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.‘“
He carries on in this determined manner, finding that the upsurge in the number of Westerns during the 1950s paralleled Hollywood’s re-orientation from collective action to a reactionary celebration of rugged individualism. He claims cowboy movies were virtually nonexistent during the united-front days of the Depression and WWII, ignoring the fact that American pop culture was saturated with Western mythology through horse operas cranked out by such Poverty Row studios as Republic and Monogram, and through children‘s movie serials and adult radio programs. Again, while referring us to pages of charts in the book’s appendix depicting data points connected by spike lines, he contends that Depression-era films saw an increase in the heroic portrayal of working-class characters and racial minorities, along with the use of vernacular speech in screenplays. However, while the appearance of pro-labor and ”democratic“ themes is undeniable, he overlooks the inconvenient reality that many Depression-era movies were also populated by suave millionaires (or even British colonialists) and that blacks were horribly represented — sometimes being cut out entirely from prints distributed in the South.
To be fair, May often scores some interesting points and raises issues that have been buried by the topsoil of time, especially the role of the CIA and other surveillance-state agencies in controlling the content and distribution of Hollywood films. (A wartime reissue of Frank Capra‘s Lost Horizon had an anti-colonial speech snipped out, while the original 1930 print of All Quiet on the Western Front was banned from overseas distribution during much of the Cold War.) May is perhaps at his best when distilling into tidy summaries the complex, politically motivated actions of institutions, as when he describes the social forces behind the Red Scare: ”The assault on communists provided the firepower to destroy the republican creed and to sanctify a consumer ethos where freedom was found less at work than in a private suburban home removed from the city and the world of racial minorities.“
The ultimate problem with May’s book is not that its author‘s thinking is completely flawed, but that he tends to selectively seize upon one or two films and go, ”Ah-ha!“ and from there make the broadest generalizations about entire decades of historical and artistic development. I wouldn’t quibble with May‘s readings of the films he’s chosen to analyze — not necessarily because I agree with them, but because it‘s almost pointless to dispute what involves such subjective perceptions. Does, as May states, ”The Treasure of the Sierra Madre also [reveal] the manner in which the recovery of a holistic republic lost its hold on many moviemakers on the left“? Sure — why not? No doubt a professor in the lecture room next door to May’s is announcing that the very same film presents the clearest example onscreen of the sublimation of the id. Who can say who‘s right? Somewhere among all his footnotes and constellation graphs, May thinks, is evidence of an awful historical truth, but, as with most movies, not everything one sees can be believed.