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In the 1930s America had more movie theaters than it did banks. Priorities.

There are many reasons why motion picture production and attendance reached a high crest during the 1930s. Nearly 10,000 films were created in that decade, the last before televisions were introduced into American households. During that time, the only real media competition movies faced for leisure attention was radio.

In addition, the harsh daily reality of the Depression increased the desire for escapism and happy endings. Motion picture production was one of the few areas of the American economy that continued to thrive, in no small part because a huge portion of the public were willing to sacrifice basics for their weekly visit to the movie theater. A choice between a loaf of bread and an admission ticket often meant buying day-old. The Depression made entertainment a necessity in American households. Today, many studies on monthly expenses regard cable television as a utility comparable to heat and water.  

Postcard Home – Rex Theater

For this postcard home, the postmark reads: Leland, Mississippi.

The history of movie theaters in the United States can be very instructive. Take for example, their architecture. When full length silent films emerged in the second decade of the 20th Century, they were exhibited in venues that had originally been designed for live performance. In many cases these had once been opera houses that gradually embraced vaudeville, initially presenting moving pictures in breaks between the acts.

The Leland Opera House on Pearl Street in Albany, New York was renamed the Leland Theater in 1906. The theater boxes, the heavy curtains, the orchestra pit, the broad deep stage all remained as over time screened films dominated the programming.

The 1920 saw the construction of grand movie palaces in the downtowns of major cities throughout America. Their opulence evoked Viennese Opera Houses: elegant powder rooms, vast lobbies with crystal chandeliers, broad staircases, with starry skies portrayed in murals painted high above the audience.

The history of movie theaters in the United States is also instructive in the way it reflects the social conditions of the time. Not just talking here about the content of the films being shown.

In 1937, two years before Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her role in Gone With The Wind, the Rex Theater was exhibiting films in the small town of Leland, Mississippi. A photograph, taken by Dorthea Lange, survives although the theater does not. No marquee, but there in big block letters the only thing you really need to know about what went on inside:

"Rex Theater For Colored People"

No, Dorthea’s photograph was not intended to be a postcard. You would have had to buy one then, and include a message on the back about having a good time. A pretty big challenge for an audience member, even if you had enjoyed the movie.

Corner Shrine – Florence Bush

A small framed portrait, a lighted candle.

Corner Shrine for one Florence Bush

There has always been a debate among film buffs on the value of the studio system during Hollywood’s Golden Age. The major film studios: Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Warner Brothers, RKO, were basically creative factories. Their approach to talent mirrored baseball teams from the pre-war era. We’re going to pay you well above a living wage to have what most people would consider fun. In exchange, we’ll schedule your time, control your professional life, and to a large extent your private life as well.

The highest paid on this pyramid were the leading actors, but there were thousands of character actors, script writers, composers, film editors and technicians employed under the system. If bit players were listed in the closing credits often enough, you might connect a name with a face. But the individuals who worked behind the camera or prior to actual filming had to amass a lot of by-lines for any popular recognition.

Edith Head is a name you probably know. After all, she won eight Oscars for costume design. Most all of these awards came to her as an employee of Paramount Pictures. 43 years of faithful service, thank you.

Actually, Edith Head designed her image as consciously as her clothing. She appeared in a Columbo episode playing herself. An animated character plays her in The Incredibles.

Florence Bush was also a studio employee, beginning her workday at 6:30 AM and receiving due credit at the end of hundreds of television episodes for dozens of series.

For over 20 years, Florence had a successful and one might guess satisfying career as a hair stylist in Chicago. She might have stayed there were it not for the death of her husband and her mother within weeks of each other. So in her early 40s, Florence journeyed to California where she found work as a hair stylist for an emerging studio in a brand new medium – television. The studio was Desilu, the brainchild and partnership of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez.

Initially working alone, Florence eventually took responsibility for costuming actors heads in a variety of roles. 235 episodes of Leave It To Beaver. 271 episodes of Wagon Train. And 229 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Right now you’re saying: “Oh, that’s where I saw her name.”

It was Alfred Hitchcock, a man notoriously difficult to please, especially if you were a woman, who was responsible for Florence’s sole movie credit. Yea, Psycho. The one where your hair stood up on end and Florence couldn’t do a thing with it.

The Parting Word – Lumiere Brothers 

In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers, Auguste and Louis, created and then exhibited a 50 second silent motion picture of a train arriving at a station in a small coastal town in France. When they screened it in Paris the following January for the general paying public, their film was an immediate sensation – literally.

There are legends that as the image of the train came towards the audience, people screamed and scattered. Well, no – anymore than armed moviegoers returned fire at the bandit in The Great Train Robbery. But certainly, gasps of astonishment, awe, and delight.

Actually, moviegoers responding verbally to actors who couldn’t hear them continued throughout the silent film era. Apparently, it stopped with sound because everyone wanted to hear the dialogue. The film scholar, Robert Sklar, summarized the transition this way:

“Talking audiences for silent pictures became silent audiences for talking pictures.”

Had Thomas Edison been able to load another 90 years onto his life, he might have claimed to have gotten it right the first time with his kinetiscope. One person. One screen. As you listen to this, we are just a couple marketing decisions away from accessing first-run films as early as theaters.

But, it could be Auguste and Louis had it right too. There will always be something distinctive about a group of people viewing a motion picture together in the moment – bringing their own experiences, tastes, and daily worries to the cinema and then leaving afterward to absorb what they just saw.

Consider the equally breathtaking experience that awaited certain moviegoers to the Lumiere film after it played Paris. It seems the brothers took their ground-breaking minute on a world tour afterwards: New York, London, and remarkably, the ancient city of Alexandria in Egypt.

For a moment, think about being one of the first people to see motion picture technology and then a minute or so later, stepping outside into Alexandria, Egypt in 1896. So, where do we go for dinner?

The Parting Word to another great French filmmaker; Francois Truffaut:

“The most beautiful sight in a movie theater is to walk down to the front and look at the light reflected on the upturned faces of the members of the audience”

And so. Next time.  

Postcard image of the Rex Theatre in Leland, MS.

The Rex Theatre in Leland, MS. (Vintage postcard, Dorthea Lange)

There are many reasons why motion picture production and attendance reached a high crest during the 1930s. Nearly 10,000 films were created in that decade, the last before televisions were introduced into American households.

During that time, the only real media competition movies faced for leisure attention was radio. In addition, the harsh daily reality of the Depression increased the desire for escapism and happy endings. Motion picture production was one of the few areas of the American economy that continued to thrive, in no small part because a huge portion of the public were willing to sacrifice basics for their weekly visit to the movie theater.

A choice between a loaf of bread and an admission ticket often meant buying day-old.

The Depression made entertainment a necessity in American households. Today, many studies on monthly expenses regard cable television as a utility comparable to heat and water.