In the previous entry in this series (CINEMA & THEATERS #031 and #032) I wrote about Hollywood during World War II. During the war the American film industry made many films for propaganda (*1) purposes—either directly or indirectly supporting the American war effort. The documentary films covering the war directly portrayed the Axis powers (*2) either as evil or as laughingstocks in order to boost morale among the U.S. army and the general public. Meanwhile, commercial films carried patriotic messages meant to rally the public and convince them that the U.S. and its allies were fighting for justice, freedom, and democracy. And animated shorts enlisted popular animated characters in order to encourage the public to buy war bonds (*3). Through such films Hollywood played a decisive role in the American victory.
*1 The term propaganda refers to communication that is used to influence an audience and further an—often political—agenda.
*2 The Axis powers were the nations that fought in World War II against the Allies, and included Germany, Japan, and Italy.
*3 War bonds are debt securities issued by a government to finance military operations in times of war.
After the war, classical Hollywood matured, both as an industry and as a creative medium. This was led by the generation of directors that had risen to prominence in the 30s and 40s. Auteurs like Orson Welles (*4) innovated a new approach to the cinematic language through his distinctive camerawork. European directors like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, who had fled to the U.S. to escape the widening influence of the Nazis (*5), brought with them their unique creative energy. In the 40s, in contrast to the optimistic tales and happy endings that had become standard, these directors produced films that were darker and more geared for adult audiences. Finally, the directors who had been making documentaries for the U.S. Army—Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston, and George Stevens—came back to Hollywood and within a few years would direct the films that would generally be considered their masterpieces.
*4 Orson Welles (1915-1985) was an American actor, director, and writer best known for the film Citizen Kane.
*5 The Nazi Party, or the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was a far-right political party in Germany that was active between 1920 and 1945.
The two decades following the war were also a tumultuous period for Hollywood as an industry. Its success in raising morale during the war signaled to the U.S. government that movies could and should be used for a greater purpose: spreading the ideals of freedom and democracy. Shortly after the end of the war the Supreme Court ruled that the eight major movie studios were in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The studios were forced to let go of their theater chains and forbidden to engage in certain practices that had allowed them to control the market for so long.
The end of World War II also segwayed into the beginning of the Cold War (*6) between the United States and the Soviet Union. Anti-Communist fervor was stirred up within America and authorities started going after suspected Communists (*7) and sympathizers (*8) in what is called the Second Red Scare. The creation of a Hollywood Blacklist forced many out of the industry for years—or for good. And on top of all that, to add insult to injury, the rise of television as a form of mass media would shake the movie industry to its core.
*6 Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the communist Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union, and the capitalist Western Bloc, led by the United States.
*7 Communism is a philosophical, social, political, and economic ideology whose main aim is the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes.
*8 A Red Scare is the promotion of widespread fear of a potential rise of communism or anarchism within a society or state.
In this article I will cover the years between 1945, when World War II ended, to around 1965, when the Golden Age of Hollywood came to a decisive end.
In the 1920s, Hollywood’s major movie studios expanded the scope of their businesses to exercise control over production, distribution, and exhibition; they became vertically integrated (*9) conglomerates. The so-called studio system was comprised of eight major movie studios: the Big Five—Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and RKO—and the Little Three—Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists. These eight studios owned their own production lots, distribution systems, and theater chains in major cities across the U.S. Their dominance left little room for independent companies to establish a foothold in the industry. (The Little Three did not own major movie theater chains and to one extent or another relied on the Big Five for distribution, but they were allowed to exist undisturbed.)
*9 Vertical integration is an arrangement in which the supply chain of a company is owned by that company.
The studio system was supported by business practices like block booking and blind bidding—where independent theater owners were essentially forced to take large numbers (usually 20 films or more) of a studio’s movies without getting to see the movies first. In some cases theaters were forced to acquire a year’s worth of movies ahead of time.
For theaters, this meant acquiring a handful of quality pictures along with a quantity of less attractive titles; because the movies were being sold in advance, many of them were still in the pre-production phase (*10). The theaters would then be required to exhibit the films according to a pre-determined schedule for only a pre-determined period. It was a major shift from the Nickelodeon days of the silent film era, when it was up to exhibitors to put together a program of shorts and newsreels. In exchange for being guaranteed delivery of a certain amount of films over a certain period, exhibitors had to give up their ability to select their programs—or to use our modern parlance, curate.
*10 Pre-production refers to all of the work that is done before shooting begins.
For major studios, movie theaters had become their biggest source of income. Practices like block booking guaranteed that their films would be exhibited—which meant they could make the profits that would allow them to grow and finance another season of films. The catch for studios was that they were now bound to produce a large number of films on a tight schedule. As a result, studios produced “A” pictures starting their most bankable stars and reliable filmmakers, alongside a large number of “B” pictures (*12) that were mass produced and considerably inferior—or merely adequate—in terms of quality. Blind bidding guaranteed that even those “B” pictures would be exhibited for a period of time. Meanwhile, no matter how successful a film was, independent exhibitors were not allowed to extend exhibition periods.
*12 A B movie is a low-budget commercial film, often considered inferior to big budget pictures, and meant to appeal to fans of a particular genre.
In 1938, the Justice Department’s antitrust division filed a suit, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. et al., which charged the eight major Hollywood studios with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. (The case is often shortened to the Paramount Case.) In 1940, the Big Five, in an attempt to settle the case, signed a consent decree that established that blocks would be no larger than five films, and that they could not force independent theaters to acquire shorts and newsreels along with features. In practice, however, the studios did not fully comply with the consent decree, and the government resumed prosecution in 1943. World War II would put the case on hold for a few years, until it went to trial one month after the war’s end. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, which ruled against the movie studios and forced all of them to divest themselves of their movie theater chains. This ruling would be the beginning of the end to the studio system that had governed Hollywood for four decades.
Meanwhile, measures were taken overseas to further curtail the major Hollywood studios’ monopoly over the market. During most of the Golden Age of Hollywood, about 40% of its profits came from overseas markets. When World War II demonstrated that Hollywood could be harnessed to rally people under the flag, the U.S. government realized that it had the potential to exercise its influence internationally. In 1948, the U.S. passed the Marshall Plan (officially known as the European Recovery Program), which involved America transferring a large amount of aid to help Western European economies recover. From the U.S. perspective, the goal was not just to help rebuild war-torn regions but to remove trade barriers, modernize industry, and prevent the spread of Communism by extending the reach of the American brand of democracy. That last part involved exposing Western European countries to more Hollywood movies and rock ’n’ roll. In response, countries like the U.K., France, and Italy passed laws to limit the number of Hollywood film imports in order to protect and cultivate their own domestic movie industries. This would be a second major blow to the Hollywood studio system.
In some ways, the rise of the Hollywood studio system in the 1920s can be seen as a response to American fears regarding Communism and aliens (immigrants).
The Russian Revolution (*13), which began in 1917, resulted in the abolition of the Russian monarchy and the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (aka the Soviet Union). The rise of the world’s first socialist republic gave hope to working-class citizens in countries around the world who had been suffering from poverty and inequality stemming from capitalism. At the same time, however, World War I had sparked a sense of patriotism and a wave of nationalism among Americans. These two developments would lead to the First Red Scare, which was marked by a widespread fear of far-left extremism and Communist revolution (*14). This era saw a rise in labor unrest, with multiple strikes taking place in industries like steelworking, shipbuilding, and coal mining. In 1919, a split in the Socialist Party of America led to the founding of the Communist Party of the United States. Newspapers fanned the flames with exaggerated headlines and questionable sources in order to stir up negative sentiment against the USSR and communism, and the result was a rise in anti-alien (that is, anti-immigrant) sentiment—especially against those from Europe.
*13 The Russian Revolution was a period of political and social revolution across the territory of the Russian Empire, commencing with the abolition of the monarchy in 1917, and concluding with the establishment of the Soviet Union.
*14 A communist revolution is a proletarian revolution, that is, a revolution initiated by the working class with the goal to overthrow the bourgeoisie and replace capitalism with communism.
The American film industry, which had been largely shaped by European immigrants was especially seen as suspect. Nevertheless, a handful of Jewish Americans from Eastern Europe built the Hollywood studio system and became movie moguls. In their eyes, the only way they could prove themselves and earn their place in America was to attain the American Dream. In the 1930s, they would agree to self-impose the Hays Code (*15) to assuage the fear harbored by religious (Protestant (*16) and Catholic) groups that the films being produced by these Jewish moguls were corrupting American morals.
*15 The Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of moral guidelines that Hollywood self-imposed on its movies between 1934 and 1968.
*16 A protestant is a member of any of the Christian groups that separated from the Catholic Church during the Reformation, or of any group that descended from them.
With the Great Depression and the specter of war looming just across the pond over Europe, anti-alien sentiment grew and grew during the 1930s. Isolationists increasingly saw the progressive-minded (*17) interventionists in Hollywood as trouble. While the movie moguls were businessmen, the filmmakers and screenwriters and actors at their studios were artists, who could hardly be seen as making an honest living. In 1933 the latter formed the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild, which angered the former. Concurrently, the rise of the Nazis in Europe led to many European filmmakers fleeing to Hollywood, which only meant more scrutiny directed at the industry.
*17 Someone who is progressive favors progress, change, and social reform.
During World War II, anti-Communist sentiment would temporarily die down; after all, the United States and the Soviet Union were fighting against the Axis powers as allies. Membership of the Communist Party USA increased during the Great Depression and reached its peak in 1942, right after the U.S. had entered the war. In the immediate postwar period, tensions rose between the world’s two superpowers: the U.S. and the Joseph Stalin-led (*13) Soviet Union. This led to what is known as the Cold War between the Soviet-backed Eastern Bloc and the U.S.-backed Western Bloc.
*18 Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was a Soviet politician who ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953.
In the U.S., fear of a potential rise of communism or anarchism within the country reached an all-time high, leading to the Second Red Scare (aka McCarthyism)—where people were convinced that national or foreign communists had infiltrated U.S. society and the federal government. The House Un-American Activities Committee, which had been formed in 1938 to expose subversive activities among private citizens and those suspected of having Fascist ties, was reoriented to investigate suspected Communists and Communist sympathizers. It especially put its energy into investigating those in the entertainment industry and Hollywood. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Joseph McCarthy (*19) headed committees that attempted to reveal the breadth of the Soviet spy network that had infiltrated the federal government.
*19 Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was an American politician who served as a Republican U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin between 1947 and 1957.
Conservative, isolationist, and religious groups had long held that Hollywood was a hotbed of subversive and morally deprived activity. Much like the Hays Code was implemented in the 30s to make Hollywood films more wholesome, in 1947, Walt Disney cofounded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a political action group that issued a pamphlet that advised movie producers on how to avoid “subtle communistic touches” in their films. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. The same year, the publisher and founder of The Hollywood Reporter published a number of articles that named purported Communists and sympathizers within Hollywood. The House Un-American Activities Committee drew upon that list of names and began subpoenaing people in the industry to testify at hearings. Ten “unfriendly witnesses”—mostly screenwriters—who cited their First Amendment rights and refused to answer the committee’s questions were accused of contempt of Congress and convicted in 1948.
As McCarthyism spiraled out of control, the Hollywood Blacklist continued to grow. Most of those who were blacklisted were unable to obtain work in the American film and television industry for many years; some continued to work under pseudonyms. This loss of creative talent would be yet another blow against an already ailing Hollywood.
In pre-World War II America, moviegoing was a national pastime. More than half of U.S. citizens went to a movie theater at least once a week. That number continued to grow even during the war, eventually peaking out at 90 million (about 60% of the population) in 1946. In the postwar period, however, lifestyle habits in America would change in a major way. The G.I. Bill (aka the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) gave returning veterans dedicated payments of tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college, or vocational school. Some veterans got married, had kids, and moved to the suburbs—the final frontier and ultimate resting place of the American Dream. More time spent studying and with kids meant less time to go to the movies.
The biggest disruptor from Hollywood’s perspective was the rise of television culture. While there were only about 4,000 TV sets across the U.S. in 1940, by 1960 90% of households had their own TV. Americans began turning to this new form of mass media for their news, and popular fashion, vernacular, and values were increasingly shaped by what was on the tube.
The rise of television was the final blow to classical Hollywood, which had already been reeling from the dismantling of the studio system and blacklisting. But the death of old Hollywood also signaled its imminent rebirth. Movie studios, which had lost its main source of income—theaters—let go much of its roster of talent. Many transitioned to television, but others remained and changed the face of Hollywood. While the studio system had been producer-driven, Hollywood was now relying more and more on the bankability of big-name actors, directors, and screenwriters to help persuade sponsors to finance their films. This, in turn, would lead to the rise of talent agencies in and around Hollywood. Meanwhile, there was now room for independent movie producers to make a name for themselves. By 1959, about 70% of Hollywood’s output was being produced by independent companies.
Hollywood would turn to new technologies and gimmicks in order to draw audiences back into theaters. It was around this time that drive-in theaters (*20) experienced unprecedented growth. This was fueled by returning veterans moving out to the suburbs and the birth of the baby boomers (*21); drive-ins were much more family and automobile-friendly.
*20 Drive-in theaters consist of a large outdoor movie screen in a parking lot that allows customers to view movies from the comfort of their cars.
*21 The baby boom refers to the birthrate explosion in the 20 years following World War II.
Major movie studios implemented widescreen formats like Cinerama (*22) and Cinemascope (*23), 3D, and stereophonic sound to make the moviegoing experience an event.
*22 Cinerama is a widescreen process that originally involved projecting images simultaneously from three synchronized projectors onto a huge, curved screen.
*23 CinemaScope is an anamorphic lens series used chiefly between1953 to 1967 for shooting widescreen movies.
At the same time, movies themselves had to evolve in order to remain competitive. The decline of the studio system meant that the major studios were now focusing on a smaller slate of films with high commercial prospects. This would eventually lead to the rise of blockbusters in the 1970s and beyond. Movies also had to set themselves apart from television programming. That led to filmmakers taking more and more chances and producing edgier pictures. That included violent and morally questionable film noir, dramas centered on adultery, and the rise of the sex comedy.
Today, Hollywood is in the midst of what is arguably the greatest crisis it has ever faced. It’s interesting to note that Hollywood became the center of the American film industry in the 1910s; half a century later the Golden Age of Hollywood came to an end, and now, another half-century later, movie theaters around the world are on their last legs. The advent of 4K and 8K LED screens for home use, coupled with the rise of video streaming services, has made audiences the world over question the moviegoing experience. This time, perhaps, Hollywood saw it coming, but efforts like the reintroduction of 3D and the attempt to transform the experience into an amusement park ride—4D (*24)—have achieved middling results at best. In America the answer always seems to be to “go bigger”.
The new coronavirus pandemic has only made the situation go from bad to worse. Movie theaters across the U.S. remain closed as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on Hollywood and on the entire motion picture industry as a whole. In 2020, movie fans have looked to blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan (*25) as their savior and the planned July release of his latest film Tenet as the spark that will reignite the American movie industry. Originally planned for a July 17th release, the movie was pushed back to July 31st, and then to August 12th. As of July 27th—with COVID-19 cases continuing to surge across the U.S.—the film has been delayed indefinitely.
*25 Christopher Nolan (1970-) is an English movie director, producer, and screenwriter.