These may be bleak times, economically speaking, but as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining — and it turns out that Morris Dickstein’s new book “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” hit the stores at a very opportune time — in fact, it’s a lot like pennies from heaven.
The book is about the 1930s and America’s response to the Great Depression as seen through the popular culture of the era — movies, literature and music.
“In the book, I look at the time in relation to culture and society,” explains Dickstein. “I went to college in the late ‘50s, and felt it was a rather dull period politically and socially. We look back to the ‘30s as a time when people were engaged and concerned about the welfare of society.”
Though it appears to be a stroke of genius, the timing of the book’s release was sheer coincidence. Dickstein, who teaches film at the college level, admits he had been compiling information for it since the 1980s — in the midst of earlier economic downturns.
“I’ve gotten dozens of reviews, many of which I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, including one in Financial Times,” notes Dickstein, who has a home in Sag Harbor. “My editor said, ‘I would’ve bought this book even if we didn’t have the meltdown.’ Whatever its other virtues, it could get an award based on timeliness alone.”
Though he came of age in the 1950s and wrote a book about the 1960s, Dickstein has always loved ‘30s films.
“I come to it, not as a historian, but a critic,” he says. “Responding to cultural works is what I do. Initially I thought I’d do what I did in the ‘60s book — use the arts to interpret the larger society. But in the 1930s, it turned around and I used the larger society to interpret the arts.”
“I didn’t understand at the time, but that’s when movies got their act together,” he says.
By getting their act together, Dickstein means the establishment of the studio system with its genres, assembly line film production and stars under contract. And though we consider many of the movies from the ‘30s like Busby Berkeley musicals escapist offerings, they were, notes Dickstein, chock full of references to hard times. They also provided an antidote to the misery.
The antidote was optimism and, as corny as it seems today, it carried those people through job losses, bread lines and the dustbowl. Without ‘30s optimism carrying over to the ‘40s, World War II might have been a much different experience for this country.
“People think of those show biz musicals as escapist, but in every scene, people are out of work and working together,” says Dickstein. “They had the optimistic element because they start pessimistically.”
For Dickstein, one of the best films that illustrates the notion is “Gold Diggers of 1933.”
“It start’s with a number ‘We’re in the Money,’ but the sheriff closes the show before it even opens,” says Dickstein. “There’s an intimate link between the idea of how we all have to pull together in the 1930s — then during the war they needed the optimism.”
Dickstein notes that the shift toward optimism began as soon as FDR became president and replaced Herbert Hoover.
“You see the shift in 1933 when Roosevelt took over. In 1932, you had the film ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,’ which had a dark side, probably the darkest ending of any Hollywood ever made,” says Dickstein. “But by ‘33 things were looking better. Roosevelt understood the Depression and depression in individuals. He had to rev up the sense of crisis, and also get going with his programs.”
And though not every studio head supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, the films of the time represent the mood of a nation swept up in Roosevelt’s enthusiasm and confidence in the future.
There was also a convergence of technologies that helped define the 1930s and the cohesive message of optimism. Not only in cinema, but the coming of age of radio as well — the impact of which cannot be underestimated.
“In the ‘30s we had the first really national culture, where we were seeing the same movie and listening to same radio program,” says Dickstein. “That made it a great medium for FDR, unfortunately the same was true for Hitler.”
“The technological leap was important,” he adds. “It seems minor, but rural electrification was one of the most important things that happened. In the early ‘30s, 10 percent of farm communities had electricity. By the ‘40s, that number was 90 percent.”
Of course, no book on 1930s culture would be complete without a discussion on John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” the novel that defined the Depression era.
“There were few proletarian writers who sold,” says Dickstein. “Steinbeck was the exception. In ‘Grapes of Wrath’ instead of a lone drifter, he dealt with the displaced family and holding the family together under these social pressures. It gave it an enduring quality.”
But what else has endured from the 1930s? As we sit shaking and nervous at the precipice of our own financial meltdown, what have we learned?
“We’ve learned that the good times can easily be followed by hard times,” says Dickstein. “We’ve learned that the government is potentially an important part of our lives and we need a safety net. The deregulations of the ‘80s and ‘90s went too far.”
“And everyone says we need to save more. That’s so elementary — saving for a rainy day.”
Sounds like a good time to put on an old movie.
On Thursday, December 10, Morris Dickstein talks about “The Great Depression and the Arts” as part of Thursday Night Writes at John Jermain Library, 201 Main Street, Sag Harbor at 6:30 p.m. Call 725-0049 for details.
Top: Busby Berkley’s “Gold Diggers of 1933” represents the epitiome of 1930s bust to boom.