American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

Playing the Big Easy: A History of New Orleans in Film and Television

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Cynthia Baron (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Marlise Lonn (Other)

Third Advisor

Clayton Rosati (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Andrew Schocket (Committee Member)


Existing cultural studies scholarship on New Orleans explores the city's exceptional popular identity, often focusing on the origins of that exceptionality in literature and the city's twentieth century tourism campaigns. This perceived exceptionality, though originating from literary sources, was perpetuated and popularized in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by film and television representations. As Hollywood's production standards evolved throughout the twentieth century, New Orleans' representation evolved with it. In each filmmaking era, representations of New Orleans reflected not only the production realities of that era, but also the political and cultural debates surrounding the city. In the past two decades, as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the passage of film tax credits by the Louisiana Legislature increased New Orleans' profile, these debates have been more present and driven by New Orleans' filmed representations. Using the theoretical framework of Guy Debord's spectacle and the methodology of New Film History and close "to the background" textual analysis, this study undertakes an historical overview of New Orleans' representation in film and television. This history starts in the era of Classical Hollywood (1928-1947) and continues through Transitional Hollywood (1948-1966), New Hollywood (1967-1975), and the current Age of the Blockbuster (1975-). Particular attention is given to developments in the twenty-first century, especially how the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the recent tax credit laws affected popular understandings of the city. Hollywood's representations have largely reinforced New Orleans' exceptional, "Big Easy" identity by presenting the city's unique cultural practices as every occurrences and realities for New Orleanians. While Hurricane Katrina exposed this popular identity as a facade, the lack of interest by Hollywood in meaningfully exploring Katrina, returning instead to the city's pre-Katrina identity, demonstrates the persistence of this identity in the popular imaginary. Overall, this study demonstrates the role of standards of production in shaping the popular identities of "mythic cities" and the continued importance of film and television as texts through which American culture can be better understood.