Into the Shadows: 1940-1950
EXT. NIGHT. A DARKENED STREET.
Your HOST steps out of a murky shadow, wearing a trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat. He approaches you slowly, lights a cigarette, and then trips on the edge of his coat. Giggling, the mood completely ruined, he gestures for you to follow him inside where he has a pot of tea waiting…
The 40’s were an odd decade. WWII showed up and put film production almost to a standstill while resources and manpower went to serving the war effort. So we get the decade starting off incredibly with the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca, which I’ll get to in a bit, and then tapering off and then returning in full force with a bunch of incredible films in the late 40’s that send Hollywood hurtling headlong into the monumental grandeur that will characterize the 50’s.
The 30’s are considered Hollywood’s Golden Age. One of my sources, David Shipman’s The Story of Cinema, devotes three chapters to looking at the Golden Age in depth by studio. As we saw last week, the Golden Age was characterized by spectacular sets, iconic characters, lush visuals, and the perfect iconography for a culture desperate to escape from the reality of the Depression. But once this focus on spectacle and beauty began to wear on people (because let’s be real, too much sugar causes diabetes), the trend was to more thoughtful, more introspective films that spoke to people about topics with greater meat in them. This is also where we see the noir genre, which would have as much of an impact on American culture as jazz music, flower into being (though I admit it is a shadowy, cynical flower pinned to the hat of a sultry femme fatale).
This metaphor isn’t the best, so I’ll leave it there.
Let’s start with Disney because the 40’s were an odd time for that studio and I REALLY like what they did then.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) gave Disney MAD amounts of street cred and so he went on to make Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940), leaping back and forth between the two projects (and even leaping ahead to a future project, Bambi (1942). Pinocchio was a million times bigger than Snow White, but it was almost too ambitious at times. Fantasia was highly experimental and strange (classical music set to animation that ranged from the abstract to the highly narrative?) but it kept drawing Disney’s attention away from Pinocchio because he felt that animation needed to be taken seriously as art and not just entertainment and Fantasia was the chance to prove that.
Well, Pinocchio failed to impress audiences (even though critics adore it now for its incredible visuals) and nearly bankrupted Disney. Fantasia, also, stumbled on its release as it was never able to reach the European market due to the outbreak of WWII, and its expensive theatrical technology (called Fantasound) kept it from really making a splash with the public (even though critics at the time greatly respected the film). Things weren’t looking good.
So they made Dumbo (1941), another idea that had been bandied about in previous years. The plus was that Dumbo was short and was very inexpensive to make. It was a back-to-basics story that kept the focus on the heart of the story (I DARE you not to cry during the “Baby Mine” sequence. *sniff* I tear up just thinking about it…) and it worked. It was a smash success and saved the studio who went on to make Bambi (1942), which tragically did not wow audiences, despite the fact that it won three Oscars and is one of the most beautiful Disney films ever made (I’m a bit biased because I love it, but whatever).
Anyways, the years after Bambi were weird and saw the release of a series of anthology-type films like The Three Caballeros (1944) and Make Mine Music (1946) which allowed the studio to keep creating films with a reduced staff (as America had entered WWII by this point and many animators left to fight in Europe). Disney wouldn’t make another full-length animated feature film until 1950’s Cinderella, but that film would never have been made without the funding garnered from the anthology films before it that managed modest success.
Outside the world of animation, lots of good stuff was also going on.
The beginnings of the 40’s were incredible. Even if you haven’t seen Citizen Kane (1940), you’ve heard of it. Until a few years back, it was considered the greatest film ever made., and when you watch it, you can immediately tell why. Every visual cliche that we see in every single movie nowadays can be found in this film. My college film teacher told us that Citizen Kane might appear sort of boring and ordinary upon first viewing because so much of its visual vocabulary has become idiomatic by now. But at its time, the New York Times hailed it as “far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon.”
It has the opulent grandeur of the 30’s, but there’s an intense criticism of said grandeur. Whereas amidst a Fred and Ginger dance number, that kind of beauty was transporting, in this one, it seems hollow and empty. Charles Foster Kane lives the American Dream to its fullest heights, becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful and losing touch with all the people in his life, dying lonely and unfulfilled. His mysterious final word, “Rosebud” becomes the spark that lights an intense investigation to figure out just who he was, revealing the story of his rise to power in the process. It’s a FANTASTIC film and you need to watch it if you haven’t.
It demonstrated a dramatic shift in what film could be. It could be cynical and it could plumb some pretty bleak depths that weren’t disguised by a vampire or other defeat-able foe. I don’t know if this is the film that actually spawned the move towards darker more thoughtful films, but it definitely signaled that change.
Another one that bears notice is Casablanca (1942), a beautifully crafted film that literally tells the story of WWII in microcosm. Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary Rick is literally America not wanting to get involved in the war…but like he has to. It has a stage theater feel to it that really connects you to its amazing cast of characters (I’m especially fond of Claude Rains’ Louis Renault, the corrupt French officer who follows whoever has the biggest gun). There are no fairy tale endings, and the film’s sole “big” musical number has an angry but proud nationalistic fire that makes you wish you were French just so you could sing and sob along with Yvonne. The New York Times called it a “rich, suave, exciting, and moving tale,” and it hasn’t lost any of that awesomeness in the subsequent years.
But I mentioned film noir earlier, didn’t I? Where did that actually start?
It actually started with The Maltese Falcon (1941), a delightfully atmospheric detective story featuring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, who is trying to get to a priceless artifact before the competition (a trio of sneaky and dangerous villains) gets to it first. Shadowy lighting, unusual camera angles, and morally ambiguous characters were nothing new before this. We’ve seen them plenty throughout film history, but with this film, those elements came together in such a way (under the expert direction of newcomer John Huston who planned every shot diligently) that it had a profound effect on audiences who were seeking to understand the anxiety creeping through the world as WWII grew nearer and nearer.
Once the Pearl Harbor attack brought America into the war, Hollywood’s output shifted to supporting the war effort. Instead of the distracting musicals of the 30’s, many films during WWII dealt directly with the war. There were exceptions, of course (I’m looking at you, Meet Me In St Louis from 1944!), but it’s obvious, for the most part, stories of underdogs triumphing over the Nazis and other Axis powers were what people wanted to see. The end of the war was a period of triumph, but America’s exposure to the effects of insidious and dangerous ideology in Europe led to a persistent era of anxiety over communist and Nazi influences in America that persisted into the 1950s.
It was in this postwar period that film noir really took off. It was the perfect metaphor for a wounded generation of surviving soldiers and their families. Morally ambiguous characters who were well aware that life wasn’t all musical numbers and flashy dresses became the favorites. This is where we get directors like Billy Wilder releasing films like Double Indemnity (1944) which features a gorgeous wife plotting to kill her husband to claim the insurance money, and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1945), a Raymond Chandler adaptation featuring a complex web of deceit, murder, and theft. These movies are FANTASTIC and make cynicism seem like something so slick and trendy that you must garb yourself in it and then pose dramatically in a shadowy corner, waiting for a detective to burst into the room and find you.
Finally, before we leave this decade I wanted to mention the revival of the Western, one of America’s most enduring film genres, in the 40’s. It would reach pretty amazing heights in the decades that followed, but after WWII, it makes sense why people would want a little escapism, but not too much. Westerns like Red River (1948), starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, showed a tough world steeped in conflict (not just conflict between human and nature and good guy and bad guy, but also, in this movie, between father and adopted son, a conflict which eventually come to blows in one final scene) where personal journeys are as important as cross-country treks. I don’t think Westerns ever really went away, but they do sort of fade in and out at times, and this is definitely when we see Westerns fading back in.
Next week, we’ll see movies get a zillion times bigger and grander and awesomer, but we should appreciate this decade for injecting introspection, the grit of reality, and a splash of genuine danger into the film landscape. We’ll see the influences of this decade for years to come.
Until next time!
Canby, Vincent, and Janet Maslin. The New York Times Guide to the Best 1000 Movies Ever Made.
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema.
Sklar, Robert, A World History of Film.
And, sigh, Wikipedia… *throws up hands*