Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film

John Bodnar,
Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
ISBN: 0 8018 7149 2
$US25.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by The Johns Hopkins University Press)

In some respects, Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film is a lifelong project for Pulitzer prize nominated historian John Bodnar. Bodnar, after all, is quoted in Contemporary Authors Online as having stated “my grandfather was a coal miner and I was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania during a time when the mines were closing and the local economy was declining”. Having come from a similar working class background myself, I can fully understand Bodnar’s ongoing interest in immigrants, liberalism, unionism, and the public versus the private, all of which seem to inform this 2003 Johns Hopkins University Press publication.

On the surface, Blue-Collar Hollywood comes across as timely, necessary, well-written, and accessible. Its style is perhaps the greatest selling point of the study, as it is written in what Andrea Foroughi aptly termed Bodnar’s ‘conversational tone’ in her 2002 review of Bodnar’s Our Towns (Indiana Historical Society, 2001) in the Michigan Historical Review (136). Certainly, Bodnar’s accessible technique makes Blue-Collar Hollywood a good choice for undergraduates studying film or American cultural studies. In addition, the text does seem to fill a gap in the literature in that it addresses a gray area. As Bodnar writes in his introduction, “serious political historians almost never took mass culture seriously” (xiii), something which he attempts to do here. In fact, his task is a rather daunting one, as his goal is to look at how “Hollywood films have represented the individuals and concerns of working-class America since the introduction of sound pictures” (xiii). Specifically, the book “seeks to explore the relationship between one of the central forms of mass culture in twentieth-century America – the movies – and the tensions that emanated from powerful political traditions like liberalism and democracy that continually shaped American life over a long period” (xv). Bodnar’s overly ambitious goal results in the central problem of this text, a weakness so debilitating that it renders Blue-Collar America virtually unusable for graduate level and professional scholarly endeavors in film and culture: Bodnar’s almost arbitrary use of terminology and his penchant for forcing a reading on a text, something which has not gone unnoticed by critics. Elspeth H. Brown, in The Canadian Review of American Studies (2005), takes the venerable historian to task on the very premise of the book, one’s ability to narrowly define terms such as ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ in such stark contrast to one another that it becomes possible to cite examples of each throughout film history. Brown zeroes in on Bodnar’s loose interpretation of these concepts, as well as his use of the term ‘working class’, while as she argues (rightfully), virtually all of his examples feature white male protagonists (338). Bodnar’s most vocal critic, Larry Ceplair, makes note of the same problem in his 2004 Cineaste review. He argues that Bodnar seems to “assign” meanings to the words ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ that set the two as polar opposites, while in reality the two are, in Ceplair’s words, ‘overlapping ideologies’ (64).

I do not intend to give the mistaken impression that Blue-Collar Hollywood has been universally panned. The reality is that reviews of the book have been as varied as the diverse cultural messages Bodnar posits that Hollywood films imparted from 1930-1980. Some gave kudos to this fifty year survey of cinematic representation, leveling praise for the author’s method of pinpointing ‘a dozen or so lower-class models’, taken from various films – both box office blockbusters and little known gems – for each of the five decades. One particularly admirable element of the text, as identified by Bodnar in his introduction, is the discussion of movies that set the spotlight on female laborers, or to use his term, ‘workingwomen’. Those who have panned the book point out that relatively few female working class characters are identified by Bodnar when one looks at the big picture, and those that are noted tend to be non-representative of the actual working women of the time. A reviewer could argue, as some of Bodnar’s defenders have, that his marginalization of women, as well as minority groups, is a limitation rather than a weakness, given the homogeneity of Hollywood throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. But given that Bodnar’s choice of films is highly selective, as he chooses 200 movies out of the tens of thousands available, it stands to reason that more female and minority informed films of the earlier Hollywood decades could have readily been chosen, especially given the apparent arbitrariness of authorial choices, since he does not base his examples on box office receipts nor on critical acclaim or awards. My guess is that Bodnar consciously wanted to work within a well-established framework of examples; hence oft discussed films such as Little Caesar (USA 1931), Public Enemy (USA 1931), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(USA 1939), The Grapes of Wrath (USA 1940), The Fighting Sullivans (USA 1944), and On the Waterfront (USA 1954), to name just a few, are once again dissected, whether or not they obviously fit the Bodnar model of working class film. Unfortunately, this decision by the author created problems even for those reviewers who expressed an overall positive view of the book. For example, in his 2004 review in The Journal of Popular Culture, David Lancaster, observes that Bodnar has trouble pinning down examples that would bolster his theory that individual-based concerns of mass culture had a crucial impact on the politics of the Twentieth Century (732). Robert Brent Toplin (2004) ends a very positive Journal of American History review of Blue-Collar Hollywood with the statement that Bodnar’s ‘analysis suffers from a bit of overstretch’ (678), while Kim Holston (2003) in Library Journal can best sum up the author’s selectivity in nebulous terminology: “[Bodnar’s] conclusions on viewings of many films, some famous, others hardly remembered or seriously critiqued…” (91). Of course, reading between the lines of Holston’s statement, one would have to agree with Ceplair’s summation, that the book could be subtitled “Some American Films, Arbitrarily Chosen” (64).

The most trying aspect of Blue-Collar Hollywood is that so much of Bodnar’s hypothesis seems based on a priori reasoning, as in chapters where movie gangsters and ‘fallen women’ are grouped with working class Joe Palookas, with nary an acceptable explanation as to the reasons behind this categorization. My best guess is that Bodnar uses interchangeably ‘working people’, ‘working man’ (or ‘workingwoman’), and ‘working class’. While one would not argue with the hypothesis that the film gangster is the quintessential individualist – prioritizing his own materialistic desires over the communal need for peace and fairness – it is at best manipulation of terminology to theorize that such a character would be viewed by contemporary audiences as exemplifying the problems with the lower classes or the working man. Bodnar actually belies his own theories in such cases when he points out that film censors and reviewers seemed more concerned with the violence of these films than with their political subtext. One is left to wonder to what other than the violence should those reviewers be responding, given the nature of the 1930s gangster film. While it is highly possible for a gangster film to have a social or cultural subtext, as in Goodfellas (USA 1990) or The Godfather trilogy, one would be hard-pressed to see the same concerns in 1930s gangster films, other than Angels with Dirty Faces (USA 1938), which to Bodnar’s credit he does include in his discussion.

What is particularly troublesome about these weaknesses is that Blue-Collar Hollywood would be an extremely useful scholarly study had it been better executed. Bodnar’s major thesis is that Hollywood films of the five decade period under study chose not to directly address disputes between labor and capital, or – more to the point – dialogues between the lower classes (working men) and higher classes (the financial elite). Rather, scripts dealt with political issues on the individual level, by pitting individualism, what Bodnar calls ‘liberalism’, against community, what Bodnar terms ‘democracy’. While this may not be an earth-shattering realization in and of itself, it is a thought-provoking statement; however, since the author’s caveat is that some films of any given decade prioritized liberalism, while some others prioritized democracy, one must take a step back and ponder whether it is even possible to trace any trends in these films. That being the case, we are also left to consider whether it is ethical to state, explicitly or implicitly, that there are any trends or consistent messages. In other words, the validity of Bodnar’s entire thesis comes into question.

I would not recommend this book as a comprehensive, scholarly film study for use in serious scholarship. But despite these big picture problems with Blue-Collar America, the individual, brief discussions of each film do offer some food for thought, and can be quite entertaining and enlightening. For example, in the section entitled ‘Leaders from the rank and file’, Bodnar looks at how some 1930s movies “…allowed audiences to explore the joys and pitfalls of seeking social justice for fellow workers and the difficulties of establishing a working-class democracy,” adding that “the end of their stories brought no guarantees that America would be a more egalitarian society, but the films that centered on them did remind viewers that the fate of the individual was not in his hands alone” (18). Three film discussions here stand out as excellent: Examining Cabin in the Cotton (USA 1932), Bodnar explains how the film deals with class issues by having one character, a sharecropper turned bookkeeper, put into the position to determine his allegiance to either those who share his roots of poverty, or the wealthy landowners for whom they work. Our Daily Bread (USA 1934), often called the most radical film of the ‘30s, is treated as a study of leadership. Bodnar remarks that John Sims, the movie’s main character, is a natural choice as the leader of a group of collective farmers, while noting that the undertones of socialism were noticeable enough that studios reacted against it. In the same section, Bodnar examines Black Fury (USA 1935), about a coal miners strike, from a historical perspective, discussing the variant scripts that were much more harsh to the mine industry, as well as the MPPDA’s (led by Joseph Breen) forcing of a variant, less violent ending that was kinder to the industry onto the film. And then there is a well-thought out discussion of The Grapes of Wrath that show the film’s departure from the novel, and how it brought to the fore the depression’s effects on the family unit.

In the chapter about the 1940s, readers are given a solid grounding in the effects that the New Deal and the CIO had on film, and the entire chapter looks at how Hollywood helped sell World War II as ‘The People’s War’, as the Roosevelt administration organized the Office of War Information in 1942 to standardize news, radio, and motion pictures to solidify the U.S. behind the effort. The egalitarianism of the war effort is shown in films like Guadalcanal Diary (USA 1943), Bataan (USA 1943), Air Force (USA 1943), and The Fighting Sullivans. These four movies dealt with various religions, ethnic and racial origins, and class. Bodnar spends a considerable amount of time pointing out that for women, films extolled virtues of being faithful ‘comrades’ to the soldiers, as in Tender Comrade (1943), where the faithful woman is contrasted against women who get tired of ‘sacrifice’ and decide to enjoy their new freedoms. He also discusses Since You Went Away (USA 1944) and Pin Up Girl(USA 1944), sharing his theories on why the most popular pin up girl, Betty Grable, was more representative of the faithful, stay-at-home woman, than she was of the screen beauty. And this chapter, like all others, ends with a section that chronicles reviewer reactions to the films discussed. These reactions are sometimes perceptive, especially when readers contrast those by academics against those written by more popular culture oriented critics. The same generalizations, that discussions of sundry films sometimes hit the mark, and sometimes seem a stretch in logic and terminology, can be applied for Bodnar’s chapters on the 1950s (‘Beyond containment in the fifties’), as well as the 1960s/1970s (‘The people in turmoil’). Again, taken individually, the discussions are interesting and thought-provoking, but categorization seems almost impossible, so the overall sense the reader gets of the text is that the author uses arbitrary terminology and criteria for his example selection, thereby calling into question any theses that attempt to establish patterns.

Most recently Bodnar has received the Distinguished Faculty Award at Indiana University, from the College of Arts and Sciences, and his texts have been well-received. According to his web page, he is currently working on a new book, which will investigate “the cultural, political and epistemological dimensions of the American remembrance of World War II or how the ‘good war’ became ‘good’” ( As in his previous works, the new book will be concerned with human rights and the plight of the working class. A 2005 senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, combined with a 2006 grant to organize a workshop on the history of human rights should go a long way towards making the next book as successful as his previous ones. As for Blue-Collar Hollywood, I have to agree with those critics who find it to be his weakest publication to date. While it might make a decent introductory text to American film studies, it falls well short of being an exemplary scholarly study.

Tony Fonseca,
Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, LA, USA.


Brown, Elspeth H. “Popular Culture and Democratic Politics.” Canadian Review of American Studies 35.3 (2005): 335-344.
Ceplair, Larry. “Rev. of Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film.”Cineaste 29.3 (2004): 64-65.
Holston, Kim. “Rev. of Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film.”Library Journal 128.9 (2003): 91.
“John (Edward) Bodnar.” Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2007. In Biography Resource Center [database online]. Cited 3 April 2007. Available from Ellender Memorial Library, Nicholls State University.
Lancaster, David. “Rev. of Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film.” Journal of Popular Culture 37.4 (2004): 731-732.
Toplin, Robert Brent. “Rev. of Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film.” The Journal of American History 91.2 (2004): 677-678

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007