ALONGSIDE THE real America, there is a mythical America, fabricated by Hollywood and exported worldwide. It has given potent expression to the idea of the "American way", a democratic society characterised by classlessness, individualism and enterprise capitalism. Historians have seen Hollywood in its heyday (1938-60) as the promoter of this uniform and unchanging image. But recently that interpretation has been challenged by scholars who see Hollywood and Americanism as contested terrain, with a dominant racist, sexist and capitalist ideology challenged by alternative visions.
In his thoughtful, stimulating and readable book, Lary May lines up with the revisionists. He argues strongly for an alternative vision in 1930s cinema, a vibrant left-wing alternative that depicts America as working- class, populist and inclusive of women and minorities. The evidence includes the popularity of Will Rogers, the part-Cherokee cowboy philosopher whose 24 films, radio broadcasts and newspaper columns promoted ideas of democratic inclusiveness and multiculturalism. May cites the unionisation of Hollywood by the Screen Actors Guild and the small, modernistic local cinemas of the 1930s as embodiments of the democratic ideal.
Underpinning his argument is an analysis of film plots. In the 1930s, the incidence of businessmen as villains rose from 5 to 20 per cent. Depictions of the rich as evil or dangerous increased from 15 to 60 per cent.
May goes on to argue that the "timeless" image of America emerged only in the Second World War, when big business and the Screen Actors Guild made common cause, social and political criticism were eliminated and films promoted class consensus, patriotism and the sanctity of family and home. This conservatism was reinforced after the war, during the anti- Communist crusade, when John Wayne replaced Will Rogers as the symbol of Americanism.
May claims that those liberals who survived - he focuses in particular on John Huston and Billy Wilder - turned to the crime film to express criticism of society. A new generation of young stars (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe) made films that articulated youthful discontent. …