The year 1939 is regarded by most film historians as the pinnacle of success and legitimacy in the short history of Hollywood's Golden era. That year gave us the likes of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and many more. The manifest quality of these great classics is evident and needs no further elaboration here. There are a number of reasons for the achievements of 1939, chief of which was the great Hollywood studio system.
If 1939 was a watershed year for Hollywood, then the next great shift came in 1946, Hollywood’s most successful year ever, in terms of attendance. The motion picture had grown up in the seven years since the release of Gone With the Wind. The great change of course came about with World War II, and it’s aftermath.
Prior to 1946 the American film industry was a separate component in cinema annalsdifferent by its sheer size, structure, and its success in world film domination. What happened after World War II was part of a worldwide transformation of both movies and society as a whole. Within half a decade however, that same American Film industry was beleaguered, defensive, and trembling for its mere survival.
In 1938 the government filed a suit with the supreme court “The United States vs. Paramount Pictures Inc.”, known as The Paramount Case. The suit contented that the major studios held an unfair advantage in that they controlled production, distribution, and exhibition of films through the ownership of their theater chains. The suit was postponed during the war and post-war years until 1948, when the high court ruled that the major studios must divest themselves of all theater ownership. This process lasted into the mid-1950s, and was a major factor in the demise of the Hollywood studio system.
I have always had great difficulty with the out-of-hand rejection by most with the Hollywood studio method of producing motion pictures. The studio system developed in the 1920s, had always attracted competent writers, directors and technical people. The Auteur theory, had not yet been developed. The so-called authors of the films produced by the great studios were the collective deliberations of the studio bosses. The film director was just another pinion in the great wheel that moved the movie industry. Though one would be hard pressed to classify John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wellman, Henry Hathaway or, Howard Hawks as sprockets, in a great wheel. Nevertheless the studio system was a key ingredient in the evolution of the great Classic era.
The Best Years of Our Lives, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, it was the last great film to come out of the studio system. It was director William Wyler’s first post-war film. Wyler had served in Europe during the war and made several documentaries about the conflict including the award winning Memphis Belle, which chronicled the strain of a B-17 crew on its final mission over Germany.
The screenplay by Robert Sherwood tells of three men returning from war to the same hometown. They represent three different branches of service and three distinct social classes. The film is perhaps the most complete expression in Hollywood filmmaking of cinematic “realism”. Photographed by Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on Citizen Kane it strongly favors the style of French filmmaker Jean Renoir, in its use of the long take, of the moving camera, and of placing people relative to each other in different planes within the frame. It’s an epic statement with a running time of almost three hours. However, in terms of sheer popularity, The Best Years of Our Lives has fared less well than Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life released the same year. Perhaps the reason might be that it is overly composed and much to carefully planned. Moreover, in the wake of the Vietnam experience, post-combat rehabilitation has become a cottage industry. Wyler’s masterpiece will however remain the complete post-World War II Hollywood film.
1946 saw the flourishing of America’s most famous original style Film Noir. Distinctive in a dark and oppressive visual style, and in its narrative of desperation and entrapment that defied Hollywood’s conventions of the happy ending, and of good triumphing over evil. With its themes of paranoia and betrayal, of suspicious innocence and attractive guilt, of greed and desires in a world whose moral signposts have disappeared. Film Noir was a natural outgrowth of Hollywood’s post-war troubles. It drew its historical context from the hard-boiled crime and detective novels of the 1930s. The new style was able to thrive as the Production Code Administration grew more lenient during the war and immediate post-war years.
The great Noir directors; Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur, et al, brought not only expressionist cinematography, odd angles, and dark shadows, but also a pessimism drawn from witnessing the rise of fascism in modern mass societies. Film Noir was shaped by the experience of war’s horrors, by the deep-rooted anxieties touched off by the dawn of the nuclear age, and by the difficult post-war adjustments faced by thousands of returning veterans.
My Darling Clementine, in this classic western John Ford employs many of the styles used in Film Noir. His sterling adaptation about the relationship between Doc Holliday, and Wyatt Earp, and the OK Corral is still the best film on the notorious Tombstone Arizona gun battle.
Orson Welles’, The Stranger is about an ex-Nazi living in the sleepy town of Harper Connecticut. Welles’ superb portrayal of the psychotic Fritz Kindler, with a fascination for clocks is an amazing study in mendacity and evil deception. Edward G. Robinson is outstanding as Wilson an assiduous Nazi hunter who is at once aware of Welles’ charade. The use of the clock motif to thread together the hunter and hunted is pure Wellesion.
The Jolson Story, another in a long list of outstanding films produced by Columbia Pictures during the 1940s, and 1950s, directed by Alfred E. Green and starring the tragic Larry Parks. Writers Stephen Longstreet, and Sidney Buchman took great liberties with facts while nevertheless providing solid entertainment. The actual singing was performed by the great Jolie himself, who had much to with the entire production, and Jolson’s choice of Parks for the title role was indeed a stroke of genius.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, is a personal favorite of mine. Here director Tay Garnett remained as true as the “system” would allow to the James Cain novel. The protagonist, a drifter named Frank Chambers narrates the story in flashback much as Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity. The real tragedy of Postman is that by the end of the film we are convinced that Frank and Cora genuinely care for one another. As the fateful couple emerges from the courtroom, we are sympathetic. Would they survive?
The Hollywood of today bares little resemblance to the Hollywood of 1946. Much skepticism has been written about the studio system; the standard seven year contract actors were forced to sign, the accesses of the studio heads, the assembly line method of production, and the scheme of vertical integration, through the studio ownership of theater chains throughout America. It must however be noted that the great Hollywood motion picture industry did produce a culture that is forever American, and will forever be part of the remarkable “Classic Period”.