The Hollywood Studio System, 1942–1945
6Income, Output, and the Balance of Studio Power
The Hollywood Studio System, 1942–1945
Studio Operations and Market Strategies
The Wartime Surge in Independent Production
Studio-based Units and In-house Independents
Working the First-Run Market
At 11:26 a.m. on 7 December 1941, news of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor disrupted what was, by all accounts, a clear and quiet Sunday morning in Los Angeles. The news itself hit like an explosion, throwing the entire area into panic and confusion. The Hollywood movie colony, enjoying its weekly respite from an otherwise nonstop production schedule, was soon bustling with activity. In the first hours and days of the war, that activity had little to do with filmmaking. Makeshift air-raid shelters were constructed on movie lots, while dimout and blackout plans were quickly formulated. Studio employees fretted about Japanese attacks and the resemblance of the sound stages to aircraft plants.
Meanwhile, studio executives worried about the wartime status of Hollywood films and filmmaking. The U.S. entry into the war actually put the studios in a curious bind. On the one hand, there was the possibility of nationalization by the government and the suspension of all commercial operations "for the duration." On the other hand, the studios faced the prospect of playing a marginal role (or less) in Washington's overall war plans. After Pearl Harbor, as Richard Lingeman has noted, "the movie business was just another war industry eager to cooperate [with the government] out of fear that it would be considered 'non-essential' and strangled by lack of priorities."1
As seen in chapter 5, within two weeks President Roosevelt gave Hollywood the green light to continue commercial filmmaking, but with express instructions regarding the studios' active support of the U.S. war effort. Hollywood and Washington quickly adapted a workable wartime rapport, and the studios cooperated with both the government and the military in the production of war films. Several lesser Hollywood plants—Fox's old B-picture studio on Western Avenue, for example, and both the Disney and Hal Roach studios—were completely retooled for war-film production.
Hollywood swarmed with military personnel, including a number of filmmakers who joined up to do documentary work. Several top studio executives took military commissions, began wearing uniforms, and insisted on being addressed by rank. Jack Warner, for instance, signed up with the Army Air Corps and thereafter became "Colonel Warner," even in interoffice memos. Of the 2,700 workers who left Hollywood for active military duty in 1942, however, few were top studio executives. One notable exception was Fox's production chief, Darryl Zanuck, whose 1942-1943 stint as a commander in the Army Signal Corps included considerable action in North Africa.2
The most significant developments in the Hollywood studio system during World War II were increased studio revenues (and profits) and decreased output. While the lower output of films was related to various wartime factors—the manpower shortage, for example, and restricted supplies of film stock—these cutbacks resulted more than anything else from surging wartime revenues. Simply stated, the first-run movie market was so bullish after Pearl Harbor that the major studios quickly saw the logic of increasing their emphasis on top product while cutting back on their overall output of films.
Indeed, the wartime reduction in motion picture production and overall releases was most acute, by far, among the Big Five integrated majors. During the five years before Pearl Harbor, the Big Eight producer-distributors together released 1,833 pictures. In the five years after Pearl Harbor (1942-1946), they released 1,395—a decline of 438 pictures, or nearly 25 percent. The three major-minors accounted for virtually none of that decline: Universal and Columbia averaged 50 pictures per year during both periods, and UA just over 20. The Big Five, meanwhile, declined from an average of 50 releases annually per company in the five prewar years to only 30 per year from 1942 through 1946.3
The Big Five had begun to scale back output in 1941, but clearly the real cuts came with the war itself. In a one-year span from 1942 to 1943, Warners cut its output from 34 to 21 pictures, MGM from 49 to 33, Fox from 51 to 33, and Paramount from 44 to 30. RKO's big drop came a year later, falling from 44 to 31 releases. Once instituted, these reductions held throughout the war, thus creating a very different release pattern for the early and later war years:
|Company||Number of Releases||% Decline|
In terms of studio profits, all of the Big Eight fared well during the war, with the integrated majors enjoying the benefits of the war boom to a far greater degree than their competitors. As in the 1930s and early 1940s, the Big Eight took about 95 percent of the total market, with the Big Five consistently accounting for 90 percent of industry profits. Revenues and profits for the integrated majors were far beyond Depression and prewar totals: combined industry profits climbed from just under $20 million in 1939 and 1940 to $34 million in 1941, $50 million in 1942, and then right around $60 million for the next three years.4 A key factor here, of course, was the relative size of each major company's theater holdings. Its theater holdings gave Paramount a huge advantage over the other majors and left both MGM and RKO at an obvious disadvantage.5 Thus, the balance of power among the Big Five that had begun to shift in 1940-1941 changed even more during the war; MGM was steadily overtaken by Paramount and Fox, with Warners close behind.
Looking at the total revenues, net profits, and profit shares of all the Big Eight during the war era, the collective domination of the Big Five and the relative balance of power among the majors—and especially Paramount, Fox, Metro, and Warners—is readily apparent.
|Total Revenues ($ millions)||Net Profits ($ millions)||% Profit Share|
|Source: Figures from Joel Finler, The Hollywood Story (New York: Crown, 1988), pp. 31, 286-87; and Christopher H. Sterling and Timothy R. Haight, The Mass Media: The Aspen Institute Guide to Communications Industry Trends (New York: Praeger, 1978), p. 184. See also Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System (New York: St. Martin's, 1986).|
|*Note that the Fox revenue total for 1942 does not include its theater income. Factoring this in would increase Fox's revenue total to about $625 million—the highest revenue total for the war era.|
It is important to note that the majors did not enter the war with plans to reduce output but did so rather haphazardly in 1942-1943 in response to changing industry conditions. Consider the case of 20th Century—Fox during this period. In May 1942, Fox announced plans to spend $28 million on fifty-two features for the 1942-1943 season.6 Three months later, as the marketplace continued to heat up, Fox decided to cut ten B's out of its schedule (following the lead of Paramount and Warners).7 Then in September 1942, Fox announced that its profits for the previous six months were up 300 percent compared with the same period in 1941; Fox planned further reductions, with an even heavier concentration on first-run features.8
The wartime decrease in output among the Big Five was accompanied by steadily increasing production costs. Between 1942 and 1945, the average cost per feature rose from $336,600 to $554,386, and the average number of shooting days per picture climbed from twenty-two to thirty-three. The total cost for all film production in Hollywood more than doubled in that period, from $198.5 million to $402 million.9 This increase was due in part to war-induced inflation, of course, but the primary factor was the steady shift to high-end production. By 1945, the Big Five were concentrating almost exclusively on A-class product for the first-run market, the major-minors dominated the middle ground (though they put out a few modest A pictures and a few low-grade B's), and the minors concentrated on the low end. A clear indication of this general range is provided by these figures charting the estimated costs on 300 studio productions in 1944:
|company||Over $500,000||$200,000-500,000||$100,000-200,000||Under $100,000|
Another factor in the majors' decreased wartime output was the stockpiling of product. Initially the impulse to stockpile pictures resulted from the sales policies under the 1940 consent decree. Since blind bidding was prohibited and all pictures had to be trade-shown, the studios were compelled to have their pictures ready well in advance of release. Once the war broke out, large trade shows and national sales conventions became impractical and were phased out in lieu of advance screenings of individual films at key exchanges prior to release. Thus, the studios could have reverted to a tighter schedule from completion to release, but by then war conditions encouraged stockpiling.
Early in the war, interestingly enough, stockpiling was the result of the studios stepping up production in response to war-related restrictions, anticipated shortages, and general uncertainties. As Variety noted in late 1942: "In a race against the time when wartime exigencies are expected to circumscribe activities via further inroads on talent, technicians, material and equipment, Hollywood studios are steaming ahead at the speediest production clip in history in order to build up their picture stocks."10 As those stockpiles grew, along with inflated costs and first-run revenues, the studios found that they could continue stockpiling while actually cutting back production."11
In other words, as the war went on, stockpiling was essentially a function of the overheated first-run marketplace. As revenues and market conditions outran even the most optimistic projections year after year from 1942 to 1946, long runs and holdovers became the rule as the studios milked their top features for every possible dollar. Thus the urge to stockpile product—studios shelved pictures which were ready for release for two years or more. Indeed, much of the falloff between 1942 and 1943 was less a matter of the Big Five producing fewer pictures than of releasing pictures.
The backlogs grew rapidly in 1942 and early 1943, ranging between 100 and 200 features completed and awaiting release.12 At the end of the war, the Motion Picture Herald pegged the backlog at 203 pictures, while Variety estimated an industrywide inventory of $250,000,000.13 By then, the backlogs were part of overall postwar strategy; the studios anticipated changes in the tax codes as well as a box-office surge when servicemen returned and wartime restrictions were eased.14 That strategy paid off: 1946 saw the Big Five's revenues and profits burst to even higher levels in the last shuddering concussion of the war boom.
The Major-Minors and the Minor Studios
The war era saw a growing rift between the Big Five and the other studios in terms of production and management operations as well as overall market strategies. The major studios, with their superior resources, were able to respond to the wartime market more aggressively than the lesser studio powers. While the Little Three and the Poverty Row studios certainly benefited from the war boom, their overall production and sales strategies, for the most part, remained quite consistent during the war.
The one exception was United Artists. Its wartime success is scarcely surprising, given its established focus on high-end releases and the wartime premium on A-class pictures. While Universal and Columbia were content to simply sustain their prewar policies and enjoy the financial benefits of the war boom, UA under David Selznick lined up an impressive array of talent and film projects. Selznick signed the MGM producer Hunt Stromberg to a lucrative five-picture deal in 1942, for instance, and in early 1943 he closed a five-picture deal with James Cagney, just off his Oscar-winning performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).15 Both contracts involved financing as well as distribution, a significant innovation for UA in the 1940s, and one that attracted a number of independents. In late 1943, the Motion Picture Herald reported that UA had a record sixteen units "currently active."16
While those units were active, however, they were not all that productive, and in fact UA was in desperate need of product. Thus, in a stunning reversal of form, the UA board decided in mid-1942 and again in mid-1943 to purchase packages of stockpiled second-rate pictures from Paramount. UA paid $4.8 million for a total of twenty-one pictures in the two deals—less than $250,000 per film. The studio acquired a few A pictures, but most were B's and series Westerns, including a number of Hopalong Cassidy programmers—hardly in the UA tradition. And in a further break with tradition, UA abandoned its long-standing singles-only policy and sold these pictures in blocks.17
The Paramount packages covered UA's shortfall, although they did not keep UA in the black. Incredibly, UA actually showed a net loss in 1944—the only company to accomplish such a feat during the war. But as Tino Balio suggests, the most severe loss was UA's prestige, since by 1944 it was "supplying second features for double bills almost exclusively."18 Moreover, Selznick's relationship with the UA board, and particularly with Chaplin and Pickford, deteriorated steadily during the war, thus aggravating the company's long-standing instability.
Wartime production and market strategies on Poverty Row, meanwhile, were still geared to the subsequent-run markets—especially at Monogram and PRC, which continued to struggle simply to break even, despite the war boom. But Republic, always the strongest of the minors, enjoyed annual profits in the half-million-dollar range and thus was able to venture cautiously into A-class production.19 President Herbert J. Yates replaced Gene Autry with Roy Rogers as Republic's resident singing cowboy star, and Rogers likewise played himself in an uninterrupted series of near-A formula Westerns.20 Equally important to Yates's A-class aspirations was John Wayne, who continued to alternate between loan-outs to the majors and starring roles in high-end Republic productions.21 His value to the studio was underscored in 1945, when Republic signed Wayne to a star-producer deal which included 10 percent of the gross on his pictures. Yates made other important moves to crack the first-run market in 1945, including deals with the producer-director Frank Borzage and the writer-producer-director Ben Hecht.22
The most significant wartime development at Monogram was the production of what were being termed "exploitation pictures," which Variety defined as "films with some timely or currently controversial subject which can be exploited, capitalized on in publicity and advertising." These ranged from offbeat actioners like Women in Bondage (1943), about a women's prison, to topical melodramas like Where Are Your Children? (1943), an exposé of juvenile delinquency. The most successful of these was Dillinger (1945), Monogram's first release to earn over $1 million, and a picture whose graphic violence and glorification of the legendary gangster incurred the wrath of critics and parents' groups.23
PRC made some efforts to upgrade its product line during the war, but it continued to specialize in exceptionally low-budget Westerns (some shot in only two to three days), along with its signature B-grade crime dramas and actioners. While none of these broke through commercially on the scale of Dillinger, several PRC pictures directed by Edgar G. Ulmer were modest hits and have become minor classics, including offbeat musicals like Jive Junction (1943) and Club Havana (1945) provocative thrillers like Strange Illusion and Detour (both 1945).24
The Major Studios
The integrated majors saw radical changes during the war, owing primarily to the volatile market conditions and the increased importance and clout of producers and top talent. Perhaps the single most important development was the sharp acceleration of unit production and hyphenate status for above-the-line contract talent. While these changes had considerable impact on production management, studio management—executive control of the company at large—changed very little. In fact, the war boom reinforced the Big Five's established hierarchy of executive power, with ultimate studio authority still residing in the New York office.
Both Fox and RKO underwent changes in top management early in the war that underscored the market-driven mentality of the period. In March 1942, Fox's president, Sidney Kent, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 56.25 Coming in the wake of the Fox board chairman Joe Schenck being sentenced to federal prison, Kent's death left a void atop the executive ranks. The Fox board responded in April by appointing Spyros Skouras, then head of Fox theater operations, as company president. The board also named as its chairman Wendell Willkie, just off his successful industry defense at the Senate propaganda hearings in late 1941. Willkie served essentially as a figurehead, assuming various public relations duties, but that role was cut short by his own untimely death (at age 55) in 1944. At that point, Spyros Skouras became the sole chief executive, while his brother Charlie, another theater man, took over Fox's exhibition operations.26
RKO, meanwhile, underwent a management shake-up which accompanied the ascent of the Wall Street financier Floyd Odium to board chairman of the company. Odium's Atlas Corporation had begun investing in RKO in the 1930s, and by 1942 Odium had acquired controlling interest.27 Odium promptly fired RKO's president, George Schaefer, who had overseen both the New York office and studio operations, and replaced him with two executives: Peter Rathvon, a Wall Street colleague of Odium (and longtime RKO financial adviser), who took over the New York office as president of the RKO parent company; and the sales chief Ned Depinet, who became president of RKO-Radio Pictures. Meanwhile, Odium replaced Joe Breen as studio production chief with the head of RKO theater operations, Charles Koerner. The new team quickly turned things around: RKO's profits rose from $600,000 in 1942 to $6.9 million one year later.28
Thus, Fox and RKO followed the prewar strategy of Paramount and Universal, installing men with theater and sales backgrounds as top corporate executives. Variety speculated in March 1942 about the role of these former theater executives "in shaping studio production policies," but in fact the chief executives at all of the integrated majors had even less control over actual filmmaking operations than ever.29 A governing paradox of the period was that market conditions, and particularly the increased emphasis on A-class product, brought a general shift in production management away from corporate and studio executives and into the hands of top talent. This shift was more pronounced at some companies than others, of course, as the studios responded in quite different ways both to market conditions and to the prospect of yielding more creative control to their top producers, directors, and writers.
MGM and Warner Bros. provide an illuminating contrast in this regard. Warners, without question the most factory-oriented of the Big Five in the 1930s, overhauled both its market strategy and production operations during the war. In cutting its output in half during the war, Warners completely abandoned both B-picture production and block booking, producing only A-class products which were sold on a unit basis. The last vestiges of the old Warners vanished with two telling events at the dawn of the war era. In September 1941, Warners' veteran B-unit head Bryan Foy was released from his contract. (Fox, less eager to eliminate B production, immediately picked him up.)30 Then in February 1942, Warners made an even more dramatic change: the longtime studio production chief Hal Wallis stepped down, signing a new contract as a unit producer.31 Jack Warner continued to oversee plant operations and to negotiate contracts and such, but for the first time since the 1920s—dating back to Darryl Zanuck's regime as production boss at Warners—no individual executive oversaw production. Thus, Warner Bros. underwent a belated shift during the war from a central-producer system to a unit-producer system and actually began assigning on-screen producer credit for the first time in 1942.
MGM, meanwhile, did reduce its output by some 30 percent during the war but proved altogether unwilling to adjust its basic production and management policies. MGM continued to turn out high-gloss, high-cost product, with Louis B. Mayer actually expanding the studios bloated and inefficient supervisory system despite the decreased output. All production decisions were made by Mayer and his executive committee, comprising four MGM vice presidents and an elite group of eight producers, with another thirty or so producers supervising actual filmmaking. Metro also maintained the factory-system model, with multiple writers and directors working on individual pictures—a practice by then deemed wasteful and counterproductive by the other majors. An MGM study done in 1942 indicated that fourteen to sixteen writers worked on the average studio project, far more than was common elsewhere.32 And in 1945, a trade journal reported that MGM had 116 writers under contract—three to four times the number of contract writers at the other studios.33
Despite MGM's efforts to maintain a central-producer (by committee) system, however, studio authority over actual filmmaking continued to erode during the war, because of the unprecedented demand for A-class product and the consequent increase in independent and unit production.
In February 1942, Variety ran a prescient analysis of the unit phenomenon as it had developed over the preceding months. In 1941, noted Variety, "company after company has swung away from the system of front-office assignment of producers, which they have used for years, toward the unit idea." Now the war economy "is expected to still further spur the rush toward unit production which has marked the Hollywood scene for the past few months." Thus, predicted Variety, "virtually all of Hollywood's important pictures will be coming from these more-or-less independent producers."34 The qualifier "more-or-less" was necessary because of the studios' ultimate control of distribution and first-run exhibition, and because the studios provided financing and production resources for most independents.
This latter point meant, in effect, that some filmmakers were more independent than others. Variety posited a "first class" of independents which included producers like Goldwyn and Selznick, who relied on particular studio-distributors but had their own production facilities and contract personnel, and who could handle their own financing. In the "second class" were contract producers and hyphenates like MGM's Hunt Stromberg and RKO's Orson Welles, who could "walk out at any time" and sign with a rival studio. Industry conditions were such that top producers were becoming increasingly mobile: "Hollywood has become such a checkerboard of jumping producers that it's almost impossible to keep up with the moves."
Variety concluded with the results of a "quick industry survey" naming the top ten unit heads in Hollywood: Sam Goldwyn, David Selznick, Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Preston Sturges, Jules Levey, and Alexander Korda. This group included filmmaking hyphenates, straight producers, and even a few production executives, suggesting that the term "independent" still was being applied rather haphazardly, even in the trade press. And interestingly enough, only a few of those among Variety's top ten were very productive during the war in terms of a steady output of "important" pictures. But their varied efforts illustrate the range of independent activity during the war, and so a brief survey of Variety's 1942 inventory of top independents proves rather illuminating.
Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Hollywood's two most celebrated independents at the time, were essentially inactive during the war. This was no surprise in Chaplin's case, because he typically spent four or five years between finished films. Since the release of The Great Dictator in late 1940, Chaplin still had not decided on his next project. Welles's situation was quite another matter. His 1942 excursion to South America for the experimental amalgam of documentary and fiction IT's All True went badly owing to cost overruns, inclement weather, and other complications. RKO eventually stopped funding the project, and Schaefer's departure left Welles without support at the studio. RKO's new chief executive, Peter Rathvon, refused to renew Welles's contract, so Welles went freelance and spent the rest of the war era trying in vain to buy the It's All True footage from RKO so he could complete the project. He also tried to initiate other independent projects, including an experimental documentary-drama about the infamous French "Bluebeard," Henri Landru. Welles eventually sold the idea to Chaplin and it provided the basis for Chaplin's controversial postwar satire Monsieur Verdoux (1947).35
The two other hyphenates on Variety's list, the producer-director Cecil B. DeMille and the writer-producer-director Preston Sturges, had units at Paramount and enjoyed considerable success during the war. DeMille produced two prestige pictures, Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944); both were commercially successful but failed to impress the critics. Sturges, on the other hand, enjoyed tremendous critical success but only modest box-office returns in a succession of outrageous comedies, including The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, and The Great Moment (all 1944). After a brilliant creative run of eight pictures for Paramount from 1940 to 1944, and at the peak of his success, Sturges decided to leave for an independent alliance with Howard Hughes—an ill-fated decision that effectively stalled his career.36
Three other independents on Variety's list simply were not all that productive during the war. Jules Levey and Jesse Lasky produced just three pictures between them, none of which was successful. The British producer Alexander Korda began the war with a hit UA release, To Be or Not to Be (1942), but his London Films company was plagued by financial problems which eventually caused a split with UA. In early 1943, the New York Times announced that Korda was taking over the MGM-British unit, but that union resulted in only one picture, Perfect Strangers (U.S. release 1945; British title Vacation from Marriage ). Korda also coproduced several wartime pictures, including Sahara (1943), directed by his brother Zoltan Korda for Columbia.37
The other three on Variety's list, Sam Goldwyn, David Selznick, and Walt Disney, formed an elite trio as Hollywood's dominant major independent producers, although they too underwent very different wartime experiences. Of the three, only Goldwyn maintained business as usual during the war, turning out Ball of Fire in 1941, The Pride of the Yankees in 1942 and The North Star in 1943, The Princess and the Pirate in 1944, and Up in Arms in 1944. All were released by RKO, and all but The North Star were major hits.
Disney continued to release through RKO, but virtually all of Disney's wartime output directly supported the war effort. A financially crippling studio strike (and settlement) in 1941 and the disappointing box-office returns of the prewar features (Pinocchlo and Fantasia in 1940; Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon in 1941) encouraged Disney to abandon commercial operations after the release of Bambi in June 1942 and to concentrate almost exclusively on war-related films. The Disney studio with its 1,200 employees was the only one designated as an official war production plant by the government, and it turned out scores of animated military training films and informational shorts. Disney's cartoons were geared to the war effort as well, although they remained extremely popular with wartime moviegoers. Disney's only feature during the war was an animated doc umentary on strategic bombing, Victory Through Air Power (1943).38
Selznick, meanwhile, remained inactive as a producer during the early war years, but he quickly expanded his efforts as a talent agent to include the packaging of movie projects. He made enormous profits loaning out such contract talent as Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Dorothy McGuire, and the directors Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Stevenson. Selznick also packaged star, story property and/or script, and other top talent for such films as Claudia (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944), both purchased by Fox. In 1944, Selznick returned to active production with three projects, Since You Went Away, I'll Be Seeing You, and Spellbound (1945).
The wartime careers of Variety's top ten indicate both the vagaries and the variations of Hollywood independence during that turbulent era, which saw the ranks of so-called independents swell enormously. Indeed, the term was applied to virtually any abovethe-line talent not under conventional long-term studio contract—a roster which included James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Lester Cowan, Buddy De Sylva, Arthur Freed, William Goetz, Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, Mark Hellinger, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Leo McCarey, Dore Schary, Jack Skirball, Edward Small, Leo Spitz, Hunt Stromberg, Jerry Wald, Hal Wallis, and Walter Wanger. Many of these would have been considered simply freelance talent a few years earlier, but the economic and regulatory conditions during the war encouraged noncontract talent to set up independent production companies.
The wartime income tax was a crucial factor in the rise of independent companies. Its effect was described in detail by the industry executive Ernest Borneman in a Harper's piece, "Rebellion in Hollywood: A Study in Motion Picture Finance." The "rebellion," said Borneman, involved Hollywood's "inner circle of top producers, highpriced writers and directors, and the cherished stars," who were "clutching the banner of artistic freedom in one hand and an income tax blank in the other." The rebellion was "touched off inadvertently by the Treasury Department" in that Hollywood filmmakers and artists, "dismayed by wartime tax rates, went into business for themselves as independent producers in order to pay capital gains tax rather than income tax." This invariably entailed setting up a so-called single picture corporation—that is, a film production company created to produce a single feature. After the film's release, the company would be dissolved, its stocks sold, and the profits taxed at the capital gains rate of 25 percent.39
This arrangement proved most attractive to those who, by 1942, found themselves in the 80-90 percent income tax bracket. James Cagney, for example, readily acknowledged that his move to independent status with UA in 1942 was motivated largely by the fact that, in 1941, his earnings of over $350,000 with Warners yielded an after-tax income of only $70,000.40 Established independents took to this strategy as well. Sam Goldwyn, for instance, was advised in November 1942 by his New York accounting firm to liquidate Samuel Goldwyn, Inc., and create a succession of "collapsible corporations" for each of his RKO productions, so that he could "convert ordinary income into capital gains." Goldwyn readily complied, and thus his wartime productions were put out by a series of new companies, including Avalon, Regent, Beverly, and Trinity Productions.41
As the independent trend accelerated and the market continued to heat up, the movie industry also underwent dramatic changes in production financing. As Borneman noted in his 1946 article: "In the unprecedented boom market of the past five years, it has no longer been necessary [for independents] to make pre-production deals with a major distributor in order to get production capital." Not only were independents less dependent on studios for financing, notes Borneman, but they also found a viable alternative to banks in the form of companies designed to finance movies. "Motion picture finance corporations have arisen in Hollywood, New York, and Chicago, which will put up all the necessary production capital, put up all the salaries, including that of the producer-promoter himself, and take one half of the net proceeds for their pains." Lester Cowan, for instance, used Domestic Industries, Inc., of Chicago to finance Tomorrow the World (1944) and The Story of GI Joe (1945), both of which were produced by single-picture corporations and released through UA.42
The studios had little choice but to accommodate filmmakers who expressed independent inclinations, given the wartime demand for top talent and for a steady flow of highend product. Thus, by early 1944, according to Variety, "Hollywood's most important independent producers [were] setting virtually their own terms with distributors."43 At that time, 71 units were scheduled to deliver 196 features over the coming year at a total projected cost of $180 million—a figure equal to the combined production budgets of several major studios.44 UA, a company designed solely to release major independent pictures, accounted for half of these. But UA's declining wartime fortunes due to management and marketing difficulties encouraged other studios to compete with it—invariably adapting the "UA model" to their own production needs. Thus, by 1944—1945, many independents were finding better terms elsewhere, particularly at Universal and RKO.
Universal signed deals with many in-house independents during the war, including Charles K. Feldman, Gregory La Cava, Frank Lloyd, Jack Skirball, and Walter Wanger. The most significant of these was Wanger, who entered a quasi-permanent relationship with Universal after producing Eagle Squadron in 1942. Wanger then signed to produce Arabian Nights (1942), a costume romance with Jon Hall and Maria Montez, and Universal's first Technicolor feature. The picture was a success, and it set the pattern for a series of limited contracts between Wanger and the studio. The deals called for Wanger to supply the story idea for each picture; once it was approved, he received $50,000 for script development. Wanger and the studio boss Cliff Work worked out the cast, crew, and budget, and Wanger then had complete control until the preview stage. He was paid a weekly salary during production and then split any net profits with Universal after release. Most of Wanger's films were scripted by Norman Reilly Raine and directed by Jack Rawlins, both freelancers; otherwise, he relied on Universal's contract talent.45
Thus, Wanger, even without the production facilities and contract personnel of filmmakers like Goldwyn and Selznick, became a major independent producer through his connection with Universal. He maintained creative and supervisory control of his pictures, while providing Universal with a prestige-level unit and a steady string of commercial hits, including Gung Ho! (1943), Ladies Courageous (1944), and Salome, Where She Danced (1945). Wanger's commercial success at Universal enabled him to pursue a more ambitious venture with the studio in 1945. After signing another five-picture deal with the studio to deliver more standard A-class fare, Wanger entered a very different kind of arrangement in the form of Diana Productions. Wanger set up the company as a partnership with his wife, the actress Joan Bennett, and the director Fritz Lang, with Universal to supply one-half the finances and to distribute Diana's output of one or two pictures per year—beginning with Scarlet Street in 1945.46
Universal entered several other new independent arrangements in 1945, signing Mark Hellinger Productions as well as Leo Spitz and William Goetz's International Pictures. Those deals, along with already established ones, gave Universal as strong a lineup of independent unit producers as any of the Hollywood majors except RKO.47 At that point, RKO's outside-producer ranks included Walt Disney, Sam Goldwyn, Arthur Rank, Liberty Pictures (Frank Capra, George Stevens, and William Wyler), Jesse Lasky, Alfred Hitchcock, and Dore Schary. Several of these producers, however, were signed in 1945 as the boom reached its peak, although Goldwyn, Disney, and Hitchcock (via Selznick) had played a crucial role in RKO's wartime success.
While RKO and Universal successfully exploited the in-house independent trend during the war, both studios also were shifting to a unit-production system for top contract talent. In fact, both developed a clear three-tier system during the war, with in-house independents supplying most of the A-class product, contract talent in studio-based units turning out a few A's but mainly near-A's, and the factory assembly line cranking out routine B's. The most significant of Universal's studio-based units was overseen by the writer John Grant, who graduated to writer-producer status in 1944 and produced the Abbott and Costello vehicles. Another important studio-based setup was the Sherlock Holmes unit under the producer-director Roy William Neill. Just before the war, Universal bought the rights to Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories along with the contracts of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce from Fox. Neill put Holmes and Watson through their paces in a dozen pictures during the war, developing a unit that was as consistent and dependable—if not quite as profitable—as Grant's Abbott and Costello unit.
RKO, meanwhile, enjoyed considerable success with a series of near-A horror films produced by Val Lewton, who left Selznick in early 1942 and signed with RKO as writerproducer. The first of these was Cat People, a late-1942 release which was a modest commercial and critical hit and established what Lewton described (in a letter to Selznick) as "our little horror unit."48 The Lewton unit continued to turn out modest horror films—notably I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man in 1943, The Curse of the Cat People in 1944, and The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead in 1945—which were consistent moneymakers for RKO. These were scarcely on a par with RKO's A-class projects, however, nor was Lewton, because of his contractual status with RKO, in the same league with the in-house independents.
This distinction is crucial, particularly with regard to the other integrated major studios. Simply stated, the rest of the Big Five had both the production resources and the economic leverage to resist the in-house independent trend, and they went on record publicly—and often quite vocally—as being utterly at odds with the trend. Variety in July 1943, for instance, in one of the many trade press stories about the majors' resistance to "indie units," noted that "Paramount, Warners and 20th Century-Fox have no outside producers."49 But in actuality, the majors were, in various ways, modifying the trend toward independent units to accommodate their top talent, usually through the relative autonomy of unit status and, in rare cases, profit-participation deals.
MGM and Fox remained most resistant to the in-house independent trend during the war, with MGM granting unit status to contract producers like Arthur Freed and Dore Schary, while Zanuck eschewed unit designation even for his top producers and directors. Interestingly enough, Fox had begun to develop unit production under Bill Goetz in the early war years while Zanuck was away with the Signal Corps, and Goetz actually signed a few outside deals—including a two-picture deal with Selznick for Hitchcock's services. Zanuck's return in 1943 effectively stifled that effort, however, and it ended Goetz's tenure with Fox as well. Goetz left in late 1943 to form International Pictures in partnership with Leo Spitz. The longtime Fox writer-producer Nunnally Johnson also left upon Zanuck's return, because Zanuck refused to let him have his own unit and a profit participation deal.50 Johnson went on to form a successful independent company with Gary Cooper.
The situation was more varied and complex at Warners, which developed a range of strategies to accommodate the independent urge of top talent. Ample evidence of these varied strategies is provided by three early-1942 deals between Warners and Hal Wallis, Howard Hawks, and Mark Hellinger. The Wallis contract of January 1942, as mentioned earlier, signaled the end of Warners' central-producer setup. Because neither Wallis nor Warners wished to produce "as large a number" of pictures as in previous years, Wallis became responsible for only four pictures per annum. The contract was to run four years, starting at $4,000 per week, with Wallis to receive an additional 10 percent of the gross receipts once his pictures returned 125 percent of their costs. The participation angle marked a radical departure for Warners, as did the degree of Wallis's authority over his pictures: he had first choice of story properties, directors, performers, and other contract talent. He was to supervise the scripting and editing, although Jack Warner had the last word in any disputes. Each of Wallis's pictures was to be billed as "A Hal B. Wallis Production," in type at least 50 percent the size of the title.51
The Hawks and Hellinger deals of February 1942 differed considerably from the Wallis deal in that neither was granted the same degree of authority or a cut of the profits. But the two deals did further indicate Warners' shift to an in-house unit setup. Warners signed Hawks to a five-year, five-picture deal at a salary of $100,000 per picture, with his duties described as those of "Director and/or Supervisor." This designation gave Hawks authority over both scripting and editing, and his pictures were to be billed as "A Howard Hawks Production" in a type size 25 percent that of the title. Hawks was sufficiently comfortable with Warners to sign an exclusive deal, which meant he could work for no other company while the contract was in effect.52 The writer-producer Mark Hellinger had left Warners in 1941 rather than submit to Wallis's authority. But with Wallis's shift to unit producer, Hellinger now was willing to return. On 26 February, he signed a five-year deal at $3,000 per week "as producer and/or executive and/or director and/or writer," and his contract stipulated a separate producer credit on all his pictures with his name at 25 percent the size of the title.53
Also of note in this context is an arrangement made with Bette Davis. In June 1943, Warners created B.D. Inc., an in-house independent setup for Bette Davis giving her 35 percent of the net profits on her pictures. That company folded, however, after a single picture; Davis ultimately had little interest in becoming her own producer.54
As mentioned earlier, Paramount had maintained a special arrangement with Cecil B. DeMille since the late 1930s but otherwise avoided in-house independent deals. This policy began to change during the war. In 1944, Hal Wallis left Warners and signed a deal with Paramount giving him an independent unit on basically the same terms that DeMille had been operating under for years. Shortly thereafter, the longtime Paramount production executive Buddy De Sylva demanded, and received, a similar deal from the studio.55
The easing of Paramount's resistance to the independent unit trend was further underscored by a 1944 deal with Leo McCarey. During the war, McCarey was virtually the only established freelance producer-director to maintain that status, relying on one-picture deals with various studios. After a modest 1942 hit for RKO, Once upon a Honeymoon, McCarey approached Paramount with an original story (his own) about two priests struggling to make ends meet in a New York City parish. McCarey convinced Paramount that it might make an ideal Bing Crosby vehicle, and the studio agreed to finance and distribute the picture. But Paramount also was sufficiently leery of the project to oblige McCarey's request to waive his salary in lieu of a share of the profits. The result, of course, was Going My Way, the single biggest hit of 1944; McCarey's share was reportedly in excess of $1 million.56
McCarey then reasserted his independence and market value by spurning Paramount and striking a deal with RKO for The Bells of st. Mary's, the sequel to Going My Way. This, too, would star Crosby, whom Paramount had granted quasi-independent status, opposite Ingrid Bergman (on loan from Selznick). That 1945 production gave McCarey another huge hit, confirming his stature as Hollywood's leading freelance producer-director.
It confirmed, too, the validity of RKO's wartime courtship—which by 1945 had become remarkably aggressive—of outside independents. One of the more significant deals was with Dore Schary, a producer loaned to RKO in 1945 by another leading independent, David Selznick, as part of a multifilm package. The deal marked another stage in Schary's remarkable wartime ascent from contract writer at MGM to prestige-level independent—an ascent worth tracing in some detail.
Case Study: Dore Schary at Mgm, Vanguard, and RKO
The career of Dore Schary during World War II demonstrates the range of independent and unit production strategies at the time, and several other wartime trends as well—particularly the emergence of the writer-producer as a significant industry force and the hyperactivity of A-class (and near-A) feature production. Schary's career in 1944-1945 also was directly related to two other significant developments in Hollywood's independent filmmaking arena: the return of David O. Selznick to active production, and Selznick's increasingly elaborate packaging of movie projects.
In late 1941, Dore Schary was a 36-year-old contract writer at MGM earning $1,000 per week; his more significant screen credits included Boys Town (1938) and Young Tom Edison (1940). Schary wanted to produce, and he impressed Louis Mayer with his ideas about improving Metro's low-budget output. So in November 1941, Mayer signed Schary to a new one-year contract, at $1,750 per week, as executive producer and put him to work with Harry Rapf on MGM's mid-range product—its near-A pictures.57
Harry Rapf was a Metro executive (and corporate vice president) who not only lacked experience as a "creative" producer but did not even read the story properties or scripts that his unit developed.58 MGM's near-A operations quickly changed under Schary's supervision, and in fact the Rapf-Schary unit (as it was termed in interoffice memoranda) soon became known on the lot—and well beyond it—as the Schary unit. Schary chaired weekly meetings with the unit's producers, going over story material, making cast and crew assignments, and monitoring production. He also played an active role in story and script development, serving as story editor and closely supervising postproduction. The Rapf-Schary unit included about a dozen producers; the total varied as some producers graduated to the A ranks while others were let go. Schary also joined Rapf on MGM's elite executive committee, not only to tap into the available studio talent and personnel but also to pass along promising projects deemed too ambitious for the B unit. Schary used top talent in some of his near-A productions—Robert Taylor in Bataan, for instance—and also developed new talent that could work in both A and B pictures, such as Margaret O'Brien and Elizabeth Taylor.
The Schary unit started strong with Joe Smith, American, a home-front drama released in early 1942 and starring Robert Young as a munitions plant worker who faces problems at home and on the job. He eventually is kidnapped by enemy agents trying to discover the workings of a new bomb sight, and he is able to endure by fixing his mind on the values of home and family. The film avoided the jingoism and spy-thriller mechanics of so many early war films, however, and in fact critics were impressed by both its unassuming story and its modest production values. "In its own simple and unassuming way," stated the New York Times, '"Joe Smith, American' does more to underscore the deep and indelible reasons why this country is at war than most of the million-dollar epics with all their bravura and patriotism." It was "not a 'big' film as Hollywood productions go," noted the Times, "but it pulls a good deal more than its own weight."59
Joe Smith, American was budgeted at $280,000 and came in $44,000 under budget; it turned a profit of $240,000.60 Although the film was invariably held up as a working model for the Schary unit, few others were produced as efficiently or did as well. The unit turned out thirteen films in 1942 at an average cost of $275,000. Most of these were crime thrillers, home-front dramas, Westerns, and combat films—all standard B-grade wartime fare—with the war-related pictures by far the more successful.
In 1943, the Schary unit's average cost per film rose to nearly $400,000, owing both to inflation and to Schary's growing ambition. Its two biggest pictures at that time were Journey for Margaret (1942), a rehash of Mrs. Miniver (1942) that cost $463,000, and Lassie Come Home (1943), which cost $564,000. Both were hits, although the real payoff was the introduction of 5-year-old Margaret O'Brien in the former and 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in the latter. (Their weekly salaries in 1943 were $150 and $75, respectively).61 The unit's biggest project was Bataan in late 1943, which cost $789,000 and costarred Robert Taylor, Thomas Mitchell, and Robert Walker; it was directed by Tay Garnett while he waited to start a big-budget Greer Garson vehicle. Clearly Schary's near-A productions were edging closer to A-class status, although the unit was operating only at about a break-even level. Still, Mayer was satisfied. He raised Schary's salary to $2,000 per week in November 1942 and then offered him another raise in late 1943.
By then, Schary had other plans. He wanted to personally produce A-class pictures, and despite Mayer's assurances, he was not optimistic about that possibility at MGM. There were other offers in late 1943, including one from Selznick, who finally was returning to active production. Selznick had two prestige-level projects in the works, Since You Went Away and Spellbound, he wanted Schary to produce more modest A-class pictures through his Vanguard Films to complement Selznick's own prestige productions. Schary agreed, signing on in November 1943 at $2,500 per week plus 15 percent of the net profits on all his Vanguard releases.62 A few weeks later, he purchased the screen rights to an original radio drama, Double Furlough by Charles Martin, for $2,500.63 The story centered on a shell-shock victim who, while home for Christmas, falls in love with a woman on holiday furlough from prison. Schary convinced Selznick to bring in the freelancer Ginger Rogers for the lead, while costarring roles went to two Selznick contract players, Joseph Cotten and Shirley Temple, who also were appearing in Since You Went Away.
Schary managed to keep his initial Selznick project on target at $1.3 million, proving that he was ready to handle A-class productions. He also displayed a canny feel for the marketplace by convincing Selznick to change the title to "I'll Be Seeing You," which Schary suggested in early 1944 after first hearing the Tommy Dorsey-Bing Crosby song.64 Although Selznick was wary of the war-related title "Double Furlough," he balked at the suggestion. But when "I'll Be Seeing You" became the number-one coinmachine hit in the United States in July 1944, Selznick assigned Gallup's ARI to market-test the title.65 ARI's research supported the change, and so the film was released just before the Christmas holidays under the title I'll Be Seeing You. By then, the song had fallen from its extended run atop the charts but had become a wartime standard, and its use as both a title and a musical theme undoubtedly enhanced the film's popularity. Total earnings on I'll Be Seeing You reached $3.8 million—giving Schary a profit share of $97,000 (beyond his salary of $105,000 on the picture) and securing his role with Vanguard.66
By early 1945, Selznick was preparing another Hitchcock picture, Notorious (1946), and a big-budget Western, Duel in the Sun (1946). Schary had two comedies in the works: The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), with Cary Grant and Shirley Temple, and The Farmer's Daughter (1947), with Joseph Cotten and Loretta Young. Selznick's operations were plagued by various problems in 1945, however, principally cost overruns on Duel and the decorators' strike, which completely closed down production in April while Selznick continued to run up huge overhead costs.67 Selznick decided to unload all of his current projects except Duel, making a series of immensely profitable deals in the summer of 1945 with RKO. These involved the outright sale of the Notorious, Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, and Farmer's Daughter packages (with profit participation to Selznick), and also the loan of the Selznick contract talent attached to each project—including Dore Schary.68
Thus, Schary joined Sam Goldwyn, Walt Disney, Leo McCarey, and others as an outside producer at RKO. His efforts there were eminently successful—so successful, in fact, that within a year he would be installed as RKO's production chief after the death of Charles Koerner. That promotion marked the culmination of Schary's remarkable climb through the filmmaking and executive ranks in wartime Hollywood, and it also indicated that the industry's "independent" ranks were still intimately tied to the major studio powers. Those ties would continue, of course, as long as the studios controlled the means of production and distribution, and as long as it remained necessary to rely on outside talent to satisfy the market demand for A-class product.
The studios also had the resources to exploit these A-class pictures, and in fact their sales, promotion, and marketing operations were geared up to another level during the war years. Indeed, not only the war-related market surge but also the post-decree sales policies, which took effect in late 1941, virtually demanded that the studios adopt more aggressive strategies in promoting and selling their high-end pictures. Some companies were more aggressive than others, but all recognized that both the war and the antitrust campaign meant that the marketing as well as the making of motion pictures was changing dramatically.
With the financial stakes and profit potential going up with each wartime release, and with the 1940 consent decree spurring a move to unit sales, the studios steadily adjusted both their market strategies and their marketing operations. Variety reported in September 1942 that the majors were increasing their "exploitation" budgets by 25 percent that year, and in April 1943 Advertising Age noted that overall motion picture advertising in all media—radio, newspapers, magazines—was up 10 percent.69 Newspapers continued to be the primary means of movie advertising and promotion, although radio became increasingly popular during the war. Spot radio ad campaigns pushed individual pictures in specific first-run markets, and radio adaptations of top releases became a viable promotional strategy as well.
With its reduced output, increased emphasis on top product, and single-unit sales policy, it is scarcely surprising that Warners was the most aggressive in its promotion and advertising.70 The other majors followed suit in 1943 as they, too, shifted to unit sales. The last to come around was MGM, which in 1943 still was selling groups of eight to twelve pictures. (Mrs. Miniver was the only picture Loew's sold singly in the early war years.) Metro had little choice but to adjust, however, since the trend toward longer runs and holdovers virtually demanded that pictures be marketed individually.
Most of Warners' efforts to promote its top features involved product tie-ins, which effectively sold the film while creating (or enhancing) the story property's currency in other media venues. During a single month in 1943, for instance, Warners featured condensed radio versions of seven releases, including Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Now, Voyager (1942), and Casablanca (1942).71 For an early 1944 biopic, The Adventures of Mark Twain, Warners came up with five 15-minute programs to promote the picture on 200 network radio stations.72
The war boom also brought an increased emphasis on presold story properties, especially best-selling novels and hit plays. Relying on presold properties had a long history in the movie industry, of course, but the trend took a slightly different turn during the war, when presold stories were generally perceived as one means (like the use of Technicolor) of offsetting the loss of top male stars.73 Here again, Warner Bros. led the way, and its success in securing presold properties was due largely to its willingness to make participation deals with authors and playwrights. This practice generally was avoided by the other studios, particularly MGM and Paramount, and for good reason.74 Warners' deal with George M. Cohan for Yankee Doodle Dandy, for instance, paid Cohan $125,000 up front plus 10 percent of the gross revenues over $1.5 million, which turned out to be another $320,000.75 But Warners was satisfied with such arrangements and continued to cut participation deals throughout the war.
The significant increase in book sales early in the war skewed the presold story market toward literary properties. The studios stocked up on successful titles, setting a record in February 1942 for number of story buys in a single month (65). War stories dominated, especially nonfiction accounts of combat like Guadalcanal Diary (1942) and They Were Expendable (1942).76 Several popular religious novels in 1942-1943—notably The Robe, The Song of Bernadette, and The Keys of the Kingdom—also were bought by Hollywood for hefty sums.77
One rather remarkable development which spoke volumes about the wartime fiction market, the movie industry's reliance on pre-sold properties, and the complex relationship between publishing and moviemaking involved MGM's 1943 hit The Human Comedy. The novelist-screenwriter William Saroyan sold the story to MGM in early 1942, but disagreements over the script led Saroyan to withdraw his story and turn it into a novel instead of a film. A saccharine comedy-drama about life in small-town, wartime America, The Human Comedy (1943) was an immediate best-seller. That brought MGM back into the picture, and in March 1943 the film version was released. Aptly described by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times as "sentimental showman-ship," the film was even more successful commercially than the novel and brought Saroyan an Academy Award for his "original" story.78
Another significant promotional trend was the boom in low-priced book editions with direct tie-ins to motion pictures, a strategy that developed along several different lines. Warners had an arrangement with Grosset & Dunlap to sell low-cost paperbacks based on original screen stories—a practice that dated back to the 1930s but really took off during the war with successful "adaptations" like Sergeant York and Air Force. Pocket Books had a similar arrangement with MGM; its 25-cent edition of Mrs. Miniver sold 550,000 copies within a year of the film's release. There were other types of cooperative ventures between publishers and studios, with film adaptations often turning moderately successful novels into best-sellers. Kings Row by Henry Bellamann, for example, had sold a respectable 30,000 copies before Warners' adaptation came out in December 1941; in the ensuing year, it sold 500,000.79
Another publishing tie-in which boosted the value of the print work was the serialization in newspapers of stories timed to coincide with a film's release. MGM serialized some thirty-five films in 1942, for instance, usually either in six-chapter versions in daily newspapers or three-chapter versions in weeklies. Among Metro's releases concurrently serialized were popular adaptations like Random Harvest (1942), based on the James Hilton story, The Human Comedy (1943), and The Moon Is Down an adaptation of John Steinbeck's story which already had appeared as both a play and a novel.80
By late 1943, the trend was shifting to popular stage hits. A key trendsetter was Irving Berlin's This Is the Army, a 1942 Broadway hit which Warners in 1943 adapted into a phenomenally successful movie musical.81Variety in early 1944 noted the growing controversy and exhibitor dissatisfaction with "war-themed material," especially combat-related stories, and suggested that the studios were turning to stage hits "because Broadway offered more escapist material than the book marts," which many felt "were following the news headlines too closely for screen-purpose comfort."82 The trend to stage adaptations intensified in 1944, a record year for Broadway—and for playwrights cutting motion picture deals.83 One indication of the feeding frenzy was the reported asking price of $3 million for John Van Druten's three-character comedy hit Voice of the Turtle (1943).84 Warner Bros., which led all companies in play purchases in 1944 (spending $1,650,000 on seven stage hits), eventually bought the rights to Van Druten's play for $500,000, the same price it paid that year for Clarence Day's Life with Father (1935; dramatized 1939).85
This Broadway-to-Hollywood trend eased considerably in 1945 as plays were deemed overpriced and too many playwrights were demanding percentage deals. Thus, the pendulum swung back to fiction; in early 1945, for instance, the independent star-producer James Cagney paid a record $250,000 for Adria Locke Langley's novel A Lion Is in the Streets (1945).86Variety noted the "growing feeling that published works are generally better source material for the studios than plays," and it later reported that the screen rights to novels with over $1 million in sales could be bought for as little as $ 100,000.87Variety also noted that Broadway in 1945 was suffering through its second straight season of musical flops.88
While stage musicals were falling on hard times in the later war years, the music and recording industries were doing record business. Indeed, another of Hollywood's key wartime marketing strategies involved tie-ins with popular music. Considering the importance of popular music during World War II, with live performances, concerts, recordings, jukebox, and radio plays providing vital amusement for soldiers and civilians alike, music provided Hollywood with a viable presold commodity. Big-name bandleaders like Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Spike Jones, and Guy Lombardo were signed (along with their bands) to studio contracts and worked into pictures.89 Radio and recording stars like Bing Crosby and the newcomer Frank Sinatra enjoyed unprecedented crossover success. And songwriters enjoyed a boom as well, with sheet-music sales—particularly of songs featured in motion pictures—reaching record heights.90
Audience research played an increasingly important role in Hollywood's cultivation of the volatile, high-stakes wartime marketplace. Gallup's Audience Research Institute remained the industry's leading market research firm, and in fact ARI hit its stride during the war. The company began referring to itself as Audience Research "Incorporated" in 1942, and in 1943 Gallup made an important change in ARI's management, replacing David Ogilvy as executive vice president with Albert Sindlinger, who had an extensive background in movie distribution and promotion. ARI's chief clients were still RKO and leading independents like Selznick, Goldwyn, and Disney, but the company also began doing business with other studios and producers as well.91
ARI's primary product was still its assessment of the drawing power of Hollywood's top stars, the "Audit of Marquee Values," which it updated every three months. ARI steadily refined its testing of story, casting, and title ideas. By 1942, its surveys were broken down along various lines: male versus female respondents; size of community (over 100,000, between 10,000 and 100,000, under 10,000); frequency of attendance (habitual versus occasional); income level (prosperous, upper-middle, middle, poor); and age (age 12-17, age 18—30, age 31 and older).92 ARI also refined its "Index of Publicity Penetration " during the war and developed a "jury preview system," which provided far more detailed data on audience response than were generated by traditional studio previews. Clearly ARI's market research was making great strides and becoming increasingly comprehensive. As Shannon James Kelley notes, during the war "the ARI's research program took on a sort of all-inclusive logical closure in regard to 'the average "A" picture' and its audience."93
Whatever its claims to scientific validity and predictive reliability, market research in the movie industry was barely out of its infancy and was still far from reliable. Moreover, Hollywood producers and studio executives were not about to put a higher stake in researchers' figures than in their own talent, taste, and intuition. And yet as the economic stakes went up, the marketplace grew more complex, and research methods were steadily refined, market research became an unavoidable if troublesome and costly necessity.
While the studios pursued innovations in marketing and promotion, they continued to rely on established practices as well. Developed along with the vertically integrated industrial system, these practices included a range of promotional tactics, from movie previews ("trailers") shown in theaters to posters and print ads in newspapers and magazines and exploitation stunts in local communities. The vast majority of the studios' efforts and expenditures in their sales campaigns for individual films went toward newspaper ads. In 1945, according to the Film Daily Year Bsook, $52 million of the total industry expenditure of $63 million went to newspaper advertising.94 The print ad campaign for each film and the national sales campaign were planned in detail in each studio's New York office, and these plans were contained in the "pressbook" which accompanied each studio release. As Mary Beth Haralovich shows in the following section, pressbooks provided a veritable blueprint for a film's national sales campaign, and they also reveal a great deal about the industry's perceptions of its products and its audience.
SellingMildred Pierce: A Case Study in Movie Promotion
Mary Beth Haralovich
Throughout Hollywood's classical era, every studio release was accompanied by a press-book, an oversized and glossy booklet which outlined the film's national sales campaign and contained basic materials crucial to that campaign. Pressbooks included two types of material: advertising (primarily mats used for newspaper ads) and publicity (stories and exploitation ideas). Advertising was designed to engage the potential moviegoer's interest in the film's story by stressing genre, the conjunctures of star and character, narrative suspense, and the special qualities of a film, such as its adaptation from a popular novel. Publicity presented a film in more detail through prepared reviews, and it also extended beyond the film itself through production stories and stills, merchandising tieins, praise for the studio's expertise, suggestions for exploitation stunts, and so on.95
Generally speaking, sales campaigns for individual films began in Hollywood and were completed in New York. The sales and promotional campaign for a film was initiated in discussions between advertising personnel and the producer prior to shooting. During production, staff publicists wrote synopses of the plot and created stories about production events and stars, planting these items in newspapers during production. Syndicated columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, as well as feature writers across the country, were fed information about the film and its stars. As shooting drew to a close, studio photographers took production stills and poster-art photographs, which were used by staff artists to create posters and advertising illustrations. Unlike frame enlargements from the film, poster-art stills guaranteed frontal positioning and concentrated on the performers' faces and bodies.96
Distribution of films and advertising was conducted out of the New York office, where staff assembled promotional materials and distributed pressbooks and advertising packages to trade papers, magazines, and theaters. Individual exhibitors were given considerable latitude in handling advertising materials and were encouraged to do more on their own to stimulate local interest in the film. Some theaters had staff artists who modified posters and pressbook materials to suit the local environment and the exhibitor's specific ideas. Each issue of the Motion Picture Herald also provided advice for theater owners on advertising layouts and publicity stunts.
Pressbooks invariably opened with a call for exhibitor confidence in the studio's box-office track record, its resources for a national campaign, and its promotional expertise. This appeal was most pronounced with A-class star vehicles and prestige-level films. The pressbook for Mildred Pierce (1945) reminds exhibitors about the "full page ads appearing regularly in leading national magazines" for other Warner Bros. films, from Casablanca (1942) and This Is the Army (1943) to current releases like Objective Burma (1945) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945). The pressbook also lists the magazines in which the ads appear, including Life, Look, Collier's, Time, Fortune, Redbook, Liberty, Cosmopolitan, Parents, Newsweek, Harper's, American Legion, and Foreign Service.97
Poster art was crucial to ad campaigns, and in fact newspaper advertising based on posters was a primary use (if not the use) of pressbook materials. Pressbooks offered posters in a range of sizes: the familiar one-sheet, larger three- and six-sheets, a gargantuan twenty-four-sheet. Also, variations on the posters were offered in the form of lobby cards, slides, mats in various sizes, and more. Poster ads transmitted the essential attributes of the film, generating viewer expectations and forming what Barbara Klinger has termed "a tentative contract between producer and consumer." Posters identified the genre of the film and placed its stars/characters at a point of narrative suspense. Poster graphics often linked head shots of stars/characters to each other and to a central narrative enigma through glances and tag lines.98
A new "maturity" and sexual explicitness introduced in films like The Outlaw, as well as the pinup, a prevalent wartime phenomenon, resulted in posters that often displayed much more than head shots, especially during the early-to-mid-1940s. During World War II, the pinup brought a new dimension to poster art, marking a radical change in the presentation of women in movie advertising from the more wholesome, more fully clad, and less overtly sexual depiction in 1930s film posters. This change caused a bit of a stir within the industry's Advertising Advisory Council (AAC), whose task was to approve (and thus regulate) all film advertising. Created in the 1930s as part of the MPPDA's self-regulation effort, the AAC developed and continually refined its own Advertising Code, which underwent considerable revision in the 1940s.
Pressbooks also contained an official billing chart of the cast and top production personnel. This chart tacitly announced the status of these individuals in that the value of each was measured against a common standard: the type size of the title of the film. The names of a film's stars would appear in type size of 50 to 100 percent of the title type size, with top stars invariably appearing "above the title" and in the same type size. Lesser stars and featured players appeared below the title in increasingly smaller type. For prestige-level pictures involving top producers and directors, a type size of 25 percent of the title size was not uncommon. However, type size for other above-the-line talent, while included, could be minuscule; the names of writers and composers often appeared at less than 5 percent of the title size. While these credits were small but legible on posters and in the larger newspaper ads (that appeared on a film's opening day), they were dropped in smaller newspaper ads.
While film advertising was designed for potential ticket buyers and keyed to story, genre, characters, and performers, publicity was designed to "linger" over a film and to treat its personnel and production in a much wider context. While advertising centered on a few well-chosen elements, prepared reviews and stories could elaborate on a film's narrative and commend the cast and other studio personnel for their work on the production. Performance stories could discuss an actor's interpretation of a role or the studio's efforts to build a new star, or they could alert the industry to an Oscar-level performance. The assessment of production values and summary of the story also provided reviewers with basic information, while prompting positive reviews of the film.
Production stories played a complex role in the publicity process. In circulation to the public through newspapers, gossip columns, fan magazines, and so on, these stories illustrated the high level of expertise involved in the production of a film. In circulation to the industry, they gave the studio an opportunity to boast about its excellence and to establish industrial expectations about its products. Rather than maintaining the invisibility of the production process, production stories identified personnel and how they worked, discussing the filmmaking activities and atmosphere in some detail. Thus, these stories assumed an audience interested in and knowledgeable about the production process. As they promoted the film, the stories also served as a means of self-pro-motion within the industry and of bolstering exhibitor confidence.
Another important form of publicity was the product tie-in, defined by Maria LaPlace as "the display of products in films and of stars in product advertisements." Tie-ins might push specific name-brand products, but they also involved generic statements about fashion and commodities. Moreover, they predominantly were aimed at women. As Maria LaPlace points out, "The main industries involved in tie-ins…are all aimed at female consumers: fashion, cosmetics, home furnishings and appliances." In tie-in publicity, a film's actors tended to function simply as models displaying products rather than as people making genuine use of the merchandise. Pressbooks offered premade tie-in stills for display in local shops and also asked exhibitors to develop additional tieins with local merchants. While film costumes were not duplicated for the retail market, fashion played an important and complex role in film promotion.99
The exploitation section of the pressbook suggested stunts and "ballys" (as in "ballyhoo") to local exhibitors to supplement the studio's advertising and publicity campaign. Designed to grab immediate attention, exploitation often involved amusing and boisterous antics, and unlike the print-oriented ad and publicity campaigns, exploitation could take place inside and outside the theater.
As even this general treatment of movie pressbooks suggests, the studios adopted complex and varied strategies for advertising and publicizing individual films. To indicate the nature and range of these strategies, what follows is a more detailed look at the pressbook and general advertising and promotion campaign of a single film, Warners' 1945 release Mildred Pierce.
Mildred Pierce was an A-class Warners production starring the newly signed Joan Crawford as the title character and adapted from the recent, controversial best-seller by James M. Cain. The film is an interesting blend 0f film noir-style crime thriller and domestic melodrama, and a brief plot synopsis is necessary to fully appreciate Warners' efforts to market and promote the film. Mildred Pierce opens with the murder of a suave, middle-aged man (Zachary Scott) whose dying word is "Mildred." The scene is photographed from the point of view of the killer, who thus is not revealed to the audience; the rest of the film involves the search—mainly through extended flashbacks—to identify the murderer. These flashbacks trace the separation of Mildred from her husband Bruce, her obsessive devotion to her thankless daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), her partnership in a successful string of restaurants with the lecherous Wally (Jack Carson), and her eventual marriage to Monty Barrigan, the murder victim. Although Mildred initially confesses to the crime, the film ends with two dramatic revelations: that Veda had been carrying on an affair with her stepfather, and that she killed him when he spurned her for Mildred.
Released in September 1945 within weeks of V-J Day, Mildred Pierce, was accompanied by a lush pressbook with a twelve-page advertising section and a fourteen-page publicity section. The pressbook presents the film as a prestige production in the tradition of other Warners hits and pledges national visibility through an aggressive magazine advertising campaign. "It is in this way the public is being told of the Warner way … the American way of motion picture making." Crawford, in her first screen role since leaving MGM in 1943, is accorded the attentive treatment of a star and a valued performer, and the production is lauded as an exemplar of studio craft and expertise.
The advertising for Mildred Pierce centers, of course, on the title character, who is presented as a film noir femme fatale. Interestingly enough, a primary image used in the ad mats is a drawing which dominates the cover of the pressbook: a figure of a woman who is not immediately recognizable as Joan Crawford. She stands in long shot wearing a low-cut gown, holding a smoking gun in one hand and clutching a drapery with the other, and staring directly at the spectator. The tag line accompanying the image and appearing in most of the advertising mats asserts: "She's the kind of woman men want…but shouldn't have!" In the mats which have a clearly recognizable image of Crawford, the star is integrated into the film noir-style murder mystery—the primary means of engaging audience interest—with tag lines such as: "She knew there was trouble coming—trouble she made for herself—a love affair—and a loaded gun.…She had no right playing around with either!"
Through this focus on film noir and the dominance of the title character, Mildred is assigned direct responsibility for aggressive sexuality and for violence. While not precisely faithful to the film, this ad strategy was efficient and effective since it promoted the title of the film and emphasized the lead character (and star) rather than the secondary character of Mildred's daughter, Veda. In both the novel and the film, Veda may have had the more obvious femme fatale status and the greater narrative agency (as an adulteress and also as the murderer being sought by the police). But her name was not tied to the title, nor was the actress playing Veda, the relative newcomer Ann Blyth, likely to appeal to potential moviegoers.
Three actors are allocated type size equal to the title: Crawford, Jack Carson, and Zachary Scott. Crawford's name appears first and occasionally above the title; also, her full name shares type size with only the last names of the two male costars. Poster graphics situate the two men in relation to Mildred and film noir, as do their respective tag lines. On Zachary Scott/Monty: "He'd rather die than double-cross her…so he did both!" On Jack Carson/Wally: "Mildred!…she had more to offer a man in a glance than most women give in a lifetime!"
This billing and ad strategy sustained the film noir murder mystery and Mildred's femme fatale concentration, qualities further reinforced by a small box containing an appeal to the film's entertainment value as suspense: "Please don't tell anyone what she did! We know our patrons will thank us if no one is seated during the last 7 minutes. No One Seated During Last Seven Minutes!" This promise of thrills is reinforced by the ubiquitous reminders that Mildred Pierce is adapted from Cain's sensational novel. Many of the mats contain a small drawing of the novel lying open with steam rising from its pages and tag lines like "From the daring book by James M. Cain!" or, "From that sizzling best-seller."
While advertising concentrates on story and stars, it also contains production credits. The Mildred Pierce ad mats are peppered with studio name recognition, such as "Warner sensation!" and "Warner hit!" The names of the producer Jerry Wald and the director Michael Curtiz, two of the studio's leading talents, are accorded 25 percent of the title type size—while the screenwriter Ranald MacDougall and the composer Max Steiner are at 3 percent and the novelist Cain at a mere 2 percent. The prepared reviews also praise Wald and Curtiz. The former is described as "Hollywood's most aggressive young movie-maker," and the latter as an "infallible" director and an "Academy Award winner" (for Casablanca) who is "liked as well as admired by the people who work for him."
Just as the advertising material focuses on Crawford's title character, the main focus of the publicity material is on Joan Crawford the actress and star. Mildred Pierce was termed "the high-water mark in the career of one of screenland's most important ladies"; she "offers an unforgettable, intensely human characterization." And beyond the repeated accolades for her performance, the pressbook stresses that the depth of portrayal was born of human experience as well as professional acumen.100 In this sense, the pressbook's publicity treatment of Crawford shifts the genre focus from the film noir angle to that of the woman's film and motherhood. Stories highlight her experiences—as a woman, mother, and actress—that provide the basis for her "truthful" interpretation of Mildred. The mother, not the femme fatale, is privileged here, providing the primary motivations for her character. "Miss Crawford is the sacrificing, doubt-ridden, incorruptible Mildred Pierce, squaring off against the world, true to what she conceives to be a duty to her daughter, for whom she unflinchingly undergoes every privation." Crawford, asserts the pressbook, brings "a remarkable knowledge of the inner workings of the mind and heart of a woman for whom life has gone bitterly wrong at every turn."
Only one story in the pressbook, "Actress' Rise to Stardom Was Difficult Journey for Crawford," makes reference to the star's departure from MGM—the result, supposedly, of Crawford's refusal "to accept further roles which she considered trite." And even the history of the star is given a slant which brings it in line with the film. Crawford, like Mildred, "came up the hard way, earning her success." In presenting Crawford's career as an ongoing process of hard work and overcoming obstacles, the star image contributes to her interpretation of Mildred and justifies Warners' expertise in finding a role worthy of Crawford at this point in her career.101
The publicity related to merchandising and commercial tie-ins also focuses on Crawford. One story begins with a dual address as luxurious detail about the star's costume invokes the pleasure of consumption as well as the realistic spectacle of the production itself. "Star 'All Dressed To Kill'—Even Herself" treats the opening scene in which Mildred, alone on the Santa Monica pier (actually a studio set) seems to be contemplating suicide. It opens with a description of the "bright green wool dress [the film was shot in black and white], shoes with very high heels and big purse…fur cape-style coat with matching fur hat…the most expensive items of the wardrobe."
Here and elsewhere, publicity about costumes in Mildred Pierce draws on three functions of costuming: the expectation that a Hollywood star will wear glamorous costumes; the role that costumes play in establishing character traits and a plausible story; and the value of costumes as a mark of the stature and prestige of the production. In its treatment of Crawford's costumes, the pressbook highlights the studio's drive for excellence and its achievement of both realism and glamour. But it also acknowledges that in some instances the narrative demands that glamour be subordinated to realism and dramatic clarity: "Joan Crawford usually has a wardrobe to make most women gasp with envy. For her present role, however, she had fourteen aprons and twenty-one house dress changes—a new kind of record for one of the screen's most glamorous personalities." Most of the product tie-ins are of the generic variety—including the quarter-page piece on men's "dresswear," "sportswear," and the like.
The exploitation section of the pressbook concentrates on the adaptation of the Cain novel and "the film's dramatic punch." While the pressbook does not offer newspaper serialization of the novel, which was often done with adaptations, it does promote Tower Books' "special 49¢ movie edition" of Mildred Pierce and points out that similar promotion will appear in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and the New York Times. Exhibitors are encouraged to tie in to this national campaign through lobby displays of Cain's books, cooperative displays with local libraries and bookstores, and two specific stunts. One stunt is a quiz about movie adaptations involving "the fairer sex. " The other is a newspaper "best-seller-to-hit-movie contest" in which contestants identify other recent Warner Bros. adaptations.
The exploitation campaign designed to sell the film's "title and drama" entailed "four attractive teaser ads" for newspapers, lobby displays, and "store windows and counters around town." Like the ad mats, these stress Crawford's femme noir status and underscore the mystery angle. One even invites patrons to sign a postcard stating: "I just saw 'Mildred Pierce' and I promise not to tell anyone what Mildred Pierce did." In one radio spot announcement, a woman's voice pleads: "You mustn't tell them what you saw here tonight!…Please keep my secret!"
Local promotion for Mildred Pierce followed the pressbook's general strategy fairly closely, although both the box-office success and critical accolades for the film were quickly incorporated as well. For example, in Los Angeles, where the film opened at three Warners theaters on Friday, 12 October 1945, each successive day of the preceding week incorporated some facet of the pressbook's femme noir and suspense gambits, culminating on opening day with this pitch: "Today!!! Please don't tell anyone what she did! 'Even a woman like me can be hurt once too often!!!' It's all about that talked-about Mildred Pierce, Warner's New Sensation. It's That story! The sizzling best-seller by James M. Cain."102
Five days later, Los Angeles advertising was using quotes ("Raves!") from reviews by Louella Parsons, Walter Winchell, and Edwin Shallert of the Los Angeles Times that extended beyond the mystery angle to embrace Crawford's performance and to position Mildred Pierce as a woman's picture. Two days later, after a full week in release in L.A., the ads began touting the film in terms of its box-office performance. On 26 October, the ads even began an ironic twist on the earlier campaign strategy: "We MUST tell you what 'Mildred Pierce' did!!! Broke every existing house record at Warners 3 First-Run Theatres! Earned the critical acclaim of every outstanding reviewer in the nation! Took L.A. by storm with one of the most unusual and engrossing pictures ever produced! Join the throngs!! See for yourself!!!"103 When the film opened at the Balaban and Katz Roosevelt in Chicago in December, a similar pattern emerged, with the studio-designed promotional campaign augmented by testimony of the film's popular and critical success in New York and Los Angeles.104
One aspect of market conditions clearly avoided by the Mildred Pierce sales campaign, and by the film itself for that matter, was the war. As discussed in the following chapter, the film managed to convey a range of wartime conditions—working women, absent husbands, housing shortages—without directly invoking the war. In this sense, it was among the more subtle wartime dramas and in fact was more typical of films released toward the end of the war, when Hollywood had grown more adept at incorporating war themes into its feature films. Early on, however, the conversion to war production was decidedly more aggressive and overt, as Hollywood's established stars and genres, indeed its vast filmmaking repertoire, were effectively retooled for the war effort.