P is for Post-War Hollywood #AtoZChallenge

The film industry changed radically after World War II, altering 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. By 1953, box office receipts were half of what they had been in 1946.

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 instead of going 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.

Television challenged and surpassed the movies as America’s most popular entertainment form in the 1950s. In the 1960s, nine homes in every ten had at least one TV set. Until then, 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 a family’s living room.

Hollywood also suffered from internal troubles. The founding studio moguls–Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and Darryl Zanuck–retired or were forced out as new corporate owners took over. The film companies were perfect targets for corporate takeovers for a number of reasons: high profiles, glamour, undervalued stock, strategically located real estate, and film libraries which television networks desperately needed. The studios reduced production, sold off back lots, and made an increasing number of pictures in Europe, where costs were lower.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, HUAC (the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee), originally formed to combat subversive right-wing and left-wing movements, picked up the tempo of its investigation. Twice during this period HUAC traveled to Hollywood to investigate Communist infiltration in the film industry.

In 1947, when the “Hollywood Ten” were asked by HUAC if they were Communists, they refused to answer questions about their political beliefs. They were tried for contempt of Congress, sent to prison for a year, and blacklisted. In 1951, HUAC called hundreds of witnesses from both the political right and the political left. Again, those who refused to name names found themselves unemployed and unemployable. All told, about 250 directors, writers, and actors were blacklisted. The blacklist shattered hundreds of lives, careers, and friendships for decades. Some never resumed their careers.

The HUAC hearings and blacklistings also discouraged Hollywood from producing politically controversial films and encouraged the production of musicals, biblical epics, and other politically neutral films. Between 1947 and 1954, Hollywood producers were convinced by the hearings to make 50 strongly anti-communist films. Although the films amounted to 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.

At the same time, the chaos brought out the best in Hollywood’s creative talent. The great stars and directors of the past did some of their best work in this era of fear and distrust. The widescreens and color cinematography also reshaped the content of science fiction movies, Westerns, family melodramas, gangster films, and Hollywood musicals. Even TV became an ally by the end of the 1950s. Not only did it provide the training grounds for brilliant new talent, but it also expanded the lifeblood of old movies as well as new releases.


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