copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
The Hollywood two: 1945 and 1946 as filmgoing's best years
reviewed by Catherine Clepper
Best Years: Going to the Movies, 1945-1946 by Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron (Rutgers University Press, 2009), 341 pages, $32.50.
Depending on whom you ask, the Golden Age of Hollywood lasted from the beginning of the sound period (1927) through to the late 1950s. The so-called Classical Hollywood period is characterized by a set of studio-dominated industrial practices, or alternately by a style of audio-visual techniques associated with the Hollywood assembly line, i.e. the “classical look.” The years 1945 and 1946 fall squarely within each of these well-worn historical designations. However, in their latest collaborative work, Best Years: Going to the Movies, 1945-1946, Charles and Mirella Affron are specifically interested in calling these years Hollywood’s “best.”
The best years? 1945, of course, marked the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the United States’ reign as global taskmaster. Within U.S. film history, 1946 holds the distinction of being the peak year of movie attendance, impressively claiming more than 90 million weekly admissions (or 60 percent of the population). These bits of information weigh heavily upon Best Years’ moniker, but as the Affrons explain in their book’s introduction, this period was richer than ticket sales and national pride.
“For many moviegoers the times coincided with their own ‘best years’; for others who came later, the movies of this period mirror an extraordinary chapter in the nation’s saga they regret having missed”(3).
Alluding to the nostalgia associated with the immediate postwar period, the Affrons colorfully suggest that generational memories of 1945-1946 have sunk deeply into the U.S. subconscious, so much so that those of us born after the fact feel compelled to relive the best years vicariously through the film camera’s misty-eyed lens.
In Best Years, the Affrons’ mix of sentiment and historical data is demonstrated by a series of thematic case studies, each situated within the allotted timeframe. As part of their research the Affrons viewed over five hundred films released or re-released in 1945 and 1946, subsequently organizing their observations into eight full chapters (15). The resulting book reveals a dizzying array of film titles and plot summaries, careful attention to trade press and popular review literature, and a general depth of situated knowledge sadly lacking from many historical surveys of the period. By means of comparison, the recently released Screen Decades imprint American Cinema of the 1940s covers 1945-1946 in under fifty pages. [open notes in new window] Each chapter is also set in a particular U.S. city, allowing the Affrons to explore the local conditions of various films’ reception.
Situated in wartime Detroit, Best Years’ first chapter “Over Here” discusses several home-front themed films as a makeshift genre for the time. Despite the citywide “brownouts” (lighting/energy restrictions) and curfews for teenagers, Detroit’s cinemas followed the lead of its industrial plants; they shut down for only few hours a day, if at all. The effects of the war on the civilian population — forced overtime, food and utility rationing, travel restrictions, furlough romances, etc. — eventually leached into Hollywood content. A series of home-front films put a small-town face on a nation-wide war effort. The genre downplayed regional or rural/urban differences by being archetypically Midwestern, middle class, and by featuring the accepted stock characters of the day,
“the [teenage] slacker, the military reject, the 'wolf' on leave, the newlywed with orders to ship out, the working woman juggling swing shifts and kids, the wayward wife, and the V-girl” (19).
The Affrons argue that though U.S. audiences, Detroit and elsewhere, enjoyed watching recognizable scenarios, the most successful home-front films were the ones that boosted morale. Working closely the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), Hollywood wisely promoted films like Since You Went Away (1944) and Tender Comrade (1943). Produced in collusion with the government as well as industry moguls, these films fashioned an image of the home-front as not only a place worth fighting for, but as an uncorrupted secret weapon in the U.S. artillery (45). By contrast, a film like The Very Thought of You (1944) suggests the impatience of home-front girlfriends and the scarcity of U.S. resources should the war have lasted much longer. Short-lived as a narrative category and fraught with bureaucratic complications, the Affrons contend that the home-front film hid the realities of civilian life from those most familiar with its struggles. Ironically, in Detroit that meant that out-of-work strikers treated themselves to King Vidor’s tribute to wartime industrial greatness, An American Romance (1944).
Like the home-front film, subsequent chapters of Best Years tackle a host of thematic categories discernable within 1945-1946’s film catalog. “Nation” details how Western, Southern, and Eastern codings of U.S. regionalism thrived during the final years of WWII. As an especially telling example of regional preference, Disney’s Song of the South (1946) became a top-grossing title in the Southeastern United States while critics elsewhere (New York Times and Chicago Defender) panned the film for its “racist depiction of the antebellum black”(61). The Affrons’ report on the Atlanta premier of Song of the South feels like an historical hallucination:
“[Song of the South’s] Atlanta opening found its incongruous way into the civic celebration of Armistice Day, conveniently the day prior [November 11th]. Walt Disney, the film’s producer, members of the cast, and Disney’s voice artists paraded down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street alongside uniformed veterans of wars past and military decoration. … Atlanta society later celebrated the film’s release at a formal gala event. There they were joined by the film’s stars — except, of course, by the African American actors James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel.” (58, 59)
Underscoring the racial and regional divisions of a nation that had just fought and won a war under a single banner, the act of reading “Nation” produces the opposite of nostalgia: disillusionment and regret.
The chapter entitled “Big Picture” dissects the content and reception of 1945-1946’s blockbusters. Deemed the “special event” or “prestige” films of their day, big pictures were then (as they are now) exceptional in potential profit and in concomitant risk. The Affrons note that while the many of the highest grossing pictures of period were family friendly fare (such as The Bells of St. Mary’s , The Song of Bernadette  and The Yearling ), several controversial productions foreshadowed the end of studio-era self-censorship. Paramount’s now forgotten Forever Amber (1947) and Howard Hughes’s notoriously busty version adaptation of The Outlaw (1943),
“indicated a shift in [popular] taste and tolerance and triggered revisions in the definition and application of oversight standards” (160).
As a counterpoint to “Big Picture,” Best Years’ section on stardom (“Stars”) recalls the wartime duties of film actors both on the home-front and the battlefield. The section reveals an increasingly sophisticated political awareness on the part of Hollywood wartime celebrities. Making impressive use of archival resources and the historical press, the Affrons cobble together a detailed account of the Screen Actors Guild’s participation in film industry labor negotiations, specifically the set designer strike of 1945, “Hollywood Black Friday.” Apart from an involvement in trade politics, the Affrons describe a vibrant ethos of wartime volunteerism amongst stars. Historical accounts of the Hollywood’s war effect tend to focus on the military successes of enlisted actors, ignoring the fact that many female stars such as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marlene Dietrich poured lemonade and offered free entertainment in places like the Hollywood Canteen, a club for the armed forces just off Sunset Boulevard. The vitality of the Hollywood Canteen and the related surge of star-driven vaudeville acts found big screen coordinates in “variety films” such as Stage Door Canteen (1943), Follow the Boys (1944), and Ziegfield Follies (1945).
Not to be completely non-traditional, “Stars” also dutifully pays its homage to Hollywood’s soldiers. The enlistment and conscription of movie personalities in the war effort had been, along with government oversight and restrictions on narrative content, crucial factors in the film industry’s patriotic overhaul. Amongst the countless B and C-list actors drafted or recruited for service, A-talent such as Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, and Clark Gable had heeded Uncle Sam’s call to become military and popular heroes. The triumphant return of Hollywood’s men-in-arms brought with it a wave of free publicity and good will towards the major studios. But, as the Affrons argue, Gable, Stewart, and the others would not be untouched by what they experienced overseas. Reporting back to work at MGM, Gable, for instance, instantly requested “that the bosses spare him from war pictures” (115). Stewart, on the other hand, aligned himself with a fellow veteran in his first postwar picture, Frank Capra’s only Liberty Films production, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
The Affrons’ interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life breathes new life into the ubiquitous holiday classic. Instead of reading It’s a Wonderful Life as a latent Depression-era fairy tale, the Affrons’ suggest that George Bailey, the man who “fought the battle of Bedford Falls,” is the first cinematic manifestation of Stewart’s “changed” postwar persona (219). Gone is the idealistic Mr. Smith of earlier Capra collaborations. For Stewart as well as for Capra (who had enlisted as major in the Signal Corps in 1942), It’s a Wonderful Life provided a creative outlet for the collective despair and disillusionment of those who had fought the good fight, only to come home an United States of close-fisted bankers and slumlords. The Affrons write:
“[In the film] the divide between benevolent and malevolent money is measured in the contrast between the working class/immigrant utopia of Bailey Park, the new, much-coveted housing development pleasantly sited on the outskirts of town, and the honky-tonk dystopia of Pottersville, the nightmare townscape that Bedford Falls would have become had George Bailey never existed.” (221)
Mirroring the housing shortages of the postwar population boom, It’s a Wonderful Life escapes the tragedy of heartless capitalism (flawlessly personified by Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter) only through divine intervention. Without the Christmas miracle that made the film famous, George Bailey becomes just another postwar statistic, much like the homecoming vet with nowhere to go.
Although Best Years contains several other chapters on topics as provocative as European productions circa 1945-1946, the burgeoning U.S. import/art film market, Gallup audience poll results of the 1940s, Jewish representation and anti-Semitism in wartime pictures, battlefront exhibition sites and projection techniques, the Good Neighbor Policy’s effect on representations of Latin America, and the popularity of filmed historical biographies, the book’s major intervention seems to come in the chapter on postwar acclimation. Foreshadowed by the stories of Hollywood’s returning vets, in “Homecoming” the Affrons finally lay down sort of analysis promised by Best Years’ title; namely, an in depth treatment of William Wyler’s gloomy readjustment epic, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of three homebound servicemen en route to their shared birthplace of Boone City, Iowa (allegedly modeled on Cincinnati). Al Stephenson (Frederic March), an infantry sergeant, returns to his middle class apartment, his model family, and his banker’s desk. Al’s postwar impatience with the calculus of bank loans puts him at odds with his former life, a tension made manifest by his newfound drinking problem. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an air force captain from Boone City’s shanty town, comes home to discover his furlough-romance bride Marie (Virgina Mayo) dancing in the town’s only “gentleman’s club.” Thanks to the meritocracy of the service, Fred is inspired to move up the civilian ladder, but he soon finds himself back at his prewar job, drugstore soda jerk. Once the high school quarterback, returning double amputee Homer Parrish (Harold Russell, a real life veteran recruited for The Best Years of Our Lives based on the strength of his appearance in an army training film) withdraws into the shell of his working class family, suddenly reluctant to marry the girl next door (Cathy O’Donnell) for fear that his disability would ruin her life (232).
Running just under three hours, The Best Years of Our Lives offered ironic tribute to thje United States' conquering heroes. Instead of painting small-town United States as a fantasyland à la The Enchanted Cottage (1945) or Blue Skies (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives is invested with the anxieties of return, the challenges to personal reconnection, and the physical and psychological fallout of armed conflict. As the Affrons cleverly note,
“Whether spectators were conscious of it or not, the measured pace of The Best Years of Our Lives asked of them a degree of attention unusual, perhaps unprecedented, in commercial cinema” (232).
America’s overriding patience with The Best Years of Our Lives suggests a general need for postwar catharsis. Without being ostracized as a “problem film” (or a film exploring social ills), The Best Years of Our Lives went on to become the cinematic anthem for 1946, taking both the annual box office record and the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Affrons refer to the film as,
“simply the deepest, most moving, most disquieting, most authentically instructive portrait of the period” (201).
Perhaps unwittingly, the connection between Best Years and The Best Years of Our Lives calls to question the entire idea of 1945-1946 as cinema’s greatest epoch. While the Affrons are quick to catalog 1945-1946’s artistic achievements, the incongruity of Best Years’ celebratory tone to the plot synopses recounted throughout the book reveals a deep fissure. Certainly, 1945 and 1946 produced a lion’s share of now canonical Hollywood films, but at what cost to our impression of historical experience? In other words, to what extent have the films like The Best Years of Our Lives become emblematic of a period that also produced such cinematic goose eggs as The Dolly Sisters (1945), Tomorrow, the World! (1944), and Salty O’Rourke (1945)? Were the rotten films of our best years merely collateral damage? And do the Affrons mean to imply that 1945-1946 were cinema’s “best years” in the same way Wyler did when he draped his ode to WWII’s forgotten heroes in titular euphemism?
As a whole, Best Years is a lucid and thought-provoking work that probes at some of Hollywood’s most iconic films; not only The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life, but Notorious (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Gilda (1946). But the book is not without flaws. The book’s emphasis on “local conditions” — the part of each chapter detailing a U.S. site of exhibition — quickly loses momentum and is largely abandoned after the first few chapters. Additionally, the Affrons’ periodization can be confusing to navigate, especially since Best Years covers far more than 1945-1946’s new releases. And finally, the Affrons spend so much energy recounting film summaries that they fail to interrogate some of Best Years most interesting postulations; namely, why 1945-1946 might be remembered as U.S. cinema’s best years, even to those who never experienced them?
Among these complaints, questions of periodization are especially irksome, in part because the Affrons are so deliberate in their selection of 1945 and 1946. Tracing wartime themes and genres back to the onset of WWII, Best Years might well have bracketed a large timeframe, or else offered greater rationale for 1945-1946 as specifically worthy of readers’ attention. Why siphon off these years only to discuss prewar titles and to constantly allude to the forthcoming Red Scare and the so-called Hollywood Ten (all of whom wrote and directed films in 1945-1946)? The afore-mentioned American Cinema in the 1940s offers an alternative glimpse at how the Affrons’ book could have operated. As part of a series cataloguing film trends by the decade, American Cinema in the 1940s is an anthology comprised of ten chapters and an introduction, each chapter offering a rigid cross-sectional analysis of a single year. This approach keeps chronology tidy but can obfuscate thematic changes over time. For instance, Kristine Butler Karlson’s essay on 1945 nicely details the popularity of domestic noirs like Mildred Pierce and Leave Her to Heaven, but without mention of the home-front genre’s continuing development (“1945: Movies and the March Home,” 140-161). Wheeler Dixon’s chapter on 1946 attributes the poor box office performance of It’s a Wonderful Life to the film’s untimely sentimentality, an analysis that misses the prewar/postwar Jimmy Stewart comparison posited so convincingly in Best Years (“1946: Movies and Postwar Recovery,” 162-181). While American Cinema in the 1940s takes film history as a series of neat annual episodes, the Affrons shuffle years indiscriminately. The effect is one of historical abstraction — holistic but a bit confusing up close.
For the classical Hollywood cinema buff that would like to know more about the immediate postwar period, Best Years is a remarkable resource. For its sheer abundance of description, the book is a pleasure to read. And once paired with Thomas Schatz’s still indispensable Boom and Bust, the Affrons’ work provides a comprehensive account of cinema’s Golden Age that easily rivals any graduate-level film seminar. That said, in many ways it is difficult to celebrate a nostalgia piece about wartime cinema without a coda: Upon Best Years’ 2009 release, the United States is still a nation at war. Would the Affrons’ analysis of 1945-1946 suggest that our contemporary war effort will spawn a burst of creative energy? (Somehow this seems unlikely.) Or was there something alchemical about the WWII period that we can no longer access as a nation of soldiers, civilians, and artists? If the United States is, indeed, still fighting the good fight and we follow the Affrons’ arguement that war produces great cinema, are our best years really behind us or still ahead?
1. Dixon, Wheeler Winston, ed. American Cinema of the 1940s: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006. [return to text]
2. Stewart’s roles in later films such as Calling Northside 777 (1948), Rope (1948) and, ultimately Vertigo (1958) will complete the postwar sea change.
3. Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
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