American Leisure: Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s

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Declan Carroll

American Leisure: Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s

“Although music, radio, books, magazines, comics, sports, and other forms of mass entertainment were all significant in the thirties, nothing else was a central to American popular culture in that decade as motion pictures,” (McElvaine, 208). Consumer and popular culture is present in the motion picture industry after World War I. A large percentage of Americans went to the movies each week during the 1920s. Surprisingly, that number increased during the Great Depression. This could be due to the new technologies of the film industry. Sound was added to films in the late 1920s. Going to the movies was leisure activity of most Americans and it still is. Upper, middle and working class individuals all went to the movies. Neighborhood theaters allowed all races and ethnicities to go to in familiar company. Movie theaters had an impact on youth culture as well. Some historians believe that American society was reflected in cinema. Films gave Americans a sense of hope. National prosperity attracted crowds to the movies in August, 1929. There was an addition of sound to the movie experience. Theaters were air-cooled and a nice retreat during the summer. Elaborate motion picture palaces were in cities across the country. There were over “seventeen thousand theaters located in more than nine thousand cities, towns and villages,” (Balio, 2). There was a notion that the good times were here to stay. After the stock market crash, the movie industry suffered fewer losses than other industries such as oil, transportation, steel, and chain stores, (Crafton, 187). From September 1929 to November the stocks of Fox, Warner Brothers, and Paramount fell 40-50 percent, (Crafton, 188). Ticket prices fell from a two dollars to fifty cents, (Crafton, 190). Prices would fall further to thirty-five cents and to ten cents, (Crafton, 268). Luckily sound systems were put into the theaters before the depression. Theaters might not have been able to cope with converting during the depression, (Crafton, 216). “In the mid-1920s, motion pictures in the United States were attracting an attendance of fifty million each week, equivalent to half of the nation’s population; by 1930, that figure would double, as even more people went more often, (Cohen, 125). The movies served as escapism. A dime or a quarter could let you forget your troubles. It was a time when movies really counted, (McElvaine, 208). “They take you completely out of yourself and into a wonderful new world,” (Lynd, 265). Musicals provided escape, lift spirits, and give hope for a better time, (McElvaine, 214). New York mayor, Jimmy Walker, asked movies to “show pictures which will reinstate courage and hope in the hearts of the people,” (McElvaine, 208) Almost everyone who could afford it would frequently go to the movies, as did millions who could not, (McElvaine, 208). Going to the movies was a priority even in the midst of poverty, (Cohen, 120). “Workers spent over twenty-two dollar a year towards the movies. This was twice as much as professional who had a salary that was four times greater,” (Cohen, 121). There was a notion that “movies can be made for the working class by Hollywood,” (McElvaine, 207). Sixty to seventy-five million tickets were purchased each week, this figure counts repeat attendees. That is about sixty percent of America. In the 1970s 10 percent of America went each week, (McElvaine, 208). There is disagreement about the popularity of movies during the Great Depressions. “In 1930 regular customers began attending movies less frequently and spending less money. The motion pictures industry cut back on production budgets , furloughed workers, and sold theaters, all the while trying to keep America’s alleged movie habit alive,” (Crafton, 355). In November 1931, movie theaters sponsored a National Motion Picture Week. They attempted to collect donations and get...
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