The social problem film

by Jeremy Butler

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 62-63
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy. The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981, 364 pages, HB $25.00, PB $12.95.


"There's nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive them out into the open." — Veronica Lake, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS

Genre film study currently languishes in an uncertain state. The question of whether or not it is a "respectable" methodology now seems unnecessary. Obviously these most popular of popular art forms can tell us much about ourselves and our culture. But a new group of problems has arisen. What is the conceptual framework of genre study as it has thus far evolved: Warshow, Bazin, Kaminsky, Kitses, McArthur, Everson, et al.? (And why has the Western so dominated analysts' attention?) What theoretical constructs should genre analysis incorporate? And, on a more practical level, who possesses sufficient knowledge of the cinema (history and theory), sociology, United States history, current theories of ideology, semiotics, and, some would contend, psychoanalysis needed to properly analyze U.S. genres in the context of U.S. society?

Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy's The Hollywood Social Problem Film illustrates the difficulties that confront the genre analyst. They begin with two probable, but theoretically unsupported, premises: (1) the "Hollywood social problem film" exists, and (2) it was particularly important during the 1930s and 1940s. These premises originate in the popular, empirically derived conception of the so-called "movie with a message." Roffman and Purdy barely pause to examine the evolution of the problem film concept before they proceed to chronicle it through four historical periods:

  1. the system breaks down: the individual as victim, 1930-1933;
  2. the system upheld: the individual redeemed, 1933-1941;
  3. fascism and war; and
  4. the postwar world.

The methodological trouble now begins in earnest, for their unarticulated assumptions about the cinema and ideology, coupled with the intuited tenets of the problem film genre, tangle about their ankles like a bothersome vine.

"If they want to preach a sermon, let them hire a hall."
— Terry Ramsaye

The definition of a genre, any genre, remains a thorny issue. It goes without saying that definitions are determined by the critic, not inherent in the films, and thus these definitions are ever always delimited by ideology. The most we can hope for is a precise, unambiguous, and systematic set of criteria. For Roffman and Purdy, the social problem film is characterized in this manner:

"The focus of the genre is very specific: The central dramatic conflict revolves around the interaction of the individual with social institutions (such as government, business, political movements, etc.). While the genre places great importance on the surface mechanisms of society, there is only an indirect concern with broader social values (those of the family, sexuality, religion, etc.), the value that function behind the mechanisms." (p. viii)

Throughout this book, "government, business, political movements" are assumed to comprise what are called "politics" and are thus the rightful province of a social problem film analysis. "The family, sexuality, religion" are grouped as "social values," rather than "institutions," and are associated with sentiment and melodrama. The Hollywood social problem film is repeatedly criticized for displacing general "politics" into personal "melodrama." Or, better, politics and sentiment/ melodrama are seen as opposite poles, occasionally conflicting with one another. Consider this comment on Frank Borzage's THREE COMRADES:

"The death imagery and sentimental fatalism so characteristic of Borzage serves to further deemphasize the politics."(p. 210)

Quite the contrary, I would argue, fatalism, sentimentality, and the attitude toward death are the politics of Borzage's film.

Roffman and Purdy's understanding of social problems is based, therefore, on a too-narrow conception of social institutions. They assume the institutions are mere vessels to be filled with social values. Moreover, the social values they name (the family, for example) might well be considered institutions (see Althusser). Ideology (social values) and ideological state apparatuses (social institutions) cannot be so simply separated. Roffman and Purdy claim that the social problem film addresses is only institutions, but they themselves admit, "In a very broad sense, a coherent ideological vision of the world is acted out in every [Hollywood] Formula movie"(p. 6) — hence, in every social problem film. Since ideological criticism is so broad and unmanageable, Roffman and Purdy imply, they will study only the films that deal directly with institutions, not with values. However, this limitation proves to be a difficult one for them to maintain. In the chapter devoted to Frank Capra (more about their vestigial auteurism below), they laud his films because,

"His purpose was to 'integrate ideals and entertainment into a meaningful tale,' so that the films are not so much about politics as they are about people whose crises reflect political viewpoints."(p. 180)

Couldn't the same thing be said about THREE COMRADES, or GONE WITH THE WIND, or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK?

Why do Roffman and Purdy jump from the personal to the general, from sentiment to politics, from values to institutions, with Capra but not with many, many others? One chapter, "The Individual and Society: Darker Views of the Postwar World."(pp. 268-83) is indeed devoted to films which they acknowledge do not even truly belong within the genre — BODY AND SOUL, FORCE OF EVIL, and MONSIEUR VERDOUX. "They are instead films which exhibit a political purpose without treating a limited social situation or problem,"(p. 269) they explain. In contrast, the proper problem film's "function is to present a problem that calls for circumscribed change rather than to call into question some of the deeper values at the foundation of society."(p. 269) In short, the problem film addresses the institution; a film such as FORCES OF EVIL speaks to the supposedly distinct values supporting the institutions. Once again, I must ask, can such a distinction, between institutions and values, be made with any clarity or systematicity? If this distinction eludes us, as I believe it does, then the social problem film "genre" will be forever lacking perimeters.

"In certain pictures I do hope they will leave the cinema a little enriched, but I don't make them pay a buck and a half and then ram a lecture down their throats." — Billy Wilder

Perhaps these definitional criticisms are mere academic pedantry. After all, few genre studies are conscientious enough to specify their own assumptions. In fairness, therefore, I now turn to the book's aim as Roffman and Purdy state it:

"The purpose of this study is to provide a comprehensive overview of the cycles and patterns of the genre, examining the relationship between political issues and movie conventions, between what happened in American society and what appeared on its screens."(p. 305)

The Hollywood Social Problem Film is one of the more substantive approaches to genre. The 305 pages of text (excluding 17 photographs) make it the longest genre study in my bookcase — putting to shame Horizons West's photograph-filled 175 pages (including filmographies). With the qualifications articulated above, Roffman and Purdy do reasonably interpret the plots of their favorite social problem films: I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, GRAPES OF WRATH, DEAD END, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, the Capra films, and many others. (Minimal attention is paid to cinematic style — as most genre studies. Why is it that we assume style produces meaning only in film noir?) They also provide a credible bibliography, although it is a little slanted toward material on "behind-the-scenes" Hollywood. They also list several journals, including Cahiers du Cinéma (the English and not the French edition!) and Screen, but not JUMP CUT. As a gesture toward the comprehensiveness mentioned in their statement of purpose, they include a filmography of approximately 230 titles, noting release date, studio, director, scriptwriter, producer, and principal cast — in that order. Certainly work of this breadth needs to be encouraged. Were cinema scholarship truly mature we would have at least three or four such books on each major genre.

How then does the present book fair as genre analysis? As Roffman and Purdy explain, they are concerned with the conventions, first of all, of Hollywood classicism — the "Formula," as they refer to it. They specify several of classicism's characteristics: linear narrative, individual protagonist, conflict expressed in terms of violent action, covert expression of sexuality, clear-cut, gratifying plot resolution, studio mise-en-scene, and so on. Within this Formula, the problem film articulates its own recurrent pattern:

"… arouse indignation over some facet of contemporary life, carefully qualify any criticism so that it can in the end be reduced to simple causes, to a villain whose removal rectifies the situation. Allusions to the genuine concerns of the audience play up antisocial feelings only to exorcise them on safe targets contained within a dramatic rather than social context."(p. 305)

The Hollywood Social Problem Film is strongest when its authors concentrate on this pattern's deployment in classical Hollywood films. Weaknesses become apparent, however, as they try to fix responsibility for any one particular film. In this endeavor they fall back on that potpourri that has defined cinema history until recently: studio chronicles (usually lacking any financial records), star biography and memoirs, popular sociology, and occasional director or producer histories (Capra, Hitchcock, Cohn, Lubitsch, and so on). How each film is contextualized by Roffman and Purdy depends upon well-worn cinematic truisms. Hence, I AM A FUGITIVE is discussed in terms of its studio (Warners) while MEET JOHN DOE is considered only in the context of its director (Capra). Occasionally an actor's screen persona dominates a film's discussion: for example,

"If the persecutions are familiar and the finale all too predictable [in DUST BE MY DESTINY], Garfield's cynicisms still rings true."(p. 149)

If no studio, director/ producer, or star seems to deserve credit for some aspect of a film, then Roffman and Purdy fall back on questionable ideological constructs:

"… the hard facts of the Depression demanded a shift in subject matter. Latin lovers and college flappers [of the 1920s] now seemed rather remote, completely unrelated to the changed mood and the overriding preoccupation with social breakdown. The romantic ideals of the thirties had to be more firmly grounded in a topical context."(p. 15)

The hard facts of a society's material conditions cannot "demand" a shift in its cinema's context. Roffman and Purdy's naive conception of the society/ cinema relationship in the 1930s can be sustained. only if one is willing to overlook immensely popular films such as THE GAY DIVORCEE, A NIGHT AND THE OPERA, and other similarly "escapist" fare. I assume they must know better than to posit a direct causal link between society and the cinema. But instances such as the above do not indicate even a working understanding of contemporary writings on ideology.

Looking back at their stated purpose, then, I cannot help but be disappointed. What troubles me most is the reliance upon notions of the genius auteur redeeming Formula conventions: King Vidor's

"classic social films of the late twenties and early thirties — THE CROWD (1928), HALLELUJAH! (1929), STREET SCENE (1931), OUR DAILY BREAD (1934) — are very personal essays that eschew most of the Formula trappings."(p. 58)

As happens so frequently in genre analysis, we are promised a study of genre codes and their evolution, but the authors deliver, largely, another auteur analysis (see Kitses, McArthur). Roffman and Purdy emphasize those films which they feel contain a "tension between a conventional form and a radical vision."(p. 7) In so doing, they fall prey to the old Romantic misconception of the artist, toiling away in his (the masculine pronoun is significant) garret, outside of the influence of conventions and formulas. Does it need to be restated that (1) all art is coded and (2) the relative perceptibility of the codes to a particular critic does not make the artwork better or worse?

Finally, I must articulate one additional criticism of the book as film history. Although it is important in a study of this nature to make as many definitive statements as possible, it would be more prudent if the authors had allowed for some qualifications. Roffman and Purdy state,

"The sole films to indicate any concrete relation between the heroine's prostitution and social circumstances are THE EASIEST WAY (1931) and FAITHLESS (1932)."(p. 22)

My first thought upon reading this was of MARKED WOMAN (1937), in which the women's work as "cafe hostesses" (in name only) is repeatedly placed in the context of their economic situation. Assigning terms such as "the first" or "sole" to genre films is an unnecessary exercise and a scholastically dangerous one.

"Well: all that can be said is that the contrast between learning and amusing oneself is not laid down by divine rule; it is not one that has always been and must continue to be."  — Bertolt Brecht

In sum, The Hollywood Social Problem Film is laden with many methodological problems — arising from the authors' empiricism and lack of sufficient self-criticism. However, it is an important book in its aspiration. We do need to understand, as they state, the relationship "between what happened in American society and what appeared on its screens." And, indeed, films which overtly apply themselves to social "issues" are a very tempting topic. But, most importantly, this endeavor must be made with the help of theoretical tools which we are still in the process of forging — tools that will help us understand the relationship of culture and society and, thus, the functioning of ideology.