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Why did you weep and thrill at Titanic? The special effects? They were nice, but no. The weakly acted, insipidly written love story? No in italics. The answer is predictably unmentioned: class politics.

Seriously, Titanic gets its modest gravitas from its unflinching (and historically accurate) depiction of the cruelties, up to and including hundreds of deaths, endured by the ship’s working-class passengers at the hands of their top-deck overlords. As Leonardo slips blue and cold from Kate’s fingers, the moment has been freighted by a great load of injustice: the class-crossed lovers’ separation seems not just sadly unfortunate but wrong—even tragic. We sob.

Of course, nobody expects James Cameron’s next picture to be a dramatization of last year’s UPS strike. In today’s Hollywood, Titanic is just an ironic anomaly, a $200-million movie with the class struggle at its heart. Yet what it represents—the ability of class issues to transfix a movie audience—didn’t used to be such a secret. In fact, as Steven J. Ross shows in Working-Class Hollywood, that’s pretty much what movies, in their earliest years, were about.

If the Titanic had made it to New York, its steerage passengers would have found a world that mirrored on-board class divisions with a vengeance. And new migrants to big-city factories and sweatshops—whether from Poland or Pottstown—quickly discovered that sometimes the toughest thing about industrial work wasn’t the back-breaking labor but the soul-killing drudgery. Industrial work was repetitive and simple-minded; it had nothing to do with anything but drawing a meager paycheck. Thus was born the drive for a new idea: “leisure.” The popular slogan of the union drive for the eight-hour day went, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will.” As capitalism robbed work of meaning, workers organized to get it back.

Enter the movies, an industrial product seemingly designed for soul-weary workers. Even the earliest movies, those short strips featuring a train rushing at the camera or a gun fired at the viewer, gave back to workers what industrial work had stolen: excitement, variety, laughter—fun. As the rich “classed” and price-gated previously widely enjoyed activities like theater and the opera, workers flocked to the movies. The word “nooning”—making a beeline during lunch break for the nearest moviehouse—entered the language. The first nickelodeon (everybody paid a nickel and sat where they wanted) opened in 1905; by 1913, the number of Cincinnatians going to the movies each week was 193 percent of the city’s population—and that was just the working class.

The egalitarian nickelodeons quickly became centers of working-class culture. Whole families attended together, and patrons roamed the aisles, socializing in the frequent breaks between the short films. Film was the ideal medium for a largely immigrant audience, which found in subtitles both a reason and a means to learn English, and found in the films’ stories an introduction to life in the new country. Audiences not only laughed and cried but shouted out responses to the onscreen action.

The explosion of films that answered the demand were working-class, too. Dozens of small production companies sprang up across the country: Biograph and Edison in New York, Essanay and Selig in Chicago, Lubin in Philadelphia. Many of the filmmakers themselves were working-class. Biograph’s D.W. Griffith had been a clerk and a factory worker before joining a traveling theater company and finally getting a shot at directing movies. Griffith made his name (and Biograph’s) by developing much of modern film’s visual language with radically populist dramas that thrillingly intercut scenes of the depredations of the rich with the privations endured by their exploited workers. A Corner in Wheat (1909), typically, ends with the spectacular death of a financial speculator, buried under tons of cascading grain. Charlie Chaplin’s early films were sophisticated, hilarious working-class provocations. Work (1915), shrewdly limned the chaos that ensues when a bourgeois family obsesses over whether a house painter (Chaplin) will steal anything, while remaining blind to his utter incompetence.

And at a time when American politics were not about peripheral issues like the president’s sex life but about whether workers or capital would control the economic life of the nation, films were political weapons. After 146 women died in a sweatshop fire at the Triangle garment factory in New York in 1911, the notoriously conservative Edison studio produced The Crime of Carelessness, which blamed a similar fictional fire on an employee’s carelessly tossed cigarette. However, Rolfe Photoplay soon brought out The High Road, in which the deaths were shown to be the result of illegally locked exit doors in the sweatshop—the actual case in the Triangle fire. One of the most successful pre-World War I films was avowedly socialist: former railroad worker, labor organizer, and newspaperman Frank E. Wolfe’s From Dusk to Dawn set its union-activist romance against the background of a savvily depicted organizing drive and a successful campaign by a socialist candidate for governor of California. Demand for From Dusk to Dawn was so great in New York that Marcus Loew booked it into his entire chain, the city’s biggest; in the Chicago area, the movie set attendance records and played in 45 theaters.

What happened to that world? The short answer is Hollywood. Ross is clear-eyed about what “Hollywood” means: an “oligarchic, vertically integrated studio system based in Los Angeles and New York and financed by some of the largest banks and corporations in the nation.” Men like Adolph Zukor and the Warner brothers recognized, as had Henry Ford before them, the immense advantages of regularized mass production and monopoly control of all parts of the business—production, distribution, and exhibition. Using vast sums of mostly Wall Street cash, they embarked on a brutal winner-take-all assault on the previously heterogeneous film business. Their post-WWI campaign employed “threats, violence and large sums of cash,” says Ross, and it worked: By 1920, Hollywood studios were producing 80 percent of the world’s movies, and most of the small, urban production companies were gone.

But Hollywood was just reflecting—and would soon be literally projecting—a historical moment. In the 1920s, Ross shows, American big business (with the help of a friendly federal government) launched a campaign to defang the labor movement and take class issues off the political agenda. Scaring people helped: In 1923, the Justice Department arrested more than 4,000 “Red sympathizers” in overnight raids.

Hollywood took a subtler approach: It went on a building spree. The studios replaced the old nickelodeons with huge new “movie palaces,” often built in the new close-in suburbs where white-collar working-class folk—secretaries, clerks, sales people—were moving. Theaters like Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles and the Roxy in New York were fantasies of the good life: Brilliantly uniformed ushers bowed and scraped before the rudest patron; girls in starched skirts submissively handed out towels in the ladies rooms. The theaters were huge and ornately decorated; Ross quotes an American tourist in India who proclaimed, “So this is the Taj Mahal….The Oriental Theater at home is twice as big and has electric lights besides.” “Roxy” Rothapfel, manager and co-owner of New York’s Roxy Theater, had a very telling philosophy: “Don’t ‘give the people what they want,’” he said. “Give them something better.”

Exactly. Where the nickelodeons and the films they showed had reflected working-class interests, the new theaters were in essence a bribe: an affordable taste of the good life to buy off blue- and white-collar labor disaffection. And a new kind of movie sealed the bargain. Gone were the tart, sharp-witted working-class humor and dramatic class clashes of film’s first decade. The new films, Ross points out, were just as class-conscious as the old ones—but they preached class alignment, not competition. These new “cross-class fantasies” had nearly interchangeable plots: In The Millionaire (1921), a bookkeeper inherits $20 million. In A Daughter of Luxury (1922), a homeless girl discovers she’s really an heiress. And in Orchids and Ermine (1927), a telephone operator falls in love with a rich man’s valet—only to discover that he’s the rich man himself, hiding his identity to make sure he’s loved for himself, not his money.

The new romances, in other words, featured stories of the working class happily being seduced by the rich—a mirror of the process the patrons themselves were undergoing in the movie palaces. It was, Ross says, the beginning of the marginalization of working-class politics and culture, and the installation at the center of American culture of something new: a “democracy of equal access to consumer goods.” Under the new paradigm, workers (especially nonmanagerial white-collar workers) exchanged meaningful control over the conditions of their work lives for access to modest lines of credit and a great fantasy life. Welcome to our world.

But I don’t do justice to the sublety of Ross’ analysis or the skill with which he wields the fruits of his research. For one thing, he clearly doesn’t intend Working-Class Hollywood to be simply reductive. He labors to show that even after Hollywood established its reign over the film business, progressive films managed to get made—though certainly many fewer. (His tale of the struggles to make the still-amazing strike drama Salt of the Earth during the McCarthyite 1950s is fascinating.)

And he sensibly points out that while Americans flocked to the new movie palaces and happily lapped up saccharine cross-class fantasies—and still do—that doesn’t make them sheep. American workers have always loved the movies and embraced what they could get. As the success of Titanic hints, if they were offered something stronger and truer—as was once commonplace—they might well embrace that, too.