Prewar Stars, Genres, and Production Trends
4Authorship, Film Style, and the Rise of the Producer-Director
Prewar Stars, Genres, and Production Trends
Ford, Capra, and Hitchcock in Prewar Hollywood
Orson Welles and Citizen Kane
Stars and the Star System
Genres and Production Trends
The Emerging War Film
The rapidly changing social, economic, and industrial conditions in 1940—1941 created a curious paradox in terms of the actual films and filmmaking of the period. On the one hand, the Hollywood studios enjoyed the benefits of the improving economy, especially in the surging first-run market, and they continued to rely on established star-genre formulas to exploit that market. Indeed, familiar stars and standardized story forms remained the chief organizing principles in virtually all phases of the industry. But on the other hand, the acute demand for A-class product and the increasing clout of top filmmaking talent created unique opportunities for innovation and individual creativity in the production process—opportunities which a good many filmmakers actively pursued. This had a significant effect on the films of the period, and in fact the early 1940s saw changes in both film style and the filmmaking process, particularly with regard to directorial "authorship," that would have enormous impact throughout the decade.
Tino Balio, in his study of 1930s Hollywood, Grand Design, aptly notes that filmmaking during that era of near-absolute studio control was characterized by three related factors: the "growing domination of producers" over studio filmmaking; the "diminished status" of top creative talent, especially directors and writers; and "the 'authorship' of studio house styles."1 The established house styles would persist into the 1940s, keyed as always to each studios star-genre repertoire. But the demand for first-run product in the early 1940s and the emergence of the producer-director as a major industry force marked a significant reversal of the trends Balio describes.
The steadily increasing demand for first-run product in 1940-1941 put greater emphasis on presold films and product differentiation, and in the process filmmakers themselves became a viable means of preselling and differentiating top pictures. Increasingly, the names of individual directors—Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, John Ford, and others—were invoked to assure audiences of the distinctive artistry and overall quality of high-end movie product. Employing name recognition was more than simply a marketing ploy. Top filmmakers did enjoy greater creative freedom and administrative control in the early 1940s than they had known in over two decades of studio rule. This power led to increased innovation in feature production styles and a higher premium on directorial style as well, particularly in films geared for more sophisticated metropolitan audiences.
This trend also signaled a broadening conception of critical prestige. With the surge in high-end production and in the overall quality of top features in 1940-1941, the distinction between A-class and prestige pictures steadily diminished. Indeed, the distinction became almost meaningless with the shift to longer runs at higher prices for firstrun releases, as well as the reliance on presold product. The deluge of top product did include the more predictable and commercial prestige fare—costume musicals, biopics, historical epics, and so on. But these high-end releases included riskier and more innovative ventures as well, such as the adaptations of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, the amalgam of Eugene O'Neill one-act plays into The Long Voyage Home in 1940, and Orson Welles's monumental Citizen Kane 1941.
Projects like these indicated not only the willingness of studio executives and independent producers alike to test the interests and tastes of first-run audiences but also the increasing clout and innovative impulses of top filmmakers. Indeed, the rampant critical debates and industry discourse about the Hollywood cinema as a "directors medium" indicated that the notions of film authorship and film style that Balio ascribed to 1930s filmmaking no longer quite pertained—or at least not in quite the same manner. Balio's observations about the dominant role of producers still applied, but what he saw as the "diminished status" of the director simply did not.
Indeed, the single most significant aspect of the shift to independent and unit production in prewar Hollywood was the rise of the producer-director. Invariably, this person was a director who had ascended to producer status, a career path that occurred with increasing frequency in 1940—1941 owing to industry and market conditions. The primary factors were the market demand for first-run product and the war economy; there were other factors as well, from the formation of the Screen Directors Guild and the 1940 consent decree to the desire for autonomy by top directors and the critical discourse about cinema as a director's medium.
Frank Capra and John Ford were prime examples of this shift in Hollywood's division of filmmaking labor, and in fact both became embroiled in controversies during the struggle in 1939 for approval of the Screen Directors Guild (SDG), approval which centered on the very issues of directorial independence and individual artistry. As mentioned in chapter 2, Capra was president of both the Motion Picture Academy and SDG in 1939, and he played a key role in winning Guild approval. Ford, meanwhile, had remained characteristically aloof from the fray but was drawn in after the release of Stagecoach in February 1939, when the industry debate was at its height. The picture was independently produced (for UA) by Walter Wanger and became a cause célèbre for those advocating not only SDG but a view of the cinema as a director's medium. Much of the struggle went on behind the scenes, as when Wanger informed a UA executive: "While I am proud to be the producer of 'Stagecoach,' will you please do everything in your power to see that the picture is known as John Ford's achievement."2 At about the same time, the screenwriter Dudley Nichols wrote a personal note to Ford about the Stagecoach premiere in New York: "If there was ever a picture that was a director's picture it was that one, and I tried to make that clear to everyone who complimented me in New York."3
The debate also went public via the press. The New York Times film critics Bosley Crowther and Frank Nugent both wrote on the issue, and Nugent was particularly out-spoken. There are those, he wrote in March 1939, who argue that "the motion picture is a director's medium rather than the player's or the writer's. And this, beyond question, is true." The best evidence, Nugent opined, was "John Ford's" Stagecoach.4 Two weeks later, Capra wrote an open letter to the Times, suggesting that the real problem resided with the studios' executive producers. "About six producers today pass upon 90 percent of the scripts and edit 90 percent of the pictures," lamented Capra, while "there are only a half a dozen or so directors who are allowed to shoot as they please and who have any supervision over their editing."5
The official recognition of SDG in March 1939 provided significant impetus for the growing producer-director trend in 1940-1941. The Guild agreement gave all directors the right to participate in casting, script development, and editing (ensuring them the first rough-cut or "director's cut" of a picture) and increased directorial authority over principal photography as well. Two objectives of SDG, as Variety noted, were, first, "the gradual elimination of associate producers" (i.e., middle-management functionaries who supervised production) and second, the right of top directors, "signing contracts as producer-director, [to be] responsible only to the production department and top studio executives."6 The producer-director trend received additional—and perhaps far greater—impetus from the 1940 consent decree, which put a premium on proven ("bankable") directors who could dependably deliver their own films. As Variety noted in late 1940, "the decree, apparently, is bringing [directors] all they had hoped to win through their [SDG] pact, and more."7
Once the Writers Guild signed its agreements with the producers in 1940 and 1941, screenwriters also began enjoying increased status and authority. Indeed, the term "hyphenate" was becoming common in industry parlance by then, referring not only to producer-directors but to other combination roles as well, notably writers who had ascended to either director or producer status—the writer-director Preston Sturges at Paramount, for instance, or the writer-producer Dore Schary at MGM.8 It should be noted, however, that although market conditions placed greater importance than ever on stars to sell pictures, stars rarely attained (or even pursued) producer status; the actor-producer was not a common figure in the burgeoning ranks of Hollywood hyphenates in 1940-1941.
The film historian and theorist David Bordwell, in his telling analysis of classical Hollywood cinema, has argued for the centrality of the director in any consideration of film authorship in prewar Hollywood. In his examination of the complex interplay of innovation and standardization in Hollywood, filmmaking, of product differentiation and classical film style, Bordwell posits the director as the primary agent of both the articulation and innovation of that style: "The most influential argument for differentiation within Hollywood cinema has been advanced by auteur critics. To choose a body of works attached to a director's signature and to claim it as individual, personal, even subversive … does locate important differences within the classical style." Significantly enough, Bordwell takes most of his examples from precisely this period in American film history—Hollywood in the early 1940s—when film style was shifting from an institutional to a more identifiably personal and individualized phenomenon.9
Bordwell offers four basic notions of directorial authorship in classical Hollywood. The first treats the director as an "individual human agent" and sole creator of a film, with virtually absolute control over every aspect of its creation. The second regards the director as a "veritable trademark" attached to a product as an assurance of its distinctive quality—as implied in the argument that a film is worth seeing because it is "a Hitchcock film" or "a Ford film." The third associates the director with distinctive "narrational" and stylistic operations within a particular film; the director, in other words, is treated as a storyteller with characteristic techniques that become evident in the "telling" of a particular film story. And fourth, the director is associated with a set of "common stylistic or thematic strategies" that gradually become evident throughout an entire filmmaking career in a cumulative "body of work." In Bordwells view, the most valid arguments for directorial authorship rely on the fourth approach, identifying a director's "personal style" in terms of the formal, narrative, and thematic qualities which emerge in the course of an entire career. Bordwell downplays the third category because narrational and stylistic operations rarely are evident within a single film—particularly for veteran studio directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, and others schooled in the high classicism of the 1920s and 1930s, with its premium on thematic subtlety and "self-effacing" narrative technique. And Bordwell virtually dismisses the first two notions of directorial authorship altogether, since only "rare exceptions" among Hollywood filmmakers enjoyed any real individual autonomy, creative control, or trademark status.10
What is ultimately so remarkable about the 1940-1941 period, however, is how many of those "rare exceptions" did emerge. Industry conditions rendered the prewar era a moment of remarkable opportunity for filmmakers willing and able to seize it, and quite a few did so. Significantly enough, many of these filmmakers came from outside the studio system, bringing a strong sense of personal style and individual creative authority to their work in Hollywood. Indeed, the early 1940s saw the sudden, explosive emergence of a new generation of Hollywood directors who would have tremendous impact on American film history. Some, like Alfred Hitchcock, Anatole Litvak, Robert and Curt Siodmak, and Jean Negulesco, came from abroad, mainly from Europe after the war broke out; others, like Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, and Jules Dassin, came from radio or stage backgrounds in New York.
Most of the leading filmmakers (and eventually canonized auteurs) of the prewar era, however, were established Hollywood contract directors who had attained producer-director status and operated either freelance or under a (variously controlling) studio contract, like Frank Capra, John Ford, Leo McCarey, and Howard Hawks. Equally important were contract writers, like Preston Sturges, John Huston, and Billy Wilder, who climbed to hyphenate status as writer-directors in 1940—1941. The ranks of producer-directors and writer-directors would grow steadily during the decade, and these clearly were the filmmaking elite, individuals whose commercial success and ability to work within the system, even as freelance producer-directors, translated into unprecedented creative and administrative authority.
While the majority of Hollywood hyphenates in 1940-1941 were former contract directors who parlayed past success and current conditions into producer-director positions, they did so in different ways and under very different circumstances. The careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock during the prewar era provide excellent examples of both the producer-director trend and the differences involved. Their filmmaking experiences included both studio-based and independent productions, and their roles ranged from straight contract director to independent producer-director to in-house independent. Moreover, all three filmmakers specialized in A-class and prestige-level productions, all achieved considerable critical and commercial success, and all three were singled out in 1940-1941 as exemplary individual artists in Hollywood's factory-oriented production system.
Ford, as mentioned earlier, was held up as a veritable test case for the Hollywood cinema as a director's medium during the 1939 struggle for DGA recognition. Ironically, however, in that same year Ford signed on with 20th Century-Fox and submitted to the authority of Darryl Zanuck, one of the half-dozen production executives castigated by Capra in his letter to the New York Times. Actually, Ford had already achieved independent producer-director status by 1939 but compromised his hard-won autonomy by signing on with Fox, where the filmmaking resources were far beyond those available to an independent releasing through UA. So was Ford's salary at Fox, which at $235,000 in 1939 was just short of Zanuck's ($250,000), although there was no question about their respective positions in the studio power structure.11 And while his rapport with Zanuck was somewhat strained, Ford's term with Fox was eminently successful—more so, perhaps, than any other period in his career. Ford's prewar stint with Fox thus provides an illuminating example of a top director's role in the studio-based filmmaking process, and particularly of the kind of creative collaboration possible in a studio production unit.
Zanuck established the Ford unit at Fox to handle relatively modest A-class productions designed to build up Henry Fonda's star stature as well as the studio's prestige. Zanuck himself personally supervised the unit's first three pictures: Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk (both 1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (released in early 1940). All three Fonda vehicles were solid critical and commercial hits, with The Grapes of Wrath earning five major Oscar nominations, including best picture of 1940, best actor for Fonda, and best director for Ford.
Interestingly enough, Ford's only producer-director effort during the prewar period was on the sole outside picture which his Fox contract allowed. The Long Voyage Home, a 1940 "John Ford Production" for UA, was adapted from Eugene O'Neill's oneact plays by Dudley Nichols, who had scripted Stagecoach. The picture impressed critics and scored several Oscar nominations (including best picture), but it was Ford's lone box-office failure of the period. Ford returned to Fox for two 1941 pictures: Tobacco Road and How Green Was My Valley. The latter was Ford's consummate achievement during the prewar years at Fox, earning five Academy Awards, including best picture (beating out Citizen Kane) and a second consecutive best-director Oscar for Ford.
While his work at Fox solidified Ford's position among Hollywood's leading filmmakers, one would be hard-pressed to term any of them a "John Ford film" in the same way his colleagues and critics had singled out Stagecoach. During his stint at Fox, which was cut short by a wartime hitch with the Army Signal Corps, Ford was very much a studio contract director operating under the very constraints described by Capra in the Times, and indeed Ford's "creative" achievement was to provide a distinctive inflection on Fox's established studio style.
The chief arbiter of that style, without question, was Darryl Zanuck, who closely supervised every phase of the Ford unit's operations. Zanuck participated most during pre- and postproduction. He personally approved the stories and developed the screen-plays for all of Ford's projects, working closely with the contract writers Lamar Trotti (on Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln), Nunnally Johnson (on The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road), and Philip Dunne (on How Green Was My Valley).12 In each case, Zanuck hammered away at the importance of story and character, and the entertainment value of the story in particular. In fact, he took the writer Ernest Pascal off How Green Was My Valley because, as Zanuck put it in an interoffice memo, "it has turned into a labor story and a sociological problem story, instead of being a great human, warm story about real, living people."13 Zanuck was much happier with Dunne, who already had scripted The Last of the Mohicans (1936), Suez (1938), Stanley & Livingstone (1939), and The Rains Came (1939) for Fox. The script for How Green Was My Valley underwent six additional drafts once Dunne was assigned—including a "revised final draft" by Zanuck himself. And Zanuck continued to stress the story and character values even while Ford was shooting.14 "This is going to be a masterpiece," he assured Ford in one such memo, "not only a classical masterpiece, but a masterpiece of surefire commercial entertainment."15
This is not to suggest that Zanuck interfered with Ford once a picture was in actual production. Zanuck invariably brought Ford in during the latter stages of scripting to consult on the final draft(s) and also on casting, art direction, and so on. Once shooting began, Zanuck kept his distance, monitoring production through dailies and a regular stream of memos to the set. Zanuck clearly appreciated the quality of Ford's direction and his ability to work with actors, and he allowed the director virtual autonomy during production. But Zanuck did resume authority once shooting was completed, even on Ford's projects. Indeed, Ford himself considered Zanuck "a great cutter, a great film editor," and acknowledged that while at Fox, "I had this tacit agreement that he [Zanuck] would cut the picture."16 Production records bear this out, indicating not only that Zanuck supervised the editing of both The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, but that once Ford finished shooting, he did not even see either picture until it was ready for release.17
While John Ford's prewar career carried him from a position of relative independence to a restrictive but highly successful period as a studio-based unit filmmaker, Frank Capra's career during the same period traced roughly the opposite trajectory. Capra had been Columbia's top director since the late 1920s and by 1936 was producing his own pictures. In 1938, according to Variety, Capra had the most lucrative contract of any Hollywood director: it paid him $100,000 per film plus bonuses and 25 percent of the profits.18 Capra maintained a first-class production unit at Columbia built around screenwriter Robert Riskin, cinematographer Joe Walker, and unit manager Sam Briskin; he also was assured the services of one of Columbia's contract stars (notably Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck) teamed with a major star on loan, such as James Stewart or Gary Cooper. Cohn also provided Capra with top presold properties—Kaufman and Hart's Broadway hit You Can't Take It with You, for instance, which Cohn secured for $200,000.19
The Capra unit parlayed that investment into another huge hit. Released in late 1938, You Can't Take It With You dominated the box office in 1939 and won Oscars for best picture and best director—Capra's third in five years. Capra followed that with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a late-1939 release which was perhaps his most successful film for Columbia. But despite his continued success at the studio, Capra left Columbia in 1939 for three principal reasons: his bitter and well-founded antagonism toward Harry Cohn; the company's lingering Poverty Row stigma; and his fierce desire to create an independent production company. The time was right for such a move, and Capra entertained a number of attractive offers after he left Columbia. The most ardent suitor had been David Selznick, who offered Capra $200,000 per picture plus a cut of the profits to sign with Selznick International Pictures and release through UA. Selznick also offered Riskin a separate writing contract, with the option to produce and/or direct on his own.20
Capra failed to work out a satisfactory long-term deal with UA, however, so he aligned Frank Capra Productions (essentially a partnership with Riskin) with Warner Bros, in a one-picture deal signed February 1940 to produce and direct Meet John Doe.21 That late-Depression fable starring Gary Cooper recalled such earlier Capra comedy hits as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but it also evinced a dark, brooding quality more typical of Warners at the time. Released by Warners in March 1941, Meet John Doe was not up to Capra's previous standards but did well at the box office, earning $2 million and keeping Capra's market value relatively high.22 Again Capra tried to work out a long-term deal with UA, where Selznick was now the chief executive following Sam Goldwyn's recent departure. But again negotiations stalled, and in August 1941 Capra signed another one-picture deal with Warners, this time to do a screen adaptation of a current stage hit, Arsenic and Old Lace.
Unlike Meet John Doe, a downbeat story whose only presold appeal was the marquee value of its star and director, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) was an established commercial property. In fact, Capra deemed the project a money-in-the-bank venture to tide him over financially during a wartime stint with the Signal Corps. As with the previous deal, Warners paid Capra $5,000 a week for a minimum of twenty weeks plus 10 percent of the gross receipts in excess of $1.25 million—a far better deal than the percentage-of-net offers from Columbia and Selznick, since Capra's high-cost productions had to gross at least $2-3 million before they turned a profit. The cost of Arsenic and Old Lace, for example, included $150,000 for the star Cary Grant and $175,000 for the screen rights to the play, which along with Capra's $100,000 minimum pushed the total to $400,000 before even a foot of film had been shot.23
A competent piece of "canned theater" and a surefire box-office prospect, Arsenic and Old Lace evinced even less of the famed "Capra touch" than Meet John Doe—although it was scarcely a typical Warners-style picture either. Capra shot the picture quickly, mainly because of his pending war-related commitments. Arsenic and Old Lace was completed in early 1942 but remained on the shelf at Warners owing to agreements with the play's producers. Finally released in 1944, Arsenic and Old Lace was a solid hit, further enhancing Capra's market value and bargaining position, while scarcely refining his personal style.
Alfred Hitchcock's career in 1940-1941 followed a path dramatically different from either Ford's or Capra's. By the late 1930s, Hitchcock was among Britain's leading filmmakers and was well known in the United States thanks to transatlantic hits like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Selznick began courting Hitchcock in 1937 and in 1938 convinced him to leave the deteriorating conditions in England. Hitchcock signed an exclusive seven-year contract (starting at $2,500 per week) after Selznick agreed to put up $50,000 for the rights to Daphne du Maurier's forthcoming novel, Rebecca.24 Hitchcock had brought the book to Selznick just before its publication, and like Gone with the Wind—purchased for the same price in 1936—Rebecca was an immediate publishing sensation and an international best-seller.
Hitchcock began work on the adaptation in early 1939, while Selznick was preoccupied with the yearlong shooting and editing of Wind. Thus, there was little of the producer's characteristic interference during the scripting and production of Rebecca. Selznick did bring in another writer, Robert E. Sherwood, to collaborate with Hitchcock and his coscenarist, Joan Harrison, on the adaptation. Selznick also cast the picture, deciding on the freelancer Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, who signed a long-term contract with Selznick to secure the role. There were considerable difficulties with Breen and the PC A about the story line, most of which were handled by Selznick's story editor, Val Lewton. Hitchcock shot Rebecca in the fall of 1939, meticulously planning each camera setup and working at a pace that Selznick found maddeningly slow. The producer kept his distance, however, concentrating on Wind and knowing that he would take full control of Rebecca during postproduction. Indeed, Selznick made certain of that, while Rebecca was still in production, by agreeing to loan Hitchcock to Walter Wanger to direct Foreign Correspondent after shooting Rebecca. Hitchcock reported to Wanger in October 1939, at which point Selznick and his editor, Hal Kern, began editing Rebecca as they completed their work on Gone With the Wind.25
Released in March 1940, Rebecca was a huge critical and commercial hit, establishing Hitchcock's "trademark" status in Hollywood and bringing Selznick back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture—an achievement still unmatched in industry history. Sold as both a "Selznick production" and a "Hitchcock picture," it did represent a melding of their respective styles and interests. Like Gone With the Wind, Rebecca manifested Selznick's fascination with lavish adaptations of ill-fated love stories favoring the heroine's viewpoint, with the star-crossed lovers victimized by events beyond their control—and events which enhanced the film's capacity for visual spectacle. Hitchcock, conversely, was more interested in the psychological and "atmospheric" dimension, thus bringing to the romantic melodrama the qualities of a suspense thriller. Indeed, the melding of styles in Rebecca helped generate what came to be termed the "female Gothic" cycle in wartime Hollywood, with Hitchcock as its prime purveyor.
Significantly enough, Hitchcock did not pursue that effort in collaboration with Selznick, who was thoroughly drained after and Rebecca. In fact, Selznick quickly adjusted his filmmaking role from producer to agent and "packager" in 1940—1941, a change that had considerable impact on the careers of Hitchcock and other contract personnel of Selznicks, including Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and the director Robert Stevenson. Because he had signed them to exclusive service contracts, Selznick was committed to pay his talent only their stipulated salaries, regardless of their actual market value. So on the Hitchcock loan-out to Wanger, for example, Selznick collected $5,000 per week for Hitchcock's services but paid the director only $2,500. He then "pocketed the overage," which on Foreign Correspondent came to $40,000 in clear profit. Selznick did raise Hitchcock's weekly compensation to $2,750 in June 1940; then in August he cut a two-picture deal with RKO, loaning Hitchcock for a minimum of thirty-two weeks at $5,000 per week. Hitchcock found this maddening, but he clearly relished the degree of independence it afforded.26
Thus, Hitchcock began an extended period of his career as a filmmaker-on-loan, during which he continued to refine his personal style and also to consolidate both his creative autonomy and trademark status. Foreign Correspondent, released in the fall of 1940, was an espionage thriller in the tradition of The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes and thus was something of a reversion to form. The first the RKO pictures, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), was a romantic comedy and thus a radical departure for Hitchcock, and its critical and commercial failure reinforced his commitment to the suspense thriller. He was back in his element on the next RKO project, Suspicion (1941), another female Gothic à la Rebecca with Fontaine (on loan from Selznick) reprising her role as the naive bride who comes to suspect her husband (Cary Grant) of being a murderer.27 As in Rebecca, she is mistaken, although in this case the happy ending did not play well with preview audiences. Hitchcock considered a revised ending for the film wherein Grant does indeed murder his wife, but RKO balked at the idea. The studio's reluctance was borne out when Suspicion emerged as a solid commercial hit and scored several Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actress (which Fontaine won).
In November 1941, Selznick arranged another loan-out of his star director, this time as part of a package deal with Frank Lloyd, an independent unit producer at Universal who agreed to purchase the story, script, and direction for Saboteur, a war-related spy thriller. After raising Hitchcock's salary to $3,000 per week, Selznick sold Hitchcock's original story and the script (cowritten by Harrison, Dorothy Parker, and Peter Viertel) to Lloyd for $70,000 and loaned Hitchcock's directorial services for $9,000 per week with a fourteen-week minimum.28 Thus, as Ford and Capra both were setting off to do armed services training films and war documentaries, Hitchcock settled in to do fictionalized war films, gaining a greater degree of authority and creative control with each subsequent "Hitchcock picture."
Hitchcock's increasing autonomy and success in 1940—1941 is instructive on several counts, particularly in contrast to Ford and Capra. Whereas those two longtime Hollywood filmmakers had difficulty operating outside the familiar factory system of film production, Hitchcock actively pursued independent status and clearly flourished as a freelance producer-director. And from all indications, that success came not despite but because of his lack of experience in Hollywood. As indicated earlier, Hitchcock came from outside the studio production system and brought with him a set of assumptions about filmmaking, film style, and the filmmakers role that were distinctly at odds with Hollywood's. The success of his films ensured his ongoing leverage within the system—and with Selznick—and thus ensured his continued independence as well.
Other newcomers to prewar Hollywood were even more aggressive in their efforts to redefine the filmmakers role within the studio system and to redefine the bounds of cinematic and narrative expression in the process. The most aggressive of these filmmakers, without question, was Orson Welles, who arrived in Hollywood in 1939 from a brief but spectacular early career in theater and radio in New York, signed on with RKO as a quasi-independent producer-director-writer-actor, and proceeded in his very first picture, Citizen Kane (1941), to radically redefine not only the process of Hollywood filmmaking but the nature and range of cinematic expression as well.
Orson Welles's emergence as a Hollywood filmmaker and the production and release of Citizen Kane provide an illuminating example of the rapid ascent of the producer-director as an industrial and artistic force in prewar Hollywood, as well as of the remarkable range of product differentiation and the license for stylistic innovation. Although still in his twenties and with no real filmmaking experience, Welles had the artistic credentials and celebrity status to secure a contract with RKO in 1939 giving him unprecedented creative and administrative authority. And he made the most of it on Citizen Kane, easily the most innovative and controversial picture in prewar Hollywood—and in the view of many critics and film historians, also the most important.
While the creation of this cinematic masterpiece invariably is ascribed to Welles's genius, Citizen Kane was scarcely the product of a single filmmaker. But Welles's multifaceted creative role (including his on-screen portrayal of the title character), his wellpublicized RKO contract, and the controversy surrounding the release of the film all reinforced the conception of Kane as an "Orson Welles film." And recalling Bordwell's criteria for film authorship, Kane clearly represents not only the "rare exception" wherein the individual creative control and trademark status of the director should be taken into account but also that rare occasion when a directors distinctive style is evident within an individual picture—moreover, within his initial filmmaking effort.
Actually, Bordwell's criteria for directorial authorship may apply to Welles and Citizen Kane to a degree that is altogether unique in Hollywood annals. The film critic and historian David Thomson has noted "the fact that, before or since, no one in Hollywood has carved out such freedom for himself" as did Welles on Kane.29 Welles's biographer Barbara Learning, discussing the deal that Welles cut with RKO's George Schaefer, has said: "It was Orson's image, and his uncanny ability to attract attention to it, that impressed Schaefer. And, as he saw it, the generous contract was actually a publicity gimmick—a shrewd investment that began paying off the moment it became public."30 And Kane was heralded (then as now) as vitally innovative in formal and narrative technique, introducing, in the words of Time's reviewer, "new ways of picture-making and story-telling."31
Born in 1915 to a wealthy midwestern family and clearly a gifted and precocious child, Welles developed an early talent for theater and the arts. After completing prep school at age 16, and having traveled abroad extensively with his father, Welles set out for Europe on his own to pursue his acting and artistic interests. He had some success on the stage and in 1934 made his acting debut on Broadway and on radio. He also teamed up with another emerging theatrical talent, John Houseman, and in 1937 the two formed the Mercury Theatre, a stage company which quickly became known for its daring, innovative productions. In 1938, Welles landed his own drama program on CBS radio, aptly titled First Person Singular, which featured adaptations of familiar stories that Welles narrated in the first person and in his distinctive baritone. Welles frequently involved Houseman and other Mercury players—such as Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, and Ray Collins—in the CBS broadcasts, most notably on Halloween in 1938, when "Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air" presented an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898). The program caused a national sensation (and a state of temporary panic) and firmly established Welles in the national consciousness as a prodigious talent and significant media personality.32
Welles parlayed his (and Mercury's) stage and radio success into the July 1939 contract with RKO—entered into primarily to raise funds for Mercury's stage productions. The deal called for Welles to produce, direct, write, and act in two pictures over the next two years; Welles and the company would receive $100,000 plus 25 percent of the net profits on the first picture, and $125,000 plus 25 percent of the profits on the second. RKO reserved story and budget approval if projected costs exceeded $500,000, but Welles had total control over story and script development, casting and crew assignments, and production supervision. Moreover, Welles was given "final cut" of the pictures so long as he stayed within the prescribed schedule and budget.33 Welles actually had a preapproved project under way when he signed: an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which he planned to shoot entirely from the "first-person singular" viewpoint of Marlow, the novel's protagonist-narrator. The picture was in pre-production by November 1939, but a budget estimate of more than $1 million effectively sank the project. Welles briefly considered adapting a lightweight spy thriller, The Smiler with the Knife, as a Carole Lombard vehicle, but that also fell through.
In January 1940, Welles began casting about for another project, and he soon connected with Herman J. Mankiewicz on an idea for an epic-scale, quasi-fictional biopic. A veteran screenwriter and industry iconoclast, Mankiewicz had wanted for years to do a screen biography of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz himself was a longtime friend of the newspaper magnate and his actress-protégée Marion Davies, as well as a frequent guest at San Simeon, Hearst's Xanadu-style estate. In his conversations with Welles, it soon became evident that Mankiewicz's ideas for the Hearst biopic jibed quite nicely with Welles's ideas about a suitable film project. While it is impossible to designate either Welles or Mankiewiez as the originator of the story for Citizen Kane, this much is certain: The first draft of the screenplay was written by Mankiewiez in the spring of 1940 under the editorial supervision and watchful eye of John Houseman, and it clearly was based on the life and career of Hearst. It is also clear that Welles heavily revised the script in May and June as he prepared the actual production. Welles's rewrites were so extensive, in fact, that he later claimed sole writing credit—resulting in a dispute with Mankiewiez that was settled by the two sharing credit for both story and script.34
Welles's revisions resulted not only from his own creative impulses but also from RKO's qualms about producing an obvious Hearst biopic. Welles was encouraged to further fictionalize the story, and he complied, maintaining Mankiewicz's multiple flashbacks to reconstruct Kane's life but introducing several crucial framing devices: the highly expressionistic prologue depicting the moment of Kane's death and his utterance of the enigmatic "Rosebud"; the "News on the March" newsreel which rehearses Kane's life story; and the ensuing projection-room scene wherein the newsreel's creators discuss its lack of a satisfactory "hook"—thus initiating the search for the meaning of "Rosebud" and setting the story in motion. Welles designed the numerous montages to both condense and speed up the story, thus providing yet another distinctive narrative device. And while he dismissed Mankiewicz's Rosebud-as-sled angle as "dollar-book Freud," he made eminently effective use of it in tying up the detective story.35
Welles took Kane into production in late June, at which point RKO set the budget $740,000—actually quite reasonable for so ambitious a production. The final cost reached $840,000, some 15 percent over budget but scarcely enough to warrant the widespread rumors of Welles's extravagance. In fact, Kane was a relatively cost-efficient picture by current industry standards, owing in large part to Welles's effective collaboration with key creative and technical personnel. Percy Ferguson, for instance, designed the massive, imaginative sets so well suited to the film's visual technique. Remarkably, considering the number (110 in all) and size of the sets for Kane, Ferguson held the set costs to only $60,000, far below the usual for a top feature. Another key collaborator was Vernon Walker, who handled the special effects and optical printing (layering and assembling of images, etc.), which were more extensive on Kane than any RKO picture since King Kong in 1933.36
Perhaps Welles's most important collaborator on Kane was Gregg Toland, the cinematographer and in many ways the covisionary on the picture. Something of a prodigy in his own right, Toland had established himself as a leading cameraman while still in his twenties and by 1940 (at age 36) was among Hollywood's leading black-and-white cinematographers and visual innovators. Toland, then under contract to the independent producer Sam Goldwyn, had his own photographic unit (including camera equipment and two camera assistants) and was just reaching the peak of his creative and technical powers.37 On recent pictures such as Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Westerner (1940), with the director William Wyler, and The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home with Ford, Toland had been experimenting with high-speed film, wideangle lenses, deep-focus cinematography (infinite depth of field), and what he termed "ceiled" (roofed-in) sets. Thus, Toland already had begun to refine the highly stylized "realism"—a term he frequently used in his own writing—and the visual style so often associated with Kane.38
Toland had yet to combine these elements satisfactorily in a single picture, and he saw Kane as "the opportunity for such a large-scale experiment."39 In a June 1941 article in Popular Photography entitled "How I Broke the Rules on Citizen Kane," Toland related that "the photographic approach … was planned and considered long before the first camera turned," a procedure that was itself "most unconventional in Hollywood," where cinematographers generally had only a few days to prepare to shoot a film.40 Robert L. Carringer, in his in-depth study of the production, writes that Welles and Toland "approached the film together in a spirit of revolutionary fervor," and that "Welles not only encouraged Toland to experiment and tinker, he positively insisted on it."41 To accomplish the particular effects Welles was after on Kane—particularly the long takes from a fixed camera position, with the drama played out on multiple planes of action and in separately lit areas of the massive sets—Toland continued to innovate. He used arc lights rather than incandescents to achieve the chiaroscuro lighting effects (i.e., pools of light illuminating portions of an otherwise dark set) and used newly introduced coated lenses to eliminate glare and increase light transmission under low-level light conditions.42
While Welles and Toland were very much in sync in their conception of the look and the storytelling approach to Kane, they realized how unorthodox that approach was by Hollywood's standards. Thus, Welles decided to pass off the first days of shooting—which included the projection-room scene and a few other highly unconventional sequences—as photographic "tests." "What was shot on these first few days departed radically from the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking at the time," Carringer notes. "Much of it was openly, blatantly experimental."43
Equally unorthodox was the construction of Kane's story, not only the flashback structure and aggressive use of montages and temporal ellipses but also the optical effects used to give the film its distinctive narrative and visual flow. These were achieved primarily in post-production, with Welles working closely with the effects specialist Vernon Walker and the editor Robert Wise. Welles also experimented during post-production with sound as a means of both advancing and condensing the narrative (through sound montages), and he encouraged Bernard Herrmann to compose a score which conveyed more than simply the usual emotional cues for the audience. Thus, Kane's dialogue and sound-effects tracks and its musical score were laden with abrupt changes in tonality and sound level and contained as many distinctive "touches" and innovations as the visuals.
When post-production on Kane was completed in December 1940, the Hearst connection was still under wraps. A press screening in early January changed all that; the gossip columnist (and Hearst employee) Louella Parsons stalked out during the screening to inform Hearst that Kane was a thinly veiled biography and veritable character assassination. Hearst immediately began a personal campaign against both the picture and the studio, refusing to review or to promote any RKO picture in his newspaper chain—beginning with RKO's Kitty Foyle, then just going into release—until the studio agreed to withdraw Kane from release.44 That set off a pitched battle over the picture, with top industry figures lining up both for and against Kane's release.
RKO postponed Kane's February release, choosing to build support for the film rather than openly defy Hearst. In a key strategic move, Schaefer held a special press screening of Kane in early March, with the magazine publisher Henry Luce (Time, Life, and Fortune) in conspicuous attendance. The screening was a success, owing mainly to the quality of the film itself. John O'Hara in Newsweek, for instance, called Kane "the best picture" he had ever seen. And the Hollywood Reporter, under the headline "Mr. Genius Comes Through; 'Kane' Astonishing Picture," began its review with a simple declaration: "'Citizen Kane' is a great motion picture."45 The Motion Picture Herald ran a major story on the screening and related issues—Welles's threat to sue RKO, for instance, and Luce's offer to buy the film for a reported $1 million—and quoted Time magazine's assessment: "The objection of Mr. Hearst, who founded a publishing empire on sensationalism, is ironic. For to most of the several hundred people who have seen the film at private screenings, 'Citizen Kane' is the most sensational product of the U.S. movie industry."46 Another successful press preview was held in early April, and by then the tide clearly was swinging to RKO.
Finally, on 1 May 1941, five days before Welles's twenty-sixth birthday, Citizen Kane premiered at the Palace in New York. The accolades continued, culminating in the New York Film Critics naming it the best film of 1941 and the Academy nominating Kane for nine Oscars, including best picture, director, and actor (Welles), and also for its cinematography, editing, and score. The public was less enthusiastic, however. Kane opened fairly strong—aided, no doubt, by the controversy generated by Hearst—but lost roughly $150,000 on its initial release.
Schaefer welcomed the critical prestige and was scarcely surprised by the box-office response. He continued to support Welles and his Mercury unit, which by late 1941 had two more RKO pictures in production: The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel starring Joseph Cotten and the RKO contract player Tim Holt and scripted, produced, and directed by Welles; and Journey into Fear (1942), an adaptation of Eric Ambler's spy novel which Welles coscripted with Joseph Cotten, who also starred (Welles played a minor role). While Ambersons was another prestige-level "Orson Welles picture," Journey into Fear was a modest B-plus project directed by Norman Foster, a low-budget specialist who handled the Mr. Moto series for Fox. Although Welles had assured Schaefer he would codirect simply to get the project going, he served only as producer and creative consultant on Journey int Ofear, which was in production in late 1941 while he and Robert Wise were cutting Ambersons.47
At that point, Welles's life and film career took a curious turn. After Pearl Harbor, at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller and in support of the good neighbor policy, Welles began serious work on "It's All True," a blend of fiction and documentary set in South America. Welles left for Brazil in early February 1942 to begin shooting, and thus he was not in attendance at the Academy Awards ceremony later that month when How Green Was My Valley took the major awards and when any mention of Welles and Citizen Kane reportedly was met with a smattering of boos and derisive laughter.48 Of Kane's nine nominations, its only Oscar came for the Mankiewicz-Welles screenplay—which many saw as another slight of the boy genius.
The lingering resentment of Welles and Kane is perhaps not all that surprising, considering the young filmmaker's supreme self-confidence, his exceptional creative talents and contractual freedom, and his open disregard—if not outright disdain—for the conventions of Hollywood cinema and the commercial realities of the movie marketplace. Indeed, among the lessons learned on Citizen Kane were the limited market value of a filmmaker's trademark status and the limits of product differentiation as well. Welles was perhaps too "creative" for moviegoers, and KANE simply too different to attain popular or commercial success. These lessons were undoubtedly on the minds of Schaefer and his colleagues at RKO in early 1942 when they screened the completed versions of both The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey into Fear promptly demanded retakes and reediting to render the pictures more suitable for popular consumption.
So as Welles pursued an even more radical film experiment a continent away, RKO had begun to rein in its resident auteur. This scarcely signaled an erosion of directorial authority in the industry at large, however. While Welles charted the outer limits of individual autonomy and creative control in the prewar studio system, other filmmakers like Capra, Hawks, and Hitchcock managed to operate within those limits and to enjoy unprecedented creative and administrative authority over their work.
While industry conditions in 1940-1941 clearly enhanced the status and power of Hollywood's leading filmmakers, the impact on its top stars—and on the star system in general—was less immediate and certainly less pronounced. For the most part, the crucial interdependence of the studio system and the star system remained intact during the prewar era. Stars continued to be closely associated with specific studios; the studios continued to rely on established star-genre formulations and to build "product lines" around new stars; and the overall box-office performance of top studio stars remained quite consistent.
The consent decree and the surging first-run market did, however, put more pressure than ever on stars to sell pictures, thus intensifying the interest in the marquee value of top stars. One clear indication of that intensified interest was the heavy focus of market research on film stars. Spearheading this effort was Gallup's Audience Research Institute, which advised its clients in the "selection of stories, titles and casts," providing a continuous reading of the "box-office temperature" and "personality values" of literally hundreds of top stars (see chapter 3).49
When Gallup began offering ARI's services on an industrywide basis in 1941, he openly acknowledged that "the best insurance against guess-work and the varying intangibles of successful entertainment" was a top star's name above the movie title. For the 1941-1942 season, a total of 342 starring roles already were set; of those, ARI placed 139 in the "name value" category but estimated that only about sixty stars had the capacity to "swing attendance" toward a particular picture.50
While ARI signaled the growing emphasis of market research on marquee value in the 1940s, the industry continued to rely on more traditional (and less scientific) measures of star appeal, principally the Motion Picture Herald's annual "Exhibitors' Poll." This was a regular survey of the nation's theater owners, who ranked stars according to their total box-office performance over the past year. The results, published in the Herald in late December, included the twenty-five top-ranked stars according to both circuit theater owners and independents, as well as a combined listing. The combined Exhibitors' Poll rankings for the top twenty-five stars in 1940 and 1941 were as follows:51
|1. Mickey Rooney||l. Mickey Rooney|
|2. Spencer Tracy||2. Clark Gable|
|3. Clark Gable||3. Abbott and Costello|
|4. Gene Autry||4. Bob Hope|
|5. Tyrone Power||5. Spencer Tracy|
|6. James Cagney||6. Gene Autry|
|7. Bing Crosby||7. Gary Cooper|
|8. Wallace Beery||8. Bette Davis|
|9. Bette Davis||9. James Cagney|
|10. Judy Garland||10. Judy Garland|
|11. James Stewart||11. Tyrone Power|
|12. Deanna Durbin||12. Alice Faye|
|13. Alice Faye||13. James Stewart|
|14. Errol Flynn||14. Errol Flynn|
|15. Myrna Loy||15. Dorothy Lamour|
|16. Dorothy Lamour||16. Betty Grable|
|17. Cary Grant||17. Bing Crosby|
|18. Bob Hope||18. Ginger Rogers|
|19. Henry Fonda||19. Wallace Beery|
|20. Gary Cooper||20. Jack Benny|
|21. Don Ameche||21. Robert Taylor|
|22. Jack Benny||22. Don Ameche|
|23. Ginger Rogers||23. Cary Grant|
|24. Ann Sheridan||24. Deanna Durbin|
|25. William Powell||25. William Powell|
Several key points are readily evident from these rankings. First, twenty-three of the top twenty-five stars (all but Gary Cooper and Cary Grant in both years) were contract stars with long-term studio ties. Second, the two lists display remarkable continuity with one another and also with the earlier "classical" era; twenty-two of the twenty-five stars appear on both lists, and all but Abbott and Costello and Betty Grable (both 1941) were established stars by the late 1930s. A third point is that the newcomers to the list, like virtually all of the established players, reached stardom via studio-based star-genre formulas. A fourth point is the obvious domination of MGM, which placed eight stars among the top twenty-five in both years, with Rooney, Tracy, and Gable ruling the roost.
Seven of those eight MGM stars were male, bringing us to the final point—the decided shift in the gender composition of the Exhibitors' Poll in the early 1940s. From 1932 (the first year of the poll) to 1939, over half of the top ten Hollywood stars were female, with the top spot occupied by a female every year but one. This changed dramatically in 1940, when males filled the top eight positions, thus beginning a general trend that would continue into the war years. Whether this shift represents a cultural transformation, a period of collective "gender crisis," or simply a momentary aberration is an interesting question. At the very least, the trend suggests that Hollywood was steeling itself and its audience for the impending social upheaval and military conflict by rehearsing various forms of male heroism (and in the case of Bob Hope and Lou Costello, of male cowardice) and also by investigating the prospect of male bonding and camaraderie, which was rapidly becoming a fact of life for millions of Americans.
Among the more remarkable aspects of the prewar star system was the phenomenal rise of Mickey Rooney, who succeeded Shirley Temple as the number-one star in 1939 and remained atop the Exhibitors' Poll in 1940 and 1941. As discussed in more detail later in this chapter, the key to Rooney's rapid rise was his recurring role as Andy Hardy, the model American adolescent, along with his appearances in a cycle of MGM musicals opposite Judy Garland. Rooney also established an odd rapport with Spencer Tracy, by costarring with him not only in Men of Boys Town (a 1941 sequel to their 1938 costarring hit) but also in a 1940 biopic tandem playing the same Great American, Thomas Edison: Rooney starred in the adolescent version, Young Tom Edison, while Tracy did Edison the Man. All three Tracy-Rooney films were successful, owing in large part to Tracy. Highly touted as an actor among movie stars, Tracy's talent and versatility took him from romantic comedies and biopics to epics (Northwest Passage in 1940) and horror films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941). Tracy's portrayal of Father Flanagan in the Boys Town pictures is especially instructive, in that his sincerity and honest idealism somehow overcome both the mawkish sentimentality of the material and Rooney's usual histrionics.
While Tracy was prewar Hollywood's consummate actor-star and Rooney its crown prince, the acknowledged king was Clark Gable—the only star to appear in the Exhibitors' Poll every year from its inception in 1932. Gables regal status was confirmed unconditionally by his portrayal of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, keeping him very much in view in 1940—1941 even though his other films were of little note. Gable remained Hollywood's top international star, and virtually everything he did for MGM turned a profit—notably Boom Town with Tracy and Claudette Colbert in 1940, and Honky Tonk, an offbeat comedy-Western with Lana Turner in 1941.
MGM's other top-rate male stars were James Stewart, Wallace Beery, William Powell, and Robert Taylor, although only Stewart did any notable work in the prewar period. Indeed, the continued star status of Beery as a crusty character actor, Powell as a suave leading man, and Taylor as a square-jawed matinee idol was a tribute to MGM's canny reformulation of their familiar screen types. James Stewart, despite being dubbed Variety's "cinematic man-of-the-year" in 1939, represented a very different challenge for MGM.52 Until 1940, the studio seemed unable to develop suitable vehicles for Stewart's tongue-tied, awkward innocent, and thus most of Stewart's success came on loan—most recently to Columbia for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and to Universal for Destry Rides Again (both 1939). Stewart finally enjoyed an MGM hit in 1940 with The Philadelphia Story, winning the Oscar for best actor and adding an edge to his screen persona as a savvy and vaguely cynical newsman. But then after three routine MGM features in 1941, Stewart left for the air force, joining Taylor in the first contingent of stars to enter military service.
While Fox, Warners, and Paramount could not match Metro's stable of male stars, each boasted a combination of talents who could fill the genre bill, from male action films and heavy drama to light comedy and musicals. Fox relied on Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Don Ameche, with Power clearly the most vital company asset. His virile self-confidence, rakish athleticism, blatant male beauty, and perpetual smile served him well in Johnny Apollo (1939), Jesse James The Mark of Zorro (1940), and A Yank in the RAF (1941), all top hits that did little to vary his screen persona or tax his limited acting skills. Fonda was less popular but far more versatile, handling occasional action roles (The Return of Frank James, 1940), romantic comedies (opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and You Belong to Me, both 1941), and the Ford-directed social dramas and biopics mentioned earlier. Don Ameche, meanwhile, proved ideal for light comedy and drama, and particularly for Fox's trademark musical biopics like Swanee River (1939) and Lillian Russell in 1940.
Warners' top male stars in 1940-1941 were James Cagney, Errol Flynn, and Edward G. Robinson, three heavily typecast stars whose prewar screen roles alternately reinforced and redefined their established personas. Cagney and Robinson continued to portray gangsters and urban toughs—Cagney in City for Conquest and The Fighting 69th in 1940; and Robinson in Brother Orchid (1940) and Manpower (1941). But they also were "off-cast" in more ambitious Warners projects: Cagney in a period musical comedy, The Strawberry Blonde (1941), and in a screwball comedy opposite Bette Davis, The Bride Came COD (1941); Robinson in two biopics, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and A Dispatch from Reuters (both 1940), and an adaptation of The Sea Wolf (1941). Flynn's reformulation was less pronounced but no significant, as his romantic, agile, and ever-smiling persona underwent a nationality shift. After establishing the Flynn persona via British outlaw-heroes like Robin Hood and Captain Peter Blood, Warners cast him as American hero in several Westerns: Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and Virginia City (1940). Flynn reprised his swashbuckling Brit in The Sea Hawk in 1940, but by then his American persona had caught on, and from 1941 onward he concentrated on American roles.
Paramount's top male stars in 1940-1941 were Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny, all of whom were established stars in other media (radio, recording, vaudeville, and burlesque) and enjoyed increased popularity in the early 1940s. Their success came primarily in comedies, with Hope and Benny countering Hollywood's more heroic and romanticized male depictions. Benny's success as a film star came via three successive comedy-musicals produced and directed by Mark Sandrich: Man About Town (1939), Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), and Love Thy Neighbor (1940). Benny then went freelance and enjoyed the biggest hit of his career, Charley's Aunt (1941), at Fox. The path to top stardom for Hope and Crosby, meanwhile, came via Road to Singapore (1940). Although the New York Times dismissed the film as "altogether too uneven for regular use," that film initiated Paramount's phenomenally successful Road series—Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1945), Road to Rio (1947), et al.53 The increasingly outrageous Road pictures centered on Hope and Crosby, with Dorothy Lamour providing additional scenery and a requisite love interest.
The Hope-Crosby hits were yet another clear indication of Hollywood's male bias in the early 1940s, as was the rapid (and even more unlikely) ascent of Abbott and Costello at Universal in a succession of "service" comedies 1941: Buck Privates, In the Navy, and Keep 'em Flying. Gene Autry was another extraordinary prewar star. The prototype "singing cowboy," Autry literally played himself in a half-dozen Republic B-grade Westerns per year and since 1937 had topped the list of Western stars—a separate (and exclusively male) Exhibitors' Poll category. In 1940—1941, Autry broke through to the list of A-class stars, demonstrating not only that B-grade Westerns were enormously popular but also that a B-picture series star, through sheer quantity of output and despite playing only in the subsequent-run market, could generate box-office revenues on a par with A-class stars.
Another important male star in 1940-1941—and in some ways perhaps the most important of the lot—was Gary Cooper, who year for year was the biggest movie star of the 1940s. Cooper had been an important contract star with Paramount in the 1930s but reached top stardom in the 1940s only after going freelance and signing on with the producer Sam Goldwyn. The "strong, silent type," Cooper had been typecast at Paramount in epic adventures and heroic biopics, culminating in Beau Geste (1939) and Northwest Mounted Police (1940). Cooper's screen persona evinced a new sensitivity in his subsequent films, The Westerner (1940), Meet John Doe (1941), and Sergeant York (1941)—now a man of action and integrity struggling to maintain his moral balance in an uncertain, corrupt, and chaotic world. Significantly enough, none of the three films was a love story per se, and in fact Coopers principal cohort in each was Walter Brennan, another Goldwyn contract player and leading character actor, whose role in each film was crucial in defining and inflecting Cooper's. Both actors were critically acclaimed for these performances, with Brennan winning an Oscar for best supporting actor in The Westerner (his third in five years), while Cooper won the bestactor Oscar for Sergeant York.
The complexity of the Goldwyn-Warners deal for Sergeant York also indicated the increased penchant for loan-outs, star swaps, and the like in the prewar era, as well as the increased power of independent producers. While York was produced for Warners by the independent Jesse Lasky, Goldwyn actually arranged the elaborate long-range deal with Warners, Paramount, and Selznick, which stretched out over several years and involved the lead roles in five films: Sergeant York, The Little Foxes (1941), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Casablanca (1942), and Saratoga Trunk (1945).54 Interlocking deals like these evinced the increasing mobility of stars and also the effort to find the right fit between top stars and high-stakes, presold vehicles.
As mentioned earlier, Katharine Hepburn herself engineered the deal on The Philadelphia Story that paved the way for her triumphant return to Hollywood after a three-year hiatus on Broadway. Hepburn sold the screen rights to Barry's hit play along with her services as star to MGM for the Cukor-directed screen version in January 1940; she helped swing the deal for costars James Stewart and Cary Grant as well. When that movie became a hit in 1940, Hepburn went back to MGM with another project, Woman of the Year (1942), which she pitched as a costarring vehicle for herself and Spencer Tracy (whom she admired but had never met). She also wanted a longterm contract with story, script, and director approval. MGM complied, making Hepburn one of the highest paid and most powerful stars in Hollywood. Woman of the Year also initiated a series of Tracy-Hepburn pictures that would extend over the next three decades, including six during the 1940s.
Hepburn was one of several top female stars who reached maturity in the early 1940s and exercised considerable leverage over their careers. Most of these were freelance artists such as Irene Dunne, Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard, all of whom preferred one- and two-picture deals or nonexclusive contracts to long-term studio ties. And although these were among the few female stars in prewar Hollywood who could individually carry a picture, none of them appeared among the top twenty-five box-office stars. Their absence from that ranking was due in part to their choosing to do fewer films per year than their studiobased counterparts, although the emergent male ethos in Hollywood was a factor as well.
The prewar period clearly was not a strong one for female stars and actresses, particularly at the box office. None of the female stars who did rank among the top twentyfive—Alice Faye, Judy Garland, Myrna Loy, Dorothy Lamour, Ann Sheridan, and the fast-rising Betty Grable—was deemed capable of carrying a picture without a prominent male costar. Indeed, most were known primarily as costars to a more celebrated male stars, with Lamour and Grable typecast and promoted as overt projections of male sexual fantasy. (This would change for Grable during the ensuing war years, when her ability to carry both a picture and a second-rate male lead was altogether evident.)
The period also saw the decline of several top female stars, notably Shirley Temple, Hollywood's top star from 1935 to 1938. Temple faded badly in 1939, buying out her Fox contract in 1940 (at age 12), only to struggle as a freelance star.55 Universal's Deanna Durbin survived adolescence—she turned 19 in 1940—but her distinctive musicals clearly were losing their appeal, and by late 1941 Universal began casting its highest-paid star in dramatic roles.
MGM, long known for its roster of female stars and its emphasis on women's pictures, saw a pronounced turnover in its female ranks in 1940-1941. The most significant decline was that of Greta Garbo, who had seemed primed for a shift from drama to comedy after her surprising 1939 hit Ninotchka, but who then retired in 1941 after Two-Faced Woman. Garbo's sudden and unexpected retirement is often attributed to that film's disastrous reception, but the international market was also a crucial factor. Although Garbo was not ranked among even the top twenty-five stars by U.S. exhibitors in 1941, overseas exhibitors rated her second only to Gable.56 But with the European market rapidly disappearing and her stock in the United States at an all-time low, Garbo opted for retirement. Other Metro stars on the wane were Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Jeanette MacDonald, each of whom retired or was eased out in the early 1940s as MGM cultivated a new generation of female players—Hepburn, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr, and, from the MGM-British unit, Greer Garson.
Two female stars in 1940-1941 who definitely could carry a picture were Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers. Davis, Hollywood's consummate dramatic actress and the doyenne of women's pictures, had won her second Oscar in 1938 for Jezebel, which fleshed out the two distinctive dimensions to her screen persona—the ruthless bitch and the longsuffering victim—defining a dual trajectory over the next few years as Davis alternated between sympathetic and antipathetic roles in the best work of her career: Dark Victory and The Old Maid in 1939, All This and Heaven Too and The Letter in 1940, The Great Lie and The Little Foxes in 1941. And interestingly enough, while other actresses working in the genre, like Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, and Margaret Sullavan, tended to alternate between women's pictures and comedies, Davis alternated between victim and ruthless victimizer, continually testing the emotional limits and polarities of the form. Her one significant departure came opposite Cagney in the 1941 screwball comedy The Bride Came COD, which did excellent box office but did not mark a new direction for her screen persona.
Ginger Rogers, just coming off a six-year, nine-picture stint as Fred Astaire's songand-dance partner, had yet to establish her own individual screen persona by 1940. Rogers relished the opportunity to prove herself, however, after Astaire left RKO for freelance status in 1939, and she encouraged the studio to cast her in nonmusical roles. RKO complied, and Rogers quickly proved that she too could handle both comedy and drama. While Astaire's career temporarily flagged, Rogers scored in romantic dramas like Kitty Foyle (1940), winning an Oscar for best actress, and in light romantic comedies like Tom, Dick and Harry (1941).
While the interdependence of the Hollywood studio system and the star system remained essentially intact in the early 1940s, there were clear danger signs for the studio powers. As Janet Staiger suggests, post-decree product differentiation put more emphasis on top talent, especially stars, "while selling by brand name decreased in value since the entire output of a firm was no longer a marketing point."57 The trade discourse certainly bears that out, particularly in 1941 as the studios began adjusting to both the decree-related trade restraints and the improving market conditions. The Motion Picture Herald ran a story in March 1941, for instance, noting that the value of stars had increased, due to the decree, and also that "studios are in the main ceasing to be identified with a star or group of stars" to the same degree that they had been in the past. Equally significant were the growing ranks of freelance stars and "the intense amount of borrowing of name players in the last six months" as important first-run pictures were produced and promoted on their own merits rather than as factory-produced units to be blocked and sold with forty or fifty others.58 In August, with the decree about to take effect, a Motion Picture Herald story on marquee names suggested that the major distributors were becoming " 'personality conscious' to a degree not quite achieved before."59
Case Study: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland
Of Hollywood's leading stars in 1939-1941, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland warrant close attention for several reasons. Both rose rapidly to top stardom during this period, and both became signature stars at MGM in an era when its star stable and house style underwent significant changes. Whether working separately or as costars, Rooney and Garland brought a new inflection and youthful energy to Metro, which had been showing signs of age and staid propriety. They also keyed two crucial star-genre formulas at MGM: the Hardy Family series, whose popularity was peaking in 1939—1940, and a cycle of juvenile show musicals in the early 1940s that solidified their costarring team. That cycle also marked the rise of the producer Arthur Freed and the so-called MGM Freed unit, which would revitalize the musical during the 1940s and generate the postwar golden age of the MGM musical.60
Not surprisingly, given their early polish and success, both Rooney and Garland were born to vaudevillian parents (in 1920 and 1922, respectively), and both began performing before school age. Rooney was a seasoned veteran of stage and screen by age 7, starring in comedy two-reelers as Mickey McGuire—a name he took legally during his five-year stint with the series. (His given name was Joe Yule Jr.) In 1932, he signed with Universal and became Mickey Rooney, and then signed with MGM in 1934. He caused a minor sensation as Puck in Warners' 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but he remained MGM's third-ranked juvenile behind Freddie Bartholomew and Jackie Cooper.
Rooney's breakthrough came in 1937, when he was cast as the son of a middle-class, middle-American couple (Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington) in a domestic comedy-drama at Metro, A Family Affair. Audiences responded and exhibitors clamored for more, so MGM replaced Barrymore and Byington with two lesser stars, Lewis Stone and Fay Holden, and assigned J. J. Cohn's low-budget unit to develop a series. Cohn assembled the Seitz unit (see chapter 3), which turned out Hardy installments every three or four months in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Rooney's character took on greater importance with each installment to a point where, from 1939 on, every picture carried the name "Andy Hardy" in the title.61 The Hardy pictures provided an ideal vehicle for Rooney's remarkable and still-developing skills and an ideal context for trying out new talent—particularly contract ingenues who could serve as friend or love interest for Andy. Besides Ann Rutherford, who became a series regular in 1938, the Hardy films enjoyed guest appearances from the emerging Metro stars Lana Turner, Ruth Hussey, Donna Reed, Kathryn Grayson, and most significantly (and most frequently), Judy Garland. It was Garland, in fact, who first introduced a musical dimension to the series, thus bringing out quite another facet of Rooney's character and talent. The first real Hardy musical was Love Finds Andy Hardy in 1938, which was in many ways Judy Garland's breakthrough film at MGM.
Unlike Rooney, who had extensive film experience early on, Garland grew up in vaudeville as one of the singing Gumm Sisters. (Born Frances Gumm, she and her sisters changed their stage name to Garland in 1931, and Frances became Judy a year later.) Garland had a rather discouraging early period with MGM, winning a long-term contract in 1936 over Deanna Durbin but then struggling while Durbin's career promptly took off at Universal. (In fact, Durbin and Mickey Rooney were awarded special Oscars in 1938 for "bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of American youth.") But then Love Finds Andy Hardy emerged as an exceptionally strong box-office hit, bringing a new dimension to the series and a new musical team to the MGM roster.
Garlands success in the Hardy film also confirmed MGM's decision to star her in The Wizard of Oz (in a role initially conceived for Shirley Temple). The 1939 picture was MGM's riskiest and most expensive picture of the decade, and even with its ensemble, all-star cast, Garland's role clearly was crucial to its success. Garland was up to the task, striking an ideal balance of wide-eyed wonder, endearing vulnerability, and hesitant bravura, and she held her own musically alongside the veterans Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr.62
Garland closed out 1939 as a bona-fide MGM star and as a protégée of Arthur Freed. A longtime studio lyricist with aspirations to produce, Freed worked uncredited on Oz as an assistant to the producer Mervyn LeRoy, with MGM's assurance that he could produce a musical of his own after completing Oz. Freed convinced MGM to purchase the rights to a 1937 Rogers and Hart stage musical, Babes in Arms, and to bring Busby Berkeley over from Warner Bros. to choreograph and direct the film. He also convinced MGM to let him team Rooney and Garland as costars.63 Freed's strategy was to combine the energy and appeal of the Hardy pictures with the backstage musical formula that Berkeley had refined in the early 1930s at Warners.
The Rogers and Hart musical was one of those "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" types, with the musical numbers passed off as rehearsals and building to a climactic amateur show. The kids were supposedly offspring of vaudevillians, a premise that added a degree of credibility—especially to Rooney's and Garland's characters—although realism was scarcely an issue in this upbeat adolescent fantasy. Freed and Berkeley designed the entire picture as a showcase for Rooney and Garland, bringing in Kay Van Riper for a script overhaul to add some of the Hardy series flavor but focusing most of their attention on the musical numbers. Babes in Arms was shot in only ten weeks for just under $750,000, a remarkably low figure for a major musical, although contributing to the low costs were the low salaries still being earned by its stars: Rooney made $900 per week on the film, and Garland only $5oo.64
Released in late 1939, Babes in Arms did excellent business through the holidays and into 1940, and it actually outperformed The Wizard of Oz at the box office, grossing $3.3 million.65 And while Oz and Gone with the Wind had Hollywood rethinking its established production and marketing strategies, Babes in Arms underscored what the studios did best. It was an economical, efficiently produced star vehicle, an A-class genre amalgam with just enough novelty to satisfy audiences and ensure its success in the first-run market. It was also a prime candidate for reformulation, and in fact Freed, Berkeley, musical director Roger Edens, and their colleagues immediately went to work with Rooney and Garland on a follow-up picture, Strike up the Band (1940). When that picture hit, Freed and company did Babes on Broadway (released in January 1941), a sequel to Freed's initial Rooney-Garland musical and another solid hit.
Besides the cycle of show musicals, MGM reteamed Rooney and Garland in two additional prewar Hardy installments, Andy Hardy Meets the Debutante (1940) and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941), both of which sustained the series' musical dimension. In 1940, both also appeared in star vehicles of their own: Garland in another Freed unit musical, Little Nellie Kelly (1940), and Rooney in Young Tom Edison (1940). And in 1941, both were teamed with other top studio stars in prestige-level pictures: Garland and James Stewart were top-billed in an all-star musical, Ziegfeld Girl, while Rooney and Tracy teamed up in Men of Boys Town. Clearly the youngsters had arrived, and unlike so many other adolescent stars who faded quickly, both Rooney and Garland seemed to be gaining in popularity as they matured.
As we have seen, star-genre formulation was still very much the rule in prewar film-making, with the genres of Hollywood's classical era maintaining their currency. Those genres were scarcely static or monolithic forms, of course, and in fact the changing social and industrial conditions in 1940-1941 clearly influenced the development of various genres. This influence was most evident perhaps in the realm of prestige production—those pictures featuring lavish production values, multiple stars, pre-sold stories, and a road-show release strategy. Tino Balio has pointed out that by the late 1930s virtually any genre was amenable to prestige-level treatment, but the majority of prestige pictures fell into three categories: biopics, epics, and adaptations.66 These productions invariably employed top stars, of course, with their market appeal further enhanced by the pre-sold value of an established best-seller or stage hit or by the presumed interest in the historical figure or event.
As mentioned earlier regarding Gone with the Wind, many of the period's prestige pictures were distinctly "bigger" in terms of narrative scope and spectacle, were more likely to be shot in Technicolor and to incorporate location shooting, and were focused on distinctly American subjects. Hollywood still adapted European classics and popular fiction, of course, like Pride and Prejudice and Rebecca in 1940. And there were historical dramas about European events and figures—for example, Warners' two 1940 biopics, A Dispatch from Reuters (about the development of the first European news service) and Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (about the discovery of a cure for venereal disease). But the far greater tendency in 1940 was to adapt American literature (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath) and stage plays (Our Town, The Long Voyage Home, The Philadelphia Story), and to dramatize events and lives from American history (Northwest Passage, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Northwest Mounted Police.
The animated feature also emerged as a new type of prestige picture in 1940-1941. Disney began systematically producing feature-length cartoons in the wake of Snow White's success in 1937-1938, releasing Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, and Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon in 1941. While none was as successful as Snow White, these pictures did solidify the animated feature as an industry staple and the musical fantasy as its basic narrative form. They also established Disney as virtually the sole purveyor of the genre. Besides MGM's The Wizard of Oz, a live-action variation of the animated musical fantasy inspired by Snow White's success, Disney's only real challenge came from Paramount via Max Fleischer's animation unit (the producer of the Popeye cartoon shorts), which produced two animated features: Gulliver's Travels in 1939 and Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1941. Both failed commercially, putting Fleischer out of commission and leaving Disney virtually alone in the animated feature market.
The animated features also indicated that the musical itself was undergoing a transition, and in fact many industry observers considered the genre to be in a period of serious decline in the late 1930s. Several important studio-based musical cycles either were fading badly or were phased out altogether at the time, notably RKO's Astaire-Rogers dance musicals, MGM's Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy operettas, Fox's Shirley Temple vehicles, and Warners' Busby Berkeley musicals. Astaire was scarcely going into retirement, however, and Berkeley was en route to MGM to rejuvenate the backstage formula with Rooney and Garland. And while the genre did undergo a crisis of sorts in 1939, sending musical talent back to Broadway or into other genres, by 1940 the trades were touting another musical cycle—the fourth since talkies, according to Variety.67 By 1941, the genre was back in fashion, thanks primarily to the Disney features, the Rooney-Garland cycle at MGM, the Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth musicals from Columbia, and Fox's Betty Grable vehicles.
The A-class Western also enjoyed a regeneration during the prewar era. In March 1939, just after the release of Stagecoach, Variety noted that more "major budget westerns" were in release than at any time in the past decade and pointed to DeMille's Union Pacific and Fox's Jesse James (both 1939) as the films which "revived the cycle."68 A few weeks later, Frank Nugent of the New York Times (who a decade later would be scripting Westerns for John Ford) noted that audiences had "formed the habit of taking our horse operas in a Class B stride…. But all that is changed now."69 Like most critics, Nugent singled out Stagecoach as key to this change. It is worth noting, however, that Stagecoach, set in the mythic expanse of Monument Valley and starring the B-Western hero John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, and with its cavalry-to-the-rescue and shootout-on-Main-Street climaxes, was an unabashed genre film and thus was distinctly out of step with the other A-class Westerns of the time.
Indeed, most of the other A-class Westerns of the prewar era staked claims to respectability on the grounds of being more historically "authentic." Many of these were biopics, usually portraying outlaws—as in Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James and When the Daltons Rode (both 1940), Bad Men of Missouri (1941—about the Younger gang), and Belle Starr and Billy the Kid (both 1941). A number of historical epics also were set in the Old West, such as Union Pacific (1939), Northwest Mounted Police (1940), and Virginia City (1940). Thus, the return of the A-class Western was, in one sense, another facet of the recent turn toward subjects taken from American history.70
While the A-class Westerns resurgence was an important industry development, it actually involved a rather limited number of films. According to Ed Buscombe, the Big Eight released only nine A-class Westerns in 1939, thirteen in 1940, and nine in 1941. Meanwhile, Hollywood's output of B-grade Westerns, an industry staple throughout the 1930s, was simply astonishing. In fact, B-class Western output accounted for roughly 15 percent of all releases in the prewar era.71 These films, shot in five to ten days and bud geted under $100,000, did steady if unspectacular business, reliably taking in $150,000 to $ 175,000.72 The most successful B-class Westerns were the "singing cowboy" series featuring stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tex Ritter, whose popularity resulted from three factors: the commercial tie-ins with both radio and the record industry; their appeal to women as well as to men and boys, the predominant Western clientele; and the upgraded production values of their films, particularly Republic's Autry vehicles.
Screen comedy also underwent significant changes in 1940-1941, owing largely to prevailing industrial and social conditions. In 1941, with enlistment on the rise and the draft reinstated, service comedies reached a peak with Caught in the Draft, a huge Bob Hope hit, as well as Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates, In the Navy, and Keep 'em Flying. The Hope-Crosby Road pictures took them overseas—to Singapore in 1940, Zanzibar in 1941, and Morocco in 1942—and a similar brand of bizarre burlesque was equally evident in the prewar comedies of Jack Benny and W. C. Fields. Many critics saw the accelerated turn toward comedy as a form of escapism in the face of world war, and indeed much of the male-dominant comedy was not only lightweight but utterly incongruous.73 Each of the Hope-Crosby Road comedies, for instance, was increasingly zany and self-reflexive, with the artificial locations and throwaway plots serving simply as a pretext for stringing together topical gags and vaudeville routines.
Another significant prewar development was the evolution of the screwball comedy, which had so utterly dominated the 1930s. Crucial to that Depression-era comedy trend was the "unruly" woman, best characterized by Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, and Barbara Stanwyck. But disappointing revenues on several 1938 comedies, especially Holiday and Bringing up Baby, signaled a decline in the genre's popularity—leading Variety in 1939 to note the trend toward more staid romantic comedy, "with the screwball concoctions going out after a long cycle."74 Subsequent hits like His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story in 1940 and The Bride Came COD and The Lady Eve in 1941, however, indicated that there was still life in that comic variation, although the couples involved—especially the woman—were indeed on noticeably better behavior than their screwball predecessors. Many prewar romantic comedies, in fact, have been aptly termed "comedies of remarriage," and their comic endorsement of the sanctity of matrimony was certainly more conservative than the Depression-era comedies, which tended to situate the marital embrace as an implicit outcome somewhere beyond the final fadeout.
Distinctly at odds with the general prewar taming of the screwball comedy was the offbeat comic vision of Preston Sturges, the longtime Paramount writer who graduated to writer-director in 1940 and quickly turned out four remarkable screen farces: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July (both 1940), The Lady Eve, and Sullivan's Travels (1941). Deftly blending slapstick lunacy, social satire, sexual innuendo, and offbeat romance, Sturges established himself as a leading comic talent. Interestingly enough, Charlie Chaplin and Frank Capra also turned out prewar comedies that were darker and more politically astute than their previous work. Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Capra's Meet John Doe both begin as offbeat comedies but grow increasingly bleak, poised finally between social commentary and black comedy. Like Sturges's comedies, these addressed vital social and political issues—the rise of fascism, the confusion of hero-worship and celebrity status, the manipulative power of the media, the nature of political propaganda. And like Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, both The Great Dictator and Meet John Doe end not with a comic outburst but with a deadly earnest sermon delivered directly to the audience, underscoring the desperate social and political climate of a world on the brink of global war.
Despite the dominant male ethos in prewar Hollywood, the "woman's picture" maintained its currency. Focused on female protagonists and targeted primarily at female audiences, these films traced the seemingly inevitable loss or self-sacrifice that was woman's fate in a man's world—thus the term "weepies" to describe not only the films but the viewer's presumed emotional response to the heroine's plight. Women's pictures in 1940-1941 generally fell into one of three categories: ill-fated love stories (All This and Heaven Too, 1940; Waterloo Bridge, 1940; Hold Back the Dawn, 1941; Back Street, 1941), sagas of marital or maternal sacrifice (Penny Serenade, 1941; The Great Lie, 1941; Blossoms in the Dust, 1941), or lighter working-girl romantic dramas (Kitty Foyle, 1940; The Shop Around the Corner, Tom, Dick and Harry, 1941). Remarkably well tuned to the moral calculus of the Production Code as well as the popular tastes and sentiments of the era, these films were aggressively melodramatic, emotionally engaging, and often socially astute. They were not only commercially successful but critically acclaimed as well; in fact, four of the ten Oscar nominees for best picture in both 1940 and 1941 were woman's pictures.
As mentioned earlier, the genre's dominant figure at the time, Bette Davis, represented a fundamental ambivalence in the woman's film in her capacity to personify victimization and to willfully destroy those who might victimize her. And in films like The Letter and The Little Foxes, Davis also anticipated the femme noire of war and postwar thrillers. Equally important was the distinctive dimension that Joan Fontaine brought to the woman's picture with Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), initiating the female Gothic cycle which would become increasingly prevalent during the war and postwar years, with its obvious ties to both the horror genre and the burgeoning film noir.
The horror genre itself had fallen into serious decline by the late 1930s but was resuscitated by Universal's successful reissue of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) as a double bill in 1938. That revived the studio's interests, and after some success with Son of Frankenstein in 1939, the studio fully reactivated its horror cycle by teaming Lon Chaney Jr. (whose father had played the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera for Universal in the 1920s) with the director George Waggner for two low-budget hits: Man Made Monster (1941) and The Wolf Man (1941). MGM made an unexpected venture into the horrific with its remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), costarring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, which did reasonably well at the box office but did little to return the horror genre to respectability or A-class status.
Case Study: The Warners Crime Film
Among the more significant prewar genre developments was the reformulation of Warners' signature Depression-era genre, the gangster film. Key factors here were the unexpected rise to top stardom of the longtime contract player Humphrey Bogart and the concurrent emergence of a new crop of top filmmaking talent at Warners—notably Raoul Walsh, John Huston, Mark Hellinger, and Jerry Wald. And as with the regeneration of the MGM musical, the reformulation of the Warners crime film underscored both the viability of the studio's established house style and genre traditions and also the flexibility of that style when it came into contact with new elements.
Oddly enough, Warners in the late 1930s was trying not to redirect but to reassert its gangster formula, the cornerstone in its house style. Dating back to Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), two films which established the genre in Warners' repertoire and made stars of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectively, the gangster film enjoyed tremendous popularity in the early Depression era. Despite efforts by the Legion of Decency, the PCA, and their ilk to subdue it, the gangster formula not only survived but flourished as the decade wore on in various subgenres—prison films, policiers (police dramas), juvenile delinquency films, and so on. Warners dominated the genre throughout the 1930s and closed out the decade with two successful Cagney vehicles, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), both obvious throwbacks to the gangster sagas of the early 1930s. And among Warners 1940 hits was Brother Orchid, with Robinson as a mob boss "on the lam" who finds religion in a monastery. The undercurrent of nostalgia and self-parody in these later gangster films indicated that perhaps the genre's classical period was on the wane. Moreover, both Cagney and Robinson wanted Warners to off-cast them in other types of roles, and both signed lucrative new contracts which guaranteed them that opportunity through story and role approval.75 The stars' increased authority studio clout was immediately evident, with Robinson portraying Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Paul Reuter in two 1940 prestige biopics, and Cagney playing light comedy in The Bride Came COD and The Strawberry Blonde in 1941.
With Cagney and Robinson recasting their screen personas, Warners cultivated other actors as other gangster types, notably John Garfield and George Raft. Garfield signed a long-term deal in early 1939 (starting at $1,500 a week) and displayed the manic intensity and amoral charm of Cagney's early films in They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Castle on the Hudson (1940), and Out of the Fog (1941).76 George Raft, who had established his gangster credentials as Paul Muni's sidekick in the 1932 gangster classic Scarface, signed a one-year, three-picture deal for $55,000 per picture in June 1939; that year Raft costarred with Cagney in Each Dawn I Die and then was top-billed in Invisible Stripes.77 Second-billed in the latter was Humphrey Bogart, who also played key supporting roles in Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Brother Orchid, and numerous other gangster pictures. Remarkably enough, Warners apparently did not deem Bogart a likely successor to Cagney and Robinson—at least in A-class crime films. Bogart, who appeared in twenty pictures from 1937 to 1939 and was making $1,250 per week at Warners, alternated between supporting roles in A-class crime films and lead roles in B-grade gangster sagas like You Can't Get Away with Murder and King of the Underworld (both 1939).78
Besides signing Garfield and Raft, Warners made a number of other moves in 1939 to sustain its gangster formula. The most significant of these were related to The Roaring Twenties, which despite being cast in the gangster mold was also a catalyst the reformulation of the Warners crime film. Mark Hellinger, a well-known New York journalist who had signed on as a writer at Warners in 1938, wrote the original story for the film, which was scripted by the team of Jerry Wald and Richard Macauley, then just making their way out of Bryan Foy's B-picture unit. Most significantly, Warners signed Raoul Walsh in May 1939 (at $2,000 per week) in a one-picture deal to direct The Roaring Twenties.79 Then in his early fifties and with a quarter-century of directing experience, Walsh proved to be ideally suited to the project and to the Warners style—and in fact would make a long-term commitment to the studio, sharing with Michael Curtiz the status of ranking house director during the 1940s.
The opening reel of The Roaring Twenties is pure Warners, a montage elliptical back story and intense action à la gangster classics like Public Enemy and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). But once Cagney's ill-fated gangster-hero is set in motion, especially in terms of his hopeless love for the virtuous Priscilla Lane, The Roaring Twenties changes gears, taking on an oddly self-conscious, near-tragic dimension. Realizing both the error of his ways and his own inevitable doom, Cagney undergoes a redemption of sorts. In the film's climax, he executes a cowering Bogart (who has taken over Cagney's mob and threatened Lane and her family) before being gunned down by rival gangsters—thus fulfilling the genre's requisite death-in-the-gutter finale.
The success of The Roaring Twenties won Hellinger hyphenate status as a writerproducer and Walsh a five-year contract, and the two collaborated on three successive crime pictures—They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), and Manpower (1941)—which further redirected the Warners crime film.80 They Drive by Night was scripted by Wald and Macauley and centered on two truck-driving brothers (Raft and Bogart, with Ida Lupino costarring as Raft's wife) who become caught up in hijacking and murder. They Drive by Night took the gangster from the confining urban milieu to the open highway, effectively opening up the formula to new narrative and visual possibilities. The picture was a moderate hit, enhancing the Walsh-Hellinger unit's stature and moving Bogart one step closer to a starring role.
Bogart soon secured that role when Raft turned down the part of the star-crossed gangster-hero, Roy "Mad Dog" Earl, in High Sierra. Although he was second-billed to Ida Lupino, High Sierra was Bogart's first opportunity to play the male lead in an A-class picture—or a near-A anyway. That opportunity was bolstered considerably when the script assignment went to John Huston, then a top Warners screenwriter who specialized in prestige-level biopics. Based on W. R. Burnett's novel of the same title, which Warners purchased immediately after its March 1940 publication, High Sierra had the earmarks of the classic gangster saga, but it pushed even more aggressively beyond the confines of the genre's conventional settings and characters.81 The story centers on the career criminal and "two-time loser" Roy Earl, who in the opening of the film leaves prison on a parole arranged by mobsters who want Earl to orchestrate a major heist.
Huston, who collaborated with Burnett on the adaptation, told the studio executive Hal Wallis that he wanted to retain the spirit of Burnett's story, which he considered "the strange sense of inevitability that comes with our deepening understanding of the characters and the forces that motivate them."82 Huston and Burnett depicted "Mad Dog" Earl from the outset as an oddly sympathetic figure—a middle-aged, world-weary, and vaguely idealistic man whose only interest in the crime at hand is a function of his professionalism and his relief at being out of prison. Sympathy grows as Earl finds love and redemption en route to self-awareness and his inevitable demise, pushing the tragic qualities of the gangster-hero from latent subtext directly into the story itself. Huston stayed on the picture after shooting commenced in August 1940, and he soon realized that Bogart was ideal for the role. "Something happened when [Bogart] was playing the right part," Huston later recalled. "Those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic, as in High Sierra."83
Bogart's low-key approach to the role jibed well with Walsh's direction, which was noticeably more subdued and deliberate than in The Roaring Twenties. Crucial to the film was not only Bogart's masterminding of the crime but his inadvertent assembling of a "family" of losers and renegades—including Lupino and a mongrel dog, with whom Bogart flees into the mountains when the heist goes awry. Once in the Sierra Nevadas, both the love story and the flight take the gangster film into another realm altogether. David Thomson has noted that "visually, Walsh loves the long shot," and he also observes that "many of [Walsh's] films move inexorably towards remote, barren locales." This assessment includes High Sierra, which Thomson considers Walsh's "first clear statement of the inevitable destruction of the self-sufficient outsider."84 This fate is most evident, of course, in the film's finale as Bogart's doomed hero, realizing his pursuers are about to close in, leaves his "family" and flees alone into the mountains, where he is gunned down by state troopers with high-powered rifles.
High Sierra marked a major breakthrough for Bogart and a major advance in Warner's' treatment of the genre. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times termed Bogart's performance "a perfection of hard-boiled vitality," and the film itself "a perfect epilogue to the gangster film"—which Crowther clearly considered the studios sole domain. "We wouldn't know for certain whether the twilight of the American gangster is here," wrote Crowther in his January 1941 review of the film. "But the Warner Brothers, who should know if anybody does, have apparently taken it for granted and, in a solemn Wagnerian mood, are giving that figure a titanic send-off befitting a first-string god."85
Walsh displayed his versatility on his next assignment, The Strawberry Blonde, then reteamed with Hellinger, Wald, and Macauley on another male action picture, Manpower, starring Robinson, Raft, and Marlene Dietrich. While the picture itself did little to advance the Warners crime film—it was, in fact, a thinly veiled remake of a 1932 Hawks-directed Robinson vehicle, Tiger Shark—the production of Manpower had considerable indirect impact on the form. Hellinger and Hal Wallis feuded throughout the shoot, and the conflict became so intense that Hellinger resigned during production.86 Wald was then elevated to writer-producer status to complete the picture—the first of many he would produce for Warners during the 1940s.87 There were conflicts on the set as well between Robinson and Raft, which Walsh handled well enough—and which did little to improve Raft's status at the studio. Because of his successful handling of that dispute, Walsh was asked to step in when Errol Flynn and his longtime director, Michael Curtiz, had a severe falling-out during the shooting of They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Walsh got on well with Flynn, and the picture was a solid hit. As a result, Walsh's responsibilities at Warners changed radically. His next seven assignments, spanning the entire war era, were Flynn pictures, and thus Walsh necessarily shifted his focus to more upbeat and overtly heroic Westerns and war pictures.
With Walsh and Hellinger suddenly out of the picture, the revitalization of the Warners crime film—and the development of Bogart's screen persona—fell to John Huston. In May 1941, Huston signed a new pact with the studio, boosting his weekly salary to $1,500 and giving him the option of directing at least one picture during the sixty-eight-week term of the contract.88 Huston already had a project in mind: The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett's pulp novel featuring the hard-boiled detective Sam Spade. Warners had adapted the novel twice before, in 1931 and 1936, but neither effort had been successful. The studio was willing to try the property again as a low-risk near-A, budgeted at a modest $380,000.89 Raft was offered the role of Spade, which he turned down because, as Raft explained to Jack Warner in a 6 June 1941 letter, this was "not an important picture."90 Warner was amenable, knowing that Huston preferred Bogart for the role and that Bogart was very interested in the part.
Despite the relatively meager budget for The Maltese Falcon (1941), Huston and the associate producer, Henry Blanke, mounted a first-rate production. Bogart was teamed with Mary Astor (as the femme noire Brigid O'Shaughnessy), and Blanke also signed freelancers Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet (in his first screen role) for supporting roles. Huston brought the picture in some $50,000 under budget, and preview screenings indicated that Warners had an unexpected hit on its hands—and a new star in Bogart. Just before its October 1941 release, Warners revised the billing for The Maltese Falcon, moving Bogart from second-billed (after Astor) below the title to top billing above the title, with his name to appear in the same size type.91 The picture was a modest commercial success but a tremendous critical hit, drawing rave reviews and Oscar nominations for best picture, best director, and best supporting actor (for Greenstreet). Typical of the critical response was Bosley Crowther's review in the Times, which termed The Maltese Falcon "the best mystery thriller of the year" and praised first-time director Huston's "brisk and supremely hardboiled" style.92
Thus, The Maltese Falcon marked an important development in the Warners crime film and an obvious departure from the gangster sagas of the previous decade, including High Sierra. The criminal element was well represented in The Maltese Falcon, of course, primarily by Greenstreet's well-bred, articulate, and utterly amoral heavy, Kasper Gutman, and by Astor's lethal seductress, whom Spade falls for but then turns over to the police at film's end for the murder of his partner. The story was only one episode in the ongoing pursuit of the "black bird" of the title, a jewel-encrusted statuette that actually is never found in the course of the film. Solving the crime, however, is scarcely the point of this particular strain of detective story, which is thoroughly focused on the style and worldview of the hero.
As a private eye, the hard-boiled hero was by nature an isolated loner, a rugged individualist, and a man with his own personal code of honor and justice. Indeed, in his murky past the detective invariably has resigned or been fired from an official law-and-order capacity, and he shares with the criminal element a deep resentment of the legitimate authorities. In that sense, he has more in common with the Western hero than either the gangster, the cop, or the more traditional Sherlock Holmes-style detective. Like the westerner, the detective's capacity for violence and streetwise savvy ally him with the outlaw element, while his personal code and idealism commit him to the promise of social order. And as portrayed by Bogart, the hard-boiled detective proved to be an ideal screen type for the prewar era—an irreverent, reluctant hero and rumpled idealist whose tough, cynical exterior conceals a sensitive, vulnerable, and fundamentally moral man. And significantly enough, this screen type also proved readily adaptable to a war-related context, as Bogart would demonstrate after Pearl Harbor.
Perhaps the most significant and complex development in prewar Hollywood was the on-screen treatment of the war. While what might be termed the "war film" began to take shape during this period, this development was by no means a uniform or coherent process. Rather, the war film developed in different ways and at a very different pace in newsreels, documentary shorts, and features, with nonfiction films taking the lead in covering both the war overseas and war-related events at home. And when feature films did begin treating war-related stories and themes in 1940—1941, they were likely to do so in any number of genres and forms—from slapstick farce and romantic comedy to female Gothic and family melodrama, and most prominently in spy films and suspense thrillers. Noticeably lacking, in fact, were the combat films and home-front melodramas that would typify Hollywood's war-film production during and after the war.
Despite this rather uneven and haphazard treatment of the war in 1940-1941, most of the industry's war-related output shared a common thematic emphasis. With the out-break of war in Europe, Hollywood's fiction and nonfiction films tended to be firmly pro-interventionist, pro-military, and anti-totalitarian. The newsreels, documentaries (both studio-produced shorts and imported features), and dramatic features released in the United States from 1939 through 1941 consistently portrayed the Axis powers, especially Nazi Germany, as a threat to the interests of America and its allies and to the American way of life. These films also depicted U.S. preparedness as absolutely necessary owing to what came to be perceived as America's inevitable entry into the war.93 There were a few pro-Nazi films in circulation, most of them German-produced documentaries released by independent distributors on a very limited basis. By 1941, these had virtually disappeared from the U.S. market, which by then was dominated by pro-Allied and interventionist pictures produced either in the United States or Britain.
Actually, Hollywood's interventionist and pro-military—if not to say pro-war—stance was rarely evident in its feature films before 1940. As late as 1938-1939, with the European markets still open and isolationist sentiments at home still relatively strong, films criticizing fascism or promoting the U.S. military buildup were simply not considered good business. Before 1940, in fact, only Warner Bros. seemed willing to treat political conditions in Europe directly in feature films, owing largely to Harry Warner's virulent anti-Nazism. Bucking current industry wisdom, Warners released Confessions of a Nazi Spy in April 1939. The documentary-style feature starred Edward G. Robinson as an FBI agent battling German espionage in the United States, and the film actually mentioned Hitler and Nazi Germany despite PCA objections. The critics raved, with the National Board of Review naming Confessions of a Nazi Spy "the best film of the year from any country."94 But the public was less enthusiastic; after doing moderate business in the United States, the picture was either banned or heavily censored overseas (including Great Britain).95 Warners released a similar film in September 1939, Espionage Agent, starring Joel McCrea; it too fared better critically than commercially, despite the outbreak of war in Europe that same month.
Conditions in Europe and the escalating U.S. defense buildup in late 1939 induced the other studios to deal with the war in dramatic features, although it would be well into 1940 before the results reached the screen. Warners remained the trendsetter, releasing The Fighting 69th in January 1940. The World War I drama starring James Cagney was important because it depicted Americans in combat against a German enemy (albeit a quarter-century earlier), and also because it involved the successful adaptation of both a Warners star and an established formula into a war story. The Fighting 69th depicts the conversion of Cagney's swaggering, self-centered tough guy, so familiar from crime and action films, into a team player on behalf of the war effort. Significantly enough, the conversion is sparked by a priest, played by Pat O'Brien—something O'Brien's clergyman had been unable to accomplish with Cagney's gangster a year before in Angels with Dirty Faces. Cagney did "see the light" before going to the chair in the earlier film, but in The Fighting 69th his conversion results in a more heroic demise: Cagney gives up his life for his fellow soldiers by throwing himself on a German grenade.
The Fighting 69th was among Warners' biggest hits in 1940, and its popular and commercial success enhanced Hollywood's general shift to war-related features that year. By the spring and summer, as the Nazi blitzkrieg overran Europe and pushed to the English Channel, Hollywood had begun a blitz of its own—although with very few movies dealing directly with World War II. Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of Hollywood's own "conversion" to war-film production in 1940 was its continued avoidance of the current war and its tendency, à la Warners in The Fighting 69th, to treat the war indirectly. According to one industry survey, Hollywood from September 1939 through August 1940 released 129 features (including 27 from Britain and France) and 60 shorts "dealing with the war and the troubles in Europe, national defense and preparedness, patriotism and Americanism, dictators and democracies."96 This number included a remarkably wide range of genres, from Civil War epics and foreign legion films to westerns. In terms of features directly related to World War II, however, Hollywood's output was still quite limited. According to an in-depth study by James Earl Shain, Hollywood produced only six World War II-related films in 1939 (1.2 percent of its 483 releases), and twelve in 1940 (2.5 percent of 477 releases).97
Most of those appeared later in the year as the industry shifted noticeably to more militaristic, nationalistic, and political themes and to a heavier emphasis on U.S. preparedness. "By 1940 Hollywood had crossed an important threshold," note Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black in Hollywood Goes to War. "Some studios had begun to make explicitly interventionist films."98 In September, Thomas Brady of the New York Times observed that "only in recent months" had the movies begun "proposing active American counteraction" to Nazi aggression.99 Later that month, Bosley Crowther, noting the coming "wave of propaganda pictures" in his Times survey of the schedule of 1940-1941 films, commented that "films are fast assuming the role predestined for them in time of crisis."100
While Hollywood turned increasingly to war-related subjects in 1940, the studios relied on established genres and story formulas to dramatize those subjects. Foreign Correspondent, for instance, rehashed Espionage Agent as well as Alfred Hitchcock's quasi-political "chase" films, The Lady Vanishes and Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), and gave the espionage thriller a twist by adding a familiar 1930s screen figure, the crusading, wisecracking reporter (Joel McCrea). MGM's The Mortal Storm (1940), directed by Frank Borzage, was a domestic melodrama about a family torn apart by the Nazis when the family patriarch, a university biology professor, refuses to preach Aryan dogma to his pupils. Even the reviews tended to read the film in terms of family melodrama. Bosley Crowther, for instance, while recognizing the breakthrough status of the picture, opened his review with this assertion: "At last and at a time when the world is more gravely aware than ever of the relentless mass brutality embodied in the Nazi system, Hollywood has turned its camera-eye upon the most tragic human drama of our age."101 Other films also tapped the family melodrama in anti-Nazi pictures—Fox's Four Sons (1940), for instance—though none as successfully as The Mortal Storm, due to Borzage's sensitive direction, the all-star cast (including James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Robert Young), and the clear invocation of the "Jewish question."
Another interesting 1940 genre variation was Warners' The Man I Married, which cast Joan Bennett in a female Gothic about a woman whose German-American husband gradually is won over by Nazi propaganda during a trip to Europe. The film is also notable for being one of the first mainstream features to actually use the word Jew in dealing with the Jewish question.102 A more sanguine variation was Arise My Love (1940), an offbeat romantic comedy scripted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder about two reporters (Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland) who fall in love while covering the war in Europe.
Perhaps the most significant genre variation was The Great Dictator, with Chaplin's Little Tramp transposed into a meek Jewish barber who is mistaken for the dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Released in late 1940, The Great Dictator was a huge critical and commercial success, emerging as the number-two box-office hit of 1941. The numberone hit in 1941 was Sergeant York, Warners' biopic of a reluctant World War I hero, and among the other top ten hits that year were A Yank in the Raf, Dive Bomber, and Caught in the Draft. These clearly signaled an increased audience interest in warrelated features in 1941, as Hollywood intensified its direct treatment of the current war. According to Shain, 32 of the studios' 492 releases (6.5 percent) in 1941 dealt with World War II. The majority were espionage thrillers, as the spy genre proved increasingly amenable to war-related adjustment. In fact, over one-third of the 50 Hollywood features from 1939 to 1941 related to World War II (18 in all) were spy films.'103
Chief among the war-related spy films in 1941 was Man Hunt, a Fritz Lang-directed thriller about an effete big-game hunter (Walter Pidgeon) who decides to take a shot at Hitler, simply for the sport of it. Like so many of the war films of 1940—1941, Man Hunt featured a conversion narrative, with the hero eventually being caught and tortured by the Gestapo, escaping to England, then joining the military to get a legitimate shot at Hitler. The majority of conversion narratives were decidedly less offbeat than Man Hunt, tracing instead the fate of the self-assured individualist who, in the course of military training, learns to subordinate his own interests to those of the group. This theme surfaced in a number of military training films—invariably complemented by a celebration of the armament and technology involved, from tanks to dive bombers to submarines. Of the fifty war-related films of 1939-1941, thirteen involved soldiers at home, and virtually all of these focused on military training. The most popular and prevalent of these films were the service comedies mentioned earlier and aviation pictures like International Squadron (1941), Flight Command (1940), and I Wanted Wings (1941).
Interestingly enough, only three of the fifty World War II films released in 1939-1941 dealt with soldiers in combat. This proportion would change dramatically in the next few years as the combat film came to dominate the standard conception of the war film and as the service comedies, military training, and espionage films declined. But given the conditions both at home and abroad before the war, it is scarcely surprising that political intrigue and military preparedness were the dominant themes in Hollywood's war-related output in 1940-1941.
While Hollywood features turned gradually and somewhat belatedly to the subject of World War II, there was extensive prewar treatment of war-related subjects in documentaries and newsreels. The most notable of these were the "March of Time" newsreels, produced by Louis de Rochemont, a young documentary filmmaker educated at MIT and Harvard. De Rochemont created the March of Time in 1934 with the backing of Time-Life, Inc., and by the late 1930s the international news service and its newsreels were a worldwide success. Issued monthly, usually about fifteen minutes in length but occasionally longer, the newsreels covered an array of issues and events. Virtually the only direct mention of Hitler and Nazi Germany on American movie screens before 1939 came via the March of Time, notably in a sixteen-minute May 1938 issue, "Inside Nazi Germany." From September 1939 to December 1941, over twenty newsreels covered the war and related events in Europe and the Far East.104
In 1940, de Rochemont produced the March of Time's first feature-length documentary, The Ramparts We Watch. Released in September, one year after the out-break of the war in Europe, the film combined a celebration of small-town American life with a biting critique of fascism. In 1941, the March of Time turned increasingly to U.S. preparedness, the defense buildup, and other domestic concerns (espionage, the disruption of shipping, etc.). De Rochemont resumed the anti-Nazi, anti-isolationist push in September 1941 with one of his most powerful films, "Peace—By Adolf Hitler," which traced the German leaders record of broken promises and devastation of Europe.
A very different form of war-related nonfiction filmmaking in Hollywood in 1940-1941 were the military training and informational films. The studios began to regularly produce these one-and two-reel films in late 1940, primarily through a Hollywoodbased reserve unit of the Army Signal Corps comprising some two dozen officers and 300 GIs trained in film production. The unit was headed by Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Levinson, who also acted as vice-chair (under the chairman Darryl Zanuck) of the Motion Picture Academy Research Council, an organization which coordinated industry support for the Signal Corps' production efforts.105 By 1941, these efforts were well under way and Zanuck was increasingly involved. In fact, Zanuck himself made a trip to Washington in August to meet with army brass about Hollywood's military-related filmmaking operations. Zanuck brought with him six of the one hundred or so training films already completed, including a Ford-directed one-reeler, "Sex Hygiene." (Another forty were in production, including Capra's "Combat Counter-intelligence.") The military leaders were favorably impressed, and Zanuck was forthright about the industry's pro-military, anti-isolationist stance—a position he and his fellow studio heads would publicly defend in the Senate propaganda hearings only a few weeks later.106
Case Study: In the Navy and Eagle Squadron
In the Navy (1941) and Eagle Squadron (1942) provide illuminating examples of Hollywood's prewar incursion into war-film production. Both were produced and released by Universal and directed by the staffer Arthur Lubin, and both signaled Hollywood's newfound resolve to cultivate a market for war films. But beyond that, the two films were radically different. In the Navy was an Abbott and Costello service comedy (cum musical) and the second of eight Abbott and Costello vehicles that Universal cranked out in 1941-1942. Eagle Squadron, conversely, was in production longer than all eight of the Abbott and Costello films combined and was an attempt by the independent producer Walter Wanger to integrate drama and documentary in an innovative portrayal of an RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain.
Thus, In the Navy was by far the more routine production, demonstrating the studio's capacity to respond quickly and effectively to changing social and industrial conditions and to exploit the sudden emergence of new talent as well. Universal's Abbott and Costello films did exceptional business, averaging about $2 million in revenues and carrying the duo from obscurity in late 1940 to the number-three slot on the Exhibitors' Poll in 1941 and then, incredibly to the top spot in 1942, displacing Mickey Rooney.
The lanky long-suffering straight man and his dumpy, bumbling sidekick had started in burlesque in the early 1930s, then moved to radio and Broadway late in the decade. They signed with Universal for a second-rate (even by Universal's standards) 1940 comedy, One Night in the Tropics, and then were featured in an early-1941 military farce, Buck Privates, as a pair of inept army draftees who comically survive basic training and become unlikely heroes. The plot was a pastiche of army jokes and vaudeville routines, interspersed with tunes performed by the Andrews Sisters—including the Oscar-nominated "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," which became a wartime standard.
By the time Buck Privates was released in February 1941, Universal already had finished shooting another Abbott and Costello vehicle, Hold That Ghost (1941), a genre parody that melded gangster and horror formulas with the duo's verbal-physical comic style.107 But when Buck Privates took off at the box office, Universal shelved Hold That Ghost, planning to bring it in line with buck Privates by adding a romantic sub-plot and a few Andrews Sisters musical numbers. Meanwhile, the staff producer Alex Gottlieb and the director Arthur Lubin, two B-movie specialists, set to work on a seafaring follow-up to the army comedy. Ten weeks later, In the Navy was "in the can" and ready for release, an incredible feat even by B-movie standards, let alone for a picture destined for holdover first-run release.
Actually, the picture would have been ready even sooner except for problems with the Navy Department—problems suggesting that the regulation of movie content would take on a new dimension during wartime. The plot had Abbott and Costello spatting, pratfalling, and ad-libbing their way through naval recruitment and training. After passing muster with Breen and the PCA, Universal requested official navy approval. The navy's reply that approval would "not be forthcoming on material of this sort" precluded Universal's use of navy facilities and file footage, both crucial to the rapid and efficient production of the film.108 The script was rewritten to accommodate the navy's concerns, and Breen personally appealed directly to the secretary of the navy on Universal's behalf.109 Breen secured navy approval, enabling Lubin to shoot much of the film at a naval training station near Los Angeles.
In the Navy was shot in only twenty-three days at a cost of $479,207, most of which went to Abbott and Costello ($35,000), their costar Dick Powell ($30,000), and the Andrews Sisters ($15,000). Gottlieb earned $6,350 and Lubin $5,166 on the picture, based on their respective salaries of $300 and $350 per week. There were eight musical numbers in the picture (taking up thirty-five of its eighty-five minutes), including another 1940s standard, "Gimme Some Skin." Just before its release, Universal previewed the film for the navy—and again there were problems. In the film's chaotic climax, ship maneuvers are botched by Abbott and Costello's inept signaling, thus implicitly demeaning naval training. At the navy's behest, Universal sent the picture back into production. In yet another display of efficiency, additional scenes were written, shot, and edited into the picture in only three days, transforming the disastrous maneuvers into a Lou Costello dream sequence.110
In the Navy was released in June 1941, and Universal's newly assembled Abbott and Costello unit—including Gottlieb, Lubin, writer John Grant, cinematographer Joe Valentine, and the Andrews Sisters—then went to work on Hold That Ghost. The overhaul on that picture was completed by August, and the unit then cranked out an air force service comedy, Keep'em Flying, for a November 1941 release. Universal launched the film with a location premiere in Detroit, where retooled automobile plants were producing military aircraft at an incredible pace—although the factory system in Detroit had nothing on Universal's assembly-line production of Abbott and Costello comedies.
That same month, November 1941, Universal signed a one-picture deal with the independent producer Walter Wanger for Eagle Squadron.111 Interestingly enough, the Universal-Wanger deal was not to initiate but to complete the project, which already had been in the works for over a year. Difficult projects were not new to Wanger, a Dartmouth-educated Hollywood sophisticate who by 1941 had a reputation for taking risks and challenging industry convention. Wanger had worked his way up through the ranks as an executive and producer at several studios in the 1920s and early 1930s before signing a ten-year deal with UA in 1936, with UA to arrange both financing and distribution. The Wanger-UA union went very well for a few years, but after Stagecoach in 1939 Wanger produced seven straight box-office flops, with Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and Ford's The Long Voyage Home (both 1940) among the biggest losers at $370,000 and $225,000, respectively.112
That put considerable pressure on Wanger's Eagle Squadron project, by far his most challenging to date and among the first Hollywood features designed to integrate documentary and fiction material. Wanger developed the project with Merian C. Cooper, a World War I flying ace who made documentaries during the 1920s before getting into movies as a producer. Coopers partner in his documentary and early feature filmmaking efforts was Ernest B. Schoedsack; the two codirected such classic documentaries as Grass (1925) and Chang (1927) before coming to Hollywood, where their most successful collaboration was on King Kong in 1933. Schoedsack was to collaborate on Eagle Squadron as well, shooting and codirecting with the British filmmaker Harry Watt, who had recently completed an acclaimed documentary about the London blitz, Target for Tonight, which had been a success in the United States as well as England, winning a special Oscar in 1941.
The plan for Eagle Squadron was to document the training, exploits, and day-today lives of a group of American pilots who joined the RAF during the Battle of Britain and the London blitz. Wanger and Cooper wanted to use actual combat footage and to have the pilots portray themselves. Some of the picture would be dramatized and in fact would incorporate a rather typical conversion narrative—not unlike the yarn that Zanuck conjured up for Tyrone Power at Fox in 1941, A Yank in the RAF, which depicts a Yank mercenary coming around to the British cause. But for the most part, Eagle Squadron would be a factual account of Squadron 71 of the RAF and thus was quite innovative by Hollywood standards, although the number of feature documentaries on the market at the time did create a favorable climate for such an effort.
By the time UA announced Eagle Squadron in July 1941, Watt and Schoedsack already had shot several thousand feet of film. But the Battle of Britain had ended two months earlier, and so Wanger spent much of that "blitzless" summer trying to figure how to reorient the narrative to accommodate the relative lull in the action. There were also problems with the British Air Ministry, which impeded correspondence between the filmmakers and balked at approving the aerial combat footage."113 In mid-August, Watt and Schoedsack informed Wanger that they still felt that there was a "fine film" to be made on the subject, but that "getting a picture of feature length on the screen, using the boys of 71 Squadron in their actual parts, presents us [with] almost insurmountable problems." By September, Watt was convinced that "the only way this film now can be made is as a fictional one, using actors as the key members of the squadron, but always against a very factual and realistic background." The dramatic interplay of the fliers on the ground, now a virtual necessity because of the lack of action in the air, probably could not be "put across by amateurs," reasoned Watt. "In any case, their feelings would not allow them to reenact the most poignant episodes," especially those involving the deaths of their fellow fliers.114
Wanger agreed and assigned the screenwriter Norman Reilly Raine to do a dramatization of Squadron 71's story. Raine was ideal for the job, with a background in biopics and action pictures and more recently in war dramas—including The Fighting 69th and another Cagney film, Captains of the Clouds (1942), about an American flier in the Canadian Air Force. Wanger put Raine to work on the project and informed the UA board of directors of his decision to go with a dramatic approach. He figured that UA, which was responsible for funding his pictures, would be relieved at the decision, but this was hardly the case. UA already had sunk a considerable sum into the project, with little to show for it, and had been through a similar fiasco with Foreign Correspondent, on which Wanger had used over twenty writers and spent $213,000 in script costs alone. UA informed Wanger that there would be no additional funds for Eagle Squadron, and so Wanger decided to leave UA and look for another producer-distributor. Wanger's split with UA gave the company his profit share on his most recent film, Sundown (1941), and he in turn was able to keep the 14,000 feet already shot for Eagle Squadron.115
Wanger shopped the project around Hollywood—but without Cooper, who had taken a commission in the Army Air Corps. The footage from the Battle of Britain and the London blitz proved to be Wanger's ace in the hole, and several studios expressed interest. The best offer came from Universal, which agreed to put up $60,000 for Raines script and another $50,000 for the documentary footage; the studio also agreed to hire Wanger at $2,500 a week as producer and to finance the completion of the picture. Wanger's contract gave him "complete supervision and control of this production," although the studio retained approval rights over the director, cast, and final cut. Wanger had full use of Universal's personnel and facilities and was allowed a budget "contemplated" in the $700,000 range. All net proceeds were to be split evenly between Universal and Walter Wanger Productions, Inc."116
Thus, Wanger became an in-house independent at Universal, with access to the studio's resources—including the director Arthur Lubin, who was between Abbott and Costello pictures at the time and was quite capable of completing Eagle Squadron quickly and economically. Wanger and Lubin started shooting in January 1942, and the picture was completed and released by summer. By then, its costs were just over $900,000 and the market was glutted with war movies, but the Watt-Schoedsack footage gave the otherwise routine picture a distinctive edge. While the finished product was scarcely what Wanger initially had envisioned, Eagle Squadron was a solid success. The picture grossed $2.4 million, and after Universal's production and distribution fees were extracted, it turned a profit of nearly $750,000.117
By the time Eagle Squadron was released, the United States had gone to war and so had Hollywood. Any hint of caution or hesitation in the movie industry's support of the war effort was long forgotten by mid-1942—if anything, according to the bureaucrats in the Office of War Information in Washington, Hollywood's penchant for warmongering had grown too pronounced in the early months of the war. The industry would soon strike a more balanced treatment, however, and would be contributing to the Allied war effort as effectively as any major U.S. industry.