A Portrait of Harry Potamkin
One page after creasing the cover of the anthology that informs this investigation, I was immediately drawn to a portrait of its author. It is a shadowy monochrome photograph of a young man’s side profile, captured by Irving Lerner. Immortalised in that bygone moment, this twenty-something male can be seen as stern, contemplative and ambiguous. The young man reflectively stares into the distance with pondering, playful yet serious eyes; his static gaze exudes an enigmatic glow. There is an ambiguous optimism and determination to his gaze, a gaze which, facing right of frame, evades direct contact with an observer; it avoids any fixed judgement while it beckons contemplation.
For me, photographs (particularly portraiture) from eras long since passed have an ethereal quality; it is almost as if any identification with the presented image is haunted – man-made machinery seizes a moment of time and freezes a moment in the life of the subject. As such, the photograph presented at the beginning of this book – a photograph of a young man with a pronounced nose and preoccupied eyes – encourages a human element in the discovery of his writings. The photograph is a visual aid that assists in elevating his writings from mere words on paper to the voice of the man pictured; the photograph attributes a haunting human dimension to Harry Alan Potamkin.
It can be presumed that this photo was taken between the years 1927-1933, the years that spanned Potamkin’s critical career – a career that ended tragically with his premature death. Born at the turn of the century, Potamkin died on 19 July, 1933 after his long ulcerated stomach haemorrhaged: he was only thirty-three years old. The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin was published posthumously, almost 45 years later. The tragic end to his life, and thus career, gloomily resides over this collection and emphasises the haunting quality of the photograph; Potamkin is literally a ghost of film criticism past.
This tome – selected and arranged by Lewis Jacobs – is based upon a series of writings compiled over that mere six-year period. Yet, while the selection may have been limited by its chronological scope, the works held within these covers are dense and theoretically abundant. It is easy to mythologise those who pass early – some claim, without much further investigation, that he was “one of the most respected and serious film critics of his time” – but I believe it more important to inquire as to what Potamkin was trying to do or say, and why he is relatively unknown today. Like the photograph, Potamkin’s literature is stern but ambiguous, requiring and embodying contemplation.
In order to revive his words, it is imperative that I assemble Potamkin’s personal and professional biography; I shall attempt to flesh out the two-dimensional image of the studious young man that is now etched in my mind. In spite of the importance of the personal history in understanding and interpreting his writings, I do not intend for this to be a comprehensive biographical study. Rather, using the anthology as my source, I intend to isolate a particular period of his literary endeavours and critically consult personal, as well as extraneous, factors which framed Potamkin’s legacy. And it is here that I must note the way in which I have gone about selecting the particular period for analysis from Potamkin’s (short) career as a film critic.
As noted, while Potamkin’s career was brief, Jacobs’ compilation is a vibrant source filled with many articles and essays. But it must be acknowledged that Potamkin’s body of work does extend beyond the pages of this collection, although many of these extra (excluded) essays and articles are relatively difficult to access today. Of the few studies devoted to the works of Potamkin, most argue that there is a clear, divergent path forged halfway through his career. In halving Potamkin’s body of work into two specific periods and frameworks – formalist (1920s) and social (1930s) – many studies problematically reduce his criticism and its progression into limiting categories that in turn frame an interpretation of his writing. While it is true that there is significant change in the way that Potamkin approaches film theory during these periods, particularly after specific circumstances (personal and contextual) impact upon his thought processes, the categorisation is not as clear as some (particularly Jacobs himself) would lead one to believe.
Jacobs compiled this anthology within categories that he deemed fitting for Potamkin’s works, yet I believe that Potamkin’s curriculum vitae is not so readily divisible or categorisable. In order to attempt to gain an individual (rather than pigeonholed) view of Potamkin’s work, I consulted his entries in their original chronological order, removing them from their prescribed categories. This led me to conclude that Potamkin’s criticism remained faithful in its fervour and dedication to the art of the cinema but, in accordance with his personal views and with societal upheaval, his critical perspective indeed altered over time – yet there is no specific date where this comes into conclusive fruition. There is no static formula that I can produce which demonstrates a particular period in his writerly history, yet there are specific elements that carry over from critique to critique – particularly rooted in his political and philosophical beliefs – that allow me to discuss a phase of his career in detail.
As mentioned, the image of Potamkin placed at the beginning of the anthology shows him staring pensively to the right, gazing intensely into the distance. While one could speculate that this is similar to how he would have looked watching a film (of interest), what I will speculate on is how he would see a film (not necessarily of interest). Thus, through Potamkin’s pondering, contemplative eyes I will compile a (speculative) analysis of Little Caesar (US 1930). Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, this gangster film is pre-Code Hollywood, starring Edward G. Robinson in his definitive role as Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello – alias ‘Little Caesar’ – the little gangster who makes it big. Contemporarily, the film is renowned for Robinson’s powerhouse portrayal and valorised as a most important early gangster film, serving as a methodological benchmark for the future of the popular genre, along with Scarface (1932) and The Public Enemy (1931).
But this information serves as a retrospective gloss on the film – information that, in 1930, Potamkin could not have known. Potamkin was, however, aware of the work of LeRoy, briefly critiquing his directorial technique post-Little Caesar in an article for Close Up titled “The Year of the Eclipse”. While Little Caesar was not specifically assessed in this article (or in Potamkin’s collective writings) he did offhandedly deem the film “reputable”. Essentially, I have chosen Little Caesar for its relative antagonism to Potamkin’s viewpoint, while paradoxically it can serve as partially indicative of a social context – thus simultaneously being compliant with some of Potamkin’s proposals. I do not propose a singular view of this film; Potamkin argues many cases for-and-against many films and film cultures, rendering a formulaic analysis intrinsically impossible.
While Little Caesar is far from symptomatic of Potamkin’s critical ethic, it would in fact be impossible to find a film that fits some fixed mould of his exceptionally high criteria. Most of his positive critiques also contained some form of negative commentary, whether a biting sentence or analytic dissection (exceptions to this would be Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc  and to a lesser extent Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal ). There is no particular theoretical outline distinctive in Potamkin’s writing, and no picture escapes his ability to deduce a constructive criticism; every film can be improved upon until it reaches his (Utopian) Marxist goal for cinema that resonates through each assessment.
Potamkin critically consulted films in many divergent ways: personally, industrially, formally, economically, aesthetically, socially and politically – all of which were filtered through his Marxist sensibility (he was not a ‘card carrying communist’, but did work for left-wing publications and societies). However, in accordance with Potamkin’s dense evaluations, even the critiques of Soviet films and filmmakers were not lacking suggestions for improvement. Therefore, in the film I have chosen to look at, I will not propose a comprehensive or even cohesive critique, rather an investigation of conflicting proportions.
Essentially, there are many ways in which Potamkin could have discussed Little Caesar, thus giving insight into his multifarious theorisations and perspectives without giving a conclusive ‘review’. What would have been certain in any Potamkin-reading is a consideration of the film’s technical aspects: it highlights action through speedy dissolves involving hold-ups, arrests and dramatic murder sequences. This would not have incited glowing praise from Potamkin, due to his tumultuous relationship with American cinema (which is clamorously decried throughout his body of work) and his general distaste for speed and spectacle.
In the introduction to The Compound Cinema, Jacobs states that “Potamkin’s fame and work disappeared quickly into obscurity after his death. What had once been received with distinction, became a vague item to another generation.” In his review of the anthology, Russell Campbell stipulates that, due to the radical leftist nature of Potamkin’s work, right-wing, conservative American society would not have wished to see it celebrated. Citing Martin S. Dworkin’s preface (as general editor) as a reflection of the Cold War sentiment that (still) permeates society, Campbell deems Dworkin’s foreword to be an “anti-Marxist diatribe,” attributing a potentially valid argument for Potamkin’s public downtime  – especially in this historical context of the Stalinist regime and (in)famous indoctrination from the likes of Susan Sontag who infamously declared Communism, “fascism with a human face.” And this negativity is not a new development: Potamkin was deemed “Red” in the eyes of the public, seeing articles meant to be published inVanity Fair cancelled after a Hollywood star politically denounced his work. But juxtaposed with this negative stigma, historical film theory acknowledges and praises the Marxist films and theory of the Soviet filmmakers of the Bolshevik era: Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Pudovkin and Vertov. And Potamkin does eagerly reference the practices of these Soviet filmmakers as his political aspirations were shaped after meeting many associated with this credo during a trip to Europe in 1927.
Yet, while this European Marxist dialogue was immensely influential to his writing, he lived and belonged to the social context of America, and was also educated by the writings of Americans. The 1930s American context further shaped his political views and critical analysis, as the socio-economic upheaval of the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression reaffirmed his leftist opinions and class criticism. Potamkin worked within a community of leftist/Marxist criticism; in William Alexander’s study on Left-filmmaking of the 1930s, he declares that there existed an “ideologically united” group of critics and filmmakers during this time of which Potamkin was included. Essentially, Potamkin “rose quickly in the circles of Marxist criticism,” contributing to publications such as New Masses and working closely with the Workers Film and Photo League. In short, Potamkin’s political standpoint was steeped in a contextual optimism for humanity: he believed in education and dreamed of a revolution against the injustices of class division.
Obviously, Potamkin’s writing was highly political; each film he discussed was analysed in accordance with his fundamental assertion that “film reflects the social mind that has created it. It expresses with a grandiose expansiveness the economy and politics of the land.” Accordingly, Potamkin wrote frequently on national cinemas, believing the society was reflected through its cinema, For example, he assessed English cinema as longing to follow the blatant commercialism of Hollywood, while Russian film was held to be the voice of its people via the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent societal change. Interestingly, Potamkin – who grew up in America after his family migrated from Russia – is antagonistic to his own national cinema due to its blatant industrial emphasis and dominance. Yet he constantly refers to American national cinema as a comparative negative prototype, thus paradoxically or inadvertently reasserting its dominance.
Similarly, Potamkin constantly refers to the work of Soviet filmmakers as a positive comparison and aspiration for all national cinemas. Little Caesar is a film from the 1930s Hollywood Studio System – an offspring of Warner Brothers to be specific – a system that Potamkin loathes. In a sardonic study of this national cinema, Potamkin describes Hollywood as:
the pimple of the American process, just as America is the pimple of the capitalist process. The process in either case is at the blind was of an impasse. America is a vested interest: Hollywood is a vested interest. America is ultimate concentration: Hollywood is ultimate concentration.
America is frustration: Hollywood is frustration. Hollywood is epitome.
According to the expression of disdain, Little Caesar is symptomatic of its acne-incrusted society, a reflection of America’s imperialist reign and ignorance. Yet, Little Caesar was made during a time of great societal upheaval in America, a time when Potamkin was urging America to realise its cinematic power as a chance to incite revolutionary action and education. Little Caesar can be seen in alignment with Potamkin’s discussion of an “eclipse” in American cinema, during this tumultuous time.
Little Caesar serves as a complicated text with which to align Potamkin’s arguments; thus, the following discussion may contradict itself in order to explore his writing thoroughly. Potamkin highlights the importance of a cultural, particularly filmic aesthetic in relation to society; he believed politics and aesthetics were mutually (dialectically) exclusive. In the case of American cinema, Potamkin argued that the society, and thus the cinema, was progressively stagnant; consistently succumbing to the age-old legends and narratives of its historical folklore. This condition of American cinema he deemed “muscular” and “literal” is condemned for highlighting spectacle and narrative over “content” and “subject-matter” (of social importance). As is the case with many of Potamkin’s assessments, LeRoy’s filmmaking is paradoxically described as “an argument for the importance of content: the better the story, the better has been his direction!” Potamkin then continues to acknowledge that “LeRoy’s faults are as much environmental as personal. They arise from the American aspiration to be momentarily effective, which coincides with the unwillingness to be thorough in the treatment of social material.”
Coinciding with this analysis, Little Caesar can be aligned with Potamkin’s theorisation of the “topical (Hollywood) film” of the ‘30s. Potamkin describes these films as being divided into two types: the “social segment films” and “personality films”. Potamkin underscores that, while this is a minor breakthrough for the studio cinema, unlike Soviet intentions, Hollywood makes “no strenuous effort to make one of the two”. Fundamentally, Potamkin describes these films as follows: “the(y) are not (solely) stories about ‘prodigious’ personalities … where the social happening is popularly obscured by the quasi-legendary figure; they are stories having widespread reference quickly discernible in the current scene.” Thus, on a fundamental level, Little Caesar could serve as an allegory for big business, or the Wall Street Crash itself: excessive ambition and drive leads to downfall. Further, in accordance with this theory (developed after the release of Little Caesar, yet valid in alignment with it), this story does have “widespread reference” relating to the uncertain social context of 1930s America, while discovering a ‘personality’ in Rico. On one level, Little Caesar proves to be an identifiable allegory for the audience: a regular worker of low-economic stature suffering through the hardships of the Great Depression. Potamkin notes that subject-matter “is the content of daily life,”and that this normative content is imperative in cinema.
On a similarly fundamental level, more appealing to the original audience, the content of Little Caesar sees a figure of low socio-economic stature moving to the big city, trying to overthrow the people in power. In accordance with this American-Dream mythology, Rico is brainwashed by a desire for power and wealth, eventually making it big, before being socially condemned leading to his demise. So while Potamkin could have praised Rico for his uprising and the endeavours of he and his lower level workers (who he comes to represent), he is eventually thwarted by the true ‘American hero’, the representative of the state, the police officer, and genuine ‘American values’ that undermine criminal activity. But, as Potamkin acknowledges: “The mythological nature of the American movie becomes hideous in the instance when social turbulences are the subject-content.” Behind this moral indoctrination of the gangster film (crime doesn’t pay), as Jacobs notes, “Potamkin exposed the blind worship of the success syndrome and the supposedly ‘good-people’ syndrome concealed behind ‘America’s celebration of her corruption.’”
Jacobs further highlights Potamkin’s ability to underscore “hypocrisy” in morality, particularly within the genre of the gangster film. In Little Caesar this hypocrisy is rife, particularly through the character of Rico. From the beginning of the film, the audience is compelled to identify with him as protagonist, and cheer as he aspires to achieve the American Dream. But then, on discovering the outcome of his endeavours, the message is that crime doesn’t pay. Throughout, however, we are told that it does: the ‘Big Boss’ has a painting that is worth $15,000 and there are constant close-ups of shiny jewels.
Apparently, those truly happiest in the film, with the happy (billboard) ending, are Joe and Olga who are in love. Yet their love is not simple: it is a Hollywood-ised love tied up in ambition and commerce, as well as stardom, the highest echelon of superficial, bourgeois endeavour. Similarly, the studio system itself is founded upon economic gain through its dominant industrial position, and does this not point to the same personal economic endeavours as the characters in the film rather than any selfless societal gain?
Further to this hypocrisy, the audience is required to identify with Rico as what Potamkin calls a “good bad man”. Potamkin describes this character type as a condition of “the bourgeois populism to inflate the worker by making him a hero”. Yet, the pseudo-worker, represented in Rico, is climactically absolved by his redemption (“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”) and death at the end, thus underscoring the bourgeois indoctrination of class divides – this low-socio-economic representative literally returns (and dies) in “the gutter” from whence he came. Rico is essentially an anti-hero with which the audience is to identify: it is interesting to note that, while he is the leader of a gang, it is highlighted on several occasions that he does not drink alcohol, instead voicing his belief in its demon qualities (further highlighted upon his downfall). This constant referencing to alcohol reflects the times, with the Prohibition order enforced (1920-1933), while Rico’s temperance is revoked once he is brought down within the eye of the public. This is typically symptomatic of American cinema, using representative content of its milieu, but not following through with a meaningful account. According to Potamkin, this is America’s own downfall, particularly when opposed to Soviet filmmaking.
Potamkin declares the Soviet cinema to be the ideal cinema to which American films (all films) must strive; “the U.S.S.R serves the cinema of the world and becomes its mentor.” Referencing Marxist dialects, Potamkin notes that it is imperative that, in a film, “the individual represents, as accumulant, the social movement: first (Thesis) as apathetic of the order, second (Antithesis) as the collection of the antagonism, third (Synthesis) as the positive explosion of the new.” American film can be seen to fall short of this ideal: Little Caesar begins with an individual apathetic, who strives against the order, but falls short in that it reaffirms the bourgeois status quo at its conclusion through its “muscular” dependency on spectacle. Further, Potamkin believes that American cinema falls short of Soviet filmmaking due to its lack of education value for the people/audience (read: proletariat or workers). Potamkin praised the need for “content” and “subject-matter” in order to educate the public. For many years before he began writing film criticism, Potamkin was a social worker (he was also a poet), cementing his passion for the betterment of others. In a study of Potamkin’s pedagogical drive, Dana Polan reveals that:
Potamkin saw education as integral to the effective realization of that mission: education of the audience (away from Hollywood lies and toward to the truths of politically committed cinema; away from Hollywood trivialities and toward the aesthetic richness of world film history); education of workers (toward their own potential as documenters of the times they were struggling through); but also education of the educators – a training, that is, of critics and commentators so that they would learn to disavow their won elitism and try to find alliance with workers in everyday struggle.
Potamkin took great pride in his line of work, highlighting its importance, believing that “(c)riticism is a part of creation; and creation is the culmination of criticism.” But not only did Potamkin assist in educating the public through his criticism, he also critiqued the critical writing of others, contributed to an amateur filmmaker magazine (Movie Makers), and was highly involved with The Workers’ Film and Photo League. Each of these pedagogical paths is framed by Marxist sensibilities, attempting to establish a voice for the proletariat. In juxtaposition with the Soviet filmmakers who achieved a sense of community and progression from their writing as well as their filmmaking, American cinema was not positively pedagogical, and its criticism was “immature”. Potamkin’s belief in education through film did not just mean understanding the messages that the movies omitted, but also the filmic techniques needed to eventually create a proletarian aesthetic. Potamkin highlighted the public’s ability “to find splendid ideas for (…) films of documentation in the exceptional instance of American life or, better, in typical instance – an American lunch hour, American markets, an American Sunday.” It can be rightly assumed that in Little Caesar, Potamkin would not find these things. As he states in the “Prune and Coupons” article regarding content about ‘the depression’, there is potential to allegorise and be a representative voice, but the ending of a film such as Little Caesar delivers a moral, bourgeois message.
Consciously mirroring the USSR’s Marxist model, Potamkin called for a new form of filmmaking and film education to be established, which, highlighted through complementarily partisan criticism, would give voice against “the lies” of dominant capitalist society and cinema. In accordance with this instruction, Potamkin attempted to expose class (and race) injustices in Hollywood cinema, particularly in his articles that feature an analysis of African-American as well as Jewish actors/films. Essentially, Potamkin fights for the ‘true’ (content filled) depiction of these races, rather than a characterisation which amounts to caricature. So, it could have been possible that Potamkin would have critiqued the use of Italian-American actors as the criminals in Little Caesar. As a member of an immigrant family, Potamkin may have highlighted this representation as a matter of interest. Fundamentally, in a similar way to how Potamkin critiques African-American, Jewish and proletariat representation, Little Caesar is, in this regard, fairly two-dimensional. It is interesting to note that Joe is not an Italian-American, and neither are the homicide squad or the chief commissioner of crime; the rest of the (gangster) cast is. Joe is attempting to leave the gang from the moment we meet him, aspiring to be a dancer, to live like a star (as Potamkin would say, following the ‘cultish’ aspirations of stardom), thus elevating him to a higher class status. While Robinson’s acting gives a larger-than-life stature to a small man, the representation of the Italian-American immigrant is seen through club owning, gambling, gangster types or, in one scene, their mothers (who requests that her son eat some spaghetti). Further, within the context of film history, the movie is considered a recent ‘talkie’, thus emphasising the importance of dialogue. The gangster characters speak in their own vernacular which is not highly sophisticated – “bull”, “molls”, “mugs”, “rods”, “birds” – and adds to their characterisation as cultureless Italian-Americans (on discovering the worth of a painting at the “Big Boy’s” residence, Little Caesar avers in awe: “Boy, those gold frames cost plenty of dough!”). During his discussion of the representation of race on film, Potamkin declared: “I am not interested primarily in verbal humor, in clowning … I want cinema, and I want cinema at its source. To be at its source, cinema must get at the source of its content.” Thus, these Hollywood Italian-American caricatures, these “lies,” would be far from complying with Potamkin’s version of an ideal film.
An ideal film, in the eyes of Potamkin, requires a Marxist shift in society, through which the voice of the proletariat is represented in film and criticism, society and culture. As he believes that American cinema is as diffuse and deficient as its imperialist society, there is little reason to believe that Potamkin would have showered Little Caesar with glowing praise.
But I am not here to put words in anyone’s mouth, just attempting to view through someone else’s eyes. Essentially, I have gathered from his writings that Potamkin was convinced of an impending revolution for the workers: artistically, politically and socially. It is clear that, through his leftist criticism, Potamkin was aiming for a better future. While it is not possible to transparently see how or what he would see something, it is possible to see where he was looking. Potamkin’s writings conjure a view toward the (communist) future of American society, away from the (capitalist) past in both cinema and society. His writings were colourful, and exude all the intensity and contemplation that can be seen in the photograph on the opening pages of his anthology. If I had to guess where the contemplative young gentleman—with a pronounced nose and preoccupied eyes—is looking, I would say the future.
 William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931-1942 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981), 23.
 Philip Lopate, American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now (New York: Library of America, 2006), 48.
 There is, however, speculation that it was conceived and made during the censorship Code, and evidence suggesting that it was scarcely pre-Code.
 Stuart M. Kaminsky, “‘Little Caesar’ and its Role in the Gangster Film Genre,” Journal of Popular Film, 1.3(Summer, 1972), 211.
 While I note that Little Caesar is from 1930, I will also consult Potamkin’s work after this specific date, to add weight to the contextual perspective and theorisation.
 Harry Alan Potamkin, “The Year of the Eclipse,” The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin. Lewis Jacobs (ed., comp.) (New York; London: Teachers College Press, 1979), 205.
 Lewis Jacobs, The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin, xxv.
 Russell Campbell, “Potamkin’s film criticism,” Jump Cut 18(Aug 1978). 13 October. <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC18folder/HarryAlanPotamkin.html>.
 Susan Sontag quoted in: Ellen Willis, “Three Elegies for Susan Sontag,” New Politics 10.3 (Summer, 2005), 12 Oct. 2007 <http://www.wpunj.edu/newpol/issue39/Willis39.html>.
 Jacobs, xxxiv.
 Peter Decherney, Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 88.
 Potamkin, “The Mind of the Movie,” 151.
 Potamkin, “Holy Hollywood,” 233.
 Dana Polan, Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film, (Berkley: University of California Press, 2007), 242-243.
 Potamkin, “The Year of the Eclipse,” 205, 206.
 Please note that this theorisation was compiled when Potamkin was analysing LeRoy’s film I Am a Fugitive, as well as other films of the time (1933). (Potamkin, “The Year of the Eclipse,” 203.)
 Potamkin, “The Year of the Eclipse,” 203.
 Potamkin, “Dog Days in the Movies,” 198.
 Potamkin, “Movie: New York Notes, V,” 353.
 Jacobs, xxxiv.
 Potamkin, “The Mind of the Movie,” 153.
 Potamkin, “Populism and Dialects,” 178.
 Potamkin, “Populism and Dialects,” 177.
 Polan, 245.
 Potamkin, “Motion Picture Criticism,” 50.
 Potamkin, “The Montage Film,” The Compound Cinema, 72.
 Potamkin, “The Afraamerican Cinema,” 180.