A Certain Tendency of the American Cinema: Classic Hollywood's Formal and
By Robert B. Ray
Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema (1930-1980). Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1985. pp 25-69.
To sense quickly the importance of the years 1930-1945 for the history of the American Cinema, one only has to realize that:
1. All of the nine major studios (MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, RKO, Paramount, Columbia, Universal, United Artists, and Disney) that have produced and distributed the vast majority of American films came to prominence before 1945. The commonly used term for the 1930-1945 period suggests the extraordinary role of these enterprises during the first two decades of talkies—The Studio Era.
2. Of the great movie stars (Bogart, Cagney, Gable, Wayne, Stewart, Cooper, Rooney, Flynn, Tracy and Hepburn, Astaire and Rogers, Lombard, Loy, Dietrich, Garbo, Davis, Garland, Harlow, and Elizabeth Taylor), only Wayne, Stewart, and Taylor found their greatest success after 1945. Of the postwar stars, none (with the possible exceptions of Brando, Dean, and Monroe) approached the glamour of their predecessors.
3. Of the principal genres that have made up the bulk of American movies (western, gangster, horror, science fiction, screwball comedy, women's melodrama, musical, biography, swashbuckler, costume drama), only the western, science fiction, and horror genres achieved their richest forms after 1945.
Understandably, therefore, film historians have designated the years 1930-1945 as "The Classic Period" of American movies. For despite the American Cinema's enormous silent-era success, the arrival of sound saw Hollywood reach the peak of its narrative and commercial efficiency. Statistics tell part of the story. For those sixteen years, the movies averaged 80 million
in weekly attendance, a sum representing more than half of the U.S. population of the time. Translated another way, from 1930 to 1945, the movies attracted 83 cents of every U.S. dollar spent on recreation.
Even these remarkable numbers, however, fail to convey the extent of Hollywood's influence. By also dominating the international market, the American Cinema insured that for the vast majority of the audience, both here and abroad, Hollywood's Classic Period films would establish the definition of the medium itself. Henceforth, different ways of making movies would appear as aberrations from some "intrinsic essence of cinema" rather than simply as alternatives to a particular form that had resulted from a unique coincidence of historical accidents—aesthetic,
economic, technological, political, cultural, and even geographic. Given the economics of the medium, such a perception had immense consequences: because departures from the American
Cinema's dominant paradigms risked not only commercial disaster but critical incomprehension, one form of cinema threatened to drive out all others.
We should realize, therefore, that in examining the movies of Hollywood's Classic Period, we are studying the single most important body of films in the history of cinema, the one that set the terms by which all movies, made before or after, would be seen. The preeminent influence of these films would seem to call for a theoretical description of the basic patterns of Classic Hollywood, locating the sources of those patterns and their connection to the rest of American culture, and accounting for their durability in the face of external and internal pressures for change. Such a theory would not only clarify the shape of American film history; it would also explain why movies operating under different patterns necessarily seem "wrong." It would perhaps provide perspective on the typically normative language of this admonitory passage from a cinematography textbook:
It is important ... that ambitious movie makers first learn the rules before breaking
them. Learn the right way to film, learn the acceptable methods, learn how
audiences become involved in the screen story ... Experiment; be bold, shoot in an
unorthodox fashion! But, first learn the correct way.
The particular path of cinema's evolution has made it especially susceptible to influences from without and within. As an international medium, limited only by a language barrier (appearing long after the movies' establishment and promptly overcome by dubbing and subtitles), film has always been quick to assimilate new cinematic developments as they occur around the world. As an expensive medium, it has generally responded to cultural moods in order to guarantee audience support; at times, it has sought active governmental backing.
The historical nature of American Cinema has made it uniquely vulnerable to influence. Hollywood's early success, the appeal of the United States as a country, and a European political situation that remained unstable from 1914 to 1945 combined to insure that the American film industry would lure many of international cinema's most important figures. Thus actors like Garbo, Jannings, Dietrich, Laughton, Colman, Lamarr, and Negri and directors like Eisenstein, Murnau, Lang, Renoir, Clair, and Pabst all came to Hollywood during the Classic Period, contributing to the melting pot of American Cinema. Innumerable other lesser-known figures—character actors,
cameramen, lighting technicians-arrived during the 1930s, bringing with them the modes of German Expressionism and East European, Soviet-influenced montage and making the American style the closest thing to a truly international cinema. Casablanca's extreme cosmopolitanism is
merely another sign of its representativeness. Indeed, of that movie's principal contributors, only Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and scriptwriter Howard Koch were Americans. A Hungarian director (Curtiz) orchestrated a cast of one Swede (Bergman), one Austrian (Henreid), two Englishmen (Rains and Greenstreet), one German (Veidt), two Hungarians (Lorre and Sakall), one Norwegian (Qualen), one Russian (Kinskey), and one Frenchman (Dalio) to a musical score composed by an Austrian (Steiner).
If Hollywood's eagerness to exploit any available talent made the American cinematic style a composite of influences, the determinedly commercial nature of the U.S. film industry compelled a kind of filmmaking peculiarly responsive to the dominant ideologies of American life. As
Charles Eckert observed,
the industry ... was possibly more exposed to influences emanating from society,
and in particular from its economic base, than any other. To the disruption of
production, distribution and consumption shared by all industries [due to the
Depression] one must add the intense economically determined ideological
pressures that bore upon an industry whose commodities were emotions and ideas. The self-perpetuating nature of Classic Hollywood's forms, however, made American movies a sociological barometer of the subtlest type. Because commercial exigencies forbade radical de-partures from established patterns, significant real-world developments often appeared only in the subtexts of superficially traditional movies (as we will see in Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life,
and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). And often, a brief run of movies offering even these
slight challenges to Classic Hollywood's paradigms would be followed by a longer string in which the old forms reasserted themselves (as in the post-Godfather 1970s with Star Wars, Heaven Can
Wait, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Urban Cowboy).
Nevertheless, the sound era American Cinema has been continuously besieged by internal and external factors demanding modifications of the movies' basic strategies. The briefest outline of those factors would include the following:
1. Technological innovations specific to the cinema (e.g., sound, color, improved lenses and editing facilities, porto-cams)
2. Stylistic innovations (e.g., Citizen Kane's proto-noir foregroundings of normally motivated
stylistics, Italian Neo-Realism's minimal plots and location shooting, the French New Wave's stylistic self-consciousness)
3. Evolving conditions of production, distribution, and consumption: having deliberately abandoned its original artisanal mode, the American film industry has since evolved from an industrial form (marked by high degrees of standardization, vertical and horizontal integration, and centralized production) to a postindustrial form (distinguished by relative diversification, lack of integration, and centralized distribution)
1. Technological developments outside the cinema, particularly television
2. The increasing popularity of other forms of entertainment, particularly popular music and spectator/participant sports
3. Historical events (e.g., the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis)
Given this array of stimuli, Hollywood's stability may seem remarkable. In practice, that
stability rested on the strategy of avoiding sudden saltations for gradual, often imperceptible modulations. Thus, Hollywood typically adopted only diluted versions of stylistic innovations, which it subsequently devitalized or discarded (the fate of most of the borrowings from the French New Wave). Historical crises, on the other hand (the Depression, World War II, the OPEC
embargo), often prompted the most conservative films, as Hollywood sought to fulfill its self-appointed role as public comforter. Inevitably, therefore, most of Hollywood's "new" movies looked like the old ones: Norma Rae, for example, as I suggested in the Introduction, provided no
surprises for someone who had seen Grapes of Wrath forty years earlier.
At times, internal and external influences in concert determined the course of American Cinema. Thus, the beginning of Hollywood's Classic Period saw two key factors converge to encourage a kind of filmmaking that would for the first time draw systematically on a basic American mythology.
The internal factor was sound. Stylistically, sound merely solidified a continuity system that was already highly evolved. In other ways, however, it forced American movies to shed the Vic-torian trappings which the immense influences of Griffith and Chaplin had encouraged in silent film. First, and most obviously, sound revolutionized cinematic acting. It forced a style that was declamatory, grandiose, and abstract to give way to one that was intimate, vernacular, and specific. "You ain't heard nothin' yet" was the perfect opening for the new age, a slangy wisecrack that banished the universalized mime of the silent era—and with it, many of the European actors who
had been playing Americans without being able to speak English. Overnight, merely by the addition of voices, Hollywood films became more American. The movies crackled with the localized inflections that drew an aural map of the United States: Cagney's New Yorkese complementing Cooper's Western laconicism, Hepburn's high-toned Connecticut broad a's
matching Jean Arthur's Texas drawl.
Almost immediately, the movie audience rejected the rhetorical manner of the silent era. Henceforth that style would be available to an actor only as a parodic resource, a way of making fun of "acting" that furthered the illusion of the ongoing performance's realism (John Barrymore's 1934 performance in Twentieth Century as a hammy impresario being the classic instance). More
important, sound and the new indigenous acting style encouraged the flourishing of genres that silence and grandiloquent acting had previously hindered: the musical, the gangster film, the detective story, screwball comedy, and humor that depended on language rather than slapstick (W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West).
Another effect of sound also encouraged the Americanization of Classic Hollywood, albeit indirectly. RCA's and Western Electric's sole control of sound technology and the added expense of producing talkies forced the U.S. film industry, already oligopolistic, into further concentration. Indeed, by 1936, all of Hollywood's major studios had come under the financial control of either the Morgan or Rockefeller interests, a factor that would influence the American Cinema in two ways. First, such concentration clearly led to a homogenized product, fostering Classic Hol-lywood's tactic of working endless variations around a few basic patterns—a tactic further
stimulated by the time pressures involved in producing Classic Hollywood's average of 476 films a year (compared to the 256 per year average of the 1946-1976 period). Second, the financial nature of such control intensified the existing commerciality of the American Cinema, dictating a filmmaking that, for the sake of a regular audience, would consistently deploy the basic ideologies and myths of American culture. The coming of sound, in other words, helped determine two permanent habits of the American Cinema: the tendency to repeat what had worked before, and the inclination, particularly evident during times of financial stress, to return to standard American stories.
Coincidentally, the principal external influences on Classical Hollywood (the Depression and World War II) also encouraged a reformulation of the American Cinema around more traditionally American preoccupations. As perhaps the first significant challenges to American optimism since the Civil War, these two events fostered a moviemaking whose cultural responsiveness revealed itself primarily in displacement and repression. Put simply, the American Cinema was established as escapist. Robert Sklar summarizes the impact of these external factors:
What was different about the movies in the 1930's was not that they were beginning
to communicate myths and dreams—they had done that from the beginning—but
that the moviemakers were aware in a more sophisticated way of their mythmaking
powers, responsibilities and opportunities. Among intellectuals and in centers of
political power, the importance of cultural myths to social stability was a seriously
debated topic. The Depression had shaken some of the oldest and strongest
American cultural myths, particularly the middle-class homilies about the virtues
of deferred gratification and assurance that hard work and perseverance would
bring success...The widespread doubt about traditional American myths threatened
to become a dangerous political weakness. In politics, industry and the media there
were men and women ... who saw the necessity, almost as a patriotic duty, to
revitalize and refashion a cultural mythology.
From the outset, that mythology was deliberately traditional, a reassertion of the most fundamental American beliefs in individualism, ad hoc solutions, and the impermanence of all political problems. "We're in the money," Ginger Rogers sang ironically in The Gold Diggers of
1933, when one-fourth of the civilian labor force was unemployed, the highest percentage in the history of the United States.
The conservative nature of American Cinema's mythological product should not surprise us. "Statistically," Roland Barthes observed, "myth is on the right," for "left-wing myth is inessential."
That nature, however, should alert us to the indirectness of the relationship that American films have consistently maintained with external events. To a great extent, American history's major crises appear in American movies only as "structuring absences"—the unspoken subjects that have
determined an aesthetic form designed precisely to conceal these crises' real implications. As we will see in Casablanca and Ifs a Wonderful Life, the genuine threats posed by World War II to
traditional American ideologies surface only in the cracks of films consciously intended to minimize them. As Sklar observes:
Even satirical movies like the screwball comedies, or socially aware films like the
Grapes of Wrath, were carefully constructed to stay within the bounds of essential
American cultural and political beliefs .... Hollywood's contribution to American
culture was essentially one of affirmation.
Thus, these historical accidents—the arrival of sound, intensifying economic concentration,
and political crisis—resulted in the formation of Classic Hollywood, a cinema whose deliberate evocations of traditional myths effected a new continuity with American culture. Certainly that cinema was never utterly uniform. From the beginning, however, it did display "a certain tendency" that took on both a formal and a thematic pattern. We need now to look more closely at these two patterns, and to observe how both serve the same ideological purpose: the concealment of the necessity for choice.
THE FORMAL PARADIGM-THE INVISIBLE STYLE
Film as a medium, David Thompson has noted, is "intensely decision-based." Each shot results from dozens of choices about such elements as camera placement, lighting, focus, casting, and framing (the components of mise en scene); editing adds the further possibilities inherent in every
shot-to-shot articulation. Not only do things on the screen appear at the expense of others not shown, the manner in which they appear depends on a selection of one perspective that eliminates (at least temporarily) all others.
The American Cinema's formal paradigm, however, developed precisely as a means for concealing these choices. Its ability to do so turned on this style's most basic procedure: the systematic subordination of every cinematic element to the interests of a movie's narrative. Thus, lighting remained unobtrusive, camera angles predominantly at eye-level, framing centered on the principal business of a scene. Similarly, cuts occurred at logical points in the action and dialogue. Certainly there were shots, scenes, and even movies that did not adhere completely to this tactic. The dominance of this procedure, however, insured the commercial failure of those few Classic Period filmmakers who consistently made style itself the center of attention (Sternberg, Welles).
The American Cinema's habitual subordination of style to story encouraged the audience to assume the existence of an implied contract: at any moment in a movie, the audience was to be given the optimum vantage point on what was occurring on screen. Anything important would not only be shown, but shown from the best angle. This contract could be violated only in the rarest moments, particularly in detective stories, where the audience yielded its normal right to omniscience for the sake of the whodunit game. But because these abridgments, too, were deter-mined by narrative necessity, they went unnoticed. Thus, The Maltese Falcon's deliberately tight
framing that conceals Miles Archer's murderer did not shock the audience as a radical departure from the formal paradigm's basic contract.
This tacit guarantee of a constantly optimum vantage point constituted so fundamental a part of Hollywood's stylistic that the best filmmakers, even when working in the detective genre, violated it only surreptitiously. In Psycho, Hitchcock twice used an extreme high angle in order to conceal
the murderer's identity without appearing to do so. "I deliberately placed the camera very high," Hitchock told Truffaut, "so that I could shoot down on top of the mother, because if I had shown her back, it might have looked as if I was deliberately concealing her face and the audience would have been leery. I used that angle in order not to give the impression that I was trying to avoid showing her."
The American Cinema's apparently natural subjection of style to narrative in fact depended on a historical accident: the movies' origins lay in a late nineteenth century whose predominant pop-ular arts were the novel and the theater. Had cinema appeared in the Enlightenment or the Romantic period, it might have assumed the shape of the essay or lyric poem. Instead, it adopted the basic tactic and goal of the realistic novel. Conscious "style" would be effaced both to establish the cinema's illusion of reality and to encourage audience identification with the characters on the screen.
This link between Hollywood's continuity style and the narrative tactics of the nineteenth-century novel has been made most compellingly in English by Noel Burch and the Screen group of writers, particularly Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath. The ideological aspect of this argument (that regards a self-effacing, "realistic" style as the embodiment of bourgeois class interests) descends from Roland Barthes's influential critique of nineteenth-century fiction, Writing Degree Zero. The counterargument to "the Screen position," however, consists in
demonstrating the inappropriateness of the novel-film analogy.
This dissent, couched in Screen's own semiotic language, might begin by insisting that realism
is merely an effect produced by aesthetic conventions to which an audience has grown accustomed. But since the predominantly working-class audience for the first movies differed significantly in its aesthetic "competencies" from the largely middle-class audience for the nineteenth-century realistic novel, the conventions established by this earlier form would have no effect on the film audience.
In fact, however, this exclusively working-class audience was at most a short-lived
phenomenon. Film historians have demonstrated that, from the start, the American movie industry sought to attract the middle-class ticket-buyer. Burch has argued that the industry succeeded in this goal by decisively shifting from the presentational modes of such proleterian forms as vaudeville,
the circus, and magic shows to the representational modes of the bourgeoisie, realistic theater and
fiction. Burch insists that Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler confirms that a cinematic version
of this latter mode was perfected as early as 1922. I would disagree and insist on sound as an indispensable unit of the continuity project. In any case, Hollywood's sound era audience (the audience that concerns me in this book) was clearly no longer exclusively (or even primarily) working-class, and was thus unlikely to have received most of its prior aesthetic "training" from presentational modes.
The counterargument poses a second question: how can we be sure that Classic Hollywood's audiences regarded the movies as "real" when so many contemporary filmgoers (those whom I will later describe as the "ironic audience") have learned to see through the cinematic representation to the aesthetic conventions that produce them? The answer is, of course, that we cannot be sure. Indeed, French psychiatrist Octave Mannoni has warned that we have a persisting need to posit "an other scene" of absolute, untroubled faith, whether that "other scene" be primitive cultures, an epoch's own past, an individual's childhood, or even the bumpkin who interrupts a performance of Julius Caesar by standing to warn the emperor that his enemies are armed. Certainly, film history has its own version of this last "other scene": the accounts of the frightened first audiences for Lumiere's Arrival of a Train at a Station.
Mannoni's two articles, "Je sais bien, mais quand meme…" and "L'illusion comique ou le
theatre du point de vue de l'imaginaire," contain superb discussions of how beliefs in illusions (whether theatrical, religious, or traditional) always rest on a delicate balance of faith and disavowal. Moreover, even after such illusions have been exposed, a former believer retains some version of his old faith, a version expressed in what Mannoni observed to be a common formulation: ―Je sais bien, mais quand meme ... ― That is, "I know very well that this illusion is
only an illusion, but nevertheless, some part of me still believes in it." While Mannoni makes an analogy between this diluted belief and superstition and fetishism, it also seems to approximate precisely the double system of consciousness operating in those moviegoers who "know very well" that onscreen events are not "real" but who "nevertheless" become absorbed in them as if they were.
Just as the transparency (the "realism") of aesthetic conventions depends on their being thoroughly (albeit unconsciously) learned by their audience, the recognition of conventions as conventions also requires learning (or unlearning). Mannoni argues that abandoning a naive faith in a particular illusion typically involves an initiation, a formal process in which the illusion is
systematically and thoroughly exposed. An isolated, unintentional revelation will not normally suffice. In support of this assertion, Mannoni cites a story told by a Hopi boy regarding a rite in which masked figures (Katcina) appear in the village courting the children with gifts whose sole purpose consists in attracting the children so that the Katcina can eat them. In this grisly version of the Santa Claus story, however, the children win: the parents buy back their children with pieces of meat, and the Katcina seal the bargain by offering magically red ears of corn. During an annual Katcina appearance, the boy happened upon his mother dyeing ears of corn the appropriate red. Despite this revelation of the secret of the Katcina (who were the adult males of the tribe), the boy
continued to believe in the illusion until his own proper initiation into the ceremony took place years later.
For film theory, Mannoni's story suggests that any loss of faith in the continuity style as "realistic" would require more than isolated incidental exposures. How are aesthetic conventions systematically exposed as mere convention? I would argue in four ways:
1. When material events consistently contradict the conventions supposedly embodying them. Although I cannot imagine that many ex-prisoners of war would find Stalag 17 or "Hogan's
Heroes" to be accurate portrayals of their own experiences, this mechanism of exposure seems to me to be the least important. Hollywood's formulae, after all, proved able to survive such minor distractions as the Depression and World War II.
2. When a commercial art form, trapped by the apparent need to repeat successful formulae, repeats them so often and so obviously that the audience begins to recognize how much of what once seemed "real" is actually convention. This mechanism of exposure, the development of camp responses, arose in the 1960s and 1970s, at the tail end of Hollywood's genre period. It was unlikely to work during the Studio Years when Hollywood was intent on developing the genres
which still remained relatively fresh.
3. When a consistent pattern of internal self-criticism and self-consciousness foregrounds cinematic mechanisms. This process has never existed systematically in any body of cinema other than the avant-garde. Certainly, Classic Hollywood's films contained few "Godardian" foregroundings of conventions. Comedians occasionally violated certain standard principles of continuity: one thinks of Groucho Marx in Horsefeathers turning to address the camera as brother
Chico began a piano solo: "I've got to stay here, but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing blows over." But such violations were recuperated by being identified precisely as elements of "comedy."
4. When another similar art form intersects obliquely with the medium in question, thereby providing an unexpected exposure of the latter's established procedures. I will discuss this mechanism at some length in my analysis of television's effect on the film audience.
In sum, none of these mechanisms of exposure operated with any real force during Hollywood's Classic Period. Their weakness was furthered by the industry's self-propagated myth of entertainment which forestalled critical examination of the movies' devices.
Mannoni has also proposed that belief in an illusion rests on identification with some element of the illusion—in the case of theater, for example, with the characters. (Here Mannoni clearly depends on Jacques Lacan's notion of "the mirror stage," a term whose relevance for the American Cinema I wish to raise in a later chapter.) Certainly, as we will see, Hollywood's strategies (formal and thematic) consistently urged the spectator to merge himself with the movies' heroes and heroines. Nevertheless, Hollywood cinema's illusion of reality depended on a far more substantial identification with the film's whole diegesis, that nonexistent, fictional space fabricated out of temporal and spatial fragments, which came to seem more rich, interesting, and fully constituted than the actual, material space of the audience's own lives. It was no accident that such different