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Introduction - The Prewar, Wartime, and Postwar Motion Picture Industry

hollywood’s hollywood film films

The American cinema in the 1940s was an industry at war, fighting monumental battles at home and overseas, both on-screen and off. Chief among those battles, of course, was World War II, the defining event of the decade for the movie industry and for the nation at large. Never before had the interests of the nation and the industry been so closely aligned, and never had its status as a national cinema been so vital. The industry’s “conversion to war production” from 1942 to 1945 was eminently successful, as Hollywood enjoyed what may have been its finest hour as a social institution and a cultural force. The war also ignited a five-year economic boom, pushing box-office revenues and film studio profits to record levels.

While World War II was the signal event of the decade, however, Hollywood’s fiercest and most significant battles were waged on the domestic front—battles with the Justice Department over antitrust violations, battles with Congress over “un-American activities” in Hollywood, battles with labor unions for control of the Hollywood workforce, battles with the growing ranks of freelance talent and independent producers for control of the filmmaking process, battles with theater owners for control of the movie marketplace, battles with censors over subject matter. These and other crises reached their flashpoints in the late forties as the war boom was followed by a disastrous postwar bust.

Although the bust was very much a postwar phenomenon, the industry’s decline actually began in the early 1940s during the odd, intense interval between the Great Depression and World War II. The sociologist (and sometime screenwriter) Leo Rosten provided a prophetic assessment of that decline in his acclaimed study, Hollywood: The Movie Colony, published in November 1941. Rosten had begun the book in the late 1930s, at the height of Hollywood’s golden age, but he soon found himself charting what he termed the “end of Hollywood’s lush and profligate period.” By 1941, observed Rosten, the movie industry was in serious straits:

Other businesses have experienced onslaughts against their profits and hegemony; but the drive against Hollywood is just beginning. No moving picture leader can be sanguine before the steady challenge of unionism, collective bargaining, the consent decree (which brought the Justice Department suit to a temporary armistice), the revolt of the independent theater owners, the trend toward increased taxation, the strangulation of the foreign market, and a score of frontal attacks on the citadels of the screen. (Leo Rosten, Hollywood: The Movie Colony [New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1941], p. 78)

Rosten’s assessment is notable for two principal reasons: first, its accurate inventory of the crises facing the industry in the early 1940s; and second, how completely those crises would dissolve within weeks of the book’s publication, following Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war. That wartime reversal did not invalidate Rosten’s appraisal, however; in fact, the crises he described would return with a vengeance immediately after the war. And thus the governing paradox of the era: the closer one looks at the film industry during the 1940s, the more evident it becomes that World War II marked an extended, dramatic, and most welcome interval in a decadelong period of industry decline.

The Prewar, Wartime, and Postwar Motion Picture Industry

The 1940s, then, was a decade of momentous reversals for the American cinema. The most significant and striking reversals came immediately after Pearl Harbor, particularly in terms of the industry’s relationship with the U.S. government. In 1940-1941, Hollywood had been mired in federal lawsuits and congressional hearings over various issues, from antitrust violations and racketeering to allegations of Communist ties and on-screen warmongering. But with the nation suddenly plunged into a global war, Washington saw the movie industry in a very different light. Hollywood’s control over every phase of the industry was now deemed a key asset, and the movies an ideal source of diversion, information, and propaganda for citizens and soldiers alike. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a longtime supporter and canny manipulator of the movie industry, allowed Hollywood to continue commercial operations so long as it cooperated with Washington in actively supporting the war effort.

The industry readily complied, although wartime filmmaking and exhibition were scarcely business as usual. The studios and the nation’s theater owners cooperated with the government and the military in selling war bonds, providing live entertainment for the troops all over the globe, promoting charity and relief efforts, and cranking out hundreds of war-related features, documentaries, newsreels, and even military training films. Meanwhile, the surging war economy and myriad war-related restrictions created a public with the war on its mind and money in its pockets—and with little to spend it on other than the movies. Moviegoing became an essential wartime ritual for Americans, as weekly attendance and industry revenues soared. It was an essential ritual for the military as well, a “two-hour furlough” in makeshift theaters and “beachhead bijous” around the globe, with films supplied through a worldwide distribution system created by Hollywood and the War Department.

Another significant wartime reversal involved Hollywood’s aggressive on-screen support of the war effort. In 1940-1941, as war raged overseas and as Roosevelt actively supplied England with arms and initiated a “defense buildup” at home, Hollywood’s treatment of the war had been remarkably tentative, especially in feature films. That changed dramatically after Pearl Harbor, and by late 1942 nearly one-third of the features produced dealt directly with the war effort. The war claimed a number of top stars—primarily leading men like Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, and James Stewart, who joined the service, but also a few top female stars like Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash during a war-bond drive, and Myrna Loy, who went to work for the Red Cross. Meanwhile a new generation of wartime stars like Betty Grable, Greer Garson, and Abbott and Costello emerged, and a number of established stars like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Humphrey Bogart saw their careers surge during the war.

Familiar film genres, from musicals and crime films to women’s pictures and historical epics, were reworked to invoke “war themes.” Hollywood also developed a cycle of combat films like WAKE ISLAND (1942), BATAAN (1943), THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944), and THE STORY OF GI JOE (1945), providing fictional accounts of actual Allied battles. These combat films, along with the massive output of war-related documentaries and newsreels, effectively serialized the Allied war effort while bringing a new level of realism to American movie screens. Indeed, wartime Hollywood was more focused than ever before on real-world events as the lines between factual and fictional films steadily blurred.

A significant counter to Hollywood’s war-related output emerged in film noir, a cinematic style which first took shape before the war in dark, expressive dramas like REBECCA (1940), CITIZEN KANE (1941), and THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). During the war, film noir coalesced into a distinctive period style in two distinctive cycles: “hard-boiled” crime thrillers like MURDER , MY SWEET and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (both 1944), “female Gothics” like SUSPICION (1941), SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), and GASLIGHT (1944). Far afield from the heroic posturing and documentary realism of the combat films and home-front dramas, these noir films evinced the “dark side” of the wartime experience, coexisting in dynamic tension with Hollywood’s onslaught of war-related films.

As the emergence of film noir suggests, the movie industry’s wartime worldview was neither unified nor one-dimensional, and this applied to off-screen industry conditions as well. Despite the war-induced prosperity and the overall effort to present a united front, the film industry underwent its share of internal conflicts and contradictory developments during the war. There was intense debate about the “entertainment value” of war films, with the nation’s theater owners continually lobbying for more escapist fare or at least for more upbeat war-related efforts—military musicals like THIS IS THE ARMY (1943) or home-front romances like SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944). Meanwhile, advisers from the Office of War Information (OWI) bickered constantly with Hollywood’s own Production Code Administration (PCA) about the on-screen depiction of various war-related issues and events.

Conflicts arose in the filmmaking ranks as well, as studio control was challenged and steadily undermined by the shift of top talent to freelance status, and also by the surge in independent production. These trends had been evident earlier but accelerated dramatically during the war due to various factors—war-related income tax hikes which induced Hollywood’s high-paid talent to “go freelance,” for instance, and the growing demand for A-class pictures in the overheated wartime marketplace that forced the studios to rely on independent producers for additional high-end product.

As the war came to a close, any semblance of a united industry front quickly faded, and the postwar era soon proved to be the most turbulent and crisis-ridden period in industry history. Indeed, the “drive against Hollywood” described by Rosten in 1941 resumed with even greater force after the war. The studios were hit by a major strike in early 1945 even before the fighting stopped overseas, and in October, within weeks of the Japanese surrender, the Justice Department renewed its antitrust case against the studios in federal court. Hollywood’s economic boom continued into 1946, but by 1947 the film industry had begun a steady, seemingly inexorable slide.

The industry’s box-office decline in the late 1940s was spurred by various developments both at home and overseas. On the home front, the millions of returning servicemen who had fueled record box-office revenues in 1946 soon began marrying and starting families in the suburbs, far from the industry’s vital downtown theaters. With “suburban migration” and the “baby boom” came commercial television and other shifts in patterns of media consumption, as moviegoing ceased to be a ritual necessity for most Americans. And while the nation at large enjoyed a huge economic surge in the postwar era, this only meant rising costs for the film industry. Hollywood faced serious problems overseas with the outbreak of the cold war in 1946, which disrupted trade behind the “Iron Curtain.” Equally troublesome was the growing protectionist trend in key European markets like England, Italy, and France, which were trying to promote their own film industries and limit Hollywood’s domination.

As economic conditions rapidly deteriorated in 1947-1948, the film industry suffered three crucial setbacks: a motion picture trade war with Britain severely undercut Hollywood’s most important overseas market; a congressional investigation of Communist infiltration of the movie industry led to the infamous Hollywood blacklist; and the Supreme Court handed down the momentous Paramount decree, an antitrust ruling which forced the major studios to divorce their all-important theater chains.

Despite these deepening crises, however, filmmaking in the late forties held up remarkably well. Indeed, Hollywood seemed to be energized by the internal discord and external threats of that turbulent era, and also by a remarkable influx of talent during and just after the war. The atmosphere in Hollywood and the tenor of its films changed in the late 1940s, as critics noted a new maturity and heightened realism in the American cinema. The war film was a tremendous influence here, of course, although interestingly enough, Hollywood’s output of war-related features and documentaries simply stopped soon after the war. By 1946, the war itself and its social impact—including the plight of returning veterans and the postwar “return to normalcy”—were deemed box-office poison by filmmakers and exhibitors alike. But equally remarkable is the fact that, after a three-year moratorium, the war film staged an unexpected comeback in late 1949, fueled by the critical and commercial success of BATTLEGROUND , SANDS OF IWO JIMA , and TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH .

With the war film on hiatus in the late 1940s, the realism and propaganda function of that recent cycle emerged in the “social problem dramas” and so-called message pictures—perhaps the single most significant on-screen development during the postwar era. The trend began immediately after the war with the December 1945 release of THE LOST WEEKEND , a powerful drama of an alcoholic binge that was a solid box-office hit and won the Academy Award for best picture. Despite the rising tide of cold war conservatism, Hollywood’s output of message pictures intensified, most notably perhaps in a succession of prestige-level dramas from 20th Century-Fox that were huge commercial and critical hits: GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT , a 1947 drama involving anti-Semitism that won the Oscar for best picture; THE SNAKE PIT , a 1948 study of mental illness; and PINKY (1949), a “race film” set in the Deep South that confronted a social problem that the industry had systematically avoided for decades.

Hollywood’s newfound maturity also was evident even in more traditional genres—in Westerns like DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) and RED RIVER (1948), which addressed more “adult” themes, for instance, and in musicals like THE PIRATE (1948) and ON THE TOWN (1949), which integrated modern dance and ballet. The postwar penchant for realism and social critique had a significant impact on the crime drama and film noir as well. Noir thrillers like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), and KEY LARGO (1948) featured maladjusted males   whose alienation and anxiety clearly invoked the general postwar climate. And in crime films like CROSSFIRE and BOOMERANG (both 1947), two “police procedurals” centering on ex-servicemen accused of murder, the dark expressionism of film noir effectively merged with the realism and social impulse of the message picture.

Hollywood’s progressive postwar impulse reached a peak of sorts in 1949 with PINKY and several other race-related dramas, notably INTRUDER IN THE DUST , LOST BOUNDARIES , and THE HOME OF THE BRAVE , and also a fictionalized biography of Huey Long, ALL THE KING’S MEN , which was perhaps the best of the postwar message pictures. Shot entirely on location in the Deep South, ALL THE KING’S MEN took on a range of social issues, from alcoholism and adultery to political corruption and the role of media in modern politics; it also was the third postwar social drama to win the Academy Award for best picture. But remarkably enough, these films marked not only the culmination but the abrupt end of Hollywood’s postwar progressivism. Message pictures, political dramas, and even the antiheroic and vaguely antisocial noir thrillers all but disappeared after 1949, as the industry took a decidedly conservative turn both on-screen and off.

Hollywood’s conservative turn reflected the rapid escalation of the cold war in 1949—the year of the Alger Hiss trial, the Soviet A-bomb, and the fall of China to the Communists—as America drifted into what W. H. Auden had so aptly termed “the age of anxiety.” 1 While that anxiety was soothed somewhat by the tremendous economic boom, the movie industry found no such solace. As television swept across the newly suburbanized American landscape in 1949, the movie industry’s slide worsened. Box-office revenues and theater admissions plunged, movie budgets and studio payrolls were slashed, and thousands of personnel were laid off. As the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker noted at the time, the operative term was not “anxiety” but “panic”:

In Hollywood there is far more confusion and anxiety than in the society which surrounds it. Even in its most prosperous periods when net profits were enormous, far surpassing those of other businesses, everyone was scared. Now, when diminishing foreign markets, increasing costs of production, competitions with European pictures, and changing box-office tastes threaten the swollen profits of past prosperity, fear rises to panic. (Hortense Powdermaker, Hollywood: The Dream Factory [New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1950], pp. 308-9)

The decade ended on an appropriately climactic note with the “dis-integration” of Paramount, Hollywood’s most powerful studio. As the company with the largest theater chain, Paramount had been the main target of the government’s decade-long antitrust suit, and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1948 Paramount decree, the studio also became the first of the Hollywood powers to divorce its theater chain. At the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1949, Paramount formally split into two separate entities: Paramount Pictures and United Paramount Theaters.

Introduction - WHAT IS JAZZ?, THE PROBLEMS WITH TRACING PRE-1917 JAZZ [next] [back] Introduction - The Movies as a Social Institution

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over 6 years ago

Hello I really loved how this was written but it's missing the author name so it's virtually useless in terms of citing. Is there anyway i can get the name of the author for this page so that i can cite it properly?