Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Reconstructing American Historical Cinema

Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane

J. E. Smyth
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 464
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Reconstructing American Historical Cinema
    Book Description:

    In Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane, J. E. Smyth dramatically departs from the traditional understanding of the relationship between film and history. By looking at production records, scripts, and contemporary reviews, Smyth argues that certain classical Hollywood filmmakers were actively engaged in a self-conscious and often critical filmic writing of national history. Her volume is a major reassessment of American historiography and cinematic historians from the advent of sound to the beginning of wartime film production in 1942. Focusing on key films such as Cimarron (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), Ramona (1936), A Star Is Born (1937), Jezebel (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), Stagecoach (1939), and Citizen Kane (1941), Smyth explores historical cinema's connections to popular and academic historigraphy, historical fiction, and journalism, providing a rich context for the industry's commitment to American history. Rather than emphasizing the divide between American historical cinema and historical writing, Smyth explores the continuities between Hollywood films and history written during the first four decades of the twentieth century, from Carl Becker's famous "Everyman His Own Historian" to Howard Hughes's Scarface to Margaret Mitchell and David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind. Hollywood's popular and often controversial cycle of historical films from 1931 to 1942 confronted issues as diverse as frontier racism and women's experiences in the nineteenth-century South, the decline of American society following the First World War, the rise of Al Capone, and the tragic history of Hollywood's silent era. Looking at rarely discussed archival material, Smyth focuses on classical Hollywood filmmakers' adaptation and scripting of traditional historical discourse and their critical revision of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American history. Reconstructing American Historical Cinema uncovers Hollywood's diverse and conflicted attitudes toward American history. This text is a fundamental challenge the prevailing scholarship in film, history, and cultural studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7147-0
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Toward a Filmic Writing of History in Classical Hollywood
    (pp. 1-24)

    When D. W. Griffith published his defense of historical filmmaking in 1916, there was little doubt why he believed that filmmaker-historians needed a spokesman. Public controversy had yet to subside over his Civil War and Reconstruction epicThe Birth of a Nation(1915). Although Griffith had already filmed eleven southern period pictures, includingThe Honor of His Family(1909),His Trust(1910), andThe Battle(1911), he had never before made such lengthy, complex, and controversial use of American history. Griffith’s decision to venture into major American historical filmmaking was undoubtedly prompted by the success of Thomas Ince’sThe Battle...

  6. One: Traditional and Modern American History

    • 1 The New American History: Cimarron, 1931
      (pp. 27-56)

      In April 1929, film critic and playwright Robert E. Sherwood predicted that Hollywood’s adaptation to sound cinema would improve the overall quality of motion pictures and, more particularly, increase the power of screenwriters. Convinced that “the writer will now be boosted into a position of importance that is equivalent, at least, to that of the director,” Sherwood could look back on the American cinema’s silent past without regret.¹ His colleagues, critics Gilbert Seldes, Rudolf Arnheim, and Béla Bálazs, were not so sanguine and gloomily prepared for the word’s tyranny over the image.² The studios’ 1929 season did little to dispel...

    • 2 Contemporary History in the Age of Scarface, 1932
      (pp. 57-86)

      Darryl F. Zanuck began working for Warner Brothers in 1924, and by 1929 he had moved from writing Rin Tin Tin scripts to overseeing George Arliss reprise his stage success as Benjamin Disraeli. According to Arliss and Warner Brothers’ publicity department,Disraeli’s historical content was intended to “increase the prestige of talking pictures.”¹ Critics agreed and were pleasantly surprised that a major studio was not always interested in that classic oxymoron, the “public taste.”Varietypraised the film and sniggered, “Some of the peasants won’t get the smartness or appreciate the subtle shades of the Arliss technique, not to mention...

  7. Two: Resolving Westward Expansion

    • 3 Competing Frontiers, 1933–1938
      (pp. 89-114)

      While censorship dismantled the production of historical gangster films, from 1932 to 1935, the studios were equally unable to produce anotherCimarron.For Hollywood, 1931 and 1932 were the worst years of the Depression, and the studios produced few expensive American historical films. Prestige westerns such asThe Big Trail, The Great Meadow,andCimarrongave way to more modest gunfighter adaptations such asDestry Rides Again(1932),Law and Order(1932), andFrontier Marshal(1934). Decades later, film and cultural studies of the western claimed that the genre disappeared with the conversion to sound.¹ Due to the financial “disasters”...

    • 4 The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941
      (pp. 115-138)

      For two weeks in February 1939,New York Timesfilm critic Frank S. Nugent focused onStagecoach.He began, “In one expansive gesture . . . John Ford has swept aside ten years of artifice and talkie compromise and has made a motion picture that sings a song of the camera.” The following week, he amplified Ford’s artistry with the western: “In simple terms, he has taken the old formula . . . and has applied himself and his company to it with the care, zen, and craftsmanship that might have been accorded the treatment of a bright new theme....

  8. Three: Civil War and Reconstruction

    • 5 Jezebels and Rebels, Cavaliers and Compromise, 1930–1939
      (pp. 141-166)

      When Macmillan published Margaret Mitchell’sGone with the Windin June 1936, reviewers compared the author to Tolstoy, Hardy, and Thackeray.¹ Mitchell, usually the soul of courtesy, replied a little starchily that although her mother used to pay her to read serious literature as a girl, even the lure of a quarter had never tempted her to pick upWar and PeaceorVanity Fair.In fact, she read Thackeray only after her own novel was completed and an automobile accident left her with some spare time. In his review for theNew York Evening Post,Hershel Brickell felt that...

    • 6 The Lives and Deaths of Abraham Lincoln, 1930–1941
      (pp. 167-194)

      Although, between 1933 and 1939, fictional southern women enabled Hollywood filmmakers to reinscribe and valorize a persistent historical rebellion within national narratives, Civil War and Reconstruction biographies were almost exclusively the province of men. For a while, Darryl Zanuck had considered Missouri outlaw Belle Starr as the southern people’s “idol, their symbol of revolt” during Reconstruction. Cameron Rogers’s early story outline in September 1938 built on the southern woman rebel tradition: “In a day when the West was a man’s province and the frontiers were sown with the graves of masculine individuals who had gone into action a loud second...

  9. Four: Veterans of Different Wars

    • 7 War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939
      (pp. 197-224)

      Although Civil War and western histories would dominate American historical production by the end of the 1930s, the popular film biographies of bootleggers Terry Druggan, Franky Lake, and Al Capone had served as a source for Hollywood’s future lives of Jesse James and George Armstrong Custer. Prompted to rework the prestige and historical iconography ofAbraham LincolnandCimarron,ironically,ScarfaceandThe Public Enemy’s twentieth-century controversies paved the way for safer nineteenth-century blockbusters. Howard Hughes’s and Darryl Zanuck’s willingness to treat Al Capone and other gangsters with the same historical tools used to film Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton...

    • 8 The Last of the Long Hunters, 1938–1941
      (pp. 225-248)

      In spite of the critics’ negative response toThe Roaring Twenties,Warner Brothers continued to invest in the Great War, releasingThe Fighting 69thin early 1940. As with its westerns and Civil War histories, it solicited the help of Herman Lissauer and the studio’s expanding research library. A vast team of researchers read the military histories of the Shamrock Battalion, the Rainbow Division, the 69th Regiment, and the life of Chaplain Duffy. The studio contacted dozens of 69th veterans in the hope of collecting their obscure war memories, and there were many eager responses.¹ From the beginning, screenwriters Norman...

  10. Five: Hollywood History

    • 9 Stars Born and Lost, 1932–1937
      (pp. 251-278)

      In 1931 Clara Bow, arguably Paramount Studios’ most famous and exploited actress, was ravaged in the rag press during a prolonged and vicious slander suit.¹ Although she returned briefly to the screen to make the successfulCall Her Savage(1932) andHoopla(1933) for Fox, Bow had lost her joy of filmmaking. And in spite of her considerable powers as an actress, her multiple public and personal battles had devastated her box-office reputation. In 1933, despite pleas from loyal friends, Clara Bow retired from the screen.

      Surprisingly, one of her staunchest supporters was producer David O. Selznick, who had gotten...

    • 10 A Hollywood Cavalcade, 1939–1942
      (pp. 279-306)

      In 1939 Hollywood produced an unprecedented twenty-seven major American historical films. It was a year saturated with critical and box-office successes, ranging from adaptations of the classics of English literature (Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din) to sophisticated comedies (Midnight, The Women), modern romances (Ninotchka, Love Affair), and musicals (The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms), but American historical films far outnumbered any other A-level genre or cycle. Darryl Zanuck produced ten of these films, even outdistancing the output of his rivals at Warner Brothers, Paramount, and MGM. Although Twentieth Century–Fox would continue to produce American historical films, the studio...

  11. Conclusion: From Land of Liberty to the Decline and Fall of Citizen Kane
    (pp. 307-340)

    The year 1936 had been a peak one for high-profile American historical productions, but in spite of their diversity and sheer numbers,¹ one disgruntled filmgoer complained to Will Hays and Joseph Breen that no studio had produced a comparable prestige picture about the signing of the Constitution. It was significant that lawyer George W. Nilsson wrote to the two most famous censors in America rather than to a studio head.² After all, the historical foci at Warner Brothers, Paramount, MGM, and Twentieth Century–Fox were the unconventional Barbary Coast, Ziegfeld’s Broadway, rebels such as Samuel Mudd, and poignant mixed-race heroines...

  12. Appendixes
    (pp. 341-366)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 367-412)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 413-434)
  15. Index
    (pp. 435-448)