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Hollywood as History
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.
The Birth of The Movies
The Pre-History of Motion Pictures
American Film in the Silent Era
The Movies as a Cultural Battleground
The Rise of Hollywood and the Arrival of Sound
The Movies Meet the Great Depression
New Directions in Post-War Film
The "New" Hollywood
The Birth 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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The 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.
The 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 camera.
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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American 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 half lives."
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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The 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
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
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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The 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 to sound.
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
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
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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The 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
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 depression backdrops.
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 condemned.
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
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 words,
"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
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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
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.
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New Directions in Post-War Film
During the 1940s, a new film genre--known as film noir-- arose, which gave tangible expression to the psychic
confusion of a nation that had won the largest war in history but faced even greater uncertainties in peacetime.
Though film noir received its named from French film critics and was heavily influenced by German expressionist
film making techniques, it stands out as one of the most original and innovative American movie genres.
World War II had produced far-reaching changes in American life: it accelerated the mobility of population,
raised living standards, and profoundly altered race relations and the roles of women. Film noir metaphorically
addressed many anxieties and apprehensions: the disorientation of returning GIs, fear of nuclear weapons,
paranoia generated by the early Cod War, and fears aroused by the changing role of women. Characterized by
sexual insecurity, aberrant psychology, and nightmarish camera work, film noir depicted a world of threatening
shadows and ambiguities--a world of obsession, alienation, corruption, deceit, blurred identity, paranoia,
dementia, weak men, cold- blooded femme fatales, and inevitably murder. Its style consisted of looming close
ups, oblique camera angles, and crowded compositions that produced a sense of entrapment. The film's
narratives were rarely straightforward; they contained frequent flashbacks and voice-overs.
After the war, Hollywood's audience not only shrank, it also fragmented into distinct subgroups. An audience
interested in serious social problem films expanded. During the postwar period Hollywood produced a growing
number addressing such problems as ethnic and racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, sufferings of maltreated mental
patients, and the problems of alcohol and drug addiction.
Although the early postwar period is often regarded as the golden age of the American family, the popular family
melodramas of the 1940s and 50s reveal a pattern of deeply troubled family relationships. These films depicted
sexual frustration; anxious parents; cold, domineering mothers; alienated children; insensitive or fretful fathers;
defiant adolescents; and loveless marriages. In part this obsession with the theme of marriage and family life "as
a kind of hell" reflected a popularized form of psychoanalytic thought, which offered simplistic formulas to explain
human behavior. Films of the early postwar period laboriously repeated the theme that sexual frustration
inevitably led to neurosis and that harsh, neglectful, or uncomprehending parents produce alienated children. It
was a far cry from the soothing and funny fare available on TV.
According to many of the popular films of the period, the source of family woes lay in a lack of familial love. Love
was treated as the answer to problems ranging from juvenile delinquency to schizophrenia. Adolescents in films
like Splendor in the Grass were rebellious because their parents "won't listen." Husbands and wives drank too
much or stray sexually because they cannot communicate adequately with their spouses. While many films of
the early postwar era appear to offer a critical and ambivalent view of marriage and family life, their underlying
message was hopeful. Even the most severe family problems could be resolved by love, understanding, and
At the same time that it turned out serious social problem films about drugs and family life, Hollywood produced
movies that explored disturbing changes in the lives of American youth. Films such as The Wild One (1954),
Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) portrayed adolescents as budding criminals,
emerging homosexuals, potential fascists, and pathological misfits--everything but perfectly normal kids. On
close inspection, cultural critics concluded that something was indeed wrong with American youth, who like Tony
in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) seemed closer to uncontrollable beasts than civilized adults. As Tony tells
a psychiatrist, "I say things, I do things--I don't know why."
Many factors contributed to a belief in adolescent moral decline. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, linked a rise
in juvenile delinquency to the decline in the influence of family, home, church, and local community institutions.
Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist, emphasized the pernicious influence of comic books. He believed that crime
and horror comic books fostered racism, fascism, and sexism in their readers.
In fact, these fears were grossly overstated. During the late '40s and '50s, for example, juvenile delinquency was
not increasing. But changes were taking place, and popular movies suggest some of the responses to these
broader social transformations. In retrospect, it appears that the proliferation of juvenile delinquency films
reflected adult anxieties and also the growth of a distinct youth market. During the 1950s, a new youth culture
began to arise, with its distinctive forms of music (rock-and-roll), dress, and language, as well as a deep disdain
for the world of conventional adulthood. Marlon Brando captured a new attitude when he responded to the
question, "What are you rebelling against-" with the reply: "Whadda ya got-"
The growing popularity of science fiction thrillers also reflected the emergence of the youth market and the
spread of a certain paranoid style during the Cold War years. Historian Richard Hofstadter defined the paranoid
style in these terms:
The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is...that its exponents see...a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as
the motive force in historical events...The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic
terms - he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.
As Nora Sayre has shown, science fiction films of the '50s can be viewed as allegories of the Cold War,
reflecting broader social concerns with domestic subversion, infiltration, and the pressures for conformity in a
mass society. Unlike the cheerful, humorous, quasi-religious science fiction of the 1970s and '80s, the films of
the 50s conveyed an atmosphere of paranoia and foreboding, and dealt with themes--like mind-control and the
after-effects of atomic bomb tests--that tapped into deep-seated anxieties of the period.
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The "New" Hollywood
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 Angels (1966).
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 Murray.
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 office hits.
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 Laurentiis, disappeared.
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
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 violence.
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
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 of war.
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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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