HOLLYWOOD CINEMA. 2ND ED. Richard Maltby. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 696 pp.
Hollywood Cinema, by Richard Maltby is three books in one. And it would be the best of all possible worlds if, like a Stephen King serial novel, Maltby's book were available in installments. The most useful and insightful volumes, in that case, would surely be the one that provides an overview of film history and the one that addresses criticism and theory. Maltby stakes out his ground clearly, claiming a preference for viewing film production and history through the lens of economic theory; he ably sticks to his guns. This is a great aid to understanding his arguments.
When considering film history, the author, refreshingly, does not offer another version of the star system. The subtext of his argument is that traditional histories, which argue that the industry has been moved forward under the direction of either the tyrant or the star (often in the same skin), are flawed. Rather, taking economics as the driving force of film history, the author makes his case that film quickly became partner of big business, especially during the Great Depression, when banks called in their loans and so became co-owners of the studios. Once that partnership occurred, the film industry became less the product of glove manufacturers and sidewalk peddlers, which Maltby maintains was always a fiction supported by the industry for entertainment purposes, and more the product of financial and corporate power brokers.
While this is an unconventional approach to film history, it makes for an altogether fresh view, even if it is less entertaining, for obvious reasons, than a mainstream approach that amounts simply to piling up more amusing stories about Carl Laemmle and Samuel Goldwyn. However, Maltby points out that it was still quite early in Hollywood's development that much of the tangible value of the motion picture industry lay in its ownership and control of real estate. It wasn't for nothing that the film industry thrived in the warm embrace of the California land rush of the early twentieth century.
From his unique and insightful economic perch, Maltby approaches another familiar touchstone, the huge turning point in film history when the Supreme Court intervened in the monopoly the studios maintained overproduction, distribution, and theater ownership. It wasn't merely the end of an era, according to Maltby, it was the beginning of the modern one. Maltby argues that it was this decision, in 1948, which paved the way for a modern corporate approach to filmmaking and gave birth, ultimately and paradoxically, to what is now loosely called, "the independent film." Of course, with smaller companies continually being swallowed whole by larger ones (Miramax and Disney, Artisan and Lion's Gate, to name two such acquisitions), the concept of a true independent is constantly changing, and so one cannot easily dismiss a theorist who wants to use "dominant culture theory" to explain the film industry.
While Maltby's critique of filmmaking as a capitalistic enterprise is a welcome change for filmmakers, it might surprise him to know that his book could well find a great welcome in the studios' corporate suites. For Maltby's extensive use of economic charts and breakdowns-of audiences, releases by genre, box office income, etc.-are undoubtedly the stuff upon which many a production decision is made. One cannot assume that an economic critique will be misunderstood in Hollywood, but it might be dismissed. As Maltby would point out, it serves the gatekeepers' interests to maintain the illusion of the "man behind the curtain," the illusion that the industry is run by rotund men smoking large cigars and making decisions from the gut, rather than acknowledge the sleek economic precision with which productions are given the creative green light.
Another of Maltby's strengths is his explanation of genre. Occasionally, he approaches a film and offers a straightforward critique of his own, explaining how the film fits within its genre and how it has moved the art of storytelling along. …