Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures' Greatest Year
Kemp, Philip, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE
Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures' Greatest Year. By Catherine Jurca. University of California Press. 284pp, Pounds 44.95 and Pounds 18.95. ISBN 9780520233706 and 271807. Published 25 April 2012
Superlatives are immediately suspect, and "greatest" more than most, so the subtitle of Catherine Jurca's book is likely to arouse critical misgivings. But it is soon apparent that the phrase doesn't represent the author's judgement. Rather, it's the name of a panicky public-relations initiative cobbled together in that year by Hollywood's major studios, fearing that their audiences might be slipping away.
The Tinseltown bosses, insecure as ever, saw ill omens on all sides. Attendance figures and box-office receipts were falling, the catch-all excuse of the Depression was wearing thin, and exhibitors reported that disgruntled patrons were grousing about lazy, complacent movies. Television was in its infancy, but the more far-sighted could recognise a looming rival. And in July 1938, the US Department of Justice, egged on by independent exhibitors resentful of the studios' restrictive practices, filed an antitrust lawsuit that threatened to sunder the Hollywood majors from their wholly owned cinema chains.
The response, dreamed up in six weeks, was a million-dollar PR offensive called "Motion Pictures' Greatest Year". (It was originally to be "Movies Are Your Best Entertainment", until some bright spark noticed that this would produce the acronym "Maybe".) Some 94 new releases, produced by all the major studios (and one of the minors, Monogram), would be promoted as "quiz pictures". At each screening, quiz booklets would be distributed, with film-goers encouraged to answer questions about the film they had just seen and compose a 50-word "essay". The best entries would share in a $250,000 prize fund.
Predictably, the scheme hit snags right from the start. To run nationwide, it needed the cooperation - and financial input - of the already disaffected independent exhibitors. But since, as ever, the studio-linked chains got all the major releases first and held on to them for as long as possible, the independents had trouble participating in the promotion - even if they had wanted to. …