Hollywood Outsiders. The Adaptation of the Film Industry 1913-1934

Anne Morey,
Hollywood Outsiders. The Adaptation of the Film Industry 1913-1934.
Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
ISBN 0 8166 3733 4
242 pp
US $ 22.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

It is perhaps a sign of the maturity of the field of film studies that ever more complex and multi-dimensional models of the film industry’s institutional and extra-systemic structure in the first half of the 20th century are now being developed. We have progressed from art history inflected auteurist studies of film directors to analyses of Hollywood film studio output to Bordwll/Thompson/Staiger’s Classical Hollywood Narrative. Audience studies, whether empirical or reception studies, have developed important kinds of knowledges about film viewers, but have neither connected to the apparatus, nor necessarily to the industry. While psychoanalytic and feminist film theories shed light on a theoretical viewer and subject of the cinematic apparatus, the historically evolving audience is increasingly on the radar of film history. Anne Morey, a student of Janet Staiger, has published an expanded version of her dissertation, Hollywood Outsiders, which explores how audiences – the public – more or rather less successfully influenced film production within an industry which in the period in question was itself still experiencing extreme growing pains.

Constructing four case studies, Morey attempts to demonstrate the way forces outside the film industry made concerted efforts to impact film production in the period from 1913 to the mid 1930s. The four phenomena are juvenile series fiction about movie-making from the mid 1910s to the 1930s, the Palmer Photoplay Corporation (a correspondence school for screenwriting), the toughed-up “Production Code” of 1934 instigated by Catholic clergy, and high school film appreciation curricula in the mid 1930s. This is the same era, during which classical Hollywood narrative and the classical studio structure was being institutionalized, in other words when the industry sought to standardize product and limit control of content by outsiders, leading to an interesting push and pull between outsiders and industry insiders. As Morey notes in this regard: “Collectively, the cases describe an arc in which individual, active, profitable participation in the film industry is scaled back to efforts designed to control film interpretation without necessarily gaining or granting direct access to production.” (6) The author also makes clear in her introductory chapter that various groups tried to raise the intellectual content of the movies – which were thought to pander to the lowest common denominator (has anything changed?) – by either directly participating in film production or by raising the intellectual aspirations of the audience, who would then demand better films. The latter strategy, I might add, was not specific to American cinema, since many European and British film clubs of the 1920s utilized almost identical rhetoric. But American goals, according to Morey, entailed not only more ambitious cinema narratives, but also the creation of better human beings, who would practice self-control in regards to the consumption of leisure time activities.

Morey’s second chapter on juvenile fiction makes the point that such novel series as “Moving Picture Girls” (1914-16), the “Moving Picture Boys” (1912-22), and the “Ruth Fielding” (1913-34), all situated filmmaking in an industrial context, but also emphasized its democratic aspects. The Horatio Alger myths loom large in these narratives of upward mobility. Repeatedly, the novels make the claim that audiences are the final arbitrators of a film’s success, a parole also propagated by the film industry. Finally, the books present narratives in which characters not only acquire the technical skills for success in the film industry, but also “learn self-control, the repression of affect, and … self-commodification by fighting off others’ attempts to commodify and exploit one.” (63)

The Palmer Photoplay Corporation pitch to young, would-be screenwriters was very similar, especially in its program of self-commodification, although by the time the company went into business (1919), film producers were no longer accepting unsolicited film scripts, as they had several years earlier. While Morey valiantly argues her case, I’m not sure either the juvenile fiction or the Palmer Photoplay efforts were anything more than marginal phenomena, at least as far as the reality of the film industry was concerned. Nevertheless, these failed cases pave the way for the unqualified success that was the Production Code of 1934, which achieved its goal to directly influence, even limit, the content of film production.

In chapter four, Morey discusses denominational incursions into Hollywood, culminating in the “Catholic capture of Hollywood’s storytelling apparatus.” (113) However, before getting to the Legion of Decency, she enumerates failed Protestant attempts in the 1920s to break directly into professional filmmaking. While Gregory Black ( Hollywood Censored) and others have discussed the Catholic genesis of the Production Code in more detail, Morey moves elsewhere, attempting to show the way religious leaders eschewed the democratic rhetoric of her two previous cases, in order to embrace “authoritarian rhetorics that insist (ed) upon a hierarchy of taste within American filmmaking and filmgoing.” (114) In other words, while the industry and Progressive stakeholders maintained the value of box office results as a measure for what the public would accept in cinema, the Catholic Church pushed through an agenda that disenfranchised both producers and audience. They believed the audience was incapable of such weighty decisions as content, while producers were not to be trusted, because they had only profits in mind. Since modernism undercut the authority of “natural law”, the goal was to eradicate any vestiges of modernity on the screen: no sex, no politics.

The film appreciation movement of the 1930s, then, was a return to a democratic rhetoric in the sense that its supporters’ primary goal was to create an informed and educated film audience by targeting youth that would patronize Hollywood’s more ambitious literary adaptations and historical spectacles. Based on Deweyan principles, educators hoped to teach high schoolers the skills necessary to become critical viewers, wishing in the process to contribute broadly to character education. As Morey notes, “both character education and film appreciation found themselves promoting self-control and self-fashioning through standardized methods…” (150) Film producers, meanwhile, were willing to cooperate in the production of study guides, since they hoped to find audiences for some of their more ambitious prestige pictures, like Warners’  A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream (US,1934) or RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (US, 1938). In other words, film appreciation would eventually drive producers to create more ambitious work, because tripe would no longer sell.

Maybe the most important aspect of Morey’s study is the realization that film texts are not solely the product of an ever more efficient film production apparatus, but that they are subject to complex negotiations between producers, audiences, and special interest groups, whether we look at the Progressive reformers of the 1910s, the arch-conservative and Catholic inquisitors of the 1930s, or the Aschcroftian forays into Hollywood in 2004.

Jan-Christopher Horak
UCLA, Moving Image Archives Studies

Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Nov-04

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →