Shifting Loyalties and Identities in Great Depression Hollywood

AHA Session 91
Labor and Working Class History Association 2
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Edmund Wehrle, Eastern Illinois University
Footlight Parade and Hollywood’s New Deal
Harvey G. Cohen, King's College London
Red Hot Mama in Hollywood: Sophie Tucker and the Conversion to Motion Pictures
Lauren Sklaroff, University of South Carolina Columbia
The Audience

Session Abstract

Within the crucible of the Great Depression, many foundations of American life were changing and being questioned amidst economic failure and misery.  As always, culture proved a source of historical documentation and conflict in surveying shifting identities and ideologies.  This panel will focus on Hollywood in the 1930s, as viewed through the prism of both major American political parties as well as the challenges for both artists and executives brought on by the arrival of sound films.

It was a period when disagreement and debate rose precipitously in the film colony.  Hollywood involved itself like never before in the 1932 presidential election, on both sides of the political spectrum, with Louis B. Mayer from MGM militating for Herbert Hoover and the Republicans and the Warner brothers trumpeting their support for winning Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt in large political rallies and industry advertisements.  As Harvey G. Cohen and Mark Wheeler’s papers will demonstrate, tensions mounted in the two years after the election, as the notoriously bitter and divided motion picture industry was forced to write a National Recovery Administration code of practice, and as the collected Hollywood major studios used unsavory propaganda methods and funds coerced from their employees to topple famous socialist Upton Sinclair’s chances at winning the California governorship.  The studios’ unprecedented entry into politics and several labor-related controversies of the time unleashed the start of serious union activity in Hollywood for writers and directors, initiating conflicts that would mark the first steps toward the post-WW2 Red Scare blacklists in Hollywood and the eventual dissolution of the supposedly golden age of the studio system. 

The coming of sound films also unleashed significant and jarring changes.  It made film production and exhibition several times more expensive, and as Scott Eyman has argued, made unions inevitable in the violently anti-union environment of Hollywood since the conversion to sound brought successful stage actors, playwrights, directors and journalists from the East Coast who were used to union representation.  “Soundies” also played havoc with many previously successful performers who found great difficulty adjusting to the new regime, as Lauren Sklaroff’s paper illustrates.   Vaudevillians, particularly the famed “red hot mama” Sophie Tucker, struggled to find comfortable success in the sound films which were usurping the venues and audiences that she and other vaudevillians had enjoyed previously.  The new era found Tucker fighting against extinction, and finally, a decade after the introduction of sound films, finding a way to succeed on her own terms in the new medium, while still defying gender expectations as she had done for decades.  As these papers will collectively make clear, rules and roles were changing in Great Depression Hollywood; the ground was not secure.  

While many scholars in recent decades have focused on the 1930s film industry for its “pre-code” Hollywood standards of sex, violence and adult sensibilities, this panel will demonstrate that this era also serves as a pivotal turning point for political, personal and media struggles that evinced long-ranging consequences for American life and culture.

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