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Post-War Hollywood

Digital History TOPIC ID 127

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.

Copyright Digital History 2014