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Brother, can you spare some popcorn?

Will the current economic downturn send audiences to the same kind of movies Depression-era filmgoers loved?

As more and more economists compare the nation’s current financial crisis to the Great Depression of the 1930s, it begs the question — will the movies be as good? That decade was, after all, Hollywood’s Golden Age, producing movies that remain some of the greatest ever to emerge from the studio system.

One of those classics was Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic “Sullivan’s Travels,” which starred Joel McCrea as John Sullivan, a producer at odds with his studio — they want him to make light, escapist fare like “Hey-Hey in the Hayloft” while he wants to make serious, social-issue pictures like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (And yes, that’s where the Coen brothers nicked the title.) Sullivan ends up traveling with the hoboes and winding up on a chain gang, and when he sees the prisoners laughing uproariously at a Mickey Mouse cartoon, he realizes that people suffering hard times want above all else to be entertained.

Did audiences back then really want pure escapism? Do audiences today? Even if a nickel no longer gets you a double feature, movie tickets remain one of the great entertainment bargains available, which means households with shrinking budgets won’t necessarily turn their backs on the big screen.

Something to sing aboutOne of the Depression’s most popular genres was the musical, which lifted the spirits of a downtrodden nation with the dancing feet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and unforgettable tunes by Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Movies had only started talking in 1927, but by the early 1930s, song-and-dance spectacles were everywhere, providing audiences of the era with just the tonic to take their minds off their troubles.

Not that musicals were necessarily all fluff; as film critic and historian Leonard Maltin observes, “It’s a broad generalization to say that films of the ’30s didn’t deal with the Depression — Busby Berkeley musicals like ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ faced it head-on.”

“Gold Diggers” stars Rogers, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler as chorines whose new Broadway extravaganza is threatened by its producer’s financial difficulties; the ironic opening number features Rogers, wearing a gown festooned with coins, singing “We’re in the Money,” only to be interrupted the troupe’s eviction from the theater for nonpayment of rent. The final number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is a tribute to returning World War I veterans who came home from combat only to have no opportunities to work and provide for their families.

Movies like “Gold Diggers of 1933” that directly addressed issues of the day were more the exception than the rule, says Maltin, who says that most popular entertainments of the era were aimed at fans who were “captured, quite well I think, by Mia Farrow’s character in Woody Allen’s ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo.’”

Maltin isn’t surprised, then, that today’s cash-strapped audiences seem to be out for a little diversion. “That’s why they’re staying away from anything to do with the Middle East and flocking to ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’ and ‘Saw V,’” says Maltin. “They both represent an alternative to real life.”

The horror, the horrorMentioning the “Saw” series brings to mind another popular Depression-era genre: horror. It was the ’30s that gave us the Universal monsters whose iconography continues to make an impression on the culture — Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster and as the Mummy and Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman remain the holy trinity for fans of spooky cinema nearly eight decades after those movies were originally released.

“There’s definitely a connection between the escape that those horror movies provided in the ’30s and the more extreme versions we have today,” Maltin observes. “Frankenstein, Dracula and company transported audiences to a gothic world quite unlike their own, and I’m sure that was a great part of their success.” Even if “Egypt” was being played by a papier-maché pyramid on the Universal lot, horror could be just as much of an escape for audiences as 100 dancing girls playing 100 neon violins opposite 100 waterfalls.

If there’s a difference between Depression-era audiences and today’s ticket-buyers, it’s that 2008’s moviegoers seem to shy away from anything that smacks of what’s really happening in the world. One movie after another dealing with the war on terror and the Middle East — “Rendition,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Stop-Loss,” “Body of Lies” — has tanked at the box office, while the New York Times reports that movies about Wall Street or the financial world have either been kyboshed or sent back to rewrite.

Contrast that to gritty 1930s hits like “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and “Public Enemy,” which wallowed in social realism and ripped-from-the-headlines issues. The difference between now and then, of course, is television; if you’ve watched bombings and mournful Wall Street types on cable news all day, why pay another 10 bucks to see them on the big screen?

Get ready to escapeWhich brings us back to the musical, which is turning out to be one of 2008’s hottest genres. Granted, “Mamma Mia!” and “High School Musical 3” probably would have scored big in any economic climate — the former boasts ABBA’s well-loved songbook while the latter is part of a globe-crushing tweener franchise — but moviegoers’ search for escapism and sun-drenched good times certainly didn’t hurt.

What’s in the pipeline to transport audiences from their financial woes? One high-profile project is a sequel to this summer’s “Sex and the City,” which is nothing if not a fantasy for people with minimal disposable income. Women love those characters for their repartee, yes, but also for their ability to drop $900 on a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, and if Mr. Big sauntering into a gigantic Manhattan apartment and blithely noting, “I got this” isn’t a 21st century fantasy, what is?

Another just-announced divertissement is a remake of “Clash of the Titans,” a togas-on-Mount-Olympus movie that couldn’t be further removed from contemporary concerns if it tried.

America has changed in the ensuing decades, obviously, but the movies continue to reflect our aspirations back upon us. While a Depression-era waitress dreamed of wearing a stunning white gown of silk and maribou feathers and dancing gracefully around a ballroom with a tuxedo-clad man, modern viewers watch Meryl Streep romping through “Mamma Mia!” and imagine how awesome it would be to own a little inn on a cliff in the Greek Isles and to be able to do a midair split after one’s 50th birthday.

New millennium, same old dreams. And even sitting through “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” twice beats watching your 401(k) shrink.