1940s: Film and Theater
1940s: Film and Theater
Hollywood's golden age had reached a peak by 1940. The eight largest studios (Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM], RKO Radio, Twentieth Century Fox, United Artists, Paramount, Universal, and Columbia) controlled more than 90 percent of film production and distribution. The big studios were churning out at least one film per week. The Production Code Association (PCA) kept a tight leash on the topic matter that could be presented in films. The association made sure the good guys always won, sexuality was suggested rather than mentioned openly, and social issues were not debated. The strict censorship in Hollywood was meant to protect the nearly eighty million Americans who went to the movies each week. When regular Americans and those in Hollywood began to wonder what role the United States would play in the war, attitudes about censorship changed. Studios wanted to explore political issues in films, but many feared that ticket sales might be hurt. By 1941, Hollywood had decided to support the war, making training films for the army and releasing Sergeant York, the first of many films supporting U.S. engagement in the war.
Although the films that did comment on the war supported U.S. involvement, 95 percent of the films made during the period had nothing to do with war. The majority of films made in the 1940s were playful romps, such as The Philadelphia Story (1940), starring Cary Grant (1904–1986), James Stewart (1908–1997), and Katharine Hepburn (1907–); or the comedies of Bud Abbott (1895–1974) and Lou Costello (1906–1959). Walt Disney (1901–1966) also released his animated symphony performance called Fantasia. More serious films included The Grapes of Wrath (1940), the film based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the Depression (1929–41) by John Steinbeck (1902–1968), and Citizen Kane (1941), the first film of Orson Welles (1915–1985). Many consider Citizen Kane the greatest film of all time.
After the war, film noir ("dark cinema") became a popular style for movies. The dark, serious films, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946), gave new life to the popular detective stories so popular with readers during the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the most popular detective writers, including Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), and James M. Cain (1892–1977), adapted their novels and stories into screenplays. Americans were intrigued with these films, especially as fear and apprehension grew with the onset of the Cold War (1945–91). Even with the popularity of a new film style, movie attendance sank after the war, mostly because more Americans stayed home to watch their newly affordable television sets.
Elaborate musicals were enormously popular during the 1940s. Nearly eleven million people attended Broadway extravaganzas in 1943. Most of the shows had upbeat, patriotic themes with casts of singing soldiers or high-kicking women. Popular shows included This Is the Army (1942), Something for the Boys (1943), and Winged Victory (1945). All proceeds from This Is the Army and Winged Victory (millions of dollars) were contributed to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
Although Broadway enjoyed great success, dramatic theater suffered during the 1940s. Dramatic theatrical productions had difficulty finding paying audiences. The Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s was discontinued, and dwindling attendance pushed Project-funded plays off Broadway and into smaller theaters. Despite the smaller profits, two of the greatest American playwrights wrote during the 1940s: Tennessee Williams (1914–1983) and Arthur Miller (1915–) wrote dramatic masterpieces. Williams's The Glass Menagerie (1945) and Miller's All My Sons (1947) introduced audiences to themes of disillusionment and the difficulties of attaining the "American dream" of success and happiness.