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Introduction - The Movies as a Social Institution

thorp gone hollywood wind

E nding the decade on an upbeat, Hollywood proclaimed 1939 “The Greatest Year in Motion Pictures.” Only vestiges of the Depression remained, and people were flocking to the theaters. To satisfy its fans, Hollywood turned out more “classics” that year than any other in the decade. A partial list of these films arranged in the order of their release includes JESSE JAMES (20th-Fox), GUNGAD IN (RKO), MADE FOR EACH OTHER (Selznick-UA), STAGECOACH (Wanger-UA), DARK VICTORY (Warners), WUTHERING H EIGHTS (Goldwyn-UA), ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (Columbia), YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (20th-Fox), THE WIZARD OF OZ (MGM), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Columbia), NINOTCHKA (MGM), DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (Universal), and GONE WITH THE WIND (Selznick-MGM). The stars of these pictures included Bette Davis, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, James Stewart, John Wayne, Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Jean Arthur, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, and Vivien Leigh. “Taken all together,” said Larry Swindell, “the films of 1939 are the best argument for the studio system.”

GONE WITH THE WIND, the last big picture of the decade and the greatest box-office hit of the sound era, “epitomized to a remarkable degree almost every trend and taste of the 1930s.” A prestige picture produced in Technicolor by David O. Selznick, GONE WITH THE WIND cost more to make and had a longer running time than any previous American picture. Its marketing made it the first modern “event movie” and created the blockbuster syndrome, which has dominated the industry’s thinking to this day. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitizer Prize-winning classic. GONE WITH THE WIND depicts cataclysmic events of the Civil War from the perspective of a female protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, “the most familiar fictional character in the history of womanhood.” GONE WITH THE WIND, therefore, should be more accurately classified as a prestige “woman’s picture.” That the era’s most successful production was targeted at women and employed a woman’s perspective provides a starting point for an understanding of production trends during the thirties.

The Movies as a Social Institution

The hoopla surrounding Selznick’s two-year talent search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara, the epic scope of the production, and the staging of its premiere in Atlanta testify to the social status of motion pictures during the thirties. Just what function did motion pictures serve in American life in the thirties? The Page 2  answer is elusive. But Margaret Thorp’s America at the Movies, which was published in 1939, provides as good an introduction as any to contemporaneous thinking about the subject. Moviegoing had become ingrained during the thirties. Thorp estimated that 85 million people went to the movies every week in seventeen thousand theaters located in more than nine thousand cities, towns, and villages. Breaking down the 85 million figure, Thorp noted that many patrons were repeaters; at most, around 40 million out of the total U.S. population of 130 million had the movie habit. The audience was primarily middle-class whites between the ages of fourteen and forty-five, the most important segment of which was the adult female—the “average citizen’s wife” who set the tone of the majority of American movies. According to Thorp, “audiences wanted to be cheered up when they went to the movies; they had no desire to see on the screen the squalor and misery of which there was all too much at home.” 3

The number of blacks in the United States was estimated at between 12 and 13 million; as a group they “seem to be the only considerable section of the population who cannot go to a movie whenever they have the price,” said Thorp. 4 Around four hundred theaters catered to blacks, about one for every thirty thousand. In the South, some theaters had segregated sections for blacks, but most did not admit them at all.

As a central social institution, Hollywood ranked as the third-largest source of news in the country, surpassed only by Washington and New York. Hollywood satisfied the cravings of its fans by feeding tidbits about its comings and goings to more than three hundred newspaper, magazine, and radio correspondents from around the world permanently assigned to the movie capital. This fascination with the movies revealed itself not only in the public’s preoccupation with the life-styles of the stars but also in the presumed power of the movies as a socializing force. Socialization is defined as “the process of transmitting information that assists individuals in becoming socially competent.” Thorp noted that young people learned social skills from the movies, such as how to decline an invitation from a bore, how to accept a gift, how to avoid or accept a kiss, and how to light a friend’s cigarette. Hollywood’s ability to glamorize fashions persuaded women to think of themselves as certain types, such as a Claudette Colbert type, a Carole Lombard type, or a Norma Shearer type. Said Thorp, “No fashion magazine, however skillfully edited, can compete with [Hollywood] when it comes to making it seem imperative to own a particular hat or frock or necklace. Neither adjectives nor photographs nor drawings can make a women feel about an evening wrap as she feels when she sees it on the shoulders of Irene Dunne or in the arms of William Powell.” Men, too, were influenced by the movies: “The story has been told so often that it must be true that the fashion of going without undershirts began when Clark Gable undressed in the tourist camp in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. The sale of masculine underwear declined so sharply immediately afterwards that knitwear manufacturers and garment workers unions sent delegations to the producers asking them to take out the scene.”

Even politicians and civic leaders fell under the spell of the movies. When the mayor of Albany, New York, proclaimed a “SNOW WHITE Week,” when the Illinois state legislature “passed a resolution calling for the appointment of a committee of seven senators and seven representatives to attend the Springfield premiere of YOUNG MR. LINCOLN ,” and when Georgia governor E. D. Rivers designated the day of GONE WITH THE WIND’S premiere a state holiday, these officials basked in what Ian Jarvie calls the “charismatic authority” of the movies, which is to say, the ability of the movies to bestow charisma on others.

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