- This Side of Despair: How the Movies and American Life Intersected during the Great Depression
American film of the 1930s is so dynamic, and so different from the films of the decades that preceded and followed it, that film scholars perennially seek to explain its particular flavor. Major technological changes, such as the coming of sound in 1927, and significant institutional changes, such as the advent and strengthening of the Production Code between 1930 and 1934, lie ready to hand as possible sources of singularity. Above all, it would seem, is the Sturm und Drang of the decade itself. The Great Depression; the gathering of the forces of fascism; the Popular Front; the larger than life characters of, say, Huey Long and Al Capone, whose stand-ins populate films of the decade, often cracking wise in a vernacular more lively than any found in American popular culture before or since—all clearly help to explain why films of the 1930s seem so important and so entertaining even now.
Yet, as Philip Hanson’s This Side of Despair suggests, it is very hard to account for the forest rather than the trees when writing about the cinematic production of this decade. There is almost always too much, too many films to account for, too much political detail, too much already remarkably sage analysis of popular culture produced in the decade under study. Commanding all of this detail and producing an argument that shapes the moment into something coherent is a great deal to ask, and, alas, the unquestionably erudite author of This Side of Despair doesn’t supply the book that would integrate the cases with a thesis. While the book is appealingly written, the argument never rises above a kind of thick description that leaves the reader with a series of commonplaces, such as that 1930s films were preoccupied with the theme of turning people into money, or that film noir of the 1940s cast its shadow before it in the final half of the 1930s. This failure to produce an argument is a pity inasmuch as the author controls a great deal of information that is frequently excluded from books and articles on the films of this decade. The book is much better informed on the political landscape than many produced by film scholars, for example, and films that almost never attract scholarly attention, such as Three-Cornered Moon and Back in Circulation, are part of useful discussions here. Yet for all the potentially new context the book offers, it does not mobilize these resources to produce new conclusions or shift the emphases in productive ways. Indeed, one of the more disappointing features of the book is its tendency to gesture at big ideas (people into money, for example) without grappling with the most relevant literature on the films at stake. It is hard to discuss the fallen woman film without acknowledging Richard Maltby’s work on Baby Face and the Production Code generally, and Lauren Berlant and others have produced work on Imitation of Life that needs to be deployed and examined here.
The book contains eight chapters that are more or less focused on the dominant genres of the decade (the fallen woman film, the war film, the screwball comedy or the romantic comedy more generally, the city film or the proto-film [End Page 225] noir, and the newspaper film, among others) along with discussions of films harder to characterize generically, such as those dealing with race in some way either at home or abroad. While the chapter titles don’t indicate the genres to be discussed, and genre is by itself not a stated preoccupation, it forms the essential matrix of the analyses of films. The decision to use genre as a means of organization without considering more overtly the consequences of that choice has three unfortunate results: there is a recursive quality to the book, in which films examined in one context reappear in another with no acknowledgment of the...