The period between the coming of sound and World War II was dominated by the studios. They controlled the production--including story, the role of the directors, and the selection of actors--distribution, and exhibition (they owned their own theaters). In the 1930s America went to the movies; by the end of the decade some eighty million people saw a movie every week. The studios provided them with the means to live out their fantasies, find heroes, and escape from the Depression.
One factor directly affecting the films of the 1930s was censorship. Hollywood movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s had become rather open in their use of sex, and the scandals in the private lives of the stars shocked the public even as it hungered for vicarious living. Fear of government intervention and of the Depression forced the studios to censor themselves. They established the Hays Office under the directorship of Will Hays, former postmaster-general, and this office published a strict moral code for on-screen activities and language. The results stifled creativity, but the new moral tastes of the public were satisfied.
The stars captured the public's imagination as in no other time in American popular culture: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, Edward G. Robinson, and Marlene Dietrich. The comics maintained the traditions of the silent comedians: Charlie Chaplin continued to make movies and was joined by the Marx brothers, Mae West, and W. C. Fields.
At the same time, the directors had to find a path through the maze created by the studios, the Hays Office, and the stars. They had to bring all these divergent elements together and make movies. Men such as John Ford and Howard Hawks created their own visions of America and discovered methods of capturing the American myth on film. Many of the directors of the period were immigrants: Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Frank Capra. Each discovered for himself the essence of this country and its people. Perhaps that essence was most fittingly expressed in a film that came at the end of the prewar period, Citizen Kane ( 1941), the first film Orson Welles directed.
The war changed the industry. Many residents of Hollywood took time off to participate in the war effort. Some like John Ford and Frank Capra made films for the government. Others like Fritz Lang continued to make commercial films, but they were propaganda-oriented and helped build morale. The stars went to the battle areas to entertain the troops. Even studio space was commandeered to produce war documentaries, and war films became a dominant fictional genre.