The first study dedicated to the emergence of U.S. Left film theory and criticism, combining close readings of films with archival research to explore the origins of a movement that aspired toward a popular cinema of social change.
In the 1930s as the capitalist system faltered, many in the United States turned to the political Left. Hollywood, so deeply embedded in capitalism, was not immune to this shift. Left of Hollywood offers the first book-length study of Depression-era Left film theory and criticism in the United States. Robé studies the development of this theory and criticism over the course of the 1930s, as artists and intellectuals formed alliances in order to establish an engaged political film movement that aspired toward a popular cinema of social change. Combining extensive archival research with careful close analysis of films, Robé explores the origins of this radical social formation of U.S. Left film culture.
Grounding his arguments in the surrounding contexts and aesthetics of a few films in particular—Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico!, Fritz Lang's Fury, William Dieterle's Juarez, and Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise—Robé focuses on how film theorists and critics sought to foster audiences who might push both film culture and larger social practices in more progressive directions. Turning at one point to anti-lynching films, Robé discusses how these movies united black and white film critics, forging an alliance of writers who championed not only critical spectatorship but also the public support of racial equality. Yet, despite a stated interest in forging more egalitarian social relations, gender bias was endemic in Left criticism of the era, and female-centered films were regularly discounted. Thus Robé provides an in-depth examination of this overlooked shortcoming of U.S. Left film criticism and theory.
- Introduction: Unfinished Promises to an Orphaned Time
- Chapter One: Montage, Realism, and the Male Gaze
- Chapter Two: Eisenstein in America: The ¡Que Viva México! Debates and Emergent Popular Front U.S. Film Theory and Criticism
- Chapter Three: Screening Race: The Antilynching Film, the Black Press, and U.S. Popular Front Film Criticism
- Chapter Four: Taking Hollywood Back: Gendered Histories of the Hollywood Costume Drama, the Biopic, and Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise
- Conclusion: Fragments of the Future
The aim of the book is [to] gather for scholars and labor etc. people, especially the young, in one place some basic facts and areas of experience I am tentatively calling A Missing Chapter in American Film History: Social and Political Films of the 1930s.
—Tom Brandon to his editor, June 11, 1975
Deep within the archives of the Museum of Modern Art rests Tom Brandon's incomplete manuscript of A Missing Chapter in American Film History: Social and Political Films of the 1930s. Back in 1970, when Brandon initiated the project, A Missing Chapter was to be the first book-length study to chronicle the emergence of U.S. Left film criticism during the 1920s, its developments throughout the 1930s, and its relation to radical and progressive Depression-era film groups like the Film and Photo Leagues, NYKino, and Frontier Films
In many ways, Brandon was well positioned to write this history. Not only had he meticulously collected thousands of Left film reviews, along with related brochures, mimeographs, and paraphernalia, but he had also served as a cameraman, producer, lecturer, and programmer for the New York Film and Photo League (NYF&PL) during the white-hot years of the Depression, 1930 to 1935.2 During Brandon's tenure, the league represented the front lines of radical filmmaking in the United States, countering the reactionary subject matter and form of commercial newsreels with its own montage-inflected documentaries that brilliantly illuminated the flashes of social protest that were being ignited across the country but banned from its mainstream screens. As the radicalism of the early decade became tempered into the populism of its later half, Brandon established his own distribution company, which specialized in foreign, documentary, and orphan films. Through this company, he gained the rights to key Left films of the 1930s. Armed with both an intimate, firsthand knowledge of the NYF&PL and a vast collection of primary sources concerning U.S. Left film criticism and production, Brandon seemed the ideal candidate to finally recount this grossly neglected period of U.S. film history.
But once immersed in the project, Brandon felt the overwhelming vertigo that afflicts all historians who desire to erect unassailable certainties upon the always-shifting sands of conjecture that accompany archival work. The manuscript is littered with variable interpretations, often at odds with one another. On one page, Brandon writes that the goals of Frontier Films "never were fully realized." Yet three pages later, he declares: "It is significant that despite financial hardships a group [Frontier Films] was not only able to make these films, but that each of them, with one exception, made a contribution in the sense that each had been made for a specific purpose and each, to a great degree, fulfilled that objective at the time it was produced."
As nuances multiplied, history blurred, causing Brandon to seek outside assistance from friends who had participated in events. Yet their responses only further complicated matters by challenging the already shaky framework that Brandon had tentatively erected. Leo Hurwitz proved particularly problematic, caustically accusing the NYF&PL of being "narrow and sectarian" in its refusal to "back [his suggestion of] a full-time, professional type group to experiment etc. and broaden the filmmaking approaches and forms." After several unsuccessful attempts to come to an understanding with Hurwitz, Brandon sent a general letter in September 1974 to surviving league members, asking for their clarification. Brandon implored: "Let us examine as dispassionately as we can and reconstruct the historical process of the reality we experienced and knew."
Yet twelve years after its inception, Brandon's manuscript still foundered on the shoals of passion, selective memory, and archival shards, stubbornly refusing to coalesce into the coherent image of the past that each successive revision attempted to summon, a past that he intimately belonged to but never possessed. In 1982, as his health began to decline, Brandon reluctantly abandoned the project before dying the same year. A Missing Chapter in American Film History remains his unfinished promise to an orphaned time, a time that was shunned by the gatekeepers of official history and, even worse, eluded his own tender grasp, which simply wanted to set it down once and for all in the ledgers of history.
Brandon's manuscript serves as a painful testament to the moment when a historian must confront the realization that, in Frederic Jameson's words, "history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualizations." According to Jameson, only by reading texts relationally and allegorically, thereby opening them up "to multiple meanings, to successive rewritings and overwritings which are generated as so many levels and as so many supplementary interpretations," can one begin to construct, after the fact, the ways in which history or the Real itself haunts all cultural forms like an afterimage. Mediation becomes a key concept in reunifying "the fragmentation and autonomization, the compartmentalization and specialization of the various regions of social life" into a totalizing passing glimpse that allows one to tentatively map the ineffable vectors of history and the Real. "The fact that our boundaries are not exact and our categories are always subject to revision," warns Michael Denning, "should not lead us to give up the task." It was precisely Brandon's unvanquishable belief in the exacting categories and impermeable boundaries preached by official historiography that undermined the completion of his project. The traditional methodology of dispassionate examination and historical certainty proved anathema to the counterhistory that Brandon wanted to resurrect.
Walter Benjamin, one of the most astute analysts of the cultural underground during the 1930s, warned against this very methodology when he advised researchers "to abandon the tranquil contemplative attitude toward the object in order to become conscious of the critical constellation in which precisely this fragment of the past finds itself in precisely the present." For Benjamin, the past always weaves into the present, since its very transmission and survival depends upon the production and reception processes of the contemporary moment. The researcher must be cognizant not only of how the present mediates our understanding of the past, but more specifically of how the ruling class deploys selective historical narratives to legitimize its rule.
In opposition to the bourgeois historian who paves over the contingencies of history with a homogeneous, teleological narrative that exonerates the privileged at the expense of the dispossessed, the historical materialist instead seizes hold of those furtive moments in which narrative coherence ruptures under the multivalent pressures of conflicting interests and in which historical possibilities proliferate into tenuous, undecided futures. The historical materialist intercedes by producing "a [theoretical] configuration pregnant with tensions . . . in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework." As a result, "to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was.' It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger." Tom Brandon, however, wanted to achieve both—presenting history as "it really was" while seizing hold of a memory of 1930s Left film culture that marked a moment of danger for Hollywood hegemony—without realizing how these mutually exclusive goals doomed his project's ultimate completion.
Despite Brandon's adherence to certain tenets of official history, he was not unaware of the ideological biases that guided traditional film history. He was well schooled in Marxism and ideological analysis. Although Brandon's Marxist perspective might have led at times to his overvalorization of its methodology, it nonetheless provided a useful framework for exposing traditional film history's bourgeois assumptions.
One of Brandon's most insightful critiques interrogates the limited archival sources that most film scholars relied upon when investigating Depression-era film criticism: "Most scholars and film students who concern themselves with criticism in this period have used as their sources 'major' publications and critics, assuming these are to be most properly reflective of the opinions of the day." These scholars failed to recognize the ways in which both a critic's class background and the cultural mode of production inflect the type of criticism produced. Such scholarship naturalizes the bourgeois perspective as the one and only American perspective. The independent presses of the historical Left, African American, immigrant, and working-class communities remained unexplored. Specifically in regard to the 1930s, Brandon argues that film scholars' reliance upon such limited bourgeois sources missed "the stirrings of serious socio-aesthetic criticism" found within the film columns of various Left journals and periodicals, which offer a decidedly different picture of 1930s film culture.
In essence, Brandon emphasizes the mediating function of the critic in interpreting culture. This, in many ways, anticipated cultural studies' focus upon the role of the intellectual. As Andrew Ross observes in No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture:
A history of popular culture cannot simply be a history of producers—artists, the culture industries, the impersonal narrative of technological "progress"—and/or a history of consumers—audiences, taste makers, subcultures. It must also be a history of intellectuals—in particular, those experts in culture whose traditional business is to define what is popular and what is legitimate, who patrol the ever shifting borders of popular and legitimate tastes, who supervise the passports, the temporary visas, the cultural identities, the threatening "alien" elements, and the deportation orders, and who occasionally make their own adventurist forays across the border.
The study of popular culture must also include an analysis of the critics who embed cultural texts within specific interpretative frameworks that guide audiences' reception. This reminds us that no cultural form or text has a necessary class allegiance on its own, but must be fought over by each succeeding generation of critics, intellectuals, and artists "to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it," as Walter Benjamin would have.
The function of U.S. cultural critics took on a heightened importance during the Depression, when seismic socioeconomic transformations shattered the foundations of older belief systems. The onslaught of modernity had been transforming the United States from a producer-based to a consumer-based society since 1900, uprooting older notions of character, family, work, and leisure. The Depression burst through the hallucinatory promises of laissez-faire capitalism as one-third of the U.S. workforce suddenly found itself thrust into a whirlwind of unemployment and a currency shortage. The future suddenly became uncertain as the verities of the past crumbled under the pressure of the present. Cultural critics became modern soothsayers, desperately scanning the horizon for any glimmer of hope, but more often prophesying the onslaught of further storms.
Film critics played a particularly important role in redefining cinema as it flickered dangerously across a liminal zone of cheap amusements and the avant-garde, depravity and reform, American and foreign influences—and the introduction of sound further burst open its possibilities. As Haidee Wasson observes in Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema, "Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there was a widespread effort to classify, to differentiate, and to build distinct and authoritative frames through which film viewers would ideally enter in order to shape their encounter with films and their experience of cinema." Although many scholars have documented the roles of groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Legion of Decency, and the Character Education Movement, as well as of institutions such as Columbia University, Harvard University, the New School for Social Research, and the Museum of Modern Art, in redefining cinema spectatorship throughout the 1920s and 1930s, relatively little work has addressed U.S. Left film theorists' and critics' important interventions.
U.S. Left film critics in general wanted to transform their readers into critical spectators who could detect the bourgeois classist, racist, and nationalistic biases within mainstream and independent films while also searching for the utopian moments residing within mass culture and sparking from foreign and independent cinema. Their criticism encouraged readers to explore the ideological implications of both form and content, and the multifaceted ways in which cinema mediated viewers' understanding of history, politics, and the mundane events that defined their lives. Tom Brandon well summarizes U.S. Left film critics' socio-aesthetic outlook:
To the writers in the Left press, film and their subjects—form and content—were inseparable. For all their concern with technique and the need to innovate, to improve, to bring film nearer to the ideal of what the medium of our time ought to be, they never lost sight of the place of film in society, its role as a force for reform and revolution—film was to be a weapon in changing the world. But, if it was to be such a weapon, they felt, it not only had to convey the collective life of human beings organized in society, but also had to be understood in the collective nature of its own creation.
To transform the nature of film production and recalibrate the larger socioeconomic processes of society as a whole for the better, U.S. Left film critics realized that they first needed to critically intervene in redefining the nature of film spectatorship itself. This would free viewers from seeing the world in a rote, reactionary fashion by extending their visual parameters in progressive directions. Only by enlarging their field of vision could viewers act in substantively more progressive ways. To change the world, one must first see it differently, acting outside the perceptual limits that naturalize poverty, inequality, and injustice and dismiss collective action and utopian hopes as nothing more than pipe dreams.
In general, U.S. Left film theory and criticism anticipated the critical reading strategies deployed by Cahiers du Cinema, Screen, and Jump Cut during the 1960s and 1970s. Sylvia Harvey's description of Cahiers criticism could equally apply to 1930s Left film critics: "A living film culture could not grow simply out of the watching of movies, rather it would grow out of the relationship between the act of watching and a critical awareness of the techniques of the cinema. Film education would change the context in which the films were viewed, and make possible a more active role for the spectator: the role of challenging, analyzing and criticizing the spectacle, not simply consuming it." Yet U.S. Left film theorists and critics were interested not only in altering reception practices, but also in harnessing these new modes of reception for mass mobilizations that could alter the functions of the cinematic apparatus and extend into critical interventions in state power and the vectors of capitalism.
In "The Author as Producer," Walter Benjamin critically demarcates between simply supplying the cultural apparatus with material and transforming it in more-egalitarian directions. According to Benjamin, the cultural apparatus possesses manifold abilities to appropriate revolutionary material: "The bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it, seriously into question."28 U.S. Left film theorists and critics were well aware of Hollywood's endless appropriation of revolutionary themes, as their critiques of films like Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), Viva Villa! (Conway, 1934), and Marie Antoinette (Van Dyke, 1938) bear witness to. With this in mind, they used their columns to transform the cinematic apparatus in three primary ways: by stimulating readers to not only attend foreign and independent films, but also join amateur filmmaking societies, where they could take hold of the cinematic means of production themselves; by interviewing and reporting on sympathetic Left directors, actors, screenwriters, and producers within Hollywood in order to court progressive filmmaking within the studios; and by encouraging readers to join audience groups so that they could use their collective power to demand more-progressive films from the studios and to boycott their more reactionary fare.
U.S. Left film critics hoped also to catalyze mass mobilization in other areas. As Chapter Three demonstrates, they formed interracial alliances between blacks and whites in order to combat lynching and discriminatory racial practices. Furthermore, they organized both within and outside Hollywood against fascism, war profiteering, and antiunion practices. Tom Brandon explains how Left film criticism "meant support for the Spanish Republic; struggle against the non-intervention strangle-hold of U.S. policy and all their supporters: big business, the Catholic Church, isolationists, the Hearst press and right-wingers in all sections. Film criticism had political impact."29
A focus on U.S. Left film theory and criticism not only draws needed attention to its critical interventions in redefining film spectatorship and production, but also significantly revises our conception of Hollywood during the 1930s. By studying it, we learn of another Hollywood, one that mainstream film reviews, fan magazines, and studio marketing ignored—one that could have potentially addressed issues of social justice through innovative film styles, caused viewers to reenvision their world in less alienating ways, and promoted international solidarity for a more humane and just future.
A New Hollywood
A study of U.S. Left film theory and criticism moves us away from the decontextualized accounts that typically define 1930s Hollywood, perhaps best exemplified by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson's Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, a text that has been routinely attacked by feminist and historical-materialist film scholars since its appearance in 1985. Although it remains a central work in providing an overview of classical Hollywood's technological, aesthetic, and production transformations, it both ignores the contentious internal studio politics of the 1930s and 1940s, and effaces the sociopolitical processes that helped shape Hollywood's practices. According to Miriam Hansen, Classical Hollywood Cinema "brackets the history of reception and film culture, along with the cinema's interrelations with American culture at large." Hollywood is thus treated as an entity unto itself, one that freely arranges its labor, products, and styles as it deems appropriate. Although the authors occasionally make vague historical references to internal and external pressures, they assume that competing historical forces were always incorporated into Hollywood's production system rather than significantly challenging its structure.
For example, when remarking on studio unionization in the 1930s, Staiger writes, "In many instances, unions battled less against the owners and more against competing unions for jurisdiction of work functions. These struggles resulted in very distinctly drawn job boundaries." This claim, however, overlooks the fact that much of this infighting was between company-controlled unions and independent unions—no minor distinction. Painters, carpenters, and plumbers fought against the mob-led International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which extorted money from studio moguls while promising a no-strike pledge. The Screen Writers Guild fought for democratic representation and screen credit against the elitist Screen Playwrights, who were allied with the studio bosses. The studios fought tooth and nail against such independent unions, since their formal recognition, and the resulting collective bargaining, would have dramatically curbed moguls' abuses of power and forced them to cede some control of the cultural mode of production back to screenwriters. What seems a minor issue in historical hindsight was of utmost importance at the time. Contrary to Staiger's general dismissal of unionization as simply a solidification of job boundaries, it yielded innumerable alterations to production, distribution, and exhibition practices. Even when such challenges failed to achieve their specific aims, they nonetheless forced studios to alter their practices for better or worse. To ignore these struggles is to ignore the contingency of history.
Additionally, as Miriam Hansen notes, we cannot adequately understand the appeal of mass culture "unless we take seriously the promises of mass consumption, and the dreams of a mass culture often in excess of and conflict with the regime of production that spawned that mass culture." U.S. Left film theory and criticism provides a starting point from which to begin mapping some of the dreams that Hansen mentions.
Contrary to popular assumptions about U.S. Left film critics of the 1930s, they did not regard Hollywood as simply a monolithic entity to rally against. Although it is undeniably true that much of early U.S. Left film theory and criticism was critical of Hollywood, it did not simply view the studios as innately corrupt institutions. Instead, Left film critics viewed those who controlled Hollywood as being largely allied with capitalist interests. But if some historically momentous event allowed progressive collective pressure to be effectively applied, perhaps the cultural mode of production could be disrupted and reconfigured in more-liberating directions. For many on the Left, the Depression signified that historic event.
Hollywood was at its most unstable after the stock market crash, especially during the early 1930s. A third of theaters were closed. Admission prices fell. Severe financial troubles plagued most of the studios by 1933. Four out of eight were in financial disorder: Paramount was bankrupt; RKO and Universal were in receivership; and Fox was under serious reorganization, only to be taken over by Twentieth-Century two years later. Because the Depression struck exactly when Hollywood was investing in costly sound technology, many studios were encumbered with Wall Street loans that had been used to finance their investments and stave off bankruptcy and receivership. Although some historians have argued that Wall Street's intervention in Hollywood at this time further regimented filmmaking, bankers possessed no coherent economic plan—other than admonitions to economize—to impose on the studios. Wall Street lacked sufficient practical knowledge to offer realistic suggestions for reducing production costs.
An unlikely source that well chronicles some of the historic changes that took place within the managerial structure of the studio system in the 1930s is F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon (1941). Rather than seeing such changes as simply enforcing greater regimentation, Fitzgerald's text conjures the 1930s as an uncertain moment of transition between two phases of Hollywood.
The Last Tycoon chronicles the exploits of Monroe Stahr, a character loosely based on the young genius producer Irving Thalberg, who worked for MGM. Fitzgerald takes pains to present Stahr as a transitional figure supplanting the pioneers who founded Hollywood but preceding the newer generation of producers, who viewed its products as nothing more than commodities. Both artistically savvy and ruthlessly materialistic, Stahr leads an intense and ambiguous existence within Hollywood, one that cannot help but be brief, since he is a man located in what are to become two mutually exclusive worlds. As a result, Stahr is deeply conflicted about his role. Fitzgerald has Stahr reflect, "The system was a shame, he admitted—gross, commercial, to be deplored. He had originated it—a fact that he did not mention." Responsible for creating an increasingly standardized and profit-centered system, Stahr is unable, like later producers, to take pride in his ruthless business acumen. In subtle ways, he psychologically distances himself from the system he created. For example, he occasionally produces pictures that he knows will lose money. Stahr explains his reasoning to some of the studio's personnel, "For two years we played safe. It's time we made a picture that'll lose some money. Write it off as good will—this'll bring in new customers . . . We have a certain duty to the public, as Pat Brady [the studio's head] has said at Academy dinners." Stahr justifies the unprofitable picture by claiming that it will generate new customers and benefit the public good. But one also wonders whether Stahr creates financially unsuccessful pictures in order to prove to both others and himself that profit is not his only motive, that aesthetics and the public good still remain symbolically, even if not practically, important.
Although Fitzgerald never mentions what type of money-losing picture Stahr desires to make, many progressive filmmakers and critics during the 1930s were arguing in similar terms for the creation of social-problem, historical, and biographical films. Director William Dieterle, linked to the Communist Party and known for making political biopics, argued in a 1940 issue of Liberty that he did not believe that progressive pictures ever lost money, and even if they did, they at least created a superior Hollywood product and appealed to an audience that otherwise never attended Hollywood films.
Furthermore, he adds, "It is also undeniable that the progressive films have gained for the industry as a whole more world-wide and favorable journalistic comment than any other faculty." One sees here how progressive filmmakers and critics could have indirectly benefited from a studio system that contained producers who resembled Monroe Stahr. Unable to come to terms with their profit-driven business acumen, these producers could have provided a creative outlet for progressive filmmakers. Appealing to these producers' desire for superior Hollywood products, Left filmmakers could have created films that were both politically progressive and appealing to a niche audience untapped by more conventional pictures.
Walter Wanger symbolized for Left film critics the producer most receptive to controversial and progressive material. With a showman's knack for enticing various studios to fund his semi-independent ventures, Wanger produced some of the decade's most controversial and political films, including Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), Gabriel Over the White House (1933), The President Vanishes (1934), You Only Live Once (1937), Blockade (1938), and The Long Voyage Home (1940). As Matthew Bernstein has shown, Wanger wanted "to educate popular taste, but also to persuade cultural snobs to accept the level of popular taste that prevailed." He felt that film was the perfect medium to reconcile highbrow and lowbrow culture by elevating Hollywood films with ideas and experimental techniques while reminding intellectuals that progressive content could entertain as well as generate thought.
Wanger pursued the production of films "that . . . had nothing financially to gain . . . but the prestige of innovating . . . political subject matter." For example, despite warnings by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) about the controversial political content in Gabriel Over the White House, which advocates a presidential dictatorship, he finished production undeterred and subsequently defended its content. Even after the 1934 Production Code took effect, Wanger produced a controversial political film concerning the Spanish Civil War, Blockade. Vehement protests by conservative groups were lodged against the film. It was accused of being Red propaganda despite the removal of all specific political references. Yet Wanger defended the film, not for its implied political stance, but because it represented an initial step toward creating more explicitly political Hollywood films: "It is not Blockade reactionaries are fighting against but against the fact that, if Blockade is a success, a flood of stronger and stronger films will appear and the films will not only talk but say something. The plan is to frighten the distributor, exhibitor, and producer from attempting films that may say something." Because of Wanger's defense of film as a social force, he became a favorite of U.S. Left film critics by the mid-1930s. As Matthew Bernstein observes, "No producer in the industry . . . [was] as openly concerned with using movies as a social force."
Another Hollywood producer who served as an ally for progressives was Darryl Zanuck. When Zanuck became head producer at Warner Bros. in 1930, his desire for contemporary topics soon became apparent. According to Thomas Schatz, Zanuck held significant control over the production of Warners' films during the early 1930s because the studio still operated under a central-producer system. Unable to afford assistant producers to assist Zanuck, the studio charged him with personally overseeing most productions. He pushed to make such films as Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931), Five Star Final (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). As Schatz explains, "Zanuck valued those filmmakers—writers and technicians as well as directors—who could take a news headline or magazine piece, a recent novel or Broadway hit, and transpose it to the screen quickly enough to exploit its social currency." And even when people like Harry Warner and the censors offered wholehearted resistance to a film like I Am a Fugitive, he pushed for its production because he believed it would nonetheless appeal to Depression-era audiences.
After Zanuck's departure in 1933, producer Hal Wallis and supervisor Henry Blanke continued his interest in pursuing socially conscious films. They were responsible for some of the most acclaimed biopics of the mid to late 1930s: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939). In a sociological study of Hollywood published in 1941, Leo Rosten reported that most screenwriters considered Warners the best studio because of its receptivity to dramatizing socially relevant themes: "The preference of movie writers for Warner Brothers' pictures, many of them indicated in their answers, rests upon the fact that Warner Brothers 'are not afraid to do films on current political topics' . . . The unsaccharine realism and substance of Warners' general output elicits more respect from writers than florid spectacles with star-studded casts produced by other studios."
Furthermore, Warners took the strongest political stance against the growing threat of fascism. It was the first studio to discontinue doing business with Nazi Germany, to reject newsreels glorifying Hitler, and to excise pro-Nazi material from news shorts. Rosten praised Hollywood's antifascist stance, claiming, "It will be to Hollywood's credit that it fought the Silver Shirts, the German-American Bund, and the revived Ku Klux Klan at a time when few realized their ultimate menace."
But it wasn't simply that some producers showed interest in controversial, contemporary topics that offered U.S. Left film theorists and critics hope that Hollywood might be more receptive to progressive films. More importantly, these theorists and critics advocated and chronicled a host of other transformations occurring inside and outside the studios and making Hollywood more sympathetic to Left ideas in general. Although producers like Wanger and Zanuck might not have been averse to progressive filmmaking, U.S. Left film theorists and critics were well aware that collective pressure would need to be placed upon the studios if more such films were to be made.
One of the most significant internal factors that liberalized Hollywood was the change in composition of the film community in the early to mid-1930s. A large influx of progressively minded German émigrés had escaped from Nazi Germany and come to Hollywood, and a significant number of the liberal New York literati had relocated to Hollywood, since it provided the best opportunity to be involved in a medium that might translate their political and artistic ideas to a wider audience. Many of the writers, directors, and actors from New York had been affiliated with the Left before arriving at the studios. Screenwriter John Bright had contacts with the anarchist movement. John Howard Lawson, Clifford Odets, John Garfield, and Elia Kazan came from the Group Theatre. Others, like Paul Jarrico, Maurice Rapf, James Cagney, and Paul Muni, grew up in working-class environments that made them sympathetic to Left causes. Furthermore, many of these actors, screenwriters, and directors knew writers from radical publications like the New Masses and the Daily Worker, as well as members of the independent and avant-garde East Coast film communities; together, these diverse groups established an informal social network among themselves.
Because of the growing number of Left film workers in Hollywood, the film community became increasingly politicized throughout the decade. Perhaps the most significant cause of this politicization was the community's growing awareness of the threat of fascism, exemplified by the flood of émigrés from Nazi Germany. The rise of antifascist sentiment within the film community, according to Tom Brandon, "changed the complexion of Hollywood for the better . . . and gave many people in the Left cause for hope. Part of this was the increased activism and awareness of those most prominent in Hollywood, the stars of the screen." The Spanish Civil War further galvanized the progressive Hollywood community. In 1937, the Motion Picture Artists Committee for Loyalist Spain was founded. In 1938, the Motion Picture Democratic Committee was formed. But most important was the creation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) in 1936.
The HANL was initiated by two German refugees: Prince Hubertus Löwenstein and Otto Katz. Katz, who had close connections with the Hollywood community, involved such figures as Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Clark Gable, David Selznick, and Greta Garbo with the organization. As Neal Gabler points out in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, although the HANL's primary task was to fight fascism, it also centralized many of Hollywood's Left activities. The league "sponsored two weekly radio programs, published its own bi-weekly tabloid, Hollywood Now, and generated a number of subcommittees to address and educate specific constituencies—women, youth, labor, race, religion, professions." Saverio Giovacchini adds that the HANL used the antifascist struggle to unify various social rituals, like parties and social gatherings, in Hollywood: "In many cases, the organization politicized the traditional hangouts of the Hollywood New Yorkers and the salons of the refugees." Furthermore, the group desired to produce creative works with antifascist messages. Perhaps slightly overstating the case, Giovacchini claims that the "HANL strove to reconcile what up until that time had been considered opposites: anti-Nazi struggle and Hollywood." The HANL was, in any event, one of the central forces that brought the antifascist struggle to the forefront of Hollywood's films.
Contemporary film critics often remarked on the growing politicization of Hollywood. Margaret Thorp, a professor at Yale who wrote a book on Hollywood in 1939, observed that antifascism might have been the main cause for such politicization: "It may have been the Spanish War, which caused eager partisanship for the anti-Fascist cause. Stars gave benefit parties; screen writers spoke at meetings; directors raised money for ambulances. Their interest spread from the oppressed in Europe to the oppressed in California. They worked for Tom Mooney. They helped the Salinas strikers." Similarly, Joseph North noticed how the awareness of fascism abroad made the Hollywood community more aware of domestic oppression: "Hollywood could stand and look into the camp at Dachau. It happened in Germany. Could it happen here? Hollywood artists remembered the Scottsboro case; it wasn't fascism but something like it, they thought. A group of them had banded together to try to free the obviously framed Negro boys."
Another unifying internal political force was the formation of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Screen Writers Guild (SWG) in 1933. SAG was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor in 1934 and recognized by producers in May 1937, after the threat of a strike. The SWG went through a greater struggle during its fight with the elitist, studio-controlled union, Screen Playwrights. Although the SWG won recognition by the National Labor Relations Board in 1938, it was not until 1942 that the producers signed an agreement with it. As Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund have observed, the fight over unionization "showed where the real conflict in Hollywood lay—not over money, but over the control of movie making."
According to Michael Denning, these unionization efforts were a central part of the Hollywood Popular Front, since they radicalized many screenwriters, artists, and musicians who worked for the studios. Because of management's harsh reaction to the guilds' formation, many creative personnel who had once sympathized with management no longer did so. For example, screenwriter Maurice Rapf recounts a speech made by Irving Thalberg on May 1, 1936, in the MGM commissary. Thalberg demanded that the SWG not vote to amalgamate with the Author's League the following day, since such a merger would undercut Hollywood's and the screenwriters' autonomy. Rapf recalls, "It was a tough speech . . . People who had known him and worked with him and thought he was a nice guy saw him so tough and so hard that we were absolutely shocked." Writers rebelled against Thalberg's and other producers' reactionary stances by flocking to the SWG and voting for amalgamation. Joseph North saw the fight for the guilds as a valuable educational experience. He claimed that the struggle succeeded "in smashing the illusion of the Motion Picture Academy as a pro-labor quantity." As writers and actors joined together to fight for their rights, they were creating a base that enabled other Left organizations to push Hollywood in progressive directions.
A major external factor that U.S. Left film theorists and critics cited for destabilizing Hollywood was the stock market crash of 1929. Initially, the crash seemed as if it would bulwark Hollywood's conservatism. There was a fear of Wall Street gaining control of the industry because of the money it provided to bail out many of the studios. Lewis Jacobs writes in The Rise of the American Film, "A new fight . . . began as the Morgan and Rockefeller interests went after the sound-film business with a firm determination to control it." The critic Joseph North quoted a Wall Street Journal article that purported to represent the New York financial community's conservative stance toward film production: "You have seen the last for many a long day of these gallant gallopings toward the goal of artistry . . . Definitely no more flirtings with the 3 or 4 percent of the movie going population who cry aloud for 'better pictures.' No, sir. From now on we're as practical as all get-out, with an eye on the box-office and to hades with art for art's sake." Although the Journal was explicitly referring to art films, North understood that such a rejection implied a renunciation of all politically progressive films, since they also appealed to a minority audience and did not translate into large box-office returns.
Despite Wall Street's attitude, North and other critics realized that countervailing forces allowed Hollywood to ignore the bankers' socioeconomic mandates. One was the rise of U.S. independent and avant-garde productions and the growing exhibition of foreign films. As Jan-Christopher Horak has demonstrated, the Little Cinema movement dramatically expanded in the U.S. during the mid to late 1920s. It "provided both an exhibition outlet for the avant-garde and European art films and an alternative to the commercial cinema chains dominated by the major Hollywood studios." Audiences, at least urban ones, had access to a wider variety of films than ever before. These films offered exciting challenges to Hollywood's hegemony. Robert Forsythe, a New Masses critic, wrote in 1934, "As a general proposition I should say that one Soviet picture to every six from Hollywood would be necessary to maintain sanity" and prevent oneself from completely falling sway to the allure of Hollywood spectacle. According to Forsythe, Soviet films' reliance upon montage exposed U.S. audiences to the ideological and aesthetic limits of typical Hollywood fare. Independent, avant-garde, and foreign films provided viewers with a wider understanding of film aesthetics and content; therefore, they provided a check on standard Hollywood fare by revealing its socio-aesthetic limits while fostering demand for more-sophisticated film alternatives.
Independent, avant-garde, and foreign films assisted not only in developing spectators' critical responses, but also in extending the range of filmic possibilities within Hollywood itself. Joseph North writes: "Independent movies have pointed the way: pioneers like Joris Ivens, in his Spanish and Chinese films, Paul Strand's Mexican work, Herbert Kline's Czechoslovakian documentary. Add to that the entrance of the government on the scene—Pare Lorentz's The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains—splendid jobs—and you see what is prodding the Hollywood moguls." Many Left film critics felt that Eisenstein's !Que Viva México! (1932) prodded MGM's decision to film Viva Villa! (1934) in the same location, that the epic cinematography of the Dust Bowl seen in Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) influenced Gregg Toland's cinematography for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and that the popularity of Joris Ivens's documentary on the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Earth (1937), led Walter Wanger to produce his own film on the same subject, Blockade, starring Henry Fonda.
U.S. Left film critics' desire to foster critical spectatorship and to collectively mobilize a demand for progressive films was centered on several audience organizations that had been formed by the mid-1930s. In many ways, the Left was emulating its conservative counterparts like the Legion of Decency, which had effectively pressured Hollywood during the early 1930s to create the Breen Office and to rigorously enforce the Production Code. To combat such pressure groups' reactionary influence upon commercial film production, the Left established its own audience organizations, hoping to sway studios in the other direction.
The New Film Alliance (NFA), one of the first such groups, also attempted to mass-distribute independent, avant-garde, and foreign films. Founded in September 1935 by members of NYKino, the Film and Photo League, and others, it proposed a series of ambitious goals. As William Alexander notes, "Modeling itself on the new theater movement, the organization intended to coordinate independent film producers throughout the country, to provide sponsorship, distribution, et cetera, to build a strong audience organization, and to present a lecture series, screenings of nondistributed classics, and a magazine." The NFA counted among its members progressive screenwriters Albert Maltz, John Howard Lawson, and Clifford Odets, but it lasted for only eight or nine months. Its main successes included the creation of a lecture series, the screening of progressive films at the New School for Social Research, and the compiling of a film library for progressive groups' use. Although the NFA was influential only on the East Coast, many of its members helped organize powerful national audience organizations shortly thereafter.
Probably the most effective audience organization was the Associated Film Audiences (AFA), created in March 1937. Its membership was drawn from groups like the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, the National Council for the Prevention of War, and the Workers Alliance, and included Hollywood insiders like Fritz Lang, Walter Wanger, Dudley Nichols, and Fredric March. The group defined itself in the following way: "Associated Film Audiences represents the interests of church, social, racial, labor, and educational and youth groups. Its purpose is to give Hollywood every encouragement to produce films that give a true and socially useful portrayal of the contemporary scene; to encourage production of films that will better the understanding between racial and religious groups; and to encourage the production of anti-war films. Conversely, it is opposed to any film portraying militarist, anti-labor, or reactionary attitudes in a favorable light." According to Tom Brandon, the AFA's most important activity was to organize audience groups in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., in order to pressure exhibitors to show progressive films and ban reactionary ones. The AFA conducted radio broadcasts, lectures, film screenings, and discussions, and published two newsletters, Film Survey in New York and Film News in Los Angeles.
The newsletters contained information about social and political activities, such as unionization in Hollywood, pending legislation regarding the studios, criticism of the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency, and reports on film and politics in other countries. But Brandon believes that the group's most valuable endeavor "was its evaluation of films and recommendations for possible films to boycott or support." Each month new films were evaluated by AFA's participating organizations for their social and political content. Some of the questions asked were:
1. Does it [the film] portray the contemporary social scene?
a. Does it give a false impression of any strata of society? Living conditions? Working conditions?
4. Are there any references to religious, racial, national groups? Or their members? Direct? Indirect?
a. Name the groups portrayed.
b. Does the comic relief tend to caricature race? Religion? Nationality? Individual?
Surprisingly, many producers, in their desire for support and viewers, announced their willingness to cooperate with the AFA by sending it their scripts well before production. As Howard Dietz of MGM stated, "We do not care what their political views may be if they can help us put people in line at box offices."
Brandon notes how the AFA drew particular attention to Warner Bros. pictures in the hopes of spurring Warners to make more-progressive films in the future. One way the AFA supported films was by "buying blocks of tickets to the film and selling them to labor unions and other groups, advertising the films for free, and urging audience organizations locally to mobilize for the films." By 1939, AFA was confident that mainstream screens were changing for the better "and that audience organizations were an important factor in shaping this process."
Even Will Hays, the censorship czar who had been proclaiming Hollywood films to be "pure entertainment" for the past seventeen years, had to admit in 1939 that film possessed a social function: "The past year had been notable for the rising tide of discussions as to the social function of the screen . . . The increasing number of pictures produced by the industry which treat honestly and dramatically many current themes proves that there is nothing incompatible between the best interests of the box office and the kind of entertainment that raises the level of audience appreciation." Margaret Thorp assessed Hays's turnabout as "an official recognition of a force which had at last grown too strong to be ignored . . . More and more intelligent comment on the film is being written and read, more and more people are going to the movies not just to relax or to pass the time but for the same reasons that take them to the theater." Audiences were making clear to the industry and its observers that they wanted smarter, more progressive films.
Because of the gradual strengthening of Left film communities within and outside Hollywood, and because of the disastrous effects of the Depression on Hollywood's profits, many Left film theorists and critics who once held the belief that the studio system was unwaveringly conservative had to reevaluate their positions. Clifford Howard, a critic for the journal Close Up, believed in 1931 that although "culture, art, and genius have been lured in abundance to the cinema capital," it has "for the most part . . . [been] rebuffed and denied." Yet a mere year later, he stated, "Hollywood today is more nearly in tune with the normal honesties of life than it has been since the days when Jesse Lasky and Sam Goldwyn made pictures in a barn and ate their lunches from paper bags . . . It will not be the first time in human experience that stress and disaster have served as an ultimate good." Lewis Jacobs, a film critic for the journal Experimental Cinema, recounted how Dalton Trumbo wrote in the Hollywood Spectator, "'All hail collapse.'" Trumbo "voiced the general opinion that the public and the industry were being purged by the depression and would emerge intellectually, socially, and economically improved." Or as Frank Daugherty stated more bluntly in 1932, Hollywood had one of two choices: "to develop itself intelligently, and within its limitations to seek full expression—or to die." Either Hollywood had to live up to its potential by creating films that intelligent audiences wanted to see, or it would collapse under its own weight as audiences rejected formulaic films that seemed to have no relation to contemporary life.
As the decade progressed, U.S. Left film critics took note of the positive changes occurring within the studios. Many encouraged their readers to become involved with local audience groups and amateur film societies in order to continue influencing Hollywood films in progressive directions. In 1939, Joseph North saw the battle over Hollywood as one between Wall Street and Main Street: "Wall wants retrenchment—scuttles socially intelligent pictures. Main—since 1931—wants better pictures, something corresponding to the bewildering realities of our time." Main Street always trumps Wall Street, according to North's and others' analyses, since it represents the majority opinion, which Wall Street must heed if it wants to keep its coffers full.
Although one can debate the amount of influence the Left had upon Hollywood, the studios increasingly became the focus of U.S. Left film theorists and critics as the decade progressed—not least because Hollywood represented a site of democratization where audiences could influence the kind of pictures produced and where the techniques of independent, avant-garde, and foreign films could converge to create a superior product, one that appealed to both intellect and emotions. As Margaret Thorp noted in 1939, "The movie seems to be quite as capable of proceeding on two levels as the Elizabethan tragedy: poetry and psychology for the gentleman's galleries, and action and blood for the pit." Yet many U.S. Left film critics would add that the "gentlemen" also want as much action and blood as the "pit," and that the "pit" wants as much psychology and poetry as the "gentlemen."
Film was an ideal medium for Left theorists and critics since it seemed to be the one most open to democratization. Unlike painting, theater, and literature, which had to contend with an ingrained cultural elitism, film was a relatively new medium that was often disparaged for its proximity and appeal to the working class. Film was struggling to establish itself as a valid, autonomous art form, a task made difficult because it seemed to contain so many contradictory tendencies and influences. It was a product of an industrial technology that seemed to threaten older art traditions, yet it strongly influenced the modernist experimentation occurring in the other arts. Was it the destroyer of fine art or its rehabilitator? Its mainstream production system seemed to be adaptable—it could work within a capitalist, a communist, or a fascist infrastructure. Film could be abstract, surreal, political, narrative, poetic, or, most often, a mixture of styles and genres. In the 1930s, film had yet to take on the mutually exclusive categorizations that would later arbitrarily isolate the documentary from the experimental, and either of those from the commercial. Hollywood could potentially belong to "the people" in the 1930s because film, at the time, belonged to no one.
Rather than regarding Hollywood simply as a proverbial "dream factory" that banished the Depression from its screens for Technicolor hallucinations of better times—the story relentlessly purveyed by traditional film histories—U.S. Left film theorists and critics increasingly viewed it as a site of socio-aesthetic conflict where progressive visions might actually be enacted under the external and internal pressures of the Left. But this distinction often gets overlooked by traditional film history, since its scholars paint these critics, when they are noticed at all, as nothing more than a group of reactionary Marxists who blindly rejected Hollywood spectacle for Soviet-style filmmaking. Such a view not only overlooks the theoretical transformations that U.S. Left film theory and criticism underwent throughout the 1930s, but also reduces the multivalent positions and debates held by its theorists and critics into a one-dimensional caricature.
There are numerous reasons why U.S. Left film theory and criticism has been largely ignored by film studies. One stems from cultural historians' general dismissal of members of the 1930s cultural Left as nothing more than communist dupes. According to Michael Denning, the history of "fellow travelers" who allied themselves with Marxism throughout the 1930s, and especially during the Popular Front years (1935-1939), is all too often "told as a morality tale of seduction and betrayal, utopian dreams and Cold War disenchantment," even by the most sympathetic of scholars.
The Popular Front refers to a change in the Communist Party's political stance, which was officially declared in 1935 at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. Instead of opposing other Left groups, like socialists, democrats, and anarchists, as it had previously done, the party initiated a coalition among them in order to collectively combat the rising threat of international fascism. After all, political infighting between communists and socialists in Germany had allowed Hitler to ascend to power almost unopposed. Bourgeois democracies, once the declared enemies of communism, were now considered vital allies.
For many cultural historians, the U.S. Popular Front has all too typically symbolized the Edenic fall of the American Left. Supposedly taking orders directly from Moscow, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) infested domestic Left organizations and groups with its dogmatic platitudes and demands for lockstep political obedience. When all was said and done, a small core of communists secretly took hold of the political reigns of the U.S. cultural Left, opportunistically seizing the ideals of democracy to mislead fellow travelers while pursing their own self-interested goals. After 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet Pact threw the Communist Party on the defensive and initiated the dissolution of the U.S. Popular Front (named the Democratic Front domestically), fellow travelers were left reeling from the party's wake of shattered ideals and political bad faith, never to fully recover. Or so the story goes.
This outlook, however, has been increasingly discredited by scholars such as Alan Wald, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cary Nelson, Paula Rabinowitz, Barbara Foley, and Bill Mullen, who have challenged the center-periphery model that has typically framed debates concerning the U.S. cultural Left and the Popular Front in general. Contrary to the belief that a small core of communists constituted the center of the U.S. Popular Front, Michael Denning argues that "the periphery was in many cases the center, the 'fellow travelers' were the Popular Front . . . The heart of the Popular Front as a social movement lay among those who were non-Communist socialists and independent leftists, working with Communists and liberals, but marking out a culture that was neither a Party nor a liberal New Deal culture." According to Denning, one must stop treating the Popular Front and its multiple Left coalitions as an example of party politics as usual and instead consider them, in Gramscian terms, as a "historical bloc," which is a "complex, contradictory, and discordant ensemble" of social forces and groups vying for sociopolitical control. The crash of 1929 should be viewed as a trigger for a crisis of hegemony in the United States, as "a moment when social classes became detached from their traditional parties . . . The years of the depression and war saw a prolonged 'war of position' between political forces trying to conserve the existing structures of society and the forces of opposition, including the Popular Front social movement, who were trying to create a new historical bloc, a new balance of forces." Although the CPUSA must be given its due, since "it was without doubt the most influential left organization in the period and its members were central activists in a range of formations and institutions," it did not centrally control the U.S. Popular Front and the cultural Left.
In a related vein, I argue that U.S. Left film theory and criticism must be regarded as a social formation that preceded the emergence of the Popular Front but eventually aligned itself with its antiracist and antifascist positions. I am specifically invoking Raymond Williams's definition of "social formation" to describe U.S. Left film theory and criticism: "those effective movements and tendencies, in intellectual and artistic life, which have significant and sometimes decisive influence on the active development of a culture, and which have a variable and often oblique relation to formal institutions." Williams goes on to explain why the explication of social formations requires new analytical procedures: "Since such formations relate, inevitably, to real social structures, and yet have highly variable and often oblique relations with formally discernible social institutions, any social and cultural analysis of them requires procedures radically different from those developed for institutions." Since traditional film studies mainly provided textual and institutional analyses, they were methodologically ill equipped to address the active role of social formations in defining film culture, at least until the widespread introduction of cultural studies into the theoretical framework of the field during the mid-1980s.
Pioneering studies of U.S. Left film theory and culture include William Alexander's Film on the Left (1981) and Russell Campbell's Cinema Strikes Back (1982), which focus on select organizations like the New York Film and Photo League, NYKino, and Frontier Films, and figures such as Joris Ivens, Pare Lorentz, and Willard Van Dyke. However, both Alexander and Campbell underestimate the expansive origins and nature of Depression-era U.S. Left film theory and criticism, which exceeded narrow definitions of the Left, the confines of its cultural and political organizations, and even national boundaries.
Tom Brandon notes an example of this expansiveness: "Many of the critics who regularly wrote for the Left Press were also gainfully employed or contributed to such publications as Esquire, The National Board of Review Magazine, Variety, The Nation, The New Republic, and the like. Under their impetus, film criticism came of age in many of these publications as well as in the Left-publications proper." Collier's liberal film critic Kyle Crichton also wrote radical film criticism for the New Masses under the pseudonym Robert Forsythe. Harry Alan Potamkin wrote for the avant-garde cinema journals Close Up and Hound and Horn, the Marxist periodicals New Masses and Experimental Cinema, and mainstream publications such as the New York Times and Vanity Fair. This reveals some Left film theorists' and critics' understanding of the need to contribute both to independent, radical film journals that catered to a selective, politicized audience and to mainstream bourgeois publications with large readerships.
By middecade, the interests of liberal and radical film critics had converged. According to Myron Lounsbury, "Liberal critics began to encourage the scattered signs of social responsibility in the commercial movie and to point out precedents of political and economic issues found in the American film tradition." Similarly, radical critics tempered their tone with populist rhetoric and an intellectual willingness to explore the progressive potential of commercial film.
Because the origins and developments of U.S. Left film theory and criticism are found in both Left publications and bourgeois periodicals that were nonetheless sympathetic to some aspects of Left film analysis, I use the term "U.S. Left film theory and criticism" somewhat ambiguously in order to mirror the wide spectrum of socio-aesthetic positions held by various writers, who all nonetheless viewed film and film theory and criticism as central cultural implements for enacting progressive social change. It encompasses those theorists and critics who were self-identified with a specific brand of Left politics, those who advocated a progressive stance but refused to affiliate themselves with any specific Left ideology, and those who rejected the term "political" altogether but still felt that film's natural affinity with aesthetic experimentation could lead to radically egalitarian ways of envisioning the world. As Lewis Jacobs, a member of the NYF&PL and Left film historian, recounts: "We were all idealists. You know, which varied, some completely aesthetic, some partly aesthetic and partly political, some mostly political and a little aesthetic, it varied. And we were open more or less, to the combination of both the aesthetic and political, because the times were very political." One must sacrifice the precision of the term "Left" for a broader definition and a fluid framework that can better map U.S. Left film theory and criticism as a multivalent social formation.
Anna Everett began to chart this new terrain in Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949. She explores the shared outlook between black and white Depression-era film critics about mobilizing "black filmgoers into a ready force of critical consumers forever on the alert for Hollywood films' 'ingenuity in anesthetizing oppression.'" By excavating film columns found in the black and white presses, Everett identifies an interracial formation that was ignored by prior scholarship regarding 1930s U.S. Left film culture. As this study will show, this interracial solidarity became more pronounced during the Popular Front era, when antiracist and antifascist causes converged in the Left political imaginary, causing black and white film critics to collectively focus their attention on antilynching films.
Everett's work exemplifies Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's insistence that film and media scholars must think relationally about culture and its products: "Rather than taking cultural products and simply thumbing them up or down, cultural critique needs to see contemporary popular culture in a fissured, relational context, to ask who is producing and consuming what, for what purposes, in what situation, for whom, and by what means—always with an eye on the power of constellations and the emancipatory projects at stake." By doing so, one is better able not only to identify how social formations always exceed the limits of organizational and institutional structures, but also to chart their multiple vectors that escape geographical and national boundaries.
A relational approach is particularly important for identifying how U.S. Left film theory and criticism had its theoretical origins in the avant-garde British film journal Close Up. During the late 1920s, Lewis Jacobs recalls, "There were no magazines that I knew of outside of one magazine that had come from England called Close Up that really dealt with film in a serious way." Myron Lounsbury asserts that the journal "was the most significant attempt to establish lines of communication between artists and intellectuals of different nations," adding that it "presented a significant source of theoretical writing to American critics" throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.
Close Up, founded in 1927, was the first English-language film journal. Yet its importance to the development of international film theory, and U.S. Left film theory in particular, has been consistently ignored by scholars, since the journal's eclectic style has made it difficult to categorize. As Anne Friedberg rightly observes: "Because the writing in Close Up crosses many borders—between literary prose and theoretical writing, between avant-garde manifesto and journalistic feuilleton, between film production and literary modernism—it effectively overruns the canonical boundaries of disciplinary republics."
If anything, Close Up has been primarily classified by scholars as a modernist journal, with special emphasis given to the writings of H.D. and Dorothy Richardson. Because of Close Up's links with high literary modernism, and because of disciplinary boundaries that foreclose relational approaches between literary and film studies, most film historians have missed the journal's importance as a forum for the development of Left film theory. Furthermore, problematic aesthetic assumptions concerning modernism in general have decontextualized Close Up from the Left political landscape, wrongly leading many scholars to believe that modernism represents an outright rejection of politics altogether.
This apolitical and extremely limited perspective of modernism has a particularly tenacious hold within literary studies. It is the product of Cold War-era critics like Clement Greenberg, Lionel Trilling, and Philip Rahv, who rewrote U.S. cultural history to dissociate their endorsement of modernism from their former Marxist politics, which were increasingly coming under attack. By decoupling modernism from Left politics, they effectively jettisoned history and modernism's divergent strains for a canon of select authors and a critical practice in which primary attention would be given to formal experimentation and biographical details. But as Haidee Wasson rightly critiques, this approach "explains little of the expansive series of ideas, practices, and political commitments designated by the umbrella term modernism and explains even less about the very conditions of possibility for modernist practice itself."
Rejecting this approach, scholars like Fredric Jameson, Miriam Hansen, Haidee Wasson, and Ben Singer have recontextualized modernism into the sociocultural matrices of modernity and modernization to identify and historicize its multiple strains and practices. Only by understanding the social, economic, and political upheavals of modernity can one fully grasp modernists' varied socio-aesthetic goals. Jameson writes, "Their own vocation for aesthetic change and new and more radical artistic practices finds itself powerfully reinforced and intensified at large in the social world outside."
Additionally, by reconnecting modernism to its cultural moment, scholars have expanded our understanding of how its processes stretched beyond the remote confines of the literary and artistic avant-garde and into the sociopolitical and technological changes of everyday life. Miriam Hansen believes that modernism must be understood as a mass movement, since most people stood to benefit (as well as suffer) from its effects: "There were enough people who stood to gain from the universal implementation of at least formally guaranteed political rights; from a system of mass production that was coupled with mass consumption (that is, widespread affordability of consumer goods); from a general improvement of living conditions enabled by actual advances in science and technology; and from the erosion of long-standing social, sexual, and cultural hierarchies."
Cinema stood on the cusp of modernization and modernism. A product of the scientific and technological advances that modernity ushered in during the late nineteenth-century, cinema represented a rupture with older forms of vision and living, as well as the promise of the new age that modernism, in its most utopian moments, embodied. For U.S. Left film theorists and critics, cinema logically drew together modernist experimentation and a collective social vision. According to Tom Brandon: "Film answered two contemporary needs—a more dynamic and imaginative form of expression to match the inventive new conceits of 'modern art' that were bursting old forms at the seams in all other spheres; and a social vision of our industrial world that could best be conveyed by the machine-oriented, collective medium which films are." Aesthetics and politics converged within film, making it an increasingly relevant and influential mass medium for U.S. Left film theorists and critics as the Depression worsened.
As we will see, the intersection of modernist aesthetics and ideology was a central concern throughout 1930s U.S. Left film theory and criticism, anticipating the debates that preoccupied Marxist and feminist film theorists during the 1960s and 1970s. A transnational perspective dominated 1930s U.S. Left film theory and criticism: it continually looked abroad for socio-aesthetic models that might challenge American assumptions or be adapted to them. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet montage theory dominated the discussion. Theorists and critics used montage as a pliable concept for the ideological analysis of foreign, independent, and American films. They also championed it as a cinematic form that could challenge Hollywood's hegemonic style; this challenge was best exemplified by the works of Sergei Eisenstein and his Mexican film, !Que Viva México! By middecade, after realizing that Soviet-style montage would never successfully unsettle Hollywood's domestic reign, Left theorists and critics turned to the work of Jean Renoir, specifically La Marseillaise (1938), as a new model of the progressive directions open to Hollywood filmmaking. In the interim, U.S. Left film theorists and critics turned their sights on the antilynching film and Fritz Lang's Fury to explore how some mainstream cinematic styles might be redeployed for progressive ends in both independent and commercial cinema.
By overlooking Depression-era U.S. Left film theory and criticisms' international origins and transnational influences, most film historians have underestimated its theoretical acumen and aesthetic scope. Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner have dismissed this entire body of criticism as "more political rage than intellectual advance." Other scholars, like Russell Campbell, have interpreted 1930s Left film culture and criticism within the limited aesthetic criteria of socialist realism, a term that all too often assumes an opposition between Left film culture and modernist experimentation. Only by studying this film theory and criticism relationally can we begin to adequately assess both its sophisticated international vision, which studied the developments of foreign cinema in order to inform its socio-aesthetic outlook, and its interracial stance, which harnessed the critical viewing strategies found in the black and white press to combat racism both on and off the screen.
Male Anxieties: Gender and U.S. Left Film Theory and Criticism
Despite U.S. Left film theorists' and critics' fostering of critical spectators, interracial alliances, and general advances in the ideological analysis of film, they nonetheless maintained a rather reactionary stance toward gender issues. Unfortunately, all scholarship regarding 1930s U.S. Left film theory and criticism has failed to interrogate these gender assumptions. More generally, only within the last fifteen years has significant feminist scholarship been conducted regarding Depression-era Left culture.
This book argues that a feminist framework is absolutely required when investigating the historical U.S. Left in order to undermine and politically rectify the chauvinism that all too often dictated its cultural and political programs and has plagued much academic scholarship on it. In regard to 1930s U.S. Left film theory and criticism, there are multiple reasons why gender must hold a prominent position within such an analysis.
Much recent feminist scholarship has revealed the centrality of women to the discussions and developments of consumerism and mass entertainment during the early twentieth century. Janet Staiger has shown that the domestic film industry actively courted female viewers as early as 1909. Kathy Peiss, Nan Enstad, Lauren Rabinovitz, Miriam Hansen, and Anne Friedberg have documented the dialectical changes wrought by mass culture and consumerism upon older Victorian practices of womanhood. Not only were women allowed access to new visual terrains and social spaces, but their very identities and actions were also being redefined by a heterosexual, commodity-driven gestalt. Rabinovitz describes the ambiguous ramifications resulting from women's new centrality as active consumers: "Movies and other [amusement] park attractions might have liberated young women, newly arrived in the city and cast adrift from their families, from familial supervision and Victorian sexual restraints. But they also exercised a new kind of cultural authorization of sexual objectification of women's roles as consumer and consumed."
Accompanying women's newfound centrality within U.S. consumer culture was the socioeconomic disempowerment of white heterosexual men by the Depression. As Michael Kimmel writes: "With nearly one in four American men out of work, the workplace could no longer be considered a reliable arena for the demonstration and proof of one's manhood. And many men simply lost faith in a system that prevented them from proving their masculinity in the only ways they knew." The Depression's destabilizing effects upon gender roles can most readily be seen within Hollywood cinema. As David M. Lugowski notes, "Hollywood is at its most queer from early 1932 to mid-1934, a period that corresponds to the worst years of the Depression."
Not coincidentally, many of the Hollywood films that U.S. Left film theorists and critics analyzed, such as Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), The Scarlet Empress (von Sternberg, 1934), Fury (Lang, 1936), and Juarez (Dieterle, 1939), problematize gender roles and place women in central narrative positions. Similarly, foreign Left films like !Que Viva México! and La Marseillaise suggest that new gender roles are required if successful political change is to be enacted. Yet women's centrality within these films and the disruptive effects of the Depression on gender roles are notably absent from most of the 1930s U.S. Left film theorists' and critics' writings.
The effacement of gender issues from U.S. Left film columns speaks to both their writers' reliance upon a male gaze to structure much of their theory and criticism, and their gender anxieties. Gender was consistently supplanted by issues of class, race, and fascism. As we will see, those rare moments when issues of gender and sexuality slipped through their writing exposed the raw nerves of heterosexual masculinity in doubt. Despite women's centrality within Left and commercial film culture, and despite some 1930s Left writers' pleas to make gender more central to cultural criticism, Depression-era Left film theorists and critics remained silent, refusing to address the ways in which commercial culture itself had overturned many of their gender assumptions.
Their silence toward gender issues mirrored larger trends found within New Deal culture and the historical Left. Writing about New Deal public art and theater, Barbara Melosh argues that "New Deal gender representations suppressed contemporary sexual conflict through an image that insistently denied men's and women's separate interests." Instead, artists and playwrights "used gender metaphorically, that is, they incorporated images of manhood and womanhood as tropes in a political rhetoric directed to issues other than gender."
This is precisely the same tactic that Paula Rabinowitz and Robin D. G. Kelley document within the 1930s U.S. Left. Kelley notes how masculine imagery and language dominated much Left literature and party propaganda. Rabinowitz observes that "the prevailing verbal and visual imagery reveled in an excessively masculine and virile proletariat poised to struggle against the effeminate and decadent bourgeoisie." The historical U.S. Left's metaphorical use of gender in its visual and written texts encapsulated the limits of its political programs, which often dismissed gender concerns as subsidiary to those of class and, to a lesser extent, race.
This metaphorical use of gender carries over into 1930s U.S. Left film theorists' and critics' discussions and evaluations of film culture, particularly in their celebration of male-centered genres like the biopic over more female-centered ones like the historical costume drama. In many ways, the male gaze of Left theorists and critics prevented them from evaluating female-centered commercial films as anything other than capitalist subterfuge. They believed that such films promoted a consumer-driven, highly individualistic conception of women's freedom and desires, and that such a conception drew attention away from the goals of organizing collectively and challenging the insidious practices of capitalism. According to many male Left theorists and critics, these films safely focused upon individual wants and needs because such a perspective left the social processes that informed such desires unchallenged.
Such an outlook so conflates female desire with consumerism that it overlooks the vital ways in which this desire exceeds commodification. As Lauren Rabinovitz warns, "These links between the department store, the screen space of the movie theater, and the objects of movie culture are speculative and tenuous, for there is no historical evidence that women's shopping gaze and identity at the department store was identical to women fans' consumption of movie culture." Yet 1930s U.S. Left film theorists and critics continually saw them as indistinguishable—at times regarding women's very presence on the screen as nothing more than a symptom of the decadence of bourgeois culture as a whole.
Left film theorists' and critics' gendering of progressive film culture as masculine and its reactionary tendencies as feminine strongly resonates with the sexist assumptions that still underlie many discussions in film and media studies. As Patrice Petro notes, "It is remarkable how theoretical discussions of art and mass culture are almost always accompanied by gendered metaphors which link 'masculine' values of production, activity, and attention with art, and 'feminine' values of consumption, passivity, and distraction with mass culture." In comparison, 1930s U.S. Left film theory and criticism reveals at least a subtler sexist framework, wherein mass culture is not entirely dismissed as "feminine" but has its more "masculine" elements reclaimed by the Left.
These critics' ability to salvage the "masculine" moments of mass culture further reveals the sexist assumptions guiding their ability to discern the utopian impulses at work within commercial film. According to Fredric Jameson, works of mass culture cannot adequately function without harnessing "the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity," even if they are presented in distorted and indirect ways. Hollywood, notes Jane Gaines, often functions dialectically, "delivering the best hopes along with the worst tendencies, delivering them almost simultaneously."
What a study of Depression-era Left film theory and criticism draws attention to is how the utopian project might be compromised by its advocates' sexist assumptions. It exposes how "the worst tendencies" of mass culture might nonetheless speak to desires that have remained unacknowledged by even the most progressive elements of society. By dismissing women's desires as nothing more than the embodiment of a capitalist ethos, 1930s U.S. Left film theorists and critics failed to acknowledge the liberatory yet deeply flawed impulses that consumer culture, and Hollywood cinema in particular, unleashed against reified gender practices. U.S. Left film theory and criticism should serve as an uneasy warning to contemporary cultural critics: take seriously all aspects of mass culture, particularly its seemingly most regressive forms, since deep within them might lurk those emergent hopes of the disempowered that have failed to gain a voice through legitimate political channels.
I have chosen to arrange this study chronologically rather than thematically because 1930s U.S. Left film theory and criticism naturally divides itself into three movements. Such a structure allows readers to follow its developments and multifaceted positions within each movement. The three periods are, first, 1927 to 1931, which saw the international emergence of montage theory and its deployment by U.S. Left film theorists and critics to initiate ideological analyses upon a wide range of commercial, foreign, and independent films; second, 1931 to 1935, when U.S. film theorists and critics focused upon the domestic mass distribution of !Que Viva México! in order to prove once and for all that a politically radical and aesthetically experimental film could be popular within the United States; and third, 1935 to 1939, when film criticism became more populist after the failure to mass-distribute !Que Viva México! During this final period, U.S. Left film theory and criticism switched its focus from radical montage theory to the investigation of styles that were more in accord with the demands of classical Hollywood cinema: emotional identification, character development, and linear narrative. The years 1934 to 1936 marked a pivotal moment in U.S. Left film theory and criticism as it moved from a vanguard radical position to a Popular Front orientation that explored Left film workers' ability to redeploy commercial cinematic conventions and themes in progressive directions in both independent and Hollywood cinema. These years establish the break between U.S. Left film theorists' and critics' earlier explicit theorization of a radical aesthetics via montage theory and their less formulated, more inductive approach of the Popular Front years, when detailed analyses of specific films were used to identify new progressive socio-aesthetic directions. The period saw a relatively coherent body of montage-derived Left film theory fracture into a criticism that sought new socio-aesthetic approaches through the close analysis of particular films and genres.
The failure to mass-distribute !Que Viva México! cannot be overstated. Because of it, U.S. Left film theorists and critics were compelled to take Hollywood even more seriously than they had in the past. Whether this transition should be considered a failure of imagination on their part to domestically establish a widespread radical film movement, or a moment of insight in which they finally recognized Hollywood's centrality in regulating mass audiences' access to cinema is left for the reader to decide. But this divide in many ways speaks to recent discussions in film and media studies about the viability of and need for countercinematic media practices within a postmodern mass-commodified world. Should one still believe in the power of collective organization, oppositional politics, and radical aesthetics to delimit and repel capitalism's already intrusive forces, or must one work within its matrices to carve out ephemeral respites from its dehumanizing processes? Or is there some yet unimagined third way?
Chapter One identifies the journals and periodicals that were mainly responsible for establishing and promoting 1930s U.S. Left film theory and criticism. Furthermore, the chapter explores the multifaceted aspects of montage theory as U.S. Left film theorists and critics redeployed it to ideologically analyze films from a variety of backgrounds. As we will see, U.S. Left film theorists and critics did not use montage theory simply to defend Soviet cinema and rebut Hollywood, but also at times to critique the Soviets as well as recognize the progressive potential of commercial films. Finally, the chapter investigates the writings of Dorothy Richardson in order to identify a theoretical "road not taken" by U.S. Left film theory as a whole: a protofeminist montage theory.
Chapter Two investigates U.S. Left film theorists' and critics' advocacy of domestically mass-distributing a radical film, !Que Viva México! that would have challenged Hollywood hegemony. As doubts about the film's completion grew, however, U.S. Left film theorists and critics quickly confronted not only Hollywood's domestic monopoly over mass production, distribution, and exhibition, but also the inherent socio-aesthetic limits of montage, which prevented Eisenstein's film from being commercially viable and accessible to wider audiences. Finally, the chapter interrogates U.S. Left film theorists' and critics' general disregard of gender issues, which figured so prominently in the film's published scenario, its outtakes, and Eisenstein's correspondence. Eisenstein intended !Que Viva México! to link political revolution with a radical denaturalization and transformation of gender roles. Despite having this information readily available, U.S. Left film theorists and critics chose to ignore it; by actively suppressing the radical gender insights that Left cinema offered, they retained their sexist authority, which implicitly gendered progressive culture as masculine.
Chapter Three examines U.S. Left film criticism's middecade transition to a Popular Front stance as it focused on the Hollywood antilynching film. In particular, Fritz Lang's film Fury served as a nodal point that drew together black and white film critics in their opposition to lynching and racial discrimination. By harnessing some of the critical viewing strategies employed by African Americans against the racism of mainstream cinema, U.S. Left film criticism promoted an interracial alliance that championed critical spectatorship, promoted collective organization in support of racial equality both on and off the screen, and explored Hollywood's ability to address systemic racism and other related social issues. However, U.S. Left film critics failed to identify the vital socioeconomic aspects addressed by Fury, which would have strengthened their ideological analysis of the film, because such an approach would have required a sustained focus on the film's gender issues (and its female protagonist); doing so would have undermined their male gaze and questioned their own positions of masculine authority.
Chapter Four charts U.S. Left film critics' endorsement of the films of Jean Renoir and William Dieterle. In the wake of the failure to mass-distribute !Que Viva México! Renoir represented a director who could successfully transpose his Left vision into commercial forms. In particular, U.S. Left film critics used Renoir's film La Marseillaise (1938) as a model for politically sympathetic Hollywood directors to emulate in their own films. If some of Renoir's stylistic techniques could be translated into Hollywood films, then progressive content could reach mass audiences.
As the decade progressed, Left film critics increasingly considered the biopic an important genre in which to Americanize Renoir's progressive aesthetics, and William Dieterle represented a sympathetic Left Hollywood director who could actually implement such a strategy. As a result, U.S. Left film critics held out great hopes for Dieterle's Juarez (1939). If properly utilized, it could counter the reactionary, spectacle-laden tendencies of Hollywood cinema, best represented by the historical costume drama. Yet as we will see, critics' championing of the biopic over the costume drama was predicated upon their gender biases, which assumed masculine-centered genres were more politically progressive than feminine-centered ones. Their celebration of Juarez as a politically progressive film was dependent upon their repression of its female-centered, costume-drama elements for an exclusive focus on its male-centered, biopic ones.
Overall, Depression-era U.S. Left film theory and criticism represents a complex, and often conflicted, social formation. Schooled in the lessons of montage theory, which emphasized the need to analyze the ideological links between cinematic form and content, Left film theory and criticism reconfigured itself into a Popular Front stance by middecade with the realization that a reassessment of Hollywood filmmaking was necessary if progressive films were ever to reach mainstream audiences. This latter position was initiated by an expansion of racial scope that synthesized the critical viewing strategies of film critics from the black and white press into a body of criticism that promoted interracial alliances and audience organizations that fought against racial discrimination both on- and offscreen. Their focus on Fury and the antilynching film in general signals these critics' first sustained attempt to reevaluate the ideological potential of certain commercial cinematic forms for producing accessible, progressive mainstream films. As the decade progressed, their focus on Hollywood strengthened as the historical films of Jean Renoir and William Dieterle provided new models for Left commercial filmmaking. This aspect of U.S. Left film theory and criticism reveals an incredibly nuanced and fluid ability to deploy critical concepts in new configurations when required to do so by changing historical conditions.
However, at the same time, U.S. Left film theory and criticism trenchantly resisted a reevaluation of its problematic male gaze and other sexist assumptions that had haunted it since its origins, and that would continue into the 1940s, when its focus shifted to other male-centered genres and styles like the war film, the boxing film, and film noir. Seeing gender solely as a metaphor, if at all, and historical costume dramas as examples of reactionary spectacular excess, Left film theory and criticism failed to acknowledge the crucial ways in which gender identity was taking on new configurations. As a result, U.S. Left film theory and criticism held a contradictory ideological position: a utopian hope to create radical and progressive films that would allow audiences to envision themselves in more-egalitarian and collectively empowering ways, and a reactionary desire to hold onto older structures of male privilege that the Depression, consumer culture, and Hollywood cinema were challenging. Ultimately, an analysis of U.S. Left film theory and criticism offers a way to begin identifying the multifaceted ways in which the historical Left viewed Hollywood, independent, and foreign films of the 1930s and subsequently attempted to influence future filmmaking and consumption in simultaneously progressive and reactionary directions.
Regardless of one's final assessment, the examination of U.S. Left film theory and criticism reminds us of the vital role that the study of any social formation serves in effectively challenging the conservative accounts of traditional, "top down" history. In the place of great leaders, the solidity of institutions, and the imprimatur of legislation stand the complex micromaneuverings of social formations arising from the collective actions, ephemeral publications, and utopian visions of the multitude, of those who were orphaned by official history but who nonetheless imprinted their invisible signature upon its every word.
In keeping with Walter Benjamin's admonitions, the study of social formations blasts apart the homogeneous course of history to expose its underlying contingencies, tensions, and unfulfilled possibilities. It reveals the secret histories of the dispossessed, which have been habitually repressed by history's official chroniclers. This study specifically blasts apart reified notions of Hollywood as a dream factory and dogmatic assumptions regarding the 1930s cultural Left to imagine a cultural moment when international and U.S. Left film theorists and critics believed that history belonged to them as much as it did to the elite, that cinema catered to their desires for a more just future as much as it pandered to Hollywood's desire for profits, and that film criticism could be used to foster critical spectatorship and collective action for not only better films, but also a more humane world.
When explaining the goals of his project, Tom Brandon fully realized the significance of such a "bottom up" approach to film history: "I hope that this effort to convey how it really was will be of help to those who want to do something in this art and medium of film about today and the future. For, in my opinion, much depends on the realization of those historical processes that are empowered from 'down below.' Much? It may be everything, perhaps the entire future of all people on this earth." Although I reject Brandon's faith in the historian's ability to resurrect history, I nonetheless share his belief that our future actions always hinge upon our knowledge of the past. This study assumes that our always partial and assembled knowledge of the marginalized social formations of the past assists us in recognizing the ideological fissures of the present, wherein we might pry open better futures. This study pays heed to Tom Brandon's unfinished promise to reclaim a forgotten time—orphaned by the chroniclers of homogeneous history and reluctantly abandoned by Brandon himself—not through any assertion of its final capture, but through the frank admittance of its provisional refraction through the warped lens of the present. This study is dedicated to better futures.