- Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover
In 1945 the Hollywood film industry stood at the pinnacle of its power. The production studios, led by MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, and 20th Century-Fox produced some 500 features a year. Each had a stable of producers, stars, directors and technical experts along with their own theater chains. Yet, within a decade this powerful dream machine had collapsed. Why this happened and how the film industry adapted to a new economic and political environment is the subject of Denise Mann's critical history of Hollywood from 1945 to 1960.
The old Hollywood studio system was, in many ways, blindsided by a series of events following WWII. Television burst on the scene and millions of Americans bought sets and stayed home. Even more damaging was the Paramount decision in 1948 that ruled Hollywood a vertical monopoly and forced the industry to sell off its profitable theater chains and dismiss hundreds of contract producers, players and directors. The political climate of McCarthyism and blacklisting further damaged the allure of the movies and robbed the industry of some of its most creative talents. [End Page 123]
Mann's analysis of the post World War II talent takeover of Hollywood production centers on two major areas—the role of Music Corporation of America (MCA) as the new industry power broker and films made by the new independent filmmakers. Many like Jimmy Stewart and Bert Lancaster formed their own production companies. MCA signed Stewart and negotiated a profit sharing deal for his film Winchester 73. Agencies became the new moguls in the New Hollywood. MCA's Lew Wassermann replaced Louis B. Mayer, the iconic head of MGM, as the most powerful man in Hollywood. MCA, which had the biggest stars and directors under contract, specialized in package deals with the studios bringing together MCA directors, actors, and screenwriters to produce multiple pictures for a studio. It made the new independents rich but also made them part of the mass production system many of them despised. By 1957 a vast major of Hollywood films were independently produced.
While there was hope that this New Hollywood, operating with independent producers would bring a more critical and adult fare to the screen, Mann notes that directors Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder and actors Lancaster, Stewart and others were now part of management and expected to produce pictures that made a profit. They found themselves locked in battle with the censors, the Catholic Legion of Decency, the MPPDA and HUAC over film content. Lawyers, accountants, talent agents and studio executives all battled the independents for production control. All these factors, Mann writes, combined to stifle creativity.
Yet, there were two areas that the New Hollywood independents could attack with impunity—television and publicity agents. Mann deconstructs two self-referential films—A Face in the Crowd and Sweet Smell of Success as prime examples of films that offered a biting critique of the entertainment industry and the capitalist system in general.
The book is thoroughly researched although, in my view, Mann's analysis of the films would have benefited by a more complete examination of industry production files. Nonetheless, by examining closely both the business practices and the films produced her work provides a unique and valuable addition to understanding this key period in Hollywood history.