Rethinking U.S. Film History: The Depression Decade and Monopoly Control
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 10, Number 2, May 1980
- pp. 6-11
- Additional Information
6. Dennis Giles made a similar point about treatments of Griffith in his contribution to the panel on the historiography of film at the 1979 Purdue Film Studies Conference. RETHINKING U.S. FILM HISTORY: THE DEPRESSION DECADE AND MONOPOLY CONTROL By Douglas Gomery Douglas Gomery is Assistant Professor ofMass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has written articlesfor the Quarterly Review ofFilm Studies and Screen, and contributed a chapter to The American Film Industry (Wisconsin, 1976). He has edited special editions ofboth the Cinema Journal and Milwaukee History. I argued in Screen several years ago that Warner Bros, was not going bankrupt when it innovated sound, but rather deliberately imposed short-term debt, with the backing of a powerful Wall Street investment house, Goldman, Sachs. (1) That conclusion proved to be quite in line with one classic argument concerning the history ofthe US film industry: gradually throughout the 1920s and 1930s the monopolistic movie companies (Warners, Fox, RKO, Paramount, Loew's) came under the control of important Wall Street financial interest groups. The best known statement of this hypothesis appears in Lewis Jacobs' The Rise of the American Film: The peak figures in American finance, Morgan and Rockefeller, either indirectly through sound equipment or directly by financial control or backing, now own the motion picture industry.... Competition in the motion picture industry today  has narrowed down to a fight between the two major financial interests ofthe country [Morgan and Rockefeller] for the balance of power within the eight major studios and their affiliated theatre and distribution channels. (2) This explanation ofthe film industry control has been widely adopted by both film historians and film theorists. In histories ranging from Jean Mitry's massive Histoire du Cinema to English writer Eric Rhodes' A History of the Cinema to the standard US textbooks of Gerald Mast (A Short History of the Movies) and Arthur Knight (The Liveliest Art), we find long and short summaries ofthe Jacobs' position. Theorists such as Stephen Heath, Charles Eckert, and the Cahiers du Cinema collective (uncritically) utilize this claim in their work on film and ideology. (3) Use by such a diversity ofthinkers testifies to the importance of this idea of financial control. Yet, surprisingly, film historians had neither extended or challenged Jacobs' claim since its origin in 1939. In this article, I shall analyze the historical origins and basis ofthe position, and then argue that "financial control" is no longer an appropriate framework for understanding the history of the US film industry during the 1930s. Lewis Jacobs did not originate the concept of financial control in advanced capitalism; he acquired his argument for the US film industry, in fact, from a work by two Britishers, F. D. Klingender and Stuart Legg. Their book, published in ] 937, is Money Behind the Screen. In turn, Klingender and Legg drew their argument from Anna Rochester's Rulers in America. Rochester had done the research for the US film industry. She uncovered her data from articles in The Wall Street Journal and statistical sources published for Wall Street analysts. She developed her method for economic analysis from V. I. Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage ofCapitalism, first published in 1916. Lenin's work is well known; less familiar is Lenin's source for his idea offinancial control, Rudolph Hilferding's Das Finanzkapital, published in Vienna in 1910. It was the Soviet's success in 1917 which popularized and gave substantial credence to the concept of financial control. Indeed Lenin had placed financial control as one of the five pillars of modern capitalism. For the US in the 1 930s Rochester translated this to mean the Rockefeller and Morgan financial interest groups. Klingender and Legg, and Jacobs assumed a small portion ofRochester's work so they could clearly link the Hollywood monopolists to the central controlling apparatus ofmodern US capitalism. That connection made, film historians and theorists quickly tum to what they consider the more difficult and interesting question: How do the Hollywood films of the 1930s produce a unique ideology? But does the idea of finance capitalism, formulated in the 1910s, work for the US in the 1930s? At least two sets of thinkers think not. Noted...