Tom McParland continues his somewhat ascerbic look at the Hollywood ‘epic’ and its eventual morphing into what has become the modern day blockbuster.
After WW2 Hollywood fought another war. Against TV. Returns from former studio-owned cinema chains were no longer automatic, thanks to anti trust legislation. TV set ownership increased from 283,000 in 1946 to 7.2 million in 1953. So although Victor Mature destroyed an entire army with the jawbone of an ass, Hollywood still fretted that, with those figures perhaps TV audiences weren’t as asinine as Cecil B. De Mille imagined.
A wartime generation had already seen Gone With The Wind powerfully tell a Civil War story without a single battle scene. How Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) could effectually depict overt sexuality, adultery and murder by implication. So that, in reality, the epic movie – meaning something great because it was merely big – was beginning to seem like gingerbread needing gilding.
Hollywood’s initial reaction to TV competition was to provide something that television couldn’t. Something larger than life. Fox bought CinemaScope – the lapsed 1926 French patent of Henri Jacques Chrétien. Basically CinemaScope purposely shot narrow negatives that would later be stretched. Unlike Cinerama it enabled cinemas to cheaply extend their current widescreen. We punters were told – and we parroted the lie – that we could see more with CinemaScope.
But CinemaScope was just Hollywood’s1950’s panic made flesh. Hype and big names, rather than bigger screens, brought audiences to the cinema. And all these processes, CinemaScope, 3D, wobbly Cinerama and stereophonic sound would eventually become the add-ons they really were. But for the moment Hollywood would fight TV and Mammon’s good fight by rewriting the Bible.