Sunday, September 7, 2014

Movie-Made America (1994)

by Robert Sklar

This book is not an easy read. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies by Robert Sklar contains a dense amount of research about film history and yet surprisingly few references to specific films. But that’s sort of the point. In fact, this could really be seen as a companion piece to Thomas Schatz’s book, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. Where that book really dealt with the studio moguls and the pivotal role of the producer in creating specific films, Sklar’s book deals with the audience and those who would attempt to control Hollywood’s immense influence over that audience. The subtitle really says it all, and the way in which Hollywood influenced and responded to American Culture is fascinating in its own right. What emerges is a portrait of an industry that, more than any other in the United States, expended the majority of its energy in responding to cultural taste in its audience rather than trying to create that audience. It’s a significant difference, and throughout the book those executives who were the most successful were the ones who understood this.

The biggest failure in the early motion picture industry in the United States was Thomas Edison. In attempting to emulate the nineteenth-century robber barons of his youth he tried to gain a monopoly over infrastructure rather than the audience. He claimed patents on motion picture cameras and film stock and through his organization known as The Trust, attempted to coerce every film distributor into working for him by the threat of lawsuits if they didn’t. Edison never really cared about his product, only about the control he could exert over it. One of the men who defied Edison’s trust was Carl Laemmle. He created his own distribution company called the Independent Moving Picture Company, which he aptly abbreviated as Imp. He was able to distribute films from Europe, which the Trust had no control over, as well as obtaining film stock from France and, along with William Fox and Adolph Zukor, effectively broke the trust. Laemmle would, of course, eventually found Universal Studios in California. He, along with the other moguls, quickly realized that their greatest potential for profits was to be found in production rather than distribution, and soon after the exodus from New York to California made the West Coast the new center of the film industry.

The other major emphasis of Sklar’s work is what he sees as the continuing battle for control over content of film. The genius of the moguls in avoiding government control over the movies came in the form of Hollywood’s own production code. By putting in place their own censorship arm they were able to easily subvert complaints by religious groups and other would-be censors. In the early thirties, however, once the threat of government intervention had been avoided, the studios completely ignored the code and filmed stories of violence and gangsters, seduction and divorce, as much nudity as they could get away with, and anything else that they thought would titillate audiences. By 1934, however, the backlash from moralists was so great that even the Catholic Church weight in and recommended a complete boycott of motion pictures. The studios were unwilling to risk the fallout should that happen and allowed Joseph Breen to put teeth into the production code, and from that moment on the audience for films continued to grow until after World War Two.

Sklar’s book effectively ends when Schatz’s does, with the precipitous decline in production during the fifties, though Sklar has a couple more chapters that go into the eighties. During the post-war period gimmicks like 3-D and lasting formats like widescreen were interesting for a while, but were not a solution to dwindling audiences who were more widely dispersed in suburbs and wanted to stay home for their entertainment. Again, this was a result of the studio heads failing to realize what audiences really wanted. Studios like Universal, which embraced television production rather than seeing it as the enemy, continued to do well, where the rest of the studios became little more than distribution companies for independent productions. The book is a masterpiece of research and Sklar apparently left no stone unturned in looking at the way film influenced American culture as well as the other way around. Movie-Made America is definitely a fascinating book, and while I was never quite convinced of his underlying thesis, it contains so much valuable information that it has to be considered required reading for anyone interested in film history.

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