By the 1930s, the country had undergone huge social changes. Women had recently gotten the vote and
were beginning to gain a previously unheard of social independence. The Stock Market crash of 1929
began an economic depression that soon affected most of America. By the peak of the Depression in 1933
almost twenty-five percent of the country was unemployed, while even more people just made ends meet.
Motion pictures and radio however just grew in popularity and gave Americans a common culture and a
greater sense of connectedness.
American film soon reflected these realities. Film was rapidly becoming the entertainment of choice for the vast majority of Americans. Even with huge unemployment and widespread poverty, 60 to 70 million people a week were escaping from their problems for a few hours at a time by spending fifteen cents to go to the movies.
As American social structures were rocked by the depression, comedies released in these years began to
express a disdain for traditional institutions and values. The Marx Brothers spoofed everything from class
structures, to universities, to patriotism in such films as "Animal Crackers" (1930), and "Duck Soup"
(1933). Mae West used sexual innuendo to poke fun at the middle class code of morality and was the first
woman to make racy and suggestive comments on film. Her early films, "She Done Him Wrong" (1933),
and "I'm No Angel" (1933) resulted in the Motion Picture Production Code. Bowing to pressure from
various groups, the Industry instituted the Production Code of 1934 that prevented films from depicting
sexually suggestive actions or dialogue.
At the same time Hollywood had to contend with these restraints, the studios had an increasing need for
good writers to craft needed dialogue for the talkies. Hollywood was one of the few places with full
employment and rising salaries. Soon, some of America's best writers were flocking to the West Coast. The
writers brought a new sophistication and much creativity to the problems prompted by the necessity of
adhering to the Production Code.
All of these factors lead to the development of the screwball comedy. It featured sharp dialogue, women who were smart and strong, fanciful plot twists and turns, and a storyline that often included the interplay between the wealthy and poorer classes. The films generally sided with their lower class protagonists and often showed the wealthy classes to be inept and in need of the good common sense of the masses.
"It Happened One Night" (1934) is perhaps the best known of the screwball comedies. Claudette Colbert is
Ellie Andrews, a wealthy rebellious socialite who married a society wastrel. Her father has the marriage
annulled, and she runs away to go to her husband. Incognito, she meets a savvy street-smart reporter Peter
Warne played by Clark Gable. She needs his help and they end up traveling together as Warne hopes to get
the big scoop. Gable's character is the strong, competent, wise cracking everyman not dazzled by Colbert's
wealth. He has a strong moral center and would not take advantage of the intimate situations they
experience. This character appealed to the largely middle and working class audience. Colbert's
character is strong and smart and after a few "fish out of water" jokes, soon fits comfortably into the
situations garnering the admiration of Gable's character, and more importantly, that of the audience. This
showed that the wealthy upper classes were the same as everyone else and reinforced the American ideal of
a classless society-a popular notion with the audiences of the 30s.
My Man Godfrey (1936) is another good example of the genre. Carol Lombard plays Irene Bullock, a
young, wealthy eccentric who goes to the city dump where she meets a derelict named Godfrey, and hires
him as family butler. Godfrey brings a much-needed sense of reality to the crazy, spoiled and rich family.
This again reinforced the competency and the ascendancy of the working and middle class-the audience.
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