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Hollywood as History

Digital History TOPIC ID 119

Of all the products of popular culture, none is more sharply etched in our collective imagination than the movies. Most Americans instantly recognize images produced by the movies: Charlie Chaplin, the starving prospector in The Gold Rush, eating his shoe, treating the laces like spaghetti. James Cagney, the gun-toting gangster in Public Enemy, shoving a grapefruit into the side of Mae Clarke's face. Paul Muni, the jobless World War I veteran in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, who is asked how he lives and replies, "I steal." Gloria Swanson, the fading movie goddess in Sunset Boulevard, belittling suggestions that she is no longer a big star: "It's the pictures that got small." Even those who have never seen Citizen Kane or Casablanca or the Treasure of Sierra Madre respond instantly to the advertisements, parodies, and TV skits that use these films' dialogue, images, and characters.

Movies are key cultural artifacts that offer a window into American cultural and social history. A mixture of art, business, and popular entertainment, the movies provide a host of insights into Americans' shifting ideals, fantasies, and preoccupations. Like any cultural artifact, the movies can be approached in a variety of ways. Cultural historians have treated movies as sociological documents that record the look and mood of particular historical settings; as ideological constructs that advance particular political or moral values or myths; as psychological texts that speak to individual and social anxieties and tensions; as cultural documents that present particular images of gender, ethnicity, class romance, and violence; and as visual texts that offer complex levels of meaning and seeing.

Copyright Digital History 2014