Movie-Made America
Trapped in his own contradiction

by Russell Campbell

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, p. 67
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (NY: Random House, 1975), $12.95, hardcover.

Midway through his social history of U.S. film, Robert Sklar writes:

The youth culture of the 1960’s, exhibited the tragicomic contradiction of proclaiming its liberation from the bourgeois culture of its parents while at the same time uncritically embracing the bourgeois myths of movies past and present—an up-to-date version of the old middle-class American desire to have it both ways.”

The curious thing about Movie-Made America is that Sklar himself is trapped in this contradiction, displaying a naiveté but one step removed from that of a Jerry Rubin adopting Robin Hood movies as models for the second American Revolution. Sklar, in love with the products of the Hollywood dream machine, tries hard to persuade himself and us that such a love is politically justified—while continually colliding with the hard facts that prove it’s not.

His thesis is presented haphazardly, but it may be patched together as follows. Movies, he argues, have worked to subvert traditional bourgeois values in U.S. society. The reasons for this are, first, that the movie moguls tended to be of Jewish immigrant origin. Second, movie audiences contained, prior to television and especially in the beginning, a large working class component. Evidence to support the thesis is provided, he suggests, by the long battles waged by the custodians of “official” morality against movies on the censorship front.

Thus Sklar announces in his preface

The movies were the first medium of entertainment and cultural information to be controlled by men who did not share the ethnic or religious backgrounds of the traditionally cultural elites: that fact has dominated their entire history.... Now for the first time, power to influence the culture had been grasped by a group of men whose origins and whose means were different.” To bolster this argument, he efficiently chronicles the well known story of the rise to power of Zukor, Fox, Lasky, Laemmle, the Warners, et al.

But if the producers of the movies came from outside the mainstream of traditional culture, the audiences for their creations were also distinct—they were significantly proletarian in character. “The motion pictures came to life in the United States,” according to Sklar, “when they made contact with working-class needs and desires.” And even after movies broadened their base, winning new patronage from the middle classes, “their prosperity continued to rest on a foundation of working-class support.”

It was because the audiences for movies in the beginning were proletarian that the guardians of bourgeois values felt impelled to intervene:

The urban workers, the immigrants and the poor had discovered a new medium of entertainment without the aid, and indeed beneath the notice, of the custodians and arbiters of middleclass culture.”

But the repressive efforts of such “enemies of movies,” such “spokesmen and spokeswomen of the dominant order” to whom “the movies stood in direct opposition to respectable American values and institutions” proved unavailing. In consequence,

American movies, through much of their span, have altered or challenged many of the values and doctrines of powerful social and cultural forces in American society, providing alternative ways of understanding the world.”

There are, unfortunately, many facts that run counter to this appealing hypothesis, and Sklar, conscientious historian that he is, is the first to admit them. Somehow, though, the theory keeps reasserting itself. The weight of evidence is outbalanced by the emotional satisfaction to be derived from a mythical confrontation between underdog and overlord, with the underdog, of course, emerging triumphant.

Consider, first, the mogul origin argument. The facts about the big Jewish studio bosses are not in dispute. What is important to remember, however, is that they constituted a second generation of executives. As Sklar points out,

The men who ran the motion-picture industry in its first decade closely resembled the average American businessman at the beginning of the twentieth century.”

What Sklar would need to do, to demonstrate the significance of the origins of the studio heads in determining movie content, would be to detect a shift in stance away from respectable values consequent to the shift in power away from the pioneer producers. This he doesn't attempt, and I suspect it can't be done.

One popular genre of pre-World War I movies, for example, dealt with oppression in Czarist Russia and resistance to it. Of the 40 or so films in this class, undoubtedly the toughest in terms of endorsing violent revolt was the first, THE NIHILISTS (1905). in which the girl heroine blows up a governor and his palace. This film was produced by Biograph, run at the time, as Sklar points out, by the upstate New York manufacturer Henry Marvin and the Englishman W. K. L. Dickson.

It has also to be determined whether the studio heads can be credited with a decisive voice in the content of films when the creative work was done by the writers, directors, producers, actors, and technicians they hired. Some studio bosses were certainly much more than administrators: Darryl F. Zanuck, for example, was hyperactive as writer, producer and editor—but then Zanuck was a Methodist from Wahoo, Nebraska. In general, however, studio heads were probably less influential in shaping movie content than their employees were.

Insofar as the Jewish origin of the studio bosses was a determining factor in the orientation of U.S. movies, a case can be made for its being in a direction quite the opposite from the one Sklar proposes. Striving to be accepted within the bourgeois world, the Jewish moguls pushed their movies towards respectability and conformity—Zukor with his FAMOUS PLAYERS IN FAMOUS PLAYS, Mayer with his ultraconservative family portraits, David O. Selznick with his versions of the classics. Less dignified films, such as the wacky comedies Sklar lauds as “subverting authority and social control,” tended to be made by producers like Mack Sennett, securely within the cultural mainstream.

There are also problems in according a decisively influential role to the lower-class constitution of the movie audience. Actually, proletarian audiences were dominant only for about a decade in the history of the movies—the period of the storefront theaters from about 1905. Prior to that, movies were shown at vaudeville theaters, which had, as Sklar points out, mainly middle-class patronage. After the emergence of the feature film and the conventional motion picture theater, the middle class again became at least as important as the working class as audience. So if movies propagated subversive values to appeal to a distinct class, this could only have occurred for a few years prior to World War I. Once again, Sklar is forced to concede the issue:

In the realm of motion-picture attendance, the class distinctions of American society began slowly to fade. The earlier hopes of the cultivated classes were at least partially attained when feature pictures conveyed their values to the lower orders.”

Casting the censors and reformers in the role of villains, although an easy move to make, also tends to obscure complex issues of motion picture content. Sklar asserts that the real desire of these men and women was

to control access to information so as to limit the ability of the lower classes to gain knowledge about the social system in which they live” .

He adds, “The struggle over movies ... was an aspect of the struggle between the classes.” Sklar seems to imply in his romantic vision that were it not for the restraining influence of the assorted guardians of public morality, Hollywood would have unleashed a pack of proletarian dramas and biting satires on capitalism. Actually, of course, debates over the portrayal of crime, violence and sex on the screen cannot be transposed so simply into political terms. And the relaxation of censorship in recent years has worked mainly to allow freer expression of sadistic and misogynistic traits in U.S. bourgeois culture.

On a theoretical level, then, Movie-Made America is of dubious value. It does have considerable merit, however, simply in gathering together in one volume a mass of information concerning the ways movies have been produced, distributed, exhibited and censored in this country. If little of this data is new, it is at least accurate, and one or two new perspectives are opened up. (Sklar notes, for example, that when movie companies first moved to Hollywood, Los Angeles was well known as “the nation’s leading open-shop, nonunion city.” )

His command over the social history of the medium should have provided Sklar with an invaluable contextual background for his studies of individual filmmakers. He deals at length with Griffith, Chaplin, Disney and Capra, but his actual film criticism is disappointingly pedestrian. This failing, coupled with the book’s conceptual limitations, mean that Movie-Made America is of use only as a factual introductory text. We still await sophisticated, radical analyses of Hollywood and its often beguiling inflections of bourgeois ethics and aesthetics.