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‘Play It Again, Sam’: Re-selling and Re-watching Hollywood’s Classics, 1946-49.

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.”[1] 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. Keep Reading

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