The American film business reached peak box-office popularity in 1946 grossing $1.7 billion, which was the highest record in its 50-year history, but even though popular films get released every year and history tells us that by the latter half of the 20th century American films would increase in popularity thanks to the rise of summer blockbusters, there actually was a period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s where the film industry’s future was not so certain.
One of the reasons for this was the phenomenon of television, an invention that Hollywood scoffed at in the 1930s, began to fight in the 1940s and eventually surrendered to in the 1950s. Ten million people in America owned a television set in 1952 and by decade’s end that number would increase to 50 million. This is the most common explanation for cinema’s decreasing popularity in the fifties but there were other more sinister things threatening Hollywood in this period as well.
During World War II, it was easy for the film industry to thrive because many Americans (including soldiers) sought escapism during this period of heightened tension. It helped that the government added special war taxes to theater tickets and sold war bonds in the lobby, meaning Americans who went to the movies were not only enjoying themselves but also patriotically contributing to the war effort.
Many of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers fully embraced the cause with both fictional war stories and war documentaries, including Frank Capra (the Why We Fight film series, 1942-44), John Ford (The Battle of Midway, 1942) and Walt Disney (Victory Through Air Power, 1943).
By the time the war ended, Hollywood’s relationship with the government changed.
The U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision in 1948 with U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, inc. which forced film studios to sell their theaters. In the thirties when the Hollywood studio era was at peak power, film studios controlled both the movies and the theaters that played them which sometimes resulted in unfair treatment towards certain films from certain theater houses. Even at the time, insiders knew it was only a matter of time before the government got strict about these abuses of power, especially when the amount of power held by these companies started coming dangerously close to violating antitrust laws, so the Supreme Court decision was not exactly a surprise.
Hollywood lost a bit of its prestige after this incident but it was nothing compared to what took place during the Cold War.
In addition to the death of the studio era and the rise of television, the paranoia of the Cold War era that fomented a distrust of foreigners (particularly the Soviet Union aka the “red menace”) led to a distrust for Hollywood as well. The anti-Nazi propaganda of American films in the forties plus the large number of Hollywood writers and producers who were Jewish led many Americans in the extreme right wing to accuse Hollywood of being pro-communist, especially since many Jewish intellectuals were liberal and a lot of right-wing Americans (who were frankly antisemitic) saw the effort of sacrificing American lives to save Jews from German concentration camps as not only unfair but as an aid to Soviets defending the Eastern Front.
During the Great Depression the government fought Hollywood in a war for morals due to its depictions of sex and violence. Now the government was fighting Hollywood in a social war due to its alleged politics.
This controversy led to a series of court hearings investigating communist infiltration in the motion picture industry, which actually led to a number of people being blacklisted. One group dubbed the Hollywood Ten, a group of ten producers, directors and screenwriters such as Dalton Trumbo, Rick Lardner, Jr. and John Howard Lawson, attacked the investigation against them as an unconstitutional violation of free speech, resulting in a year-long prison sentence for contempt of Congress.
The highly publicized national scandal surrounding the Hollywood Ten led to the decision by Hollywood to blacklist them and disallow any suspected communists or communist sympathizers from working on a Hollywood film.
Hollywood was in commercial trouble thanks in no small part to these scandals, and the biggest and richest studios were the ones hit the hardest.
Former king of Hollywood MGM declared wage cutbacks and layoffs, losing stars and losing property. The studios’ sound stages and lots became empty and movie theaters were being replaced by supermarkets, shopping centers and high-rise apartment buildings. The lifestyles of post-war suburbanites may have also contributed to the decline of the movie industry. Not only did the television industry see a boom but so did the music industry as record sales went up, and more middle-class families were into hobbies like golf, tennis and skiing as well.
Of course Hollywood was not going down without a fight. In the fifties they attempted to compete with television by emphasizing its advantages over television: size and technical gimmickry.
There were three major gimmicks that Hollywood used to lure audiences back to the theater, the first one being 3-D.
The 3-D technique was first used in a feature film when Harry K. Fairall’s 1922 film The Power of Love was released in the U.S., and Hollywood rushed back into the gimmick in 1952 with Bwana Devil, followed by House of Wax (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and others. This was popular for a while but the craze was brief and no longer novel by 1955, only making brief comebacks in later decades.
The second more successful gimmick Hollywood used was the widescreen format of Cinerama, a viewing experience that required three synchronized projectors on a curved screen. Initially reduced to special roadshow events and travelogues that were fun novelties, it struggled to make the jump to narrative features as the spectacle of Cinerama always seemed to overshadow more important elements like plot and characters, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey being one of the few successful endeavors (although that film was almost more spectacle than narrative). Cinerama was not the long-term salvation for the movie industry Hollywood hoped it would be.
The third and most successful gimmick was CinemaScope. Unlike Cinerama, CinemaScope did not require special projectors or multiple cameras and added fewer extra expenses. The 16×9 format was built into the equipment.
The first CinemaScope feature film was 20th Century Fox’s Biblical epic The Robe (1953), which convinced the film industry that the process was viable.
Following Fox’s CinemaScope came VistaVision, Todd-AO, Super Panavision, Ultra Panavision and others, although CinemaScope remained the standard, basically being for widescreen what Technicolor was for color, and Fox licensed the format to MGM, WB, Universal, Columbia and Disney.
While the introduction of CinemaScope was a game changer similar to the introductions of sound and color, many filmmakers adjusted to the new format smoothly and even used it in creative ways. By the 1960s, widescreen became the norm.
As for cinema’s competition with television, that came to an end in the late fifties. Although the sole purpose of 3-D, Cinerama and CinemaScope was to compete with television, by 1956 it was clear that the new medium was here to stay so the film industry worked with it instead, finally allowing stars to appear on television and selling the broadcast rights for its pre-1948 film library. Although Columbia was one of the first to jump on the TV craze with the formation of Screen Gems and Walt Disney saw the medium as an extension of his empire rather than a threat, soon WB, Fox, MGM and Universal were all producing television series.
Turned out the two mediums could coexist. People who bought TV sets in the coming decades did not see television as a replacement for cinema so much as an additional way to consume entertainment. The spectacle of going out to the movie theater has remained a popular pastime throughout all of entertainment’s biggest innovations, including home video and web streaming, and it will likely remain so for years to come.