Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Stardom (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- p. 86
- Additional Information
Book Reviews | Regular Feature In an interesting fashion, Munby traces the gangster films of this era and their relationship to first the advent of the Production code in the 1930s and then to the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities inquisitions from 1947 to 1953. Whereas theorists typically look to discover common thematic and visual elements to define the unifying parameters ofa given genre, Munby instead concentrates on, what he argues, are the dramatic ways gangster films changed from their early talkie versions to their later cold war incarnations. The first half of Public Enemies, Public Heroes focuses on the ways early talking gangster photodramas were a kind offilmic response to post-Wall Street CrashAmerica from the vantage point of the ethnic urban working class. In these chapters, Munby effectively explores how the early gangster screenplays, in alarmingAmerica 's moral watchdogs, played a large role in the forming of the Motion Picture Association ofAmerica's Production Code Administration (MPAA/PCA) and its subsequent efforts to police the content of gangster films. In the book's second half, Munby artfully explores the mutations in gangster films in relation to the cultural changes brought on by World War Two, convincingly concluding that the "1940s crime film cycle represents not so much disengagement from the system" as what he calls, "the continuity of discontinuity—the endurance of a dissenting tradition" (223). Lastly, the book's lone appendix is fantastic for those with an interest in the inner workings ofthe MPAA/PCA. Munby includes copies ofthe various "film analysis forms" used by the PCA from 1934 to 1957 in its final prescreening sessions before giving a film the Code Seal of Approval . It's fascinating to see what the PCA looked for then and to imagine what they might have said about the films of today. Overall, the book is best suited for those with preexisting expertise in film studies; Munby's text has its roots in his dissertation , and at times it reads like it. I used it as a text in a recent introductory undergraduate course on the history ofgangster films and it was a tough sell. Conversely, for upper level and graduate courses Munby's book would be an indispensable text. Also, I am left wondering about gangster films' appeal in American culture; Munby does a great job in telling an engaging version of their history, but he doesn't go into nearly as much detail about the reasons for their popularity. Why have Americans always loved these films? What is it about them that generates such appeal for so many people? Despite these minor shortcomings, Public Enemies, Public Heroes is an essential book for folks with an interest in early gangster films. Robert Sickels Whitman College sickelrc @ whitman.edu Diane Negra. Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Stardom. Routledge, 2001. 221 pages; $22.95. Six Actresses In Off-White Hollywood, Diane Negra discusses "the ethnicity of the Euro-American" and its ability to comment on America's cultural acceptance of women in roles that do not fit into society's conventions. Limiting her scope to six actresses, Negra attempts to isolate how the film industry has been fascinated , but ultimately puzzled by, women who "disturb the conventions of Hollywood representation." Each chapter details the career ofan actress who represents aEuro-American ethnic group, from Collen Moore's "Irishness" to Cher's confused public persona . Beginning with the silent era and continuing to current films, Negra breaks down the cultural and economic condition of America during those periods and how they influence and are influenced by Hollywood's perceptions. The difficulty with this book is that an intriguing idea is buried under a style reminiscent of a doctoral thesis. Comments like "I have sought to prove," and "I will discuss in detail," are unnecessary and interrupt the flow of information. Many cogent and thought provoking ideas are placed in the midst of less than exciting prose. Excellent commentary on the appeal of Hedy LaMarr, and Hollywood's confusion over the exotic appeal of silent film actress Pola Negri is countered by the odd choice of Marisa Tornei, an actress with a relatively brief career, to represent one of Negra's main...