When Popular Culture Was Populist


Opiate or incendiary? Have American movies–and popular culture in general–served to enforce the status quo by diverting attention and energies from the nation’s imperfections and injustices? The frivolous musicals and frothy comedies of the 1930s offer ample evidence that, in response to an economic cataclysm that might have led to anarchy or insurrection, Hollywood helped preserve the republic by offering circuses to those craving bread. If guns and butterscotch are incompatible, might a diet of Busby Berkeley bonbons distract even Berkeley radicals from their struggles against bigotry and war?

Against the conventional wisdom that popular culture is a conservative, even reactionary, force, social historian Lary May insists that popular culture can serve to inform and empower the populace. May contends that during the Depression American movies not only reflected but promoted a veritable revolution–”the displacement of the older ethos of Anglo-Saxon nationhood in favor of a new Americanism rooted in ethnic pluralism, abundance, and modern life.” He maintains that the first mass culture was created during the New Deal, and that Hollywood as much as Washington was responsible for disseminating New Deal ideals, “a vision of America that was inclusive of minorities and hostile to monopoly capitalism.” In the spurious consensus enforced by World War II and the Cold War, claims May, “patriotism became synonymous with the avoidance of class or cultural conflict.” As an antidote to national amnesia about the vibrant 1930s, May offers a revisionist reading of the twentieth century, in which “a non-Marxist republican radicalism was a powerful force in America before World War II.” According to May, it is a mistake to dismiss Stepin Fetchit and Charlie Chan as racist stereotypes and Andy Hardy as merely hokey. All were agents of profound transformation, an American revolution led by outsiders: Jews, blacks, and Indians. After the advent of talkies, the sounds of the sassy current vernacular served to promote ethnic and religious pluralism and hostility toward the privileges of birth and wealth.

The Big Tomorrow derives its title from a phrase in a letter a fan sent to John Huston, praising the director’s refusal to abandon Jeffersonian principles even when egalitarian sentiments were being condemned as un-American. But The Big Tomorrow is really a book about the big yesterday, a heroic era that was diminished by those in the 1940s and 1950s who feared the forces it unleashed. There were giants in the earth, suggests May, and disinterring them now could release their strength for current and future culture wars.

The mightiest of those giants might well have been Will Rogers, the movie and radio star who was the most popular figure in the United States in 1935, when he was killed in a plane crash. A Cherokee who appropriated the tribal role of trickster, Rogers used his enormous appeal to make national identity more inclusive and to promote redistribution of wealth. May finds a pattern of conversion in Rogers’ 24 movies, including Ambassador Bill (1931), Young As You Feel (1934), Judge Priest (1934), and In Old Kentucky (1935), in which the protagonists ended up rejecting the authority of a corrupt white Protestant oligarchy and creating a new civic arena in which romance and marriage occur across classes and ethnic groups. Like Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Showboat (1936), and Juarez (1939), many of Rogers’ films, especially Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935), explicitly challenged contemporary codes forbidding integration and miscegenation. Though Rogers’ films aren’t remembered as particularly innovative formally, May argues that, through overlapping dialogue, camera movement, and multiple perspectives, they and other works of the period subverted a static world view and “promoted an aesthetic rooted in discovery and reinvention.” He rediscovers Rogers as a champion of progressive populism who was co-opted in death by the reactionaries he opposed in life.

The most intriguing chapter in The Big Tomorrow documents a dramatic change in the architecture of movie theaters. During the 1920s, investors constructed grandiose downtown palaces designed to resemble Chinese pagodas, Greek temples, Moorish alcazars, and Gothic cathedrals in order to gentrify the raffish experience of going to the picture show and to lure middle-class patrons put off by the uncouth immigrant and proletarian audiences who had flocked to the movies during the medium’s first two decades. After the Market crash, however, attendance fell sharply, and the empty movie palaces were widely seen as ornate symptoms of “a failed capitalist order.” Smaller, strictly functional theaters were constructed in working-class neighborhoods, and attendance increased by more than 100 percent. With single entrances and uniformly priced seats, the modern movie theater was, claims May, “a utopian critique of the old order and a renewal of the republican commonwealth.” It is hard to credit its direct descendant, the shoebox chamber in a shopping mall multiplex, as an instrument of radical democracy rather than an efficient profit center. But in abandoning the hierarchical structure and ambience of a class-conscious opera house, the new Bijou reinforced the egalitarian themes of many films made in the 1930s.

This history, of course, ignores the fact that in many cities African Americans were forced to sit in separate sections of the theater or even in separate theaters, and that stereotypes of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and women were more often promoted than subverted. What was put on the screen in the 1930s by producers and directors, who were often immigrants or a single generation removed from Ellis Island, however, generally did replace a static, hierarchical view of society with a narrative about the need for political and economic justice. A bona fide social scientist, May supports his claims with empirical data–a series of appended graphs illustrating information gleaned from plot synopses of 24 randomly chosen films per year for the years 1914—1960. They reveal that, for example, 50 percent of the films released in 1936 portrayed wealthy people as a danger, compared with 5 percent each in 1924 and 1928. In 1930, 20 percent portrayed big business as a villain, while almost no movie did in 1914, 1918, or after 1940. In 1938, one in four movies featured a romance across class lines, while none did in 1946. The problem with this approach is that abstract synopses ignore context and style, which is where mere events acquire significance. It surely matters whether a wicked tycoon is presented as a tragic or comic figure. And simply summarizing plots at random presumes that all movies are created, and received, as equal, when the invention of the Oscar in 1928 proved that they are not.

A little more than a decade after the death of the amiable rebel Will Rogers, John Wayne–whose characters used violence to protect established institutions–became the leading Western hero, and Hollywood had deserted the revolution. After Pearl Harbor, the movie industry rallied to win the war by suppressing dissent and reverting to earlier, narrower models of American identity. After World War II, the McCarthyite terror, which targeted Hollywood in particular, enforced a false accord about the virtues of big business, consumer demand, and suburban domesticity. Dissent was stigmatized and sometimes punished as unpatriotic. To conform to the standards of white suburban domesticity, Latina Margarita Cansino was reinvented as Rita Hayworth. The CIA even planted an agent, Luigi Luraschi, at Paramount to obstruct the kinds of contentious productions common in the 1930s. Until the counterculture emerged in the 1960s, critiques of injustice and repression survived only in film noir and the youthful defiance of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

In the author’s prologue, May explains that he began his project by trying to understand how Ronald Reagan, an actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild, could have become President of the United States. To his surprise, he discovered that Hollywood had not always been allied with big business, and that even Reagan had once been a leftist. As the finale to his chapter on movie radicalism during the Depression, May describes how Reagan’s Knute Rockne, All American (1940) was used to further the goals of New Deal democracy. When it opened in a modern theater near Notre Dame, Indiana and surrounding states proclaimed a holiday. The movie’s stars showed up for the parade and for speeches praising American democracy for providing an immigrant Norwegian, Knute Rockne, the opportunity to excel by coaching Irish players at a Catholic university. Among those speaking was a son of Franklin Roosevelt, who also happened to be an executive at Warner Brothers.

Sixty years later, one of Al Gore’s daughters is a screenwriter, and Hollywood moguls bankroll liberal Democrats. Warren Beatty, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and other stars routinely speak out in favor of human rights, gun control, environmental protection, and other progressive causes. An analysis of current plots would surely reveal that the percentage of movies in which big business is disparaged and romances occur across races and classes is even higher than it was in 1936. But the context has changed dramatically. Though images of heroes freeing whales and Roman slaves wash over us, wallowing in contemporary popular culture hardly cleanses.

A professor of comparative literature at UT San Antonio, Steven Kellman is watching American movies this semester with Bulgarian subtitles as Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the University of Sofia.