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Blue-Collar Hollywood

Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film

John Bodnar

Publication Year: 2003

From Tom Joad to Norma Rae to Spike Lee's Mookie in Do the Right Thing, Hollywood has regularly dramatized the lives and struggles of working people in America. Ranging from idealistic to hopeless, from sympathetic to condescending, these portrayals confronted audiences with the vital economic, social, and political issues of their times while providing a diversion—sometimes entertaining, sometimes provocative—from the realities of their own lives. In Blue-Collar Hollywood, John Bodnar examines the ways in which popular American films made between the 1930s and the 1980s depicted working-class characters, comparing these cinematic representations with the aspirations of ordinary Americans and the promises made to them by the country's political elites. Based on close and imaginative viewings of dozens of films from every genre—among them Public Enemy, Black Fury, Baby Face, The Grapes of Wrath, It's a Wonderful Life, I Married a Communist, A Streetcar Named Desire, Peyton Place, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Coal Miner's Daughter, and Boyz N the Hood—this book explores such topics as the role of censorship, attitudes toward labor unions and worker militancy, racism, the place of women in the workforce and society, communism and the Hollywood blacklist, and faith in liberal democracy. Whether made during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, or the Vietnam era, the majority of films about ordinary working Americans, Bodnar finds, avoided endorsing specific political programs, radical economic reform, or overtly reactionary positions. Instead, these movies were infused with the same current of liberalism and popular notion of democracy that flow through the American imagination.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi

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pp. xiii-xiv

About ten years ago I concluded that the teaching and reading I did on twentieth-century America involved two important topics that were seldom joined. Political history and cultural history—especially the impact of mass culture—were key ways of discussing modern America, but they did not appear to take substantial note of each other. One thought ...

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Introduction: Mass Culture and American Political Traditions

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pp. xv-xxxiv

The images are familiar to millions of Americans: Tom Powers chasing power and money at all costs in Public Enemy; Stella Dallas suffering for her ambition; Tom Joad going off to fight for social justice in The Grapes of Wrath; the “fighting Sullivans” eagerly defending their nation in World War II; Stanley Kowalski beating his wife; Norma Rae rallying downtrodden ...

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ONE: Political Cross-dressing in the Thirties

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pp. 1-54

In the face of the massive economic disruptions of the 1930s, both Hollywood and political organizations scrambled to articulate versions of American liberal and democratic creeds that would win adherents, but they did not do so in the same way. Hollywood never mounted a strong defense of union power in the decade; the working people on the screen were seldom the committed labor activists or the determined strikers found on ...

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TWO: The People’s War

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pp. 55-86

The ideal of unity was articulated everywhere during World War II. The reasons were obvious: a massive military conflict on two fronts demanded that personal and group interests of any kind be minimized for the sake of a collective effort to win the war. The United States had to stand united if it was to remain standing at all. And the administration ...

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THREE: War and Peace at Home

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pp. 87-132

It comes as no surprise to learn that the sentimental overlay on American culture did not survive the war. Never far from the surface, realistic portrayals of ordinary individuals and the social life of common people returned with a vengeance once the pressure of wartime conformity had subsided. This meant that liberalism and illiberalism again contested representations of democracy on a widespread basis as they had in the ...

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FOUR: Beyond Containment in the Fifties

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pp. 133-176

Historians have debated the political and cultural aspects of the 1950s intensely. Most acknowledge the creation of a powerful political consensus aimed in a broad sense at stemming the spread of communism in the world. This was a period in which political figures like Senator Joseph McCarthy appealed to the “hyperpatriotism” of many Americans and gained some political advantage by conducting searches for communist ...

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FIVE: The People in Turmoil

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pp. 177-218

Although Americans moved in various political directions in the thirties, forties, and fifties, there was always a master plan that sought to push the expression of democracy and liberalism in some directions and not others and to limit the full exposition of personal desire in political debates. Since political life in these decades tended to emphasize the ...

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Liberalism at the Movies: A Conclusion

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pp. 219-228

A vast array of working-class types moved across the Hollywood screen in the half-century after 1930. In every decade, the American cinema constructed plebeian figures that allowed audiences to think about vital issues of their times and explore a range of possible identities and fates. It is true that these films almost never celebrated the labor radical or the power of the militant union, and it took Hollywood too long to break free ...


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pp. 229-256


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pp. 257-276


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pp. 277-284

E-ISBN-13: 9780801888717
E-ISBN-10: 0801888719
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801885372
Print-ISBN-10: 080188537X

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 13 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2003