Tag Archives: Great Depression

Films of and about the Great Depression

A mix of contemporary and contemporaneous films from and about the Great Depression, in no particular order:

Of Mice and Men (Malkovitch and Sinise as Lenny and George)

Cradle Will Rock (A love letter to the Federal Theater Project, starring Bill Murray, John Turturro, et al)

Our Daily Bread and Other Films of the Great Depression (The title film was produced in 1934, and additional material includes a set of documentaries: California Election News Nos. 1 &2, which were produced by MGM to undermine Upton Sinclair’s bid for governor. Also, The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River, Power and the Land, and The New Frontier.)

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (from the novel by Horace McCoy, starring Jane Fonda)

Pennies From Heaven (Steve Martin tap dances and obsesses over lipstick)

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Duvall plays Boo Radley. Greg Peck as Atticus Finch.)

The Grapes of Wrath (The classic film. Released in 1940.)

The Education of Little Tree


Thomas Hart Benton (K. Burns doc.)

Bonnie and Clyde (interesting how many Hollywood films of the 60s focused on the 30s)

Mudhoney (Russ Meyer’s version of the 30s and the film that named the band)

The Land (a US Agriculture Dept. doc. of the Depression circa ’41)

PBS’ series The Great Depression

Goldiggers of 1933 (the Buzby Berkeley extravaganza!)

Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson as Rico, a thug on the rise to power)

Duck Soup (crucial viewing  if only b/c it suggests the revolutionary conditions of the US. “All Hail Freedonia”! offers a window into Jewish theatrical traditions, older 19th century forms and newer (musical in particular) ones. Harpo’s incipient insanity is a nice contrast to the brooding tone of most Depression texts. Chico, et al provide insight into the construction of ethnic ‘types’ and Groucho’s non sequiturs can be seen as a kind of vaudevillean Dada. A lot of insurgent content gets through because of the musical-comedy form.)

The Public Enemy

Dead End (Lillian Hellmann’s screenplay. Joseph Cotton as the proletarian hero. Bogie almost looks younger than 40 here. Other young-Bogie flicks: Petrified Forest and High Sierra.)

Scarface (there’s no chainsaw in the shower sequence, but this is essentially the same story as the Al Pacino version which was transposed to Miami and generally enraged most Cuban Americans)

King Kong (cutting edge fx and fear of the black masculine primitive)

Freaks (do not see sober)

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (based on actual events and the cause of some reform in prison conditions [though notably chaingangs are a staple again in the South])

Smart Money

Ironweed (based on a William Kennedy novel. stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Life on the downslope.)

Road to Perdition. (Jude Law uglies up for dramatic effect in this adaptation of Max Collins’ graphic novel.)

O Brother Where Art Thou? (The Cohen bros. comedy based in part on Homer’s Odyssey)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen’s homage to 30s cinema-going).

Dogville (Lars Von Trier, one of the most interesting working directors in the world, directed this harsh story of small town life in the Great Depression)

Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (fantastic doc. from the 1970s which uses newsreel and film footage to describe the Great Depression)

Dinner at Eight (an ensemble comedy of manners. Jean Harlow and the Barrymores)

She Done Him Wrong (one of Mae West’s best films, though when I watched it recently I had a much greater sense of her place w/in fin-de-siecle cultural production– not just that the setting’s 1890s but her act is mainly v-ville.)

It Happened One Night (Clark Gable shirtless! Claudette Colbert’s fabulous gams!)

Ruggles of Red Gap (hilarious)

My Man Godfrey (Wm. Powell is one of my favorite dead actors)

The Awful Truth (Cary Grant, Irene Dunne)

His Girl Friday (ahh, the diction of patriarchy)

Red Dust (Hard lovin, boozin and fightin with Harlowe and Gable on a rubber plantation in Indochina. Gable, just before he gets shot: “sure I’m drunk. That’s why I’m telling you the truth.”)

Fury (Fritz Lang, dir. Spencer Tracy stars in this tale of mob violence and rough justice)

Lost Horizon (Frank Capra’s orientalist dream of utopia)

Satan Met A Lady (the first film version of The Maltese Falcon, played as a comedy, with Bette Davis as the Brigid O’Shaughnessy character, an improvement over Mary Astor in the 1941 Bogie film though still not as I envision her from Hammett’s novel.)

Of Human Bondage (no, not that kind of bondage. Based on the book by Somerset Maugham. Bette Davis does an outstanding performance as a slatternly tea-room attendant to Leslie Howard’s glum Philip Carey)

Bureau of Missing Persons (another Davis vehicle, this is a kind of police procedural [stories from the files of the BMP] with a narrative of Davis as the fatal woman.)

Libeled Lady (totally screwball: Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Wm. Powell, and Jean Harlow [who is fantastic]. Tangled affections and romantic twists among the wealthy.)

Boystown (features an irritatingly irrepressible Mickey Rooney and a beatific Spencer Tracy. One of the most interesting things about it is Rooney’s blackface turn, but that’s just a momentary tangent to the primary story of Father Flanagan’s unflagging belief that “there are no bad boys”.)

Strange Cargo (a penal colony flick. Clark Gable and Joan Crawford brave the jungles and high seas to escape to Cuba.)

Blood & Sand (Tyrone Power performs the rise and fall of an illiterate Spanish bullfighter.)

The Great Zeigfield (a 3 hour musical extravaganza with massive sets and women dressed like hood ornaments, even a minstrel performance by Eddie Cantor which is simultaneously appalling and compelling.)

New Deal (calicult)

Anissa sent this information:
75th Anniversary of the New Deal – 
A Three-Floor Exhibition 

Exhibit 1: A New Deal for San Francisco-Thanks to WPA!
– Civic improvements to parks, streets & public buildings; arts & theater programs; controversies & labor unrest
Main Library, Sixth Floor, 
Cases Outside the San Francisco History Center, 
March 22-August 9, 2008,

Exhibit 2: Government at Work: A Chronology of Federal Agencies from the New Deal – Domestic agencies that started with the Roosevelt Administration and still exist today are featured. 
Main Library, Fifth Floor, 
Wall Display near the Government Information Center, 
March 22-May 31, 2008,

Exhibit 3 (two locations): WPA Years A New Deal Explosion of Art, Public Works and Labor – A rich collection of documents, illustrations & photographs from projects that returned the unemployed to the workplace and strengthened workers rights; also featuring federal art and theater programs that enriched the cultural life of our city and country. 
Main Library, Fourth Floor, 
Art, Music and Recreation Center; and Business, Science and Technology Center, 
March 22-May 31, 2008,

“Talk don’t turn no wheel.” (calicult)

Some facts about the Great Depression in California

300,000 agricultural workers migrated to California during the Great Depression.

By 1934 there were 142 agricultural workers for every 100 jobs.

In 1928 Mexican-American workers earned 75 cents an hour for picking cantaloupes. By 1933 wages had dropped to 15 cents an hour.

Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) led many strikes in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere. Membership included Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Slav and Sikh workers.

The Cotton Strike of 1933 brought out 10,000 strikers across 500 miles of farmland. 

Over the course of the decade the paranoid style of American politics asserted itself, leading to the use of Red Scare tactics by local authorities, the prosecution of activists under the Criminal Syndicalism Act of California, the deputization of landowners (a clear conflict of interest) and the rise of violent vigilanteism on the part of groups such as the American Legion.

California Criminal Syndicalism Act


An act defining criminal syndicalism and sabotage, proscribing certain acts and methods in connection therewith and in pursuance thereof and providing penalties and punishments therefor.

[Approved, April 30, I9l9.]

The people of the State of California do enact as follows:

SECTION 1. The term “criminal syndicalism” as used in this act is hereby defined as any doctrine or precept advocating, teaching or aiding and abetting the commission of crime, sabotage (which word is hereby defined as meaning willful and malicious physical damage or injury to physical property), or unlawful acts of force and violence or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change.

SECTION 2. Any person who:

1. By spoken or written words or personal conduct advocates, teaches or aids and abets criminal syndicalism or the duty, necessity or propriety of committing crime, sabotage, … violence or any unlawful method of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change; or

2. Willfully and deliberately by spoken or written words justifies or attempts to justify criminal syndicalism or the commission or attempt to commit crime, sabotage, violence or unlawful methods of terrorism with intent to approve, advocate or further the doctrine of criminal syndicalism; or

3. Prints, publishes, edits, issues or circulates or publicly displays any book, paper, pamphlet, document, poster or written or printed matter in any other form, containing or carrying written or printed advocacy, teaching, or aid and abetment of, or advising, criminal syndicalism; or

4. Organizes or assists in organizing, or is or knowingly becomes a member of, any organization, society, group or assemblage of persons organized or assembled to advocate, teach or aid and abet criminal syndicalism; or

5. Willfully by personal act or conduct, practices or commits any act advised, advocated, taught or aided and abetted by the doctrine or precept of criminal syndicalism, with intent to accomplish a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change; is guilty of a felony and punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not less than one nor more than fourteen years…

In Dubious Battle (calicult)


Notes on Realism

As we discuss In Dubious Battle we’ll necessarily come up against the notion (the aesthetic ideology) of Realism. The diegesis of Steinbeck’s novel is one that we can immediately recognize as ‘real’ in terms of its characters and locales. IDB represents the world in a way that seems to be transparent and intelligible, an “obvious” “reflection” of reality as we know it. This response on our part, of course, is the product of lifelong conditioning which encourages us to confuse causes and their effects. What do these markings on paper have to do with the world we think we know? To what extent is our sense of the novel’s “truth”, its veracity, a product of prior knowledge of the Great Depression? 

Those are deeper questions that bear some scrutiny and we will have to confront them in some form as we attempt to master the novel’s content. In other words, our conversations about this work will address both the “what-said” and the “how-said”– those two dimensions of signification that are impossible to separate. 

Realism presents itself as an uncomplicated and straightforward method of description, a series of pictures of a familiar world– not unlike photographs. As such it effaces its own textuality, the linguistic materials that go into Steinbeck’s production of an orchard workers’ strike in California. Perhaps it’s easiest to grasp this double gesture of revelation and concealment if we think about documentary film as a model. The documentary film seems to show us the world without mediation, as directly accessible to our experience. Yet the apparatus of film-making, in terms of both physical tools and discursive methods, intercedes between the text and the audience. The camera, sound equipment, editing, framing, etc.– all of the artistry and artifice of making a movie go into the representation of a subject that to the unsophisticated viewer seems merely, naturally given.

Realism of the sort practiced by Steinbeck in In Dubious Battle might also go by the name of Naturalism. The difference between these two genres is somewhat narrow: Naturalism tends to treat life in its grittier aspects; its characters are generally working class or underclass; human existence is often portrayed as overdetermined by social and natural forces which are ultimately beyond any control. So, for instance, another great novel of California, McTeague, written by Frank Norris at the turn into the 20th century, takes as its subject the bestial Mac, an uncredentialed, sadistic dentist whose inner tendencies toward cruelty and brutishness are inexorably fulfilled. Norris’s novel suggests the fundamental inalterabilty of human nature, a situation in which destiny is enmeshed in biology, one where the social environment degrades those consigned to it and every existential trajectory is charted in advance. 

Not so in In Dubious Battle. Though the novel displays some traits of Naturalism its title connotes the possibility at least of struggle against fate. By now, of course, we all know where that title comes from: Milton’s Paradise Lost, the story of how the Devil rebelled against God and was 

Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire

Satan, as a literary character, has long been portrayed as a symbol of insurgency, and Paradise Lost was in a sense as much about the right of English subjects to depose the King during the Revolution of 1644 as it was an effort to write a Christian myth in the Greek epic manner. Here, then, is a contradiction: the revolt against the master is viewed with sympathy, but the facts of that uprising– its execution, its inversion of a divine order– risked terrifying consequences.

Here is Satan’s first soliliquy in Paradise Lost, from which the title of Steinbeck’s book is taken:

“If thou beest he—but Oh how fallen! how changed

From him!—who, in the happy realms of light,

Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine

Myriads, though bright—if he whom mutual league,

United thoughts and counsels, equal hope

And hazard in the glorious enterprise,

Joined with me once, now misery hath joined

In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest

From what highth fallen: so much the stronger proved

He with his thunder: and till then who knew

The force of those dire arms? Yet not for those,

Nor what the potent Victor in his rage

Can else inflict, do I repent, or change,

Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind,

And high disdain from sense of injured merit,

That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,

And to the fierce contention brought along

Innumerable force of Spirits armed,

That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,

His utmost power with adverse power opposed

In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven,

And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?

All is not lost—the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome.

That glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power

Who, from the terror of this arm, so late

Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;

That were an ignominy and shame beneath

This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,

And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;

Since, through experience of this great event,

In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,

We may with more successful hope resolve

To wage by force or guile eternal war,

Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,

Who now triumphs’, and in the excess of joy

Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.”

Depression (calicult)


I read an essay once that called Steinbeck an ‘apple pie radical’. Cute. But maybe he seems insuficiently proletarian because John’s working a populist-agrarian trope: dispossession from the land resonates at a heavy symbolic level– the first humans cast out, the Hebrew tribes in exodus from pharaoh, etc.


It also occurs to me that maybe we could use a working list of names to describe the period in which In Dubious Battle transpires:

the Great Depression [like the Great War? What does it mean to call a historical conjucture Great?]

the “age of the CIO” [from Michael Denning’s Cultural Front, foregrounding the lived experiences and relationships of workers, their alliances and allegiances]


“Fordist modernism” [another Denning-ism. as a heuristic, as a problematic, as a way of thinking about history and culture, it encourages us to link cultural production and consumption and the meanings that erupt from the practices these terms imply. The dialectic this linkage produces allows us to consider the signifying practices of everyday life together with what is more obviously ‘cultural’: literature, music, film, etc. ]


the interwar period [periodizing by wars reproduces the logic of mainstream historiography?]

hard times [which is appealingly colloquial, gritty and direct, yet carries with it the risks of romanticism]

the Jazz Age [do we automatically associate this term with F. Scott Fitzgerald, bootleg hootch, and The Cotton Club? What are the benefits/limits of emphasizing a leading form of a period’s cultural production? For me, this term resonates with a kind of midcentury urban negritude, the adaptation of largely rural “Negro” folkways to a highly stratified urban environment. Richard Wright is an obvious candidate here, but also, essentially, Claude McKay, whose West Indian origins, communist fellow-travelling and Harlem Renaissance ties make him a seminal figure of 20th century US fiction (see Home to Harlem, Banjo, Banana Bottom). We could mention Zora Neale Hurston too, especially her ethnographies of the South, Haiti, and Jamaica and the links they reveal between modernism/primitivism. Or Bessie Smith, Aime Cesaire, Oscar Micheaux, Prez, et al.]


Finally, here are some notes for a lecture on the Depression I once gave at Scotts Valley High. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it might be helpful in locating IDB in its cultural/historical context.


The American Dream and the Great Depression

Seeds of the Dream

The American Dream is as old as America, which is to say the United States, which, in the scheme of things, hasn’t been around that long. We might push back in time to the period prior to the United States when North America was a system of colonies under the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish to find the seed of this dream, its undeveloped beginnings. Going back to the opening of the western hemisphere to European colonialism means the 15th century– still not very long ago in terms of the span of human culture (which, some say, is about 100,000 years old). This period– the late 15th and early 16th centuries– is potentially important for our purposes because it witnessed two crucial events: the birth of a new economic system– capitalism— and, with it, the beginnings of modernity. That’s too big a task for today. Nor is there time to discuss a significant change within capitalism that is connected to the American Dream that occured roughly 200 years after the western hemisphere was colonized and has been called “the rise of the bourgeoisie.” We must set aside those questions for now, because our focus is fairly specific: the American Dream and its relationship to the Great Depression.

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