The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
West is currently finishing a book, From Celluloid to Tabloid, in collaboration with Penelope Pelizzon (University of Connecticut), on Hollywood crime films and tabloid journalism from the 1920s through the 1940s. Unlike the tabloids of today, which West decries as “pretty trashy scandal magazines and newspapers…often designed to expose and ruin people’s careers,” the tabloids of the earlier era contain much more liveliness and inventiveness. “Although the cliché is that the tabloids have always been pitched to the uneducated, these early ones from the 1920s are surprisingly literary, replete with metaphorical word play, allusions, wit, and irony.” Tabloid writers often went on to become celebrated novelists and screenwriters for Hollywood. Beyond their literary value, these tabloids also teach us about urban culture and modernity, especially about New York in the 1920s and 1930s. West and Pelizzon refer to these tabloids as “adaptation-ready sites,” because they know how to spin information so quickly from one source.
Asked to recommend films from this era “where you have journalists exhibiting all the characteristics of gangsters,” the first two films West mentions are The Picture Snatcher (1933) and Blessed Event (1932), which were produced just as the gangster film genre seemed to be disappearing from the Hollywood screen, owing to the Production Code’s restrictions. But Hollywood—in its need to continue profiting from the gangster’s popularity—found ways to “get around the censors,” explains West. “All of the gangster’s characteristics (his penchant for violence, his street smarts, his flashy style, his witty repartee) are put into the figure of the newspaper reporter,” who rarely works for a legitimate newspaper, West adds, but for a tabloid newspaper—“So, they get to have it both ways!” In the area of noir documentaries, where filmmakers experimented by combining film noir style with a documentary style, West recommends Naked City (1948).