The 1940s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News

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The 1940s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News



A small group of American artists had been experimenting with abstract art in New York in the 1930s. They were funded by the Federal Arts Project (FAP), one of many government programs that made up the New Deal. Federal funding removed financial pressures from artists and allowed them to try new things. But a more important influence on American art came from Europe. As the war began in 1939, many artists fled to the United States from Germany, France, and other countries. Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), who arrived in 1940, was among the most influential. Other European expatriates included French painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985), who designed murals for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. German Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Spaniard Salvador Dali (1904–1989) also spent time in New York. Mondrian, who already was famous when he arrived in America, gave his first (and only) solo exhibition in New York in January 1942. The Europeans encouraged American artists to move away from realistic paintings and create images based on dreams and feelings instead.

In 1939, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in New York City. By that time, there were twenty-one hundred artists in New York, all receiving pay from FAP run by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Another thousand hopefuls were on the waiting list. Among those working on the FAP were such notables as Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Lee Krasner (1908–1984), and Mark Rothko (1903–1970). Years later, Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) said he was grateful to the WPA for "keeping me alive during the thirties."

The key year in the development of American art of the decade was 1942. Artists such as Mondrian and Rothko held solo exhibits early in the year. At a gallery called McMillen Inc., in New York, American and European artists exhibited together. And in the fall of 1942, Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) opened the Art of This Century Gallery, showing contemporary American art alongside masterpieces of the early twentieth century. The gallery became the center of what is known as the New York School. William Baziotes (1912–1963), Pollock, and others exhibited there. Most importantly, it introduced the world to abstract expressionism, the style of painting that defined American art in the twentieth century.

The term "abstract expressionism" was first used by art critic Robert Coates (1897–1973) in a New Yorker article in March 1946. It has come to refer to a single group of artists working in New York in the 1940s. But in fact, the abstract expressionists can be divided into three main groups: the "action" painters, the "color field" painters, and other painters not so easily defined, such as Philip Guston (1913–1980) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974).

The best-known action painters are Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. They worked on huge canvases that usually were laid out on the floor. They applied paint by pouring and dripping, or by using their own bodies or objects such as bicycles to spread it around. The aim was to be as close to the painting as possible. Above all, action paintings record the action as it takes place. The color field painters were led by Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Adolph "Ad" Reinhardt (1913–1967), and Barnett Newman (1905–1970). Their paintings involved huge flat areas or "fields" of a single color. Where these fields of color meet they often bleed together. Rothko thought realistic painting could not express human emotion after World War II. His fields of intense color overwhelm the viewer with their presence and beauty.

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Abstract expressionist painting is generally not realistic; rather, it tries to express thoughts, feelings, myths, and dreams. Abstract expressionists began to split into even smaller groups as the decade went on. But all the painters involved kept their interest in expressing emotions through painting. In abstract expressionism, America finally had a form of art it could call its own.


The comic book was invented in the United States around 1933. By 1940, it had developed into a sophisticated and highly popular form of literature. That year, more than 150 titles were in print covering categories from crime, fantasy, romance, and horror to Westerns and war. But two characters dominated comic book sales in the 1940s. Superman, created by Jerry Siegel (1914–1996) and Joe Shuster (1914–1992), had appeared in 1938. Batman, created by Bob Kane (1915–1998), had first emerged from the Batcave in 1939. By 1940, both Superman and Batman comics were bestsellers. Hoping to ride on their success, National Periodical Publications introduced many other caped and costumed heroes, including the Flash, Hawkman, and the Green Lantern. Captain Marvel first appeared in Whizz Comics in 1940, and Captain America in 1941. Like Captain Marvel, Plastic Man added a humorous edge to an otherwise mostly serious, patriotic group of characters.

Art and African Americans

Until the 1940s, African Americans made very little impact on the white art world. Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) was one of the first black artists to gain mainstream attention. His series, The Migration of the Negro (1940–41), contains sixty paintings telling the story of black Americans. Lawrence taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. By the end of the decade, he was acclaimed as one of the most important American artists of the period. Black artists were given another boost by the book Modern Negro Art (1943). In this work, James A. Porter (1905–1970) catalogued the work of black artists up to that point. Porter rescued many neglected African American artists from obscurity.

After World War II ended, patriotic fervor began to die away. Western and romance stories then became more popular than superhero comics. Crime stories also became popular. The series Crime Does Not Pay began in 1942. But crime comics certainly did pay. By 1945, the crime comic had become one of the top-selling comics in America. Pictures of scantily dressed women meant that crime comics were deemed unsuitable for children. As concern about the content of crime comics grew, they were toned down. By the 1950s, crime-comic publishers had become very careful about what appeared in their magazines.

Because of the large number of titles on sale, the 1940s is known as the golden age of comic books. Yet original examples are hard to find. They were considered throwaway items, and were often discarded after they had been read. Some were destroyed in protests about their content. Many others were pulped (recycled) during wartime paper shortages. In the twentieth century, there has arisen a thriving collectors' market for comic books from the 1940s.

Paperback Books

After runaway success in the 1930s, pulp magazines such as Black Mask began to lose their readership in the 1940s. One reason for this was the rise of the paperback book. Allen Lane (1902–1970) introduced Penguin paperbacks in Britain in 1936. Penguin inspired Robert Fair de Graff (1895–1981) to found Pocket Books in the United States in 1939. Other publishers moved into the market. Paperbacks soon became the most popular form of book publishing. In 1947, crime writer Mickey Spillane (1918–) published his first novel, I, The Jury, in hardcover. It sold reasonably well—for a hardback. The following year, Signet released a paperback edition. It had sold an amazing two million copies by the end of the decade.


The 1940s was a decade of change in American literature. During the 1930s, many American writers described the terrible suffering caused by the Great Depression. Writers such as Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) and Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) had built careers writing fiction that documented the American experience. But 1939 marked the end of a period of realism in American fiction. The group of writers known as the "lost generation" was also slipping out of favor. F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) died as the 1940s began. Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) published For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, then fell silent for several years. Even William Faulkner (1897–1962), who won the 1949 Nobel Prize in literature (awarded in 1950), wrote mostly screenplays in the 1940s. An era in American fiction was ending, and a new one was just beginning.

The alternative to realism was modernism. Modernist writers saw no need to describe the lives of working people. They veered away from commentating directly on society. In the hands of Europeans in the 1920s and earlier, the novel had begun to focus on the unique viewpoint of a single individual. Simple story lines and narratives were abandoned, and inventive new ways were found to describe characters. Yet among American writers, only Faulkner and John Dos Passos (1896–1970) had experimented with modernist techniques before the 1940s. American writers were slow to respond to the trend in the new fiction.

Then, in 1944, Saul Bellow (1915–) published Dangling Man, a novel about an individual's response to the modern world. Other modernist writers, including Truman Capote (1924–1984) and Chester Himes (1909–1984), followed Bellow. But what would become a major movement in American fiction was only just beginning. In the 1940s realist writers were still producing important work. Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989) won the Pulitzer Prize for All the King's Men in 1946. Women writers Carson McCullers (1917–1967) and Eudora Welty (1909–2001) both were influential figures in regionalist fiction (fiction based in a particular location), describing life in the South.

There were other influences on American fiction besides modernism in the 1940s. Many young writers experienced combat in World War II (1939–45), and it was inevitable that novels about the war would start to appear. The two most influential combat novelists were John Hawkes (1925–1998) and Norman Mailer (1923–). Hawkes's novel The Cannibal (1949) examined the culture of war and its aftermath. Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948) established him as one of the major writers of postwar America.

While the novel in general was going through a period of change, black writers were also starting to be noticed by the general reading public. The publication of Native Son in 1940 was a turning point for black fiction. The novel made its author, Richard Wright (1908–1960), into a prominent literary figure. Many commentators disagreed with Wright's vision of blacks in America, but because of Native Son, white America suddenly took notice of black writers. Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Chester Himes (1909–1984) also became well known during the 1940s, while James Baldwin (1924–1987) was just beginning his career as the decade ended.


After a decade of lavish musicals, screwball comedies, and cheerful dramas, Hollywood began to change around 1940. That year Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) released The Great Dictator, his satire on the rise of German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). In July 1941, Sergeant York opened. The story of a reluctant American war hero, Sergeant York was an obvious call for the United States to enter the war. It was later used by the military in a recruitment campaign. Isolationists, or people who wanted the United States to stay out of the war, attacked Hollywood's enthusiasm for entering the conflict. But congressional hearings into the matter did not help the isolationists. As Republican presidential hopeful Wendell Willkie (1892–1944) pointed out, 95 percent of Hollywood's output was nonpolitical. This other, nonpolitical Hollywood fare included Disney's classic animated film Fantasia, released in 1940. Movie studios continued to turn out lightweight comedies and romances even after America had entered the war.

In December 1941, just ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt (1882–1945) took steps to encourage Hollywood to make movies to help the war effort. The studios cooperated by producing pro-American movies such as Casablanca (1942). By the middle of 1942, around seventy war-related films had been made. Screenwriters gave existing scripts, and even partially finished movies, a wartime makeover. Gangsters became Nazi spies, while Tarzan took on German invaders. The Japanese were shown as cruel and vicious brutes.

The Office of War Information (OWI) was set up to coordinate the propaganda effort (propaganda is information used to persuade people of the government's position). Its head, Nelson Poynter (1903–1978), was concerned about the simplistic way Hollywood was dealing with the war. He wanted more positive films showing "good" Germans resisting the Nazis. The OWI manual urged filmmakers to ask themselves: "Will this picture help win the war?" The OWI exerted pressure on Hollywood by refusing overseas distribution to movies that did not meet the manual's guidelines. Since Hollywood depended on overseas sales to make a profit, following the OWI manual made good business sense.

While Hollywood as a whole joined in the war effort with its pro-American movies, many individual filmmakers also did what they could to help. Director Frank Capra (1897–1991) enlisted in the army and went to work making documentaries. Capra's first film in a series, Prelude to War, won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1942. Other directors, such as John Ford (1895–1973), did similar work. But John Huston (1906–1987) fell afoul of the army's rules when he made Let There Be Light (1946), a film about shell-shocked veterans. Many actors also enlisted in the armed forces. James Stewart (1908–1997) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909–2000) joined up within weeks of Pearl Harbor. Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), who was declared unfit for military service because of a punctured eardrum, had to work hard to win back his movie fans after the war ended.

Besides joining in the war effort, filmmakers began to make a new kind of movie in the 1940s. A surprise hit of 1941 was The Maltese Falcon, an adaptation of a novel by Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Within a few years, these dark, cynical detective movies had a name: film noir. Noir films are shadowy, dark, and bleak, both in visual look and subject matter. America after the war seemed to be a prosperous, optimistic place. Yet film noir reflected a worry that things were not as good as they seemed. The cold war (an ideological war between the United States and the former Soviet Union) began just after World War II ended, bringing with it fears of nuclear war. Americans were afraid of a Communist takeover. But they also worried that their own government could not be trusted. Movies such as The Big Sleep (1946), The Killers (1946), and Out of the Past (1947) describe these fears.

Hollywood in the 1940s had good cause to feel threatened. Despite the popularity of film noir, attendance at movie theaters was falling steadily. To make matters worse for the major studios, the U.S. Justice Department ended the studios' total control of film distribution. Then, in May 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused Hollywood of harboring subversives. Many people were ordered to appear at congressional hearings to make statements about their political views. Dalton Trumbo (1905–1976) and John Howard Lawson (1894–1977) were among ten writers and directors, referred to as the Hollywood Ten, who refused to cooperate with the "witch hunt." They, and many others, were blacklisted, which meant they were not allowed to work in the movie industry. Hollywood's image was damaged by the controversy, but many of the so-called Hollywood Ten eventually did work there again. Blacklisted writers, including Trumbo, submitted screenplays under different names, and studio bosses turned a blind eye.


The 1940s were dynamic years for American music. Electric instruments revolutionized the blues, bebop shook up jazz, and even classical music experimented with new sounds. Musicians challenged existing styles or fused them to make new music. The arrival of European composers, who were fleeing the Nazis in Germany, had a huge influence on classical music and on movie soundtracks. Improved recording techniques and new, affordable technology meant that music was beginning to accompany everyday life.

The Maltese Falcon

When The Maltese Falcon appeared in 1941, it was the third time Dashiell Hammett's novel had been turned into a movie. The previous two attempts were disastrous failures. At first, this try did not look much like a hit either. It was made by first-time director John Huston (1906–1987) with a low-budget cast. Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957), soon to become a major star, was then just another gangster movie regular. Sidney Greenstreet (1879–1954) was over sixty years old and acting in his first movie. Mary Astor (1906–1987) was trying to rebuild a career that had been ruined by scandal in the 1930s. Peter Lorre (1904–1964) had worked for years in minor character parts. But this Warner Brothers "B"-movie (a name given to low-budget movies) was to become one of the all-time great films. Often referred to as the first real film noir, The Maltese Falcon is also one of the finest movies of that genre. Besides making stars of Bogart, Greenstreet, Astor, and Lorre, it helped change the face of American filmmaking in the 1940s.

Swing was the soundtrack for World War II. Developed in the 1930s, by 1940 swing was everywhere, from 78-rpm (revolutions per minute) records played in homes, to dance halls, the movies, and on the radio.

Some big bands were led by solo musicians such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) and clarinetist Benny Goodman (1909–1986). Other bands toured the country fronted by singers such as Billie Holiday (1915–1959) and Frank Sinatra (1915–1998). In the second half of the decade, swing declined in popularity. Perry Como (1912–2001), Vaughn Monroe (1911–1973), and others fronted a toned-down swing sound, heavy with stringed instruments.

But even as swing was losing its appeal, some musicians began turning it into a more serious kind of music. Duke Ellington (1899–1974) was probably the most influential. Ellington became a respected composer, but others, such as Gil Evans (1912–1988) and Count Basie (1904–1984), also explored new sounds and instruments. Classical composers, meanwhile, turned to jazz. Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) wrote the Ebony Concerto for the Woody Herman big band. American composer Aaron Copland (1900–1990) wrote music for clarinet player and band leader Benny Goodman (1909–1986).

In the nightclubs, a stripped-down, high-speed kind of jazz called bebop was emerging. Small combos of four or five players beat out undanceable rhythms and meandering riffs. Lester Young (1909–1959) and Theodore "Fats" Navarro (1923–1950) were leading bebop players. But the top performer in the new style was Charlie Parker (1920–1955), sometimes known as "Bird." Parker's wild saxophone improvisations turned tunes such as "Scrapple from the Apple" and "Ornithology" into jazz masterpieces. In 1947, Parker's quintet featured an outstanding young trumpeter named Miles Davis (1926–1991) who went on to create "Cool Jazz," the defining jazz sound of the 1950s.

Like jazz, the blues was a musical style undergoing changes in the 1940s. Black blues musicians moved north to cities such as Chicago, Illinois. There they turned the reflective, acoustic blues of the rural South into a punchy, loud, electrified urban sound. Blues performers such as Muddy Waters (1915–1983) and Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins (1912–1982) would directly influence rock and roll during the 1950s. The use of electric tape recording meant that all kinds of music could be heard in all sorts of places. Blues merged with jazz, jazz merged with country and western. From this eclectic mix came new musical styles such as rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, and honky-tonk.

Dancing Down Broadway

Jazz dance and tap dancing were an important part of Broadway musicals and musical films. In the 1940s, around eleven million people each year attended Broadway shows such as Oklahoma! (1943), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Annie Get Your Gun (1946). Choreographers such as Helen Tamiris (1905–1966) worked with composer Richard Rodgers (1902–1979), while Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) choreographed On the Town (1944), the influential musical by Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990). In the movies, dancers Fred Astaire (1899–1987) and Gene Kelly (1912–1996) became stars. Some of the most spectacular dance routines of the century were captured in such movies as Holiday Inn (1942) and the film version of On the Town (1949).

The experience of rural folk living in the city was a feature of country music in the 1940s. Country-swing bands, such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, were popular in urban centers throughout the country, including Chicago; Los Angeles, California; and Mobile, Alabama. Gradually the lines between country, folk, and pop music dissolved. Pop singer Bing Crosby (1904–1977) recorded "Sioux City Sue," a popular country song. Bluegrass brought to country music an edge similar to the effect bebop had on jazz, while country and folk music each became more cynical, melancholy, and regretful. Gospel was a popular alternative to country and a big moneymaker for record companies in the 1940s. Gospel stars such as Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) sold millions of records.

As in jazz, blues, and country, American classical composers began to experiment with new sounds in the 1940s. In the first three decades of the century, European composers had created music that was difficult and unsettling. Then in the late 1930s and early 1940s, many of these Europeans moved to the United States. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Kurt Weill (1900–1950), and Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) all had a profound influence on American music. American composer John Cage (1912–1992) was a pupil of Schoenberg. He was interested in the music of percussion, ordinary sounds, and silence. His experiments in the 1940s led directly to his most famous piece, "4'33" (four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence), released in 1952.

American Television Entertains

In the 1940s, it cost around ten times more to produce a program for television than for radio. But wartime limits on new broadcasting stations gave manufacturers the chance to improve television technology. As more and more Americans bought television sets, it became clear that TV would be a lucrative future market. In 1941, there were only around fifteen thousand television receivers in the United States. By 1950, there were eleven million. Radio networks transferred many of their popular programs to TV. Comedies such as Our Miss Brooks and Amos and Andy were early examples. Sports television broadcasts were popular, as were children's shows such as Superman. But the most popular television show of the 1940s was the Texaco Star Theater, a variety show starring Milton Berle (1908–2001). In 1948, 94.7 percent of television viewers tuned in to watch "Uncle Miltie."


Broadway theater audiences increased in the 1940s. But overall, play-going audiences turned away from drama during the decade. The political campaigning dramas of the 1930s seemed irrelevant in the face of world war. After 1945, plays were made on a smaller scale. They focused on family life and on individuals struggling with inner conflict. Personal life, rather than political struggle, was the subject of most 1940s drama.

Noted playwright Tennessee Williams (1914–1983) wrote two of the most important plays of the decade. The Glass Menagerie (1945) was his first. Characters in this play have romantic hopes and dreams for the future, but their reality is brutal and bleak. In many ways, the mood of Williams's plays matched the film noir trend in the movies. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), considered his masterpiece, depicts the interaction between characters who are all intense, frustrated, and bitter about their lives. Williams's plays are always full of illusion and disappointment.

Arthur Miller (1915–) also produced two classics of American literature in the 1940s. Miller took Williams's view of personal failure and disillusionment a step further. He attacked capitalism (the economic system of the United States), suggesting that American life can end only in personal loss and failure. Both All My Sons (1947) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman (1949) show the American Dream to be an illusion. Because of these plays, Miller was branded an anti-American. He was one of the most prominent figures to be questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s.

Besides these two rising stars, established playwrights such as Lillian Hellman (1906–1984) and Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953) continued to produce important work. O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1946), in particular, was highly acclaimed. But on the whole, drama on and around Broadway was bland and unexciting in the 1940s. Off Broadway, however, the story was different. In small theaters, high school halls, and other small spaces, drama workshops thrived. For example, future movie star Marlon Brando (1924–) began his career with Erwin Piscator's Drama Workshop. Although big productions had lost their edge, small-scale drama continued to keep its audiences interested.

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The 1940s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News