Between Bombs, Bombshells & Femme Fatales: North Texas Cinemas During WW2

In 1943, while the European and Pacific fronts of World War II raged on, the Hollywood studios did their part on the home front with the production and distribution of patriotic war films, done in conjunction with the Department of War and the Office of Strategic Services. The long-lasting myth since that time has been that all movie audiences consumed exclusively during those days were those films about the war, such as newsreels, the adaptation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) to the iconic Casablanca (1942). However, a close reading of the film booking records of cinema theaters in North Texas (namely, Dallas and Fort Worth) reveal a different narrative, one in which distributors, Hollywood studios, and filmmakers themselves exploited the affects of the time (such as a newfound American exceptionalism, enmity towards Germans, and anxiety about the future) by balancing the film selection with a mix of inspiring war films, exciting Westerns, and gritty film noirs. Only sporadically would rosy romantic films, funny comedies, or escapist adventure films be found in the bookings, except maybe for family-oriented matinees. In fact, the records reveal that kid’s blocks in North Texas theaters would be comprised of questionably titled works such as Captive Wild Woman and Forbidden Trail, rather than exclusively with wholesome or wholly-positive stories.

Analyzed as a whole, the records show particular patterns for particular theaters, seemingly determined by the type of audience that would attend and the location. For instance, the Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas would have a selection of star-studded war movies and film noirs, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Above Suspicion (1943), which would be seen by audiences in a city that had been transformed by and for the war effort with factories, research facilities, and rationing centers. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Theater in Fort Worth included a selection of Westerns, romantic dramas and comedies, and war movies meant for an audience that was hopeful (rather than anxious) thanks to the economic boom brought to the burgeoning town by the war effort (at the insistence of its favorite son, Amon G. Carter, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt[1]). Those two cases reflect different (if not opposite) views and sensibilities about the war effort and the future, yet both serve to demystify the narrative of patriotic American audiences flocking to theaters during 1941-1945  exclusively for their weekly dose of newsreels and Hollywood’s borderline-propagandistic war movies. Ultimately, the film booking records of North Texas theaters remind us that any and all experiences “at the movies” aren’t just a product of a “genius system” (to paraphrase Schatz) meant to profit from audience’s emotions, but also a cultural catalyst and historical imprint of the fears, hopes, and desires of the times.

[1] https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fca69

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