Two American Decades on Film: The Thirties and the Sixties

Dr. David Corey
3114 Boylan Hall


A comparison of the ways that fiction films reflect American values.  A look at the "genre" film as it adapts to the prevailing Zeitgeist.

This course relates to the component on Film in Core Seminar I.  In conformity with the general concept of the Core Seminar, it relates the aesthetic and thematic concerns of films from two decades to the value systems current during those periods. 


In the early thirties the Depression is alluded to through metaphor and genre; monsters, who usually appear in a nation's films just after the onset of economic crisis, give form to unarticulated anxieties; the gangster films suggest inverted ways of realizing the American dream; and the musicals provide an escape into either upper-class settings in mythical European lands or the theater.  Films made later in the decade espouse middle-class and small-town values, as sexless, home-spun actors like James Stewart and Judy Garland replace the earlier exotic and urbane likes of Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich.

In the sixties there is a somewhat sanctimonious attempt to rebel against old racial stereotypes, and the ultimate sins are sexual repression and establishment values.  Marriage is seen as a problem rather than a solution, and insane people are often wiser than the allegedly normal.  The sixties revolution is expressed stylistically; whereas in the thirties films are conventionally edited so as not to jar the viewer's sensibilities, in the sixties the entire "grammar" of film is shaken up so that the very style of the film undermines old values.  The raw, disjunctive editing and elimination of continuity (matches of action, eye-line, angles) make the viewer share the disorientation of the alienated and dislocated anti-hero of the sixties.


I.  The Musical

    1.  The Merry Widow (1934)

         The upper-class continental escape fantasy

    2.  West Side Story (1960)

         The lower-class urban musical

II.  The Horror Film

    1.  Dracula (1931)

         The monster as metaphor for unarticulated anxieties about the Depression.

    2.  Marnie (1964) or The Birds (1963) or Psycho (1960)

         Repression as the ultimate sin

III.  The Gangster Film

    1.  Scarface (1932)

         The gangster as Horatio Alger figure.

    2.  Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

         Nostalgia for the Depression.  Gangster as anti-establishment fighter

IV.  The Little-Man Comedy

    1.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

         The triumph of populism; the apotheosis of small-town values.

    2.  The Apartment (1960)

         White-collar everyman

V.  The Road Film

    1.  It Happened One Night (1934)

         Bus trip screwball comedy; reconciliation of the classes

    2.  Easy Rider (1969)

         The motorcycle search for values.  The trip.  The reverse western.

VI.  Explicit Rebellion

    1.  Modern Times (1936)

         Chaplin's protest against regimentation

    2.  The Graduate (1967)

         Rebellion against the values of the older generation

VII.  Adaptations from novels:

    1.  The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

         Social criticism made acceptable by its introduction as a novel

    2.  Dr. Strangelove (1963)

         Apocalypse now as the result of middle-age male frustration


In addition to attendance at screenings and lectures, and participation in discussion, two papers, a midterm and a final exam.


Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America

Michael Wood, America in the Movies

John Baxter, Hollywood in the Thirties

Andrew Bergman, We're in the Money