100 years of movie stars: The golden years

In the dark decades of the 1930s and 1940s, the stars of the big screen shone more brightly than ever, explains Geoffrey Macnab

Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was a wildly contradictory place – and its stars reflected this.

On the one hand, in the early 1930s, the “golden age of turbulence”, Mae West, Jean Harlow, James Cagney and the Marx brothers were transgressive and risqué. This was the Depression era, and the sense of reckless desperation could be felt in musicals, gangster films and screwball comedies alike.

But it was also the period in which Hollywood’s tendency toward self-censorship became evident. The so-called Hays Code had existed since the late 1920s, but its enforcement now became stricter. Husbands and wives weren’t to be shown together in bed, and kisses weren’t to last for more than 10 seconds – to mention just two of its edicts.

Audiences in this era had similarly mixed tastes. They liked hard-nosed stars such as Cagney andHumphrey Bogart. But they also cherished more homely figures: upstanding all- Americans such as Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and girl next-door types such as Deanna Durbin. Greta Garbo was still in her regal pomp at MGM, but the child star Shirley Temple was just as popular.

Some stars managed to belong to two worlds at once. In The Wizard Of Oz, Judy Garland looked a little like a Shirley Temple type as she hoofed off down the Yellow Brick Road – but as soon as she started to sing, you realised that this was no demure kid.

Hollywood’s contract system was strictly enforced, and actors were told by their studios how to behave. Even so, the era was characterised by its huge number of formidable female stars. Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck weren’t the types to be pushed around by the studio bosses. Even more modest actresses, such as Olivia de Havilland, were prepared to fight a system that rewarded them generously while depriving them of any chance to mould their own careers.

The 1940s were a golden age for British stars. Actresses such as Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Phyllis Calvert were just as popular with the British fans as any of their Hollywood rivals.

France, too, had its stars – the rugged Jean Gabin, the glamorous Michèle Morgan – while Germany had Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich.

Of course, the best of the talent was lured over to Hollywood. The Vienna-born Hedy Lamarr had caused a sensation when she appeared naked in the Czech director Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy in 1933. The scandal soon propelled her to Hollywood. That was where Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman and countless others ended up too.

In New York, the 1930s saw the flourishing of the Group Theatre, which developed a Stanislavski-influenced naturalistic acting style that would later (via Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio) have a huge influence on screen acting. But while members such as John Garfield and Franchot Tone were developing a more introspective style of screen performance, other vaudeville trained stars – notably Cagney – still performed in wildly expressionistic fashion.

By the end of the 1940s, this era of cinematic riches seemed to be drawing to a close. Antitrust legislation barred the big studios from controlling distribution and exhibition, while the looming threat of television put the skids under Hollywood’s finances. Yet the star system, at least, would continue to flourish.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor