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by SixFigureStart | March 23, 2009


It’s conventional wisdom that during the Depression, people went to the movies, gathering together to escape the harsh realities by the communal fireplace. For a bit of spare change, folks could forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

Never ones to leave their legends unpolished, movie makers have long pushed this myth. In films like Sullivan’s Travels, the 1941 picture in which labor camp prisoners roar with laughter to Pluto the dog, or Woody Allen’s 1985 flick The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which lonely New Jersey waitress Mia Farrow loses herself to Fred and Ginger’s Top Hathoofing, Hollywood has reminded folks that they helped everyday citizens get through the hard times.

Like most Hollywood tales, it involves a healthy dose of artistic license. Yes, movie theaters offered a welcome diversion, and 1930 was a hugely profitable year for the movie industry. But over the next four years, admissions were down by a third, some 8,000 theaters were shuttered, a number of studios went into bankruptcy or receivership and gimmicks like cash giveaways and “Dish Night” (free pieces of china to make crumbs look classy) were used to get people in the seats.

Then there’s the common trope that moviegoers went to the theater to “escape.” Movies like It Happened One Night, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wizard of Oz are a few of the escapist favorites from the 1930s, but there are a number of forgotten films that directly addressed the troubles of the day. Lost titles like Gold Diggers of 1933, Hallelujah I’m A Bum and Our Daily Bread(all available through Netflix) spoke to the tenor of the times in ways that movies have yet to do in our ongoing sequel.

Which is not to say that Hollywood is only delivering sugar-coated junk these days. Last year’s big critical and commercial hits, including The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Wall-E, were steeped in nihilism, militarism and dystopianism. Still, but no major motion picture offered the “brother, can you spare a dime?” day-to-day living of the Dead End Kids. Even Slumdog Millionaire couches its downside-to-globalism frankness in “all you need is love, trivia-based game shows and Bollywood dance numbers” sentimentality.

Confessions of a Shopaholicdidn’t make much of a dent with today’s debtors but with $38 million in box office receipts, the story of a woman learning to live within her means isn’t a total flop either. Consider it the cinematic equivalent of paying the monthly minimum on the credit cards. Plus, it’s hard to believe that people who lost a job or their retirement savings are going to see their current state in a movie whose primary message is: No more Gucci, how ever will we go on?

It remains to be seen how the current economic crisis will be woven into big screen storylines, but so far this year, people do seem to be spending their meager ducats at the movies: The overall box office is up 17% and attendance 15%. Maybe everyone is looking to check out for a couple of hours, but it’s a bit premature to declare that big screens are saving us from our recessionary selves. The most-anticipated movie of 2009 so far, The Watchmen, is off to a middling start.

Regal may yet start handing out Tupperware with every ticket purchased.

--Posted by Patrick J. Sauer,

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