American Culture in the 1950s

By Martin Halliwell | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Film and Television

The fiercest cultural rivalry of the 1950s was between the established film industry and the emerging medium of television. Film had been a central part of American life for three decades, but the experimental beginnings of television between 1928 and 1947 did little to suggest the dramatic impact it was to have by mid-century. The boom in television sales began in 1948 and had escalated by 1950, a year in which seven million sets were sold. Instead of a trip to the movies, most viewing was now done on the domestic TV set, particularly by the mid-decade when the major broadcasting networks NBC, CBS, ABC and the short-lived DuMont were scheduling shows that appealed to all ages. The meteoric rise of television as the defining cultural form of the decade is often cited as the reason why filmmaking went into freefall, with directors and actors drawn to the immediate commercial gains of the growing small-screen industry, what critics have called 'the decline and fall of an empire, a time of bewilderment in New York boardrooms and panic on Hollywood backlots'.1

Although television was often projected as 'the antagonist in the mythic version of Hollywood's postwar crisis' and film actors were prohibited from making television appearances until 1956, that year saw three big film studios – Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century-Fox and MGM – producing their own shows and selling television rights for pre-1948 films.2 Nearly 90 per cent of homes had at TV set by 1959 and as a cultural artefact it was virtually impossible to avoid.

The main reason why the TV set appeared frequently on television shows was to familiarize viewers with the technology. Two early episodes of Jackie Gleason's show The Honeymooners were directly geared to situate the TV set at the heart of domestic life, while one of the regular prizes on the quiz show The Price is Right (1956–65) was a colour TV. This did not mean that it was always celebrated as a panacea

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American Culture in the 1950s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Figures vi
  • Case Studies vii
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • Chronology of 1950s American Culture xi
  • Introduction - The Intellectual Context 1
  • Chapter 1 - Fiction and Poetry 51
  • Chapter 2 - Drama and Performance 85
  • Chapter 3 - Music and Radio 119
  • Chapter 4 - Film and Television 147
  • Chapter 5 - The Visual Arts Beyond Modernism 189
  • Conclusion - Rethinking the 1950s 225
  • Notes 245
  • Bibliography 285
  • Index 303
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