Emigration and Immigration in Literature

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Selected Movies And Involvement In The Film Industry

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Immigrant writers made an impact not just upon American literature, but other artistic modes of production. In particular, immigrants played a key role in the growth of the Hollywood film industry at all levels, from businessmen and investors to directors, screenwriters and actors. One of the most famous immigrant screenwriters and directors was Billy (Samuel) Wilder, born in Vienna in 1906; after a career as a journalist he moved into screenwriting in Berlin, before fleeing Hitler's Germany for America. As James Monaco argues, Wilder:

… was the most successful of the émigrés from Europe (as well as the most prolific). He arrived in Hollywood in 1934 … His writing partnerships with Charles Brackett (1938-1950) and later I. A. L. Diamond helped him to become the most American of immigrant directors, with a long string of critical and commercial hits. Although he is famed for his cynicism, his work reveals a deeper, brighter wit in the service of real social wisdom. From the film noirs of the forties (Double Indemnity, 1944; The Lost Weekend, 1945; Sunset Boulevard, 1950) through the romances and comedies of the fifties (Sabrina, 1954; The Seven-Year Itch, 1955; Some Like It Hot, 1959) and culminating in the sixties with The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), Wilder was responsible for an unrivaled number of American cultural touchstones.1

Immigrant experiences and lifestyles have formed the basis of films, perhaps the most infamous being Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant, a black and white movie from 1917 (Mutual, US). Another highly successful black and white movie, From This Day Forward (RKO, 1946) was based upon Thomas Bell's book All Brides Are Beautiful (1936), a novel which “… describes the lives of a Bronx couple during two years of the Great Depression; there is no pronounced structure or plot—the effect is almost like a daily journal.”2 A decade later, John Fante's novel Full of Life (1952) was adapted for film by Fante, and made by Columbia (1956; black and white). Stephen Cooper notes how Fante received one thousand dollars a week from Columbia to work on the screenplay: “In adapting his novel Fante worked closely with the film's director, former child actor Richard Quine. Back in 1935 Quine had performed in Fante's first credited picture, Dinky.3 Cooper analyses the movie version of Full of Life as a process of intertextuality and re-writing: Fante not only produced something genuinely new with his screenplay, but he even managed to quote from his own novel, Ask the Dust. As Cooper argues:

It is an intriguing conjunction of American literary and cinematic histories, this revisionary moment of self-quotation. For one thing, it marks Full of Life the film for what it truly is, namely, a quintessential Hollywood product of the 1950s deep inside which beats the heart of a depression-era literary sensibility, layered over with the trappings of middle-class respectability but still beating after all the years. Further, the nesting of fictional voices one inside the other reveals Fante's self-awareness of how far he had come as an autobiographical writer by staying so close to home. His own life had always been his best raw material.4

The movie version of Full of Life was a great success, and was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for the Best Written American Comedy of 1956; critical reaction was mainly positive: “Time observed that though the film was “sentimental,” “John Fante's script, based on his novel, is full of happy touches, and Richard Quine's direction makes the most of them.” … the trade papers waxed enthusiastic. Variety called the...

(This entire section contains 1165 words.)

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picture “wholly satisfying,” whileThe Hollywood Reporter conferred upon the movie a coveted Outstanding Family Picture of the Month Award.”5 Fante was no stranger to the movie business: he had written stories and screenplays, often in partnership with other screenwriters, for Warner Brothers (Dinky, 1935; East of the River, 1940), MGM (The Golden Fleecing, 1940; My Man and I, 1952; Maya, 1966), Columbia (Full of Life, 1956; Jeanne Eagels, 1957; A Walk on the Wild Side, 1962), Paramount (My Six Loves, 1963) and Davis-Royal (The Reluctant Saint, 1962); he had also written for RKO Radio (Youth Runs Wild, 1940) and Universal Television (Something for a Lonely Man, 1968).6

Chin Yang Lee's Flower Drum Song (1957) had been turned into a Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1959; two years later, a movie version was produced by Ross Hunter Productions (US, 1961). John Walker argues that this is: “A Broadway musical which on the screen seems old-fashioned, remorselessly cute, and even insulting to the Chinese characters. Within its limits, however, it is well enough staged and performed.”7 Undoubtedly one of the most famous immigrant novels-made-into-film is Italian American writer Mario Puzo's third novel, The Godfather (novel 1969; film 1972, Paramount). Fred L. Gardaphé argues that “Not since the publication of Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete had an American author of Italian descent been thrust into the national spotlight on such a scale.”8 The film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall among others, was a huge box-office success and was later followed by sequels in 1974 and 1990. Patrick Fuery notes how: “Coppola's Godfather trilogy stands out as a reminder of the darkness of revenge as a corrupting process … All the participants in the acts of violence (including the women) acknowledge the coda of the vendetta …”9

The Asian American immigrant experience is explored in some depth in relatively contemporary films, such as Wayne Wang's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989, Artificial Eye/American Playhouse Theatre), based upon the novel by Louis Chu. A well-known director of the Asian immigrant experience is Ang Lee, with films such as The Wedding Banquet (1993, Mainline) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, Beuna Vista). While Lee is originally from Taiwan, his films explore cultural and generational differences and conflicts that many Asian Americans can relate to. Lee studied at NYU film school and works in Taiwan and the United States; as such, his observations from this dual perspective are insightful and show an ability to work from competing if at times ideologically contradictory, positions. His work is reminiscent of the Ambassadors of Goodwill, although his films have an analytical edge to them that is far sharper and bleaker than the earlier Ambassadors' writings. An example of such cutting insight can be seen in Lee's The Ice Storm (1997, Fox Searchlight), a film about 1970s Connecticut and the self-destruction of the American Dream, which forms a counterpart to his works that focus on the Asian immigrant experience.


  1. James Monaco, How To Read a Film: The World of Movies, Media, and Multimedia, Language, History, Theory, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000 (Third Edition), pp. 298-299.

  2. David P. Demarest, Afterword to Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981, p. 423.

  3. Stephen Cooper, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante (New York and Edinburgh: Rebel Inc, 2000), p. 254.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid., p. 256.

  6. Ibid., p. 384.

  7. John Walker, ed., Halliwell's Film & Video Guide 1999, London: HarperCollins, 1998, p. 286.

  8. Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 88.

  9. Patrick Fuery, New Developments in Film Theory, New York: St. Martin's Press and London: Macmillan: 2000, p. 141.


Critical Response


Other Representative Works Of The Literature Of The U.S. Immigrant Experience