Cinema and Media Studies American Cinema, 1939-1975
by
Sarah Kozloff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0028

Introduction

From 1939, when World War II started in Europe, to 1975, when the mega-success of the blockbuster Jaws put an end to what we might call the American “New Wave,” the US film industry traveled through precipitous peaks and valleys. During the war years Hollywood joined the fight: cooperating with government, raising morale, and selling war bonds. In terms of both the enduring quality of the films produced and their popularity with the public, 1939–1945 were miracle years. The immediate postwar period of 1946–1948 saw box-office record highs, calculated at roughly ninety million weekly admissions. However, the bubble burst immediately. Labor strikes at the studios eroded the fiction of a happy company town, and the Consent Decrees signed with the Justice Department in 1948 in the case of U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. broke apart the studios near-monopoly on production, distribution, and exhibition. Power relations shifted as talented actors, writers, and directors hired powerful agents and moved from project to project, rather than serving under long-term studio contracts. The film industry’s prestige and health were further eroded by cultural changes such as anticommunism (which led to high-profile congressional hearings and the blacklisting of hundreds of filmmakers), the baby boom, and the rise of other leisure-time activities, including the introduction of television. While various postwar genres such as the newly created crime thrillers termed “film noir” or the superheated family melodramas captured the unease of postwar America; other genres, such as Technicolor musicals, tried to sing this malaise away; and big-budget spectacles tried to reassert the production quality of American movies, box-office grosses and attendance fell precipitously. Yet, in the darkness of the early 1960s, a new style of filmmaking was budding: American film was revitalized by the influence of foreign film movements, the creativity of a new generation of filmmakers, and the growth of a youthful and college-educated demographic of fervent cinephiles. The stylistically innovative films of the late 1960s and early 1970s displayed the same antiauthoritarian stance as the civil rights, youth, and peace movements sweeping the country, and these movies regained the attention of critics and audiences. Although the “New Wave” filmmakers continued making films into the late 1970s and 1980s, in Jaws and Star Wars (1977) the newly reorganized studios saw a recipe for financial success that effectively changed the rules again and ushered in the summer blockbuster, action spectacles, and more conservative films of the later decades of the 20th century.

Textbooks and Overviews

Although all histories of World Cinema include multiple chapters on the United States, readers are better off choosing a history that concentrates on the rich development of the medium exclusively in this country, because such volumes specialize in showing how the changes in the films are tied to the changes in American society. Sklar’s pioneering Movie-Made America began this work in 1975; he subsequently updated his volume (Sklar 1994). Belton 2012 retold this story in a textbook, organized by genres, originally written in the mid-1990s and designed to accompany a series of DVDs produced by PBS. Lewis 2007 has provided an updated overview on the history of American cinema, concentrating on industrial and financial matters. The three books listed above cover the sweep from the invention of cinema to the present. All of these trace the shift in production practices, from the “producer unit system” of the studios to the “package unit system” dating from around 1955, during the studios’ decline. By contrast, the volumes of the History of the American Cinema series (1999–2006), supported by an National Endowment for the Humanities grant and supervised by a sterling editorial board, provide the most detailed overviews: Schatz 1999, Lev 2006, Monaco 2003, and Cook 2002 each focus only on a single decade, from the 1940s to the 1970s, respectively. The History of the American Cinema series, which has won awards, includes the latest research, the most comprehensive bibliographies, and the most reliable statistical data, yet the volumes are lavishly illustrated and very readable. Lucia, et al. 2011 offers a different pathway: this anthology, part of a multipart series, offers introductory historical chapters and then turns to multiple contributors, each of whom writes about a single topic of importance during these decades.

  • Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

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    Now in its fourth edition, this beautifully designed volume is full of teaching paraphernalia. It proceeds thematically, rather than chronologically, incorporating the latest theories about historiography and the intersection of American film and American culture though detailed studies of genre and technology. It was originally written to accompany the PBS series American Cinema (1995), so readers can watch DVDs alongside reading the textbook.

  • Cook, David. Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970–1979. History of the American Cinema 9. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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    Cook covers auteurist cinema, blockbusters, changing technology, and style and genre revision. Extra chapters treat exhibition, documentary, and the avant-garde. See Kutler 2010 (cited under Historical and Sociological Background).

  • Lev, Peter. The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950–1959. History of the American Cinema 7. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

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    Covers the troubled years when the studios sought for solutions to the changing landscape. Chapters by specialists focus on science fiction, the blacklist, and the impact of television, documentary, and experimental cinema.

  • Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: Norton, 2007.

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    This version of the story focuses particularly on the intersection of profits and artistry. It covers genres and directors, provides close readings of key films, and includes salutary chapters on women screenwriters and directors who have never gotten their due.

  • Lucia, Cynthia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon, eds. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. Vol. 3, 1946 to 1975. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

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    Not a narrative textbook, but an anthology of articles written by experts. Essays discuss directors such as Billy Wilder; stars such as Natalie Wood; and genres including teenpics, cult films, pornography, documentary, and blaxploitation. Although some of the choices are rather quirky, this book includes important coverage of the role of critics and the changes in film culture. See Genres.

  • Monaco, Paul. The Sixties: 1960–1969. History of the American Cinema 8. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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    Covers the years from Hollywood’s nadir to the height of the American New Wave, focusing on “the runaway audience,” the male domination of the screen, and the demise of the Production Code and rise of the Ratings System. Includes chapters on nonfiction film and the avant-garde from different contributors.

  • Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s. History of the American Cinema 6. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

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    Covers the years spanning from prewar to postwar, and includes special chapters on documentary, television, and avant-garde film by specialists in those fields.

  • Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. New York: Vintage, 1994.

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    Originally written in 1975, and then revised and expanded in 1994, this has been a seminal text for understanding American movies and the effects they have had on American society.

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