11 March 2014

Hollywood in the 1930s: Change is in the Air

I’ve long had a fascination with vintage Los Angeles -- especially the 1920s and 1930s. I can’t explain it; it’s just one of those things. I travel to Los Angeles extensively and seek out every piece of history I can find, whether it’s a restaurant (my favorite, Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard), a building (the Eastern Columbia at Broadway and Ninth Streets) or a “place where it happened” (the long-gone Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard).

Historic Los Angeles has played a major role in three of my novels: the 1920s in Sarah & Gerald, a novel of Paris in the 1920s; the 1930s in Murder at Eastern Columbia, the first James Murray Mystery; and my newest Sabotage at RKO Studio, the second James Murray Mystery.

Those decades between the wars were so important to history in general, but to America and Southern California specifically. The 1920s saw a major push to have people move to Southern California to take advantage of the virtual year-round sunshine, the open land and the endless opportunities. The movie industry had essentially relocated there only a few years before. Soon, all roads led to Hollywood, as far as filmmaking was concerned.

All the fun and excitement came to a temporary halt, however, with the crash of the stock market in 1929. Apple sellers made their presence known on the streets of Los Angeles as well as New York. It was a tough time for everyone; but, like the war years that would follow in the next decade, it was a time of a major shift in how Americans saw themselves and how movies would portray them.

In the early 1930s, people would attend a film and see the rich and privileged dealing with their “problems” of finding enough alcohol (Prohibition was in effect) and enough beautiful “dames” to squire to the fancy parties in penthouses and exclusive restaurants.

As the Depression deepened and things went from bad to very bad, the movie studios had to retrench and rethink. Soon, every motion picture studio requested and got concessions from its employees to reduce hours and take a fifty-percent cut in salary. It was meant to be only a temporary effort to help the studios survive the hard times; but, in many cases, the salaries were never restored.

Films themselves started portraying grittier and more realistic times, perhaps no more famously than The Public Enemy (Warner Bros.,1931) featuring James Cagney as a gangster. The bad times of the Great War were featured (perhaps by way of contrast to the current bad times) in several movies including All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 1930), Hell’s Angels (United Artists, 1930), and the classic, A Farewell to Arms (Paramount, 1932).

The 1930s also saw the rise of the monster films, with Frankenstein and Dracula (both Universal, 1931), and the remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1931). Of course, the biggest monster film of them all would turn out to be the great King Kong (RKO, 1933) which is featured in my new novel Sabotage at RKO Studio.

But the 1930s were not all a time of desperation and strife. There were still films that ably demonstrated how the rich are different from the rest of us including Grand Hotel (MGM, 1932) and The Thin Man (MGM, 1934). Perhaps the brightest star to appear in otherwise grim times was Shirley Temple, who wasn’t quite yet four years old when she first stepped in front of a camera. Her fame was quick to come with such classics as Bright Eyes, in which she sang On the Good Ship, Lollipop (Fox Film Corporation, 1934), The Little Colonel and Curly Top (both Fox Film Corporation, 1935).

But, change was in the air. The rise of the Nazis in Germany was well underway at this point, and the sounds of war could be heard in the distance. Soon, filmmakers in America would begin to rally against the oppression in Europe, and the Great Depression would quickly become nothing more than a bitter memory.