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September 27, 2009

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Glories of 1930s' art

DANCING in the Dark" is old-school cultural history, with a whiff of Matthew Arnold and the best that has been thought and said. Author Morris Dickstein, a professor at the City University of New York, has organized his engaging and perceptive study around the American response to dire economic conditions and the attendant psychological damage - as sadly relevant a topic as any author could wish for.

Well before he gets to Woody Guthrie, Dickstein signals with his title a keen interest in popular song (he's a big fan of Bing Crosby's recording of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's ballad). He also looks at photographs and design and mentions dance and painting. But his principal focus is on books and movies, and his bias is in favor of high art.

"I made no effort to cover everything," he writes in his preface; he chose instead to concentrate on "unusually complex, enduring works." That's good news for those of us who welcome any reminder of the glories of 1930s literature and film. When Dickstein sends us back to Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" or Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night," when he prompts us to listen again to the sly screwball banter of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby," we can only thank him.

But he does more than just reintroduce us to old friends; he shows them in a new light. After a fond, lingering look at "Shall We Dance" - Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the spotlight, romancing to songs by George and Ira Gershwin - Dickstein sums up expertly: "Each number is a miniature of the movie, moving from singing alone, dancing alone, dancing with the wrong person, or dancing to the wrong music to making beautiful music together."

With his next breath he roughly reminds us of the context: "It's the music, the dancing, that saves all this from familiar romantic cliche. As photography documents the Depression, dance countermands it." And then he takes one more step back to give us an even broader view: "The culture of elegance, as represented by Astaire and the Gershwins, was less about the cut of your tie and tails than the cut of your feelings, the inner radiance that was one true bastion against suffering.

"They preserved in wit, rhythm and fluidity of movement what the Depression almost took away, the high spirits of Americans, young and modern, who had once felt destined to be the heirs and heiresses of all the ages." Sheer delight, pure escapism, serves its cathartic purpose - and it means something, too.

One of the paradoxes of "Dancing in the Dark" is that despite its laudable ambitions, it's not particularly in tune with the temper of the 1930s. As Dickstein points out, this was a period of unprecedented national self-scrutiny - and our gaze was most often fixed on the things we had in common, on the culture of the people.

Whereas Dickstein wants to tell us about Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep," or draw attention to the populist elements in Aaron Copland's ballet scores, a contemporary critic might have been more inclined to analyze the wild popularity of Monopoly, the board game patented in 1935, or the "candid camera" craze (production of cameras in the United States jumped 157 percent from 1935 to 1937 - no slump there).

I only wish Dickstein had taken a somewhat more catholic approach and embraced ordinary things people did, like snap photos and listen to the Lone Ranger on the radio and play pinball down at the drugstore. "Dancing in the Dark" is a fine cultural history but it did leave me hungry for a glimpse of everyday life.


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