Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960


History of Motion Pictures
1940 – 1949

A Brief Overview of the Decade

Rising from the economic ashes of the “Great Depression”, the 1940s brought a global war that changed the very concept of war. For the first time civilians were as likely to be killed as soldiers, and a doomsday weapon of unimaginable power was unleashed bringing the planet suddenly, and violently into the “Nuclear Age”. Nearly every country was brought into World War II, and no country was unaffected by it. By the time the war ended in 1945, over 35 million people had died because of the conflict.

Although the United States stayed out of the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, when the U.S. finally joined the Allies it joined the battle against all of the Axis powers: Japan , Italy and Germany. The public quickly learned the meaning of new words like “Blitzkrieg”, “Kamikaze”, “Wolfpacks”, ”Liberty Ships”, “Spitfires”, “Buzz Bombs”, and “V–2s”. Toward the end of the war even more horrible terms entered the common vocabulary, such as “Atomic Bomb”, “Radiation Poisoning”, “Concentration Camps”, and “The Final Solution”. As American men went to war, women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers changing forever the dynamics of family life. By 1944 over half the women in the U.S. had a job outside the home.

The reports from London of Edward R. Murrow and his staff, broadcast throughout the country by CBS News Radio, brought the Battle of Britain directly into America’s living rooms and demonstrated the tremendous potential of this popular medium. Music entered the home as never before when Columbia Records introduced the “high fidelity” sound of LPs, 12–inch long–playing records that created a “hi–fi” boom. Then, by the end of the decade, more and more people began buying televisions so they could tune in to NBC’s “Texaco Star Theater” and watch the antics of Milton Berle who was dubbed “Mr. Television”.

After the catharsis of the war, an uneasy peace engulfed the world that was dominated by the less violent, but almost as intense, battle of ideologies. In 1945 Berlin was divided into four administrative sectors, and the political line was actually and metaphorically drawn between the Soviet Union on the one hand, and America, Britain and France on the other. Winston Churchill noted in 1946 that, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” and a strange and unique “Cold War” was unofficially declared. The battle between Communism and Democracy had begun, and as the poet W.H. Auden noted, the world drifted into an “age of anxiety”.

The first half of the decade saw Hollywood participating in the war effort with tremendous enthusiasm. Many celebrities volunteered to fight, and many distinguished directors risked their lives to make combat documentaries. When the USO (United Service Organizations) was formed, it encountered no difficulty in recruiting entertainers through the Hollywood Victory Committee to entertain the Allied troops, and the “Hollywood Canteen” was opened by Bette Davis and John Garfield to give members of the armed forces a chance to meet their favorite stars. But the second half of the decade saw Hollywood suddenly engaged in its own fierce battles. The U.S. House of Representatives’ Un–American Activities Committee suddenly considered Hollywood to be a “center of Communist activity”; the studios and the unions battled for control of the Hollywood workforce; more and more of the Hollywood talent became freelance and independent; the censors continued to crack down on film content; and the Justice Department ended the decade by winning an antitrust action against Paramount, which forced all five major studios to divest themselves of their theaters and, as a consequence, their controlled chain of distribution.


In the United States there are 17,500 movie theaters in operation, one for every 8,000 people. Out of a total U.S. population of 130 million, it is estimated that 55–60 million Americans go to the movies every week.   As more and more families move to the edges of the…

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William Randolph Hearst forbids any mention of the film “Citizen Kane” in his newspapers. He considers the film to be defamatory.   The government makes public the salaries earned by the heads of well–known companies. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, is the highest paid executive in the country…

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The Hollywood actress and wife of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, dies at the age of 34 in an airplane crash.   Because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just two months before, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decides to label its annual awards ceremony a “dinner”…

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An opinion poll carried out by the Motion Picture Herald has shown that the American public is saturated with war films and is demanding movies that distract and entertain.   As the motion picture exhibition industry loses more and more of its male employees to the armed services, women begin…

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The Hollywood Victory Committee now has 80 entertainment units touring overseas, with 38 of these being in the British Isles.   The U.S. Supreme Court rules against the Crescent theater circuit for antitrust violations. Crescent had been accused of monopolizing a five–state area in the Southeast and of colluding with…

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Olivia de Havilland wins a landmark decision in her contract dispute with Warner Bros. The Supreme Court has now set the outside limit of a studio–player contract at seven years, including periods of suspension.   7,000 members of the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), made up of studio set designers,…

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revises its rules for Academy Awards voting. Instead of allowing members of the entire film community to select nominees and winners, only members of the Academy will be allowed to vote. The Academy’s rolls immediately increase from 700 to over 1,600.  …

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At a meeting in New York City, the 50 most influential studio chiefs and producers have decided to dismiss any employee who refuses to cooperate with the House Un–American Activities Committee (HUAC), or who they suspect harbor Communist sympathies.   The Production Code has been amended to ban all scenarios…

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The great Russian film director, Sergei Eisenstein, dies of a heart attack at the age of 50.   Under the terms of an agreement with the United Kingdom, American film companies will reinvest the $60 million profit, recently made in England, in various “permitted uses” such as hiring British talent,…

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Harry Warner declares that Warner Bros. will introduce television production at its Burbank studios as soon as the FCC approves the studio’s purchase of the Thackery television stations in Los Angeles. The government, however, puts a moratorium on the licensing of TV stations that is not lifted until 1952, and…

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