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Lary May's The Big Tomorrow

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The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way

May, Lary. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000. 348 p, $32.50, hardcover. ISBN: 0226511626.

When we think of early-20th century Hollywood, the prevailing images that come to mind might be reminiscent of the black-and-white television world of the film Pleasantville (1998) -- a society where everything is simple and peachy keen until the modern characters played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon introduce the troubles of sex and teenage rebellion. In many ways, this film's narrative well represents an idea that is all too often taken as fact -- that, from its inception, early Hollywood represented traditional values and thus was not able to act as a conduit for progressive social change. It is this piece of "conventional wisdom" that Lary May, an American Studies professor at Minnesota, refutes in The Big Tomorrow.

In this convincing study, May argues that the film industry of the 1930s worked to redefine democracy in America. Contrary to the common belief that Depression-era narratives were merely escapist fantasies, motion pictures and the film industry of this time promoted inclusion across racial and class lines, both in film content and in production, as Hollywood "alter[ed] the American values that had been promoted by elite tastemakers for over a hundred years" (57). Even motion picture form and technical innovation helped spread democratic ideals as the advent of the sound film brought the voices of "normal" people onto the screen in contrast to the more elitist "highbrow English" that was said to mark Broadway.

This insightful discussion of Hollywood-as-progressive-activist encompasses Part One of the book. In Part Two, May shows how such Hollywood populism was later replaced with the corporate, conservative backlash brought about by World War II and the Cold War. For the progressive reader, this might seem a particularly disturbing discussion, as May talks about institutional relationships between government and Hollywood, the politics and implications of censorship and blacklists, the resulting changes in dominant film themes (to be less inclusive), and how such events "set the tone for a dramatic reorientation of Americanism and politics" (211). Finally, however, the book's last chapter presents a denouement that returns to the argument of film as a progressive force, pinpointing how the proponents of film noir, liberal artists (Billy Wilder, John Huston, Arthur Miller), and youth icons (Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, James Dean) ignited a counterculture that set the stage for the political and cultural wars of the 1960s to the present.

For each of these main arguments, May has, it seems, left no stone unturned (or film reel unwound) as he discusses a variety of factors ranging from the popularity of Will Rogers (and his expression of involved citizenship for everyone) to the architecture of film theaters (how they changed from elitist picture palaces to more welcoming arenas) to the motivations of key industry players (including Ronald Reagan in the 1950s). And yet while the book's spread of detail and method seems enormous, The Big Tomorrow does not overwhelm. When discussing specific films, May does not assume the reader has seen each motion picture. His descriptions enable even one who has not viewed a particular film to easily understand his argument, while at the same time wanting to put the book down and immediately borrow a described film, not out of necessity to comprehend May's interpretation, but simply to appreciate his analysis even further. Like the novel that one reads mesmerized for plot as an adolescent only to be intrigued ten years later in an advanced course by its critical ramifications, this is the kind of book that, set in delightfully clear prose, can be appreciated at different levels and from various points of knowledge.

One of the study's most compelling features is May's use of plot samples. In order "to trace the changing values among competing film narratives," May analyzed published film summaries (in the Motion Picture Herald) for the first and last films released each month in even-numbered years from the teens to the fifties. His findings of trends among these plot formulas are integrated throughout the book and well support many of the main arguments. The visually-oriented reader will also particularly appreciate the graphs in Appendix 2 titled "Trends in Film Plots and the Changing Face of American Ideology" (273). For example, one graph plots "films portraying wealthy decadence as a danger to individuals or society" and shows how the percentage rose significantly after the Great Depression but dropped with the onset of the Cold War (273). A figure titled "films portraying foreign elements as a danger to hero/heroine" points to a dramatic high point during World War II (279). This methodology (which May himself describes as "different...from what currently guides cultural or film history"), combined with more traditional methods of analysis, assures The Big Tomorrow as not only a convincing argument in itself, but also a provocative model of interdisciplinary scholarship (6).

Melanie Ho