Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film
Publication Year: 2003
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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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 ...
Introduction: Mass Culture and American Political Traditions
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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 ...
ONE: Political Cross-dressing in the Thirties
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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 ...
TWO: The People’s War
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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 ...
THREE: War and Peace at Home
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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 ...
FOUR: Beyond Containment in the Fifties
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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 ...
FIVE: The People in Turmoil
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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 ...
Liberalism at the Movies: A Conclusion
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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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Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 13 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2003