Handbook of american film genres


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Edited by WES D. GEHRING

GREENWOOD PRESS New York • Westport, Connecticut • London


Questia Media America, Inc. www.questia.com

Publication Information: Book Title: Handbook of American Film Genres. Contributors: Wes D. Gehring - editor. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1988. Page Number: iii.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Handbook of American film genres / edited by Wes D. Gehring.

p. cm.

Bibliography: p.

Includes indexes.
ISBN 0-313-24715-3 (lib. bdg. : alk. paper)
1. Motion pictures--United States--Handbooks, manuals, etc.
2. Film genres. I. Gehring, Wes D.
PN1993.5.U6H335 1988
791.43′75′0973--dc19 87-31784

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available.

Copyright © 1988 by Wes D. Gehring

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be
reproduced, by any process or technique, without the
express written consent of the publisher.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 87-31784

ISBN: 0-313-24715-3

First published in 1988

Greenwood Press, Inc.

88 Post Road West, Westport, Connecticut 06881

Printed in the United States of America

∞ + ⃝™

The paper used in this book complies with the

Permanent Paper Standard issued by the National Information Standards Organization (Z39.48-1984).

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2



Preface ix
1. Introduction
Wes D. Gehring 1
2. The Adventure Film
Thomas Sobchack 9
3. The Western
Thomas Schatz 25
4. The Gangster Film
John Raeburn 47
5. Film Noir
Jack Nachbar 65
6. The World War II Combat Film
Kathryn Kane 85


7. Screwball Comedy
Wes D. Gehring 105
8. Populist Comedy
Wes D. Gehring 125


9. Parody
Wes D. Gehring 145
10. Black Humor
Wes D. Gehring 167
11. Clown Comedy
Wes D. Gehring 189


12. Horror Film
Gerald C. Wood 211
13. Science Fiction
Vivian Sobchack 229
14. Fantasy
Wade Jennings 249


15. The Musical
James M. Collins 269
16. Melodrama
Steven N. Lipkin 285
17. The Social Problem Film

Charles J. Maland 305

18. Biographical Film
Carolyn Anderson 331
19. The Art Film
William C. Siska 353
Index 371
About the Editor and Contributors 403



This book was inspired by two limitations frequently found in texts on American film genres. First, there was a need for a text which would examine an expanded number of genres. The best two genre books on the market, Thomas Schatz Hollywood Genres and Barry K. Grant Film Genre: Theory and Criticism, were limited to six genres, respectively. 1 These numbers were consistent with Stuart M. Kaminsky pioneer work, American Film Genres, which examines approximately eight genres, depending on how one counts Kaminsky's fascination with variations of the crime movie, to which he devotes several chapters. 2 Only slightly larger numbers are addressed in both a more recent Grant anthology, Film Genre Reader (eleven genres, with some of the pieces recycled from his other collection), and Steven C. Earley rather pedestrian An Introduction to American Movies (twelve genres). 3 Thus, the book in hand examines eighteen genres, with much of the increase coming from both a more ambitious look at "comedy genres" and the inclusion of such "nontraditional" genres as the problem film, the art film, and the biography picture. Other genres included are swashbuckling adventure film, western, gangster film, film noir, World War II combat film (in the category Action/Adventure); horror, science fiction, and fantasy (in The Fantastic); and the musical and the melodrama (in Songs and Soaps).

The reasoning behind the order of the chapters in each division is as follows: In the action/adventure section the adventure chapter goes first because it broadly addresses the division, even to the point of mentioning several of the other member genres. The western and gangster chapters follow because of their pivotal positions as archetypal American genres. Film noir is next because it is in part an outgrowth of the gangster film, or more broadly, the crime movie. The World War II combat chapter is last since it is the most specific of the divisions.

The comedy section saves the most familiar type (the clown genre) for last,


and begins with the most often confused--screwball comedy. The three chapters sandwiched in between (populist, parody, and black humor) seem the most natural bridge. For instance, populism follows screwball because the former is sometimes mistaken for the latter, especially in the films of director Frank Capra. Similar and/or other significant factors can be applied to the chapter order of the other divisions, too. For example, in the fantastic category, the genre order (horror, science fiction, fantasy) follows the historical emergence of each as a film genre of study. The same applies, though to a lesser extent, to the divisions of songs and soaps and the nontraditional genres.

The need to examine an expanded number of genres seemed most pressing in comedy. There is the tendency for genre authors either to limit their comedy focus to the screwball variety or to simply call comedy the broadest of all genres and proceed to lump every conceivable type into one very overworked chapter. As comedy theorist Jim Leach has observed with humorous insight, "a genre which encompasses the visions of Jerry Lewisand Ernst Lubitsch is already in trouble." 4 He goes on to request a more ambitious examination of the comedy genres, noting what many film comedy enthusiasts have long felt-"if a genre is defined too loosely (as in the case of 'comedy') it ceases to be of any value as a critical tool." 5

This book attempts to address that limitation by devoting five chapters to five different comedy genres: screwball, populist, parody, black, and clown. This is not meant to imply that these are the limit of all possible comedy genres. But the five would seem to represent the most obvious types visible to the student of film humor. Hopefully, they should provide a more thorough framework from which to study and enjoy the varied richness of comedy. Moreover, though chapters were written as autonomous units, they are frequently cross-referenced to better facilitate one's understanding of the comedy issues at hand.

Second, there was a need for a more thorough guideline-oriented genre study. To better facilitate reader insight, this volume's formulaic subjects have been showcased in an ambitious, fittingly formulaic manner. That is, each genre chapter is systematically broken into the following sections: a historical/analytical overview, a bibliographical overview of the genre's key literature, a checklist of these texts, and a filmography of the genre's pivotal movies. Such an arrangement assists the reader in comparing different genres and gives him or her a solid, working foundation for further study. Despite that old gag about an anthology editor being someone who spends his time raiding good books, the reader of an essay collection such as this is undoubtedly best served when each contribution is an original piece (though having a common framework), written specifically for a shared goal.

Despite this common framework, certain minor variations occur in the chapter structures. For instance, there is some information contrast between filmographies from chapter to chapter. Thus, the horror filmography includes credits


for things like special effects or makeup, categories not so central in other film lists. Moreover, the filmographies themselves are limited to the most central movies in each genre. This was done to give the reader with limited time a more selective choice. Because of this, however, movies cited in the text do not always appear in the filmography.

Along similar lines, not every source noted in each chapter's bibliographical overview appears in the checklist. For example, references can be brought in for certain points but are not relevant to the focus of the chapter. Or a weak source might be cited in the overview but not listed in what are essentially recommended readings (the checklist). However, a reference in the overview was necessary in order to show its checklist omission was simply not a mistake.

This has been a most ambitious project, but it does not purport to be the end-all to the subject at hand. Like all material aiming for insightfulness, its goal is to further challenge the inquisitive mind. Thus, additional genres not included but worthy of possible further consideration would include disaster films, sports movies, and erotic films.

The publication of most books merits many thank-yous, and this is especially true of a work such as this. I am most grateful to Marilyn Brownstein, Greenwood Press's humanities editor and the catalyst for this book. Her ideas and support made the volume possible and her sensitive leadership has had an effect on all my Greenwood books.

To credit an essay collection as dependent on its contributors is an understatement. The insights of these people fill the pages and quite literally decide the fate of the book and its organizer, hopefully qualifying me for that comic definition of an editor as someone who uses scissors and taste. Thus, they have provided a most happy fate for the reader. All contributors are proven scholars who have fine-tuned their ideas in the classroom, the ultimate liberal arts laboratory (see the About the Contributors section). Moreover, in an age frequently driven by the philosophy of "What's in it for me?," these teacher/ scholars set pencil to paper out of an obligation to that most sacred of human enterprises--the exchange of ideas. Significant thank-yous are just not possible.

With regard to my own genre chapter contributions, these were built upon a lifelong fascination with comedy which started with the humor of my father and both grandfathers. Laughter is very special in my family. Through the years and the books, so many people have helped me that I would need a second volume to list them all. However, I would be remiss if I did not credit the staffs of six archives--the Library of Congress (especially the divisions of Motion Pictures, Copyright, and Manuscripts), the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, the Research Annex of the New York Public Library (521 West 43rd Street), the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Film ( New York), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library (Beverly Hills), and the American Film Institute (Beverly Hills).

Closer to home, additional thank-yous are in order for the strong support of


my department chairman, John Kurtz, and my teaching colleague, Darrel Wible; Janet Warmer, my typist and general troubleshooter; and Vera McCoskey, interlibrary loan librarian at Ball State University's Bracken Library.

Further acknowledgments are in order for the support and suggestions of family, friends (in particular, Conrad Lane and Joe Pacino), colleagues (especially the professional conferences where early versions of several comedy chapters were presented), and students (particularly, members of my annual American Film comedy seminars). I wish also to credit humor scholar Larry Mintz, who besides supporting my comedy writing through the years, indirectly influenced this book by his recent editing of Humor in America: A Research Guide to Genres and Topics. 6 His request of an overview chapter on American film comedy better helped me prepare for the writing of this volume's comedy chapters. And because of the earlier inception of his book, and my involvement therein, I was privy to an ongoing, mini workshop on editing.

Finally, my family merits a truckload of praise for their patience, understanding, and advice through all the mini-crises that constitute editing and writing a book.



Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres ( New York: Random House, 1981); Barry K. Grant , ed., Film Genre: Theory and Criticism ( Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977).


Stuart M. Kaminsky, American Film Genres ( Dayton, Ohio: Pflaum, 1974).


Barry K. Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader ( Austin: University of Texas, 1986); Stephen C. Earley, An Introduction to American Movies ( New York: Mentor Books, 1979).


Jim Leach, "The Screwball Comedy," in Film Genre: Theory and Criticism, ed. Grant, p. 75.


Ibid, pp. 75-76.


Lawrence E. Mintz, Humor in America: A Research Guide to Genres and Topics ( Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988).





"All this has happened before. And it will all happen again."

So begins one of my daughter's fairy tales, and it is a fitting description of the genre film. Genre is a French word for a literary type. In film study it represents the division of movies into groups which have similar subjects and/or themes. Sometimes this is an easy task, when your genre is of a given time and place, such as the western. From film frame one it is generally obvious you are in the American West of the second half of the nineteenth century, especially when you are bombarded with more western icons (ten-gallon hats, six-guns, etc.) than you would be in a Zane Grey museum.

Some genres are not so immediately obvious. For instance, screwball comedy is not limited to one period and place, although it is often set in the present in the milieu of the idle rich. This genre is more defined by the eccentric courtship of the screwball couple. Sister genres would include the musical and the melodrama--again, types not dependent on a given time and place and readily recognizable icons.

Historically, genre lineage can be traced back to the seemingly always intellectually present Poetics of Aristotle, wherein the literature of the day was broken down into types. Thus, for much of the recorded history of man, varying formulaic genre guidelines have been present and growing, though not without detractors. This is best exemplified by the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, which felt the genre structure limited the artist, as did most rules. The still popular notion that "the artist" must create something entirely new each time stems from this.

The significance of genre stories, however, long predates the Poetics, and might just be addressed by repeating a question which frequently surfaces in genre study: Why does an audience member keep returning to a favored story


type (genre) which a formalistic structure often makes predictable? Such repetition would seem a bit irrational, rather like the joke with which Woody Allen closes Annie Hall ( 1977): A guy tells his psychiatrist that his brother believes himself to be a chicken. When the doctor asks, "Why don't you turn him in?" he receives the reply, "I would, but I need the eggs."

The genre fan seems "egged on" by man's need for the repetitive reaffirmation of certain ritualistic experiences, such as good triumphing over evil, the promise of finding the perfect love, the comic underdog winning--things which do not occur so frequently, if at all, in real life. Even in the case of a genre like black comedy, where the absurdity and ugliness of both man and the modern world are directly addressed in dark, or sick, humor, genre helps one cope through laughter. Multifaceted viewer catharses are a genre given. Thus, the need for the ritualistic experience is as old as man and the first oral tales shared around primitive campfires. Despite today's sophisticated high-tech wrappings, genre entertainment would seem to fulfill the most ancient of needs.

There are seven key reasons to pursue genre study. The first and most compelling is at the heart of all liberal arts education--to provide both a systematic overview of mankind's masterworks while providing personal insight for the individual. To what genre(s) do you most frequently return? Why? What primal messages, or assurances, are provided by your genre(s)?

Second, as with any schematic approach to the arts, genre study helps one organize the ever burgeoning number of films--categorizing them into smaller, more manageable groups. An added plus for the genre approach is that it is probably the classification system most familiar to viewers. While they may have never formally articulated this before, most people have some definite expectations concerning at least the most mainstream of genres, such as the western and the gangster film (genres often considered the most inherently American). After all, through the years much of the Hollywood product--the "canned" goods, if you will--has been produced and marketed along genre lines. Using a popular model as a production guideline is an old and efficient way of doing things. It is for that reason that genre theorist Barry K. Grant's description of genre movies as the "Model T's" of popular entertainment has about it the perfect tongue-in-cheek appropriateness. 1 Bear in mind, however, that thorough genre study also takes one beyond formulaic fundamentals and reveals all the creatively complex options still available. These might be specific variations on a ritualistic experience or the broad impact some auteurs have had on a given genre model, such as directors John Ford on the western and Howard Hawks on screwball comedy. In fact, genre study has often been the chief beneficiary of any number of auteur works because the focus director was invariably identified with a specific genre.

Third, genre study also acts as a natural corollary to what celebrated nineteenth-century literary critic Matthew Arnold called the "touchstone" method-producing a guide to what the reader/viewer can expect from a given work, or in this case, genre. 2 Since few people have the viewing opportunities of the


film critic, genre analysis steers one to the pivotal examples of whatever genre(s) one might prefer.

Fourth, because even watershed films rarely encapsulate everything there is to know about a given movie type, genre study also allows one both to better appreciate the significant elements of the individual film and to examine other viable directions it could have taken, subjects which might not readily be apparent without a broader understanding of the parent genre itself.

Fifth, genre study keeps one alive to the cultural changes forever taking place in the world at large. That is, genre analysis frequently operates on a contradiction. It is very much formulaic but at the same time must be flexible enough to incorporate the ongoing changes affecting all genres. Such changes would include the undercurrent of paranoia over communist witch-hunting which surfaced in 1950s science fiction films or the Vietnam antiestablishment 1960s and the emergence of the antihero in most traditional genres (especially the western), not to mention the evolution of black comedy as a mainstream genre itself.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, even pioneer genre writings by pivotal film critics like Robert Warshow (on the western and the gangster film) and James Agee (on comedy) are not without some restrictiveness. Warshow has problems with My Darling Clementine ( 1946), Kiss of Death ( 1947), High Noon ( 1952), and Shane ( 1953); Agee has reservations about comedy outside the silent era. 3 Genre criticism exists as a guide for the inquiring mind (highlighting recurring patterns of cultural significance in the arts), not as a dictator of said patterns. As influential genre author John G. Cawelti has observed, "When genre critics forget that their supertexts are critical artifacts and start treating them as prescriptions for artistic creation, the concept of genre becomes stultifying and limiting." 4

Sixth, to the ongoing credit of Warshow and Agee, however, as well as André Bazin and those who have followed, genre criticism has given credibility to the study of popular culture. Most specifically for the book in hand, this has meant the elevation in importance of the Hollywood studio film. Whereas its genre product was once often considered merely interchangeable links of entertainment sausage squeezed out of a fun factory, today's film historian is capable of such hosannas as comparing the Hollywood studio era to the days of Elizabethan repertory theater companies, most famous for a playwright named Shakespeare. 5 This is called high praise. To put it even more succinctly, one has only to recycle the title of film scholar Gerald Weales's excellent book on a portion of the studio period--Canned Goods as Caviar. 6

Yes, things have changed greatly since 1939, often considered the watershed year of studio creativity, when a young but already celebrated Hollywood director named William Wellman kidded an academic-oriented film audience with the observation: "Cinema appreciation . . . must be rather like going to school to learn the aesthetic differences between a Pontiac and an Oldsmobile." 7 Of course, the nature of popular culture has also changed greatly in the intervening


years, which leads one to the next and possibly most startling point for genre study.

Seventh, genre criticism is now starting to act as a bridge between the mainstream popular film and the art film, the latter probably still most closely associated with Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, whose 1950s films so helped create a demand for these more personalized works--such as The Seventh Seal ( 1956) and Wild Strawberries ( 1957). Traditionally, the art film has been considered a nongenre movie because recurring characters and themes were not as readily apparent. However, a marriage has now taken place between the popular film and art cinema. This has accompanied the 1950s decline of the studio system with the emergence of numerous, influential art house European auteurs, especially those associated with the French New Wave (see this volume's parody chapter); a new wave, most specifically François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, whose films still managed to pay homage to traditional Hollywood genres; the rise of a 1960s young, antiestablishment audience--complemented by the real arrival of film studies on college campuses; and the materialization since the 1960s of American directors pursuing art house themes (from Arthur Penn to Woody Allen). William C. Siska, author of the art film chapter in this volume, pinpoints Annie Hall ( 1977) as the "crossover film" from which this union can be dated. Indeed, one might say Allen tested the popular film-art cinema market even earlier with Love and Death ( 1975), his critically and commercially successful parody of the art film, as well as high art in general (see the parody chapter). Consequently, the application of genre study has come full circle, from credibility for the mainstream popular film to a recognition of its increasing ties with art cinema. In addition, revisionist film theorists are even starting to redefine some popular film products along art film lines, such as Dudley Andrew's provocative claiming of the Frank Capra Middle America film Meet John Doe ( 1941) in his book Film in the Aura of Art. 8

These have been the seven key reasons to pursue genre study. No doubt, additional factors could be cited. But one then begins to court the overkill factor that once inspired the definition of a film censor as "someone who even sees three meanings in a double-entendre." Suffice it to say that genre criticism has become an important tool in the ongoing study of film. And regardless of what the future holds, genre analysis in some form (such as the recent fascination with the more complex "compound genre"; see the parody chapter) will continue to exist because "All this has happened before. And it will all happen again."

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