MacAdams is at times a bit too smooth, touching time and again on intriguing points, only to glide right by them. He writes of cool’s roots in black culture (”A survival mechanism that had been passed down from the days of slavery, cool in the form of studied indifference was the only way in which a hip African-American could stifle rage at the same time that he or she was expressing it“), but then leaps into its appropriation by the Beats without further comment. He quotes Kerouac, wandering the Denver ghettos wishing he were black, and Norman Mailer‘s embarrassing essay ”The White Negro,“ but does not pause to ask what such homegrown colonialism might imply.
If Birth of the Cool often feels dated, it’s partly by intent. MacAdams concludes his account with Bob Dylan‘s legendary performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. ”On the wings of the lyrics to ’Like a Rolling Stone,‘ cool entered the mainstream and merged with its values.“ MacAdams bewails the fate of cool in the years since, its current omnipresence, its emptiness. ”By the mid-1990s,“ he writes mockingly, ”there were, like, cool malls.“ He suggests that the commodification of cool of which Tom Frank writes was a late phase in its development, a tragic if inevitable sellout. His book is thus an attempt to unearth, if not to resurrect, the values out of which cool flowed when it was still more or less pure. So though he cites it, MacAdams never tackles Frank’s argument that cool was always ”just a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class.“ But he clearly appreciates something that Frank too haughtily misses -- that cool is, or can be, more than just a pose, that cool offers generations of variously alienated kids (not, I would hazard, ending in 1965) something akin to deliverance.
Anyone looking for some background to the upcoming film-industry labor disputes would do well to check out Gerald Horne‘s Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930--1950. Horne focuses primarily on the 1945 strike by, and the 1946 lockout of, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a federation of film-industry crafts unions. He describes a very different time, the brief window before the Cold War when the World War II alliance with the Soviets was still warm and American progressives were hopeful. Very quickly, though, anti-communist hysteria, abetted by anti-Semitism, took over, and a budding postwar labor movement was crushed.
The battles were not your average labor-management disputes. The studios had mob-hired muscle and the police at their disposal. Brutal fights between picketers and scabs were a daily occurrence, culminating in an October 1945 riot in front of the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, which began when ”strikebreakers, goons and county police . . . armed with chains, bolts, hammers, 6-inch pipes, brass knuckles, wooden mallets and battery cables“ as well as guns and tear-gas grenades, charged the picket line. Dozens were injured.
Horne argues convincingly that the Red Scare, deeply felt in Hollywood, was more about crippling domestic unionism than any real threat from abroad. Its first rumbles were felt in the CSU strike, during which centrist union leaders were consistently redbaited (and physically attacked). The defeat of CSU after the lockout thus ”erased progressive trade unionism for generations to come“ in Hollywood and set the stage for the blacklist and decades of conservative Cold War politics. If his narrative is often a bit unfocused, Horne does a fine job of examining the tensions that defined an era through the lens of one localized dispute. In the meantime, screenwriters might want to begin cutting 6-inch lengths of pipe in preparation for upcoming negotiations.
Lewis MacAdams will read from Birth of the Cool at Skylight Books on Friday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m., as well as at Pink’s (709 N. La Brea Ave.) on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m., for a Sweet Relief benefit sponsored by Book Soup. For information, call (310) 659-3110. Gerald Horne will speak during ”The Hidden History of Hollywood: Class, Race and Gender,“ a benefit program for the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, at the Writers Guild Theater on Friday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m., following a 6 p.m. reception. Tickets $60. For information, call (323) 759-6063.