How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Stage and Screen: 1935

“Marion here is interested in becoming an actress,” Aunt Jennie said. “I haven’t seen her act, but if her voice is any indication, she’d be the bee’s knees onstage.”
- Suit and Suitability

Marion Dashiell, passionate, demonstrative, artistic, has been bitten by the Hollywood bug. Movies, a relatively new entertainment, were huge business in the 1930s, and though conservative Christian Americans were wary of the impact these films made, the cinema provided an escape into optimism for countless people during the Great Depression.

Many movies of the 1920s and early ’30s were immoral, especially by that day’s standards. Nowadays people have become habituated to most movies having a bit of foul language, sexual innuendos, and violent crime, but back then many morality proponents objected to that kind of content being screened to young Americans. My grandmother, who grew up in the 1920s and ’30s, wasn’t allowed to go to the movies as a young child. In the world of Suit and Suitability, Ellen and Marion Dashiell’s parents didn’t allow them to, either, until they were teenagers. To boycott bad movies and take a moral stand, an organization of regular Americans was created in the 1930s called the Legion of Decency. The Dashiell family participated, though Marion, in typical Marion fashion, at times chafed at the restraints.

What the film industry needed was a rating system, and this was finally enforced in 1934. The Production Code Administration (PCA) formed a code that reluctant Hollywood producers complied with to eliminate objectionable material in their films. Marion, who wants to be in Hollywood, is glad about that, as now more movies were being made that fit her family’s moral standards.

Canton, Ohio, had its share of movie theaters. In old photos of Market Avenue North (one of Canton’s main roads), you can see the giant vertical sign for Loew’s, a nationwide theater chain, sticking out like a thumb over the street. A bit farther down is a slightly fancier vertical sign that still dominates the view today with the word “PALACE.” Canton Palace Theatre is one of the few magnificent movie palaces, popular in the 1920s, still standing in the U.S. This luxurious venue is rightly called a palace with its lush décor and colorful, grandiose rooms. It showed both movies and plays back in the day, and still does nearly one hundred years later. 

Canton Palace Theatre

Marion says about her search for a job, “It’s not exhilarating in the least. I didn’t get anything. I tried the Palace and the other theaters first, of course, but they weren’t looking for so much as a ticket agent, though I did notice the Palace has a stupendous lineup of shows and I’m more determined than ever to stay in Canton for that. Though a lot of good it’d do me if I don’t have any money!”

But Marion’s first love is the stage. She is part of Canton’s prestigious Players Guild, one of the best amateur theater companies in the nation at that time. She participates in her high school drama program (in 1935 it put on Secrets, which was also a movie that starred Mary Pickford). Her first paying job is part of a summer stock theater, which travels the region producing a different play each week. She also dreams of Broadway, but doesn’t know which – Hollywood or Broadway – will be her ultimate destiny. Perhaps the Hollywood actor Wilkie St. John will have some sort of influence? (You know who he is if you’ve read Suit and Suitability).

Broadway, 1916-17

Broadway slumped in the 1930s, like many other industries (but unlike Hollywood). If you wanted to be an actor, you had a better chance in movies, which were becoming consolidated on the West Coast by that time. Broadway was more elitist and therefore played to a smaller audience, though it did produce a good number of popular classics such as Anything Goes (1934) and Porgy and Bess (1935). One of Marion’s favorite moments in her life is when she sees Anything Goes in New York City. (A note from me: I still remember seeing that unforgettable musical presented by a local theatre fifteen years ago!)

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring 1930s Broadway and Hollywood while I was writing Suit and Suitability. Attitudes differed toward secular entertainment back then, just like they do today, so the moral questions involved made for some interesting conflict. Hopefully Marion makes the right choice at the end of the book.

What are your favorite old movies or musicals? Anything from the 1930s?

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