Nationalism in the Cinema

Nationalism in the Cinema

The United States, the largest consumer economy in the world despite the Depression, remained immune to cultural incursions from abroad, and had no difficulty in following a policy of cultural as well as political isolationism.

Elsewhere the commercial power of exported American culture, both of Hollywood and of the consumer goods it celebrated and advertised, was regarded as a threat. In response, governments round the world encouraged cultural nationalism in resistance ‘to the invasions of American-dominated international culture.

Nationalist propaganda was latent in the very notion of resistance to American cultural influence, and there was widespread antipathy to Hollywood’s “superficiality” – in 1936 Lithuanian censors rejected the Katharine Hepburn movie / Alice Adams because it was “banal” – among European intellectuals. This did nothing to hinder the emergence of more extreme forms of nationalism.

For purposes of content analysis a sample of heroes and a sample of villains in Soviet films have been classified as to their ethnic nationality, socio-economic class, motivation, age, and sex. Motivation was divided into goals, in terms of a personal-social dichotomy, and into areas such as politics, economics, romantic love, family, and culture. Classification was based on total judgments which considered all clues pertaining to heroes and villains. The units chosen for analysis were complete full-length feature films produced between 1923 and 1950.

Practically all Soviet films discussed in available English-language publications were included in the two samples, provided that an adequate description of their content was obtainable. The titles of over 400 Soviet films were found by perusal of books, magazines and newspapers in the English language, but information about the villains depicted was available for only 130 films, and about heroes for only 240. The representativeness of these samples cannot be determined. It is estimated, however, that they are based on about 10 and 20 per cent, respectively, of all feature films produced in the Soviet Union during the period 1923-1950.

In all the countries of Europe, bourgeois guardians of “traditional national values” linked American and indigenous working-class culture together through their “vulgarity”. The appeal of Hollywood to the working classes was taken as evidence of their need for “education” in the superiority of their own traditions. Cultural nationalists throughout the 1930s attempted to restrict the flow of American cultural imports, protested about Hollywood’s misrepresentation of their national culture, and sought to create and disseminate a rival cultural idiom.

Goals are defined so as to focus on the people affected. The term “personal goal” is applied to motives which aim to affect the character portrayed or a small group of people well known to him. The category “social goals” is reserved for motives intending to affect large social groups, such as the population of a particular nation, “the workers of the world” or all mankind. All motives are rated as personal or social, depending on which goal received greater emphasis in a given film.

Such attempts were most effective where cultural nationalists exerted most institutional power; in Britain the monopolistic BBC presented its own version of national culture more effectively than the British cinema, which was in economic thrall to Hollywood, while in Japan the film industry, which enjoyed sufficient economic protection as well as cultural distance from American forms, developed genres of its own.

Wartime propaganda intensified the cultural nationalism of the previous decade, and for those on all sides whoever their political opponent was represented as being, the cultural struggle was directed against the American institutions of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The war changed the industry. Many residents of Hollywood took time off to participate in the war effort. Some like John Ford and Frank Capra made films for the government.

Others like Fritz Lang continued to make commercial films, but they were propaganda-oriented and helped build morale. The stars went to the battle areas to entertain the troops. Even studio space was commandeered to produce war documentaries, and war films became a dominant fictional genre. After the war the rate of change accelerated. Anti-trust suits broke up the large companies and forced them to sell their theaters. And television began to keep the public at home. The movie industry responded with attempts at expanding the medium to attract new interests: 3-D, CinemaScope, Technicolor; and it continues to experiment: quadraphonic sound, sensurround, holographic images, and giant leaps in special effects have been tried.

Next Page: Film and War Propaganda

Filmic Images of Women in 1930s

Filmic Images of Women in 1930s - Bette Davis

The movie stars became role models to their female fans in many senses: the fans demonstrated their admiration and loyalty by attending all of their favorite stars’ movies and buying whatever product they endorsed. Peroxide sales went up when Jean Harlow became a blonde; fashions, especially by designer Adrian who dressed Joan Crawford in all of her films, were copied for the masses.

Further, though impossible to document fully, it is also conceivable to imagine that people identified with the suffering of their favorite star and connected it to their own travails. The actresses, in this sense, provided a constructive model of how to survive adversity, how to develop self-confidence, and how to take control of one’s life.

Until television overtook them, movies were the favorite visual entertainment in the United States. Fully half of the population, 60 million people, went to the movies each week during the 1930s. Because it was a period of economic depression, people needed the enjoyment, the escape, and the fantasy of films more than ever. The 1930s and 1940s became Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Among the hundreds of movies produced by the big studios each year, women were featured both in the very popular romance-melodramas and in the newer form, the independent woman films. Often, there were creative mergers: romance combined with independence and Eve types displayed strength and assertiveness. The newer type of film, however, had stronger women playing stronger parts in greater quantity than ever before, or possibly since.

Filmic Images of Women in 1930s - Joan Crawford

The fantasy power of movies operated at full throttle. Precisely when the Depression created mass insecurity, vivacious women in film were surviving and taking control of difficult situations. As independent Eves, they used their physical attractiveness to carve out decent lives for themselves; as careerists, they became pilots, illustrators, reporters, doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen. And as aristocratic women whose family fortunes gave them unprecedented freedom, they often demonstrated, comically or melodramatically, some of the dilemmas of wealth; after all, women were not expected to function alone as adults.

Hollywood also reveled in the opportunity to satirize the rich while clearly showing them in enviable positions. Aristocratic women paraded around in sumptuous surroundings while the masses were unemployed. In My Man Godfrey (1936), a classic screwball comedy, Carole Lombard and her socialite friends went to a charity treasure hunt. Lombard won the prize by bringing back a real life bum. In The Women ( 1939) rich New York City women were ridiculed for their useless lives, while a lengthy fashion show punctuated the middle section of the movie.

It is an interesting cultural statement that in the classless United States, during the bleak days of the Great Depression, moviegoers were treated to films about rich women. Many movies showed country homes, servants galore, and gorgeously dressed hostesses presiding over classy cocktail parties. The conspicuous signs of wealth in a country that preached egalitarianism appeared ironic indeed. Yet these films produced no revolutions; audiences enjoyed them and kept coming back for more. Their dreamlike qualities seemed to provide the needed escape. The U.S. public accepted the myth of everyone being equal while knowing full well that it was a myth. Blacks were not equal to whites, and rich people were different from everyone else. But Hollywood’s movies about wealthy people in the United States were very popular in the 1930s.

The major studios of Hollywood each produced about 200 movies a year during that period. They satisfied an audience of all ages and races. There were family movies as well as special interest movies for every taste. Actresses found roles, as stars and in supporting roles, in most of Hollywood’s offerings, though they were featured in romance-melodramas and independent women films. A generation of female movie stars arose to meet this seemingly insatiable appetite for movies.

The list of women who became stars in the 1930s and 1940s cannot be rivalled by any subsequent generation of movie stars, primarily because there are no longer such large numbers of movies made each year. While Bette Davis, under long-term contract to Warner Brothers, often made three or four movies a year during the 1930s, a movie star in the post-1950 generation would be lucky to make one movie every two or three years. Joan Crawford, another star of the era, worked for MGM during the 1930s and made 29 movies during the decade.

While the 1930s generation of women actresses played in all of the standard fare–westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, and comedies–they also starred in the variations of independent women films. This role featured a heroine who was often restless and spent a lot of time discovering herself, though she usually ended up defining herself in terms of romance and marriage. The independent woman was also the working girl who found life bleak during the depression; her only path to future security and happiness was in the arms of a rich man.

This film genre, in its variety, distinguished itself from the other types by featuring women, especially strong women, whose personal quest seemed to personify everyone’s search for answers in very trying times. Indeed, this may have been part of its appeal; audiences were treated to unsettled times with a woman, usually the traditional anchor of the home, thrust into a new life situation. The resolution, with her returning to the home, offered assurances to both sexes that the difficult, and unusual, times would eventually be righted. The status quo ante depression would be restored.

Though many movie actresses played in this genre, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell are probably the most clearly identified as exemplars of independent women. In the period under discussion, 1930-50, Hepburn played in five career woman films and four aristocratic women films, while Russell was a career woman seven times and an aristocratic lady three times (see table). Other popular stars of the period, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford, though often known for their work in romance and melodrama, also played many roles where their strength, independence, and grit were critical factors. They demonstrated some of the varieties of independent women.

Careerists were portrayed along with aristocratic ladies and independent Eves. Hepburn was never an Eve. Her screen roles were the most consistent as she never entered into a long-term contract with any studio, in contrast to most other actresses. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as already suggested, did not have the luxury of choosing roles, but their personalities and talents lent themselves to roles about unusual women.

Next Page: Makeupand Cosmetics – Woman Movie Stars as Role Models