Low Plaza

Hollywood and the Cold War: Ann Douglas Explores How Cultural Climate Affected Film Noir

By Jo Kadlecek

In her upcoming book Ann Douglas turns her attention to Hollywood and the Cold War.

It took a decade for Ann Douglas, Parr Professor of Comparative Literature, to write her first book, "The Feminization of American Culture." Her second, "Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s," took 15 years. So when Douglas talks about her latest project, she can hardly contain her enthusiasm: "This one is taking seven, so far, anyway. I'm really ahead of the game."

The working title of Douglas's third book, "It's Only Real When It's Dark: The Noir Generation and Urban Culture, 1940-1960," reflects her life-long fascination with those periods in America's cultural history noted for creative explosions and enormous change. Though the book is not slated for publication until 2004 by Farrar/Strauss, the process of researching this era has taken some interesting turns for Douglas. "I just want to know it all," said the popular teacher and author. "I guess it's part of being in love, sort of like wanting to know everything about your lover."

The object of her academic affection this time is Hollywood and the Cold War. With this book, Douglas has narrowed her exploration specifically to how urbanization and the cultural climate between 1940 and 1960 have affected the unique film genre of noir. Douglas, who has known since she was in her middle twenties that she would write these books, admits that "It's Only Real . . ." picks up where her last one left off.

"The [last] book ended with the thought that New York was too big for anything but the media to outgrow. As someone who's been fascinated with the conjunction between a new generation, a time of crisis and creativity and a geographic place consolidating its power within the cultural hierarchy of cities and regions within the U.S. and the world," Douglas said. "That left me in a new period, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and a new place."

To her surprise, she found herself turning to Los Angeles--a city she finds alien--because "that's where the media went." Though Douglas has always included films in her 27 years of teaching at Columbia, she had never written on them. Initially, she thought her current book would address how the Cold War had affected American culture in general, the effects of which she felt growing up during that time. But when she began studying musical films, her thinking took another direction.

"I had the click, that feeling that 'this is it,' and knew this was the lens, so to speak, through which I'm going to see this whole period, the way I saw the 1920s through New York and jazz [in my second book] and the way I saw it through women reformers and Protestant clergymen in the first book," Douglas recalled. "I always need to get a window onto this broader landscape and I realized it was Hollywood. That allowed me to write about L.A. without writing as intimately as I had about New York if only because the movies aren't mainly consumed in L.A. They're consumed all over the country and all over the world."

Douglas also noticed that few books had been written comparing Los Angeles to New York from a perspective of cultural history. "Hollywood is the only major film industry in the world that is the product of two cities, and was from the beginning," Douglas said. "It didn't just start here [in New York] and then move to Hollywood because the West Coast had a better climate and was a more reliable place to make movies. There's been a rivalry and collaboration between the two cities; you can look at the development of Hollywood as a series of invasions from New York. The funding for Hollywood's technological transformations, like the conversion to sound, came from New York and from its banks and financial boards which by the early 1930s controlled the boards of the studios [based in Hollywood] and set the budget for every single picture."

This tense collaboration between the two cities also forged the path for filmmakers in the unique genre of noir, which began around 1940. It grew at a time when the U.S. consciously began to see the enemy as the post-war Soviet Union. And because noir was so heavily dominated by New York personnel and refugees from Nazism who came to the United States in the 1930s from the major cities of Europe, most noirs were set in the city, primarily in New York or Los Angeles; characteristically they were present-oriented, engaging in a kind of critique or expose of their subject.

"[Noir] is the only genre that allowed unhappy endings," Douglas said. "It doesn't mean all noirs ended unhappily; they didn't. About half have the usual finale: problems disappear, the villains are dead and the boy gets the girl. What's different is that every other genre delivers a happy ending that you can believe in. Every other genre has happy endings that really work for it; in noir, it's much harder to do because the picture has looked at the structural flaws of the system, by definition less susceptible to individual resolution."

Because Americans traditionally love happy endings, Douglas said--the myth that individuals will do the right thing and so everything will work out--noir has produced few mega-hits at the box office. Still, its importance is clear largely because "noir was intertwined with the Cold War and its origins, challenging American cheerleading. It was staffed by more intellectuals, artists and admitted left-wingers than any other [genre]," Douglas said. "The reason people have questioned its legitimacy as a genre is because it has also infiltrated other genres; there are noir musicals, noir westerns."

Noir offered the country a bolder vision, including many aspects of American life often seen only on the fringes. "Noir is a sensibility, an infiltrator," Douglas said. At a time when many people in the country were forced to take sides, noir offered "a euphoric relief" from the messages otherwise communicated by traditionally conservative studios and Cold War America. For instance, almost no children are present in noir films; women are powerful femmes fatales in noir films, and most noirs are set in inner cities, not suburbs. Noir is deeply invested in the city and the subversive, not by it's direct politics, but by creating a different space for alternative responses, Douglas said.

It is these attributes that Douglas finds personally intriguing, having herself found similar refuge in the anonymity and companionship of city life. And this spring Douglas is sharing some of her enthusiasm and discoveries in a course entitled, "Studies in Mass Culture: Hollywood & Film Noir." It explores Hollywood's noir films of the 1940s and 1950s in their economic and cinematic context as the last "genre" produced by the classic studio system, and as urban narratives that simultaneously resisted and enabled the United States' post-World War II superpower status and its internal ethnic and gender norms. Readings include original documents, histories, and urban, gender and film theory, and a variety of films.

For Douglas, it is one more part of her fascination with researching and writing America's cultural history, a process that has become her life's work. "My own theory is that anyone who gets anything done in life has to have one thing that's simple, and for me nothing else was," Douglas concluded. "But I seemed to know what I wanted to do for myself and my work and what projects I wanted to work on. And I'm doing it."

Published: Feb 22, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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