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The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way
Lary May
Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
$30, 348 pages, ISBN 0-226-51162-6.

Nicolas Magenham
Université de Paris X - Nanterre

Most people, if asked when American popular culture began to "promote" radical politics, would answer the 1960s, forgetting that three decades earlier, established values were frequently questioned, notably in Hollywood movies. In The Big Tomorrow, Lary May reminds the reader of the fact that the normative 1940s and 1950s were a parenthesis between the democratic ideals that characterized the 1930s and the emergence of a counterculture in the 1960s. The nature and impact of the rebellious spirit of the 1960s has certainly nothing to do with what happened in the 1930s, all the more so as some scholars think that the New Deal saved rather than sapped capitalism. Nevertheless, May argues that the rebellious movement against the dominant culture in the 1930s is generally underrated, even though World War II quickly put an end to it.

Lary May offers a rereading of Hollywood cinema in the 1930s when, under the guise of entertainment, a great many films criticized social inequality and upheld progressive values. A large part of the book is dedicated to one of the most popular figures of the 1930s, the Cherokee humorist Will Rogers. Although Rogers has often been regarded as an embodiment of Anglo-Saxon Americanism, May goes against this generally accepted idea, claiming that "Rogers's capacity to combine left-wing populist rhetoric with calls for a redistribution of wealth to realize an inclusive Americanism suggests that these views have to be revised". May underpins his belief in a pluralistic American culture in the Depression era with many other examples, one of the most illuminating being perhaps Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932), in which Marlene Dietrich crosses racial and gender barriers. Furthermore, May insists on an event which is hardly known, viz. the fact that most of the stars of the period not only fervently supported Roosevelt's policy, but also joined the union movement in order to "recover control over their labor". In a very interesting chapter, May also evokes American movie houses which evolved towards more humility, notably by getting rid of the aristocratic accents of their decorations and names. However, as the U.S. entered the war, the social ideals of the 1930s had to be put aside. Therefore, many movies in the early 1940s showed what May calls the "World War II conversion narrative", a narrative pattern involving characters who have to forget about their politics in favor of a "commitment to hierarchical institutions”, dedicated to saving the world. The most famous examples of characters who have to concentrate on patriotism are no doubt Rick and Ilsa in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1943).

But May's work loses its originality as soon as it reaches the post-war period. It is in no way less compelling than other well-known books on the subject: May's style is neat and forceful, and there are even a few (sometimes) stunning anecdotes about the excesses of the Red Scare (the one concerning Nancy Reagan—who was denied work by mistake—is particularly juicy); but generally, this part does not bear comparison with the first refreshing chapters. Thus the reader's interest wanes a bit in the second half of the book. When Lary May analyses non-conformist directors and actors who tried to express progressive ideas during the normative Cold War era, his remarks are quite trite (at least in comparison with the first half of the book). He doesn’t break any new ground when he details the way John Huston and Billy Wilder bypassed censorship or when he studies the conservative intentions of Bible films. As for his remarks on the rebellious aspect of the personae of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, they can be found in dozens of books before Lary May's. The choice of illustrations reveals this lack of originality on the part of the author: in the last chapter, the well-known photos of Dean and Brando in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Wild One (1954) contrast with the more original illustrations of Will Rogers or movie houses that pepper the beginning of the book.

It is necessary to conclude with what appears to be the main quality of The Big Tomorrow—but which could turn out to be its main drawback too—that is, May's argumentation. An impressive number of films sustain May's theories, but if some of his arguments seem foolproof, they are far from highlighting cinema. Indeed, the films he refers to are so numerous that May has not always the opportunity to analyze them in depth, and aside from a few exceptions (notably his comments on the "reworking of cinematic practices" in the 1930s, and the working on light in film noir), May regards films as mere plots, no more no less. For instance, Lary May uses a sampling method that reflects this unilateral vision very well. With the help of his research assistants, the author undertook global analyses of hundreds of plots taken from films that cover the period studied in the book. Just like any poll, the result is double-edged: May offers a unique overall view of Hollywood cinema from 1915 to 1960 or so, which makes his theories seem unanswerable; but this method is ambiguous from an ideological viewpoint. As May himself admits, his sampling method prevented him from "[gauging] other aspects of moviemaking", as it did not take into account meaningful details which could qualify or even contradict some ideological values, however conspicuous in the film plots. That sampling method could thus be seen as backfiring on May himself and his fresh theory on 1930s films: many films that appear to be progressive according to their plots could turn out to be conservative when watched carefully. Though somewhat abstract, my reproach is legitimized by the fact that seemingly progressive Hollywood movies that are actually reactionary are quite widespread.

So in spite of a dubious sampling technique, May's The Big Tomorrow is still an excellent book on 1930s American culture, and its relatively disappointing last chapters provide nonetheless a very good introduction for anyone who is not familiar with Hollywood during the Cold War.

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