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Hollywood as Historian, 1929–1945

2. 1929 to 1945

4. Film and Culture: Summary Essays

  1. J. E. Smyth

Published Online: 13 NOV 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470671153.wbhaf043

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

How to Cite

Smyth, J. E. 2011. Hollywood as Historian, 1929–1945. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. 2:4:41.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 13 NOV 2011


While American filmmakers' preoccupation with visualizing the past is nearly as old as the cinematic medium itself, large-scale historical filmmaking truly emerged as a substantial component of production with the successes of European historical epics (Cabiria, 1914), biblical dramas (Judith of Bethulia, 1914), Westerns (The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, 1913), adaptations of popular historical literature (A Tale of Two Cities, 1917), biopics (Joan the Woman, 1916), the success of Gettysburg (1913), and the notoriety of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). History — predominantly European and American — was reconstructed and enjoyed in a wide variety of formats, adaptations, and emerging film genres during the silent era. There was no distinct “historical” genre; rather, historical dramas, lives, and perspectives formed a small but prestigious component of silent film production. Though biographies of “great” men and dramatic political and military events featured prominently, filmmakers also represented the history of Native Americans (The Red Man's View, 1909; The Vanishing American, 1925), women (Janice Meredith, 1924; So Big, 1924; Glorious Betsy, 1928), African-Americans (Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1927), and the working class (Oliver Twist, 1922; Down to the Sea in Ships, 1923). By 1927, American filmgoers could expect half a dozen major historical films and a cluster of shorts and serials in theaters each year. But by the early 1930s, what had once been an occasional, expensive practice became the Industry's “most innovative, prestigious, and controversial form of feature filmmaking” (Smyth 2006, 6). Although the historical film did not exist as a traditional genre, Hollywood's obsession with projecting the past was the dominant production trend from the early sound era through the mid-1940s, impacting every form of feature filmmaking, from musicals to literary adaptations to biopics to war films, Westerns, and gangster pictures.


  • historical film;
  • women's historical film;
  • screenwriters and historical films;
  • Kitty Foyle (1940);
  • Citizen Kane (1941);
  • women's historical fiction;
  • biopics;
  • gone with the wind (1939);
  • film and history