Cover Page

My Little Chickadee (1940). Universal Studios. Directed by Edward F. Cline. Courtesy of Jerry Murbach,



Fifth Edition

Edited by


Wiley Logo


Anyone who wishes to know about the United States would do well to go to the movies. Films represent much more than mere mass entertainment. Movies – even bad movies – are important sociological and cultural documents. Like any popular commercial art form, movies are highly sensitive barometers that both reflect and influence public attitudes. Since the beginning of twentieth century, films have recorded and even shaped American values, beliefs, and behavior.

Hollywood's America has two fundamental goals. The first is to use feature films to examine the central themes of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American culture. The book begins with a concise introduction that presents the history of American film against a backdrop of broader changes in popular culture since the late nineteenth century. It is then followed by a series of interpretive essays that examine how specific films, film genres, and developments within the film industry illuminate important aspects of American political, economic, and social life. These interpretive essays are supplemented with primary sources that offer first-hand looks at the movies' connection with the larger world. It concludes with an up-to-date bibliography of American film history.

As we shall see, the history of the movies is inextricably intertwined with broader themes and issues in American cultural history, such as the transition from Victorian culture, with its emphasis on refinement, self-control, and moralism, to modern mass culture. Popular films offer a valuable vehicle for examining public responses to the social disorder and dislocations of the Depression, the fears of domestic subversion of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the cultural and moral upheavals of the 1960s, the meaning and significance of the Vietnam War, and the growing multiculturalism within the United States. Through their plots, their characters, and their dramatization of ethical issues, movies have captured the changing nature of American culture.

The book's second aim is to help students develop tools for reading and interpreting visual texts. In a society in which visual images have become a dominant mode of entertainment and persuasion, used to promote both products and politicians, the ability to analyze visual texts may be as important as a facility with the written word.

Motion pictures contain a distinct set of rules and grammar that demands the same critical thinking and analytical skills one uses to read written texts. To analyze a poem, one must understand patterns of rhyme and rhythm and a poet's use of sound and imagery. Likewise, to interpret a film, one must understand how filmmakers use camerawork, editing devices, lighting, set design, and narrative to construct their text.

The films examined in this book are feature films – not documentaries or avant-garde or underground films. These are the classic movies that made Americans laugh and weep, shriek with terror, and tremble with excitement. They offered wit, suspense, romance, thrills, highlife, and lowlife. Highbrow critics might dismiss most Hollywood films as schlock, but these movies gave audiences more pleasure than any other art form and taught truly fundamental lessons dealing with intimacy, tenderness, initiation, lust, conflict, guilt, and loyalty. It was from the silver screen that Americans received their most intensive – if highly distorted – picture of their country's past, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the underside of American life.

For more than one hundred years, films have been the most influential instrument of mass culture in the United States. As America's “dream factory,” which manufactures fantasies and cultural myths much as a Detroit automaker produces cars, Hollywood has shaped the very way that Americans look at the world. Hollywood's films have played a pivotal role in “modernizing” American values. They have been instrumental in shaping Americans' deepest presuppositions about masculinity, femininity, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Movies have helped form Americans' self-image, and have provided unifying symbols in a society fragmented along lines of race, class, ethnicity, region, and gender. In certain respects subversive of traditional cultural values, movie culture created a mythic fantasy world that has helped Americans adapt to an ever-changing society.