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An American Dictatorship: Hollywood, Monopoly, and the Thirties

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Abstract:

This paper considers the rhetorical strategies used by independent exhibitors and their allies to promote government action against the monopolistic trade practices of major Hollywood film companies, as well as the studios’ canny defense against these accusations in their films. It makes the case that film itself became the industry’s most potent public relations device to counteract the bad publicity arising from the federal government’s anti-trust lawsuit against it, launched in July of 1938. Much like Communism, which has almost exclusively shaped film scholars’ analysis of attacks on Hollywood’s un-Americanism, monopoly in the thirties was still understood in many quarters to be inherently un-American, a violation of fundamental principles of free and fair competition. In the 1939 congressional hearings on the Neely Bill, as well as in articles and other forums, independent exhibitors and civic leaders who opposed block-booking and blind selling framed their case as one of “home rule” versus the forces of “totalitarianism.” That is, to deflect charges that they advocated censorship, itself a threat to deeply held American values and a particularly volatile issue given outright state control of the media in fascist countries, they argued that Hollywood was colonizing local movie theaters, forcing exhibitors to buy and screen films that were unwanted by and harmful to their communities, which sought the right of self-determination in their entertainment. Thurman Arnold, who headed the Justice Department’s anti-trust lawsuit against the Big Eight, publicly compared the dictatorship of the moguls to that of Stalin and Hitler. If these critics sought to inflame public opinion by representing the film industry’s relation to the nation’s theaters as rather like, say, Germany’s relation to the Sudetenland, one of the industry’s responses to this effort was to try to reshape opinion through the medium of film. Hollywood made a rash of films in this period, including the subgenre of the inventor biopic, whose plots hinge on the problem of monopoly. Typically, monopoly is presented as an obstacle that is no match for the wily inventor or, in the spectacular case of MGM’s Boom Town, the most popular film of 1940, monopoly is defended as a natively American business practice, one that operates to the benefit of people, land, and nation. More generally, it was only in the 1939-40 period that Hollywood films began to speak out against fascism; the film industry, which had for years disdained propaganda as the antithesis of entertainment value, came to understand that propaganda for democracy was, perhaps above all, propaganda for itself.
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MLA Citation:

Jurca, Catherine. "An American Dictatorship: Hollywood, Monopoly, and the Thirties" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p178092_index.html>

APA Citation:

Jurca, C. , 2007-10-11 "An American Dictatorship: Hollywood, Monopoly, and the Thirties" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p178092_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: This paper considers the rhetorical strategies used by independent exhibitors and their allies to promote government action against the monopolistic trade practices of major Hollywood film companies, as well as the studios’ canny defense against these accusations in their films. It makes the case that film itself became the industry’s most potent public relations device to counteract the bad publicity arising from the federal government’s anti-trust lawsuit against it, launched in July of 1938. Much like Communism, which has almost exclusively shaped film scholars’ analysis of attacks on Hollywood’s un-Americanism, monopoly in the thirties was still understood in many quarters to be inherently un-American, a violation of fundamental principles of free and fair competition. In the 1939 congressional hearings on the Neely Bill, as well as in articles and other forums, independent exhibitors and civic leaders who opposed block-booking and blind selling framed their case as one of “home rule” versus the forces of “totalitarianism.” That is, to deflect charges that they advocated censorship, itself a threat to deeply held American values and a particularly volatile issue given outright state control of the media in fascist countries, they argued that Hollywood was colonizing local movie theaters, forcing exhibitors to buy and screen films that were unwanted by and harmful to their communities, which sought the right of self-determination in their entertainment. Thurman Arnold, who headed the Justice Department’s anti-trust lawsuit against the Big Eight, publicly compared the dictatorship of the moguls to that of Stalin and Hitler. If these critics sought to inflame public opinion by representing the film industry’s relation to the nation’s theaters as rather like, say, Germany’s relation to the Sudetenland, one of the industry’s responses to this effort was to try to reshape opinion through the medium of film. Hollywood made a rash of films in this period, including the subgenre of the inventor biopic, whose plots hinge on the problem of monopoly. Typically, monopoly is presented as an obstacle that is no match for the wily inventor or, in the spectacular case of MGM’s Boom Town, the most popular film of 1940, monopoly is defended as a natively American business practice, one that operates to the benefit of people, land, and nation. More generally, it was only in the 1939-40 period that Hollywood films began to speak out against fascism; the film industry, which had for years disdained propaganda as the antithesis of entertainment value, came to understand that propaganda for democracy was, perhaps above all, propaganda for itself.

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