In Hollywood 1938, Catherine Jurca brings to light a tumultuous year of crisis that has been neglected in histories of the studio era. With attendance in decline, negative publicity about stars that were “poison at the box office,” and a spate of bad films, industry executives decided that the public was fed up with the movies. Jurca describes their desperate attempt to win back audiences by launching Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year, a massive, and unsuccessful, public relations campaign conducted in theaters and newspapers across North America. Drawing on the records of studio personnel, independent exhibitors, moviegoers, and the motion pictures themselves, she analyzes what was wrong—and right—with Hollywood at the end of a heralded decade, and how the industry’s troubles changed the making and marketing of films in 1938 and beyond.
Hollywood 1938 Motion Pictures' Greatest Year
- by Catherine Jurca (Author)
- March 2012
- First Edition
$75.00, £63.00 Paperback
$34.95, £30.00 eBook
EndowmentsFletcher Jones Foundation Imprint in Humanities Robert and Meryl Selig Endowment Fund in Film Studies
Rights: Available worldwide
Trim Size: 6 x 9
Illustrations: 15 b/w photographs, 1 table
Let's enter the campaign by way of The Goldwyn Follies (1938). No film better represents the problems the industry faced in 1938 or the way that films might be imagined as vehicles for addressing them. Released six months before MPGY began, The Goldwyn Follies takes as its subject the difficulties of making movies for a recalcitrant public, on the eve of the industry's singular preoccupation with them, and exemplifies those difficulties through its own troubled reception. The film deals with the challenge of pleasing the public by creating a surrogate for it, to whom it assigns the task of demonstrating that the Follies cares deeply about what it wants and that what it wants is the Follies. In effect, the film functions as a two-hour exercise in public relations, in which dramatizing an allegiance to the public is as important as entertaining it. But the film does not finally offer the public what it was soon thought to want above all else, what its surrogate was already demanding: the sort of human characters and real stories that became the hallmark of MPGY. Samuel Goldwyn was one of the industry's most outspoken critics, and in the wake of the Follies' failure, the man, like his movie, illustrated and possibly even exacerbated many of the problems with "the movies" as such.
Goldwyn's Technicolor extravaganza starred Adolphe Menjou as Oliver Merlin, a Hollywood producer whose magic has suddenly abandoned him. A theater manager informs him at the disastrous opening of his latest film: "There's something missing-the human touch." While making a new picture on location, Oliver overhears Hazel Dawes (Andrea Leeds) criticize the dialogue and actors for their lack of reality, simplicity, and humanity. He follows this very simple and human young woman to the local soda shop, where she strikes him as the perfect spokesperson for the public, in part because of her vocal disdain for movies (see figure 2). Oliver invites her to come to Hollywood and become his "Miss Humanity," the voice of "common sense" that will restore the common touch to his films. Hazel goes and advises him on what is real, what is human, and what she likes. Along the way there are musical numbers and comedy sketches by those who are cast in Oliver's new film or hope to be. Performers include Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the Ritz Brothers, and the tenor Kenny Baker. In addition, ballerina Vera Zorina and Metropolitan Opera singer Charles Kullman made their American screen debuts, while the Follies provided Kullman's colleague Helen Jepson with her first and only film role. Their decidedly highbrow talents are paraded so that helpful Hazel may pronounce them suitable for the great American public.
Hazel first evaluates a ballet sequence based on Romeo and Juliet. The conflict between the Montagues and Capulets is presented as a matter of competing tastes-one family prefers ballet, the other jazz-as though nothing is more elemental, more productive of fierce loyalty, than entertainment preferences. In contrast with Jane Feuer's analysis of musical competitions in other films, in which jazz beats the classics through the need to make stuffy people and music more folksy and spontaneous, to prompt audiences to embrace what the Hollywood musical does so well, there is no winner here. Hazel declines to choose between them. She tells Oliver, "All I know is what I like." He replies, "So much the better. There are 200 million people who only know what they like." She loves the ballet but has one objection: the outcome is too sad. "I didn't know Romeo and Juliet died." Her surprise not only identifies her as a young woman who is not especially well read but as one who, like millions of others, was indifferent to the release of MGM's prestigious Romeo and Juliet (1936). The last personal production of Irving Thalberg before his death, Romeo and Juliet was a faithful version of the play and a commercial flop. Hazel converts Oliver to her way of thinking. "If 200 million people want Romeo and Juliet to live, I won't be stubborn."
About the only thing Hazel knows about Oliver's pictures is that they have "class and beauty," just like Goldwyn's own prestige productions. Her role is really to calibrate tastes, to convince the public that it wants ballet and opera as though it has already, with the skeptical surrogate, evaluated and embraced these classy forms. The producers are on surer ground with the comedy set pieces, which Hazel likes very much but is not asked to judge. The lowbrow Ritzes and middlebrow Bergen and McCarthy are Goldwyn's own insurance against the hazard at the center of the film: that the Follies does not simply portray various tests of the public's taste in entertainment but is itself a test, one whose outcome remains unknown until audiences have seen it. Bergen and the Ritzes had already passed tests with moviegoers; the ballet and opera stars had not. Romeo and Juliet proved that the public did not want Shakespeare, but it would be up to Goldwyn to prove whether it wanted ballet and opera instead.
The Goldwyn Follies turns a critic of the movies into a fan, but Hazel is not a "better films" maven who seeks to elevate tastes. She also likes a good love story, something "real." The star of Oliver's film, after being jilted by her lover in Venice, is supposed to take up with a gigolo. Hazel nixes that idea. Oliver changes the gigolo to a "human being," a "simple" gondolier. He falls for the star, but "he finds out about her past" and "denounces her." Hazel again protests, because she believes that "love is more important." So love triumphs, in Oliver's film as well as in the Follies, when Oliver eventually sacrifices his own romantic interest in Hazel and decides to promote the career of her talented sweetheart, Danny Beecher (Baker). He affirms the values of the Hollywood film: boy gets girl, producer and public get star. Hazel commends his decision: "It was the real thing to do." What counts as real here is the delivery of a resolution that delightfully accords with one's notion of how the world ought to work. She has succumbed to Hollywood's ministrations, speaking now on behalf of its basic entertainment strategies, not as a critic of them or simply an enthusiastic proponent of "class and beauty." The producer who doubts becomes the producer who, in resolving his doubts by consulting the public about its preferences, converts the public to a decided preference for what Hollywood does best.
If every film is essentially a test of the public's receptiveness to it, The Goldwyn Follies might improve its chances by coaxing the public's response within the film, but this tactic was just another experiment, like hiring George Balanchine as choreographer. The result of any film was adjudicated not on the screen but at the box office. Reviews in the trade press were enthusiastic but sometimes cautious. According to the Motion Picture Herald, "Mr. Goldwyn has underscored the artistic and the beautiful, using the best of materials and talent and presenting them with a certain reverence, perhaps just a bit more reverence than wallop, although it will be a while before the referendum on that issue can be run off." The Follies cost $1.8 million and wound up $727,500 in the red, the most Goldwyn had ever lost on a production. It brought to a swift end a string of hits for him. Exhibitors who wrote to the "What the Motion Picture Did for Me" column of the Herald provide some evidence of its reception. Most were quite negative about the film or the response from patrons. Comments included "A flop if ever there was one," and "Oh well if this satisfies some Hollywood ego, put it on. We only work here. We don't have to watch the show." Most raved about Bergen and McCarthy, but the response to the ballet and opera was uniformly "too much." The negative reaction to the elite elements may in part have been an effect of the small-town and rural situations of these exhibitors, but one cannily observed, "Can Mr. Goldwyn call one place, 'Metropolitan' included, where grand opera has stood up without aid of charity?" Another remarked that he had simply "cut out the opera, which helped."
Hazel's usefulness is predicated on Oliver's belief in a mass audience so uniform that the tastes of the "200 million" can be represented by a single person. She enjoys everything she sees, but Goldwyn, at least, recognized that tastes vary widely, from the Ritz Brothers to opera, as the film seeks energetically and rather desperately to appeal to them all. In a twenty-seven-page advertising supplement, designed to sell exhibitors on the film as much as to help them sell it to audiences, the editor of the Hollywood Reporter instructed them to market "The Goldwyn Follies for just what it is-the last word of specialty entertainment for everyone, lavishly produced and presented, smartly balanced for universal appeal." "Entertainment for everyone" did not mean that everyone would like everything. On the contrary, what made the film "smartly balanced" was that it included many "diverse elements" to suit different tastes; that is, "universal appeal" implied only that The Goldwyn Follies strategically included something for everyone.
The exhibitors' responses, coupled with the commercial failure of the film, indicate that the "referendum" mentioned in the Herald review did not pass. The Goldwyn Follies tried to stuff the ballot box by dramatizing filmmaking as a collaboration between those who produce movies and those who consume them, by proceeding as though worrying about what the public wants is tantamount to making sure the public gets it. In the end the many somethings of The Goldwyn Follies were not enough, or, rather, they were too much, and the union of Harry Ritz and Vera Zorina was scarcely less fortunate a marriage than Romeo and Juliet's. All assertions to the contrary, the film and its failure pointed to problems that would become the talk of the industry by the summer: the idea that Hollywood had lost touch with the public and that its relationship with the public could not be restored until movies spoke more directly to peoples' lives. Goldwyn was exactly right to make his surrogate demand "real" and "human" and "simple" movies; it was just that his film delivered too few of these qualities. Before it was even released, Ruth Waterbury, editor of Photoplay, praised its "beauty and charm and originality," "that final essence of chic and showmanship," while holding it up as an example of entertainment that no one wanted. "There is such a thing as so much icing on the cake that you get sick of the entire dish.... Please give us simpler and better pictures." She pleaded for films that "give us, straightforwardly and without elaborateness, the dramatic stories of love and faith and home." Two months later she thanked "the hundreds of you" who had written to agree and once again brought up the example of The Goldwyn Follies, in which "there's simply too much of everything." Something for everyone had become too much for anyone. The industry itself would soon insist to the public that there was no such thing as the picture that would please everyone, a lesson the Follies, despite its frantic solicitation of approval, taught Goldwyn the hard way. And he, in turn, would take its rejection out on the rest of the industry, helping to pave the way for some of the public relations problems that the film itself seemed to work so hard to prevent.
Such a Thing as Bad Publicity
The Goldwyn Follies is a remarkable film, but its problems in the marketplace were not. Business was bad, and costs were up. Production budgets had been increased based on favorable returns during the 1936-37 season; as attendance and revenues declined, the film companies found themselves spending more money to make less of it, and they were talking retrenchment. As a result 1938 began in uncertainty. The trade press noted improvement in January over December, which had been the worst month for the film business in the last year and a half, but it reported more grim news in February: a general box-office drop of about 20 percent, a figure repeated periodically throughout the year. By late March, according to a Reporter headline, exhibitors were already "preparing for the worst summer season in picture history," which by all accounts, and making generous allowance for hyperbole, they seem to have gotten.
Darryl Zanuck was one executive who blamed the recession for the industry's box-office troubles. "The record shows that the public just hasn't as much money for film entertainment as it had a year ago," he said in May, by way of pooh-poohing the idea that moviegoers had other reasons for staying away from theaters. This perspective, however, was drowned out by a series of well-publicized criticisms of industry affairs and the attention they attracted. Indeed, Zanuck's remark was prompted in part by attacks on Hollywood that Goldwyn himself had issued on April 25, on his return from Europe. In a prickly mood, Goldwyn told reporters that England and France were making inexpensive, high-quality films, and he blasted Hollywood for its excessive costs and overall decline in standards: "People used to be afraid to go to the movies because they thought they might see one bad picture. Now, with double bills, they're staying away because they fear they'll see two." He declared that the public was "on strike against inferior pictures," by which he meant virtually all pictures. The public's absence from theaters, in other words, was not an indirect function of the economy but a purposeful communication, signaling the refusal rather than the inability to pay for the entertainment offered it.
About a week later a group of independent exhibitors took out what became an infamous full-page ad in the Reporter. On May 3 the Independent Theatre Owners Association (ITOA) accused the studios of extravagance and poor judgment for casting highly paid stars, "whose dramatic ability is unquestioned but whose box office draw is nil," in "top bracket pictures." The ad christened Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo, among others, "poison at the box office." As a bit of intra-industry bickering, the ad might have been harmless enough, but it quickly became nationwide news. Within four days of his interview, references to Goldwyn's criticisms of Hollywood appeared in only four of the forty-nine newspapers in the sample; by contrast, coverage of the "box-office poison" story was widespread. Thirty-three newspapers carried articles and editorials on it within the same time frame, often on the front page, and usually with prominent photos of some of the stars involved. Some newspapers published more than one piece; the Xenia (OH) Evening Gazette enjoyed the controversy enough to publish five. Spokespersons for the producers defended the stars; lawsuits against the exhibitors' group were darkly hinted at; Harry Brandt, head of the ITOA of New York, clarified the exhibitors' position. Syndicated Hollywood columnists also drew attention to the story. Ed Sullivan and Hedda Hopper, for example, observed that nothing the exhibitors had said about the declining popularity of the stars was news to Hollywood. Paul Harrison wrote more or less the same thing, adding that the producers were glad for an excuse to reduce their salaries. Trying, one guesses, to be helpful, Louella Parsons came to the actors' defense: "There is nothing the matter with any of these stars that a good picture won't cure." In other words, the stars weren't the problem, just the bad films made by the studios.
These examples help us to understand what Leo Rosten meant when he wrote in 1941 about "Hollywood's incomparable talent for publicity and startling ignorance of public relations." The kind of bad publicity sparked by the ITOA or Goldwyn threatened to veer into bad public relations, which might create damaging impressions-of stars, movies, or an entire industry-with attendant, unforeseeable consequences. The trade press played up the effects of what George Schaefer, then a vice president at United Artists and future chairman of MPGY, would soon castigate as "loose talk." Variety blamed the publicity around poison stars and inferior pictures for the "wide-open hissing of poor films," the "vitriolic, vicious, frankly antagonistic razoo" of patrons in theaters. Terry Ramsaye, editor of the Herald, wryly mused over the ITOA ad and its aftermath: "campaigning on interior and technical trade concerns in the presence of the box office customers, is possibly not conducive to an impression of allure for the theatre." He thought it about as foolish as when "the studio budget jargon of 'A' and 'B' classification" of films had been added to "the customers' vernacular," teaching them, in effect, that studios actually made bad movies on purpose.
In the Reporter W.R. Wilkerson penned a series of articles with titles like "A Call to Arms" and "Shut Up, Hollywood!" These were an effort to scold everyone into discretion when "the industry and its members ... are facing the damnedest crisis of their lives":
You're talking too much! You're talking yourself out of business. You've taken your traditional problems into the open and the public has become your judge on matters it never can understand.... Exhibitors tell people that some of our important screen stars are dead.... In other words, exhibitors are TELLING PATRONS TO STAY AWAY FROM THEIR OWN THEATRES.... [Why does a producer] go around town telling people in advance he knows [his new picture] is going to be a crumbo? Has he lost his ingenuity? ... Why does the same producer knock every other producer's effort?
Wilkerson might have saved his breath. Just two days after his tirade, Harry Warner publicly attacked the other studios for "not playing fair with the public and the exhibitors" by "withholding their important films" until the fall, leading to a "famine of grade A entertainment" over the summer. Warner cited his decision to advance the release of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as evidence of his company's good faith dealings with both. A seven-page advertisement followed in the trade papers, including the Reporter, in which Warner Bros. accused its rivals of "HOARDING" (a mortal Depression-era sin) their good pictures and thus of contributing to the "slump" in attendance, said to have reached 40 percent in some areas. Variety and the Herald once again pointed out that Warner was only exacerbating the industry's troubles by "making the public too show-wise." Articles in nine of the sample newspapers publicized his remarks. Parsons also ran a column seconding Warner's concerns. And so the public got to read all about how there would be precious few films worth seeing just in time for the typically slow summer season.
Talk, talk, talk. Discussion about the demerits of double features went on and on. Exhibitors continued to complain about discriminatory trade practices. An active perpetrator of bad publicity and public relations in 1938, the industry also cast itself in the role of persecuted victim. Its spokespersons complained repeatedly about unfair treatment in newspapers and on the radio. Syndicated gossip columnists debated whether Garbo and Leopold Stokowski, the conductor, would marry, but they also criticized individual stars, films, and anything else associated with the world's most unpredictable and conspicuous business. Jimmie Fidler, one of the most powerful and obnoxious of the lot, responded to the industry's complaints by pointing out that he and his colleagues only fed the public's appetite for publicity, good or bad, that Hollywood itself had created. Even as a victim Hollywood bore a share of the blame.
Bad reviews were a perennial problem as well. It was not at all lost on exhibitors that they paid good money for newspaper advertising, only to see many of their films disparaged, often on the very same page. "There's no film so bad something good can't be found to say about it," one Philadelphia exhibitor fumed. Ramsaye later described the industry's grievance: "If any Buick was less than perfect, if any cake of Ivory ever sank, we never read about it. But any time, any day, we can read that most any motion picture is a total loss, that Hollywood is a total loss, that its picture makers do not know their art from their elbows." There were calls for reviewers to "report impartially" on the films they saw, to describe them rather than offer criticism, which was, after all, only a matter of "opinion," and let the public make up its own mind. The ideal reviewer would be something like an adjunct of the film industry, not a watchdog of it.
The industry was not ordinarily inclined to see a necessary correlation between bad reviews and bad films, but 1938 was different. Amid all of the other disturbing reports about the industry, the trade press generally acknowledged that the decline in attendance was not at all helped by several weeks of feeble releases in late spring, "about the worst pictures Hollywood has turned out in many years." In early May Variety predicted that the weak product would carry into July, as Harry Warner feared. The business of catering to the public's taste seemed less tangible and predictable than ever, and the usual production decisions and risks, cast at times in the flattering language of sound intuitions and instincts, came to look like "a flock of wild uncommercial guesses as to what the public wants by way of entertainment," according to Jack Warner, as steamed and chatty as his brother. Waves of bad films, bad publicity generated by outside commentators, "loose talk" within the industry, months of poor attendance, confusion about how to proceed-the perfect crisis. Some executives and commentators worried that the public was developing new and potentially ruinous practices in relation to the movies and that new feelings toward them were emerging as well. The industry came to understand, with Goldwyn, that the public-not censors or Catholics or educators or senators-was mad at the movies.
The Moviegoing Habit
Studies of exhibition, reception, and audiences point out that "the social experience of cinemagoing" has historically been more important than any individual film or films in determining peoples' relationship to the movies. For much of the classical Hollywood period the word habit characterized a crucial aspect of that experience, connoting an agreeable relationship with the practice of moviegoing as such. The clarion call of those imbued with the moviegoing habit was, "Come on, let's go to the pictures," regardless of what was playing. Gilbert Seldes, an important analyst of movies and popular culture, as well as a fan, thought that the moviegoing habit more or less explained the fact of cinema attendance. He associated it with the breakdown of judgment and with the play of strong desires and emotional satisfaction: people "go to the movies because they simply and passionately want to go to the movies." "It is upon" this "uncritical and even unintelligent" "attitude that the financial success of the movies is founded." The selection of particular films, based on star or story, was merely a "refinement"; "the fundamental passion is a desire to go to the movies, which means to go to any movie rather than not go at all." The moviegoing habit did not require excellent, or even very good, pictures to sustain it, an indispensable asset to an industry that depended on the production of inferior as well as outstanding entertainment. According to Wilkerson, just "a fairly entertaining program" was sufficient to reinforce the moviegoing routine and preempt questions about "what was playing at the local theatre."
Habits, unfortunately, can be broken. If habit "is the greatest single explanation for the weekly presence of 85,000,000 persons in our theatres," it also helped to explain the absence of others: "Out of repeated discouragement, they have formed the habit of staying away." People who went to the movies habitually were opposed to those who attended individual movies as "shoppers." The movie shopper was a selective consumer, discriminating among films to find ones that appealed. Shopping was often linked to a run of bad films. The scandal of bad films was that whatever the immediate consequences of their unprofitability, they might have the long-term effect of breaking the moviegoing habit. Seldes acknowledged that "if people are not actually pleased with the pictures they have seen and if this happens too many times, the automatic habit of going to the movies will disappear."
Observers anticipated such an outcome by the summer of 1938, when the more or less compulsively enthusiastic industry contemplated the summer offerings with dismay. There were a few huge hits, such as MGM's star-packed Test Pilot (1938) and Fox's In Old Chicago (1937), as well as Warners' timely Adventures of Robin Hood, which led to the usual declarations that "action" was "in." But the popularity of such pictures and of the strange, exquisite Snow White (1937) only underscored the weakness of the film industry's performance overall: "business is either great on GREAT pictures, or lousy on all other product." Harry Warner's diatribe against hoarding spoke to fears that the seasonal summer slump, on top of already poor business, would have far-reaching consequences: "far too many people will have lost the habit of regular theatre attendance." According to Joseph Schenck of Twentieth Century-Fox, the summer season had precisely that result. Weeks of poor pictures in early summer "had a damaging effect upon business. Regular attendants at movie houses who might forgive a bad picture this week in hopes of seeing a good one next finally gave up." Shopping itself became a new habit: "The men and women, boys and girls," who once had the "habit of not shopping, are shopping now for what they know to be good. If that's not around, they simply don't go."
By the time the summer of 1938 arrived, the moviemakers' expertise and experience, intuitions and hunches, and even their earnest desire to please seemed to have failed; all anyone really knew about what the public wanted was that the public didn't want what it was getting. The idea of the public "on strike" suggested that many people were declining even to shop. And new behavior implied new attitudes. Between the bad films and the bad publicity, the public was reputed to be distinctly annoyed. The Reporter columnist Irving Hoffman urged the industry to diagnose "the fundamental causes and sources of public antagonism" toward Hollywood. A month later Variety warned of "an irate public that seems just about tired of paying for inferior film entertainment." The public wasn't just tired; it was sick: "a public nausea ... is keeping patrons away from box offices." Wilkerson, who routinely begged for "better pictures," and even "BETTER PICTURES," during the first half of 1938, hoped that the producers would start to "feel the pulse of a rather disgusted public." The entire industry was getting poor reviews, not just individual films: "The picture business has been in for an awful panning for the past few months, both from the press and the public, and it has now become the vogue for former ticket buyers to sit around, criticizing Hollywood's seemingly futile efforts to turn out entertainment." "THE PUBLIC IS LAUGHING AT US," Wilkerson thundered in another burst of exasperation, shortly before Doob described the "new nationwide" sentiment that "show-business is racing to hell!"
For all the sweeping pronouncements and hand-wringing, it isn't clear that anyone really knew what the public was thinking. The opinion polls reported occasionally in the trade press tended to be unsystematic and informal (verging on anecdotal), local, and organized around specific issues such as double features. It is possible the public was irate: about extravagant salaries, block booking, and double features, which meant that audiences sometimes had to sit through a crummy film in addition to the picture they really wanted to see, which might also be crummy, about the industry bickering and the lawsuits. It is also possible that the public had no particularly strong feelings about the situation at all. It was troubling to think of a public so upset with Hollywood that it wanted to vomit, but rather less troubling, perhaps, than to imagine an indifferent public, one that had simply picked up other habits and moved on. At least an outraged public still made a place for the movies within its emotional universe.
Where an uninterested public might be won back through some good films and good publicity, an angry public was a job for public relations. The trade press urged "a reeducation of the public in favor of film attendance" and warned against the industry's "life-or-death ... failure to establish any sort of broad, progressive, permanent public relations policy," even though "the movies and their men and maids bid fair to be as heartily hated" as Standard Oil, ATT, and J.P. Morgan had been before they had seen the light. The MPPDA handled public relations for "the industry," but it represented the interests of the major companies, which many independent exhibitors and producers often perceived as inimical to their own. "Loose talk" advertised competing interests that were difficult to unify; fractured relations clarified the need for a comprehensive, long-range public relations strategy and precluded it at the same time. Instead, the industry settled for Motion Pictures' Greatest Year. Hastily organized and executed, MPGY was 1938's most audacious guess, as well as its biggest production. With a cast of thousands and a superspecial budget, it was action-packed, a stirring drama, and a farce. Wilkerson's frantic demands for BETTER PICTURES became the wishful slogan, "Motion Pictures Are Your Best Entertainment."