What impact will the recession have on our cultural preferences? Social psychologist Terry Pettijohn, who has done a great deal of research into the subject, offers “the environmental security hypothesis”:
Our perceptions of environmental security influence our social preferences and what we find most desirable during different social and economic conditions. Uncertain and threatening times cause people to consider their safety and security, leading them to adjust their preferences and make decisions that are more adaptive. More meaningful, mature themes and items should be preferred during these difficult situations to help mitigate the threat and uncertainty. When times are more certain and less threatening, themes and items related to meaning and maturity should be less necessary; therefore themes and items related to fun, celebration and expression of carefree attitudes should be preferred. This general pattern of preferences may help explain the popularity of music and artists across changing social and economic conditions.
Seems plausible enough. But I am having a hard time assimilating that finding to my own tentative exploration of Depression culture, which consisted of watching Gold Diggers of 1933, easily one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen and not merely because of the extravagantly surreal Busby Berkeley production numbers. One movie is hardly a representative sample, I know, but when thinking of this film, “maturity” is not the word that comes to my mind. The film tracks how out-of-work showgirls manage to get back to Broadway and land wealthy husbands, and certainly it seems to shoot for “fun, celebration and expression of carefree attitudes.” All the characters are virtually one-dimensional typecasts (“the ingenue,” “the flapper,” etc.) There’s barely any conflict to speak of, and the problems the women face tend to solve themselves almost immediately upon being recognized. They are out of work for all of five minutes after the opening showstopper—Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money,” including one verse in Pig Latin (this is highly upsetting in a way that’s hard to describe; as it transpires, it feels like you’re going aphasic)—and that problem is resolved in one scene by what’s basically a deus ex machina. There is some mention of hard times, but the plight of the “forgotten man,” struck by the Depression and struggling without a social safety net, is represented in the film almost as an afterthought in a somber dance number sung by Joan Blondell. Instead, the bulk of the film is taken up with the free-spending courtships conducted by the rich suitors who buy $75 hats and such, and nights out on the town at Stork Club-like speakeasies. And then there’s “Pettin’ in the Park,” a number featuring midget actor Billy Barty in a diaper, cracking open a showgirl’s tin bustier with a giant can opener.
In other words, the movie is pure escapist fantasia rather than an effort to signal that mature leaders are in charge to guide the country through troubled times. (I can’t even begin to imagine a country run on the same logic as this film.) The meaning of the movie, if there was one for Depression-era moviegoers, must have been a kind of reassurance that at least one industry still existed that would spare no expense and would not stop short even of nonsensical excess in its efforts to blow its audiences away. For the duration of the film, viewers could forget about restraint of any kind, before returning to deal with the inescapable economic constraints that afflicted most of them.
But Gold Diggers of 1933 now seems determined most not by its socioeconomic context but by its being made in the medium’s infancy. It seems like a filmed variety show, more like Donnie and Marie than a movie proper, and the shows within the show only multiply that effect. The indifferent pacing seems completely arbitrary, and the idea that a plot needs a conflict is foreign to its dramaturgical approach. It’s all about immediate gratification; rather than delaying the pleasure to enhance it, the film just keeps trying to out do itself with elaborate stage numbers. It was probably much easier to go over the top when their wasn’t much history behind that kind of spectacle, and the “top” wasn’t that far to go.