Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American

By Catapano, Peter | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview
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Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American


Catapano, Peter, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American Peter Decherney. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Hollywood and the Culture Elite is an ambitious attempt to describe the process by which the "movies" came to be accepted by the traditional mandarins of high culture. There is no arguing with Peter Decherney's assertion that the creation of film programs by museums and universities during the 1920s and 1930s represents an acceptance of the medium as an art. However, his argument that the cultural elite self-consciously with the active participation of Hollywood attempted to define the movies as an essential American form of self-expression is less convincing.

Decherney begins this book by overstating both the role of Hollywood in the development of film art during the 1910s and 1920s and the closeness of the relationship of the "culture elite" to the industry. According to Decherney, "film didn't become art until Hollywood decided it was good business for film to become art and the leaders of American cultural institutions found it useful ... to embrace and promote Hollywood film" (3). As Decherney himself argues quite well in his first two chapters, universities and museums did begin to discuss the artistic qualities of moving pictures before World War I. Vachel Lindsay's seminal work of film theory, The Art of the Moving Picture, was first published in 1915, the same year the Columbia University creates its first extension courses on film. However, both events are independent of "Hollywood," for many reasons. For one, there is no "Hollywood" during the early silent period. The Edison Trust still controlled an industry that was still largely located in New York and other eastern cities. Unless, Decherney may mean to use "Hollywood" as a synonym for the movie industry, but it obscures the historical development of the studio that only in retrospect seem inevitable.

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