Home Books & Scripts The American City in the Cinema

The American City in the Cinema

by James A. Clapp


Published in June of  2013, TRANSACTION PRESS. 458 pages, with illustrations of stills and posters from American feature films that chronicle the past century’s growth and life in the Amican city. Drawing upon over 200 feature films from the first days of cinema to the present day, this academic book treats the reciprocity of the American City and the cinematic industry. In fifteen chapters covering topics from immigration and politics to growing up in the city and the city of the future, the American city is shown through the lens of its unique invention–the motion picture.

Note: Some of the chapters for this book have been previously published as articles.  Appropriate chaopters have been linked in their titles below to PDFs of those articles.


  [Academic Course Syllabus]


Treats why this subject will be of interest to the reader and how it relates not only to an academic interest, but to the everyday world of their lives. It also addresses the author’s academic background and qualifications to write about it as well as his personal and professional inspirations.

I Introduction

The American City and the American movie industry virtually grew up together in the early decades of the 20 th Century. The City made the mass entertainment film industry possible; the movies chronicled and exploited the City and the stories it generated, primarily for an urban audience. This chapter explains parallel and convergent relationships between the City and the Cinema; the relationship of the City and the Cinema to the dimensions of time and space; the growing interest in this subject, and; explains for the reader the perspective that is taken in developing this fusion of the study of film studies and urban studies.

II An Urban Medium

Provides the reader an overview of the subject that illustrates how the City has long played a subtle but pervasive role in American Cinema; the different ways in which the City has been characterized as well has played as a “character” in movies. The City has played roles as contrasting as that of a grand proscenium upon which musicals are “staged,” or as a “monster,” as a setting of violent crime and tender romance, mirroring the American ambivalence toward urban life.

Among the other films discussed in this chapter are: Sunrise (1928); The Crowd (1929); Metropolis (1926); The Fountainhead (1949); Easy Street (1917); Modern Times (1936); King Kong (1933); Manhattan (1979); West Side Story (1961); Chicago (2001).

III Immigrants, the City, and the Cinema

Readers will recognize immigration as not only an American historical topic, but one which is very much alive in current affairs. Immigrants play significant roles in both the development of the American City and the American Cinema. The City, the Cinema, and immigrants came together at this time in a unique and unprecedented way. Immigrants were involved in the creation of the American cinema as audience, often subject matter, and in production and distribution. Immigrants and the process of assimilation into American life have been one of the staple dramas of the American experience as portrayed on film, that, with a hiatus during the years between the two world wars, extends from the earliest days of cinema to the present day.

Among the films is this chapter are: The Immigrant (1917); Ragtime (1981); Easy Street (1917); Hester Street (1971); The Godfather, Part II (1974); Joy Luck Club (1993); Gangs of New York (2001); Avalon (1990); Moscow on the Hudson (1984)

IV Small Towns in a Metropolitan World

Small towns, rather than large cities, are more strongly associated with traditional American life-styles and values. But they increasingly are only preserved and represented in films set in and about small towns as a metropolitanized world passes them by and makes them obsolete. Films about small towns have been, paradoxically, a way of maintaining a nostalgic reverence for that past, as well as repudiating it. But in film the small American town has been portrayed with both bright and dark sides, reflecting again the theme of ambivalence that characterizes American urbanism in general.

Among the films in this chapter are: Our Town (1940); The Andy Hardy Series (1937-58); It’s a Wonderful Life (1946); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Picnic (1955); Smile (1975); Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); In the Heat of the Night (1967); The Last Picture Show (1971).

V How Ya Gonna Keep’em Down on the Farm?

Demographically, few readers will likely come from an agricultural background. But this chapter will provide an appreciation that, like the small town, the farm, particularly the family farm, is deep in the marrow of the American consciousness. But for the most part, the farm, either represented in rural farce or tragic realism in film, continues, like the small town, to fade into a nostalgic past as a demographic reality, while retaining its place in the nostalgia for a “return” to an often romanticized past that has been partly maintained by the movies.

Among the films in this chapter are: The Grapes of Wrath (1940); The Egg and I (1947); Country (1984); The River (1984); Places in the Heart (1984)

VI Suburbia and the American Dream

Less than city and not quite country, suburbia is the often less than satisfying compromise that, by the end of this century, most Americans have made to achieve what most readers will recognize as the “American Dream.” Although treated uncharitably or stereotypically in the American Cinema as they became more a part of the American scene in post-WWII, suburbs are now being examined through the lenses of a generation of film makers who grew up in the suburbs. The first suburban films were satirical putdowns, but now have evolved to a range of coming of age films to dark dramas.

Among the films in this chapter are: Bachelor in Paradise (1961); The Ice Storm (1997); The Burbs (1989); Edward Scissorhands (1990); Neighbors (1981); Welcome to the Doll House (1995); The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956); American Beauty (1999).

 VII Growing Up Urban

The emergence of the generation of “American youth” was in many ways marked and chronicled by films of the 1950s and 1960s that established the culture of youth as both a major film genre and niche market. As urbanization increased the years of education and dependency of youth, a culture of sexual frustration, anxiety, peer pressures, and expressed itself in music, dress and consumption that created dramas of rebellion and search for identity. Paradoxical ly, youth found new freedom and a form of “enslavement” in growing up in an urban environment that has since been expressed in more films about their rebellion and coming of age. Today, youth are the primary market for feature films, with the average moviegoer being in his or her late teens.

Among the films in this chapter are: Dead End (1937); Angels With Dirty Faces (1938); Blackboard Jungle (1955); Rebel Without a Cause (1955); The Wild One (1955); American Graffiti (1973); West Side Story (1961); The Warriors (1979); Boyz in the Hood (1991); Drugstore Cowboy ((1989); Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

VIII Family Values, City Ways

The reader will appreciate that the City has not been kind to traditional notions of the family. Indeed, much of contemporary cultural stress in urban society revolves around issues related to the family—the role of women, independence of children, authority, even religion. This chapter explores the erosion of the traditional family by urbanization as well as the retention of “family values” as a means of insulation against the increasing independence of women children from traditional forms of authority brought about by urbanization. Thus, the family, always a source of conflict from within, also presented the Cinema with an expanded source of stories of the family struggle to maintain its integrity against the City as well. This chapter is also closely linked with themes addressed in the preceding chapter, as well as the chapters on Women and Work in the City.

Among the films in this chapter are: The Andy Hardy Series (1937-58); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1968); An Unmarried Woman (1978); Kramer vs Kramer (1979); Father of the Bride (1950); American Beauty (1999)

IX Politics, On-Screen and Off

This chapter treats two dimensions of politics as it relates to the City and the Cinema: films about urban politics, and the relationships between the movie industry and politics in general. Urban politics has been a rather minor movie theme, although the relatively small number of films which address this subject have been important ones. But the movie industry has often been embroiled in political controversy. From their inception movies have been regarded as a prime influence upon and threat to prevailing social values, subjected to production codes and a variety of on-going attempts at censorship and stricter regulation, as well as crusades against specific performers, writer and producers. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and their effect upon the industry are discussed in this chapter.

Among the films in this chapter are: The Last Hurrah (1958); Gangs of New York (2002); City of Hope (1991); Meet John Doe (1941); City Hall (1996); Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); On the Waterfront (1954); Guilty by Suspicion (1991); The Way We Were (1973); The Majestic (2001)

X Mean Streets and Cities of Night

Among the concerns of political forces acting upon the film industry is that of the depiction of crime and violence on screen. This chapter explores the relationship between the City and the Cinema through perhaps its most prominent genre. Though the subject is clearly much larger that the capability of this book to address exhaustively, the roles that the city and various aspects of urban life play in both real crime and reel crime is illustrated with a variety of films. Another version of this subject is that represented in film noir, which is also covered in this chapter.

Among the films in this chapter are: Little Caesar (1930); Gangs of New York (2002); Dead End (1937); The Untouchables (1987); The Road to Perdition (2002); The Godfather (1972); Goodfellows (1990); Mean Streets (1973); Reservoir Dogs (1992); The French Connection (1971); Serpico (1973); LA Confidential (1997); The Naked City (1950)

 XI Are You Talking to Me ? New York and the Cinema of Urban Alienation

New York is selected as a city in which a substantial number of films relating to urban alienation have been set and filmed, although it is neither exclusive or exhaustive of such films. The conditions for alienation derive from several aspects of urbanism, which are also taken up in this chapter. This subject deals with the social and psychological estrangement that is often reflected in antisocial behavior in the city, but may also be an expression of idiosyncratic and esoteric lifestyle choices that result in an urban “menagerie” of rich and varied social types and groups, among them rogues and “loners,” and “urban cowboys.” A subsection of this chapter, which relates to Chapter XIII, deals with alienation in women.

Among the films in this chapter are: Taxi Driver (1976); Sunrise (1927); A Thousand Clowns (1965); Midnight Cowboy (1968); Crocodile Dundee (1986); Youngblood Hawke (1964); Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

XII Class, Race and Ethnicity in the City and Cinema

Social differences among urbanites account for the themes and plots of a large number of films set in urban environments. The social divisions of class, race and ethnicity not only enrich the prospects for narratives that deal with acceptance, assimilation, conflict and cooperation, discrimination and bigotry, but also provide for and expanded visual range through the varied districts and neighborhoods of the city which are occupied by different groups. The City brought about a physical context in which different cultural groups came within an historically unprecedented degree of social and physical contact and competition. Themes addressed in this chapter also intersect with those in the chapters on immigrants, suburbia, and alienation.

Among the films in this chapter are: Meet John Doe (1941); A Place in the Sun (1951); My Man Godfrey (1937); Stella Dallas (1937); The Best Years of Our Lives (1947); Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); Do the Right Thing (1998); Year of the Dragon (1985); Falling Down (1993); American History X (1998); White Men Can’t Jump (1993); A Patch of Blue (1965); Jungle Fever (1991)

XIII City Women/Cinema Women

This chapter develops the theme that both the City and the Cinema have been responsible for expanding the rights and roles of women in urban society. It also expands upon or elaborates points made in the chapters dealing with family values and the chapter dealing with work. A compelling case can be made that the City has functioned as the most profound “liberator” of women by providing a vastly expanded range of employment opportunities, mostly not specific to gender, that have allowed an historically unprecedented degree of economic independence for women. These effects, while welcome in one respect, have not been without their threatening dimensions to established social institutions and norms, most especially the structure of the family, but also in the role of the femme fatale . These changes have sometimes been prefigured in some of the women’s film roles, but have remained a consistent theme in movies to the present day when these changes are to bee seen as much on the street as on the screen.

Among the films in this chapter are: Carrie (1952); Front Page Woman (1935); His Girl Friday (1940); All About Eve (1950); 42 nd Street (1933); Double Indemnity (1944); Desk Set (1957); Network (1976); The Apartment (1960); Working Girl (1988); Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); Crossing Delancey (1988)

XIV City Work

Many of the impressions that readers and moviegoers form about different occupations come from the portrayal of work roles in the cinema, although real cops, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen may not have quite the glamour or drama of their screen versions. The process of urbanization has been one of a continuous expansion of work roles. Early films about the City dealt primarily with “industrialism,” since manufacturing was the predominant type of occupational category; later films with professional and service types of occupations. The relationship of work to identity and self-esteem in films is also explored.

Among the films in this chapter are: Metropolis (1926); Modern Times (1936); All the Right Moves (1983); The Deer Hunter (1978); Glengarry Glen Ross (1992); The Apartment (1960); The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975); Tin Men (1987); Wall Street (1987); Falling Down (1993)

XV Nature, Technophobia and the Cinema of the Urban Future

The City represents mankind’s most ambitious attempt to shape his own destiny, to guide his future. However, prognoses of urban futures tend to be “dystopic.” In part this may be because dystopic futures are dramaturgically more interesting than utopias. But this chapter also explores the relationship between views of the future and the connection between our sense of the future and our ability to shape it to our desires and technology. The Faustian nature of our relationship with technology is a major influence upon cinematic prognoses and projections of the future city and the character and quality of life in it.

Among the films in this chapter are: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Metropolis (1927); Blade Runner (1982); THX 1138 ; A Clockwork Orange (1971); Escape from New York (1973); Sleeper (1973); Soylent Green (1973); The Planet of the Apes Series

 XVI The City As Cinema

The cinematic city and the life portrayed in it as discussed in the preceding chapters are admittedly a subjective “take” on the subject. The topics chosen, the films selected––especially those chosen to typify their theme––owe everything to the author’s “time,” “place,” and “circumstance,” his own, particular, personal and peculiar urban chronicity. This is, unavoidably, to use the vernacular, “where I am coming from.” If those themes and reciprocities can be communicated, if there are commonalities and connections, or if they open possibilities, then there might be merit this effort in spite of the certainly of overlooking someone’s iconic city or film or perspective, as it surely must, then there at least remains a wider frame and always room for further exploration.


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