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Film in American Popular CultureVisit Press Americana
LIFE AFTER THE MOVIES:
FORMER FILM STARS TRANSITION INTO 1950s TELEVISION

The 1950s represented a transitory period for most Americans. Among other changes, a world war had recently ended, suburban life was evolving, and the Hollywood studio system was collapsing. A 1958 article in U.S. News and World Report, “What TV Is Doing to the Movie Industry,” eulogized the industry as a “dying giant.” Film historian Thomas Cripps notes, “Americans had been changed by the war. It had inured them to hardship and hardened them against the attractions of movie sentimentality.” Former contract players had to find new work. Fortunately for them, a new medium was slowly rising to power.

In a few short years, television took the place of film as the most popular form of entertainment. The creators and developers of television had been waiting for a chance to break into the market. After years of setbacks that included disagreements among inventors and the onset of World War II, television was able to expand into a thriving industry in a matter of a few years. A visually captivating form of entertainment crossed over into the private confines of the home for the first time. Television did have to overcome the initial naysayer. Some worried this new medium could have detrimental effects upon those who viewed it. A 1950 Time article, “Kiddies in the Old Corral,” argued that television “threatened to change Americans into creatures with eyeballs as big as cantaloupes and no brain at all.” Not only did television conquer this negative stereotype, but it also grew exponentially in the decade of the 1950s with help from former Hollywood film stars.

A considerable number of actors and actresses who lost their jobs during the downsizing of the film industry jumped from the big screen to the small screen. Loretta Young, Eve Arden, Frank Sinatra, Ray Milland, Ann Sothern, and others found success on this fledgling medium. Not all stars were willing to leave an industry they had helped to create and turn into the dominant film industry throughout the entire world. Indeed, some film stars thought appearing on television was a death sentence. In “Recruits from Hollywood,” an article in a 1953 issue of Time, Van Heflin stated crossing over to television could “very easily mean the complete destruction of his career in motion pictures.”

More and more, however, television was gaining momentum. In the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., or just simply, the Paramount Case, for example, the Supreme Court rocked the film industry by divorcing production and exhibition. The major movie studios of the time, MGM, Paramount, RKO, Warner Brothers, and Fox, were vertically integrated. This meant that not only did they produce and distribute their films, but they also owned the theaters where their films were exhibited. The Supreme Court found the film studios to be in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (334 U.S. 131). The vertically integrated studios had to divest themselves of their theaters. No guaranteed theater distribution meant no guaranteed profits.

Before this decision was rendered, the film industry was one of the most profitable industries in America. After the Paramount Case ruling, a television agency conducted a survey about television’s effect on movie-going. As reported in a 1948 article in Broadcasting and Telecasting, “Effect on Movie-Going Habits,” “three-fourths of the set owners interviewed are spending more evenings at home now. Slightly more than half are going to the movies less often, although formerly they were confirmed and in most cases very heavy movie-goers.” Those who could access television were choosing the stay-at-home form of entertainment over going to the movies, which required the effort of leaving the home. The movie industry was losing money fast and needed a way to generate some sort of profit. Studios decided to begin selling off parts of their film libraries to generate money. Television reaped the benefits.

As John Belton explains in American Cinema/American Culture, studios began making “fewer but more expensive films, hoping to lure audiences back to the theater with quality product.” This plan did not work as well as projected, so several studios subsidized their earnings through selling off their film libraries. Now people didn’t have to go to the theater to see movies; they could watch them in the comfort of their home. One film studio alone could supply television with a staggering amount of material from their older movies. According to a 1956 article in Newsweek, RKO sold “740 full-length pictures, more than 1,000 short subjects,” and a 1956 Business Week article stated that 20th Century Fox also sold part of their film library to television, around 390 films. With plenty of quality entertainment, television became the diamond of the entertainment industry, while the past jewels of the industry, film and radio, slowly dropped in the tastes of Americans.
Following the Paramount Case, many former movie stars wanted to perform on television. Some of these former stars now had the films that made them famous in the 1930s and 1940s on TV. They could take that newly acquired popularity and parlay it into a television career. U.S. News and World Report gathered information that concluded in 1948 about 90 million people were attending the movies every week. Once television took off and movies began being shown on TV, about 46 million people were going to the movies every week, as of 1958. They also stated that about 204 million people watch movies on television. The popularity of former Hollywood stars was rising again with the advent of television, and more importantly, movies on TV.

The Paramount Case was not the only reason television was on the rise. Several Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decisions also pushed the popularity of television along. The year of 1948 was shaping up to be a particularly important year for television. Just one year earlier, as reported in an article entitled “Number of U.S. Stations Up 60% in Year,” “fiscal 1947 brought an approximately 60% gain in the number of U.S. commercial AM, FM, and television stations.” Television stations and affiliates began sprouting up throughout the country. Unfortunately, there was so much interest in television that it became a problem. Interference occurred throughout the stations in the U.S. In 1948, the “coming out year” for television, according to Broadcasting and Telecasting, the FCC decided to stop all assignments of television licenses in order to fix the problem of interference and other issues in television. What came to be known as “the freeze” had begun.

The television community and the American public were upset over this stoppage in the development of broadcast television. According to a 1950 article “Barometer Reading on the Freeze,” when the freeze was “invoked, on Sept. 30, 1948, they expected it to last six to nine months. A year later the first round of hearings were just getting under way, and the end was not yet in sight.” Trade journals tracked the status of the freeze almost weekly. Despite the FCC acknowledging television as “one of the country’s most important industries and an important medium not merely for public entertainment but also for the development of an informed public,” they still would not lift the freeze. In 1951, there was a minor victory for television when the FCC gave more frequency space for television, but that still did not quench the television craze that was creeping across the nation. Finally, in April of 1952, the freeze was lifted.

Television now had the opportunity to grow into a juggernaut. The FCC made seventy UHF channels available and set distances between stations so co-channel and adjacent channel interference would be cut down and eliminated, among other things. While some remained unimpressed by “a plan which, at best, still must be viewed as abortive,” others were ecstatic as noted in a 1952 article “Four Wasted Years?” Applications for television licenses began trickling in, some still unsure about the viability of television. Another 1952 article, “Is TV Headed for a Double Standard,” forecasted it may take “between six and eight years before some TV applicants know whether they are in or out as station owners.” Despite these misgivings, the floodgates opened and applications for TV licenses began coming forth. Businessmen wanted to get into the television industry once they realized it was here to stay. The FCC began considering television license applications on July 1, 1952, and by August 14, 1952, 755 total television license applications had been received as reported by Broadcasting and Telecasting that year.

Once television stations began opening up across the country, there was a direct correlation to the number of former Hollywood stars who began appearing on television. As the medium grew, so did the interest of former film stars in coming to television. From 1950-1952, Gene Autry, Robert Montgomery, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, and Eve Arden appeared on television shows during prime time. After 1952, television was continuing to expand so even more former film stars crossed over to television. Ray Milland, Loretta Young, Ray Bolger, Mickey Rooney, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Cummings, Jimmy Durante, Jane Wyman, Dick Powell, Rosemary Clooney, Ida Lupino, Ann Sothern, Donna Reed, June Allyson, Betty Hutton, Robert Taylor, and others starred in television shows between 1953 and 1959. Some stars played characters similar to ones they had played in the movies, while others played new roles that brought a new vitality to their careers. Television became the “in” place to work. Former Hollywood stars realized that. They no longer had careers in Hollywood. They had aged, and just as Hollywood wants young actors and actresses today, they wanted young actors and actresses in the 1950s.

Perhaps the most practical reason for former Hollywood movies stars to come to television was that these former stars needed to work. A symbiotic relationship formed between actors who needed to work and an industry that needed legitimating. Just as early film borrowed from the theater to be taken seriously, television borrowed from the silver screen to be legitimized. Jane Wyman had won an Oscar for her portrayal of a deaf mute in 1948’s Johnny Belinda. Wyman became popular hosting and starring in several episodes of Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theater. Ray Milland, like Wyman won an Oscar, except his award came through his portrayal of an alcoholic writer in 1945’s Lost Weekend. Milland took his former film success and turned it into television success with his role in Meet Mr. McNulty. Television even drew the interests of John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart may have even gone on to star on television if it was not for his untimely death.

Appearing in a television show could not only give former film stars popularity on television, but also reinvent them on the covers of magazines. In 1954, Earl B. Abrams noted in Broadcasting and Telecasting that “any frequenter of newsstands must have noticed in recent years a new crop of periodicals. These are the fan magazines which feed off that newest and rising art, television.” The 1950s were a hotbed of activity for magazines devoted to television and television stars. The same aforementioned article contains a title that would have caused many former Hollywood film stars to consider television “Fan Magazines: They Used to Feed off Movies; Now They’re Gorging on TV.”
A once popular film career didn’t put food on the table; television could put food on the table. Ann Sothern found success in television after a flagging film career. When asked by Time magazine what Sothern really wanted from life, she responded: “a man who is 40, rich and Catholic. Then I’ll quit this business in a second. Until then I’ll have to spend my time hermetically sealed on Stage 8.” Sothern had no desire to work, but she had to support herself. Joan Crawford, once a huge box-office draw, also looked at television as a financial opportunity. Crawford said about television, “I find it extremely attractive, because it pays for itself and then becomes an annuity for my children. How else can you save money these days?” Neither actress mentions how much they enjoy acting, but both mention television as the key to receiving an income.

1950s television became a life preserver in a bleak ocean of inopportunity for film stars who had faded from the limelight. The Paramount Case, FCC decisions, and a sheer need to work are all reasons film stars started anew on television in the 1950s. Personnel that worked in early television received their training from the movies, classic films were a considerable portion of television programming, and most importantly, the stars who had made the silver screen shine now also made the television set glow against the faces of delighted audiences.

June 2006

From guest contributor Pamela Reisel

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