Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American

Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American

by Peter Decherney
     
 

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As Americans flocked to the movies during the first part of the twentieth century, the guardians of culture grew worried about their diminishing influence on American art, education, and American identity itself. Meanwhile, Hollywood studio heads were eager to stabilize their industry, solidify their place in mainstream society, and expand their new but tenuous

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Overview

As Americans flocked to the movies during the first part of the twentieth century, the guardians of culture grew worried about their diminishing influence on American art, education, and American identity itself. Meanwhile, Hollywood studio heads were eager to stabilize their industry, solidify their place in mainstream society, and expand their new but tenuous hold on American popular culture.

Peter Decherney explores how these needs coalesced and led to the development of a symbiotic relationship between the film industry and America's stewards of high culture. Formed during Hollywood's Golden Age (1915-1960), this unlikely partnership ultimately insured prominent places in American culture for both the movie industry and elite cultural institutions. It redefined Hollywood as an ideal American industry; it made movies an art form instead of simply entertainment for the masses; and it made moviegoing a vital civic institution. For their part, museums and universities used films to maintain their position as quintessential American institutions.

As the book delves into the ties between Hollywood bigwigs and various cultural leaders, an intriguing cast of characters emerges, including the poet Vachel Lindsay, film producers Adolph Zukor and Joseph Kennedy, Hollywood flak and censor extraordinaire Will Hays, and philanthropist turned politician Nelson Rockefeller. Decherney considers how Columbia University's film studies program helped integrate Jewish students into American culture while also professionalizing screenwriting. He examines MoMA's career-savvy film curator Iris Barry, a British feminist once dedicated to stemming the tide of U.S. cultural imperialism, who ultimately worked with Hollywood and the U.S. government to fight fascism and communism and promote American values abroad. Other chapters explore Vachel Lindsay's progressive vision of movies as reinvigorating the public sphere through film libraries and museums; the promotion of movie connoisseurship at Harvard and other universities; and how the heir of a railroad magnate bankrolled the American avant-garde film movement.

Amid ethnic diversity, the rise of mass entertainment, world war, and the global spread of American culture, Hollywood and cultural institutions worked together to insure their own survival and profitability and to provide a coherent, though shifting, American identity.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An intellectualized examination of the film industry's early attempts to untie the Gordian knot of authority, domination and legitimacy connecting Hollywood filmmakers, the U.S. government and key cultural institutions such as museums and universities. Film has two unique histories. One concerns glamorous stars, ruthless moguls and the radical whence of talkies and digital dinosaurs-a territory continually mined in Hollywood creative nonfiction laced with clever fact and speculative ballyhoo. The second is more important for academic Decherney (Cinema Studies & English/Univ. of Pennsylvania), who delves into the flipside of eminent pop culture and investigates how civic and elite powers drove the emergence of American film into propaganda, high art, and documentary vis-a-vis simple escapism. Early 20th-century film's supremacy as a means of communication was clear, and filmmakers hustled to push the medium's accessibility to truth. Some were bent on eliminating written historical documentation, allowing visual images alone to portray events. Teetotalers saw film as a way to invoke temperance, yet film, even so, was criticized as an inebriant to the eyes, a tool for foreigners to manipulate America, and an impractical explosive device, due to its chemistry. The most intriguing elements here, however, are Decherney's depictions of Hollywood as outsider to legitimacy. Studios helped Columbia University's early film program grow by seeing it as a Jewish immigrant's vocational school from which to hire, while Harvard's Film Library's criteria for acquisition anticipated the Academy Awards-at the same time hampering a filmmakers' labor union. Decherney is happily objective in his account ofHollywood's Golden Age and thoroughly dissects the vicissitudes of players like film critic and MoMA curator Iris Barry as she rallies against American cinema one moment and heralds its global import the next. Discourses on modernism, phenomenology and library sciences stride confidently into hermeneutical territory, and Decherney regularly forgoes anecdotes in favor of historical and academic exactitude. If you're up for the challenge, here's a previously unplumbed course in cultural studies and American film history.
The Moving Image
A clearly written and well-researched historical work that makes a strong contribution to film scholarship.

— Heidi Kenaga

Film Quarterly
A frequently profound ethical query into the costs of patronage.

— Kevin Hagopian

The American Historical Review
Thought-provoking.

Film & History
Decherney does an excellent job exploring the individual players… and exposing how our current cinematic institutions and assumptions regarding film were founded.

— Erin Hills-Parks

Screening the Past
A very significant work that demands attentive and critical engagement.

— Tom Crosbie

Screening The Past

A very significant work that demands attentive and critical engagement.

— Tom Crosbie

The Moving Image - Heidi Kenaga
A clearly written and well-researched historical work that makes a strong contribution to film scholarship.

Film Quarterly - Kevin Hagopian
A frequently profound ethical query into the costs of patronage.

Film & History - Erin Hills-Parks
Decherney does an excellent job exploring the individual players… and exposing how our current cinematic institutions and assumptions regarding film were founded.

Screening the Past - Tom Crosbie
A very significant work that demands attentive and critical engagement.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780231508513
Publisher:
Columbia University Press
Publication date:
08/14/2012
Series:
Film and Culture Series
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
File size:
4 MB

What People are saying about this

Douglas Gomery

Hollywood and the Culture Elite provides a major contribution to our understanding of the role of movies in American culture. Carefully researched and engagingly written, it uncovers, for the first time, the many links between movie moguls and the leaders of American cultural institutions that have made Hollywood essential to the definition and circulation of American identity. This is required reading for anyone interested in the history of American film.

Douglas Gomery, University of Maryland

Thomas Bender

In this original, deeply researched, clearly written, and utterly fascinating book, Peter Decherney has illuminated the complex and often unexpected connections between Hollywood films and the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard, and Columbia. The book not only enriches our understanding of the place of Hollywood in American culture, but it also informs us about the roles some of our most elite cultural institutions played in the history of film as a form of popular art and as a high art form. It is an outstanding and invaluable work of cultural history.

Thomas Bender, Director, International Center for Advanced Studies

New York University

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Meet the Author

Peter Decherney is assistant professor of cinema studies and English at the University of Pennsylvania.

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