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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 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.
About the Author
Peter Decherney is assistant professor of cinema studies and English at the University of Pennsylvania.
Table of Contents
Introduction: How Film Became Art
1. Vachel Lindsay and the Universal Film Collection
2. Overlapping Publics: Hollywood and Columbia University, 1915
3. Mandarins and Marxists: Harvard and the Rise of Film Experts
4. Iris Barry, Hollywood Imperialism, and the Gender of the Nation
5. The Museum of Modern Art and the Roots of the Cultural Cold War
6. The Politics of Patronage: How the NEA (Accidentally) Created American Avant-Garde Film
Conclusion: The End of the Studio System
What People are Saying About This
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
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