BOOKS & THE CULTURE Blue Collars and Silver Screens The Forgotten History of Cinema Proletaire BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN WORKING-CLASS HOLLYWOOD: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. By Steven J. Ross. Princeton University Press. 367 pages. $38.95. 0 nce, at someone else’s expense, I flew firstclass from San Antonio to Dallas. The flight attendants greeted me by name, and plied me with limitless portions of peanuts and orange juice. Neither legs nor arms were cramped throughout the fiftyminute journey. For such sybaritic luxury, my benefactors paid $250 above coach fare. For Americans, distinctions of class are rarely visible except on airplanes, and for most flights it is more often the idea of privilege, than the meager privileges themselves, that encourages the extra expenditure. Otherwise, 150 years after publication of The Communist Manifesto, the classless society that Karl Marx augured appears to have materialized in the United States, and nowhere more manifestly than in the local multiplex. In the temple of the triumphant bourgeoisie, seats are neither reserved nor segregated, and the most popular of all movies, Titanic, scorns the European snobbery that confines Jack Dawson to steerage, apart from his well-born beauty Rose DeWitt Bukater. Hollywood sells enough tickets to recoup its enormous investments by selling the illusion that we are all in this together. It was not always so. Once upon a time, when flickering shadows offered the cheapest entertainment in town, the local nickelodeon was a raucous, raffish assembly where the collars of the viewers were blue and tattered. Cary Grant might have felt awkward if, as either patron or player, he had surfaced in one of the urban storefronts converted into theaters during cinema’s first three decades, which happened to overlap was shown on screen reflected the experiences of the hoi polloi who showed up in the audience. “At no time in the industry’s history would filmmakers be more concerned with the lives and hardships of working people,” writes Steven J. Ross, an historian at the University of Southern California. In Working-Class Hollywood, he recounts the movie industry’s eventual alienation from labor, the hegemony of Hollywood as the factory for manufacturing fantasies of social homogeny. The birth of the studios, claims Ross, “is a story of one of the greatest power struggles in American history a struggle for the control of American consciousness.” And Ross’s love labor lost. THE BIRTH OF THE STUDIOS, CLAIMS ROSS, “IS A STORY OF ONE OF THE GREATEST POWER STRUGGLES IN AMERICAN HISTORY A STRUGGLE FOR THE CONTROL OF AMERICAN CONSCIOUSNESS.” Though most of the canon of silent cinema has crumbled into nitrate dust, Ross reconstructs its contents from contemporary reviews and shooting scripts. By his reckoning, silent films spoke directly to the interests of those who put their lives on line assembly and picket. He calculates 605 working-class films were produced between 1905 and 1917, and that 274 of those were “labor-capital productions”: polemical works that dramatized struggles among unions, capitalists, and government. Though the categories are porous and precision is impossible, Ross estimates that 4 percent of these films were radical, 46 percent liberal, 9 percent anti-authoritarian, 7 percent populist, and 34 percent conservative. Despite the racism of The Birth Of A Nation A Corner In Wheat The Song Of The Shirt One Is Business, The Other Crime erful critics of class injustice that the movie industry ever produced.” Lois Weber used her films to advocate birth control, childlabor laws, and an end to capital punishment. For Frank Wolfe, movies were an instrument to advance the socialist revolution, and in his 1913 hit, From Dusk To Dawn, a laundress and an iron molder fall in love, and the latter is elected Governor on a socialist ticket. Nor does King Vidor seem to belong to the same diversionary species as James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, or John Woo. “I see the Hand of Fate calling me to reform the world,” proclaimed the native Texan in 1914. “I will start with the Movies.” But following World War I, the movies started to change. Ornate new downtown palaces were constructed in order to lure more affluent audiences, who might be frightened off by inflammatory stories. Increased costs pared the motley ranks of producers, which once included unions and leftist organizations, and made the few surviving companies chary of taking chances, especially when local censors began to endanger their investments; when Maude Miller, head of a film commission in Ohio, blocked exhibition of The Mirror Of Death rich, the shift tended to inspire respect if not for the rich, then for their power to protect their interests. Labor strife within the studios dampened mogul ardor for cinematic agitprop. Post-war isolationism, and anxiety over the rise of Bolshevism, made screenplays by and for immigrants increasingly suspect. By 1927, when movies began to talk, they said little to disturb the existing social order. Within the new consumer democracy of the Bijou, any paying white adult could sit anywhere, oblivious to the inequities outside. For Ross, history is a matter of human contingency, not an immutable fact of nature. He concludes his book of revelations with the assertion that movies might have developed very differently: “Certainly See “Blue Collars,” page 31 JUNE 5, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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