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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Dancing in the Dark

Dancing in the Dark, by Morris Dickstein, is a comprehensive, fascinating, wide-ranging study of popular culture during the 1930s, or more precisely, the period of the Great Depression. Dickstein no doubt worked on this book for many years, but it's publication now is uncomfortably prescient, as our current economic conditions create jittery comparisons. Many times these sorts of studies, which seek to find threads between aspects of culture for a given time period, can be like pounding a square peg into a round hole, starting with a conclusion and then making the case. But in the thirties, life had changed for so many Americans that the culture followed suit, and Dickstein connects all the dots effortlessly and enjoyably.

His topics are all-encompassing, from the poetry of William Carlos Williams to the movies of Astaire and Rogers. Mostly he hits upon literature and film, and the art he writes about fits into two different categories--the work of the "proletariat," such as the novels of John Steinbeck, or the fizzy, elegant world of screwball comedies and Busby Berkeley musicals. "Despite the economic crisis, the popular art of the 1930s was striking for its lightheartedness and frivolity. This was one of the great paradoxes of the decade."

My favorite parts of the book were his discussions of film, as if he was writing about a book I hadn't read, it doesn't have the impact--I would love to return to read the sections about Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, Richard Wright's Native Son, and the novels of Nathanael West after I have read those books. But I've seen most of the films he touches on, including much of the one genre that was invented during the time--the screwball comedy. He writes at length about My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby and It Happened One Night. Dickstein posits that the creation of these films came about because of the production code banning the overt sexuality of the films of the early thirties--zippy patter stood in for sex.

He also writes about Frank Capra's social trilogy: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe, with some commentary on his post-war coda, It's a Wonderful Life. There is a long section devoted to the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well as a profile of Cary Grant, who is seen as the epitome of the "culture of elegance." I was interested in his discussion of the gangster and monster films that dominated the silver screen during the decade, and "deal with creatures--King Kong, the Frankenstein monster, the Invisible Man--who are not so much intrinsically evil as thwarted in their need for love or acceptance. Unlike the monsters of a later period--the fifties, for example--these are not the invading aliens, utterly different, unredeemably evil; we fear them but know them, we can connect with them, marvel at them, pity them. In the lightning course of acquiring wealth, notoriety, and beautiful women, the gangster not only kills others but undoes himself, destroying his nearest and dearest but also sacrificing his own humanity."

Another major theme of the book is the simmering rebellion going on in the country, and therefore in the culture. Communism was never so acceptable as it was then the thirties, and there were many novels, songs, and other works that fomented social change. As Dickstein points out, "The Depression weakened many Americans' most common assumptions: that reverses in the business cycle were brief and temporary, that jobs would always be available to those willing to work, that businessmen were the oracles and seers of society, that the younger generation would always be able to come up in the world and do better than its parents." To this end he writes about Steinbeck's novels extensively, plus a short, celebratory chapter on Woody Guthrie, who "became such a figure in American legend that it's hard to believe the person really existed."

Dickstein chooses to end his study with an abstract of The Wizard of Oz: "Though all these characters go back to L. Frank Baum's original novel, the qualities they demanded were precisely the ones needed to get through the Depression, those FDR was trying to instill: courage to face up to the social crisis, empathy for the sufferings of others, a break with past thinking about how we ought to live. Together, through many trials, they follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City much the way the Joads travel along Route 66 to another promised land, California; this too is a Depression road movie. Once there the benign Wizard, perhaps a stand-in for FDR, convinces them they already have these powers within themselves. By working together they discovered their own strength and found their way home."

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