Academic journal article African American Review

Burbanking Bigger and Bette the Bitch

Academic journal article African American Review

Burbanking Bigger and Bette the Bitch

Article excerpt

It surprises no one that Native Son (1940) was not adapted to film by Warner Brothers Studio. In fact, an analysis of the novel's rejection by Hollywood may seem an exercise in the obvious: Hollywood studios of the studio era (1928-1948) were oligopolies invested in producing conservative films thought to be universally consumable. Richard Wright's novel, a fierce critique of the bloody consequences of white racism, seems hardly the kind of pre-sold property Hollywood was looking for. But rather than accept studio racism as given, I wish here to begin to pry it apart--to interrogate the lesser-known industrial practices that worked to create the well-known industrial product. Through an analysis of studio archival records, I will examine one adaptation strategy widely employed by studio story departments, the custom of "Burbanking," to argue that this strategy had the effect of racializing studio narrative as white.

David Bordwell has shown that the narrative logic of classical Hollywood cinema centers on the psychology and actions of a protagonist who responds to conflict through a chain of cause-and-effect events ("Story Causality" 13-23). The story is generally incited by a temporary threat to social order (an injustice, a crime, a misunderstanding) perpetrated by an inappropriately self-interested antagonist; the story progresses through the actions that the protagonist takes to thwart the antagonist to restore social order. When the studios chose to purchase an existing story, that story would be adapted to this narrative model to a greater or lesser degree. As Nick Roddick has argued about Warner Brothers film production in the 1930s, "a standard code of practice was adopted in terms of decision-taking, planning, scripting, shooting, editing, publicity, and release. This necessarily involved fitting the variable story material into as regular a narrative pattern and cinematic style as possible, with the crux of the plot ... illuminated through a central character...." (254) If a purchased story presented as this central character's problem a corrupt social order, Hollywood would often resituate the corruption within a single individual preferring to critique "bad seeds" over bad systems. Because the Warner Brothers West Coast office was in Burbank, California, and this self-styled studio of "social conscience" was particularly fond of this kind of narrative adaptation, the trade newspaper Variety dubbed the practice "Burbanking." As Roddick and Tino Balio have argued, Burbanking had the conservative effect of maintaining current social order because injustice was portrayed as a result of individual villainy that would likely succumb to individual heroism (Balio 281). I would add more specifically that this adaptation practice, which functioned as an ideological narrative technology, rendered black protagonists unrepresentable in studio era film.

James Snead wrote that in "all Hollywood film portrayals of blacks ... the political is never far from the sexual, for it is both as a political and as a sexual threat that the black skin appears on screen" (8). Of course, the disappearance of black skin from the screen had its political and sexual effects as well: conservative studio era film cannot help but be marked by the radical race narratives that it attempts to suppress.

To demonstrate this point, I first examine the reaction of the Warner Brothers story department to Native Son and to Ann Petry's novel The Street (1946), to argue that it was the narrative ideal of Burbanking that made these novels unadaptable to Hollywood film. Next, I analyze a novel that the studio did see fit to adapt, Ellen Glasgow's Pulitzer Prizewinning In This Our Life (1941). Like Native Son, In This Our Life features a black male chauffeur who is accused of murder and a young white woman determined to disregard social restraints on her sexual behavior. I show that Glasgow's novel was ripe for studio consumption because it was, in a sense, always already Burbanked by the author herself. …

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