in Box Office History: Oscar
This week we look at a turbulent period in Hollywood’s history: the communist scare and the blacklist that resulted from it. We’ll also catch up with the current Box Office takes, and see how the predictions from last week held up…and if a certain police officer made of metal made the grade. Here’s to hoping!
History of the Oscars 2: The Blacklist Era (1946-1960)
Towards the tail end of the Second World War, American sentiment began to pivot away from fear of fascism towards the next perceived international threat, communism (see FOX news viewers, fascism and communism are two DIFFERENT things…) To this end, some politicians began to hyper-ventilate that communists were just everywhere, and, don’t look now, but they were probably in Hollywood too, spreading their evil mind control through the mass media. Congress convened the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a three ring circus with the intent of outing any hidden communists, never mind the fact that several historians have noted that liberals and critics of American foreign policy were the real targets (the committee found precious few communists strangely…) The first salvo was fired in 1946 when 11 screen-writers were called to testify, and 10 of them refused to cooperate. This put Hollywood in a tough spot. Stand up for some troublesome screen-writer’s first amendment rights and take some publicity heat, or jump into bed with the red-scare senators and start throwing people under the bus. Studio heads chose the latter, and the Waldorf Statement made the policy official: the bus ride was about to get very bumpy.
The system of film making that dominated at the time was pretty straightforward: studio bosses had complete control of output, and were extremely solicitous of making money. Therefore, they rarely dabbled in political themes any more extreme than “We’re number 1! Go Democracy!” That this system was hiding sneaky communist messages was laughable, and the testimony given by “cooperative” informants was largely incoherent and, sadly, aimed at settling personal scores.
Many talented individuals had their careers ruined, even if they gave friendly testimony. Those that resisted giving testimony or actually defended the right to belong to a political party were declared unemployable outright, but several stars who cooperated still got blacklisted, either in revenge or because they were deemed a liability. An exodus of talent resulted, stocking Broadway and foreign studios with Hollywood refugees. Several prominent figures just up and quit, moving to other work.
The Little Tramp, Trampled
One of the largest casualties of the blacklist was former Hollywood darling, Charlie Chaplin. Though fading from the Limelight (sorry, Chaplin joke) due to resisting speaking roles, Chaplin still had clout going into the debacle. Chaplin had just completed his first speaking film, The Great Dictator, a scathing indictment of both fascism, and of war-mongering in general. His strident anti-war stance drew the ire of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who initiated a brutal witch hunt against Chaplin, even backing up a flimsy paternity claim made by a mentally unstable woman, and accusing Chaplin of sexual trafficking. The government used tabloids to eviscerate the man, and threatened to deport him (despite being married to an American, Chaplin was still a British citizen.) When he went abroad to publicize a film, he was denied re-entry into the United States. Popular sentiment was marshaled against him, and his films (now made abroad) languished until the 1970’s.
The Beginning of the End
In an ironic twist, the blacklist, begun with the “Hollywood Ten” group of writers, was also ended by a group of writers. Screen-writers were able to slip the blacklist blockade by using pen names, thereby continuing to work in Hollywood, albeit without recognition. This practice culminated in the films Exodus and Spartacus in 1960, when director Otto Preminger (Exodus) and actor Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) stood up to the blacklist by crediting Dalton Trumbo with having written both scripts. Trumbo, an actual communist, wrote more than a dozen scripts without credit before this time. Hollywood relented, and allowed his name on the credits, and even JFK crossed anti-communist protests to see Spartacus. Shortly thereafter in 1962, a lawsuit was settled that ruled that studios that blacklisted were liable for civil damages for putting people out of work. The blacklist was publicly broken, though many never recovered their careers.
In a fitting ending for Oscar history month, Spartacus won four Academy Awards, though not for best screen-play. In 1972, after 20 years in exile, Charlie Chaplin returned to America, to accept a honorary achievement award at the Oscars. He was applauded for 12 minutes before even saying a word.
The Week That Was: Brick by Brick
I built a steady foundation with my picks last week, but Kevin Hart kicked them all to hell. All three movies I picked placed top 3, with The Lego Movie being number one, but About Last Night leap-frogged the mechanical law enforcer, taking second. RoboCop was number three, earning a decent 22 million after a rocky Valentine’s Day start (who are you people that didn’t take a date to see RoboCop? Do you hate fun?)
In Box Office history, this week is the pits. A few classy pictures such as On Golden Pond and Driving Miss Daisy make appearances towards the 80’s, but after 1990 it’s all crap. The Brady Bunch Movie is on this list, folks. Steven Seagal is on this list. Both Daredevil and Ghost Rider are on this list. This, my friends, is a very bad list. Apparently the folks over at The Lego Movie didn’t get the memo, because the rest of Hollywood has been using February like my cat uses the litter, with the same effect.
The Week That Will Be: Predictions
#3: About Last Night. I expect this film to edge RoboCop (again!) out for the third spot, dropping it to number 4. Based on his track record, Kevin Hart movies age gracefully, and will probably hold well, in the 10-15 million range. It has the advantage of being one of the few movies out not involving explosions, so it should soak up some demographic love.
#2: 3 Days to Kill. It’s hard to pick this film over Pompeii for the second spot, as the promotional work for both films has been awful, and Pompeii has the added dimension of 3D inflating its sales. That being said, Pompeii looks like dog-turds, and this month has been brutal for mindless action flicks (I, Frankenstein and Legend of Hercules, anyone?) Luc Besson has already achieved one winter doldrum’s coup with his engaging Taken series, so I will put my faith in him managing to find a sweet spot twice. Expect 14-20 million from this hit-man.
#1: The Lego Movie. Still kicking bricks, this movie has legs. Tiny, stubby legs with holes in them that lock adorably onto colored bricks. But legs, nonetheless. According to Rotten Tomatoes, this movie is like Jurassic Park and Gone with the Wind had a baby, and that baby was riding a solid gold motorcycle. 96 percent!? It’s a goddamn toy commercial, you know this, right? 30 million in sales, easily.