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Edna Ferber's Hollywood

American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History

By J. E. Smyth

Publication Year: 2010

Edna Ferber’s Hollywood reveals one of the most influential artistic relationships of the twentieth century—the four-decade partnership between historical novelist Edna Ferber and the Hollywood studios. Ferber was one of America’s most controversial popular historians, a writer whose uniquely feminist, multiracial view of the national past deliberately clashed with traditional narratives of white masculine power. Hollywood paid premium sums to adapt her novels, creating some of the most memorable films of the studio era—among them Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant. Her historical fiction resonated with Hollywood’s interest in prestigious historical filmmaking aimed principally, but not exclusively, at female audiences. In Edna Ferber’s Hollywood, J. E. Smyth explores the research, writing, marketing, reception, and production histories of Hollywood’s Ferber franchise. Smyth tracks Ferber’s working relationships with Samuel Goldwyn, Leland Hayward, George Stevens, and James Dean; her landmark contract negotiations with Warner Bros.; and the controversies surrounding Giant’s critique of Jim-Crow Texas. But Edna Ferber’s Hollywood is also the study of the historical vision of an American outsider—a woman, a Jew, a novelist with few literary pretensions, an unashamed middlebrow who challenged the prescribed boundaries among gender, race, history, and fiction. In a masterful film and literary history, Smyth explores how Ferber’s work helped shape Hollywood’s attitude toward the American past.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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p. i

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ii-iv


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p. v

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pp. vii-xi

Among the literary giants of early twentieth-century America whose works were adapted into Hollywood movies, few, if any, cut a larger figure than Edna Ferber. From her breakthrough success in 1924 with the best-selling Pulitzer Prize–winning novel So Big, which became a major motion picture that same year, to the pinnacle of her career with Giant three ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

The British Academy funded my research in Madison, Los Angeles, Boston, and Austin, and I would like to thank the board for its early support of this book. I am also indebted to Harry Miller of the State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, for his help locating material in the massive United Artists Collection and Ferber’s extensive papers. Special thanks are due to the ...

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1. Edna Ferber’s America and the Fictions of History

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pp. 3-30

Edna Ferber wrote vividly of the first time she saw a film: “It was in 1897 that I glimpsed the first faint flicker of that form of entertainment which was to encircle the world with a silver sheet. We all went to see the newfangled thing called the animatograph,” she recalled. “It was hard on the eyes, what with a constant flicker and a shower of dancing black and white spots over everything.

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2. The Life of an Unknown Woman: So Big, 1923–1953

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pp. 31-69

In 1924, when Edna Ferber published So Big, she was one of America’s most successful serial fiction writers. Her modern stories of divorced mother and midwestern saleswoman Emma McChesney had made her a household name among female readers. She published her first novel in 1911, and a few years later sold the semiautobiographical Fanny Herself (1917) to Universal Studios. In 1920, she wrote her ...

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3. Making Believe: Show Boat, Race, and Romance, 1925–1957

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pp. 71-111

Show Boat is perhaps Ferber’s best-known work of historical fiction, but ironically, most Americans remember the Oscar Hammerstein–Jerome Kern musical adaptation rather than Ferber’s original text.1 Apart from selling Florenz Ziegfeld the musical rights to her novel in 1926, Ferber had no role in the creation of the libretto, but because of her business foresight, her name would ...

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4. Marking the Boundaries of Classical Hollywood’s Rise and Fall: Cimarron, 1928–1961

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pp. 113-151

Ferber reflected once, “I have always thought that a writing style should be impossible of sex determination. I don’t think the reader should be able to say whether a book has been written by a man or a woman.”1 She was proud that her novels “could never be designated as feminine writing in theme, characterization, style or attack. They were written by a cerebral human being who ...

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5. Writing for Hollywood: Come and Get It and Saratoga Trunk, 1933–1947

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pp. 153-189

Although Ferber’s next novel, American Beauty (1931), had sold well and received good reviews, it was not a best seller. Her portrait of cultural decay in New England was not a popular theme during the early 1930s, when so much of America was mired in a massive economic depression. The studios avoided purchasing it. While film adaptations of her series ...

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6. Jim Crow, Jett Rink, and James Dean: Reconstructing Giant, 1952–1957

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pp. 191-228

In December 1954, Edna Ferber wrote to director George Stevens, emphasizing her continued interest in his production of her latest book, Giant. She believed that Giant’s value lay in its exposure of racial prejudice against Mexican Americans in Texas, and that its racial themes had become “more vital, more prevalent today in the United States than . . . when I began to write the novel.”1 Ferber hoped that one ...

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7. The New Nationalism: Ice Palace, 1954–1960

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pp. 229-266

Even as her unofficial tenure ended as Giant’s script vetter and production assistant, Edna Ferber was in the midst of two more frontier dramas. Cimarron was nearly thirty years old, and MGM was remaking RKO’s masterpiece. Ferber had nothing but contempt for MGM, but realizing that she could do nothing to stop the latest remake of her work, she simply ignored the studio’s letters asking ...


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pp. 267-303

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 305-324


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pp. 325-337

E-ISBN-13: 9780292793392
E-ISBN-10: 0292793391
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292719842
Print-ISBN-10: 0292719841

Page Count: 351
Illustrations: 40 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 560663742
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Edna Ferber's Hollywood

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Ferber, Edna, 1887-1968 -- Knowledge -- Motion picture industry.
  • Historical fiction, American -- Film and video adaptations.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Racism in literature.
  • Sex role in literature
  • Ferber, Edna, 1887-1968 -- Film and video adaptations.
  • Women in the motion picture industry -- United States.
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