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Hail Fredonia! Hollywood Depression Economics

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 12, 2008 at 12:40PM

"We're in the money," sang Ginger Rogers in the escapist musical Gold Diggers of 1933. Luxurious Busby Berkeley musical comedies were big hits during the Depression.

Groucho_200"We're in the money," sang Ginger Rogers in the escapist musical Gold Diggers of 1933. Luxurious Busby Berkeley musical comedies were big hits during the Depression.

It will be interesting to see how Hollywood calibrates the current economic crisis in terms of the movies they will make. Warners' $100-million CIA thriller Body of Lies proved to be too downbeat and Iraq-centric to lure mass audiences. The opening was decidedly weaker than it should have been. (Here's Variety's weekend boxoffice wrap.) As a counter-example, this summer's escapist musical Mamma Mia! scored big all over the world: it's global gross is $520 million. If I were a studio head I'd start greenlighting a bunch of light escapist movies--fantasies, musicals, comedies, romances. The NYT's David Carr checks in with some studio execs.

It's no longer a given that people will flock to the movies during an economic downturn. (Boxoffice has been steady, BTW, and was up 18% this weekend.) Back in the Depression there was no entertainment competition and movies were cheap. Will people still buy $20 DVDs when they're worrying about their frivolous spending? Or rent instead? I argue that given the chance to laugh their heads off and escape into another magical world, they will go out to a movie theater and join in that communal experience. But they won't go there to be depressed further.

In Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges took a sincere Hollywood filmmaker (Joel McCrae) and put him on the road with hobos where he learned how much laughing at cartoons means to people. Who's going to be this decade's Marx Brothers or Berkeley? (Check out the Busby Berkeley Disc.) NPR's Bob Mondello looks at the Marx Bros. classic, Duck Soup.

Here are some more examples of what played during the Depression:

We're in the Money:

Jimmy Cagney sings and dances Shanghai Lil in another Berkeley pre-Code classic, Footlight Parade:

And Groucho Marx is Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup:

On AMC's Shootout this week, Peter Guber and Peter Bart address the issue of whether audiences will support the crop of political movies coming up, including W. They talk to Oliver Stone and James Cromwell:

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This article is related to: Cash Crunch, Genres, Box Office, comedy, Musical

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.