Hollywood’s America: Twentieth Century America Through Film (Fourth Edition)

Steven Mintz and Randy W. Roberts (eds.),
Hollywood’s America: Twentieth Century America Through Film (Fourth Edition).
Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4051-9003-9
AU$47.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wiley-Blackwell publishers)

“Anyone who wishes to know about the twentieth-century United States would do well to go to the movies”. So begins the first line in the Preface of this very readable text-book. The films under consideration are not “documentaries or avant-garde or underground films” but those that some critics dismiss as “schlock”. The aims are to “use feature films to illuminate the central themes of American cultural history” and to “help students develop the tools to read and interpret visual texts”.
The structure that the editors devised in 1994 appears to have worked well across four editions. The updated introductory essay, “The Social and Cultural History of American Film”, provides an engrossing overview of the eras that are covered: The Silent Era; Hollywood’s Golden Age (1930s); Wartime Hollywood; Postwar Hollywood; Hollywood and The Tumultuous 1960s; and Hollywood In Our Time.

The introduction combines measured discussions of the cultural shifts and technological changes that influenced film production with some quirky snapshots that give some insights into historical context. One of these describes “neurasthenia”, an affliction identified by a New York neurologist in the late 19th century. Featuring symptoms such as sleeplessness, hypochondria, hysteria, asthma and premature baldness, the cause of neurasthenia was identified as “over-civilization”. Theodore Roosevelt was identified as a sufferer. Americans sought a cure in “sports, outdoor activities and popular culture”.

The introductory essay that frames each section provides a succinct overview of major films, favoured subject matter, subtexts, historical events and film styles that are associated with that era. In addition to this, each contribution is preceded by an introductory paragraph. At times this introductory paragraph deftly provides information that is neglected by the contributor. While all contributors address the way in which American cultural history and particular ideologies are reflected in film, some of them overlook the specific techniques (other than characterisation) that filmmakers use to get their messages across. A summary of the film techniques that are associated with film noir – “skewed framing, chiaroscuro lighting, deep shadows…” – precedes an essay on “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight”. Where film techniques are addressed directly by individual contributors, it is done well, for example, a discussion of the use of editing and music in The Graduate (USA 1967), reference to the ‘point-of-view’ shots in the famous car chase in The French Connection (USA 1971) and an analysis of the opening sequence in Thelma and Louise (USA/France 1991).

A comparison of the table of contents of the previous edition (2001) suggests that this edition has been substantially revised. The primary sources that were a feature of the first three editions are retained in this one. The new section that concludes the book, “Hollywood In Our Time”, does not include any new primary sources, but the comprehensive reading list at the back of the book has been extended further. The index is a bit slight and mainly includes subjects with multiple entries. Given the scope of the text and its easily navigated layout, this is a minor quibble.

In Hollywood’s America we are shown how movies are a product of social and historical change, but also how they have acted as an agent of social and cultural change in their own right. The positive and negative impacts of technological change are also explored in some depth. The new section of the book picks up on themes established in earlier sections, particularly the depiction of women in popular American films. In one of the many thought-provoking essays in the book, Aspasia Kotsopoulos explores various interpretations of Thelma and Louise. The way in which other “outsiders” are depicted, particularly Asians and immigrants, is also taken up in this section.

In the final essay, “Movies And The Construction Of Historical Memory”, Steven Mintz examines the relationship between the movies and the portrayal of history, particularly what he terms “The Disneyfication of the past” in the film Pocahontas (USA 1995). Does the treatment of history in the movies matter? Mintz argues convincingly that it does – all the more so because “Despite their factual inaccuracies, we must recognize that there are some things that movies can do better than a historical text.” (p. 365)

Between them, Steven Mintz and Randy W. Roberts have an impressive body of published work, much of it devoted to social history. The book is edited with the historian’s appreciation for the relentless political and cultural cycles that sees movie-goers celebrate anti-authority films like Easy Rider (USA 1969) in one decade only to replace them with blockbusters like Star Wars (USA 1977) in the next. The essay on “The Rise and Fall of Sidney Poitier” provides an instructive case study of the way that these cycles impact on the careers of actors too.

Due to its familiar subject matter and its accessible style, Hollywood’s America has an appeal that makes it deserving of a wider readership. By all means look for twentieth century United States in its movies, but consider reading this book first.

Lynn Smailes,
Melbourne, Australia.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Lynn Smailes

About the Author

Lynn Smailes

Lynn Smailes is a freelance writer, editor and desk-top publisher who lives in Melbourne, Australia.View all posts by Lynn Smailes →