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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 381-387

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Working-Class Movies

Andrew Brodie Smith

Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. By Steven J. Ross. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. 367 pages. $35.00 (cloth). $16.95 (paper).

The relationship between social class and the silent cinema in the United States has been a perennial issue in film scholarship. Stephen J. Ross's Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America is the latest contribution to the subject and its most systematic study to date. As a labor historian, Ross brings a subtle grasp of the history of class relations in the United States to the topic. Using archival sources that cinema historians have largely ignored, such as labor newspapers and the proceedings and papers from working-class organizations, Ross has rediscovered a group of radical filmmakers from the silent era. Unfortunately, in placing their stories into context, he sometimes overstates the extent to which the motion-picture industry before World War I helped to foster an oppositional working-class culture and politics.

Ross divides his study into three periods: 1905-1917; 1917-1922; and 1923-1929. In order to determine the relative sympathy that the American screen betrayed towards working-class politics, he calculates the number of "labor-capital" films that appeared within each period. Ross defines labor-capital films as those "highly polemical" productions that dealt with "struggles among unions, strikers, capitalists, police, and government troops" (57). He further breaks down such [End Page 381] films according to their ideological perspective and concludes that while labor-capital films with liberal and radical points of view were fairly common between 1905 and 1917, they had virtually disappeared from the screen by the mid-1920s. Ross identifies four historical developments that led to this change: the vertical integration of the industry and its increasingly "big-business" character; mounting public concern about the threat of Communism; pressure on filmmakers from federal agencies and state censors; and increased labor militancy both within the industry and outside of it.

The move away from labor-capital films on the part of mainstream motion-picture producers really serves as a backdrop against which Ross narrates another, much more engrossing story, that of the production and distribution of radical motion pictures by people outside the dominant industry. Ross calls this historical phenomenon a "working-class film movement" and describes its pre-World War I manifestation as "a fragmented quest that reached the screen on a sporadic basis" rather than "a well-coordinated, well-funded national campaign" (87). He dates its beginning at around 1911, when workers and activists reacted to the onslaught of anti-labor and anti-union films being put out by the motion-picture patent trust.

To characterize the movement during the pre-war period, Ross recounts the production and distribution of three worker-made features: A Martyr to His Cause (1911), an AFL propaganda film made to defend the McNamara brothers who were on trial for bombing the Los Angeles Times building; From Dusk to Dawn (1913), a motion picture by labor activist Frank E. Wolfe that combined studio-produced scenes with documentary footage of slums, strikes, and the speeches of labor leaders; and What is to be Done? (1914), a melodrama by socialist actor Joseph Leon Weiss about the Ludlow (Colorado) Massacre. At this time, filmmakers could produce motion pictures for a relatively modest amount of money. However, getting them distributed was more difficult. The structure of the film distribution system in America in the 1910s was such that exchanges sent weekly programs to theaters without giving individual managers a lot of choice as to what they received. State and municipal censorship boards also made it difficult to get radical films shown in some places. The AFL could rely on local unions to arrange screenings for A Martyr to his Cause, but Wolfe and Weiss found things more difficult. Wolfe opened up his own sales offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York and spent months on [End Page 382] the road trying to convince exhibitors to show...


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