Postwar Stars, Genres, and Production Trends
11Stars and the Star System
Postwar Stars, Genres, and Production Trends
Genres and Production Trends
Film Noir, Documentary Realism, and the Social Problem Drama
Postscript: Paramount, DeMille, and Samson and Delilah
Perhaps the single most remarkable aspect of the postwar American cinema was the overall quality and vitality of the movies themselves. Despite the declining market and mounting outside pressures, Hollywood's output in the late 1940s was, by any standards, as strong as in any period in industry history. The war and the war-related flood of new talent brought a spirit of innovation and even a certain progressivism to Hollywood. Among the newcomers were the scores of European émigrés who arrived in Hollywood before the war and had become established filmmakers. Their number also included the influx of new American talent during and just after the war, many of whom had new ideas about the cinema's potential as both a political and an artistic force—the New York dramatists Elia Kazan and Robert Rossen, for instance, who in films like Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and All the King's Men (1949) injected a new energy and social awareness into the American cinema.
Yet another important group of progressive, American-born postwar arrivistes, interestingly enough, were the experienced movie colonists and top filmmakers, like Wyler, Stevens, Ford, Capra, Huston, who had left for military duty and whose postwar films evinced the profound effects of both their documentary work and the war itself. Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), for example, provided startling evidence that Hollywood's—and the nation's—wartime experience might bring a new maturity to the American cinema.
This nascent progressivism was countered and contained by the studios, however, which gained increasing control over the industry as economic conditions deteriorated. The studios, although facing imminent extinction, enjoyed their last hurrah in the late 1940s, and their chief strategy in those uncertain times was to sustain the stars, genres, and production practices that had fueled the studio system for the preceding two decades. The system was showing signs of age—quite literally in Hollywood's population of top stars. But there were still some signs of life and vitality in the old system, best evidenced perhaps by the regeneration of the movie musical at MGM and by the studios' efficient reformulation of the crime thriller in a steady flow of trenchant films noirs. These were the final flashes of studio brilliance, however, in what proved to be the last gasp of the studio era.
Since the early 1940s, the Hollywood studio system and the star system had been drifting steadily out of sync, and by 1946 they showed signs of disengaging altogether. Key factors were the increasing individual authority, diminished output, and shift to free-lance status of many top stars and the pronounced turn to independent production. In 1946-1947, stars created their own companies as rapidly as leading producers and directors did, and the stars' bankable status gave them much greater clout both with lending institutions and with studio-distributors.
Mainly because of the economic downturn and the reassertion of studio authority in the late 1940s, however, the star system and studio system did remain in sync. While the industry remained as star-driven as ever, the stars themselves found it increasingly difficult to maintain their independence. Like Hollywood's leading producer-directors, the top stars declined to risk the financial hazards of freelance status or independence after 1947, returning instead to the security of a studio contract. The studios were eager to have them back in the fold, of course, since the contract star was the key element in their production and market strategies. Thus, the studios and stars maintained an uneasy alliance, waiting for the myriad postwar developments to play themselves out.
Both the immediate postwar surge and the subsequent decline enabled Hollywood's established stars to dominate the industry. In the rush to independence of 1946-1947, only top stars had the leverage to form their own companies. And once the retrenchment mentality set in and stars returned to the studios, these same stars were deemed a safer investment than new talent. Thus, in the late 1940s, there was far less turnover in the rankings of top box-office stars than in the early 1940s, and there were fewer emerging stars as well.
While established stars maintained their currency in the postwar era, gauging star appeal became increasingly difficult. Since the early 1930s, Hollywood's chief means of gauging star value had been the Exhibitors' Poll. In the chaotic postwar marketplace, however, the poll began to lose its credibility and was dismissed by many as a quasi-reliable survey of conservative exhibitor tastes. Consequently, both Variety and Audience Research, Inc. (ARI) began measuring star value as well, employing very different methods and coming to very different conclusions about the market value of top stars. Taken together, these different polls illustrate the changing stakes and conditions in the postwar movie industry.
Beginning in January 1947, Variety published an index of the top box-office stars of the previous year in its anniversary issue. Designed as a more accurate gauge of a star's audience appeal and market value than the Exhibitors' Poll, Variety's rating included the number of pictures in release the previous year, the aggregate rentals of those pictures, and the average rentals per picture; average rentals served as the basis for a star's ranking. Thus, stars with three or four releases in a year would not have an advantage in the rankings over those who appeared in only one or two. While the Variety poll was in some ways a more accurate measure of box-office appeal than the Exhibitors' Poll, Variety acknowledged that its rankings did not reflect "a star's [box-office] power, per se, since they make no allowance for draw of co-stars or for story, director, production values and the other ingredients which make a film a top-grosser."1
ARI, meanwhile, had been gauging star value via social-scientific methods for a number of years, and by 1946 its "Continuing Audit of Marquee Values" was being disseminated widely and had become required reading for studio and production executives, most of whom now were willing to pay for Gallup's services. In fact, Variety acknowledged and implicitly criticized ARI's pervasive influence in a May 1946 article under the banner headline "Audience Research Blues." Without mentioning ARI, Variety noted that the "increasing reliance on audience research by the studios has stars looking dreadfully forward to the day when they'll [be] … mere percentage figures in a producer's drawer."2 Actually, that day already had arrived, although producers undoubtedly put less stock in those figures than Variety suggested.
ARI, for its part, voiced no doubts about the significance and merits of its research. As its semiannual reports boldly asserted:
New York, Princeton, Hollywood: Audience Research, Inc., September 1946]3">
This report shows a screen player's power to sell tickets at the box office…. The Audit does not measure talent, except as talent persuades movie-goers to spend money to see a particular personality. The Audit reports the percentage of movie-goers interviewed in a nation-wide cross-section survey who say that the name of a particular player on the front of a theater would make them want to buy a ticket. ("Continuing Audit of Marquee Values No. 27" [emphasis in original] [New York, Princeton, Hollywood: Audience Research, Inc., September 1946])3
ARI's cross-section was carefully controlled to represent the nation's moviegoers, and its measures indicated interest in a player's name "without regard to title, story, other players, producer, director," or any other factor. ARI did not break down its cross-section in the reports into multiple demographic categories, but it did break out a separate category, the "Upper Price Audit," focused on interviewees who attended first-run theaters. According to ARI, this group, taken as a whole, paid an average of seventy cents per ticket (over twice the norm) and accounted for roughly 60 percent of the total box-office gross.4
Interestingly enough, the Exhibitors' Poll, Variety, and ARI came up with very different star rankings in the late 1940s—an indication perhaps of the chaotic market conditions as well as the different research methods involved. In 1946, for example, the three services provided these top-ten listings:
|1.||Bing Crosby||Bing Crosby||Bing Crosby|
|2.||Ingrid Bergman||Ingrid Bergman||Ingrid Bergman|
|3.||Van Johnson||Fred Astaire||Gary Cooper|
|4.||Gary Cooper||Dorothy Lamour||Alan Ladd|
|5.||Bob Hope||Gregory Peck||Cary Grant|
|6.||Humphrey Bogart||Clark Gable||Bob Hope|
|7.||Greer Garson||Greer Garson||Greer Garson|
|8.||Margaret O'Brien||Van Johnson||Gregory Peck|
|9.||Betty Grable||Gene Tierney||Spencer Tracy|
|10.||Roy Rogers||Joan Caulfield||Clark Gable|
The disparity between the three polls is obvious enough—beyond the first two places, at least. Only three of the top ten stars turned up on all three lists, and ten stars appeared on only one of the lists. The 1946 rankings, however, displayed more continuity than usual for the three services. Invariably, only two or three stars turned up on all three lists, and in 1947 and 1949, Variety's number-one stars (Jennifer Jones and Jeanne Crain, respectively) were not even included in the top ten in the Exhibitors' Poll ranking.
The increasing fragmentation of both movie audiences and the movie industry itself in the late 1940s made any objective, scientific assessment of star value extremely difficult. In fact, in January 1949, Variety had sufficient reservations about its star-ranking efforts—and about star value itself under current market conditions—that it declined to offer any ranking at all. The year's top hits, asserted Variety, indicated "more strongly than ever the fact that the draw of star names is no more than a subordinate factor in creating an audience" for a picture. Thus, "tabulation of the top money players during the 12-month period," said Variety, was "all but impossible for 1948, for as soon as you get past Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Bob Hope and perhaps a few others [Ingrid Bergman, Jane Wyman, John Wayne], the reasoning becomes spurious."5
Variety did return to its star listing the following year, however, and continued the practice throughout the 1950s. Gauging stardom had not become any easier; on the contrary, the industry was even more chaotic and uncertain in the post-divorcement era. But as long as movies remained so essentially star-driven, the industry would continue to devise ways of measuring the value and appeal of movie stars.
The vagaries of audience measurement and star evaluation aside, the combined annual rankings of both Variety and the Exhibitors' Poll for the period 1946-1949 generate these two lists of top postwar box-office stars:
|1.||Bing Crosby||Bing Crosby|
|2.||Bob Hope||Cary Grant|
|3.||Gary Cooper||Clark Gable|
|4.||Betty Grable||Gregory Peck|
|5.||Humphrey Bogart||Bob Hope|
|6.||Ingrid Bergman||Ingrid Bergman|
|7.||Abbott and Costello||Lana Turner|
|8.||Clark Gable||Van Johnson|
|9.||Cary Grant||Larry Parks|
|10.||Van Johnson||Gene Tierney|
One striking fact about these lists—beyond their obvious discrepancies—is how few new stars appear. All of the stars listed had established themselves by the late war years, with the lone exception of Larry Parks. After playing leads in second-rate pictures throughout the war, Parks burst to sudden stardom in The Jolson Story in 1946. He kept busy in the late 1940s, but his only subsequent success came in Jolson Sings Again in 1949. Parks faded quickly thereafter, a victim of the blacklist when HUAC returned to Hollywood in 1951.
A corollary to the dearth of new stars, of course, was the staying power of established screen figures in the late 1940s—particularly Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, and Humphrey Bogart, who ranked in the top ten on the Exhibitors' Poll in all four postwar years. For the most part, those stars stayed on top by staying very much in character. Crosby and Hope did yet another Road picture for Paramount in 1947, Road to Rio, with predictable box-office results: $4.5 million in rentals. Crosby also starred in his usual light comedy-musical vehicles, notably Blue Skies (1946) with Fred Astaire, and he also appeared in a few period musicals like The Emperor Waltz (1948). Hope, meanwhile, continued to rely on his bumbling, cowardly hero persona and penchant for broad farce in costume jobs like Monsieur Beaucaire (1946) and The Paleface (1948). He also turned out a pair of requisite mystery-comedies, My Favorite Brunette (1947) and The Great Lover (1949), both solid hits. In fact, both Hope and Crosby were popular enough in the late 1940s that virtually all their pictures returned at least $3 million in rentals to Paramount, with whom both had devised profit-sharing deals, and thus they closed out the decade as Hollywood's most dependable, bankable stars.
Like Hope and Crosby, Gary Cooper plodded through a half-dozen utterly predictable postwar roles, including a requisite DeMille epic for Paramount in 1947, Unconquered, which earned over $5 million despite uniformly weak reviews (Time called it "a five-million-dollar celebration of Gary Cooper's virility").6 After disappointing teamings with two top directors—Fritz Lang for the 1946 spy thriller Cloak and Dagger, and Leo McCarey for the upbeat 1948 comedy Good Sam—Cooper closed out the decade with portrayals of larger-than-life iconoclasts in The Fountainhead (as a headstrong architect) and Task Force (as a headstrong naval officer). Both were respectable but ponderous dramas and, along with his other postwar films, suggested that Cooper was growing a bit weary and that his stalwart, stoic-heroic persona was wearing a bit thin, in fact, Cooper fell from the Exhibitors' Poll's top ten in 1950 for the first time in a decade. Not until his roles began to exploit his advancing age—as in High Noon (1952)—did Cooper return to top stardom.
Clark Gable suffered much the same fate as Cooper in the late 1940s, appearing in a number of overblown MGM dramas, like Adventure (1945) and Command Decision (1948), that seemed almost a parody of his prewar persona. Only when he lightened up in The Hucksters (1947) as an ad-man struggling to "reconvert" after the war did Gables playful charm and audience appeal seem to return. That picture was a hit, but MGM chose to pursue the weightier dramatic vehicles, which also did well at the box office. And much like Cooper, Gable seemed to strain harder with each role to sustain a persona that was nearing the point of exhaustion.
The postwar efforts of Humphrey Bogart were considerably more interesting and effective than those of Cooper and Gable, for three reasons. First, Bogart, who turned 50 in 1949 and was older than both Cooper and Gable, seemed quite comfortable with the prospect of advancing age. Second, Bogart continually looked for acting challenges and offbeat roles, most notably in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a gold prospector who gradually loses his mind. And third, Bogart did three more films with Lauren Bacall—The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948)—all of which were hits. And in Key Largo, to Bogart's credit, he willingly edged out of the frame to give Edward G. Robinson free rein as the mobster Johnny Rocco in a stunning reprise of Robinson's earlier gangster roles.
One male star who managed to mature gracefully while maintaining his romantic appeal was Cary Grant. After playing Cole Porter in the musical biopic Night and Day (1946), the inveterate freelancer Grant settled into what was for him a rather lengthy relationship with a single studio, RKO, where he did five films over the next few years. The first of these, Notorious (1946), was Grant's only dramatic thriller of the period. The remainder were comedies, notably The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947, with Shirley Temple), The Bishop's Wife (1947, with Loretta Young), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948, with Myrna Loy). He closed out the decade with a comedy hit for Fox, I Was a Male War Bride (1949, with Ann Sheridan).
Gregory Peck, who turned 30 in 1946, was by far the youngest top male star of the postwar period. Peck emerged overnight as a star in Keys of the Kingdom (1944) (his second screen role) and Spellbound (1945), and he reached top stardom via two 1946 hits, Duel in the Sun and The Yearling. But it was not until Gentleman's Agreement in 1947, playing a journalist who poses as a Jew to expose anti-Semitism, that Peck's screen persona as the decent and reliable (if somewhat dull) hero coalesced. Once established, that persona varied little—there would be no more wild, womanizing renegades as in Duel in the Sun. In fact, his heroic type was becoming altogether predictable until the late-1949 war film Twelve O'Clock High, wherein his portrayal of a flight commander who agonizes over sending his men to their death brought a new psychological and emotional depth to his screen persona.
Two veteran actors who finally reached top stardom in the late 1940s—and who would dominate the industry throughout the 1950s—were James Stewart and John Wayne. Stewart had been on the verge of stardom since winning an Oscar just before the war, but after returning from the service, he had trouble recovering his prewar form, despite an excellent performance in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Roles in two 1948 crime thrillers, Call Northside 777 and Rope, also failed to ignite audience interest. Stewart's postwar breakthrough came in 1949 with The Stratton Story, a sentimental biopic of a baseball pitcher who stages a heroic comeback after losing his leg in an accident. Stewart also left MGM in 1949 and entered a long-term, quasi-independent relationship with Universal that proved remarkably successful.
After Wayne joined the ranks of top stars in 1949-1950, he would dominate for the next two decades. Signing a producer-star deal with Republic in 1946, Wayne continued to star in formula hokum for the studio such as Angel and the Badman (1947) and The Fighting Kentuckian (1949).7 He alternated these with more ambitious projects elsewhere, including Red River for Howard Hawks in 1948 and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for John Ford in 1949. In both films Wayne not only showed his age (he turned 40 in 1947) but evinced a certain vulnerability as well. The lined and cracked features rendered his swagger less imposing, character more human. Red River also plumbed Wayne's darker nature, revealing an obsessive, brutal side. As David Thomson notes, "Hawks was the first to see the slit-eyed, obdurate side to Wayne's character."8 These qualities would inform many of his later roles, including the 1949 war film for Republic, Sands of Iwo Jima, in which he plays a ruthless, battle-hardened marine top-sergeant. The picture was a huge hit, bringing Wayne an Oscar nomination and solidifying his status as a top box-office star.
Hollywood's leading female stars of the era, Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable, followed radically different postwar paths. Grable simply extended her wartime success as she posed, sang, and wisecracked her way through a succession of period comedy-musical hits for 20th Century-Fox like Mother Wore Tights (1947) and When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948). Her one slightly offbeat film of the period was The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), a lunatic Western comedy-musical for Fox by writer-director-producer Preston Sturges.
Ingrid Bergman's postwar career, meanwhile, followed a much less stable or predictable course. After completing her contract with Selznick with Notorious, Bergman struck out on her own. The most significant of her freelance efforts was Joan of Arc (1948), a bloated biopic that earned over $4 million. Bergman then turned to Europe, working first in England on a female Gothic with Hitchcock, Under Capricorn (1949). That was a disappointment, and it was followed by professional disaster. While in Italy for Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli (1950), Bergman fell in love with the Italian film-maker, and in a highly publicized scandal, she left her husband and daughter to wed Rossellini. Chastised by the press, ostracized by conservative political and religious groups, and effectively blacklisted in Hollywood, Bergman would not work again in the United States for nearly a decade.
Olivia de Havilland overtook Bette Davis and Greer Garson as the doyenne of the Hollywood woman's picture in the late 1940s and became arguably the leading dramatic actress of the period. Having won free-agent status from Warners in 1943, de Havilland made the most of her independence after the war in a succession of first-rate melodramas which brought her two Academy Awards and widespread recognition as an actress with beauty, talent, and box-office clout. The best-actress Oscars came with two Paramount melodramas, To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), while she won her greatest critical acclaim in Fox's The Snake Pit (1948) portraying a recently married woman who descends into madness and battles through a lengthy, horrific recovery.
While de Havilland came into her own after the war, several other veteran female stars went into serious decline. Greer Garson, MGM's wartime matriarch and top box-office star, faded badly despite the studio's best efforts in Adventure (1945), Desire Me (1947), and Julia Misbehaves (1948). She enjoyed mild success in the 1949 period drama That Forsyte Woman, although by then it was evident that audiences had lost interest in the woman who commanded such devotion only a few years before. The telling blow came in 1950 with the failure of The Miniver Story, a sequel to Mrs. Miniver costarring Walter Pidgeon. The serious decline of Universal's Deanna Durbin actually had begun during the war, when Universal failed to rekindle the appeal of her late-1930s hits. Durbin did several films but nothing of note after the war, despite a Universal salary which in 1948 paid her $366,000, making her the highest-paid female actress in the industry. That same year, while still in her twenties, she suddenly (but not unexpectedly) retired.9
Warners' top female stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, came out of the war in rare form but also faded badly in the late 1940s. Davis did five pictures with Warners from 1946 to 1949, the first of which, A Stolen Life (1946), was among her best. Then came a series of flops, rendering her $6,ooo-per-week salary (plus bonuses) a severe drain on Warners' resources.™ Still, the studio pulled out all the stops for Winter Meeting (1948) and Beyond the Forest (1949), grand melodramas with Davis's over-the-top performances bordering on self-caricature. When those failed, she left Warners, her career seemingly over—until her next film, All About Eve (1950), which won Davis her third Oscar and gave her career yet another boost. Crawford, meanwhile, followed her Oscar-winning 1945 comeback in Mildred Pierce with two excellent noir melodramas for Warners, Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947), and then a more conventional woman's picture for Otto Preminger at Fox, Daisy Kenyon (1947). She remained active but did nothing else of note in the late 1940s as her career began winding down.
Other mature women stars, like Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck, held their own in the postwar era. Hepburn, after two disappointing dramatic efforts, Undercurrent (1946) and Song of Love (1947), reteamed with Spencer Tracy for three solid hits: The Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), and Adam's Rib (1949). The latter two were sharp romantic comedies in the spirit of the initial Tracy-Hepburn hit, Woman of the Year, and they marked a return to form for the screen's "first couple."
While Hepburn turned successfully from drama to comedy in the late 1940s, both Russell and Stanwyck, who had done brilliant comedy early in the decade, concentrated on darker drama in the postwar era. Russell received an Oscar nomination playing the title character in a weighty 1946 biopic, Sister Kenny; she struggled through an ill-fated 1947 adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra; and she let loose as a headstrong actress who gets away with murder in an effective 1948 noir thriller, The Velvet Touch. Stanwyck, who had played the quintessential femme fatale in Double Indemnity, portrayed both victimizer and victim in two Oscar-nominated postwar roles: as the homicidal title character in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and the bedridden hysteric who hears her own murder being plotted in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
Although Russell, Stanwyck, and a few other top female stars did well in the late 1940s, their careers clearly had peaked, owing less to diminished skills than to changing industry imperatives and audience tastes. Garson, Davis, Crawford, Russell, Stanwyck, and Hepburn all were in their forties by 1949, and the market for their talents was rapidly drying up. Significantly enough, top male stars like Bogart, Cooper, Grant, Hope, Crosby, Stewart, and Wayne had hit their forties as well, but their careers still were going strong and would continue to flourish. Thus, along with the "graying" of Hollywood's star populace after the war came a gender split of sorts. This bias, in fact, would intensify for decades to come in two distinct ways: the ranks of top stars would be predominantly male, and female stars would tend to be considerably younger than their male counterparts.
While the postwar era was dominated by established stars, a new generation of talent was emerging in the late 1940s. Among the notable female stars were Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain at Fox, Lana Turner and June Allyson at MGM, Jane Wyman and Ida Lupino at Warners, and the freelancers Dorothy McGuire and Susan Hayward. Of these, only Tierney approached top stardom, although she scarcely enjoyed the success of such emergent wartime stars as Grable and Garson. Tierney and most of the other rising postwar stars were being groomed for melodrama, and few displayed the versatility of Stanwyck, Russell, or Hepburn. Two new arrivals at decade's end, Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe, signaled an important change in Hollywood's comic portrayal of female sexuality.
The postwar era saw ascending male stars as well—Alan Ladd and William Holden at Paramount, Glenn Ford at Columbia, Gene Kelly at MGM, and the freelancer Montgomery Clift. The noir thriller provided an excellent proving ground for young talent, particularly Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster. Mitchum and Douglas costarred in Out of the Past (1947), an exceptional postwar thriller, and they did other impressive work as well—Mitchum in The Locket (1946) and Crossfire (1947), for instance, and Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (his debut) and Champion (1949). Lancaster debuted in The Killers in 1946 and went on to do Brute Force (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and Criss Cross (1949). A few established stars also found film noir to be their element, notably John Garfield, who did the best work of his career in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, with Lana Turner), Body and Soul (1947), and Force of Evil (1948).
Another significant postwar development was the emergence of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who made their screen debut in a modest 1949 comedy, My Friend Irma, and became an overnight sensation—not unlike what Abbott and Costello had done early in the decade. And in fact Abbott and Costello themselves enjoyed a return to top stardom in the late 1940s, a comeback that for a number of reasons was even more important than either the emergence of Martin and Lewis or their own burst to stardom in 1940—1941. Indeed, the return of Abbott and Costello was among the more illuminating developments of the period, with implications far beyond simply the careers of the star duo.
Case Study: The Regeneration of Abbott and Costello
Abbott and Costello, a fixture in the Exhibitors' Poll during most of the war, slipped from the top ten to number eleven in 1945. The slide continued for two years amid repeated announcements of their impending split, and the duo was written off as a wartime phenomenon.11 But remarkably enough, Abbott and Costello returned to the Exhibitors' Poll in 1948 with a number-three ranking, a position they continued to hold in 1949. They remained in the top ten for two more years before executing a successful segue into network television in late 1951.
The resurgence of Abbott and Costello was related to changing audience tastes, of course, but it also evinced other important industry factors in the late 1940s: the changing fortunes of Universal, especially in terms of the International merger; the changing status of A- and B-class product; and the return to efficient star-genre formulation with the late-1940s economic decline and reasserted studio control. The duo's resurgence also indicated the vagaries of star measurement at the time: it was scarcely geared to low-budget production and low-end markets. And on a related note, the success of Abbott and Costello and other low-cost Universal series anticipated the movie industry's convergence with the nascent TV industry.
Abbott and Costello's rapid mid-1940s decline was directly related to the premium on A-class pictures that accompanied the war boom and to Universal's changing production and marketing strategies as well. Mass-produced lowbrow comedy for the subsequent-run market scarcely jibed with Universal's emphasis on top-feature production after its 1946 merger with International Pictures. The studio did try to upgrade the duo's image in 1946 in the costume epic The Time of Their Lives, in which they played a pair of ghosts from the Revolutionary War. And in Little Giant (1946), a fairly straight comedy, they were introduced separately; Abbott plays a dual role, and one of his characters teams up with Costello in the course of the story.
Both of those fared poorly, so Universal reverted to low-cost genre parodies much like the Abbott and Costello films of the war years. These included The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947) and The Noose Hangs High (1948), which were more cost-efficient and somewhat more successful at the box office, and thus more profitable than the ambitious 1946 vehicles. But the duo's glory days seemed to be over, best evidenced perhaps by the 1947 release of Buck Privates Come Home, a lackluster effort to capitalize on the initial Abbott and Costello hit—to the extent of including footage from the original Buck Privates in the form of flashbacks.
In early 1948, with the genre parodies doing reasonable business, producer Robert Arthur and writer John Grant, who had collaborated on Abbott and Costello's initial hits, developed the idea for a horror-comedy. Initially titled "The Brain of Frankenstein," the project was designed to rework an earlier series of genre recombinations at Universal—the horror "reunion" pictures of the war years, such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945). Those films had not fared well, and now after Hiroshima and the birth of the atomic age, Universal's horror cycle seemed not only exhausted but antiquated. Moreover, the currency of horror stars Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. was even lower than Abbott and Costello's. Thus, while the effort to recombine its horror and Abbott and Costello formulas may have seemed like a desperate and ill-fated exercise, Universal actually had little to lose—especially in light of the modest cost of the venture. In 1947, with the average cost per feature over $1 million and top features costing two to three times that, "The Brain of Frankenstein" was budgeted at only $750,000. Abbott and Costello shared a flat-fee salary of $105,000 on the film, while Chaney and Lugosi each earned $2,000 per week.12
In Grant's story, Abbott and Costello were to play their usual bumbling selves, while Lugosi and Chaney did straightforward horrific versions of their signature roles as Dracula and the Wolf Man. The story centered on two hapless freight agents in Florida who handle the encased forms of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and various other props for a horror theme park. The vampire (Lugosi) and the monster turn out to be authentic, however—part of a diabolical plot by a mad scientist determined to carry on the work of Frankenstein in America. Meanwhile, the monsters are being pursued by the Wolf Man (Chaney), who has vowed to rid the world of them forever. The film's title refers to a plot by the scientist to transplant Costello's brain into the Frankenstein monster, which not only ties together the comedy and horror formulas but also provides a climactic "birth scene" in the tradition of the original Frankenstein films.
In February 1948, Universal began shooting "The Brain of Frankenstein," which was completed by March with characteristic Universal efficiency, coming in on schedule and only $10,000 over budget. The title was changed to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein during postproduction, and the film was released in June 1948. The Abbott and Costello (and Lugosi and Chaney) vehicle proved to be an appealing mix of genre conventions—Variety deemed it "a happy combination both for chills and laughs."13 A happy combination of income and efficiency for Universal, the film also translated into considerable profit. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein earned $2.2 million in 1948, generating a profit of over $1 million—a significant take under the market conditions of the late 1940s, as indicated by the film' performance relative to other releases with comparable earnings. Variety's year-end tabulation placed Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein at number fifty-one in rental returns for the year, just behind Warners' The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ($2.3 million) and The Paradine Case ($2.2 million). Significantly, the Warners picture cost $2.74 million to produce, and the Selznick production cost $3.2 million.14 Thus, both pictures were far from breaking even after their domestic release.
The success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein vaulted the duo back into the Exhibitors' Poll's top ten, and Universal immediately initiated a follow-up, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949). That gave Universal another low-cost, high-yield hit and enabled the comedy team to maintain their number-three ranking (behind Hope and Crosby) in 1949. But Abbott and Costello were not similarly rated by Variety or ARI. In fact, in 1949, with their comeback by now a widely acknowledged industry phenomenon, the duo was not even ranked in Variety's top twenty-five. Nor were they included in ARI's 1950 listing of the top twenty-five male stars.15
These omissions ultimately say less about Abbott and Costello's star value and audience appeal than about the different assumptions and methods involved in the three polls. Variety's method of ranking stars according to average box-office performance per annum clearly favored stars who appeared predominantly in only a few big first-run-market pictures each year. This emphasis on top hits discriminated against any stars who appealed to small-town and rural audiences—from Abbott and Costello to B-Western stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, who also failed to show up in Variety's top twenty-five. Moviegoers polled by ARI's interview-based method, on the other hand, may have been reluctant to voice their interest in the likes of Abbott and Costello when asked which stars would draw them into the theater.
Star rankings aside, Universal's revised Abbott and Costello formula was set by 1949, and over the next few years the duo would "meet" the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy. Moreover, the success of the Abbott and Costello films led Universal to develop other low-cost comedy series as well. In 1949, the studio created a spin-off of its 1947 A-class comedy hit THE EGG AND I, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. Two supporting players from that film who played a farm couple, the veteran character actors Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, starred in Ma and Pa Kettle, a 1949 hit which returned $2.5 million—nearly ten times its production cost, initiating a series that ran in nine annual installments through 1957. In 1949, the long-time Universal producer-director Arthur Lubin, who had directed many of Abbott and Costello's early hits, went to work on another low-budget buddy comedy, Francis the Talking Mule, a 1950 hit which generated yet another comedy series.
Thus, the comeback of Abbott and Costello marked a reversion by Universal as well—a return to the factory-based production geared to the mass market that once had been its forte. That strategy would provide a pattern for the emerging television industry as well, particularly in terms of telefilm series production. In fact, several of these same Universal series eventually were reworked for TV. In 1951, Abbott and Costello took their slapstick comedy and vaudeville shtick to television' Colgate Comedy Hour, among the first Hollywood-based telefilm series. The Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis films would spark TV's "rural sitcoms" of the late 1950s and 1960s: the Kettles were reworked into The Real McCoys, and Arthur Lubin himself created Mr. Ed, a TV version of the Francis series.
During the immediate postwar period, the most significant genre-related development was the rapid phasing-out of the war film, and particularly the combat drama. In a matter of months, the genre that had so completely dominated movie screens for the previous five years virtually disappeared from view. The combat film went out in impressive fashion, however, with two major independent productions just after the war: John Ford's They Were Expendable (December 1945) and Lewis Milestones A Walk in the Sun (January 1946). Ford's account of a PT-boat during the early months of the war in the Pacific actually did well at the box office, returning $3.2 million. Milestone' searing account of a combat outfit's experiences during one day in the Italian campaign of 1943, although critically acclaimed, fared poorly at the box office. That hastened the combat film's demise, and by the summer of 1946, not a single war film was in release or in production. ARI had announced early in 1946 that the audience "want to see" factor on war films was virtually nil—something that the nation's exhibitors had been proclaiming for two years—and the production community now seemed to concur.16
After 1946, war film production stalled completely for several years. It began a tentative return in 1948-1949 in a variety of war-related pictures: an aerial combat film Fighter Squadron (1948); two dramas about the trials and tribulations of military leadership, Command Decision (1948) and Task Force (1949); a Hawks-directed screwball comedy, I Was a Male War Bride (1949); a geopolitical postwar romance with Humphrey Bogart, Tokyo Joe (1949); and a drama about racial prejudice in the military, The Home of the Brave (1949). All of these were in release in 1949, and several were solid hits. While none of them was of any singular importance as a war film, together they overcame the stigma that had been attached to the genre since the war.
Then, in late 1949, the combat film staged an impressive comeback via three first-rate dramas: Battleground, the story of an infantry unit during the Battle of the Bulge, personally produced for MGM by Dore Schary; Twelve O'Clock High, a Zanuck-produced study of a bomber unit commander (Gregory Peck) who begins to crack under the mounting pressures; and Sands of Iwo Jima, a John Wayne vehicle from Republic that veered between grim realism in its harrowing battle scenes and more traditional war melodrama. Like the superior films from the late war era, particularly The Story of GI Joe and They Were Expendable, these focused primarily on the psychology and camaraderie of men at war and on the brutal responsibilities of leadership in combat. All three were major hits: Battleground and Sands of Iwo Jima both surpassed $5 million in domestic earnings, virtually ensuring the return of the combat film. They were critically acclaimed as well; in fact, Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called Battleground "the best of the World War II pictures that have yet been made in Hollywood," and he endorsed the current view that it was as important a postwar epic as The Big Parade (1925) had been in the aftermath of World War I.17
While the combat film was on hiatus from 1946 to 1949, Hollywood maintained its action-adventure output in various other venues like the Western and the noir thriller. An important related development was the postwar trend toward serious drama with a strong male focus. In fact, there emerged in 1946 a distinctive form of prestige-level "male melodrama," invariably centering on the efforts of a vaguely despondent male beset by postwar angst to "find himself." This search often took place in a dark and alienating milieu and clearly was related to the postwar film noir and social problem trends. At the same time, certain themes and concerns of the war film were displaced onto these melodramas.
A clear indication of this postwar trend was the Academy's list of nominees for best picture of 1946: The Best Years of Our Lives, It's a Wonderful Life, The Razor's Edge, Henry V, and The Yearling. All except Oliviers adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V (actually produced in 1944 as a British call-to-arms) were male melodramas, and even Oliviers film dealt with war-induced male anxiety. The Yearling was a coming-of-age story focusing on a boy's relationship with his father—played by Gregory Peck, who was nominated for an Oscar as best actor. The Razor's Edge, Zanuck's carefully designed comeback vehicle for Fox star Tyrone Power on his return from the service, was an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel about a World War I veterans search for "the meaning of life." Both The Yearling and The Razor's Edge were enormously popular, returning just over $5 million and finishing among the top five box-office hits of 1946.
By far the most successful film of the lot was The Best Years of Our Lives, Goldwyn and Wyler's postwar readjustment drama focusing on three returning servicemen (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell). The biggest commercial hit of the decade, it returned over $10 million on its initial release.18 Best Years also provides an interesting complement to It's A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's postwar paean to a "home-front veteran" (Jimmy Stewart) whose travails are presented as no less severe. Both are male melodramas focused squarely on the postwar American experience, incorporating romantic and comic dimensions and a generally upbeat outcome, although both have darker moments as well.
Best Years, with its three-hour running time and multiple principals and plot lines, was the more accomplished of the two, bringing a new maturity to the screen. Scripted by Robert Sherwood and photographed by Wyler's longtime collaborator Gregg Toland, who like Wyler had done documentary work during the war, Best Years was at once a Hollywood movie and a clear attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of the postwar American experience. Employing a visual style which relied on elaborate compositions, location shooting, and Wyler and Toland's usual deep-focus, long-take approach to filming individual scenes, Best Years evinced a technical realism that jibed well with its social and thematic aspects. The film addresses timely and acute postwar issues—anxieties brought on by physical and emotional trauma, troubled marriages, the prospect of unemployment, problems with alcohol—with uncommon subtlety and dramatic power. And despite well-drawn female roles and excellent performances, especially by Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, these issues are treated from a distinctly male viewpoint.
James Agee devoted two of his review columns in The Nation to Best Years under the title "What Hollywood Can Do." He was especially impressed with the film's delicate interplay of narrative intimacy and documentary technique, writing that Wyler "has come back from the war with a style of great purity, directness and warmth."19 Terry Ramsay, reviewing the film in the Motion Picture Herald, also noted its "decided documentary quality," although he qualified the point by referring to "a glossy sort of realism."20 Bosley Crowther in the Times simply saw it as a first-rate Hollywood product and "enthusiastically" endorsed the film "not only as superlative entertainment but as food for quiet and humanizing thought."21 The heaviest praise came from the Academy: The Best Years of Our Lives won eight Oscars, including best picture of 1946, along with the Thalberg Award for producer Sam Goldwyn.
Despite the huge commercial and critical success of Best Years, only one other postwar male melodrama centered on the trauma of readjustment, Till the End of Time (1946). Produced by Dore Schary and directed by Edward Dmytryk for RKO (which also released Best Years), Till the End of Time starred Guy Madison, Robert Mitchum, and Bill Williams as three ex-marines struggling to adjust after coming home, (in fact, the Williams character lost his legs in the war and suffers from much the same trauma as Harold Russell in Best Years, who lost his hands.) Till the End of Time added another dimension through Madison's romance with an emotionally devastated war widow (Dorothy McGuire), thus taking its romantic subplot well beyond the standby-your-man mentality of Best Years.
While the male melodramas addressed the emotional and psychological aspects of the postwar male experience, the deluge of Westerns provided a more traditionally male and mythic Hollywood treatment. The output of both A- and B-Westerns accelerated in the late 1940s, owing no doubt to the cutback of combat films. All told, Westerns comprised more than one-fourth (27 percent) of all films released from 1946 through 1949. In 1948, a peak year to that point in the genre's history, fully 30 percent of all Hollywood features were Westerns.22
The Big Eight's output of Westerns, which had fallen to only twenty-eight features in 1945, steadily climbed after the war, peaking in 1950 at sixty-one. Most of the A-class Westerns came from Fox, MGM, Warners, and Paramount, which collectively produced twenty Westerns from 1946 through 1949 (up slightly from the war era). RKO produced twenty-five Westerns in the late 1940s, mostly B's. Universal's changing market strategy cut its postwar Western output to only fourteen, including only one in 1948. Columbia cranked out an astounding seventy-two Westerns from 1946 through 1949, nearly half of the total (152) released by the Big Eight. The minor independents like Republic and Monogram, meanwhile, produced 246 Westerns from 1946 through 1949. Although Republic was edging into the A-Western arena (the first was Ford's Rio Grande in 1950), virtually all of these were B-Westerns. And like Columbia's, they were split between "singing cowboys" and straight "actioners."23
While the B-Western maintained its naive charm and largely adolescent appeal, the A-Western continued to incorporate adult themes, most notably in Selznick's Duel in the Sun (1946) and Howard Hawks's Red River (1948). The chief antagonists in Selznick's sexual psychodrama are Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, both cast against type as libidinous, violent renegades. In fact, the most basic of Western conventions, the climactic shootout, occurs in the desert (hence the title) between these two, who then crawl into a dying embrace. Red River, conversely, is a remarkable study in male heroism and a veiled remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)—John Waynes aging, obsessive rancher feuds with his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) during an epic cattle drive.
Two other significant and vastly underrated Westerns of the period were Pursued (1947) and Yellow Sky (1948). Pursued, an independent production directed by Raoul Walsh and released through Warners, is a bizarre tale of familial abuse, vengeance, and murder. The story centers on star-crossed lovers and adoptive siblings (Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright) who reconstruct their fated lives while waiting in the ruins of Mitchum's childhood home for a crazed relative (Dean Jagger) who has sworn to kill him. Aptly described by Edward Buscombe as "Walsh's exquisitely 'noir' masterpiece," the film is a remarkable amalgam of postwar themes, styles, and genres.24 So is William Wellman's Yellow Sky, a hybrid of Shakespeare's The Tempest and John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The story is about an outlaw band (Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, et al.) on the run. They stumble into a ghost town where a crazed prospector and his spitfire daughter (James Barton and Anne Baxter) have struck gold. Here, too, Freudian themes and a complex interplay of lust, greed, and violence push the traditional Western into areas anticipated by films like The Outlaw and Duel in the Sun.
Another significant trend in the late 1940s was a spate of military Westerns, the most notable of which were John Ford's so-called cavalry trilogy—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Besides refining the Wayne persona (he starred in all three), the cavalry films were also veiled combat dramas focusing on the Indian wars of the late nineteenth century. Like their World War II counterparts, they dealt with military command and leadership, the psychopathology of combat, and the myriad rituals of soldiering. On a very different note, the currency of the postwar Western was further reinforced by a cycle of genre parodies released in the late 1940s, the most successful of which was the 1948 Bob Hope vehicle The Paleface.
Despite the postwar bias toward male stars and genres, the period saw its usual array of women's pictures and romantic dramas. Indeed, the marked increase in love stories in the late 1940s was scarcely surprising given the social conditions at the time.25 Most of these were light romances—modest contemporary films celebrating the courtship and coupling rites of postwar America. There were weightier romances as well: prestige-level adaptations and period films like Forever Amber (1947), Green Dolphin Street (1947), The Three Musketeers (1948), and The Heiress (1949). The last, an eminently successful adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square costarring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, was among the many late-1940s spinster melodramas, a subgenre whose stock was rising for two fairly obvious reasons: the pressure on women to marry and the aging of stars like de Havilland, Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck, and Rosalind Russell, all of whom took a turn at this type of melodrama.
A related postwar strain was the domestic comedy-drama, which enjoyed a remarkable postwar popularity in films like Easy to Wed (1946), Life With Father (1947), The Egg and I (1947), Sitting Pretty (1948), I Remember Mama (1948), Mother Isa Freshman (1949), Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)—and on and on in a seemingly endless procession of films celebrating the American hearth and home. Many were based on best-sellers (or, as with Life with Father, on long-running stage plays), although few were high-cost prestige productions. They were, for the most part, modest celebrations of the postwar marriage-family-baby boom, which later critics have treated in terms of an emergent postwar "cult of domesticity" that encouraged women to return to the home after doing their part in the workforce during the war.26 This message, so crucial not only to restabilizing the social and familial structure but also to promoting postwar consumer culture, was reinforced on radio's domestic comedies and soap operas. Like Hollywood's domestic comedy-dramas, radio dramas were selling sanitized versions of American family life—and the myriad goods and services that came with it. This effort was even more pronounced on early television, and in fact several Hollywood films made their way to TV as situation comedy series, notably Mama, a long-running (1949-1957) CBS series based on I Remember Mama.27
"Working-girl" dramas and comedies represented another significant strain of postwar women's pictures, most of which follow one of three tacks: they disparage the "pink-collar ghetto" positions that awaited most women who remained in the workforce, invariably portraying them as desperately trying to get out via a husband; they portray women caught between a professional vocation and true love; or they dramatize the price paid by women who sacrificed love and home for a career. Among the most prominent of this last type were Daisy Kenyon (1947), with Joan Crawford trying to choose between her career and two men; The Farmer's Daughter (1947), with Loretta Young playing a maid-turned-politician; and Adam's Rib (1949), a Tracy-Hepburn film in a class by itself among postwar portrayals of working women—and working couples, for that matter. Adam's Rib centers on a married couple who are opposing attorneys in a highly publicized lawsuit (involving marital infidelity) and whose courtroom battles create comic havoc in their domestic lives.
While most of these films portray the postwar American female in a positive light, a significant countercurrent developed in a number of heavier, darker dramas. Particularly important was the late-1945 Fox release Leave Her to Heaven, starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain. A Technicolor prestige drama based on a current best-seller, the film stars Tierney as a new bride who resorts to murder to maintain control over her husband and her marriage. Zanuck later described the film as "an uncompromising character story of a vicious woman who…deliberately kills her own unborn child, drowns the crippled brother of her husband and endeavors to send her own adopted sister to the electric chair. And yet despite all of this, there are certain things about her that you rather like."28 Leave Her to Heaven was a huge hit, earning $5.5 million, securing Tierney's stardom, and wielding tremendous influence on the postwar woman's picture.29
The success of Leave Her to Heaven surprised even Zanuck, particularly after the critical beating it took upon release. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times dismissed it as "a moody, morbid film," and called Tierney's performance "about as analytical as a piece of pin-up poster art."30 James Agee in Time magazine said that "the story's central idea might be plausible enough in a dramatically lighted black and white picture," but in the "rich glare of Technicolor" it was simply too much.31 Although the Academy differed with these views—Tierney was nominated for best actress, and Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for his color cinematography—the filmmaking community seemed to concur. The subsequent spate of romantic dramas focusing on sympathetic, murderous heroines generally featured Hollywood's top female talent—Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, for instance, and Merle Oberon in Temptation (both 1946)—and were done in the "dramatically lighted" style of film noir.
Meanwhile, Hollywood's postwar musicals provided a much more upbeat, colorful, and romantic view. The genre veered away from its wartime emphasis on revues and show musicals, although the wartime male bias was still evident in some areas. Several Bing Crosby vehicles, particularly his costume musicals like The Emperor Waltz (1948) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949), featured an individual male protagonist, as did the madcap musicals of the emerging musical star Danny Kaye, such as The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and The Inspector General (1949). The musical biopic also tended to focus on great men: Columbia's The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949); Warners' Cole Porter biopic Night and Day (1946); MGM on Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and on Rogers and Hart in Words and Music (1948).
Complementing these male-dominant musicals were those featuring Hollywood's two biggest female musical stars of the era, Betty Grable and Esther Williams. These musicals were clearly designed for the individual stars, despite their predictable romantic subplots, and in fact each star refined a characteristic subgenre unto herself: Grable's Technicolor period musicals from Fox, like Mother Wore Tights (1947) and When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948), which generally had a vaguely biographical dimension; and Williams's enormously popular water ballets, such as On an Island with You (1948) and Neptune's Daughter (1949). Produced by MGM, these aqua-musicals were altogether unique among the studios postwar musical output, which was dominated by the distinctive dance musicals produced by Arthur Freed.
Case Study: The MGM Freed Unit Musical
The musical had been a key genre in MGM's repertoire since the arrival of sound, and not even the rampant cost-cutting and retrenchment of the late 1940s diminished its currency, in fact, even after Dore Schary arrived in the late 1940s and attempted to build up more economical genres like the crime thriller and romantic comedy, Metro actually increased its musical output, though by then the genre represented a tremendous strain on studio resources. As Nick Schenck, Louis B. Mayer, and Schary well realized, the musical was MGM's signature genre and chief revenue-generator, and studio operations were geared to the output of musicals. They realized too that as other studios cut musical production after the war, MGM's musicals would further differentiate its high-end output and its house style.32
MGM produced eight to ten musicals per year during Schary's tenure at the studio (1948-1956). Most of them were Technicolor pictures, and in fact MGM's postwar shift to color was directly related to its musical production. In the early 1940s, MGM had been somewhat tentative about doing Technicolor pictures, releasing only twenty from 1940 to 1945 (versus thirty-eight from Fox, the industry leader). The success of Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944-1945 convinced Mayer and company of the market value of color—and of color musicals, whose output steadily increased over the next few years. By decade's end, MGM was the industry leader in color releases, with twelve in 1948 and ten in 1949 (versus six from Fox in each of those years). Of MGM's twenty-two color releases in 1948—1949, fifteen were musicals.33
MGM utterly dominated the musical genre after the war and into the 1950s. In the decade following World War II, musicals comprised more than 25 percent of MGM's total output (81 of 316 total releases), while MGM musicals comprised more than half the total made in Hollywood.34 Musicals ruled the box office—particularly MGM musicals. The Wall Street Journal reported in 1949 that musicals traditionally comprised roughly 10 percent of Hollywood's A-class output while accounting for about one-third of its top box-office hits. Variety's summary of top hits in 1949 indicated that the trend was continuing: five MGM musicals along with Columbia's Jolson Sings Again finished among the year's top fifteen box-office performers.35
Musical production at MGM was dominated by three producers, Arthur Freed, Joe Pasternak, and Jack Cummings. Pasternak and Freed were the most prolific, each turning out about a dozen musicals from 1946 through 1949, while Cummings produced about half that many. Cummings did produce a few sizable hits, notably Esther Williams vehicles like Fiesta (1947) and Neptune's Daughter. Pasternak and Freed each had a remarkable run of hits during the period, and in fact they were Hollywood's two top moneymaking producers in 1948.36 But while Pasternak and Freed were roughly equal in terms of productivity and box-office performance, Freed garnered most of the critical acclaim—and deservedly so. Freed's productions defined the trajectory of Hollywood's musical golden age, from Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944 to Gigi in 1958. While Freed's greatest success came in the early 1950s with An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953), he clearly hit his stride in 1948-1949, producing such musical masterworks as Words and Music, The Pirate, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, Take Me out to the Ball Game, and On the Town.
Two factors in Freed's success were the production unit he assembled in 1947-1948 and the unit's emphasis on dance. While Freed, Pasternak, and Cummings all drew from the same pool of MGM personnel, only Freed assembled a consistently coherent group of above-the-line talent. Besides directors, stars, writers, and composers, the most vital members of his production units were four choreographers—Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Charles Walters, and Robert Alton—whom Freed developed into directors. The role of the director-choreographer was by no means common in Hollywood or even at MGM—except in the Freed unit, where it was the dominant and defining feature.
Among the other top artists who worked closely with Freed at MGM, director Vincente Minnelli had the most intense alliance with the producer. All of Minnelli's MGM musicals were done in collaboration with Freed. All told, Kelly, Donen, and Minnelli worked in various combinations on half of Freed's two dozen musicals from 1943 to 1958. Freed also developed strong alliances with his performers, writers, and composers. Gene Kelly starred and danced in nine Freed musicals, and Fred Astaire in six. Alan Jay Lerner and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote virtually all of the top Freed unit hits, often the lyrics as well as the "book" (i.e., the dialogue and other nonmusical portions of the script).
The dance musical was scarcely new to postwar Hollywood; it dated back to such earlier cycles as RKO's Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films of the 1930s. In fact, The Barkleys of Broadway marked the couple's celebrated reunion after a ten-year separation. The Freed unit's dance musicals were distinctive, however, for several reasons. Foremost perhaps was the integration of music and dance directly into the narrative as a means of both personal and romantic expression. In earlier musicals, the song-and-dance numbers tended to be realistically motivated through a backstage musical format, or else they were treated as distinct breaks wherein the characters momentarily escape from the circumstances and conflicts of the story. The Freed unit musicals overcame the break between the musical's story and its "show"—and thus the tension between the star as dramatic character and as musical performer. And in the process, the narrative universe itself, the virtual world of the film, was steadily infected by music and energy and transformed into a distinctly Utopian realm.
Music and narrative had been integrated in earlier musicals, notably in the musical operettas of Ernst Lubitsch, like The Love Parade (1929), and in MGM's 1930s hit operettas with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, like Naughty Marietta (1935) and Rose Marie (1936). Donen later remarked that the objective of the Freed unit was to develop a musical form with "its own reality," as in those operettas. But as Donen noted, the Freed unit musicals also had a distinctive "energy, which has mainly to do with (a) America and (b) dancing."37 Nowhere was that more evident perhaps than in the 1949 codirectorial debut of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen in On the Town. A consummate integrated musical romance, the film went beyond the melding of song, dance, and narrative through its location shooting in New York City, thus melding reality and artifice.
On the Town was produced at a cost of just over $2 million and on a production schedule of thirty weeks, with ten weeks devoted to rehearsal and twenty to actual shooting. Based on Leonard Bernstein's score and a script by Comden and Green (adapted from their 1944 stage hit), the film centered on three sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) who spend a twenty-four-hour liberty in New York City. The tone is established in an elaborate opening number as the men disembark from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and dance their way across Manhattan. This dynamic routine not only showcases New York but also, by intercutting from one locale to another in an otherwise seamless musical number, integrates the city's familiar landmarks into a high-energy celebration of the modern urban metropolis. The men team up with three women (Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, and Betty Garrett), each a thorough New Yorker with a comic-topical dilemma: one is an overworked cabbie, another is belly dancing to finance ballet lessons, and the third suffers loudly from war-induced sexual neglect. The men successfully liberate the three women, enabling them to express themselves musically and to overcome their woes. In the process, the couples gradually transform the most familiar of cities into an arena of musical play and expression.
Released during the 1949 holiday season, On the Town was a strong critical hit and earned $2.9 million. It underscored the currency and vitality of the MGM dance musical while securing the ascent of Donen and Kelly to director status. (Their next collaboration as codirectors would be Singin' in the Rain.) The location shooting in New York brought a new dimension to the postwar musical and marked a curious complement to the dramatic films shot there in the late 1940s. Most of the dramas were done in black-and-white, however, and often employed a documentary realist style which corresponded closely to their downbeat view of postwar urban life. In fact, the upbeat Technicolor musicals with their idealized couples and Utopian milieu provide a fascinating contrast to the noir thrillers and urban crime films, whose protagonists are utterly alone in a world gone terribly wrong.
In 1946, after five years of enforced optimism and prosocial posturing, American movie screens suddenly darkened. "Whoever went to the movies with any regularity in 1946 was caught in the midst of Hollywood's profound postwar affection for morbid drama," wrote Life magazines David Marsham. "From January through December deep shadows, clutching hands, exploding revolvers, sadistic villains and heroines tormented with deeply rooted diseases of the mind flashed across the screen in a panting display of psychoneuroses, unsublimated sex and murder most foul."38
What Marsham described, of course, was film noir, which underwent a tremendous surge in 1946 that actually intensified in the coming years. And beyond its now-familiar terrain of hard-boiled detective thrillers and female Gothics, film noir also had a significant impact on two other postwar cycles: the semidocumentary crime film and the social problem drama (or message picture). Both cycles—as outgrowths, in a sense, of the war film—reflected Hollywood's increasing preoccupation with realism, in fact, these film noir, realist, and social problem trends actively, perhaps inevitably, cross-fertilized in the postwar era. A 1946 New York Times review of the detective noir The Dark Corner, for instance, noted the "atmospheric realism" in what was essentially a "sizzling piece of melodrama."39 And James Agee, discussing a spate of 1946 noir thrillers in The Nation, praised The Killers for its "journalistic feeling" and its "jazzedup realism." In terms of social immediacy, Agee saw The Killers as symptomatic of the crime thriller generally: "For many years so much has been forbidden or otherwise made impossible in Hollywood that crime has offered one of the few chances for getting any sort of vitality on the screen."40
Despite its social-realist dimension, film noir was at base a highly stylized treatment of contemporary social and human conditions. As noted earlier, film noir's distinctive way of telling stories and distinctive way of seeing included: low-key lighting and expressive camera work; a penchant for night scenes, rain-slick streets, and dark claustrophobic interiors; convoluted narrative construction, often employing romantic voice-over narration, flashbacks, nonlinear plot development, and an unsatisfactory or ambiguous outcome; an emphasis on character psychology and obsessive sexuality; an overall mood of anxiety, alienation, and despair; and a general distrust of legitimate social authority and institutions that, together with the preceding elements, often created a powerful (albeit implicit) social critique.
Immediately after the war, these elements were most clearly evident in the hardboiled detective film, which reached a peak of sorts in 1946 with films like The Big Sleep, The Killers, The Blue Dahlia, The Lady in the Lake, The Dark Mirror, The Dark Corner, and Black Angel. The year's "morbid dramas" also included a number of dark romances featuring star-crossed lovers, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (John Garfield and Lana Turner) and Gilda (Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth), with money and murder as well as adultery on their minds. As in their predecessor Double Indemnity (1944), the dominant viewpoint in these films is that of a cynical male who falls victim to a duplicitous femme fatale. The female viewpoint, meanwhile, was privileged in films like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Temptation, which center on a murderous heroine (Barbara Stanwyck and Merle Oberon, respectively), thus effectively melding the woman's picture with the noir thriller.
Hollywood's two pioneering noir stylists, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, continued to shape its development in 1946—Hitchcock with Notorious and Welles with The Stranger, each of which effectively blends the Gothic romance with the warrelated espionage thriller in a classic noir film. Another film worth mentioning here is Welles's The Lady from Shanghai (costarring Orson Welles, who also wrote and directed), a Rita Hayworth vehicle initiated in late 1946 as a follow-up to Gilda. Veering wildly from black comedy to sexual psychodrama to murderous intrigue, the film presents Hayworth as coolly homicidal and sexually manipulative—the consummate femme noire. Upon its completion in early 1947, however, Columbia's Harry Cohn was not happy with the film or the depiction of his top star, and he withheld The Lady from Shanghai until 1948.
In 1947, Hollywood's film noir output accelerated and took on a new complexity as the period style began to cross-fertilize with other emerging postwar strains. Sometimes noir only slightly shaded an established formula or recombined a bit with another genre. Crossfire, for example, is very much a hard-boiled crime thriller except for two elements which interject elements of both the message picture and the police procedural: the killer (Robert Ryan) is an ex-GI motivated by rabid anti-Semitism, and he is eventually brought to justice by a police detective (Robert Young) operating very much by the book. Other genres were also effectively reworked in 1947 as noir intrigues with a social angle: the boxing film in Body and Soul, tracing the rise of a fighter (John Garfield) by any means necessary, including his cooperation with the mob; and the prison drama Brute Force, in which inmates (led by Burt Lancaster) revolt against a sadistic head guard and a corrupt criminal justice system. The gangster genre collided with film noir in Kiss of Death (1947), a downbeat film about a mobster (Victor Mature) who is captured and turns state's evidence; after testifying, he and his family are stalked by a former cohort (Richard Widmark in his stunning film debut as a cackling, psychopathic killer).
Kiss of Death also evinced an emerging realist trend, both in its depiction of police procedures and its use of location shooting and sound. The film was directed by Henry Hathaway, whose two previous films, The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1946), were produced for Fox by the March of Time veteran Louis de Rochemont. Those films established the currency and basic conventions of the semi-documentary investigative drama—including objective voice-over narration, location shooting, use of nonactors, and little or no musical scoring. Those films had been warrelated espionage thrillers involving U.S. federal agents, but Kiss of Death was a straight crime film. Other crime thrillers pushed even more aggressively into the realm of documentary realism, notably Boomerang and T-Men in 1947, and Call Northside 777 and The Naked City in 1948. Shot on location and based on actual criminal cases, all of these films followed an investigation through its various procedures to an inevitably favorable outcome.
At first glance, the semidocumentary crime dramas seem antithetical to film noir, and in fact these films do indicate important changes in the Hollywood crime film. "The semi-documentaries are a good example of the shift away from the radicalism of film noir," notes Michael Walker, in that they "celebrate the efficacy of the American crimefighting institutions" and tend to "marginalize or discredit" the low-life types and losers who are more sympathetically portrayed in noir thrillers. Although shot on location, they favor daylight scenes and well-lit interiors, and the dominant setting of a police headquarters conveys a sense of order. The voice-over in most semidocumentaries, like the authoritative "voice of God" of the documentary and newsreel, is "completely foreign to the highly subjective, frequently painful" narration in noir films. And the linear, cause-and-effect development of the semidocumentary narrative is fundamentally at odds with the convoluted structure of most noir thrillers.41 In terms of character and theme, as Frank Krutnik argues, the semidocumentary crime thrillers "signaled a shift away from the 'tough' thrillers obsession with psychological breakdown and sexual malaise, or at least they recast these elements within a perspective which stressed the normative processes of law and social order."42 Generally eschewing a romantic subplot or central female character, these films focus closely on "the case," which invariably is solved by film's end.
As both Walker and Krutnik recognize, however, few semidocumentary thrillers maintained this clear distinction from film noir. In fact, the two seemingly antithetical forms—the realistic, reactionary, reassuring, authoritative, upbeat semidocumentary versus the expressionistic, subversive, disturbing, confusing, and downbeat film noir—clearly began to intermingle as soon as the semidocumentary veered from war-related spy films to crime thrillers after the war. Boomerang, for example, was a de Rochemont production for Fox filmed entirely on location in a small town in the Northeast and was based on an actual case. It traces the dogged efforts of a disillusioned state's attorney (Dana Andrews) to prove that a maladjusted war veteran (Arthur Kennedy) did not murder a Directed by Elia Kazan (his second feature), Boomerang was far darker and more complex than the previous de Rochemont productions and was scarcely a testimonial to institutional authorities and the machinery of social justice. Nor did it commend the process of postwar rehabilitation. Andrews's attorney does manage to overcome his own malaise and clear the wrongly accused vet, but only by exposing local prejudices and the ineptitude of the criminal justice system. Moreover, the failure to apprehend the actual murderer offsets the film's upbeat outcome.
Kazan directed another breakthrough film for Fox in 1947, Gentleman's Agreement, an investigative drama with an explicit social problem theme centering on socially sanctioned anti-Semitism. Shot largely on location in New York City, Gentleman's Agreement features a journalist (Gregory Peck) who poses as a Jew to experience firsthand the deep-seated prejudices of mainstream American society. A prestige project scripted by Moss Hart (from Laura Z. Hobson's best-seller) and costarring John Garfield and Dorothy McGuire, the Zanuck production was a tremendous hit. Considered daring and progressive in its day, Gentleman's Agreement impressed critics, scored Oscars for best picture and best director, and was among the year's top box-office performers. Coming on the heels of The Lost Weekend in 1945 and The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 (both of which also won best-picture Oscars), Gentleman's Agreement affirmed the currency of the realistic, male-oriented social problem film. Along with Crossfire, Gentleman's Agreement indicated
that Hollywood movies might effectively present more liberal-humanist, if not openly leftist, political views.
The burgeoning social realism and left-liberalism in postwar Hollywood was due to several factors, particularly the influx of new talent and the impact of the war and of warrelated films. The war and immediate postwar era saw the emergence of a new crop of writers and directors in Hollywood, many of whom brought with them a progressive political agenda and a strong interest in film realism. Among these were Kazan, Robert Rossen, Jules Dassin, Abraham Polonsky, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Fred Zinnemann, and Anthony Mann. Many were trained in the New York theater during the 1930s, often working with politically and aesthetically radical companies, such as the Group Theatre, the Actors Studio (cofounded by Kazan), and the Theatre Union. Equally important was the war itself and its on-screen treatment in Hollywood features and documentaries. In a sense, the war had presented Hollywood with a massive "social problem" which utterly consumed the industry from 1942 through 1945 and demanded a more overtly social, political, and realistic approach to filmmaking than ever before. Filmmakers continued to refine this approach after the war, despite the phasing-out of the war film itself, and audiences (and critics) clearly responded.
By late 1947, however, serious counterforces were militating against Hollywood's nascent social realist movement. In fact, Gentleman's Agreement was released only weeks after the HUAC hearings, the Waldorf Statement, and RKO's consequent firing of Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk (the producer and director of Crossfire). As these and other developments indicated, the conservative forces both inside and outside the movie industry meant to stifle any trace of left-leaning liberalism in movies. The Motion Picture Alliance railed against the "sizable doses of Communist propaganda" in scores of recent movies, including Pride of the Marines, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and The Best Years of Our Lives. The right-wing novelist and screenwriter Ayn Rand, on behalf of the Alliance, drafted a "Screen Guide for Americans" with such headings as "Don't Smear the Free Enterprise System," "Don't Deify the 'Common Man,'" "Don't Glorify Failure," and "Don't Smear Industrialists." Even Eric Johnston, head of Hollywood's Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), climbed onto the conservative bandwagon. "We'll have no more Grapes of Wrath, we'll have no more Tobacco Roads," vowed Johnston in 1947. "We'll have no more films that show the seamy side of American life."43
In the aftermath of HUAC and the blacklist, many questioned whether Hollywood would dare to venture beyond the safe and predictable forms of light entertainment, while others saw the emerging realistic aesthetic as a reason for optimism. James Agee voiced both of those views in a January 1948 piece in The Nation as he pondered the success of Gentleman's Agreement and Crossfire in light of recent events: "It is hard to believe that absolutely first-rate works of art can ever again be made in Hollywood, but it would be idiotic to assume that flatly. If they are to be made there, they will most probably develop along the directions worked out during the past year or two; they will be journalistic, semi-documentary, and 'social-minded,' or will start that way and transcend those levels."44
Other indications were less encouraging, however. John Huston told the New Yorker's Lillian Ross about battling Warners simply to include the word labor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which he had recently completed; he was having similar problems on his current Warners project, Key Largo, over a line of dialogue that quoted FDR on the United Nations and the reasons for fighting World War II. Ross also reported that she had been told by William Wyler "that he is convinced that he could not make [The Best Years of Our Lives] today and that Hollywood will provide no more films like The Grapes of Wrath and Crossfire."45
Hollywood's more progressive efforts were indeed stifled in the late 1940s; the careers of both Huston and Wyler are cases in point. The difficulties faced at Paramount by Wyler and his Liberty Films partners already have been described—imagine Capra making a film that did not deify the common man or smear industrialists. Huston was similarly constrained at Warners, once deemed the bastion of film realism and a haven for left-leaning filmmakers. After writing and directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, both released in 1948 to excellent critical popular response, Huston left Warners in disgust. "The complexion of the place was changing," Huston later said of the studio. "Its great innovative period was in decline, if not over."46 Johnny Belinda, a dark social problem drama about young deaf-mute woman (Jane Wyman) who is a victim of rape and of small-town gossip and prejudice, is another example of Warners' conservative turn in 1948. Jack Warner so disliked the film that, before its release, he refused to renew the contract of the director, Jean Negulesco. Johnny Belinda went on to become a huge critical and commercial hit, earning $4.25 million and nine Oscar nominations—including best director. At that point, Warner relented, but Negulesco had no interest in returning to the studio.47
RKO underwent a reversal similar to Warners' after the Howard Hughes takeover in May 1948. Hughes's archconservative political views were utterly at odds with those of RKO's liberal production chief, Dore Schary, and their differences affected the studio's filmmaking. A strong proponent of the social problem film and the socially astute crime thriller, Schary had a number of projects in the works at RKO that Hughes intensely disliked. When Schary left for MGM a few months after the takeover, Hughes quashed the "liberal" trends at RKO and temporarily shelved several of Schary's pet projects, notably Joseph Losey's antiwar fable The Boy with Green Hair (1948) and Nicholas Ray's noir thriller They Live by Night (1949).
Schary found the political climate less tense but quite conservative at MGM under Nick Schenck and Louis Mayer. By 1948, MGM's only ventures into film noir or message pictures were through a Loews distribution deal with Enterprise Pictures, whose releases that year included the masterful film noir Force of Evil and a semidocumentary drama about European war orphans, The Search. While Schary subdued his progressive bent at MGM, he did initiate a few low-cost crime thrillers with strong social elements that were released in 1949, notably Intruder in the Dust, an adaptation of a Faulkner novel with an anti-lynching theme, and Border Incident, a semidocumentary about illegal Mexican migrant workers.
Twentieth Century-Fox was the only studio to sustain a steady output of films noirs, semidocumentary thrillers, and social problem dramas in the late 1940s, owing largely to the interests and efforts of Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck had been a proponent of drama "torn from the day's headlines" since his early career as a writer and production executive at Warner Bros., and he continued to pursue that strategy at Fox. Indeed, his predilection for message pictures resulted in the two "seamy" prewar pictures, The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road, that Eric Johnston had so fervently disclaimed in 1947. And at the time of that disclaimer, Zanuck had his usual run of seamy projects in the works, including Gentleman's Agreement, The Snake Pit, and Call Northside 777.
The Snake Pit was perhaps the darkest of the lot. Based on a true story (and bestselling book) about a woman's descent into mental illness, the film also presents a powerful critique of the treatment of the mentally ill. Directed by Anatole Litvak in a semi-documentary style, The Snake Pit was released in late 1948 to a strong critical and commercial response, earning over $4 million. Call Northside 777, a s midocumentary crime thriller shot in Chicago, recounts the crusade of a cynical reporter (James Stewart) to prove the innocence of a death row inmate awaiting execution. Clearly influenced by Boomerang, Call Northside 777 incorporates noir elements and is less than flattering in its portrayal of the authorities and the criminal justice system. Fox also turned out more straightforward noir films in 1948, such as Road House (directed by Jean Negulesco after leaving Warners) and Cry of the City. The studio countered these darker crime films in 1948 with an upbeat semidocumentary cold war spy thriller, The Iron Curtain, an exposé of Soviet espionage in Canada.
By decade's end, Fox was by far the most aggressive studio in the production of message films and socially sensitive thrillers, and it was the only company willing to risk an occasional prestige-level social problem film. As Fortune magazine observed in early 1949: "Innovations in the shape of crusading themes, realism, the psychological view, and documentary style have been adopted notably by Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox." But Fortune also noted that Zanuck "could risk a 'Snake Pit' because he had twenty-five or more other pictures a year and Betty Grable."48 Zanuck's principal risk at the time was Pinky, another ambitious social drama in the mold of Gentleman's Agreement. Personally produced by Zanuck and directed by Elia Kazan, Pinky centers on the struggles of a light-skinned black woman (Jeanne Crain) who has been living in the North and passing as white; upon returning to her small-town southern home, she decides to forgo her white existence—including her betrothal to a prosperous doctor—and to accept her racial and social identity. Once again, Zanuck and Kazan struck just the right balance of realism and melodrama, of social commentary and personal anguish. And while Pinky was not quite the critical success of Gentleman's Agreement or The Snake Pit, its $4 million in rentals was on a par commercially with those two previous hits.49
While Pinky dominated the box office in 1949, most of the critical accolades went to All the King's Men, a political drama which took top honors from the New York Film Critics, won the Golden Globe (voted best picture by Hollywood's foreign press), and also won the Academy Award for best picture. Adapted from Robert Penn Warren's 1946 best-seller, All the King's Men was written, produced, and directed by Robert Rossen in a quasi-independent deal with Columbia. Loosely based on the career of the infamous Louisiana governor Huey Long, the film traces the rise and seemingly inevitable corruption of small-town politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), who becomes a ruthless yet effective demagogue and eventually is assassinated. In both film technique and narrative construction, All the King's Men is a stylistic tour de force. Rossen shot the film entirely on location (in an unnamed state) using only available light; he cast third-rate character actor Crawford as Willie and used nonactors in minor roles. (Crawford won an Oscar for his performance, as did newcomer Mercedes McCambridge in a supporting role.) Rossen employed various noir techniques as well, notably a complex flashback structure and the brooding voice-over narration by Stark's introspective and deeply disillusioned political aide (John Ireland). Beyond the downbeat nature of the climactic assassination, the deeper moral and political questions raised are left unresolved.50
Judging from the success of Pinky and All the King's Men, Hollywood had not yet written off the social problem drama, and in fact 1949 saw the release of three other successful "race" pictures—The Home of the Brave, Lost Boundaries, and Intruder in the Dust. It should be noted, however, that all three were relatively low-risk ventures; none was a high-cost star vehicle based on a celebrated presold property, and each packaged its social message in familiar narrative terms.51 Intruder in the Dust is a noir intrigue set in the South about an old woman and a young boy, both white, who solve a murder and thereby prevent the lynching of a black man. an independent de Rochemont production, is a semidocumentary based on a true story and shot on location in small-town New England; the white community discovers that the local doctor and his wife are actually of black descent. The Lost Boundaries, Home of the Brave, produced by the independent Stanley Kramer, traces the efforts of an army psychiatrist to discover the cause of a black soldier's psychologically induced paralysis, which turns out to be the result of racist treatment.
All three films did well critically and commercially; Bosley Crowther of the Times was a particularly vocal advocate of the "race drama" trend. In May, he termed The Home of the Brave "a drama of force and consequence" and "a most propitious 'first' in the cycle of Negro prejudice pictures which Hollywood now has in the works." In July, he wrote that the "statement of the anguish and ironies of racial taboo [in Lost Boundaries] is clear, eloquent and moving." In September, he noted that in Pinky, Zanuck and Fox "shift the scope of observation into that more noted arena of racism, the Deep South … [in] a picture that is vivid, revealing and emotionally intense." Crowther was most enthusiastic about MGM's Intruder in the Dust, which he described in November as "probably this year's pre-eminent picture and one of the great cinema dramas of our time." He acknowledged, however, that the "deeper meanings might be utterly missed" by those simply looking for a crime thriller.52Variety also was enthusiastic and optimistic about the recent spate of message films dealing with "anti-Negro prejudice." These films, asserted Variety in late 1949, "proved that there is no subject that is taboo in Hollywood."53
That was scarcely the case, however. In 1950, Hollywood went into a full-scale retreat from message pictures and prestige-level social problem dramas. The retreat was due to a range of factors, many of them well outside industry control—HUAC's ongoing investigation of Communists in the U.S. government and the 1949 Alger Hiss trial; the Soviet A-bomb tests and the fall of China to the Communists later that same year. Inside the industry, however, the blacklist of the Hollywood Ten was augmented in 1948-1949 by a steadily expanding "graylist" which included many of Hollywood's more progressive filmmakers. By 1950, there were rumors of HUAC's imminent return, which in fact occurred in early 1951, resulting in the complete collapse of Hollywood liberalism, the blacklisting of hundreds of "subversives," and the end of the American cinema's erstwhile social realist movement.
While progressive message pictures and high-stakes social problem films disappeared from American screens, Hollywood continued to turn out noir films in the early 1950s, including such classics as Sunset Boulevard and The Asphalt Jungle in 1950. The resurgent war film also displayed a distinct noir influence, most prominently in Fox's late-1949 release Twelve O'Clock High. But besides that Zanuck-produced hit reexamining the "problem" of war—albeit as a more personal and psychological than social problem—Fox backed completely away from the prestige-level social problem drama, opting instead for low-cost, low-risk thrillers like Panic in the Streets, No Way Out, Night and the City, and Where the Sidewalk Ends (all 1950). A few of these treated significant social issues but did so without incurring the wrath of conservative critics and social watchdogs. As Brian Neve notes in Film and Politics in America: "Even when political controversy made explicit social content a liability, films noirs generally evaded scrutiny."54 But by 1950, the disillusioned heroes, subcurrents of anxiety, and implicit social critiques of earlier message pictures and crime thrillers were noticeably absent. The moral ambiguity and existential angst so essential to these forms had been excised. Film noir, for the time being at least, was undergoing a belated postwar rehabilitation.
Case Study: Mark Hellinger'sThe Killers, Brute Force,andThe Naked City
As seen in chapter 4, Mark Hellinger played a key role in the prewar overhaul of the Warner Bros. crime film on pictures like The Roaring Twenties, They Drive by Night, and High Sierra. During the war, Hellinger rose to producer status, and in 1945 he signed with Universal as an in-house independent. Hellinger produced three films for Universal after the war: The Killers in 1946, Brute Force in 1947, and The Naked City in 1948. All three were hits, and all three were indicative of the dominant postwar trends in the crime film: The Killers is a hard-boiled detective noir; Brute Force is a prison drama with social problem overtones and a dynamic blend of realism and film noir; and The Naked City is a semidocumentary police procedural which depicts urban life and day-to-day police work in much more immediate terms than other postwar semidocumentary thrillers.
The formation of Mark Hellinger Productions and Hellinger's deal with Universal were announced in a page-one Daily Variety story in August 1945. As Variety noted, Hellingers contract as an in-house independent was modeled on Walter Wanger's—although the actual details were somewhat different. Universal paid Hellinger a salary on a flat-fee, per-film basis: $25,000 for script development and another $25,000 to produce each picture. Universal also would "loan" Hellinger up to one-half the production costs and arrange financing, if necessary, for the balance. Once his film was released, the loan would be repaid and Hellinger would take 25 percent of the profits.55
With his initial Universal project, The Killers, Hellinger confirmed his efficiency and creative acumen as a producer, and his savvy sense of the crime thriller as well. The film was based on Ernest Hemingways short story "The Killers," which describes an enigmatic figure named Swede who calmly waits in his dark rooming house for two hired assassins, whom he knows are coming, to find and kill him. Hellingers plan, as he explained to Hemingway's attorney, was "to use the story practically in toto as an opening sequence and then carry on from there with the same two killers and in the same established mood."56
After securing the rights to the story, Hellinger hired Tony Veiller to do the adaptation (with eventual uncredited assistance from John Huston).57 In the script, an insurance investigator learns through a complex, randomly ordered mélange of flashbacks—and flashbacks within flashbacks—that Swede was a washed-up prizefighter and small-time hood who was murdered for betraying his accomplices in a heist, a fatal decision motivated by Swede's love of a double-crossing femme fatale. Thus, much like the recent reconstructions of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, the adaptation of "The Killers" took on obvious noir dimensions—the flashback structure and convoluted time frame, an obsession with the past and with fate, the enigmatic central character betrayed by a heartless black widow—none of which was in the Hemingway story, though it all seemed to emerge quite naturally from the motivating situation.58
To direct The Killers, Hellinger hired noir stylist Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Spiral Staircase, etc.). He cast Burt Lancaster (in his screen debut) as Swede, Edmund O'Brien as the detective, and Ava Gardner as the deadly love interest. The picture was a straight studio shoot with no location work and few exteriors; it was scheduled for nine weeks and budgeted at $875,000.59 Hellinger closely supervised production, which closed in late June, two days behind schedule but almost $50,000 under budget. Hellinger oversaw editing in July and had the picture ready for release by August.60 Completed within weeks of the International merger, The Killers was heavily promoted by Universal as an exemplary product of the "new" U-I.
The Killers was a hit, returning domestic rentals of $2.5 million and worldwide earnings of $3 million. Net profits to Universal were nearly $1 million—with $250,000 going to Mark Hellinger Productions.61 The film was critically well received and scored Academy Award nominations for Veiller's script, Siodmak's direction, and Miklos Rozsa's score. Hellinger won critical praise as well. The "good strident journalistic feeling for tension, noise, sentiment, and jazzed-up realism," wrote James Agee in The Nation, "is probably chiefly to the credit of the producer, Mark Hellinger."62
Hellinger's next project, Brute Force, was another well-crafted, moderately priced thriller starring Burt Lancaster. The dark, violent prison drama centers on six convicts (Lancaster, Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, et al.) who rebel against a sadistic head guard (Hume Cronyn) in an inhumane, incompetently run prison. While the film is as stylized in some ways as The Killers, especially in its use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressive camera work, Brute Force also employed realist techniques and included some location shooting. Crucial to this blend was the collaboration between director Jules Dassin and cinematographer William Daniels. Dassin, a relative newcomer with stage experience in New York (including the Group Theatre), had come into cinema by way of radio writing and had directed only a few B-grade features. Daniels, on the other hand, was an accomplished cinematographer—although his celebrated work as Garbo's cameraman at MGM scarcely seemed to prepare him for something like But Daniels was a consummate professional, who readily adapted to the demands of the shoot, and he worked well with the inexperienced but talented Dassin.
Despite its aggressively downbeat story, Brute Force. Brute Force did well commercially, with domestic earnings of $2.2 million in 1947. But it drew mixed reviews, owing largely to the uncommonly violent and depressing story of brutalized inmates and a deadly prison riot in which the rebellious convicts are killed in an apocalyptic finale—although not before the sadistic Cronyn is thrown from a guard tower. A number of critics noted that the film's condemnation of prison conditions gave it a social problem dimension; many drew comparisons to Nazi concentration camps. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, for instance, posited a direct parallel, "with the prisoners the pitiable victims and the authorities the villains." Crucial to his view was the portrayal of Cronyn's sadistic guard: with the inclinations of a Nazi stormtrooper, he is an obvious fascist who listens to Wagner while torturing prisoners.63
For his next picture, tentatively titled "Homicide," Hellinger wanted to chronicle the day-to-day police work of a New York City homicide squad. Reteaming Jules Dassin and William Daniels, the film would be shot on location in a semidocumentary style, and it would be the first such film to follow a murder investigation exclusively from a police detective's viewpoint. The film also would present an authentic portrait of Hellinger's beloved New York City, where his own writing career began. In September 1946, just after the release of The Killers and while Brute Force was in postproduction, Hellinger sold Universal on the project and sent writer Malvin Wald to New York on what was essentially a month-long research junket, mainly to observe the Manhattan Police Department. "At this point I am making no effort to figure out a story line," Wald wrote to Hellinger in October. "Every case gives me more and more story material and characters. I think when I get back to Hollywood it will be more a job of editing what I have learned than creating something new. The important thing is that I come back … knowing more about New York homicide detectives than any writer in Hollywood."64
By April 1947, Wald and Al Maltz, whom Hellinger hired to coscript the film, had completed a shooting script for "Homicide." The story, based on actual case files, centers on the brutal murder of a young woman and the subsequent manhunt for her killer, who eventually is apprehended after a chase across the Williamsburg Bridge. While the murder investigation provided the spine of the story, the writers recognized the opportunities inherent in the semidocumentary format to rework the crime thriller. Maltz even included a page of "Production notes for Mark Hellinger" in his final screenplay draft, including this suggestion: "This film will depend for its effect on a sense of absolute authenticity, upon its honest portrayal of people and life, upon the absence of forced effects, forced scenes, forced melodramatics."65
In May 1947, Universal officially approved the film—now titled "The Naked City"—and a $1.2 million budget. Hellinger then dispatched a second unit to New York for an intensive twenty-four-day shoot.66 The second unit shot in New York for two weeks without the cast, simply filming the various locations where the story was to take place. Bad weather plagued the shoot, as did myriad technical and logistical problems. For a period of four straight days, for example, rain, unruly crowds, and equipment problems kept the second unit from doing a single camera setup. These difficulties underscored the value of working in a studio, but Hellinger was satisfied with the trade-off—capturing the authenticity and atmosphere of Manhattan on film.67
In June, Hellinger and Dassin took the cast and first unit to New York for eight weeks of principal photography, with just over half the script to be filmed on location. The shoot went well, but shortly after returning to the studio in August, Hellinger suffered a mild heart attack and was forced to monitor the remainder of the production from his hospital room. Dassin closed production in mid-September, staying on to supervise cutting with Hellinger, who by then was out of the hospital. Frank Skinner and Miklos Rozsa scored the film later in the fall, and Hellinger himself recorded the voice-over narration for the picture, including its now-famous epitaph, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." By mid-December, THE NAKED CITY was ready to preview, but Hellinger never saw the finished product. On 22 December 1947, at age 44, Hellinger died of a massive coronary.
The Naked City was released in early March 1948 and gave Hellinger Productions another hit, returning $2.4 million and finishing among the top fifty box-office releases of the year.68 The semidocumentary form by then was quite familiar; in fact, de Rochement's Call Northside 777 and Anthony Mann's T-Men (on U.S. Treasury agents) both were released a few weeks earlier. But The Naked City is in a class by itself among semidocumentary crime films. It is relentlessly authentic in its treatment of police procedures and makes no effort to idealize or romanticize the central character (Barry Fitzgerald as a police lieutenant), the other detectives, or the criminals. The investigation itself is routine to the point of banality, although the final chase does provide a solid dramatic payoff. Equally important, the film presents a remarkable portrait of postwar New York in all its brutal grandeur, much of it captured by the hidden cameras used in many scenes to augment the documentary quality.
Critical response to The Naked City was rather uneven, owing largely to the film's unrelenting documentary quality. Agee in Time praised Danielsmidocumentary crime thriller shot ins "lovely eye for space, size, and light" as well as the "visually majestic finish" (the final chase), but he found little else to recommend the film.69 Crowther in the Times called it "virtually a Hellinger column on film," but he found the investigation, except for the "roaring 'Hitchcock' end," altogether tedious: "The drama is largely superficial, being no more than a conventional 'slice of life'—a routine and unrevealing episode in the everyday business of the cops."70 Interestingly enough, other critics would praise The Naked City for precisely that quality. George Sadoul, for instance, later noted that "the banal plot of this crime thriller is merely an excuse for a semidocumentary portrait of the life of ordinary people in a major city"; he considered that portrait the film's principal achievement.71 The Academy also responded favorably to the film's documentary quality, awarding Oscars to Daniels for his cinematography and to Paul Weatherwax for film editing. (Wald also was nominated for his screen story.)
The Naked City marked a sharp departure from most postwar crime thrillers, even semidocumentary films like Boomerang and Call Northside 777. The film's aggressive quest for authenticity, its focus solely on the police, and its unsentimentalized view of the workaday cop set it apart from the more socially astute—and at least implicitly progressive—realistic crime dramas of the period. These qualities set the tone for the more conservative police procedurals to come, and also for television "cop shows" such as Dragnet and, of course, The Naked City, the ABC-TV series which ran from 1958 to 1963 and was shot largely on location in New York. Despite its influence, however, The Naked City remained an exceptional film during the late 1940s—a crime film with virtually no trace of noir stylistics, and a semidocumentary drama with no social problem dimension.
While forces both outside and inside the movie industry subdued Hollywood's progressive impulse after the late-1949 burst of race dramas and social problem films, perhaps the most significant development in the conservative swing at decade's end was the release of Samson and Delilah. Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount and released in December 1949—only days before the studio's epochal theater divorcement took effect—Samson and Delilah was utterly at odds with the dominant genres, stylistic trends, and market strategies of the period. It was not only a throwback to an earlier era but an augur of things to come.
The first studio-produced, calculated blockbuster effort in years, Samson and Delilah was a lavish historical spectacle starring Victor Mature, Hedy Lamarr, and "a cast of thousands." Paramount raised its budget ceiling to $3.5 million for the production, and DeMille reportedly brought it in some $600,000 under budget in early 1949. Paramount devoted nearly a full year to postproduction and promotion, and the studio's investment paid off. Samson and Delilah became the first picture in nearly three years to earn over $5 million en route to total domestic earnings of $11.5 million, sur passing The Best Years of Our Lives as the biggest box-office hit of the decade.72
The tremendous success of Samson and Delilah both in the United States and overseas rekindled Hollywood's hit-driven mentality while reasserting the currency of the big-budget historical spectacle, and it heralded a radical redirection of the movie industry in the 1950s. Indeed, although it recalled DeMille's earlier biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1923) and The Sign of the Cross (1932), Samson and Delilah was actually quite radical by postwar standards. The film a lavish spectacular with global appeal designed to exploit Paramount's strengths as a producer-distributor rather than its once-vast theater chain. And "bringing together the Old Testament and Technicolor for the first time," as Bosley Crowther put it, the film also anticipated the marriage of large-scale epics with other technological innovations like CinemaScope and Cinerama.73
The success of Samson and Delilah spawned two similar hits in 1951, Quo Vadis? and David and Bathsheba, and much bigger hits were yet to in 1953, The Ten Commandments in 1956, and come—The Robe Ben-Hur 1959. Each was a monumental international success which redefined the revenue potential of top movie hits, and each reinforced the blockbuster mentality of the New Hollywood. Thus, Samson and Delilah, clearly a watershed film, was more a film of the 1950s than the 1940s. in fact, it underscored the distinctive nature of the period that preceded it—the tense and heady postwar years, the vibrant twilight of Hollywood's classical era.