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“Your town will soon be a Boom Town!” The Extractive Landscapes of Boom Town (1940)

Sat, April 13, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Union D

Abstract

This paper considers Boom Town’s extractive landscapes, both in the film and its promotional tour, in order to interrogate how Boom Town intersected with the valorization of vernacular landscapes of American oil extraction in 1940. The film lingers on three main extractive sites: Burkburnett, Texas as the early wildcatting frontier, “the Tropics” as an analog for oil plays in Central America, and Oklahoma as a modern site that is still tethered to frontier narratives. In each location the camera focuses on oil machinery and the spectacle of oil booms, including gushers and fires. I will situate these scenes in the lineage of visual representations of oil extraction and ground this analysis in energy histories of the represented sites, while also considering their meaning in the historical context of 1940, on the cusp of the “American Century.”
Boom Town is also a key cultural product because, as cinema historian Catherine Jurca has shown, it was specifically engineered by MGM to appeal to a wide public, with apparent success as the highest grossing film of that year. MGM’s selection of an oil story as an agent of mass appeal is important, as is their promotional push that frequently instrumentalized symbols of extraction, like derricks installed in downtowns across the United States. I employ reports in film trade publications to understand the ways that Boom Town’s extractive landscapes were created in and around the theaters, reinforcing the themes playing out on the screen.

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