Class Conflicts in Tinseltown


By Steven J. Ross

Princeton University

367 pp., $29.95

Surprisingly, last year brought three big films with working-class elements - "The Full Monty," "Good Will Hunting," and, of course, "Titanic" - an unusual concentration nowadays, but not always.

When the Titanic sailed in 1912, movies were a working-class, largely immigrant form of entertainment, shown in tiny neighborhood theaters. Their content commonly reflected their audience, telling their stories and connecting them across barriers of language, occupation, and location.

In "Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America," Steven J. Ross provides a fascinating look back at the movies of this era, framed in their social significance. Equally telling is the view through those films of the history that followed, up to our own time.

Far from being homogenous, these movies treated rising labor tensions in a variety of ways. Conservative films were sympathetic to individual workers - who were, after all, the audience - while demonizing unions and blaming all labor problems on outside agitators.

Radical films displayed a systematically critical view of capitalism - not just particular capitalists - and "focused on the brutal working conditions and oppressive exploitation that forced wage earners into action."

Liberal films "criticized irresponsible capitalists" and "called for cooperation between employers and employees," advocating reform, but not necessarily collective action to achieve it.

Populist films preserved a 19th-century outlook that divided the world differently, pitting producers, including factory and mine owners, against nonproducers, monopolists, and finance capitalists.

Anti-authoritarian films "mocked the authority of those who often gave workers the hardest time: foremen, judges, police, and employers," Ross writes. Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops are classic examples.

This film diversity reflected the diversity of moviemakers, distributors, and theaters, which virtually vanished in the wake of World War I. Radical and liberal movies were impacted by the combination of war-time propaganda and the postwar anti-immigrant, anti-union "red scare." Meanwhile, movies in general lost their working-class identification, as the building of glamorous movie palaces played a vital role in attracting more affluent audiences.

Ross discusses the emergence of a new form: the cross-class fantasy that displaced class struggle with romantic struggle, as in "Titanic." Examining several variants, Ross shows how films that apparently laud the working class actually solidify class differences, discouraging critical attitudes. If the working class is inherently more noble, why not be content?

As the industry centralized, there were several attempts to form union-aligned production companies. Despite notable successful releases, no company survived to compete with the monopolistic studios. Just as the diversity of films about class relations before World War I gave way to a more monolithic view, characterized either by disregard or cross-class fantasies, class relations themselves came to be seen as fixed.

This echoed what conservative films had been saying all along: Harmony comes from accepting the natural order.

Ross reminds us how profoundly our movies keep repeating the same old story. Part of the tremendous appeal of "Titanic" lies in helping us forget for a while the vastly different world of possibilities in that era. "Working-Class Hollywood" does the opposite. A less popular task, no doubt, but as the waters before us grow more uncertain, a timely reminder indeed.

* Paul Rosenberg is a writer in Los Angeles and a founder of the Reason and Democracy Institute.

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