Movies in America: After Fifty Years

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Since the days of Porter and his one-reel thrillers, movie attendance has increased 1000 per cent, until today the gluttonous, overstimulated appetite of the movie fans consumes well over 400 pictures a year in 16,500 theaters (one seat for every 12 1/2 persons of our total population). It is to Hollywood's credit that it possesses sufficient creativity to produce perhaps half a dozen excellent films a year, and a dozen more that aim at excellence. But to service those thousands of movie houses with a change of program at least once a week, Hollywood must feed into the nation's projection machines some 40,000 miles of film a week, while grinding out 600 miles of "original" entertainment films a year. That's a lot of mileage, especially when three out of four pictures are probably retreads and beginning to wear alarmingly thin.

To service 100 million American habitués of double features (plus another 30 million in England, and millions more throughout the world), films have had to be produced in large factories with tremendous overheads. In our inflationary market a film that costs less than a million dollars is tagged as a "B" and a two-hour feature that draws on the best talents in all departments can hardly be brought in, as they say, for less than three million. With major studios producing from thirty-five to fifty features a year, film-making has become big business. But despite profits that have been mounting steadily for fifty years (depression troughs excepted), Fortune's survey of the film industry charges it with not enjoying the profits it should, considering the world-wide popularity of its product. Automobiles, it would seem, are a less spectacular but more dependable investment. So is Coca-Cola. These businesses are efficient because they have standardized their production and minimized their risks. That is good NAM talk. Now, when a single picture can gross over thirty million dollars, when total film grosses reach a billion and a half dollars a year, when the Rockefeller and Morgan interests, through their Chase National Banks, RCA's, Western Electrics, and A.T.&T.'s, control the major film factories, which in turn control the distribution systems and exhibition outlets, you are going to get minimization of risk and standardization of production.

III

ONE of the surest minimizer-standardizers over the years has been the star. Until 1910 the original movie companies which formed the first monopoly (as members of the Motion Picture Patents Company) purposely kept their featured players anonymous in the shortsighted belief that publicizing their names would encourage them to hold out for higher salaries and so increase production costs. But the nickelodeon fans were already beginning to show spontaneous signs of that fawning adoration, worshipful submission, and vicarious passion that has become one of the more significant phenomena of our high-blood-pressure culture. Forty years ago letters were pouring in requesting the name of "The Biograph Girl," or "The Man with the Sad Eyes," "The Handsome Indian," or "Little Mary." Thus the craze began. It spread, as one pioneer producer has so poetically expressed it, like wild flowers. The status-quo mentalities of the early monopolists resisted it, and perished. The enterprising independents—Zukor, Lasky, Goldwyn, Laemmle—recognized it, encouraged it, institutionalized it, and thrived.

Star worship is a sociological, psychological, pathological, and 64-million-dollar question (the net profit for last year). Since we shall probably be buried with our stars, it can even become an archaeological question. A star isn't made by critical acclaim. It is something much more basic, more frightening—essential to a people sapped by frustration. Mary Pickford's salary didn't jump from $50 to $10,000 a week before World War I because she was a fine actress (although she was one of the first to demonstrate what film acting was) but because she was America's Sweetheart. This was no mere publicity slogan. She literally was. And women didn't tear the clothes off Valentino because they were so impressed with the histrionic talent he revealed in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A provocative study of American morality could be based on our changing taste in female stars: the fluttery Victorian heroines—Gish—before World War I; the wicked (still in a Victorian sense) Theda Bara of the war years; our Dancing Daughters of the twenties—Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, Phyllis Haver; our new-found sophisticates—Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri; the Sex-without-qualms group—Mae West, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr; and lately the romanticized normalcy of Greer Garson and Ingrid Bergman with some leg-art (Grable) thrown in for the boys.

Today, if a star can act—or create a living character on the screen—it is only an incidental embellishment of his stature as a member of our contemporary mythology. More often, men and women who came to the screen as actors have had to suspend or freeze their gifts in order to fit into the fixed roles they are playing in the minds, hearts, or emotionally immature libidos of the movie fans (short for fanatics). Jimmy Cagney, for instance, was an actor before he became the God of Hard-boiled Goodness, Soft-boiled Badness, and Small-Fry Sex Appeal. Long before Spencer Tracy was deified, he went to the chair in The Last Mile, and went effectively. But he is a grown-up Eagle Scout now, the Bumbling, Practical, Hard-headed but Soft-hearted AMERICAN. Why let him play any other part, the producer argues with terrifying logic, when we already have box-office proof that this is the part the public wants him to play?

Just as Gable, whether he speaks the language of Rhett Butler or of a colloquial accounts-executive in radio, can only be Gable the Traveling Salesman, the wickedly handsome fellow it's fun to dally with but dangerous to marry, for whom every woman from Park Avenue to RFD 1 secretly longs. That Flynn? Another Traveling Salesman. Van Johnson? The King of the Cute Dates. Lana Turner may be cast as the murderously lustful wife of a hamburger-stand owner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but what she really represents is a glamorously groomed mannikin, not a tramp alive with disruptive passion as James M. Cain had written her, but a professional model in a white turban and tailored shorts, Miss Hamburger Stand of 1946, made up for her peacock walk down the reviewing ramp.

Perhaps this is what the loyal young men and women of the Lana Turner Fan Clubs of America, Inc., insist she should be. For regardless of any individuality she once possessed, she has been grooved and shellacked into a standard brand. It is the box-office magnetism of these standard brands that insure a film against the hazards of fortune that haunt all creative effort. Not the play but the star is the thing. More than any other single factor, the star has kept the business of motion pictures on its feet and the art of motion pictures on its back.

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