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The Development of the Controversial yet Popular Movies in America and How They Influenced the Nation

Robert Sklar was born in 1936. He went to school in Long Beach, California and later attended Princeton University. He worked as a reporter for L.A. Times and is now a faculty member at the University of Michigan. He also wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon. He lives in Ann Arbor with his two children.

Sklar’s Movie-Made America covered a wide range of information about the movies in America. In Part 1 of the book, he discussed the rise of movie culture. Sklar described the birth of movies, and how they related to the economy. This book explained that movies emerged in a time of rapid urbanization and were at first popular among the working class. The contributors and inventors of the first photographic (visual) machines, who include Marey, Muybridge, Edison, were discussed in the book on how they contributed to the birth of the movies. Competition thrived in the business of selling these machines. The selling of these machines was extremely competitive. “The natural places to find large and willing audiences for large-screen motion pictures were the vaudeville theaters”1 and so this was where inventors like Edison sold their machines. Storefront theaters, which were small theaters set up in front of stores, also attracted many audiences. One great filmmaker mentioned is Edwin S. Porter. He created trick films and comedies. His technological contributions include introducing dissolves (gradual transitions in between shots) to the motion picture industry. According to the book, his greatest production was The Great Train Robbery, which toured the nation successfully.  As the first decade, 1900-1910, was about to close, movies negatively captured the attention of the middle class. They strongly felt that movies were immoral and needed to be censored and even banned. As the complaints increased, ten New York civic organizations came together and formed the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship, later changed to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. The book later explained how government policies clashed with the motion picture industry. As the Progressive Era began and legislation was reinforced especially in the case of trust-busting, moviemakers like Edison, who owned trusts, got in trouble when “…the Republican Administration filed suit against the Motion Picture Patents Company, charging it with restraint of trade in violation of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act.”2The last quarter of the first part of the book went on to describe actor and filmmaker D.W. Griffith. His films had a specialty unlike others; they had lots of energy and emotion. Griffith developed his own filmmaking techniques like mounting the camera on a rolling platform and moving the camera closer to the actors. As he continued to break away from movie-making norms doing things like using more than two reels, the company he worked for, Biograph, imposed restrictions created by the Trust on him. Griffith disobeyed them and produced the film Judith of Bethulia, which introduced his film technique montage. Biograph was angered at Griffith for producing the 4 reel film and Griffith later resigned.

In the second part of the book, Sklar talked about the movies in the age of mass culture. Moviemakers moved west to southern California for its perfect weather and beautiful scenery. Land was also cheap and easy to buy. Soon, the moviemakers found a new way of generating money–advertising popular actors. Popular actors’ whose names attracted audiences received hundreds of dollars per week. Popular stage actors like Charlie Chaplin made even more. However, Sklar argued that acting ability didn’t indicate star potential. “Natural movement, the glow of a vital personality, perhaps one’s resemblance to a type, were what seemed to count on the screen.”3 Around 1915, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly young women, moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming stars. But the sad truth was that most of the young actresses then were “payoffs”, “players who were hired as a favor to influential people or to pay back a favor they had done the studio.”4Actors and actresses began to receive criticism for leading unspiritual lives, not visiting any institutions of traditional high culture like museums, and just sitting around enjoying themselves. They suspected this was a result of giving a person excessive money. Comedian Roscoe Arbuckle confirmed the skeptics’ opinions when he was accused of murdering actress Virginia Rappe at a party. Later incidents, like actors abusing drugs and committing suicide, also validated their opinions. Opponents used these to strengthen their arguments against the movies. “They held that immoral persons should be replaced by moral persons on the screen, but they also contended that the Hollywood environment was such it almost inevitably corrupted those who moved within its orbit.”5After the Arbuckle incident, Will H. Hays was hired as a public relations officer for the movie industry. According to Sklar, he was an excellent organizer, forcing the producers to come to terms with the unions. No matter how many people had issues with movies, movies made a significant impact on society. Sklar suggests that the majority of silent films were crime stories, Western stories, historical costume stories, domestic melodramas, and romances; this was before World War I. After World War I, the movies’ emphasis on the low class decreased and the emphasis on middle and high class increased. Sklar argued this was because middle class values and traditions were starting to fade away. Sklar felt that “in this period American society and culture were changing faster and more fundamentally than the movies themselves.”6However, after World War 1, cultural conflicts in the case of movies increased because of the differences of opinons of the two classes. The low class liked certain subjects and themes while the middle-high class liked others.  Because of this, moviemakers “sought the subjects and treatments that pleased the most and alienated the fewest.”7Sklar went on to talk about filmmaker DeMille. DeMille’s films contained familiar topics that were modified to suit audience’s desires. Sklar felt that his films suggested new attitudes but didn’t challenge moral order. However, moralists didn’t like DeMille’s films because of their appeal to middle class audiences, who were attracted to them because of their conservativeness. Sklar went on to talk about the famous actor Rudolph Valentino. By 1917, the importation of European actors was popular because of their specialty at generating lots of emotion. Valentino was quite popular, especially among ladies. “He had passion; he loved, openly and fully…”8 Sklar then mentioned the actress Garbo. Garbo was cast as a female Valentino in her first two films. Sklar felt that Garbo shone with an inner intensity that few other actors had. He then went on talk about the American comic tradition in American movies. They both “gave expression to the underside of American values and behavior, the opposite pole from order and decorum.”9 The movies began from the lower classes while the comic tradition surprisingly began with conservative elites. These elites ridiculed the efforts to spread democracy. Then Sklar suggested that the roots of the American comic tradition lied in political and social imperatives. He went on to explain that the difference between movie comedy and mainstream American humor was that movies directed comic ridicule against wealth and power and against themselves. Sklar reasoned that that’s why the working class audiences loved the movies; they expressed the working class audience’s resentment against those who saddened their lives. This explained the high popularity of the comic films; nearly a third of the pre-1912 movies were comic films. The book then moved on to comedy director Mack Sennett. Sennett acquired some of his film techniques from Griffith. He learned how to cut his pictures sharply and increased Griffith’s rapid timing even more. Sennett’s films had vulgarity and violence as well as a society that was in total disorder. Most of Sennett’s characters were motivated by greed and lust. The book then discussed comedian and film director Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin introduced different movie forms like making material objects and living things magically adaptable. This was carried out entirely by human imagination and movement, without any help from cameras. In the comedies that Chaplin made, the characters were concentrated at the extreme ends of the social scale. These extremes of the social order had only one alternative in his films: radical change. Sklar felt that “there is unusual consistency as well as immense variety in Chaplin’s films of the silent era…”10Sklar went back to talk about the opponents of movies. Many books and articles were published by clergymen, academics, reformers. These articles discussed the negative influences of movies. Sklar was curious that the writers never really said what was on their minds but often just wrote about the surface and didn’t go into depth. The moralists argued that laws like the Pure Food and Drug Act were passed because “the state had an obligation to protect the general welfare by prohibiting the circulation of any product that might cause people harm”11, so they should inspect movies as well to make sure nothing harmful was shown. Opponents of movies also used young people as their defense. Doctors argued that the movies were harming vision, depriving the young of sleep, and making them mentally lazy. All these arguments lacked trustworthy evidence. However, “by the mid-1920s the efforts of traditional cultural groups to exert direct control over movie content had come to a standstill.”12The book went on to talk about the house that Adolph Zukor built. This house was a studio system designed to concentrate power and was also a profit making enterprise. Many talented actors and filmmakers created interesting films and attracted many audiences, but weren’t able to please everyone, especially the clergy and government.

In the 3rd part of the book, Sklar talked about the mass culture in the age of movies. The stock market crash and Great Depression really helped the movie industry to gain even more popularity by getting their opponents scattered and by amusing the people in those depressing times. The industry reached its all-time peak in attendance in 1946. However, the struggle over power and purpose also reached its all-time peak. “The ultimate issue is not who owns the movie companies but who manages them”13, with the bitterest competition being between Paramount and Fox. During the first five years of the Great Depression, moviemakers started to question sexual propriety, social decorum, and the institutions of law and order because of the New Deal. The administration wanted to boost the morale of the anxious public “by fostering a spirit of patriotism, unity, and commitment to national values, a political goal that coincided with similar tendencies within the movie industry.”14Since the national mood was changed, in 1933-34, Hollywood started its efforts to preserve “the basic moral, social, and economic tenets of traditional American culture.”15They used sound and settings to excite the audience. With the help of sound, they re-introduced gangster melodrama, which showed that social disorder can be fun. In the late 1930s, moviemakers started to get more respect and awe among academics, literary circles, newspapers, and magazines. The book goes on to talk about how Walt Disney and Frank Capra were two filmmakers of the 1930s whose careers had surprising similarities. They both had the talent of giving mass entertainment in which intellectuals can find pleasure and significance. They managed to create comic images of heroes who could represent a full scale of fantasies and nightmares and who could be both loved and ridiculed. The book then discusses American movies’ popularity in foreign countries. Foreign audiences were attracted to American movies because of the movies’ complete descriptions of American values and styles, speed, humor. However, foreign countries started imposing limits on the number of American films that could be imported to their countries, in an effort to save their industries. The first to do so was Germany; it created a quota system. Soon, other countries like Austria, Italy, and Hungary followed suit.  However, Americans found ways to get around these limits and   reduce the strictness of these laws.  During the time between the two world wars, except when the governments put limits, American cinema almost dominated the world’s theaters. After the 1920s, international audiences started to question the morality of American movies. “The constant emphasis on crime and sex in American movies, however, had a far different impact among Asian, African, and Hispanic peoples: it brought the white race into disrepute, stripped Caucasians of their aura of rectitude and moral power, and subverted the doctrine of white superiority.”16The book then remarks on how Hollywood never lost its character of a gold-rush boom town. The gambling and gold-digging spirit was fundamental to how Hollywood made its movies. The gold rush atmosphere grew more prevalent as time passed. Friendships disappeared as a class system formed based on weekly earnings.

In the last part of the book, Sklar talked about the decline of movie culture. The movies destroyed themselves in the aftermath of the investigations and criticisms by the government in the Cold War years. Hollywood showed that it supported the war by creating war films for training free of cost and also creating films that increased patriotism among the American public. But this didn’t convince the government and investigations were led on the movie industry. The industry was already hurt by the Senate investigations of 1941 and 1943 and the government’s antitrust suit against them. Their harshest blame came after the war when the industry was accused communist infiltration once again. HUAC led the investigation. Sklar explained that the reason the movie industry destroyed itself was because of fear. He felt that creative work couldn’t be carried out in an atmosphere of fear and that Hollywood was filled with fear at this time. “…the studios tried to avoid making movies that would offend any vocal minority. As a result they lost touch both with their own past styles and with the changes and movements in the dominant culture at large.”17As the radio and television were being invented, the movie industry worried that they might be losing audiences who prefer to stay in the comfort of their home rather than step out into the dirty streets to go to a theater. “…the public was going to fewer movies, and the total attendance for movies was dropping, but a smaller number of popular movies drew bigger crowds than ever. With higher admission prices, the favored movies turned bigger profits. The gold was there to be mined, only fewer people could share in it.”18These circumstances impelled successful movie workers to raise their salary demands. In the last chapter of the book, Sklar goes on to say that despite the challenge of TV and radio, the movies are likely to survive for some time. 

The author’s thesis is stated in the last chapter of the book. He feels “that the movies have fulfilled much of what has been dreamed about them, though sometimes in quite unexpected ways.”19What he must mean is that the audience, mainly the working class during the early years, wanted to escape the harsh realities of their lives at the end of their day. They dreamed of having the people who bring misery to their lives getting abused and those people’s values with which the working class disagree with getting ridiculed. This analysis is indirectly supported by the information where Sklar said that what attracted these working class audiences mainly was to see the people who bring misery into their lives and their values being mocked. The movies fulfilled this dream by producing these types of films.

The author’s bias has to do with his opinions on government. He must be a strong believer in democracy because in the last paragraph of the book, he said “It would be another great experiment to see if, without bondage to the power of commerce, a democratic cinema could come into being.”20This might have influenced the author to talk about the fight over power for the motion picture industry and the monopolistic practices of the filmmakers in many parts of the book. The attitudes in the time period in which the author wrote the book (historiography) were changing. A time period called The New Hollywood, it was characterized by the young people influencing the film industry of the U.S. Before, young people weren’t really paid attention to by filmmakers even though they made up the majority of the audiences in the early 1960s. However, “Two films released in 1967--Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate--awoke Hollywood to the size and influence of the youth audience.”21This time period must’ve influenced why the book was written by sparking curiosity in the author to find out if similar changes in attitudes occurred in the early days of American cinema. The conclusions the book makes is that changes in attitudes concerning the movies occurred in the early years of movies and will continue to occur.

Reviewer Jack Chatfield Sklar’s book was a delight and an inspiration. He was impressed by Sklar’s breadth and praised his discussion of the montage. Chatfield feels that “On familiar subjects he is articulate, often brilliant. On the unfamiliar he is nothing short of stunning.”22 But Chatfield managed to catch one flaw in Sklar’s book: Sklar didn’t write how the movie Birth of a Nation was an accusation of war. Chatfield summarized the book’s information from the various time periods. In conclusion, Chatfield thinks Sklar is an able professor and hopes to write a book that analyzes the impact of television since World War II.

Reviewer Michael R. Greco felt that historians have ignored the huge impact movies have had on American society but feels that the publication of Sklar’s book will stop this neglect. Greco praises Sklar for his “discussion of the organization and business tactics of the movie trade…and his analysis of how both the screen and off-screen behavior of movie idols affected manners and morals…”23Greco felt that Sklar was the bst at discussing the silent era and about filmmakers like Disney and Capra. However, Greco found one flaw in Sklar’s writing. He felt that Sklar didn’t satisfactorily cover the subject of post-World War II cinema. He felt that Sklar treated this time period as unimportant. But overall, Greco felt that “Movie-Made America is the best single-volume history of the role that movies have played in our society, and it is one of the most important contributions to twentieth century American cultural history published in recent years.”24

Sklar’s depth of information is impressive. He engages the reader immediately with his precise yet easy to comprehend language. His narration immediately hooks the reader. The analysis of the different types of movies and how they impacted society really helps to broaden the readers’ understanding. Sklar covered many time periods, helping readers to get a sufficient amount of knowledge about the subject. Overall, Sklar had excellently covered the history of American cinema.

The topic fits into the history of American art because the movies are a form of art. My topic is important to American art because it was an advancement in the history of art. It was the first form of art that involved movement; it was an art that reached wide audiences and impacted many people.

Movie-Made America covered a wide range of time periods-from the beginning of cinema when the first cameras were being invented-to the decline of cinema in the post-Cold War Era. It explained the various types of films made in different time periods and how audiences and opponents reacted. It talked about the impacts of the movies on American society and how the motion picture industry was impacted by American society and government (HUAC investigations, censorship campaigns, WW II). It informed readers about the history of American cinema.

1. Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: New York: Random House, Inc., 1975. 13.
2. Sklar, Robert. 36.
3. Sklar, Robert. 74.
4. Sklar, Robert. 75.
5. Sklar, Robert. 79.
6. Sklar, Robert. 90.
7. Sklar, Robert. 91.
8. Sklar, Robert. 97.
9. Sklar, Robert. 104.
10. Sklar, Robert. 110.
11. Sklar, Robert. 123.
12. Sklar, Robert. 133.
13. Sklar, Robert. 164.
14. Sklar, Robert. 175.
15. Sklar, Robert. 175.
16. Sklar, Robert. 225.
17. Sklar, Robert. 268.
18. Sklar, Robert. 286-287.
19. Sklar, Robert. 316.
20. Sklar, Robert. 317.
21. "The "New" Hollywood." Digital History. Web. 04 June 2012. <>.
22. Chatfield, Jack. "Native Land Seen In The Dark." 6 Feb. 1976. Print.
23. Greco, Michael R. Reviews of Books. Print.
24. Greco, Michael R. Reviews of Books. Print.