Screening out the past

by Eli Zaretsky

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 66-67
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Lary May, Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980)

One of the keys to understanding our society lies in the corporate industrial transformation that took place between 1890-1920. Within a generation the United States changed from a nation of farmers and petty owners to a nation of workers, immigrants, and housewives. Most accounts of the period center on the reformers — the "Progressives" — who sought to rationalize industry, abolish child labor, and uphold morality in the urban environment. While there have been accounts of immigrants, labor, and feminism in this period, there has never been a synthesis which presented the diverse class forces of modern liberal America in a structured relation to one another. It is evidence of the importance of the movies to understanding twentieth-century United States that social historian Lary May's history of the industry in the epoch of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille in fact takes an important step toward such a synthesis.

In his well-known article "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," art historian Erwin Panofsky argued that

"films — first exhibited in 'kinetoscopes,' viz., cinematographic peep shows, but projectable to a screen as early as 1894 — are, originally, a product of genuine folk art."

Panofsky stressed, as did Robert Sklar, Liz Ewen, and other historians of the movies, the extent to which U.S. movies emerged out of the needs and values of immigrant Americans in the early twentieth century. At the same time, the movies were also big business almost from the first and few cultural forms have been so rigidly controlled through both money and censorship. The particular value of May's book is in showing how the "folk art" aspect of the movies contributed to, and was ultimately subordinated by, the "social control" aspect.

According to May, a child in a late nineteenth-century U.S. town

"had by fourteen a culture … He had made himself by easy and natural experience part of a conscious, an organized, a unified society."

This culture, which May calls Victorianism, was a class-based culture but it was transmitted as part of a way-of life in which work, family, and community were more or less integrated. By contrast, the mass culture which developed in the early part of the twentieth century is the culture of a fragmented society. In spite of being more democratic and less elitist, mass culture rests on the fragmented or alienated character of twentieth-century working-class life and on the "serialization" of the audience — the destruction of the primary ties, identifications, and communal sentiments that held small-town culture together. The audience of a mass society may come together to watch a movie, but they do not share a common experience, as the nineteenth-century opera, burlesque, lecture, or circus audience did. May sums up the transformation of rural, Victorian United States with a story from one memoirist, Henry Seidel Canby, who returned home in the 1920s to learn that his opera house had been turned into a movie theatre.

A critical aspect of this transformation was the radical separation of the family from the place of work; the family became the locus of modern personal life. This structural fact had important consequences for both the "folk art" and "social control" perspectives on the movies. From the "folk art" point of view, movies reflected the aspirations of twentieth-century men and women toward freedom and meaning in their personal lives, as well as being one form in which those aspirations were met.

From the "social control" point of view, Progressive reformers, spurred by a fear of ethnic and cultural fragmentation, sought to reestablish common cultural norms such as had existed a generation earlier. Movie censorship, of such great importance to the history of the movies, emerged out of the same "reform" impetus which produced prohibition, the crusades against prostitution, the playground movement, and other efforts to regulate the morality of the young. Such Progressive intellectuals as Edward Ross, Simon Patten, and Hugo Munsterberg — among the founders of U.S. social psychology — saw the efficacy of film as a form of social control. Because of its hypnotic power, because it did not need language, and because it occupied the newly created realm of leisure, film was strategic to the creation of the compensatory pseudo-unification that the "classless realm" of leisure offers. Sociologist Edward Ross was only one of the many intellectuals who saw the power of mass culture to encourage the acquiescence of the working class in the corporate capitalist regime by encouraging a focus on leisure and the family. According to Ross,

"Popular art does not precipitate us into the class struggle. The conflict is not so much between the warring classes as it is the two sides of human nature — appetite and will, impulse and reason, inclination and idea. Here if anywhere is the place for ethical considerations. Leisure is a conscious matter. To acquaint young people with the good or ill effects of different varieties of recreation on the higher self is the surest way to wean them from what is frivolous and debasing."

Intellectuals such as Ross supplied the underlying rationale for censorship by stressing the power of ideas and communication to bring together a society in danger of fragmentation. Social work journals such as The Survey carried frequent articles on the importance of the movies. One reformer argued that film was "five times more powerful than any other form of communication." Film spoke directly to the subconscious, the nervous system, the realm of instinct and emotion. Its power to stir up emotions, especially sexuality, was equaled by its power to calm the masses and woo them from vice. The movies could function, wrote one reformer, as a "grand social worker," allowing the viewer to go home and "sleep the sleep of the just."

Although May does not argue this point, the early producers were almost all upwardly rising immigrants who shared these values and wanted to make of the movies something acceptable and native-born. Harry Cohn was the son of a German immigrant tailor; Sam Goldwyn was born Goldfish in Warsaw; Jesse Lasky was the son of a poor shoe salesman; Carl Laemmle was the son of a German estate agent; Marcus Loew, the son of an Austrian waiter; Louis Mayer, the son of a Hebrew scholar; Joseph Schenck, an immigrant from Germany; the Warner brothers were sons of poor cobblers. Besides being anxious to make money, these were men who sought to prove themselves in the United States and to create an industry that would win acceptance by the native elite.

By placing movies in this context, centered on the transformation of traditional culture and the family, May is able to show the underlying unity in a series of apparently unrelated phases of film history: especially the work of D.W. Griffith, the films of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and the work of Cecil B. DeMille. Along the way, he illuminates such related phenomena as the comedies of Mack Sennett, the building of the movie houses during the 1920s, and the development of Hollywood.

In May's perspective, Griffith was able to synthesize the "folk" and "social control" strands that went into the creation of the movies. Griffith was a southern Democrat, a lover of Dickens, a correspondent of Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan; he was a believer in the "little ran" as well as being a visionary believer in the movies. As Griffith wrote:

"Are we not making the world safe for democracy? American democracy, through motion pictures? The increase of knowledge, the shattering of old superstitions, the sense of beauty have all gone forward with the progress 'of the screen. Our heroes are always democratic. The ordinary virtues of American life triumph. No Toryism. No Socialism."

Earlier films, Griffith believes, supplied mere titillation; he understood that movies must have a social and ethical content. Hence Griffith grasped the importance of narrative, for it is only through telling a story that one can make an ethical point. It was Griffith's desire to have film tell a story, as Dickens had told stories, that led him to his breakthroughs in editing technique, a point May does not make. Griffith believed the masses needed and wanted stories to uplift and educate them, stories that would reward virtue and punish vice. He believed that the movies could make history — the greatest of all stories — and high culture available to the masses. Above all, he appreciated the continued centrality of the family and of women to mass culture and sought to exploit their emotional resonance.

In my view, May overestimates the reactionary or "Victorian" element of the period of Griffith's hegemony. May relates his work to a debate among U.S. historians over whether the Progressives represented the outlook of the "small producers" of the nineteenth century (Griffith) or the "new middle classes" of the twentieth (DeMille). The great value of May's account, however, is that by stressing structural factors, he transcends this merely empirical effort to characterize what were, after all, a narrow stratum of Americans. May strikingly shows the continuity between Griffith's uplifting epics and the adventures and bedroom comedies which followed. The idealization of the family during the Progressive era, evident in Griffith's films, included considerable encouragement for experimentation, sexual liberation, and women's equality, evident in DeMille's films. The new currents of modernism were congruent with the working-class ideal of the family as a "classless realm" of personal freedom and expression.

May's chapter on Fairbanks and Pickford is, for me, the highlight of the book. Fairbanks represented the new man, continually escaping the routine of the office for romantic adventure in the American West, Latin America, or Europe. At a time when American men were being reduced to cogs in an assembly line or bureaucracy, Fairbanks showed that men had a new product to offer  — their personalities and, above all, their bodies. Fairbanks was always smiling and was in constant motion. He said:

"Whenever we find that we are losing our ability to smile, let's have no false illusions. We are neglecting our physical well-being. Let us right then and there drop the sombre thoughts and … run down the street and if possible into the country."

On the other hand, Mary Pickford represented the new woman. She was spunky and independent, a self-proclaimed working girl. She met a lot of men and she wanted to marry one on a basis of love, mutual respect, and sexual attraction. She held to the new ideal of marriage as a realm of pleasure and consumption rather than as a "way of life" organized around production. Pickford's popularity is akin, in May's interpretation, to Theda Bara's vamp: Bara noted how many letters she received from married women who identified with her rather than with the spurned housewife.

Although May does not develop this point, the enormous popularity of Mary Pickford is especially revealing of the power of the movie industry to absorb and deflect critical tendencies in the society and turn them toward the end of social control. The Progressive era witnessed the final achievement of such reforms as suffrage and protection for working women, for which feminists had struggled for generations. Feminism also inspired a new ideal of marriage to be based on equality between men and women, on intimacy and frankness, and even on sexual pleasure for both sexes. The women's movement, in spite of its puritanical side, had led the way in the late nineteenth-century "repeal of reticence." And small but significant feminist tendencies in Greenwich Village and elsewhere drew on psychoanalysis, as well as feminism, to encourage women's demand for sexual satisfaction within marriage. Of course, the most important reform associated with these ideas was the legitimation of birth control.

Mary Pickford's incredible popularity by the early 1920s reflected the extension of these admittedly new and somewhat elitist ideals to the U.S. working class. As these ideals were extended, they lost their meaning. The difficult goal of equality and sexual love within marriage, with all it demands both of individual personality and social order, was trivialized to become a more or less titillating romance, in which consuming objects and being watched had become the highest forms of excitement.

Pickford was "sweet" like her nineteenth-century predecessors but she was also a "new woman," a working girl. She wrote:

"I like to see my own sex achieve. My success has been due to the fact that women like the pictures in which I appear. I think I admire most in the world the girls who earn their own living. I am proud to be one of them."

As such, she broke from the Victorian mode of purity. Drawing on her work experience, she was aware of men, aware of sex, and even sometimes aware of social problems, as in her TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY (1914), in which she led a poacher's rebellion against the local sheriff. Above all, however, like Fairbanks she maintained the image of perpetual youth. She wrote:

"We are our own sculptors. Who can deny that passion and unkind thoughts show on the lines and expressions of our faces young people seldom have these vices until they start getting old, so I love to be with them. The impulses of youth are natural and good."

The triumph of her career, like Fairbanks's, was not in any movie but in their modem marriage and their famous Hollywood estate, Pickfair. In May's description, Pickfair was

"… a consumer's paradise that resembled an innocent doll's house …  Swimming pools, gyms, fountains and cultivated lawns supplied a private 'vacation land.' Inside, the couple decorated each room in the motif of a foreign country, so that the movement from one part of the house to another provided exotic adventure. In this kingdom of eternal youth, Doug and Mary highlighted continual newness by dipping into their vast wardrobes of stylish clothes for each of the day's activities: work, sports, dining, dancing, and parties. It followed that whenever the two sat for photographs, their smiles radiated happiness. A typical reporter described the Pickfair life as 'the most successful and famous marriage that the world has ever known.'"

As May shows, the identification of modern marriage with consumerism deepened during the twenties with the building of movie houses in which each patron was the star and with the building of a whole city — Los Angeles — in which the fantasies of utopian consumption were lived out in the glare of longed-for publicity. The "ever-youthful personalities" created by the star system, with their "palatial homes and lavish wardrobes containing hundreds of suits and shoes," showed an admiring public that "becoming self-made had taken a new form." The stars owed their success not to intelligence, achievement, or power but simply to their capacity to entertain people and make them happy. In this they were children, their narcissism mirroring and inciting the narcissism of their public, who democratically sought to live out the "lavish lifestyles" of their heroes and heroines. As actress Betty Blythe said when she looked at herself in the mirror in her first elaborate gown:

"I saw my body. I saw my legs, my torso, my long, long arms. I said, is that I? … I had never looked at my body as a piece of statuary … I had this marvelous feeling; it was most extraordinary. I can still feel the chills all over my body."

Needless to say, the new ideal of a perpetually youthful marriage or "lifestyle" represented a defeat of the long nineteenth-century struggle for a meaningful marriage and not its fulfillment. Although this is not the place to make the argument, it is likely that the "sexiness" of the "new woman" of the 1920s with the accompanying coyness and transience of the image also represented a decline in the hopes for passionate sexual relations to be found in the literature of the early twentieth century.

May is not the first historian to see expressed in the movies the compensatory fantasies of the depowered masses. Nor is he the first to understand that the movies were the agent of explicit social control. May's contents on Lillian Gish's Victorianism, Theda Bara's vamp, Mary Pickford's "new woman," and Gloria Swanson's bedroom appeal are not in themselves original. What is original, however, is May's ability to synthesize these and other scattered and sometimes contradictory insights into a coherent and plausible whole, whose central theme is the emergence of the modern working class. True to the conventions of academic history, May is often not explicit about his assumptions and central argument. At points, he confuses the issue by relating his material to the aforementioned debate over Progressivism, which his framework really renders trivial. But these are small faults.

In 1936 Walter Benjamin linked film to the "tremendous shattering of tradition" that occurs with modern capitalist society, and he wrote, with the Nazis in mind,

"The growing proletarianization of modern man and increasing formation of the masses are two aspects of the same process." [1]

The problem of the relation of mass culture to the proletarianization and depoliticization of the twentieth-century working class remains as critical today as it was in the 1930s of Benjamin's essay, May's book is an important contribution to this question.


1. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books), p. 241.