Selling Hollywood to the World: U.S. and European Struggles for Mastery of the Global Film Industry, 1920-1950

John Trumpbour, Selling Hollywood to the World: U.S. and European Struggles for Mastery of the Global Film Industry, 1920-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), illustrated.

A mere 10 years after their first public exhibition of the cinémaographe at the Grand Café in Paris in 1895 (a date that most historians have accepted as the birthdate of cinema as an institution), the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière ceased production and exhibition, on the grounds that the novelty of film had run its course and would no longer return profits. What they failed to understand (and what their successors Georges Méliès and Thomas Edison grasped) was the potential of film for story, whether told in the modes of realism or fantasy. In the early 20th century, French film producers dominated the world market, until competition from the U.S. (notably by Edison) began to encroach. The interruption of transatlantic commerce during WWI dealt the death knell to French hegemony.

John Trumpbour makes the claim that in the interwar period, three factors transformed the institution of cinema into a battleground of contesting forces. First, cinema came increasingly to be regarded as the public expression of the national culture from which it sprang. Secondly, the economic stakes of public exhibition grew with the popularity of the medium. A third and related factor was that, in the U.S. at least, movie market penetration came to be regarded as the spearhead of U.S. business: films paved the way for other U.S. products by “Americanizing” audiences and creating economic links that made it easier for other businesses to follow.

What all this amounts to is a “politics of culture,” in Trumpbour’s apt phrase. In his landmark study, he examines the way that film became the site of contestation for cultural and economic hegemony between the U.S. and two of its European rivals, the U.K. and France.

Trumpbour’s argument is that Hollywood triumphed not because of its superior product but because of structural factors associated with the relationship of the U.S. film industry to capital (readers of the author’s earlier book, How Harvard Rules, will recognize a familiar argument here). In “selling America to the world” (Will Hayes’s phrase of 1923, when he was head of the MPPDA, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America), the U.S. benefited from several economic advantages. (1) It had the world’s largest domestic market as well as an industrial mode of production (in contrast with the artisanal production abroad). (2) It could compete more effectively because of the vertical integration of production, distribution, and exhibition. (3) It had the cultural advantage of a diverse immigrant population that forced producers to create a product with broad appeal. After 1927, the coming of sound also assured a wider audience, as the former British colonies were absorbed into the English language film market, thus offering new opportunities for worldwide distribution of the Hollywood product. Finally (4), Trumpbour points out that the ideology of the happy ending was a calculated one that was oriented toward box office success.

In the interwar shift from the U.K. to the U.S. as preeminent global power, communications played a pivotal role (along with oil and transportation). The book’s section on Britain’s failed attempt to salvage its cinema from the onslaught of U.S. films (a threat that inspired economist John Maynard Keynes to proclaim “death to Hollywood”) devotes a chapter to each of three major figures: the documentarian John Grierson, the director and entrepreneur Alexander Korda, and the film magnate J. Arthur Rank.

Grierson, we learn, actually coined the term “documentary,” which he characterized as “the creative treatment of actuality.” It is a tribute to Grierson’s faith in the power of the moving image that he conceived the British documentary as an alternative to Hollywood. Trumpbour’s account of Grierson and the Empire Marketing Board (whose formation in 1926 was an early instance of state support of films) seamlessly interjects the author’s own insights into the historical descriptions. For instance, citing Graham Greene’s review of Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934), Trumpbour rightly criticizes “the film’s shallow engagement with South Asian labor history as well as its reliance on an assortment of orientalist tropes and clichés.” This is a reassessment that is long overdue. Similarly, the author notes that Grierson’s notions of cinematic realism could prove rigid. Believing that his methods would result in timeless representations, Grierson, according to Trumpbour, failed to take into the account “the Brechtian insight that the conventions of realism must change as reality alters.”

In fiction films the director-impresario Alexander Korda (a Hungarian exile who had failed miserably in Hollywood in the 20s and early 30s) tried to mount a challenge to Hollywood with entertaining blockbusters. After his success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) he was able to found Denham Studios (quickly dubbed “Hollywood on the Thames”). Trumpbour notes that Korda’s emphasis on the milieux of the aristocracy and royalty reflected the tenor of the wartime refugee community in Britain: “While the Frankfurt School, Brecht, and many radical intellectuals flocked to the United States, Britain welcomed a cohort of so-called White Revolutionaries, émigrés devoted to artistocracy and the ancien régime.” By the late 30s, Korda’s extravagance and overexpansion led to a “boom and bust cycle” that left him bankrupt (unfortunately, Trumpbour breaks off the narrative of Korda’s career at this point, leaving the reader wondering about how Korda managed to return to Hollywood and direct that all-time audience pleaser, The Thief of Baghdad, in 1940).

A third attempt to revive British cinema was made by the heir to Britain’s largest flour fortune, J. Arthur Rank. Here the strategy was vertical integration of production and distribution. In 1936 Rank founded the GCFC (General Cinema Finance Corporation) and over the course of the next five years bought an interest in Universal, constructed the Pinewood Studios, and bought out Korda’s Denham Studios. He also acquired a financial interest in the exhibition sector by gaining control of Gaumont-British as well as an important stake in Odeon. By the time he consolidated his empire he controlled a third of the film theater seats in Britain. Yet Rank also ultimately met with failure. Trumpbour blames this principally on the incompatibilities between the U.S. and U.K. markets in distribution, production, and exhibition, difficulties that were compounded by President Wilson’s determination to assert U.S. hegemony in the post-war entertainment industry.

France has been more successful in resisting a complete U.S. takeover. One of the more fascinating insights of this book comes in the discussion of French filmmaking under the Occupation and Vichy. The paradox is that nationalist cultural practices (already in evidence in the interwar period, when American movies and jazz were condemned by the right as “judéo-negro-américain” and “decadent”) actually led to a flowering of French cinema during 1940-44. Trumpbour notes with irony that the preeminent French film school, the IDHEC, was founded by Vichy, a goal that had eluded Léon Blum’s Popular Front government. During the war, the German ban on U.S. films also had the effect of protectionism-a boon to French cinema that came to an abrupt end when the tidal wave of U.S. films (338 in the first six months of 1947) landed on French shores after the Allied victory. (The story of France’s film industry since 1950 has been, in one sense, the story of the government’s attempt to reserve a percentage of French exhibition for its own productions, and consequently to control the market share of the U.S. entertainment product.)

Trumpbour’s account of the Occupation/Vichy years makes fascinating reading, although many readers will feel frustrated that he doesn’t offer more information on the French productions sponsored by the German-owned Continental films, as well as more specific discussions and assessments of some of the works created during this period by Carné, Bresson, Cocteau, and Clouzot, to name a few. Still, the historian’s sweep is useful here, as the author roots the vibrancy of French cinematic culture in the interwar ciné-club movement and later provides a nuanced discussion of the intellectual background of major French film critics. The discussion of the Catholicism of André Bazin and the communist sympathies of Georges Sadoul points the way for a deeper understanding of their work.

By focusing on a few key figures and nationalities, Trumpbour manages to make exciting reading out of hard economic data, something not always accomplished in the earlier book on this subject by Kristin Thompson, Exporting Entertainment: American Film in the World Film Market, 1907-1934 (BFI Publishing). Yet Thompson’s book remains fascinating in its own right, since it pursues a different dialectic: here the underlying question is how the Hollywood Classical style became hegemonic. Her work also covers areas not considered by Trumpbour, such as the dubbing/subtitling strategies that were variously attempted by Hollywood after the coming of sound, and the “Film Europe” movement that mounted a resistance to the American product as early as the mid-20s. Her more global scope encompasses India, Australia, and South America; while her earlier starting point (1907 rather than 1920) allows her to ask why American cinema didn’t dominate at the outset. Because Hollywood eventually triumphed, Thompson notes that even today alternative cinemas “still gain their significance and force to the extent that they undermine Hollywood.”

In a sense the two works can be read as companion pieces. Thompson covers the period up to 1934, while Trumpbour’s continues until 1950. A second volume that takes up the question of global cultural imperialism will be issued subsequently. One of the great appeals of Selling Hollywood to the World is its clear Marxist focus, and the way it is able to trace a path through cultural history by pursuing the dialectic of clashing economic interests.

Reviewed by Inez Hedges
Program in Cinema Studies
Northeastern University

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