Film History and Why We Study It

Film history allows historians to glimpse the past and invokes new thought about how culture has developed since the beginnings of the medium. Tracing the beginnings of film, historians are able to see the world of the late 1800s through simple pictures and snapshots, rather than words on a page. This leaves interpretation and historical context to the individual historian with individual historical pursuits. The way film were both produced and presented to audiences can also be an important tool in discerning the values, socioeconomic situations, and the dreams of the filmmakers and their audience’s. Film is a non-exclusionary medium that allows for further study as well as enjoyment by most everyone in society. Silent film in particular bridges language boundaries and can connect cultures in ways that were important to the development of the American nation and its ideals.

The endings of the Victorian Era were presented on the silver screen in the vast accumulation of films in the 1890s and early 1900s. These films in particular show a shift in the cultural importance of certain views and values. The upper-classes stuffy Victorian values were mocked and the hard-working immigrant hailed as the champions of the American dream.  While scholarly texts from the Victorian age and before were written in the rhetoric and jargon of the upper-classes as well as the occasional clergymen, the movies audience was that of the common man as they were seen as a mostly working-class pastime. They can assist the historian in viewing the more marginalized members of that society and allow for at least of a small view of what life might have been like for them. The representation of immigrant workers was important, because it resonated better with the audience the films were being showed to. The films were education even back then. They provided a view into what an ideal American was as well as what they should be. Those correlations were being made every day by the immigrant audience that were seeing themselves as Americans rather than the outsider force they were often compared to in most other forms of rhetoric. Without really causing much of a stir, these early movies gave them their voices and shared their dreams with historians for years to come.

This practice of analysis can continue throughout the years after the development of sound into modern day. Movies are often likened to pieces of art and in the same vein, can contain innumerous nuances, techniques, and themes that invoke emotion and sometimes initiative, but unlike fine art, film is a universal medium in that it resonates with most everyone. The proof of this can be shown in the sheer amount of Americans that attended theaters in the 1930s and 40s and even after that. Movies are not only for entertainment, they were used for propaganda in the war efforts of World War I and World War II as well as Vietnam and Korea. The language of film provides historians and viewers alike all the tools for interpretation needed to fit them into historical and contemporary context. They are a way to send messages and to spark movements further than the citizen’s heads. Hollywood’s power can be seen in the connections it had with the Government during these wartimes. The propagation of the American ideals, whether they are those of isolation and pacifism or those of spreading democracy and fighting for freedom, was deeply imbedded in the films made in each particular time in our history. The feelings of the society in which film was bred can be analyzed like any other historical document and can be often treated with the same respect as a first-hand account in that the film was written by men of the time-period to be provided to an audience that was willing to pay for it. Film provided an escape and an expression of the problems society had. In the 1950s for instance, the threat of communism and the arising teenager culture were the major fears of the day. Films such as Them! and Blackboard Jungle, though both very different in the way of subject matter, showed what the people of the 1950s were dealing with. Simply placing them into the context of the time period can bring to light exactly what the themes and stories were supposed to bring about in people’s minds. They presented problems and suggested the ways in which they could be solved.

History is often like a puzzle with many pieces from various perspectives; film can be used to connect some of those pieces together. The overreaching and impressive success of the film industry can be used to prove that people of all race, religions, class, and creed can identify with a particular ideal if presented with an interpretive option.  Films are a reflection of the culture in which they were birthed and as such they allow scholars to not only study it, but take part in the past. By studying film, the historian is able to view the society in which it was made.

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Death of the Code, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Change

The Motion Picture Production code censored films from the 1930s till 1968 in a way that limited the viewer from seeing themes and imagery deemed as unsightly, offensive, or vulgar. Though the code was not strictly enforced all throughout the time period in which it was in place starting around the 1950s with a change of leadership, the code put limits the studios and the filmmakers within them that could only inhibit their abilities to portray reality on screen. Further, this hinders historians that view film as a medium toward historical research in the context of history.

The collapse of the film code in the 1960s into the grading scale of the 1970s was a blessing for historians in that it allowed more insight into what the realities of the time were like. That is not to say that films made within the guidelines of the Production code have no value in a historical context. The existence of a code in itself as well as how it had been enforced throughout various conflicts and time periods tells historians about the time the films were made. The death of the Production code, however, allowed for greater individuality to arise and a better depth of view.  The studio system’s collapse paved the way for independent films and films from Europe that did not adhere to the Production code’s censors to influence the way films were created and themes were presented. The foreign films that came onto the market were highly sexual compared to Hollywood pictures and readily showed themes of nudity and violence in a way American audiences were not used to. This brought interest and inspired further experimentation with sexualized imagery. Directors and screenwriters not only had greater control of their works, but allowed to focus on themes that were originally hidden from societal view. As a result, subjects that were originally taboo—sex, sexual orientation, drug trafficking, prostitution, and crime, were presented in broader terms and were not necessarily condemned in the same ways they had been previously in films.

Headed by liberal filmmakers, the cultural changes that were happening outside of Hollywood were brought into the fold, no longer blocked by a code that might treat them as offensive or anti-American in their portrayal of traditional conservative American ideals. Sex and violence were brought to the screen with films like Bonnie and Clyde, as a sort of testament to the films that preceded them. The film Bonnie and Clyde in particular was an homage to the Gangster film. While these films honored the genres of the past they did so in a way that attempted to discount the values that the genres had enforced. The gangster was no longer the harden criminal the viewer wanted to fall, but the romantic outsider on the fringes of a society that expected more from him. These themes resonated with the young viewers of the day that no longer fit within the previous generation’s expectations. The new generation was taking over Hollywood with younger executives, screenwriters, and directors. The old studio heads were dying or being ousted in favor of these new thinkers, so even the few that were still in charge were forced to change along with the demands of a younger generation that felt isolated and marginalized by their parent’s.

Though those of the previous generation may have felt a similar differentiation from their parent’s the evidence and the sense of depth in films were not as prevalent or well represented. Films that explored the thoughts of young people were censored in a way that made them more marketable to their parents. This can be seen in the films of the 1950s such as  Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One that demonized teenagers and the new culture they were creating. These films, though aesthetically different, always presented the attitude and rebellious nature of this new breed of young people to be misguided and out of control and presented it in a way that allowed for a solution to be presented in quelling this problem. The films of the 1970s were different in their presentation of the creation of a counter-culture and the broadening of what the teenagers of the 1950s were trying to attempt. This new view into the minds of the youth of the 1970s allows historians to take films into a better historical view and consider the cultural significance of the cases the movies bring to light.

Hollywood’s War Effort: Sahara

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Wartime films such as “Sahara” from 1943 can be windows into the past for historians and laymen alike. The typical World War II film exhibits important qualities that include how the troops were meant to act as well as how the citizens at home were meant to contribute to the war effort. “Sahara” displays the feelings and realities of the war to the home front in order to promote a spirit of sacrifice, remove the societal pressures and separations that divided us, and to appease the returning troops with images of the harsh reality that they faced. This made movies like “Sahara” both idealistic and realistic.

            To analyze “Sahara”, it is important to view what lead America and the film industry to join the war effort that was brewing in Europe years before. Europe’s war began in 1939 with the German and Italian troops decimating the French and besieging the British on their home fronts. The war for Americans was a thousand miles across a vast ocean.[1] Like in the First World War, the United States chose to remain neutral and institute a policy of strict isolationism, despite the fact that our French and British allies were already long suffering the effects of the war.  The film industry was forced to reflect this decision by removing themselves from the conflict and focusing on escapist films like comedies, musicals, westerns, and the occasional melodrama.[2] The suffering and chaos of the war was hidden from most of the publics’ minds’ eye by not displaying it in the most watched and talked about form of media. The film industry was limited in what they could produce with new censorship codes in place that restricted subject matter and how it was portrayed. Films with anti-German sentiments were seen as inflammatory and too powerful. Instead war films were supposed to be about past wars and were supposed to teach the importance of peace. This was not only to avoid Government pressure, but to avoid the loss of important foreign markets and to subtly support our allies in a way that would keep those markets open as well. Still these films served to glorify war in their own way, despite their messages about the losses and ugliness of war. World War I films poked fresh wounds left by the main German antagonist on the nation, while trying to be marketed as calls for peace. In 1941, Hollywood was accused of attempting to sway the American public and the legislators toward war. This demonstrated the power the American film industry held in the 1940s and why it was so essential in gathering for war.[3] Negative films toward the Nazis were limited even after the country entered the war in December of 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. America’s war, and thus Hollywood’s, was with the Japanese that had attacked the country rather than the Europeans that were still half a world away.[4] All of this changed once the United States officially joined their allies in World War II in 1942 as the goal of these movies were to bridge the gaps the previous years of films had created and to show the public that the war was no longer a question—it was a reality.

This film, like many others of its time, served an important purpose. It brought the war to the far removed home front. The struggles of these soldiers on screen were meant to rally support for the ideology behind the war as well as support for the troops that were fighting in it.[5] This was a way America’s film industry were able to head the war on the home front to bring about greater sacrifice through rationing and signing up for military jobs, bringing women and those left behind into the workplace to fill important jobs, and to increase morale and production of the United States that had come late to a war that had long been brewing in Germany. This was a challenge to the American people to switch completely towards wartime production and to catch up to the Nazi war machine. These ideas are not only shown through the films made during this time period, but in an important war time document called, Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, created in 1942. [6]

The film Sahara takes place in the African chapter of the war that seemed even further separated from us than the war in Europe did. This foreign landscape was used to display kinship between men of several different nations as well as to show the troops’ desperation for basic needs such as water. The main character of the film, Master Sergeant Joe Gunn, portrayed by Humphrey Boggart was an all-American, lone hero type character with flaws that humanized him and qualities that glorified him to the audience. Unlike the various soldiers around him, Joe Gunn was the natural leader for the rag-tag band of allied troops, because of his willingness to make smart decisions and his long experience as a tank commander. As he adamantly says in the film, there has to be sacrifices in war, because at the end of the day the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual. This is exemplified when an Italian deserter asks for transport through the desert toward the allied lines. Joe Gunn shows concern for their rations and their water, worrying that an extra-mouth will ruin their chances for survival. This causes him to make the hard decision and leave the man behind. The soldiers in the company question this decision and plead for the Italian’s life, but are answered with the same dilemma that Joe Gunn had faced, “It’s ten lives versus the one.” While this shows the desperation and harshness of the war, it also exemplified the very nature of sacrifice for the whole that the individual on the home front could make. In the end, Gunn stops and allows the man to join them under the condition that he does not steal food or water from his men, though he ends up giving it to the man later anyway. This scene was essential, because it showed the human-side that the moment before had taken from the sergeant. It showed how a soldier could lose himself to the harsh terrain and realities of war, but still somehow retain his moral compass and sense of righteousness. This scene is also vital to understanding why the American people of the home front had to make sacrifices. The soldiers were shown rationing their food and water as the American people were meant to do. This was a way to bridge that gap between the home front and the war front even further. Another need the film addressed was that for war material such as gasoline and metal for weapons. The Lulu Bell, Gunn’s tank, became an important character of its own. Gunn treated it almost as a precious child or woman, protecting it and getting offended by insults to it. This was not just for comedic effect and likeability, but to show that without this tank these troops had no way to cross the vast desert to their lines and get away from the encroaching enemy threat that was not far behind them.

            The film also serves as a way to present the war to the American people as a universal effort for democracy and against oppression, rather than a flippant war fought over issues that did not involve the American people as it previously might have been seen.[7] By having Joe Gunn and his two American comrades meet soldiers from all over Europe and Africa, the movie seeks to portray a sense of unity between the foreign allies by allowing them to work together towards a common goal. One of the most important introductions to the film is that of the Sudanese Sergeant Major Tambul. His shared rank with Joe Gunn is something that demands respect, though his willingness to follow Gunn’s orders allows for the film to continue without much controversy over Tambul’s race. The only person who refers to Tambul’s race in a derogatory way is the Nazi prisoner the allied troops capture and one of the American soldiers even asks about his culture and belief system to find similarities. The introduction of an African character with dark skin is a vital piece in bridging the gaps that society has created in the still segregated America. Though there are differences between all the soldiers among Gunn’s comrades, they are all able to find common ground that might have seemed ambiguous if not for the portrayal of German troops that followed after them. While the band of Allied soldiers search desperately for water with the assistance of the native Tambul, they discuss their shared losses of homes and loved ones at the hands of the Nazis. The French man that the men affectionately refer to as Frenchie describes the loss of his village, the subsequent occupation, and his membership of the French underground that were still fighting under harsh oppression of Nazi rule. Gunn and the rest of the troops also tell stories of their home life and what the war has cost them. The end result is an appeal to the emotions that no longer allows the American people to question what the war is about. It is a war of the people; all of them, not just the soldiers that were fighting the war, as well as one for democracy and freedom that the Axis powers sought to snuff out.[8] Gunn and his troops make a decision near the end of the film to turn towards their enemy rather than keep running in order to hold the five hundred Germans for the sake of warning their allies and allowing for an Allied victory. This ultimately seems like a fools-errand with only nine men left among them, but Tom Gunn was able to rally the men and prepare a clever trap that elevated their chances and made the fight possible by displaying the Germans as defeatable and desperate. A British captain makes an important statement as the all of the men slowly agree to this last stand that finally strikes the right chord with all of them and convinces to lay their lives on the line for a singular idea. The line, “Do you know why we’re able to do it? Because we are stronger than they are…I don’t mean in numbers. I mean something else. You see, those men out there never knew the dignity of freedom,” exemplifies this ideal as well as separates the soldiers from that of their enemies and what the war was thought to be fought for. The end of the film describes the Allied victory at El Alamein as the majority of Gunn’s bands graves are shown in order to draw the story to a close with a sense that these men’s sacrifice were not in vein and that their contribution was their plea for the greater good. Gunn reads off each name with great reverence and sadness to display each soldier as an individual who fought and died for their loved ones and their countries.  

The World War II film was meant to show sacrifice of the troops, the similarities of our allies, the righteousness of our cause, and the desperate need for support these soldiers needed. Sahara did all of these things and more by displaying individual soldiers in a beyond severe environment. Films such as Sahara can not only now show us the attitudes and events that in the 1940s, but made the war effort part of everyday American life in 1943.


[1] Jacobs , Lewis . “World War II and the American Film.” Cinema Journal 7 (1967): pg. 1-2.

[2] Ibid.

[5] Mintz, Steven, and Randy Roberts. Hollywood’s America: Twentieth-century America through Film. Pg. 129-131.

[6] Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry. Washington, D.C.: Office of War Information, 1942.

[7] Mintz, Steven, and Randy Roberts. Hollywood’s America: Twentieth-century America Through Film. Pg. 130.

[8] Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry. Washington, D.C.: Office of War Information, 1942.

Um

Woah, just noticed an influx of people following me, so I’m going to go ahead and place this warning: 

This right now is an assignment blog for my American History Film course. I will not be posting much other than my writing assignments for a while. I’m glad you like my ramblings, but I figure I should place a little warning about it anyway. 

No Chick Flick Moments

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There seems to be some misconception over what is a chick flick and how does it fit in with the whole sphere of feminism and women’s movies. It’s important to realize that what can be considered a chick flick is not necessarily or inherently not feminist media, but the reference itself is a little iffy and frankly a little insulting. To have films that are labeled the words “Chick Flick” bring negative connotations to mind of films that portray woman as dependent and let them take the form of many stereotypes that are negative. Why does this matter when films are just for entertainment? Because as we have discussed over and over again, movies are a powerful and many people learn about others and the world we live in through movies rather than other mediums. These stereotypes can lead to an altered sense of what a woman is as opposed to an individual.

The idea of the “chick flick” is an annoying concept, because it is hard to pinpoint what these films are supposed to be. Sometimes they can be seen as silly romantic comedies about internet dating gone wrong or a drama about the collapse of a family. In the end, it seems that anything out of that invokes emotion is supposed to be a “chick flick,” and that in itself begs too many questions about how woman and men are viewed by society.  Feminism is about acceptance of any female or female-bodied persons as an actual person with the rights and privileges of men in society.  That means that men can be feminists. Misconception seem to be the name of the game when it comes to feminism, but in the same vein, these “chick flicks” are not being properly analyzed. It is as if they are simply disregarded as something with less impact or less philosophical worth, because of their label, per say, a women’s sports team being renamed the “Sugar Bears” might make them seem a little less intimidating and again kind of extremely insulting to my and many other women’s sensibilities.

While the idea of what these films entail are somewhat hazy, the general idea of a “chick flick” might be films such as Legally Blonde, The Help, Mean Girls, The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, and Water for Elephants. Again, this presents a wide-range of genres and themes that are easily disregarded, because of their label. All of these films do not appeal to me, but under further analysis of these movies that are easily overlooked, you can find feminist narratives and important, empowering rhetoric that will surprise anyone. Using one of the examples from the previous list, Legally Blonde, can actually be seen as a film with feminist elements that may not seem apparent. In the film, the protagonist Elle Woods is presented to be as what might be considered a stereotypical “blonde.” Barbie-like in appearance and with high expectations of appearance and dress, Elle is seen to be dimwitted and shallow by many movie goers, but looking deeper it can be seen that even before she took initiative to study and apply to Harvard Law school of all places, she was highly intelligent about the field she was studying (it just happened to be fashion design). After a few complex questions about the type of fabric and dyes used on a dress, she is able to determine a shop-teller had been lying to her about how it was made. That is not someone stupid. That is someone using her skills in the field she studied and enjoyed. By going to law school, though it was originally to chase after the man who dumped her, Elle was able to prove herself in a much different environment and grow with the tools she already had in her back-pocket. Along the way, serious issues such as sexual assault in a professional setting and the expectation of women to be in more clerical or secretarial roles is dealt with. The way these issues as well as the allowance of Elle to be successful and in the end finding that she was doing it for herself and for the proof that she had the skill and confidence to do it, rather than the man that told her she could not.

Finding Nederland, Finding Nemo, Finding Feminism

I feel like I should start this by making an important note, which is extremely saddening to me, but ultimately necessary: Feminism is about the equality and equal treatment of woman in society. It is not about hating men. You are mistaken. Please do not add to my sadness about the human race. Sorry for having to be a little condescending to those who do know. Carry on.  

Finding feminism in film, especially in earlier films is a rare thing. Woman in many of the mainstream movies are used as plot devices like romantic interests or to fill an imagine quota of “oh, there’s one woman, so it’s fine.” Most people have heard of the feminist movie litmus test, or the Bechdel Test:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it.

2. They must hold a conversation.

3. It has to be about something other than a man.

It is a good starting point in what could be viewed as a feminist narrative, giving equal screen time and importance to female characters that are not existent for male interaction only. Though this test is a point to start and to start questioning films to include identifiable female characters, the test does not always make the movie. Some films that somehow survive this test are not viewed to be ones that truly represent and feature women characters, such as Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2. This film is very clearly not the sort of material one would call feminist. This problem, however, has been met recently with a new test that was inspired by the recent movie, Pacific Rim. In this particular movie, one of the main characters is name Mako Mori, an Asian woman for which the test is named. She fights in the role of the main jaegar’s pilot to eventually save the world and did so with her own valid story arc that set her on a level playing field with the male characters of the film The Mako Mori Test is discussed to have three main rules similar to the Bechdel Test:

1. There must be at least one named female character.

2. She must be provided her own story arc.

3. Her story arc must not be about supporting a man’s.

The reason that this test recently came into existence was due to the fact that though Pacific Rim had all these elements, they did not pass the Bechdel Test to be considered a feminist film. The important thing here is Pacific Rim in representation fails to provide with more than one important female character to have that fateful conversation with.  With what Pacific Rim fails with in representation, it seemingly makes up for in a valid and well though story arc dedicated to a female character, something that is rarely seen on film these days, or any days for that matter. The Mako Mori Test deals with the content of the film, rather than the representation element. These tests are ones I encourage you to apply when watching movies to help you think about the lack of substantial women connections and character development in Hollywood for female characters. Just, because a film does not pass either of these does not mean you are not allowed to like it. Films that do are few and far between, but that is why these tests and others like them exist to really understand the lack of a feminist narrative in films today. Equal treatment to woman as characters seems to be a much more novel idea than it should be, but sadly that, too, can be a reflection of the society we live in. Like woman that were written out of or left out of history, they were also left out of film.

Silent film changed both aesthetically and in theme throughout the early 1900s in which it was in its heyday. Through the development of technology and the changing values, silent film was transformed from an everyday novelty into a full-fledge universal art form. The acting grew more experienced and better the camera better directed to let the meanings and stories really connect with the audience, many of which might not have had the ability to speak the language of the filmmakers and actors. These new developments allowed for a higher quality of storytelling and cinematography that was previously impossible.

The films of the 1910s and 1920s were that of the working class, but with the emergence of the middle class and a shift in values the audiences of these silent films broadened and it became a more respectable and accepted medium. The shift from Victorian ideals into a new Progressive age was reflected in film by the way characters were portrayed. The influence of European film styles like German expressionism was seen in many of these films as they became more stylized and recognizable with the emergence of movie stars. The portrayal of social classes, women, and social struggles in film introduced the audience to the changing times and taught many immigrants what it meant to be an American.

At the beginnings of the First World War, the United States held a stark isolationist policy and wanted to keep completely separate from the conflict overseas. The films of this time period echoed this isolationist ideology with movies that called for the importance of being neutral and the benefits and rewards that peace brings.  The developing film industries relationship with the US government during World War I sparked the use of film as a new method to produce propaganda, but also lead to increased censorship and some major problems for some filmmakers.  The Creel Committee or the Committee on Public information was created to push for these new propaganda films that literally sold the war and called for participation in the war effort to the audience. These films focused on the positive and did not show the darker side of the war. The Sedition Act of 1918 decreed that citizens could not portray badly or talk badly about America or its allies, such as Britain and France. Unfortunately, that meant heavy penalties for anyone it the filmmaking industry that followed any theme that might paint the country and its allies in a bad light. One director was arrested during this time period for making a movie about the American Revolution and thus making our present British allies as the bad guys. Needless to say, he was put away for a long time after his transgression.  Through this new and solid relationship between the government and the film industry, the American film industry was able to profit and grow during World War I and gain a global status while the European industry was still suffering the damaging economic and emotional effects of the destruction. This economic boom allowed for many major studios to gain power and develop. A new age of censorship began in 1922 under Will Hays, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association in order to combat the degradation of Hollywood values that were coming from scandal after scandal. These scandals were harming the image of the film industry, but under Will Hays watchful eye for the proper and the frankly boring a list of dos and don’ts was made, but not strictly enforced or followed. Still, the film industry made back their lost money.

Film was a way for Americans to recognize what being an American is. The use of film as propaganda was important an important force in changing American ideals.

Hollywood, Censorship, and Propaganda OH MY