restricted access Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year by Catherine Jurca (review)
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Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year
Catherine Jurca. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2012. 15 Illustrations. 221 Pages + Appendix and Index.

Historians and enthusiasts of classical Hollywood might struggle to name even one 1938 film that would justify the industry’s well-publicised claim that the year was Hollywood’s “greatest.” After all, it is commonly accepted that the productions of the following year– from Gone with the Wind (1939) to The Wizard of Oz (1939) – are evidence of the classical system at its apex. Even the most charming and well regarded of the industry’s 1938 productions pale beside 1939’s rich offerings. Yet, Catherine Jurca makes the case that there was at least one Hollywood production of 1938 that deserves our attention. Comprised of “a cast of thousands and a superspecial [sic] budget, it was action-packed, a stirring drama, and a farce” (27): it was the very publicity campaign Hollywood launched to promote the year’s films.

Hollywood 1938 details the industry’s response in the midst of crisis. Faced with the challenges of an anti-trust lawsuit, an economic recession, competition from overseas, the perceived decline in the movie-going ‘habit,’ the excessive costs of ever-greater productions and shifting audience tastes, Hollywood responded with a hastily conceived campaign to promote 1938 as “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year” to entice exhibitors, audiences and cultural commentators. As is so often the case, the plan went awry.

The Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year (MPGY) campaign, launched in July, was intended as a concerted cross-industry effort to promote the forthcoming season of films in addition to the merits of the industry as a whole. Headed by agency Donahue & Company, it was a public relations effort to sell the movies rather than a movie: to restore faith in the industry. The major studios and distributors pooled resources with affiliated and independent exhibitors to launch a million-dollar publicity campaign for the 90 forthcoming releases from the majors alongside four films from Poverty Row’s Monogram. The campaign emphasised a more dignified image of the ‘Motion Picture Industry,’ a term chosen to avoid the pejorative connotations of ‘Hollywood,’ which had come to signal excess and frivolity. It sought to present filmmaking “as an essentially democratic practice, in which the consumers of entertainment were the actual producers of it” (8). In turn, the productions of Hollywood’s “greatest year” were touted as exemplifying a new ‘humanity.’ Still, a $250,000 national movie quiz contest about the releases was central to the MPGY campaign. In many ways the quiz was the ultimate Bank Night: a rather desperate bid that undercut many of the lofty assertions about the roster of films.

Jurca tackles the MPGY campaign in two halves: the first focuses on the promotional strategy and the second provides close-analysis of a selection of the films. While many of the films were in development before the campaign was launched, productions such as You Can’t Take it With You, Boys Town and Four Daughters (all 1938) were marketed as evidence of the MPGY’s claims; that is, as models of paired down stories about earnest “average” Americans. Sincere, homespun characters unafraid to literally preach about social responsibility, like Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) in Boys Town, stood tall against the industry’s detractors, suggesting the pedagogical potential of motion pictures and demonstrating Hollywood’s common touch. A testament that such was the intended reading of the MPGY season, the winning movie quiz essays praised cinema’s democratic values, suggesting “an interest in movies that did more than provide an evening’s distraction” (219). In total, of course, the 94 films that comprised the MPGY season were neither as new nor as good as the puffery professed.

By virtue of the comparative novelty of the material she has gathered on the campaign, the first half of Hollywood 1938 is the most compelling. Using archival sources, close analysis of advertising copy, trade papers and a selection of daily national newspapers, Jurca exhibits the difficulties of campaign’s national rollout. Extrapolating from rich archival material about the exhibition of the contest films in Cleavland, Ohio, alongside other local case...