Film history class at CRI

By John Nadeau | Nov 18, 2010

That might sound like a name a West Coast publicist would cook up, but she was actually an anthropologist.


She did have a Hollywood connection, though. In 1947, at the height of the movie studio era, she used her presumably scientific methods to study the “classical” or ‘golden” age of Hollywood cinema.


Her book, “Hollywood, the Dream Factory,” painted an unromantic picture of a business that churned out prefabricated dreams on an assembly line.


Miss Powdermaker was morally outraged by the industry’s power structure. She castigated a system whereby creative types, especially writers and actors, were enslaved by executives who had no idea of what constituted a good movie.


Was working in Hollywood really that dreadful?


We are aware that acclaimed authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald did not fare too well there.


Jack Warner, rather famously, called his screenwriters “schmucks with Underwoods.”


We also know the studios created and controlled the stars, not only changing their names but also subjecting them to surgery and dentistry as well as fabricated biographies. At that time you see, stars were made, not born.


Nevertheless, some great movies came from that era: the lovely Fred and Ginger musicals, film noir classics like “Double Indemnity,” and high-trash melodramas like “Mildred Pierce.”


Were these movies made despite, or because of, the system?


Not every film historian endorses Professor Powdermaker’s indictment.


In “Genius of the System: Hollywood Film Making in the Studio Era,” Thomas Schatz redeems the executives, who “have been the most misunderstood and undervalued figures in American film history.”


Critic Benjamin Schwarz believes the movies made during the “golden” age are – along with jazz – America’s best creative work from the late 1920s to about 1950.

         Who’s right?


At the luncheon sponsored by the Creative Retirement Institute at Edmonds Community College on Thursday, Dec. 9, you can get facts about and informed opinion on Hollywood’s dream factory from Robert Horton.


He has good credentials. Among them are movie reviewer for the Everett Herald, KUOW, and the Seattle Channel. His work has also appeared in Newsday, the Village Voice, and the Seattle Times.


Horton is a Smithsonian Journeys guest speaker and the host of Magic Lantern, monthly talks at the Frye Art Museum. He has also moderated film series at the Seattle Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery, and the Northwest Film Forum.


“I’ll refer to a few stars to show how the studio system worked – or failed,” he says.


“I’ll share film clips and some great anecdotes about Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, and others,” he adds. “I’ll also probe why we need movie stars and why they fascinate us.”


Curious about film history or popular culture? To learn more about Robert Horton’s appearance, phone the Creative Retirement Institute at 425-640-1830 or go to

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