Screening Insurrection: The Containment of Working-Class Rebellion in New Deal Era Hollywood Cinema
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In my dissertation I explore the ways in which New Deal era Hollywood cinema represented the growing spirit of collective action that defined the 1930s. Specifically, I examine the ways film redirected the collective impulse of the radical left by positioning a strengthened heteronormative family as the path to national economic renewal. Drawing upon archival sources as well as cultural historians such as Richard Pells and Michael Denning and scholars of masculinity such as Michael Kimmel and R.W. Connell, I contend that the cinema of this era reinforced the national myth of the couple as the “proper” American path to economic renewal and represented collective action as being in direct conflict with the family. Beginning with Hollywood’s representation of radical collectives in the 1930s, I argue that the film industry vilified working-class collective action by equating it with mob justice and suggesting that masculine collectivity was inherently destructive to the heteronormative couple. Rather than reflecting the spirit of economic empowerment through collective action, these films, like the New Deal Administration itself, suggested that the proper path to national economic renewal was through a renewal of masculinity and the heteronormative family. I explore figures associated with subversive masculinity and collectivity during the New Deal era: the hobo and the outlaw, and explores the ways in which these figures’ subversiveness was contained and assimilated to the New Deal capitalist state. Tramping, long associated with a radical break from industrial capitalism and heteronormativity, became redefined as a temporary right of passage during which the masculine individualist reestablished his manhood before restoring his economic fortunes and establishing a stable romantic couple. Similarly the outlaw figure shifted from the working-class gangster rebelling against capitalism to the aristocratic outlaw, seeking merely to restore the proper capitalist system. Finally, I examine the ultimate containment of the nascent working-class collectives of the 1930s and 1940s by analyzing Hollywood’s World War II era production. By looking at these films it is possible to see the ways in which the spirit of radical collective action was finally reincorporated into the capitalist hegemony to preserve rather than overthrow the system.
Wilson, Galen James (2014). Screening Insurrection: The Containment of Working-Class Rebellion in New Deal Era Hollywood Cinema. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from