Today the 1930s is known for things like Hollywood pre-code films, French poetic realism and the year of 1939, but these things too are often misunderstood and leads to a skewed and unfair view of the decade. The cinema of the 1930s is much richer and more fascinating on many levels than conventional wisdom gives it credit for, especially films from Hollywood, Japan and France. (I have unfortunately not seen any Chinese films from the 1930s but I know they had a large and, I imagine, interesting film production.) For one thing so much happened, not least the introduction of three-strip Technicolor and the recovery of mobility and agility after the first shock of the introduction of synchronised sound. Films from 1930 are on average extremely different from films of 1939, maybe more so than for any other decade. Cinema at the end of the 1920s had reached a creative peak, technically, visually, emotionally, but with the introduction of sound everything changed and there was a general sense of upheaval, some for good and some, in the short run, for bad. Even if the impact on sound on actors' careers and the loss of mobility of the camera has frequently been overstated, there was, I think, a dip in the overall quality of films as the 1920s turned into the 1930s, and that it took a couple of years for the art form to find itself again. (Although great films were made in the dip too, such as The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh 1930), in the now barely remembered 70mm system of the time.) There was a certain waywardness and ad hoc quality in the filmmaking processes as the 1930s progressed, even among the studios in Hollywood; giving a sense of an art form in an often raw and rough state, side by side with the carefully controlled and exquisite, in a way that is different from the 1940s and 1950s.
Cinema going practises were different from now. There was the concept of A- and B-movies for example, and there was among the audiences also a waywardness, audiences coming and going as they saw fit with no regard for schedules. There were ongoing debates about how to deal with the audience, and how films should be shown and what schedules should look like. Hitchcock's campaign at the release of Psycho (1960), to keep the audience in place and not to allow anyone in after the film had begun, is well-known, but such efforts had been done before.
I have often been puzzled by the widespread idea that deep focus was more or less invented by Welles/Toland for Citizen Kane, with a few rare precursors such as some films by Jean Renoir. Puzzled because deep focus was common all through the 1930s, in films from many countries, yet hardly anyone seems to be aware of this. According to David O. Cook, "cinema's physical capacities for deep focus" was "restored" by the "creative genius of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland" (p. 247) and "Renoir was the first major director of the sound film to compose shots in depth." (p. 247). Neither of these statements are true. (I have written about this here.) But it has occurred to me that this is not surprising, since so much about the 1930s is hidden behind a veil of ignorance.
The biggest and most well-known cinema of the 1930s is of course Hollywood, but it does not mean it is better understood or known than other countries. A representative quote:
"American cinema of the 1930s consistently concealed from the American people the reality of the Depression, and later, of the war in Europe. This is not a matter of opinion, but of historical record: with several notable exceptions (e.g. Warner Bros.' I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy, 1932; United Artists' Our Daily Bread, King Vidor, 1934), Hollywood did not seriously confront the social misery caused by the depression until the release of Fox's The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford) in 1940; the first Hollywood film to acknowledge the Nazi threat in Europe, Warner Bros.' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak), did not appear until 1939." (p. 221)That was from the fifth edition of A History of Narrative Film by Cook, but whatever he may think, it is not an historical record that the reality of the depression was concealed. There were plenty of such films, in a variety of different genres, made each year. Just because Cook has not seen them does not mean they do not exist. They do; it is of historical record that they were plentiful, and sometimes strikingly harsh and bleak.
It is however the case that there were few films that addressed the situation in Europe, but I wrote more about that in an earlier post about Urwand's book.
While there is often talk about Hollywood's 1930s as being a decade of fixed genres and studio house styles, it was a lot more varied, complex and free-spirited than such beliefs allow for. Different genres, directors and cinematographers had different styles, and the concept of house style is often only applicable to specific groups of films from individual studios. For example, Universal is usually said to have specialised in horror films, and it is true that they did make several classics in that genre. But they also specialised in romantic musical comedies, particularly starring Deana Durbin. These do not look like Frankenstein (James Whale 1931), but are more reminiscent of what is usually alleged to be Paramount's house style. It is clear that Warner Bros. on average had a grittier look than Paramount or MGM, at least with regard to the most well-known classics. But Warner Bros. also did expensive-looking films with art deco design, while MGM did the Tarzan films, gangster films (the violent ending of The Beast of the City (Charles Brabin 1932) is quite something), horror films and films like Fritz Lang's Fury (1936), neither of which fits with the idea of what an MGM film looked like. Talking about studio style is to simplify matter in a way that leads to ahistorical conceptions about the actual reality. "Hollywood films of the decade, with surprisingly few exceptions, looked strikingly alike." (p. 230), from the seventh edition of A Short History of the Movies, is a condensed version of the conventional wisdom. But such a statement would not be made by someone who has watched a lot of Hollywood films of the 1930s.
The concept of genre is complicated for various reasons. It is for example often more relevant to talk about cycles or trends than genres. Fast films partly set in newsrooms with wise-cracking reports were popular in the 1930s, such as The Front Page (Lewis Milestone 1931), Five Star Final (Mervyn LeRoy 1931), Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth 1932), the nine films about the female reporter Torchy Blane, and so on to its apotheosis, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), appropriately a reimagining of The Front Page. But do these films constitute a genre? They are usually a combination of gangster film, social drama and screwball comedies, and might better be seen as a cycle of films.
Many films are almost impossible to pinpoint to a specific genre, as they contain multitudes. This connects back to what I said earlier about the waywardness and ad hoc quality of the decade. This is also what makes many of the films unpredictable and interesting. Our understanding of genres is often based on films made after World War 2, but the 1930s (or for that matter the 1920s) are different in many respects and do not neatly tie in with contemporary ideas about various genres and their alleged rigidity and stability.
The concept of the pre-code often entails a belief that films after 1934 are boring or timid but this is not the case. There is no particular reason to single out the pre-code years, the whole decade is remarkable, partly to do with the reasons I gave above, the thrill of watching an art form reborn and re-invented. And there were so many great films; fabulous, weird, ruthless, charming, magical, confusing films that are to a large extent forgotten. It is often the case that famous filmmakers are discussed primarily for their films of the 1940s and not least 1950s, and neglecting their earlier films, but this is a mistake. Just consider Douglas Sirk, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophuls, Henry Hathaway and Henry King.
Then there are those filmmakers who thrived in the 1930s but either never really made it after the war, such as Jean Grémillon, Victor Fleming, or Sadao Yamanaka (who died in 1938 and forgotten) or those that continued but never became household names for proceeding generations or film historians, such as Roy Del Ruth. In the early 1930s he was exceptionally productive, making six films in 1933 alone. That was a normal year for him. What is remarkable is how good so many of the films are. Witty, inventive, direct, sometimes moving and at time stylish. And almost always fast. Here is a shot from Employees' Entrance (1933):
According to conventional wisdom of the visual style of the 1930s, such a shot did not exist.
I do not know much about Del Ruth, but he began his film career as a gag maker for Mack Sennett and made short films for a decade or so. From 1925 he began making feature films, and soon became one of the highest paid directors in Hollywood, working at Warner Bros. and making films in almost all genres except Westerns. He did the first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1931) and several films with James Cagney, including Blonde Crazy (1931) and Taxi! (1932). Particularly good are Bureau of Missing Persons (1933), with Pat O'Brien as a cop with a violent temperament who is mellowed by his love for a murder suspect played by Bette Davis, and the delightful The Little Giant (1933), with Edward G. Robinson as a mobster going straight. In one scene he kisses Mary Astor, and then turns to look at the camera, at us, and swallows, as if he cannot believe what just happened.
While I said Del Ruth worked in almost all genres, it might be more accurate to say that many of his early films are difficult to pinpoint to a specific genre, including those films mentioned above. But towards the end of the 1930s he began making musicals at MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox. After that he tried being independent for a while, making films through his own company Roy Del Ruth Productions, including a thriller with George Raft and Virginia Mayo called Red Light (1949). His last film, after having done TV for many years, was the capital punishment drama Why Must I Die? (1960).
It is a pity that when directors working in Hollywood are written about and analysed it is almost always the special cases, such as Lubitsch, Hawks, Hitchcock, Wyler, Ford, those that had the power and independence, and inclination, to strike out on their own. But all those other directors that were the backbones of Hollywood, and who often made the largest number of films and the biggest box office hits, are not nearly as discussed and researched. Hardly a word has been written about Del Ruth despite his central rule at Hollywood's second largest studio. What was it like for someone like him? How were the processes, and what was his view of his position within the community and the filmmaking tradition? I am not saying that he is a forgotten auteur. He might be, but it is more interesting if he is not. The life and career of a happy workhorse is an underappreciated research topic. It would also be interesting to make a comparative study of him and Mervyn LeRoy, with whom he had a lot in common, although LeRoy had more of an edge to his filmmaking, more daring and imposing, and an anecdote mentioned in The Genius of the System is suggestive of this: Del Ruth was offered to direct I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but he turned it down since he felt it was too dark and without popular appeal. Instead LeRoy made it and while it is very bleak it was also more commercially successful than Del Ruth's Taxi! Del Ruth had a much lighter touch than LeRoy but, as they say, more research is warranted.
They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy 1937), a bleak, powerful study of corruption.
A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast, Bruce F. Kawin (2000, 7th ed.)
A History of Narrative Film, David O. Cook (2016, 5th ed.)
The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, Thomas Schatz (1988)
(I like Schatz's book but it seems to be known primarily for its introduction, which is unfortunate since it does an injustice to the nuances of the rest of the book.)
See also my earlier post about Deanna Durbin, Henry Koster and Universal.
I have written about poetic realism here.
For a prominent Swedish filmmaker from the 1930s, there is Schamyl Bauman. Read about him here.