1939 – Hollywood welcomes a brilliant 24-year-old theatre prodigy, Orson Welles. Though an industry outsider, Welles’ reputation earns him unprecedented independence in his filmmaking endeavors. In 1941, Welles joins forces with like-minded writer Herman Mankiewicz, cinematographer Gregg Toland, and editor Robert Wise to produce CITIZEN KANE, a thinly-veiled biography of media mogul and early studio owner William Randolph Hearst*. Despite a smear campaign by Hearst and attempts at sabotage by Louis B. Mayer, the film goes down in history as a hallmark of independent, artistic moviemaking. In 1998, the American Film Institute names CITIZEN KANE the greatest film of all time.
*In the film, Kane’s dying word is “Rosebud” – according to rumor, it was Hearst’s pet name for a certain part of his mistress’s anatomy.
1940 - War rages across Europe but Hollywood is reluctant to address it – until Charlie Chaplin dares to ridicule Hitler and Mussolini in THE GREAT DICTATOR. Chaplin’s first talking film, THE GREAT DICTATOR is a financial and critical success and the second most popular movie released that year. The Hollywood moguls, though, are less willing to confront the elephant in the room, especially following a meeting with Ambassador to the United Kingdom Joseph P. Kennedy. Wary of Hitler’s eye, Kennedy warns the moguls to hide the industry’s Jewish roots.
THE GREAT DICTATOR: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o61pWzvQMsU
1941 – The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor eliminates all hesitation to address the war. This sudden change in sentiment is reflected in a project Warner Bros. had planned as just another love story: CASABLANCA. In Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick, the film offers a fitting metaphor for America’s position on the edge of the war. Teams of writers debate the climactic final scene until the last minute to production, but the effort pays off: CASABLANCA wins the Oscar for Best Picture.
1942 – Moguls and movie stars raise American morale with propaganda, eager to stay on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s good side. Actors Tyrone Power, James Stewart, and Clark Gable enlist to serve. Studio craftsmen make training films, often featuring second-tier actors such as Ronald Reagan. Directors John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and John Huston are commissioned to make war documentaries. Bob Hope and Betty Grable entertain troops at home and abroad. In 1942, stars Bette Davis and John Garfield create the Hollywood Canteen, a highly-publicized club where off-duty servicemen can mingle with actors, actresses, directors, producers, and musicians – all serving as the club’s waiters, bartenders, and chefs. By the time the Hollywood Canteen closes its doors in 1945, it has entertained nearly three million servicemen.
HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnIJJwCUHNo
While the stories told onscreen are as bright as ever during the War, there is a growing disparity between the fiction and the reality. The films of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland portray an idealized vision of young America – one that may not have even existed, but one that was certainly worth fighting for and coming home to. During the war years, Cary Grant gains fame as the ideal leading man in both comedy and drama. But despite his onscreen confidence, Grant was a desperately insecure actor; a fractured, fabricated persona who once even admitted, “I wish I was Cary Grant”.
1945 – As the War ends and the country recovers, postwar America struggles for a new identity. One of the results of this existential conflict is film noir, a term coined by French critics to define a darker, more pessimistic type of filmmaking. Taking cues from German expressionism and hard-boiled crime fiction, film noir utilizes low-key lighting, stark black-and-white cinematography, unbalanced visual composition, non-linear storytelling, and ambiguous moral codes in which the distinction between heroes and villains is far less obvious. In film noir, the world is inherently corrupt and uncaring, and every man is fighting for himself. Film noir reflects an uncertain America, one suffering from heightened anxiety, paranoia, and alienation following World War II.
DETOUR (1945): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_mnviE7QWo
OUT OF THE PAST (1947): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H3JpJJ4bDw
THE THIRD MAN (1949): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKKq5LPnpIM
IN A LONELY PLACE (1950): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EitK0vaEWU
Onscreen, women are valued for their sex appeal, but off-screen, the War has given women a new perspective on their place in America. With the men fighting overseas, women have entered the workforce – and now refuse to leave. More and more, actresses portray independent characters struggling with changing times, such as Joan Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE. Power struggles arise between domineering moguls and stars fighting for independence.
In the mid-1940s, actress Olivia de Havilland takes Warner Bros. to court to break her unlawful, Draconian contract. The court rules in de Havilland’s favor, establishing the “De Havilland Law”, which prevents studios from trapping stars in an exclusive contract longer than seven calendar years. One of the most significant legal rulings in Hollywood history, the decision limits the studios’ power over their stars, extends greater creative freedom to performers, and enhances the influence of the agents who represent them.
The son of Russian immigrants, Lew Wasserman joins the Music Corporation of America (MCA) under its founder, Jules Stein, who made a name for himself booking big bands during Hollywood’s early years. Stein sends Wasserman to Hollywood in the late 1930s to expand MCA’s reach to include actors. As an agent, Wasserman earns a fearsome reputation as a quick-thinker and fast-talker, allowing MCA to merge with or buy out the competition. By the mid-1940s, MCA represents nearly half of all major players in the movie industry, earning the aggressive agency a nickname: “the Octopus”.
But the agency’s reach would ultimately be its downfall: when MCA acquires Universal Pictures, the U.S. Justice Department deems the agency an illegal monopoly for owning both the stars and the studio. To protect its Universal deal, MCA dissolves its talent division, splintering the agency into a dozen smaller firms, the remnants of which can still be seen in the talent management agencies of today. Wasserman maintains control of Universal and reigns as the last true mogul of Hollywood, until selling his companies off in 1990 for $350 million.
"100 YEARS OF UNIVERSAL": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aKT7o3c16k
1947 – Following a string of worker strikes and labor disputes, Hollywood earns the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC subpoenas 43 industry figures to investigate alleged Communist influence in the movie business. Ten of these witnesses, mostly writers, refuse to cooperate with HUAC's questioning and are cited for contempt. Known as the Hollywood Ten, these figures are blacklisted and exiled from the movie industry. In response, a group of A-list actors, directors, and writers form the Committee for the First Amendment – but the Committee falls to pieces as soon as the stars’ careers are threatened.
Writer Dalton Trumbo offers the ballsiest testimony in American history:
1948 – The end of the Hollywood studio system arrives with an anti-trust suit known as the Paramount Decree. Throughout Hollywood’s early years, the studios themselves owned the theaters, and each theater only showed films produced by its parent company. The studios created, produced, distributed, and exhibited the films, thus establishing an illegal monopoly. The federal government sues the studios and the case reaches the Supreme Court, where a decision is made in favor of the government. The studios are ordered to divest themselves of their theater chains.
The ruling rattles the once-unstoppable studios, putting an end to studio-owned theaters and guaranteed screenings and profits. After a decade of unmatched success, the lights dim on Hollywood’s Golden Age, just as a new light flickers in the audience’s own living rooms…