Social problem film

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A social problem film is a narrative film that integrates a larger social conflict into the individual conflict between its characters. Like many film genres, the exact definition is often in the eye of the beholder, but Hollywood did produce and market a number of topical films in the 1930s and by the 1940s, the term "social problem" or "message" film was conventional in its usage among the film industry and the public.


Progressive Era[edit]

Historian Kay Sloan has shown how various reformist groups made social problem shorts and features during the silent era. Generally, these dealt with prohibition, labor relations and concerns over "white slavery." As a genre, however, these Progressive statements did not touch off a long-lasting concern in the film industry, which was solidifying behind standardized product, oligopoly and the star system.

The 1930s[edit]

Warner Brothers under Darryl F. Zanuck started making topical films "ripped from the headlines." These "headliners" generally were cheaply made, gritty in their realist aesthetic, and foregrounded a working class milieu and New Deal political sympathies. Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was the most notable of the genre, and its success led Warner Brothers and other studios to copy the formula.

Meanwhile, at Columbia Pictures, Frank Capra made his reputation (among the industry and filmgoing public alike; a rarity in those days) by developing his signature blend of social problem film and screwball comedy. Working with writer Robert Riskin, he would develop, repeat and refine this blend in films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The 1940s[edit]

The postwar social problem films marked a noticeable shift away from economic problems to ones of social and psychological adjustment. William Wyler's Best Years of Our Lives chronicled three returning veterans adjusting to civilian life. Billy Wilder's Lost Weekend was about alcoholism, inaugurating a cycle of films dealing with drug and alcohol abuse. Films like Gentleman's Agreement, Pinky and Home of the Brave tackled anti-Semitism and racism.

The 1950s and 1960s[edit]

McCarthyism, in the form of the House Un-American Activities Committee, dampened some of Hollywood's enthusiasm for left-leaning critiques of American society, but the genre continued nonetheless over the next two decades. Robert Wise's 1951 science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still urged international cooperation in matters of violence and world security in an environment of Cold War mistrust and nuclear paranoia: the "message" is literally delivered to the Earth by a civilized extraterrestrial. Stanley Kramer's exposés of racism—The Defiant Ones, Pressure Point and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?—became synonymous with the genre. Also, "juvenile delinquency films" combined the censorious tone of social problem films with exploitation film and melodrama.