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Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-class Romance Films of the Great Depression


A combination of social and cultural changes account for the popularity of, and the narrative permutations of class and gender in, the cross-class romance films of the 1930s. The analysis is based on a sample of eighty-five cross-class romance films released in the 1929–39 period. The films deal with a dilemma evident in the choice of partners: between interests of wealth and social status and the value of romantic, disinterested love, an ideal which had spread throughout the class structure. Gender distinctions are reinforced by narratives in which the wealthy male is redeemed by the poor female so that he can perform the appropriate male gender roles. When the female is wealthy, the poor male insists on her economic dependence on him. Films with gold diggers reached a peak in the early 1930s and provided imaginary solutions to social anxieties about class and gender among both women and men.

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1 Ross Steven J., Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1998), 335–36; May Larry, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 282; Sharot Stephen, “Class Rise as a Reward for Disinterested Love: Cross-class Romance Films, 1915–28,” Journal of Popular Culture, 43, 3 (2010), 583–99, 584–85.

2 May, 282, provides a graph that shows that, of a sample of the films reviewed in the trade journal Motion Picture Herald between 1915 and 1940, films featuring marriage or romance across class lines varied from 10% to almost a quarter. After the rapid drop in such films from the late 1930s, May found only one cross-class romance film in his sample for 1946, and although his graph shows some increase in the early 1950s this is followed by another drop, with no cross-class romance film in 1958, when the survey ends.

3 The case for “pre-Code Hollywood” was made by Sklar Robert, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; first published 1975, 175–9, and more recently by Doherty Thomas, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). A critique of such formulations is provided by Maltby Richard, “More Sinned against than Sinning: The Fabrications of ‘Pre-Code Cinema,’Senses of Cinema, 29 (2003), online journal. See also Jacobs Lea, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman film, 1928–1942 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

4 A formula is a “combination or synthesis of specific cultural conventions with a more universal story form or archetype.” Cawelti John G., Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 6.

5 Bergman Andrew, We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992; first published 1971).

6 Stokes Melvyn, “Female Audiences of the 1920s and early 1930s,” in Stokes Melvyn and Maltby Richard (eds.), Identifying Hollywood's Audiences (London: British Film Institute, 1999), 4260.

7 Mulvey Laura, “Unmasking the Gaze: Feminist Film Theory, History, and Film Studies,” in Callahan Vicki (ed.), Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), 1731.

8 Tudor Andrew, “Sociology and Film,” in Hill John and Gibson Pamela Church (eds.), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 190–94.

9 I constructed my sample from the AFI catalogue by reading plot outlines of films under a number of subject categories, including class distinction, employer–employee relations, social climbers, factory workers, sales clerks, upper class, factory owners, factory workers, gold digger, and department stores.

10 Markantonatou Maira, “Gold-Diggers,” in Ditmore Melissa Hope (ed.), Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2006), 187.

11 Meyerowitz Joanne Jay, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).

12 Janet Straiger, “Les Belles Dames sans Merci, Femmes Fatales, Vampires, Vamps, and Gold Diggers: The Transformation and Narrative Value of Aggressive Fallen Women,” in Callahan, 32–57, 41.

13 The American Film Institute lists only one film with a gold digger theme in 1929 (Gold Diggers of Broadway), but as the Depression deepened the number increased: six in 1930, nine in 1931, 10 in 1932, and 14 in 1933. The AFI listing is not comprehensive, but it indicates the trend. The prominence of the gold digger in the early 1930s was also evident in popular music. Scheurer Timothy E., “Goddesses and Golddiggers: Images of Women in Popular Music of the 1930s,” Journal of Popular Culture, 24 (1990), 2338.

14 Sharot, Class Rise as a Reward for Disinterested Love, 585.

15 Illouz Eva, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Bailey Beth L., From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

16 Illouz, 210–11; Bottero Wendy, Stratification: Social Division and Inequality (London: Routledge, 2005), 166–73.

17 Haag Pamela S., “In Search of ‘The Real Thing’: Ideologies of Love, Modern Romance, and Women's Sexual Subjectivity in the United States, 1920–40,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 2, 4 (1992), 547–77, 553–56, 573–77.

18 Illouz, 53–55, 66–74; Clement Elizabeth Alive, Love For Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 4344, 213–21.

19 Susman Warren, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984), xxixxiv; Barnard Rita, The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1931; Cohen Lizabeth, “The Class Experience of Mass Consumption: Workers as Consumers in Interwar America,” in Fox Richard Wightman and Lears T.J. Jackson (eds.), The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 135–60, 138–41; Cross Gary S., An All-Consuming Century: Why Consumerism Won in Modern America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 6782.

20 Chafe William H., The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 6771, 116–17.

21 Ware Susan, Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), 3334; Helmbold Lois Rita, “Downward Occupational Mobility during the Great Depression: Urban Black and White Working Class Women,” Labor History, 29 (1988), 132–72, 137–38, 152–53.

22 Chafe, 71, 101.

23 Hapke Laura, Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 183.

24 Dalton [Susan] Elizabeth, “Women at Work: Warners in the 1930s,” in Kay Karyn and Peary Gerald (eds.), Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), 267–81; Galerstein Carolyn L., Working Women on the Hollywood Screen (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1989), xvxvii.

25 Chafe, 69–71, 81–82, 91–92, 97, 101, 115–17; Scharf Lois, To Work and To Wed: Female Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), 92, 95, 108.

26 McLaren Angus, Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 170–74.

27 Scharf, 140–41; Kleinberg S. J., Women in the United States, 1930–1945 (London: Macmillan Press, 1999), 246.

28 Komarovsky Nira, The Unemployed Man and His Family: The Effects of Unemployment upon the Status of the Man in Fifty-Nine Families (New York: Octagon Books, 1971; first published 1940), 29.

29 Kerbo Harold R., Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in the United States (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), 345.

30 For class passing see Foster Gwendolyn Audrey, Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), who fails, however, to make a clear distinction between class passing and class mobility.

31 Sonnet Esther, “Ladies Love Brutes: Reclaiming Female Pleasures in the Lost History of Hollywood Gangster Cycles, 1929–1931,” in Grieveson Lee, Sonnet Esther, and Stanfield Peter (eds.), Mob Culture: Hidden Histories of the American Gangster Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 93119, 98.

32 Fishbein Leslie, “The Harlot's Progress in American Fiction and Film, 1900–1930,” Women's Studies, 16 (1989), 409–27; Meyerowitz, Women Adrift, 126–41.

33 McLaren, 175–81.

34 Curry Ramona, Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 7879.

35 Jacobs, The Wages of Sin, 82–83.

36 We only hear about her return to the industrial town. We do not see it because Stanwyck was unavailable to film additional scenes. Jacobs states that, in most of the gold digger films in which the gold digger is triumphant, the ending is at odds with the more typical romantic or sentimental classical happy end, but her own analysis of the films shows that happy endings with gold diggers who have retained their cynicism were the exception rather than the rule. Jacobs, 52–84, 132–49.

37 On the differences among gold diggers in Gold Diggers of 1933 see Babington Bruce and Evans Peter Williams, Blue Skies and Silver Linings: Aspects of the Hollywood Musical (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 5964.

38 The pre-Code films of Mae West were exceptional insofar as there was as much emphasis on the sexual pleasure she received from men, expressed in her verbal ripostes, and from presenting herself as sexual spectacle as from the material benefits that she received from her exploitation of sexuality.

39 Jacobs, 113–18.

40 Sklar, Movie-Made America; Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood.

41 Maltby, “More Sinned against than Sinning.”

42 Maltby.

43 Brauer Ralph A., “When the Lights Went Out: Hollywood, the Depression, and the Thirties,” in Marsden Michale T., Nachbar Johen G., and Grogg Sam L. Jr. (eds.), Movies as Artifacts: Cultural Criticism of Popular Film (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982), 2543, 29.

44 Smedley Nick, A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigré Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933–1948 (Bristol: Intellect, 2011), 47.

45 Maltby. See also Jacobs; and Vasey Ruth, The World According to Hollywood, 1918–1939 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997), especially 131–32.

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