Student Review: Hollywood's America: Twentieth-Century America Through Film

February 24, 2011

Editors: Steven Mintz and Randy W. Roberts

Edition: Fourth

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

Pages: 416

Price: £22.99

ISBN 9781405190039

This book's aim is to present "classic American films as artefacts of a shifting culture". The introduction alone fulfils the title's promise, giving a well-structured history of cinema and society in the US in the 20th century. The editors never stray from their cinematic emphasis: while global contextualisation is therefore lacking, the focus is strong and necessary for such an ambitious project.

At times the book does risk the problematic conflation of "Hollywood" and "American" film, and it would benefit from an introductory discussion of how Hollywood might differ from the independent film industry in its potential to shape the course of history.

Most of the chapters isolate a particular film or star that serves to illustrate a particular historical context, with a case-study method that allows for thematic, aesthetic and contextual investigation. Key themes are integrated without being explicitly stratified, and the chronological structure allows for enlightened generic crossovers.

Each section finishes with a chapter of primary sources, ranging from audience polls and reviews to political correspondence and contracts; the book thereby affords us a welcome insight into how films were viewed and reviewed by audiences and critics of the period.

Overall, the scope of the book is admirably inclusive, despite a bias towards war films, science fiction and westerns. There are some problematic oversights, however, albeit understandable ones given the ambitious scope of the project. One might be forgiven for wondering, for instance, whether queer and female directors even constitute part of US social or cinematic history, so seldom are they mentioned.

At times the editors' expression is somewhat clumsy, symptomatic of a book aimed at students; occurrences, however, of more expressive language are a pleasure to read and convey the writers' relaxation into their pedagogical aims. One of the book's greatest assets is its comprehensive bibliography, split into sections listing relevant critical texts thematically and chronologically.

Hollywood's America provides, primarily, the intertwined history of the mutually dependent US and Hollywood. Not only is Hollywood portrayed as a reflection of US society, but also as an escape from it. Movies have continually offered an auxiliary American dream on which citizens, whose reality might prove less than dreamlike, can rely to relinquish quotidian anxieties.

Film is described as "the nation's pre-eminent instrument of cultural expression - reflecting and also shaping values and cultural ideals". Hollywood's America similarly reflects culture and its influence, and shows a commendable breadth and depth of groundwork that will provide students with a solid understanding of key concepts in the field.

Who is it for? Anyone seeking a beginner's overview of Hollywood's history.

Presentation: Predominantly generic, with 16 black-and-white illustrations.

Would you recommend it? Yes, as a one-stop shop for 20th-century American film history.

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