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America's History in the Making

By the People, For the People

Theme 2

A shift in popular attitudes questioned the rise of American individualism and a purely market-based economy, creating a community atmosphere that was reflected in popular culture.

During the relatively prosperous 1920s, many people had bought into the extreme individualism, consumerism, and Social Darwinism pushed by business leaders and advertisers. After the economy collapsed, Americans began to question these approaches during the 1930s. The nation witnessed a resurgence of community orientation and a willingness to cooperate that harkened back to the community spirit of an earlier time: Often, the less people had, the more they were willing to share with others. There was a rejection of big business and bankers. These widespread public sentiments were reflected both politically in the New Deal and culturally in several forms, especially movies.

The motion-picture industry suffered during the Depression and many theaters throughout the country closed. Attendance picked up, in part, because of the motion picture industry's adoption of a new decency code pushed by religious groups. After 1934, the motion picture industry focused on producing movies in which evil was punished, traditional family values triumphed, and American democracy was not questioned. Popular movies during the mid- to late-1930s touted traditional values and looked back to a time when people were more community-oriented.

Primary Sources