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The Postwar Motion Picture Industry - Postwar America, the Global Economy, and the Cold War, Hollywood and Washington

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After the shooting stops…, Hollywood naturally will go back to the business of making films strictly for profit. But it will also do something else. Now that Hollywood has grown up, it knows that it must play a role in creating the world of tomorrow, just as it helped to destroy the kind of world desired by the enemy.

Robert St. John, Look , January 1945

The American movie industry faced the postwar era with both relief and euphoria. The war boom had been a mixed blessing for the industry, with record revenues and profits accompanied by material and manpower shortages, severe operational constraints, and ongoing anxiety about the Allied cause. The movie industry had thrived and played an important role in that cause, and in that sense Hollywood had indeed “grown up” during the war along with the nation at large. Now as the United States emerged from World War II as a leading global power, the industry was generally upbeat about its own postwar prospects—particularly in 1946, when Hollywood enjoyed its best year ever.

That postwar optimism faded, however, as Hollywood proved to be singularly ill equipped for “the world of tomorrow.” While Americas stature as a world power and its economic prosperity continued to grow in the late 1940s, the American movie industry went into an economic tailspin and a sustained fall from social grace. Postwar Hollywood was besieged by labor strife and runaway costs, by rebellious exhibitors and restricted foreign markets, by censorship battles and anti-Communist purges, and, most significantly, by declining domestic revenues and an inglorious end to its decade-long antitrust battles. The Justice Department prevailed in a series of Supreme Court rulings in 1948-1949 that mandated the “dis-integration” of the studio system. Those rulings marked not only the definitive end of the epic Paramount case—arguably the signal event for the American cinema in the 1940s—but also the culmination of Hollywood’s postwar woes. It marked, in fact, the climax of the most troubled period in movie industry history.

Postwar America, the Global Economy, and the Cold War

Hollywood’s postwar downturn was especially troubling because it contrasted so sharply with the general prosperity of the nation at large. Generally speaking, the United States emerged from World War II in remarkably good shape. The war not only reversed the economic effects of the Depression but also enabled the United States to become a genuine world power. By 1944, America was supplying 40 percent of the world’s armaments and feeding citizens and soldiers around the globe. At war’s end, estimates put U.S. productivity at nearly half that of the rest of the world combined. And at decade’s end, as the British historian Robert Payne noted at the time, “half of the wealth of the world, more than half of the productivity, nearly two-thirds of the world’s machines are concentrated in American hands; the rest of the world lies in the shadow of American industry.”

U.S. productivity was due in large part to the relatively minor damage inflicted by the war on the nation and its populace. World War II killed an estimated 50 million people and physically devastated much of Europe and the Far East. Major cities and industrial centers were destroyed, and civilian casualties ranged from 60,000 in Britain and 400,000 in France to 6 million in Poland and 7 million in the Soviet Union. The United States was the only principal combatant to suffer few direct civilian casualties and no significant enemy incursions or attacks within its primary borders. U.S. military casualties of some 290,000, while substantial, were relatively light considering both the degree of U.S. involvement in the conflict and also the losses suffered by the other major combatants—Japan with 1.2 million soldiers dead, for example, and the Soviet Union with 7 million (beyond the 7 million civilian casualties).

America’s postwar “reconversion” was as rapid and extensive as its conversion to war production in the early 1940s had been, but it scarcely signaled a return to prewar conditions. The high employment and productivity of the war era did ease somewhat, while rising costs and spiraling inflation created financial difficulties for middle-and working-class Americans. But the economy remained strong enough to absorb the millions of returning servicemen, and a boom in housing construction—the largest since the mid-1920s—created affordable homes for the ex-GIs and factory workers, who were marrying in record numbers by the late 1940s. 3 The birth rate soared as well, and by 1948 the term “baby boom” had entered the popular discourse.

The baby boom was simply one aspect of a massive family and housing boom after the war, much of which was fueled by Americas vast migration to the suburbs. Keying the migration were low real-estate prices outside urban areas, along with tract housing, improved highway systems, and affordable automobiles. Many cities struggled with the postwar family/baby/housing boom, particularly those which had been war-production centers and had not adequately handled the previous wartime growth. Los Angeles typified this problem. Its population had increased by 300,000 during the war, and during the first postwar year alone the city grew by another 70,000—bringing its total to 2 million. Home construction and transportation simply could not keep up with demand, which drove up costs as well. The cost of living in Los Angeles in 1946 was three times the prewar level, and about twice what it had been only two years earlier.

Rising costs were the result of not only market demand and material shortages but also the rampant labor strife and related wage increases. The war had solidified the role of organized labor in U.S. industry, while the government’s general easing of antitrust restrictions (and litigation) during the war enabled the corporate powers in many major industries, from steel and mining to automobile and motion picture production, to further intensify their oligopolistic control. Thus, the government intensified its “trustbusting” efforts after the war, when conditions were ripe for the strikes, wage disputes, and other labor-management discord that would became a way of life for U.S. industry in the late 1940s.

Despite inflation and labor conflicts in the United States, the general postwar economic climate remained upbeat—particularly in comparison to conditions abroad. The Axis nations quite literally had to rebuild their economies and industries, with Germany especially hard hit owing to the heavy bombing in 1944-1945. England also faced massive rebuilding and recovery, and its postwar struggles were of deep concern to the United States, given England’s status as a trading partner and its enormous wartime debt. The deepening economic and industrial woes in Britain became front-page news in the United States by 1947 and its economy continued to deteriorate through the next two years, culminating in the devaluation of the pound sterling in 1949.

The postwar global recession coincided with a deepening geopolitical crisis, the cold war, which began soon after World War II and saw the United States radically reshuffle its foreign alliances and redefine its international interests. Anglo-American ties remained strong, although England’s economic difficulties caused myriad political problems. However, the Soviet Union, which had been a crucial ally during the war, was recast immediately afterward as a global menace and as Americas principal political foe—along with the other Iron Curtain countries under Soviet control in Eastern Europe. The cold war escalated dramatically in 1949 with the Soviet Union’s successful detonation of an A-bomb in August and, some two months later, the fall of China to the Communists.

The cold war seriously limited U.S. economic prospects overseas while fomenting intense anti-Communist fervor and anxiety at home. The cold war also had considerable impact on the American movie industry, in terms of not only overseas trade but also global politics and the nation’s international interests. World War II had confirmed the value of Hollywood movies as propaganda, and it had created a direct and intense relationship between the movie industry and the government. But the cold war proved to be a very different kind of war, and thus Hollywood’s role as propagandist and its relationship with Washington changed radically as well.

Hollywood and Washington

During the war, the relationship between Hollywood and Washington had been more harmonious than at any time in industry history. There had been a few sore spots, to be sure—the 1943 Senate hearings on the studios’ control of and alleged profiteering from military contracts, for instance, or the Justice Department’s ongoing (although scaled-back) antitrust campaign. For the most part, however, Hollywood and Washington maintained a state of active and unprecedented cooperation in the war effort. Hollywood lost a valued ally with the death of Roosevelt in early 1945, and in fact his successor Harry Truman, before becoming vice president in 1944, had led the 1943 Senate investigation of the major studios. Not only did the industry garner less support from the White House, but the continued conservative swing in Congress posed an even more direct threat on several fronts, particularly organized labor and purported “un-American activities” in Hollywood.

The most serious postwar threat from Washington involved the government’s antitrust campaign against the studios and the large unaffiliated theater circuits—a campaign in which the Justice Department gained increased support from the Supreme Court and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 8 The postwar antitrust battles also involved the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversaw the development of the television industry, including the approval of the purchasing and licensing of TV stations. The FCC had the authority to prevent the licensing of stations to any company convicted of antitrust violations, and by the late 1940s, it became clear that the FCC might invoke this authority to forestall the studios’ efforts to move into the burgeoning industry through television station acquisition and alliances with the upstart TV networks.

Despite the resumption of these “hostilities” on the home front, Hollywood and Washington maintained an alliance of sorts outside the United States. Immediately after the war, this alliance primarily involved the military, which oversaw Hollywood’s return to Europe in 1944-1945 and to the Axis countries in 1945-1946. Then, as the cold war began to heat up, it became evident, ironically enough, that many of the same federal agencies that Hollywood was battling at home would look to the movie industry as an ally overseas. Orchestrating this alliance was the Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA), an industry trade organization created in 1945 which was, in effect, a postwar merger between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the overseas branch of the governments Office of War Information (OWI).

As a branch of the MPAA under Eric Johnston, the MPEA was created to facilitate overseas trade in the complex postwar global marketplace. Initially, the MPEA concentrated on regaining the Axis markets, but as the cold war heated up, it served as the “collective bargaining agent” overseas for Hollywood’s eight producer-distributors, concentrating on those markets where, as Johnston put it, “monopolistic pressures have hamstrung the American industry.” The MPEA enjoyed Washington’s support in this effort, since the government recognized that the movies were valuable to its postwar political and economic strategy in two distinct ways: first, movies were a highly desirable commodity in virtually every market worldwide, regardless of local politics, and thus provided an effective means to gain access to foreign markets; and second, movie content was perceived as a means to sell American ideology and American-made products overseas.

Several government agencies, and three in particular, cooperated with the MPEA. The Commerce Department directly assisted foreign trade, owing to its interest in movies as a means to promote overseas sales of other American goods, from clothing to appliances to automobiles. The Justice Department agreed to relax its trust-busting efforts in the area of the integrated majors’ export sales, although the MPEA clearly was a monopolistic enterprise. And the State Department was interested in what the Wall Street Journal termed the “propaganda value of the typical American films in portraying the democratic way of life.” 11 Indeed, as Thomas Guback points out in his study of the postwar international film industry, the MPEA became known as “the Little State Department” because of the similarity of its “function, scope, and methods” to those of the U.S. Department of State. Besides bargaining for optimal economic advantage on behalf of Hollywood, notes Guback, the MPEA also tried “to win friends and influence local policy.”

Thus, the Hollywood-Washington postwar rapport was ruled by two rather remarkable ironies. One was the government’s active support of Hollywood’s effort to monopolize foreign markets, even though the Justice Department was suing the studios for similar efforts in the United States. The other was the perceived propaganda value of movies themselves: while Hollywood films were deemed a valuable means of promoting Americanism overseas by the State Department and other agencies, Congress continually accused the studios of employing political subversives and of being overly critical of the American way of life.

Postwar Foreign Markets

Hollywood’s overseas performance in the late 1940s ran directly parallel to its performance at home—a record high in 1946 followed by a sustained period of economic decline and general disarray. Hollywood’s troubles overseas were the result of three postwar developments: first, cold war tensions, which rendered Americans’ access to many countries behind the Iron Curtain difficult if not impossible; second, the trend toward tariffs, frozen revenues, and other protectionist policies in nations like Britain, France, and Italy that were determined to build up their own film industries and to prevent Hollywood from completely dominating their markets; and third, Britain’s deepening financial crisis.

Even as the U.S. producer-distributors lurched from one foreign crisis to another in the late 1940s, however, overall revenues from overseas held up fairly well. After a record overseas take of about $125 million in 1946, foreign revenues were an estimated $120 million in 1947 and $100 million in both 1948 and 1949. This performance compares favorably to the industry’s overseas take of about $110-15 million during the later war years, although rising costs in the late 1940s render such comparisons dubious at best. Moreover, the declining domestic market put increasing pressure on successful sales overseas. By the late 1940s, foreign trade still provided about 35 percent of Hollywood’s total revenues, but that income often meant the difference between profit and loss.

This was scarcely the case immediately after the war, when the overseas outlook was remarkably upbeat. The Hollywood studio-distributors saw record overseas revenues in 1946, much of it from pre-1946 films in markets that had been closed during the war. 37 Johnston stated at mid-year that foreign revenues made up fully 45 percent of rental income, and that he hoped to push that total to 50 percent. 38 In October, the Motion Picture Herald reported that the “lid” on the foreign markets had been “pried open,” and that the MPEA seemed to be fending off protectionism overseas. 39 At year’s end, the studios reported that their overseas income of $125 million was virtually identical to their overall net profits—a situation that many in the industry considered ideal, with the domestic market on a break-even basis and overseas income amounting essentially to pure profit.

England remained Hollywood’s chief client after the war, and a veritable extension of the U.S. market. Hollywood’s total revenues in England were just over $90 million in 1946; roughly $20 million was frozen and remained in England, while $70 million was remitted to the studios. Thus, England accounted for over half of the industry’s overseas income—somewhat less than in the war era, when England supplied three-fourths of Hollywood’s overseas income, but still a sizable share. So understandably enough, good relations with England remained the single most important item on Hollywood’s overseas agenda.

To ensure those positive relations as well as the efficient investment of any funds not remitted, most of the major studios either established production units or studios in England or entered coproduction deals with British producers. The most significant of these was the 1946 merger of Universal and International Pictures orchestrated by England’s J. Arthur Rank, in fact, Rank already had an elaborate coproduction and codistribution deal with Universal; the merger was described by Variety as “a major reorganization of the Universal-J. Arthur Rank worldwide film empire.” 40 A clear indication of both the unbridled postwar optimism and the need to invest overseas, the merger was designed to coproduce A-class pictures for the global movie market.

The postwar Anglo-American alliance was doomed to failure, however, owing to the declining movie market in the United States and the rapid deterioration of the British economy. With each postwar year the British crisis worsened, with devastating impact on the American movie industry, in fact, in both 1947 and 1948, despite the severe crises at home, the Film Daily Year Book gauged the deteriorating British market as the single most acute problem facing the American movie industry. 42 While England did remain Hollywood’s major overseas client, by the late 1940s it no longer supplied any-where near the proportion of foreign revenues (60–75 percent) that it had during the peak war years. Remittances from Britain fell from $70 million in 1946 to $56 million in 1947, $35 million in 1948, and $17 million in 1949.

The so-called Anglo-American impasse stemmed from not only the severe economic situation in Britain but also the long-standing resentment over Hollywood’s trade practices by the British government, especially the Board of Trade. Significantly enough, the British film industry in general, and especially the exhibition sector, was far less hostile toward Hollywood than the British government. While some British producers (particularly Rank) often complained that Hollywood films routinely earned at least five times more in England than did British productions, no one really questioned the general superiority of Hollywood product. During the war, the British film industry foundered while the American film industry flourished, and by 1945 the British industry was geared primarily to second-rate product to be double-billed with more popular American films. These “quota quickies” were produced to satisfy government-mandated quotas on the amount of screen time devoted to British product—about 20 percent in 1944 and 1945. These films were barely passable with British audiences, and they simply were not suitable for U.S. release. Both Rank and Korda planned to upgrade production after the war, however, and the various deals with Hollywood promised to improve the general state of the British industry.

Things took a turn for the worse in early 1947, however, when Sir Stafford Cripps, the president of the Board of Trade, started speaking out about the need to “de-Americanize” British exhibition at the same time that the British economy began to show signs of postwar exhaustion. 44 By the summer of 1947, England was mired in an economic crisis which was threatening all of Europe—and much of the globe, for that matter—and the Board of Trade prepared to take active measures against Hollywood and a number of other foreign industries. England’s leading producers and distributors warned Cripps that the British film industry could not function without American product, and there was a flurry of activity on both sides of the Atlantic to forestall any serious action by the British government.

Unfazed by these appeals and efforts, the Board of Trade took extreme measures—more extreme, in fact, than anyone expected. On 7 August 1947, an ad valorem tax of 75 percent was placed on all future film imports: in effect, foreign distributors were to pay three-fourths of the expected earnings on a picture prior to its release in England. Hollywood’s reaction was swift and equally extreme. On 8 August, the MPEA announced an immediate boycott of the British market, to remain in effect until the tax was lifted."

The Board of Trade stood firm despite laments from British exhibitors that they could not “carry on” without American pictures. 47 England’s producers were equally disturbed by the tax, since it jeopardized cooperative arrangements with U.S. companies. Several leading British producers did plan to upgrade product in an effort to compensate for (and exploit) the lack of U.S. product. 48 These plans meant little given the state of the British economy, however, and in fact at year’s end Rank announced substantial losses for 1947 in his production sector.

The Anglo-American impasse continued into 1948 as conditions in England worsened and as Hollywood faced the prospect of doing without British revenues. The embargo finally ended in early March, when a settlement was announced that was to take effect in May 1948—on the same day as the Supreme Courts momentous Paramount decree. The settlement removed the ad valorem tax, which was to be replaced by a four-year agreement whereby a maximum of $17 million could be remitted from England by the American companies, plus an amount equal to the combined earnings of all British product released in the United States. The intent here, of course, Page 300  was to induce the Hollywood studio-distributors to upgrade their efforts to sell British pictures in the United States, the results of which in turn would raise the $17 million remittance ceiling. The excess revenues—those not remitted—would not be taxed by the government but instead could be invested by the studios in various “permitted uses” in England. These included film production, buying story properties, hiring British talent, obtaining real estate (theaters, film labs, or studios, for example, with prior approval from the government), and so on.

The Board of Trade also announced that the government would support the financially troubled British film industry with subsidies and loans, which along with the new accord (and the renewed rapport between British and American producers) promised to improve the quality of British films. 51 Clearly both Hollywood and Britain were counting on that improved quality, and both stood to gain. The benefits to Britain were obvious enough, especially in terms of access to the lucrative U.S. market. Hollywood, meanwhile, could make room for quality British films, whose box-office performance would increase the majors’ take at home (in exhibitors’ fees) and also in England (in the equivalent add-on to the $17 million).

Unfortunately, however, England’s economy continued to slide in 1948, and the British film industry’s performance in the U.S. market fell to a postwar low despite the success of HAMLET , THE RED SHOES , and a very few other pictures. Matters worsened with Parliament’s passage of the Film Act of 1948, which raised the screen quota on British product from 20 to 40 percent. Again Hollywood countered, this time decreeing (via Eric Johnston) that as of 1 October 1948, no American import could be doublebilled in England with a British picture. This announcement dealt a severe blow to British exhibitors, since their patrons generally watched British films only if they played along with Hollywood products.

Britain’s film industry and national economy continued to deteriorate, a fact underscored by England’s devaluation of the pound sterling in September 1949. One British studio after another closed down as production slowed drastically, especially on what were termed “first features,” that is, films which could be dualed with quota quickies in England and released in the United States. Both Rank and Korda were bailed out repeatedly with government subsidies through the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC), but both were still in desperate straits. Rank lost over $9 million on his production operations in 1949 and was all but inoperative at year’s end. 53 Nor did the investment by Hollywood of unremitted funds in England help all that much. The studios found permitted uses for $25 million in 1949, but very little of this money went into actual film production, since more concrete investments (in theaters, film labs, and the like) were less risky. As of June 1949, the studios were sitting on another $40 million and simply waiting for conditions to improve.

Despite the myriad crises in England, Hollywood continued to dominate that market in 1949. Of the 571 features released in Great Britain in 1949, 392 were American-made films—versus 131 British productions and only 22 from France, England’s second-largest foreign supplier. 55 And by the same token, England remained Hollywood’s major overseas client. No other foreign country played anywhere near the number of American-made films, and while $17 million per annum was far short of what the U.S. studio-distributors had been earning in England in earlier years, it was a good deal more than they earned in any other overseas market.

The limited take from England did force the studios and the MPEA to concentrate more heavily on other markets and to think increasingly in terms of the global market-place.

There were problems there as well, however, owing primarily to the growing protectionist trend, the deepening cold war, and the painfully slow process of rebuilding the German and Japanese film industries. In the late 1940s, the MPEA handled all distribution of Hollywood films in the dozen or so countries where these problems were most severe, including Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the East Indies, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Poland, Rumania, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. There were a few other trouble spots besides Great Britain, like France, Spain, and China, where the MPEA tried to facilitate trade and negotiated agreements but did not serve as the sole bargaining agent for the studios. By 1949, with the former Axis nations on the rebound and now becoming viable U.S. trade partners, the MPEA focused its attention more exclusively on the Soviet Union and other Iron Curtain countries.

As in the prewar era, protectionism inevitably posed a dual problem for Hollywood in that it tended to be most acute in those nations which not only represented the largest overseas markets but also were interested in developing their own indigenous motion picture industries. Consider France in the late 1940s. In 1946, after a year of difficult negotiations (discussed in chapter 5), the MPEA negotiated a Franco-American pact whereby a ceiling of $3,625,000 in remittances was placed on American films. But owing to various difficulties, the studios took out only about $1 million per year in both 1947 and 1948, while roughly $10 million in revenues on U.S. pictures was frozen in France. As in England, the U.S. companies could invest the frozen funds in a number of industry-related areas in France: coproduction with French companies, purchase or construction of theaters, acquisition of distribution rights to French-produced films, and so on.

Meanwhile, France was trying to strengthen its own industry, which had not suffered too severely during the war and in fact had remained in operation under German occupation. This was a daunting task, however, given the difficulties of France’s general postwar recovery. In 1946, France produced 91 features at a total cost of $20.3 million (2.4 billion francs)—on a par with B-picture standards in the United States but roughly ten times what France spent on production before the war. Yet the industry showed losses of $7.7 million, while both exhibitors and audiences clamored for more American pictures. In 1948, the Franco-American pact was renewed but limited the total number of Hollywood imports to 121 and set a quota stipulating that French films appear five weeks out of every thirteen. 58 Still, the French industry faced a struggle—mainly because of the deepening economic crisis in Europe in 1948-1949—and it was far from healthy as the decade ended.

Latin America remained an important but generally difficult area for the United States in the late 1940s. Mexico was Hollywood’s principal client to the south, returning $3-5 million per year. Mexico’s own wartime production boom slowed somewhat in 1946, when its output fell to only 60 pictures. But by 1948–1949, its output was approaching 100 features per annum, and thus it reestablished its position as Hollywood’s chief competitor in other Latin markets. Hollywood continued to look longingly at the vast potential in South America, especially Brazil and Argentina, but the slow pace of industrialization and economic development kept those markets from being of any real consequence.

By the end of the decade, the global economic crisis threatened Hollywood’s overseas trade in virtually every sector. According to MPAA estimates in late 1949 (in the wake of the devaluation of the British pound), the U.S. film industry would have to increase its foreign revenues by some 50 percent to offset losses due to devalued currency. 60 Despite that dire forecast, however, the international marketplace was growing at an impressive rate at the time, and Hollywood continued to dominate the global movie business. The number of movie theaters worldwide increased from 79,000 to just over 90,000 between 1947 and 1949, with the Far East and former Axis nations showing tremendous growth. And in every significant overseas region, Hollywood product accounted for anywhere from one-half to three-fourths of the screen time, as these figures indicate:

Despite its problems with England, widespread protectionism, and the global recession, 38 percent of Hollywood’s revenues in 1949 came from overseas, and its foreign income of roughly $100 million was on a par with the previous year. 61 Thus, Hollywood was clearly holding its own in the turbulent international marketplace of the late 1940s—a vital necessity, considering the deepening crises at home.

Postwar Censorship

While the studios and leading labor forces buckled under to HUAC and the pervasive cold war mentality, the movie industry was being pressured by external conservative forces in other areas as well, particularly in terms of motion picture content. Various conservative institutions, from religious organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Protestant Motion Picture Council to the state and local censorship boards and even the U.S. Congress, sought to rein in Hollywood’s postwar “liberal” inclinations by regulating subject matter. And perhaps inevitably, these efforts became entangled in the other political developments of the period, adding yet another complex dimension to the movie industry’s postwar travails.

During the war, the American cinema had matured in many ways, from its heightened social awareness and growing penchant for realism to its treatment of more complex human issues. Many looked to the cinema to take on an even more progressive posture after the war, and as will be seen in more detail in chapter 13, that was in fact what the movie industry did. In the late 1940s, a number of trends and cycles— noir thrillers and “adult Westerns,” message pictures and social problem films, sex farces and romantic melodramas—displayed a frankness and sophistication quite advanced by Hollywood standards. Meanwhile, European imports continually challenged conventional representations of social conditions and human relationships. While Hollywood’s independents tended to be the more progressive filmmakers, even the conservative studios were pushing the boundaries of cinematic expression. The Fox executive Darryl Zanuck, who championed both the social problem film and the semidocumentary crime drama, asserted in 1946 that in the heady postwar climate, Hollywood “can sell almost anything but politics and religion.”

The first serious postwar censorship flap involved a film produced before the war and released in 1943, THE OUTLAW . The producer, Howard Hughes, reissued his adult Western in March 1946 to capitalize on the favorable market conditions. In an odd replay of earlier events, Hughes’s refusal to cooperate with either the Legion of Decency or the Production Code Administration resulted in a “C” rating from the Legion and removal of the film’s Code seal by the PCA. Hughes personally handled the release and promotion of the film, and he deftly manipulated these controversies—along with the local censorship challenges and boycott threats almost everywhere the film played—to fuel audience interest. 111 That led the PCA to challenge Hughes’s marketing campaign as well, and ultimately to overhaul its own advertising code. Many deemed Hughes’s efforts counterproductive; as Variety put it, “The move toward liberalization of censorship… has been pretty well shelved by the current ruckus over ‘The Outlaw.’” 112 Still, Hughes defied the Legion of Decency and the PCA, and THE OUTLAW was among the biggest box-office hits of the decade.

While the ongoing dispute over THE OUTLAW seemed little more than an extended and somewhat harmless publicity stunt, more serious altercations developed in 1947 over DUEL IN THE SUN , MONSIEUR VERDOUX , and FOREVER AMBER . Selznick’s intense Western psychodrama, DUEL IN THE SUN , suffering no doubt from guilt by association with THE OUTLAW , faced a succession of local censorship setbacks, including an outright ban in Memphis. In June 1947, with HUAC gearing up for its assault on Hollywood, Congress announced that it was considering an investigation of the MPAA and the PCA because of the “filthy and obscene” pictures being released by Hollywood, and Rankin introduced a resolution to ban DUEL IN THE SUN from further showings in the D.C. area. (The resolution failed.)

Chaplin’s MONSIEUR VERDOUX , a dark comedy marketed as a “sex farce” about the French Bluebeard, was withdrawn from release after a disastrous Broadway opening in April 1947 amid threats of boycott and a torrent of negative publicity directed not only at the film but also at Chaplin’s left-wing politics. Matters grew worse when Chaplin received a subpoena from HUAC and then publicly declared that he planned to reopen VERDOUX during the hearings—a strategy that later was abandoned and certainly would not have helped Chaplin’s cause. While Chaplin escaped the immediate wrath of HUAC (he was not called to testify), MONSIEUR VERDOUX was an unmitigated popular and commercial disaster upon general release during the same week of the HUAC hearings.

FOREVER AMBER , also released during that fateful week in October 1947, was promptly—and unexpectedly—hit with a C classification by the Legion of Decency. That event was lost in the din generated by the hearings, but as Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, “If it hadn’t opened against the Washington shindig, [A MBER’S C classification] might have… bid for the doubtful distinction of being the major ‘incident’ of the year.” 115 Significantly enough, Fox’s multimillion-dollar sex farce was coscripted by Ring Lardner Jr. (of the Hollywood Ten) and Philip Dunne (cofounder of the Committee for the First Amendment). The writers’ affiliations may well have been a factor, since the Legion felt compelled to announce that the condemnation was based “solely on the film itself.”

Fox’s president, Spyros Skouras, reacted angrily, noting that Breen and the PCA had complimented Fox’s handling of Kathleen Winsor’s sensational best-seller. This response scarcely diminished the criticism: boycotts were threatened by various religious and conservative political groups, including the American Legion. So despite the fact that FOREVER AMBER was the top box-office film in the country in November 1947—owing in part, no doubt, to the controversy itself—Fox acquiesced. The studio withdrew A MBER from release in early December, removed or reshot the offending passages, and had the film back in release within two weeks—with its Legion of Decency classification upgraded from C to B (“objectionable”).

While it is difficult to ascertain whether the film’s box-office performance was helped by the controversy, the popularity of FOREVER AMBER did suggest that the moral judgments and pressure tactics of the Legion of Decency and the American Legion did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the general public. Still, the efforts of such groups intensified in the postwar era and were directed at film imports as well as Hollywood pictures. Indeed, foreign films were even more offensive to these conservative groups, overall, than the American-made pictures. During the 1947—1948 season, the Legion assigned B classifications to just under 15 percent of Hollywood studios releases; meanwhile, while, over one-third of foreign imports were so classified, and six of the eighty-seven imports classified by the Church were condemned. In 1948-1949, the number of B-rated Hollywood films reached 20 percent, while the number of objectionable imports surpassed 40 percent.

Many filmmakers, studio executives, and critics lamented the pressure by conservative groups, but the groups themselves felt they were fighting a losing battle—particularly as Hollywood increased the on-screen emphasis on both sex and violence in 1948 and 1949 in an effort to stem losses at the box office and appeal to adult viewers. In late November 1949, PCA chief Joe Breen complained to the conservative Catholic publisher Martin Quigley: “We are really having a desperate time of it. During the past month at least, more than half of the material submitted has had to be rejected. We have had nothing like this situation since the early days of 1934.”

As Breen certainly realized, however, the industry could scarcely intervene in 1949 as it had in 1934, when Will Hays created the PCA and thus put teeth into the Production Code. Sharpening those teeth by updating the Code or strengthening PCA enforcement was now out of the question, owing less to economic conditions and recalcitrant filmmakers than to the federal government’s antitrust campaign. The prospect of theater divestiture threatened the MPAA with the loss of its implicit control over the exhibition end of the business, which it had long maintained through the studios’ affiliated chains and selling policies. In other words, theater divestiture would make the Code seal—and the Code itself—essentially meaningless.

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