American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Film Comedy and the American Dream

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Timothy Messer-Kruse (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Jeffrey Brown (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Dena Eber (Other)


This dissertation examines the generational renegotiation of the American Dream as represented in popular comedic films that center on issues of upward mobility throughout the post-WWII era. Through a combination of narrative and thematic analyses of select motion picture comedies, contextualized within a dynamic historical framework, I build on the assertion that these movies essentially serve as time capsules of dominant cultural anxieties, offering invaluable insights into the social fabric of American culture of the past seventy years. Ultimately, I argue that this proves to be a tattered patchwork tapestry at best comprising individuals who are bound only by a shared belief in the ideals of meritocracy, equal opportunity and progress, even despite consistent patterns of systemic exclusion. Fundamentally, this is the story of what made audiences laugh and why, and what this says about the changing shape of the American Dream since the end of the Second World War. It is history as witnessed through the lens of the humanities, told chronologically and from multiple points of view. Throughout this project, I describe how even something as steadfast and resilient as the American Dream has repeatedly had to adapt to changing social contexts and can mean very different things according to one's race, socioeconomic class and gender, among other variables. Through a consideration of these underrepresented dimensions of the American experience and by covering a broad historical landscape in my research, I seek to supplement existing scholarship in film studies, American history and cultural studies by offering novel understandings of the interrelated dynamics of film comedy and public discourse.