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The Fight to Control the Cinema

July 19, 1998|George F. Custen | George F. Custen, a professor of film at the City University of New York, is author of "Twentieth Century's Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck & the Culture of Hollywood."

MONTGOMERY, VT. — As Hollywood's century draws to a close, the culture wars with which it opened abide and endure. Though most Americans do not realize it, 1998 marks the 83rd anniversary of the most important event in the history of American film. This key battle was not fought in Hollywood, but in Washington. There, a 1915 Supreme Court ruling, in conjunction with two factors unique to the American nation--the absence of either an official national language or state religion--shaped film in a way that it came to play a role so powerful that our culture deemed it worth fighting over. Understanding why we fight, or why the luster surrounding some films never tarnishes, while others always ignite intellectually explosive debates, forces us to look at those peculiar characteristics that forged the century's main event: the birth and shape of the American modern.

The United States is a place where new immigrants constantly redefine what is an American. Accordingly, the biggest prize of all--who can speak with cultural authority--has lacked a continuous, stable tradition and a clearly articulated national policy. Perpetually unsecured, bereft of the anchors afforded it by religion and language, it is seemingly up for grabs by any group organized enough to try and go for it. In this context, any issue worth debating is contested and renegotiated, played out and performed before a changing audience in a shifting array of our most popular public forums. For many years, the main arena in which this took place was the cinema.

Cinema occupied this spot because the keepers of genteel culture, the editors of literary magazines and newspapers, the censors, judges and religious leaders, had underestimated both its power and the lure it offered Americans closed out of other venues. In many places, film was the only amusement available the one day--Sunday--workers had off. These cultural mandarins had not heeded Ralph Waldo Emerson's injunction: that Americans had listened too long to Europe's muses at the expense of our native voices. Film and the patrons who flocked to it answered Emerson's call.

The fear that the authority of America's moral gatekeepers was being gerrymandered away by the marginalized and despised folk who ran Hollywood explains, in part, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1915 decision in Mutual Film Corp. vs. the Industrial Commission of Ohio, the case that drew the future blueprint for what Hollywood could be.

The opinion was written by Justice Joseph McKenna, a man born in 1843, more than 50 years before the first film was projected. His diminished view of film's cultural worth seemed justified when, late in 1915, riots greeted D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," an enthralling aesthetic attainment that was also a corrosive, inflammably inaccurate parable of the Civil War, a sort of white supremacist revisionist history in which a Klan-like group, not the people they persecuted, tortured and deprived of their human and civil rights, were portrayed as the heroes. A widely accessible art form that precipitated such violent reactions was clearly a danger to be controlled by our judicial panopticon.

Despite the free-speech issues that films like "The Birth of a Nation" raised, McKenna asserted that all film was a business, "pure and simple." Accordingly, it was not entitled to the same First Amendment protection as the press. The court also upheld something that film producers dreaded: Prior restraint (in the form of censorship boards) was constitutional, the social expression of the legal notion that not everything that could be shown in movies should be seen by all people.

Backed by the highest court in the land, movie censors, reflecting a broad ideological spectrum, had a legal justification--a shield, even--to fight Hollywood's vision of the world. After the Mutual ruling, moguls, looking over their shoulders, had to anticipate and neutralize these forces. They did this by turning out films that were the opposite of "The Birth of a Nation," films that, like the majority of those found on that dubiously conceived jump to millennial judgment, the America Film Institute's "100 Greatest American Movies of All Time," were "harmless entertainment."

This is the mix out of which the movies were born. Both the establishment of Hollywood as a business institution, and the success of its films, cannot be viewed apart from these two contradictory national impulses: the encouragement of business expansion only if the cultural power that accompanies this growth, the power unleashed in "Birth," could be contained and shaped by the courts and certain groups to fit their social agenda.

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