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The Cinematic Manufacturing of Sophistication (Book Review)

Jacobs, Lea. The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008. x +358 pp. Preface, notes, bibliography, filmography, index. $35.

Ross, Steven J. Working-Class Hollywood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. x + 366 pp. List of illustrations, preface, acknowledgements, abbreviations, notes, index. $30.

Sophisticated. That is the word that succinctly and subtly unites the texts The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s by Lea Jacobs, and Working-Class Hollywood by Steven Ross. On its own, the word refers to something that has a high degree of complexity; to something that is conceptual, but nevertheless intellectually appealing and cultivated. The word also relates to work and intention, for rarely is something effortlessly sophisticated. On its own, film has the innate capability to be sophisticated in a revolutionary sense thanks to its reliance on and development of technology. Even in its crudest form, film began as an avant-garde evolution in storytelling capabilities, a cultivated descendent of campfire gatherings.

When the word sophisticated is applied specifically to these two texts that delve into the early years of cinema, then the adjective becomes an argument. Without saying it outright, both Jacobs and Ross argue that movies - despite being a new medium that could have been completely dismissed as tawdry and salacious because of that newness - created a matrix of sophistication within the industry and between the audience and filmmakers. In looking at the newfangled industry of cinema as a sophisticated art that also happened to make money and promote political expression, filmmakers, audiences and critics inadvertently made movies transcend superficial amusement, establishing a specific form of watchable genius that would allow future generations to probe the minds, ambitions and emotions of everyday people living in Progressive Era and 1920s America.

But ‘understanding’ the cinema and the audience of these distinctive eras that is not the underlining intentions of these texts. In their quest to understand movies and movie goers under the banner of sophistication, what Ross and Jacobs are doing is examining the intimate relationship that developed between audience and movies. And they make it clear that this was not a passive relationship. Audiences had expectations of sophistication from movies and movies, in return, elevated audiences expectations of what cinema could be and should be. For Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and a pop culture scholar, this means recognizing cinema’s ability to reconfigure the lens with which American viewed the working class. For Jacobs, a professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, it is all about detecting the gender biases that led critics to dismiss films that felt too sentimental, that they believed were automatically mawkish and therefore feminine. Ultimately, both the industry and the audience sought sophistication, if not craved it outright.

Steven Ross takes an atypical approach to understanding film by not even starting with film itself. He first looks at how socio-economic classes delineated themselves based on the concept of leisure. As Americans defined themselves in terms of white collar and blue collar work, the sidebar category of leisure became just as important as vocation. Wealthier classes commandeered opera, symphony and theater, leaving working classes the cheaper realms of vaudeville and movie theaters, “exhilarating spaces where fantasies could be lived out and where anything could happen” (Ross, 15). What that observation does is put the lower and upper classes on even footing in terms of using entertainment for both fantasy and escapism, though the venue of escapism differed. In addition, what Ross also does with this observation is show how the introduction of movies intensified demarcations in society as movies gave working classes their own form of escapism. Ross credits movies with creating levels of sophisticated fantasy, where “contemporary writers repeatedly referred to movies as the “academy of the working man,” the “poor man’s amusement,” and the “workingman’s Theater”, a medium supported by the nickels of the working class” (Ross, 19). With such monikers for cinema, Ross makes it clear that movies were complicating the mere idea of what leisure was, tiering it in ways that would lead to arguments about what was intelligent and cultured, what was lachrymose and therefore feminine and, finally, what was lowbrow and geared towards the provincial hoi polloi.

Ross also stresses the physicality of the movies in terms of real estate and architecture, something he revisits throughout the book. He lavishes attention on the various buildings movies were shown in, describing how movies went from being featured in small, rundown hovels to playing in baroque-styled theaters. But, in the earliest days, movies made their culturally mark by transforming cities in what Ross calls a movie theater explosion that, “after 1905 helped redefine public space by transforming city streets into bustling recreational thoroughfares that were open to everyone” (Ross, 22). Ross vividly paints the scene of movie theaters creating a boisterous night life and literally electrifying once dark city streets. If the idea of sophistication is to be judged by technological advancements, then movies passed the test as they helped facilitate a new form of after-hours nightlife that was a fusion of film, electricity and traffic control.

Whereas Ross launches his book by discussing the physicality of theaters, Jacobs promises to look at the decline of sentimentality, a decline based on how movies were judged by both insiders and outsiders to be either overly emotional or cool and polished. Her analysis is based on a deconstruction of the trade press and the four popular narratives of the day, (which are also the titles of her subsequent chapters): the sophisticated comedy, the male adventure story, the seduction plot and the romantic drama. (It is important to note that much of her analysis is on the understanding of the comedic story in all its manifestations).

Jacob’s analysis of the trade press is set up similarly to Ross’s analysis of the physical theater. While Ross’s theater is a physical manifestation of the cosmopolitan reality of film culture, Jacobs’s trade press constitutes a metaphorical and metaphysical realization of that same discerning reality, especially since the trade press ultimately created a discourse about a film’s content that was physical thanks to its appearance in papers intended for public consumption and reading pleasure. However, in creating such a dialogue that transcended mere viewership, reviewers also took into account where a film experienced the most popularity location-wise. As Jacob notes, reviewers would play guessing games, trying to “estimate where a film would fit within a hierarchy: in the major downtown picture palaces, in the subsequent-run theaters in urban neighborhoods, (the “nabes” in Variety parlance), or in small towns and rural areas” (Jacobs, 19). Jacobs is demonstrating that, by analyzing a movie’s anticipated success using geography, movie culture highlighted the prejudices attached to audiences themselves.

In 1927, when reviewing Hook and Ladder, No. 9, a Variety reviewer wrote that the film would be best received by unsophisticated customers in small neighborhood towns. In making judgements like this, the trade press “thus provides a subtle, professional estimate of the market for a given film: as urban or rural, male or female, for the classes or the masses” (Jacobs, 20). Those who reviewed movies were suddenly self-elevated to the role of social scientists and pop cultural experts, discerning who was or wasn’t uncouth. What is more, trade press reviewers were typically anonymous, giving them freedom to express opinions and pass down judgements without fear of recrimination. In the hands of these anonymous reviewers, films acted as a cultural determinator, a litmus test for what subset of society would accept or reject a film.

As Ross props up films as a kind of architectural catalyst that reinvented night life and urban planning, he makes it clear that another reason that film created a sophisticated niche in its earliest years was in the paradoxical fact that this pioneering and expensive medium also fostered a subcategory of working class film. From the beginning, films offered illumination as “movies turned class struggles previously confined to the hidden, private realm of factories, mines and fields into highly visible parts of public culture” (Ross, 7). This visibility provided working classes with consolation that they were not alone, and that their lives deserved screen time. While Ross acknowledges that poverty had been given a storyline in literature and representation in art, in movies, the struggles and stresses of lower classes was given cinematic credence. This was an especially sophisticated counter-assault against Social Darwinism, a belief that “led many prosperous Americans to blame the poor for their poverty. These movies, however, depicted the impoverished as hard-working people who could either not find work or were paid starvation wages” (49). Ross credits directors like D.W. Griffith, Theodore Wharton and Erich von Stroheim with utilizing avant-garde techniques such as crosscutting and parallel editing to call attention to the everyday trauma of the working class. In films such as From the Submerged (1912), director Theodore Wharton used stark, horrific Kubrickesque imagery to sharply intercut scenes of homelessness with scenes of wealthy individuals engaging in something called ‘slumming parties’, excursions where wealthy men and women donned their jewels and furs to tour ghettos as if the lives of the poor were to treated like cheap exhibitions. Movies such as these enabled filmmakers to sharply critique the indifference and cruelty of the wealthier classes by juxtaposing their lavish lives with the lives of the poor. By extension, such movies also forced audiences to reconsider Social Darwin philosophy and recognize that the working class was just that - working - and that it was society’s structure that inhibited upward mobility and growth.

To facilitate this kind of metacognition is proof enough that movies and discussions around movies melded sophisticated contemplation with what had been state-of-the-art technology. What is more, that introspection automatically deposited films in the political category. As Ross shrewdly puts it, films did not need to show political solutions to working class problems to actually be political. All they had to do was show “ordinary men and women standing up for themselves. A film is political if it depicts the uses and abuses of power by one individual, group, or class against another” (Ross, 41). Under this rubric, thousands of theater goers saw political films under the guise of amusement, were exposed to economic realities and recognized that there was a reforming spirit active in their midst. Thus, films were not mere entertainment; they were antagonizing and philosophizing forces, prompting reflection and reconsideration of daily life.

While Ross’s thesis focused on working class film’s ability to demonstrate cinema’s propensity to criticize and educate regarding the stark differences in social and economic classes, Jacobs looks at the contemporary survey of films, at the way trade papers especially created a microcosm of study. She was particularly concerned with how trade papers were almost obsessive in helping audiences decide the difference between urbane entertainment versus lowbrow ‘hokum’. She found that trade presses such as Variety were especially concerned about sentimentality. (A concern that inspired the title of Jacob’s book).

In zeroing in on Variety’s reviews, Jacobs discovered that the press was especially critical of comedies, quick to accuse any comedy it deemed overly sentimental as being full of the aforementioned hokum. For her purposes, Jacobs broadly defines hokum as simple, emaciated stories that were heavy with emotion and cast with characters with obvious intentions and flatlined character arcs. She expands ‘hokum’ to describe everything from over-the-top slapstick to films that were melodramatic and transparent. As indicated, Variety was among the trade papers to declare that hokum was apropos for neighborhood theaters but too obvious and axiomatic for upscale venues. For instance, in reviewing The Thirteenth Juror (1927), Variety said that the story took itself too seriously and that its melodrama lent to the almost childish ambiance of hokum. The review finishes with the assessment that a “Sunday afternoon crowd at the Roxy might giggle at it, but the sentimental customers of a Washington Heights neighborhood will love its emotional splurge” (Jacobs, 83). Even without knowing anything about the theaters themselves, one can infer that the crowd at the Roxy was upper class and more selective than the Washington Heights audiences. Such assumptions would be accurate, as the Roxy was written up as an opulent movie palace at the time of its construction, whereas Washington Heights was a neighborhood for poor Irish immigrants. In this way, trade presses were perpetuating stereotypes about communities. By merely deciding if a film was overly sentimental, Variety assumed it was ideal for lower classes who were easy to please. (Again, an assumption, but one that would be repeated in later reviews).

In digesting Jacob’s text, it is important to remember that she titled her book The Decline of Sentiment. As she takes readers on the journey of 1920s cinema, she makes it clear that, in order for audiences and films to be considered sophisticated, there was an expectation that one must deny emotion. Jacobs covers reviews from Variety, Cosmopolitan, Criterion, Exceptional Photoplays and Exhibitor’s Trade Herald, to name a few. But, as she weaves her way through an extensive inspection of those papers, it is almost as if she is chuckling over the fact that reviewers themselves were being overly emotional in the very act of denying and downplaying emotion. Time after time reviewers try hard to across as cool and aloof, as if they themselves want to be seen as being too cultured to feel too much.

Reviewers chided films that lacked elaborate narratives and that seemed to play to the masses with characters that emoted too much. That did not mean that they did not praise them. Rather, they bestowed praise that was a little patronizing. For instance, when Variety reviewed the film Chickie (1925), a story about a poor stenographer who, through a round of romantic pitfalls, winds up with the up-and-coming handsome law clerk, the paper declared that such sentimentality would be an easy moneymaker, especially as it would appeal to “every office girl, as well as all the flappers” (Jacobs, 192). By saying that such a film would appeal to the ‘it’ girl of the day, the flapper, and that it would also be an easy moneymaker, Variety is essentially saying that films that appealed to the emotional masses were automatically less cultivated. Effectively, it is an argument about the difference between the worlds of pop culture and, presumably, high culture. Acting as judge and translator, Variety decrees that, by appealing to flappers, the movie is sacrificing sophistication for money-making.

Jumping off from the image of the flapper, Jacobs segues into investigating the fact that films that were seen as being for women were simultaneously seen as being less complex. This juxtaposition can be seen in Variety’s assessment of Clara Bow’s It (1927). A film with the ultimate flapper girl, It is about a department store shopgirl who eventually winds up with the son of the owner, after a series of jinxes, romantic escapades, and one temper tantrum thrown by Bow herself. In its assessment, Variety calls the film “one of those pretty little Cinderella stories where the poor shop girl marries the wealthy owner of the big department store in which she works” (Jacobs, 204). When Jacobs reads these words, her interpretation is that Variety is saying that the film is primarily for women, as only women would gravitate towards anything described as a ‘pretty little Cinderella’ tale.

Jacobs canvases critiques of other romantic comedies of the decade as well, such as reviews of The Gold Diggers (1923) and A Woman of Paris (1923). When examining these films, Jacobs cross-examines their reception, finding that, “the trade press consistently judged the comic variants to have a feminine appeal, a point seconded by the fashion displays in the films themselves. Journalists also approved more of the comic variants than of the dramatic ones, considering them good commercial bets for the downtown theaters” (Jacobs, 215). It is important to note, however, that when Jacob’s mentions ‘journalists’ here, she is not referring to reviewers in the trade press, for whom distinguishing between light, comedic fare and serious films was of paramount and singular importance, but to journalists in the daily newspapers who reviewed films as a sidebar. Still, Jacob’s juxtaposition between studying the comedic films and then studying trade press commentary informs future film lovers and critics of several things: Comedy was increasingly seen as non-intellectualized entertain and, therefore, it was more associated with women. By calling it ‘good commercial bets’ the compliment comes across as slightly back-handed.

When it comes to working men and women, Ross’s approach in analyzing working films again shows the level of sophistication associated with film and within the relationship between the film and the public. In studying the narrative of such films as How Hubby Got a Raise (1910), Ross saw a breed of films that sought to do more than entertain, but to ignite radical conversations, exploring “struggles among unions. strikers, capitalists, police and government troops” (Ross, 57). Again, Jacobs focuses on such comedies as It and how the story showcased bold, flirtatious behavior, and how the audiences received seductive tales that were delivered with comedic timing versus sentimental pathos. Ross, meanwhile, examines the political focus. In How Hubby Got a Raise, Ross recognizes that the film “mocks the pretensions of upwardly mobile white-collar workers, their often ambitious wives, and their prurient bosses” (Ross, 45). In the film, a wife tries to impress her husband’s boss by borrowing lavish accoutrements for their apartment when he is due to visit. But the plan backfires as the boss believes he’s overpaying his worker and fires him. In one single film, both rich and poor are mocked for their devotion to capitalism and chided for the lengths they’ll go to maintain a false facade.

Ross goes further, pointing out that the sophistication was not just in the fact that films were commenting on working conditions, but that their very commentary was a reflection of their own industry, a kind of metacognitive meditation. To perform a full interrogation, Ross asks himself why an industry that would one day be hostile to labor started out as pro-labor. Ross concludes that it was because the infrastructure of the film industry paralleled that of the factory workforce so completely, it was almost impossible for commentary to not slip into storylines. In fact, Ross asserts that films and their images “did not simply represent some general trend in society but were closely tied to the changing economic structure of the film industry, the backgrounds of individual filmmakers, and the state of labor relations within the studios” (Ross, 59). While factory workers and unions challenged the capitalist hierarchy that demoralized them, filmmakers during the 1910s were having similar epiphanies, taking on such groups as the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), also known as the Trust. The MPPC, formed by such inventors as Thomas Edison and importers like George Kleine, was created to limit the sale of film stock and to ensure that Trust members had a monopoly over the production, distribution and exhibition of movies. With these economic and labor struggles happening in film’s own backyard, filmmakers were able to “ translate abstract ideas about class and class conflict into something they could see and understand” (Ross, 62). For Ross, that is the linchpin of film’s sophisticated capabilities, to take an abstraction and shape it into a story that catalyzes discussions about class boundaries and creates a synthesis between labor disputes happening in cities and on studio lots. This discourse led to a cerebral coexistence that elevated film above and beyond basic diversion.

Evidence of the fact that film had become a cultivated, posh organism can also be seen in the fact that critics and trade papers did not always interpret films in the same way. For instance, when Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was adapted and brought to the screen in 1914, the purpose was to show that “socialism offers enlightenment as to the way out of the long hours and short pay and strike problems” (Ross, 70). However, not all viewers saw and heard this message. Labor and socialist dailies praised the film for its accurate depiction of the inequality of factor life, with socialist writer and commentator Clement Wood declaring that the film brought tears to his eye. At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, was Variety writer Sime Silverman who angrily wrote that, “this is not a feature picture of wild animals, just about wild socialists, that’s all - and Lord knows, that’s enough” (Ross, 71). What these differences in opinion reveal is that, like any piece of art or literature, motion pictures were not a simplistic combination of images and words that served audiences a one-sided story. They were layered, full of metaphors, ideologies and philosophies that allowed audiences and reviewers to latch onto or dismiss elements that they admired or despised.

To understand the idea of movies in the Progressive Era, it is helpful to realize that the politicalization of movies made going to them as partisan as attending a march or partaking in a strike. As Ross puts it, anyone “who believes that moviegoing during the silent era was a passive experience or that audiences meekly accepted what they saw on the screen would certainly have gotten a strong reaction from Emmanuel Lopez” (Ross, 145). Emmanuel Lopez was a political activist who, in 1919, attended The World and the Woman, a film by Samuel Goldwyn, at the Strand Theater on Broadway. The movie was a Cinderella type story set in Czarist Russia. When scenes showed a reenactment of the Russian Revolution, there were intercut with a title card that read, “Down with Religion, the Church, and Priests”. When Lopez cheered, the man sitting next to him attacked him. Eventually, a riot broke out. Lopez was arrested and, when appearing before a judge, the judge told him that a Bolshevik-loving American should leave America and go to Russian. Such an incident was not uncommon in an era when audiences shouted at screens and each other.

The use of visual metaphors was another sign of sophistication in working class films and in their ability to communicate political messages. Ross recognizes that the medium of film allowed auteurs to play with elements that were not previously available. In the film Why? (1913), the French film company Éclair showed the lives of the working class in the harsh factory environment. In a particularly vivid dream sequence, the scenes showed “underpaid seamstresses being forced to use their own blood to make red thread for the rich” (Ross, 72). Words were not needed in this image, as audiences could simply read the visual, understanding that the filmmaker is indicating that the average working person literally bled for their job.

As the 1920s went on, Jacobs notes that trade papers - with Variety at the helm - became more critical of films if they overplayed the sentimental card. It was as if the trade papers were increasingly dictating that modern society was only modern if it was less sensitive. This is where romantic dramas and society dramas received the most attention and criticism and where Jacobs found commentary that revealed why some sentimental films were derided and considered less esoteric: they were too feminine. (Yes, there is ‘that’ criticism again). As an example, Jacobs examined a review about the 1927 romantic drama by William C. deMille, Forbidden Woman. Variety compliments the film for its exotic drama, but goes on to insist that “men will call it sloppy sentiment. Very artificial and theatrical” (Jacobs, 217). By creating gender demarcations between films, Variety creates a bias that films that were overly emotional were only for women. Jacobs sees it as outright distaste, and that such “distaste for the romantic drama constitutes a vital aspect of the decline of sentiment” (Jacobs, 223). While trade papers such as The New York Times commented favorably on sets and costuming, if there was even a whiff of too much womanly emotion, the film was dismissed as saccharine. Oddly enough, this criticism transcended sentimental films and influenced how even horror films were viewed.

One instance of this was when the trade paper Exceptional Photoplay critiqued Greta Garbo’s horror film, Flesh and the Devil. The paper concluded that the film was ultimately successful because, despite the familiar vampiric plot, Garbo elevated the picture for an audience that had “become more sophisticated about ladies of vampirish repute” (Jacobs, 245). In essence, Garbo’s otherworldly exoticism, (she was nicknamed the Swedish sphinx), ensured that, no matter how over-the-top the vampiric pantomime was and no matter how dramatic the storyline, she delivered the sophistication that audiences craved. Exceptional Photoplay would go on to perform a compare/contrast between Garbo and the equally vampish Theda Bara. For Jacobs, this comparison boiled down to illustrate the supposedly sophisticated audiences’ taste for understatement, which led to a determination that “Theda Bara’s vamp roles are considered crude and overdone, while Garbo’s frailty, civilized bearing, and decorum make her enactment of the seductress more believable, and presumably, more compelling” (Jacobs, 246). What this tells future film critics is that, in the desire to create a niche of sophistication, film critics, (and, by extension, audiences), were encouraged to favor the subtle over the extreme, the simmering of emotion over the blatant outburst. It also tells us that anything emotionally-wrought was synonymous with feminine hysteria and was therefore a telling bias against women during a decade that saw the advancement of women’s suffrage.

Under the abstract banner of sophistication, movies had a curious relationship with audiences. It was a vice-versa relationship, one in which films dictated to viewers what it meant to be sophisticated, while viewers returned the favor by deciding when sentimentality was pandering. In the list of synonyms for ‘sophisticated’, the word ‘advanced’ is typically included. Ross seems to have that synonym in mind as his analysis shows films to be an instrumental part of the advancement of the working class in terms of communicating the reality of labor. Films of the Progressive Era essentially advanced their message of equality on the screen by articulating that message via cinema elegance. In understanding Progressive Era audiences, Ross gives the most articulate understanding of film’s place in American culture when he distills what he sees as the role of film historians:

“Film historians can provide citizens with the critical skills they need to contextualize, analyze and criticize the images and ideologies they see on the screen. By so doing, scholars can help Americans understand how these images affect our views of the past and the possibilities for the future. This is an intellectual goal and civic duty worth pursuing” (Ross, 276).

In applying that very ideology to the theme of sophistication, what Ross does is help readers assume the posture and position of workers seeing their own plight and beliefs on the screen. The act of ‘going’ to the movies was not a relaxing pastime, but a politically charged moment.

For her part, Jacobs sifts through the layers of sophistication by looking at how 1920s audiences wanted to be perceived - as those capable of appreciating nuanced films versus those who preferred the supposedly cheapened fare of highly emotional stories. Jacobs recognizes that “highly didactic or moralized stories were often treated with sarcasm or scorn. In some cases the romance plot was reworked to favor a more cynical, or a more carnal and humorous, view of sexuality” (Jacobs, 276). Between Jacobs and Ross, a picture emerges of the audience ‘type’ of the Progressive Era and the 1920s. Faced with the prospects of this new medium, filmmakers and audiences raced to make it into something that each category of persons wanted; the result was a mishmash of cinematic possibility. On the hand, in its infancy, before Hollywood gripped the industry in an anti-union fist, movies spotlighted the worker and gave audiences a look at the reality of the struggling classes. By the 1920s, however, films started to be segregated based on emotional context and thus gender appeal, regulating the more sentimental of the films to a seemingly artless category.

What is clear between the texts is that, regardless of intention, the historical understanding is that films offered a new opportunity for stylish artistic expression. Images could wordlessly communicate metaphors of seduction and social humor while new techniques such as parallel editing could repudiate the rich and esteem the poor in a matter of a few frames. It also remains clear that films set into motion a new, elevated manner of telling a story filled with morals that could be interpreted depending on audiences’ tastes.

Ultimately, both Jacobs and Ross prove that to study cinema is not to engage in a cultural or psychological retrospection, but to place oneself in the midst of people of yesteryear as they gazed at the screen for a few hours, and tried to make sense of their world while also trying to disappear from it, if only for a little while.

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