Academic journal article The Space Between

Artists in Hollywood: Thomas Hart Benton and Nathanael West Picture America's Dream Dump

Academic journal article The Space Between

Artists in Hollywood: Thomas Hart Benton and Nathanael West Picture America's Dream Dump

Article excerpt

In the late 1930s two American artists, one a popular painter and the other a struggling novelist, depicted Hollywood in different yet related projects. Thomas Hart Benton's mural-sized painting Hollywood (1937-38) was intended, the artist remarked, to show that the movie industry was "predominantly an economically conditioned Art" (Color plate 1). As Benton wrote in "Hollywood Journey," a short essay describing the month he spent sketching Southern California's movie studios:

The movie Art is not only a business but a business expression. It speaks in by and through the patterns of the American business mind. It is go-getter, optimistic, sentimental, politically conservative. It sings and clowns in Rotary Club fashion, and romances with a high regard for the status quo in everything. (Benton, "Hollywood Journey").1

In his satirical novel The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West similarly framed Tinseltown as an industry run by "damn good business men" who despite being "intellectual stumblebums" had a "strangle hold" over the movies. From its assembly-line production system to the orchestrated riots of its movie premieres, Hollywood's "dream factory," West elaborated, was determinedly-and destructively-a "picture business" (Locust 253, 255).

Both artists were well aware of Hollywood's preferred and repeatedly self-promoted image as a "leisure utopia" of big-name stars and luxurious mansions (May, Screening 167). Likewise, both realized the popular and powerful national fantasy of "making it" in the movies as the pinnacle of the American Dream. As writer Ruth Suckow observed in a perceptive 1936 Harper's article titled "Hollywood Gods and Goddesses":

The stories of The Stars, told over and over in those curious Hollywood addenda, the fan magazines, follow the national fairy tale: the overnight rise to fame and material wealth, to social opulence, with Sex and Beauty in headline type, all turned out in mass quantities with great technical smoothness and ingenuity by machinery. (189)

While sex and "The Stars" are hardly absent in Hollywood and The Day of the Locust, Benton and West focused on the figures behind the silver screen: the industry's mostly anonymous labor force of set designers, screenwriters, camera operators, aspiring actors, and assistant directors. They also sketched the needy, greedy, and angry mobs lured to Los Angeles by the dream factory's promises of fame and fortune. Hollywood, West declared, was actually America's "dream dump": a vast junkyard littered with human detritus, the "savage and bitter" crowds who "realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment" (Locust 326, 380-81).

By the late 1930s, these sorts of mass culture critiques were not unique. Since the teens, when Los Angeles emerged as the capital of the US motion picture industry, social theorists, behavioral psychologists, visual artists, and fiction writers repeatedly interrogated Hollywood, both the place and its products, as a "hyperbolic symbol of an increasingly powerful culture industry that was seen as both a source of collective fantasy and an apparatus of mass deception" (Springer 21). In his 1919 article "The Breadline and the Movies," economist Thorstein Veblen derided the movie industry as a bourgeois instrument of social control, an entertainment machine that produced and distributed ninety-minute bread and circus distractions for modern times (qtd. in Mitchell 60).2 In their 1929 study Middletown, social theorists Robert and Helen Lynd argued that the movies, and the ways they were marketed and consumed, had wreacked havoc with "traditional" patterns of American family life, religious attendance, and political participation (263-69).

As movies increasingly dominated American national consciousness, interwar writers including Harry Leon Wilson (whose comic novel Merton of the Movies was published in 1922), Stella Perry (Extra Girl, 1929), Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They? …

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