Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

by David Bordwell

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In the 1940s, American movies changed. Flashbacks began to be used in outrageous, unpredictable ways. Soundtracks flaunted voice-over commentary, and characters might pivot from a scene to address the viewer. Incidents were replayed from different characters’ viewpoints, and sometimes those versions proved to be false. Films now plunged viewers into characters’ memories, dreams, and hallucinations. Some films didn’t have protagonists, while others centered on anti-heroes or psychopaths. Women might be on the verge of madness, and neurotic heroes lurched into violent confrontations. Combining many of these ingredients, a new genre emerged—the psychological thriller, populated by women in peril and innocent bystanders targeted for death.

If this sounds like today’s cinema, that’s because it is. In Reinventing Hollywood, David Bordwell examines the full range and depth of trends that crystallized into traditions. He shows how the Christopher Nolans and Quentin Tarantinos of today owe an immense debt to the dynamic, occasionally delirious narrative experiments of the Forties. Through in-depth analyses of films both famous and virtually unknown, from Our Town and All About Eve to Swell Guy and The Guilt of Janet Ames, Bordwell assesses the era’s unique achievements and its legacy for future filmmakers. Reinventing Hollywood is a groundbreaking study of how Hollywood storytelling became a more complex art and essential reading for lovers of popular cinema.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226487892
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/02/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 592
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

David Bordwell is the Jacques Ledoux Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. With Kristin Thompson, he is coauthor of Film Art: An Introduction and Film History: An Introduction and the blog Observations on Film Art, which can be found at

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The Frenzy of Five Fat Years

The best things come, as a general thing, from the talents that are members of a group; every man works better when he has companions working in the same line and yielding to the stimulus of suggestion, compassion, emulation.

Henry James

In the summer of 1942, Radio City Music Hall screened Mrs. Miniver before its general release. An average film played at Radio City for two weeks; this one played for ten. Across five shows a day, the film drew crowds we can scarcely imagine today. The theater, the world's largest, had a capacity of 6,200. By the end of the run, 1.5 million tickets had been sold. The movie could have played longer, but the management had to move it aside for a new attraction, Bambi.

Of course Mrs. Miniver is an exceptional case. Six months after America's entry into the war, audiences were keen to see a drama of the British home front. Critics' reviews were ecstatic, and the film proved successful throughout the country. Still, the record attendance — which was said to have returned half of the film's production cost — can stand as an emblem of the sheer power of Hollywood cinema in the 1940s. For a few years the industry knew an unprecedented stretch of success before plunging into a decline that would persist for decades. And the good years, sustained by a public for whom movie going was both routine and special, would enable filmmakers to recast cinematic storytelling.

Film Frenzy

The industry had weathered some tough years during the Great Depression, when attendance and profits dropped. Some studios narrowly avoided closure. Yet the system remained robust. MGM, Paramount, 20th Century–Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO not only produced films but owned theater chains. The "Big Five" controlled a mere fraction of US screens, but they held nearly all the important ones. The biggest first-run houses, which had thousands of seats and were immense real-estate assets, served as shop windows for the studios' products.

The pace of production ensured a regular flow to the audience, but no single studio's output could fill America's seventeen thousand screens. Double bills ("duals") were common, and some programs changed two or three times a week. In exhibition the Big Five cooperated by booking their rivals' products. Since the studios' theater chains tended to group regionally, the affiliated theaters in any area could play the top films from all the studios. Columbia, Universal, and United Artists (the "Little Three" companies) owned no screens, so they had to work with the big firms' exhibition branches while finding independent theaters to show their products. Still smaller outfits, such as the Poverty Row companies, usually catered to remote houses and the bottom slots of later-run duals.

The Majors (understood at the time as the Big Five plus the Little Three) exploited their power ruthlessly. Independent theater chains might be forced to "block-book" a studio's entire annual output sight unseen. In the late 1930s government anti-monopoly intervention forced the Big Five to book in smaller blocks and to schedule trade screenings so exhibitors could see what they were buying. Yet not until the 1948 Supreme Court decision on the Justice Department's "Paramount Case" were the Big Five forced to divest themselves of their theaters.

By then the industry had seen steep ups and downs. At the end of the 1930s, the studios had just spent many millions upgrading their facilities. In 1940 film grosses, which had already been declining, fell off sharply. Attendance dropped, and the European war made Britain the only significant foreign market.

Soon, though, a huge boom began. The annual domestic audience grew from 3.5 billion in 1941 to 4.7 billion in 1946. In this world without television and the Internet, as many as 90 million movie tickets might be sold each week. (Today's totals are about a third of that, for a population nearly three times as large.) Studio profits leaped from $19.1 million in 1940 to nearly $120 million in 1946. The Mrs. Miniver blowout was only one symptom of a new surge in movie going.

The period 1942 through 1946 might be called the Five Fat Years. America's shift to a war economy in the late 1930s had begun to dispel the Depression. After Pearl Harbor, thanks to six-day workweeks and plenty of overtime, people had cash to spend. "You could sell anything you got," recalled a grocer. "It just walked off the shelves." As consumer goods from bicycles to razor blades were rationed, movies benefited. "The working public," a trade paper noted, "is finding that food, clothes, liquor, and entertainment are just about the only outlets it has for its money. ... This is turning money into the box office from people who've not been in a movie house for years."

The appetite seemed boundless. In the centers of war production, factories ran around the clock, and so did theaters, with "swing-shift matinees" starting at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. Frank Capra recalled one manager's telling him, "No matter what crap is playing, all you have to do is open the doors and duck." The programs offered one or two features, shorts, a newsreel, a cartoon, trailers, and often live entertainment in the form of musical numbers, comedians, and vaudeville acts.

Outside the theater, Americans bumped into Hollywood at every turn. Fan magazines fed the appetites of thirty-five million readers a month, and more than twice that number read Hollywood hype in newspapers. The studios cross-promoted their films with other industries, putting stars of recent releases in magazine ads for cigarettes or toothpaste. In radio, the most popular medium of the era, the studios had already secured a foothold through investment. Versions of popular films were broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre and other showcases. Some films became radio series. Dozens of radio performers moved to the big screen in the late 1930s and early 1940s, from Alan Ladd and Jack Benny to Don Ameche and, most successfully, Bob Hope.

The Majors hit on several ways to sustain the excitement. The main decision: Don't make more movies, make bigger and splashier ones. Studios began to trim their slates of B films, the sixty- to seventy-minute fillers for double bills. The cutback was partly due to government rationing of raw film stock, but it was also strategic. Exhibitors rented B films for a flat fee, while A pictures yielded the studios a percentage of the box office. In addition, A pictures played the top theaters, with higher admission prices. With A films as the stronger investment, the studios filled them with the biggest stars, whose pay rose accordingly. Standard for a first-tier star was $110,000 to $150,000 per picture (minimally $1.5 million in 2016 currency). For Notorious (1946), Cary Grant earned the equivalent of $7 million today.

For several years the A-picture strategy yielded bigger grosses. Before 1945, only twenty-five films had taken in $4 million or more. In 1945 alone, nineteen films did. The intermediate pictures, the "in-betweeners" or "nervous As," got inflated as well, by adding a star or filming in color. The movie fever fed on older blockbusters too, as studios discovered when reissues of King Kong and Snow White captured handsome revenues. Columbia, Universal, and Republic upped their game, investing in As and becoming more profitable along the way. And with the flood of viewers, the theaters controlled by the Big Five garnered a share of all studios' successes.

There were also more "specials," exceptionally expensive projects. In 1939 a $1.5 million budget was rare, but a few years later it was common, and $3 to $4 million budgets weren't unknown. To recoup costs, a special was likely to be "road showed," playing at fewer sessions per day and with top ticket prices before going into first-run release. For an ordinary A picture the studio might claim 30 to 40 percent of the box office, but the road shows of Gone with the Wind (1940) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) returned an astonishing 70 percent to their distributors.

An A film took longer to make than a B, but that didn't slacken the pace of work. Actors worked six-day weeks, and many would finish a film on Saturday and start a new one on Monday. A performer might play in six or eight films a year. Actors on double duty might commute between sound stages or studios. Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh recalled making three movies at the same time. Not all the results were released immediately, though. Because runs were extended to meet demand, nearly every year the studios had some films on the shelf.

Yet nobody was complaining. Although some films lost money, producers acted as if every film were a potential hit. Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century–Fox summed it up in deciding to do Jane Eyre (1943): "The picture will do business, and because business is phenomenal, it will recoup its cost."

To increase the must-see factor, studios acquired best-selling novels and popular Broadway plays. Retail book sales boomed in the 1940s, accelerated by the arrival of cheap paperbacks, while Broadway had thunderously successful seasons thanks to the war economy. Slick-paper magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, with circulation in the millions, also provided pre-tested material. The hunger for stories brought even pulp writers into the studios. Steve Fisher's I Wake Up Screaming sold to Fox for $7,500 in 1940; by 1946 he was a successful screenwriter and got $50,000 for another novel.

The bidding went higher and higher. Margaret Mitchell's $50,000 payday for Gone with the Wind began to look paltry. Warner Bros. bought Irving Berlin's musical This Is the Army for $250,000, and Fox paid $300,000 for the now-forgotten combat play The Eve of St. Mark. Later in the decade Annie Get Your Gun commanded $650,000. Studios invested in Broadway shows like Life with Father and I Remember Mama to get a jump on movie rights. Iconic authors James Hilton and Erich Maria Remarque supplemented six-figure sales with guaranteed percentages of box office revenues. Producers hired novelists to write books to be adapted, with MGM financing competitions for aspiring novelists. By 1944 75 percent of the Majors' releases were adaptations, and the most prestigious ones ruled critics' ten-best lists, the top-grossing lists, and the Academy Award nominations.

The crash came with changing consumption patterns. As the war wound down after 1945, commodity prices shot up without commensurate wage hikes, so workers spent more on food, clothing, and durables. Demobilized soldiers returned, started families, and moved to the suburbs. Mortgages, autos, appliances, and television sets squeezed movie going out of budgets. In 1947 profits plunged, and in 1948 so did admissions. By 1952, ticket sales had fallen 45 percent from the 1946-47 peak, and over 3,000 theaters had closed.

Moviemaking wasn't the only business that was staggering. Most entertainment industries, from nightclubs and record companies to concerts and legitimate theater, saw a sharp postwar downturn. But for Hollywood the pressure was particularly keen. While the domestic market waned, the foreign market remained largely frozen, and $20 million worth of literary and stage properties had to be dumped, swapped, or sold off at a loss. The audience drop off created shorter runs, which led exhibitors to demand more releases — at a moment when making pictures had become very expensive. In 1942 the average movie cost about $350,000; a decade later it cost $1.1 million. Meanwhile, television emerged as a key competitor. By the early 1950s TV stations were broadcasting dozens of old studio pictures each day.

Most dramatically, in 1948 the Justice Department won its anti-monopoly case, and the Big Five slowly began to divest themselves of theaters. They lost their guaranteed showcases and the revenues flowing from them. Divestment reinforced the A-picture strategy because now every film needed to be promoted singly; there were no more packages including weaker titles. Exhibitors demanded blockbusters in order to compete with foreign releases and with television.

In the studios, cost cutting was the order of the day. The Majors reduced shooting schedules and let contracts lapse. Half of contracted screenwriters in 1945 were freelance in 1948, and half of craft workers were dismissed over about the same period. Many stars, realizing they could drive harder bargains on their own, had already left the studios. Purchases of top plays and novels fell off, since original screenplays were cheaper. B films, now often made by independent producers with studio distribution deals, returned to fill dual programs.

The late forties didn't witness an utter collapse. Two of the top box office successes of the decade were The Jolson Story (1947) and Samson and Delilah (1949). And the trend toward drive-in theaters somewhat offset the loss of "hardtop" screens. Yet day by day things were sagging, and Hollywood's lean years would stretch on for decades.

The year 1953, producer Dore Schary reflected, marked "the beginning of the end of the big studio system." But the pressures favoring innovation begun during the boom years didn't abate. The need to sell pictures singly encouraged original work, such as the cycle of social problem films. Given studios' need to streamline production, more filmmakers became hyphenates, with writer-directors, writer-producers, and producer-directors gaining greater creative authority. Some of America's most original and provocative movies were made as the studios' fortunes declined.

Sources of Innovation

The stability of the system owed a good deal to disciplined production. A studio would employ several executive producers, each overseeing a batch of projects. Those were assigned to writers, directors, technicians, and staff, most of them under long-term contract. Developing the script might take weeks, months, or years, but shooting was comparatively brief — typically from eighteen days for program pictures to three months for big releases. Filming started at 9:00 a.m. and ended at 6:00 p.m., but actors came in much earlier for makeup; they often worked twelve-hour days. Rehearsals were rare, though actors might rehearse informally while lighting was being set. The director was expected to cover two to four pages of script a day, and representatives of the producer submitted daily progress reports. Postproduction — editing, scoring, sound work — might take another two or three months.

From acquisition of the story to final release, an A picture typically took a year to eighteen months. Accordingly, every studio had many projects in different stages of preparation. Every spring the studio head and his executives would settle on a set of releases for the upcoming season, which started in September. This sturdy routine allowed the eight principal studios to produce over four thousand features between 1939 and 1952. Hundreds more were released by Poverty Row and independent outfits.

Because the system was so routinized, it's sometimes compared to assembly-line output in a factory. That's plainly a mistake. The product wasn't uniform; no two movies were as alike as two cars rolling out of the Ford plant at River Rouge. Moreover, the process was quite flexible. Scripts were rewritten or passed among many hands. Failures of casting or differences of temperament could force major changes. On A pictures, the director would typically work with the writer to reshape story and dialogue. Things might be changed again on the set; powerful directors like Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey could let actors improvise, and Hitchcock could turn a deaf ear to a producer's pleas. The film could be further adjusted in postproduction, with scenes reshot, sound redubbed, and editing shaped by the producer or studio head, often long after the director had departed.

To this mode of production corresponded norms of style and storytelling. Principles of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting, and cutting scenes. In sum, American mass-market filmmaking created a distinct cinematic tradition.

Instead of an assembly line, then, a closer analogy would be painters' ateliers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There teams of specialists contributed their bits to paintings designed and overseen by master artists and guided by the demands of patrons. Another comparison would be to putting on an original Broadway show, in which script, physical production, performances, and overall concept are malleable from the first table reading to opening night and even after. In both instances, everyone's work is governed by shared protocols of subject matter, genre, and style. The comparative looseness of moviemaking, typical of show business generally, had long given film workers a chance to reshape their products at many stages.


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Table of Contents

Introduction    The Way Hollywood Told It 
Chapter 1        The Frenzy of Five Fat Years
Interlude: Spring 1940: Lessons from Our Town      
Chapter 2        Time and Time Again
Interlude: Kitty and Lydia, Julia and Nancy 
Chapter 3        Plots: The Menu         
Interlude: Schema and Revision, between Rounds   
Chapter 4        Slices, Strands, and Chunks  
Interlude: Mankiewicz: Modularity and Polyphony  
Chapter 5        What They Didn’t Know Was           
Interlude: Identity Thieves and Tangled Networks  
Chapter 6        Voices out of the Dark          
Interlude: Remaking Middlebrow Modernism          
Chapter 7        Into the Depths          
Chapter 8        Call It Psychology     
Interlude: Innovation by Misadventure         
Chapter 9        From the Naked City to Bedford Falls         
Chapter 10      I Love a Mystery       
Interlude: Sturges, or Showing the Puppet Strings   
Chapter 11      Artifice in Excelsis     
Interlude: Hitchcock and Welles: The Lessons of the Masters         
Conclusion      The Way Hollywood Keeps Telling It           

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