Tuesday, August 4

Movie-Making in the 40s

We have concluded a year of discussing movies of the 1960s.  Now it's time for a look at the 1940s, a decade often and rightfully referred to as Hollywood's Golden Age.  Movies truly arrived in the 40s.  It was the shiny example of what a glorious goal looked like when it came true.  All that work... all the learning and fiddling... all the fretting and hoping... all the jockeying for positions.  Movies had come a long way.  In this decade the color process improved and outdoor adventures and musicals were something to behold.

Some of the greatest professionals were in residence.  The 1940s brought us the great movie stars... the really great movie stars.  We have never seen the likes of them since, certainly not as a group.  Some of them were brilliant actors who also set the bar for generations to come.  But most were movie stars of the first order.  I plan on discussing as many as I can. 

And this is not just to speak of the very famous movie stars.  The 1940s gave us the greatest batch of character actors ever and I want you to get to know some of them better too.  Characters actors certainly did give a movie character and they usually knew how to make that star look even starrier.  Of course we have already done a number of postings on stars of this decade but trust me, we have a long way to go.

Of course we will continue our postings on the directors of the period... again, some of whom we have discussed before.  What I enjoyed the most about so many directors from this period is that they had a style... maybe they did mysteries or comedies or westerns or musicals.  Maybe they directed stories of the common man and his everyday plight.  Maybe they gave their films a signature look. (Much of the black and white photography of the era is breathtaking.)  Many directors made films with the same people, some before the camera but most behind it.  In those days when someone said it was a Hitchcock film, you knew where we were going.  Many directors joined the war effort and made combat documentaries.  The directors associated with the 40s are revered to this day, the guardians of high standards.

I have always given the 40s my highest respect for the stories.  My, my, could they write something that seemed to seep into one's soul.  So many things in those days seemed original, too, and why not because they were often from the pens of brilliant writers.  The big four studios (MGM, Warners, 20th and Columbia) hired the best.  Some were famous novelists down on their luck and a good amount of the screenplays were based on famous novels coming to the screen for the first time.

Colbert, Goddard & Lake in "So Proudly We Hail"

As I think of this decade, I find myself focusing on four types of films...  war movies, women's pictures, musicals and film noir.  It would be more than just a few films that would encapsulate several of those types.

Half the decade was certainly devoted to war and the film community jumped in with great relish.  Even after the war, there were many films that dealt with re-entry into civilian life.  If movies reflect real life, it was never better seen than in war films.  Not all are about combat either.  A great many deal with personal issues, handling life as a soldier or leaving a girl behind.

When films of the 40s were called women's pictures, we certainly do not mean a chickflick.  In this day and age a chickflick is generally thought to mean a romantic comedy... not always, but usually.  Women's pictures of the 1940s were about women's issues and they were dramas, not comedies.  Perhaps they were about war.  Maybe she was in the war but more often she was at home, trying to make a life of her own and longing for her serviceman husband.  But certainly women's pictures were about love and sentimental journeys which is why the 40s are jam-packed with beautiful love stories.  If it happened to be a film noir, then the woman was treacherous and beautiful and often a murderess.   What other reason could there possibly be for having so many formidable actresses?  No other decade has seen the likes of these women.

Part of the reason for the popularity of women's pictures has to do with fashion.  It complemented the movies as much as the movies complemented fashion, which certainly includes makeup and hairstyling.  Three actresses strike a chord for me when I think of the 40s look.  There was Veronica Lake with her peekaboo hair, Gene Tierney and the hats she wore in Laura and most of all, there's Joan Crawford.  If she, with her shoulder pads and open-toed (CFM if it suits you) pumps, exemplifies the 40s woman for me.

Gene Tierney hatted as "Laura

We know, ye faithful readers, that I adore film noir.  They are mainly products of the 1940s (and some 50s).  When the cynicism of life and war got to super strength, film noir came into being, becoming one of the most popular American genres of all time.  It gave new life to the careers of Humphrey Bogart and boy crooner Dick Powell and established careers for actors such as Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Alan Ladd and Dana Andrews and glamorous noir actresses like Gloria Grahame, Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott and Veronica Lake.  Bogart and his fourth wife, Lauren Bacall, made all four of their noir films in the 1940s.  We won't discuss here because I did that once, in detail.

This was a patriotic decade, to be sure, but it was also one in which filmgoers liked escape and there's no better escape than a musical.  We may have marveled at the brilliant emoting of a Hepburn or a Davis, but when it came to selling tickets (and helping toward those War Bonds), the names bandied about more were Grable and Hayworth.  They were the ones whose images adorned fighter planes and tasty pictures were on the insides of lockers. 

Gone flying with Grable

And those musicals... oh my I loved them... and in the days before Rodgers and Hammerstein, no less.  These were the days when the public flocked to musicals.  I loved the musical movies because of the great 40s music, The Big Band era.  There's never been another time like it and it was before my time.  All studios did musicals... they had standard producers who did musicals, the same for directors and stars as well.  Grable was at 20th, as was John Payne, June Haver, Alice Faye, Dick Haymes.  Columbia had Hayworth.  Warners featured Cagney, Gordon MacRae, Doris Day, Dennis Morgan.  Goldwyn turned out many a musical with Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and Vera-Ellen.  Universal had Deanna Durbin.  Jane Russell reigned at RKO.  Paramount had Betty Hutton.  Everyone else who could sing and dance was at MGM.  Don't make me name them all.

If musicals weren't enough of an escape, there were plenty of comedies around and for 80 minutes you could laugh your cares away.  If Abbott and Costello didn't melt your Milk Duds, there was always Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.  If you were movie-wise, you might have become a regular at director Preston Sturges' outrageous comedies.

Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, Grable and Bogart were six of the most popular stars of the 1940s.  There were 15 in all... the others were Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Greer Garson, Ingrid Bergman, Gene Autry and Van Johnson.  The inclusion of Autry astonishes me and Johnson requires an explanation.  With so many of the A-male stars off to war, those who stayed behind for whatever reasons stepped into their places.  That's how Johnson made the list.

Actually the early 40s were not looking all that promising for the film industry.  After Pearl Harbor, America lost its foreign markets for films and revenue greatly suffered.  During the years 1943-46, however, things rebounded and technical aspects of film-making improved to a large extent, ushering in the modern era.

The second half of the decade saw Hollywood fighting its own intense battles.  Washington's Un-American Activities Committee
saw a communist under every Tinseltown bed and many careers suffered or were aborted.  The studios and unions battled over control.  Then the feds and their antitrust act declared it illegal to block-book films and the studios were required to divest themselves of the theater chains they owned.  It certainly played a role in the downward spiral of the studios.  By the end of the decade, there was a new 2-letter expression that was on the lips of many... TV.

One of the best things the studios did was make B movies.  B does not stand for bad... or not usually.  They were actually a training ground for the largely untested actor, writer or director.  It was a place execs could see how someone performed his or her job.  If they did well in two or three B pictures, they were moved into prestige films,  If not, they were often let go.  For the public, they were good, too, because in those days folks went to double features, and one would be the B flick.  The output of movies in the 1940s was staggering. I respected the studio days because of the grooming that took place and that grooming and careful inspection and intermittent chats with the big boss brought about folks who tended to be good at their jobs. 

Because studios were so vital in the 40s, we are going to do a new segment while we discuss this decade.  Every now and then there will be a posting on a specific studio.  At the moment I plan to do pieces on 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., MGM, Columbia, RKO, Universal, Paramount, Goldwyn Studios and Republic.

Censorship was strong in the 40s and got stronger as the decade went on.  Not being fond of censorship, I was never crazy about how they handled use of language or sex.  I always thought the staging of violence was about right.  Perhaps I am more conservative on violence but more liberal on language and sex.  I'll think it over.  As fond as I am of movie work in the 40s, the treatment of sex and language was just completely idiotic.  A married couple is in twin beds.  If in the same bed, someone must have a foot on the floor.  Don't show or mention that someone is pregnant.  Watch those bathroom scenes.  One man shoves the butt of a rifle in another's face and the latter says, golly that hurt.  Wow, those were the days.

The most decorated film of the 1940s was William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  It won nine Oscars.  The most financially successful film of the decade was Fantasia (1940).

The 10 films to win Oscar's best picture were:

1940 - Rebecca
1941 - How Green Was My Valley
1942 - Mrs. Miniver
1943 - Casablanca
1944 - Going My Way
1945 - The Lost Weekend
1946 - The Best Years of Our Lives
1947 - Gentleman's Agreement
1948 - Hamlet
1949 - All the King's Men

Only one of them will we discuss as the subject of its own posting.

Next posting:
Death of a Film Noir Actress

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