Saturday, 13 August 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 6

Trust Hitchcock to find his own way of getting around the two second restriction that the code put upon a kiss by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman briefly interrupting their endless kissing scene in Notorious (1945) after every two seconds.

Otto Preminger

It would take the hard-headedness of an Otto Preminger to defy the restrictive rules of the code in 1954 with his film The Moon is Blue, in which he dared showing an ex-marital couple living under the same roof - which is something that was still strictly verboten. United Artists, the film’s distributor, decided to release the film without the production seal, thus setting a trend that gradually spilled over to other directors and studios. But after Preminger’s film proved to be a major box-office hit, studios had to face the fact that with the onslaught of television, and cinema attendance in rapid decline, the general public expected to be shown something that the family orientated TV didn’t yet provide. The result was an increasing disregard of the Production Code, until it eventually became obsolete altogether. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, however, that the Production Code entirely lost its impact and control over American film, to be replaced by a rating system, modelled on that of Great Britain.

1950 marked the end of the studio era and Hollywood’s golden age, and the beginning of the free-wheeling age, where independent producers and agents called the shots. The film moguls who had ruled the studios for three decades had grown old, had to face the fact that their own studios had outgrown them. They withdrew from the film industry, and in some cases were even forced into retirement, like Louis B. Meyer. The ones who stayed put, like Jack Warner, who was the last one of the first generation’s moguls to step down in 1967, were simply overwhelmed by the turning tides, and found it difficult to keep up with the ever more unpredictable tastes of the fickle public.

Jack Warner

1947 saw the dawn of television, which by 1950 had become a veritable threat to the big screen, resulting in slipping cinema attendance, which the studios, already weakened by the Government’s Consent Decree, forcing them to divest themselves of their theatre chains, found difficult to stomach. The vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition, in which Paramount’s Adolph Zukor once pioneered, was ruled illegal by the government by setting up strict anti-trust laws, which led to the disintegration of the studio system. Studios like Columbia, that didn’t own any theatres, had an easier time, as the Government’s ruling obviously didn’t affect them.

In addition to Hollywood’s considerable travails, the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) had started its hearings in Hollywood in 1947 and resumed them in 1951, sending shock waves through the film community, and the resulting atmosphere of fear that descended over Hollywood was a death knell to what it most needed to survive: art and creativity. As it turned out, the HUAC hearings were akin to the kiss of death of the already battered film industry. Founded in 1938, HUAC’s aim was to investigate all areas in American society with public exposure for their possible ties to Communism and the Communist party. Needless to say, the film industry with their millions of viewers posed an obvious target for HUAC. HUAC’s fervour cooled down during the Second World War when Russia and America became temporary allies in their war against Nazi Germany, only to resurge after 1945, which, with the world map once more reshuffled, marked the beginning of the Cold War, subsequently turning Russia from ally to enemy.

J. Parnell Thomas

HUAC, headed by J. Parnell Thomas, began its hearings in October 1947, probing the film community’s involvement with Communism and Hollywood’s possibility to insert Communist propaganda into its films. HUAC polarised Hollywood, splitting it in two – the right wing, conservative circle around Robert Taylor, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, Adolphe Menjou, Ginger Rogers, and Sam Wood, who avidly supported its doings and purpose, and the liberal, left wing group around John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall, John Garfield, William Wyler and Myrna Loy. Consequently, when HUAC picked certain film workers to take the stand, the field was divided in friendly witnesses, who were willing to co-operate with HUAC’s requests, and unfriendly ones, who refused.

Read more on HUAC and its impact on Hollywood next week!