LIBERAL STUDIES 730
Two American Decades on Film: The Thirties and the Sixties
Dr. David Corey
A comparison of the ways that fiction films reflect American values. A look at the "genre" film as it adapts to the prevailing Zeitgeist.
This course relates to the component on Film in Core Seminar I. In conformity with the general concept of the Core Seminar, it relates the aesthetic and thematic concerns of films from two decades to the value systems current during those periods.
In the early thirties the Depression is alluded to through metaphor and genre; monsters, who usually appear in a nation's films just after the onset of economic crisis, give form to unarticulated anxieties; the gangster films suggest inverted ways of realizing the American dream; and the musicals provide an escape into either upper-class settings in mythical European lands or the theater. Films made later in the decade espouse middle-class and small-town values, as sexless, home-spun actors like James Stewart and Judy Garland replace the earlier exotic and urbane likes of Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich.
In the sixties there is a somewhat sanctimonious attempt to rebel against old racial stereotypes, and the ultimate sins are sexual repression and establishment values. Marriage is seen as a problem rather than a solution, and insane people are often wiser than the allegedly normal. The sixties revolution is expressed stylistically; whereas in the thirties films are conventionally edited so as not to jar the viewer's sensibilities, in the sixties the entire "grammar" of film is shaken up so that the very style of the film undermines old values. The raw, disjunctive editing and elimination of continuity (matches of action, eye-line, angles) make the viewer share the disorientation of the alienated and dislocated anti-hero of the sixties.
I. The Musical
1. The Merry Widow (1934)
The upper-class continental escape fantasy
2. West Side Story (1960)
The lower-class urban musical
II. The Horror Film
1. Dracula (1931)
The monster as metaphor for unarticulated anxieties about the Depression.
2. Marnie (1964) or The Birds (1963) or Psycho (1960)
Repression as the ultimate sin
III. The Gangster Film
1. Scarface (1932)
The gangster as Horatio Alger figure.
2. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Nostalgia for the Depression. Gangster as anti-establishment fighter
IV. The Little-Man Comedy
1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The triumph of populism; the apotheosis of small-town values.
2. The Apartment (1960)
V. The Road Film
1. It Happened One Night (1934)
Bus trip screwball comedy; reconciliation of the classes
2. Easy Rider (1969)
The motorcycle search for values. The trip. The reverse western.
VI. Explicit Rebellion
1. Modern Times (1936)
Chaplin's protest against regimentation
2. The Graduate (1967)
Rebellion against the values of the older generation
VII. Adaptations from novels:
1. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Social criticism made acceptable by its introduction as a novel
2. Dr. Strangelove (1963)
Apocalypse now as the result of middle-age male frustration
In addition to attendance at screenings and lectures, and participation in discussion, two papers, a midterm and a final exam.
Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America
Michael Wood, America in the Movies
John Baxter, Hollywood in the Thirties
Andrew Bergman, We're in the Money