Course description

Is the so-called American dream dead? The notion once essentialized the grand promise of a better fuller and richer life. At the present moment however it seems to have lost its evocative persuasiveness as a collective myth. In a time of cultural crisis and political emergency this course has a pressing mission. It aims to further a dynamic understanding of American dreams to apprehend their complexities and contradictions to appreciate their many different manifestations and historical shapes and above all to take measure of their relevance and meaning for the world we inhabit. In this endeavor we study the various ways in which Hollywood's fantasy machinery has created designs for living indeed the most influential and resonant incarnations of American dreams. We analyze popular films produced during crucial junctures in the modern history of the United States from the Great Depression and World War II through the cold war McCarthy era and the 1960s. We consider the wide range of functions that commercial studio features have assumed how they at times have legitimated and sustained the status quo but at others also have interrogated exposed and even indicted social inequity. The course offers a representative sampling of classical Hollywood features from 1932 to 1969; films to be studied include†Scarface†King Kong†It Happened One Night†The Wizard of Oz†The Grapes of Wrath†Citizen Kane†Casablanca†The Best Years of Our Lives†Detour†High Noon†The Invasion of the Body Snatchers†A Face in the Crowd†Raisin in the Sun†The Manchurian Candidate and†Easy Rider.


  • Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

Associated Schools

  • Harvard Division of Continuing Education

  • Harvard Summer School

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