Are Those Who Ignore History Doomed to Repeat It?

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III. Motion Pictures

Wu tells four stories about the American film industry. He starts with an account of the fall of the first American film oligopoly, the Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as the Edison Trust. He then turns to the coercive distribution practices of the early Hollywood studios. In a third film chapter, Wu considers the workings and impact of the motion picture “Production Code” that studios adopted in the 1930s to sanitize film content. And in a final chapter on film since the 1960s, Wu examines the methods media conglomerates have developed to manage risk in the uncertain business of making blockbuster movies. These are some of the major turning points in the development of the American film industry, and in Wu’s hands, they offer lessons in how centralized control of cultural industries have limited free expression and shaped the marketplace of ideas.

In his study of the American film industry, Wu eschews the economic and industrially focused film scholarship that has flourished since the 1970s.71 Instead, he relies on the autobiographies of film moguls, and he revives the work of some of the earliest film historians, like experimental filmmaker Lewis Jacobs, Hollywood producer-director Benjamin Hampton, and (surprisingly) the French neo-Fascists Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach. This fuels Wu’s great-man perspective on history, and we get a picture of the film industry through the eyes of its once and would-be oligarchs. This approach allows Wu to tell a lively story of intense personalities and representative moments in the history of the American film industry. It also suggests indirectly that that the evil that must somehow be checked is individual ambition and not necessarily media consolidation itself.

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