The most succinct thing about A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema And Émigré Directors In The Era Of Roosevelt And Hitler, 1933-1948 is its title. It’s a solid book, and a stolid one, too. The author, Nick Smedley, who, the cover bio tells us in the second most succinct thing about the book, “has designed and teaches an MA course at London University on Modern Hollywood Cinema and its Historical Roots”, has designed quite a dense edifice, here.
A Divided World is that common oxymoron, a detailed survey—heavy, strangely, on both the detail and the survey. That is, despite what feels like an overabundance of historical information, one is left with a general sense of critical skimming.
In his initial introduction, as well as every introduction to each following chapter, Smedley tells us, in proper academic fashion, just what he intends to cover, historically and thematically:
“Chapter 1 is a historical essay covering the years 1933-1948 in the United States, which aims to provide a context for a study of American cinema in this period… I highlight three thematic concerns [the reconstruction of American values after the Depression, the changing roles of women in the United States, and the growing international role played by America] which seem to me to be key to understanding American culture in the 1930s and 1940s.”
He also reminds us—repeatedly—of what he has already covered:
“In Chapter 1 I surveyed the major political and cultural trends in American society between 1933 and 1948. In this and the next two chapters, I analyse over 250 films from the same period to demonstrate how Hollywood’s films responded to the changing social landscape. I use the same three themes as I did in Chapter 1. In all three chapters, I will argue…”
I don’t mind reading dissertation-like texts—who else is going to?—as long as they’re incisive, illuminating and not bogged down by excessive jargon. A Divided World isn’t bogged down by jargon, but it is bogged down. The 250-plus analyses suffer from too much company, with the result that some crucial points get smothered while others come and go; and despite continual reiterations like the above “I use the same three themes”, one has to keep backtracking for thematic reminders. Everything gets buried in verbiage.
Such workman-like objectivity is only right, I suppose, considering it is history we’re talking about, and so one shouldn’t expect flights of fanciful conjecture. Yet what I craved were some fresh, or at least fresher, insights or newer angles on such well-trammeled history.
Obviously, inarguably, the years 1933-48 were decisive for the world itself, let alone the world of Hollywood, and Smedley does a thorough, and thoroughly fastidious job, laying down the foundation in exhaustive, but eventually exhausting, prose:
“This chapter sets out my view of Hollywood and its relationship with American politics and culture. I argue that Hollywood formed a close relationship with the political and cultural programme of Roosevelt in the 1930s and was able to assume a position of cultural leadership. It was foremost in articulating the values and ideals that underpinned the New Deal.”
And yet, from this flat informational terrain a few jagged gems do poke through. For example, on the title character in My Man Godfrey (1936), and his central insight in the defining line “the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job”, Smedley remarks:
“What [Godfrey] has discovered is not presented as a new social philosophy… It is a relearning of values which, while integral to American life, have somehow been lost in the 1920s. This was a common response to the depression in the 1930s. Rather than seeing the Crash as a result of unwise speculation in a country living beyond its means, it was perceived as an aberration. Thus, Americans did not need to change their national character or direction. They simply had to rediscover their essential values, recently mislaid.”
Smedley’s three overriding themes, though repeated throughout, tend to get lost amongst other sub- or inter-themes he introduces along the way. His strongest arguments, as on the “hostility toward female independence” even, as he says, in “the otherwise liberal culture of the New Deal”, weaken a bit when he ventures cinematic examples, which instead provide some good lessons on how to make fun films sound boring, as in this description of the “good-bad girl” in director Howard Hawks’ convoluted thrill-fest The Big Sleep (1946):
“The viewer is led to believe that Vivian is at the centre of the criminal activities whirling around Marlowe, who struggles more and more to make sense of events. She is a powerful and beautiful lady, both attractive and menacing. Yet, in the final stages of the film, she is suddenly revealed as entirely innocent… The audience is thus able to savour the attractions of her nefarious side and then leave the cinema reassured that she was, after all, a ‘good’ girl.”
Smedley fares a bit better in his case studies of three émigré directors, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. After some biographical overkill (“Friedrich Christian Anton Lang was born on 5 December 1890, in Vienna…”), he focuses on films from each director that best reflect the book’s themes—for example, Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), whose “bleak atmosphere, absence of any positive characters and downbeat ending create a powerful allegory of American social change in the 1940s…showing idealism as nothing more than dangerous self-deception”; Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), “an influential depiction of American idealism in retreat”; and Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be (1942), whose “central premise was that art, theatre and film had a vital role to play in resisting the ambitions of Hitler”.
These directors were a wily, cynical bunch, and the above are some of the most caustic films in Hollywood history; and though, again, some of Smedley’s descriptions threaten to de-fang the work, his inclusion of “documentary evidence” from the filmmakers’ own writings, is livening:
Lang: “…the idea that people are poor just because they are lazy or that they commit crimes simply through weakness of character is as outmoded as the doctrine of original sin from which it stems. The way to abolish crime is not to hush up its existence but to examine its sources and, having laid them bare, to eliminate them…”
Lubitsch: “Heretofore, the picture industry has complacently sat back and allowed the screen to maintain that romance for screen women meant a love which led to a singleness of coupling—heroines had to be in love to enjoy bedtime stories. Now we have a picture [Design for Living (1933)] which upsets that. The woman in our triangle contends that her sex is entitled to a liberty that only men have enjoyed in the past.”
Wilder: “America is a very young, and therefore still inhibited, country…We have puritanism on the one hand, gangsterism on the other, and so far no middle ground.”
Mostly, A Divided World is a fortress of text with not a soul in sight, a series of facts laid out like brickwork, dense as granite and intense as drying cement. It is topped-off, or bottomed-out, with an extensive multi-part bibliography, and any crevices are filled in with footnotes, which could make up their own decent-sized tome. I suggest it’s environmentally unsound and irresponsible to have so many lengthy footnotes covering so much paper.
Finally, there’s nary a photograph to look out of or into. Although the book is a social history rather than an examination of cinema’s formal properties, some movie stills and/or historical archival photographs would’ve helped to illustrate or underscore the more visual descriptions:
“The final shot of [John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941)] shows Jeeter, on the porch with his dog in the twilight—a symbol of the doomed agrarian way of life, crushed by the progress of modern culture. There exist few more affecting portraits of the end of the rural ideal.”
Photographs would have given the book some much-needed breathing space. As it is, reading A Divided World at times felt like being locked in a cellblock—not the communal kind, but solitary.