Overview for films in Post-War Era
(Digital History ID 2963)

The film industry changed radically after World War II, and this change altered the style and content of the films made in Hollywood. After experiencing boom years from 1939 to 1946, the film industry began a long period of decline. Within just seven years, attendance and box receipts fell to half their 1946 levels.

Part of the reason was external to the industry. Many veterans returning from World War II got married, started families, attended college on the GI Bill, and bought homes in the suburbs. All these activities took a toll on box office receipts. Families with babies tended to listen to the radio rather than go to the movies; college students placed studying before seeing the latest film; and newlyweds purchasing homes, automobiles, appliances, and other commodities had less money to spend on movies.

Then, too, especially after 1950, television challenged and surpassed the movies as America's most popular entertainment form. In 1940, there were just 3,785 TV sets in the United States. Two decades later, nine homes in every ten had at least one TV set. For preceding Americans, clothing styles, speech patterns, and even moral attitudes and political points of view had been shaped by the movies. For post-World War II Americans, television largely took the movies' place as a dominant cultural influence. The new medium reached audiences far larger than those attracted by motion pictures, and it projected images right into family's living rooms.

Internal troubles also contributed to Hollywood's decline. Hollywood's founding generation--Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck--retired or were forced out as new corporate owners, lacking movie experience, took over. The film companies had high profiles, glamour, undervalued stock, strategically located real estate, and film libraries which television networks desperately needed. In short, they were perfect targets for corporate takeovers. The studios reduced production, sold off back lots, and made an increasing number of pictures in Europe, where costs were lower.

Meanwhile, Hollywood's foreign market began to vanish. Hollywood had depended on overseas markets for as much as 40 percent of its revenue. But in an effort to nurture their own film industries and prevent an excessive outflow of dollars, Britain, France, and Italy imposed stiff import tariffs and restrictive quotas on imported American movies. With the decline in foreign markets, movie making became a much riskier business.

Then an antitrust ruling separated the studios from their theater chains. In 1948, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Paramount case, which had been working its ways through the courts for almost a decade. The court's decree called for the major studios to divest themselves of their theater chains. In addition to separating theater and producer- distributor companies, the court also outlawed block booking, the fixing of admissions prices, unfair runs and clearances, and discriminatory pricing and purchasing arrangements. With this decision, the industry the moguls built--the vertically integrated studio--died. If the loss of foreign revenues shook the financial foundation of the industry, the end of block booking (a practice whereby the exhibitor is forced to take all of a company's pictures to get any of that company's pictures) shattered the weakened buttress. Film making had become a real crap shoot.

One result of the Paramount decision and the end of the monopoly of film making by the majors was an increase in independent productions. Yet despite a host of innovations and gimmicks--including 3-D, Cinerama, stereophonic sound, and cinemascope--attendance continued to fall.

Hollywood also suffered from Congressional probes of communist influence in the film industry. In the late 1930s, the House of Representatives established the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to combat subversive right-wing and left-wing movements. Its history was less than distinguished. From the first it tended to see subversive Communists everywhere at work in American society. HUAC even announced that the Boy Scouts were Communist infiltrated. During the late 1940s and early 1950s HUAC picked up the tempo of its investigation, which it conducted in well-publicized sessions. Twice during this period HUAC traveled to Hollywood to investigate Communist infiltration in the film industry.

HUAC first went to Hollywood in 1947. Although it didn't find the party line preached in the movies, it did call a group of radical screenwriters and producers into its sessions to testify. Asked if they were Communists, the "Hollywood Ten" refused to answer questions about their political beliefs. As Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the ten, said, "I could answer...but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning." They believed that the First Amendment protected them. In the politically charged late 1940s, however, their rights were not protected. Those who refused to divulge their political affiliations were tried for contempt of Congress, sent to prison for a year, and blacklisted.

HUAC went back to Hollywood in 1951. This time it called hundreds of witnesses from both the political right and the political left. Conservatives told HUAC that Hollywood was littered with "Commies." Walt Disney even recounted attempts to have Mickey Mouse follow the party line. Of the radicals, some talked but most didn't. To cooperate with HUAC entailed "naming names"--that is, informing on one's friends and political acquaintances. Again, those who refused to name names found themselves unemployed and unemployable. All told, about 250 directors, writers, and actors were black listed.

In 1948, writer Lillian Hellman denounced the industry's moral cowardice in scathing terms: "Naturally, men scared to make pictures about the American Negro, men who only in the last year allowed the word Jew to be spoken in a picture, who took more than ten years to make an anti-fascist picture, these are frightened men and you pick frightened men to frighten first. Judas goats, they'll lead the others to slaughter for you."

The HUAC hearings and blacklistings discouraged Hollywood from producing politically controversial films. Fear that a motion picture dealing with the life of Hiawatha might be regarded as communist propaganda led Monogram Studio to shelve the project. As The New York Times explained: "It was Hiawatha's efforts as a peacemaker among warring Indian tribes that gave Monogram particular concern. These it was decided might cause the picture to be regarded as a message for peace and therefore helpful to present communist designs." The hearings encouraged Hollywood to produce musicals, biblical epics, and other politically neutral films.

The HUAC hearings also convinced Hollywood producers to make 50 strongly anticommunist films between 1947 and 1954. Most were second-rate movies starring third-rate actors. The films assured Americans that Communists were thoroughly bad people--they didn't have children, they exhaled cigarette smoke too slowly, they murdered their "friends," and they went berserk when arrested. As one film historian has commented, the communists in these films even looked alike; most were "apt to be exceptionally haggard or disgracefully pudgy," and there was certainly "something terribly wrong with a woman if her slip straps showed through her blouse." If these films were bad civic lessons, they did have an impact. They seemed to confirm HUAC's position that Communists were everywhere, that subversives lurked in every shadow. It is ironic that at the same time that HUAC was conducting its investigations of communist subversion, moral censorship of the movies began to decline. In 1949, Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief became the first film to be successfully exhibited without a seal of approval. Despite its glimpses of a brothel and a boy urinating, this Italian film's neo-realist portrait of a poor man's search for his stolen bicycle received strong editorial support from newspapers and was shown in many theaters.

In 1952, the Supreme Court reversed a 1915 decision and extended First Amendment protections of free speech to the movies. The landmark case overturned an effort by censors in New York State to ban Roberto Rosselini's film The Miracle on grounds of sacrilege. In addition, the court decreed that filmmakers could challenge censors' findings in court. The next year, Otto Preminger's sex comedy The Moon Is Blue became the first major American film to be released without the code's seal. Even though the film was condemned by the Legion of Decency for its use of the words "virgin" and "pregnant," efforts to boycott the film fizzled and the film proved to be a box office success. In 1966, the film industry abandoned the Production Code, replacing it with a film rating system which is still in force.

New Directions in Post-War Film

During the 1940s, a new film genre--known as film noir-- arose, which gave tangible expression to the psychic confusion of a nation that had won the largest war in history but faced even greater uncertainties in peacetime. Though film noir received its named from French film critics and was heavily influenced by German expressionist film making techniques, it stands out as one of the most original and innovative American movie genres.

World War II had produced far-reaching changes in American life: it accelerated the mobility of population, raised living standards, and profoundly altered race relations and the roles of women. Film noir metaphorically addressed many anxieties and apprehensions: the disorientation of returning GIs, fear of nuclear weapons, paranoia generated by the early Cod War, and fears aroused by the changing role of women. Characterized by sexual insecurity, aberrant psychology, and nightmarish camera work, film noir depicted a world of threatening shadows and ambiguities--a world of obsession, alienation, corruption, deceit, blurred identity, paranoia, dementia, weak men, cold- blooded femme fatales, and inevitably murder. Its style consisted of looming close ups, oblique camera angles, and crowded compositions that produced a sense of entrapment. The film's narratives were rarely straightforward; they contained frequent flashbacks and voice-overs.

After the war, Hollywood's audience not only shrank, it also fragmented into distinct subgroups. An audience interested in serious social problem films expanded. During the postwar period Hollywood produced a growing number addressing such problems as ethnic and racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, sufferings of maltreated mental patients, and the problems of alcohol and drug addiction.

Although the early postwar period is often regarded as the golden age of the American family, the popular family melodramas of the 1940s and 50s reveal a pattern of deeply troubled family relationships. These films depicted sexual frustration; anxious parents; cold, domineering mothers; alienated children; insensitive or fretful fathers; defiant adolescents; and loveless marriages. In part this obsession with the theme of marriage and family life "as a kind of hell" reflected a popularized form of psychoanalytic thought, which offered simplistic formulas to explain human behavior. Films of the early postwar period laboriously repeated the theme that sexual frustration inevitably led to neurosis and that harsh, neglectful, or uncomprehending parents produce alienated children. It was a far cry from the soothing and funny fare available on TV.

According to many of the popular films of the period, the source of family woes lay in a lack of familial love. Love was treated as the answer to problems ranging from juvenile delinquency to schizophrenia. Adolescents in films like Splendor in the Grass were rebellious because their parents "won't listen." Husbands and wives drank too much or stray sexually because they cannot communicate adequately with their spouses. While many films of the early postwar era appear to offer a critical and ambivalent view of marriage and family life, their underlying message was hopeful. Even the most severe family problems could be resolved by love, understanding, and perseverance.

At the same time that it turned out serious social problem films about drugs and family life, Hollywood produced movies that explored disturbing changes in the lives of American youth. Films such as The Wild One (1954), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) portrayed adolescents as budding criminals, emerging homosexuals, potential fascists, and pathological misfits--everything but perfectly normal kids. On close inspection, cultural critics concluded that something was indeed wrong with American youth, who like Tony in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) seemed closer to uncontrollable beasts than civilized adults. As Tony tells a psychiatrist, "I say things, I do things--I don't know why."

Many factors contributed to a belief in adolescent moral decline. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, linked a rise in juvenile delinquency to the decline in the influence of family, home, church, and local community institutions. Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist, emphasized the pernicious influence of comic books. He believed that crime and horror comic books fostered racism, fascism, and sexism in their readers.

In fact, these fears were grossly overstated. During the late '40s and '50s, for example, juvenile delinquency was not increasing. But changes were taking place, and popular movies suggest some of the responses to these broader social transformations. In retrospect, it appears that the proliferation of juvenile delinquency films reflected adult anxieties and also the growth of a distinct youth market. During the 1950s, a new youth culture began to arise, with its distinctive forms of music (rock-and-roll), dress, and language, as well as a deep disdain for the world of conventional adulthood. Marlon Brando captured a new attitude when he responded to the question, "What are you rebelling against-" with the reply: "Whadda ya got-"

The growing popularity of science fiction thrillers also reflected the emergence of the youth market and the spread of a certain paranoid style during the Cold War years. Historian Richard Hofstadter defined the paranoid style in these terms:

The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is...that its exponents see...a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events...The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms - he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.

As Nora Sayre has shown, science fiction films of the '50s can be viewed as allegories of the Cold War, reflecting broader social concerns with domestic subversion, infiltration, and the pressures for conformity in a mass society. Unlike the cheerful, humorous, quasi-religious science fiction of the 1970s and '80s, the films of the 50s conveyed an atmosphere of paranoia and foreboding, and dealt with themes--like mind-control and the after-effects of atomic bomb tests--that tapped into deep-seated anxieties of the period.

Recommended Film

On the Waterfront Elia Kazan’s story of a former boxer standing up to corrupt union officials on the New York docks serves as an allegory for the issue of naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the postwar Red Scare.

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