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Postwar Stars, Genres, and Production Trends - Stars and the Star System, CASE STUDY:THE REGENERATION OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO

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Perhaps the single most remarkable aspect of the postwar American cinema was the overall quality and vitality of the movies themselves. Despite the declining market and mounting outside pressures, Hollywood’s output in the late 1940s was, by any standards, as strong as in any period in industry history. The war and the war-related flood of new talent brought a spirit of innovation and even a certain progressivism to Hollywood. Among the newcomers were the scores of European émigrés who arrived in Hollywood before the war and had become established filmmakers. Their number also included the influx of new American talent during and just after the war, many of whom had new ideas about the cinema’s potential as both a political and an artistic force—the New York dramatists Elia Kazan and Robert Rossen, for instance, who in films like GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947) and ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) injected a new energy and social awareness into the American cinema.

Yet another important group of progressive, American-born postwar arrivistes, interestingly enough, were the experienced movie colonists and top filmmakers, like Wyler, Stevens, Ford, Capra, Huston, who had left for military duty and whose postwar films evinced the profound effects of both their documentary work and the war itself. Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) and Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), for example, provided startling evidence that Hollywood’s—and the nation’s—wartime experience might bring a new maturity to the American cinema.

This nascent progressivism was countered and contained by the studios, however, which gained increasing control over the industry as economic conditions deteriorated. The studios, although facing imminent extinction, enjoyed their last hurrah in the late 1940s, and their chief strategy in those uncertain times was to sustain the stars, genres, and production practices that had fueled the studio system for the preceding two decades. The system was showing signs of age—quite literally in Hollywood’s population of top stars. But there were still some signs of life and vitality in the old system, best evidenced perhaps by the regeneration of the movie musical at MGM and by the studios’ efficient reformulation of the crime thriller in a steady flow of trenchant films noirs. These were the final flashes of studio brilliance, however, in what proved to be the last gasp of the studio era.

Stars and the Star System

Since the early 1940s, the Hollywood studio system and the star system had been drifting steadily out of sync, and by 1946 they showed signs of disengaging altogether. Key factors were the increasing individual authority, diminished output, and shift to free-lance status of many top stars and the pronounced turn to independent production. In 1946-1947, stars created their own companies as rapidly as leading producers and directors did, and the stars’ bankable status gave them much greater clout both with lending institutions and with studio-distributors.

Mainly because of the economic downturn and the reassertion of studio authority in the late 1940s, however, the star system and studio system did remain in sync. While the industry remained as star-driven as ever, the stars themselves found it increasingly difficult to maintain their independence. Like Hollywood’s leading producer-directors, the top stars declined to risk the financial hazards of freelance status or independence after 1947, returning instead to the security of a studio contract. The studios were eager to have them back in the fold, of course, since the contract star was the key element in their production and market strategies. Thus, the studios and stars maintained an uneasy alliance, waiting for the myriad postwar developments to play themselves out.

Both the immediate postwar surge and the subsequent decline enabled Hollywood’s established stars to dominate the industry. In the rush to independence of 1946-1947, only top stars had the leverage to form their own companies. And once the retrenchment mentality set in and stars returned to the studios, these same stars were deemed a safer investment than new talent. Thus, in the late 1940s, there was far less turnover in the rankings of top box-office stars than in the early 1940s, and there were fewer emerging stars as well.

While established stars maintained their currency in the postwar era, gauging star appeal became increasingly difficult. Since the early 1930s, Hollywood’s chief means of gauging star value had been the Exhibitors’ Poll. In the chaotic postwar marketplace, however, the poll began to lose its credibility and was dismissed by many as a quasi-reliable survey of conservative exhibitor tastes. Consequently, both Variety and Audience Research, Inc. (ARI) began measuring star value as well, employing very different methods and coming to very different conclusions about the market value of top stars. Taken together, these different polls illustrate the changing stakes and conditions in the postwar movie industry.

Beginning in January 1947, Variety published an index of the top box-office stars of the previous year in its anniversary issue. Designed as a more accurate gauge of a star’s audience appeal and market value than the Exhibitors’ Poll, Variety’s rating included the number of pictures in release the previous year, the aggregate rentals of those pictures, and the average rentals per picture; average rentals served as the basis for a star’s ranking. Thus, stars with three or four releases in a year would not have an advantage in the rankings over those who appeared in only one or two. While the Variety poll was in some ways a more accurate measure of box-office appeal than the Exhibitors’ Poll, Variety acknowledged that its rankings did not reflect “a star’s [box-office] power, per se, since they make no allowance for draw of co-stars or for story, director, production values and the other ingredients which make a film a top-grosser.”

ARI, meanwhile, had been gauging star value via social-scientific methods for a number of years, and by 1946 its “Continuing Audit of Marquee Values” was being disseminated widely and had become required reading for studio and production executives, most of whom now were willing to pay for Gallup’s services. In fact, Variety acknowledged and implicitly criticized ARI’s pervasive influence in a May 1946 article under the banner headline “Audience Research Blues.” Without mentioning ARI, Variety noted that the “increasing reliance on audience research by the studios has stars looking dreadfully forward to the day when they’ll [be] … mere percentage figures in a producer’s drawer.” 2 Actually, that day already had arrived, although producers undoubtedly put less stock in those figures than Variety suggested.

ARI, for its part, voiced no doubts about the significance and merits of its research. As its semiannual reports boldly asserted:

This report shows a screen player’s power to sell tickets at the box office…. The Audit does not measure talent, except as talent persuades movie-goers to spend money to see a particular personality. The Audit reports the percentage of movie-goers interviewed in a nation-wide cross-section survey who say that the name of a particular player on the front of a theater would make them want to buy a ticket. (“Continuing Audit of Marquee Values No. 27” [emphasis in original] [New York, Princeton, Hollywood: Audience Research, Inc., September 1946])

 

ARI’s cross-section was carefully controlled to represent the nation’s moviegoers, and its measures indicated interest in a player’s name “without regard to title, story, other players, producer, director,” or any other factor. ARI did not break down its cross-section in the reports into multiple demographic categories, but it did break out a separate category, the “Upper Price Audit,” focused on interviewees who attended first-run theaters. According to ARI, this group, taken as a whole, paid an average of seventy cents per ticket (over twice the norm) and accounted for roughly 60 percent of the total box-office gross.


Interestingly enough, the Exhibitors’ Poll, Variety, and ARI came up with very different star rankings in the late 1940s—an indication perhaps of the chaotic market conditions as well as the different research methods involved. In 1946, for example, the three services provided these top-ten listings:


The disparity between the three polls is obvious enough—beyond the first two places, at least. Only three of the top ten stars turned up on all three lists, and ten stars appeared on only one of the lists. The 1946 rankings, however, displayed more continuity than usual for the three services. Invariably, only two or three stars turned up on all three lists, and in 1947 and 1949, Variety’s number-one stars (Jennifer Jones and Jeanne Crain, respectively) were not even included in the top ten in the Exhibitors’ Poll ranking.


The increasing fragmentation of both movie audiences and the movie industry itself in the late 1940s made any objective, scientific assessment of star value extremely difficult. In fact, in January 1949, Variety had sufficient reservations about its star-ranking efforts—and about star value itself under current market conditions—that it declined to offer any ranking at all. The year’s top hits, asserted Variety, indicated “more strongly than ever the fact that the draw of star names is no more than a subordinate factor in creating an audience” for a picture. Thus, “tabulation of the top money players during the 12-month period,” said Variety, was “all but impossible for 1948, for as soon as you get past Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Bob Hope and perhaps a few others [Ingrid Bergman, Jane Wyman, John Wayne], the reasoning becomes spurious.”


Variety did return to its star listing the following year, however, and continued the practice throughout the 1950s. Gauging stardom had not become any easier; on the contrary, the industry was even more chaotic and uncertain in the post-divorcement era. But as long as movies remained so essentially star-driven, the industry would continue to devise ways of measuring the value and appeal of movie stars.


The vagaries of audience measurement and star evaluation aside, the combined annual rankings of both Variety and the Exhibitors’ Poll for the period 1946-1949 generate these two lists of top postwar box-office stars:


One striking fact about these lists—beyond their obvious discrepancies—is how few new stars appear. All of the stars listed had established themselves by the late war years, with the lone exception of Larry Parks. After playing leads in second-rate pictures throughout the war, Parks burst to sudden stardom in THE JOLSON STORY in 1946. He kept busy in the late 1940s, but his only subsequent success came in JOLSON SINGS AGAIN in 1949. Parks faded quickly thereafter, a victim of the blacklist when HUAC returned to Hollywood in 1951.


A corollary to the dearth of new stars, of course, was the staying power of established screen figures in the late 1940s—particularly Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, and Humphrey Bogart, who ranked in the top ten on the Exhibitors’ Poll in all four postwar years. For the most part, those stars stayed on top by staying very much in character. Crosby and Hope did yet another Road picture for Paramount in 1947, R OAD TO R IO, with predictable box-office results: $4.5 million in rentals. Crosby also starred in his usual light comedy-musical vehicles, notably BLUE SKIES (1946) with Fred Astaire, and he also appeared in a few period musicals like THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948). Hope, meanwhile, continued to rely on his bumbling, cowardly hero persona and penchant for broad farce in costume jobs like MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (1946) and THE PALEFACE (1948). He also turned out a pair of requisite mystery-comedies, MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE (1947) and THE GREAT LOVER (1949), both solid hits. In fact, both Hope and Crosby were popular enough in the late 1940s that virtually all their pictures returned at least $3 million in rentals to Paramount, with whom both had devised profit-sharing deals, and thus they closed out the decade as Hollywood’s most dependable, bankable stars.


Like Hope and Crosby, Gary Cooper plodded through a half-dozen utterly predictable postwar roles, including a requisite DeMille epic for Paramount in 1947, UNCONQUERED, which earned over $5 million despite uniformly weak reviews ( Time called it “a five-million-dollar celebration of Gary Cooper’s virility”). After disappointing teamings with two top directors—Fritz Lang for the 1946 spy thriller CLOAK AND DAGGER, and Leo McCarey for the upbeat 1948 comedy GOOD SAM —Cooper closed out the decade with portrayals of larger-than-life iconoclasts in THE FOUNTAINHEAD (as a headstrong architect) and TASK FORCE (as a headstrong naval officer). Both were respectable but ponderous dramas and, along with his other postwar films, suggested that Cooper was growing a bit weary and that his stalwart, stoic-heroic persona was wearing a bit thin, in fact, Cooper fell from the Exhibitors’ Poll’s top ten in 1950 for the first time in a decade. Not until his roles began to exploit his advancing age—as in HIGH NOON (1952)—did Cooper return to top stardom.


Clark Gable suffered much the same fate as Cooper in the late 1940s, appearing in a number of overblown MGM dramas, like ADVENTURE (1945) and COMMAND DECISION (1948), that seemed almost a parody of his prewar persona. Only when he lightened up in THE HUCKSTERS (1947) as an ad-man struggling to “reconvert” after the war did Gables playful charm and audience appeal seem to return. That picture was a hit, but MGM chose to pursue the weightier dramatic vehicles, which also did well at the box office. And much like Cooper, Gable seemed to strain harder with each role to sustain a persona that was nearing the point of exhaustion.


The postwar efforts of Humphrey Bogart were considerably more interesting and effective than those of Cooper and Gable, for three reasons. First, Bogart, who turned 50 in 1949 and was older than both Cooper and Gable, seemed quite comfortable with the prospect of advancing age. Second, Bogart continually looked for acting challenges and offbeat roles, most notably in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE as a gold prospector who gradually loses his mind. And third, Bogart did three more films with Lauren Bacall—THE BIG SLEEP (1946), DARK PASSAGE (1947), and KEY LARGO (1948)—all of which were hits. And in KEY LARGO, to Bogart’s credit, he willingly edged out of the frame to give Edward G. Robinson free rein as the mobster Johnny Rocco in a stunning reprise of Robinson’s earlier gangster roles.


One male star who managed to mature gracefully while maintaining his romantic appeal was Cary Grant. After playing Cole Porter in the musical biopic NIGHT AND DAY (1946), the inveterate freelancer Grant settled into what was for him a rather lengthy relationship with a single studio, RKO, where he did five films over the next few years. The first of these, NOTORIOUS (1946), was Grant’s only dramatic thriller of the period. The remainder were comedies, notably THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER (1947, with Shirley Temple), THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947, with Loretta Young), and MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948, with Myrna Loy). He closed out the decade with a comedy hit for Fox, I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE (1949, with Ann Sheridan).


Gregory Peck, who turned 30 in 1946, was by far the youngest top male star of the postwar period. Peck emerged overnight as a star in KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1944) (his second screen role) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he reached top stardom via two 1946 hits, DUEL IN THE SUN and THE YEARLING. But it was not until GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT in 1947, playing a journalist who poses as a Jew to expose anti-Semitism, that Peck’s screen persona as the decent and reliable (if somewhat dull) hero coalesced. Once established, that persona varied little—there would be no more wild, womanizing renegades as in DUEL IN THE SUN. In fact, his heroic type was becoming altogether predictable until the late-1949 war film TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, wherein his portrayal of a flight commander who agonizes over sending his men to their death brought a new psychological and emotional depth to his screen persona.


Two veteran actors who finally reached top stardom in the late 1940s—and who would dominate the industry throughout the 1950s—were James Stewart and John Wayne. Stewart had been on the verge of stardom since winning an Oscar just before the war, but after returning from the service, he had trouble recovering his prewar form, despite an excellent performance in IT’S A WONDERFUL L IFE (1946). Roles in two 1948 crime thrillers, CALL NORTHSIDE 777 and ROPE, also failed to ignite audience interest. Stewart’s postwar breakthrough came in 1949 with THE STRATTON STORY, a sentimental biopic of a baseball pitcher who stages a heroic comeback after losing his leg in an accident. Stewart also left MGM in 1949 and entered a long-term, quasi-independent relationship with Universal that proved remarkably successful.


After Wayne joined the ranks of top stars in 1949-1950, he would dominate for the next two decades. Signing a producer-star deal with Republic in 1946, Wayne continued to star in formula hokum for the studio such as ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947) and THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949). 7 He alternated these with more ambitious projects elsewhere, including RED RIVER for Howard Hawks in 1948 and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON for John Ford in 1949. In both films Wayne not only showed his age (he turned   40 in 1947) but evinced a certain vulnerability as well. The lined and cracked features rendered his swagger less imposing, character more human. RED RIVER also plumbed Wayne’s darker nature, revealing an obsessive, brutal side. As David Thomson notes, “Hawks was the first to see the slit-eyed, obdurate side to Wayne’s character.” 8 These qualities would inform many of his later roles, including the 1949 war film for Republic, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, in which he plays a ruthless, battle-hardened marine top-sergeant. The picture was a huge hit, bringing Wayne an Oscar nomination and solidifying his status as a top box-office star.


Hollywood’s leading female stars of the era, Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable, followed radically different postwar paths. Grable simply extended her wartime success as she posed, sang, and wisecracked her way through a succession of period comedy-musical hits for 20th Century-Fox like MOTHER WORE TIGHTS (1947) and WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME (1948). Her one slightly offbeat film of the period was THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (1949), a lunatic Western comedy-musical for Fox by writer-director-producer Preston Sturges.


Ingrid Bergman’s postwar career, meanwhile, followed a much less stable or predictable course. After completing her contract with Selznick with NOTORIOUS, Bergman struck out on her own. The most significant of her freelance efforts was JOAN OF ARC (1948), a bloated biopic that earned over $4 million. Bergman then turned to Europe, working first in England on a female Gothic with Hitchcock, UNDER CAPRICORN (1949). That was a disappointment, and it was followed by professional disaster. While in Italy for Roberto Rossellini’s STROMBOLI (1950), Bergman fell in love with the Italian film-maker, and in a highly publicized scandal, she left her husband and daughter to wed Rossellini. Chastised by the press, ostracized by conservative political and religious groups, and effectively blacklisted in Hollywood, Bergman would not work again in the United States for nearly a decade.


Olivia de Havilland overtook Bette Davis and Greer Garson as the doyenne of the Hollywood woman’s picture in the late 1940s and became arguably the leading dramatic actress of the period. Having won free-agent status from Warners in 1943, de Havilland made the most of her independence after the war in a succession of first-rate melodramas which brought her two Academy Awards and widespread recognition as an actress with beauty, talent, and box-office clout. The best-actress Oscars came with two Paramount melodramas, To EACH HIS OWN (1946) and THE HEIRESS (1949), while she won her greatest critical acclaim in Fox’s THE SNAKE PIT (1948) portraying a recently married woman who descends into madness and battles through a lengthy, horrific recovery.


While de Havilland came into her own after the war, several other veteran female stars went into serious decline. Greer Garson, MGM’s wartime matriarch and top box-office star, faded badly despite the studio’s best efforts in ADVENTURE (1945), DESIRE ME (1947), and JULIA MISBEHAVES (1948). She enjoyed mild success in the 1949 period drama THAT FORSYTE WOMAN, although by then it was evident that audiences had lost interest in the woman who commanded such devotion only a few years before. The telling blow came in 1950 with the failure of THE MINIVER STORY, a sequel to MRS.MINIVER costarring Walter Pidgeon. The serious decline of Universal’s Deanna Durbin actually had begun during the war, when Universal failed to rekindle the appeal of her late-1930s hits. Durbin did several films but nothing of note after the war, despite a Universal salary which in 1948 paid her $366,000, making her the highest-paid female actress in the industry. That same year, while still in her twenties, she suddenly (but not unexpectedly) retired.


Warners’ top female stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, came out of the war in rare form but also faded badly in the late 1940s. Davis did five pictures with Warners from 1946 to 1949, the first of which, A STOLEN LIFE (1946), was among her best. Then came a series of flops, rendering her $6,ooo-per-week salary (plus bonuses) a severe drain on Warners’ resources.™ Still, the studio pulled out all the stops for WINTER MEETING (1948) and BEYOND THE FOREST (1949), grand melodramas with Davis’s over-the-top performances bordering on self-caricature. When those failed, she left Warners, her career seemingly over—until her next film, ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), which won Davis her third Oscar and gave her career yet another boost. Crawford, meanwhile, followed her Oscar-winning 1945 comeback in MILDRED PIERCE with two excellent noir melodramas for Warners, HUMORESQUE (1946) and POSSESSED (1947), and then a more conventional woman’s picture for Otto Preminger at Fox, DAISY KENYON (1947). She remained active but did nothing else of note in the late 1940s as her career began winding down.


Other mature women stars, like Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck, held their own in the postwar era. Hepburn, after two disappointing dramatic efforts, UNDERCURRENT (1946) and SONG OF LOVE (1947), reteamed with Spencer Tracy for three solid hits: THE SEA OF GRASS (1947), STATE OF THE UNION (1948), and ADAM’S RIB (1949). The latter two were sharp romantic comedies in the spirit of the initial Tracy-Hepburn hit, WOMAN OF THE YEAR, and they marked a return to form for the screen’s “first couple.”


While Hepburn turned successfully from drama to comedy in the late 1940s, both Russell and Stanwyck, who had done brilliant comedy early in the decade, concentrated on darker drama in the postwar era. Russell received an Oscar nomination playing the title character in a weighty 1946 biopic, SISTER KENNY; she struggled through an ill-fated 1947 adaptation of MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA; and she let loose as a headstrong actress who gets away with murder in an effective 1948 noir thriller, THE VELVET TOUCH. Stanwyck, who had played the quintessential femme fatale in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, portrayed both victimizer and victim in two Oscar-nominated postwar roles: as the homicidal title character in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), and the bedridden hysteric who hears her own murder being plotted in SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948).


Although Russell, Stanwyck, and a few other top female stars did well in the late 1940s, their careers clearly had peaked, owing less to diminished skills than to changing industry imperatives and audience tastes. Garson, Davis, Crawford, Russell, Stanwyck, and Hepburn all were in their forties by 1949, and the market for their talents was rapidly drying up. Significantly enough, top male stars like Bogart, Cooper, Grant, Hope, Crosby, Stewart, and Wayne had hit their forties as well, but their careers still were going strong and would continue to flourish. Thus, along with the “graying” of Hollywood’s star populace after the war came a gender split of sorts. This bias, in fact, would intensify for decades to come in two distinct ways: the ranks of top stars would be predominantly male, and female stars would tend to be considerably younger than their male counterparts.


While the postwar era was dominated by established stars, a new generation of talent was emerging in the late 1940s. Among the notable female stars were Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain at Fox, Lana Turner and June Allyson at MGM, Jane Wyman and Ida Lupino at Warners, and the freelancers Dorothy McGuire and Susan Hayward. Of these, only Tierney approached top stardom, although she scarcely enjoyed the success of such emergent wartime stars as Grable and Garson. Tierney and most of the other rising postwar stars were being groomed for melodrama, and few displayed the versatility of Stanwyck, Russell, or Hepburn. Two new arrivals at decade’s end, Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe, signaled an important change in Hollywood’s comic portrayal of female sexuality.


The postwar era saw ascending male stars as well—Alan Ladd and William Holden at Paramount, Glenn Ford at Columbia, Gene Kelly at MGM, and the freelancer Montgomery Clift. The noir thriller provided an excellent proving ground for young talent, particularly Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster. Mitchum and Douglas costarred in OUT OF THE PAST (1947), an exceptional postwar thriller, and they did other impressive work as well—Mitchum in THE LOCKET (1946) and CROSSFIRE (1947), for instance, and Douglas in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (his debut) and CHAMPION (1949). Lancaster debuted in THE KILLERS in 1946 and went on to do BRUTE FORCE (1947), SORRY , WRONG NUMBER (1948), and CRISS CROSS (1949). A few established stars also found film noir to be their element, notably John Garfield, who did the best work of his career in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946, with Lana Turner), BODY AND SOUL (1947), and FORCE OF EVIL (1948).


Another significant postwar development was the emergence of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who made their screen debut in a modest 1949 comedy, MY FRIEND IRMA , and became an overnight sensation—not unlike what Abbott and Costello had done Page 365  early in the decade. And in fact Abbott and Costello themselves enjoyed a return to top stardom in the late 1940s, a comeback that for a number of reasons was even more important than either the emergence of Martin and Lewis or their own burst to stardom in 1940—1941. Indeed, the return of Abbott and Costello was among the more illuminating developments of the period, with implications far beyond simply the careers of the star duo.


CASE STUDY:THE REGENERATION OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO


Abbott and Costello, a fixture in the Exhibitors’ Poll during most of the war, slipped from the top ten to number eleven in 1945. The slide continued for two years amid repeated announcements of their impending split, and the duo was written off as a wartime phenomenon. 11 But remarkably enough, Abbott and Costello returned to the Exhibitors’ Poll in 1948 with a number-three ranking, a position they continued to hold in 1949. They remained in the top ten for two more years before executing a successful segue into network television in late 1951.


The resurgence of Abbott and Costello was related to changing audience tastes, of course, but it also evinced other important industry factors in the late 1940s: the changing fortunes of Universal, especially in terms of the International merger; the changing status of A- and B-class product; and the return to efficient star-genre formulation with the late-1940s economic decline and reasserted studio control. The duo’s resurgence also indicated the vagaries of star measurement at the time: it was scarcely geared to low-budget production and low-end markets. And on a related note, the success of Abbott and Costello and other low-cost Universal series anticipated the movie industry’s convergence with the nascent TV industry.


Abbott and Costello’s rapid mid-1940s decline was directly related to the premium on A-class pictures that accompanied the war boom and to Universal’s changing production and marketing strategies as well. Mass-produced lowbrow comedy for the subsequent-run market scarcely jibed with Universal’s emphasis on top-feature production after its 1946 merger with International Pictures. The studio did try to upgrade the duo’s image in 1946 in the costume epic THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES , in which they played a pair of ghosts from the Revolutionary War. And in LITTLE GIANT (1946), a fairly straight comedy, they were introduced separately; Abbott plays a dual role, and one of his characters teams up with Costello in the course of the story.


Both of those fared poorly, so Universal reverted to low-cost genre parodies much like the Abbott and Costello films of the war years. These included THE WISTFUL WIDOW OF WAGON GAP (1947) and THE NOOSE HANGS HIGH (1948), which were more cost-efficient and somewhat more successful at the box office, and thus more profitable than the ambitious 1946 vehicles. But the duo’s glory days seemed to be over, best evidenced perhaps by the 1947 release of BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME , a lackluster effort to capitalize on the initial Abbott and Costello hit—to the extent of including footage from the original BUCK PRIVATES in the form of flashbacks.


In early 1948, with the genre parodies doing reasonable business, producer Robert Arthur and writer John Grant, who had collaborated on Abbott and Costello’s initial hits, developed the idea for a horror-comedy. Initially titled “The Brain of Frankenstein,” the project was designed to rework an earlier series of genre recombinations at Universal—the horror “reunion” pictures of the war years, such as FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). Those films had not fared well, and now after Hiroshima and the birth of the atomic age, Universal’s horror cycle seemed not only exhausted but antiquated. Moreover, the currency of horror stars Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. was even lower than Abbott and Costello’s. Thus, while the effort to recombine its horror and Abbott and Costello formulas may have seemed like a desperate and ill-fated exercise, Universal actually had little to lose—especially in light of the modest cost of the venture. In 1947, with the average cost per feature over $1 million and top features costing two to three times that, “The Brain of Frankenstein” was budgeted at only $750,000. Abbott and Costello shared a flat-fee salary of $105,000 on the film, while Chaney and Lugosi each earned $2,000 per week.


In Grant’s story, Abbott and Costello were to play their usual bumbling selves, while Lugosi and Chaney did straightforward horrific versions of their signature roles as Dracula and the Wolf Man. The story centered on two hapless freight agents in Florida who handle the encased forms of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and various other props for a horror theme park. The vampire (Lugosi) and the monster turn out to be authentic, however—part of a diabolical plot by a mad scientist determined to carry on the work of Frankenstein in America. Meanwhile, the monsters are being pursued by the Wolf Man (Chaney), who has vowed to rid the world of them forever. The film’s title refers to a plot by the scientist to transplant Costello’s brain into the Frankenstein monster, which not only ties together the comedy and horror formulas but also provides a climactic “birth scene” in the tradition of the original Frankenstein films.


In February 1948, Universal began shooting “The Brain of Frankenstein,” which was completed by March with characteristic Universal efficiency, coming in on schedule and only $10,000 over budget. The title was changed to ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN during postproduction, and the film was released in June 1948. The Abbott and Costello (and Lugosi and Chaney) vehicle proved to be an appealing mix of genre conventions— Variety deemed it “a happy combination both for chills and laughs.” 13 A happy combination of income and efficiency for Universal, the film also translated into considerable profit. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN earned $2.2 million in 1948, generating a profit of over $1 million—a significant take under the market conditions of the late 1940s, as indicated by the film’ performance relative to other releases with comparable earnings. Variety’s year-end tabulation placed ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN at number fifty-one in rental returns for the year, just behind Warners’ THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE ($2.3 million) and THE PARADINE C ASE ($2.2 million). Significantly, the Warners picture cost $2.74 million to produce, and the Selznick production cost $3.2 million. 14 Thus, both pictures were far from breaking even after their domestic release.


The success of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN vaulted the duo back into the Exhibitors’ Poll’s top ten, and Universal immediately initiated a follow-up, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER , BORIS KARLOFF (1949). That gave Universal another low-cost, high-yield hit and enabled the comedy team to maintain their number-three ranking (behind Hope and Crosby) in 1949. But Abbott and Costello were not similarly rated by Variety or ARI. In fact, in 1949, with their comeback by now a widely acknowledged industry phenomenon, the duo was not even ranked in Variety’s top twenty-five. Nor were they included in ARI’s 1950 listing of the top twenty-five male stars.


These omissions ultimately say less about Abbott and Costello’s star value and audience appeal than about the different assumptions and methods involved in the three polls. Variety’s method of ranking stars according to average box-office performance per annum clearly favored stars who appeared predominantly in only a few big first-run-market pictures each year. This emphasis on top hits discriminated against any stars who appealed to small-town and rural audiences—from Abbott and Costello to B-Western stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, who also failed to show up in Variety’s top twenty-five. Moviegoers polled by ARI’s interview-based method, on the other hand, may have been reluctant to voice their interest in the likes of Abbott and Costello when asked which stars would draw them into the theater.


Star rankings aside, Universal’s revised Abbott and Costello formula was set by 1949, and over the next few years the duo would “meet” the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy. Moreover, the success of the Abbott and Costello films led Universal to develop other low-cost comedy series as well. In 1949, the studio created a spin-off of its 1947 A-class comedy hit THE EGG AND I, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. Two supporting players from that film who played a farm couple, the veteran character actors Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, starred in MA AND PA KETTLE , a 1949 hit which returned $2.5 million—nearly ten times its production cost, initiating a series that ran in nine annual installments through 1957. In 1949, the long-time Universal producer-director Arthur Lubin, who had directed many of Abbott and Costello’s early hits, went to work on another low-budget buddy comedy, FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE , a 1950 hit which generated yet another comedy series.


Thus, the comeback of Abbott and Costello marked a reversion by Universal as well—a return to the factory-based production geared to the mass market that once had been its forte. That strategy would provide a pattern for the emerging television industry as well, particularly in terms of telefilm series production. In fact, several of these same Universal series eventually were reworked for TV. In 1951, Abbott and Costello took their slapstick comedy and vaudeville shtick to television’ Colgate Comedy Hour, among the first Hollywood-based telefilm series. The Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis films would spark TV’s “rural sitcoms” of the late 1950s and 1960s: the Kettles were reworked into The Real McCoys, and Arthur Lubin himself created Mr. Ed, a TV version of the Francis series.


Postscript: Paramount, DeMille, and SAMSON AND DELILAH


While forces both outside and inside the movie industry subdued Hollywood’s progressive impulse after the late-1949 burst of race dramas and social problem films, perhaps the most significant development in the conservative swing at decade’s end was the release of SAMSON AND DELILAH. Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount and released in December 1949—only days before the studio’s epochal theater divorcement took effect—SAMSON AND DELILAH was utterly at odds with the dominant genres, stylistic trends, and market strategies of the period. It was not only a throwback to an earlier era but an augur of things to come.


The first studio-produced, calculated blockbuster effort in years, SAMSON AND DELILAH was a lavish historical spectacle starring Victor Mature, Hedy Lamarr, and “a cast of thousands.” Paramount raised its budget ceiling to $3.5 million for the production, and DeMille reportedly brought it in some $600,000 under budget in early 1949. Paramount devoted nearly a full year to postproduction and promotion, and the studio’s investment paid off. SAMSON AND DELILAH became the first picture in nearly three years to earn over $5 million en route to total domestic earnings of $11.5 million, sur passing THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES as the biggest box-office hit of the decade.


The tremendous success of SAMSON AND DELILAH both in the United States and overseas rekindled Hollywood’s hit-driven mentality while reasserting the currency of the big-budget historical spectacle, and it heralded a radical redirection of the movie industry in the 1950s. Indeed, although it recalled DeMille’s earlier biblical epics like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923) and THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932), SAMSON AND DELILAH was actually quite radical by postwar standards. The film a lavish spectacular with global appeal designed to exploit Paramount’s strengths as a producer-distributor rather than its once-vast theater chain. And “bringing together the Old Testament and Technicolor for the first time,” as Bosley Crowther put it, the film also anticipated the marriage of large-scale epics with other technological innovations like CinemaScope and Cinerama.


The success of SAMSON AND DELILAH spawned two similar hits in 1951, Quo VADIS ? and DAVID AND BATHSHEBA, and much bigger hits were yet to in 1953, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1956, and come—THE ROBE BEN-HUR 1959. Each was a monumental international success which redefined the revenue potential of top movie hits, and each reinforced the blockbuster mentality of the New Hollywood. Thus, SAMSON AND DELILAH, clearly a watershed film, was more a film of the 1950s than the 1940s. in fact, it underscored the distinctive nature of the period that preceded it—the tense and heady postwar years, the vibrant twilight of Hollywood’s classical era.

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