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Book Review

Hollywood and Society: A Question of Influence

THE BIG TOMORROW: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way, by Lary May, University of Chicago Press $32.50, 348 pages


"Everyone has two businesses," Irving Thalberg sighed 75 years ago, "their own and the movies." The MGM production chief was lamenting the fact that everyone seemed to have an opinion about the quality and impact of films, and judging from the recent spate of political rhetoric, things haven't changed much.

Over the next few months, we will hear pundits and politicians treating "Hollywood" as monolith, lumping the more than 400 films to be released this year into a single pot of blame for what ails society. There is no question that movies are an indelible part of our cultural dialogue and can make for some fascinating conversations, define precious moments and serve as touchstones for our lives. Hollywood has always been a magnifier, which can make it seem larger than life. But giving movies the power to be more than they are is as dicey as dismissing them altogether.

Lary May's "The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way" falls into that same trap. May has many worthwhile insights into films and filmmaking from the 1930s through the 1960s and instills some fresh concepts into the debate over which came first, life or art. But too often, in his efforts to categorize and classify, he overreaches for sweeping conclusions that blur the entire dialogue.

"The Big Tomorrow" opens with an intriguing reassessment of Will Rogers and argues that "evidence compels us to recognize that Will Rogers rose to become the most popular artist of his day precisely because he was nothing like the image that has emerged since his death." Analyzing Rogers' films one by one, May illuminates Rogers' thinking and influence but then overwhelms with the sweeping conclusion that "Rogers dramatized the modernization of an inclusive republican creed in which the citizens cooperated to realize dreams of abundance and pluralism. . . . By forging an Americanization composed of interpenetrating opposites, Rogers had merged the utopian desires of mass art with politics."

May looks anew at the changing film audiences of the Depression era and persuasively argues that patrons "rejected studio products and demanded 'new subjects.' " He cites the "Thin Man" and "[Andy] Hardy Family" series as examples of this new Hollywood, but neither series was produced outside of the studio system; both came from (and helped keep afloat) MGM, the biggest studio of the day. May describes the "fresh narrative" of "The Thin Man" as consisting of heroes who "undergo a conversion experience" and whose efforts "yield a just society and a more inclusive and better tomorrow." Wow. Director Woody van Dyke, whose quick and consistently under-budget work earned him the moniker "One Cut Woody," frustrating actors and writers but making him the darling of studio bosses, would surely be amused to have the movie he filmed in less than three weeks awarded such heft. It took writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett even less time to adapt the screen story, and the concern about the film voiced at the time by MGM story boss Sam Marx was that the main characters, Nick and Nora Charles, were married throughout the film, in stark contrast to the formula of finding true love in the last act. "Marriage," Marx suggested, "wasn't supposed to be fun."

Karl Marx has more mentions in May's index than Sam Marx (although not as many as the Marx Brothers), and perhaps the palette is simply too large to squeeze into 300 pages. May is an intelligent and insightful delight when he writes as if he is sitting around a table of his peers, but when the tone shifts to that of a man behind a podium lecturing to a roomful of unquestioning students, it gets ponderous and dulls the impact of his initial ideas.

We can all agree that movies both influence and reflect our culture and then argue about the degree. Yet to give films so much credit, either as omnipresent peddlers of immorality or saviors sent to redefine our society is as ultimately insulting as to say they have no influence at all.

Ever since 1915--when Carl Laemmle starting charging 25 cents to tour his Universal Studios (more than he was getting from patrons at his theaters)--filmmaking has been about making money. But too often, while zeroing in on auteurship and cinematic theory, discussions of film seem to discount, if not entirely ignore, the economics of filmmaking. Often, when movies are smothered in weighty intellectual or political cloth, as they are here, I am reminded of a scene that occurred several years ago at the Cannes Film Festival. Two French critics were praising Joel and Ethan Coen's "Barton Fink" and regaling the filmmakers with an intricate Biblical analysis of their characters and the script. The brothers were initially enthralled, but then looked at each other and started to laugh. "That's all very interesting," Ethan responded, "but . . . we were just making a movie."

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