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Garbo may be a great star,a great star actress because
of what we bring to each of us is a projector, and she is a scream.

We watch our dreams, upon her.

(Robert TAYLOR)


Film historians and scholars have agreed that the 1930s decade was the most significant period in which Hollywood adopted its most recognised industrial features. Among these features, it can be said that Hollywood movies were identified because of a unique visual style, a paradigmatic and standard narrative, an "invisible" cinematic signature, strong marketing strategies and commercial formulas in the media. The decade of the 1930s was the time of the Musical, Screwball, Comedies, Westerns, Melodramas, and Horror movies among other genres. However, Hollywood movies of the 1930s are often remembered because of the stars' appeal to the audiences.

One of the explanations behind this cultural phenomenon relies upon the interaction of many factors related with the social context of that particular decade. The effects of the economic Depression that took place in 1929 defined the thirties, and its impact within America's population created a new social energy. This new configuration was expressed into a search for desires, collective and individual dreams, and the reflection of national values and goals. In other words, the 1930s decade was a time to define ideology. The concepts of "ideology" and "dominant ideology" imply many considerations to be taken in account. It would be fair to say that ideology is an inherent feature of any society, and thus, each society creates its own distinctive ways and resources to establish, represent and consolidate any ideological system. At the same time, it is argued that cinema function as an ideological vehicle and film stars represent ideological values; taking in account this main ideas, film criticism have created an extensive academic body work regarding this line of study.

This essay will explore the relations between ideology and cinema by analysing the role played by film stars within this process. Stars studies work with four basic approaches: semiotics, intertextuality, psychoanalysis and audience studies. The essay's aim will be to apply the theoretical framework in order to explore the ideological meaning of Greta Garbo, one of the most recognised film stars of the Hollywood of the 1930s, through making reference to the films Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939).

Exploring the Concept of Ideology

The French theorist Lois Althusser proposed the most influential theory that address the term of "ideology". Althusser's theory challenged the traditional Marxist notion of "false consciousness" or simple distortion of the economic realities of a given culture. In other words, the concept or term of ideology can be understood as a set of commonly agreed ideas that reflects the values and beliefs of social groups in any society. At the same time, the "dominant ideology" reflects the ideas of any dominant social group. In addition, "burgeois ideology" is defined as the 'ideology generated by any class society through which the dominant class comes to provide the general conceptual framework for a society's members, thus furthering the economic and political interest of that class' 1.

Richard Maltby (1996) studies the relation of ideology with society through movies and proposes that these ideas interact with the society as a cultural process in order to create a "conventional" understanding of a particular historical context. According to Maltby, Althusser's theory suggests that 'ideology is also attitudes, habits, feelings and assumptions and that ideology is experienced less as ideas than as images and most of all structures that create a sense of "lived relation"(for example cinema going or theatre going) between people and their world'. 2

Judith Mayne (1993) in her work Cinema and Spectatorship, suggests that Althusser claimed that "there is no ideology except by the subject and for the subject" 3. This notion provides a direct link with the perception of individuals as subjects of ideology. In Althusser's terms, ideology operates through "interpellation" which is a concept that endow individuals with a social sense of identity and therefore constitutes them as subjects that accept their social role within a systems of produced relations.4 For the study of cinema, Althusser's intervention was taken as validation of the position that, in order to understand how cinema functioned ideologically, it was not enough to submit films to a test to determine a political content distilled and rendered from the vehicle of the film. Rather, it was the "vehicle" itself, the situation of film viewing, the nature of film language that required explanation.5

Therefore, with this theoretical framework, there are some ideas that set direction in order to understand how the cinema functions as an institutional apparatus 6 and the resulting way to explore this account is related with individuals and the "lived relation" displayed in the cinema. From this perspective, Judith Mayne suggests that it was claimed that the 'monolithic quality to the cinema is to work in order to acculturate individuals to structures of fantasy, desire, dream and pleasure that are fully of a piece with dominant ideology'. 7

Taking in account Althusser's theory, movies-as the rest of cultural products-project a specific ideology, and its relevance or influence's degree in society can be approached in terms of the relation between the audience and the different readings created by the film going experience. Furthermore, the role played by entertainment products can be considered as vehicles for the process of ideology.8 John Hill (2000) also suggests that the presence of ruling ideology tend to be 'extended' in the media, an thus is produced by it and belongs to an abstract system. Regarding the same argument, Robert Stam points out:

Locked into a structure of misrecognition, spectators accept the identity assigned them and are fixed in a position where a particular mode of perception and consciousness appears natural. 9

However, the notion of ideology regards a moral dimension. Hector Rodriguez (2000) points out that this moral perspective is a basic feature of critical film theory, and that ideology is often described as 'something undesirable that has to be criticised'. Morality was one of the crucial issues generated by dominant ideology during the struggling decade of the 1930s. Social issues such gender, class, and religion became the reference points in order to maintain, and in some cases, build a strong "American Family". Years early before the Depression, a social search for an identity took place in American society, therefore during the 1930s the concept of ideology was understood and followed as an attempt to define the national sense of community. Douglas Tallack (1987) cites the work of Warren Susman related with the study of the notion of ideology in that period. Susman indicates that,

"American Way of Life" and "American Dream" became common currency in the thirties and both concepts could be related as a new kind of nationalism.10

The social instability caused by the financial impact of the Great Depression built a collective need to set all the moral conditions, which could support the new challenge of defining the national ideology. The cinema of the 1930s contributed to fill this gap by representing the social conditions of that time. Brian Bay, cited by Brian Lee (1987) states that:

Hollywood films raise, and appear to solve problems associated with the incompatibility of traditional American myths and values: freedom and equality; nature and culture; family and success; even art and entertainment.11

Clearly, film stars of the 1930s were part of this particular historical period. As they belonged to the entertainment system, its positionlywood movies and the star system may provide useful information in exploring how the values and ideas of ideology were addressed to the audiences through film narrative and its appeal.

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1. STAM, R., Film Theory…, p. 133.

2. MALTBY, R, Hollywood Cinema, p. 392.

3. MAYNE, J. Cinema and Spectatorship, p. 14.

4. Ibid., p. 15.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p.17.

7. Ibid., p. 18.

8. MALTBY, R. Op. cit, p. 393.

9. STAM, R. Op. cit, p.135.

10. See TALLACK, D. '"Women in the Thirties" in The Thirties. Politics and Culture . . ., p. 86.

11. See LEE, B. "Hollywood in the thirties" in The Thirties. Politics and Culture . . ., p. 256.