Footlight Parade and Hollywood’s New Deal

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Harvey G. Cohen, King's College London
This paper outlines the unique political and economic dimensions of Footlight Parade (1933), the hit musical made by the Warner Bros. studio, one of the most curious combinations of entertainment and politics ever issued from a major Hollywood studio.  It featured the most fervent support ever of a sitting American president and his policies in a major Hollywood feature – not a surprise since Harry and Jack Warner were among President Franklin Roosevelt’s most important fundraisers and advocates during the 1932 presidential campaign.  Yet, while Footlight was in production, the Warner brothers did all they could to undermine New Deal legislation, secretly working to curtail workers’ rights and salaries instead of bolstering both sides of the labor/management divide, as they publicly claimed they were doing, and were supposed to do under National Recovery Administration regulations.  In addition, this paper will examine the months-long struggle in Hollywood during 1933 to create an NRA code of practice for the bitter and divided motion picture industry.  The exercise pitted independent studios and theatres against the major studios, as well as newly organized actors and writers against studio management.  Through the manipulation of New Deal legislation, the Warners attempted to ensure that the economic pain of the Depression was served as much as possible upon artists and craftsmen, not owners or management.  While these personal friends of Roosevelt posed as exemplars as the New Deal in real life and in their movies, they were attempting to reverse his policies within their studio and their industry.  Behind the scenes, the making of Footlight Parade, as well as the film itself, represents a story of financial survival, political intrigue and backstabbing amidst a volatile labor and political atmosphere during the worst of the Great Depression – with much disagreement but little discussion between the parties involved.
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