Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Todd Alcott, in the process of asking whether or not superheroes can grow up, makes this statement about the genre/supergenre of drama in films:

'Adolescent fantasies drive the entire movie business and have for more than a generation. "Grown-up" drama was once where all the money was spent in Hollywood, now it's the opposite: all the money is spent on adolescent fantasies, while adult drama must squeeze itself in where it can.'

While it's indisputable that "grown up drama" once occupied a more central niche in Hollywood, it's certainly nonsense to say that "all the money" was spent there, especially when one hasn't defined what one means by "drama."

A quickie definition is offered by Wikipedia under "drama:"

'The use of "drama" in the narrow sense to designate a specific type of play dates from the 19th century. Drama in this sense refers to a play that is neither a comedy nor a tragedy--for example, Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1873) or Chekhov's Ivanov (1887). It is this narrow sense that the film and television industry and film studies adopted to describe "drama" as a genre within their respective media.[5]'

So, though the word "drama" merely stems from the Greek "to act," it's come to be defined in an exclusionist fashion: if "drama" isn't this or that, then it's whatever's left. One could make much the same case with regard to genre-hybrids. Many casual critics would not define THE SEARCHERS and BLADE RUNNER as dramas despite those films' appeal to tried-and-true dramatic elements. Instead our casual critics would more readily categorize these examples as "a western" and "science fiction" respectively.

So again "drama" is colloquially defined by exclusion: "drama is whatever isn't tragedy or comedy or any easily-identifiable genre."

Returning to the question of where "all the money" went in old Hollywood, I again availed myself of Wikipedia, this time for a feature that lists box-office successes by year.

Going by the exclusionary definition above, I found that the 1930s-- the first decade to enjoy sound cinema-technology-- did not show a preponderance of dramas as box-office winners, at least going by the top ten each year (if listed). I would guesstimate that maybe about two top-grossers each year might qualify as "pure dramas," with the rest falling in different categories: musicals, comedies, the occasional thriller or horror film, and even exotica like TARZAN and KING KONG.

In the 1940s, however, I did see the kind of growth in the drama "genre" that Alcott refers to, though of course drama never occupied an exclusive position in that decade either. I didn't bother with later decades because the 1930s decade by itself proved the unworkability of Alcott's notion as a broad description of the early moviemaking biz.

So what this brief survey demonstrates is that, then as now, Hollywood only pursued drama when it seemed that drama sold tickets. Admittedly, when I surveyed the two most recent decades by year, "pure dramas" became even rarer in the top ten than they were in the 1930s, so Alcott's central thesis is not wrong: obviously modern films are geared toward a younger audience. But he was mistaken to claim that early Hollywood was as monolithically devoted to adult-oriented drama as he suggested, because the 1930s survey shows that even though the audiences may have been statistically older, they still liked a lot of escapism in their entertainment (not surprising in the wake of the Depression).

So did the growth of special-FX films in the post-1970s decades, which in turn brought in superhero films with a more sophisticated look, cause a dumbing-down of adult audiences that had previously been devoted to serious drama?

Or did that paradigm shift simply revive a fundamental liking for escapist entertainment that never really went away but frequently had to be camoflauged in various ways so that adult audiences could valorize each others' standing as responsible adults. ("See, BEN HUR's not just a big spectacle; it's about Christians and Rome and all that stuff!")

Food for future essays, methinks.

No comments: