"The West before the cinema invaded it": Famous Players -Lasky's "epic" Westerns, 1923--1925
This dissertation examines a group of feature films called “epic” Westerns produced during 1923–25 by Famous Players-Lasky, then the dominant producer in the American film industry. The best known of these is the first, The Covered Wagon (1923), whose critical and financial success compelled the subsequent films in the cycle: North of ’36 (1924), The Pony Express (1925), and The Vanishing American (1925). In separate chapters devoted to each film, I analyze the relation between these silent Westerns and the culture within which they were produced and consumed, the array of the material productive practices manifest in the United States during the late teens and 1920s. These practices encompass the film industry, the mass media, and contemporary social and cultural discourses within which knowledge about “the West” was produced and circulated.
More than industrial product and cultural artifact, the “epic” Westerns effectively functioned as public service announcements for an emergent national industry that increasingly challenged the power of social, cultural, and economic elites. Under the aegis of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Famous Players employed the tactics of the burgeoning public-relations trade to shape reception. Forging national “historic documents” from the material of dime novels, Famous Players-Lasky sought to protect their market hegemony and legitimize their social power by providing the 1920s' American movie patron with “authentic” frontier knowledge.
My methodology comprises industrial and economic analyses of these films as a commercial product made and distributed by a modern corporation; a historicized reception studies, as I discuss how these films were received by different groups of spectators, including trade writers, film critics, and cultural commentators; and a discursive social history, as I situate the emergence of these films within specific formations: debates in postwar American culture over the social power of the movies, defining American “national identity” in view of the decade's nativism, determining the forms and function of historical representation and commemoration, and specifying the role and heritage of the frontier past for a modern consumer culture.
0337: American history
0708: Mass media