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The Visual Politics of Class: Silent Film and the Public Sphere




By Steven J. Ross.

Why should anyone seriously interested in class care about movies? To answer this, I ask readers to participate in the following exercise: Blurt out the first word that comes to mind when you see the following names: Saddam Hussein; George Bush; Osama bin Laden; Bill Clinton. Most readers will probably have come up with some rather evocative adjectives. Yet, how many of us actually know Hussein, Bush, bin Laden, or Clinton? How do we know what we know about these world figures? The answer is undoubtedly “the media.” Most of us are far too busy to study these people in depth. Instead, we rely on the media to provide us with our knowledge of the world.

Whether it is a world leader or a world event, knowledge we get from the media affects the way we look at the world. If enough media outlets tell us over and over again that Hussein or bin Laden is another “Hitler”, we are bound to believe it. After all, how many of us believed the images we saw during the Gulf War, when Patriots were knocking Scuds out of the air with amazing precision? Only later did we learn about what we did not see: Patriots self-destructing, Scuds that eluded Patriots, and the extensive human damage caused by our “smart” bombs.

Media Event: Playing Happy Families in 2005

This exercise points to the tremendous power that media—newspapers, radio, film, and television—exert in shaping the political consciousness of a nation. Unfortunately, groups to the left and right of the Democratic and Republican Parties have little access to mass media and, consequently, little chance of presenting their politics to a mass audience.

This was not always the case. During the early decades of the twentieth century, movies were used as vehicles of political education by a wide variety of groups across the entire political spectrum. Motion pictures were far more politically engaged and ideologically varied during the silent era than at any subsequent time in cinema history. Silent films did more than just entertain: they played a critical role in shaping—not simply reflecting—the ways in which generations of Americans would think about political life in general and especially about the meaning of class and the viability of radical politics.

Political consciousness is forged in a variety of settings: workplaces, neighborhoods, families, political rallies, and movie theaters. When it came to shaping public opinion, movies mattered most about the things which people knew the least. Many Americans got their first glimpse of what a unionist, socialist, communist, industrialist, or mass movement looked like by watching movies. Whether the public thought of these as good or bad, whether they would support unions or capitalists might well be determined by what they saw on the screen. No one film was likely to change the world, but seeing the same ideological images over and over again could affect the way in which people understood contemporary problems—especially problems and events about which they had little first-hand knowledge. Americans who had little daily contact with unions, radicals, or strikes were most likely to be influenced by what they saw on the screen.

Farsighted unionists, radicals, capitalists, and reformers understood the enormous power of this new medium. Between 1907 and 1930, worker filmmakers—a term I use to describe movies made by individual workers, labor unions, worker-owned companies, or members of radical organizations like the Socialist Party—made films that challenged the dominant political ideas of the days and offered millions of viewers positive visions of what it meant to be working class. Moreover, they attempted to use those visions to show working people how to transform their lives, their government, and their nation.

This essay examines how a wide range of groups on the left, right, and center—but mainly on the left—battled for control of American class consciousness during the silent era. From 1907 until the coming of sound in the late 1920s, worker filmmakers repeatedly clashed with censors, movie industry personnel, and federal agencies over the kinds of class images audiences would be allowed to see. The outcome of these battles was critical to our own time, for the winners got to shape the dominant images of class and radical politics in twentieth-century America. Indeed, many of our present cinematic images and understandings of class relations—the nature of labor unions, radicalism, mass movements, being working class or middle class—are partially the result of the battle for control of the silent screen.

A New Public Sphere

Long before Jürgen Habermas coined the term “public sphere,” political leaders from all walks of life understood the importance of presenting their ideas to a mass public. “Publicity is a mighty force in propagating any cause,” the editors of one labor daily explained in 1913. “No matter how worthy or how noble the purposes of the movement, if they can not be correctly interpreted and brought to the attention of the people the movement loses in effectiveness and force.” The main problem for groups outside the political mainstream was getting news about their movement to a mass public. Newspapers were the main medium of political information at the turn of the century, but their ability to reach a mass audience was limited by the fact that most papers were highly partisan and their readership was drawn largely from party supporters. Readership was further divided along language lines as many foreign-born residents preferred to read a native language newspaper. Workers and radicals found this situation especially problematic for newspapers were loathe to report daily incidents of labor exploitation, and when they did their coverage was favorably slanted toward employers and the state.

With only limited access to the mainstream press, insurgent groups turned to other forms of political education. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) published its own newspaper, the AFL Newsletter, while the Socialist Party tried reaching audiences through a traveling speakers series that sent prominent radicals such as Oscar Ameringer and Ella Reeve Bloor around the country to discuss the most vexing issues of the day. Unfortunately, both forms of publicity rarely reached beyond the already converted and the number of people they did reach was relatively small.

Movies offered radicals, reformers, capitalists, and state authorities a new kind of public sphere, a cinematic public sphere, that could be used to communicate ideas and shape public opinion. “By ‘public sphere’”, Habermas explained, “we mean first of all a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens.” Movies fit this definition in two key ways: they conveyed a variety of ideas to a vast array of people and they could be made—at least until the late 19teens—by anyone with access to several hundred dollars. Unlike newspapers, movies reached a genuinely mass audience that cut across class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, age, language, geography, and political affiliation. By 1910, nearly a third of the nation’s population flocked to movie theaters each week; by 1920, almost half; by 1930, admission figures approached 100 percent of the nation’s population. “The tremendous propaganda power of the hundred thousand projectors,” radical filmmaker William Kruse insisted in October 1924, “outshines all the newspapers, magazines, pulpits, lecture platforms, and public libraries put together.”

While cultural conservatives often spoke about the myriad dangers posed by the new medium, more farsighted observers on the left and right heralded its potential to reach unprecedented numbers of citizens from all walks of life. “The repertory of the motion picture is so varied and the language it speaks is so universal,” the People’s Institute reported in October 1912, “that it has appealed all up the range of social classes and to old and young alike in the family.” Problems that had previously been lifeless words in newspapers and books could now be seen moving across a larger-than-life screen. Comparing the impact of movies to newspapers, one reporter noted in 1908: “Far more people are today reached by the moving picture than by the daily press, [and] while we read the newspaper only in parts, the moving picture we see complete.”
 In thinking about early cinematic politics it is important not to assume that movies were always controlled by a bourgeois movie industry that supported the dominant political order. The motion picture industry began as a relatively small-scale business with hundreds of producers, distributors, and exhibitors scattered throughout the country. During the first two decades of the twentieth century—before the rise of the oligopolistic studio system that came to be known as “Hollywood”—the low cost of production ($400 to $1,000 a reel in many instances) and high demand for films allowed diverse groups we would not usually associate with filmmaking to participate in this fledgling industry. The Ford Motor Company, the American Federation of Labor, the American Bankers’ Association, the Women’s Political Union, the Socialist Party, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Communist Party, and the Russell Sage Foundation all made films as means of publicizing their cause, disparaging their enemies, and swaying public opinion to their side.

Silent films quickly became part of an expanding public sphere in which competing political ideas were discussed and public opinion molded. Emerging in the midst of the Progressive era, a time of unbridled optimism when many Americans believed they could solve the problems of society, movies became an important part of the political, as well as the social life of the nation. Filmmakers inside and outside the movie industry entered into national debates over the most contentious issues of the day. Films depicting the evils of child labor, the need for birth control, the demand for woman suffrage, the dangers of tuberculosis, and the suffering of the urban poor helped raise public consciousness and in so doing helped ease passage of bills aimed at remedying these problems.

The diversity of producers and production centers allowed for a contest of ideas and variety of ideological perspectives unknown in today’s movie industry. Nowhere was the political character of early film more varied than in movies about the problems faced by ordinary working people. During the formative years of the film industry, when working people comprised the bulk of the nation’s movie audiences, commercial filmmakers made thousands of movies about working-class life. While most of these films were innocuous love stories and adventures, a significant number explored the central problems of their lives (low wages, long hours, poor working conditions, unemployment) and the ways workers responded to those problems (strikes, unions, radical politics). Class-conscious filmmakers on the left and right transformed labor-capital struggles that were previously hidden from public sight into highly visible parts of a new public sphere. Tragedies such as the Triangle Fire and the Ludlow Massacre were recreated and reinterpreted on the screen for millions to see. By 1910, movies about class struggle grew so numerous that reviewers began speaking of a new genre of “labor-capital” films.

The commercial movie companies that produced the bulk of the nation’s labor-capital films—Edison, Biograph, Thanhouser, Essanay, Vitagraph, and the like—were not afraid to confront the most controversial issues of the day, and few issues burned as hotly as the class violence that had rocked the nation since the late 1870s. These class-conscious films told stories about the exploitation of wage earners, protests by unions and radicals, abuses of power by government officials, troubles created by “outside” agitators, and successful efforts by socialists to overturn the capitalist system. Radical films such as The Jungle (1914), The Rights of Man (1915), and Dust (1916) offered viewers viable alternatives to the capitalist politics of Democrats and Republicans.

Although box office returns may have been their ultimate concern, producers nevertheless turned out a range of ideological perspectives on class conflict that is unimaginable in today’s cinematic world. In dealing with highly contentious issues surrounding strikes, labor unions, socialism, communism, and capitalism, a plurality of “pre-Hollywood” films made by producers inside and outside the movie industry advanced a liberal perspective toward their subject matter. Between 1905 and April 1917, when American entry into World War I altered the movie industry and the politics of its films in dramatic ways, producers released at least 274 labor-capital productions. Of the 244 films whose political perspectives could be accurately determined, 112 (46 %) were liberal, 82 (34 %) conservative, 22 (9 %) anti-authoritarian, 17 (7 %) populist, and 11 (4 %) radical.

While the vast majority of these films were made by commercial companies, capitalists, government agencies, and labor and radical organizations all took to the screen with the express purpose of shaping public perceptions about the most troublesome class issues of the day. It is important to remember that the movie industry arose at the same time that businesses and social scientists were developing new techniques for mass persuasion. Advertising agencies, public relations firms, and attitudinal studies were being used by myriad groups to measure and shape public opinion. Movies were a logical extension of these developments. As one Cleveland employers’ association attorney explained in 1911, “laws and institutions change as public sentiment is moulded and changed. But public sentiment is open to argument, persuasion, and conviction.”

The Triangle Fire, 1911

Led by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the nation’s leading employer association, capitalists and corporations responded to the negative publicity generated by tragedies such as the Triangle Fire and Ludlow Massacre by producing films that presented capitalist ideology in more favorable light. Movies such as The Crime of Carelessness (1912) and The Workman’s Lesson (1912) blamed workplace tragedies on careless employees and portrayed employers—not unions—as the people most concerned with the welfare and safety of their employees. Likewise, railroad companies responded to the uproar over their industry’s deplorable safety record by producing films such as Steve Hill’s Awakening (1914), The Price of Carelessness (1915), and The House That Jack Built (1917) that ascribed workplace accidents to employee negligence and burdensome union work rules.

Government agencies joined capitalists in the world of cinematic propaganda. Although many early productions focused on publicizing an agency’s public service activities, those which dealt with labor-capital relations revealed a clear class bias. The Bureau of Mines (U. S. Department of Interior), which produced more movies than any government agency during the silent era, repeatedly made films—often in cooperation with the nation’s leading corporations—that advanced an explicitly anti-union, pro-capitalist agenda. The Miner’s Lesson (1914), Safety Lessons in Metal Mining (1914), Sanitation in Mining Villages (c. 1915), and When a Man’s a Miner (1924) portrayed workplace accidents as caused by careless, drunken or stubborn workers and suggested that safety regulations were the result of the persistent efforts of employers and government agencies. Unions were never present in any of these films, nor did the films mention that it was miners’ unions which had forced coal operators and state officials to adopt health and safety reforms. An American in the Making (1913) and The Story of Steel (1924), both made in cooperation with the rabidly anti-union US Steel Corporation, told similar stories of government and business joining together—without the need for unions—to provide workers with a safe and happy life inside and outside the factory gates.

Workers and radicals responded to conservative cinematic attacks by making their own films. Labor and radical organizations were attracted to this new arena of visual politics for one of several reasons: to educate the general public about issues and struggles important to working people; to help organize the unorganized by showing wage earners that their common needs were greater than their differences; and to present all Americans with a vision of a better world and a blueprint for achieving it. Realizing that traditional forms of communication (labor newspapers, speeches, and leaflets) held little appeal for the unconverted, a small number of farsighted activists saw the possibilities of turning the public’s craving for movies into a new weapon of propaganda to be used on labor’s behalf. As New York socialist John Black observed, no other medium “could drive home to the wage earners so effectively the insanity of capitalism and all that it entails as an exhibition in life-like pictures of the horrible, unspeakable, misery that results from the perpetuation of these conditions . . . . [T]here is no question but that when these scenes are portrayed on a screen in all their agony and suffering their silence will be louder and more impressive than the most eloquent orator.”

For the nearly 2 million members of the American Federation of Labor, entry into the cinematic public sphere was born out of a determination to combat anti-union propaganda that threatened their organizing efforts. Delegates to the AFL Convention in October 1910 roundly condemned conservative labor-capital films made by people “unfriendly to the cause of labor” and whose purpose was “to prejudice the minds of the general public against our movement by falsely and maliciously representing it.” Trade unionists feared that if left unopposed, conservative filmmakers would seize control of the screen and dominate cinematic discourse about the struggles and goals of unions. In September 1911, AFL leaders moved beyond simple complaints and released the first labor-made feature film, A Martyr to His Cause. The two reel movie, made for $2,537, portrayed the McNamara brothers, then on trial for allegedly bombing the Los Angeles Times, as innocent victims of anti-union zealots. Labor producers reversed conservative depictions of unionists as lawless ruffians and portrayed manufacturers, their private police, and corrupt judges as anti-democratic co-conspirators who repeatedly acted “contrary to the laws and traditions of our republic.” Union members were presented as the true adherents of law, order, and democracy.

From Dusk to Dawn

Like the AFL, other worker filmmakers produced feature films aimed at attracting a mass audience and not just the already converted. To that end, they delivered highly politicized class messages in the form of popular love stories and melodramas. From Dusk to Dawn, made in 1913 by socialist Frank Wolfe, was ostensibly a love story between handsome iron molder Dan Grayson and beautiful laundress Carlena Wayne. Yet in telling his highly entertaining tale, Wolfe offered working-class viewers a visual blueprint for changing their world that began with Dan and Carlena organizing their respective workplaces and ended with Dan being elected as governor of California on the Socialist Party ticket. Likewise, the five-reel What Is To Be Done, made in 1914 by socialist actor Leon Weiss, used a love story between a white-collar stenographer and a factory owner’s son as a means of recounting the “true” story of the Ludlow Massacre and showing viewers how they could succeed in using strikes to obtain justice from stubborn employers.

Film succeeded in bringing the problems of the age to life in a way few mediums could rival. Ideas previously confined to the written or spoken word now moved across the screen in marvelously realistic fashion. And because movies were mass produced, copies of the same film could be shown simultaneously in large cities and small towns across the country. Labor productions thus reached millions of people with the same set of images and ideas at the same time. A Martyr to His Cause was seen by over 50,000 people during its opening run in Cincinnati. From Dusk to Dawn was viewed by half a million people in New York and set attendance records in Chicago and surrounding towns. Commenting on the propaganda value of these films, one radical periodical gushed that movies delivered labor’s message to Americans “who are hard to reach through speeches or printed words” and would “drive home the argument of Socialism and the rights of laboring men as nothing else ever has.”

In addition to educating the general public about the nature of their struggles, worker filmmakers used movies as a means of uniting a deeply fragmented working class. During the early twentieth century, as today, people saw themselves as holding multiple identities: employers or employees, men or women, immigrants or native-born, Catholics, Protestants or Jews. Moreover, the uneven development of industrial capitalism created a variety of workers (skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white collar) and a variety of working-class experiences and needs. Although worker filmmakers came from diverse backgrounds (moderate and militant trade unionists, socialists, and communists) and espoused a variety of solutions to the problems of the day, they shared one central belief: that movies could help forge a common working-class consciousness by showing often divided wage earners that their common interests were greater than their differences. Worker films exposed millions of people in all industries and in all parts of the nation to the same set of images and messages. They showed the sweatshop labor in New York, the coal miner in Pennsylvania, the mill hand in North Carolina, and the cannery worker in California that exploitation and injustice could be stopped if working people joined together and exercised their collective power—through workplace militancy, trade unionism, socialism, and political action. Worker films provided wage earners with a means of envisioning a different kind of nation, a nation in which an empowered working class could guarantee every citizen a decent standard of living, a safe workplace, and a government free from corruption.

Labor and radical organizations also moved to educate, entertain, and politicize Americans by producing newsreels and short films for local and regional audiences. The accessibility of movie equipment prompted union and radical organizations to shoot films of local events. Labor cameramen could be found at May Day parades, Labor Day parades, major strikes, and political campaigns throughout the nation. The popularity of these films, which were often exhibited at neighborhood theaters, led more ambitious organizations to turn sporadic endeavors into regular occurrences. Socialists in Los Angeles and New York publicized their struggles by making and distributing newsreels between 1911 and 1913 that featured ongoing union struggles, suffragist campaigns, and “all phases of Socialist work.” These films were “a decided hit with the large audiences that filled the theater at each of the several performances” in Los Angeles and paid five cents to see them. In New York, word-of-mouth information about the radical shorts spread quickly and filmmakers soon received requests from party branches in “New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.” New York leftists were so pleased with these cinematic efforts that they voted “to utilize moving pictures as a permanent feature of Socialist propaganda.”

Eugene Debs speaking at meeting organized by The New York Call

Cinematically more modest than feature films, these shorter productions were no less important. By projecting scenes of labor picnics, parades, strikes, and gatherings on to the screen, worker filmmakers transformed the activities of everyday life into extraordinary cinematic events. For a few brief moments, ordinary people could enjoy seeing themselves as movie stars and bask in the satisfaction that their lives and struggles were worthy of being seen by thousands of people. Far from being dull, news films could be as emotional as melodramas and more informative than the latest newspaper. Worker-made newsreels, the New York Call declared in 1913, were especially vital in “breaking the boycott on news relating to capitalist brutality and oppression” and “making known the facts of the class struggle in this country.” Few citizens could believe labor and socialist reports about repression in mining camps, steel mills, and factories. Now there was visual evidence.

Working-class filmmaking grew more pronounced after World War I as unionists and radicals started production companies throughout the country. In the summer of 1918, railroad workers in Los Angeles bought a Hollywood studio and organized the Motive Motion Picture Company. In November 1919, militant trade unionists in Seattle founded the Federation Film Corporation (FFC); four months later, their counterparts in New York organized the Labor Film Services (LFS) and embarked on an ambitious quest to produce and distribute feature films, shorts, and newsreels “portraying the worker’s life in the mines, in the slums, on the farms, in the railroads, on the picket lines, etc.” Other filmmaking ventures were carried on by AFL members in Washington DC and communists in New York and Chicago.

Despite their varied politics, the general goal of these film companies remained the same as their prewar predecessors: “to mold public opinion for the benefit of Organized Labor and to bring about reforms by the pressure of public opinion.” Even conservative unionists such as California building trades leader P. H. McCarthy came to appreciate the effectiveness of this new arena of mass persuasion. “The silent drama,” he explained in March 1921, “nightly speaks to millions of American citizens. Especially may it be utilized, therefore, by Organized Labor to present, in motion picture form, its case to the American people.”

Labor's Reward

As labor and the left came under increased assault from powerful capitalists and their government allies, postwar worker filmmakers responded by making feature films—such as The Contrast (1921), The New Disciple (1921), and Labor’s Reward (1925)—that promoted their political agenda for the 1920s: more vigorous trade union organizing, the creation of industrial unions and worker cooperatives, and heightened support for ongoing strikes. “We have the opportunity of reaching and educating the non-union man of today,” explained FFC director John Nelson, “who can be made the loyal union man of tomorrow.” Communists countered anti-Red cinematic images and publicized workplace struggles by making movies such as The Passaic Textile Strike (1926). Worker companies also parried slanted media coverage of contemporary labor events by producing newsreels. The LFS’ Animated Labor Review and the FFC’s Labor News Weekly and Economic Digest featured stories about strikes, boycotts, Socialist Party rallies, incidents of government repression, and the struggles of foreign workers. These news films, insisted socialist movie critic Louis Gardy, offered audiences “a fuller knowledge of the day’s events” and exerted “more influence than a shipload of features.”

The Rise of Hollywood and Decline of the Cinematic Public Sphere

Although worker filmmaking flourished for a brief period after World War I, the rise of “Hollywood” and the studio system signaled the rapid demise of the worker film movement and a marked rightward shift in the politics of American film. The spectrum of political possibilities that could be seen on the screen steadily shrank as studios grew more powerful.

This transition in the politics of American film was the result of several intersecting factors: the rising costs of feature films and the monopolization of distribution and exhibition by studios; financial pressure from Wall Street investors and political pressure from local and state censors and federal agencies; and a desire to make films that would attract the new cross-class audiences that studios were trying to court. Taken collectively, these changes marked a turning point in the ways in which Americans would look at and think about class conflict and class relations.

Dangerous Hours

The onset of World War I dramatically altered the structure of the American movie industry and the class politics of its films. In 1914, the United States produced approximately half the world’s movies; by 1919, with European film production in shambles, that figure rose to 90 percent. It was during the 1920s that Hollywood—the place and the way of doing business—came to assume its modern identity. The modestly sized industry of earlier years was supplanted by an oligarchic, vertically-integrated studio system centered in Los Angeles and financed by some of the nation’s leading industrial and financial institutions. Movies were now a multi-million dollar industry and, as in other industries, the most successful companies increased their profits by securing greater control over the market and expanding into new areas. Producers moved into exhibition, exhibitors into production, and distributors into production and exhibition. By the end of the decade, studio hegemony over the industry was so great that the Federal Trade Commission charged Paramount, Fox, MGM, and Warner Brothers, who collectively produced 90 percent of the feature films made in the United States, with violating anti-trust laws; they also charged the ten leading distributors, who handled 98 percent of the films shown in the United States, with the same offense.

With studios and exhibition chains controlling a greater percentage of the nation’s theaters, worker filmmakers—and all independent producers—found it increasingly difficult to place their films in the first-run houses that yielded the greatest profits and would allow them to recoup their investments. Worker production companies relied on a patchwork of states rights distributors, local unions, and radical organizations to arrange at least one screening of their film in major cities. But limited exhibition runs and frequent cancellations caused by censors prevented film companies from raising enough capital to finance a second production.

The spiraling costs of filmmaking also contributed to the demise of the cinematic public sphere. In 1909, a one-reel film with no movie star could be made for less than $1,000. In 1918, a modest five-reel feature cost $12,000 to $24,000 to produce; by 1924 that figure rose to $300,000, and $1 million or more for special extravaganzas. By the mid 1920s, the reform, capitalist, and labor groups who had used movies as vehicles of propaganda before the war could no longer afford to make feature films.

Studios still made movies about class, but pressure from investors and censors pushed the ideology of those films in increasingly conservative direction. As production costs skyrocketed, studio executives hesitated to make controversial films that might endanger a company’s profits or their own personal success. Censors may have loathed films with too much sex or violence, but they absolutely feared liberal and radical films about class conflict. Instead of simply ordering offensive scenes to be cut, censors often banned films and newsreels “calculated to stir up . . . antagonistic relations between labor and capital” or “revolutionize our form of government through insidious propaganda.” Rather than risk having a movie held up or banned, studio executives either avoided making labor-capital films or made ones with conservative slants on class conflict. Of the 96 labor-capital films released between 1920 and 1929 whose politics I could determine (excluding those made by worker filmmakers), 66 percent were conservative and 21 percent liberal; 79 percent of the films made after the industry’s new production code in 1924 were conservative. Not a single radical film was produced by a studio during the decade.

The Right to Happiness

With worker filmmakers virtually gone from the screen and liberal perspectives in decline, conservative labor-capital films reigned as the dominant visual discourse about unions, radicals, and mass movements for remainder of silent era—and set visual stereotypes that would last to the present. These movies rarely offered viewers any insights into the reasons why men and women joined unions or launched strikes. Instead, they portrayed union leaders as self-serving troublemakers who incited violence among previously content workers. Most of these films ended by urging workers to trust employers rather than union or radical leaders. Hostile images of radicals and unionists grew especially pronounced during the Red Scare as industry leaders joined the government’s campaign to use “the Power of the Motion Picture screen to spread anti-Red teachings all over the country.” Films such as The Right to Happiness (1919), Dangerous Hours (1920), and The Stranger’s Banquet (1922) attributed postwar unrest to the work of secret Bolshevik agents and the corrupt labor leaders who were paid to help them.

Studio heads also joined conservative politicians and business leaders in promoting “modern” understandings of class and class identity. The proliferation of white-collar and service sector employees in the early twentieth century and the widespread participation of wage earners in a flourishing consumer economy created great confusion over the meaning of class. Were white-collar employees working class or middle class? Should class identity be based on one’s occupation or ability to consume? Did class even matter anymore? Whether the rapidly growing ranks of white-collar personnel thought of themselves as working class or middle class was of vital importance to labor and business interests alike. Leaders on both sides of the class divide spoke about the “powerful agencies that consciously and unconsciously aid in blurring the group lines of American society.” Movies proved one of the most powerful agencies of persuasion.

Orchids and Ermine

As studios attempted to increase profits by luring more middle-class viewers into their theaters, films that emphasized class conflict were superseded by lavish productions that blurred traditional class lines and focused on the good-natured and often romantic interactions between the classes. These new “cross-class fantasies,” or “society films” as they were often called, reinforced a growing capitalist discourse which suggested that modern class identity was based on one’s ability to consume rather than on one’s occupation. Anyone who could afford a vaguely defined middle-class style of consumption was middle class—regardless of what collar they wore to work. Class conflict and class organizations were portrayed as things of the past. Films such as Saturday Night (1921) and Orchids and Ermine (1927) stressed individualism rather than collective action, and told viewers that happiness would be most readily found in the democratized world of consumption rather than in the deadening world of production. Since studios controlled most of what was made and shown in America, these were the visions of class relations to which moviegoers now grew accustomed. Thus, cross-class fantasy films helped legitimize the class hierarchies and conservative politics that characterized what Republicans liked to call the “Age of Normalcy.”

With studios dominating the feature world, cinematic class struggles among workers, capitalists, and government agencies were carried out in the form of nontheatrical films (often thought of as “educational” films) that were exhibited to millions of Americans in schools, churches, factories, union halls, civic auditoriums, YMCAs, and occasionally in movie theaters. The low cost of producing nontheatricals, about $2,500 a reel, allowed a wide range of business and labor groups to present their messages to mass audiences. Companies active in the anti-union campaigns of the 1920s, such as the Ford Motor Company, US Steel, and General Motors, made theatricals aimed at teaching the “American working man—especially the foreign born” about the “true meaning of Americanism” and the importance of turning “a deaf ear to the teachings of radicals.” Labor and radical organizations responded to these cinematic assaults by producing their own nontheatricals. Printers, textile workers, miners, boot and shoe workers, and communists used these modest films to reach union and non-union audiences alike “and tell them the truth, make them understand the present condition” of labor struggles. Although their audience was smaller than feature films, nontheatricals were widely distributed and seen by people throughout the nation. By 1929, the estimated number of nontheatrical venues ranged as high as 100,000, as compared to 21,000 commercial theaters. Unfortunately for labor and the left, nontheatricals promoting their cause reached far fewer citizens than capitalist productions which were distributed by well funded anti-union organizations.

Movies and the Mind’s Eye

By the time sound pictures supplanted silent films in the early 1930s, eight Hollywood studios had gained near monopolistic control over the motion picture industry and, in so doing, exercised a preeminent role in determining the kinds of ideological images the public would see. Independent filmmakers and even studios themselves continued to make liberal and populist films about class and class conflict. But it has been the anti-union, anti-radical stereotypes advanced by the far more numerous conservative labor-capital films of the silent and sound eras that have long dominated the mind’s eye. Images of kind-hearted but naive workers being duped by corrupt union leaders, of radicals stirring up trouble among previously content workers, of violent strikers destroying everything in their path have been repeated over and over again until they have come to form our main cinematic discourse about class conflict.

Public opinion surveys from the 1940s onwards testify to the widespread belief that there are classes in America. But, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, when Americans think about class they “see the middle class as a universal class, a class which is everywhere and representing everyone.” No one would suggest that movies alone are responsible for shaping modern perceptions of class. Yet, why would anyone today want to think of themselves as working class or embrace any kind of radical politics when the two have been portrayed in such disparaging ways by filmmakers for nearly 100 years? Television has continued this conservative visual tradition. A 1976 study of television images of class observed that “workers are portrayed as ignorant, prejudiced, and incompetent, stereotypes that insult the huge number of intelligent and real-life workers. . . Society is perceived as a place where few people work, where the labor movement is virtually nonexistent and collective bargaining/action is irrelevant.”

Labor's Reward

Movies have grown far more technologically proficient in the past several decades. But their ability to present meaningful alternatives for political change has declined since the end of the silent era. Political change requires political vision—something that filmmakers of the silent era possessed but has been lost during the past 70 years. In a time when the gap between rich and poor grows wider and wider, when greater numbers of Americans are forced to work two jobs to support their families, and when fewer voters turn out on election day because they feel they have no real political choice, movies no longer offer citizens a vision for changing the world through collective action. Unlike the silent era, filmmakers no longer portray radicalism as a serious alternative to the narrow politics of Democrats and Republicans. Films like Frank Wolfe’s From Dusk to Dawn (1913) showed viewers how they could use unionism and socialism to create a far more democratic world. This could happen again. As I suggest in Working-Class Hollywood: “Committed filmmakers could help replace the current politics of despair with the politics of hope, and replace the politics of pessimism with the politics of possibilities. That is the ultimate genius of cinema: it can take a politically blind population and offer them the gift of sight.”

Steven J. Ross is Professor of History and chairman of the History Department at the University of Southern California.

This article was originally published in Film International 2, vol. 1, no. 2, 2003: ‘Class Visions: a special issue’.

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