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Hollywood As Historian

Hollywood As Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context

Edited by Peter C. Rollins
Copyright Date: 1983
Edition: 1
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood As Historian
    Book Description:

    Motion picture images have influenced the American mind since the earliest days of film, and many thoughtful people are becoming ever more concerned about that influence, as about the pervasive influence of television. In eras of economic instability and international conflict, the film industry has not hesitated to use motion pictures for definite propaganda purposes. During less troubled times, the American citizen's ability to deal with political and social issues has been enhanced or thwarted by images absorbed in the nation's theatres.Hollywood As Historiantracks the interaction of Americans with important motion picture productions. Considered are such topics as racial and sexual stereotyping, censorship of films, comedy as a tool for social criticism, the influence of great men and their screen images, and the use of film to interpret history. Opportunities for future study are suggested for those who wish to conduct their own examinations of American film in a cultural context.

    Hollywood As Historianbenefits from a variety of approaches. Literary and historical influences are carefully related toThe Birth of a Nation(1915) andApocalypse Now(1979), two highly tendentious epics of war and cultural change. How political beliefs of filmmakers affected cinematic styles is illuminated in a short survey of documentary films made during the Great Depression. Historical distance has helped analysts to decode messages unintended by filmmakers in the study ofThe Snake Pit(1948) andDr. Strangelove(1964). While pluralism of approach has been encouraged, balance has also been a goal: a concern for institutional and thematic considerations never obscures matters of film aesthetics. In twelve chapters dealing with more than sixteen films,Hollywood As Historianoffers a versatile text for classes in popular culture, American studies, film history, or film as history. The visual awareness promoted by this text has immediate application, in that students can begin to consider the impact of motion pictures (and television) on their own lives.

    The films considered:The Birth of a Nation(1915),The Plow that Broke the Plains(1936),The River(1937),March of Time(1935-1953),City Lights(1931),Modern Times(1936),The Great Dictator(1940),The Grapes of Wrath(1940),Native Land(1942),Wilson(1944),The Negro Soldier(1944),The Snake Pit(1948),On the Waterfront(1954),Dr. Strangelove(1964),Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966), andApocalypse Now(1979).

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4864-9
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)

    IF A PICTURE, AS WE GENERALLY AGREE, IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS, then amotion pictureor a movie, is worth millions of words because it iswords in action.Pictures as history are exceptionally effective because, although words lie flat and dormant to some readers (indeed to a certain extent toallreaders), it is difficult to miss messages carried in a motion picture as it explains a historical period or event—the historical message, the background, the setting, language, and incidental details. Most difficult of all to overlook is the power of the art. Indeed, the aesthetic power...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    HOLLYWOOD'S MYTHS AND SYMBOLS ARE PERMANENT FEATURES OF America’s historical consciousness. In an obvious way, strictly historical films have recreated dramatic struggles—or revived historical personalities. For this collection, such films are represented by D.W. Griffith’sThe Birth of a Nation(1915) and Darryl Zanuck’sWilson(1944). Not satisfied with merely depicting the past, Hollywood has often attempted to influence history by turning out films consciously designed to change public attitudes toward matters of social or political importance. To illuminate this persuasive political role, classic New Deal documentaries are considered; in addition, this anthology includes a very detailed study of...

  6. CHAPTER 1. Cultural History Written with Lightning: The Significance of The Birth of a Nation (1915)
    (pp. 9-19)

    ON FEBRUARY 20, 1915, DAVID WARK GRIFFITH’S LONG FILM,The Clansmanwas shown in New York City. One of the spectators was Thomas Dixon, the author of the novel from which it was taken, who was moved by the power of the motion picture to shout to the wildly applauding spectators that its title would have to be changed. To match the picture’s greatness, he suggested, its name should beThe Birth of a Nation.¹ Only by a singular distortion of meaning could the film be interpreted as the story of a country’s genesis; the birth it did herald was...

  7. CHAPTER 2. Problems in Film History: How Fox Innovated Sound
    (pp. 20-31)

    THE COMING OF SOUND TO HOLLYWOOD, AND SUBSEQUENTLY TO THE REST of the world, provides an important demarcation in the history of cinema. Yet even with the addition of two recent books, film scholars still understand little of how this transition took place as anindustrialtransformation.¹ Questions concerning the introduction of sound as business history continue to be ignored because of, we are told, a paucity of data. One significant example lies in the experience of Fox Film, the U.S. company which innovated sound-on-film recording and reproduction, the process still used for most prints and in most theatres today....

  8. CHAPTER 3. Ideology and Film Rhetoric: Three Documentaries of the New Deal Era (1936-1941)
    (pp. 32-48)

    THE PRECEPT OF AESTHETICS THAT FORM AND CONTENT ARE INEXTRICABLY related also applies to the art of film. While all filmmakers are aware of this principle, very few film scholars have taken it seriously. For this reason, film scholarship could profit from more attention to a basic distinction between thematic and cinematic elements of film. The theme of a film is the central idea around which it is constructed. The themes of the Thirties documentaries here examined are readily stated:The Riverstrives to show that uncoordinated industrial exploitation has so abused the ecological system of the Mississippi Valley that...

  9. CHAPTER 4. Fighting Words: City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940)
    (pp. 49-67)

    “THE ART OF LIFE ISFIRSTTO BE ALIVE,” STRESSED Alfred North Whitehead, “secondlyto be alive in a satisfactory way, andthirdlyto acquire an increase in satisfaction.”¹ Chaplin’s artistic task, in part, was to keep faith with Whitehead’s “threefold urge.”² The tramp’s first cause was his empty stomach and the physical effort to fill and appease it. But even when the immediate peril was to his spirit rather than to his body, the tramp was most eloquent when he expressed his need in terms of the materials of bare survival. “First to be alive” was the most compelling...

  10. CHAPTER 5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Thematic Emphasis through Visual Style
    (pp. 68-87)

    SINCE ITS RELEASE IN 1940, THE FILM VERSION OFTHE GRAPES OF Wrathhas attracted enormous and enduring critical and popular attention.¹ Yet, in some ways it has also remained a neglected film, a film obscured by the shadow of its illustrious parentage (John Ford out of John Steinbeck) and by its generic absorption into that body of culturally significant art representative of and concerned with Depression America. Certainly,The Grapes of Wrathwas and still is a highly visible film; its popularity as a “classic” is evidenced by its frequent appearance on prestigious commercial television series, at cinema club...

  11. CHAPTER 6. History with Lightning: The Forgotten Film Wilson (1944)
    (pp. 88-108)

    WOODROW WILSON LOVED THE MOVIES. ONE OF THE FIRST HE EVER SAW was D. W. Griffith’s momentous Civil War epicBirth Of A Nation(1915), which supposedly drew from the President the remark, “It is like writing history with lightning.” Thereafter, Wilson went to the motion picture theater occasionally, sharing a pastime which became increasingly popular with Americans during his administration. In the last months of his presidency, while recovering from a paralytic stroke, he saw movies in the East Room as part of the diversionary therapy which his doctors prescribed.¹ As he sat convalescing, broken by the strain of...

  12. CHAPTER 7 The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White
    (pp. 109-133)

    After years during which blacks and police engaged in pitched battles in small Southern towns and large Northern cities, Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General under Lyndon B. Johnson, termed television “the central means of making a private moral conviction public, of impelling people all over to see and confront ideas they otherwise would turn away from.” Black activists considered television, in the words of a network producer, “the chosen instrument of the black revolution.”¹ But television was not the first electronic medium used to further social change. The United States Army’s orientation film,The Negro Soldier,released in January 1944, is...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Snake Pit (1948): The Sexist Nature of Sanity
    (pp. 134-158)

    IN THE DECADE FOLLOWING THE FIRST WORLD WAR, FREUDIANISM HAD become virtually pandemic as psychoanalysis was applied to literature, the arts, the law, education, history, and social criticism. Grace Adams insisted: “Psychoanalysis, which had begun its existence as a method of curing neurosis, was becoming in America a veritable psychosis itself.” But psychoanalysis lacked a vocabulary with which to explain or cure the profound economic crisis America experienced during the Great Depression. As a result, public interest in psychology, as measured in a survey of theReaders’ Guide to Periodical Literature, fell as dramatically as economic output. The failure of...

  14. CHAPTER 9. Ambivalence as a Theme in On the Waterfront (1954): An Interdisciplinary Approach to Film Study
    (pp. 159-189)

    THE STUDY OF FILM IN AMERICAN CULTURE POSES SOME INTERESTING challenges to the person using an interdisciplinary method. First, as an historical document, film has contextual connections with the contemporary world. The people who make a film bring to the project their own interests and attitudes, and these various perspectives, when added to the collaborative process, forge a product which resonates in some way with society. Second, as a work of art, film requires textual analysis similar to drama, photography, painting, and music. But as an aesthetic object which combines different artistic media into a single experience, film requires an...

  15. CHAPTER 10. Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus
    (pp. 190-210)

    DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB(Stanley Kubrick, 1964) is one of the most fascinating and important American films of the 1960s. As a sensitive artistic response to its age, the film presents a moral protest of revulsion against the dominant cultural paradigm in America—what Geoffrey Hodgson has termed the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.¹ Appearing at roughly the same time as other works critical of the dominant paradigm—Catch 22is a good literary example of the stance—Dr. Strangelovepresented an adversary view of society which was to become much more...

  16. CHAPTER 11. A Test of American Film Censorship: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
    (pp. 211-229)

    AMERICAN FILM CENSORSHIP IS ALMOST AS OLD AS AMERICAN FILM ITSELF. Municipal censorship boards were first formed in 1907, state boards in 1911. Their constitutionality was upheld by an influential 1915 United States Supreme Court decision that regarded motion pictures as “a business pure and simple . . . capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition.”¹ In 1922, film industry executives, seriously threatened by legislation pending against them, turned almost desperately to self-regulation. Representatives of the major Hollywood studios created the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now called...

  17. CHAPTER 12. Apocalypse Now (1979): Joseph Conrad and the Television War
    (pp. 230-245)

    IN HIS INTRODUCTION TO THE PROGRAM NOTES OFAPOCALYPSE NOW,Francis Coppola states the dual intention of his film, implying, through use of the journey archetype, the role Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was to play:

    The most important thing I wanted to do in the making ofApocalypse Nowwas to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war . . . . I tried to illustrate as many of its different facets as possible. And yet I wanted it to...

  18. CHAPTER 13. Film, Television, and American Studies: A 1998 Update
    (pp. 246-269)

    MOTION PICTURES HAVE SHAPED OUR MINDS AND TELEVISION IS NOW SHAPING the minds of our students. During the summer months of 1997, the major television networks wrangled with Congress over a new rating system; this debate will continue because parents, preachers, citizens, and legislators fear the pervasive impact of visual media. Many theatergoers are alarmed about the gratuitous violence of very popular films, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’sTerminator(1984),True Lies(1994), andEraser(1996) and Bruce Willis’sDie Hard1, 2, and 3. Moving from art to life in 1997, Oliver Stone’sNatural Born Killers(1994) was mentioned by...

  19. Film Data and Purchase Sources
    (pp. 270-272)
  20. Contributors
    (pp. 273-275)
  21. Index
    (pp. 276-288)