Planet Hollywood

June 28, 1996

Cinema may have been invented by the French but its first century has been dominated by Americans. Huw Richards looks at the world's love affair with the magic from Hollywood.

A humorist, as so often, expresses it best. A recent edition of Gary Trudeau's long-running Doonesbury cartoon strip showed B. D, the less-than intelligent Vietnam veteran, chatting to a young Vietnamese. B. D says "I don't get it - You don't feel resentment toward America", and receives the response "Resentment? What's to resent? America's our model - our paradigm of choice. In thinking about a better life, America helps us imagine where we'd like to be."

Trudeau, scourge of a succession of presidents - above all his former classmate, George Bush - is no flagwaver for the American Way. But his creation speaks for millions around the world.

Film may have been a French invention, but its first 100 years correspond closely with the American century, the time in which the United States has had an unanswerable claim to be, in the coinage of those earlier, British humorists Sellar and Yeatman, "Top Nation". This is no coincidence.

Previous "top nations" have relied on two interlocking forces - with military might both dependent upon and supportive of the economic power which pays for it. Hence Britain's two-power navy, consequence and protector of industrial and trading strength. International trade has played, by comparison with the British empire, a relatively limited role in American ascendancy. Jim Potter, reader emeritus in economic history at the University of London points instead to the advantages conferred by a vast and diverse home market, enabling the early development of sophisticated mass-production techniques.

America's great export has been the idea, and the image of itself. Which is not to say that colonised subjects of past empires did not nurture the ambition to be Spanish, British or Roman. But such ambitions were the preserve of an elite, and normally the consequence of direct contact with the dominant culture and its carriers.

The desire to be American reaches people who have had minimal direct contact with the US or its citizens. This predates top nation status. To the Jewish migrants of the 19th century America was goldeneh medina, the golden country - defined by political scientist and philologist Leo Rosten as "land of freedom, justice, opportunity; and protection against pogroms. Rarely did I hear such overtones of gratitude as went into the utterance of this compound noun."

But that already compelling idea has been hugely reinforced by film images. A cursory glance at cinema listings for London, Paris or Madrid demonstrates the success of film as a US manufacturing export. Most of us would recognise the New York skyline more readily than those of major British cities. If Stalin were Genghis Khan with a telephone, his wartime ally Franklin Delano Roosevelt might be seen as Julius Caesar with a film camera.

The economic element in this should not be overlooked. Peter Stead, lecturer in history at the University of Wales, Swansea and organiser of its film in history course, points out: "Like all aspects of American entertainment, film is a product of capitalism, largely funded from Wall Street. American capitalism has always taken entertainment extremely seriously and recognised it as an important and lucrative sector." That huge home market helped Sam Goldwyn as well as Henry Ford. Stead notes: "By the 1920s a reasonably successful US film could pay for itself in the home market alone, and any overseas earnings were pure profit. No other country could come near that."

Government has also been prepared to help. Ian Jarvie, professor of philosophy at York University, Toronto, points to a long history of information-gathering on local tastes and preferences by US embassies and says it is no fluke that film was among the flash-points of the last General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs round. "That is a perpetual battle. It will be fought again at the next round." US lobbying does not always get exactly the results it wants, but notes Jarvie: "They almost invariably win some concessions, ensuring that restrictions are never quite as tight as they might have been."

So Hollywood has vast competitive advantages. But nobody has to watch American films in preference to home-grown products. Yet millions do - and have done since the early days of cinema. Geoffrey Richards, professor of social history at Lancaster University, says: "The evidence we have shows that the films of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were more popular in Russia than Battleship Potemkin."

Stead points out that in the 1920s, 90 per cent of films shown in British cinemas were American. This provoked the 19 Cinematograph Films Act, aimed at giving British films some protection. Tony Aldgate, lecturer in history at the Open University, says: "This did have some effect and there was a revival of the British industry, but not to the extent that it seriously challenged the Americans, even in the home market."

An important factor, he argues, is straightforward quality: "There is no comparison between the British films starring Jessie Matthews and Busby Berkeley's productions of the same period. Everything about the American product is bigger and better." Stead argues that this edge in production and technical values survives to this day.

This again might be put down to greater wealth. But Richards, echoing media historians who have analysed the consistent popularity of human interest stories in newspapers, points to the ability to personalise human emotion as the key element in Hollywood's appeal. "It very rapidly mastered the skill of spotting stories with a universal appeal, dealing with the dilemmas facing the individual rather than at a general social, political or cultural level. It has a remarkable ability to pluck these themes out of the air and find the stories and the actors for them."

Among these Everyman figures he identifies Chaplin, James Stewart and Gary Cooper - particularly in the films of Frank Capra - and, among contemporary actors, Tom Hanks "both in Philadelphia and in Forrest Gump, which is a classically American story of how someone makes good in the face of a range of disadvantages".

But why should American Everyman have such international appeal rather than a Polish or Japanese Everyman? Stead argues that Hollywood has always reflected the vast ethnic diversity of America. "Neil Gabler has chronicled the immense contribution made by Jews. Chaplin was English, Mack Sennett Canadian and Valentino Italian. It is a huge diverse melting pot culture, to which immigrants contribute something of their roots elsewhere and also the working out of their own American identity."

He notes a tendency to avoid specific ethnic groups. This had a splendidly bizarre apotheosis in The Mighty Ducks II, a slice of ice-hockey hokum whose plot needed the American team to overthrow a brutal and arrogant team of world champions. This was problematic. Russian villains are passe, and other leading ice-hockey nations have large ethnic groups in the US. Disney's producers settled on Iceland.

All of which illustrates one of the most potent elements in America's appeal. Professor Jarvie says: "It is an inclusive, open society". Stead notes that: "It is still a youthful society, carrying less baggage than more conservative European societies. Its mythology emphasises youth, optimism and opportunity, with a mass culture rather than one controlled by the middle and upper classes". Among early examples of this populist outlook he cites King Vidor's The Crowd, and William Wyler's Big Parade, celebrations respectively of the ordinary working man and the first world war soldier.

That feeling of openness and modernity predisposes young Europeans in particular, conscious of the restrictions of more hierarchical societies, towards America. Stead recalls growing up in the 1950s in the Welsh seaside town of Barry. "Westerns in particular conveyed a sense of a world that was much freer and more open, with a sense of physical and psychological space." His Swansea colleague Phil Melling, a lecturer in American studies, recalls the impact of American music on his youth in 1950s Wigan. "I was amazed that people like Eddie Cochrane and Buddy Holly could speak so directly to a teenager in Lancashire," he says echoing Joseph Skvorecky's memories of jazz as "the music of freedom" amid the infinitely greater restrictions of growing up in Czechoslovakia.

Entertainment rooted in the culture of more traditional societies is unlikely to have such appeal. Dr Aldgate points out that British cinema has its roots in theatre and literature, and spoke with a BBC accent until the 1960s. "Even the Ealing comedies are to a some extent based on working-class stereotypes."

There are of course gaps between myth and reality. American cinema is not totally classless - Dr Aldgate notes that Woody Allen's home market appeal is largely confined to the middle-class cosmopolities of the East and West coasts. "He is much more popular over here, as were the Marx brothers." And Melling argues that the reality of rural America is heavily underplayed. "Huge areas of America are quiet, conservative, prosperous, stable and religious. In films rural areas tend to be seething with dark and suppressed passions. The tradition goes back to Fritz Lang and can be seen more recently in films like Mississippi Burning or Bad Day at Black Rock. It is an overwhelmingly urban, metropolitan viewpoint".

The urban world is covered with greater sureness of touch. Stead notes a succession of actors and films who have captured the urban Zeitgeist of their times. "In the 1930s you had Cagney, described as 'the first urban man' and gangster films like Little Caesar. The 1960s and 1970s produced Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. The 1990s have seen people like River Phoenix and Brad Pitt." And these, he notes, are complemented by writers. "There is an immense vitality about the American vernacular, which is constantly renewing itself. Writers like Tarantino are brilliant at capturing this freshness."

The current state of film is likely to be an issue in the presidential elections. America takes film seriously - an important element in European derision of Ronald Reagan was the simple fact of his having been a film actor, although it evidently did not worry his countrymen. But the attacks this year are likely to come from Reagan's own party. Several Hollywood figures are prominent backers of President Clinton while films like The American President and avowed liberals like Tim Robbins - director of Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking - have enraged conservatives. Bob Dole's first shot was an attack on the violence of The Money Train, in which a New York subway token-seller was doused in petrol and set alight.

There is a certain irony in this, and not only because Reagan has been Hollywood's only president so far . Once the US right's cultural warriors spot a target, the adjective un-American is rarely far behind. But it would be hard to find an industry more American in its outlook and impact. As Richards puts it: "America has taken the world over culturally and American is the worldwide idiom. It isn't only about film - music, McDonald's and Coca-Cola are equally expressions of it. But film made it all possible."

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