TV versus the movies in fifties America

In recent years much has been predicted concerning the demise of movie theatres as a result of the popularity of streaming. Why, it is argued, would cinemagoers make the effort and pay money to visit a movie theatre when they could sit at home and watch the film on their TV screen through something like a Netflix subscription ?

Microwave repeater station

Back in fifties America, long before the Internet was even thought of  and movies weren’t available to hire or buy, our man in America, Alistair Cooke, was voicing  the fears of many movie makers who saw TV as their most dangerous rival. In a broadcast dated 10th June 1954 and afterwards published in the Listener, Cooke pointed out that since 1950:

’… the paying audience for movies has been going steadily —at first violently– down. It is now down by about thirty per cent….fewer and fewer people are going to the movies. This in as four year period in which the national income is higher, the number of people in jobs greater, than at any period in American history…’

The effect on Hollywood, according to Cooke, was devastating. The fifty or sixty big-time stars remained unaffected, but the bit players and others employed in the movie industry were certainly victims of the down turn:   

‘…  Feature players who have been doing nicely for ten, or even twenty, years suddenly do not appear any more. There is a lot of doubling up of casts, and economical commuting of actors between studios. About fifty per cent of the writers on long-term contracts have been fired, and there had been a general paring-down of technical crews, and rehearsal time , and costs….’

Movie makers were loathe to  admit that TV was the villain of the piece, but everyone in the industry knew the truth. And everyone who drove around the States could identify how the landscape was changing due to the mushrooming of the new medium.

‘…The most striking novelty of the American landscape today…is a little box about as big as a prairie schoolhouse. These boxes are trim and white and you can see them every thirty miles, as rhythmic as telegraph poles, as you cross the country…across 3,000 miles. They are the microwave repeater stations that pick up and carry the television image into the laps of the next section of the people. The result last season  was that the number of television sets in this country jumped from about 19,000,000 to now over 30,000,000—one set for every five people…’

Cooke argued that most people would make the effort to dress and drive out to see a truly great movie on the big screen. He had evidence for this. What he contends is that Hollywood wasn’t making enough of these great movies, and so people were staying at home and watching bad movies on TV.

But it wasn’t just bad films that captured a TV audience. Back in 1954 the hearings involving Senator McCarthy and the Communist conspiracy, so called, were mesmerising TV watchers across the nation for six hours a day, every day, from ten in the morning to twelve thirty, then from two till five thirty. Cooke found McCarthy’s performances fascinating too.

‘It is hard not to watch him. For he is a first class actor, and it is an awesome thought  that his permanent fame may come to rest not on the few or many communists he may throw into gaol, but on the fact that he threw Gary Cooper and James Stewart out of work and Hollywood into bankruptcy.’ 

The situation worsened. By 1956 attendance in movie theatres was down about 50% from the 1946 peak. By 1960 there were 440 VHF TV stations. Hollywood responded by making better movies. John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Elia Kazan, among others, did some of their best work in the fifties. Nevertheless, the march of TV could not be halted and Hollywood never again enjoyed the dominance it once had.

R. M. Healey  

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