Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American

Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American

Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American

Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American


As Americans flocked to the movies during the first part of the twentieth century, the guardians of culture grew worried about their diminishing influence on American art, education, and American identity itself. Meanwhile, Hollywood studio heads were eager to stabilize their industry, solidify their place in mainstream society, and expand their new but tenuous hold on American popular culture.

Peter Decherney explores how these needs coalesced and led to the development of a symbiotic relationship between the film industry and America's stewards of high culture. Formed during Hollywood's Golden Age (1915-1960), this unlikely partnership ultimately insured prominent places in American culture for both the movie industry and elite cultural institutions. It redefined Hollywood as an ideal American industry; it made movies an art form instead of simply entertainment for the masses; and it made moviegoing a vital civic institution. For their part, museums and universities used films to maintain their position as quintessential American institutions.

As the book delves into the ties between Hollywood bigwigs and various cultural leaders, an intriguing cast of characters emerges, including the poet Vachel Lindsay, film producers Adolph Zukor and Joseph Kennedy, Hollywood flak and censor extraordinaire Will Hays, and philanthropist turned politician Nelson Rockefeller. Decherney considers how Columbia University's film studies program helped integrate Jewish students into American culture while also professionalizing screenwriting. He examines MoMA's career-savvy film curator Iris Barry, a British feminist once dedicated to stemming the tide of U. S. cultural imperialism, who ultimately worked with Hollywood and the U. S. government to fight fascism and communism and promote American values abroad. Other chapters explore Vachel Lindsay's progressive vision of movies as reinvigorating the public sphere through film libraries and museums; the promotion of movie connoisseurship at Harvard and other universities; and how the heir of a railroad magnate bankrolled the American avant-garde film movement.

Amid ethnic diversity, the rise of mass entertainment, world war, and the global spread of American culture, Hollywood and cultural institutions worked together to insure their own survival and profitability and to provide a coherent, though shifting, American identity.


To discuss hollywood film as art is already to fall into a trap. Not because film isn’t art, whatever that may be. the trap is, rather, to think that if film is art it somehow exceeds or is opposed to commerce and politics. On the contrary, what has been seen as the gradual acceptance of film as art since the 1910s is in fact the product of political and commercial brokering between Hollywood producers, on the one hand, and museum curators, university professors, and government officials on the other. Film didn’t become art until Hollywood moguls decided it was good business for film to become art and the leaders of American cultural institutions found it useful—politically useful—to embrace and promote Hollywood film.

At pivotal moments in Hollywood’s development, defining film as art has served some very different and often surprising management goals for movie moguls, including postponing the unionization of filmmaking talent and transforming Hollywood films into effective war propaganda. But Hollywood producers and their marketing departments were in no position . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.