Screening the Rural:
The American Countryside in Silent Film
Hal S. Barron, Harvey Mudd College and The Claremont Graduate University
Comment: Lynne Heasley, Western Michigan University
The rise of motion pictures during the 1910s and 1920s was a critical component of an emerging consumer culture in the United States that coincided with its broader transformation from a rural to an urban society. Because of this conjuncture, silent movies depicting agrarian life were instrumental in establishing new understandings of the countryside for a modern, urban nation. They resonated with city audiences, particularly those who had been raised on the farm, as well as with rural and small-town moviegoers, and they performed important cultural work by helping to reconcile both groups to vexing social changes. Besides providing comfort in a time of transition, however, rural films also helped facilitate the new order by subverting traditional understandings of agrarian life and distancing it from its previous position at the core of American culture.
This paper provides a critical analysis of American silent films that depict rural life in order to understand their role in the creation of new conceptions of the countryside during the first third of the twentieth century. In addition to discussing the work of key directors such as D. W. Griffith, Henry King, and F. W. Murnau, this paper also deals with more ordinary films and places them in the broader context of other popular cultural treatments of similar themes. It also analyzes marketing strategies and audience responses to these films in order to gauge their cultural import.
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Co-sponsored by The Newberry Library, The University of Chicago, and Trinity Christian College
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