Gender, Nationality, and American Popular Film, 1929-1941
Begin with one or two paragraphs describing the project in general:
Feminist historians have noted that in Depression-era popular culture, women were frequently blamed for the nation’s economic and political troubles. In my project, I will identify examples of gender scapegoating in a number of popular films. More specifically, I will look at how the filmic practice of woman blaming varied, depending on the nationality of the female star in question. My preliminary research has shown that while most women who starred in Depression-era popular films were scapegoated for the nation’s economic and political troubles, how they were blamed and the nature of their punishment differed significantly by nationality. Thus Marlene Dietrich’s character in Blonde Venus and Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Meet John Doe are both represented as culpable for a range of Depression-related problems. Yet while Dietrich’s destabilizing exploits in Blonde Venus were at least partially gratifying and relatively non-threatening to Depression-era audiences, Stanwyck’s exploits in Meet John Doe and other Depression-era films were more viscerally disturbing, demanding immediate and obvious punishment within the filmic narrative.
In my project, I will argue that the contrast that is evident between Dietrich and Stanwyck can be generalized to other foreign- and U.S.-born female stars as well. Focusing on a range of Depression-era popular films, I will consider how the filmic political location of three “foreign” stars — Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Vivien Leigh — differs strikingly from that of two “American” stars — Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers.
Describe in some detail how the project will be organized:
The project will consist of five sections. Each section will be loosely organized around a particular female star and a particular film genre. In part one, I will examine Ginger Rogers and the genre of musical comedy. In part two, I will examine Barbara Stanwyck and the political film, focusing on her work with Frank Capra. In part three, I will consider Marlene Dietrich and the female melodrama. In chapter four, I will consider Greta Garbo and the war film, focusing on Mata Hari. Finally, in chapter five, I will focus on Vivien Leigh and the historical film, particularly her work in Gone with the Wind. Parts one and two will form a coherent unit on gender scapegoating and American-born female stars, while parts three, four, and five will form a second unit on woman blaming and foreign-born actresses in the Great Depression. By ending with the British actress Vivien Leigh and the Civil War drama Gone with the Wind, I hope to make a powerful point about gender, nationality, and the politics of woman-blaming during the Great Depression. I will argue that it is no accident that the unsympathetic figure of Scarlett O’Hara is played by a British actress in a film that makes explicit linkages between the Civil War and the more recent national trauma of the Depression.
In two or three paragraphs, describe the primary and secondary sources that will inform your project:
Much of the research for my project will consist of viewing and analyzing Depression-era Hollywood films. Most of the films that I intend to consider are available in Middlebury’s video collection. Because I am focusing on female stardom as well as on the film roles that each woman portrayed, I will also examine fan magazines, especially Photoplay. While Photoplay is not among Middlebury’s holdings, it is available at Dartmouth, as are a number of other primary sources related to film celebrity in the 1930s. Therefore, I will be planning a series of visits to Dartmouth to further my research agenda.
A number of secondary sources will also prove useful to my project. I intend to rely on a number of studies that address female stardom in America, including Christine Gledhill’s Stardom: Industry of Desire (1991) and Richard Dyer’s Stars (1979). An extensive biographical literature also exists for each of the stars that I will consider, and while celebrity biographies are not always academic, they provide useful contextual information. Feminist film criticism, particularly the work of Lea Jacobs, Molly Haskell, Gay Lynn Studlar, and other scholars of 1930s popular film, will be invaluable to my project. In addition to their sophisticated analyses of Depression-era film, each has brought to light critical primary documents that I will also use for my own research purposes.
A second body of literature that is relevant to my project consists of recent theoretical approaches to gender and nationalism. Scholars such as Etienne Balibar, Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, and Anne McClintock reveal that conceptions of nationality are always gendered and invariably complicated for women. I will apply and build on their theoretical insights in my approach to gender, nationality, and Depression-era popular film.
Explain the original contribution to scholarship that you are making:
My project will contribute to scholarship by bringing the insights of film criticism and nationalist theory to bear on the phenomenon of woman blaming in the 1930s. By focusing on punitive representations of female stars, as well as on their national accents, I will add to what we already know about the place of women in the Depression-era United States. Moreover, by comparing the film roles and star personae of Rogers, Stanwyck, Dietrich, Garbo, and Leigh, I will also contribute to an understanding of female stars and their place in American culture during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Bibliography should be divided into sections of primary and secondary sources. Ideally, secondary source list will include article literature as well as books.