Ordinary Americans turned to entertainment to cope during the Great Depression and World War II. Americans sought for a way to deal with poverty during the Great Depression. People listened to the radio in the evenings to catch up on the news or to hear FDR’s fire-side chats. By 1940, 86% of homes had a radio. Radio expanded its broadcasts to include stories like The Lone Ranger and music like swing, big band, and country. Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life addressed the issue of poverty and promoted family values. Comics heightened the sense of escapism, and people enjoyed reading about Mickey Mouse and Superman. Little Orphan Annie captured the hearts of common Americans as they followed the adventures of a poor, little girl who is adopted by a rich benefactor. Detective novels by Dashiell Hammett also because popular because the detectives were ordinary Americans from the working class.
The Great Depression also had a tremendous impact on the family. Marriage and divorce were delayed, and education was put on hold. The golden age of film started in the 1930s because families went to the movie theaters to escape from reality. Gone with the Wind romanticized poverty and reminded people of more prosperous times. Shirley Temple made people smile through her childish antics. Comic films starring Will Rogers, the Marx brothers, and Charlie Chaplin relieved the tension that common Americans felt on a day-to-day basis. Alfred Hitchcock made a career in film using the detective genre.
During World War II, entertainment celebrated tradition and rebellion. Patriotism was huge during the war, and Victorian virtues resurfaced. Rodger and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! celebrated pioneer America and folk culture. Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man used tunes from popular culture to bring nostalgia to the music. Norman Rockwell’s drawings in The Saturday Evening Post depicted common America. And one of the greatest movies of all time, Casablanca, touched on basic human values within wartime.
World War II also inspired a sense of rebellion in the realm of entertainment. Mexican-Americans experienced an urban counterculture. African-American music transitioned from jazz to jive and bebop. The film Citizen Kane attacked William Randolph Hearst as a dictator.
At the end of the war, Ken Burns created a documentary simply called The War. He took ordinary people and told the story of the war through their eyes. Burns did not include faith or religion in his documentary, but instead he focused on the changes in perspectives about home, jobs, forgiveness, war experiences, and the value of life. He also noted that the racial issue did not change; African-American and Japanese-American soldiers were discriminated against. In the end, one must ask the question: can a documentary truly be real? The director and editor only include the images that they wish us to see.
– Hannah S. Bowers