Steven J. Ross. Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. xviii + 367 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-03234-4.
Reviewed by Philip Scranton (School of History, Technology, and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Published on H-SHGAPE (March, 1999)
Visualizing Class in the Silent Film Era
In this fascinating monograph, Steven Ross (University of Southern California) moves beyond historians' appreciation that early silent film audiences were overwhelmingly working class. He creates an extended and insightful analysis of filmmakers' depictions of working people (c. 1905-1929), and how workers' organizations undertook film production, businessmen and moralizers censored class-conscious movies, and post-World War One Hollywood studios both marginalized politically-sharp initiatives and transformed rhetorics of interclass conflicts into fantasies of class harmony. In so doing, Ross rescues from our collective dustbin the pre-history of worker film movements, often thought to have commenced during the Depression decade and, as a bonus, illuminates the cultural perception, shared by capitalists and radicals alike, that moving pictures possessed an extraordinary power to persuade, mobilize, or alternatively, pacify their millions of weekly viewers. Critiquing the overblown (Frankfort School-derived) notion that films essentially expressed capital's social control, hegemony-reinforcing efforts through cultural means, Ross argues that the exercise of economic and political power, rather than the medium's form, genres, and conventions, governed the core outcome--a movie-made vision of workers as violent and irrational in protest, their leaders as corrupt, if at times charismatic, and their challenges to "the order of things" as dangerous to the nation and doomed to failure. The tale lying behind this unappetizing result is both intricate and intriguing.
Working Class Hollywood organizes its saga into three temporal segments: the years preceding U.S. entry into the Great War, those of pressured patriotism and anti-left repression (1917-22), and the booming Twenties, at whose end "talkies" unseated silent films and the market crash signaled a decade of crisis and response. During the first period, a scattered cadre of enterprising film companies, often started by immigrant venturers from working class backgrounds, sought to feed nickelodeons' insatiable demand for fresh product by creating short films centered on the everyday comedies and tragedies familiar to working people, their principal audience. A subset engaged "struggles among unions, workers, capitalists, police and government troops" and represent "labor-capital" films, in Ross's classification. Though he finds that few were explicitly "radical" (p. 57), they nonetheless provoked intense audience responses--jeering at "conservative" caricatures, cheering for "anti-authoritarian" mockeries of the rich and profligate.
Yet commercial producers were not the only players on these contested cultural fields. In response to public outrage over the Triangle shirtwaist fire, the "rabidly anti-union National Association of Manufacturers" financed an Edison-made silent (The Crime of Carelessness, 1912) echoing the Manhattan tower's depiction of deadly locked exit doors, but blaming a worker's tossed matchstick for the film's fictional conflagration. Rolfe Photoplay countered in 1915 with a movie whose "money-hungry sweatshop owner and ... callous manager" bolts the exit doors and is found responsible for the ensuing fire deaths. In the wake of the Ludlow massacre, the Anthracite Coal Manufacturers worked with the federal Bureau of Mines to fashion a 1914 movie that suggested mine accidents (a cause of the Ludlow walkout) stemmed from "worker stupidity." A socialist film the same year focused on employers' "exploitation" as generating the strike, "and graphically portrayed employers and government authorities conspiring to murder innocent men, women, and children" (p. 35). Though such movie point-counterpoints were rare, in reprising them Ross shows how films could provide a venue for provocative political debates, at least until one voice in such arguments was silenced. Moreover, in formal terms, worker-oriented filmmakers adopted, yet recoded, the classic genres of romance, melodrama, and comedy in these and other oppositional pictures, recognizing that challenging messages could best be delivered to national audiences through familiar narrative modes. 'Entertain, don't preach,' was their byword.
Film censorship commenced well before the war and the Red Scare muzzled dissent. Chicago legislated the first ordinance in 1907; a hundred municipalities and many states followed its lead by the early Twenties. Ross points out that whereas films screening sex, violence, and/or crime had sections cut, those dealing with "class struggle" more often were "banned in their entirety" (p. 109). Battling the Hun, however, brought the national administration into the field. George Creel's famed (notorious?) Committee on Public Information led the way, urging film companies to shoot only those scripts which enhanced national unity and showed America's best qualities to domestic and foreign audiences, while offering lucrative government contracts for propaganda vehicles. Controlling export licenses for films, CPI censors rapidly enlisted those proto-moguls who were fashioning Hollywood's production complexes and distribution networks (Zukor, Lasky, Lemmle, Fox, Loew, and Selznik). The industry's nascent leadership was well aware that European rivals had been idled, whereas movie houses abroad urgently needed new pictures. Moreover, none-too-subtle threats to draft filmmakers' employees added to the pressure for producing "only wholesome films" (p. 125).
By 1919, Bolsheviks replaced rapacious Teutons as the film villains of choice, and soon thereafter virtually all labor activists grew demonic horns as militancy rose in Hollywood's key industrial union, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). When employers attempted to
install a "drastic set of wage cuts" during the 1921 recession and IATSE members resisted, the unified Motion Pictures Producers' Association locked them out, generating a brief but inadequate solidarity between IATSE workers and those organized in craft unions. The workers' defeat: 1) precipitated an intra-labor "civil war," with long-lasting recriminations; 2) confirmed Los Angeles's status as a fiery open shop district; and 3) ratified the trend toward anti-union films, or more generally, movies which either ignored or papered over class antagonisms.
After 1922, Ross documents several significant trends. Though the inauguration of giant movie palaces dated to 1914, it was during the Twenties that Paramount and other integrated studios erected scores of them, modeled on Balaban and Katz's ornate Chicago structures. Richly ornamented, heavily staffed, and charging a dollar admission (rather than the 25 or 50 cents in neighborhood cinemas), the palaces presented combined stage show and film programs which drew multi-class audiences to fill their 3-5,000 seats daily and proved immensely profitable. A Paramount executive estimated (c. 1925) that seventy-five percent of film revenues came from the "1250 key deluxe houses" among the nation's 20,000+ movie theatres (p. 194). These financial incentives encouraged studios to make films which, when they dealt with workers or labor-capital relations at all, stressed harmony, rather than struggle. The broader turn away from "social realism" to fantasy in the silent era's last decade meshed neatly with the movie palace ambiance, but also provoked a revival of worker filmmaking.
Here Ross profiles New York's Labor Film Service and Seattle's Federation Film Corporation, along with the film section of International Workers' Aid (importer of Russian movies and producer of labor documentaries). Though each made at least one feature-length film and planned for more, only IWA lasted more than a few years. Raising capital for anti-capitalist productions was a major obstacle, of course, especially in that costs had multiplied severalfold since the pre-war years. Perhaps more severe, however, were distribution obstacles. Once the Hollywood "majors" had acquired chains of first and second run theaters (by '29, Paramount had 1,000, Fox 800, and Warner Brothers 700), they controlled access to "their" screens and, through block-booking contracts, excluded independent titles. State-level "exchange agencies" were also tough to crack, particularly insofar as they wished to avert clashes with censors who found Twenties' labor films incendiary. Indeed, the one empirical shortcoming of this work is its relatively sketchy account of film distribution relationships (p. 104-06) and their changes over time, though this may have resulted from equally sketchy sources.
Leftists tried screening their films at non-theatrical venues (union halls, churches, etc.), but made little headway. As the IWA head noted in 1925, "Our enemy reaches fifty million people a week ... We reached ten thousand a week, once ..." (p. 220). By 1929, the second wave of worker filmmaking was moribund, this
time crushed by markets, organizational structures and the fear of censorship. Working Class Hollywood closes with Ross's reflections on "what might have been" had trade unions more actively supported class-conscious film production, a reprise of the key players' later life experiences, and a pithy review of Hollywood's durable misrepresentation of American workers and their unions (with Norma Rae (1979) and Matewan (1987) as striking exceptions).
In admirably reconstructing a long-ignored dimension of the early film industry and recovering another element of working class activism from "the condescension of posterity" (E.P. Thompson's memorable phrase), Ross has enriched both labor and film history. Yet given the narrow reach of labor-capital films and their tiny and declining proportion of all films made (e.g., about one percent of those produced through 1917), it is hard to credit Ross's claim for "their cumulative impact on audiences." "[S]eeing the same images and political messages over and over again in hundreds of films dealing with similar problems could change the ways people understood daily events--especially events about which they had little first hand knowledge," he argues (p. 58). Perhaps, but as these images were contradictory in different films (workers as heroes, workers as stupid; organizers as democratic voices or raving maniacs) and immersed in a vast sea of other films (westerns, romances, etc.), for this conjecture to be convincing far more evidence on films as agents of cognitive change than is available here would need to be marshaled. As Ross's research was thorough indeed, it is unlikely that such evidence exists. In my reading, Ross shares the activists' and censors' belief in films' cultural and political force and shows how worker filmmakers battled long odds, hostility, and indifference. Yet for all this, it is hard to divine what "cumulative impact" these efforts yielded, overmatched as they were by a Hollywood juggernaut itself led by "graduates" from the immigrant working class.
This reservation notwithstanding, Ross's study of workers as film subjects, as audiences, and as film creators, in tandem with his nuanced, critical account of Hollywood's emergence, is a durable achievement. It would be well worth reading alongside the late Roland Marchand's Creating the Corporate Soul (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), which explores the fashioning of corporate imagery with comparable skill and energy.
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