The Historical Importance of Movies

Film is a unique way for historians to look into the mindset of society. Every movie, whether based in reality or fantasy, has something to say about its audience. This is useful for historians because they can use movies differently than other more conventional sources. One reason for this is because movies project ideas and feelings of mass society onto huge screens for the world to see and they are easily accessible. Some sources give a limited perspective of historical events but movies represent the tone of hundreds of thousands of people who go to the movies. Because human beings have such spectacular imaginations and can transfer their views and attitudes onto almost any story, film historians have such a unique task of interpreting films’ undertones. Brigham Young can be about Hitler and World War II or Dirty Harry can be about saving americans from radical counter culture hippies or Stagecoach can be about the changing face of the “New Deal” America.

Film is a window into the mood of the society at the time it was created, therefore, it is a valuable source to historians. For example, Horror movies of the 20s and 30s featured monsters and villains like Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and Dracula while later horror films featured regular human villains – bad guys that looked just like everyone else. The villains’ struggles were internal and it left audiences with the feeling that the monsters could be anyone. The same type of film created in different historical eras and they each say something different about the atmosphere in which they were created. There are examples of this in every genre. The films change with the mood of the audience because no matter what the message of the film is, the main goal of every commercial film is to make as much money as possible. The question always arises as to whether or not movies influence society or society influences the movies and as with many  other debatable topics in filmmaking “both” is the usual conclusion. Movies will adjust to the changing attitudes of their audiences to sell tickets, but on the other hand audiences are influenced on some level by every movie they watch. It is important for historians to take this into account when analyzing history through the eyes of film.

An example of the they-influence-each-other theory is the film Sergeant York. At the time, the United States was struggling with the decision to join the war effort. So Hollywood of course makes a war movie but, to connect to the mood of society, the hero is a Quaker and ultimately against violence and killing people. Hollywood was making a movie that would sell tickets by using Gary Cooper as the non-violent Sergeant York (Hollywood influenced by the masses) but the filmmakers depicted the hero’s struggle with his decision to fight or not to fight and in the end he chose to fight (the masses influenced by Hollywood). This is, of course, a grossly over simplified look at the film but it supports the idea that historians must consider both the audience perspective and the Hollywood perspective when using films as a source for research.

The neat thing about historians using films to take a closer look at history is that when looking at the film industry as a whole since its earliest days it is not hard to see social evolution and reoccurring themes. Films tell an interesting tale about the role of women in society. In the early days they were the pure, innocent victorian women who needed protection like many Lillian Gish characters, however; years later actresses like Mae West came along and women had transformed from helpless innocent creatures into outspoken, tough, sexy characters. Chronicling the changing roles of women in films as compared to women’s roles in society can reveal interesting insight into how film and history can walk hand in hand. Women in film is just one example. Similar social evolutions can be found throughout film history like black roles and civil rights in film, relations between upper class and lower class, attitudes toward war, the list could go on and on.

At first it might sound a bit wrong to suggest that history can be studied through films that are either purely fictional or loosely based on truth and almost always have someone’s bias influencing the final cut. Often times, what movies present incorrectly can tell us just as much about its context as when the film is historically accurate. In reality it is not always the facts presented in the actual film but sometimes the facts surrounding the historical time period the film was made in that make it a good source for research. Granted, there are several factors to consider before jumping to conclusions about society’s perspective or Hollywood’s influence, but when given proper attention movies can be a great source for historians.


Not Your Typical Cowboy Movie

In class we discussed the Western genre and how it is uniquely American because of its initial concepts of manifest destiny and taming the “wild” west. Westerns represented civilization and progress conquering the wilderness. These are all key elements of the classic Western. On one hand, many of them were very conservative – like several John Wayne westerns (i.e. The Comancheros). On the other hand, there are quite a few Westerns with a more liberal point of view. In a genre that is packed full of stereo types, there are a handful of films that break the norm. There are staple characters to the genre like the saloon owner, the hooker, the drunk, the sheriff, the gunslinger, and the bad guys (cattle barons, bankers, outlaws) but each movie is different in how they arrange these characters.

Stagecoach is a good example of a Western that uses the typical characters to tell an original story. The movie addresses issues of social prejudice in extremely literal ways. In fact, Doc Boone actually tells Dallas that they are victims of “social prejudice.” The film allows people to sympathize with a drunk, a hooker, and an escaped convict. The characters were more than that, however; they were the down trodden less fortunate and the film encouraged people to flock together regardless of background or social status. A lot of this had to do with the time period in which it was filmed, but in any time period it is very open minded for such a widely popular film. Compared to many Westerns that do not have much content beyond the “cowboys and indians” storyline, Stagecoach is downright philosophical.

Another Western that put a twist on the typical story was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. This film had the typical characters, however; the film was anything but typical. One of the biggest differences was that it did not relish killing and violence like most Westerns. Typical films in this genre depicted a lot of killing and violence and very rarely depicted anyone feeling remorse for their actions. More often than not, characters celebrated their kills, or at the very least did not experience guilt or remorse. In Unforgiven, the reformed gunfighters, Munny and Logan, have lost their taste for killing. The Schofield Kid, who is initially excited at the prospect of making a name for himself as a gunfighter, admits that his first kill was not what he had expected. The film also has a moral ambiguity about it that is very interesting for its genre. The average Western clearly establishes what is good and what is bad, there is rarely a gray area. In this film, the “good guys” are old killers themselves, and they are seeking a reward from a whorehouse – so technically they are acting as hit men or contract killers. The sheriff of the town is acts as a peacekeeper, but he beats and kills people throughout the course of the film. *SPOILER ALERT* In the end Munny basically kills everyone and then threatens to come back if any more hookers are harmed. So almost every character is both good and bad at the same time. It is very noir-like in this respect.

These films are classic examples of how movies can take the staples of a genre and rearrange them to create unique and original stories. They are all part of a genre because of their commonalities, but each one is different in its own way. Just for fun here are some other Westerns that deserve mentioning for being unconventional: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and most recently Apaloosa.

Movies With A Message

Film is such a great medium for addressing race issues, or any social problem for that matter. Watching a film like In the Heat of the Night, or even Birth of a Nation, or more recently The Help, can allow the audience to acknowledge that a problem exists. People in the audience might even come to the realization that they are part of the problem, but when they leave the theater they can find comfort because after all it was only a movie. That is not to say that movies do not have any lasting effects on the audience, but that the message can be harsh because there is always the justification that it is not reality.

Here is an example: there are people protesting war in the streets, they are throwing the atrocities of war in everybody’s faces and using real life accounts (perhaps exaggerating a bit here and there). How do people react to these protestors? Generally, not well. People do not typically like to be yelled at or look at giant signs about all the things they are doing wrong. However, a movie hits the theaters, it can be any movie with anti-war tones, Jarhead, Hurt Locker, The Green Zone, heck even Men Who Stare At Goats. How do people react to these films? They love them! Movies can take a social issue and address it blatantly or subliminally, either way the audience is smart – they understand it, and in the end they like it. Comparing movies to protestors might be a little extreme, but the idea is the same. People are more willing to see a social problem for what it is in a movie than they are in reality. This does not mean that movies can not cause people to take action of some kind, or at least change their mindset. It means just the opposite. After watching a social problem film people are likely to leave the theater thinking open mindedly about the issue. It is one of the great qualities of film as an art form, the ability to heavily influence people.

In class we are talking about the 1960s and films made around the same time as the Civil Rights Movement. There were some great films during that 60s that addressed the issue: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, To Kill a Mockingbird. Interestingly, To Kill a Mockingbird had a white hero and not very many black actors, but it did make a huge statement about racism. Racism is a topic addressed in great films even after the Civil Rights Movement was over. One of my favorites of the 1970s – and this might surprise you – is Blazing Saddles. I know it is supposed to be a funny movie just for laughs, but if you analyze it there is an obvious attack on the stupidity of the KKK and racism in general. In the 1980s there was Mississippi Burning, even though it was nominated for 7 Oscar Awards there was nothing exceptional about the film but it was the 80s, not a whole lot of exceptional films made it out of that decade. In the 1990s there was Malcom X (this one could be classified more as a black power film) and Murder in Mississippi. It seems like most films about racial injustice happen in Mississippi because the 90s also gave us A Time To Kill, which was set in Mississippi. In the early 21st century we had films like the remake of Hairspray, and Crash. So it is obvious that race issues persist, because the films persist. Race films didn’t begin or end in the 1960s, but regardless of when they were made, they still get the message across because film is one of the best mediums for addressing social issues.

Everybody Has to Start Somewhere

You might be interested to know that Arkansas has its own fair share of movie stars and filmmakers. I recently did some research on this topic and discovered several Arkansas natives who made it big in the film industry in some capacity. Gilbert M. Anderson, born Gilbert M. Aronson in Little Rock Arkansas was one. He was cast in The Great Train Robbery in 1903. If you remember much earlier in class we briefly touched on The Great Train Robbery. It was directed by Edwin S. Porter, who is most remembered for his ability to tell stories through parallel editing. Anderson played the role of the passenger who gets shot by the robbers in the middle of the train tracks. Here’s the clip where you can see Anderson’s totally convincing performance. Scroll to about 4:50.

After his role in this film, he decided he liked the film industry so much he moved to Chicago where he opened his own studio with a partner George K. Spoor. It was called Essanay Studio and there they produced several films. Essanay even employed Charlie Chaplin for a time at $1,250 a week, pretty good for early 1900s! The most famous works to come from Essanay however were the Broncho Billy western series. Anderson played Broncho Billy and the series of films became very popular, each one grossing an average of $50,000. When you consider that it cost around $1,000 to make each film, that is pretty impressive. Anderson continued to produce films after he retired from acting, and in 1958 he was given an Honorary Oscar Award for his contributions to early filmmaking.

Another Arkansas native who made a name for himself in the early 20th century was Freeman H. Owens. He was born in Pine Bluff in 1890 and was a high school drop out. In 1910 he went to work for Carl Laemmle and shot footage for newsreels that were played in movie theaters before the actual film ran. He left Universal Studio and went to work at Essanay (where Gilbert M. Anderson was) where he was a cinematographer. Also, during his time at Essanay he patented several inventions of his to improve cameras and projectors. In 1918 he joined the United States Marine Corps. and was the official cameraman. Later he also pioneered slow motion filming, and in 1920 shot Babe Ruth hitting a home run in slow motion. Though Lee DeForest holds the patent for phonofilm, an early sound on film technology, Owens claimed to have actually invented it. There was a court battle over the patent but ultimately DeForest won. A genius when it came to camera equipment, Owens was a great cinematographer, and as a result he had the opportunity to shoot amazing documentary footage in his career.

It is important to realize that filmmaking is not just for the elite Hollywood few. People from all over, even Arkansas in the early 1900s, can make a name for themselves in the industry. Filmmaking is an art form, and it is created by average people. A lot of the business is who you know, but even more of the business is how hard you work. Often times we think of Hollywood actors and filmmakers as these untouchable people so far removed from the rest of us but the truth is all of them have a story. They all started somewhere like Arkansas and had to rise to the challenges in order to become successful.

These are not even all of the big names I found, just my two favorites. If you’re interested to find out what other big names you might recognize from Arkansas. You should check out the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, which is in Pine Bluff, or you can click here to browse the website. Some of the names might surprise you!

What Makes Scary Movies So Scary?

Not everyone enjoys horror films, however; even people who don’t like scary movies could identify the characteristics of the genre. Scary movies are typically (but not always, as we discussed in class)  set in secluded locations like the woods or an old house in the middle of no where. The characters are generally the same, a psychopath, a hot chick, some bros, and  some other hot chicks who will die before you even learn their names. We expect the characters to walk into sick traps with lots of blood and gore. In the end there will be a hot chick and, if we’re lucky, a bro left as the only survivors. In class we discussed things that make movies scary and of course, as with most other things in film we decided it had to be relevant. The psychopath could be any of us, or all of us. The giant atomic mutations could be communists who cannot be killed but merely contained. All of these things do contribute to the scare factor in the movies, however; filmmakers can make any story scary with the proper devices.

Writers and directors of quality horror films deserve credit for their ability to heighten the suspense and anticipation in audience members. Sure, the blood and gore are gross but if the audience saw what was coming it would lose its scary appeal. A master of suspense was Alfred Hitchcock. He knew that if you kept certain information from the audience and gave other information to them, they would go mad with the suspense. The best parts of Hitchcock movies were when he finally revealed to the audience what they had been waiting for the entire movie.

As evidence in countless Hitchcock films, several techniques are used to create and maintain suspense and one of them is editing. This is one of the biggest assets to a horror film, or any suspense film for that matter. With rapid cutting, editors create a sense of intensity and panic in viewers. This technique is common in chase scenes. Another editing technique used to create suspense is the classic doorknob turning. Everyone knows the scene, some frightened victim is hiding in the closet and the shots usually go something like this: frightened victim biting nails, shadow of villains feet at the bottom of the door, frightened victim biting nails, the shadows leave, frightened victim sighs with relief, the shadows reappear, oh no! frightened victim begins to cry, the door knob begins to turn. You probably know the rest, all the while during that sequence the shots begin to cut faster and faster making the sense of urgency clear.

Another way suspense is created in movies is cinematography. The camera angles, lighting, and shot composition all can contribute to the suspense conveyed to the audience. Many of these techniques are common sense. For instance, extreme low angle shots represent authority and control. Many times  villains are shot from below causing them to look large and menacing, and victims are shot from above making them look small and helpless. The classic horror film camera angle is the “Dutch Tilt” – when the camera is tilted to one side or the other, creating a helter skelter view of the scene. Lighting can change the feel of a movie as well. Rarely, do filmmakers create a horror film set in a well lit, warmly colored environment. Shadows and darkness and cool colors (greens and blues) make it difficult to identify “what’s out there” psychopaths could be lurking in the shadows of every frame. It is a very good way to create suspense. Shot composition and the mise-en-scene, are also major factors in creating suspense. If a victim runs into a shed full of tools, blades, and other sharp metallic objects, audiences immediately recognize the many different ways that character can be killed and start to worry about how dangerous it is. (Classic example – any of the final destination movies.)

I agree that the underlying and subliminal faces of evil, like social and political issues, make a film scary to the audience, but filmmakers don’t do anything by accident and they know how to make things scary given the right tools.


Mythological Movies and Modern Audiences

Recently, a trend in Hollywood (and in television, if that is allowed here) is this influx of the period piece, specifically mythical ancient era films. Troy,  300, 10,000 B.C., Clash of the Titans, and the new Immortals (coming soon to theaters near you) are just a few examples. These mythical films are very popular and very similar when you examine them closely.

Let’s do a quick rundown of each film. Troy hit theaters in 2004 and featured Brad Pitt as Achilles the indestructible warrior who had no love for the gods and sought to defy them. He fought for immortality above all else and achieved feats that were considered impossible for one man on his own. This is of course an extremely vague description but the basics are there. 300 came two years later and told the story of 300 brave warriors standing up against over 100,000 persians. Incredibly similar to the storyline in Troy, King Leonidas goes to war defying the high priests of his culture. Two years later, in 10,000 B.C., D’leh, who is just an average man and becomes a leader by accident, overcomes various prophecies and insurmountable odds to save the girl he loves. In 2010, Clash of the Titans is about Perseus the son of Zeus who must defeat several mythical foes in order to save the world and Olympus. He does his best to complete the mission as a mortal to prove to the gods that he does not need their gifts.

Those descriptions were short and vague, but they show that each of the movies have a common thread: men standing up to unthinkable odds and being successful. Yes, Achilles died, but he achieved immortality and saved the woman he fell in love with. The Spartan warriors died, but they stood up to the Persian army longer than anyone expected and blazed the trail for Spartans to be victorious later on. D’leh succeeded against all odds and of course, his girlfriend was brought back to life through magic. Perseus succeeded with almost no help from the gods and his girlfriend was also brought back from the dead (although no one really cares because the story line did not really emphasize this love story aspect of the film).

So what caused this sudden popularity of the mythical film, and what does it say about the time and context they were made in? In 2004, when Troy came onto the scene, Americans had been in Iraq for a year. The United States was also fighting a war on terrorism, which was a pretty big foe. Also in 2004, Al Gore began campaigning against global warming, which seemed like a situation already past the point of no return. These issues: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and global warming were all so big to the American public they might as well have been mythological adversaries. Also, as Americans, we love our individualism, so it would only be natural for our society to feel a responsibility to solve all these problems ourselves. When American audiences watch movies like Clash of the Titans it would be easy for them to correlate Perseus fighting alone against gods with Americans fighting against global warming or terrorism. These films are obviously shown in other countries besides the United States, but  perception is everything and because of the emphasis on individualism here in America, the American audience has a different perspective than any other audience. It’s always good to look at things from another perspective, I wonder how we would react to these films if we weren’t born and raised in the United States.



I was reading Dr. Welky’s latest movie list post (yes, I read every word Dr. Welky!) and I was thrilled to see that Stagecoach made the list, for several reasons. If you have never seen this film, I highly reccomend it. I’ll tell you a little bit about it, just so you’ll believe me that you need to see it.

Made in 1939, Stagecoach was one of the first great westerns and it served as a major inspiration to Orson Welles in making Citizen Kane. It was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne but believe it or not, at the time John Wayne was not the biggest name in the film. In fact, Thomas Mitchell won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role as Doc Boone that year and Claire Trevor actually had the biggest salary.

It’s a story about tolerance and prejudice and very interesting when you consider it in the time period that it was made. John Wayne played the Ringo Kid, an outlaw who escaped from prison and was seeking revenge. He met a Stagecoach that is running through the desert trying to stay clear of Apache’s and hitches a ride. The other characters in the stagecoach include Dallas, played by Claire Trevor, a fallen woman who was run out of town by women who had formed a “League of Decency”, Doc Boone the drunken Doctor, Mr. Hatfield, a gambler, Mr. Peacock, a frightened Whiskey salesman, Mrs. Mallory, a pregnant army wife, and Mr. Gatewood, a bank manager who is skipping town with all of the bank’s money. There was also Curly the quirky stagecoach driver and Buck the Sheriff. 

With all of these characters travelling in one stagecoach together, the atmosphere is very close and quickly the characters begin to learn about each other. For instance, the outcasts are immediately pointed out. Doc Boone, Ringo, and Dallas – the drunk, the outlaw, and the prostitute. Mr. Peacock walks the line between outcast and in crowd because Doc Boone is very attached to him and his whiskey. There are several examples of how mistreated the outcasts are. In one instance, Mr. Hatfield pulls out a travel cup to pour water for Mrs. Mallory but does not offer the same luxury to Dallas. It was too offensive to have a lady and a prostitute drink from the same cup!

Another interesting thing to consider is the character of Gatewood, who is fleeing the bank with all of the town’s money. If the passengers in the stage knew this information he would surely have been treated much worse than Ringo – the known outlaw. This was very symbolic of how audiences felt toward banks in general at the time. This man was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a crook masquerading as an upstanding citizen – whose own wife was a member of that league of decency, by the way. The film addressed several social issues like this, but I want you to watch it so I won’t give anything else away. It’s worth noting that this film was based on a short story called Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox, in case you are interested. It’s a good read.

I felt like it was important to expand on Dr. Welky’s mention in his blog, because this film has so many examples of topics we have discussed in class, like how Hollywood handled social issues and how audiences felt about those issues during the time that it was made. I hope at least some of you go watch the fim now!

Hollywood, an Agent of Propaganda

Zoltan Korda’s Sahara was released in 1943 and was an ordinary Hollywood war movie. It starred Humphrey Bogart who appeared in several war themed films, most famously Casablanca just a year earlier. Bogart was perfect for the movies made in the World War II era, he had a rough persona that embodied the classic red-blooded American male. Unlike many Hollywood stars, Bogart did not get his big break until he was in his forties. This was part of the reason he was suited for so many roles during the World War II era. For example his role in Sahara as Sergeant Joe Gunn was classic Bogart. Sergeant Gunn was not supposed to be some beautiful, dreamy looking young man, but a jaded man who had what it took to fight for his country and make the hard decisions. When looking at the whole film, including but not limited to Bogart’s character; Sahara lends a snapshot of how American society during that time felt about the war.

The film was meant to influence American audiences to be supportive of their country’s involvement in the war and also to be supportive of their allies. Korda did this by creating scenes between American soldiers and other soldiers that gave audiences a glimpse at why we were fighting in this war. One example was the scene with Sergeant Gunn and Guiseppe working on the tank engine. They began to talk about deep political topics like Mussolini and life’s hardships in Italy. The whole scene gave audiences a reason to connect with countries affected by the war and more importantly it gave audiences a reason to sympathize with them. The American people would understand getting involved in the fight if they felt it was a righteous cause. According to the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry “We must make the four freedoms live and breathe.” Sahara was demonstrating why American was fighting the war. It was for people like Guiseppe, who were deprived of the four freedoms: of speech, of religion, lack of want, and lack of fear. There were quite a few scenes like this one that complied with GIMMPI standards and involved American soldiers having heart – to – hearts with allied soldiers, thus teaching the audience that we all have things in common. Waco even says, “You sure learn things in the army,” when he is conversing with Sergeant Major Tambul. There is another scene that attempted to sum up America’s involvement in the war, when Sergeant Gunn proposes that the nine of them stay and hold off 500 Germans. He expressed that if they stand and fight, they might die, but they also might usher in a turning point in the war and tip the odds in the allies favor. This scene is representative of America’s involvement in the war and audiences of the time would have made that connection.

Another way the film influenced audiences was by clearly differentiating between the good guys – the Americans and their allies – and the bad guys – the Germans. The film made it clear who the good guys were in the first 10 minutes of the film when Sergeant Gunn and Captain Halliday met for the first time. Halliday was stuck with a handful of British and French soldiers left. Immediately, Gunn offered cigarettes to everyone. This cigarette sharing was a sign that these men were friends. The good guys were loyal, noble, and tolerant. In the same scene when the Americans encountered the British and French soldiers, Gunn goes into a passionate monologue about his tank, affectionately named Lulabelle. It was an odd way to show it, but the whole monologue was a representation of how loyal Americans were, even down to their machinery. The mere fact that nine men made the choice to stand against 500 demonstrated how noble the heroes were. Also, by picking up Sergeant Major Tambul the good guys sent a clear message that they were not racist. In stark contrast, when they captured the German airman, he did not even want to be patted down by Tambul. The bad guys were cruel as well. When the two German soldiers were released to go back to their unit, one killed the other who gave up information in exchange for water. The German airman ended up stabbing Guiseppe in the back. All of these scenes were meant to show how different and bad the Germans were. The bad guys were nothing like the Americans and their friends. This portrayal of the enemy was not by accident, in fact government policies from the Office of War Information suggested that the enemy be characterized in specific ways. Another interesting portrayal was the character of Guiseppe. He was an Italian prisoner and even though he was technically a bad guy, deep down he was a good guy, and only doing what he must to survive. The character was a literal representation of his country, both were stabbed in the back by Germany.

The overall message of the film was that Americans were fighting to preserve freedom. It also strove to glorify American soldiers as well as the allied forces and to show the vicious nature of the Germans. This message came from a combination of factors. One contributing factor was that Hollywood needed to sell tickets, and in order to do that they had to make movies that matched the mood of the audience. Americans did not want to go to the movies and see American soldiers fighting against noble, loyal, compassionate men like themselves. Audiences needed reassurance that they were involved in this war because they must help defeat a vile enemy. Another factor was the relationship between Hollywood studios and government agencies like the Office of War Information. The OWI was created in 1942 as a propaganda machine and its mandate, as set out by President Roosevelt, was to use all forms of mass communication to cultivate a society with “an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the war policies, activities and aims of the government.” The OWI encouraged Hollywood to make films like Sahara. The government needed someone to create propaganda on a grand scale and the feeling was that propaganda through entertainment was most effective. Establishing a liaison between Hollywood and the United States Government was a logical step. In conjunction with the OWI, the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry was released and had a great impact on the message of the film. This document outlined ways in which motion pictures should portray the enemy and heavily influenced films like Sahara.

Sahara was a film about many things: loyalty, nobility, tolerance, camaraderie, and freedom and many factors contributed to these themes like public opinion and the mood of society as well as the OWI and documents like the GIMMPI. Combining all of the smaller themes exhibited in Sahara, the film’s overall message was quite clear, that America was justly fighting this war for freedom. Nothing in this film happened by accident, from Sergeant Gunn’s monologue about his tank to the German prisoner stabbing Guiseppe in the back, every minute detail was carefully planned, whether by Hollywood writers and directors or by the GIMMPI. It is just one World War II film of many that were produced around this time, but it is a fine example of how Hollywood became an agent of propaganda during American involvement in World War II.



Christie, Thomas B. and Andrew M. Clark. 2008. “Framing Two Enemies in Mass Media: A Content Analysis of U.S. Government Influence in American Film during World War II.” American Journalism 25, no. 1: 55-72. Humanities Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed October 27, 2011).

‘Tough without a gun’ examines humphrey bogart’s enduring appeal 2011. United States, Washington: McClatchy – Tribune Information Services. (accessed October 27, 2011).

United States Office of War Information. 1942. Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry. Washington DC, 1 – 167.

Women in Filmmaking

In class, we have discussed the roles women played in front of the camera, but we haven’t really touched on what kinds of roles they held behind the scenes. Since the early days of film, women have played important roles in the filmmaking process, but they have not typically worked in the more prestigious positions like producer or director. Many worked as editors or as painters, during the brief time that each individual frame was hand painted to add tint and color. Women have also traditionally held roles such as costume designer, production designer, and script supervisor.

In the 1930s there were three prominent female editors. Margaret Booth worked primarily with MGM. Barbara McLean worked with 20th Century Fox. Anne Bauchens worked with Paramount. Booth and McLean actually held administrative positions at their respective studios, and Bauchens, though she did not hold an administrative position, she was the chief editor for De Mille. These women were responsible for films like Mutiny on the Bounty (Booth), All About Eve (McLean), and the Ten Commandments (Bauchens). Several of the films that Dr. Welky has mentioned in class were edited by one of these three women. They were exercising creative control over many of the films that came through those three studios. Bauchens even won an Oscar for North West Mounted Police in 1940.

In terms of directing, it is uncommon to see a film directed by a female, there are some exceptions, of course. Most recently Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for Best Director in 2010, and she was the first female to ever win that category. Since the Oscars began more than 80 years ago, only three other women have even been nominated.  Other female directors to note are, Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), and Mira Nair (Vanity Fair). It’s worth noting that Mira Nair commonly works with female editor Allyson C. Johnson, they have collaborated on Vanity Fair, The Namesake, and Monsoon Wedding, to name a few.

Another great name among female filmmakers is production designer Catherine Martin, who is married to director Baz Luhrmann.  She was the production designer and costume designer on Moulin Rouge and Australia. Both of those films were hugely reliant on elaborate and detailed sets and costumes. Her work is amazing. Here is a clip discussing her responsibilities during the making of Australia (which she also co-produced).

As far as producing goes, Kathleen Kennedy is one of the best in terms of box office hits.  She gained Executive Producer credit in the Back to the Future trilogy, Gremlins, the Goonies, Cape Fear, and Schindler’s List. Producing is one of the toughest jobs in filmmaking. Though it is a huge job, producers don’t get as much recognition among the masses as directors. Of the most famous  producers, Kathleen Kennedy is one of the only women in the game. Often times if she isn’t executive producing a film, she is associate or co-producing with Steven Spielberg.

The National Women’s History Museum Online has a great exhibit about women in the early days of film. Click HERE to visit. I would recommend browsing through it if you’re interested in looking back even further. Women have made an impact on the film industry despite their behind the scenes roles. Though Hollywood is dominated by male presence, there is still a female presence that will hopefully grow as time goes on.

So the Moral of the Story Is

Earlier when I posted about documentaries, Kyle made a comment that I think is worth exploring. Here is an excerpt of said comment: However, after thinking for a few minutes, it occurred to me that feature films do not necessarily comment on social topics (in other words, have an “agenda”) any less than documentaries, they just do it in different ways. But because I have not seen many documentaries, I do not have a reliable point of comparison. Do you think this is true?

The answer is YES! I 100% agree that both fiction films and documentaries tackle social issues. Fiction movies often have subtle (or not so subtle) deeper meanings. The blockbusters that you go see with your friends most likely have a “moral to the story.” One of my favorite examples is Wall-E, where humans have abandoned planet earth because it is too trashy to live on anymore, and trash compacting robots are left behind to clean up the mess. Wait a second, that sounds a lot like some kind of environmental awareness movie! It certainly wasn’t advertised that way. Another good example is the Terminator series. I know, you might think this one is a stretch, but think about it. Skynet takes over the world and turns on humans because it calculates that humans are the greatest threat to themselves. If that doesn’t address any kind of social issues, I don’t know what does. There are countless other examples, but the point is that films have an agenda just as much as documentaries do. The difference is in the processes of making Feature films as opposed to documentaries.

If you take a look at the process, it boils down to a few things. One being, fiction films can be based on true stories or events, but for the sake of selling tickets, a creative license can be used to add, subtract, combine, or change characters and events. The main goal of feature films is to make money, so studios will sacrifice accuracy and fact for a little excitement and drama. On the other hand documentaries strive to present a story with primary sources, when and if at all possible. Documentaries don’t tell a story with actors, they use people who experienced (or knew someone who experienced) the story. Also, documentaries are not trying to make it to the top of the box office either, so they can maintain the integrity of the story without having to bother with any additional flair.

In many ways, making documentaries is liberating compared to making feature films. Documentaries can skip the screenplay writing, storyboarding, casting, and huge crews that a feature must include. Also, when making a fiction film, the filmmaker needs permission for basically everything in front of the camera. If it is copyrighted or trademarked, there has to be permission granted. This can be tricky if a studio is making a film that features negative effects of a product. McDonald’s probably would not be very willing to partner with your film if you show someone who is overweight and dies of a heart attack while eating a big mac. So a film’s product placement is skewed by its content. In a documentary, however; you can film someone wearing a Nike shirt, drinking a Coca-Cola, smoking a Camel, listening to Katy Perry on their radio, in their Ford Focus, talking about the effects of smoking, and you don’t have to ask for anyone’s permission except the person you are interviewing. In this way, documentaries have an easier time addressing issues because they have less restrictions. If documentary filmmakers had to ask permission to make their films so many of them would never be made because big business would never want their dirty laundry made public.

So kids, the moral of the story is: Feature films do have an agenda, but it is a little harder for them to be as open as documentaries because they are under more restrictions.

« Older entries