East Side West Side

In the 1940s and 1950s, when the classic New York directors who will occupy my discussion in subsequent chapters were watching movies on Saturday afternoon rather than making them as a life's work, audiences in Loew's Pitkin in Brooklyn or the RKO Fordham in the Bronx recognized the symbolic content of New York imagery and responded to it much like moviegoers in other parts of the country or even of the world. Although native New Yorkers might have had a unique delight in identifying several location shots of familiar territory, they visited fantasy worlds of penthouses, nightclubs, office towers, and Broadway dressing rooms much like audiences in the Bijou on Main Street out there on the far side of the Hudson. They understood how the shorthand of setting and character was supposed to work, and like audiences around the world, they responded to the magic.

But there were several key differences. For them, the City was more than a network of symbols; it was their hometown, the place where they lived, went to church or temple, played stickball, and fell in love. They appreciated that Humphrey Bogart, for example, represented in look and sound the archetypal tough guy, and they could respond appropriately to his symbolic persona on the screen, but as a native New Yorker himself, he sounded like the neighborhood grocery man or the parish priest. The dark stairwells and foggy waterfronts Bogie crept through were menacing, of course, but they were not very different from the look of their own neighborhood. Because New Yorkers perceived these images, which were pure fantasy in other parts of the world, as arising from their familiar surroundings, they responded with a certain degree of ambiguity. They could grasp a menacing presence, but this did not transfer over to the City as a whole. New York was not all that dangerous: for them, the fantasy was thus tempered by reality. The images induced a form of visual schizophrenia.

Similarly, the presence of foreign-born or minority characters in the films created a predictable sense of the exotic, decadent, or sophisticated, but for the natives, it was not all that strange. It was familiar psychic territory. A young Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet would not react to Italian criminals, corrupt Irish detectives, venal Jewish merchants, or African American hustlers as threats to traditional American values. Ethnic mixing was neither good nor bad; it was simply the way things are, and certainly it was nothing to fear in itself. Many residential neighborhoods might be ethnically homogeneous, but the schools, subways, and shops certainly were not. Then as now, people had different reactions to diversity, but for good or ill, it was a simple fact of daily life. It was not, as some outsiders might believe, a strange phenomenon peculiar to a distant city with a foreign way of life. For audiences in New York, Dorothy's lily-white Kansas or Longfellow Deeds's sweetness-and-light Mandrake Falls were the real fantasy. These worlds bore little similarity to the real America as experienced by the city dwellers who flocked to see Oz or Tara as an evening's escape from the everyday world of their own neighborhood.

The movies' adulation of small-town America and corresponding apprehension with city life—read New York—was more than a mindless and inevitable reflection of a majoritarian viewpoint. It represented a partially conscious effort on the part of the industry to create its own version of life in the United States. Hollywood studios were controlled by outsiders, immigrants, and former city dwellers, mainly Jewish, who somehow conceived of America as a world that represented everything they strove to leave behind. They idealized the images of their new homeland as a statement of their own American orthodoxy, even though this sanitized "American" world still found restricted clubs and professional quotas quite acceptable. At the same time, the city in which they found prosperity, their fulfillment of the American dream, was to a great many Americans suspect at best and dangerous at worst. They found the mythic America they created more palatable to audiences and to themselves than the real America where they made their fortunes.

In his fascinating study of the dynamics of Hollywood, film historian Neal Gabler documents the roots of this small-town fantasy America as stemming from a small group of immigrant Jews from Central Europe. Many of the names are familiar: Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Jesse Lasky, Adolf Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle. According to his thesis, these perennial outsiders to both European and American elites tried to prove their allegiance to their new country by extolling in their movies the nation they thought existed and that they aspired to be accepted into. He comments: "What is amazing is the extent to which they succeeded in promulgating this fiction throughout the world. By making a 'shadow' America, one which idealized every old glorifying bromide about the country, the Hollywood Jews created a powerful cluster of images and ideas—so powerful that, in a sense, they colonized the American imagination."35 Having experienced poverty in the slums, they created a world where hard work inevitably brought success. Having escaped ghettoes on both sides of the ocean, they created a town where everyone is accepted as equal. Having tasted city life at its harshest, they preferred town life at its most pastoral and urban life at its most idyllic. Their own tastes reinforced the agrarian, antiurban strain already present in the American psyche centuries before the invention of the movies.

Filmmakers who were not Jewish shared the vision of the moguls and cashed in on it quite successfully. Frank Capra, an immigrant from Sicily working for Harry Cohn at Columbia, probably rivaled Norman Rockwell, the famous illustrator of covers for the Saturday Evening Post, as the godfather of mythic America. In contrast to the moguls, when European directors, like Eric Von Stroheim and Joseph Von Sternberg, arrived in Hollywood and brought their dark urban images and sophisticated themes with them, they merely confirmed Americans' worst suspicions of foreign and big-city decadence.36

The classic films of the sound era created fantasy versions of both small-town and urban environments. The exaggerated qualities of the one highlighted the mythic qualities of the other. If the movie version of small towns represented the best in American values, then the city, especially New York City as the archetypal city, represented the worst. No one protested this cinematic black eye. On the contrary, New Yorkers watching these films took delight in affirming the image of their city as the toughest, most corrupt, noisiest, dirtiest, gaudiest, most violent town on earth. This is consistent with their feelings about their town. Perversely, New Yorkers take special pride in boasting that their subways are more dangerous and their cab drivers more sociopathic than in any other city in the world. Survival in this environment simply adds to the cachet of being a New Yorker: "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," as Frank Sinatra tells us so forcefully in "New York, New York." He never has to sing the unspoken conclusion for New Yorkers: "And baby, I made it big."

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