From my research for the Looking Back feature of this web site, I’ve found that the movies of 1931 were affected by many trends and social forces. Sound was still a novelty, with the word “Talkie” often used to advertise films. New stars like Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck crowded out old silent movie favorites like Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, and John Gilbert.
Debates raged about film content, in a year that included many films that are now examples of the permissiveness of movies before the revised Production Code of 1934. And the second full year of the Great Depression was keeping a tight grip on both the movie industry and the filmgoing public.
“Sound certainly helped save Hollywood from the worst or at least the immediate effects of the economic catastrophe that crippled other industries,” wrote Alexander Walker in his 1978 book, The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay. “It was not till 1932 that cinema box-offices were adversely affected, necessitating fresh economies and rationalisation.”
Gangster Cycle Declines
The newspapers of early 1932 looked back at the previous year. Trends were analyzed, and favorite stars and movies were listed. Many observers noted the decline in popularity of gangster films, but they differed on what replaced these movies, which included Little Caesar and Public Enemy.
“With the same meteoric velocity that characterized the fade-out of the gangster type picture, thoroughbred ladies of somewhat easy and not unattractive virtue flashed into marquise electrics during 1931 and wrote the story of their success in smart figures on the right side of the box office ledger,” wrote Allison Ind of The Ann Arbor Daily News on January 1, 1932.
“(Gangster films) made a clean sweep at the box office,” read a January 1, 1932 article in The Detroit News. “But censorial disapproval, the widespread fear that such pictures were corrupting youthful ideas and morals, spelled their doom—at a time, conveniently when the gang theme had been virtually exhausted by the movies anyway.
“Then came the lamb to the screen, which now swung to the other extreme,” continued the Detroit News article. “Cinderella as exemplified by Janet Gaynor, with sentiment and romance, regained glory.”
Cimarron, which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1930/31, topped a poll by The Film Daily of the 10 best movies of 1931 (The Detroit News, January 18, 1932). Cimarron was followed by Street Scene, Skippy, Bad Girl, Min and Bill, The Front Page, Five Star Final, City Lights, A Free Soul, and The Sin of Madelon Claudet.
“It is interesting and perhaps quite significant that practically all of these ‘ten best’ pictures have a strong vein of human interest—heart appeal,” read the Detroit News article. “This undoubtedly aided them in winning votes above other productions of higher artistic or technical merit but less emotional value.”
Stars Rise and Fall
The appeal of movie stars was also analyzed. In the January 2, 1932 Detroit News, Mollie Merrick picked her male and female favorites in different categories, including:
- Find of the year (Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck)
- Consistently best performances (Mary Astor, Leslie Howard)
- The envy of all studios (Gable, “still Greta Garbo”)
- Steals most pictures (Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton)
- Most continuous popularity without effort (Clive Brook, Ruth Chatterton)
The decline of other stars was noted in the January 1 Ann Arbor Daily News article by Allison Ind:
“Even the great John Barrymore took a left-hand jab to the money plexus in his last contract to make one a year each for Metro and Radio. John Gilbert failed to get into high (gear) in either of his two talkie efforts…Clara Bow went out in a blaze of the kind of publicity she long had coming. Mary Pickford is tottering dizzily on the throne while Doug (Fairbanks) skidded down so fast that his trousers are still warm.”
For many Great Depression-weary moviegoers, English novelist H. G. Wells might have had the best suggestion. In the January 2, 1932 Detroit News, Wells wished for more movies from Charlie Chaplin (three films since 1925) and Harold Lloyd (no films in 1931).
“I wish that Chaplin and Harold Lloyd would make a great many more and less perfect and imposing pictures—do the lightly done spontaneous laughable things that we used to enjoy so week after week.”
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.