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On the last day of my history camp, I used a projector to have the kids partake in one of the favorite past times of The Great Depression: Going to the movies.
One of my all-time favorite books is Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade because I love knowing the inside stories about movies. Several birthdays ago my husband bought me an enormous bag of truffles and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. It was a great present. I loved how the movie business was shaped; the image of Hollywood that still persists: glamour, drama, endless possibilities.
The 1930s are firmly in the Golden Age of Hollywood, though I would say it’s more the Setting of Cliches Age, from plotlines (invention of romantic comedies) to music (composition of Adagio For Strings). Or maybe it was called “golden” because movies were so much a part of American life. Comparing the 1930s to today, weekly American movie attendance has dropped from 77% of the population to 11%. I asked my campers why they thought this was so, and we started a good discussion about movies and entertainment in general. They could not imagine a world in which you had to leave your house and buy a ticket in order to get any visual news, sports, cartoons, or comedy shorts. That ticket may have only been twenty-five cents, but it was still a lot of money, especially during The Great Depression.
What I (and the student campers) were most surprised about learning, was censorship. Until the 30s, there wasn’t much; the movies reflected sex, violence, and language in everyday situations. Then came the Legion of Decency which threatened to boycott the movies if the production companies didn’t abide by their demands. A code was formed prohibiting many things including: nudity, profanity, white slavery (yeah…that’s interesting), and “excessive and lustful kissing.” Before the code, there were movies in which single women had sex and were not considered sluts! After the code, that was a no-no. So many people think that movies from long ago reflect what the actual people were like. But they were doctored up as much as “reality” TV is today.
I also had fun asking the kids to guess what the most popular movie of all time was. They kept naming recent films, but Gone With The Wind blows every movie out of the water.
We watched clips of films including The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Shirley Temple movies. They enjoyed the short cartoons much more than they thought they would. And I enjoyed showing them one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.
If you find American culture and arts just before World War Two as fascinating as I do, check out a General Cultural History or, with a focus on movies, The Golden Age of Hollywood. If you have a young one in the house, the American Girl Series has an excellent character set in the 1930s: Kit Kittredge.
One of the reasons I chose the 1930s as a subject for a children’s camp was because we are currently in a recession, and the kids around me are feeling it. By looking at a Depression, they can learn from the past, and understand that SERIOUSLY, it’s not that bad now! When we discussed why movies were so popular back then, I pointed out that one of the industries in the past few years that has actually gone up during our recession is the movie theater business. They realized that both during the Depression and our current recession, movies are an escape. TV and the internet have certainly cut into movie time, but theaters will never go away.
There is something about leaving the house, sitting in a dark theater with a large group of people, the big screen, sweeping music…we forget who we are for awhile. That experience will always be golden.