For most of the studio era in Hollywood, movies were defined by a particular sense of impermanence. Produced in a matter of weeks and circulated only until they failed to earn more than the potential of the new film on deck, the life of most motion pictures in the thirties and forties was decidedly short-lived. In 1931, one moviegoer’s magazine put it simply: “like life itself, the nature of the film play is essentially ephemeral. The vivid spectacle that enchants the world today is tomorrow but a memory.” Significant, then, is how so many films from the 1930s and 1940s overcame their fundamentally fleeting natures to endure as “classics.”
Prior to the proliferation of film on television in the mid-1950s, and perhaps more consequently, the advent of home media in the late-1970s, for most moviegoers, the only opportunity to reflect on Hollywood’s older movies was when studios chose to “reissue” films from years’ past back to theatres. Before the 1940s, this practice remained consistently inconsistent in its employ from the mid-1910s, where perhaps a small handful of old pictures might have made their returns to general cinemas each year. However, by the late-1940s, film reissues inundated American cinemas. Facing unprecedented economic turmoil—caused by dropping attendance figures and rising production costs—Hollywood studios returned to their archives, pouring hundreds of hits (and flops) from the prior decades back into theatres from late-1946 to 1949. In selling these films the second or third time around, Hollywood often took the opportunity to reframe their past pictures in effort to ascribe a certain significance, warranted or not, for attracting audiences then able to re-watch and re-evaluate movies from the prior two decades; a process, which in turn, allowed for certain films to gain actual enduring significance.
That the industry came to rely so heavily on its old movies during this period—for some studios, reissues meant the difference between an annual profit or loss—reflected an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for Hollywood in an incredibly short amount of time. After sustaining years of steady growth during wartime and hitting all-time highs in attendance and revenue with the return of GIs in 1945-1946, the postwar years marked the beginning of a precipitous decline. With rising ticket prices unable to offset sagging attendance—a trend accelerated by GIs settling down and leaving cities—and increasing production costs limiting annual output from studios, reissues plugged a hole in an otherwise sinking ship. Their demand stemmed especially from the need to fill the gaps created by the shorter release windows afforded newer films. Audiences, already paying more, proved unwilling to sit through films of lesser quality, resulting in a shortage of new films for exhibitors. In this way, unlike ever before, older films were not only returning to theatres used to playing newly produced movies, but taking the place of new films, often ‘B’ movies not being created.
Unfortunately for Hollywood, its woes during the period were hardly limited to its domestic box office receipts. Increasing protectionism for the British film industry threatened a vital market with the announcement of a 75% tariff on new American films in 1947. And, an ongoing antitrust suit jeopardized the very fabric of the vertically integrated studio system. In the landmark 1948 Supreme Court case, United States v. Paramount Pictures, the court demanded the separation of studios’ production and exhibition divisions. Though the consequences of the decision would take several years to be fully implemented, its anticipation forced studios to reconsider their distribution methods. In this context, the reissue proved a safe insurance bet against the uncertainty.
In many ways, Hollywood’s struggle during this period is a fascinating counterpoint to the general postwar age of abundance that was taking hold of American life. Consumption, across society at large, was reaching unprecedented heights. And while consumers were becoming accustomed to more choices than ever, the glut of old pictures was not so much a response to their demands than it was an admission that Hollywood could scarcely keep up with their desires for newer films. Hamstrung by rising production costs that prohibited the creation of many large-scale features, many new movies struggled to differentiate themselves—at least in scale—from the product that was appearing on the ascending medium that was television. Reissues served as a temporary remedy to this.
While the reissue practice represented a vital part of the industry’s survival economics during the period, it has surprisingly received scant attention from historians and film scholars. Eric Hoyt was perhaps the first focus on the topic directly, though he did so within a larger examination of Hollywood’s monetization of its film libraries prior to the age of home media. Brian Hannan, meanwhile, offered a survey of the practice over the course of a century, tracing its changing role within the film industry. This paper will aim to not only tell the story of reissues from the industry’s perspective, but also interweave how these older movies were being received by looking at the publications in the press during the time.
HIST/LBSCI Justification: In the library and archival worlds, there is arguably nothing more important than the topic of access. Just as the selections an archivist makes have huge implications on what we can (and do) remember, so too does the public’s ability to access those items in the first place. Prior to television airings and home video, for general moviegoers, film reissues provided the primary manner by which older films could be enjoyed (and consequently, grow in reputation). Older films that once may have only been found in arthouse theatres—if that—were finally able to be enjoyed again en masse during the late-1940s. This paper, then, will be exploring one point of access in the final years of the 1940s. Though, as will become clear, Hollywood studios largely dictated which films moviegoers would be able to re-watch in the first place.
Given the many circumstances surrounding Hollywood’s turmoil in the late 1940s, historians and film scholars might be forgiven for having largely overlooked the studios’ defensive use of the reissue against such perils. Nevertheless, existing scholarship does significantly help to locate this trend within a larger understanding of Hollywood’s history. These include works that explore industry dynamics, the decade in film, and a those that touch specifically on the topic of reissues.
Though tempting to first consider a film’s reissuance through a nostalgic lens, the practice was one most assuredly done for its economic benefit. That it came to function so importantly in this regard speaks foremost to the Hollywood studio system, the industry’s economic model during the period. Though not studied nearly as intensely as individual films and filmmakers, several historians have approached the topic in effort to both better our understanding of the industry’s history and to re-contextualize how we approach the period’s output. This shift in focus towards a cast of characters not only behind the camera, but often not even on set, was especially pronounced during the 1980s. During the decade, Douglas Gomery published The Hollywood Studio System and Thomas Schatz penned The Genius of the System, two books that worked to reframe consideration of American film as products of a clearly defined and regimented system. In more recent years, film historians have largely ceded the expansive histories to Gomery and Schatz, and instead approached the topic from a more focused angle such as Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood.
Temporarily placing their differences aside, the three books’ emphases on the studio system ultimately reflects the shared importance with which the authors place on the wholly integrated business model that dominated the American film industry from the 1930s through the 1950s. Schatz’ book explores the often complex negotiation between creative talent, producers, and studio heads and is testament to the nuance, he argues, with which one must approach a system that enabled companies to manage their movies so completely from the process of their creation to exhibition. While comprehensive, Schatz limits the examination of this process to the telling of the histories of MGM, Warner Bros, Universal and independent producer, David O. Selznick, from the late-1920s to the late-1940s, with a small dose of the 1950s towards the end. Utilizing surviving studio records and industry publications, his study offers a producer-centric view of the American film industry, emphasizing the act of creation as a “melding of institutional forces.” While Schatz’ view of the system is a largely positive one, it importantly is not blind to the drawbacks, perhaps best captured by the acknowledgment that “the prospect of anything truly innovative or creative being produced in Hollywood [became] more and more remote by the mid-1930s.” Nevertheless, his reading of the history is a sympathetic one that cannot help but encourage readers to marvel at the decision-making by committee that defined the industry during the era.
If Schatz’ wider picture of Hollywood works to better illuminate its many interconnected parts, Gomery would argue that missing at the core of his systems analysis is the most important piece of all: money. In fact, in his updated text, Gomery wastes no time in dismissing Genius of the System as “a pseudo-sociological history of corporations.” Of course, Schatz hardly ignores the topic completely, only his work sought mainly to focus on the “many cooks” aspect of the film industry. For Gomery, however, potential profit lies at the heart of his interpretation of history, and he argues, served as the central motivator behind all decisions made in Hollywood. His text, then, is one that largely ignores the figures and stories found in Genius and instead focuses on select film executives responsible for shaping their companies financially. Whereas Schatz stresses the diversity of studio make-ups and operating dynamics, Gomery’s fiscal concentration allows him to conclude that studios “differentiated their wares, but hardly possessed different personalities themselves—just different styles of leadership.” The stark difference between the two academics is obviously a matter of perspective, but it also perhaps speaks to the vastly different approaches one can take towards understanding the same system.
Relying on corporate financial reports, and industry and financial press, Gomery’s work ultimately (and unsurprisingly) places primacy on Hollywood’s ledgers and not its products. On the whole, Gomery is unsentimental and his book’s attention to the power of the dollar provides an important lens through which to consider the industry when the studio system was at its peak. His emphasis on money also affords a manner by which to consider the beginning of the end of the studio system in the late-1940s and the function of the reissue at a time of fiscal precarity.
Though it would be unfair to label Dixon’s Death of the Moguls as a sentimental antidote to Gomery’s text, its focus on individual characters, in this case, the Hollywood studio heads, does offer a somewhat softer, more compelling, telling of what is fundamentally the same story. His work differs from Schatz and Gomery, however, in its argument that the true demise of the classical studio system did not result from forced economic circumstances alone, but instead followed the passing of those individuals responsible for implementing it in the first place. While this reading of events may appear to hinge on the “great man theory,” in actuality, Dixon’s framing simply offers him a novel approach to studying the system. Schatz similarly focused on the producer and Gomery, on the executive. Despite Dixon’s attention to the moguls, the real history he tries to tell is “the story of the decline, fall, and ultimate collapse of the studio system, a systemic failure so catastrophic that in the end only fragments of the majors were left.” His treatment of the industry titans alternates between effusive (on Adolph Zukor of Paramount: his “mild mannered exterior served to conceal the vast drive and imagination of the man.”) and biting (on Louis Mayer at MGM: “the great homogenizer of public taste”). Where the other two authors sought to build a chronological history of the system, Dixon’s preoccupation with its demise ultimately offers a critical perspective by which to consider its late stage failings, a fact made most clearly through his diagnosis of the industry’s postwar woes at the beginning of his book.
Trite as it may sound, the three books are also reminders of the fact that the history of Hollywood, at any point in time, is a history comprised of many other smaller ones. While this may seem obvious, the fact that all three authors divide their works into chapters that each ever only focus on a single studio or personality should give some indication to the complexities and rich histories found in each. Perhaps more significantly, these are histories that lie at the foundation of everything else going on in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. While the reissue practice that became commonplace as the studio system became to falter in the late-1940s goes unmentioned by the trio, these studies on the system itself help to situate the industry practice within a larger context. In recycling movies, the studios were repackaging the brands they had cultivated in the preceding years, including not only the movies that the system produced, but also the stars that it had created. If the earlier standard, studio operating procedure saw little use for their older product, by the late-1940s, this assumption shifted dramatically in the opposite direction. A shift that, in turn, forced studios to reflect back on their own histories and past output, even if only to capitalize on it in a desperate moment of economic distress.
Following the initial publication of Genius, Schatz would go on to write Boom and Bust, an encyclopedic volume of a book tackling the state of the American film industry in the 1940s. As its title suggests, Schatz’ characterization of the decade is one of both extreme highs and lows, a period he would label “a decade of momentous reversals for the American cinema.” Here, he writes that over the course of the decade, that system “would be steadily, inexorably, and permanently transformed.” The decade’s ebbs and flows were perhaps nowhere more starkly evident than with the industry’s antitrust troubles. Entering the decade under government inquiry that threatened the very fabric of the studios’ creation to exhibition model, Hollywood was able to evade such attention after the start of the war—the support of which transformed the industry in its own way—only to face the same antitrust concerns in the postwar period, this time with a dreaded resolution decidedly not in their favor. As Schatz writes of the postwar years—“the climax of the most troubled period in movie industry history”—Hollywood’s downturn was all the more alarming “because it contrasted so sharply with the general prosperity of the nation at large.” After hitting an all-time high in profits and attendance in 1946, the subsequent readjustment years saw an industry not merely return to earth, but do so at a precipitous rate. Utilizing a host of industry reports and studio financials, in discussing dwindling profit margins and inflated production costs, Schatz importantly documents the industry’s “defensive” measures taken in the late-1940s, including the reissue, which he briefly notes “became a veritable programming staple” during the period. Not surprisingly, amidst discussion of the entire decade in American film, Schatz does not delve too deeply into the topic except to acknowledge the significant role it came to play.
Perhaps the only two researchers who have placed more than passing attention on the reissue practice are Eric Hoyt and Brian Hannan. Hoyt, responsible for Hollywood Vaults: Film Libraries Before Home Media, was among the first to do so when he offered study of the topic vis-à-vis Hollywood studios and their capitalization of old product in the decades before home video. In his single chapter devoted to the 1940s, Hoyt argues that the latter part of the decade served as “essential prologue” for the profusion of films to television in the 1950s, writing the practice “influenc[ed] how studios, labor groups, exhibitors, critics, and audiences thought about the circulation of old movies.” After a brief introduction to the wildly successful mid-decade re-release of Snow White, Hoyt’s chapter offers brief voice to the thoughts of the aforementioned groups on the prolific postwar practice. Most notably, his research emphasizes the combative relationship between the labor unions—desiring remunerations for these later screenings—and the studios eager to cash in on their back catalogues. As with the rest of his book, Hoyt’s focus is resolutely on the financial value of the old films; here he focuses specifically on MGM and Universal for his close examination. So, while he briefly refers to the demands of critics and audiences for such oldies, these points are largely peripheral to his larger concerns, though he does encourage them as possible avenues for future study.
Brian Hannan’s Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 is the only work since Hoyt to attempt to locate the reissue practice within the larger history of the American film industry. In fact, it is arguably the only work to look exclusively at the practice throughout Hollywood’s history. Like Hoyt, Hannan’s work often slips into the financials of the practice—which admittedly are important given the economic function of the practice. In his chapter on the 1940s—which coyly inverted Schatz’ title to “Bust and Boom”—Hannan traces an industry practice initially tepidly met to one essential to the bottom line. His writing, which cites reissued films to the point of inundation, attempts to situate the practice within a larger industry history. The breadth of Hannan’s larger study may have required a curtailment of focus, so his work offers the requisite background information for someone to delve into the more nuanced aspects and consequences of Hollywood’s reissue trend both in the 1940s and beyond.
In Hollywood Vault, Hoyt closes his discussion of the 1940s by asserting that “the postwar reissue boom demonstrates that we need to more fully consider the for-profit theatrical marketplace in the study of film” and the growth of American film culture. While he makes an effort to incorporate the larger consequences of the boom, particularly in invoking the comments of contemporary film critics such as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, such an effort largely falls outside the scope of his focus. Similarly, Hannan’s expansive study perhaps precludes him from exploring the practice in the late-1940s in much detail. In focusing my attention strictly on the final years of the decade, my aim will be to offer a slightly different reading of the period that will attempt to place the arrival of these old films within the larger process by which Hollywood studios evaluated their continued relevancy and marketed them, and how audiences and critics received them. Admittedly, it will be impossible to ignore the larger, shifting industry into which the old films re-entered and played a significant part, and for that, the work of Schatz, Gomery, and Dixon help to further situate the practice within a specific moment of American film history.
- Main Body
- The Start of a Frenzy
In the final weeks of August 1946, MGM began the rollout of publicity efforts announcing the arrival of its “Reprints of Masterpieces” campaign. With full spread advertisements appearing across industry publications, the studio heralded its plan to reissue its all-time greats, promising to periodically feature those films still wielding the “power and significance” they did upon initial release. Their ads, comprised entirely of text—in marked contrast to most other eye-catching efforts—soberly offered the program as response to “public wish[es],” and promised to support the returning features as they would any new release. While MGM’s initiative was hardly groundbreaking in its fundamental concept—studios had long re-capitalized on a notable film or two annually—the studio’s strategy worked to reframe what had otherwise been a trivial affair into a noteworthy one akin to a public service effort. The program was to kick off in subsequent months with the releases of Rage in Heaven (1941), a psychological drama, and Captains Courageous (1937), a Rudyard Kipling adventure adaptation.
An editorial in the Motion Picture Herald the following week declared that MGM’s announcement offered “a certain encouraging assurance that the motion picture has indeed come to a substantial maturity”; further positing that for a film like Captains, “to every new audience it will be ever new, and to the oldsters an entertaining re-experience, as deathless as the pages Kipling wrote.” William Zoellner, head of MGM’s newly created ‘Reprints & Importations Department’ established to handle the “masterpieces,” announced that exhibitors nationwide were eager for the reprints, with theatres being “almost guaranteed new audiences for them by the kids who’ve grown up” since the films’ initial releases.
While the prospect of a new audience was alluring, by late 1946, the reissue’s appeal to MGM and others stemmed primarily from industry economic uncertainties, including those surrounding the industry’s as yet unsettled antitrust case that threatened to upend the way films were distributed to theatres. Anticipating that a court-mandated auction-bidding system would be installed to determine the rental costs of their films, studios recognized an opportunity to reissue their old movies in order to iron out the new system’s wrinkles. Industry watchers also noted that, “canny sales officials, reluctant to openly admit it, scent potential gold in the slow start of the up-coming season with the reissues as the handy pickaxe to get at the paydirt.” This, of course, did not prevent studio representatives in the sales, advertising, and distribution channels from following MGM’s lead in claiming that public demand spurred the reissue trend. Like Zoellner, others suddenly began citing the timeless quality of the older pictures, which only coincidentally still had untapped revenue potential.
Just weeks after MGM’s announcement, the Motion Picture Herald declared that “the reissue business is booming,” counting at least 71 oldies already in or slated for circulation that fall. By October, Variety would report that the films were frequently attracting better business than average across the country. Decidedly far above average was the success of MGM’s first “masterpiece” release, the psychological melodrama Rage in Heaven. By April 1947, the film had grossed $1.25 million, more than four times its initial earnings in 1941. Its box office success aside, the reissue of Rage offers several points meriting consideration. First, despite being adorned as such, the film was far from the “masterpiece” that MGM claimed the public had been clamoring for and its initial flop in 1941 is hard evidence of that. Instead, the film’s main draw rested in its two leads, Robert Montgomery and, especially, Ingrid Bergman.
Still a relative newcomer to American audiences at the time of its first release, by 1946, Bergman had been voted the second most popular star in Hollywood and had won the Academy Award for Best Actress just two years earlier. Not to miss the opportunity to exploit that fact, the little-seen movie offered MGM the chance to capitalize on the fame she had built in the intervening years and on subsequent posters created for the film, Bergman’s name overtook Montgomery’s for top-billing. During this late-1940s reissue boom, the star-power of the studios’ actors, arguably their biggest commodity, helped both determine the selection and marketing of their old pictures. In this way, Hollywood was not merely selling movies it had manufactured in years’ past, but also stars and personalities it had carefully cultivated over the same time. No less manufactured, the stars were often more important draws for a film than any plot summary or review. Samantha Barbas writes that during this era, studios served as “masters of illusions, creating artificial identities, and distorted images for a personality-hungry public.” Admittedly, the public played no small part in fostering and perpetuating the star system, however, much of the demand for certain big names, could certainly be attributed to Hollywood’s hype machine.
This, of course, is not to suggest that Rage was somehow undeserving of its delayed success. In fact, its smash hit status speaks to one of the most significant aspects of the reissue process, which is that it allowed for the re-evaluation and appreciation of past films—even if this one was only five years old. Citing the popularity of contemporary psychological films such as Spellbound and The Lost Weekend, some critics reappraised Rage as being “a few years ahead of its time,” having been “made and released too soon.” With its genre now in vogue, the film was able to attract a significant audience, something it had failed to do initially and previously would never have had the second opportunity to. Naturally, not all were as glowing in their praise on the second go-round. For the New York Times, Bosley Crowther lamented in a larger piece that Hollywood preferred to reissue old melodramas instead of the social realism he would have preferred—of either old or recent vintage. On Rage, he wrote “and why do they dig up such a picture? Because Ingrid Bergman is starred—and Miss Bergman, as you know is current catnip.” Superficial as it may be, Bergman’s popularity speaks significantly to strength of the star system and its effect on audience motivations.
The race to replicate Rage’s windfall—or at the very least, make a quick buck on existing properties—caused near instantaneous discord amongst the industry’s many participants. Whereas studios like MGM, as well as 20th-Fox and Paramount, carefully selected their reissues, other distributors, such as RKO, were accused of an “indiscriminate release of oldies” that the others felt threatened their ability to sell their finely curated ones. Naming Bringing Up Baby (1938), as one example of RKO’s transgressions, Variety relayed the worries of exhibitors, writing that such films “may be high in entertainment value but the incongruity of the dresses worn by actresses elicits the same scoffs from audiences as old newsreel clips of the flapper era.” Further, some “hair-dos” were said to be so “outmoded as to draw either laughs or complaints from customers.” That such thinking was prevalent is an important reminder of the rationale that frequently went into deciding which films were deemed acceptable for revival by at least some of the studios/distributors, specifically those with topical appeal of some kind, be it in the star power or the theme involved. It also helps to explain why, at least at this early point, concerted effort was made by the conscientious studios to release costumed period pieces or films that were only five years old or so; choices meant to sidestep the thorny issue of hocking seemingly “dated” movies.
Though these decisions speak foremost to industry best practice, importantly, they were largely borne from audience tastes—or at least general perceptions of it. Throughout the 1940s, audience market research occupied a significant function within Hollywood, and increasingly American society at large. Published reports broke down: interest in different story types by age and gender; the appeal of studio stars; and motivation for attendance, among countless other measures. Such careful calculations served to produce products of maximum profitability. The reissue practice was no different in that its principal aim was to make money, albeit with a reduced risk. The care studios frequently took in selecting films is illustrative of an industry especially attuned to audience demands, albeit ones it helped create.
- New Profits and Problems
Measured by box office receipts, the reissue practice proved both especially popular and lucrative from this period’s start. Even while one New Jersey theatre operator argued that “the quantity of [reissues] we are forced to play shows shortsightedness by the [Hollywood studios],” he and others could not help but admit that they still did “better” with the older fare than they would have with newer alternatives. Generally, however, these film exhibitors, saw through the veneer of Hollywood’s marketing, understanding the influx of oldies to be practical business decisions made because: newer films were playing for far shorter periods than they had during the war; audiences preferred higher quality older films to poor new ones; and studio production and supply of films had begun to drop as both production costs and general industry uncertainty rose. Some also anticipated an inevitable audience fatigue and feared the overreliance on past greats to be an admission of Hollywood’s inability to create new ones.
In addition to the early gripes of some exhibitors and patrons, studios faced resistance from industry labor unions dissatisfied with the lack of remunerations derived from these subsequent showings. Led by the Screen Writers’ Guild (SWG), a February 1947 editorial in their monthly magazine, The Screen Writer, began the battle, writing, “While all of us in the industry are pleased to have made pictures of such lasting quality that they merit revival, and in their way may even become classics, it is none the less clear that it is money out of our own pockets, which makes our pleasure less complete.” By their estimates, four writing jobs were lost each time an old film replaced what otherwise would have been a new one in theatres. Significantly, they did not ask for an end to the practice, only a reduction in the number of films reissued and for royalties.
Shortly after the editorial’s publication, a meeting of representatives from the SWG, the Screen Directors Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild took place in effort to jointly tackle the issue. While each would address the topic in separate contract negotiations with the studios, the shared belief of the practice’s unfairness to the creative minds behind the films set the stage for an extended battle as reissues became more and more essential to Hollywood’s bottom line for the remainder of the decade. An August 1947 The Screen Writer piece stingingly entitled, “No Applause for these Encores,” would go on to argue that the “welfare of all employees of the industry is effected by reissues.” Their fears also smartly recognized the potential weaponization of their own creative works against them. Just a few years earlier during the recording musicians’ strike of 1942-44, record labels increasingly turned to their back-catalogues, reissuing previously recorded music from the striking musicians. While no such strike would occur in the movie industry, particularly acrimonious negotiations saw producers offer little concessions to the unions, including nothing in the area of reissues. The situation was emblematic of the postwar reality for many unions that Nelson Lichtenstein describes in his rejection of the period’s idealized “labor-management accord.”
Since reissue profit had long been viewed as “found money” or “gravy” on top of the film’s initial earnings, it is not surprising unions saw the practice as one fundamentally unfair to creative talent. With the film’s initial production costs long since amortized, the main expense for reissuing films lay only in creating fresh prints and advertising. In April 1947, one film executive explained the appeal for the Motion Picture Herald as such, “A fairly accurate print cost […] he estimated at $25,000. The sum spent for new accessories runs about $5,000, while the distribution costs run about 20 per cent. Thus, for every $1,000,000 of gross rental for a reissue, there is about $750,000 net profit.” The allure was self-evident. Perhaps making matters even more stinging for the labor groups, Variety reported that some studio heads, like Louis B. Mayer at MGM, were reportedly getting 10% of the gross profits on all their reissued movies, as well. Writers and actors, meanwhile, received nothing. It is not difficult to see what, therefore, made the older films so attractive to studios, even if they came at the cost of newer ones. However, by the late-1940s, the practice’s once supplemental nature gave way to necessity as the “gravy [had] now been transformed into the staff of life” for Hollywood. For MGM, for instance, their 1946-47 season was only profitable because of the success of their reissues.
The extent to which this reality was recognized by those outside the industry, particularly the theatregoers themselves, is somewhat less clear. Several film critics, though, including Richard Coe, recognized the trend as one more than merely the consequence of audience nostalgia. Writing for the Washington Post, Coe—after describing an exasperated 6 hours sitting through three reissues in May 1947—rhetorically asked “Why is Hollywood digging into its vaults so increasingly these days? Money, kids, money.” After which he presented most of the reasons exhibitors well understood, and studios hoped to mask. In another column of his a few months later, Coe poked fun at how Hollywood insistently sought to use the very word “reissue” instead of “revival,” believing the former suggestive of a sort of freshness as opposed to a stale goods. His sarcasm aside, Coe nonetheless took the occasion to admire several of the older films playing, noting “most of their stars shine as brightly now as ever.” The article that followed briefly marveled at the careers of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck, several of whom had works from years’ past recirculating nationwide.
- A New (Temporary) Normal
Though it would be impossible to measure just how large of an impact this flood of old pictures had on American film culture, it undeniably gave people reasons to reflect on fabled movies and performances of the past. When MGM reissued Gone With the Wind in late 1947—this was no less than the film’s fourth release since its premiere in 1939—the film received attention equal to any new picture. Coe declared that “the whole production remains a marvel of movie-making.” The Baltimore Sun reminisced fondly over the movie’s pre-history and hoopla that originally arose over casting choices. The New York Times meanwhile ran an extended feature entitled “GWTW: Supercolossal Saga of an Epic” that similarly historicized the movie’s creation, in turn furthering the film’s mythical status.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of articles stemming from the movie’s reissue, however, was that penned by Bosley Crowther, film critic of the New York Times. Under the title, “’Wind’ Blows Again,” Crowther used the picture’s wild success to reflect on the larger notion of “film classics.” Declaring it significant to him “that a picture well-known to be ‘old’ should draw just as well, if not much better, than a brand new job finished this year,” Crowther’s article attempted to handle the implications of Wind’s continued triumph. Unlike Coe and others, he placed less emphasis on the film’s “star power” than he did on the movie’s reputation as a “full, rich entertainment” that became passed amongst moviegoers as “common knowledge.” Crowther closed his article not only by suggesting that studios continue to “pull more fine old pictures off their shelves,” but they use Wind’s continued success as reason to invest in creating future films with lasting appeal. Of course, he goes on to write, “a lot more respect for the public’s intelligence and taste would be required both in selection and production. But such daring, we are confident, would pay off.”
No reissued film would match Gone With the Wind’s level of success in 1947 (or 1948 or 1949, for that matter). The film earned an estimated $5,000,000 on its fourth run. Still, dozens of others returned to theatres for the first time in years, including notably: It Happened One Night (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Awful Truth (1937, all Columbia releases); Philadelphia Story (1940), and Boom Town (1940, MGM); The Lady Eve (1941, Paramount); Destry Rides Again (1939), Frankenstein (1933), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Universal); Fantasia (1940) and Pinocchio (1940, Disney via RKO). While all of these classics were reissued foremost for their profit potential, the reissue of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) offers an interesting exception to the rule. The return of the film, an anti-Communist comedy starring Greta Garbo, served principally to “combat ill will against the film industry engendered by” the ongoing House Committee probe into the industry’s “subversive” elements. Even so, the reason hardly prevented some critics, like Coe, from appreciating the movie for what it truly was, “a far wittier comedy than most of the present-day excitement.” It also gave audiences the first chance since 1941 to see Garbo on the screen.
As Hollywood moved into 1948, most of the same factors that contributed to the reissue craze in 1947 followed into the new year. Though early year jitters from the studios forced many to reevaluate their reissues strategies, this proved to be but a minor slowdown in an otherwise accelerating process. A Variety headline in February, for instance, declared, “Gold in Them Thar Reissues Doesn’t Pan Out; Only Warners Sticks to ‘Em.” Despite the profit potential, many began to fear that the practice delivered results inferior to newer alternatives. Even MGM, among the earliest committed to the dignification of the reissue “found biz so disappointing on some of the most promising oldies that [it] pulled them out of release.” The prospective benefits, however, coupled with increasing production costs for new pictures, proved impossible for studios to ultimately give up. And by June, Variety would declare that the “on again-off again” practice had been heating up yet again. By the end of the year, Hollywood not only revived more films than the year prior, but did so at a rate nearly double the pace as the last. In total, 105 films returned to the screen.
A writer for the New York Herald Tribune wrote, rather acerbically, of the proliferation of reissues and re-re-releases during this time, “the situation [… is] very much like an outdoor set in Hollywood—the front looks real, but there is nothing except scaffolding backing it up.” Offering a somewhat more optimistic diagnosis, the Los Angeles Times opined, “fans are waking up to the fact that revivals of films mean that these are good films,” evidenced, the article argued by the “overwhelming success” of older pictures. Bob Thomas, the nationally syndicated Hollywood correspondent for the Associated Press, devoted one column in the summer of 1948 to reminisce on classic scenes from Hollywood’s past, given the fact that “average movie fans are suffering waves of nostalgia these days” on account of the glut of reissued pictures. His article, which briefly listed scenes from Casablanca, Gilda, Public Enemy, and Laura (among many others) offered readers a trip down memory lane that was only possible because so many of his cited films had been returning to theatres, offering audiences the chance to re-experience some of their most beloved stories.
Admittedly, these trips down memory lane were restricted to those films the studios saw fit to reissue. With the popular response, arguably, a mere consequence of the demand created by the industry’s carefully cultivated star system over the years. Nevertheless, a few exceptions help to illustrate some of the nostalgic side effects of the studios’ efforts. Harold Lloyd, a venerated comedian from another generation of films entirely (the Silent Era and early talkies) saw the public’s receptivity to older films as invitation to reintroduce some of his own. Upon one showing of his Movie Crazy (1932), from seventeen years earlier, Lloyd estimated that “65 percent of the audience didn’t know me […] but the response was terrific.” National coverage in 1949 ushered in the return of his films with a one Hedda Hopper headline declaring, “Harold Lloyd Bringing Old Films to New People.” Similarly unexpected was the outpouring of public demand for films of the comedian, W.C. Fields. After a pair of re-releases from 1940 offered critics the opportunity to revisit and lavish praises on the late comedian, Hollywood insiders were astounded to find such positive response from the moviegoing public. That such demand could catch the industry so off guard helps to highlight just how concentrated their efforts were on re-capitalizing on their present-day stars. Nevertheless, it allowed many like Crowther to reflect on Fields and Lloyd, writing, “One of the marginal consequences of post-war pressure in the film industry has been the impulsive reissue of a lot of comparatively old films. And of the singular blessings of this strictly distress policy has been the unlooked-for revival of a few priceless items from the past.”
Throughout the early months of 1949, many of the complaints that had dogged the reissue practice from prior years intensified, though they did so without any real effect. Independent producers, those whose “B” movies were often being replaced in theatres by the older films, were especially vocal. Among many other complaints, one stated that it unwisely gave audiences reason to ask, “Why can’t they make pictures like that today?” Another minced no words, calling the studios’ policy “stupid and short-sighted.” Labor unions, similarly increased their calls for a limit to the practice. Their complaints, notably, spilled out of industry publications into even the national press with the New York Times reporting updates on their grievances. Ultimately, however, no headway was made by the unions on the limiting re-releases or profiting from them, and their efforts wisely turned instead to handling movies on the television market.
That Hollywood effectively ignored these complaints, persistent as they were, for several years was no small feat, particularly for an industry severely weakened from years’ prior. However, they were largely able to do so because the reissue policy they undertook during this period was one that many understood could not continue in the long-term at even a fraction of the rate it had been going. By the summer of ’49, the deluge of reissues left most industry insiders with the feeling that the trend had “hit its absolute peak, possibly for many years to come.” A New York Herald Tribune headline pronounced at the start of the summer season that “Revival Fever Is Rapidly Sweeping the Movie Industry.” While the headline would have been equally applicable at any point in the previous two years, here it heralded, unbeknownst to the journalist, what would be the final grand hurrah for the reissue boom. By the end of the year, a total of 136 films had been reissued, 31 more than the previous year.
- End Credits (Conclusion)
As studios looked ahead to the new year and decade in mid-November 1949, the future of the reissue, at least at the scale it had been deployed in the previous years, seemed far from assured. While “top quality [old] films” still were moderately successful financially, Variety asserted that “an overdose of mediocre reissues” had left moviegoers fatigued and generally unreceptive to more. Studios, to their credit, had announced increased production schedules for the following year, reducing the need for the practice altogether. In April, 20th Century-Fox was the first to announce it was abandoning all plans for any further reissues, and most other studios followed closely behind as “that gold once sighted [..] in reissues [had] almost turned to dross.” In what was perhaps an effort to distance itself from the oversaturation of oldies—and certainly an attempt to drum up business—in 1950, an industrywide slogan, “Movies are better than ever!” was adopted. Moviegoers, and the industry, had moved on.
The practice, of course, did not end completely by 1950. Just that year, Charlie Chaplin was readying for the re-release of City Lights (1931), a movie that Life would go on to state “is still the best movie of 1950.” With the move of so many films to television mid-decade, however, the reissue process would shortly lose the significance it once had of bringing those movies in the “vault” back for subsequent viewings. In retrospect, this significance is easily lost, and it is easy to dismiss the reissue craze of the late 1940s as nothing more than savvy business practice. Yet, out of a practice that grew purely from economic motivations came a period that offered American moviegoers and critics an unprecedented opportunity to engage with the history of Hollywood’s films.
HIST/LBSCI Conclusion: The issue of access has long been one of great concern within the library and archival communities, though its ramifications extend far beyond the two fields of study. This paper explored an exceptional period of time in which widespread access to older films was possible unlike any of the years before it. Despite that newfound possibility, however, study of the years also revealed the complications that arise when the party responsible for selecting which films are to be made accessible in the first place is motivated firstly by economics. Nevertheless, the research uncovered what has been a continuous process of re-appraising, appreciating, and valuing films from the past.
“136 Reissues in 1949.” Variety, 16 November 1949, 7.
“Announcing M-G-M Reprints of Masterpieces.” Motion Picture Herald. 17 August 1946, 20-21.
“Editorial.” The Screen Writer, February 1947, 43.
“Famous Films of the Past” Film Weekly, 7 March 1931, 1.
“Furor on Too Many Reissues.” Variety. 29 January 1947, 18.
“Gold in Them Thar Reissues Doesn’t Pan Out; Only Warners Sticks to ‘Em.” Variety, 11 February 1948, 7.
“Harry H. Thomas Denounces Reissues As ‘Stupid, Short-sighted’ Policy.” Box Office, 15 April 1949, 54.
“Indiscriminate Release of Oldies Hurting Carefully Selected Reissues.” Variety, 1 January 1947, 18.
“Jersey Allied’s Figures on Number of Reissues Supports Coast Unions.” Variety, 16 July 1947, 11.
“M-G Titles New Reissue Dept.” Variety, 10 July 1946, 9.
“Majors Set Beaucoup Reissues as Insurance vs. Product Shortages.” Variety, 28 August 1946, 4.
“Majors Warm Up Reissues Again After Cooling Off on First Tries.” Variety, 16 June 1948, 18.
“Metro Finds Reissues No Bonanza; New Prints, Etc. Costly Items.” Variety, 9 June 1948.
“Metro’s Reissues of 2 Anti-Commie Pictures ‘Ninotchka,’ ‘Comrade X’.” Variety, 26 November 1947, 3.
“Movie of the Week: City Lights.” Life, 8 May 1950, 81.
“New Generation of Film Fans Plus Decree Spur Metro in Reissue Drive.” Variety, 28 August 1946, 4.
“No Applause for these Encores.” The Screen Writer, August 1947, 23.
“Reissue Market Booming With 71 In Release Now.” Motion Picture Herald, 31 August 1946.
“Reissue Rights’ New Values.” Variety, 17 September 1947, 7.
“Reissues Ease as Quality Lags, Though Top Pix Continue Strong.” Variety, 16 November 1949, 7.
“Reissues Hit Their Postwar Peak This Year.” Variety, 31 August 1949, 22.
“Seven Majors Releasing 29 Reissues This Season.” Motion Picture Herald, 26 April 1947, 12.
“Surprise Pull of Fields Reissues Shows Public Affection for Him.” Box Office, 23 July 1949, 27.
“Too Many Reissues Harm, Broidy Warns Industry.” Box Office, 29 January 1949, 15.
“Two Vivid Hits Back.” Los Angeles Times, 18 October 1948, A7.
“Up to 30-40% for Reissues.” Variety, 2 October 1946, 5.
Bell, Nelson. “’Rage in Heaven’ Turns the Psychiatric Cycle Back to Its First Spin.” The Washington Post, 17 October 1946, 12.
Coe, Richard. “He Can’t Cite Garbo.” Washington Post, 31 October 1947, B6.
Coe, Richard. “Hollywood Cleans Out Its Attic and Cleans Up on the Start Dust.” Washington Post, 3 May 1947, L5.
Coe, Richard. “Kiddies’ Going Wild O’er GWTW.’ Washington Post, 13 August 1947, 17.
Crowther, Bosley. “’Wind’ Blows Again.” New York Times, 28 Sept 1947, X1.
Crowther, Bosley. “Away from it All.” New York Times, 10 Nov. 1946.
Crowther, Bosley. “Ring in the Old.” New York Times, 19 June 1949, X1.
Guernsey Jr, Otis. “The Playbill: Summer Crop of Old Film Favorites.” New York Herald Tribune, 11 July 1948, C1.
Hift, Fred. “Revival Fever Is Rapidly Sweeping the Movie Industry.” New York Herald Tribune, 1 May 1949, 4.
Jones, Ralph. “Was This Picture Released Too Soon?” The Atlanta Constitution, 21 Sept. 1946, 4.
Kirkley, Donald. “Gone With the Wind.” The Sun, 3 September 1947, 14.
Paget, R.C. “What do you think? Letters from our readers.” Picturegoer, 23 November 1946, 16.
Ramsaye, Terry. “Ageless Product.” Motion Picture Herald, 24 August 1946, 7.
Shearer, Lloyd “GWTW: Supercolossal Saga of an Epic.” New York Times, 26 Oct 1947, SM22.
Thomas, Bob. “Harold Lloyd Planning Another Screen Comeback.” The Austin Statesman, 22 November 1948, 5.
Thomas, Bob. “What scenes stick on your mind?.” The Austin Statesman, 24 July 1948, 5.
Ashby, Leroy. With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Barbas, Samantha. Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars and the Cult of Celebrity. New York: Palgrave, 2008.
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.
Cross, Gary. An All-consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
—. Consumed Nostalgia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System: A History. London: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Hannan, Brian. Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 2016.
Hoyt, Eric. Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries Before Home Video. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union A Century of American Labor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
—. Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.
 “Famous Films of the Past,” Film Weekly, 7 March 1931, 1.
 Schatz, 5.
 Schatz, 198.
 Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System: A History. (London: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 6.
 Gomery, 80.
 Wheeler Winston Dixon, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 10.
 Dixon, 134, 95.
 Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997), 2.
 Schatz, Boom, 41.
 Schatz, Boom, 285-6.
 Schatz, Boom, 292.
 Eric Hoyt, Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries Before Home Video. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 140.
 Hoyt, 140.
 “Announcing M-G-M Reprints of Masterpieces,” Motion Picture Herald, 17 August 1946, 20-21.
 Prior to the formal August announcement, a VP at MGM offered a perhaps more realistic definition of “masterpiece” when he stated that the reissues “will be offered on the basis of their technical superiority which keeps them from being dated in any manner, and on their box office value.” [emphasis mine.] (“M-G Titles New Reissue Dept,” Variety, 10 July 1946, 9.)
 Terry Ramsaye, “Ageless Product,” Motion Picture Herald. 24 August 1946, 7.
 “New Generation of Film Fans Plus Decree Spur Metro in Reissue Drive,” Variety, 28 August 1946, 4.
 “Majors Set Beaucoup Reissues as Insurance vs. Product Shortages,” Variety, 28 August 1946, 4.
 “Reissue Market Booming With 71 In Release Now,” Motion Picture Herald. 31 August 1946.
 “Up to 30-40% for Reissues,” Variety, 2 October 1946, 5.
 “Gold in Them Thar Reissues” Variety 2 April 1947, 9.
 Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust, 470.
 Samantha Barbas, Movie Crazy, (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 143.
 In preparing to re-sell The Wizard of Oz, MGM’s featured reissue in the summer of 1949, one exhibitor in Richmond, V.A. persuaded a local newspaper editor to publish a story titled, “Would you like to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’ again? Speak up: perhaps you may,” which encouraged readers to write in voicing their demand for the film. The exhibitor, of course, had already secured the film, but the stunt offered local audiences the chance to think they had been responsible for its playing. In many ways, the ploy was one representative of much of the reissue boom: Hollywood was selling films to meet a demand for stars that it had carefully created in the first place; though they happily let audiences think otherwise.
 Nelson Bell. “’Rage in Heaven’ Turns the Psychiatric Cycle Back to Its First Spin,” The Washington Post, 17 October 1946, 12.; Ralph Jones. “Was This Picture Released Too Soon?” The Atlanta Constitution, 21 Sept. 1946, 4.
 Bosley Crowther, “Away from it All,” New York Times, 10 Nov. 1946.
 “Indiscriminate Release of Oldies Hurting Carefully Selected Reissues.” Variety, 1 January 1947, 18.
 In Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross focuses on Americans’ efforts to capture nostalgia in the marketplace for the two decades that immediately follow this one. The attitudes towards the older films during the late 1940s could not be more different from those that Cross explores, suggesting perhaps a smaller role for nostalgia in this reissue boom than one might have expected.
 Lizabeth Cohen, “A Consumers’ Republic,” (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
 Leo Handel, “Hollywood looks at its audience,” (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950).
 “Furor on Too Many Reissues,” Variety, 29 January 1947, 18.
 “Seven Majors Releasing 29 Reissues This Season,” Motion Picture Herald, 26 April 1947, 12.
 “Editorial,” The Screen Writer, February 1947, 43.
 “No Applause for these Encores,” The Screen Writer, August 1947, 23.
 “Seven Majors Releasing 29 Reissues This Season.” Motion Picture Herald. 26 April, 1947, 12.
 “Jersey Allied’s Figures on Number of Reissues Supports Coast Unions,” Variety. 16 July 1947, 11.
 “Reissue Rights’ New Values,” Variety, 17 September 1947, 7.
 Richard Coe, “Hollywood Cleans Out Its Attic and Cleans Up on the Start Dust,” Washington Post, 3 May 1947, L5.
 Richard Coe, “Kiddies’ Going Wild O’er GWTW,” Washington Post, 13 August 1947, 17.
 Donald Kirkley, “Gone With the Wind,” The Sun, 3 September 1947, 14.
 Lloyd Shearer, “GWTW: Supercolossal Saga of an Epic,” New York Times, 26 Oct 1947, SM22.
 Interestingly, the impact of postwar reissue earnings quickly bled even into the production of new films during this period as well. By September, Variety reported producers asking themselves: “how will this [new] picture do five years from now?” when choosing which films to greenlight for production. In one instance, with the new Michael Curtiz film Life With Father (1947), executives at Warner Bros acknowledged its unlikelihood of breaking even domestically on its first run and had already planned a “careful distribution policy” designed reduce its time in theatres to preserve its prints for a second release several years later. (“Reissue Rights’ New Values,” Variety, 17 September 1947, 7.)
 Bosley Crowther, “’Wind’ Blows Again,” New York Times, 28 Sept 1947, X1.
 “Metro’s Reissues of 2 Anti-Commie Pictures ‘Ninotchka,’ ‘Comrade X’,” Variety, 26 November 1947, 3.
 Richard Coe, “He Can’t Cite Garbo,” Washington Post, 31 October 1947, B6.
 “Gold in Them Thar Reissues Doesn’t Pan Out; Only Warners Sticks to ‘Em,” Variety, 11 February 1948, 7.
 “Metro Finds Reissues No Bonanza; New Prints, Etc. Costly Items,” Variety, 9 June 1948.
 “Majors Warm Up Reissues Again After Cooling Off on First Tries,” Variety, 16 June 1948, 18.
 Schatz, 292.
 Otis Guernsey Jr. “The Playbill: Summer Crop of Old Film Favorites,” New York Herald Tribune, 11 July 1948, C1.
 “Two Vivid Hits Back,” Los Angeles Times, 18 October 1948, A7.
 Bob Thomas, “What scenes stick on your mind?,” The Austin Statesman, 24 July 1948, 5.
 Bob Thomas, “Harold Lloyd Planning Another Screen Comeback,” The Austin Statesman, 22 November 1948, 5.
 “Surprise Pull of Fields Reissues Shows Public Affection for Him,” Box Office, 23 July 1949, 27.
 Bosley Crowther, “Ring in the Old,” New York Times, 19 June 1949, X1.
 “Too Many Reissues Harm, Broidy Warns Industry,” Box Office, 29 January 1949, 15.
 “Harry H. Thomas Denounces Reissues As ‘Stupid, Short-sighted’ Policy,” Box Office, 15 April 1949, 54.
 “Reissues Hit Their Postwar Peak This Year,” Variety, 31 August 1949, 22.
 Fred Hift, “Revival Fever Is Rapidly Sweeping the Movie Industry,” New York Herald Tribune, 1 May 1949, 4.
 Just a few of the notable films reissued in 1949 and in circulation that summer include: You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Holiday (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939; Columbia); The Wizard of Oz (1939), A Night at the Opera (1935), and San Francisco (1936; MGM); Pride of the Yankees (1942), Gunga Din (1939), Dumbo (1941; RKO); and Casablanca (1942), G-Men (1935), and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938; Warner Bros).
 “136 Reissues in 1949,” Variety, 16 November 1949, 7.
 “Reissues Ease as Quality Lags, Though Top Pix Continue Strong,” Variety, 16 November 1949, 7.
 “Reissues No B.O.; Majors Also Yen Move to Solo Pix,” 19 April 1950, 2.
 William Zoellner, previously mentioned head of reprints at MGM, meanwhile would be reassigned to oversee the studio’s newsreel department by the end of the year.
 “Movie of the Week: City Lights,” Life, 8 May 1950, 81.
 The one exception, perhaps, was with MGM’s Gone With the Wind. Refusing to license the picture for television airings, the film’s 1967 theatrical release marked the most successful reissue of all time, placing the nearly thirty-year-old film among the most financially successful of any released in the sixties.
This paper was originally written for HIST 792 at Queens College, CUNY during the Spring 2018 semester (21 May 2018).