As the Roaring Twenties came to an end in the States with the Wall Street crash in 1929, The Crazy Twenties of Paris and Europe slowly teetered out with the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, and the grumblings of awakening Stalinism extinguished the short period of liberalism and avant-garde in the Soviet Union, it was a different decade that faced the world in 1930. Especially in the United States, where the twenties had in many ways been a decade of optimism, economic growth, urbanisation, liberation – both sexual, racial, social and moral – there was a definite turn with change of decade. First came the Great Depression, then the threat of war in Europe. In Europe the change was more gradual. The twenties had already been a decade of weariness of the new political elements on the move – especially apparent when you look at German and Russian films from the time. Germany, already once the instigator of a world war, downtrodden economically and morally, had many artists warning of the discontent brewing within a poor and angry people, foreseeing the great tragedy of the Nazis.
The fear of a renewed great war spilled over into movies in the early thirties, with both European and American filmmakers warning of a great divide between East and West. Likewise in the Soviet Union, where the subtleties of who were on the right were perhaps a little less nuanced from time to time. In Russia the thirties also saw a decline of visionary experimental directors like Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein, with the grip of Stalin tightening after Lenin’s death. Social realism came to be the norm – and with this we also got the stereotypical Soviet propaganda films. 1935 saw a last burst of three Soviet sci-fi films, before the Russian contributions to the genre completely disappeared for over 20 years.
1930 was of course a defining year because it was the year that the silent movie was officially dead. This caused a great upheaval in film, and was perhaps the most significant change in movie history, but not perhaps primarily for the reasons often cited. The myth that silent movie stars “weren’t able” to make the transition to talkies is largely a myth. Many former star actors disappeared from the screen between, say 1926 and 1936, but that wasn’t because they “had squeaky voices” or somehow sounded funny, or couldn’t do talk-acting. Some actors suffered because their accents didn’t suit the roles they were famous for. Hungarian Vilma Banky and British Reginald Denny were known for playing All-American next-door neighbour characters, and their careers suffered because of the talkies. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, on the other hand, were already known for playing exotic foreign parts, so their accents didn’t cause any problems. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were both accented character actors in the silent era whose careers exploded with the talkies. How many remember that Karloff actually had a lisp? Sure, Lugosi’s accent was a problem for him, but it was also what made him a star in the first place. Some silent stars were forced out of their contracts with “sound incompatibility” as an excuse for studios to kick out expensive and difficult actors. Some just got too old for playing heroes and damsels. Some quit acting for personal reasons — to raise a family, for instance, which was probably the number reason for actresses in the thirties to quit Hollywood, some pressed by their husbands. Some battled alcoholism and drug abuse and destroyed their careers.
Many actors simply didn’t like acting in sound films. Sound and silent films were two very different mediums. Silent acting was an art form unto itself. For example, watch Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Hands of Orlac. Then watch him in F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer or Casablanca. It’s seemingly two different actors. The reason Nicholas Cage seems so crazy in all his films is that he’s acting the way Veidt acted in the twenties — but even Veidt himself realised that he could’t do that in the talkies without seeming completely off his rockers. So he adapted. Some couldn’t. Others wouldn’t. Mary Pickford’s first sound film earned her an Oscar, but she still quit. Clara Bow transitioned just fine, but she hated acting in talkies, so she quit. And it wasn’t just the new style of acting, it was that the film set changed drastically. Back when films were silent, a film set was a noisy place. The director could talk an actor through an entire perfomance, stage hands shouted ques, someone might be building a set on the other side of the studio, often several films were being made at the same time, wall-to-wall. Actors and crews could listen to music while filming to get them into the right mood. Suddenly, with sound, everything had to be quiet and still. The primitive and bulky sound equipment meant that actors often had to stand in a certain spot in order to speak into a microphone, and many felt that this severely restricted their acting — especially if the director wasn’t comfortable with the new technology.
Of course, the talkies sounded the death knell for many European film producers. Not only were European producers dealing with many of the same problems Hollywood did (many major stars played in German, French, Italian, Danish and British films with ease in the silent era), but they also saw their potential market suddenly diminish exponentially. Some studios tried to combat the market loss through collaborations and a short-lived practice of making the same films in different languages. Science fiction movies like F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer and The Tunnel were examples of this, but later, of course, dubbing turned out to be a more cost-effective alternative, and even more so, subtitling, which became the norm in the Nordic countries.
Other changes in Hollywood were for example the Hays Code, laid down in 1930 – a code that more or less prohibited any allusion to profanity, homosexuality, sex, interracial relationships, drug abuse, unnecessary violence and gore, certain political messages and a host of other things. In the beginning it was pretty much ignored, but a rigid censor system to enforce the code was set up in 1934. This also led to many classics getting completely mangled for re-release, and sometimes the original prints have been lost, leaving only the ”politically correct” ones for the afterworld.
In this time many of the sci-fi films made were cautionary tales about international strife, hunger for power and war. But many technological leaps were also made that provided fodder for sci-fi. The radar was invented, the car became a common item, radio became the dominant media and early experimental televisions were made — live TV broadcast commenced in both the US and the UK in the late thirties. But there was also a new fear of technology and how it could be used for sinister purposes. Both the west, the east and the Nazis were doing experiments trying to split atoms and making nuclear bombs, robots and war machines invaded the minds of ordinary people. Automatisation and the impact it would have on workers was a recurring theme. And the thrill of aviation had lost none of its charm.
Germany had been the leading country in science fiction films in the twenties, and continued to be so until 1934, when Hitler finally consolidated his power. After 1935 the German sci-fi film completely disappeared and didn’t really reappear until 1959. France had been something of a black horse in sci-fi with a few very interesting experimental outings in the twenties. In 1931 Abel Gance made a dystopian apocalypse film, but after that French sci-fi was completely dead until the New Wave of French cinema in the mid-sixties. From 1935 on to 1955 science fiction films was almost completely the domain of two English speaking countries, USA and UK, disregarding a few interesting entries from Mexico.
The States were still pretty iffy about sci-fi, although fantasy with a hint of sci-fi was seen as having potential after the 1925 dinosaur epic The Lost World. The film’s success was eclipsed by the 1933 premiere of King Kong, inspired just as much by jungle, adventure and wildlife films, and the racist exploitation film Ingagi (1930) The disastrous production of the Jules Verne-inspired film The Mysterious Island (1926-1929) cast sci-fi films in a bad economic light with studios, and this view was cemented with the box office failure of the ambitious futuristic musical comedy Just Imagine in 1930. It would take until 1950 and producer George Pal’s gamble with Destination Moon before a studio dared take on another costly sci-fi epic.
This did not mean sci-fi was out for the count – as a matter of fact it got something of a free ride with the success of Universal’s horror films, most importantly Frankenstein (1931), that cemented the character of the mad scientist.
Another development was was the slow rise of the sci-fi pulp magazine in the late twenties and thirties. A whole bunch of magazines with names like Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories and Wonderful Stories started popping up. In part they reproduced old stories by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe, but also had a whole host of young sci-fi authors, few of which are very famous today outside the hardcore sci-fi community. Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) is one of the few exceptions. But writers like Edmond Hamilton, Henry Kuttner, Garrett P. Serviss, Philip Wylie, C.L. Moore, E.E. “Doc” Smith, John Campbell, and Europeans like Maurice Renard, Alexei Tolstoy and Curt Siodmak helped define a genre. And this ”juvenile trash” also popularised the notion of the space opera and space fantasy, pioneered by authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. Smith in the twenties. Studios still didn’t feel this was the fodder for expensive films, but the late thirties started the golden age of cinema serials – short escapist episodes produced very cheaply, for entertainment purposes only. This gave rise to icons like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the late thirties. But when it came to films, it was the legacy of H.G. Wells’ and Mary Shelley’s mad scientists that was the driving factor behind science fiction in America. And a decade that gave us Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Island of Lost Souls and The Invisible Man – as well as Fredric March’s memorable Mr Hyde can’t be all bad. And compared the the abysmal sci-fi decade that was the forties, the thirties were a hoot.