Robert Sklar, a film scholar whose 1975 book “Movie-Made America” was one of the first histories to place Hollywood films in a social and political context, finding them a key to understanding how modern American values and beliefs have been shaped, died on Saturday in Barcelona. He was 74.
The cause was a brain injury sustained in a bicycle accident, his son Leonard said.
Mr. Sklar, who was a professor of cinema studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for more than 30 years, came to film in the 1960s, when he was asked to serve as a faculty adviser to the Cinema Guild, the student film society at the University of Michigan, where he taught in the American culture program.
He found the proposal enticing. After publishing a cultural study of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he had begun focusing on Hollywood film as a lens for analyzing American society in the 1920s and 1930s.
When he could not find a satisfactory history of American film, he decided to fill the gap himself and wrote “Movie-Made America: A History of American Movies.” It immediately became a standard work on the subject and has never been out of print. In 1994 it was reissued in a revised and expanded version.
Hollywood film, Mr. Sklar argued, was much more radical in its message and its effects than other forms of popular entertainment. The dream machine had the power to shape reality, projecting “a version of American behavior and values more risqué, violent, comic and fantastic than the standard interpretation of traditional cultural elites.” It was this trait, he wrote, “that gave the movies their popularity and their mythmaking power.”
Mr. Sklar’s method, rigorous and scholarly, was just as important as his message at a time when cinema studies were struggling to gain acceptance as a serious discipline.
“Film history, up to this point, had been largely anecdotal,” said Tom Gunning, a professor in the department of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago. “Sklar used the archives and saw as many films as possible. He demanded that film history really be history.”
Robert Anthony Sklar, known as Bob, was born on Dec. 3, 1936, in New Brunswick, N.J. and attended Princeton, where he was the chairman of the editorial board of The Daily Princetonian.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1958, he worked on the rewrite desk in the Newark bureau of The Associated Press and as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times before spending a year at the University of Bonn on a Fulbright scholarship.
He received a doctorate in the history of American civilization at Harvard in 1965. His dissertation on Fitzgerald became his first book, “F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön” (1967).
Mr. Sklar, a professor at New York University from 1977 to 2009, served on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival in the 1990s. As a member of the National Film Preservation Board since 1997, he helped choose the films to be included on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
He was a member of the editorial board of the journal Cineaste and the president of the Society for Cinema Studies (now the Society for Cinema and Media Studies) from 1979 to 1981.
Mr. Sklar’s books on film and television included “Prime-Time America: Life on and Behind the Television Screen” (1980); “City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield” (1992), a work that reflected his longstanding enthusiasm for the Warner Brothers films of the 1930s; and “Film: An International History of the Medium” (1993).
Less well known was his passion for baseball. With Glen Waggoner, he edited “Rotisserie League Baseball” in the 1980s.
Mr. Sklar lived in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y. In addition to his son, Leonard, of Albany, Calif., he is survived by his second wife, Adrienne Harris; a daughter, Susan Sklar Friedman, of Westport, Conn.; a stepdaughter, Kate Tentler, of Manhattan; a stepson, Justin Tentler, of Brooklyn; a brother, Martin, of Los Angeles; two grandchildren; and one stepgrandchild.