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
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.
From guest contributor Pamela Reisel