- Hollywood Follies of 1938
A small anecdote . . . in the weeks leading up to writing this review, I carried Catherine Jurca’s book with me in my everyday forays around New York City. Thus I had it with me when I popped into the local Italian fresh-pasta shop that is one of my go-to places for dinner items. (For the record, I would have been reading the book anyway even if I were not reviewing it: it is on a period in film history that interests me greatly, by an author whose previous writings I have taken intellectual profit from. And I might note that it is written in a compelling and stylish way that, even as it asserts its rigorous, historically consequential points, makes it a pleasure to dip into on subways and the like.)
The friendly woman at the cash register took in the book’s title and smiled with nostalgic, even wistful fondness: “Ah, Hollywood 1938. Casablanca, right?” “Nope,” I explained to her, “that was 1942.” She came back with a next guess, a little closer but still not correct: “The Grapes of Wrath” (that one, actually, was from 1940). I explained that Jurca’s title was deliberately provocative and easily inspired that sort of guessing game that the cashier had been playing in which we want to think back lovingly on the great works from one of the greatest forms of American culture. (For what it is worth, some of the key films of 1938 that Jurca deals with are Boys Town, Algiers, You Can’t Take It with You, and the now-forgotten but then big box-office hit Four Daughters.)
It is easy to empathize with the pasta seller’s blurring of film dates. On the one hand, Hollywood movies in the classic studio era were often intended to be timeless (even when nominally they dealt with timely events like the Depression [Grapes of Wrath] or World War II [Casablanca]): across the decades, the thousands of films that emerged from the entertainment factories of Los Angeles merge together—even as some stand out as memorable classics—into one huge act of escapism that floats above historical rootedness in a manner that could make the dating of individual films seem to not matter all that much. [End Page 245]
On the other hand, much of the provocation in Jurca’s title has to do with the ways it itself deliberately confuses matters: 1938 as motion pictures’ greatest year?!? The professional film historian might wonder at first if this is not a printing error, and the well-versed movie fan might well join in to insist that it is traditionally 1939—the year of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, Ninotchka, and Wuthering Heights (among many others)—that is felt to represent Hollywood quality production at its peak (as Wikipedia’s page for the year 1939 in film declares, it is commonly considered the “most outstanding one ever”).
Within the first few pages of her rich and fascinating study, Jurca corrects the confusion and clarifies the deliberate irony of her title. The year 1938 was in fact not a great one for Hollywood (whether in terms of box office, notoriety of many of the films made then, or the very stability of the industry itself—which was undergoing a series of institutional threats, legal, political, and judicial), and the idea of “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year” turns out to be the slogan that Hollywood bigwigs came up with when they decided to launch a massive PR campaign to shore up their flagging business.
By 1938 industry executives had to come to grips with the sheer fact that many individual movies—and even the general ritual of moviegoing per se as the hitherto key popular cultural activity of the times—were no longer connecting with the public. There were resonant rivals on the entertainment scene: some of the most intriguing pages of Jurca’s book have to do with...