Hollywood's interwar trade practices and their impact on screen content in a political crisis

Author: Roger Westcombe

Westcombe, Roger, 2019 Hollywood's interwar trade practices and their impact on screen content in a political crisis, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The 1920s saw screen content concerns become perceived by Hollywood's public critics as a function of the monopoly structure which arose in the industry from 1919. Hollywood's peak trade body, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), used variable screen content as a bargaining chip to negotiate away from the one area it would not negotiate on, its oligopoly control. Independent exhibitors strengthened the morality campaigners by arguing that monopoly threatened local sovereignty by limiting peoples’ choice in their communities.

During the Depression claims to strengthen localism and return to traditional values were elsewhere being articulated on a national scale by media savvy agitators promoting radical schemes risking regressive practices that would compromise the nationally scaled economy. Such atavism also underpinned European fascism, and by 1936 enabled links between the U. S. A. and Europe to be drawn in the first of several Hollywood film cycles tacitly addressing fascist behaviours and imagery. At this time the entrenched economic malaise drove a political turn by the White House against Big Business and monopoly structures, which energised the antitrust activities of the Department of Justice against Hollywood. The movie industry responded on several levels, including efforts to implement the associative state practices developed by Herbert Hoover for industrial self-regulation. In Europe, as Franco advanced in Spain middle class activists in America agitated for greater screen relevance through the rhetoric of Film Quality.

Concern for independent screen narratives that went beyond escapism was a central element of the Justice Department's landmark Hollywood antitrust litigation, the Paramount suit in July 1938. This threat drove internal moves within the MPPDA to rationalise its screen content management practices and reposition the industry for flexible responses, especially to future anti-fascist screen material. As the White House's priority moved away from the competition gains of antitrust in 1937-38 to national preparedness in 1939, the interests of Washington and Hollywood for a reliable, centrally managed national media in the geo-political emergency became strongly aligned. In the period between Poland's invasion of September 1939 and Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Hollywood and Washington continued to interact to balance public concerns, through adjustments on trade practices made by the Justice Department's Antitrust Division in the 1940 Consent Decree, and in the final major peacetime attack on Hollywood's management of the screen, the 1941 Propaganda Hearings.

Keywords: Hollywood, interwar, trade practices, censorship, fascism, Nazi, Spanish Civil War, demagogue, populist, Will Hays, New Deal, Roosevelt, propaganda, Herbert Hoover, new cinema history, independent exhibitor, associative state, self-regulation, monopoly, Joseph Breen, Popular Front, audience, spectator, espionage, producerism, Jeffersonian, republicanism, Thurman Arnold, intervention, preparedness, Hitler, World War II, pre-war, cinema, B movie, studios, individualism, distribution, block booking, vertical integration, nativism, Father Coughlin, Huey Long, radio

Subject: Screen Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Richard Maltby