Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960


History of Motion Pictures
1930 – 1939

A Brief Overview of the Decade

The wild, uninhibited exuberance of the “Roaring Twenties” was suddenly muffled by the reality of the Stock Market “Crash of ‘29”. As banks and businesses failed, unemployment quadrupled. Marriages, divorces and childbearing declined because of their expense, while suicides and desertion rates soared. By 1932 an estimated 34 million men, women and children, 28% of the U.S. population, were without any income at all. To ease competition for jobs, the U.S. expelled 400,000 American citizens of Mexican descent. The “Great Depression” upended the economy of the entire United States, and it quickly spread around the globe as this country raised its tariffs on foreign goods. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in a landslide by promising a “new deal” for the “forgotten man”. Once elected, FDR abandoned the “gold standard” and introduced his “good neighbor policy”, which meant there would be no more U.S. intervention in the political affairs of the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

This was also the decade when Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and parts of Kansas began to lose topsoil from farmland in mammoth dust storms. Triggered by a drought and the economic excesses of the 1920s, this area soon became known as the “Dust Bowl”. Thousands of farmers were displaced as their land was repossessed, and many of them packed up their families and took to the roads looking for job opportunities. With so many people struggling to survive, perhaps it was inevitable that such notorious killers, thieves, and bank robbers as Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde, were idolized by many as old–fashioned American folk heroes for taking on the Establishment.

On the international front, the seeds of war were being sown on fertile ground. Japan occupied Manchuria at the beginning of the decade, and the League of Nations failed to impose any sanctions for their invasion. By the middle of the decade Japan went on to invade China . Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin consolidated their power, and by the middle of the decade Hitler had occupied Czechoslovakia and Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia . Finally, as the decade ended, Hitler invaded Poland and ignited World War II.

To escape from this almost continuous stream of bad news, people turned more and more to the entertainment industry. Almost half of the households in the U.S. had radios in 1930, 60% had them by 1934, and by the end of the decade the number had jumped to over 80%. As people listened breathlessly to the nightly developments in the Lindbergh kidnapping, comedians like Jack Benny and Fred Allen, and newscasters like Walter Winchell became household names. While Bing Crosby “crooned” on his weekly hour–long variety show, the “Kraft Music Hall”, Benny Goodman became the “King of Swing” while Kate Smith, the “First Lady of Radio”, introduced listeners to Irving Berlin’s new song, “God Bless America ”.

Hollywood did not escape the effects of this economic crisis. As attendance at movie theaters fell dramatically many theaters went out of business, and a number of studios were forced into receivership. Despite the many changes in the film industry, however, the production and distribution expertise of Hollywood’s “studio system” had already become institutionalized allowing it to dominate the world market; and as the technology and aesthetics of motion picture production quickly reached maturity, Hollywood would experience a “Golden Age” during this decade that would continue well into the next. 


The “Depression” causes movie attendance to drop dramatically. Movie theaters lower ticket prices, give away door prizes, offer matinees and midnight screenings, and finally start adding a second, “B”, feature film to their programs in an effort to increase attendance. Some theaters even promote “Mickey Mouse Clubs” as a gimmick…

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RKO takes control of Pathè’s assets.   Carl Laemmle, founder and president of Universal Pictures, celebrates his 25th anniversary in the movie business.   Mary Pickford buys up all of her silent films. She feels that the recent technical advances in the motion picture industry has made actors in old…

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Harry Cohn becomes Columbia Pictures’ president, and head of the studio, when Joe Brandt sells his interest in the company to Harry and his brother Jack.   The director, Cecil B. DeMille, leaves MGM and returns to Paramount.   The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adopts an aspect…

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According to statistics published by the U.S. Ministry of Commerce, American cinema attendance has dropped by 56% since 1928.   RKO’s production chief, David O. Selznick, leaves the company to produce pictures for MGM.   Registering a 40% drop in attendance at its theaters, and having produced few successful films,…

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Movie theater box–office receipts begin to rebound. Weekly attendance has now increased to 70 million per week.   Production guidelines for a film’s moral content, which are outlined in “The Motion Picture Production Code” of 1930, are revised and expanded. The Studio Relations Committee (SRC) which oversees the enforcement of…

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RKO, Warner Bros., and Paramount are summoned to appear before a grand jury on charges of monopolistic practices.   Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are granted a divorce.   Joseph Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck buy controlling interest in the Fox Film Corporation that will be merged with their company,…

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Pope Pius XI issues a Pontifical Encyclical that recommends the boycotting of indecent films and congratulates the American Catholic Church’s “Legion of Decency” on their activities.   Irving Thalberg, MGM’s production chief and the “Boy Wonder” of Hollywood, dies at 37 of pneumonia.   Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy leave…

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Rita Cansino adopts the screen name, Rita Hayworth, during the shooting of her 13th film, “Criminals of the Air”.   David O. Selznick, the producer who left MGM to form “Selznick International Pictures”, is very taken with the young actress, Ingrid Bergman when he sees her in the new Swedish…

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The French film producer, Georges Méliès, who was one of the most innovative pioneers in the early days of motion pictures, dies at the age of 78.   MGM buys the rights to the famous children’s book, “The Wizard of Oz”.   In Washington, DC, Senator Sullivan declares in front…

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An International Film Festival is held for the first time at the French town of Cannes.   In New York City the film critic for the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker , has been dismissed because the editors thought he wasn’t harsh enough in his review of “Gone With the…

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