Sink or Swim: Hollywood after World War II


Frank Manchel

May 2, 2000

In the early days of 1946, Hollywood towered over the international movie industry. Its box-office figures were the highest in its history. Movies had become not only a national obsession, but also an insatiable passion for world audiences. In addition, Hollywood's lucrative foreign markets were reopening. Theater owners everywhere clamored for American movies.

Hollywood considered itself invulnerable.

Then, suddenly, the American system fell apart and it seemed as if Hollywood was doomed.

What happened and why is the subject of this lecture.

Before we can understand Hollywood's nightmare years from 1946 to 1958, we need to know something about the film capital itself, and what the Hollywood system was.

We can start by realizing, in simplified terms, that during the formative years of the American film industry it was controlled by a handful of refugees, most of them from Eastern Europe and all of them Jewish. They had fled the persecution and terrors of Poland, Germany and Russia to seek their fortunes in America. When they arrived, these foreigners encountered a culture determined to make them second-class citizens in the land of opportunity.

All of these immigrants and their sons set out to prove that they were 110% Americans.

They became the breadwinners in their poverty-ridden families, determined to succeed by any means possible. Their ambition knew no limits. With no formal education, by their street wisdom alone, they carved out a niche for themselves mainly in New York's garment industry, and soon moved into the exhibition side of the new moving picture business.

Contrary to myth, the immigrant Eastern Europeans and their sons did not drive out the early founders of the movies. Most of the pioneers who worked in motion pictures lacked common sense and soon went kaput, destroyed by their inability to maneuver in the marketplace.

The immigrant Jews, however, knew how to please the public. How else could they and generations of Jews have survived centuries of anti-Semitism?

By the 1920s, these refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe acquired vast theater holdings nationwide. To keep those theater chains operating at full capacity 52 weeks a year, they set up a number of colossal film corporations and proceeded to turn out formula films based on hit movies of the past. In the best traditions of a supply and demand economy, the daring mavericks established a factory-system with tight schedules, requiring a vast array of talents, all under long-term contracts to the studios.

One secret to success was to never deviate from tight Hollywood production schedules. Another technique was to insure that the movies stressed middle-class values and that the stories allowed you to identify with the characters regardless of their race, creed or nationality. And contrary to myth, the movie moguls never opposed artistic movies; they only opposed films that failed at the box-office.

To protect their fabulous investment, the movie moguls set up a vertical integration system, whereby they not only produced movies but also distributed them to their theater chains countrywide.

The backbone of the system was ingenious. You did not need to own many of the 18,000 theaters in the US; you only needed to control 70% of the showcase theaters in America's largest metropolitan areas and 60% of them in the smaller cities. Five corporations divided the nation into territories. Each urban area was then sub-divided into first-, second- and third run-theaters. The first run houses premiered the new movies. It was the secret to Hollywood's power, for here, where the public's thirst for novelty was satisfied, stars were born and box-office hits launched.

To protect these first-run theaters [often called picture palaces], the majors set up clearances whereby a certain time had to pass before the new films could be shown in lesser theaters.

The key, always, was novelty. Any independent producer could make a film, but no one could get a picture widely distributed unless he had permission of the majors.

In addition, because the majors could not produce all the movies necessary to fill their theaters, they openly encouraged the creation of minor studios--corporations that did not own theaters but made movies according to Hollywood's rules.

The majors even looked favorably on a corporation formed by nonconformists like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. It was called United Artists, and became a place where other rebels like Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick eventually released their movies.

To protect their monopoly from government meddling and foreign competition, the moguls established an organization for controlling film producers and distributors. That organization set up an internal censorship office, which insured that the corporations' films, made mostly by foreigners and outsiders, would be acceptable to a non-Jewish society. To demonstrate their sincerity, the movie moguls made certain that the head of the organization was always a non-Jew. They even tolerated the first head of the censorship office being a spiteful anti-Semite. [show overhead]

"The grand irony of all of Hollywood," as Neal Gabler points out, "is that Americans come to define themselves by the shadow America that was created by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who weren’t admitted to the precincts of Real America."

That is the positive side.

On the negative side, creative talent bristled at the strict rules and regulations. They wanted freedom to develop their skills, but the studios demanded obedience. The nation's exhibitors resented having to rent movies they did not see beforehand or even like. Again, Hollywood ignored anyone's needs but its own.

Educators, theologians, parents and government leaders worried endlessly about the influence of the movies on the lives on the young, the impressionable and the irresponsible. With so many of the film formulas dealing with subversive approaches to traditional authority, conservatives wanted to control this highly manipulative, controversial medium.

Not surprisingly, the Eastern European immigrants, who suffered from tremendous inferiority complexes, never found favor in the halls of the mighty and powerful. More to the point, they dreaded dealing with intellectuals and clever people. Nevertheless, they tried to gain respectability by bringing the very artists they hated to California.

Contrary to myth, Hollywood was not always hostile to foreign talent. In fact, some of the film capital's finest movies were made by such émigrés as Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Otto Preminger, Mack Sennett, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, and Friedrich Murnau.

It is true, however, that many foreign artists and literary giants proved incapable of adjusting to Hollywood's rigid system. They never understood or bought into the film capital's methods. Often ignored by Hollywood's critics, however, is that the essential critics, the audiences, the paying customers, rarely accepted even the few films the Hollywood misfits made here or abroad.

To alibi for their failure and for the fact that Hollywood's stars mainly came from the ranks of the untrained and unsophisticated, the famous artists dismissed the now powerful peasants. Elitist bashing of the world's most democratic art form became a crusade of many intellectuals and politicians.

As the Great Depression increased and war clouds gathered abroad, reactionary forces in both New York and California took advantage of America's racist and sexist fears and anxieties. They demonized the progressive causes promoted by the left-wing activists from Broadway and the political refugees from Europe; and substituted instead a narrow nationalism.

However, the moguls could not ignore widespread American xenophobia and ignorance, especially when militant isolationists became overly suspicious about all these radical foreigners working on the West Coast. Moreover, the Great Depression nearly bankrupted the movie industry. To survive, the movie moguls were forced to share their power with the moneymen of Wall Street, who were even more cynical of artists and their liberal values than were the non-intellectual immigrants.

The moguls especially hated the attempts by their employees to unionize the industry. No where was the anger more malicious than that directed at the men and women who established the Screenwriters Guild, Hollywood's most progressive union. In addition, as more and more European political refugees fled Nazi persecution and sought sanctuary in Hollywood, right wingers intensified their harassment of the film industry.

The political and cultural division between the movie bosses, their workers, and conservative forces reached epic proportions during the 1930s. The battles for unionization, the support of radical political candidates, the backing of the New Deal, the growing demand for films against the Nazis, and the hue and cry by the progressives to attack America's isolationist policies only intensified the problems Hollywood faced with right wingers and conservatives in the years before World War II.

Still the American film industry held off attempts by the anti-Trust division of the government to break Hollywood's monopoly.

Another government threat came from the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, created in 1938. Dominated at the outset by Southern Democrats, HUAC had something for everyone to despise: it was violently against the New Deal, it was extremely isolationist in practice, and its hatred of anyone not 100% white protestant made other white supremacist groups look like wimps.

However, in 1939, HUAC was no match for Hollywood, and the movie moguls' successfully squelched HUAC's attempt to paint the film industry as a communist front. In addition, the Eastern European immigrants and their sons withstood the attempt by the US Senate to brand Hollywood as a den of traitors.

Once America went to war at the end of 1941, these battles were put aside for the duration. Between 1942 and 1945, it seemed as if we were one America fighting a common enemy.

Therefore, when the war ended, Hollywood was at the top of its form. Things looked even better for the filmmakers when the overseas markets reopened, and Hollywood calculated its potential foreign grosses. The five majors and the three minors, along with the lowly Disney studio--had every reason to assume that they were indestructible.

[Show chart of industry in 1946]

In hindsight, you wonder why there was not more concern in Hollywood once the war was won. After all, the issues of unionization were not over. The battles with the government had not disappeared, only been put on hold. Moreover, the public mood toward movies changed after the war. People had their minds on other things.

How could the movie moguls have been so myopic?

True, overseas, national cinemas struggled to rebuild their war-torn industries but they were not powerless to defend themselves. These national cinemas knew they could never compete with Hollywood if they did not protect their economic and cultural resources. Thus, they set up quotas for how many American films could be shown a year on the foreign screens; they established tariffs restricting how much box-office revenue could be returned to America. Didn't anyone see this as a potential crisis?

What about the famous directors and performers who wanted more creative freedom? The documentary techniques developed in combat and the horrors the veterans witnessed at the front lines made them determined to change the content and style of post-war Hollywood movies, away from romantic melodramas to a more socially conscious industry. Why didn't Hollywood see that as a serious problem to its rigid system?

Why did Hollywood think it could ignore the pessimism, the desperation, and the disillusionment that grew out of the emerging Cold War and the fear of atomic annihilation?

Equally important, how could anyone ignore the red-baiting, the anti-Semitism, the renewed racism against returning black veterans, and the paranoia in post-war American life? Women, in particular, found themselves in the center of a storm about social priorities: just where did they belong: in the marketplace alongside the men, or in a patriarchal world where they remained subordinate to men?

Whatever illusions Hollywood may have harbored in the days immediately following the Allied victory, they soon began to disappear by the end of 1946.

Let's start with the public itself. Men and women who had suffered countless hardships for three and a half years found themselves eager to resume their lives. Consumerism became the passion of the day. The baby boom began in earnest and new attitudes about leisure time took shape in the form of miniature golf and bowling. People wanted cars and a nicer environment to raise families, and so a mass migration, begun at the turn of the century, from the urban areas to the suburbs rapidly increased.

This shift in demographics and social mores radically affected the status of indoor movie theaters. Going to a movie in the suburbs became too expensive and inconvenient. Hollywood recognized the problem and slowly adjusted to the changing times. They created drive-in theaters, so families could go together and avoid baby-sitting costs. In 1948, there were 820 drive-ins; a decade later, the number had grown to over 4000. The problem was that drive-ins only operated in the evenings. Suburbia found a more satisfying solution in the 1960s, with the creation of multiplex theaters in shopping centers.

Meanwhile, as the postwar issues gained momentum in 1946, the effect on the box office and the first-run theaters became readily apparent. Hollywood's receipts were off by nearly 8%. By 1948, 18,000 movie houses in the US were in trouble. A decade later, one third of them were gone.

Europe's tariffs and quotas only added to Hollywood's growing financial instability.

Downsizing quickly became the order of the day in Hollywood, and with the layoffs came a reduction not only in the number of films made, but in the types of films produced.

The start of the Cold War plus the impact of the wartime documentaries transformed Hollywood movies. Middle-class values no longer squared with the state of the world's thinking. Now we saw the rise of a strong socially conscious cinema. We had just fought a war against prejudice and intolerance. What about fighting the injustices and bigotry at home?

The neo-realistic movement in Italy encouraged these rebellious artists to make their movies on location, rather than on studio lots; to focus on everyday people with pressing social problems, shown not with technical splendor but with ordinary language and behavior.

In the years between 1946 and 1951, we saw such memorable films as The Best Years of Our Lives, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Crossfire, Gentleman's Agreement, Letter from an Unknown Woman, All the King's Men, Lost Boundaries, Home of the Brave, Pinky, Intruder in the Dust, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, Broken Arrow, and No Way Out, the last one introducing a young actor named Sidney Poitier.

And as the box-office receipts dwindled, the studios' hold on its talent loosened even more. It became harder to do business as usual, to keep the formulas safe and apolitical.

Nowhere was the paranoia and insecurity of the times more apparent than in an increasingly popular film style known as film noir. [Show clip--AMERICAN CINEMA: FILM NOIR--1:54, Richard Widmark… end with "Anxiety caused by system].

True, the source of this movement was the hard-boiled detective fiction of the twenties, but it had not been allowed to flourish until the waning days of WWII. Now the nation's hypocrisy and domestic class warfare made film noir enormously popular with audiences worldwide. What had started out as an economic ploy by the studios turned into a political and social weapon for rebellious artists. It became almost impossible to watch film noir narratives and not believe that America was in danger from numerous conspirators intent on destroying our basic freedoms.

The reactionaries watched these film noir conspiracies in dismay. More to the point, they saw in the times an opportunity not only to settle long standing scores with liberals and progressives, but also a chance to further their ambitions. What better place for political opportunists to gain maximum visibility than Hollywood? And what better ally for the Hollywood reactionaries than the recently revived HUAC, now controlled by second-rate Republican politicians?

Under the guise of weeding out communists, HUAC burst back on the American scene. In October 1947, the House un-American Activities Committee resumed its attack on Hollywood. [Show clip--LEGACY OF THE BLACKLIST, 2:18 End with "shared the Hollywood Blacklist"]

Would it surprise you to know that the first ten individuals singled out for punishment consisted of seven screenwriters, two directors and one producer, and all but a couple were Jewish?

Now there are those who insist that the battle was about safeguarding America from subversives, that all Hollywood conservatives did, was demonstrate their patriotism.

Neither Mark Stoler nor I believe that for one moment. As my dear friend Stoler states, "It is clear that there were communist spies and committed anti-Communists during the early years of the Cold War. But most of the spies had already been caught by the time Joe McCarthy began his rampage (he never caught a single spy), and many if not most of the politicians leading the anticommunist crusade (especially those on HUAC) saw it as a way to attack New Deal Liberalism…." In other words, it was a witchhunt, and as Lillian Hellman astutely observed, a time for scoundrels.

What those plague years were like for Hollywood have been described in films like The Way We Were, The Front, The Manchurian Candidate, and Guilty by Suspicion. In essence, a blacklist was instituted by the American film industry and hundreds of lives, careers, and friendships were shattered for decades. Some careers never were resumed. Moreover, there were people who died tragically because of the pressure. It was, as some historians have characterized it, "a time of forced loyalty oaths, star chambers, and stool pigeons."

Each of us from those days remembers one victim more than he or she remembers another. For me, it was Chaplin. The reactionaries in Washington didn't have the courage to exile him directly from America, but in 1952, when Chaplin was sailing on the Queen Elizabeth taking him to London for the premiere of his flawed masterpiece, Limelight, the U.S. attorney general cabled him that he could not return to the land of the free, where he had lived for the past forty years.

I do not intend to whitewash the progressives. Clearly, Chaplin was no saint, the Hollywood Ten could sling mud with the best of their accusers, and many left wingers had a convenient lapse of memory when it came to the atrocities committed by the communists around the world.

Nevertheless, we need to understand that this shameful moment in American film history was not so much about people panicking during the Cold War. It was about conservative and reactionary forces using the Communist scare to finally, after many decades, gain control of the motion picture industry. We need to focus on the fact that this tragic period was not so much about innocent people being imprisoned, driven out of Hollywood, and being denied recognition for the films they made, mainly because they refused to cooperate with HUAC. It is about courageous mavericks that taught Hollywood and the world important lessons about freedom and responsibility. As Victor

Navasky points out, "By resisting the demand that they confess, recant, inform, sign loyalty oaths, they were the latest in a long line of men and women down through the centuries who have been pressured by church and state to declare their allegiance to God and king (or, in the seventeenth century, official science, which held that the earth is at the center of the universe). Most of those who refused to bow to such pressures did so as a matter of conscience."

But by 1948, blacklisting, the move to the suburbs, the rebellion in foreign markets, and the dwindling control of the studio system were not the only problems Hollywood faced.

After years of struggling, the anti-Trust division won its battle against the majors, and the United States Supreme Court declared in the 1948 Paramount Decision that Hollywood's monolithic studio system had to end. The studios had to divorce themselves from exhibition.

In theory, things looked good for the nation's exhibitors. A free market now existed and no one got preferential treatment. But serious problems arose. Small theater owners could not see all the new films. They did not know what pictures to book, and by the end of the fifties, many movie houses went out of business.

The times were just as bad for the majors. Without the theaters in their fold, the studios could not count on box-office receipts to underwrite the cost of producing films and keeping so many people under contract. No longer could they afford their large studio lots or control the work of artists.

Now for the first time in decades, the creative talent of the fabulous Hollywood studios found themselves in a competitive jungle with no publicity departments to help publicize their work.

By the end of the 1940s, Hollywood had only two choices: adapt or disappear. As one historian summarized the situation, Hollywood's "once monolithic studio structure splintered into dozens of small companies and individual units."

Interestingly, the real winners were the minor studios. They had no theaters to jettison. Thus, Columbia, Universal and United Artists became the place where creative people formed their own small production units. The most important of these new independent companies was Burt Lancaster's Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company.

The movie moguls, who thought they could not be beaten, who used revenge as a method of staying in power, found themselves falling out of power. Blacklisting had stripped them of much of their intellectual resources. They proved themselves incapable of understanding the paranoia generated by film noir. In addition, the Paramount decision had robbed them of financial security. Before 1945, for example, 80% of Hollywood productions made money, thanks to the studio system. With the monopoly apparently destroyed, only 10% of the films released in 1950 made their money back.

As if these problems were not enough, the myopic movie moguls had made one more major miscalculation. In 1946, there were only 6,000 TV sets in American homes, and Hollywood thought the new communications technology was a passing fad. Five years later, as one observer noted, a "1000 new sets were being installed [in American homes] every twenty-four hours."

Again, the movie moguls reacted foolishly. They saw TV as their enemy, not as another major market. In 1952, Hollywood promised film audiences things they could not see on TV: widescreen movies in glorious color. [Go to Clip--AMERICAN CINEMA: FILM IN THE TV AGE, three MINS. End with last shot of THE ROBE.]

By the end of the decade, the freshness of color and widescreens dwindled considerably, and it was over for the moguls.

In their place were independent production units working with Universal, Columbia, and United Artists to salvage what they could of the Hollywood system.

Art houses gave us inspirational foreign films. It was here we discovered the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, and Akira Kurosawa.

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.

To beat the out-of-control costs of independent productions, the new Hollywood started making movies overseas. They became known as blockbuster films, international productions, or "runaway" movies.

In theory, the idea made sense. Hollywood could produce the movies with its overseas revenue held in escrow, attract global audiences, and maximize interest in widescreen productions. These were the days of The African Queen, Love is a Many Splendid Thing, An Affair to Remember, From Here to Eternity, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, biblical spectacles, and fabulous musicals like A Star is Born and Gigi.

Even TV became an ally by the end of the fifties. 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.

However, the biggest boon for Hollywood came not from its own ranks but from a group of French movie nuts. Rather than go to school in the post-WWII period, these die-hard filmgoers watched movies day and night in a marvelous museum called the Cinemateque Francaise. When they were not allowed to make their own films, they helped create a new film magazine, Cahiers Du Cinema. And from the pages of that militant journal, came an idea called the Auteur theory. In essence, it said that artists could not be contained by any rules or regulations, that if you watched their films you could see their personal visions in every movie they made. In addition, no one, these French critics argued, made finer or more profound movies than the auteurs of Hollywood.

Who were these auteurs? How did the mavericks fare over the next few decades? What were the great contributions of the Hollywood legends to world cinema? To get those answers, you need to sign up for a course in the fall called The Contemporary Cinema. As Joan Smith will tell you, this is a business, not a non-profit operation.

This much I will tell you--the moguls, with all their mistakes, still outsmarted everyone. True, the minors became the majors and the majors dropped down in status. Nevertheless, control of the world film industry remained in the hands of the major distributors. Only they had the money and networks to distribute films nationwide. Films today, more than ever, rely on the old formulas.

And thankfully, on April 16, 1972, the Motion Picture Academy awarded Charlie Chaplin an Honorary Oscar. Here for just a minute, we can relive that memorable moment.


Let me conclude this lecture by reminding you of the words of a blacklisted writer, Michael Wilson, who never received in his lifetime his Oscar for co-writing The Bridge on the River Kwai. Mike received the Screenwriters Guild' Laurel Award in 1976, and he said in his acceptance speech the following, which I have slightly altered:

"I don’t want to dwell on the past. But for a few moments to speak of the future, and I address my remaining remarks particularly to you, younger men and women who have perhaps not yet established yourselves in … [our profession] at the time of the great witchhunt. I feel that unless you remember this dark epoch and understand it, you may be doomed to replay it. Not with the same cast of characters, of course, or on the same issues.

"But I see a day, perhaps coming in your lifetime if not in mine, when a new crisis of belief will grip this republic. When diversity of opinion will be labeled disloyalty, and when extraordinary pressures will be put on writers in the mass media [and educators] to conform to administration policy on the key issues of the time, whatever they may be.

"If this gloomy scenario should come to pass, I trust that you younger men and women will shelter the mavericks and the dissenters in your ranks and protect their right to work. The Guild [and the universities] will have the use and the need of rebels if it is to survive as a union of free writers [and teachers]. This nation will have need of them if it is to survive as an open society."