Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American
Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
$42.95, 284 pages, ISBN 0-8018-7149-2 (hardback).
As the title implies, John Bodnar examines in his book the different representations
of working-class characters in Hollywood movies, demonstrating notably how
those portrayals undermine ideals linked to collectivity and democracy. However
the end of this title is not quite right, since Bodnar seems to be more preoccupied
with American screenplays than with American film. Admittedly
most of the specialists of Hollywood social analysis generally content themselves
with referring to narratives and rarely to esthetics. For instance, there are
similarities between Bodnar's Blue-collar Hollywood and Larry May's The
Big Tomorrow , like the way they provide
a diachronic rather than a synchronic vision of cinema—which is quite rare
among cultural historians today—or their exclusive interest in plots.
But Lary May nevertheless gives the impression of being a bit more interested
in cinematic endeavors such as acting, cinematography or directing than Bodnar.
At least, May makes a few concessions and resigns himself to speaking of
esthetics here and there, which is far from being the case of John Bodnar.
However, if you
think that you can succeed in disregarding this postulate, you
cannot but be seduced and even sometimes bedazzled by Bodnar's
clear, well-informed and impartial analysis strictly speaking.
The most interesting chapter (perhaps because it concerns one the
most complex and alienating periods in American history) is about
Hollywood cinema in the 1950s. Of course, Bodnar begins by bringing
out the fundamental contradiction of the time: the defense of democracy
and liberalism against communism triggered a regulation of the
behavior of Americans which "involved strong expressions of
illiberalism and intolerance" . But Bodnar should have
added that even though it took spectacular forms in the 1950s,
the rejection of individuals who do not conform to the dominant
ideology has always been at the heart of American civilization.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville already noticed
that "[i]n America the majority raises formidable barriers
around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author
may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.
[…] Freedom of opinion does not exist in America".
Bodnar gives illuminating examples of containment in Hollywood with the evocation
of two films based on Tennessee Williams plays: The Rose Tattoo (1955)
and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In the latter, Bodnar depicts very
well the fight between the movie censors and Williams (as well as the director
Elia Kazan). For instance, in order to convince the censors to include the
scene in which Stanley rapes Blanche, Williams told the head of the Catholic
Legion of Decency, Joseph Breen, that the "rape of Blanche by Stanley
is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its
meaning which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate
by the savage and brutal forces of modern society" . Bodnar cleverly
links Williams's words with postwar anxieties (especially about gender relationships),
affirming that they are "at the heart" of them.
This evocation of A Streetcar Named Desire gives evidence of Bodnar's
particular interest for gender in his book, especially when he evokes World
War II. Bodnar affirms that during the war, "[g]ender collaboration was
venerated as much as labor and management cooperation" . In this respect,
he evokes the favorite pinup girl of the GIs, Betty Grable, and shows (with
the help of Robert Westbrook's research on the topic) that if she was more
popular than other (often sexier) girls, it is because she "reminded men
more of a girl back home that they might marry" . But if gender collaboration
was required during the war, it was not only for patriotic reasons; it was
also to "reduce GI anxiety over female faithfulness at home" .
Bodnar exemplifies this idea evoking Tender Comrade (1943), a film in
which Ginger Rogers plays a female factory worker who is faithful both to her
husband, who is away at war, and to her country. Other interesting developments
on gender relations can be found in many parts of the book (see for instance
the one about movies about the returning vets and their supportive wives).
To conclude, I would like to evoke what seems to be the original touch of the
book. Each chapter of Blue-collar Hollywood (which deals with a well-defined
era) ends with analyses of reviews of the films evoked by Bodnar in the chapter.
For example, he shows how most of the critics in the 1950s were "indifferent
to the aspirations of containment culture" , how the emotional side
of films prevailed over politics. Listing representative extracts of reviews
of Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, Bodnar reveals this absence of
political conscience among film critics of the time. For them, the film "throbs
with passion", is a story told with "intense feeling and poetic insight",
or holds audience spellbound with its "sensitivity" and "poignancy" [170-171].
But none of them connects the complex and alienating emotions depicted in the
film with the postwar pervasive feeling that liberalism and democracy could
not work in the United States, which Bodnar corrects in his book. At the beginning
of my review, I have referred to the possible frustration that real cinephiles—that
is, people who are not only interested in narratives—could feel reading Blue-collar
Hollywood, but thanks to such interesting analyses, Bodnar will certainly
make them forget their initial disappointment.