An Escape into Hollywood and Cinema
Cinema has the power to capture the soul. It can provide a distraction from the troubles and tragedies of life. Films respond to times of bliss and paradise with wholehearted idealism and harmony. They respond to times of horror and anxiety with criticism and profound themes of disillusionment and apprehension. Nick Smedley, in his most recent work, A Divided Nation, explores the ability of film to offer an escape in times of terror, become a mouthpiece for national sentiment, and be an influential art that has the power to revolutionize public perspective. Smedley grasps the reality of Hollywood’s critique of society, and its capacity to challenge widely accepted assumptions. Scott Macaulay, contemporary film director, producer, and editor affirms that notion in The Wall Street Journal: "I'm really interested in how film criticism will change… in which people are interacting with critical content itself."1Nick Smedley detects the ability of film to mold human outlook back to the beginning of Hollywood and Cinema; to America’s Golden Age of Film- the 1940’s.
A Divided Nation was purposely constructed in such a way that the reader would be able to efficiently receive a full and complete understanding of cinema and Hollywood in the mid-1900s. The text was structured in a way similar to an argumentative essay. Smedley begins with an introduction that specifies his motive in writing A Divided Nation as well as previews the book by depicting the methodology of cinema, the time frame in which he discusses throughout the text, and the structure of his book. In the first quarter, Smedley provides the reader the historical context in which the book was written, depicting the history of 1933- 1948, a “period of unbridled materialism…the ethos of success,” and the epicenter of World War 2.2 He discusses the study of cinema in context of the main historical elements of 1933- 1948, which he condenses into three main themes. The themes are in correlation with the most resounding shifts in the era, including the reconstruction of American values, American women (their role as well as social status) and America’s involvement in international affairs. These three key themes were used throughout the novel as key points in which he reviews films, their commentary, and the response of cinema and Hollywood.
Nicholas Smedley makes his argument clear and comprehensible. In the next portion of his text he describes motion picture as an outlet for American attitudes as well as a narrow escape from the national chaos during the World War 2. He describes cinema’s ability to offer civilians an escape from the country’s recently obtained disorder: “Hollywood did not offer ‘realistic’ solutions to life’s problems,” but fairy tales, illusions, and wondrous ways to let the imagination run free.3 While he presses Hollywood’s ability to offer a world separate from Americas’ troubling times, he later regrettably admits the evolution of film from a scapegoat for the populace to an almost political machine. Cinema had transformed into a microphone for newfound American values, opinions, and politics by 1933. This led to film losing some of its fleeting and innocent nature, once completely free from agendas. With the emergence of the New Deal, activism towards women’s rights and their status renovation, as well as the reconstruction of American values; Hollywood was now a mouthpiece for the country’s affairs. It had become an influential mechanism that shaped American opinion by the 1940s. In the final portion of this section, Smedley focuses on how films correlated to society, especially to the rise of the New Deal. He studies the emergence of Hollywood and the growing voice of cinema in connection to the expression of national opinion. At last, he notes and spends a great deal of time examining the transformation of American sentiment, and how film became active in the national shift from conservatism to liberalism.
Smedley continues with the next step in an argumentative essay; he analyzes as well as provides detail along with commentary to support his argument. He strives to prove his argument by dissecting the relationship between film and social change in the second to last portion of his book. Cinema’s response to the perpetually shifting culture, he urges, was extremely compelling in the era of war. By analyzing over 250 films, he uses each one to support his line of reasoning. He draws from the film Alice Adams, directed by George Stevens in 1935, and uses it as an example of how the film industry illustrated the clash of liberal and conservative values. He states that “films began to promote the benefits of cooperation and the importance of reputation,” pressing the power and importance of films during this period.4 Testimony is offered though the 250 plus films he mentions, as well as the case studies he analyzes. Always staying in context to the three themes he offered in the beginning portion of his text, Smedley comments and links the specific films to the American values and policies in his thesis.
Conclusively, Smedley uses case studies to give further support to his standpoint. He compares and contrasts three film directors from the studied time period in his seven case studies. He also explains his reasoning in selecting these particular directors and their films. Elucidating on, he describes their similarities but distinguishes the many unique qualities in their work. All three directors were of German origin, and produced films that featured, in Smedley’s opinion, the three most vital shifts in American culture. However, each director included their personal perspectives, making controversy and public discussion inevitable. He credits them as the most important and influential directors during the time. They all left “extensive archival material not fully explored,” kindling a fire for further study and debate.5 In the first three case studies, each is dedicated directly to each of the three directors in this order: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch. By introducing each of the three individually, he begins to provide the reader background information about the directors. He then follows up with each director’s personal philosophy and concludes with their contributions in 1930s and 40s cinema. In Case Study 4, Smedley compares the three directors’ views on women status during this time period, and how each of their films reflects their opinions and relates to the period’s values. In the last three case studies (case studies 5, 6, and 7), he again separately dedicates each case study to each director. He begins with Lubitsch, following with Wilder, and finishing off with Lang. However, this time around he reviews each director’s linkage to American foreign affairs in general and pertaining to the war, providing film examples such as: Three Comrades, directed by Frank Borzage in 1938, Gunga Din directed by George Stevens, and Dr Cyclops directed by Ernst B. Schoedsack in 1940, with their assessments and responses to America’s part in the international sphere. Smedley at last wraps up his argument with a concise summary of his stance, along with the completion of the stories of the three seemingly similar yet extremely diverse directors and their works.
Smedley’s passion for cinematography is obvious in his text and line of reasoning. He clearly and truly believes in the power of film and deems cinema a supreme power during the mid-20th century. He has faith that Hollywood provided and still provides, “self confident expressions of American values-good natured people conquering vice and corruption, working in harmony with others, and exposing greed and selfishness.”6 Throughout different portions of each decade Smedley observes a pattern: the change in American sentiment corresponding to what was popular in the movie industry. 1930s films reflected a spirit of American cooperation and solidarity, and were part of “popular culture to ‘rediscover’ American virtue and innocence in a mythical and rural past.”7 Smedley perceives a shift in the mid-30s, using well known novelists and playwrights to exemplify a newfound anxiety in American morale. Since the art of literature more often than not corresponds to the art of film, he describes the shift using well known author, John Steinbeck, affirming that he “had written about success as a delusion.”8 This feeling of disillusionment seemed to capture the focus of every theme in cinema and literature in this decade, which without a doubt, paralleled the country’s attitude at the time. By the 1940’s American attitude was completely reconstructed, it was an era of war. Smedley notes the rise of “film noir… [an] expression of Hollywood’s disillusionment…”, and affirms that “movies were different because the times had changed.”9 Nicholas Smedley’s profession to the importance of cinematography and its correspondence to American opinion is pertinent and is communicated clearly to the reader.
Nicholas Smedley is a not widely known author; his other works are minute in comparison to A Divided Nation. He shares authorship in these works: Productive Relationships, Broadcasting Debate: Responses to the White Paper No. 3 (Broadcasting debate monographs), and The Future of the Public Trust Office: Minutes of Evidence. Smedley also has written various essays and journal entries with some similarities to A Divided Nation, such as “Fritz Lang’s Trilogy: The Rise and Fall of a European Social Commentator”, and “Fritz Lang Outfoxed: The German Genius Contract Employee.” He acclaims himself as a freelance motion picture historian and writer, zealous towards his craft. His accomplishments include a course he designed and currently teaches at his alma mater, London University, on Modern Hollywood Cinema and its Historical Roots. It is obvious that Smedley’s passion lies in cinematography, even his doctorate was dedicated to the history of Hollywood in the Golden Age.10
Smedley is purposeful in choosing such a specific time frame. 1933 to 1948 “marks clearly the era of Roosevelt…it divided the Roosevelt era, including its decline under Truman after 1945, from the post-Roosevelt settlement and the abandonment of FDR’s experiment with social liberalism…The post-war era of domestic prosperity, conservatism and the defense of ‘Americanism’ began in earnest in 1948. It was truly the end of an era.”11 He is conscientious of the importance of this specific time period. He allows himself a time frame in which he can scrutinize cinema in correlation to society and culture prior to, throughout, and directly subsequent to World War 2. He shows a great deal of discernment towards the shift of American ideals from conservatism into modern liberalism. The regard for national unity in the early period of this era was soon weakened, altered into a time of moral confusion and international anxiety. A Divided Nation was published in 2011, and thus it is conceivable that the violence and climactic events of the modern war in the early 21st century had influenced Smedley’s acute interest in the era of World War 2. However, more likely than not, the driving force that lead him to write with regard to the topic of cinema and film, was his own genuine passion toward the subject.
This prevailing text has seized the attention of highly acclaimed journalists in Wall Street Journal along with commentators in the Financial Times. Stefan Kanfer of Wall Street Journal, analyzes Smedley’s work. He often criticizes his insight, or lack thereof in Smedley’s exploration of films and connections to American values in A Divided World. Kanfer discusses Smedley’s tendency to depart from evident connections in the films he investigates and 1930s events, comparing him to Procrustes, “the figure of Greek legend who was notorious for fitting his guest to an iron bed.”12 Further critiques are offered by Nigel Andrews in his assessment featured in the Financial Times. He agrees with Kanfer, stating that “there is a mite too much simplification in the book, some of it off-base or contentious.”13 Nonetheless, both reviews realize that Smedley stretches the truth at times in order to “give truth extra expressionist power.”14 Though both critics may not always appreciate Smedley’s style, they overall agree that Smedley is an ardent author who brings a compelling approach to the power of cinema. Andrews even confesses, “...many of the book’s points are well made and well argued,” while Kanfer parallels Andrew’s attitude, describing several of Smedley’s arguments as “plausible,” and “provocative.”13
Smedley offers an abundance of substance and detail, demonstrating plentiful evidence to justify his points. His vigilant attitude supports his belief in cinema and the power of film. Via his critique of over 250 films, the reader is left in no manner to question Smedley’s beliefs; at times his observations could be perceived as somewhat excessive. However, when Smedley centers his commentary on the specific case studies he features, his insights increase in merit and his claims resound with the reader. For instance, in Case Study 4, Smedley affirms that “Lubitsch’s output becomes even more apparent... when judged alongside…depictions of women in the films made by Fritz Lang (… [and] those of Billy Wilder),”offering a blend of the three directors’ proposals in correlation to one of his three central themes.15 The explanations Smedley offers throughout his writing, such as the ones offered in his introduction, give the reader a reassuring, unwavering focus point. He never perplexes the reader because he uses simple syntax, for example, “This book is a history of Hollywood cinema and American social change between 1933 and 1948.” 16 Smedley’s style was consistently concise and his arguments constantly compelling and credible.
This time period is remembered as an era of consequence, a turning point in American history, and is universally accepted in A Divided World. The 1940s was repeatedly confirmed as a period of social, political, and cultural change in America. Smedley openly acknowledges Hollywood’s “attempt to come to terms with the changes that were taking place in American society.”17 Avowing the American shift in sentiment from one of optimism and peace to one of disillusion and intervention, Smedley indicates his understanding and accord with the image of the 1940s as a watershed in history. Using themes to depict the three main shifts in American society through the films he considers and the case studies he presents, he assesses the social changes in America from conservatism to liberalism, the status of women and their fluctuating roles, and of American opinion in international affairs. The revolution of a traditional and cautious American sentiment was displayed as one that “now-discredited isolationist of their folly,” by the end of the 1940s.18 Smedley also utilizes Lubitsch’s, Wilder’s, and Lang’s contributions to the world of cinematography to illustrate the lasting effect of the international turmoil World War 2 presented to America. In Case Study 5, Lubitsch’s films serve as a mouthpiece to communicate a message to the world during times of crisis, believing it was an “artist’s responsibility to society.”19 Smedley’s secondary theme was the charting of the ceaselessly fluctuating contention in America during this era. He maps the most significant alterations in American culture during this period, and marks the most permanent shifts, dubbing the 1940s an era of reconstruction. He provides, “a synopsis of the social and cultural changes that took place…during this period” throughout A Divided World. 20
Film continues to have a lasting effect on the world. The grace of cinematography facilitates escapism for humanity; the influence of motion picture transforms customary beliefs into inspirations for change. Nick Smedley’s fervor in the faith of cinema to facilitate a united outlook in America is unique and definite in A Divided World. He opposes any remark that refers to film as superficial or trivial. He appreciates 1940s cinema with particular regard, and asserts that “Hollywood was at the forefront of the radical cultural regrouping,” during this decisive time in American history, responsible to “preserve the country’s ideals…through fantasy or bleakness.”21
1. Dollar, Steve. "Profile of Filmmaker and Reverse Shot: Zoom In on the Storytellers of Film - WSJ.com." The Wall Street Journal - Breaking News, Business, Financial and Economic News, World News & Video - Wall Street Journal - Wsj.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 June 2013.
3. Smedley, Nicholas. 48
4. Smedley, Nicholas. 71
5. Smedley, Nicholas. 13
6. Smedley, Nicholas. 24
7. Smedley, Nicholas. 25
8. Smedley, Nicholas. 27
9. Smedley, Nicholas. 28
10. Smedley, Nicholas. Back cover.
11. Smedley, Nicholas. 9-10
12. Kanfer, Stefen. "Book Review: An Army of Phantoms | A Divided World - WSJ.com." The Wall Street Journal - Breaking News, Business, Financial and Economic News, World News & Video - Wall Street Journal - Wsj.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 June 2013.
14. Kanfer, Stefen. "Book Review: An Army of Phantoms | A Divided World - WSJ.com." The Wall Street Journal - Breaking News, Business, Financial and Economic News, World News & Video - Wall Street Journal - Wsj.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 June 2013.
16. Smedley, Nicholas. 7
17. Smedley, Nicholas. 19
18. Smedley, Nicholas. 201
19. Smedley, Nicholas. 211
20. Smedley, Nicholas. 19
21. Smedley, Nicholas. 245