John Bodhar. Blue Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Political history and cultural history are linked. The depiction of political events and their results in culture can be studied.
Films have presented many proletarian protagonists and depicted political and economic events that changed their lives. The author concludes that the broad manner in which films presented how politics influence characters represents the broad general discussions of society. Films opened many economic and cultures desires and emotions to public discussion and debate.
The working class is often presented in life in film, as in actual life, as part of a political and class struggle between the political left wing and right wing. Many issues of race and gender are highly political and explored in movies.
Class distinctions were often part of the narrative in movies. Character actions in these movies may not be determined solely by class yet class dictates how they live and influences their range of actions. Left leaning films tend to glorify workers and their plights. Right wing films tend to criticize workers movements and defend the capitalist system.
Silent films before the 1930s represented many ideas simultaneously. Labor leaders could be great fighters for economic justice or violent revolutionaries. These portrayals provided insights into the political debates of those times.
American films in the 1930s focused on individual feelings. Pulp fiction in magazines, by contrast, portrayed male proletarians as moody and violent.
There were films critical of wealth and how the upper class hurt the middle class. 1936 saw a large number of such films. The Screen Actors Guild was sympathetic to the national labor movement until its leadership shifted toward the right wing under Ronald Reagan and John Wayne.
John Howard Lawson argued that films often hurt the labor movement by focusing on the societal depravity of the working class and emphasizing themes showing the working class as uncooperative with others.
Movies brought more social realism to audiences who learned about social disorientation and problems facing others. Some would accuse the movie makers of showing their biases in films.
Movie making itself is a result of capitalism. Yet it is found that capitalist movie company executives approved of movies criticizing capitalism as long as they were profitable.
Today (circa 2003), labor unions and political parties exert less influence on society than they did several decades ago. Both society and movies have focused more on issues of race and gender. Films depict cultural changes from past traditions.
Many films of the Great Depression showed how poor economic times caused people to lose faith in individual liberty. Movies, though, avoided direct endorsement of the union movement even though much of the rhetoric of unions on the dangers of the status quo were consistent with many movie themes.
World War II movies mostly ignored issues of unionism. Some movies did bring more racial issues upfront and some still criticized the capitalist system.
The 1950s blacklist era still saw some films showing support for lower class economic interests. The 1960s produced more films defending womens rights and civil rights issues.
Films in the 1930s presented a “cross dressing” of movies that could appeal to both political radicals and conservatives. Sexual and material desires of characters were explored in a context that stated adultery was wrong. Men were strong and were flawed if their wives had to work, as presented in both film and society then in general. Audience attendance figures were not as good as expected for movies, such as “Duck Soup” and “Modern Times”, that criticized government institutions at a time people sought for faith in their public institutions.
Films showing gangsters and boxers presented themes of men rising above the hardships of the times on their own initiative. Some criminals in films like “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “Heroes for Sale” showed reputable workers and war veterans crushed by the economy who turned to crime to overcome their economic oppression.
Gangster films sent mixed messages, yet it was often the moral lackings of gangster characters that led to their downfalls. Boxing films avoided the criminal side of morality yet their depiction of men struggling and overcoming hardships only to fall from wanting too much in life. These movies did not present consistent themes that were similarly expressed by either the political left or right.
Some 1930s films such as “Cabin in the Cotton” and “Black Fury” presented working class characters with hope the future will improve who remained where they were in their working class positions.
Women in 1930s films were often shows as supportive of a male character. Their love and support often were necessary components form male characters to succeed. Darryl Zanuck of Warner Brothers claimed the film industry made 20% of its movies as “women’s pictures”, also known as “sex pictures” where illicit sex would lead to the downfall of women.
Frank Capra’s films questioned democratic society and economic inequalities. His films avoided supporting institutions such as pro-New Deal political groups or labor unions.
The Workers’ Film and Photo League of America arose in the 1930s to fight capitalism. Critics noted their films were about individuals and failed to present the scope of the problems.
World War II saw the interests of government and the movie industry being similar. The labor movement supported the war. The public focused more on the war and movies reflected this. The government also directly encouraged movie studios to produce patriotic films, and the studios complied. Some films still presented the flight of working people. Still, movies of social realism were less prevalent in the 1940s compared to the 1930s. Films for women such as “Tender Comrade” involved the need for women to remain loyal to their men at war and to the nation. Many films presented the glory of going to fight in the war. The horrors of war were minimalized.
World War II literature, culture, and society renewed a focus on individual liberties and less control from government and society. Labor unions lost strength and found diminished public support. The strong public war time support of government ended.
Post war movies depicted both characters respectful of society and characters angry at society. Greater sexual overtones existed in society and film as men returned from war to start families. Elizabeth Peck observes the issue of wife beating was not wiedly publically discussed in the U.S. between 1900 and 1970. No sociology journal considered family violence until 1969.
Women in postwar films such as “Best Years of Our Lives” and “Pride of the Marines” were presented as giving up personal desires for family goals. War veterans in films insisted on faithful girlfriends. Films shows the path towards betterment of life was through marriage and a working husband.
Some films made by leftist filmmakers challenged capitalist notions. The blacklist of filmmakers reduced the numbers of such films.
A lesson from the ethnic hatred of the Nazis was that Americans should not tolerate ethnic hatred. Post World War II films such as “Crossfire” examined prejudice against Jews. Movies such as “Home of the Brave” examined prejudice against African Americans.
The 1950s saw society rejecting communism and seeking patriotism. Religious films such as “The Ten Commandments” supported religion which in turn bolstered public support for all American institutions. Many movies showed working class males as violent and as antiestablishment rebels.
“Salt of the Earth” was a pro-laobr 1954 mvoie where an active union wins its struggle. It did not do well in attracting a large audience.
Movies such as “A Raisin in the Sun” focused more attention on the problem of racism in American society.
Movies in the 1960s and 1970s depicted questioning of society and the birth of the women’s liberation movement, which appealed to leftists, as well as law and order film that appealed to conservatives.
Labor unions were seldom positively portrayed in 1980s movies expect for “Norma Rae” and “The Molly Maguires”.
Government actions were increasingly questioned in 1960s and 1970s movies. A number of films questions that policies for war veterans, such as “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home”.
African Americans began being portrayed as dominant her images rising against lower class disadvantages in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s movies such as “Shaft”, “Do the Right Thing”, and “Jungle Fever”.
The author concludes that liberalism and individualism have been dominant forces in much of American mass culture. Other views, though, received wide audiences.
It should be noted that many films have “multiple meanings”. Institutions and political positions can be complicated and criticized simultaneously, especially in a democracy. Even a study of Nazi films found “multiple meanings’ despite the limited ideologies that the Nazis allowed to be presented.