Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture

By Chris RobÉ | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Taking Hollywood Back
GENDERED HISTORIES OF THE
HOLLYWOOD COSTUME DRAMA,
THE BIOPIC, AND JEAN RENOIR’S
La Marseillaise

As we have seen, U.S. Left film criticism had coalesced around an antifascist and antilynching Popular Front stance by 1936. A few remaining radical Left film theorists sourly noted the changes taking place in film criticism—changes that seemed to lead to a lack of ideological rigor. In a 1936 article entitled “The Bankruptcy of Cinema as Art,” Seymour Stern, a key critic in defending ¡Que Viva México! remarks on how many of his colleagues had compromised their critical faculties by celebrating certain Hollywood films as an advance in film form: “It is the fashion nowadays, especially among the young intellectuals who write for the liberal magazines, to temporize agreeably with current film production, and they have even managed to discover a number of self-styled ‘classics’ in the course of their new rapport with the industry … But the acclaim … pictures receive from the intellectuals is painful evidence of the laxness and vaguemindedness of U.S. film criticism.”1

Criticisms such as these, however, were becoming increasingly rare among U.S. Left film theorists and critics by 1936. Rather than seeing Left film criticism as having sold out to the commercial mandates of Hollywood, newer critics felt that Hollywood itself was growing more receptive to Left cultural practices because of the increasing number of liberal film workers, the growing power of audience organizations that demanded socially conscious films, and the willingness of producers like Walter Wanger and Darryl Zanuck and studios like Warner Bros. to produce progressive films (see the introduction for a full discussion of these developments). Radical theorists like Stern saw the Popular Front shift in Left film criticism as part of the Left’s ongoing failure to create a viable alternative radical film culture in the United States, a failure emblematized by the wreckage of ¡Que Viva México! Although middecade Left film critics were well aware of the ¡Que Viva México! fiasco, they underplayed its significance by instead examining how the denial of a radical film movement had trained their sights upon Hollywood and its films. As Margaret Thorp wrote in 1939: “The [Hollywood] industry delights to win the approval of the

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