American Popular Culture (1930s-1960s)

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  • Topic: Popular culture, Culture, World War II
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Morgan Young
Hist 322
Final Exam

The 1930s through the 1960s was an extremely critical and pivotal moment in American popular culture. Movies, radio and music changed with the movements of the decades and are arguably the best representations of how the cultures were influencing everyday life. If you want to understand a population of people you have to understand their culture, and the American popular culture has and continues to be a part of everyday life.

During the 1930s and World War II, the biggest resource historians use to analyze that popular culture would be the radio. According to lecture, radios finest years were during this decade due in great part to the Great Depression. Tons of talk-shows and variety shows started appearing, as well as the start of radio comedy. These comedies proved to be large impacts on the culture and changed the everyday American language, thoughts, and cultural perceptions. The Eddie Cantor Variety Show that aired from 1931 through 1934 was a vaudeville style comedy that lifted the depressed spirits of those devastated by the economic crisis through tones of optimism and patriotism. The radio was used as an escapist tool, giving families the opportunity to forget their worries and troubles brought on from situations outside the family household (Lipsitz 39-45). Families gathered around the radio every night, usually after dinner time, and tuned into to westerns, variety shows, children’s programs and soap operas. All of these programs were themed around the idea that while times may be harsh and depressing, people can still tune in to their home radios and enter a world where high morals are valued, women’s duties are to their family solely, and good always will triumph over evil. People took comfort in the fact that no matter how bad times could be, there was still an opportunity to remember the good times they had and the good times that would eventually come again.

This decade was also considered “the classic period of American movies” according to lecture. Even during the peak of the hardest time in the Great Depression, 80 million people were still going to see their favorite stories portrayed on the big screen. Ground-breaking technologies started emerging in this decade when the big movie makers realized the extent of their power and their “myth-making abilities and responsibilities”. Directors, producers and screenwriters saw the necessity and their patriotic duty to inspire and reshape a cultural mythology. Gangster films took off in this time period, with such blockbusters like Little Ceasar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). Unemployed people were thrilled watching a character that they could identify with, the main gangsters in this case, that have defied the society that never gave them a break. However, with the introduction of the Production Code Administration in 1934, the gangsters had to die in the end of the movie to show there was still good and balance out the rest of the film. The PCA did not allow homosexuality, interracial sex, abortion, incest, drugs, most forms of profanity, or vulgar words like ‘sex’ to be in any part of the movies. With this strict set of rules and censorship, comedies became exceedingly popular and embodied the outrage of the people. The Marx Brothers were very popular and well-liked in this time, making movies like Buck Soup (1933) that openly made fun of politics, patriotism, the State, and war.

The American culture at this time was closely tied to England’s culture at this time, making movies that reflected the allegiance the United States had with them in times of war. This move was intentionally done and pushed by Franklin Roosevelt to not only show our support to England in World War II, but also to instill hope and patriotism in the Americans that saw the films (Koppes 113-142).

The 1950s definitely turned the American popular culture in a different direction. Politically, our country was turned...
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