Throughout the 1930s, the individual Hollywood studios with their “homegrown” movie stars developed different visual and dramatic styles: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with its roaring lion symbol and boast of having “more stars than there are in heaven”, became synonymous with expensive glitzy musicals as well as romantic melodramas starring the archetypal leading man, Clark Gable. Paramount had Gary Cooper, the zany Marx Brothers, Marlene Dietrich and Bing Crosby. Gothic horror became associated with Universal. Tough gangster movies torn from media headlines found a home at Warner Bros. along with Bette Davis’s female dramas. Director Frank Capra’s patriotic themes and screwball comedies set up at Columbia. Astaire and Rogers' dancing routines, performed on lavish Art Deco sets, were firmly ensconced at RKO. And cute little Shirley Temple was the top moneymaking star at 20th Century Fox.
Each studio’s stable of big stars became cultural icons, whose movies brought to life onscreen all forms of adventure, romance and fantasy for audiences. By having actors under contract, the studios' costs didn’t rise but profits soared the more popular the actor became. By 1938 there were more movie theatres than banks within the US, and the box office receipts from those theatres totalled over $670 million per annum. The American public were well and truly hooked on the habit of regularly “going to the movies”.
As the decade ended, 1939 – as far as the major Hollywood studios were concerned – had been just another year of profitable business. However, with the release of an unprecedented bounty of quality Hollywood movies, it would mark the peak of studio system production. Amongst the ten films nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that year were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Gone with the Wind. Furthermore, alongside those nominations were yet another plethora of superb films that would have easily, in any other year, been contenders for the Best Picture category. They included Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln, Gunga Din, Destry Rides Again, The Rains Came, and a host of other exceptional films – the majority of which have all stood the test of time. As a consequence, film historians agree that by delivering such a diverse list of powerfully entertaining cinematic classics, unmatched before or since,1939 was indeed “The Greatest Year in the History of Hollywood”.
Whilst the 1939 Academy Award winners congratulated each other at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the 29th February 1940, the discussion amongst the movie moguls was the growing concern about the war in Europe and how it might impact on their international market. 40 per cent of the industry’s revenues were generated overseas and for the moguls, business was business. Subsequently, they had no intention of deliberately antagonising Mussolini’s new Roman Empire or Herr Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
But President Roosevelt had identified Hitler as a threat to American security and personally requested that Hollywood begin to feature support for Western Europe – and in particular Great Britain – within their motion pictures. For the first half of 1940, this support for Britain was historically disguised in such movies as The Sea Hawk, where Philip of Spain stood for Hitler and the Armada as the Luftwaffe. But in August 1940, the German Embassy complained bitterly to the White House about the content of English-born Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. In this movie, Joel McCrea plays an American reporter in war-torn London who delivers a clear message to America to get involved in the European conflict. It was this film that prompted an enraged Hitler to ban all American motion pictures from the European countries now under Germany’s control.
Hollywood’s gloves now came off and they stepped up their war-related productions. Tyrone Power starred in A Yank in the R.A.F., and Gary Cooper portrayed the WWI US hero Sergeant York. Future US president Ronald Reagan starred in International Squadron, the true story of the R.A.F.’s foreign legion squadron who fought in the Battle of Britain; and Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator, featuring himself as the fascist leader, Adenoid Hynkel – a direct caricature of Hitler.
However, not all Americans were comfortable with these type of movies. Amongst the US Congress and Senate were many vociferous isolationists who believed that Hollywood’s war propaganda motion pictures would drag America into another unwanted European conflict. These anti-war voices were completely silenced on the first Sunday of December, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and four days later Germany and Italy, honouring their pact with Japan, declared war on the United States.
Roosevelt’s US War Information Agency (a forerunner of the CIA) swung into action and supplied Hollywood with a list of subjects they ordered the film studios to concentrate on: The enemy – Japan, Germany and Italy; the Allies; the US armed forces; the production and home fronts.
Hollywood went to war with gusto and churned out countless patriotic war films from 1942 through to 1945. Many of them became classics, but one of particular importance as a powerful morale booster for the Allies cannot be overstated. The final scene of MGM's award-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) was set in a bomb devastated, roofless church somewhere in England. The actor Henry Wilcoxon, portraying a vicar, addresses his small congregation thus “...this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people and it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities, the villages, the factories, on the farms and in the home. This is the people’s war and we must fight it with all that is in us and may God defend the right for us to do so”. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that Mrs. Miniver was propaganda well worth 100 battleships. The vicar’s sermon was so moving that copies were printed in various languages and dropped by allied aircraft over all of occupied Europe.
America emerged from WWII as a leading global power, and Hollywood, with its massive output of patriotic films, considered it had played a vital role in the US attaining that position. Americans had flocked to see these movies in ever increasing numbers throughout the war years, and the industry had seen weekly domestic ticket sales increase from 80 million in 1940 to 90 million by 1945.
Briefly it appeared that the “war boom” of prosperity would last, as the studio system continued to work at maximum efficiency to maintain the volume of films audiences seemingly demanded. Indeed, the film industry enjoyed its most profitable year ever in 1946, with over 100 million weekly ticket sales that generated $1.7 billion gross. Amongst the 240 films released in 1946 was The Best Years of Our Lives, which won the Best Picture Academy Award. The topical film dealt with the problems of returning veterans who had survived combat.
Ironically the movie’s title would also reflect the zenith of Hollywood profits, for never again would the studios reach the heights they attained in 1946. Furthermore, a mere two years later, certain events would bring about the decline and eventual fall of the Hollywood Studio System.