By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Few jobs are as treacherous as charting the political undercurrents that have shaped America’s cultural history. In a country with virtually no collective memory, even the most scholarly investigators gladly turn to Hollywood for their windows on the past. For, if most people don‘t know the difference between Norman Rockwell and Norman Thomas, at least we have, preserved on celluloid, various incarnations of the national idea as Warner Bros. and MGM expressed it.
But whose interpretations were these, and how did they come to be? Some revisionist historians are dissatisfied with paradigms that present films as the ideological sermons of a corporate elite. The latest contribution to this debate, Lary May’s The Big Tomorrow, is a committed, dense work of research that discerns a more ambiguous -- and active -- relationship among producers, talent and audiences than has been previously acknowledged.
May, an L.A. native (he‘s the son of F-Troop’s Larry Storch) and University of Minnesota professor of American Studies, arrived at his project through an unlikely route, having originally intended to write a book about Ronald Reagan -- specifically, to discover how a former actor became president by reviving both the Cold War and his gubernatorial jihad against the counterculture. But he soon moved on to the larger subject of the relationship between Hollywood and its ever-shifting reflection of civic realities. This, because May felt he had uncovered something rarely admitted in studies of the movie business: Hollywood was not merely a serving tray for ruling-class opinions -- throughout certain periods it actually challenged the prevalent national mythologies, often in spite of itself. The catalyst for this change was the New Deal, which May sees as the great broom that swept away the aristocratic, authoritarian values of the silent movies.
He uses Will Rogers, to whom he devotes the first chapter, as a key to understanding what May calls the ”mestizo republic“ -- a multiethnic America that, while kept virtually invisible in official art, was a fact of daily existence accepted by the average citizen. He believes that different classes and races interacted in American life in a way they didn‘t in Europe, producing a popular culture grounded in the mass entertainments of jazz clubs, vaudeville and circuses, one that eventually asserted itself in movies during the Depression. For May, Will Rogers, an Oklahoma populist proud of his quarter-Cherokee heritage, personified a mixed-race America of Jeffersonian ideals; he was a champion of the ”producers’ republic“ in which citizens shared the fruits of their labors.
Subsequent chapters examine architectural changes in movie-theater design during the 1930s, World War II‘s sublimation of populist tendencies, the Cold War, and the emergence of subversive genres such as film noir and teen flicks. At the end of nearly 300 pages, May concludes that a massive, populist cultural realignment, begun by Hollywood in the early years of sound, was stopped in its tracks during WWII, when the dream factory -- like industrial plants everywhere in America -- switched to wartime production. Suddenly, the professor notes, onscreen examinations of class and racial prejudices vanished, and rebels became ”troublemakers“ and potential saboteurs of national unity. From then on, heroes were men and women associated with ”savior institutions“ such as the military and government, laying the groundwork for the postwar Red Scare and film-industry blacklist.
Throughout his heavily annotated volume, May flashes medallion phrases like ”composite characters,“ ”hybrid heroes“ and ”conversion narrative.“ Unfortunately, his rhetorical flourishes are confined to these buzzwords, and the entire book reverberates with a lecture-hall echo. Every section begins with one or two lengthy epigrams and concludes with such professorial expressions as ”To that issue we turn our attention in the next chapter“ or ”To begin our inquiry, it is important to realize . . .“ At any moment you expect to turn the page and find a list of study questions -- or a pop quiz. For a work about the movies, The Big Tomorrow is noticeably unencumbered by author interviews, defining moments and anecdotes, and suffers accordingly.
Perhaps worse, May plays a little too loose with his terminology, particularly with the use of the words Victorian and Anglo-Saxon. He never explains if he is employing the first term in the British sense, which connotes repression and moral hypocrisy, or in the more general American way -- as a simple indicator of a period in the late 19th century. Likewise, one feels that Anglo-Saxon is May’s four-syllable phrase for ”white,“ since he doesn‘t seem to differentiate English and English-descended from, say, immigrant-Irish or --Northern European. Like many shortcomings in May’s book, it is minor by itself, but part of a larger weakness.
May is guilty of more than stylistic and semantic lethargy, however, relying, as he does, upon the researcher‘s time-honored practice of fudging data to fit theoretical conclusions. Again, for the most part these are almost insignificant skewings of dates and meanings, but they add up to a definite pattern of dissembling. He rhapsodizes, for example, about America at the start of the Depression as a racial hybrid (the mestizo republic), although, in 1930, whites accounted for nearly 90 percent of the population. (Rigidly segregated African-Americans accounted for only 9.7 percent, capping a 140-year decline in the black proportion of the population.) Likewise, at one point he takes a 1942 Fortune poll that found ”well over 25 percent supported“ socialism while ”only“ 40 percent opposed it, and from this deduces, ”In other words, over 60 percent of the population saw the possibility of socialism as the ’American Way.‘“