1946: Hollywood & the Great Directors

August 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Lana Turner John Garfield The Postman Always Rings Twice Director Tay Garnett

Lana Turner, John Garfield, “The Post­man Always Rings Twice”, direc­tor Tay Garnett

The year 1939 is regarded by most film his­to­ri­ans as the pin­na­cle of suc­cess and legit­i­macy in the short his­tory of Hollywood’s Golden era. That year gave us the likes of Gone With the Wind, The Wiz­ard of Oz, Stage­coach, Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton and many more.

The man­i­fest qual­ity of these great clas­sics is evi­dent and needs no fur­ther elab­o­ra­tion here. There are a num­ber of rea­sons for the achieve­ments of 1939, chief of which was the great Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem. If 1939 was a water­shed year for Hol­ly­wood, then the next great shift came in 1946, Hollywood’s most suc­cess­ful year ever, in terms of atten­dance. The motion pic­ture had grown up in the seven years since the release of Gone With the Wind. The great change of course came about with World War II, and it’s aftermath.

Prior to 1946 the Amer­i­can film indus­try was a sep­a­rate com­po­nent in cin­ema annals—different by its sheer size, struc­ture, and its suc­cess in world film dom­i­na­tion. What hap­pened after World War II was part of a world­wide trans­for­ma­tion of both movies and soci­ety as a whole. Within half a decade how­ever, that same Amer­i­can Film indus­try was belea­guered, defen­sive, and trem­bling for its mere survival.

The End of the Great Studios

In 1938 the gov­ern­ment filed a suit with the supreme court “The United States vs. Para­mount Pic­tures Inc.”, known as The Para­mount Case. The suit con­tented that the major stu­dios held an unfair advan­tage in that they con­trolled pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and exhi­bi­tion of films through the own­er­ship of their the­ater chains. The suit was post­poned dur­ing the war and post-war years until 1948, when the high court ruled that the major stu­dios must divest them­selves of all the­ater own­er­ship. This process lasted into the mid-1950s, and was a major fac­tor in the demise of the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio system.

I have always had great dif­fi­culty with the out-of-hand rejec­tion by most with the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio method of pro­duc­ing motion pic­tures. The stu­dio sys­tem devel­oped in the 1920s, had always attracted com­pe­tent writ­ers, direc­tors and tech­ni­cal peo­ple. The Auteur the­ory, had not yet been devel­oped. The so-called authors of the films pro­duced by the great stu­dios were the col­lec­tive delib­er­a­tions of the stu­dio bosses. The film direc­tor was just another pin­ion in the great wheel that moved the movie indus­try. Though one would be hard pressed to clas­sify John Ford, Frank Capra, William Well­man, Henry Hath­away or, Howard Hawks as sprock­ets, in a great wheel. Nev­er­the­less the stu­dio sys­tem was a key ingre­di­ent in the evo­lu­tion of the great Clas­sic era.

William Wyler, Best Years

Fredric March Dana Andrews

Fredric March, Dana Andrews, “The Best Years of Our Lives”

The Best Years of Our Lives, pro­duced by Samuel Gold­wyn, it was the last great film to come out of the stu­dio sys­tem. It was direc­tor William Wyler’s first post-war film. Wyler had served in Europe dur­ing the war and made sev­eral doc­u­men­taries about the con­flict includ­ing the award-winning Mem­phis Belle, which chron­i­cled the strain of a B-17 crew on its final mis­sion over Germany.

The screen­play by Robert Sher­wood tells of three men return­ing from war to the same home­town. They rep­re­sent three dif­fer­ent branches of ser­vice and three dis­tinct social classes. The film is per­haps the most com­plete expres­sion in Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ing of cin­e­matic “real­ism”. Pho­tographed by Gregg Toland, the cin­e­matog­ra­pher on Cit­i­zen Kane it strongly favors the style of French film­maker Jean Renoir, in its use of the long take, of the mov­ing cam­era, and of plac­ing peo­ple rel­a­tive to each other in dif­fer­ent planes within the frame. It’s an epic state­ment with a run­ning time of almost three hours. How­ever, in terms of sheer pop­u­lar­ity, The Best Years of Our Lives has fared less well than Frank Capra’s It’s a Won­der­ful Life released the same year. Per­haps the rea­son might be that it is overly com­posed and much to care­fully planned. More­over, in the wake of the Viet­nam expe­ri­ence, post-combat reha­bil­i­ta­tion has become a cot­tage indus­try. Wyler’s mas­ter­piece will how­ever remain the com­plete post-World War II Hol­ly­wood film.

1946 and the Rise of Film Noir

Burt Lancaster

Burt Lan­caster, “The Killers”

1946 saw the flour­ish­ing of America’s most famous orig­i­nal style Film Noir. Dis­tinc­tive in a dark and oppres­sive visual style, and in its nar­ra­tive of des­per­a­tion and entrap­ment that defied Hollywood’s con­ven­tions of the happy end­ing, and of good tri­umph­ing over evil. With its themes of para­noia and betrayal, of sus­pi­cious inno­cence and attrac­tive guilt, of greed and desires in a world whose moral sign­posts have dis­ap­peared. Film Noir was a nat­ural out­growth of Hollywood’s post-war trou­bles. It drew its his­tor­i­cal con­text from the hard-boiled crime and detec­tive nov­els of the 1930s. The new style was able to thrive as the Pro­duc­tion Code Admin­is­tra­tion grew more lenient dur­ing the war and imme­di­ate post-war years.

The great Noir direc­tors; Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Pre­minger, Robert Siod­mak, Jacques Tourneur, et al, brought not only expres­sion­ist cin­e­matog­ra­phy, odd angles, and dark shad­ows, but also a pes­simism drawn from wit­ness­ing the rise of fas­cism in mod­ern mass soci­eties. Film Noir was shaped by the expe­ri­ence of war’s hor­rors, by the deep-rooted anx­i­eties touched off by the dawn of the nuclear age, and by the dif­fi­cult post-war adjust­ments faced by thou­sands of return­ing veterans.

Other Films of 1946

My Dar­ling Clemen­tine,in this clas­sic west­ern John Ford employs many of the styles used in Film Noir. His ster­ling adap­ta­tion about the rela­tion­ship between Doc Hol­l­i­day, and Wyatt Earp, and the OK Cor­ral is still the best film on the noto­ri­ous Tomb­stone Ari­zona gun battle.

Orson Welles’, The Stranger is about an ex-Nazi liv­ing in the sleepy town of Harper Con­necti­cut. Welles’ superb por­trayal of the psy­chotic Fritz Kindler, with a fas­ci­na­tion for clocks is an amaz­ing study in men­dac­ity and evil decep­tion. Edward G. Robin­son is out­stand­ing as Wil­son an assid­u­ous Nazi hunter who is at once aware of Welles’ cha­rade. The use of the clock motif to thread together the hunter and hunted is pure Wellesion.

The Jol­son Story, another in a long list of out­stand­ing films pro­duced by Colum­bia Pic­tures dur­ing the 1940s, and 1950s, directed by Alfred E. Green and star­ring the tragic Larry Parks. Writ­ers Stephen Longstreet, and Sid­ney Buch­man took great lib­er­ties with facts while nev­er­the­less pro­vid­ing solid enter­tain­ment. The actual singing was per­formed by the great Jolie him­self, who had much to with the entire pro­duc­tion, and Jolson’s choice of Parks for the title role was indeed a stroke of genius.

The Post­man Always Rings Twice, is a per­sonal favorite of mine. Here direc­tor Tay Gar­nett remained as true as the “sys­tem” would allow to the James Cain novel. The pro­tag­o­nist, a drifter named Frank Cham­bers nar­rates the story in flash­back much as Wal­ter Neff did in Dou­ble Indem­nity. The real tragedy of Post­man is that by the end of the film we are con­vinced that Frank and Cora gen­uinely care for one another. As the fate­ful cou­ple emerges from the court­room, we are sym­pa­thetic. Would they survive?

Rita Hayworth

Gilda”, direc­tor Charles Vidor

The Hol­ly­wood of today bares lit­tle resem­blance to the Hol­ly­wood of 1946. Much skep­ti­cism has been writ­ten about the stu­dio sys­tem; the stan­dard seven-year con­tract actors were forced to sign, the accesses of the stu­dio heads, the assem­bly line method of pro­duc­tion, and the scheme of ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion, through the stu­dio own­er­ship of the­ater chains through­out Amer­ica. It must how­ever be noted that the great Hol­ly­wood motion pic­ture indus­try did pro­duce a cul­ture that is for­ever Amer­i­can, and will for­ever be part of the remark­able “Clas­sic Period”.

A com­plete list of films pro­duced in 1946 may be sam­pled here, cour­tesy of the Inter­net Movie Database.
by Michael Mills

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .