Liberating the Film Industry: A Whole New World of Film

Paper by Katie Cummins.

From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, the United States experienced a number of major changes which challenged many of the country’s industries. The film industry is a prime example of an industry that suffered from these changes and was forced to adopt new strategies in order to survive in the newly transformed society. However, it was not only external changes that challenged the success of the film industry, there were also a number of internal changes which contributed to the instability. This overall struggle was exemplified in the fact that theatre attendance dropped drastically in the 1950’s. But what were all these changes that made for a turbulent time in the world of cinema? Chronologically, the first major change was the fall of the studio system which started in the 1940’s with the Paramount Case. The Paramount Case outlawed block booking and the conglomeration of Hollywood studios. The fall of the studio system disrupted Hollywood drastically because this system had served as the backbone of the industry for most of it’s existence. As explained in the text, “American Film: A Histroy”, a less structured system allowed for more freedom within the film industry but it would take time for producers and directors to adjust to a less rigid model. Just as the studio system was falling apart, the Production Code began to go down with it. As foreign films and young directors became more popular, people began to view the Production Code as a restricting force rather than a form a protection. The Miracle Decision of 1952 contributed to this trend toward less censorship by declaring film a form of art protected by the first amendment freedom of speech. Overall, the crumbling of the Production Code was only another source of turbulence and change within the film industry. Then, just as the industry was struggling internally, a major external force drew audiences away from the theaters. In the 1950’s, television became hugely popular in the United States and citizens began turning to this new medium of entertainment instead of cinema. It was clear that the classic style of film that had worked for so many years was no longer going to fulfill audience desires. A complete transformation needed to occur in order for the industry to bounce back. Luckily, that much needed change arrived and characterized one of the most significant transitions within film history. A transition we now refer to as the jump from “Old Hollywood” to “New Hollywood”. A cultural revolution within America, popularity of foreign film, the rise of television, and the fall of the studio system triggered the transition from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood; a time in which filmmakers began to push the envelope of censorship by exploring less conventional themes, more realistic violence, and more sexual content within films such as “Coming Home” and “The Godfather”.

Arguably the most defining element of New Hollywood was the exploration of new themes and stories within film. Prior to the 1950’s, filmmakers were creating films that they knew would cater towards large and diverse audiences in order to increase revenue. This meant simple story lines, conventional themes, happy endings, and safe content. “The 1950s and early 60s saw a Hollywood dominated by musicals, historical epics, and other films that benefited from the larger screens, wider framing and improved sound”(New Hollywood, Wikipedia). “The Sound of Music” is a great example of an Old Hollywood styled film that attracted a broad audience due to it’s traditional storyline, enjoyable music, and large scaled cinematic elements. It is films like these that dominated the early film industry because they were financially promising in an industry that was driven by profit. The film industry would be controlled by money for as long as the studio system was in place. This was a system in which 5 major companies controlled all the production and distribution within Hollywood. These companies known as the “Big Five”, essentially owned the film industry and therefore extinguished the possibility for success amongst smaller and independent filmmakers. For this reason, the same actors and filmmakers were making all of the films available to audiences. Inevitably this lead to repetition in story and style. Due to a number of forces following World War II, mainly the trend towards deregulation in business and major legal decisions, the studio system was forced to break apart. In other words, the doors of opportunity were now opened to new directors, actors, and filmmakers. This led to a sudden influx of young directors with innovative and modernized perspectives and a taste for realism. It was these young directors that really triggered the major style transformation within the industry. Many of these younger directors were at the forefront of major movements and cultural revolution within America. The post-war period was a time characterized by encouraged experimentation and freedom. Young directors sought to apply this mentality to the films which they were creating. They completely diversified the film industry. “Coming Home” was one of the films that resulted from this trend towards depicting realism and culturally relevant themes.

“Coming Home” is a prime example of a film that authentically portrayed America in the post World War II period. This film is about a woman named Sally who’s husband goes off to serve as a captain in the war. While at home, feeling lonely and disconnected from her husband abroad, she decides to volunteer for veterans who are suffering from the effects of the war. The many scenes in the veteran’s hospital display to the audience how terrible the aftermath of the war really was for these men. The film highlighted both physical and mental disabilities through the two main male characters in the film. As the film progresses, Sally’s husband falls into a state of deep depression and mental instability. This decline into darkness is hard to watch. The director, Hal Ashby, strategically creates an emotional connection between the viewer and Sally’s husband, Captain Hyde. By introducing Captain Hyde at the beginning of the film as a loving and happy husband, the audience is quick to characterize him as a good man. Therefore, when we see him transformed after that war, there is an element of surprise and disbelief. Then by connecting his spiral downward to his relationship with Sally, the story becomes even more emotional and loaded. It’s as though the audience is put in the shoes of an American citizen who is watching their loved ones suffer from this awful fight. For that reason, this film could not have been more relatable to audience members during it’s 1970’s release. Unfortunately, this was a universal storyline experienced by the United States home front after the war. The conclusion of Sally’s relationship with Captain Hyde is heart breaking. Back from the war, Captain Hyde doesn’t know how to adjust to reality. We see him brewing with anger and confusion as he tries to understand how to live a life without battle and destruction. The most symbolic scene throughout the whole film is when Captain Hyde ends his own life. Dressed in his captain uniform he walks down to the beach. As the audience watches him starring off into the vast ocean, we hopelessly sympathize with his lost soul. Then slowly he undresses from his uniform, representing his desire to die a normal man, and he walks off into the ocean. Instead of explicitly showing his dead body, the director leaves it more mysterious and ambiguous. At this point the viewer is overwhelmed by sadness but there is also a sense of relief knowing Captain Hyde would no longer suffer. By bringing the viewer through this emotional journey, the director illustrates the pain and helplessness felt by so many American’s who lost their loved ones either mentally or physically. This dark story and it’s stark ending distinguish “Coming Home” as a New Hollywood style film. This raw and revealing depiction of real challenges would likely have not been a popular story for produces to pick up in Old Hollywood. New Hollywood was a time in which filmmakers began telling stories for the purpose of informing and impacting society as a whole. Film was no longer solely about entertainment, it’s purpose broadened as stories became more authentic.

Aside from generally covering less conventional themes, New Hollywood films distinguished themselves with the inclusion of more sexual content. In the 1930’s the film industry came together to form a model of universal censorship, aiming to protect audiences as well as the industry from government intervention. “The result of this self-regulation was a system of self-censorship known as the Production Code that influenced film content from 1922 to the mid-1950s” (The Film industry and Audiences). During this time, sex could not be explicitly shown in film and directors had to be creative in depicting sex. Old Hollywood films portrayed sex in a very traditional and conservative way by limiting it to an act of marriage. This, of course, reflected the cultural view on sex during this time period. However, moving into the 1960’s, sex was redefined as a liberating act for individuals to enjoy and explore. It was no longer reserved for married individuals and the dialogue about sex became open and encouraged. This shift in cultural perspective was directly applied to films. Producers of New Hollywood films began to test the limits with sexual content by including more revealing scenes as well as less traditional sexual relationships. In “Coming Home” the relationship between Luke, a Veteran who lost his legs in the war, and Sally is a great example of the unique sexual relationships permitted by the explorative New Hollywood filmmaking mentality. First of all, Sally is a married woman who is engaging in sexual activities with a man other than her husband. Also, Luke is severely disabled, adding an unusual element to their sexual relationship. The director clearly found it important to highlight the pleasurable sex life between Luke and Sally. The main sex scene is lengthy and includes obvious nudity. Something that made this sex scene unique from the standard sex scenes in Old Hollywood was it’s focus on the woman’s enjoyment of the sex. The scene also portrays Sally having an orgasm and alludes to engagement in less traditional sexual practices between the couple. This free and pleasurable sexual relationship can represent the freedom of filmmakers in “New Hollywood”. For the most part, audiences embraced this shift towards more sexual content in films. Ultimately, the Production Code was abandoned in 1966 because it simply had no place in a society seeking and embracing liberation.

The inclusion of more realistic violence in film was one of the most defining aspects of the change from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood. This reflects the fact that New Hollywood style film was founded upon the idea and desire for less censorship. In Old Hollywood, filmmakers were constricted due to the Production Code and it’s strict limits on violence. This severely narrowed the stories that could be told through film and weakened filmmaker’s ability to depict realism, as violence is a part of the real world. The Production Code essentially limited killing to quick shootings with little blood and graphic depiction. Old Hollywood did include scary films but they were very conservative in content and directors had to be creative in order to build the fear amongst their audiences. However, this creative build up of suspense was no longer enough for American audiences after being exposed to foreign films. The United States film censorship was much more intense than that of foreign countries and therefore these foreign films included much more violent content. American’s, never having been exposed to such violence in films, expressed their excitement and desire for America to adopt a looser censorship model. In order to pressure the Production Code Administration in this direction, producers took the matter into their own hands and starting incorporating more violence into their films. In films such as, “The Godfather”, death was shown more and in new ways than ever before. One of the most memorable graphic moments in film is when Woltz wakes up in bed drenched in blood. He panics and with confusion searches his bed for the source of blood. Then at the end of the bed he sees a decapitated horse head oozing blood. This eerie and disgusting scene provokes a sudden and intense reaction from the audience, one that would not have been accomplished using the more restrictive Old Hollywood film violence. In analyzing this film, one notices that the strategic inclusion of bizarre violence in scenes such as the horse scene drives the film. The director of this film, Francis Coppola, redefined the crime genre by depicting unusual killings and disregarding the morality of his characters. The crime and horror movie genres proved to be widely popular amongst audiences as violence became more prevalent in New Hollywood films.

When analyzing this change from Old Hollywood styled films to New Hollywood styled films it is evident that the idea of freedom was present at it’s roots. There was a whole new world of film that hadn’t yet been explored due to the restrictions of the Production Code and the mainstreaming of ideas within the film industry. Had this transition not occurred, our entire world would be different today. Due to the immense increase in filmmaking freedom, film has become an incredibly effective way to relay messages, unify the world, educate people, inspire people, and shine light on the truth. In conclusion, a cultural revolution within America, popularity of foreign film, the rise of television, and the fall of the studio system all contributed to the birth of a new and liberating style of film, known today as the New Hollywood style.

Works Cited

Bower, Eileen. Charles Harpole, ed. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. History of the American Cinema 2. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Schatz, Thomas. Charles Harpole, ed. Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. History of the American Cinema 6. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Monaco, Paul. Charles Harpole, ed. The Sixties: 1960-1969. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001. History of the American Cinema 8. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

“Fall of the Studio System / Useful Notes – TV Tropes.” Fall of the Studio System / Useful Notes – TV Tropes. TV Tropes, n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.

“THE FILM INDUSTRY AND AUDIENCES.” The Film Industry and Audiences. Film Reference, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.

Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

“New Hollywood.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.

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