The Great Depression has rolled off many a pundit’s tongue of late as we strain to make sense of the current economic meltdown. This week marks the 80th anniversary of Black Tuesday, the day the bottom fell out of the stock market. Roll the usual mental images. Cue the breadlines and itinerant farmers.
And try to expand your view. That’s the goal of Morris Dickstein’s new book, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression.” An exhaustive and invigorating overview of the films, songs, books, plays, buildings and design that emerged from America’s darkest economic decade, “Dancing” reminds us that cultural production and consumption is complicated business. The dark brings its own elements of yearning and wonderment; the light comes with shades of gray. Melancholy mingles with hope. As the song that gives the book its title suggests, we dance in the dark to “brighten up the night.”
There’s a natural tendency to divide Depression culture into art that provided either penetrating insight (“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath”) or gleeful escape (the musicals of Busby Berkeley or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers). But as Dickstein points out, such divisions disregard the majority of works that fall somewhere in between.
“There’s a misconception that people who didn’t want to engage with what was going on turned to movies or radio shows to take their minds off their troubles,” Dickstein says in an interview. “People tend to think the culture of the period was fundamentally escapist or stupidly optimistic.
“That’s partly true, but it’s only a small part of the truth.”
A trip to Busby Berkeley land is instructive here. As fans of the movie musical know, Berkeley was famous for using showgirls as swirling pieces in intricate human geometry puzzles. On the surface his films, including “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade,” look like overindulgent baubles. And they did indeed serve as entertainment for the masses.
But Dickstein, a longtime cultural critic and English and theater professor at CUNY Graduate Center, sees greater meaning in both Berkeley’s ensemble choreography and the films’ show-must-go-on storylines. He likens Berkeley’s best work, in which the masses literally form one shape after another, to the early phase of the New Deal, with its devotion to planning and social consensus.
“Despite the individual success stories, Berkeley’s films, on the formal side, were hymns to collective planning and precision movement, not to individual initiative,” he writes.
In other words, we’re all in this together.
Escapism and enlightenment
The most haunting sequence in Berkeley’s body of work is the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number that concludes “Gold Diggers of 1933.” The song, by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, plays over a collage of breadlines and returning World War I veterans, a series of overlaid images possible only in cinema. The scene, Dickstein writes, is “the piercing lament of an abandoned woman twice deprived of her man — first when he was sent off to war, then at home when he was stripped of all his dignity.”
So much for pure escapism.
“When you look at the escapist art, it’s full of either direct or covert allusions to the Depression,” Dickstein says. “There are still ways you can think about it as escapist, but it’s certainly not escapist by not dealing with the Depression. On the other hand, if you look at some of the supposedly socially conscious works, like ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ it’s damn entertaining in all sorts of ways, especially the movie version.”
That may not be the way you’ve been taught to think about, say, the iconic photos of Dorothea Lange (the subject of a new biography by Linda Gordon), or John Steinbeck’s famous Dust Bowl novel. Those are good for you, but certainly not “entertaining.”
Dickstein’s question, in a nutshell, is: Why can’t they be both?
If we habitually put our escapism and our enlightenment in separate boxes, we do much the same thing with overlapping eras. We like to think of decades and eras as neatly segmented chunks. That’s helpful — until you peel back the edges and realize what we think of as the ’30s actually started in the ’20s and seeped into the ’40s, much as our conception of the tumultuous ’60s took root in the quiet rebellions of the ’50s and turned into the self-indulgence of the ’70s.
So Dickstein realizes that much of the art and entertainment created during the Depression speak directly to hard times and shattered dreams. But he’s also aware that a good deal of that same art and entertainment sprang from ideas, sensibilities and even economic conditions of the previous decade, when Champagne was flowing and flappers were still hitting the town.
The current crisis
Two lords of that realm were George and Ira Gershwin. As Dickstein writes, they “infused the 32-bar Tin Pan Alley love song with the syncopated rhythms of jazz and the delicious wit of fine light verse to create something fresh, youthful and contemporary.” The Gershwins were popular in the more carefree age of the ’20s. After that their work, like that of Cole Porter, became not just successful but socially vital.
“When you move into the ’30s, the high spirits of their work suddenly take on a darker meaning,” Dickstein says. “They became parallel to the New Deal as a kind of stimulus package in the Great Depression. That was not a function they had in the ’20s. In the ’20s they were part of a devil-may-care culture in which 300 musicals could open on Broadway in one season.
“But by the time they got to the ’30s, Cole Porter and the Gershwins were working with slightly more serious material. The wit and brio of their work took on new dimensions against the backdrop of economic misery.”
These lessons are helpful as we try to forecast the cultural fruit of the current economic crisis. As we’ve seen, it can take awhile for the gears of culture to click into place. TV moves pretty quickly; HBO, for instance, was at the ready with the new series “Hung,” about a generously endowed washout who decides to make some extra cash as a gigolo. A documentary filmmaker like Michael Moore can rip the bank bailout from the headlines and use it as the basis for “Capitalism: A Love Story.”
But today’s culture machine has a way of consuming good times and bad and depositing them into the rest of the entertainment flotsam and jetsam. It’s diffuse, but it’s also all-encompassing. “Economic crisis becomes the background noise of culture today,” Dickstein says.
Just as important, that background noise takes time to travel. Instead of stating what today’s movies say about today, perhaps we should be asking what they say about 2003, 2005, or whenever they went into development. That would help make sense of movies like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which speak more directly to the days of “Mission: Accomplished” than to the here and now.
“I think we’ll have to wait about five years until we see what kind of works get produced from this crisis,” Dickstein says.
And by then, with any luck, we’ll have completely different problems to worry about.