money problems, into a different key and made them seem more manageable—interminable, perhaps, but manageable. The mass audience could identify even with black people in a period when everyone felt beset and beleaguered.

Excerpted from Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein. Copyright © 2009 by Morris Dickstein. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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