Faculty books and recordings

Rogues in Shining Armor

What’s the source of our stereotypes about the press? A handful of Frank Capra films, argues this celluloid/social study.

Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film
by Joe Saltzman
IJPC, $34.95

A conversation with his mother started Joe Saltzman thinking about how journalists are depicted in the media and how those portraits – true or false – shape public opinion of the profession.

“She knew more about Mary Richards, Lou Grant and Murphy Brown than she knew about her own family and friends,” says Saltzman. “Everything she knew about the media she got through TV and films.”

An award-winning broadcast journalist and professor of journalism in the USC Annenberg School for Communication, Saltzman has spent the last 15 years researching and cataloging how newshounds are represented on film, TV, radio, in commercials, cartoons and pop literature. His video and audio collection alone spans thousands of hours.

Saltzman’s archive led to his book, Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film, which takes a close look at nine films from the 1920s to the 1950s. The book is also the first publication of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, an ambitious project of the USC Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center. Besides publishing scholarly books, the IJPC makes its immense collection – much of it donated by Saltzman – publicly available through a Web site ( A journal, symposia and new classes are in the offing too.

Capra’s films were a natural starting point for Saltzman. Enormously popular, they inspired later filmmakers and introduced a range of archetypes. There was the opportunistic reporter, e.g. Clark Gable’s character in It Happened One Night, “an amoral, alcoholic rogue who will lie, cheat, do anything to get a scoop,” says Saltzman; the cub reporter ridiculed by seasoned journalists; the angry, cynical editor obsessed with getting the story first; the “sob sister,” a sarcastic female assigned to get the emotional angle; and the ruthless media baron who uses the press to advance his own agenda.

“I think [Capra’s] fictional images are not that off the mark,” Saltzman opines. But that’s not the point. “It doesn’t matter if [these types are] true to life, because this is the image people base their decisions on.”

Capra, who had once been a Los Angeles Times delivery boy, collaborated with veteran journalists to create realistic characters. That’s a major departure from today’s movies, made by people whose only contact with the media is through unsavory tabloid journalism. Consequently, reporters often figure as villains now, anonymous packs chasing the hero without respect for privacy. “That probably is the worst image of the journalist in modern times,” Saltzman says.

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said he was hooked on Saltzman’s book from page one, predicting it “will be consulted for many years to come by film buffs and media scholars alike.”

– Usha Sutliff

Photo by Michele A. H. Smith

Jazzed About Teaching

Jazz trumpeter Ron McCurdy has fronted countless classes. He’s headed an international association, directed an institute, chaired a department. But he hasn’t, until now, released a CD.

The title track on his debut recording, Once Again for the First Time, refers to how the 46-year-old jazzer feels about his return to teaching. McCurdy arrived at USC in 1999 to direct the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. Last fall, he joined the faculty of the USC Thornton School of Music.

“I was teaching again, but it felt so fresh,” he says. “My classes are as much about sociology, political science and economics as they are about music. I use music as a vehicle to teach about life.”

McCurdy’s pedagogical gigs began in 1983 as director of jazz at his Ph.D. alma mater, the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He went on to the University of Minnesota as professor of music and chair of African-American studies before joining the Monk Institute. With fewer administrative duties than in his previous jobs, McCurdy at last has some time for playing and composing. “I love the environment here at USC – it’s so positive and so fertile,” he says.

Besides blowing trumpet and flügelhorn on Once Again for the First Time, McCurdy also tries his hand – or, rather, his throat – at vocals. Joining him are five friends and colleagues whose names read like a “Who’s Who” of Los Angeles jazz musicians: Jeff Clayton, of the Clayton Brothers, on sax; Grammy-winner Patrice Rushen, a former Monk Institute colleague, and Shelly Berg, jazz chair at the USC Thornton School, on piano; cousin Roy McCurdy, who has played with the likes of Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley, on drums; and Kenny Davis of the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” on bass.

Four of the tunes are McCurdy originals. “Most of my music emanates from personal experience,” he says. “I look at my life and transform those things into sound.”

“Twin Pines,” for example, is a jazz waltz that recalls a trip to northern Minnesota. “Madeleine’s Lullaby” is a tribute to McCurdy’s 3-year-old daughter. Since finishing the CD, McCurdy has composed three more stand-alone pieces.

Both as a teacher and a musician, McCurdy worries about the future of jazz. Though more schools than ever teach it, this uniquely American art form is not faring as well as might be hoped in its homeland, McCurdy says. While European jazz festivals are sold out, U.S. festivals are introducing non-jazz elements to stay solvent.

“We, as Americans, tend to be so commerce-driven and flavor-of-the-month,” he says. “Jazz requires patience and mandates that you bring something to the table. It’s like a Picasso: You have to see it from different angles, come back to it several times. It can’t be, like so much of our pop, wallpaper music. You don’t have to have a studied ear to listen, but it does require that you listen.”

– Inga Kiderra

Photo by Mark Tanner

People Watch: page 2

Words and Music

Traumatic Pasts: History,
Psychiatry and Trauma
in the Modern Age, 1870-1930
edited by Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner
Cambridge University Press, $60

Providing a window on the critical intersection between trauma, science and social change, USC historian Paul Lerner and his co-editor offer a unique historical exploration of trauma in Europe and America over a 50-year span, with a dozen essays on railway accidents, female sexual trauma, shell-shock, male hysteria and more.

The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing
Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander
by Phiroze Vasunia
University of California Press, $45

Ancient Greeks had firsthand contacts with Egypt, yet Aeschylus, Herodotus, Euripides and Plato deliberately distorted the facts, constructing a barbaric “Greek myth of Egypt” that flies in the face of history. USC classics scholar Phiroze Vasunia sets out to prove this bold claim and unravel the significance of these misrepresentations. “Egypt haunted Greece for 150 years,” he writes. “If not for the myths, would Alexander have conquered the Nile Valley?”

Outlaw Representation:
Censorship and Homosexuality
in Twentieth-Century American Art
by Richard Meyer
Oxford University Press, $35

In a pioneering study illustrated by nearly 200 works from artists both obscure and famous, USC art historian Richard Meyer recounts the conflicts over censorship and homosexuality that have shaped modern art. He argues that gay artists responded to suppression by producing their own outlaw representations, proposing new forms of social, sexual and creative life.

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