Movies from the Trenches: “The Golden Age of Cinema” (Review)

Richard B. Jewell published The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945 in 2007 because, as he says in the introduction, he was frustrated by the absence of anything like it on the book market.  Jewell is the Hugh M. Hefner (yes, that Hugh M. Hefner) Professor of American Film at the University of Southern California and teaches Golden Age cinema there.

The book has many virtues, and its content tends to be helpful and instructive.  Of particular note are the chapters on technology and censorship.  Both do a marvelous job of making complex processes fairly cogent: the early attempts at color and sound film on the one hand, the intricacies of the Production Code Administration (a.k.a. the Hays Office, Hollywood’s internal and voluntary censorship office) on the other.  The details about the Code, in particular, are fascinating; Jewell excerpts a large portion of the Code itself for our perusal—it is astonishing.  I also appreciated the chapter on the star system, which provides in-depth analyses of notable stars’ careers, and the introductory chapter, which furnishes an articulate cultural and social history of the period under discussion.

Less helpful are chapters such as the one on genre.  I fear that for an American audience especially, this part of the study will seem too basic.  It is hard to imagine who does not already know some of the very basic points that are made here about the musical, the comedy, the adventure film, etc.   I must say that the chapter on narrative and style was particularly disappointing to me, as it seemed so promising at first: The author announced that he was going to spend most of the chapter performing a case study of the 1939 John Ford movie, Stagecoach.  I knew that Orson Welles considered this to be one of the most influential movies on his Citizen Kane (he screened Stagecoach for his personal study many times while filming Kane), and I was eager to learn more about its exceptional qualities.  Yet Jewell essentially used Stagecoach to demonstrate everything that is conventionally Hollywood about it: the way it resolves loose threads, the way it transforms highbrow characters’ opinions of lowbrow characters, the way it gives the drunk and disorderly an opportunity to prove their goodness, etc.  I was surprised to see so much space devoted to an explanation of why something was not as unique as someone as special as Welles thought it was.

Still, at other times, I appreciated the honesty of Jewell’s writing.  Of the dreadful Andy Hardy musicals, starring Andy Rooney and Judy Garland, he writes, “[T]he levels of MGM professional gloss, as well as cornball Hollywood hokum, were near their all-time high in these movies” (286).  His take on history—film history and otherwise—is measured and reasonable.  Much of the information in Jewell’s study is valuable, and the presentation is clear, accessible, unpretentious, and well supported with many examples.  The Golden Age of Cinema is broad in scope but contains helpful detail and so is in many ways a very good starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about early movies.

Full reference: Jewell, Richard B.  The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945.  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.  348 pp.