If you consider films like Rebecca, Citizen Kane or All About Eve to be cinematic masterpieces, you’re not alone. All three were born during Hollywood’s Golden Age, a wildly creative era in which movies dominated mass entertainment and their glamorous stars entranced the public.
But during the 1940s and 1950s, that success suddenly evaporated. Movie palaces shuttered, once mighty studios closed down and some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, directors and screenwriters stopped making films. It was the end of an era and television was to blame: the new technology effectively killed Hollywood’s Golden Age.
These days, you’re much more likely to turn on your television than to head to a movie theater. Here’s how TV captivated American audiences—and upended just about everything about the movie business along the way.
Though historians can’t agree on the exact years of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, the years 1930 through 1945 were particularly good for moviemaking. Hollywood glittered not just with profit, but with popular stars and brilliant filmmakers. In those 15 years, more than 7,500 features were released and the number of Americans who watched at least one movie in a theater per week swelled to more than 80 million. It was the best of times—and beloved movies like The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca, King Kong and Gone With the Wind are proof of the creative genius unleashed by those stable years.
Part of the winning formula had to do with the studio system. On the lots of the “big eight” studios (20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, United Artists, Universal Studios and Warner Bros.), pools of incomparable acting talent on long-term contracts and hordes of talented artisans helped turn screenplays into vivid films. Since studios were so profitable (in part due to their iron grip on movie distribution), they could afford to gamble on creative writing and art direction. And their careful management of actors’ personal and professional lives meant they had plenty of beloved movie stars.
But as the good years wore on, movies developed a potentially destructive rival: TV. By the 1930s, technological leaps and a series of high-profile experimental broadcasts made it clear that one day television would be broadcast directly into people’s homes. Though a few stations with experimental licenses began broadcasting things like baseball games and early news programs in New York in 1939, television sets were expensive and programming limited. When World War II began, materials shortages halted the expansion of TV in the United States. The threat had been put off—momentarily.
Then the war ended, and social changes turned a trickle of demand for television into a tidal wave. Americans had scrimped and saved since the Great Depression, and when men returned home from war, many families were ready to start spending. Often, their first purchase—with assistance from federal home loans—was a house in the suburbs. Between 1947 and 1953, the number of people living in suburbs grew 43 percent. Since these newly built areas weren’t close to downtown movie palaces and often lacked mass transportation options, people began to seek entertainment inside their homes.
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They found it on their new TV sets, and in 1948 four major TV networks began broadcasting a full prime-time schedule seven nights a week. Major studios, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, started scrambling to purchase interests in TV stations. They succeeded, gaining a majority control of TV studios by 1948.
That same year, though, the Supreme Court found Paramount guilty of price-fixing in an antitrust lawsuit. It forced all major movie studios to loosen their grip on the theaters that showed their movies and split up their businesses so they no longer combined production, distribution and exhibition.
The federal government quickly smacked down the studios’ ambitions to control television. Federal laws allowed the government to deny TV licenses to companies that had been convicted of engaging in monopolistic activities. The Federal Communications Commission put the powerful studios, which controlled not just their creative artists but the distributors and the movie theaters, in jeopardy.
Shut out from potential TV station ownership and stripped of the control that provided most of their profits, studios began to falter. As the Cold War got chillier, Hollywood was pressured to blacklist actors, directors, screenwriters and others who were suspected of sympathizing with Communists. This drained the industry of some of its best talent.
Broadcast television was free, and it was hard for studios to convince people to look away from a cheap medium that was already in their own homes. Meanwhile, many in-demand stars who weren’t blacklisted left the studios behind and flocked to television, too.
In a desperate bid to stay in business, movie studios diversified. They began to produce not just movies, but television shows. Studios licensed out their movies for television broadcast, opened record labels, and created theme parks in an attempt to make more money. Studios even turned their backs on strict morality codes in an attempt to offer viewers something they couldn’t get on TV, which could not show controversial or suggestive material due to tough FCC regulations. As a result, movies became more titillating and featured more adult content than before the rise of television.
By the 1960s, more than half of all American homes contained television sets, and TV had done away with nearly everything that made the major motion picture studios so great. Tighter belts meant movie studios took fewer creative risks and invested less money in quality films. Movie palaces fell into disrepair. Fewer feature films were made, and often studios had to rely on sales of their back catalogs for televisions syndication for profit instead of their own current-day films.
Luckily, the rise of TV didn’t mean the death of popular entertainment—just its migration to a smaller screen. But the days of the unstoppable Hollywood studio now seem as far away as the days when a movie ticket cost nothing but a quarter.