Back to Hollywood's America
Of all the products of popular
culture, none is more sharply etched in our collective imagination
than the movies. Most Americans instantly recognize images produced
by the movies: Charlie Chaplin, the starving prospector in The
Gold Rush, eating his shoe, treating the laces like spaghetti.
James Cagney, the gun-toting gangster in Public Enemy,
shoving a grapefruit into the side of Mae Clarke's face. Paul
Muni, the jobless World War I veteran in I am a Fugitive from
a Chain Gang, who is asked how he lives and replies, "I
steal." Gloria Swanson, the fading movie goddess in Sunset
Boulevard, belittling suggestions that she is no longer a
big star: "It's the pictures that got small." Even those
who have never seen Citizen Kane or Casablanca or
the Treasure of Sierra Madre respond instantly to the advertisements,
parodies, and TV skits that use these films' dialogue, images,
Movies are key cultural artifacts
that offer a window into American cultural and social history.
A mixture of art, business, and popular entertainment, the movies
provide a host of insights into Americans' shifting ideals, fantasies,
and preoccupations. Like any cultural artifact, the movies can
be approached in a variety of ways. Cultural historians have treated
movies as sociological documents that record the look and mood
of particular historical settings; as ideological constructs that
advance particular political or moral values or myths; as psychological
texts that speak to individual and social anxieties and tensions;
as cultural documents that present particular images of gender,
ethnicity, class romance, and violence; and as visual texts that
offer complex levels of meaning and seeing.
of The Movies
Beside Macy's Department Store
in Herald Square New York City there is a plaque commemorating
the first public showing of a motion picture on a screen in the
United States. It was here, on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's
Music Hall in New York City, that Thomas Alva Edison presented
a show included scenes of the surf breaking on a beach, a comic
boxing exhibition, and two young women dancing. A review in The
New York Times described the exhibition as "all wonderfully
real and singularly exhilarating."
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Pre-History of Motion Pictures
For centuries, people wrestled
with the problem of realistically reproducing moving images. A
discovery by Ptolemy in the second century provided the first
step. He noticed that there is a slight imperfection in human
perception: The retina retains an image for a fraction of a second
after the image has changed or disappeared. Because of this phenomenon,
known as the "persistence of vision," a person would
merge a rapid succession of individual images into the illusion
of continuous motion.
The first successful efforts to
project lifelike images on a screen took place in the mid-seventeenth
century. By 1659, a Dutch scientist named Christiaen Huygens had
invented the magic lantern, the forerunner of the modern slide
projector, which he used to project medical drawings before an
audience. A magic lantern used sunlight (or another light source)
to illuminate a hand-painted glass transparency and project it
through a simple lens. In the 1790s, the Belgian Etienne Gaspar
Robert terrified audiences with phantasmagoric exhibitions, which
used magic lanterns to project images of phantoms and apparitions
of the dead. By the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated lectures
and dramatic readings had become common. To create the illusion
of motion, magic lantern operators used multiple lanterns and
mirrors to move the image.
The first true moving images appeared
in the 1820s, when the concept of the persistence of vision was
used to create children's toys and other simple entertainments.
The thaumatrope, which appeared in 1826, was a simple disk with
separate images printed on each side (for example, a bird on one
side and a cage on another). When rapidly spun, the images appeared
to blend together (so that the bird seemed to be inside the cage).
In 1834, an Austrian military officer, Baron Franz von Uchatius,
developed a more sophisticated device called the "Phenakistiscope."
It consisted of a disk, with a series of slots along its edge,
which was printed with a series of slightly differing pictures.
When the disk was spun in front of a mirror and the viewer looked
through the slots, the pictures appeared to move. A simpler way
to display movement was the flip book, which became popular by
the late 1860s. Each page showed a subject in a subtly different
position. When a reader flipped the book's pages, the pictures
gave the illusion of movement.
These early devices were not very
satisfactory. The slides used in early magic lanterns had to be
painted by hand. The pictures displayed by the Phenakistoscope
or flip books could not be viewed by more than one person at a
time. The solution to these problems lay in photography. In 1826,
a French inventor named Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the first
true photograph. He placed a camera obscura (a box with a tiny
opening on one side that admitted light) at his window and exposed
a metal plate coated with light-sensitive chemicals for eight
hours. During the 1830s, another French inventor, Louis Daguerre,
improved Niepce's technique and created the daguerreotype, the
first popular form of photography.
Unfortunately, the daguerreotype
was not very useful to the inventors who wanted to produce motion
pictures. The process used expensive copper plates coated with
silver and required a subject to remain motionless for 15 to 30
seconds. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, two key technical
advances radically improved the photographic process. The first
was the replacement of copper plates with less expensive glass
plates, light-sensitive paper, and, in 1880, flexible film. The
second advance involved the development of new film coatings which
significantly reduced exposure time and gave photographers greater
mobility. By the late 1870s, the introduction of "dry-process
plates" using gelatin emulsion reduced exposure time to just
1/25th of a second and freed photographers from having to immediately
process their prints.
first successful photographs of motion grew out of a California
railroad tycoon's $25,000 bet. In 1872, California Governor Leland
Stanford hired a photographer named Eadweard Muybridge to help
settle a bet. An avid horse breeder, Stanford had wagered that
a galloping horse lifts all four hoofs off the ground simultaneously.
In 1878, the English-born photographer lined up 24 cameras along
the edge of a race track, with strings attached to the shutters.
When the horse ran by, it tripped the shutters, producing 24 closely
spaced pictures that proved Stanford's contention.
Four years later, a French physiologist,
Etienne-Jules Marey, became the first person to take pictures
of motion with a single camera. Marey built his camera in the
shape of a rifle. At the end of the barrel, he placed a circular
photographic plate. A small motor rotated the plate after Marey
snapped the shutter. With his camera, Marey could take twelve
picture a second.
In 1887, Thomas Edison gave William
K.L. Dickson, one of his leading inventors, the task of developing
a motion picture apparatus. Edison envisioned a machine "that
should do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear."
Dickson initially modeled his device on Edison's phonograph, placing
tiny pictures on a revolving drum. A light inside the drum was
supposed to illuminate the pictures. Then he decided to use the
flexible celluloid film that George Eastman had invented in 1880
and had begun to use in his Kodak camera. Dickson added perforations
to the edge of the film strip to help it feed evenly into his
To display their films, Dickson
and Edison devised a coin-operated peepshow device called a "kinetoscope."
Because the kinetoscope could only hold fifty feet of film, its
films lasted just 35 to 40 seconds. This was too brief to tell
a story; the first kinetoscope films were simply scenes of everyday
life, like the first film "Fred Ott's Sneeze," reenactments
of historical events, photographed bits of vaudeville routines,
and pictures of well-known celebrities. Nevertheless, the kinetoscope
was an instant success. By 1894, coin-operated kinetoscopes had
begun to appear in hotels, department stores, saloons, and amusement
arcades called nickelodeons.
Eager to maximize his profits,
Edison showed no interest in building a movie projector. "If
we make this screen machine," he argued, "...it will
spoil everything." As a result, Edison's competitors would
take the lead in developing screen projection.
In devising a practical movie
projector, inventors faced a serious technical problem: the projector
had to be capable of stopping a frame momentarily, so that the
image could be clearly fixed in the viewer's retina, and then
advance the film quickly between frames. Two French brothers,
Auguste and Louis Lumiere, were the first to solve this problem.
They borrowed the design of their stop-action device from the
sewing machine, which holds the material still during stitching
before advancing it forward. In 1894, the Lumiere brothers introduced
the portable motion picture camera and projector.
Finally recognizing the potential
of the motion picture projector, Edison entered into an agreement
with a Washington, D.C. realtor, Thomas Armat, who had designed
a workable projector. In April, 1896, the two men unveiled the
Vitascope and presented the first motion pictures on a public
screen in the United States.
Competition in the early movie
industry was fierce. To force their competitors out of the industry,
moviemakers turned to the courts, launching over two hundred patent
infringement suits. To protect their profits and bring order to
the industry, Edison and a number of his competitors decided to
cooperate by establishing the Motion Picture Patents Company in
1909, consisting of six American companies and two French firms.
Members of the trust agreed that only they had the right to make,
print, or distribute cameras, projectors, or films. The trust
also negotiated an exclusive agreement with Eastman Kodak for
commercial quality film stock.
Led by Carl Laemmle, later the
founder of Universal Pictures, independent distributors and exhibitors
filed a restraint of trade lawsuit under the Sherman Anti-Trust
Act. A court ruled in the independents' behalf in 1915 and the
decision was affirmed by a higher court in 1918.
Yet even before the courts ruled
in their favor, the independents broke the power of the trust
in the marketplace. The trust viewed movies, in the famous words
of director Erich von Stroheim, as so many sausages to be ground
out as quickly as possible and rented at ten cents a foot. But
the independent moviemakers succeeded in defeating the trust with
two potent weapons: the introduction of longer films that told
complex stories and the emergence of the star system.
During film's first decade from
1896 to 1905 movies were little more than a novelty, often used
as a "chaser" to signal the end of a show in a vaudeville
theater. These early films are utterly unlike anything seen today.
They lasted just seven to ten minutes -too brief to tell anything
more than the simplest story. They used a cast of anonymous actors
for the simple reason that the camera was set back so far that
it was impossible to clearly make out the actors' faces. As late
as 1908, a movie actor made no more than $8 a day and received
no credit on the screen.
In 1905, hundreds of little movie
theaters opened, called nickelodeons, since they sold admission
nickel by nickel. By 1908, there were an estimated 8,000 to 10,000
nickelodeons. Contrary to popular belief, the nickelodeon's audience
was not confined to the poor, the young, or the immigrant. From
the start, theaters were situated in rural areas and middle class
neighborhoods as well as working-class neighborhoods. Nevertheless,
the movies attracted audiences of an unprecedented size, as a
result of their low admission prices, "democratic" seating
arrangements, convenient time schedules (films were shown again
and again), and lack of spoken dialogue, which allowed non- English
speaking immigrants to enjoy films.
By 1907, narrative films had begun
to increase in number. But most films still emphasized stunts
and chases and real life events-like scenes of yacht races or
train crashes--and were rented or sold by the foot regardless
of subject matter. Exhibitors were expected to assemble scenes
together to form a larger show.
The formation of the movie trust
ushered in a period of rationalization within the film industry.
Camera and projecting equipment was standardized; film rental
fees were fixed; theaters were upgraded; and the practice of selling
films outright ended, which improved the quality of movies by
removing damaged prints from circulation. This was also a period
intense artistic and technical innovation, as pioneering directors
like David Wark Griffith and others created a new language of
film and revolutionized screen narrative.
With just six months of film experience,
Griffith, a former stage actor, was hired as a director by the
Biograph Company and promised $50 a week and one-twentieth of
a cent for every foot of film sold to a rental exchange. Each
week, Griffith turned out two or three one-reelers. While earlier
directors had used such cinematic devices as close ups, slow motion,
fade-ins and fade-outs, lighting effects, and editing before,
Griffith's great contribution to the movie industry was to show
how these techniques could be used to create a wholly new style
of storytelling, distinct from the theater.
Griffith's approach to movie storytelling
has been aptly called "photographic realism. "This is
not to say that he merely wished to record a story accurately;
rather he sought to convey the illusion of realism. He used editing
to convey simultaneous events or the passage of time. He demanded
that his performers act less in a more lifelike manner, avoiding
the broad, exaggerated gestures and pantomiming of emotions that
characterized the nineteenth century stage. He wanted his performers
to take on a role rather than directly addressing the camera.
Above all, he used close-ups, lighting, editing, and framing and
other cinematic techniques convey suspense and other emotions
and to focus the audience's attention on individual performers.
By focusing the camera on particular
actors and actresses, Griffith inadvertently encouraged the development
of the star system. As early as 1910, newspapers were deluged
with requests for actors' names. But most studios refused to divulge
their identities, fearing the salary demands of popular performers.
But the film trust's leading opponent, Carl Laemmle, was convinced
that the key to the financial stability lay in producing films
featuring popular stars. As one industry observer put it, "In
the 'star' your producer gets not only a 'production' value...but
a 'trademark' value, and an 'insurance' value which are...very
potent in guaranteeing the sale of this product." In 1910,
Laemmle produced the first star; he lured Florence Lawrence, the
most popular anonymous star, away from Biograph, and launched
an unprecedented publicity campaign on her behalf. As the star
system emerged, salaries soared. In the course of just two years,
the salary of actress Mary Pickford rose from less than $400 a
week in 1914 to $10,000 a week in 1916.
Meanwhile, an influx of feature-length
films from Europe, which attracted premium admission prices, led
a New York nickelodeon owner named Adolph Zukor to produce four
and five reel films featuring readily identifiable stars. By 1916,
Zukor had taken control of Paramount Pictures, a movie distributor,
and had instituted the practice of "block-booking" requiring
theaters to book a number of films rather than just a single film.
Within a few years, Zukor's company had achieved vertical integration
- not only producing films, but distributing them and owning the
theaters that exhibited them.
During the second decade of the
twentieth century, immigrants like Laemmle and Zukor came to dominate
the movie business. Unlike Edison and the other American-born,
Protestant businessmen who had controlled the early film industry,
these immigrant entrepreneurs had a better sense of what the public
wanted to see. Virtually all of these new producers emigrated
to the United States from central Europe and were Jewish. Not
part of the Victorian ethos that still held sway in "respectable"
Protestant America, they proved better able to exploit ribald
humor and sex in their films. Less conservative than the American-born
producers, they were more willing to experiment with such innovations
as the star system and feature-length productions. Since many
had come to the film industry from the garment and fur trades
where fashions change rapidly and the successful businessman is
one who stays constantly in touch with the latest styles, they
tried to give the public what it wanted.As Samuel Goldwyn, one
of the leading moguls, noted, "If the audience don't like
a picture, they have a good reason. The public is never wrong.
I don't go for all this thing that when I have a failure, it is
because the audience doesn't have the taste or education, or isn't
sensitive enough. The public pays money. It wants to be entertained.
That's all I know." With this philosophy the outsiders wrestled
control over the industry away from the American-born producers.
During the 1920s and 1930s, a
small group of film companies consolidated their control. Known
as the "Big Five" - Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO,
20th Century-Fox, and Lowe's (MGM) and the "Little Three"
- Universal, Columbia, and United Artists, they formed fully integrated
companies. With the exception of United Artists, which was solely
a distribution company, the "majors" owned their own
production facilities, ran their own worldwide distribution networks,
and controlled theater chains that were committed to showing the
company's products. And at the head of each major studio was a
powerful mogul such giants as Adolph Zukor, Wiliam Fox, Louis
B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Harry Cohn, Joseph Schenck,
and the Warner Brothers who determined what the public was going
to see. It was their vision - patriotic, sentimental, secular,
and generally politically conservative which millions of Americans
shared weekly at local movie theaters. And as expressed by such
producers as Irving Thalberg, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Daivd O. Selznick,
it was a powerful vision indeed.
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Film in the Silent Era
Some film historians, like Lewis
Jacobs and David Robinson, have argued that early silent films
revolved around "characteristically working class settings,"
and expressed the interests of the poor in their struggles with
the rich and powerful. Other scholars maintain that early movies
drew largely upon conventions, stock characters, and routines
derived from vaudeville, popular melodrama, Wild West shows, comic
strips, and other forms of late nineteenth century popular entertainment.
Given the fact thousands of films were released during the silent
era and relatively few have survived, it is dangerous to generalize
about movie content. Nevertheless, certain statements about these
films do seem warranted.
American films were born in an
age of reform, and many early silent movies took as their subject
matter the major social and moral issues of the Progressive era:
birth control, child labor, divorce, immigration, political corruption,
poverty, prisons, prostitution, and women's suffrage. The tone
of these films varied widely - some were realistic and straightforward;
others treated their subjects with sentimentality or humor; and
many transformed complex social issues into personal melodramas.
Yet there can be no doubt that many silent films dealt at least
obliquely with the dominant issues of the time.
Although many Americans today
think of the films of the silent era as relics of a simpler, more
innocent age, in fact more serious social and political themes
lurked "behind the mask of innocence." As Kevin Brownlow
has demonstrated, despite their well-dressed tramps and child-like
waifs, many early silent films were preoccupied with such broad
issues as the the sources of crime, the nature of political corruption,
shifting sexual norms, and the changing role of women. The silent
screen offered vivid glimpses of urban tenements and ethnic ghettoes;
the screen was filled with gangsters, loan sharks, drug addicts,
and panderers and provided a graphic record of "how the other
In addition, many early films
were laced with anti-authority themes, poking fun at bumbling
cops, corrupt politicians, and intrusive upper-class reformers.
Highly physical slapstick comedy offered a particularly potent
vehicle of social criticism, spoofing the pretensions of the wealthy
and presenting sympathetic portraits of the poor. Mack Sennett,
one of the most influential directors of silent comedy, later
recalled the themes of his films: "I especially liked the
reduction of authority to absurdity, the notion that sex could
be funny, and the bold insults hurled at Pretension."
Many films of the early silent
era dealt with gender relations. Before 1905, as Kathy Peiss has
argued, movie screens were filled with salacious sexual imagery
and risque humor, drawn from burlesque halls and vaudeville theaters.
Early films offered many glimpses of women disrobing or of passionate
kisses. As the movies' female audience grew, sexual titillation
and voyeurism persisted. But an ever increasing number of film
dealt with the changing work and sexual roles of women in a more
sophisticated manner. While D.W. Griffith's films presented an
idealized picture of the frail Victorian child-woman, and showed
an almost obsessive preoccupation with female honor and chastity,
other silent movies presented quite different images of femininity.
These ranged from the exotic, sexually aggressive vamp to the
athletic, energetic "serial queen"; the street smart
urban working gal, who repels the sexual advances of her lascivious
boss; and cigarette-smoking, alcohol drinking chorus girls or
In the late teens and '20s, as
Lary May has demonstrated, the movies began to shed their Victorian
moralism, sentimentality, and reformism and increasingly expressed
new themes: glamour, sophistication, exoticism, urbanity, and
sex appeal. New kinds of movie stars appeared: the mysterious
sex goddess, personified by Greta Garbo; the passionate, hot-blooded
Latin lover, epitomized by Rudolph Valentino; and the flapper,
first brought to the screen by Colleen Moore, with her bobbed
hair, skimpy skirts, and incandescent vivacity. New genres also
appeared: swashbuckling adventures; sophisticated sex comedies
revolving around the issue of marital fidelity; romantic dramas
examining the manners and morals of the well-bred and well-to-do;
and tales of "flaming youth" and the new sexual freedom.
During the 1920s, a sociologist
named Herbert Blumer, interviewed students and young workers to
assess the impact of movies on their lives, and concluded that
the effect was to reorient their lives away from ethnic and working
class communities toward a broader consumer culture. Observed
one high school student: "The day-dreams instigated by the
movies consist of clothes, ideas on furnishings and manners."
Said an African- American student: "The movies have often
made me dissatisfied with my neighborhood because when I see a
movie, the beautiful castle, palace,...and beautiful house, I
wish my home was something like these." Hollywood not only
expressed popular values, aspirations, and fantasies, it also
promoted cultural change.
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Movies as a Cultural Battleground
Reformers of the Progressive era
took a highly ambivalent view of the movies. Some praised movies
as a benign alternative to the saloon. Others viewed nickelodeons
and movie theaters as breeding grounds of crime and sexual promiscuity.
In 1907, the Chicago Tribune threw its editorial weight against
the movies, declaring that they were "without a redeeming
feature to warrant their existence...ministering to the lowest
passions of childhood."
That year, Chicago established
the nation's first censorship board, to protect its population
"against the evil influence of obscene and immoral representations."
Also in 1907, and again in 1908, New York's mayor, under pressure
from various religious and reform groups, temporarily closed down
all of the city's nickelodeons and movie theaters.
Many middle-class vice crusaders
regarded the movies were horror and struggled to regulate the
new medium. A presidential study concluded that films encouraged
"illicit lovemaking and iniquity." A Worcester, Massachusetts
newspaper described the city's movie theaters as centers of delinquent
activity, and reported that female gang members "confessed
that their early tendencies toward evil came from seeing moving
pictures." Several bills were introduced in Congress calling
for movie censorship.
The drive to censor films spread
from Chicago to other municipalities and states, especially after
a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that movies were not protected by
the First Amendment because they "were a business pure and
simple...not to be regarded as part of the press of the country
or as organs of public opinion." Eager to combat the trend
toward local censorship, movie manufacturers worked with moral
reformers in New York to establish the voluntary Board of Censorship
of Motion Pictures in 1909, to review the movies' treatment of
violence, drugs, prostitution, and, above all, sexual immorality
(such as "over-passionate love scenes; stimulating close
dancing; unnecessary bedroom scenes in negligee; excessively low-cut
gowns; [and] undue or suggestive display of the person").
After World War I, a series of
sex scandals raised renewed threats of censorship or boycotts.
William Desmond Taylor, a director, was found murdered under suspicious
circumstances; actor Wallace Reid committed suicide amid allegations
of drug addiction; and comedian Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted of
rape and complicity in murder. To clean up Hollywood's image,
the industry banned Arbuckle and a number of other individuals
implicated in scandals, and appointed Will Hays, President Warren
Harding's Postmaster General, to head their trade organization.
Hays introduced a voluntary code of standards.
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Rise of Hollywood and the Arrival of Sound
In cinema's earliest days, the
film industry was based in the nation's theatrical center, New
York, and most films were made in New York or New Jersey, although
a few were shot in Chicago, Florida, and elsewhere. Beginning
in 1908, however, a growing number of filmmakers located in southern
California, drawn by cheap land and labor, the ready accessibility
of varied scenery, and a climate ideal for year-round outdoor
filming. Contrary to popular mythology, moviemakers did not move
to Hollywood to escape the film trust; the first studio to move
to Hollywood, Selig, was actually a trust member.
By the early 1920s, Hollywood
had become the world's film capital. It produced virtually all
films show in the United States and received 80 percent of the
revenue from films shown abroad. During the '20s, Hollywood bolstered
its position as world leader by recruiting many of Europe's most
talented actors and actresses, like Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamarr,
directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg, as well
as camera operators, lighting technicians, and set designers,By
the end of the decade, Hollywood claimed to be the nation's fifth
largest industry, attracting 83 cents out of every dollar Americans
spent on amusement.
Hollywood had also come to symbolize
"the new morality" of the 1920s--a mixture of extravagance,
glamour, hedonism, and fun. Where else but Hollywood would an
actress like Gloria Swanson bath in a solid gold bathtub or a
screen cowboy like Tom Mix have his named raised atop his house
in six foot high letters.
During the 1920s, movie attendance
soared. By the middle of the decade, 50 million people a week
went to the movies - the equivalent of half the nation's population.
In Chicago, in 1929, theaters had enough seats for half the city's
population to attend a movie each day.
As attendance rose, the movie-going
experience underwent a profound change. During the twentieth century's
first two decades, movie going tended to conform to class and
ethnic divisions. Urban workers attended movie houses located
in their own working class and ethnic neighborhoods, where admission
was extremely inexpensive (averaging just 7 cents in the during
the teens), and a movie was often accompanied by an amateur talent
show or a performance by a local ethnic troupe. These working
class theaters were rowdy, high-spirited centers of neighborhood
sociability, where mothers brought their babies and audiences
cheered, jeered, shouted, whistled, and stamped their feet.
The theaters patronized by the
middle class were quite different. Late in the new century's first
decade, theaters in downtown or middle class neighborhoods became
increasingly luxurious. At first many of these theaters were designed
in the same styles as many other public buildings, but by the
mid-teens movie houses began feature French Renaissance, Egyptian,
Moorish, and other exotic decors. Worcester, Massachusetts's Strand
Theater boasted have "red plush seats," "luxurious
carpets," "rich velour curtains," "finely
appointed toilet rooms," and a $15,000 organ. Unlike the
working class movie houses, which showed films continuously, these
high class theaters had specific show times and well-groomed,
uniformed ushers to enforce standards of decorum.
During the late-'20s, independent
neighborhood theaters catering to a distinct working class audience
were bought up by regional and national chains. As a result, the
movie-going experience became more uniform, with working class
and middle class theaters offering the same programs. Especially
after the introduction of the "talkies," many working-class
movie houses shut down, unable to meet the cost of converting
For decades, engineers had searched
for a practical technology to add synchronized recorded sound
to the movies. In the 1890s, Thomas Edison tried unsuccessfully
to popularize the "kinetophone--which combined a kinetoscope
with a phonograph. In 1923, Lee De Forest, an American inventor,
demonstrated the practicality of placing a soundtrack directly
on a film strip, presenting a newsreel interview with President
Calvin Coolidge and musical accompaniments to several films. But
the film industry showed remarkably little interest in sound,
despite the growing popularity of radio. Hollywood feared the
high cost of converting its production and exhibition to sound
Warner Brothers, a struggling
industry newcomer, turned to sound as a way to compete with its
larger rivals. A prerecorded musical sound track eliminated the
expense of live entertainment. In 1926, Warner Brothers released
the film Don Juan--the first film with a synchronized film score--along
with a program of talking shorts. The popularity of The Jazz
Singer, which was released in 1927, erased any doubts about
the popular appeal of sound, and within a year, 300 theaters were
wired for sound.
The arrival of sound produced
a sharp upsurge in movie attendance, which jumped from 50 million
a week in the mid-20s to 110 million in 1929. But it also produced
a number of fundamental transformations in the movies themselves.
As Robert Ray has shown, sound made the movies more American.
The words that Al Jolson used in The Jazz Singer to herald the
arrival of sound in the movies - "You ain't heard nothing
yet" - embodied the new slangy, vernacular tone of the talkies.
Distinctive American accents and inflections quickly appeared
on the screen, like James Cagney's New Yorkese or Gary Cooper's
Western drawl. The introduction of sound also encouraged new film
genres - like the musical, the gangster film, and comedies that
relied on wit rather than slapstick.
In addition, the talkies dramatically
changed the movie-going experience, especially for the working
class. Where many working class audiences had provided silent
films with a spoken dialogue, movie-goers were now expected to
remain quiet. As one film historian has observed: "The talking
audience for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking
pictures. "Moreover, the stage shows and other forms of live
entertainment that had appeared in silent movie houses increasingly
disappeared, replaced by newsreels and animated shorts.
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Movies Meet the Great Depression
In 1934, Will Hays, head of the
Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, said that
"No medium has contributed more greatly than the film to
the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured
by revolution, riot and political turmoil in other countries."
During the Great Depression, Hollywood played a valuable psychological
and ideological role, providing reassurance and hope to a demoralized
nation. Even at the Depression's depths 60 to 80 million Americans
attended the movies each week, and, in the face of doubt and despair,
films helped sustain national morale.
Although the movie industry considered
itself Depression- proof, Hollywood was no more immune from the
Depression's effects than any other industry. To finance the purchase
of movie theaters and the conversion to sound, the studios had
tripled their debts during the mid- and late-'20s to $410 million.
As a result, the industry's very viability seemed in question.
By 1933, movie attendance and industry revenues had fallen by
forty percent. To survive, the industry trimmed salaries and production
costs, and closed the doors of a third of the nation's theaters.
To boost attendance, theaters resorted to such gimmicks as lower
admission prices (cut by as much as 25 cents), double bills, give-aways
of free dishes, and Bank Night--in which customer who received
a lucky number won a cash prize.
Why did Depression America go
to the movies- Escapism is what most people assume. At the movies
they could forget their troubles for a couple of hours. Depression
films, one left-wing critic maintained, were a modern form of
bread and circuses, distracting Americans from their problems,
reinforcing older values, and dampening political radicalism.
Yet movies were more than mere
escapism. Most films of the depression years were grounded in
the social realities of the time. The most realistic films were
social problem films--like I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
- "torn from the headlines," usually by Warner Brothers
or Columbia Pictures. Yet even the most outrageously extravagant
Busby Berkeley musicals - portraying chorus girls as flowers or
mechanical windup dolls - were generally set against recognizable
The kinds of movies that Hollywood
produced during the depression underwent sharp changes as the
public mood shifted. During the depression's earliest years, a
profound sense of despair was reflected in the kinds of characters
Americans watched on the screen: a succession of Tommy Gun-toting
gangsters, haggard prostitutes, sleazy backroom politicians, cynical
journalists, and shyster lawyers. The screen comedies released
at the depression's depths expressed an almost anarchistic disdain
for traditional institutions and conventions. In the greatest
comedies of the early depression, the Marx Brothers spoofed everything
from patriotism (in Duck Soup) to universities (in Horse
Feathers); W.C. Fields ridiculed families and children; and
Mae West used sexual innuendo and double entendres to make fun
of the middle class code of sexual propriety, with lines like
"When a girl goes wrong, men go right after her."
The gangster pictures and sexually
suggestive comedies of the early '30s provoked outrage--and threats
of boycotts--from many Protestant and Catholic religious groups.
In 1934, Hollywood's producers' association responded by setting
up a bureau (later known as the "Breen Office") to review
every script that the major studios proposed to shoot and to screen
every film before it was released to ensure that the picture did
not violate the organization's "Code to Govern the Making
of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures." The
Production Code, drafted by a Jesuit priest, the Father Daniel
Lord, had been originally adopted in 1930, but the producers had
regarded it as a public relations device, not as a code of censorship.
But in 1933, the newly appointed
apostolic delegate to the U.S. Catholic Church, the Most Reverend
Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, called on Catholics to launch "a
united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema,
which has become a deadly menace to morals." Many Catholics
responded by forming the Legion of Decency, which soon had 9 million
members pledged to boycott films that the Legion's rating board
Threatened by a realistic threat
of boycotts, the producers decided to enforce the production code
and placed one of their employees, Joseph I. Breen, in charge.
The code prohibited nudity, profanity, white slavery, miscegenation,
"excessive and lustful kissing," and "scenes of
passion" that "stimulate the lower and baser element."
It also forbade Hollywood from glorifying crime or adultery. To
enforce the code, the Breen Office was empowered to grant or withhold
a seal of approval, and without a seal, a movie could not be played
in the major theater chains.
The Breen Office dramatically
altered the character of films in the later 1930s. It had at least
one positive effect: It led Hollywood to cast more actresses in
roles as independent career women, instead of as mere sex objects.
More negatively, it encouraged moviemakers to evade the harsher
realities of Depression-era life and to shun controversial political
and moral issues. It also contributed to what Maury Klein has
called a "stylization of technique" as directors and
screenwriters searched for subtle, creative, and often witty ways
to treat sexuality and violence while avoiding censorship.
A renewed sense of optimism generated
by the New Deal combined with Breen Office censorship to produce
new kinds of films in the second half of the Depression decade.
G-men, detectives, western heroes and other defenders of law increasingly
replaced gangsters. Realistic Warner Brothers exposes rapidly
declined in number. Instead audiences enjoyed Frank Capra's comedies
and dramas in which a "little man" stands up against
corruption. The complex word-play of the Marx Brothers and Mae
West increasingly gave way to a new comic genre--the screwball
comedy. Movies like It Happened One Night or My Man Godfrey, which
traced the antics of zany eccentrics, presented, in Pauline Kael's
"Americans' idealized view
of themselves--breezy, likable, sexy, gallant, and maybe just
a little harebrained."
As Andrew Bergman has shown,
the fantasy world of the movies played a critical social and psychological
function for Depression era Americans: In the face of economic
disaster, it kept alive a belief in the possibility of individual
success, portrayed a government capable of protecting its citizens
from external threats, and sustained a vision of America as a
classless society. Again and again, Hollywood repeated the same
formulas: A poor boy from the slums uses crime as a perverted
ladder of success. A back row chorus girl rises to the lead through
luck and pluck. A G-man restores law and order. A poor boy and
a rich girl meet, go through wacky adventures, and fall in love.
Out of these simple plots, Hollywood restored faith in individual
initiative, in the efficacy of government, and in a common American
identity transcending social class.
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Beginning in September 1941, a
Senate subcommittee launched an investigation into whether Hollywood
had campaigned to bring the United States into World War II by
inserting pro-British and pro-interventionist messages in its
films. Isolationist Senator Gerald Nye charged Hollywood with
producing "at least twenty pictures in the last year designed
to drug the reason of the American people, set aflame their emotions,
turn their hatred into a blaze, fill them with fear that Hitler
will come over here and capture them." After reading a list
of the names of studio executives - many of whom were Jewish -
he condemned Hollywood as "a raging volcano of war fever."
While Hollywood did in fact release
a few anti-Nazi films, such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy, what
is remarkable in retrospect is how slowly Hollywood awoke to the
fascist threat.Heavily dependent on the European market for revenue,
Hollywood feared offending foreign audiences. Indeed, at the Nazi's
request, Hollywood actually fired "non-Aryan" employees
in its German business offices. Although the industry released
a number of preparedness films (like Sergeant York), anti-fascist
movies (such as The Great Dictator), and pro-British films (including
A Yank in the R.A.F.) between 1939 and 1941, it did not release
a single film advocating immediate American intervention in the
war on the allies' behalf before Pearl Harbor.
Richard R. Lingeman has described
Hollywood's immediate reaction to America's entry into the war.
The studios, he noted, quickly copyrighted topical movie titles
like "Sunday in Hawaii," "Yellow Peril," and
"V for Victory." Warner Brothers ordered a hasty rewrite
of "Across the Pacific" which involved a Japanese plot
to blow up Pearl Harbor, changing the setting to Panama Canal.
The use of search lights at Hollywood premiers was prohibited,
and Jack Warner painted a 20-foot arrow atop his studio, reading:
Lookheed - Thataway.
Hollywood's greatest contribution
to the war effort was morale. Many of the movies produced during
the war were patriotic rallying cries that affirmed a sense of
national purpose. Combat films of the war years emphasized patriotism,
group effort, and the value of individual sacrifices for a larger
cause. They portrayed World War II as a peoples' war, typically
featuring a group of men from diverse ethnic backgrounds who are
thrown together, tested on the battlefield, and molded into a
dedicated fighting unit.
Many wartime films featured women
characters playing an active role in the war by serving as combat
nurses, riveters, welders, and long-suffering mothers who kept
the home fires burning. Even cartoons, like Bugs Bunny "Nips
the Nips," contributed to morale.
Off the screen, leading actors
and actresses led recruitment and bond drives and entertained
the troops. Leading directors like Frank Capra, John Ford, John
Huston, made documentaries to explain "why we fight"
and to offer civilians an idea of what actual combat looked like.
In less than a year, 12 percent of all film industry employees
entered the armed forces, including Clark Gable, Henry Fonda,
and Jimmy Stewart. By the war's end, one-quarter of Hollywood's
male employees were in uniform.
Hollywood, like other industries,
encountered many wartime problems. The government cut the amount
of available film stock by 25 percent and restricted the money
that could be spent on sets to $5,000 for each movie. Nevertheless,
the war years proved to be highly profitable for the movie industry.
Spurred by shortages of gasoline and tires, as well as the appeal
of newsreels, the war boosted movie attendance to near-record
levels of 90 million a week.
From the moment America entered
the war, Hollywood feared that the industry would be subject to
heavy-handed government censorship. But the government itself
wanted no repeat of World War I, when the Committee on Public
Information had whipped up anti-German hysteria and oversold the
war as "a Crusade not merely to re-win the tomb of Christ,
but to bring back to earth the rule of right, the peace, goodwill
to men and gentleness he taught." Less than two weeks after
Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt declared that the movie industry
could make "a very useful contribution" to the war effort.
But, he went on, "The motion industry must remain free...I
want no censorship."
Convinced that movies could contribute
to national morale, but fearing outright censorship, the federal
government established two agencies within the Office of War Information
(OWI) in 1942 to supervise the film industry: the Bureau of Motion
Pictures, which produced educational films and reviewed scripts
voluntarily submitted by the studios, and the Bureau of Censorship,
which oversaw film exports.
At the time these agencies were
founded, OWI officials were quite unhappy with Hollywood movies,
which they considered "escapist and delusive." The movies,
these officials believed, failed to accurately convey what the
allies were fighting for, grossly exaggerated the extent of Nazi
and Japanese espionage and sabotage, portrayed our allies in an
offensive manner, and presented a false picture of the United
States as a land of gangsters, labor strife, and racial conflict.
A study of films issued in 1942 seemed to confirm the OWI concerns.
It found that of the films dealing with the war, roughly two-thirds
were spy pictures or comedies or musicals about camp life--conveying
a highly distorted picture of the war.
To encourage the industry to provide
more acceptable films, the Bureau of Motion Pictures issued "The
Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture." This
manual suggested that before producing a film, moviemakers consider
the question: "Will this picture help to win the war-"
It also asked the studios to inject images of "people making
small sacrifices for victory-- making them voluntarily cheerfully,
band because of the people's on sense of responsibility."
During its existence, the Bureau evaluated individual film scripts
to assess how they depicted war aims, the American military, the
enemy, the allies, and the home front.
After the Bureau of Motion Pictures
was abolished in the Spring of 1943, government responsibility
for monitoring the film industry shifted to the Office of Censorship.
This agency prohibited the export of films that showed racial
discrimination; depicted Americans as single-handedly winning
the war; or which painted our allies as imperialists.
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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
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
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.
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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
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
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
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.
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As the 1960s began, few would
have guessed that the decade would be one of the most socially
conscious and stylistically innovative in Hollywood's history.
Among the most popular films at the decade's start were Doris
Day romantic comedies like That Touch of Mink (1962) and epic
blockbusters like The Longest Day (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962),
and Cleopatra (1963). Yet, as the decade progressed, Hollywood
radically shifted focus and began to produce an increasing number
of anti-establishment films, laced with social commentary, directed
at the growing youth market.
By the early 1960s, an estimated
80 percent of the film-going population was between the ages of
16 and 25. At first, the major studios largely ignored this audience,
leaving it the hands of smaller studios like American International
Pictures, which produced a string of cheaply made horror movies,
beach blanket movies--like Bikini Beach (1964) and How to Stuff
a Wild Bikini (1965)--and motorcycle gang pictures--like The Wild
Two films released in 1967--Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate--awoke
Hollywood to the size and influence of the youth audience. Bonnie
and Clyde, the story of two depression era bank robbers, was advertised
with the slogan: "They're young, they're in love, they kill
people." Inspired by such French New Wave pictures as Breathless
(1960), the film aroused intense controversy for romanticizing
gangsters and transforming them into social rebels. A celebration
of youthful rebellion also appeared in The Graduate, which was
the third-highest grossing film up until this time. In this film,
a young college graduate rejects a hypocritical society and the
traditional values of his parents--and the promise of a career
in "plastics"--and finds salvation in love.
A number of most influential films
of the late '60s and early '70s sought to revise older film genres--like
the war film, the crime film, and the western--and rewrite Hollywood's
earlier versions of American history from a more critical perspective.
Three major war films--Little Big Man, Patton, and M*A*S*H-- reexamined
the nineteenth-century Indian wars, World War II, and the Korean
War in light of America's experience in Vietnam. The Wild Bunch
(1969) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) offered radical reappraisals
of the mythology of the American frontier. Francis Ford Coppola's
The Godfather (1972) revised and enhanced the gangster genre by
transforming it into a critical commentary on an immigrant family's
pursuit of the American dream.
During the mid- and late-70s,
the mood of American films shifted sharply. Unlike the highly
politicized films of the early part of the decade, the most popular
films of the late 1970s and early 1980s were escapist blockbusters
like Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), and Raiders of the Lost
Ark (1981)-- featuring spectacular special effects, action, and
simplistic conflicts between good and evil--inspirational tales
of the indomitable human spirit, like Rocky (1976)--or nostalgia
for a more innocent past--like Animal House (1978) and Grease
(1978).Glamorous outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde were replaced by
law and order avengers like Dirty Harry and Robocop. Sports--long
regarded as a sure box officer loser--became a major Hollywood
obsession, with movies like Hoosiers, Chariots of Fire, Karate
Kid, and The Mighty Ducks celebrating competitiveness and victory.
Movies which offered a tragic or subversive perspectives on American
society, like The Godfather or Chinatown, were replaced by more
upbeat, undemanding films, and especially by comedies, featuring
such actors as Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, and Bill
Critics partly blamed the trend
toward what Mark Crispin Miller has called "deliberate anti-realism"
upon economic changes within the film industry. In 1966, Gulf
and Western Industries executed a takeover of Paramount and the
conglomerization of the film industry began. In 1967, United Artists
merged with Transamerica Corporation; in 1969 Kinney Services
acquired Warner Brothers. In one sense the takeovers were logical.
Conglomerates wanted to acquire interests in businesses that serviced
Americans' leisure needs. The heads of the conglomerates, however,
had no idea how to make successful motion pictures. Too often
they believed that successful movies could be mass produced, that
statisticians could discover a scientific method for making box
A trend toward the creation of
interlocking media companies, encompassing movies, magazines,
and newspapers, and books accelerated in 1985 when the Department
of Justice overturned the 1948 anti-trust decree which had ended
vertical integration within the film industry. As a result, many
of the major studios were acquired by large media and entertainment
corporations, like Sony, which purchased Columbia Pictures, Time
Warner (which owns Time magazine, Simon & Schuster publishers,
and Warner Brothers), and Rupert Murdoch, whose holdings include
HarperCollins publishers, the Fox television network, and Twentieth
Century Fox. At the same time that these large entertainment conglomerates
arose, many smaller independent producers like Lorimar and De
Nevertheless, important issues
continued to be addressed through film. Many films focused on
problems of romance, family, gender, and sexuality--aspects of
life radically changed by the social transformations of the 1960s
and early 1970s. Certainly, some films tried to evade the profound
changes that had taken place in gender relations--like An Officer
and a Gentleman, an old-fashioned screen romance--or Flashdance--an
updated version of the Cinderella story--or 10 and Splash--which
depict male fantasies about relationships with beautiful, utterly
compliant women. But many other popular films addressed such serious
questions as the conflict between the family responsibilities
and personal needs (for example, Kramer v. Kramer) or women's
need to develop their independence (like An Unmarried Woman, Desperately
Seeking Susan, and Thelma and Louise).
At a time when politicians and
news journalists were neglecting racial and urban issues, movies
like Boyz in the Hood, Grand Canyon, Do the Right Thing, and Jungle
Fever focused on such problems as the racial gulf separating blacks
and whites, the conditions in the nation's inner cities, the increasing
number of poor single parent families, police brutality, and urban
Ironically, the most controversial
issue of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam War, only began
to be seriously examined on the screen in the late '70s. Although
many films of the late 60s and early 70s embodied the bitter aftertaste
of the war, the conflict itself remained strikingly absent from
the screen, as Hollywood, like the country as a whole, had difficulty
adjusting to the grim legacy of a lost and troubling war. During
the conflict, Hollywood produced only a single film dealing with
Vietnam--John Wayne's The Green Berets. Modeled along the lines
of such World War II combat epics as The Sands of Iwo Jima and
earlier John Wayne westerns like The Alamo, the film portrayed
decent Americans struggling to defend an embattled outpost along
the Laotian border nicknamed Dodge City.
Although America's active military
participation in the Vietnam War ended in 1973, the controversy
engendered by the war raged on long after the firing of the last
shot. Much of the controversy centered on the returning veterans.
Veterans were shocked by the cold, hostile reception they received
when they returned to the United States. In First Blood (1982),
John Rambo captured the pain of the returning veterans: "It
wasn't my war-- you asked me, I didn't ask you...and I did what
I had to do to win....Then I came back to the world and I see
all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me,
calling me a baby- killer...."
During the 1970s and '80s, the
returning Vietnam War veteran loomed large in American popular
culture. He was first portrayed as a dangerous killer, a deranged
ticking time bomb that could explode at any time and in any place.
He was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a veteran wound so
tight that he seemed perpetually on the verge of snapping. Or
he was Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), who adjusted to
a mad war by going mad himself.
Not until the end of the '70s
did popular culture begin to treat the Vietnam War veteran as
a victim of the war rather than a madman produced by the war.
Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978) began the popular
rehabilitation of the veteran, and such films as Missing in Action
(1984) and Rambo: First Blood II (1985) transformed the veteran
into a misunderstood hero.
Where some films, like the Rambo series, focused on the exploits
of one-man armies or vigilantes armed to the teeth, who had been
kept from winning the war because of government cowardice and
betrayal, another group of Vietnam War films--like Platoon, Casualties
of War, and Born on the Fourth of July--took quite a different
view of the war. Focusing on innocent, naive "grunts"--the
ground troops who actually fought the war--these movies retold
the story of the Vietnam War in terms of the soldiers' loss of
idealism, the breakdown of unit cohesion, and the struggle to
survive and sustain a sense of humanity and integrity in the midst
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In a 1992 bestseller Hollywood
vs. America, Michael Medved, co-host of public television's Sneak
Previews, described Hollywood as a "poison factory,"
befouling America's moral atmosphere and assaulting the country's
"most cherished values." Today's films, he argued, use
their enormous capacity to influence opinion by glamorizing violence,
maligning marriage, mocking authority, promoting sexual promiscuity,
ridiculing religion, and bombarding viewers with an endless stream
of profanity, gratuitous sex, and loutish forms of behavior. Where
once the movies offered sentiment, elegance, and romance, now,
Medved contends, ideologically-motivated producers and directors
promote their own divisive agenda: anti-religion, anti-family,
In fact, the picture is more complicated
than Medved suggests. As film critic David Denby has observed,
abandonment of the Production Code in 1966 did indeed increase
the amount of sex, violence, and profanity on the screen; but
particularly in the 1980s and '90s, Hollywood has also increased
the amount of family entertainment it offers, including feature-length
cartoons like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast; family comedies,
like Honey I Shrunk the Kids; and positive portrayals of the teaching
profession, like Dead Poet's Society and Stand and Deliver. At
the same time that some films merely exploited history as a backdrop
for action and adventure, like the Indiana Jones or the Back to
the Future trilogies, there has also been a revival of serious
historical films like Glory and Malcolm X. Meanwhile, independent
directors released a growing number of idiosyncratic and inexpensive
films, like The Crying Game, while within Hollywood itself female
movie makers, like Penny Marshall and Susan Seidelman, and African-American
film makers, like Spike Lee, have received unprecedented opportunity
to bring fresh viewpoints to the screen.
Nevertheless, as the movie industry
enters its second century, many Americans worry about Hollywood's
future. Medved is not alone in complaining that "they don't
make movies like they used to." A basic problem facing today's
Hollywood is the rapidly rising cost of making and marketing a
movie: an average of $40 million today. The immense cost of producing
movies has led the studios to seek guaranteed hits: blockbuster
loaded with high-tech special effects, sequels, and remakes of
earlier movies, foreign films, and even old TV shows.
Hollywood has also sought to cope
with rising costs by focusing ever more intently on its core audiences.
Since the mid-1980s, the movie going audience has continued to
decrease in size. Ticket sales fell from 1.2 billion in 1983 to
950 million in 1992, with the biggest drop occuring among adults.
With the decline in the size of the adult audience, the single
largest group of movie-goers now consists of teenage boys, who
are particularly attracted to thrills, violence, and crude laughs.And
since over half of Hollywood's profits are earned overseas, the
industry has concentrated much of its energy on crude action films
easily understood by an international audience, featuring stars
like Arnold Schwartenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
For a century, the movie industry
has been the nation's most important purveyor of culture and entertainment
to the masses, playing a critical role in the shift from Victorian
to distinctively modern, consumer values; from a world of words
to a visual culture; from a society rooted in islands of localities
and ethnic groups to a commercialized mass culture. The movies
taught Americans how to kiss, make love, conceive of gender roles,
and understand their place in the world. Whether film will continue
to serve as the nation's preeminent instrument of cultural expression--reflecting
and also shaping values and cultural ideals--remains to be seen.
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