Movie-going in the Great Depression: Sophistication or Light Nothingness?

Or: how we learned (as much as possible) to enjoy the Depression — at least at the moving picture show?

Or: how we learned (as much as possible) to enjoy the Depression — at least at the moving picture show?

In the summer of 1932 the Examiner published an article based on an interview with the Capitol Theatre’s manager, Jack Stewart. The piece provided an outline of what was popular – and not popular – amongst the city’s population of movie-goers, from Stewart’s point of view. “The fact that a picture has made a bit hit in New York, Montreal or Toronto,” we learn, “often proves to have little influence with local audiences.”

The Great Depression of the 1930s — as hard as it was on the city’s population (and others in Canada as a whole) — was a time of avid movie-going, which provided one of the cheapest and most ready means of entertainment and distraction (and ticket prices went down in the early years of the decade). What did people go out to see?

The article had no byline, but it was almost certainly written by Cathleen McCarthy, who, using the byline “Jeanette,” had been writing about movies, and reviews of movies, since at least 1925, and probably a few years before that.

Here is the full article.

Good Comedy Heavy Favorite Among City’s Theatre Fans

Peterborough Audiences Simply Do Not Like Greta Garbo.

Dressler A Favorite

What do Peterborough people like to see when they go to the movies? Is it the heavy sophistication of a Garbo romance or the light nothingness of a Buster Keaton comedy which wins their patronage? Is it the crafty snooping of a Philo Vance or the galloping, shooting, rope-twirling action of a Buck Jones which pleases their fancies?

Capitol Theatre ad,  Examiner , Feb. 16, 1932, p.9. Garbo and Gable — together: not so popular. And an “all-Canadian film” too.

Capitol Theatre ad, Examiner, Feb. 16, 1932, p.9. Garbo and Gable — together: not so popular. And an “all-Canadian film” too.

John A. Stewart, manager of the Capitol Theatre in this city, was able to give some enlightenment on these questions in an interview today.

Capitol Manager John A. Stewart.  Examiner , June 8, 1929, p.7.

Capitol Manager John A. Stewart. Examiner, June 8, 1929, p.7.

Of all the types of motion picture entertainment which come to local screen, good comedy is the heavy favorite, Mr. Stewart reports. It is a close race for popularity between the air farces of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and the slightly more serious comedy of Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery with the Dressler and Beery type winning honors by a nose. However, almost any good clean comedy will ensure a well-filled house.

Fans Are A Bit Choosey

Examiner , July 17, 1933, p.13. Mickey Mouse the new star makes many appearances in the ads, 1932—33.

Examiner, July 17, 1933, p.13. Mickey Mouse the new star makes many appearances in the ads, 1932—33.

Local theatre customers are a bit choosey where the absolutely slapstick type of humor is concerned but Laurel and Hardy enjoy an unfailing following, Mr. Stewart reported further on the subject of comedy. They will laugh at antics of the excuse-me-for-living Mr. Laurel and the obese Mr. Hardy which, if tried by other comedians, are received in unsympathetic silence.

Peterborough’s movie patrons are quite as much addicted to the craze for Mickey Mouse and his syncopated capers as the rest of the world, Mr. Stewart said. Perhaps claims that Mickey is the most popular actor elsewhere in the world are a bit exaggerated but at any rate he is well up in the running here. The pen and ink Mickey Mouse comedies are so popular that they almost could be run as the program features, the theatre manager said. The adults are, if possible, more zealous addicts than the children.

No Mickey Mouse

Recently, Mr. Stewart relates, he saw a little boy making his way out of the theatre at the conclusion of a matinee. His attention was attracted as the young lad was crying softly. He approached him and asked him if he had hurt himself or lost something in the theatre.

“I wanted to see Mickey Mouse and there was no Mickey Mouse today,” the child explained between sobs.

And then, on the other hand, is the strange case of Greta Garbo. Garbo may be the worshipped idol of thirty million other movie patrons but she is a comparative pain in the cerebral isthmus to local devotees of the silver screen. Peterborough audiences simply do not like Greta Garbo and will not respond with the customary reaction of her so-called allures. Even Garbo pictures which have real merit aside from Garbo are neglected, Mr. Stewart reveals.

Mr. Stewart, who has many years of experience with motion picture audiences behind him, explains this Garbo mystery as “simply a matter of local psychology.” The tastes of theatre patrons in one city vary from those of fans in another city just as individual tastes differ. Garbo, while unpopular here, commands a worshipful following in many other cities in America which correspond to Peterborough quite closely in size, type of population and general intellectual level.

The fact that a picture has made a bit hit in New York, Montreal or Toronto often proves to have little influence with local audiences. Possibly it is because local patrons do not keep in close touch with motion picture news from the larger centers or possibly it is because they believe in forming their opinions independently. And the converse is true. Frequently a picture which is a complete “flop” in New York or Toronto goes over big here.

Local tastes are at present swinging somewhat in the direction of “westerns” and other types of red-blooded action pictures, Mr. Stewart continued. The two-gun doubled-fisted feature has, since the talking pictures arrived, been in local disfavour but now interest is gradually reviving. However, an important portion of the audience which this type of entertainment attracts is still made up of visitors to the city from the surrounding rural districts.

Examiner , Feb. 25, 1933, p.13. The Regent Theatre served up Westerns aplenty. “Quality Entertainment at Popular Prices.”

Examiner, Feb. 25, 1933, p.13. The Regent Theatre served up Westerns aplenty. “Quality Entertainment at Popular Prices.”

While Marie Dressler is, without question, the city’s most favored actress, Janet Gaynor follows a close second, with Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford in third and fourth place. Strange as it seems, the local followings of Shearer and Crawford are largely from the female ranks. Wallace Beery is about the most popular actor with Maurice Chevalier, George Arliss and Joe. E. Brown close behind. Clark Gable, again strange as it may seem, fails to hold either the female or male interest here which he commands in other cities.

Peterborough Examiner, Aug. 19, 1932, p.9.

Robert Clarke