Hollywood and the U.S.A.
THE ANTHROPOLOGIST sees any segment of
society as part of a whole; he views Hollywood as a section of
the United States of America, and both in the larger frame of
Western civilization. The problems of the movie industry are not
unique to it. But some characteristics of the modern world have
been greatly exaggerated in Hollywood while others are underplayed.
Hollywood is therefore not a reflection, but a caricature of selected
contemporary tendencies, which, in turn, leave their imprint on
the movies. It is a three-way circular interaction between Hollywood,
U.S.A. and movies.
Many people would agree with the characterization
of our society by the poet W. H. Auden as "The Age of Anxiety."
The present generation has known two world wars and is worried
about the possibility of a third, even more devastating. We won
the last war and are probably the strongest nation, and yet we
are insecure in our relations with former enemies and allies.
Our country is prosperous and we have demonstrated an enormous
capacity for production, but we are worried about a possible recession
and unemployment. We live in a fast changing world but have lost
faith in our belief that change is always for the better, and
that progress is inevitable. We are not so sure of the happy ending.
Man has become increasingly lonely. Although people live in close physical contact, their relationships have become more and more depersonalized. We have a sense of being with people, and yet do not feel in any way related to them. In cities we are accustomed to having strange people beside us in street car, bus, or uncomfortably close in the subway. The technique of business and many other organizations, in trying to personalize their selling relationships, such as by announcing the name of employees to customers, really
fools no one. The fact that the name
of the post office clerk, the bank teller or the person who handles
complaints in the department store, is posted, does not really
influence their relationship with customers. The market place
is still basically impersonal. Over the radio, we listen to the
voices of strangers relating intimate domestic stories or giving
us their opinions about the latest national or world event. All
these factors give an illusion of companionship which, however,
only increases the feeling of being alone. This loneliness is
particularly striking when we compare modern to primitive man
with his web of personal relationships within his clan. From birth
to death he was tied through reciprocal duties and responsibilities
to his clan kindred. Clan membership could not be lost and was
as fixed for the individual as was his sex. He belonged to his
group through basic biological ties and isolation was rare.
Many other factors contribute to modern
man's anxiety. The traditional American belief that anyone, by
working hard and industriously, may rise in the social hierarchy
and become rich and successful is being questioned. There is considerable
evidence that the American worker realizes that social mobility
is decreasing. Workers increasingly believe that hard work no
longer counts for as much as it did and that opportunities for
advancement are restricted.1 Many employees do not even understand
the immediate aspects of their work situation. A study made at
an electric company, which had an unusually good relationship
with its employees, showed that there was much that the worker
did not understand about his job, even including the method of
payment. The author thought that this lack of understanding caused
a feeling of exasperation and sense of personal futility on the
part of the workers.2 Modern man lives in a world which is difficult
to comprehend. He is prosperous or unemployed in recurring economic
cycles about which economists talk in learned words of cause and
effect. But the average man sees only the effect, and is confused
as to the causes.
In Hollywood there is far more confusion
and anxiety than in the
society which surrounds it. Even in its
most prosperous periods when net profits were enormous, far surpassing
those of other businesses, everyone was scared. Now, when diminishing
foreign markets, increasing costs of production, competition with
European pictures, and changing box-office tastes threaten the
swollen profits of past prosperity, fear rises to panic. Anxiety
grips everyone from executive to third assistant director. The
happy endings of at least 100 per cent net profit for the studio
and a relatively long period of employment at high salaries for
employees, are becoming less common. Yet, although this is well
known, many individuals still cherish the fantasy for themselves.
In the movies the happy ending is still almost universal. Perhaps
the people who make the movies cannot afford to admit that there
can be another kind of ending, and many of those who sit in the
audience prefer this fantasy, too. But an increasing number are
becoming dissatisfied with the so obviously contrived nature of
these endings. The neat and unrealistic movie solution to all
problems is neither satisfying nor entertaining.
Attitudes stem from the past and change slowly. In a rapidly changing society such as ours, some attitudes born out of a past situation continue under new conditions, even when inappropriate. Today there are people who will still believe in the laissez-faire economy of the frontier days and are hostile to planning designed for a country which no longer has a frontier. But many who stubbornly cling to the old laissez-faire thinking are uneasy lest they fight a losing battle, while many of those who plan are afraid that the planning may go too far. Neither side is really very sure of itself. In Hollywood the lack of planning and extemporizing has been carried to extremes probably not known even on the frontier, and greater certainly than in any contemporary industry. Even more important, extemporizing without a plan has long been regarded by many as a necessary and inherent part of movie making. However, the proper accompaniment, the frontier self-confidence and courage in taking chances, is very rare in Hollywood. The distinguished director-producer William Wyler appeals for . . .
"'... men of courage' in Hollywood to reach out for a wealth of picture material which the industry has shunned so
far." He continues, "We need men of courage in high places who will not be intimidated or coerced into making only 'safe' pictures-pictures devoid of any ideas whatsoever." Too often he has bunked up against a situation where the top men were forced to decide between two stories and asked the question, "Which is the safest?" Mediocrity in films is the direct result of playing it safe.3
The men who make these decisions do not
trust the public to like a picture which has ideas in it, Mr.
Wyler says, in the same interview. It might be added that the
men who do not trust the public usually do not trust themselves.
From the frontier past comes also the
tradition of individual aggressive behavior. This persists although
industry has become increasingly regimented and cooperation more
essential. In the movie industry which depends on the collaborative
effort of many people, the aggression is more ruthless than any
described on the frontier, although, due to the insecurities of
most people, it is masked under "Darlings" and "Sweethearts"
and costly presents and parties. In the movies, however, the hatred
and aggression comes through with a bang. Here is undiluted violence.
This may meet the needs of the makers of our daydreams, as well
as of those who consume them. Many people in our society experience
a high level of frustration but are unable, either because of
social pressures or inner fear, to express their resentment. In
the movies they may find comfort and encouragement for their fantasies.
We have also inherited a Puritan tradition, stressing the sinfulness of human nature and giving us taboos to curb it. Today the doctrine of the innate evilness of man has lost much of its force and is far less a part of the conscious beliefs of many people. There is a growing awareness that babies are born neither sinful nor virtuous, but with potentialities for many different kinds of behavior, and even the definitions of sin and virtue continue to change. Hollywood, however, even more than the rest of society, feels the weight of Puritan traditions. The industry has imposed on itself a set of taboos derived in part from seventeenth-century New Eng-
land Protestantism, in order to appease the Catholic Legion of Decency and other would-be censors. No one in Hollywood, and very few outside of it, believe in the Code, nor are the censors appeased or pleased. For while the taboos are applied in the production of each movie, they fail completely to achieve the Puritan concepts on which they are based. They serve merely to make movies more dishonest, which is the natural result of any hypocrisy.
The activities of the various censoring
groups spring not only from our past Puritanism, but also out
of our social system in which pressure groups are accustomed to
playing an important role. Labor, big business, farmers, and others
try to influence legislation and get what they want through their
organizations. Pressure groups are not restricted to modern society.
In primitive ones, the whole tribe may bring pressure on recalcitrant
individuals to follow the mores. But the pressure groups which
try to influence Hollywood represent only a small part of the
population and of movie audiences and are always negative in their
intentions. They try to enforce a list of "Thou shalt nots."
Most people interested in good entertainment usually know enough
to realize that good movies cannot be created by such actions
and so do not belong to these groups. This raises the whole question
of the function of pressure groups in different areas of society.
It is possible that legislators can pass adequate laws through
balancing the claims of different pressure groups, and the pluralistic
theory of government has long been an accepted democratic practice.
But legislation is one thing, and making a movie is another.
An important focus for much of the anxiety in our modern world is in our changing values and goals. The anthropologist knows that the important differences between groups of men are not biological, but lie in their goals. Among the same people the goals may change from one historical period to another, such as from Elizabethan to Victorian England, and they obviously vary from one society to another. In the early Middle Ages religion provided the sanctions for most behavior. Since then the church, while still a functioning institution, has continued to lose much of its vitality. As Kluckhohn writes:
The anthropologist must characterize our culture as profoundly irreligious. More than half of our people still occasionally go through the forms, and there are rural and ethnic islands in our population where religion is still a vital force. But very few of our leaders are still religious in the sense that they are convinced that prayer or the observance of church codes will affect the course of human events.... Belief in God's judgments and punishments as a motive for behavior is limited to a decreasing minority.4
Even more important relatively few people
today, as compared to a couple hundred years ago, have the kind
of relationship with God to bring them security or comfort. Our
society stresses the search for a good time rather than the quest
Traditions, however, have a habit of
living on in the deeper levels of our consciousness, even when
they are overtly denied. Comparatively few people give the impression
of really enjoying their wealth or their good times. Many of them
appear to be consumed with an obsession to merely fill up time
with more and more activity, space with more and more costly objects.
The frenzied and compulsive activity in the studios and outside
of them is one of Hollywood's most striking characteristics. Another
is the evaluation of not only objects, but people too, in terms
of how much they cost. In making movies, this is reflected in
the idea that the more a picture costs the better it must be.
The tendency towards lavish sets, costumes, and other extravagances
is now being curtailed because of the need for economy and the
trend to shooting on location. But, with a few exceptions, the
correlation of the value of pictures with their budgets is still
the prevalent type of thinking in Hollywood. The greater the cost
the more sure the studio feels of success, and hence high costs
become one way of reducing anxiety. Actually, money can no more
guarantee dramatic values than it can insure accuracy or significance
The U.S.A. has been labeled by many students
as a business civilization as contrasted to a religious one. This
is obviously true, but not the whole truth. Roger Butterfield
has described the
dominant themes of American life as "the
desire to see all men free and equal, and the desire to be richer
and stronger than anyone else."5 This conflict between human
and property rights has, as this author points out, generated
much of the drama of American life. The political idealism and
humanitarianism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as
well as the earlier Puritanism, still influence our business civilization.
In our Declaration of Independence is the quintessence of idealism,
expressing for the first time the idea that all men have a right
to happiness. If the anthropologist interested in our contemporary
society digs under the top layers of people's beliefs, he will
find still surviving the archaic concepts that money is not the
road to happiness, or, at least, not the main one. If he is historically
minded, he will note that when private capitalism was developing,
the man who accumulated wealth through his own hard work was respected
and admired; but that later when private capitalism changed to
a corporate form, the corporation was regarded as an enemy of
the people. Theodore Roosevelt became famous as a "trust-buster."
No man in the U.S.A. becomes a national hero just through making
a lot of money. He must have made some contribution to the welfare
of his fellow men; most of the nation's heroes have been humanitarians.
In Hollywood the concept of a business civilization has been carried to an extreme. Property is far more important than man and human values have to struggle hard to exist at all. But, while the heroes in Hollywood are those with the most money, in the movies we find the opposite extreme. The wealthy tycoon is almost always the villain and the hero is the man of good will. The hero or heroine may be rich, but wealth does not give them their status. Often we are asked to admire the poor little rich girl who breaks away from her luxurious environment to marry the poor hero whom she loves. Hollywood leans over backward to sentimentalize love, which in the movies is always more important than wealth. Earning a living is never shown with any sense of reality and making a fortune is rarely portrayed sympathetically. True, most of the characters in the movies are better dressed and
live more luxuriously than do their counterparts in real life. The secretary dresses like a wealthy debutante and the female psychoanalyst like the popular concept of a Hollywood star. But neither they nor any other heroine or hero are shown as fundamentally interested in or concerned about the problem of making a living or becoming rich. It is only possible to speculate on the reasons for this almost complete negation of economic motives which are so prevalent in our society. The very extremes to which most movies go in the negation may mean that the executives who control the contents of the movies have themselves some hidden ambivalence about their goals. After all, the executives, as well as the actors, do belong to the human species and are not completely unaffected by the conflicting values of our society. Or, they may think that this underplaying of economic motives in the movies is desired by the audience. Neither reason precludes the other, and both could be true, as well as other unknown ones. Whatever the reasons, Hollywood represents a caricature and overelaboration of the business motives and goals of our society, while the movies consistently underplay the same characteristics.
Art and aesthetic goals have always been less important in our society than either business or humanitarian ones. The artist in all societies has traditionally been a kind of barometer, more sensitive to nuances and changes than others, because he is more deeply immersed in his culture and more interested in its meanings. Since he rarely completely accepts all the conventions, he has a certain degree of objectivity and freedom, which of course also makes him seem different from other men. While the artist's status declined in all Western societies after the Industrial Revolution, many of the European countries with their older traditions of painting, music and literature, accorded him a higher position than he enjoys in the United States. Here, he is still considered peculiar, abnormal, sometimes feminine, and unimportant unless he achieves a commercial success comparable to that of a businessman. A Hollywood caricature of this concept is portrayed in the movie, A Kiss in the Dark. The hero, a successful concert pianist, played by David Niven, is scared, nervous, withdrawn, and obviously
infantile. He is saved by noticing, with
appreciation, a model's legs (those of Jane Wyman). She has no
interest in his music and leads him to her world of jazz and trombones.
He finally frees himself from being an artist and wins his girl
by using his musician's hands to knock down the heroine's fiancé,
a former athlete. The hero is now a he-man, throws his practice
keyboard away, and embraces the heroine as the train carries them
away on a honeymoon.
So in the actual production of movies
in Hollywood, the American concept of the unimportance of the
artist is magnified. Those who know most about storytelling, who
are gifted with imagination, and who have a knowledge of human
beings, all raw materials which the camera transforms into a movie,
do not have sufficient status to use their abilities. As one director
expressed it, "the environment is hostile to them."
The environment favors the latest developments in sound and color,
but discourages new ideas from its artists. These men, who traditionally
have known considerable freedom in expressing themselves, work
under the direction of businessmen.
The movies have to earn their living. Unlike some of the fine arts, they are not privately endowed nor are they an esoteric medium for the enjoyment of the few. The goals of business and art are each justifiable and not necessarily irreconcilable. When art meets the needs of a large number of people in our society, it inevitably makes a profit. Some of our most creative popular artists, such as Chaplin, Gershwin, Walt Disney and Irving Berlin, have made fortunes. The problem is not the simple one of art versus business. The artist can contribute to business. But his stock-in-trade is not only his technical know-how: it includes the ability to interpret man to himself. This is true in folk art, popular art and fine art. But it makes little difference to the businessman whether he assuages man's anxieties by interpretation, or whether he exploits them; but the latter is easier. Or, if phoniness brings in money easily, why bother about the details of honesty? The front-office executives are not completely blind to humanitarian issues, but they seem far more interested in profits than in man. Most of them are not conditioned to be otherwise. Artists have a differ-
ent kind of conditioning. While they
are concerned about money, they must also, in order to be reasonably
contented, use their gifts to give their interpretations. It has
already been indicated that while only relatively few of the Hollywood
writers, directors and actors are artists in this sense, they
are far more important than the host of mediocre people.
The social organization of Hollywood
has, however, permitted the businessman to take over the functions
of the artists and to substitute his values for theirs. The movies
are the first art form of any kind, popular, folk or fine, to
become a trust. Quite early the major companies combined in their
efforts to restrain competition and to blacklist those who would
not do their bidding. The struggle between the Independents and
the organization of the major studios still continues. At the
same time movies increasingly make use of a developing technology
and of the heritage from theater and literature. Under any circumstances
such a combination would create complex problems. In this particular
situation, the men with power have known how to exploit the advantages
of a trust better than they could utilize the assets of literature
and drama. They have not seemed to realize that the efficiency
of the factory is possible because it turns out identical products,
whether automobiles or coffeepots, and that this principle cannot
be applied to the making of movies. Since these businessmen have
neither understanding nor respect for the artists' ability, they
attempt to negate or destroy it, partly out of ignorance and partly
from a desire to satisfy their urge to dominate men. It is only
an exceptional executive who does not give the impression that
he would have been equally satisfied as a tycoon in any other
Outside of Hollywood there is a certain freedom in choice of goals. A man can decide to be an artist, a scientist or a college professor, which means that most likely he will never be rich. Or he can plan to be a big business executive and have the possibility of acquiring great wealth. In Hollywood the same freedom of choice does not exist, because whatever role the individual plays, the goals of business are paramount. In the country as a whole there is the combination of humanism and materialism. But in Hollywood, money is always more important than man. It is this
difference in goals which accounts for much of the deep hostility between the front-office and the artists' group. People with the same goals may argue and differ on how to achieve them, but they speak the same language. People with conflicting goals speak a different language. The real artist in Hollywood cannot be completely satisfied, even though he earns a fortune, if he is not functioning as an artist, and this the head of a trust cannot understand.
Another trait of our civilization is
its high level of ingenuity and inventiveness in the mechanical
skills. Our heroes include men like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham
Bell, Eli Whitney and Henry Ford as well as the humanitarian,
political figures. We are justly famous for the enormous number
of additions to material culture which make life more comfortable.
Movies are themselves a remarkable invention in their integration
of electricity, photography, color, sound and acting. The history
of inventions from the first stone ax is a fascinating story and
one peculiar to our species. For only man is a tool-making and
tool-using animal. Each succeeding example of his ingenuity and
cleverness has brought, however, its own problems. This has always
been true, but only recently has atomic energy forced a public
recognition of the serious social consequences of technological
The control of machines and of all our inventions for the benefit of man is one of the most pressing problems of our time. Machines can enslave people or free them. The Industrial Revolution brought young children into sweatshops and kept them and their parents for long hours at machines. Gradually changes in the social and economic organization reduced the hours of work, set age limits for workers, and enabled them, as well as other people, to enjoy the higher standard of living which machines made possible. But even the most casual observer of our society today recognizes its machine-like character. Not only do machines increasingly replace human labor, but what is left of it grows more mechanical. The role of the individual worker on the assembly line tends to be more and more automatic and he has less and less understanding of its relationship or his own to the whole. The ironic climax is his attempt to escape into fantasies and daydreams, themselves manufac-
tured on an assembly line, far more concerned
with technology than with meaning.
The way in which Hollywood has mechanized
creativity and taken away most of its human characteristics again
exaggerates the prevailing culture pattern, which gives little
prestige to creativity not technological. This, of course, does
not apply to the genius: an Einstein, Picasso, or a Rachmaninoff
is given due honor. But we do little to bring out the creativity
which lies in all human beings. Most people-just the everyday
garden variety, not the geniuses-have far more potentialities
for being creative than they use. But
very few of them have the courage or desire to carry through their
own ideas, big or little, because they have been conditioned to think routinely and follow the crowd. Our society tends, particularly today, to prize uniformity in thinking more than originality. The concern with the "know-how" rather than the "why," with technology rather than meaning, permeates much of the thinking even in the social sciences when method becomes more important than problems. The use of the most exact scientific methods on a sterile and meaningless problem is not too different from the employment of the most technically advanced camera work to produce a banal movie. It is the same when our educational system stresses the accumulation of facts rather than the meaningful relationship between them, and the taking of so many courses that there is little time for thoughtful reflection. The radio with its "Information, Please" and other quiz programs continues the emphasis. It is not that factual knowledge or scientific methods are unimportant, but rather that they are of use only in the larger context of problems and meanings. Hollywood expands these two features of our society to such an extent that it discourages and sometimes even forbids creativity in the very people whom it presumably pays to be creative.
The problem of power has been important since the beginning of mankind's existence. Its history follows no straight line, but lunges forward and backward, always correlated with the concept of what is human nature and with the meaning of freedom. In the very beginning of his history, man was more at one with the nat-
ural world than he is today. He might
think he was descended from a totemic animal and there was a close
tie with other animals and to the world of nature. Primitive man
was also more closely linked with his kindred than is modern man.
Much of life in Stone Age societies consisted of a series of reciprocal
duties and responsibilities between members of an extended family,
clan or other social group, which continued even after death.
In this system of close relationships there was little room for
emphasis on individuality. Differences between people might be
noted, but were not considered particularly important. Rebels
from traditional customs were few. If head-hunting was a way of
proving manhood and becoming eligible for marriage, it would be
unusual to find one of the young men of the tribe staying behind,
murmuring "I'm not the type," as the others went off
on a head-hunting expedition. Some primitive societies do have
institutionalized modes of behavior for people who do not fit
into the norm, such as homosexuals; but on the whole little attention
is paid to the less striking individual differences. Traditions
are followed, and power to implement them lies with the elders.
The process of the emergence of the individual from these primary ties Erich Fromm calls "individuation." He points out that the same process occurs in the life history of an individual.6 Birth involves a biological separation from the mother and the beginning of an individual existence, even though the child is functionally dependent on his mother for a considerable time. Mankind as well as the individual struggles through the ages to free himself from primary ties. Familiar landmarks in this history are Christianity, with its emphasis on the importance and value of each individual's soul to God, the end of Feudalism, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, political revolutions with their overthrow of mon-archies, and the development of political and economic democracy. During this process power has gone through many re-allocations, from the tribal elders to feudal lords, popes, kings and emperors. Gradually it was diffused from the hands of a few to the many, who include elected political representatives, owners of industry,
leaders of labor and others. This century
has seen revolutions which reversed the process and concentrated
power again in the hands of a few dictators. Man, as Fromm says,
both wants and fears freedom; he struggles to gain it and he gives
The meaning of the word "freedom,"
of course, is not the same to all men, or at all times. There
are many freedoms and none is absolute. Most of them connote freedom
from some form of constraint, either in society or within man's
personality. But, underlying all freedoms, as Ralph Barton Perry
writes, is the freedom of thought. This implies choice and an
awareness of alternatives, based on both imagination and knowledge.7
The exercise of the freedom of choice may be restricted, by institutions
and customs, or by psychological forces within man, due to ignorance
and fear. The degree to which freedom of choice is permitted is
always linked with society's particular concept of the nature
of man. Today, at one end of the power scale is the idea of man
as a passive creature without ability to choose for himself, manipulated
by a powerful few who claim omniscience. Men are puppets pulled
by strings, seen and hidden. They are told what to think politically,
scientifically, morally, and aesthetically. Spontaneity in thinking
is discouraged and conformity is the goal. Choice of an alternative
which involves different values is not presented in this concept.
When all the manipulation is done by the state and when the strings
are pulled by a dictator, it is called totalitarianism.
The form of thinking underlying totalitarianism
and some of its accompanying behavior is not confined to the countries
labeled as such. It is present everywhere and not absent from
our own society. However, here, it is in conflict with a different
concept, the democratic one, which emphasizes the uniqueness of
man in his greater capacity for thinking as compared to other
species. Both the desire and ability to choose between alternatives
is regarded as an innate part of being human, which increases
as men grow up and break their dependency on primary ties. This
theory of human nature is imbedded in our formal charters, the
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and is part
of our tradi-
tional behavior as represented by a multiple-party
system; freedom of choice at a secret ballot box; freedom of religion
diversity of ideas in sciences and arts, and choice of different
The democratic concept of the nature
of man is in continuous conflict with the totalitarian one, but
the struggle is not confined to the political level, or to international
relationships. It is part of the texture of our daily lives, in
the family, in school and college, in courts, in Congressional
and State legislative committees, and in every other area which
has responsibility in human relations. There appears to be an
increasing tendency in some of these areas to stifle, overtly
and subtly, the expression of opinions which are not those of
the majority, to overseers conformity, and to so prevent freedom
of thought and of choice.
The conflict comes out particularly clearly
in education. On one side there is the emphasis on discovering
individual aptitudes and developing the unique capacities of each
student. The goal of small classes so that more attention can
be paid to individual students is everywhere recognized, even
if not always attained. But even in graduate work, there is also
the tendency in the opposite direction: one graduate seminar at
a well-known university had eighty members. Still, the idea of
the educational process as one which trains the student's capacity
for critical and independent judgment is sincerely believed in
by some, and given lip service by most educators. The ninetieth
birthday of John Dewey, more responsible than any other one person
for shaping our concept of democratic education, was celebrated
nationally. At the same time there are opposing tendencies, political
and pedagogical, which negate the whole concept of developing
the students' capacity to think for themselves and to choose between
alternatives. The censorship of ideas in books and magazines of
which school boards or influential pressure groups do not approve
generates an atmosphere of fear for teachers and students, which
is hardly conducive to independent thinking. Nor is training in
critical judgment necessarily provided by the emphasis on accumulation
of facts for ritual examinations.
In family living and bringing up of children, there are also
opposing trends, with the democratic
one gaining. Implicit obedience to parents and the idea that "children
should be seen and not "heard" belong to the past mores.
In this country, there is the trend, sometimes carried to extremes,
of self-expression for children and for parents to be friends
or pals with their children, rather than authoritarian figures.
The emphasis is on the development of the child's capacity to
make decisions for himself, as his knowledge and experiences broaden.
This type of thinking, accenting spontaneity rather than conformity,
appears to be gradually becoming part of our mores. The family,
one of the most significant conditioning forces in the life history
of the individual, is decidedly non-totalitarian in our society.
Family life, education, and political organizations have always been conditioning forces molding the lives of people; but mass communications are new. Certainly they have enriched our culture. Without the invention of printing, literacy for masses of people would be impossible. Radio gives a speed and ease of communication undreamed of by our ancestors. Movies can bring drama to millions of people who otherwise would never enter a theater. But the mass communications, like every other advance, bring problems as well as advantages. Among the most serious is the capacity of these communications to manipulate the ideas, opinions and emotions of vast audiences. More and more do people depend on what they read in their daily newspaper or what their radio commentator says, for their opinions. This means that man functions passively, taking over opinions, ideas, and prejudices ready-made from others, rather than actively examining a number of choices and making up his own mind. In a totalitarian society all the mass communications are controlled by a ruling clique, and no choice is permitted the citizen. In the United States there is a choice, but relatively few people avail themselves of it. They do not all seem to realize that almost every newspaper has its own line, whether it be the [New York] Daily News or the Daily Worker, as has each radio commentator; and many do not bother to examine different lines. Albert Schweitzer thinks that our whole society is geared to what he calls "the renunciation of thinking," and he labels our age one of spiritual bankruptcy. He writes:
The organized political, social and religious associations of our time are at work to induce individual man not to arrive at his convictions by his own thinking but to take as his own, such convictions as they keep ready-made for him. Any man who thinks for himself and at the same time is spiritually free is to the associations something inconvenient and even uncanny. He does not offer sufficient guarantee that he will merge himself in their organizations in the way they wish. All corporate bodies look today for their strength not so much to the spiritual worth of the ideas they represent and to that of the people who belong to them, as to the attainment of the highest possible degree of unity and exclusiveness. It is here that they expect to find their strongest power for offense and defense.8
The tendency of our age is not only to take over our thoughts ready-made and to lazily conform, but to continue the same pattern with our emotions. This is to be expected, since the dichotomy between thought and feeling is, of course, artificial. In manipulating and defining our emotions and ideas about human relations, mass communications are among the most powerful agents. For instance, the pulp literature, advertising and movies all hammer home a similar concept of love. Advertising both uses and abuses man's basic need for love to sell its ware. The young woman who rides the subway or bus to work daily reads that holding a husband is dependent on using certain soap flakes which will keep the color of her underwear fresh; and in the past, there was the negative campaign of "Always a bridesmaid and never a bride" unless a certain mouthwash was used. Not only does advertising sell its products, but it also sells a concept of love and human relations. The pulps and movies sell their concept of love, too, with the movies being probably far the more powerful, since in them, love objects are dramatically portrayed by glamorous or highly attractive men and women. Love, in most movies, is limited to instant biological attraction without any other elements. The hero sees a girl waiting for a bus; one look at her well-shaped legs, strutting bosom, and
golden hair is sufficient to tell him
that this is his mate for life, and the pursuit begins. In actual
life in Hollywood, and elsewhere, the end of such a pursuit would
usually be only the bed, quickly reached. Censorship, of course,
forbids this portrayal, and so the ending is transformed into
the romantic one of happiness ever after. This confusion between
love and infatuation or an adolescent "crush" is repeated
over and over again. Another recurring theme in movies is the
loss, or threatened loss, of a love object; the solution is usually
suicide, murder, or insanity. Finding another love object rarely
occurs, although our divorce and remarriage rate indicate this
is a fairly frequent modern solution. Love is also supposed to
be the mainspring for all creative work, whether in science or
the arts. In the lives of great artists and scientists which have
been filmed, the hero is usually dependent for his accomplishment
not on his own genius, intelligence, or hard work, but on the
loving devotion of his mate, or more colloquially, "the little
The other emotional behavior most frequently emphasized in the movies, besides love, is violence. Radio, comics and headlines are vibrant with it. Like love, violence has long been a part of all drama. But, as John Houseman writes:
What is significant about our contemporary "tough" films (critics and ladies' organizations to the contrary) is not their surface violence but the neurotic reaction that accompanies it. It is not the act of brutality that is repellent, but the indifference with which it is regarded by those who commit it and those whom it affects.9
As Houseman points out in his discussion
of the characters in The Big Sleep, "It is these people-spiritless
zombies, utterly lacking in moral or tragic sense-that are really
frightening, not their forays with blackjack and pistol."
There are a number of points of view about violence in movies. It may serve as a catharsis for the conscious and unconscious desires of the audience, as all drama does to some degree. But whether or not the function of catharsis is served depends on whether the
violence is treated in its tragic and
human aspects. As noted earlier, it is possible that a succession
of movies in which violence is portrayed by glamorous stars and
in which there is no sense of inner morality, even though the
"sinners" are punished at the end, may not be cathartic
at all but, instead, give this behavior a kind of permissiveness.
At least, these movies do not act as a deterrent and movie solutions,
other than violent and easy ones for difficult situations, are
The problem of aggression in our society
is not an easy one. The ordinary frictions of life generate an
aggressive attitude and it is a necessary ingredient underlying
much success. Yet aggressive behavior in general is not approved.
Rarely is an outlet permitted in the family. If an adolescent
or person in his late teens is angry with his father or mother,
instead of letting his anger out on them, he is more apt to rush
out of the house and go to a movie. Here, he can find an outlet
for his feelings. But his relationship with parents and the situation
which caused his aggression remains unchanged. Many other older
people are afraid of showing their aggressive feelings, because
they fear loss of love or affection. Movies provide a vicarious
outlet, but the basic insecurities of the individual are left
The heightening of suspense is part of most pictures in which violence is a part. These movies aim to increase tensions and their advertisements feature the breathless suspense, excitement and horror. An element of suspense is part of all drama. But never has it been so intense and so exaggerated as in most current thrilling movies. A possible hypothesis is that people cannot permit themselves to be fully aware of all the suspense and fear involved in the atomic bomb, a possible third war, and the future in general for themselves and the world. Although they try to evade the problem, the anxiety remains. The suspense of finding out "who done it" in the movie or detective story may be one way of relieving the greater suspense of what is going to happen to them and their children in the future. The suspense gags of a man dangling on a clothesline between two high buildings and wild hysterical automobile chases, in all of which no one gets hurt, may offer some relief. In a typical Abbott and Costello comedy, The Buck Private
Comes Home, Costello drives a midget
car in a race and through all kinds of fantastic obstacles. He
does not know how to drive, is unable to control the car, and
throughout the whole race is scared stiff. Through a series of
miraculous escapes he comes out safely and wins the race. An audience
who feels helpless to control an equally fantastic social situation,
would like nothing better than a Costello victory through a miracle.
The manipulation of behavior as well as emotions is common to our society. Salesmen are important in our business civilization and success in selling is attained primarily through the manipulation of people. How to Win Friends and Influence People, and all the books similar to this best seller, attempt to give the techniques. Knowing the right people is regarded as more important to success in many jobs than knowledge, experience, or integrity. Many young men go to prestige universities in the East in order to make "contacts," which will help them in Wall Street or business careers after commencement. There is hardly a profession, even those in which skill and knowledge count, that does not number among its successes a goodly number who have come to the top primarily through the slap-on-the-back and similar techniques. Of course, knowing influential people and getting their help is part of human relations in every society. But our society exaggerates the pattern.
While these are some of the totalitarian elements which exist in democratic societies, there are basic differences between them and totalitarian ones. In the latter, the manipulation of people is carried to the greatest extremes and, even more important, is always done by a few powerful men at the head of the state. In democracies, the manipulation is done by many different forces with diverse goals and often in conflict. The differences between the totalitarian philosophy of man as an obedient robot and the traditional democratic concept of man's freedom and independence are very significant. These differences in social organization and in philosophy should not be underestimated. Totalitarian elements in our society, whether in school, home, politics, are only one of a number of alternatives. For, while democratic ideas and behavior are not always implemented or used, there are opportunities for
freedom of thought and behavior. It is
true that sometimes the citizen merely repeats opinions he hears
over the radio or reads in the newspaper. But there are other
times when he bursts through all these synthetic ideas and thinks
for himself, as he has demonstrated in several presidential elections.
The election of President Roosevelt in 1944 and of President Truman
in 1948 ran counter to the majority of editorial opinions and
radio propaganda. As far as is known, the citizens of the totalitarian
state is not given this opportunity to choose or the family and
educational conditioning to utilize it. In American society, as
in many of the Western European ones, there are present conflicting
trends of totalitarianism and democracy.
Hollywood represents totalitarianism.
Its basis is economic rather than political but its philosophy
is similar to that of the totalitarian state. In Hollywood, the
concept of man as a passive creature to be manipulated extends
to those who work for the studios, to personal and social relationships,
to the audiences in the theaters and to the characters in the
movies. The basic freedom of being able to choose between alternatives
is absent. The gifted people who have the capacity for choice
cannot exercise it; the executives who technically have the freedom
of choice do not actually have it, because they usually lack the
knowledge and imagination necessary for making such a choice.
Much behavior is compulsive, springing from fears, hidden and
open. The careful planning and good judgment of the exceptional
people have been already described and are in dramatic contrast
to the hysterical behavior of the others.
The Hollywood atmosphere of crises and continuous anxiety is a kind of hysteria which prevents people from thinking, and is not too different from the way dictators use wars and continuous threats of war as an emotional basis for maintaining their power. As the late Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan pointed out, there is considerable difference between fear and anxiety. Fear, he said, is often provoked by a new or novel situation and wears off as one becomes accustomed to it. Anxiety, however, arises out of relationships with other people which are disturbed, and "from its mildest to its most extreme manifestations interferes with effective alertness to the factors in the current situation that are immediately rele-
vent to its occurrence, and thus with
the refinement and precision of action related to its relief or
reduction."10 Put more colloquially and applied to Hollywood,
this means that a stage director who directs a movie for the first
time might have some fear which would disappear as he became more
accustomed to the new situation. In the meantime, the fear would
not inhibit his learning as much as possible about the new situation
and applying his knowledge and talent to it. But the anxiety of
the average producer who has been in movies all his adult life
springs out of his character and interpersonal relations, and
the Hollywood situation calls forth and increases what is already
there. Nor is it possible to become accustomed to anxiety-provoking
situations. The very anxiety prevents an awareness of the factors
which call it forth and of realistically doing something about
them. These anxiety ridden producers and executives of Hollywood
try to reduce anxiety by spending more money, buying a best seller
whether or not it is appropriate for a movie, using ten writers
instead of one, having three "big name" stars in a movie,
and so on. But none of these formulas rids him of his anxiety.
Even where a picture is a big success, he knows the same anxiety
on the next one.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote about Fate
as sometimes cruel and other times loving. Whether it is called
Fate, destiny, or breaks, the underlying concept is the same:
man gives up the attempt to exercise some control over his life
through his own intelligence, because he thinks forces beyond
his domain completely direct it.
The totalitarian concept of man is not limited to human relationships in Hollywood, but is reflected in many movies. Life, success or misfortune is usually portrayed as caused by luck or an accident. Only rarely does a movie show the process of becoming successful or the process of disintegration. Either one is treated as a fait accompli in the beginning of the picture or as caused by accidents during the course of the movie. Most movie characters, whether hero or villain, heroine or jade, are passive beings to whom
things happen accidentally. Rarely do
they even try to think through the situation in which they find
themselves. They are buffeted about and defeated; or Fate smiles
on them and almost magically they are successful. A few pictures
have freed themselves from this formula. In Home of the Brave
the Negro hero is shown as suffering realistically from prejudice.
His escape is not on a magic carpet into a never-never world but
through a painful psychological process, which the movie plainly
says is kaleidoscoped. The Negro problem is seen as part of a
larger human one. Nor is the problem over at the end of the picture.
The hero merely understands it better and has a way of handling
The totalitarian concept likewise extends
toward the audiences, often regarded as suckers whose emotional
needs and anxieties can be exploited for profit. Hollywood producers
are, of course, not the only people with undue anxieties and many
of the movies cater to the same kind of anxieties in their audiences,
strengthening rather than reducing them, and contributing nothing
to understanding. Only men who are not completely ridden with
anxieties and who have some understanding of their own, as well
as mankind's problems, can make other kinds of pictures. "The
people," however, are always used as a rationalization-by
dictators who say they rule for the good of the people, and by
Hollywood producers who say they give the people what they want.
Until recently Hollywood offered very little more choice to audiences than it did to its artist employees. Today, because of competition from both exceptional Hollywood movies and foreign films, there is more choice.
The ultimate in totalitarian power is
power for its own sake, although dictators offer various rationalizations
for propaganda purposes. Some of the men with power in Hollywood
present the same picture. These men have made millions, and more
money means very little to them; but they cannot get enough of
power: power over human beings in the studio and power over the
daydreams of men and women who sit in the darkened theater.
For men of this type there is often enjoyment also in the power to humiliate, which they exercise in their relationships with their
employees. There is a story about a well-known director, Mr. John Mighty, who was sleeping with the star of the picture he was directing. One morning she came on the set about a half hour late, and he bawled her out in loud, scolding language before the other actors, a crowd of extras, and the workmen. She tried to tell him that the hairdresser and makeup had taken longer than usual, but he refused to listen. Instead, he made her repeat after him an abject apology to the crowd on the set: "I apologize because I am late, and because I have caused loss of money to the studio and loss of time to all of you, and more particularly, because I know I am an actress without ability." At this point, she broke down and, crying, said, "But please, John!" She got no further. The director bellowed, "'John' in bed, you bitch; 'Mr. Mighty' on the set!" Humiliation as a technique for maintaining authority and for enjoyment is not confined to big people: assistant directors often show the same pattern in their treatment of extras. Those who take pleasure in degrading other people, whether in Hollywood or in a totalitarian state, are themselves degraded and may be even subconsciously aware of it.
Of course Hollywood is no more completely
totalitarian than it is completely primitive. The genesis of Hollywood
is different from that of any totalitarian state. In the latter
the dictators either seize power through revolution, or attain
it by making promises to relieve the misery and anxieties from
which people suffer, or they do both. In Hollywood most of the
men who enjoy power have it simply because they got there first
and were able to form the social structure of movie making as
they desired, rather than in the interests of movie making. The
Hollywood dictators have not been able to make converts, in the
way of any successful political dictator. He gets his subjects
when young, and conversion begins in the kindergarten. The subjects
in Hollywood arrive there as adults with fairly well-formulated
ideas about how they can best work and live. They accept the dictatorship
only nominally, because of the high salaries. They rarely accept
it emotionally and, instead, are filled with resentment and bitterness
The rebels, in this case the artists, do not struggle in underground
movements to outmaneuver the studio executives.
They fight openly to gain power, that is, to get into positions
in which they can make important decisions and influence the movies.
A sufficient number of gifted writers, directors and actors are
succeeding to indicate at least a trend which offers a variation
and may, eventually, modify or change the system.
These exceptional individuals receive
little help in their struggles. The Federal Government tries to
reduce the monopolistic power of the industry and to regulate
its buying and selling practices. Censorship groups attempt to
regulate the morality of the pictures and succeed only in making
them dishonest. Guilds fight for more money for their members,
but do nothing about a contract, which allows the employer almost
literally to own his employees for its duration. The exceptional
individuals, with great strength of character and drive, with
high talent, and with a true morality, work on their own as they
try to dent the power situation in Hollywood, alter the human
relationships, and give meaning to their movies.
Totalitarianism, whether in a foreign nation or in Hollywood, represents one of the backward swings in history. But primitive societies seldom knew the degradation that modern man can suffer under a dictator. Although primitive cultures have a similar lack of emphasis on the individual, there are wide differences between them and modern totalitarian states. The two situations differ widely in origin and effect. In primitive societies man has not yet emerged sufficiently from his primary ties to his family and clan kindred to emphasize his own individuality. But totalitarianism attempts to negate the individuality of men who have broken these primary ties, who have known, and valued, freedom. The force of tradition offers very little choice to primitive man. The force of the modern police state also offers very little choice. Primitive cultures lack the knowledge and awareness of man's potentialities. Modern totalitarian societies fear and distrust them. Evolutionary thinking is not in style in the social sciences, but it is possible to view the history of man as a gradual freeing of himself from primary ties and becoming freer to utilize and develop his uniquely human characteristics.
In every society there are a multitude
of patterns, some overelaborated and others underplayed. The anthropologist
is well aware that either process may be carried to such unnecessary
extremes as to threaten the well-being and, occasionally, even
the survival of the society. Among the aborigines of Australia
the marriage regulations are worked out to such a fine point that
it is almost impossible for a native to find a socially approved
mate. His way out of this impossible situation is to elope. Some
Eskimo tribes are not permitted to hunt seals in summer, and they
will not touch seals in this season even if the land game fails
and they are starving.
Hollywood has the elaborated totalitarian
elements we have described: the concept of people as property
and as objects to be manipulated, highly concentrated and personalized
power for power's sake, an amorality, and an atmosphere of breaks,
continuous anxiety and crises. The result of this overelaboration
is business inefficiency, deep frustration in human relations,
and a high number of unentertaining second- and third-rate movies.
There are, of course, other patterns in the U.S.A. which Hollywood could elaborate. They are the democratic ones of the dignity of man, the concept of freedom, a belief in man's capacity to think, create, and to exercise some control over his life-a belief that man is more important than property-all part of our cultural heritage. How far will Hollywood utilize them? It is not a matter of more brains and talent or of money, but of generating new modes of behavior and a system in which collaboration is more important than domination. Any changes that will occur will not come out of magical thinking or waiting for breaks. Nor is it possible to be sure of a "happy ending." No anthropologist ever expects a complete break from the past. But he does know that societies assume different forms through contact with others, through technological inventions, and through changes in values and goals. He can predict that Hollywood will not go back to its isolated position and that there will be new technological developments. The really difficult question to answer is, Can Hollywood change its ways of thinking and its values, so that the democratic concept of man becomes more important than a totalitarian one?
1. William Lloyd Warner and J. O. Low, The Social System of the Modern Factory, p. 182. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
2. Elton Mayo, The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization, 2nd ed., p. 119-120. New York: The Macmillan Co.
3. Variety, October 12, 1949.
4. Clyde Kluckhohn, Mirror for Man, pp. 247248. New York: McGrawHill.
5. The American Past: A History of Be United States from Concord to Hiroshima, p. 5. New York: Simon & Schuster.
6. Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. New York: Rinehart. Fromm discusses this whole problem and its relation to freedom in detail.
7. Ralph Barton Perry, Characteristically
American, pp. 148-149. New York:
8. Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, p.255. New York: Henry Holt.
9. John Houseman, "What Makes American Movies Tough?" in Vogue, January 15, 1947.
10. Harry Stack Sullivan, "Multidisciplined
Coordination of Interpersonal Data," in Culture and Personality,
p. 179. Proceeding of an Interdisciplinary Conference held under
the auspices of the Viking Fund. Published by the Viking Fund,