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The Motion Picture Industry During World War II - Hollywood and Washington, Entertaining the Troops, Foreign Markets, The Antitrust Campaign, Labor


World War II was the best of times and the worst of times for the American film industry. It was a period of challenge and change, of anxiety and accomplishment, of intense focus on the task at hand and growing uncertainty about Hollywood’s own long-term prospects once that task was completed. Within days of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned Hollywood to “emotionalize” the conflict and to mobilize public awareness and support by continuing to do what it did best—making and selling motion pictures, primarily feature films. But producing movies during the war was scarcely business as usual; on the contrary, it required a massive transformation of virtually every phase of industry operations.

Hollywood managed that transformation remarkably well, and its support of the war effort was successful by any number of criteria—by the overall quality of its films, by the well-regulated delivery of diversion, information, and propaganda to receptive civilian and military audiences, by the enormous revenues and profits for all concerned. This last point was of considerable consequence: World War II was indeed the best of times financially for the movie industry, and especially for the Hollywood studio powers. The prewar defense buildup initiated the economic upturn, with the Big Eight’s combined profits surging from about $20 million in 1940 to $35 million in 1941. Those figures were far surpassed during the war: the Big Eight’s combined profits neared $50 million in 1942 and then exceeded even pre-Depression totals, holding a sustained peak of some $60 million in each of the next three years.

While business was booming, however, the war also brought confusion and dislocation to the movie industry. In 1942, there were deep concerns about the war overseas, which was going badly for the United States and the Allies. Those concerns were compounded by severe problems at home due to wartime restrictions and shortages affecting every sector of the film industry, and due also to Hollywood’s increasingly complex dealings with the government and the military. By 1943, as the tide of war began turning in both Europe and the Pacific, Hollywood was coming to terms with its role in the war effort and was stabilizing wartime operations. And as the Allies pressed toward victory in 1944-1945, Hollywood’s concerns began to shift to the postwar era, which it faced with a mixture of unbridled optimism and genuine dread. Industry discourse at the time was rife with questions and doubts about the international marketplace, about the end of the war economy and the subsequent “reconversion,” about urban relocation and population shifts away from the all-important first-run theaters, about the threats from commercial radio and television. At the same time, two serious prewar threats which had been subdued but continued to fester during the war—the government’s antitrust campaign and Hollywood’s internal labor discord—resurfaced in the late war years and reached crisis proportions in 1945, even before the war ended.

Whatever the immediate and impending problems facing the industry during the war, however, Hollywood never lost sight of its primary commitment to the national war effort, or of its unique and crucial role in that effort. In many ways, World War II was the best of times for the movie industry not because of its unprecedented economic prosperity, but because of its social and cinematic achievements. Hollywood made significant on-screen advances during the war in both features and nonfiction films. Established genres and stars were “converted to war production,” while Hollywood steadily refined two distinctive narrative formulas, the combat film and the home-front melodrama, to dramatize the war effort. Many top filmmakers turned to the documentary form, which took on new significance during the war—and encouraged a new realism in fiction filmmaking as well. By 1944-1945, fictional and documentary treatments of the war had reached a remarkable symbiosis, creating an on-screen dynamic utterly unique to the war era. Meanwhile, a stylistic countercurrent developed in what came to be termed film noir , which explored the darker side of America’s wartime psyche.

As long as the war lasted, the moviegoing experience remained the central, unifying wartime ritual for millions of Americans, from the war-plant worker in Pittsburgh to the foot soldier in the Pacific. Through it all, the movies effectively conveyed wartime conditions and gave shape to the sentiments of the vast Allied populace. “There was a day when it was considered smart to be cynical about Hollywood,” wrote the war correspondent Robert St. John for Look magazine in 1944. “That was before the war.” 1 Like many observers of the U.S. motion picture industry, St. John felt that Hollywood came of age during World War II, and indeed that period may have been Hollywood’s finest hour as a cultural force and a social institution.

Hollywood and Washington

On 17 December 1941, ten days after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt appointed Lowell Mellett—an ardent New Dealer and Roosevelt aide who was a former editor of Scripps-Howard’s Washington Daily News —to serve as coordinator of government films, acting as a liaison between the government and the motion picture industry and advising Hollywood in its support of the war effort. In his letter of appointment, FDR told Mellett: “The American motion picture is one of the most effective mediums in informing and entertaining our citizens. The motion picture must remain free in so far as national security will permit. I want no censorship of the motion picture.”

Roosevelt’s message was of tremendous importance to the movie industry, indicating as it did that Hollywood would be allowed to continue commercial operations during the war, and without heavy interference from Washington. The motion picture industry, in other words, was not subject to the wholesale “war conversion” that was transforming other major U.S. industries such as steel, auto manufacturing, and construction. Many in Washington argued for conversion of the movie industry, similar to such conversions in Germany and Italy. Civilian production could be suspended, they argued, leaving distributors to rely on existing inventories (i.e., reissues), while the studios produced training, informational, and propaganda films. There was some merit to this argument, in that training films already were proving crucial to rapid deployment of recruits, while the movie-starved civilian population seemed generally satisfied with the growing number of reissues already in release.

Roosevelt opposed conversion of the movie industry, however, realizing the importance of motion pictures as a form of diversion for civilians and soldiers alike. FDR realized, too, that the most effective propaganda often took the form of “mere” entertainment. The British government’s ill-advised and much criticized closing of theaters and curtailing of production in England after the war broke out in Europe, along with the Britons’ voracious appetite for Hollywood films in the interim, provided ample support for this view. Moreover, Hollywood already had demonstrated its willingness to produce training films, war-related shorts, and newsreels, while its feature films had begun to support FDR’s unofficial interventionist policies—as the Senate’s recent propaganda hearings had indicated. Considering the industry’s proven ability to inform and entertain, along with its avowed commitment to assume a more aggressive propaganda role now that the war was at hand, FDR was confident that the governments political and military agenda and Hollywood’s deep-seated commercial interests could be brought into workable alignment.

Thus, the costs and difficulties of full-scale conversion were averted, and indeed Hollywood was quite ready to embark on its own distinct form of war production. As the Wall Street Journal noted in a page-one story in January 1942: “The movie industry is fortunate in that its production facilities were ready for immediate utilization in the war effort. There was no problem in enlarging its ‘plant capacity.’ The industry is lucky, too, in that its chief ‘raw material’ is talent.”

Mellett informed all studio heads that there were six war-related subject areas which the government hoped to see treated in feature films, newsreels, shorts, and documentaries: the issues (“why we fight”), the enemy, the allies, the home front, the production front, and the U.S. armed forces. To facilitate Hollywood’s treatment, Mellett set up an office on the West Coast under Nelson Poynter. Like Mellett, Poynter was a journalistturned-bureaucrat and liberal New Dealer with no experience in the business or the production of motion pictures. It appeared that such experience would be unnecessary, since Poynter’s role was to be purely advisory—which indeed it was, at the outset at least. Throughout the spring of 1942, Poynter and his staff devoted most of their efforts to meeting with studio executives, producers, and writers to outline and reinforce the government’s strategy.

Hollywood’s relationship with Washington assumed a more formal and bureaucratic dimension in June 1942 with the official creation of the Office of War Information (OWI), which amalgamated several related government agencies. Headed by Elmer Davis, a print journalist and broadcast news analyst, the OWI’s function was to enhance public understanding of the war at home and abroad, to coordinate government information activities, and to serve as a liaison with press, radio, and motion pictures. With both a domestic and an overseas branch, the OWI handled virtually all domestic information and propaganda while sharing its overseas responsibilities with the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), under Nelson Rockefeller, as well as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), under William “Wild Bill” Donovan. Mellett’s outfit, now the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), was situated within the OWI’s domestic branch.

The BMP had three objectives: to produce war-related informational and propaganda films, primarily shorts; to review and coordinate the filmmaking activities of various other government agencies, which were substantial; and to act as liaison with the motion picture industry. This last objective involved securing optimal distribution for government films and assisting the studios in their war-related efforts. 24 Distribution of government shorts soon became routine, thanks largely to the Hollywood-based War Activities Committee (WAC), run by the former RKO executive George Schaefer. Formerly the Motion Picture Committee Cooperating for National Defense, the WAC worked with the BMP in lining up commitments from over 10,000 theaters to show government films—a total which would grow to over 16,000 by war’s end.

While the OWI-WAC handling of government film distribution ran quite smoothly, the BMP’s efforts to work with Hollywood filmmakers on war-related pictures proved to be a far more complex and difficult task. Clayton Koppes traces these efforts in detail in chapter 8, but several points should be underscored here. First, while Mellett and Poynter generally abided by FDR’s assurances that there would be no government censorship of motion pictures, the BMP did take an increasingly active role in analyzing and evaluating movie projects, promoting story subjects and plot lines, and applying various pressures on studio personnel to cooperate. During 1942, the BMP became highly critical of Hollywood’s war-related filmmaking efforts and fashioned something of a second production code and a PCA-style review process to rectify the situation. Not surprisingly, this was not a welcome development in the movie industry.

A second point is that the BMP and the PCA (and their respective codes) were politically and ideologically at odds, not only on the treatment of the war but on various other issues as well, from their respective conceptions of a “good” society to their notions of what constituted a good movie. The PCA’s extreme conservatism and obsessive concern over moral and sexual issues was fundamentally at odds, as Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black point out in Hollywood Goes to War , with the OWI’s ethos of “mild social democracy and liberal internationalist foreign policy.” 27 Moreover, the PCA had considerably more experience than the BMP in dealing with studio executives and filmmakers, and it also had a much clearer understanding of how to work social and political themes into motion pictures. Thus, the OWI and the PCA often gave the studios conflicting and even contradictory input on the making of war-related films.

The OWI’s ideological bent also created problems in 1942 with the newly elected, conservative-leaning Congress, which viewed the agency in general and the BMP in particular as blatantly pro-Roosevelt and dangerously liberal. Thus, in 1943 Congress cut off almost all funding for the OWI’s domestic operations, resulting in Mellett’s and Poynter’s resignations and leaving the BMP with little to do on the home front except cooperate with WAC in the routine distribution of government shorts. That did not mark the end of the BMP in Hollywood, however. On the contrary, the agency actually gained a stronger hand by shifting its liaison activities to the still-active overseas branch under Ulric Bell, a former Washington correspondent for the respected Louisville Courier-Journal and head of the prewar interventionist group Fight for Freedom; he had developed a strong accord with the Office of Censorship. This shift raises a third important point: with its control over film exports, the Office of Censorship effectively put teeth into the BMP’s advisory role, providing a post hoc threat to deny export to those films made without adequate regard for the BMP’s input before and during production. 28 By 1945, the BMP’s input was related not only to the war but to the anticipated postwar era as well, as the OWI steadily expanded its concerns to include the selling of democracy and free enterprise overseas.

Thus, the OWI, in cooperation with the Office of Censorship, exercised considerable influence over the wartime movie industry. As Koppes describes in chapter 8, the OWI significantly affected Hollywood’s depiction of America’s social and political issues, its allies and enemies, and its role in the envisioned postwar world. And as Richard Lingeman suggests, “FDR’s promise of no censorship was not given cynically, but never in our history was the government to assume, albeit temporarily, such tacit power over a medium of mass communication.”

Beyond Washington’s direct influence on the movie industry via the OWI, the government also had considerable indirect impact through the myriad war-induced regulations, restrictions, and shortages. Among the more severe of these was the drain on filmmaking talent, as the so-called manpower shortage seriously impaired every phase of the industry, particularly production. By late 1942, roughly 4,000 individuals, an estimated 22 percent of studio employees, had joined the armed forces. 30 The Screen Actors Guild reported in January 1943 that 900 actors had withdrawn to join the service; the Screen Writers Guild reported 168 withdrawals, and the Directors Guild 104. Another 40 or so had left the studio executive and producer ranks. 31 The most significant losses in terms of top feature filmmaking were male stars and directors. Clark Gable, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Alan Ladd, Robert Taylor, and many other stars left for the military, as did such top directors as John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston. A tally in late 1944, when the number of studio employees in the service peaked, indicated that over 6,000 had entered the armed forces, including 1,500 actors, 230 writers, and 143 directors. Metro lost 1,090 to the service, Fox 755, Warners 720, Paramount 525, Universal 418, Columbia 289, RKO 224, Republic 134, and Monogram 129.

The distribution and exhibition sectors lost more employees to the military (and the factories) than the production sector, although these were somewhat easier to replace. During the first year of the war, distribution lost 4,500 employees to the service, and exhibition some 18,000. The latter figure amounted to about 12 percent of all theater employees, and 29 percent of male workers in the motion picture industry. 33 These vacancies often were filled by women, and in fact the exhibition end of the business saw Page 143  pronounced changes as women moved out of ticket windows and usherette outfits and into projection booths and management offices. In March 1943, Warners reported having the first theater in the United States staffed entirely by women, and in June 1943 Loew’s reported that sixty-two of its theaters, roughly half, were being run by women.

Other wartime shortages and restrictions affected the availability of raw film stock, construction materials (especially steel and lumber), and transportation. The film stock restrictions were imposed by the War Production Board, primarily to help meet government requirements of raw stock for training films. These restrictions initially set allotments, per studio, at about 25 percent below 1941 usage; they gradually eased as government and military requirements diminished. Despite ongoing complaints about needing film stock both for production and for release prints, the industry quickly adjusted by cutting down on the amount of stock allotted for each picture, and also on the number of prints in circulation. The production cutbacks led to more careful preproduction planning and to fewer takes of individual scenes being shot and printed. And as seen in more detail later, the restrictions also gave companies a rationale for producing fewer features, increasing the length of runs, and stockpiling finished films—all of which helped boost the studios’ enormous wartime profits. Thus, the film stock   restrictions, as Variety put it in early 1944, “turned out to be more of a bookkeeping nightmare than an actual drawback to production and distribution” and in fact brought increased efficiency to production.

Restrictions on construction also were mandated, by the WPB for the most part, and applied primarily to set construction and to theater building and remodeling. In 1942, the WPB imposed a limit of $5,000 on material expenditures for sets, and $200 on materials for theater construction. 36 The studios devised methods of recycling and constructing new sets within these guidelines and also increased location shooting in 1942 (Hitchcock, for example, shot, SHADOW OF A DOUBT entirely on location). Exhibition, however, saw theater construction come to a virtual halt, and remodeling limited to the bare necessities. Theater owners also were hurt by curtailments of projection equipment (and parts) and were forced to rely on systems sorely in need of repair or replacement.

Transportation restrictions had an enormous impact on the movie industry in many ways, from the Office of Price Administration’s pervasive gasoline rationing and its 1943 ban on pleasure driving to tire shortages, lowered speed limits, and the general dearth of civilian vehicles. After the brief surge in location shooting in 1942, travel restrictions late in the year made it almost impossible to leave the back lot. Distribution and the circulation of prints were hampered by the Office of Defense Transportation’s cuts in truck delivery schedules—giving a literal meaning to the “bicycling” of prints from theater to theater. Most significantly, moviegoing underwent wholesale changes during the war owing to the combined effects of population relocation and travel restrictions: outlying theaters, especially small-town and rural movie houses, generally lost business, while major urban theaters thrived.

Another government restriction which created a tremendous furor for a short period was a $25,000 salary ceiling decreed by the director of economic stabilization in October 1942, scheduled to take effect on 1 January 1943. 38 The announcement sent shock waves through the movie industry, whose top talent earned well over that maximum on individual pictures, and whose term contracts carried built-in pay hikes. (According to the Internal Revenue Service, eighty individuals at MGM alone earned over $75,000 in 1942.) 39 The studios dispatched a contingent of lawyers and executives to Washington to lobby various officials and agencies, including the Treasury Department, as cries of “Why work?” circulated among the Hollywood elite. The government backed off, and eventually Congress overruled the plan altogether, relying on the personal income tax codes to divert “excessive” earnings to the government. Thus, the high salaries in Hollywood continued, with an estimated 250 employees earning over $100,000 in 1944.

Entertaining the Troops

Films, stage shows, and other diversions it provided for the men and women in uniform, both at home and abroad, were also a significant aspect of Hollywood’s support of the war effort. This was yet another area where the government, the military, and the movie industry developed an efficient and successful working relationship. The crux of Hollywood’s effort came via WAC cooperation with the War Department and the army to create the largest distribution and exhibition circuit in the world—and one that eventually encompassed the entire globe. In February 1942, the WAC delivered its first shipment of 16mm films (versus the usual theatrical film gauge of 35mm), free of charge, to soldiers in combat areas. Typical of the hundreds of regular shipments of gift Page 145  films that followed, this first shipment comprised eighty prints of twenty different programs, each of which included one feature and one or two shorts and ran between ninety minutes and two hours.

In the coming years, the OWI overseas branch and the WAC routed these packages to troops at every U.S. military base, command post, battlefront, and outpost. Films were delivered by jeep, parachute, PT boat, and any other conveyance available and soon became part of the everyday military routine. 42 Often referred to as a “two-hour furlough,” these screenings were one way of keeping in touch with conditions back home; they also were considered crucial to morale and one counter to the critical problem of battle fatigue. It is worth noting, though, that the soldiers’ tastes did not run simply toward escapist fare, particularly in the early war years. According to the Motion Picture Herald , the five most popular films in army theaters in 1943 were GUADALCANAL DIARY , CRASH DIVE , DESTINATION TOKYO , AIR FORCE , and SAHARA .

In 1943, the system was well in place; that year the studios shipped 218 features to the War Department, delivering a total of over 6,100 16mm prints. 44 Many of these films were released to the military one to two months (and occasionally much earlier) before their general theatrical release. Warners’ Capra-directed comedy ARSENIC AND OLD LACE , for example, enjoyed its world premiere in military theaters overseas in January 1943, more than a year before its U.S. release.

This time lag was due in part to the majors’ heavy backlog of unreleased features—the Hollywood version of “hoarding” in the face of anticipated war shortages. Another very different reason had to do with the publicity advantages of these releases. Early in the war, Hollywood publicized the deliveries, hoping to get some mileage out of stunts like holding the May 1942 world premiere of TARZAN’S NEW YORK ADVENTURE on a base in Iceland, where the film was delivered by parachute. 46 As the system developed, however, the studios came to realize that servicemen writing home about films they liked provided even better publicity. Variety in April 1943 indicated that this unique form of word-of-mouth promotion generated “considerable pre-selling value,” and the advance release setup with the army was “developing into an important merchandising channel.”

The sheer number of theaters, screenings, and servicemen involved underscores this point. In mid-1944, operations in North America (including Alaska and parts of Canada) stabilized at over 1,100 theaters and an attendance of 17 million per month. 48 By January 1945, the overseas service was estimating its weekly attendance at 7.7 million, with pictures shipped and screened daily “wherever men are fighting or are stationed.” 49 In October 1945, the army set up five improvised 16mm theaters aboard the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth for returning servicemen. By that time, Hollywood had delivered 43,189 prints of 1,941 features to the War Department, plus 33,189 prints of 1,050 shorts. The estimated number of showings per day, worldwide, was 3,500, with daily attendance of about 1.5 million.

While the WAC coordinated 16mm film shipments to the service, the Hollywood Victory Committee coordinated live performances by film, radio, stage, and vaudeville personalities for the armed forces and related services. Formed three days after Pearl Harbor, the Victory Committee included representatives of the various talent guilds and unions who arranged everything from one-night stands (single performances) in the States to extended overseas tours. On the civilian front, the Victory Committee organized   shows for various government agencies, notably the Treasury Department for its war-bond drives. But most of the committee’s efforts involved entertaining the troops on several USO circuits: the Victory Circuit with 600 venues, most of them theaterlike facilities on army posts or naval stations which could accommodate full-scale revues, plays, and concerts; the Blue Circuit, where smaller troupes played, comprising some 1,150 limited base facilities; the Hospital Circuit, mainly wards and auditoriums in military hospitals; and best known perhaps, the Fox Hole Circuit with its impromptu performances in makeshift facilities at or near battlefronts.

The Victory Committee’s overseas operations did not pick up steam until late 1943, when the number of U.S. troops heading for the European and Pacific theaters increased sharply. By April 1944, there were 80 units touring overseas, with 38 of those in the British Isles. Between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day, the Hollywood Victory Committee booked 119 overseas tours, 2,700 hospital tour events, 3,050 camp tour events, and 2,500 bond tour events. All told, over 53,000 appearances were made during and just after the war by over 4,100 individuals.

Two other methods of entertaining the troops on the home front also are worth mentioning. One was giving free passes to men and women in uniform, a practice that began before Pearl Harbor and became fairly routine during the war, owing in part to WAC Page 148  Page 149  lobbying of exhibitors. Accurate records were not kept, but one estimate put the number of free admissions to New York City theaters as of September 1943 at 2.4 million, with another 2 million passes given to servicemen in Chicago during the same period. 53 The second notable form of wartime entertainment on the home front was the legendary Hollywood Canteen, a refurbished livery stable just off Sunset on Cahuenga Boulevard. Inspired by the Stage Door Canteen in New York City, the Hollywood Canteen was created and run by a group of movie industry volunteers, many of them top stars—including its hard-driving president, Bette Davis. The Canteen opened in October 1942 and soon became a requisite stop for the hundreds of thousands of servicemen passing through Los Angeles en route to the Pacific. Every night at the Canteen, “the boys” enjoyed free refreshments, the company of stars, and the music of top bands. 54 Within a year of its opening, some 350 industry personnel had volunteered to dance, sing, serve Cokes, or simply wash dishes, and the Canteen had entertained its one millionth serviceman—who was honored with kisses from Marlene Dietrich, Deanna Durbin, and Lana Turner.

Foreign Markets

Hollywood’s foreign trade during World War II focused primarily on the United Kingdom and Latin America, just as it had in 1940-1941. This orientation did not prove to be a serious liability, however, owing to the tremendous wartime moviegoing boom in England once the tide was turned against the Nazis in 1941-1942. In fact, Hollywood’s wartime revenues from England far surpassed prewar totals, to a point where, by 1944-1945, the distributors again saw foreign markets providing about one-third of their income—a remarkable fact considering the record revenues at home. While the lion’s share came from Great Britain, Hollywood continued to cultivate markets in Central and South America, with assistance from Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-American Affairs, the State Department, and other government agencies. Persistent political and economic conflicts undercut this Latin American effort, but the studios and the government persevered, anticipating a more positive postwar situation. The State Department and the OWI intervened in other overseas markets as well, particularly in neutral Europe and in the Axis nations toward the end of the war. And as the government became more sensitive to America’s image abroad, it became more concerned about Hollywood’s role in projecting that image.

Canada, deemed simply an extension of the U.S. market by the studios (which included Canadian revenues in the “domestic” U.S. market figures), was, of course, a foreign market and thus warrants mention here. Undergoing an economic surge of its own during the war and, like the United States, untroubled by fighting on its own soil (or in its skies), Canada also enjoyed a motion picture boom. In 1939, according to government figures, paid admissions in Canada’s 1,350 theaters totaled 138 million (versus about 4 billion in the United States), generating gross box-office revenues of $34 million. 83 By 1943, attendance had topped 200 million and receipts surpassed $50 million; those figures increased slightly in 1944 and 1945. 84 During that time, 95 percent of features screened in Canada were Hollywood product—including pictures dubbed into French for release in Quebec that the studios hoped to release later in France.

Britain, too, was something of an extension of the U.S. movie market, although it was both more profitable and more complex. Early in the war, frozen assets continued to plague the U.S. companies, as they had in the prewar period. But late in 1942, Britain remitted nearly $50 million to the studio-distributors and effectively thawed the bulk of U.S. movie revenues for the duration, largely in response to the American lend-lease program and to heavy lobbying from the U.S. government. 86 Britain also eased its quota restrictions in late 1942, thus allowing U.S. product to occupy more screen time and cutting the requirement of U.S. production in England. The main reason for easing the quota restrictions was the general scarcity of British film product due to material and manpower shortages. 87 After turning out two hundred or more features per year before the war, British production fell drastically in the 1940s. The Board of Trade registered only forty-eight features in 1942, and between sixty and seventy in each of the next three years, when British-made product occupied only 15—20 percent of screen time in British theaters. Still, attendance climbed in England, surpassing 30 million in 1944 and 1945—25 percent above prewar figures.

Wartime rentals for U.S. product in England in late 1944 were reportedly running over $90 million annually, with three-fourths of that total remitted to the distributors and the balance remaining in England as motion picture investments. As the war wound down, virtually all of the major U.S. companies began setting up production units or coproduction deals in England. (A few, like MGM and Warners, had had similar setups before the war. G OODBYE M R . C HIPS , for instance, was produced by the “MGM-British unit” in 1939.) These arrangements in the later war years were intended to provide, as Variety noted, “a hedge against possible postwar currency restrictions and not merely for quota-production purposes.”

While production in England was down, a number of British pictures did exceptional business in the United States during the war and held their own against Hollywood product in other foreign markets, especially in Europe and the Middle East. War films were particularly successful, notably Noël Coward and David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942), Carol Reed’s THE WAY AHEAD (1944; U.S. title THE IMMORTAL BATTALION ), Anthony Asquith’s THE WAY TO THE STARS (1945; U.S. title JOHNNY IN THE CLOUDS ), and several by the London Films team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, including 49TH PARALLEL (1941; U.S. title THE INVADERS ), ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING (1942), and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943; U.S. title COLONEL BLIMP ). Most of these films featured a deft blending of wartime propaganda (with much speechifying), comedy, and action, and many incorporated war-related documentary footage as well. 90 Coward, Lean, and Reed were among a new generation of British talent that emerged during the war, along with the actors Trevor Howard, James Mason, and Rex Harrison—all of whom eventually would work in Hollywood.

The producer Alexander Korda remained an important figure in both England and the United States, as he had been in the 1930s, but J. Arthur Rank was without question the key individual in British cinema during the war. Heir to a flour and milling fortune, Rank had been in the industry since the mid-1930s as a producer, and by the war era he was building a massive film empire—and one that certainly was turning (and worrying) heads in Hollywood. By 1943, Rank owned or controlled both the Odeon and Gaumont theater circuits in England (totaling 650 theaters); he owned Eagle-Lion, a distribution company; he was chairman of the Gaumont British organization, which included Gainsborough Pictures and Gaumont British News, as well as the Denham and Pinewood studios, two fairly modest operations. In 1944, Rank had about $20 million tied up in nineteen of his own productions, resulting in such 1945 hits (in the United States as well as England) as BLITHE SPIRIT , A WALK IN THE SUN , THE SEVENTH VEIL , BRIEF ENCOUNTER , and Olivier’s HENRY V.

In 1944—1945, Rank made a number of cooperative deals with U.S. individuals and companies, including a five-year coproduction and global distribution deal with 20th Century—Fox; a two-picture production and distribution deal with RKO; a two-year, seven-picture distribution deal with UA; and a coproduction deal with David Selznick. 92 Rank’s ultimate coup came in late 1945 with the creation of United World Pictures, a coproduction and global distribution setup with a major U.S. independent, International Pictures, as well as Universal Pictures. By then, his holdings had spread to Canada, Australia, and India as well as the United States, and he directly or indirectly controlled 80 percent of the film industry in Great Britain.

Besides England, Hollywood’s most significant wartime foreign markets were Mexico and Argentina. But unlike the booming British market, the two Latin American countries were notable more for Hollywood’s efforts and their enormous potential than for producing revenues. While Britain was returning $70-80 million annually to U.S. distributors in the later war years, all of Central and South America combined generated only about $15 million per year. This level of revenue was deemed worthwhile in Hollywood for two reasons, both of which had to do with the political economy of the hemisphere. First and foremost, Latin America was a huge market within the U.S. “sphere of influence” and had only recently begun to develop a modern urban-industrial system. Much of the population was illiterate, only an estimated 10-15 percent were moviegoers (versus 80-90 percent in the United States and England), and there were only about 7,000 movie theaters in all of Central and South America. Nevertheless, these areas represented excellent postwar prospects for Hollywood. 94 Second, enormous pressure was applied by the U.S. government, and particularly by Nelson Rockefeller, the coordinator of inter-American affairs and architect of the good neighbor policy, who deemed movies an important means of advancing U.S. ideology in Latin America.

Although Mexico officially entered the war against the Axis in May 1942, it was not a principal participant and did not undergo a massive defense buildup or war economy as such. Still, its economic and industrial development during the war was substantial, including the rapid expansion of its own movie industry. Mexico produced eighty features in 1942, its highest since the coming of sound. Production fell below sixty in 1943, owing mainly to film stock shortages, then increased again in 1944-1945 despite recurring strikes and labor disputes in the production sector. 95 But by 1944, as Charles Ramirez Berg has pointed out, Mexico was becoming a film production and distribution power in Central America and something of a paradox vis-à-vis Hollywood. While relying heavily on Hollywood for imports, especially for its first-run theaters in Mexico City, Mexico exported its own productions to other Latin nations. 96 In 1944, Mexican films were occupying up to 60 percent of screen time in the major cities of Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, and even higher percentages in outlying towns and rural areas.

Hollywood developed various strategies to enhance its fortunes in Mexico. Several studios entered into cooperative deals with Mexican producers to make Spanish-language films for the Latin American market, and some studios brought Mexican stars to Hollywood. Most significant, perhaps, was the decision to begin dubbing rather than subtitling Spanish-language versions of Hollywood films (shorts and newsreels as well as features). This practice suited Mexican audiences, who apparently preferred dubbed versions, and it also overcame the illiteracy problem. Metro was the most aggressive company in this regard, creating a special dubbing facility in New York City with about one hundred actors, directors, and technicians, forty of whom were of Latin origin. MGM opened the facility to all the other studio-distributors and itself prepared eighteen features in the first year of operation for release in Latin America.

Argentina presented Hollywood with a very different set of problems and possibilities during the war. Although officially neutral until March 1945, when it finally declared war against the Axis, the Argentine government was fairly sympathetic toward both Germany and Japan. Meanwhile, American and British pictures were routinely banned, newsreels were seized by the government on court orders for including captured German or Japanese footage, rentals were frozen and taxed at exorbitant levels (up to 50 percent), excessive quotas were set, and so on. Problems reached a peak in 1944, when Argentina began to censor Hollywood films as a means of pressuring the U.S. government to provide more raw film stock. The United States responded in August by banning all film and raw stock shipments to Argentina, effectively breaking diplomatic relations with that nation. That same month, strikes and film shortages closed down all production in Argentina. 99 Trade resumed a few months later, although relations remained strained at best. In fact in March 1945, the same month that Argentina declared war on Germany and Japan, it also banned all Spanish-language imports in an effort to stem the growing tide of U.S. and Mexican product. Two months later the ban was lifted by the Argentine courts, as were various other restrictions on U.S. products and revenues. So as the war wound down, prospects for Hollywood in that massive Latin nation began looking up.

The postwar prospects in Nazi-dominated Europe were even better. By 1945, the estimated number of movie theaters worldwide was 60,000; one-third were closed to Hollywood product, and most of those were on the Continent. 101 (According to prewar figures, there were 15,000 theaters in Germany, Italy, and France alone.) 102 Hollywood began planning its postwar recovery in Europe in early 1943 and actually began implementing those plans later that year after Allied victories in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. 103 Robert Riskin of the OWI did much of this planning, in cooperation with the military occupational forces and the psychological warfare branch of the Allied armies. Riskin even helped select the 40 features and 120 shorts for release in Italy—the first since December 1938—while the U.S. Army purchased and shipped 35mm projection equipment to facilitate exhibition.

The U.S. government’s support of Hollywood’s postwar plans in Europe was motivated by both political and economic interests. Indeed, the two went hand in hand as the United States tried to sell democracy and free-market capitalism to those dominated by fascist and authoritarian regimes. Communism would be a crucial concern when the postwar era finally arrived, but in the later war years a much greater emphasis was placed on recapturing the French, German, and Italian markets. These countries not only had been closed to American products but had undergone extensive anti-American and pro-fascist propaganda campaigns. The U.S. government saw Hollywood movies as one means of effectively deprogramming the Axis-dominated populace—thus giving the term “postwar reconversion” a rather interesting connotation. The government encouraged Hollywood to consider the postwar political stakes as well. One good example occurred in January 1945, when the OWI and the Office of Censorship denied an export license to UA’s TOMORROW THE WORLD (1944), a picture (based on a hit Broadway play) about an American college professor (Fredric March) who adopts his 12-year-old nephew, a German war orphan, and whose family then struggles to deprogram the dedicated young Nazi. In the OWI’s view, the picture’s portrayal of the Nazis was simply “too sympathetic.”

Hollywood executives not only tolerated but welcomed government assistance. They realized that without Washington’s help, recovering the foreign markets lost during the war would be difficult if not impossible. The importance of Washington to Hollywood’s postwar foreign trade is well illustrated in the industry’s dealings with France after its liberation in 1944. The French government threw up one roadblock after another to prevent U.S. distributors from reclaiming the dominant position they had enjoyed before the war. Unlike Germany and Italy, whose production of escapist and entertainment-oriented pictures had all but ceased during the war, France had continued to turn out commercial features under German occupation. After liberation, Charles de Gaulle’s government wanted assurances that French theaters would play domestic product in reasonable numbers, and also that French films would receive first-run release in the United States. Such assurances were not forthcoming, so the 108 features which the Hollywood distributors had dubbed and readied for release were held up by the French government. Moreover, a proposed French ordinance would prohibit the release in France of any picture over two years old, which put 800 or so major Hollywood features released from 1940 to 1942 in jeopardy.

One reason for Hollywood’s concern about the French market was the relative health of its exhibition industry. Of the 4,600 theaters in France before the war, only an estimated 300 had been seriously damaged by the fighting, and only half of those were completely destroyed. 107 England, too, had weathered heavy fighting with relatively little damage to exhibition; nearly 5,000 of its prewar total of 5,300 theaters were running at the end of the war. 108 But fighting and air raids had severely depleted exhibition in other principal combatant nations, especially Germany and Japan. Heavy air raids over Germany in 1944-1945 devastated its movie theaters, with the total in Berlin, according to the Department of Commerce, falling from about 400 before the war to only 31 by early 1945. One U.S. official who visited Germany in April said that both the production and exhibition facilities would have to be completely rebuilt after the war. 109 In Japan, meanwhile, where the information dissemination section of General Douglas MacArthur’s occupational army coordinated the release of 45 subtitled Hollywood features immediately after the war, the nation’s total number of theaters had fallen from nearly 2,000 in the late 1930s to about 900.

Despite devastation, political tangles, and burgeoning foreign competition from England, France, Mexico, and even Russia, the postwar prospects for Hollywood, overall, were extremely positive. In late 1945, reports of foreign revenues from Europe and the Far East indicated that in the three-month period following V-J Day, Hollywood distributors’ overseas revenues exceeded those of the entire year of 1941.

The Antitrust Campaign

As mentioned earlier, Hollywood’s response to the 1940 consent decree ideally positioned the Big Five for the ensuing war boom. Selling in blocks of five and holding regular trade shows encouraged the major studios to scale back B-movie production and to concentrate on high-end product, and thus they were well prepared for the war-induced market surge of the early 1940s. Meanwhile, the independent exhibitors, whose complaints had initiated the Justice Department suit in 1938, continued to complain about block booking, the run-zone-clearance system, and other unfair trade practices that favored the studio powers. Thus, as the decree’s new selling policies finally took effect in September 1941, Attorney General Thurman Arnold already had misgivings about the settlement. And as exhibitor complaints intensified and the market began its record surge in late 1941 and early 1942, Arnold began to seriously consider not settling with Columbia, Universal, and UA before the 1 June 1942 deadline. Not settling would activate the escape clause in the 1940 agreement, effectively voiding the consent decree after only nine months of actual operation, and would send the Justice Department and the majors back to the negotiating table.

The studios were well aware of the independent exhibitors’ dissatisfaction with the decree, of course, and of Arnold’s misgivings as well. The studios hoped the decree would stand, and those hopes were bolstered in early 1942 when unofficial word came from Washington that there would be a truce on antitrust suits for the duration in those Page 161  industries involved in war production. But then in April, Arnold announced that the truce did not include the movie industry. The majors, fearing that Arnold might let the escape clause deadline pass, had begun actively working with representatives of both Allied States and the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America on an alternative fair-trade policy. Spearheading this effort was the United Motion Picture Industry (UMPI), an industry organization formed immediately after Pearl Harbor.

The result was the so-called UMPI (or Unity) Plan, a selling formula designed to satisfy not only distributors and exhibitors but the Justice Department as well. 113 The key elements of the UMPI Plan were: features would be offered in blocks of twelve (approximately one-quarter of a company’s annual output) and sold quarterly; five of the twelve pictures would be trade-shown, with the other seven identified by synopsis, star, and story (except for Westerns, which could be sold in blocks of six, unscreened, and identified by star only); cancellation would be allowed on none of the five trade-shown pictures but on two of the seven others; prices would be set at the time of booking or notice of availability.

The UMPI Plan was delivered to Arnold in Washington in late May 1942, only days before the escape clause deadline. As expected, Arnold let the deadline pass in June, thus voiding the 1940 consent decree, but he made no immediate ruling on the new plan. Then in August, after two months of deliberation and consultation, Arnold rejected the UMPI Plan owing to concerns about the return to partial blind bidding and the ongoing inequities favoring the distributors’ affiliated chains. “More and more competition must be shown,” said Arnold in his statement rejecting the plan, “before the Federal Government will agree that the integrated companies are not suppressing competition between independent exhibitors and affiliated houses.” 115 Arnold insisted that trade shows continue for all releases, but he left sales policies up to the individual distributors. Acknowledging that the consent decree had not accomplished its original objectives, Arnold warned the studio-distributors that he would continue to evaluate the situation until November 1943, when the three-year decree expired.

In January 1943, Arnold issued another statement seemingly directed at Hollywood. While reaffirming that “our anti-trust laws have had to yield to the emergency,” Arnold also asserted that the Justice Department’s trust-busting efforts had not been “suspended for the duration.” 117 But while those efforts did indeed continue, Arnold himself was no longer in charge. In February, Roosevelt named Thurman Arnold to the circuit court in Washington. Arnold’s replacement was Francis Biddle, but the campaign against Hollywood was sustained primarily by Tom C. Clark, the assistant attorney general in charge of the antitrust division, who was as eager as his predecessor to undo the majors’ control of the motion picture industry.

The majors, meanwhile, continued to sell in blocks of five or fewer, with the exception of MGM, which went with the UMPI Plan’s twelve-picture blocks and modest cancellation options. These sales policies continued through the 1943-1944 season, the only notable change being Warners’ decision to adopt a single-picture sales policy. 119 And as negotiations with Clark and with the exhibitors continued, it became increasingly clear that a sales plan which satisfied all parties, including the Justice Department, was all but impossible. While the majors favored the status quo, predictably enough, the independents leaned toward full divorcement, as they had from the outset. The MPTOA favored a freeze on theater-chain expansion by the majors, a return to full-season blocks but with unrestricted 20 percent cancellation rights, and more effective arbitration machinery. These policies, however, were clearly unacceptable to the government, which would not countenance any form of blind selling.

Throughout 1943 and 1944, the majors and the government continued to submit proposals and counterproposals, with the MPTOA and Allied commenting on each round of negotiations. Divorcement was always a consideration, although the Big Five increasingly pinned their hopes on the Justice Department simply declaring a freeze in further chain expansion. Dissatisfaction with the arbitration system became an increasingly important factor, as the system proved so costly, unwieldy, and ineffective that exhibitors stopped filing complaints. Through 1941-1942, the arbitration machinery handled 276 complaints from exhibitors. 121 This was a rather low figure considering the endless complaints about clearance, and in fact about three-fourths of these cases did involve clearance. 122 But in 1943, only 74 cases were filed; in 1944, there were 29.

Clearly the arbitration system was not working, although the declining filings also indicated the rather ambivalent situation for independent exhibitors in 1944. On the one hand, they were boycotting what they considered an inadequate and unfair system; on the other, business was so good that they really had very little to complain about. Indeed, by late 1944 many of the independents seemed to be falling in line with the MPTOA position favoring a freeze over divorcement. As the MPTOA president Ed Kuykendall said in September 1944, “No one in the industry will tell you seriously that theater divorcement will do anything but damage the industry, or will solve the problems of the independent exhibitor.”

Any hopes in the industry that Justice would go along with the freeze rather than divorcement were dashed in December 1944 by a Supreme Court decision against the Crescent theater circuit for antitrust violations. Crescent had been convicted in a lower court in Nashville in March 1943 of monopolizing a five-state area in the Southeast and of colluding with the majors for favorable distribution terms—a case quite similar to those pending against the Griffith and Schine circuits in other districts. 125 Crescent appealed to the Supreme Court, basing its defense on what the Motion Picture Herald described as “the broad question of the extent of Government power to regulate film trade practices by means of anti-trust actions.” 126 But the Supreme Court upheld the lower court, breaking up the Crescent circuit and outlawing preferential treatment by distributors in exchange for favorable runs and clearance. Under the banner headline “Crescent Cues Vast Changes,” Variety termed this a “smashing victory” for the government and one that “greatly strengthened” Justice’s position in future antitrust battles with the other circuits and the Big Five. 127 The majors may have won acquittal in a few relatively minor antitrust suits during the war years, and the Minnesota antitrust laws may have been shot down in the courts, but the Crescent case clearly signaled that the majors were vulnerable on the antitrust issue.

When Tom Clark was promoted to attorney general in early 1945, Robert Wright took over the antitrust division. Wright immediately made it clear that he considered vertical integration an illegal restraint of trade, and that he intended to press the matter in the courts. 129 Outgoing Attorney General Francis Biddle, with successor Clark at his side, stated in his parting address that “it is absolutely essential to divorce theaters from producers,” and that doing so was the only way to keep independent exhibitors from “being pretty well squeezed out.”

As the war reached an end and the war boom continued, Clark and Wright showed little interest in any agreement with the majors that did not include divorcement. Thus, negotiations reached an impasse and the Paramount suit resumed. On Monday, 8 October 1945, Hollywood’s eight major producer-distributors and the Justice Department were back in U.S. district court in New York. That same week, significantly enough, another federal court ruled that the Schine circuit was guilty of restraint of trade and ordered it dissolved. Meanwhile, the Griffith trial had concluded a month earlier and still awaited a decision. With the Justice Department’s antitrust campaign against the motion picture powers back in full swing, Wright made short work of the Paramount suit. The trial was concluded in mid-November after only twenty days in court, with oral arguments scheduled for January 1946 and a final decision expected by summer.

While the Paramount suit hung in the balance, the Justice Department hit the industry—and Paramount in particular—with yet another blow on the antitrust front. As Christopher Anderson outlines in chapter 14, Paramount since the late 1930s had been investing in television research and development, had entered partnerships with several firms involved in the manufacture of television sets and video projection systems for movie theaters, and had been buying television stations. In December 1945, the Justice Department charged Paramount and its television partners (Scophony Ltd. of England, DuMont, General Precision Equipment, et al.) with creating a “world cartel and domestic monopoly” in the manufacture and sales of theater projection video technology, mainly through Paramount’s control of Scophony’s patents in the United States. A pageone Variety story on the government suit described Paramount’s video holdings as the nation’s largest, and also noted that the “FCC has the authority to yank [TV station] Page 164  licenses and cancel applications” of any company found in violation of antitrust laws. 133 This observation referred, of course, to the other Paramount case being tried in New York federal court.

The new antitrust suit was a cruel coincidence for Paramount and a bitter irony for the studios. The government’s laissez-faire attitude in the halcyon 1920s had allowed the studio system to develop, and in the 1930s Roosevelt’s national recovery policies provided a government sanction to the studio cartel. By the 1940s, the Hollywood studios ruled the world’s largest entertainment industry, but at the very height of their power they were plagued by the government’s growing ambivalence about that power. While some in Washington, particularly in the executive branch, relied on Hollywood’s support of the nation’s wartime and postwar efforts—support that was of value precisely because of the studios’ collective power—others sought to undercut that power. The Department of Justice was scarcely alone in this effort, but it had the means and the authority to bring down the Hollywood studios. And in going after the studios’ television plans as well as their theater chains and sales practices, the government threatened to cut the studios off from their future as well as their past.


The motion picture industry, like most major industries in the United States, entered the war era with a firm commitment to increase efficiency and productivity. The unions and guilds made no-strike pledges, and for the most part these were honored from late 1941 until 1945. In Hollywood, which was almost completely unionized by 1941, organized labor’s wartime performance was particularly impressive—certainly far better than in other major industries such as steel and mining, which were plagued by wildcat strikes from 1943 onward and in 1944-1945 suffered major strikes requiring government intervention.

The upstart Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), formed in 1941, made real strides during the war in its challenge of IATSE, which was still smarting after a series of prewar setbacks. As the Hollywood labor historian David Prindle aptly describes IATSE’s plight: “Its president in prison, its connections to organized crime publicized to the world, its name a synonym for corruption and tyranny, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees was, by the beginning of World War II, reeling and vulnerable.” 134 Under Herb Sorrell, the CSU’s membership grew to about 10,000 studio workers by 1945, while IATSE’s fell to around 16,000. 135 IATSE’s reach still extended well beyond Hollywood; its real power base was in exhibition (via the projectionists’ union), and it also had a solid grip on distribution through the white-collar exchange workers. The only area of the industry outside Hollywood where IATSE’s dominance was seriously challenged was New York City, where CIO unions controlled white-collar workers, both in the home offices of the major companies and in the regional exchanges. 136 During the war, in fact, the home offices and overall distribution sector reached the same stage of organization that Hollywood had before the war, with all but the top company executives becoming unionized. The exhibition sector lagged behind, with some work roles and some regions of the country still not organized by the end of the war.

After relative quiet through the early war years, several incidents in 1944 indicated Hollywood’s increasingly volatile and politicized labor scene. The first involved the creation of two quasi-political organizations, the Motion Picture. Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAAI, usually MPA) and the Council of Hollywood Guilds and Unions (CHGU). The Motion Picture Alliance was formed in February 1944 by a group of notable Hollywood conservatives, including Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, King Vidor, the writer Casey Robinson, and the art director Cedric Gibbons; the producer-director Sam Wood was elected as its first president. According to Variety , the Alliance was formed in response to a Writers Congress meeting at UCLA that the Alliance founders felt was Communist-inspired; the organization’s goal was to combat communism, fascism, and other alien “isms” in Hollywood. 137 In a brochure published in 1944, the Alliance defined its mission as follows:

Our purpose is to uphold the American way of life, on the screen and among screen workers; to educate, not to smear.

We seek to make a rallying place for the vast, silent majority of our fellow workers; to give voice to their unwavering loyalty to democratic forms and so to drown out the highly vocal, lunatic fringe of dissidents; to present to our fellow countrymen the vision of a great American industry united in upholding the American faith. (Reprinted in Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993], p. 161)

Within weeks of the Alliance’s founding, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the so-called Dies Committee, began checking into the backgrounds of various studio employees; union leaders attributed this activity to the Alliance’s efforts. 138 In late June, a counteralliance of sorts was formed by the constituents of 17 Hollywood labor organizations claiming to represent about half of Hollywood’s 30,000 workers. In a mass meeting at the Hollywood Women’s Club, the group denounced the Alliance as antilabor, anti-unity, racist, and reactionary and voted to create the Council of Hollywood Guilds and Unions. The Council’s goal was to counter the Alliance’s influence on all fronts, although its title well indicated that organized labor was its primary unifying force.

Two other labor-related flaps in late 1944 indicated the growing tension between IATSE and the CSU, and its potential to generate a major strike. One involved a group of disgruntled extras and bit players who bolted SAG and created the Screen Players Union (SPU). Sorrell and the CSU backed the new union, and support was sufficient to warrant an NLRB certification election in December 1944. Predictably enough, given the ratio of extras and bit players to full-fledged screen actors—a distinction related to the issue of speaking parts, which was in fact key to this dispute—the SPU prevailed. 140 At that point, SAG and IATSE went into action (with heavy AFL support), forming the Screen Extras Guild (SEG) in direct opposition to SPU. Within a matter of months, virtually all screen extras had joined the SEG fold (and thus were under indirect SAG and IATSE control) and the SPU was finished.

While the screen extras skirmish remained just that, another seemingly minor labor flap in late 1944 developed into a much more serious, long-term crisis. In October, a group of set decorators and painters, along with sympathetic machinists, walked out of MGM when the studio refused to recognize the CSU-backed Studio Set Designers, Illustrators, and Decorators as an official bargaining agent. The studio refused because the seventy-eight-member union was not certified by the War Labor Board, and also because jurisdiction over the decorators was claimed by IATSE. The Motion Picture Herald termed the walkout the first major labor problem since 1937, and one of sufficient magnitude, potentially, to completely shut down production. 142 That was precisely what the CSU wanted to convey. There was no doubt of IATSE’s ability to shut down production, due largely to its reach into the distribution and exhibition sectors; as the decorators’ dispute developed, the central issue became the question of whether the CSU had that kind of clout.

Sorrell tried to resolve the dispute through the WLB as well as the studios; when that effort failed, he officially led the local 1421 of the decorators union out on strike in March 1945. By then, the battle lines were clearly drawn, with the CSU facing off against IATSE not only in a battle for jurisdiction over the decorators but also in a struggle over whether the Hollywood filmmaking machinery would continue running. The studios’ alliance with IATSE in the strike gave it an odd labor-management dimension by securing IATSE’s commitment to keep the factories operating. (Actually Monogram and PRC, the two weakest studios, recognized CSU jurisdiction and were not subject to the strike.) 144 Thus began the so-called decorators strike of 1945, which dragged on month after month, steadily drawing in other craft unions until some 7,000 workers were on strike. Sorrell and the CSU were resolute, defying not only the studios and IATSE but the courts as well, which ruled that Walsh acted within his rights when he executed an emergency takeover of the decorators union. 145 By summer, the studios were operating near capacity despite picket lines, mounting tensions, sporadic violence, and rising studio overhead costs, which, according to Sorrell, had doubled since March. The strikers, meanwhile, were losing an estimated $2 million per month in wages.

Hollywood became increasingly divided over the strike. The conservative Screen Actors Guild sided with IATSE, while the left-leaning Screen Writers Guild voted to support the CSU and to honor the picket lines. The AFL president, William Green, failing to resolve the dispute between the two AFL-affiliated groups, publicly criticized both parties and washed his hands of the entire affair. The AFL’s archrival, the CIO, voted to support the strike, while the powerful Teamsters opposed it. 147 The war’s end in August brought a sudden increase in the manpower supply in Hollywood, but V-J Day was tempered by what the Motion Picture Herald termed the “continuing state of strike-siege.” The studios now had a huge supply of carpenters, painters, machinists, electricians, and others from the nearby aircraft plants to replace the CSU strikers. Still, noted the Herald , “the only way producers can avail themselves of a labor supply dumped at their door by the warplants is to route workers in via IATSE membership and across CSU picket lines. It can be done, but it isn’t simple.”

That proved to be an understatement. The strike became steadily more militant after V-J Day, with sympathetic workers from Lockheed joining the CSU pickets, who battled IATSE strikebreakers outside various studios. In October, the isolated fistfights and rock throwings erupted into violent riots as the strike became front-page news nation-wide. 149 The NLRB in mid-October announced the results of another election favoring the CSU-backed local (55 to 45), but that scarcely stemmed the tide of violence or moved the strike any closer to resolution. The heaviest violence occurred outside Warners, where production closed down completely for several days. While Jack Warner and his fellow executives looked on from studio rooftops inside the walled compound, studio guards and Burbank police waged a pitched battle with picketers. Sorrell then shifted the attack to Paramount, where about fifty were injured when IATSE workers crashed the CSU picket lines.

Under pressure from Congress and the Labor Department, not to mention the California state authorities and an outraged public, the Hollywood powers finally resolved the dispute in late October during the thirty-second week of the strike. The key figure in that effort was a relative newcomer to Hollywood, Eric Johnston. A conservative businessman and recent president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Johnston succeeded the venerable Will Hays as president of the MPPDA in September 1945. To his credit, Johnston quickly took charge of the strike situation. In a daylong session behind closed (and locked) doors at the Netherland Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., Johnston, Walsh, and various representatives of the industry and the AFL worked out an agreement whereby local 1421 was officially recognized and the 7,000 CSU workers returned to work, with their replacements kept on stand-by status for a 60-day arbitration period—at an added studio expense of an estimated $325,000 per week.

In dollar figures, the strike wound up costing the strikers $15-16 million in lost wages, and it cost the studios around $10 million in additional overhead. But there were other costs as well. While Sorrell and the CSU won recognition for the decorators union, they failed to close down Hollywood production. The rift between competing labor factions, especially the CSU and IATSE, was now wider than ever, and the studios Page 168  also had grown increasingly hostile toward and suspicious of the CSU and its supporters. That did not bode well for the postwar era: workers were demanding a larger share of the industry’s record profits, but the war-induced economic prosperity was bound to level off. Variety , in its year-end story on the labor situation in Hollywood, termed the decorators strike “the most disastrous strike in the film industry’s history,” but Variety expected more of the same as new contracts were being negotiated for 20,000 studio workers.

Thus, 1945 ended with the prospect of labor strife and the antitrust trial casting a dark cloud over what should have been Hollywood’s brightest year ever. Indeed, these events marked the rather ignominious end to the war era generally—an era that had seen the Hollywood studios accomplish more than in any other four-year period in their history.

The Motion Picture Industry in 1940-1941 - Prologue: January 1940, The 1940 Consent Decree, Labor Pains [next] [back] The Morning After

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