Skip to main content

Moving Up and Moving On: Mobility and the American Success Myth

  • Chapter
  • 415 Accesses

Abstract

At the heart of the American dream and at the center of classic success myth stories lies the promise of mobility and self-making. Americans, these stories tell us, are endowed with the inalienable right to create an adult self out of whole cloth, rather than simply making do with the identity in which we find ourselves clad. We are active subjects rather than compliant objects of our personal destinies. Accidents of birth, rather than being implacable impediments to advancement, are merely challenges to be overcome through hard work. From log cabin to White House, from scruffy music club to arena rock superstardom, from the mailroom to the executive suite, the biographical and fictional heroes of success myth tales accomplish their rise through their single-minded application of the work ethic and their adherence to the individualist credo of competitive advantage. And if they can do it, these stories tell us, anyone and everyone can too if they want to badly enough.

Keywords

  • Social Mobility
  • Success Story
  • Downward Mobility
  • American Cinema
  • Hollywood Movie

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

But to be an American … is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, insofar as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history …

— Leslie Fiedler, A Fiedler Reader

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1057/9781137016676_2
  • Chapter length: 44 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   44.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-1-137-01667-6
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   59.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   89.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. Chuck Kleinhans, ‘Working-Class Film Heroes: Junior Johnson, Evel Knieval and the Film Audience,’ in Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics and Counter Cinema, Peter Steven, ed. (New York: Praeger, 1985), 66.

    Google Scholar 

  2. These ‘two faces of capitalism’ in film were noted by Robin Wood, ‘Ideology, Genre, Auteur,’ in Film Genre Reader II, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003), 65.

    Google Scholar 

  3. James V. Catano, Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man (Carbondale, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 158.

    Google Scholar 

  4. See Martha P. Nochimson, Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), for a trenchant discussion of performativity and the fragmentation and discontinuity of identity in gangster films.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein and Day, 1966).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Barbara Klinger, ‘“Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” Revisited: The Progressive Genre,’ in Film Genre Reader II, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995), 79.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Three of the most detailed and insightful analyses of the film were written in the 1970s and 1980s when close analysis of classic Hollywood films was hitting its stride. See Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985);

    Google Scholar 

  8. Robin Wood, ‘Ideology, Genre, Auteur,’ Film Comment 13, no. 1 (1977): 46–51; and

    Google Scholar 

  9. Ray Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  10. For a good introduction to the significance of the road in American film, see David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Peter Stead, in Film and the Working Class: The Feature Film in British and American Society (Oxford: Routledge, 1991), identifies popular culture’s ‘vague belief in the common man and a moral if politically neutral criticism of the abuse of wealth.’ He goes on to note ‘how easy it was to tell stories that would be sympathetic to the common man, that would condemn all truly evil men and their agencies, and yet at the same time would do nothing other than confirm existing social values,’ 22.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Peter Roffman, The Hollywood Social Program Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1981).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), 17–18.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Jack Boozer calls this recurring pattern ‘rise-and-fall overreacher narratives’ and focuses his discussion on promotional hucksterism in films of the 1950s. Jack Boozer, Career Movies: American Business and the Success Mystique (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002), 165.

    Google Scholar 

  15. A thorough list of biopics up until the early 1990s can be found in Eileen Karsten, From Real Life to Reel Life: A Filmography of Biographical Film (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993). For analytical considerations of the genre, see

    Google Scholar 

  16. Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic As Contemporary Film Genre (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010) and

    Google Scholar 

  17. George Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  18. The film’s basis in and faithfulness to the life of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst has been investigated by many writers, including Laura Mulvey, Citizen Kane (London: BFI Publishing, 1992), and

    Google Scholar 

  19. Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (New York: Penguin, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  20. For an introduction to scholarship about the alliance between cinema and consumer culture, see David Desser and Garth S. Jowett, eds. Hollywood Goes Shopping (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Robert Warshow, ‘The Gangster As a Tragic Hero,’ in The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (New York: Atheneum, 1974), 131.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), 85.

    Google Scholar 

  23. For an extended discussion of gangster ethnicity, see Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick, Immigrants and Popular Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  24. For a discussion of the loss of ethnic identity in immigrant sagas, see Mark Winokur, American Laughter: Immigrants, Ethnicity, and 1930s Hollywood Film Comedy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996). Winokur points out: ‘The price of assimilation is the individual’s renunciation of his old family and the conscious and so necessarily incomplete identification with a new family whose signs of communality are based on affluence rather than on shared historical referents. For those born wealthy, affluence is a shared culture, and success is a return to the parents … For those born poor and ethnic, success is traumatic, a renunciation of the consensual reality one knows in favor of an alternative, alienating reality that nevertheless must be life sustaining. The New-World plot, in which success may be chosen without consequences, is a fantasy of an acculturation that has already taken place without its concomitant identity-suicide,’ 62.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Jonathan Munby, Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from ‘Little Caesar’ to ‘Touch of Evil’. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 48–9.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  26. See the essays in Nick Browne, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  27. Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  28. One of the best books on how American movies represent and speak to class is Steven J. Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Robert N. Bellah’s landmark sociological study Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985) remains a seminal study of American thought regarding the two strains of individualism and the ongoing tension between individualist and communal commitments and traditions in American life.

    Google Scholar 

  30. For an extended discussion of marriage in ‘the women’s film,’ see the chapter on marriage in Jeanine Basinger, A Women’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930–1960 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  31. For discussions of the film’s improbable ending, see Jeanine Basinger, A Women’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930–1960 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993);

    Google Scholar 

  32. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005);

    Google Scholar 

  33. Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  34. Director Douglas Sirk once called such endings ‘emergency exits’: improbable, last-minute resolutions of the vexing issues that have informed the preceding narrative. For Sirk’s astute musings on the resolutions of melodramas, see Douglas Sirk, Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday (London: BFI Publishing, 1971).

    Google Scholar 

  35. See Christine Gledhill, ed. Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Women’s Film (London: BFI Publishing, 1987), one of the first (and still one of the best) considerations of melodrama on film. Also

    Google Scholar 

  36. Marcia Landy, Imitations of Life: A Reader of Film and Television Melodrama (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991);

    Google Scholar 

  37. John Mercer and Martin Shinger, Melodrama: Genre, Style, and Sensibility (London: Wallflower Press, 2004).

    Google Scholar 

  38. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 129.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Copyright information

© 2012 Julie Levinson

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Levinson, J. (2012). Moving Up and Moving On: Mobility and the American Success Myth. In: The American Success Myth on Film. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137016676_2

Download citation