Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness, ed. and with an introduction by Daniel J. Bernardi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Trade paper. 516pp. ISBN 0-8166-3239-1.
Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness continues the project begun in Daniel Bernardi’s earlier collection, The Birth of Whiteness (1996), foregrounding Hollywood’s usually seamless creation of the meanings of whiteness. The introduction tells us that the essays examine representations of ethnic and racial identity in the Classical Hollywood years, focusing on how the movies produce white identity for their intended audiences and how they portray identities of color to better throw whiteness into relief: “if we are to critically interrogate the forms and functions of color during this period, we must look at the pervasiveness of whiteness. Conversely, if we are to critically interrogate whiteness, we must look at the qualities of color” (xvi).
But for some of the essays here, whiteness is actually not the main issue; one weakness is the book’s fuzzy focus, which is sometimes on whiteness and at other times on representations of characters of color. I don’t mean to argue here that representations of whiteness have nothing to do with representations of characters of color; however, I do want to point out that, at a time when one of the accusations against multiculturalism and critical race studies is fuzziness or vagueness, those of us working with these discourses need to define our parameters and stick to them. It’s important to continue to publish essays that address the Hollywood art and science of stereotyping people of color. However, the title and stated aim of the book suggest an emphasis on whiteness, and there is plenty of rigorous, challenging scholarship out there that really does stick closely to that subject. Because whiteness is the stated focus of the book and because I don’t want to struggle with the fuzzy focus, I will zoom in on the pieces that do what the book actually says it does, taking a look at essays from each section of the book — Class, Gender, and Industry — with a final meditation on some essays from the section on War.
For a collection covering the Classical Hollywood period, the inclusion of only four essays on class, only one of which discusses the Depression, seems unbalanced. The standout, however, isn’t primarily about class at all, even according to its author: “While sexual and class anxieties inform the meaning of these films, race was a dominant factor” (61). But, of course, that doesn’t detract from the essay, it only makes questionable the essay’s presence in the section on class. I’m referring to Eric Avila’s “Dark City: White Flight and the Urban Science Fiction Film in Postwar America.” His brilliant argument draws on spatial, historical, cinematic, and economic analyses of postwar American urban life. This essay departs from many of the others in the collection in that it isn’t just an original idea, an intelligent interpretation, or a long-overdue analysis of an undervalued movie or genre. “Dark City” is all of those, true, but more importantly, at least to me, Avila writes with a tangible passion for his subject and a refreshing intellectual breadth all too rare in specialized academic writing. Rather than drilling straight down with meticulous, detailed research on a single movie or cycle of movies, Avila draws striking connections between Ralph Ellison, 1950s SF, Cold War paranoia, and housing discrimination. Following the common thread of white flight and urban decay, the essay takes provocative new angles on well-studied material, offering a spatial analysis of specifically urban settings in 1950s SF and American racial and political discourses during the Cold War. With an engaged voice that sparkles with creativity throughout, “Dark City” reminds me of the delight of reading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz and Carlo Rotella’s October Cities for the first time. This kind of writing engages on multiple levels at once, weaving together sources from literature, cinema, urban studies, and history into a strong piece of writing that revels in the pleasures of interdisciplinarity. Admittedly, a tough act to follow.
Representations of women (Jane Russell, Dorothy Dandridge, Dolores Del Rio, and Suzie Wong) are amply covered in five of the six essays in the Gender section, including Allison Graham’s fabulous close reading “The Loveliest and Purest of God’s Creatures’: The Three Faces of Eve and the Crisis of Southern Womanhood,” but I’ve already sung Graham’s praises in an earlier review. On the other hand, masculinity only gets our attention in one (exemplary) piece, Thomas Wartenberg’s “Humanizing the Beast: King Kong and the Representation of Black Male Sexuality,” which complicates the way critics employ stereotype-centered criticism to produce absolutist, value-based judgments. In Wartenberg’s view, the use of stereotyping must be historically grounded and understood within the nexus of competing and contradictory interpretative possibilities; it’s not enough to say of a movie, this character is a stereotype therefore this movie is racist, period. Rather, we must also look at how the stereotype is being deployed within the story, the representational scheme of the movie, and the movie’s cinematic context. Thus Warternberg argues convincingly that “Through its identification of Kong with the stereotypical view of Black male sexuality, the film is able to criticize the racism of this stereotype in a way that has escaped the attention of the film’s critics” (158).
The Industry section includes essays that consider the Production Code, African American stardom, and the racial politics of early sound mixing technology. Peter Stanfield’s archaeology of the popular song “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie” in 1920s and ’30s movies deserves mention. The essay documents how the song and its meanings changed over time and in different contexts, including its use as a story for stage and screen and as a song placed strategically in movie soundtracks. But in the form of song or story, Frankie and Johnnie always signified ambiguous racial identities, often by associating the white heroines with nonwhite racialized attributes: “the more abject the couple or individual becomes, the more closely he/she is aligned with images of blackness” (444). Stanfield’s meticulous research always makes a relevant point to support his argument, and his analysis of the deployment of whiteness in dialectic with blackness is complex and fascinating. Brian O’Neil’s essay “The Demands of Authenticity: Addison Durland and Hollywood’s Latin Images during World War II” provides historical research into the studios’ manipulation of roles for Latin performers at the behest of the Production Code Administration. O’Neil explains how and why the separate power structures of the film industry and the U.S. government joined forces in making and marketing the Good Neighbor cycle of movies set in Latin America and featuring Lupe Velez and Carmen Miranda, while consciously “whitewashing” the casts to appease color-conscious Latin American elites. For example, Pedro Calmon, a prominent Brazilian historian visiting Hollywood in 1941, attended a screening of a short film on Carnival featuring African American dancers. Calmon “expressed a concern that because ‘all the participants are negroes’ the film might lead to ‘misapprehension’ throughout the world that ‘all or most Brazilians are negroes, and that all or most of their dances are predominantly African’” (369-70). O’Neil moves easily between close analysis and historical context, making a compelling case that the government and movie industry walked a fine line, negotiating carefully the representations of Latin American countries and people so that they were no longer vicious stereotypes, but nonetheless conformed to Hollywood’s appetite for “props of light entertainment, intellectually and romantically inferior” (379).
These essays in this collection are all important contributions to a growing field in which I have active professional and personal interests, yet I feel the nagging need to stir the pot a little bit. As Gayatri Spivak writes: “Favorite sons and daughters who refuse to sanctify their father’s house have their uses. Persistently to critique a structure that one cannot not (wish to) inhabit is the deconstructive stance.”1 So please indulge me in some critique followed by editorializing.
- There are many critical frameworks at play in the essays collected here, some of which are not quite adequate to what their authors seem to want to do.
- There is too much analysis of stereotyping, or perhaps it is just not groundbreaking or hair-raising enough.
- There are well-executed close readings of well-traveled tropes such as “frontier.”
- There are economic approaches that foreground the movie industry and its national and global economic interests, sometimes with predictable though interesting results.
- There are reception studies that attempt to theorize audiences, with varying degrees of success — Gina Marchetti’s “’They Worship Money and Prejudice’: The Certainties of Class and the Uncertainties of Race in Son of the Gods” repeatedly speculates on audiences without reference to any actual research.
- There are historicizing efforts that appear woefully under-researched — Marchetti refers to no historical sources on the Depression and reproduces the clichéd myth of “bankrupt former millionaires … plunging from the windows of their penthouse offices” (73), while Karla Rae Fuller’s “Creatures of Good and Evil: Caucasian Portrayals of the Chinese and Japanese during World War II” cites no historical sources outside of film history and doesn’t mention John Dower’s definitive book on her topic, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1986).
Regarding this somewhat repetitive repertoire of critical approaches, I have two general remarks that arose while I was reading and hovered over me like a bad smell.
What some readers might miss in many of these essays is nuts-and-bolts formal analysis that could lend still stronger support to many of these quite convincing arguments. Many of the essays here remain in the realm of story, characterization, and setting rather than looking at how the celluloid itself is shot and put together and how that also creates the meanings so carefully interpreted here. Of the essays that offer formal analysis in tandem with the primarily representational approach that defines the volume, Aaron Baker’s “From Second String to Solo Star: Classic Hollywood and the Black Athlete” makes an interesting point, albeit toward the end of his essay as almost an afterthought. Baker argues that the use of neorealism in sports biopics (The Joe Louis Story, 1953, and The Jackie Robinson Story, 1950, for example) serves not only to emphasize the purported “truth” of the story and settings but to “align these films with the cycle of message films produced in Hollywood in the late 1940s” such as Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947). His point reminds us that a movie’s visual style can be as much about generic legitimacy and audience acceptance as about the individual, aesthetic preferences of the auteur. That is, even for scholars working within primarily cultural and ideological frameworks, a consideration of film form as a crucial maker of meaning can only strengthen an already compelling analysis.
The other thing that starts to occur to me as I read this book is: just because we don’t all buy into Freudian, Deleuzian, or Lacanian notions of pleasure and desire (I certainly don’t and I rejoice in their increasing marginality within cinema studies) doesn’t mean we no longer have to think about pleasure and movies. After all, most of us got into this area of inquiry because we love movies, even bad movies, even offensive movies, and of course especially good movies (whatever any of those terms mean to you). Of course, we also love criticism and theory, and we can’t always work on our favorite things. But when I read intellectually stimulating articles, like those by Graham and Avila, I remember that although this is “work” for many of us, it doesn’t always have to read like work. Many of the pieces in this book lack the spark of creativity or insight that makes the difference between solid scholarship, which much of it certainly is, and brilliant scholarship.
- “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Culture Studies,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993, 284. [↩]