Visions and revisions in American cinema

The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the politics of the American way by Lary May (University of Chicago Press, £20.50)
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The Independent Culture

Alongside the real America, there is a mythical America, fabricated by Hollywood and exported worldwide. It has given potent expression to the idea of the "American way", a democratic society characterised by classlessness, individualism and enterprise capitalism. Historians have seen Hollywood in its heyday (1938-60) as the promoter of this uniform and unchanging image. But recently that interpretation has been challenged by scholars who see Hollywood and Americanism as contested terrain, with a dominant racist, sexist and capitalist ideology challenged by alternative visions.

Alongside the real America, there is a mythical America, fabricated by Hollywood and exported worldwide. It has given potent expression to the idea of the "American way", a democratic society characterised by classlessness, individualism and enterprise capitalism. Historians have seen Hollywood in its heyday (1938-60) as the promoter of this uniform and unchanging image. But recently that interpretation has been challenged by scholars who see Hollywood and Americanism as contested terrain, with a dominant racist, sexist and capitalist ideology challenged by alternative visions.

In his thoughtful, stimulating and readable book, Lary May lines up with the revisionists. He argues strongly for an alternative vision in 1930s cinema, a vibrant left-wing alternative that depicts America as working-class, populist and inclusive of women and minorities. The evidence includes the popularity of Will Rogers, the part-Cherokee cowboy philosopher whose 24 films, radio broadcasts and newspaper columns promoted ideas of democratic inclusiveness and multiculturalism. May cites the unionisation of Hollywood by the Screen Actors Guild and the small, modernistic local cinemas of the 1930s as embodiments of the democratic ideal.

Underpinning his argument is an analysis of film plots. In the 1930s, the incidence of businessmen as villains rose from 5 to 20 per cent. Depictions of the rich as evil or dangerous increased from 15 to 60 per cent.

May goes on to argue that the "timeless" image of America emerged only in the Second World War, when big business and the Screen Actors Guild made common cause, social and political criticism were eliminated and films promoted class consensus, patriotism and the sanctity of family and home. This conservatism was reinforced after the war, during the anti-Communist crusade, when John Wayne replaced Will Rogers as the symbol of Americanism.

May claims that those liberals who survived - he focuses in particular on John Huston and Billy Wilder - turned to the crime film to express criticism of society. A new generation of young stars (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe) made films that articulated youthful discontent. Again, May turns to plot analysis, revealing that crooked businessmen disappeared from films in the 1940s, and that post-war depictions of women in "wife only" roles rose from 5 to 20 per cent.

While much of the material May assembles is fascinating, it needs a broader context. There may have been an increase in positive depictions of minority characters in the 1930s, but that was also the decade that produced admiring epics about the British empire and Civil War films that invariably took a racist southern perspective. The black star Paul Robeson had to go to England to play film heroes. There may have been tough working-class stars (Cagney, Bogart, Garfield), but their popularity was matched by a breed of gentlemen stars (Grant, Flynn, Astaire) who embodied an aristocratic sophistication.

May perhaps claims too much for the 1930s and too little for the 1940s and 1950s. It is naive to expect much social criticism from films in wartime.But we should not forget the courageous anti-racist films that came out of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, and the positive depictions of working women in wartime cinema.

May usefully reminds us of the dissenting voices that made themselves heard in Hollywood, and of the forces that limited their effectiveness. Yet the evidence suggests that the majority of films did stick to the dominant, conservative view. Each decade, the prevailing political climate caused Hollywood to modify its output, up to a point and in line with what it perceived to be the national mood. Nothing is more symptomatic than the making of enthusiastic pro-Soviet films during the war - films that their producers promptly disavowed as soon as "our gallant allies" became "our new enemies".

* Jeffrey Richards - The reviewer is professor of history at Lancaster University

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