1 Popular Movies: Taste in American Cinema–Study

The nature and social determinants of popular taste have been two of the least studied issues in the sociology of art and culture.  Some theoretical discussions (Gans, l975) have described a taste hierarchy, distinguising among taste subcultures and taste audiences, but there have been few empirical studies, particularly in the area of film.  The field is replete with assumptions about audiences’ motivations and preferences for particular literary or artistic forms though, with the exception of television, arts audiences have seldom been empirically studied (Austin, l973).

Furthermore, the two major studies of popular taste in film have analyzed the German (Kracauer, 1966) and French (Monaco, 1976) films of the l920s, but not the American cinema, past or present.

Most studies in the sociology of art have used the reflection theory (Albrecht, 1954, 1970), without specifying the precise interplay between art works and the society they presumably reflect.

This study examines popular taste in the American cinema over the last 60 years, from the beginning of the sound era, in 1927, to the present.  It attempts to answer one central question: what have American films told their audiences about American society and culture over the last half a century.  The focus is on the medium of film because movies have been the primary source of entertainment in the United States up to the early l950s and an important form, following television’s cultural lead, since then.

Kracauer: Critique and Beyond

The study challenges some of the theoretical premises of Kracauer’s pioneering work, still one of the most provocative treatises in cultural history.  Kracauer’s chief assumption is that “the films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way than any other artistic media,” because they are the product of collaboration, thus “suppressing individual peculiarities in favor of traits common to many people.” (1966:5).

But Kracauer does not take into account that collaboration in film does not necessarily mean equal contribution or equal power of every participant (producer, director, writer, actor).  Indeed, the auteur theory, as developed in France by Andre Bazin and the critics of Cahiers du Cinema and, in this country, by Andrew Sarris (1968) have assigned primary role to the film’s director as the chief artistic force in filmmaking.  Kracauer further assumes that because the film industry “is vitally interested in profit,” it is “bound to adjust itself to the change in the mental climate” (1966:5), but, as Bergman (197l) pointed out, how this adjustment occurs or what exactly is the nation’s “mental climate” are never made clear.

Kracauer’s work can also be faulted on methodological grounds.  He dismisses the usefulness of box-office receipts, claiming that “what counts is not so much the statatisically measurable popularity of films as the popularity of their pictorial and narrative motifs,” and that “persistent reiteration of these motifs marks them as outward projections of inner urges.” (1966:12).  Thus, the criteria for choosing films for analysis are not singled out, and there seems to be a confusion between important and popular films.

It is possible to document, however, that movies can be commercially successful without being important, ideologically or cinematically, and vice versa, that significant films about important social issues are not necessarily popular with the lay public at large.  Finally, the most problematic aspect of Kracauer’s work is the idea that determinant features of the German cinema (humiliation, defeat, nationalism, racism, authoritarianism) reflected the “national psyche” and therefore could predict political developments, such as the rise of Nazism to power.

This study takes a different theoretical approach and uses different methodology.  It accepts historian Maltby’s claim that the American cinema “is primarily a commercial institution, engaged in manufacturing and selling a specific product in a capitalistic marketplace.”  (1983:10).

But it rejects the notion that the American film “is only incidentally a species of art, a political statement, a sociological document, a cultural product.” (Ibid).  Indeed, to claim that Hollywood’s movies are commercial commodities, based on a profit motive, is not to deny that they are also based on narrative and thematic conventions and that they embody social-cultural meanings.  What makes American mainstream movies a fascinating topic for the historian and sociologist of art is precisely their complex, mutifaceted nature as commercial products (designed to make maximum profit), art forms (conforming to some stylistic devices), and ideological constructs (embodying specific cultural meanings), three distinct aspects of films (Levy, l987b) that will be taken into account in this project.

Cinema, like other institutions (science, politics, economy) does not operate in a social or political void.  Rather, it is interrelated in many ways with the historical, social, cultural, and political settings in which it operates (Levy, 1987a).  The proposed study attempts to understand America’s most popular films in reference to the film industry which has designed and produced them, and the moviegoers who have consumed them.  Indeed, unlike other arts, films are made for their immediate consumption by large and varied audiences, which means that they need to embody values meaningful to current audiences.  An analysis of American commercial films in terms of their subject matter, dominant themes, narrative structure, and ideological values and myths will therefore reveal important information not only about the film industry and its audiences, but also about the society and culture in which they are produced and viewed.

The Hollywood film has always been tailored to appeal to the largest potential audiences, which means that filmmakers have been engaged in a real and/or imagined relationship with their potential audiences (Gans 1957).  To please the largest possible publics, movies have often steered clear of controversial issues, using stories and ideas based on the lowest common cultural denominators (Jarvie 1978).  However, because the public’s taste is, to some extent, unpredictable, there have always been unanticipated surprises (modest, small-budget films that proved to be popular) and major disappointments (big-budget, large-scale, all-star formula movies that were fiascoes at the box-office). Obviously, the public’s taste cannot be accurately predicted, for otherwise there would be only commercial successes.

Research Objectives, Methods and Data

The chief goal of this project is to describe and to analyze the defining features of America’s most successful films from l927 to the present, by placing them in two contexts: the film industry and the society at large.  More specifically, it addresses itself to six issues:

1. The genre of popular films.

2. Their chief domain.

3. Specific thematic concerns.

4. National origins.

5. Historical locale.

6. Literary source.


Attempting to see if the American public has preferred specific types of films, all popular films will be classified into eight dominant genres: serious

drama (the problem-message film), comedy, historical epic, musical, action-adventure, war film, suspense-thriller, and Western.  The study will also distinguish between biographical and fictional films, that is, films based on real-life events or personalities and films whose source has been fiction.  A preliminary study (Levy, l987b) shows that biographical films have been quite popular with the public, but most of them have featured male, not female, protagonists.  Furthermore, the subject matter of most female biopictures has been showbusiness, usually actresses or singers (I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Funny Girl, Lady Sings the Blues).  By contrast, the male biopictures have celebrated men in a variety of occupations, such as military (Sergeant York, Patton), politics (Gandhi), journalism (All the President’s Men), and sports (The Pride of the Yankees, The Stratton Story).  Nonetheless, all biopictures have embodied central values of American culture, such as individual achievement, competition and winning, Monetray success, and the sacredness of the nuclear family.


The chief domain of the popular films will be divided into five subcategories:

A. Domestic: films whose primary concern is private life, family, marriage, and love.

B. Public: films mostly dealing with the public arena, such as work, career.

C. Political: films about political problems or political figures.

D. Domestic-public: films dealing with both private and public issues,  the interplay between work and family, career and marriage.

E. Domestic-political: films whose chief concern is the relationship between the domestic and political contexts, or the impact of politics (wars) on family life.



What have been the specific concerns of popular movies?

What have they told their varied audiences about the appropriate behaviors and lifestyles of men and women?

Have there been historical trends in the relative importance of specific themes?  For example, an earlier study (Levy, 1986) shows that romantic love was a dominant theme in the l930s and l940s, but sharply declined in the 1970s.

By contrast, one of the dominant themes of popular movies in the l980s has been coming of age and initiation into sexuality among adolescents.   Popular films have cashed in on social issues concerning the public at large.  For example, the most popular films in the l970s were the big-budget, large-scale, all-star cast movies about various disasters and catastrophies, man and nature-made (Airport and its sequels, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Jaws and its sequels).  The study will explain the rise and decline of specific themes in the American cinema, in relation to the demographics of film audiences (their age distribution, social class) and in relation to dominant ideology.


Has the American public preferred American-made films with local movie stars?  And which foreign-language films have been commercially successful in the American market?  All popular films will be classified according to their language and country of production (American, British, French, Japanese, Italian).


Movies are commercial products meant for the immediate consumption of large audiences, but their protagonists and narratives are not necessarily current.  The study will classify popular films into three types of locale, based on the time period in which they narratives are set:

A. Contemporary: films whose narratives take place at the present time (Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie).

B. Historical: films whose stories occur in the past, distant or recent (Barry Lyndon, Reds, Gandhi, Out of Africa).

C. Futuristic: films whose narratives are set in the future (Star wars and its sequels; Alien and its sequel).

6. Literary Source:

The screenplay is one of the most important ingredients of motion pictures.  Studies (Austin, l983) have shown that the public’s motivation and decision to see a film are often based on its topic or story.  The literary source of every popular film will therefore be analyzed and divided into four categories:

A. Original: screenplays written explicitly and directly for the screen (Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid).

B. Books: screenplays based on published novels, many of which have been best-sellers   (The Graduate, The Green Berets).

C. Plays: screenplays based on stage plays, for the most part smash hits of the Broadway theater (A Streetcar Named Desire, Picnic,      Mister Roberts, Amadeus).

D. Short Stories: screenplays based on stories, published or unpublished (The Killing Fields).

The empirical research is based on a thorough content analysis, quantitative and qualitative, of America’s most popular films over the last 80 years.  This category consists of 600 movies: the 10 most widely-seen pictures in every single year, from l927 to l986.  The titles of these films will be taken from Variety’s systematic compilations of the year’s top money-making films, based on their domestic rentals in the U.S. and Canada.  These rentals represent the amounts of money paid to film distributors, and should not be confused with the number of admissions, the number of people who have seen a particular film, or with their box-office receipts.  The Variety figures are considered to be the most accurate measures of films’ commercial appeal and the only available figures that permit comparative analysis of popular films in differing historical eras.

Films have always played a role in the formation of American national culture, though to varying degrees.    For three decades, from the l920s to the early l950s, films were the most important form of entertainment in the United States.  But even after the advent of television, films have continued to be a major, if not the only, source of entertainment, particularly for adolescents, the most frequent moviegoers in America in the last decade (Gertner, 1980; Jarvie, 1978).  Using a social-historical perspective, the study will construct collective portraits of the national taste in film in each of the six decades under consideration.  Furthermore, it will demonstrate continuities as well changes in America’s cinematic taste over the last 60 years, relating both continuities and changes to society’s social structure, politics, and ideology.