1 American Cinema: Cyclical History of Hollywood

American Cinema: Cyclical History, 1927-2027

Book Proposal

Emanuel Levy, Ph.D.

Professor of Film and Sociology

For purposes of intellectual property and protection, this proposal is registered with the Library of Congress


My proposed book, American Cinema: A Cyclical History of Hollywood, offers a new, different way of looking at the American cinema by focusing on the concept of film cycle, a rather unexplored idea in film studies.  The time frame is 90 years, from the beginning of the sound era, in 1929, to the present.

Three major ideas define my book, and distinguish it from other “histories” of Hollywood cinema.

Cycle Vs. Genre, Cycle Vs. Series (Franchise)

There have been numerous books about the prevalent genres in American cinema, past and present. My book’s central concept is that of a film cycle, a group of films that are linked together by major themes and ideas, which cut across and intersect with various genres.  In other words, a similar idea (concern, motif) or type of character, can appear in comedies and dramas, westerns and thrillers and so on.

For example, The Thin Man movies constituted a popular series of seven films, made between 1934 and 1941. They featured the same major stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy, but they were written and helmed by different directors.  However, in my conception, The Thin Man pictures form a series, not a cycle.  To qualify as a cycle, there must be other similar films–private eyes with comedic touch–made by different studios, helmed by different directors, and featuring different stars.

Cycle VS. Socio-Historical Context 

Almost every decade in American history had witnessed the rise, decline and fall of particular film cycles.  Cycles are often launched by a particular film, whose critical and/or commercial success goes on to spawn a cluster of movies that deal with similar issues, or revolve around similar characters.

Film cycles are conditioned by both filmic and extra-filmic factors, such as the shifting socio-economic and the cultural-political contexts of American society at large. What are the reason for the emergence of the “Beach Party” cycle in the early to mid-a960s?

In the same vein, the cycle of conspiracy (paranoia) films in the 1970s, was not conditioned by cinematic factors, but rather by the political contexts of American society, defined by the political assassinations, the Vietnam War and anti-Vietnam War protests, the Watergate scandal and its aftermath, President  Nixon’s resignation.

 Cycles Vs. Directors and Stars

The 1930s were a particular fertile decade for movie musicals, such as the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance musicals, made at RKO in the 1930s.  Those constitute a series, linked by the same stars, but they do not form a cycle either thematically or stylistically.

In contrast, musical movies of the early Depression era, such as 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers movies, constitute a cycle, largely made by the same studio (Warner Bros.), with the same choreographer (Busby Berkeley), and featuring a similar cast, often headed by William Powell and Ruby Keller.

Movie cycles are sometimes created or revolve around the same director, who works with the same cast of actors, jointly generating features linked by similar themes and motifs.  Take, for example, John Hughes and the cycle of high-school movies that he made in the 1980s, with (more or less) the same ensemble of actors. Why and how it emerged in the early 1980s? Why and how it declined in the late 1980s?

Cycles Thematic Scope and Historical Duration

Colleagues and students have often asked me about the thematic scope and historical duration of film cycles.  The answers to these issues are tricky but intriguing.  While every decade from the 1940s on has produced film noirs, they appeared in cycles, lasting about three to five years.  The first cycle of film noir (even before the term was invented by French film critics) began in 1941, with the appearance of two films, High Sierra, and The Maltese Falcon.  Coincidentally or not, both films featured Humphrey Bogart, catapulting him to major stardom.  But they were helmed by different directors, Raoul Walsh and John Huston.  The first noir cycle reached its apogee in 1944, with the release of Billy Wilder’s first masterpiece, Double Indemnity, one of the few film noir to be nominated for the best Picture Oscar. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and its prestigious Oscar Award have always been suspicious of dark, grim, rather pessimistic views of the American Dream).

As noted, a particular successful film, say Ridley Scott’s Alien of 1979, often launches a whole series of films (the Alien movies, which continue to be made at present).  However, in order to constitute a describable cycle, the films must go beyond the particular director (Scott), star (Sigourney Weaver), and the studio in which it originated (Fox). And indeed, Alien turned out to be a seminal picture in launching not only the Alien film series, but a whole new type of film, a hybrid of sci-fi, horror, and action, blending the conventions of different genres.

In some cases, a particular film cycle declines (and disappears, at least for a while) due to the fact that the potential ideas and themes have been exhausted narratively and subsequently the moviegoing public is “getting tired” of them,  In other case, cycles appear and disappear due to the changing socio-cultural political landscape. It is no coincidence that many “feel good” and “optimistic” films were made during the conservative Reagan administration, which encouraged old-fashioned patriotic movies (the Rambo series, Top Gun).

Below please find a detailed Table of Contents, which is divided into 14 chapters.  Each chapter will describe and analyze the rise, evolution, decline, and end of a particular film cycle, by emphasizing its thematic and stylistic innovations and the socio-historical conditions responsible for its emergence, duration, and decease.

Table of Contents  

Chapter 1: Crime-Gangster Cycle, 1927-1933

Key Films:

Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Scarface

Chapter 2: Depression Era Musicals, 1933-1936

Key Films:

Forty-Second Street, The Gold Diggers of 1933 (and its sequels)

Chapter 3: First Cycle of Film Noir, 1941-1944 

Key Films:

The Maltese Falcon (1941), High Sierra (1941), both starring Humphrey Bogart

Double Indemnity (1944)

Chapter 4: Sci-Fi Film Cycle, 1950-1954

Key Films:

The Thing

A cycle of movies dealing with mutation size, manifest in disastrous dislocations in size: giant scorpions, claw monsters, spiders, ants.

Chapter 5: Historical Epics—Old Testament, 1949-1954

This cycle is ofen described as “Sand and Sandals” movies, shot in Widescreen, CinemaScope, and made by most studios in order to compete with the fast rise of TV as a rivaling medium.

Key Films:

Samson and Delilah; Quo Vadis; The Robe


Chapter 6: Juvenile Delinquency Cycle

Key Films:

The Wild One (1953), starring Brando; Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean


Chapter 7: Gay and Lesbian Cycles, 1961-1962; 1967-1970

Key Films of First Cycle:

Walk on the Wild Side, The Children’s Hour; Victim

Key Films of Second Cycle:

The Fox; Reflections in Golden Eye; Midnight Cowboy; The Boys in the Band


Chapter 8: Beach Party Cycle, 1963-1966

Key Films:

Beach Party; Muscle Beach Party; Bikini Beach; Pajama Party; Beach Blanket Bingo


Chapter 9: Disaster Films, 1970-1978

Key Films:

Airport; The Poseidon Adventure; Earthquake; The Towering Inferno


Chapter 10: Conspiracy (Paranoia) Film Cycle, 1971-1976

Key Films:

Klute; The Parallax View; All the President’s Men


Chapter 11: Sci-Fi Horror Cycle

Key films:

Alien and its sequels


Chapter 12: Yuppie Film Cycles: Male-Dominated Films

Key Films:

Risky Business; Lost in America; After Hours; Desperately Seeking Susan; Into the Night; Ghost; The Fisher King (Jeff Bridges as ex-yuppie)


Chapter 13: Yuppie Cycle–Female-Dominated Thrillers

Key Films:

Jagged Edge (1985), Fatal Attraction (1987), both starring Glenn Close; The Hand that Rocks the Cradle; Single White Female

Chapter 14: Darkly Comic Crime (Heist) Cycle

The Tarantino Effect: It’s hard to think of another director (not even Hitchcock or Scorsese or Spielberg) who has had such a profound influence on a whole new generation of filmmakers, often operating in the independent milieu.

Key Films:

Reservoir Dogs; Pulp Fiction; The Usual Suspect