Who’s in the Money?
The Great Depression Musicals and Hollywood’s New Deal
Harvey G. Cohen
Traditions in American Cinema Series
Edinburgh: University Press, 2018
Paperback. x+238 p. ISBN 978-1474429412. £19.99
Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart
In the popular imagination, film musicals are perhaps somewhat naively associated with escapism and diversion away from the problems of everyday reality. Harvey G. Cohen contradicts this viewpoint via detailed case studies of three musicals made by Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc., in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. In a thorough and cohesive examination of these films, Cohen is able to explain how they related to both the overt political events prevailing at the time, as well as how they provided a portent of political strife within the film industry that continued well into the future.
The introductory chapter provides a clear overview of the parameters and key features of the book before leading into chapter 1, which sets out the relationship between the Warner Brothers and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cohen provides useful information about Jack and Sam Warner’s rapid trajectory from humble beginnings at the turn of the twentieth century to becoming a major film studio with ‘its own personality’ . That ‘personality’ provided a darker, less glamorous set of films, combining economic necessity with aesthetic choices, all of which helped to set the company apart from its more glamorous rivals, such as MGM. Using their profits wisely enabled the company to keep upgrading their facilities, and by 1930 they had crafted their low-budget but highly effective house style. The gangster films made by the company in the 1930s, such as The Public Enemy (Wellman, 1931) starring James Cagney (who features heavily in the book as a key creative taking on the company in labour disputes), and the later film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, helped to consolidate that style in the public imagination.
However, it is the Great Depression period that Cohen focuses on. By doing so, he is able to explain how Jack Warner (his brother Sam had died in 1927 just before the premiere of The Jazz Singer), surprisingly became the Democrat’s Hollywood figurehead during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election campaign in 1932.
After setting the scene, Cohen discusses in chapter 2 the three Great Depression musicals of 1933 which form the core of the book, these being: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers, and, most importantly from Cohen’s position, Footlight Parade, the latter of which has its own chapter exploring the complex issues around this film. While these films provided Americans (and others) with a much-needed escape valve from their lived reality, Cohen argues that ‘the Great Depression Musicals acknowledged its presence front and centre, at least some of the time’ . However, it is Footlight Parade which Cohen singles out as ‘the musical that most encapsulates the struggles of the period, and most represented Warner brothers’ support of the Roosevelt administration during its nascent months’ . However, while the company appeared, on the surface, to support the New Deal programme enthusiastically and in full, in practice they, and the other major film companies followed suit, sought ‘wherever possible to ensure that artists and regular studio employees would suffer the economic pain of the Great Depression, not executives’ .
Cohen uses detailed knowledge of source material to explore the manner in which the struggles between movie executives and labour developed during this period, and how the studios used organised crime to seek to confront challenges from labour within the industry. The combative role of studio creatives in countering this behaviour, particularly James Cagney’s various strikes to demand better terms and conditions, is explored in great depth in chapter 4. Cagney emerges as a tough, streetwise and astute champion on behalf of himself and other creatives. Through his actions he ‘was the first major star under long-term contract to challenge the apportioning of profits’ and thus set a financial precedent . Cohen persuasively argues that Cagney’s walkouts ‘represented yet another parallel between Footlight and the political and cultural history of its time’ .
Chapter 5 takes up the issue of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) code of practice for the film industry during 1933. The code sought to reorganise the industry, a by-product of which was that ‘for a union-averse film industry, the NRA established collective bargaining for workers’ . However, the film industry code took the longest of all of the American industries to agree due to intransigence on behalf of the studios, and it was short-lived, being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935. Yet, even so, Cohen argues that: ‘The NRA, particularly in Hollywood but also around the nation, did not live up to its initial promise among workers, but it allowed them a glimpse of the possibilities, commencing a difficult and sometimes violent path towards strong independent unions and industrial reform’ .
The concluding chapter documents the falling away of the initial idealism of the New Deal spirit and links this in to the 1934 California gubernatorial election which Cohen suggests was ‘an event that defined Hollywood’s political consciousness as much as or more than the NRA code experience’ . Following this election, the Congressional Democrat’s landslide victory in the 1934 election led to the Wagner Act of 1935 which enshrined collective bargaining as a guaranteed right for workers. Cohen argues that these political events, which shadowed Warner’s move away from Roosevelt towards their more ‘natural’ alliance with the Republican party, is echoed in the increasingly formulaic and cliché-ridden musicals that followed, such as Dames of 1934. Cohen suggests that ‘in many ways, the setting, plot and characters of Footlight Parade reflected the real conflicts at every level of the studio workforce’ . Yet, the victories won by creatives during the NRA code received a terrible payback during the post-war era .
Using an extensive variety of sources judiciously, Harvey G. Cohen is able to demonstrate, in a most persuasive manner, the complex ways in which these three film musicals of 1933 played out wider struggles in American society in the midst of the Great Depression. The author ably analyses how the complex interweaving between political, economic and aesthetic factors were so closely interlinked in these films, and the ramifications in the wider political arena. Notions of ‘pure entertainment’ are thus shown up to be much more complex than they might, at first sight, appear, and this book demonstrates in great detail how light-hearted musicals can have more depth than their glossy surface might initially suggest.
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