Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: Analyzing Cautionary and Edifying Tales: Research at the Intersection of Film, Media, and Culture Studies
I would like to begin by thanking editorial board member Heidi Kenaga for serving as the guest editor of this issue of The Projector. Her inspired proposal to call for research papers on B pictures, industrial films, marketing strategies, audience reception, and non-theatrical exhibition, and her judicious approach to editorial work, led to a collection of peer-reviewed articles that advance scholarship by exploring productions and practices that have been largely overlooked.
Amanda McQueen’s essay, “Selling Bonita: The Early Career of Bonita Granville (1936-1939) and the Marketing of B Stars,” not only reminds us that “B films made up the bulk of the film industry’s product” in the late 1930s; its analysis, which “reveals the importance of B stars for selling films,” details how studios would use a performer “as a commodity,” even in cases of “limited to short-term exploitation.” Derek Long’s essay, “The Highway Shock Film: History, Phenomenology, Ideology,” examines the historical and industrial context for mid-century highway safety films that existed at the intersection of the “documentary, the exploitation film, the educational safety film, and the high school filmstrip.” Discussing films with sensational titles like Signal 30 (1959) – the Highway Patrol code for a fatal accident – Mechanized Death (1961), Wheels of Tragedy (1963), and Highways of Agony (1969), Long examines the implications of the films’ consistent message that “safety on the road was purely a matter of individual responsibility, and accidents, injury, or death could only be the result of a childish mentality on the part of the driver.” In the third essay, “Lost in Santa Barbara: An American Family and the Birth of Reality TV,” Cynthia Felando analyzes the production and reception context of the twelve-part 1973 PBS documentary that captured the era’s “‘culture wars’ between the East and West Coasts,” and established the model for contemporary reality TV shows that use “familiar locations” to signal “cultural and social difference.”
The three essays effectively contextualize their respective case studies by drawing on surrounding documents that shed light on the horizon of expectations that shaped marketing strategies and the responses of contemporary audiences. The essays also examine filmic, industrial, and critical practices in ways that illuminate fascinating but troubling patterns in American culture. While each essay provides distinct insights into industrial practices and questions of reception, when considered together, the articles illustrate subtle and explicit ways that media products and the discourses that surround them have functioned as instructional tools designed to instill and police proper behavior in the American populace.
For example, a teenage girl in the 1930s should be like Nancy Drew, “‘average in her school work, pretty in a youthful way and no better and no worse in her average behavior than any other girl her age’” (McQueen). Teenage boys in the 1960s and 1970s should not drink, speed, or ignore traffic signs, because “young and reckless drivers” are destined to die in gruesome car accidents, which are then photographed and put on display “for the world to see” (Long). Husbands and wives in pursuit of the American Dream in the 1970s should be wary of the West Coast’s shallow, morally degenerate affluent suburbs, because embrace of that lifestyle causes families to crack “like shattering glass” (Felando).
Writing about various highway safety films produced from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, Derek Long points out that the films were informed and accompanied by a “moralizing and fetishistic” discourse. As he explains, the creation and circulation of the highway safety films rested on the notion that it was not only possible, but also legitimate to “shock” juveniles “into better behavior through lurid realism.” Interestingly, a “moralizing yet fetishistic tone” (Long) prevails in the productions and surrounding materials discussed in the other two essays. Amanda McQueen’s analysis of studio publicity for Bonita Granville, best known for starring in four Nancy Drew films released in 1938 and 1939, shows that Warner Bros. promoted “Granville as a role model for teenage girls,” but did so in a way that emphasized “the fashion trends and beauty tips that were increasingly seen as vital to a young girl’s popularity with her peers.” McQueen identifies a range of authorities that sought to control the discourse surrounding a B picture star. The studios aimed to control exhibitors’ marketing techniques through press books that supplied the proper narrative. For the Nancy Drew films, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which held the rights to the books, required the films to avoid anything that might be “‘inimical to the morals and welfare’” of juveniles (McQueen). Some “600 sociologists, educators and miscellaneous pundits” gave their expert opinions about “the ‘ideal adolescent’ on which to base the character of Nancy Drew” (McQueen). A “moralizing yet fetishistic tone” (Long) carries all the way through, as exhibitors were instructed to “‘Conduct a search for town’s typical American girl, using Bonita Granville as the standard,’” while press books pushed the idea that Granville was “‘the perfect fashion model for sweet sixteeners’” (McQueen).
Cynthia Felando’s analysis of An American Family and its production/reception context identifies patterns that confirm Derek Long’s observation that “the warning gaze” of highway safety films contributed to their “moralizing yet fetishistic tone.” For example, Felando explains that while the PBS series made the Loud family members erstwhile celebrities, “their decision to invite cameras into their private lives” essentially made them objects of director Craig Gilbert’s “warning gaze.” As with the mangled bodies featured in highway safety films or even the B picture stars whose images were controlled by studio executives, because of their visibility, Bill Loud, his wife Pat, and their five children became little more than figures in a narrative designed by Craig Gilbert. He had selected the Louds as his subjects because he imagined that their picture-perfect surface masked “tortured relationships”; he then organized the hundreds of hours of footage so that “the series presents the Loud family as a failed one” (Felando). As McQueen, Long, and Felando demonstrate, whereas the Nancy Drew films and their surrounding publicity provided edifying tales for teenage girls in the 1930s, Gilbert’s PBS documentary series followed the pattern established by the highway safety films, for the series offered a cautionary tale that substituted an emotional train wreck for the sensational car accidents featured in highway shock films. By identifying the cultural implications of the media productions and practices, the three authors enrich our understanding. Their thoughtful analyses also reach far beyond the points of contact outlined here.
This issue of The Projector concludes with reviews of two books that examine some of the subjects explored by the articles. Lisa Woronzoff’s review of American Independent Cinema: An Introduction (2006) by Yannis Tzioumakis points out that the text includes Poverty Row, B pictures, and exploitation films in its expansive and innovative account of independent cinema. Frank P. Tomasulo’s review of The Emancipated Spectator by Jacques Rancière (2009) contextualizes Rancière’s reflections on “the text-spectator question” (Tomasulo), which perhaps complement Long’s discussion of embodied spectatorship as characterized by Vivian Sobchack, who sees “the film viewer’s lived body [as] ‘a carnal “third term” that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and objective image’” (Long).