The US Film Industry - 1940s-1950s
In 1930, in a periodof serious economic crisis for the film industry, the major production studios also operated about 3000 of 23000 movie theatres in the USA. These showed first-run films and accounted for 70% of box office takings. The rest of the theatre owners (the independents) screened either second-run or independent films.
Independents began offering a double bill (two films in one session) as a means of increasing audiences and takings at the box office and from food and drink consumed during the two films. (Independents also tried live acts and lotteries to compete with the large studios’ theatres.)
Double bills comprised of an A film (budget c$700k+, mainstream, high production values — stars, elaborate sets etc) and a B-grade film (made quickly with a much reduced budget, eg $150k+) Although initially resistant to double bills, by 1935 the major producers had been forced to do the same and by 1947 two thirds of all cinemas were offering double bills.
Most noir films were B-grade films, a factor that contributes to its dark style with the use of low-key and fragmented lighting. Reduced lighting of the set also meant it did not have to withstand the scrutiny possible in the bright lighting of mainstream films, so could be more cheaply made and more minimal. The clever and twisting dialogue of many noir films drew attention away from the limitations of their physical surroundings
Efforts to build cinema audiences were critical also because of the advent of television. In 1947 there were 14,000 TV sets in the USA. By 1949 there were 1,000,000. The 1940s and 1950s, therefore, were a time of economic crisis for the Hollywood film industry.
- Media Studies - A resource book for Year 13 Students, Chesterman, S & Winnall, A
A ‘B-Grade’ movie is a low-budget commercial motion picture made within the studio system. In its original usage, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the term more precisely identified a film intended for distribution as the less-publicized, bottom half of a double feature.
In the 1940s, RKO stood out among the industry's Big Five for its focus on B pictures. The movie now widely described as the first classic film noir - Stranger on the Third Floor (1940); a 64-minute B-grade film - was produced at RKO, which would release many additional melodramatic thrillers in a similarly stylish vein. The other major studios also turned out a considerable number of movies now identified as noir during the 1940s. Though many of the best-known film noirs were A-level productions, most 1940s pictures in the mode were either of the ambiguous programmer type or destined straight for the bottom of the bill.
Poverty Row is a slang term used in Hollywood from the late silent period through the mid-fifties to refer to a variety of small and mostly short-lived B movie studios. The term did not necessarily refer to any specific physical location but was instead a kind of figurative catch-all for low-budget films produced by these lesser tier studios.
Film noir linked this look to its dark plotlines to express themes of shadowy motivations and bleak prospects. Using visual elements in this way to express the story is the basis of Expressionism, an extreme visual style of heightened perceptions. Its sense of drama is at the opposite pole from the style of ‘realism’. Expressionist visual techniques were pioneered in Germany during the 1920s and redeployed in 1940s Hollywood by refugee filmmakers fleeing Hitler like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Edward Dmytryk, all of whom are strongly associated with the noir style
German expressionist cinema gave film noir a mood, a visual style, and some themes. A cinema obsessed with madness, loneliness, and the perils of a barely coherent world, it emerged after Germany's devastating defeat in World War I and reflected the despair of the times. Its first major film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Nearly everything in it is highly stylized, particularly the set design, which appears to be part of a demented dream, not unlike the despairing mood of many noirs .
By the mid-1920s, expressionism had become a widely respected style, imitated by Hollywood directors like John Ford (1894–1973), and by the 1930s, many expressionist directors and technicians had emigrated to Hollywood, influencing its emergent horror genre directly. A decade later, film noir applied these same tropes of madness, despair, and disorientation to the world of "normal," middle-class experience.
Hays Production Code
The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry censorship guidelines which governed the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was originally popularly known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays.
The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), which later became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the code in 1930, began effectively enforcing it in 1934, and abandoned it in 1968 in favour of the subsequent MPAA film rating system. The Production Code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States.
Provisions of the Code
The Production Code enumerated three "General Principles" as follows:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Specific restrictions were spelled out as "Particular Applications" of these principles: