Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method

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Film scholarship has long been dominated by textual interpretations of specific films. Looking Past the Screen advances a more expansive American film studies in which cinema is understood to be a social, political, and cultural phenomenon extending far beyond the screen. Presenting a model of film studies in which films themselves are only one source of information among many, this volume brings together film histories that draw on primary sources including collections of personal papers, popular and trade journalism, fan magazines, studio publications, and industry records.

Focusing on Hollywood cinema from the teens to the 1970s, these case studies show the value of this extraordinary range of historical materials in developing interdisciplinary approaches to film stardom, regulation, reception, and production. The contributors examine State Department negotiations over the content of American films shown abroad; analyze the star image of Clara Smith Hamon, who was notorious for having murdered her lover; and consider film journalists’ understanding of the arrival of auteurist cinema in Hollywood as it was happening during the early 1970s. One contributor chronicles the development of film studies as a scholarly discipline; another offers a sociopolitical interpretation of the origins of film noir. Still another brings to light Depression-era film reviews and Production Code memos so sophisticated in their readings of representations of sexuality that they undermine the perception that queer interpretations of film are a recent development. Looking Past the Screen suggests methods of historical research, and it encourages further thought about the modes of inquiry that structure the discipline of film studies.

Contributors. Mark Lynn Anderson, Janet Bergstrom, Richard deCordova, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Sumiko Higashi, Jon Lewis, David M. Lugowski, Dana Polan, Eric Schaefer, Andrea Slane, Eric Smoodin, Shelley Stamp

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The ability of this collection to move outside of formalist analysis, and towards a more socially inclusive mode of criticism, pays multiple dividends: in particular, it provides a rich sense of the classical Hollywood film’s unparalleled social importance.” - Tim Roberts, M/C Reviews

“This is a very useful book. It has an introduction which states simply and clearly what it intends to do, and why; then twelve essays which exemplify those aims. . . . Looking Past the Screen is a book worth having. It is of course aimed primarily at researchers into American film, but the principles outlined in the introduction and illustrated in the essays can equally well be applied to any other national cinema.” - Colin Crisp, Screening the Past

“[An] intelligent and entertaining anthology. . . .” - Scott McKinnon, Media International Australia

“[E]ssays in Looking Past the Screen are exciting and informative examples of the type of scholarly work that explores the non-filmic evidence that broadens our understanding of film history. . . . Overall, Looking Past the Screen is an informative contribution to the study of film history. . .” - Shayne D. Pepper, Film Criticism

“I am not aware of another anthology on US film history that illustrates such a wide range of subjects and methodologies. . . . [M]ost of the essays in this volume are well worth reading and assigning as examples of thoughtfully conceived research.” - James Steffen, Film International

“From university classrooms in 1915 and adult films in the 1930s to secretary-producers and dish night at the movies, this compelling collection reminds us that the power, importance, and complexity of films and film studies reside in the vibrant details of the medium’s extraordinary cultural history.”—Timothy Corrigan, author of New German Film and A Cinema without Walls

“The ace editors and A-list film historians Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin have assembled a stellar cast of critics and scholars to illuminate the mutually enabling relationship between film and history. The provocative essays in this marvelous collection might be likened to a must-see motion picture program with a choice marquee entry for every taste, a bill whose featured attractions encompass the forgotten pioneers of the silent screen, the CGI-laden blockbusters of Planet Hollywood, the kid-centric fare of the Saturday matinee, and the proto-porn of the classic adult film market, with excursions into the noir, the star, the auteur, the Oriental, and the queer. Throughout, the screenings are cinema-smart, culturally savvy, and—appropriately—highly entertaining.”—Thomas Doherty, Brandeis University

Scott McKinnon

“[An] intelligent and entertaining anthology. . . .”
Shayne D. Pepper

“[E]ssays in Looking Past the Screen are exciting and informative examples of the type of scholarly work that explores the non-filmic evidence that broadens our understanding of film history. . . . Overall, Looking Past the Screen is an informative contribution to the study of film history. . .”
James Steffen

“I am not aware of another anthology on US film history that illustrates such a wide range of subjects and methodologies. . . . [M]ost of the essays in this volume are well worth reading and assigning as examples of thoughtfully conceived research.”
Tim Roberts

“The ability of this collection to move outside of formalist analysis, and towards a more socially inclusive mode of criticism, pays multiple dividends: in particular, it provides a rich sense of the classical Hollywood film’s unparalleled social importance.”
Colin Crisp

“This is a very useful book. It has an introduction which states simply and clearly what it intends to do, and why; then twelve essays which exemplify those aims. . . . Looking Past the Screen is a book worth having. It is of course aimed primarily at researchers into American film, but the principles outlined in the introduction and illustrated in the essays can equally well be applied to any other national cinema.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822338215
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jon Lewis is a professor in the English department at Oregon State University. His books include Hollywood v. Hard-Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry as well as Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Ford Coppola and the New Hollywood and The New American Cinema, both also published by Duke University Press.

Eric Smoodin is a professor of American studies and director of film studies at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930–1960, also published by Duke University Press, and Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era.

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Read an Excerpt


Case Studies in American Film History and Method


Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3821-5

Chapter One



In a version of this study that I was preparing to present at Stanford University (one of the historical sites of importance for the story I propose to tell), I had originally intended to use the word "origins" instead of "beginnings" in my title. But then it struck me that the idea of "origins" might be misleading, for it could suggest lineages, developments, traditions, and legacies-that is, successful continuities across time. In fact, the story of the earliest days of American film study is instead one of breaks and gaps-of projects begun but not followed through, of initiatives that concretized into nothing enduring. For all the effort of a new historiography to break away from singular events and deal with gradual movement (as in the Annales school's emphasis on longue durée, or the long duration of history), the history of early film study in particular reveals itself to be highly punctual and highly fragmentary.

To be sure, as the following pages will bear out, in the early days there were precise institutional linkages between the various attempts at bringing film into the academy. Indeed, much of the earlyhistory has to do with the ways in which, with the support of established institutions, various initiatives could seem to gain solidity. But to the extent that any initiative depended on larger institutional support and promotion, its existence and endurance could be fragile when the support dried up. To anticipate just one example, it is clear that soon after its founding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (hereafter, AMPAS or "the Academy") became a central player in the push to introduce film education into universities. The Academy sponsored several such educational projects and was key to their start-up. But it seems that when the Academy came to feel it no longer needed special university instruction and could rely on the studios to train their own personnel, it lowered its support to academic ventures, and the diverse university initiatives under its aegis had to fight on their own or flounder.

In fact, if the early history of cinema study is one of punctual events that do not add up to an enduring lineage, we can in particular pinpoint an ultimate punctuation to these beginning moments, one that cuts early film study off from later developments that more clearly form part of a legacy for the current state of the discipline. This terminal event, which takes place in the mid-1930s, is the founding of the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Film and its creation of a circulating library of film titles. As disconnected as are the beginnings of film study, the formation and dissemination of the MOMA canon brings together the fragments and gives a sense of direction to a new field of film study in the university. Almost as if overnight, we see the creation of courses all mentioning the MOMA collection and all resembling each other in terms of their sense of just what the history of film has been canonically. To take just one example, in the late 1920s Stanford University hesitantly tried to introduce a film course (under the aegis of AMPAS). But this hesitancy disappeared in the second half of the 1930s when the university began a new, more enduring course based on the MOMA collection. Significantly, where the earlier course had been housed in the Department of Psychology (a sign in this case of an uncertainty of just how film should be imagined as an object of study), the new course was in the Department of Fine Arts and reflected a newfound respectability for film as an aesthetic object.

In the following study my goals are both modest and complex. On the one hand, I want simply to tell the story of early film study as I see it. The primary goal here is to present things as I think they were, as captured in all their concrete facticity. But here even the modesty becomes complex. I have already used language-"the story ... as I see it," for example-that implies that this history is very much one filtered through a narrative consciousness (in this case, mine). Perhaps this is inevitable in all historiography but it is especially necessary in the case at hand, for there is much that went on in the early days of film study that is unknown to us-so many parts of the narrative at which the historian can only guess. In some cases, a document that might fill out the narrative is simply unavailable and the researcher has to imagine what it might say; historians live perhaps in the hope of the last piece of paper that will bring everything together. To take just one example, in the early 1930s, the USC film professor Boris Morkovin tried to set up a series of regular visits by classes to Hollywood studios to aid in a professionalization of film-inclined students. Something went wrong, however, and studios' relations with the budding USC film program soured a bit. Wondering what happened is intriguing, but all I have for the moment is a letter of apology to the Academy (which evidently facilitated the visits) by a friend of Morkovin asking that what happened during one particular studio visit be forgotten. What happened, what the affront or impropriety might have been, is never explained. Perhaps somewhere in some studio file there is the other side of this correspondence, the bit that would put it all together. But how do we know that it is even there, and how do we begin to imagine the research effort it would take to track it down? Instead, it is better to guess simply that some lapse of protocol occurred and then leave it at that. We can at least posit that the triangular relations between the academic world, the Academy, and the studio system were no doubt fraught with tensions and mutual suspicions. Individual facts can sometimes be less important than the intuition of general attitudes and tensions.

There is much about the details of the history of early film study that is simply not available to us-the facts are not available, the records are not to be found, the documents are missing. To take another example (which I also will return to later), there is next to nothing known about one of the very first film instructors in the university, Frances Taylor Patterson, who taught at Columbia. When a few years ago one of the Columbia professor John Belton's students, Vassilios Koronakis, set out to learn about Patterson, his study became as much a commentary on the difficulty of finding information as it was a study of Patterson herself. Virtually nothing could be found out about Patterson except the basic evidence, such as her syllabi, that she did in fact teach courses.

But if simple tales turn out to be difficult to develop because of empirical gaps in the historical record, there is another, deeper difficulty in the easy modes of the simple retelling of the historical past of film study. As I see it, to make full sense of the history of film study we need to go beyond the immediate chronicle to engage with larger issues of social and cultural history. To be sure, presented in and of itself the story of the beginnings of film study is a fascinating one that is filled with great anecdotes and amusingly eccentric characters. It is salutary, no doubt, for disciplines to look back on their founding moment, and the story of film study can be both pleasurable and educational. But this story, as I want to tell it, is about more than just a discipline-more than a fun tale of curious characters in intriguing narratives. Among other things, the story of film study as I will tell it is part of a bigger tale, that of American higher education as it emerged into the modern age and had to deal with new, nontraditional media technologies such as the emergent culture of cinema.

In fact, the tale I tell has contemporary relevance and is not just an amusing oddity from the past. Take, for instance, the way film is configured in some of today's debates about value and the humanities-debates that have been summed up under the rubric of "the culture wars." Notorious is an early issue of the New Criterion with Hilton Kramer's strident diatribe against the teaching of film in the university. For Kramer, the supposed breakdown of morals and civic confidence beginning in the 1970s comes less from the Vietnam experience and a loss of American mission than from the demoralizing, relativizing effect that film instruction has in a university world ostensibly geared to higher knowledge. Neoconservatives like Kramer need for their arguments the nostalgic positing of a golden age of intellection before the imputed fall into the morass of mass culture. They posit, for instance, an integrity of the great books tradition and of pedagogy in that tradition, and they see the popular arts as a potential threat to its sanctity. But a look at the history of higher education with attention both to great books instruction and to academia's engagement with mass culture reveals a much more complicated picture-one of interference and influence between the high and the low. For all the resistance by neoconservatives to mass culture, the earlier days of intellectual interaction reveal a frequent openness to the educational and even aesthetic possibilities of mass cultural forms such as film. Many of the central proponents of great books education turn out to be central advocates also of an open and even laudatory approach to popular arts such as cinema.

One example involves Scott Buchanan, the first president of Saint John's College, which was famous for fully basing its curriculum on great books education and serving as a symbol of a supreme education concerned with the "best that has been thought and said." In his draft plan for the college, Buchanan ended his discussion of the proposed curriculum with the strong recommendation that the planned four years of great books education be followed by a fifth year of instruction within an Institute of Cinematics (to be run, he suggests, by Lewis Mumford, whose 1934 Technics and Civilization had also argued for the need to engage in positive fashion with the arts and crafts of everyday life). Following in the lineage of so many commentators in the period from around 1910 to the 1930s, Buchanan argues that cinema is not merely one among many arts (whether popular or fine), but rather it is the ultimate art, a veritable Hegelian synthesizer that realizes the potential of all other arts and brings them to their greatest import and intensity. Significantly, Buchanan's discussion of just what would be learned in this institute is somewhat vague: it is not clear to what extent the emphasis would be on the craft of filmmaking or on critical reflection, the elaboration of an aesthetic appreciation of the lively art. But in his welcoming of film, Buchanan is in fact typical of many of the great books intellectuals of his day. For example, the philosopher Mortimer Adler (also a key figure in great books education to the point of later becoming a veritable salesperson for the Encyclopedia Britannica's postwar popularization of the canon) was one of Buchanan's closest friends (and an obvious partner in dialogue on the positive virtues of cinema). In 1934, Adler wrote one of the most extended defenses of film as a humanist endeavor, the Aristotelian Art and Prudence (a book that became a bible for the Hays Office in its attempts to stave off the condemnation of film as more sociological-an influence on behavior-than aesthetic). And the willingness in Buchanan and Adler to engage with the popular can be traced back to their graduate school work at Columbia, where both participated in John Erskine's great books program and became committed to adult education as a way of making higher education responsive to the popular, public realm.

In the first decades of the century, education found itself forced to come to grips with the new demographic conditions in the United States: in particular, the shift to city living; the influx of immigrant cultures; and, with industrialization, the growing need for a trained labor force and, some might say, for a working class that was disciplined and trained to be subservient. Progressivism is the term commonly employed to describe the various initiatives in government, religious organizations, reform institutions, Chautauqua institutes, and so on to deal with these new factors in American life by trying to find points of integration for such new forces within the dominant mode of production and its corresponding cultural and social realms. It is my contention that the efforts of progressivism to argue the potentially beneficent aspects of everyday culture help explain the increasingly positive acceptance of film as object of academic study.

It is important to understand that progressivism was not so much a single movement as a series of initiatives and debates engaged in by individuals, organizations, and institutions that did not necessarily have a direct relation to each other and that could, indeed, have conflicting notions of purposes and methods of social-cultural reform. In its first guise, a moralistic discourse dominated progressive reform with a notion that the new conditions of everyday life in America offered both advantages and risks, and therefore that there should be moral instruction in proper behavior. But where many of the moralists came as amateurs and applied their efforts as such in the civic realm, the rising professionalization of the American university meant that it increasingly was able to take on the mission of progressivism without enclosing amelioration within moralistic and religious frames. Film, regarded as both an embodiment of potentially moral contents and as the result of an applied professional activity (the craft of filmmaking), found a place within this transition from moral guardians to academics as the ostensible arbiters of everyday ethics.

The moral guardians in the first decade of the twentieth century tended to regard film with suspicion as one of the seductions into the salacious that faced ordinary people in the public sphere. The closing of New York's moving picture exhibition venues at the end of 1908 is the most famous example of the moral disciplining of cinema in this first moment. But this moralistic disapprobation received a quick riposte: first, in the form of a secular and practical-oriented reformism manifested in the influential efforts of reform groups such as the People's Institute (a key player behind the foundation of the National Board of Censorship) and, second, through the efforts of academia to make film into the object of a positive analysis and approbation where it is imagined that exposure to film and its workings could have an uplifting and ameliorative effect. In fact, the People's Institute had a major academic component, as its teaching staff included a number of professors and graduate students from Columbia University. Implicit in the idea of the People's Institute was a concern for a positive education that would respect much of the mass culture that ordinary citizens possessed. In their rejection of practices of moral condemnation, reform organizations like the People's Institute promoted instead an affirmative emphasis on training as the means to integrate populations into the American way of life.

Subsequently, this concern with ameliorative forms of instruction was continued by universities such as Columbia that increasingly understood the need to target new constituencies for educational benefits. As Thorstein Veblen in The Higher Learning in America (1918) attests (albeit in critical fashion) the American university was undergoing a transition from gentlemanly refinement to a much more pragmatic concern with the industrial applicability of academic lesson. Indeed, the concern of the nineteenth-century elite universities had been as much to improve and confirm the character of a hereditary elite as it had been to give that elite any socially useful knowledge-members of such elites famously set out to get no more than a C grade in their courses (known as the "gentleman's C's") as anything higher would have indicated that too much time was being devoted to learning and not enough to the sort of social life that builds character and forges ties of honor among a future business class. By Veblen's time, there was a shift toward a notion of education that would be practical and popular, reaching out to many nonelite members of the culture.

Progressivism offered at least three different approaches to an affirmative understanding of film as force of uplift and positive pedagogy. (As I will show, a fourth option emerges later in the history I relate here.) First, the very terms of a philosophy of high culture-as evident, for instance, in the concurrent promotion of great books courses-could simply be transferred over to film. In other words, film would be seen to take up its rightful place among the fine arts and, significantly, this place could be one either of equivalence (that cinema is as worthy as the other arts) or of superiority (that there are ways in which cinema brings to a supreme point the aesthetic tendencies of the other arts). The breakthrough volumes on film in 1915-1916 by Vachel Lindsay and Hugo Munsterberg offer key articulations of this philosophy (and it is worth noting how many subsequent volumes reference these two establishing texts): for Lindsay, for instance, each fine art has its refinement in a cinematic equivalent; and for both Lindsay and Munsterberg, film establishes itself as an art by its systematic, imaginative deformation of reality.


Excerpted from LOOKING PAST THE SCREEN Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
Introduction: The History of Film History   Eric Smoodin     1
Institutional Histories     35
The Beginnings of American Film Study   Dana Polan     37
The Perfect Money Machine(s): George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Auteurism in the New Hollywood   Jon Lewis     61
Star Studies     87
Lois Weber and the Celebrity of Matronly Respectability   Shelley Stamp     89
Tempting Fate: Clara Smith Hamon, or, The Secretary as Producer   Mark Lynn Anderson     117
The Crafting of a Political Icon: Lola Lola on Paper   Andrea Slane     151
Regulation     167
Going Hollywood Sooner or Later: Chinese Censorship and The Bitter Tea of General Yen   Eric Smoodin     169
Plain Brown Wrapper: Adult Films for the Home Market, 1930-1969   Eric Schaefer     201
Reception     227
Ethnography and Exhibition: The Child Audience, The Hays Office, and Saturday Matinees   Richard JeCordova     229
Dish Night At the Movies: Exhibitor Promotions and Female Audiences during the Great Depression   Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley     246
"A Treatise on Decay": Liberal and Leftist Critics and Their Queer Readings of Depression-Era U.S.Film   David M. Lugowski     276
Production     301
Murnau in America: Chronicle of Lost Films (4 Devils, City Girl)   Janet Bergstrom     303
The American Origins of Film Noir: Realism in Urban Art and The Naked City   Sumiko Higashi     353
Bibliography     381
Contributors     397
Index     401
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