Small-Town America: Represention in Film

Unlike former books I have written, one thing was clear from the very beginning about this book: Its title. It had to be called Small-Town America. What other title could capture the essence of that distinctly American lifestyle, or vision.

I failed to realize at the time that, along with my other books (And the Winner Is: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (1986) and John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life (1988), I was dealing with three of the most uniquely American symbols: the Oscar Award, John Wayne, and Small-Town America. To me, these three publications form some kind of logical, thematic unit, representing a decade of work on the American cinema.

I began collecting data about small-town films, not realizing their huge numbers. I subsequently decided to limit myself to the sound era and begin with that landmark of a film, King Vidor’s The Crowd, a work that set forever the visual imagery of the Big City in the American cinema. During the research process, the scope of the study expanded and films about the Big City and Suburbia were added. The comparisons among the three ideological constructs (and lifestyles) help to highlight the distinctive thematic and stylistic elements of small-town life (and films). The book reported here is a chronological account, decade by decade, of the portraiture of Small-Town America in films made over six decades, between l927 and l989.

This book owes an intellectual debt to two major critics, Andrew Sarris, who has influenced my way of thinking about films. One of the first film books I read, in 1970, was Sarris’s The American Cinema (l968), the “Bible” of auteurism and a book that changed the direction of film criticism in the U.S. Films were no longer evaluated in terms of their stories or ideas, but as aesthetic works; form and style became just as important as their contents.

Whether or not they qualify as auteurs, the book encompasses great films by major American directors, such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, George Stevens, King Vidor, George Cukor, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Joseph Loosey, Douglas Sirk, and others. And it scrutinizes the work of a younger generation of brilliant directors like Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch.

I do believe that one can teach the history and sociology of the American cinema by just focusing on small-town films. I am also proud that the book pays tribute to some of the finest performances ever given in American films: Katharine Hepburn (Little Women, Alice Adams), Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It’s a Wonderful Life), Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Spencer Tracy (Bad Day at Black Rock), Julie Harris (The Member of the Wedding), James Dean (East of Eden), Geraldine Page (Sweet Bird of Youth), Paul Newman (Hud), Sally Field (Norma Rae), and so on and so on.

Over the past decade or so, I have offered numerous courses dealing with film and society, ideology and politics in the American cinema, auteurism, and film genres. These courses have invariably included movies about small town life. The best small-town films can be used in a variety of courses. For example, The Magnificent Ambersons or Shadow of a Doubt were chosen for courses dealing with classics of the American cinema, Orson Welles and Hitchcock as auteurs, expressionism in film, film noir, etc. I would like to thank my students at Columbia University, Wellesley College, and the New School for Social Research who have contributed to this book by challenging my ideas about films.

This essay was written in 1990.