Hollywood and the Americanization of Britain
From the 1920s to the Present
London: I.B. Tauris, 2013
Hardback. xii+340 p. ISBN 978-1848854086. £62.00
Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart
Mark Glancy, the author of this highly informative book, seems well placed to comment upon the impact of Hollywood films in Britain. Born in New Orleans but being a long-term resident in Britain since his days at university, and now teaching American and British film history at Queen Mary University, London, Glancy occupies a foot in each camp, and is perhaps more aware than most of the relationship between the respective cultures. His book covers a good deal of ground, from the silent era up to the millennium. Each chapter offers a thorough investigation of its subject matter together with a well-chosen case study to explore the main theme in greater detail.
Glancy’s methodology derives from reception studies and he “explores contemporaneous responses to film rather than audiences memories” . He utilises a wide range of materials: from audience surveys and polls; film fan magazines; film trade papers; pressbooks and other forms of publicity; fan reviews posted on internet sites; critical reviews; and accounts of films and related issues in a wide body of periodicals . This wide approach, as befits a film historian, allows him to uncover a range of responses to the same film, and what comes across is the divide between professional film critics’ approaches and those of general fans, and how Establishment anxieties about the pernicious effects of Hollywood films are mostly misplaced and ineffective.
The thorny question of the impact of “Americanization” is handled in the first chapter where Mark Glancy reflects upon the ways in which Americanization in Europe “rose from below”  as a genuine popular culture for the working class, which conflicted with more middle-class or Establishment fears of the impact of this “uncultured invasion”. However, the study also reflects the impact of globalisation over the latter part of the twentieth century when he states that “The concept of Americanization as an imposed and unwelcome cultural force no longer holds sway in scholarly circles”  and has given way to the wider effects of neoliberal globalisation. Yet, what draws the individual chapters and their case studies together is “seeking an understanding of the pleasures that films offered and an understanding of how specific Hollywood films…so frequently satisfied the specific needs and interests of British audiences” .
The chapter on silent films centres its case study upon Rudolph Valentino and the power of his image as “a marker of the new power of women as consumers”  at the dawn of the consumer age. The ambivalence towards the talkies makes for a very interesting chapter. Glancy points out just how important Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) was in challenging “objections to the talkies from a range of different perspectives” . The hostility to American accents and the types of British accents used in films provoked the ire of many audiences around the country and became a key battleground in the early days of sound films. In this chapter Glancy shows how Ronald Coleman’s transatlanticism was successful in bridging the gulf between the different accents and how this helped to make the talkies become the unquestioned norm within a few, “noisy” years from their inception.
Gangster films of the 1930s then caused a great deal of controversy, including their use of slang which was taken up by working-class audiences but perceived with great consternation by middle-class critics and the guardians of public decency at the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC). One phrase in particular, “sez you”, was regarded as the “epitome of all that was disagreeable about Hollywood talkies and their influence” . However, as Glancy demonstrates, “With sound, it was more difficult to cut objectionable shots out of a film and maintain continuity on the sound track; [and] as a result, talkies were more likely to be banned altogether” . However, the censors’ narrow view of their own national life actually had the paradoxical result of making British films appear dull whilst American films appeared more exciting and “more recognisably true-to-life” in some quarters .
Through his reading of the archives Glancy is able to pick up some revealing points about the socio-historical factors which affected audiences’ attraction to these films and the Establishment’s concerns about them. He points out, for instance, that the cathartic release offered by gangster films provided “masculine fantasies of empowerment, and they arrived at a moment when many men had been made redundant and idle” .
Developing these ideas further, the chapter on Gone with the Wind as Britain’s favourite war film makes some very interesting comments about how audiences reacted to the film in the midst of the Second World War. Glancy argues that it was the film’s figurative relationship to the experiences faced, particularly with women and the home front, which made the greatest impact upon audiences, greater even than those British films which directly addressed the war. He also demonstrates the differences in approaches to the film between critical responses and those of fans. For example, Dilys Powell joked that the famous sweeping crane shot of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) surrounded by large numbers of dead or dying Confederate soldiers “looked to her like ‘a bank holiday on Bournemouth beach’”  whereas general audiences were enthralled and moved by this spectacle.
A chapter on the western genre takes a very different tack in again addressing how these films reflected masculine identities and psyches. The impact of the Hopalong Cassidy films and television programmes helped to fuel the interest in the genre, particularly in the 1950s. The case study in this chapter is The Big Country (1958/59) as the most popular western of the decade, and the most popular western of all time in Britain . This was also a film that professional critics reacted positively to, with Kenneth Tynan referring to it as “the first pacifist western” , although it was a box office failure in the United States. The subsequent decline in the popularity of the genre is discussed, as are references to revisionist westerns, such as Brokeback Mountain (2005/06). However, Glancy concludes, “the genre’s steep decline indicates that the myth itself is no longer tenable or compelling” .
Grease (1978) provides the framework for the next chapter, and here Glancy uses his sources to uncover a range of responses to the film which, he argues, parallel those with Gone with the Wind forty years earlier. He points out that reviews of Grease “serve as a reminder that quality film critics seldom offer a straightforward guide to popular film tastes” , which seems to be the case throughout the book. Glancy defends Grease through the use of his various sources to argue that it embeds in British culture a camp sensibility  and that, “The power of Grease…lies in its ability to reassure audiences that they have outgrown the 1950s even as it allows them to revisit the film 1950s over and over again” .
The final chapter centres on The Patriot (2000), and an image from the film adorns the book’s front cover showing Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) staring out at the reader. It is an interesting choice because, as Glancy points out, it appears as an anomaly representing “a fleeting moment: when Hollywood lost Britain” , and where the cinematic “special relationship” was soured. Largely this relates to a scene in the film where the British Colonel Tavington orders the burning of a church with people inside. This depiction, which transposes an event that was actually carried out by the Nazis in the Second World War onto a fictional one in the War of Independence, together with other historical inaccuracies, caused great offence in the short term.
Through some well-chosen examples Glancy demonstrates the close cinematic “special relationship” between Hollywood and Britain, and the fears and anxieties this had upon the British Establishment. However, through detailed readings of the archives the author shows that actual audiences are never “uncritical sponges, who simply absorb what they see on screen” , but who engage with Hollywood as an aesthetic choice and react in diverse rather than homogenous ways.
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