In which year did theater owners face such hordes of eager moviegoers that their motto became, ”Open the doors and fall back”? During Jurassic Park‘s headline-making theatrical run last year? Nope. Try 1946, believed to be the all-time biggest movie year, when more than 80 million people-57 percent of Americans -went to theaters every week. Compare that with 1993, when even during the week of Jurassic‘s $82 million opening, no more than 36 million people (14 percent of the population) went to movie theaters.
During the economic boom of World War II, movie attendance rose steadily, peaking in ’46. Employment had increased during the war, and Americans had few ways to spend their money-gas rationing limited travel, and commodities were scarce. So people turned to the pictures (which then cost an average of 34 cents per ticket) in droves.
To meet the demand, Hollywood’s major studios cranked out an average of 287 films a year throughout the war. (Today’s output is about 140 per year.) Musicals, already a popular genre of the ’40s, continued strong in 1946 with Fred Astaire’s Blue Skies and the star-packed Jerome Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By. ”Women’s pictures,” such as To Each His Own with Olivia De Havilland, made female stars (led by Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable) as big at the box office as their male counterparts (most notably, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper). By the end of the war, Hollywood tackled the problems facing returning vets: Not only was William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives a surprising box office success, but it won seven Oscars, including Best Picture of 1946. Accordingly, the upbeat mood of WWII screen propaganda gave way to such film noir archetypes as The Killers and Gilda.
But the financial boom was short-lived, at least for the film industry. Attendance dropped in 1947 as couples used their income on new homes, appliances, and all those babies. Within a year, the rapid spread of television would change American life-and moviegoing-forever.