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15 Great Movies That Take Place During The Great Depression

17 July 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Sebastiano Perulli

O Brother Where Art Thou

The term “Great Depression” refers to the severe worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. Although the dates of the Depression may vary from country to country, 1929 was the year the crisis originated in the USA and end up causing an upset in the entire global order.

These events also had an impact on the arts, especially on the cinema since, being a costly industrial art form, it would be influenced by economic factors. The 1930s were a great change for Hollywood cinema. The advent of sound put an end to the great era of silent films, to the detriment of great artists of the period such as Buster Keaton. In addition, Hollywood devised a way of making films centered on action and dialogue, still an important factor in the world of cinema.

This list will attempt to illuminate the movies which best describe those years, focusing in particular on American cinema of that period, but not forgetting recent films that deal with that era..

One more point: often the films chosen do not center on the Great Depression as the main subject, but center on stories of the characters in the context of crisis and poverty. In this way filmmakers can both develop their own stories and explore the background of those times, an era perhaps unknown to modern viewers.It would be interesting to see how modern cinema responds to the crisis of recent years (circa 2007).

 

15. Seabiscuit (2003)

seabiscuit-2003

The idea at the heart of this film is certainly not new: “stand up and pursue the dream”, a basic concept of Hollywood films. Director Gary Ross visualizes the true story of the horse known as Seabiscuit and his jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), icons of the western U.S. during the 1930s. Seabiscuit is not considered suitable for competition due to being lame, so Pollard is depressed. However, together they will manage to create one of the most famous sporting achievements of America.

But beyond the sports background, it is interesting to see the historical reconstruction of the period. The film contrasts the divide between the rich East Coast elite and the citizens of the West Coast who are devastated by unemployment and an economic crisis.

The film uses the familiar idea that in times of crisis, one can only cling to legends and miracles in order to hope for recovery.

 

14. Bound for Glory (1976)

Bound for Glory (1976)

In 1936 singer Woody Guthrie roams through the states of the Southern US and decides to open a soup kitchen and fight for better treatment for all workers. Despite his talent and his success as a singer, he prefers to engage in trade union activity during difficult times for his country. The film ends with Guthrie singing his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” on his way to New York, symbol of hope and reconstruction.

Director Hal Ashby, best known for the excellent Vietnam era film “Coming Home”, focuses on the life of the most famous folk-singer of the thirties,an inspiring muse for Bob Dylan and a strong supporter of the idea of music being used as a tool for social change.

The film vividly reconstructs the period and the atmosphere of the South, thanks to the photography of Haskell Wexler and an excellent soundtrack (both Academy Award winners).

An interesting fact : Bound for Glory was the first motion picture in which inventor/operator Garrett Brown used his new Steadicam for filming moving scenes.

 

13. Cinderella Man (2005)

Cinderella Man (2005)

Cinderella Man is the story of James Braddock, a promising boxer forced into performing exhausting manual labor in order to support his family after sustaining a serious injury. Thanks to his strength of will and talent, he wins another chance at boxing. Much to the surprise of his critics around the world, he becomes a true legend.

Ron Howard realizes this true story, but pays as much attention to the historical reconstruction of America in the thirties as the main plot.

In an era of crisis and poverty, people gravitate to fables concerning sports, and “Cinderella Man”, as Braddock was called by his fans, is a perfect example.

This perfect historical reconstruction was appreciated with Oscars for the excellent sets, costumes and great photography of Salvatore Totino. Surely Howard was inspired by the modern financial crisis, and emphatically the film sounds like a warning for the present.

 

12. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

The third movie made by the great Coen Brothers, Miller’s Crossing is an interesting cinematic experiment that calls to mind the novels of the great Dashiell Hammett in a film featuring many amazing aspects.

The story focuses on the two gangsters who dominate an unnamed city in 1929 and whose lives are intertwined due to their love for the same woman, Verna.

The film is rich in references to The Godfather. It begins as a tragedy and turns into a comedy. The theme is the interchangeability of film genres, and also the inconsistency of human feelings in a film in which everyone betrays everyone else.

Due to its being experimental and for mixing the film genres,the film can be considered as an afterthought to the expressive possibilities of modern cinema. There are great performances by the actors in an incredible ensemble cast, from John Turturro, Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden.

 

11. Emperor of the North (1973)

Emperor of the North (1973)

During the Great Depression, a vagabond named Number One challenges the brutal train conductor Shack, who is known for not allowing vagabonds to ride on the train to Portland. Added into their personal conflict is the young hobo Cigaret, who would like to emulate Number One.

The film, which reflects the raw poetry in the work of director Aldrich, alternates narrative scenes with scenes of brutality (a passenger falls off the train at the beginning and is broken into two pieces).

The focus of the film is not to determine good or bad, since both Number One and Shack respond to the misery of the Great Depression by remaining firm in their ideals and their dignity. The film has a fast pace and remains perfectly credible despite being basically a social parable.

 

10. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Woody Allen presents his personal interpretation of this historical phenomena by describing the life of Cecilia (Mia Farrow). Her life alternates between the laundry where she works and a drunken husband, with the local cinema being the only form of escape from her monotonous existence. She ends up falling in love with the actor in a film and wants to run away with him.

The film is a comedy, but it is very precise in describing the condition of the middle class during the Great Depression. The audience in the cinema at the time was looking for pure entertainment, a few laughs to forget the dark periods.

It is no coincidence that the thirties are the golden age of American star system. Cecilia, who falls in love more with the character in the film than with the real actor, is a perfect example of that syndrome.

 

9. Paper Moon (1973)

Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon

In the America of Roosevelt and of the Great Depression, sympathetic con man Moses is asked to deliver young orphan Addie to her aunt. Together they cross the country, getting by as they can and developing a relationship which is both fun and almost whimsical.

Director Peter Bogdanovich presents a beautiful, bittersweet comedy which reflects the relationship between cinema and life with a carefree and nostalgic look. Behind the laughter is an America devastated by crisis, which is perfectly recreated thanks to the black and white photography of Laszlo Kovacs.

There are very good performances, in particular Tatum O’Neal, who, at eleven years old received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, establishing a record which stands to this day. The title, which references an old song of the 30s, is a perfect nostalgia symbol and proof of how sometimes a simple comedy can make people think about important issues.

 

 

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  • Bryton Cherrier

    That Emperor of the North picture makes the film look brutal.
    Should check that one out.

  • Eric Epstein

    A much-overlooked film (I don’t think I have seen it in any of the lists on this site) is Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, which is a wonderful movie with a terrific cast, set in the depths of the Depression. It offers a heartfelt portrayal of a fabulous piece of theatre history, based around the lives and actions of Orson Welles, Marc Blitzstein, Hearst, Rockefeller and Diego Rivera.

  • Klaus Dannick

    As I clicked on this list before reading it, I thought to myself, if King Kong (1933) isn’t on this list, then this list is a joke. Well, this list is a joke.

    • Klaus Dannick

      Two Coen Brothers films, a Ron Howard film, but King Kong, one of the undisputed classics of world cinema, is missing.