A Sense of History: the thirties


 When I look at the romantic comedies of the 30s,  it strikes me how many of the American-made films are set and a kind of fantasy Europe. I don’t know if this is because so many of the creative minds in film, particularly in the 20s and 30s, were first and second generation Europeans, harking back to what they remembered of European society. Some of the most brilliant of those filmmakers imbued their films with a kind of continental sophistication that ran orthogonal to strata in American culture.

The picture up top is from Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful Trouble in Paradise, in which we not only have an impossible perfume factory in Paris, but the film opens in a Hollywood take on Venice that is as peculiarly history-less as the ‘Venice’ in the Astaire and Rogers Top Hat.

Of course most of these films were made for escapism, for reality in the USA was Depression and the Dust Bowl. But not a lot of that is visible to today’s reader/viewer of period stuff.

Someone now who only watched American films of the thirties that were set in Europe could come away with this sense that it was a sunshiny period filled with rich people having fun. That Europe was a gigantic Disneyland, only with glamorous theaters, restaurants, and houses as settings for fabulous parties instead of rides.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t all that stuff going on, while storm clouds brewed. I’ve even heard it said that the thirties were the last of Europe’s glamour period, that once the war ended, glamour was gone forever, except in dress-up parties that hearkened to the past.

If you read (or watch) a lot of history, what’s your take on the thirties in the West?








A Sense of History: the thirties — 7 Comments

  1. I don’t have that much to say about Europe in the ’30s–a grim time indeed–but I thought I’d add that media still serves up plenty of fantasy. How many Americans think Britain is all Downton Abbey?

    • One of the main reasons I find the whole costume drama trend initiated by Downton Abbey so irritating is that the Britain portrayed in those films and TV shows bears zero relation to the real Britain I have experienced. Of course, the Britain portrayed in fare like Midsomer Murders or Lewis doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the real Britain as well, but there is still some kind of connection, however tenuous, to the real world. But Downton Abbey and its ilk might just as well be set in a parallel universe. And the historical fantasy Britain peddled by those shows is not a place that interests me at all.

      It’s quite frustrating because in the past five or six years I have largely relied on British TV dramas for entertainment and now all the shows I used to like have either finished or turned unwatchable and the replacements are all of the historical costume drama variety.

  2. Oddly enough, I don’t think I ever realized that many of Hollywood films of the 1930s, apart from the really obvious examples like The Merry Widow or all of those historical adventure films, were supposed to be set in Europe. Because I know what Europe looked like in the 1930s and 1940s from family photographs and umpteen newsreel compilations (vintage newsreels with commentary were a very popular form of programming when I was a kid) and historical documentaries of the Hitler’s Whatever variety and it sure as hell didn’t look like a Hollywood movie.

    Though I have to admit that my image of the US in the 1930s is very much coloured by Hollywood movies as well as vintage comics and pulp novels of the period. As a teen, I was very interested in vintage fashion and design. I particularly liked Art Deco and the sleek fashions of the 1930s and Hollywood movies of the period were full of both. I never really forgave New York City for not looking like the Gotham City like Art Deco paradise I’d imagined. My teenaged self mainly went for MGM type glamour (Gilbert Adrian designed the best gowns), screwball comedies and classic musicals with a side order of vintage Universal/RKO horror, pirate and swordfighting films and old serials, when I could find them. I tried watching the gangster films of the period as well as a couple of Frank Capra movies, because I had heard about them. But neither worked for my teenaged self, because they didn’t give me the glamour and adventure I wanted to see. As an adult, I can appreciate the Warner Bros gangster films of the early 1930s and the social criticism inherent in them, though I still don’t like Frank Capra. I suspect you have to be American to appreciate him.

    Interestingly, the actual photos from the Great Depression in the US, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, etc… that I saw in books and in history classes originally had the opposite effect on me. Because while those photos were supposed to document the widespread poverty, what I saw were people who had cars and trucks and reasonably modern clothes and, in one memorable photo of a dance marathon, nylons. Desperately poor people – and I had seen plenty of photos of poor people in 1920s/1930s Germany as well as heard stories from grandparents – didn’t have any of that. My great-grandmother, a desperately poor single mom with four children, wears the same outdated turn of the century gown in every single one of the few photos we have of her (and there is a huge gap in family photos between 1920 and approx. 1938, because the family was too poor for photos), so I had a hard time accepting a sharecropper’s wife in a dress maybe one or two years out of date, as poor. As for cars, only well-off people had cars in Germany at the time. Never mind that the US South, which was the only part of the US I had visited at the time, still didn’t look all that different from the 1930s in parts when I visited in 1978. Poverty does look different in different parts of the world and my teachers didn’t do a very good job of putting those photos into context.

  3. On further thought….

    The elite “1930s” music and fashions WERE so splendid, and were rather different from those of the 40s and 50s. If this coincided with European directors and other creative types coming here and practicing their arts — maybe European culture gets some credit for it after all. 😉