- Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America
Why did so many Americans come to conceive of themselves as being “middle class”? Steven J. Ross argues that they saw themselves that way in the movies. Early 20th-century silent films showed working-class audiences how they might understand their own lives, and in doing so, represented battlegrounds for public understandings of labor, capital, and class. [End Page 183]
The first half of Working-Class Hollywood demonstrates that, in the years before World War I, silent films often portrayed working-class life in a sympathetic manner. In addition, filmmakers depicted organized labor’s struggles from a surprising array of viewpoints. While some films had an anti-union perspective, many had liberal and even radical, anti-authoritarian, or populist sentiments. Ross argues that filmmakers, many themselves immigrants, women, or former blue-collar workers, often took the workers’ side because they shared similar experiences. Moreover, they could afford to do so because they filled a constant demand for films from distributors and exhibitors who rarely worried about a movie’s politics.
Ross convincingly demonstrates that movies were nonetheless regarded as an important medium for “shaping public consciousness.” (82) Many groups took advantage of film-making’s low cost and relative simplicity to produce movies advocating their perspectives. Unionists in particular (“worker filmmakers”) used movies to promote the labor movement and radical politics. Journalist and labor organizer Frank E. Wolfe, for example, turned to film-making to spread the message of class struggle. His films did so by employing the tropes of less-political movies; his epic From Dusk to Dawn (1913) blended a conventional love story with images of workplace struggles and Socialist politics. In contrast to common depictions of strikes as irrational and violent, “worker filmmakers” portrayed labor agitation as thoughtful, calm, and thoroughly justified. Making movies, however, was only half the battle. Existing means of distribution and exhibition were closed to “worker filmmakers,” so they established their own distribution networks, often marketing their movies state by state or establishing their own theaters. Even when these films found exhibitors, local censors often demanded that movies depicting strikes and labor conflict be edited or banned entirely. The opposition that these films generated, Ross suggests, indicated the power that movies were believed to have to shape thoughts and perceptions.
The second half of Working-Class Hollywood shows that movies produced after 1917 became substantially more conservative. Here, Ross links changes in the content of films with changes in the political and economic climate for film-making. Hollywood studios consolidated film production, making more elaborate movies that often featured highly-paid stars. The resulting increased cost of film-making led Hollywood to exercise more caution in its movies’ content. In addition, in the context of the post-World War I “Red Scare,” the federal government expressed greater concern that films not promote Socialist or even pro-labor ideas. As a result, Hollywood films about labor and capital less often supported labor. In early 1920s movies, workers who went on strike were not seen as protesting legitimate grievances, but were instead duped by pernicious Bolshevik leaders.
Worker-made films of the 1920s sought to challenge these negative views of labor but faced even greater obstacles than in earlier years. While labor organizations established their own film studios, they struggled to raise money to finance their productions and to find outlets for their films, and ultimately failed to overcome Hollywood’s ideological dominance. In contrast, Hollywood movies of the 1920s helped blur the lines of class. The “cross class fantasies” coming out of the studio system emphasized class harmony. In addition, film-going itself could be a cross-class experience; anyone who could afford it could go to the movies and [End Page 184] share the same experience. While some might suggest that audiences received the movies that they wanted, Ross argues that audiences had little choice. The economic and political structure of film-making and film distribution gave them few...