Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in Postwar America 1945-1957

Eric Smoodin & Ann Martin (eds.),
Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in Postwar America 1945-1957.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
ISBN 0 520 23274 7
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

Eric Smoodin and Ann Martin’s Hollywood Quarterly provides an informative sample of writing published by this important film/communications journal in one of the defining – perhaps even formative at some level – periods of American film culture. This edited collection aims to exhibit, and perhaps even show off, the eclectic range of topics and writers that helped define and canonise the journal (and possibly even led to its ultimate downfall or transfiguration into the still extant Film Quarterly in 1958). Though weighted towards the immediate post-War period – and those articles published in the wake of the journal’s launch in October 1945 and the severe “disruptions” caused by WWII – this book provides an insightful glimpse into attitudes and critical approaches towards a range of mass media (from left to right wing, outside to inside the industry, East Coast to West Coast and beyond, cinema to radio, etc.) across a particularly significant period of time; a period of massive changes in Hollywood and its relation to emerging media technologies and international influences, in particular.

Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in Postwar America 1945-1957 is divided up into nine sections covering a variety of topics and media; ranging from a noteworthy, and strategically placed, opening section surveying American avant-garde film practice, exhibition and history to radio, the introduction of television and an eclectic grouping of articles by “overseas” writers including Jay Leyda, Charles Boyer, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Georges Sadoul. Ultimately, these articles by prominent practitioners and important film scholars are the chief justification for the contemporary fascination of this volume, along with the insights it grants into a range of attitudes and methodologies popular in both nascent film/media studies and the media industries themselves across this period. It is difficult to argue against the ultimate value of a publication that includes insights and insider accounts from the likes of Amos Vogel, Chuck Jones (a rather surprisingly theoretical discussion of the use of music in animation), John Grierson, Samuel Goldwyn (partly discussing the possibility of pay-for-view television in 1949), John Howard Lawson (soon to become one of the Hollywood Ten), Theodor Adorno (typically scathing in his lamentation, “How to look at television”), Iris Barry (one of the founders of the London Film Society and the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library), Jean Hersholt and Henri Langlois, amongst others. Nevertheless, despite the wide range of writers – some more practiced in the “art” of writing about cinema than others – providing a series of snapshots and, at times, sustained analysis of particular themes, trends or movements (the space given to the rise of documentary, the film society movement and the nascent film archives is very welcoming), the whole enterprise emerges as a little too much of a smorgasbord. In the process, the book provides a series of tantalising glimpses of areas of media practice and analytical discussion that require more sustained volumes to be adequately illuminated. The avenues the book suggests for future research and publication, as well as its archaeological bent and placement of sometimes contrary views and perspectives side-by-side, are the book’s major achievements.

Smoodin and Martin’s book also attempts to re-present the flavour of the original journal by mixing together scholarly accounts of film history, critical glosses of quantitative and qualitative mass communication research on topics such as “Children’s television habits and preferences” and “Radio’s attraction for housewives,” with formative critical analyses of particular filmmakers (Lewis Jacobs and Siegfried Kracauer’s articles on American avant-garde cinema and Jean Vigo, respectively, are most rewarding in this regard), and a collection of ephemera. This last, relatively expansive category ranges from Edith Head costume designs (with brief capsule elaborations) and the original editorial statement for the journal’s first edition, to a radio script by Abraham Polonsky and two accusatory statements condemning pre-eminent French stage-actor and film director Sacha Guitry of war-time collaboration with the Nazi regime (thus political events and circumstances of the time tend to underlie several of the choices, with direct mention of the Hollywood blacklist a notable but understandable absence).

Though not exactly satisfactory as a book to read from beginning to end,Hollywood Quarterly does reprint many significant and quite revealing articles on the post-war media (its scope moves well beyond Hollywood). Nevertheless, although this book includes many interesting insights, resurrections and half-forgotten arguments and incidents (many of which do deserve another airing), it does not quite work as a sustained collection of articles and opinions on a particular industry, region, nation or cultural moment. This slight limitation ties in with a problem identified by the initial publishers of the journal (the University of California Press who also produced this volume). Specific themed issues would attract different readers but the journal’s initial limited, and shrinking, print-runs were pre-determined partly by the ambitious, varied, but rarely consistent content (beyond single issues). Still, it is fascinating to read a book which moves from lucid accounts of experimental cinema, through animation, documentary, radio and television and onto film practice (including direction, acting, production and costume design) and various facets of the post-war Hollywood industry (from African-American stereotypes in film to the problems of film marketing and the Hollywood foreign correspondent). Whereas a number of journals which emerged in the 1960s were more unified by a consistency of approach and view-point – and even a politique – Hollywood Quarterly seems to have been defined by its wish to cover as many aspects of the media industries and their analysis as possible (a problem of focus and editorial direction from which its contemporary counterpart, Film Quarterly, can also suffer). Significantly under-emphasised and represented in this volume are both cinematic authorship and textual analysis (particularly with any emphasis on aspects of cinematic style). The burgeoning study of auteurism does creep into some articles – Kracauer’s on Vigo, notably – but most of the articles included here are singularly lacking in close, interpretative analysis of individual texts (Jacobs on the American avant-garde is a notable exception).

In keeping with much mass media research many of the commentaries in this volume are rather broad in their observations and recommendations (many articles seemingly aimed at the discussion of emerging, forgotten or newly threatening phenomena such as television. Oddly, John Houseman’s mostly negative account of The Big Sleep (USA, 1946), “Today’s hero,” comes closest to an actual film review (and also surprisingly close to Robert Warshow’s article on the gangster hero published several years later). So, in some respects, Hollywood Quarterly is most fascinating for the view it gives of film criticism (as opposed to reviewing) before the rise of the hegemonies of auteurism and much subsequent film criticism (a pre-hegemonic state to which film writing seems partly to have returned). As a result it is often difficult to see the clear links between many of these articles and the contemporaneous writing of someone like Manny Farber (or later, Andrew Sarris).

The appearance of this volume at this point in time should tell us something about the current state of film culture, and how it can be usefully compared and contrasted to the eclecticism of this earlier post-war moment (including its criticism of and implication in the mainstream media). The choice of articles tells us much about what the editors felt both “represented” the period of initial publication and might be of most direct relevance to the contemporary film studies student or professional (the inclusion of a rather weak entry on African-American stereotyping in Hollywood cinema somewhat determined, I assume, by the dominance of the study of identity politics and formation in contemporary American cinema and Cultural Studies). The editors’ decision to provide only a brief introduction to the volume and no direct contextualisation of individual articles, does allow the reader to construct their own map of the media culture of the post-War period, but it doesn’t really allow us to get a full sense of the journal’s range and purpose or its place within this culture (despite being supported and worked on by several significant practitioners of the time including James Hilton, Abraham Polonsky, Irving Pichel and John Howard Lawson).

Hollywood Quarterly does ultimately contribute a revealing insight into particular cultural trends, historical developments and critical approaches that have some pertinence to contemporary Cinema, Media and Cultural Studies. A sampler taken from a now legendary American media publication, it lacks the consistency of other similar volumes devoted to film journals such as Cahiers du cinémaSight and SoundFilm Culture and Close Up. In many respects this appears to be an appropriate limitation, as the schizophrenic nature of the journal is implicated in the wide variety of writers from disparate cultural, intellectual, industrial and even geographic backgrounds that are represented. For a publication called Hollywood Quarterly, this journal and the book that now documents it, are surprisingly encompassing and wide-ranging in scope. For those interested in film culture – and this book does somewhat bravely and inclusively subtitle itself “Film culture in postwar America” – there are many illuminating entries (see, for example, Amos Vogel’s account of the emergence and workings of the Cinema 16 “movement” or Jay Leyda’s description of Soviet film education and the paltriness of its American counterparts). This quality ultimately pinpoints what is most satisfying about this volume; its ability to evoke an impression of the dynamic and productive film culture emerging from both the decimation (but also shifting opportunities) of WWII and the increased critical and analytical perspectives enabled by emerging journals like Hollywood Quarterly. It should also make us reconsider the history of this broad-based media analysis as a continuity of shifting approaches and perspectives rather than as a progression of more advanced and “progressive” methodologies.

Adrian Danks
RMIT University, Melbourne.
Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: 28-Apr-04

About the Author

Adrian Danks

About the Author

Adrian Danks

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published widely in a range of books and journals including: Senses of Cinema, Metro, Screening the Past, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Australian Book Review, Screen Education, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Traditions in World Cinema, Melbourne in the 60s, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, Contemporary Westerns, B is for Bad Cinema, Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave, Being Cultural, World Film Locations: Melbourne and Sydney, and Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. He is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley, 2015), co-editor of American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave, 2018) and is currently writing several books including monographs devoted to 3-D Cinema (Rutgers) and "international" feature-film production in Australia during the postwar era (Australian International Pictures, with Con Verevis, to be published by Edinburgh University Press)."View all posts by Adrian Danks →