When Barbara Deming published this study of the American dream as portrayed in American films of the 1940s, she had spent over a decade speaking, writing, organizing, marching, and being imprisoned for the causes of racial and sexual equality and non-violent resistance. The same “strange split in consciousness” she saw in some of the movies she had watched and written about twenty years before was now on display at the national and global level: the United States applying all its economic and military power to fight the North Vietnamese at the same time it proclaimed support for the average Joe. “Believe in me or I will have to destroy you!” is how she summed up the philosophy of the Hollywood stereotype she labelled “Success Boy” in the late 1940s. By 1969, she was watching Success Boy becoming a political predilection she felt compelled to resist.
Deming had written by book — subtitled “A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the 40’s” — in the late 1940s, after working as a film analyst for the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1948, during which she estimates she watched a quarter of all Hollywood film features released. While viewing each film, she took extensive notes in shorthand, sometimes directly transcribing onscreen action and dialogue. As a result, her discussion of most films covered is deep and detailed. Unlike a lot of books devoted to films, particularly film noir, this is not a grazer’s guide. After reading her analysis of now well-worn classics such as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will not only want to see them again, but you will see them through Deming’s eyes–even if not always accepting her interpretation.
“All the characters whom I trace in Running Away From Myself can be seen to be products of a deep crisis of faith.” The 1940s are often seen as the golden age of Hollywood, when many of the mythic figures that came to epitomize American culture–Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Gary Cooper–had their heyday. Deming’s view is considerably less rosy: “Virgil describes Hell to Dante as that blind world in which the good of the intellect has been surrendered. His words could also be used to describe the darkened world of the movie theater.” The act of sitting in a darkened theater–“playing a more passive role than he does in relation to any other art”–makes the viewer more suggestible, more open to manipulation. In these chapters, Deming often reaches over to her fellow moviegoers and challenges them: “What’s really going on here?” she demands.
On the other hand, for someone who so immersed herself in film, Deming is quite removed from the actual business and process of film-making. The fact that there was a whole studio system, with armies of writers, stars often locked into pretty narrow boundaries of roles and images, the need to generate a constant stream of new material to keep people going to theaters two or three times a week, and a strong drive to make movies that set American life and values in contrast to those of Fascism and Communism, is rarely acknowledged. And I have to wonder, after reading Running Away From Myself, whether Deming actually knew anyone directly involved with film-making when she wrote this book. She’s also quite selective in what she does and doesn’t cover. It’s striking that neither of the huge classics from 1946–The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life–are mentioned.
Still, if you love films–and especially if you love to dig into films, to treat them as more than just escapism–Running Away From Myself is a satisfying read. Whether you always agree with Deming’s analysis or not, you cannot argue that she doesn’t consistently reveal how much more is going on than the simple story playing out onscreen.