Hollywood and the Culture Elite

Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American

Peter Decherney
John Belton General Editor
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/dech13376
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    Hollywood and the Culture Elite
    Book Description:

    As Americans flocked to the movies during the first part of the twentieth century, the guardians of culture grew worried about their diminishing influence on American art, education, and American identity itself. Meanwhile, Hollywood studio heads were eager to stabilize their industry, solidify their place in mainstream society, and expand their new but tenuous hold on American popular culture.

    Peter Decherney explores how these needs coalesced and led to the development of a symbiotic relationship between the film industry and America's stewards of high culture. Formed during Hollywood's Golden Age (1915-1960), this unlikely partnership ultimately insured prominent places in American culture for both the movie industry and elite cultural institutions. It redefined Hollywood as an ideal American industry; it made movies an art form instead of simply entertainment for the masses; and it made moviegoing a vital civic institution. For their part, museums and universities used films to maintain their position as quintessential American institutions.

    As the book delves into the ties between Hollywood bigwigs and various cultural leaders, an intriguing cast of characters emerges, including the poet Vachel Lindsay, film producers Adolph Zukor and Joseph Kennedy, Hollywood flak and censor extraordinaire Will Hays, and philanthropist turned politician Nelson Rockefeller. Decherney considers how Columbia University's film studies program helped integrate Jewish students into American culture while also professionalizing screenwriting. He examines MoMA's career-savvy film curator Iris Barry, a British feminist once dedicated to stemming the tide of U.S. cultural imperialism, who ultimately worked with Hollywood and the U.S. government to fight fascism and communism and promote American values abroad. Other chapters explore Vachel Lindsay's progressive vision of movies as reinvigorating the public sphere through film libraries and museums; the promotion of movie connoisseurship at Harvard and other universities; and how the heir of a railroad magnate bankrolled the American avant-garde film movement.

    Amid ethnic diversity, the rise of mass entertainment, world war, and the global spread of American culture, Hollywood and cultural institutions worked together to insure their own survival and profitability and to provide a coherent, though shifting, American identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50851-3
    Subjects: Film Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: HOW FILM BECAME ART
    (pp. 1-12)

    To discuss hollywood film as art is already to fall into a trap. Not because film isn’t art, whatever that may be. The trap is, rather, to think that if film is art it somehow exceeds or is opposed to commerce and politics. On the contrary, what has been seen as the gradual acceptance of film as art since the 1910s is in fact the product of political and commercial brokering between Hollywood producers, on the one hand, and museum curators, university professors, and government officials on the other. Film didn’t become art until Hollywood moguls decided it was good...

  5. 1 VACHEL LINDSAY AND THE UNIVERSAL FILM MUSEUM
    (pp. 13-40)

    One of the first ways anyone imagined cultural institutions embracing film was in the form of a collection, often described as a film library or film museum. Indeed, all the collaborations discussed in this book entailed some form of film collection. The first theorists of film collecting responded to the suggestion that film was a new universal medium: a purveyor of universal truths and an envoy for universally intelligible images, or, more commonly, a new universal language. Advisers to presidents and monarchs viewed the universal dimension of film as a threat to state or institutionally authorized history. They quickly saw...

  6. 2 OVERLAPPING PUBLICS: HOLLYWOOD AND COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, 1915
    (pp. 41-62)

    After the publication of The Art of the Moving Picture, Vachel Lindsay enjoyed some success as a public film theorist. He lectured on film at the Chicago Art Institute; he wrote a few articles on film for the New Republic; and he began work on a second book of film theory.¹ The Art of the Moving Picture was even adopted, as Lindsay himself boasted, by the first college-level film courses in the United States at Columbia University. Following Lindsay’s suggestions, Columbia’s faculty immediately addressed the task of creating university-approved standards of filmmaking and film viewing, and their efforts found the...

  7. 3 MANDARINS AND MARXISTS: HARVARD AND THE RISE OF FILM EXPERTS
    (pp. 63-96)

    Although film industry leaders since Edison had paid lip service to placing films in universities, it is surprising that Hollywood producers and Columbia University faculty members found enough common ground to put a plan into practice, especially as early as 1915. After the establishment of the Columbia program, both movie producers and Ivy League professors continued to hold on to the hope that a university film school and film collection could help them influence the successful film industry, even if the two groups continued to have different motives. More than a decade passed before Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor embarked...

  8. 4 IRIS BARRY, HOLLYWOOD IMPERIALISM, AND THE GENDER OF THE NATION
    (pp. 97-122)

    In 1933 the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design, Philip Johnson, met the British film critic Iris Barry (born Crump) at a party in New York, most likely held at the apartment/salon of their mutual friends Kirk and Constance Askew. Johnson promptly offered Barry a job starting a library at the Museum of Modern Art. Barry had some experience as a librarian; she had worked for a short period in the library of the School of Oriental Studies in London. But the post was, more accurately, a form of patronage for a writer who...

  9. 5 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART AND THE ROOTS OF THE CULTURAL COLD WAR
    (pp. 123-160)

    Film museums, libraries, and collections were first theorized and tested in the name of nationalism, as interventions either for or against the spread and preservation of American culture after World War I. They were realized (we will see in this chapter and the next) when the definition and dissemination of American culture became an important element in the war to defend democracy against the threats of communism and fascism. As a result, film museums, libraries, and collections found their enduring, nationalistic function during World War II, and they became full-blown weapons in the cultural cold war.

    Much of the debate...

  10. 6 THE POLITICS OF PATRONAGE: HOW THE NEA (ACCIDENTALLY) CREATED AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE FILM
    (pp. 161-204)

    With the help of the Museum of Modern Art, Hollywood film became an American national art form. This chapter turns to what is in some ways the coda to that history: the fate of American avant-garde film after Hollywood film became museum art. MoMA and other major institutions of American culture, we will see, rejected avant-garde film from the 1940s though the late 1960s. In turn, a movement of avant-garde filmmakers created an alternate system of institutions in an attempt to usurp Hollywood’s role as American national film. This history reveals much about the political and aesthetic decisions that brought...

  11. CONCLUSION: THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE STUDIO SYSTEM
    (pp. 205-212)

    Collaborations between Hollywood and cultural institutions belong to the golden era of the studio system. Like the other constituent elements of that period, such collaborations were transformed during the transition from the studio system to what has been called the New Hollywood, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The Supreme Court’s decision that studios should divest themselves of movie theater chains, as well as the popularity of television and the increasing importance of international ticket sales, among many other factors, forced the American film industry to undergo significant restructuring. The studios continued to exist but the system changed. The New...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 213-252)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 253-276)