The film-making industry and its commentary on social issues have come a long way from the dramatic interpretations of print headlines in short films to the structured and complex plots observed today. This paper will seek to show the defining hallmarks of films in the progressivism era between 1890 and 1920, the great depression between 1929 and 1941 as well as the world war (II) between 1939 and 1945. This paper will also attempt to show the significant ideological, economic and societal conflicts that shaped the film making industry to what it is today. An attempt will also be made to show how the film industry served as a catalyst for its own change and how changes in censorship, as well as government control of the media, led to the era-specific filming that is observed in the films Gold diggers of 1933 (1933), Foreign correspondent (1940) and On the Waterfront (1954).
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The progressivism era was a period of intense and uncensored criticism on social issues by films. Filmmakers often produced several short films every month, each containing a melodramatic depiction of a print headline and challenging the issues present in the society with irony and humour. The film making during this period was informed by the political and ideological dilemma that was present in the early 1920s due to the conflicting ideas for social, political and economic change presented by socialists, philanthropists, radicals and progressivists. Cinema came in to play to turn these societal dilemmas and contradictory ideologies into foundations for melodramatic and comedic reels. Americans watched short, graphic portrayals of social problems picked right out of the front cover of the print media, generated to portray the realities of everyday life in a way that linked the desires possessed by Americans with the needs of the broader society and brought about a sense of order within the society. The conflict between the believers of the different ideologies present in the progressivism era was transformed into lively entertainment that told a rich story about the political social and ideological climate of the United States at the time. The film maker’s interpretation of the conflict present in the society did not shy away from revealing that America was torn between socialism and progressivism. This succeeded in opening up the film making industry to the influence of groups that were advocating change within the American society who saw motion pictures as a method of advertising their ideas in a way that was appealing to the low-income community who formed the largest portion of filmgoers. The fact that a commercial film can be used to proliferate political causes would seem utterly bizarre in today’s society, but the film making industry was open to the virtually anyone during this time, especially someone who had a cause. This function of cinema to act as a vehicle to carry individual and group ideologies may have informed the making of the film, On the Waterfront (1954). This film is widely considered as the response that Elia Kazan gave to individuals and groups that criticized him for exposing communist members of the film-making industry to the House Committee to Un-American Activities. This film criticizes the culture of remaining ‘dumb and deaf’ to authority in order to protect the individual’s personal image and avoid danger. This film manages to create a happy ending where Terry manages to defeat Friendly, the crime boss, despite the alienation he had faced from his community after he had exposed him for his illegal activities.
However, the robust commentary on social issues observed significant decline after 1914 due to the increasing popularity of long feature films. These films significantly increased the risk involved in producing films that were commentaries on political and social issues due to the inability to ensure prolonged attention from the audience. The efficacy of utilizing print headlines in making films decreased since one week’s controversy was quickly replaced by another in the coming week, which was not enough time to develop a long feature film. Moreover, the role of film as a catalyst for political reform was becoming overwhelming and rested uneasily in the mind of the newly formed censorship authority headed by Frederic Howe. Howe was worried that the motion picture industry was becoming a tool through which government agencies could be discredited and was becoming the press of social reformists and the propagation of radical ideologies. This lead to efforts by the film industry to improve the reputability of their films and broaden their audience by tackling the issues of more classes within the American society as compared to earlier times when the sole focus had been on Americans whose lives were directly affected by poverty and the cultural destabilization brought about by issues such as immigration. This contributed to the making of films that were more educational, uplifting and inspiring as opposed to being a jest on issues facing the society. This change laid a foundation for the development of cinema as a tool for impacting social change and middle-class reform through the provision of calm rational approaches to problem-solving. Not only did this change in approach diversify the audience of motion picture and broaden its appeal among members of the middle-class community, but it also solidified the role of the film making industry, as a cultural watchdog through which checks and balances could be initiated against the society and appeals for responsibility could be made. Filming could now begin tackling complex issues such as child labour, labour compensation and women suffrage as well as complex individual issues such as the conflict between desires for material wealth and a form of spiritual clarifications. The film industry had thus transformed from melodramatic and comedic depictions of the turmoil within the society in short reels to informative commentary on social problems in sophisticated films with long and complex scripts. Moreover, films had now started demanding for change on these problems and exposing the institutions that propagated unfair practices. Later 1915, film making had grown enough to integrate fantasy and realism in a way that manipulated the emotions of the audience by animating the stories told on print media. The idea of ‘happily ever after’ had been incorporated into filming in a way that allowed resolution of the social protest undertaken by films in this era in a manner that was devoid of massive disruption. Motion pictures had begun lifting the spirits of its audience, a trait that would ensure its success in the turbulent times that were on the horizon.
Before the New York stock market crash of 1929, the American economy had reached its peak, the capacity for prosperity seemed limitless, the prices of shares had skyrocketed to unbelievable amounts and many people had bought stocks at this seemingly lucrative time. However, the façade resulting from corporate irresponsibility was never as apparent as when tens of millions of shares were traded in 1929 and the stock market finally crashed. This formed the foundation for the massive economic turmoil that would form the paradigm under which many Americans would live for the next decade. The great depression was a period of intense economic and social depravity within American society and the filmmaking industry formed a pivotal system of support during these turbulent times. Americans would flock to the cinemas in their numbers just to escape problems such as unemployment, food shortage and overwhelming poverty. Many of these American turned to the comfort of light-hearted films such as screwball comedies and musicals to escape their difficulties. The film industry took this opportunity to recoup profits, if only for a while, by exploring serious issues of class in a light-hearted manner. In films such as Gold diggers of 1933 where class conflicts occurred, they were often resolved happily through the marriage of two innocents from different economic backgrounds such as that between Polly and Lawrence. These films often emphasized the American culture of individuality and classlessness by showing audiences that it was not the class that was of vital importance, but the people within that class. Films abandoned the idealism present in the 1920s but rather focused on lifting the spirits of the audience through ‘happily ever after paradigms’ and ‘Cinderella’ stories. Films such as Gold diggers of 1933 even attempted to sing the depression away through the elaborate musical numbers and lively casts who gave the audience aspirations and visions for their future that were centred on one theme, money. Many Americans were in despair, the ‘gold diggers’ are even seen to steal milk, live in an unglamorous house and suffer from the effects of unemployment. However, the film expresses particular optimism in the capacity of Theodore Roosevelt to transform the economic situation through the new deal which may have boosted the audience’s morale a lightened the burden of the depression. Films in this era also exemplified masculinity as someone that could economically for his family as seen in the film Gold diggers of 1933 where practically all the men are depicted as affluent and possessing the means to turn the life if the woman they marry around. This portrayal was particularly important in resolving class conflict, sexist battles that were often brought in to the forefront by the film and the providing optimism in anticipation of a period of economic and spiritual rebirth in America. Filming had now evolved into a medium that could boost the morale of its audience, lighten burdens and increase confidence in the government and its solutions to the problems that burden their lives. This would be a great tool in the years after the success of Theodore Roosevelt’s economic policies in bringing unemployment down to levels that were lower than those in the pre-depression era.
The end of the depression brought with it a new set of challenges for the American society and more opportunities for cinema to grow, inform and exercise cathartic action. Although the United States had maintained neutrality throughout the initial phases of the 2nd world war, an American role in the war was necessitated after the Nazi attack on Pearl Harbor. In the film Foreign correspondent, the film industry attempts to prepare the American people for an eventual role of the United States in the war. It exemplifies the role of America in the war through the character of Jones as a medium through which the jaded nature of the European community could be overcome and truth could be exposed. Patriotic speeches prevail throughout the movie and in its culmination when Jones makes an appeal to his audience to keep their lights burning. The plot of this film may have been inspired by the frustration that was experienced by Americans in their quest for information about the war. Members of the political class, economists and foreign correspondents would provide diplomatically evasive information that sought to hide the reasons that Europe was going into war and how the war was going to affect the ordinary American. The film also emphasizes the importance of individual sacrifice through the actions of Fisher who drowns in order to save his daughter and Jones from drowning themselves. These attributes may seem negligible but they would become the norm in film making in later in the entire duration of the war as confirmation to the government ‘censorship’ that had been employed on the film making industry. Fearing the implications of directly censoring the film industry, which had been very effective and would continue to be very effective in improving morale, the government established the Bureau of motion pictures in 1942 to supervise the activities of the film making industry and Bureau of censorship to oversee the export of films made in the United States. The Bureau of motion picture made filmmakers produce movies that would help the allies win the war, that would show the efficacy of individual sacrifice for a greater cause, instil a sense of personal responsibility within the American audience, and they assessed each film that was produced to ensure that it met these objectives. Moreover, the Bureau also removed restrictions on the amount of violence that could be displayed in a film so as to facilitate Hollywood’s efforts to provide a more realistic depiction of the bloodshed in the war. The films produced in this era, therefore, shaped the public’s opinion about the war and acted as agents of social control and change. Moreover, the films also made commentary on the bravery of the service men and the impact of the war on ordinary Americans like the mothers who had to stay home in hopeful wait for the return of their sons, husbands and daughters from the war. Reality permeated the film industry, the censorship that controlled the depiction of gritty acts of violence was removed and is absent to date. The films also positively justified the violence in the war, promoted it, inspired a sense of patriotism within the hearts of Americans, boosted overall morale and gave American the courage to endure through that difficult period.
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To conclude, the film making industry has undergone tremendous evolution and its role of addressing the social issues present within the society through changes within the industry itself, from the effects of government policies, the needs of its audience and the prevailing political and economic climate within the country. Today, Hollywood does not undertake partnerships with social movements, movies are more sophisticated and made on higher budgets than those seen in the depression era and during the 2nd world war. However, these earlier versions of the cinematic experience are in many ways pieces of history, which, upon examination, reveal a more personalized picture of American history.