During Agent Carter‘s first-season run, my friend Katie (kawaiibetic) did a great service over on Tumblr by compiling period-accurate resources and research that related to the world explored in the now recently renewed TV show. Agent Carter is set in New York City in 1946, and follows Peggy Carter, an agent with the top secret Strategic Scientific Reserve—the people responsible for the super secret superhero type stuff that even the CIA can’t access. We first met this iteration of Carter, played by Hayley Atwell, in the 2011 Captain America film, and the show covers Carter’s life after the events of that film. As Katie describes: These posts are meant as an introduction for anyone interested in (or already familiar with) specifically post-WW2 American era lifestyle. I’ll be posting one each week, and updating past posts with new links as things pop up on the show.
Make sure to check out all of Katie’s other entries about life in 1946: Part 1: Makeup, Hair, & Beauty , Part 2: Lingerie, Loungewear, & Jewelry, Part 3: Clothing & Accessories, Part 4: Firearms, Part 5: Housewares, Food & Drink, and Part 6: Music & Radio. These are great resources for anyone with a knack for vintage styling OR anyone writing about or interested in the time period. And of course, if the combination of beautiful ’40s styling with a kick-ass female lead, spies and lots of action, appeals to you at all, make sure to catch up on Agent Carter herself! The short first season (only eight episodes) is available on Amazon/Vudu. Check here for further instructions.
Oh, and one final note: this post is mostly geared towards people who may have watched the show, but aren’t super familiar with the time period itself. So for you classic film folks, this may be a bit 101—but take it as a good sign of the commitment to the period of the show!
The Moviegoing Experience in 1946
The US film industry—like so many other elements of culture that Katie’s already explored—was in a period of great flux immediately following World War 2. The war years had been pretty good for movies, and filmmakers had settled into a comfortable rhythm of patriotism and escapism. Plus, with many of the menfolk fighting abroad, the wartime years had been especially good for female-centered pictures, starring tough women like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. As the war ended though, the stories being told, as well as the composition of the audience itself, began to change.
Moviegoing was still a hugely important and popular activity in 1946, as it had been in the previous decades. In many cities, movie theaters were a center for both entertainment and socializing, typically located in a central part of town where families could visit several times a week. In addition to the films, theaters would often have live performances and music, cartoons, newsreels, and serials, which were short movies before the main feature that progressed each week. Going to the movies was an Event, and an extremely important element of life in the 1940s.
However, theatergoing also began to change quite a bit around the time that Carter is set. In the early days, studios could own the theaters that the movies played in—so (in big cities, at least), to see the latest Warner Brothers picture, you’d go down to the Warner theater, for United Artists you’d go to the United Artists, and so on. This set-up gave studios near complete control over the entire filmmaking pipeline—too much, in fact, according to the Supreme Court, who prohibited the practice in 1948, in favor of independent theaters. Studios now had to sell their films not only to the audience, but also to the theater owners themselves.
Television also began to appear in households around this time, which allowed people more options for their entertainment, and forced theater owners to come up with new ideas for profits. Movie theater attendance began to drop overall after the war—UK ticket sales, for instance, peaked in 1946 and declined from there. We can see many of the innovations from this period still around today, as theater owners experimented with everything from selling candy and soda to adding 3D movies and widescreen Cinemascope presentations.
By the way, the theater featured in the recent “SNAFU” episode, where Dottie released the fightin’ gas, is the Los Angeles Theatre, located (logically) in downtown Los Angeles. This is one of several historical movie palaces that still exist today, including a few others within the same four-block stretch of Broadway. Some of them, including the Los Angeles, are still used for movie screenings today, as well as live entertainment and other productions. Here’s some more info from my visit to the Los Angeles.
As a resident New Yorker, Peggy might have gone to Times Square to the Paramount Theatre (now a Hard Rock Cafe), the Columbia Theater (now a gift shop), or the Warner Brothers Hollywood Theater (now an evangelical church), among others.
Big Films of 1946
So, technically, the highest grossing movie of 1946 in the United States was… Song of the South. Although recently, Disney has maintained a lot of effort kind of trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, the film was hugely popular for many decades, and made $30 million at the box office overall. However, that figure includes profits from re-releases in 1980 and 1986—in its original release, it only made about $3 million, which wouldn’t even put it in the top 10 for that year.
The big domestic box office successes of 1946 were The Best Years of Our Lives, about servicemen readjusting to civilian life after the war; The Postman Always Rings Twice, about an adulterous couple plotting to kill the woman’s husband; and Blue Skies, a musical comedy starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The year also produced tons more classic films worth checking out, such as Gilda, It’s a Wonderful Life, My Darling Clementine, Notorious, La Belle et la Bête, A Matter of Life and Death, The Big Sleep, and Road to Utopia.
Big Stars of 1946—According to 1946
The annual “Top Ten Moving Making Stars” ranks each year’s biggest stars, based on a poll completed by movie theater owners. For 1946, their choices were: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Van Johnson, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, Greer Garson, Margaret O’Brien, Betty Grable, and Roy Rogers. So far, only Hope has been mentioned on the show, but if you want a full 1946 education, check out a few films starring these actors.
Mexican cinema at this time was also particularly vibrant, though probably not entirely accessible to English-speaking New Yorkers at the time. But in the interest of learning more about the time period, you may want to check out the work of stars like femme fatale María Félix, heartthrob Arturo de Cordova, and comedian Tin Tan. Some actors, like Mexicans Dolores Del Río and Cantinflas, and Portugeuse Brazilian Carmen Miranda, also found success in the United States industry at this time. Of course, take caution when approaching films made in the US with foreign actors, as the industry has never had a very nuanced view of the “Other,” particularly in the years following an international war.
Big Stars of 1946—According to Carter
Agent Carter has made a number of direct references to stars of the era—largely in relation to Howard Stark’s bevy of girlfriends, and usually opting for names that are still highly recognizable today, as you’ll see below. Many of these actors also had strong ties to World War 2, in keeping with the show’s thematic exploration of the effects of the war on the various characters.
“There’s a chance this is an inside job.”
“Yeah, there’s a chance I take Rita Hayworth home tonight, but it’s unlikely, if you catch my drift.”
Rita Hayworth was Columbia’s top star throughout most of the 1940s. In 1941, she posed for a seductive bedroom photo that would immortalize her as one of the top pin up girls of the war. In 1946, Hayworth would have just appeared in the fantastic film noir Gilda, performing the world’s most famous hair flip and solidifying her image as a femme fatale. Her status as a “bombshell” turned literal when the United States inscribed the name “Gilda” onto a nuclear bomb during a test. Though it was meant to be a tribute, it was done without her permission and in the controversial years following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her husband at the time, director Orson Welles, later recalled that she “almost went insane, she was so angry.” The president of the studio, however, refused to let her publicly express her anger, as it was thought to have been unpatriotic at the time.
WATCH: Gilda, You’ll Never Get Rich, Cover Girl
By 1946, Jane Russell had made quite an impression on the public consciousness, though she had appeared in just two films by that point: Young Widow (1946), a drama about a woman coping with the death of her husband in the war, and more memorably, a few years prior, her debut in The Outlaw. The Outlaw was directed by Howard Hughes—you may recall that her ample bosom was the subject of much debate in The Aviator. As fictional playboy/inventor Howard Stark shares a lot in common with the real-life playboy/inventor Howard Hughes, it makes sense that they’d have similar taste in women as well. Russell’s buxom figure and haphazard blouse in The Outlaw photo shoot earned her fame as a pin up girl—and name recognition among many of the troops—as well as lifelong notoriety; as later co-star Bob Hope joked,”There are two good reasons why men go to see her. Those are enough.” Russell divided her time between the film and music industries in the following years.
WATCH: The Outlaw, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Las Vegas Story
Lana Turner was yet another actress and pin-up girl, popular early on for youth-focused films, then noirs, musicals, and a series of films with Clark Gable. In legendary Hollywood style, she was “discovered” at a local malt shop when she was just 16, and offered a contract at MGM. An exceptionally form-fitting sweater she wore in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget earned her a lifetime (but despised) nickname as “The Sweater Girl.” She also appeared frequently in gossip magazines—she was married eight times, and one of her boyfriends was once stabbed to death by her daughter. So, I’m guessing she kept Howard on his toes.
WATCH: The Bad and the Beautiful, Peyton Place, Imitation of Life
“A large portion of the women on this list are well-known actresses, models, and socialites, publicly established for several years. They can be disregarded.”
“Well, I wouldn’t dismiss her.”
“You think Ginger Rogers is a Russian assassin?”
“You should have seen her eyes when I escorted her from Mr. Stark’s villa.”
Throughout the 1930s, Ginger Rogers gained fame both through her ten-film dancing partnership with Fred Astaire, as well as an actress and comedienne in her own right, in popular films like Stage Door and Bachelor Mother. By the 1940s, her on-screen partnership with Astaire had all but ended, but she had become the highest paid star in Hollywood—solo. She won an Oscar in 1941 for her performance in Kitty Foyle, which also inspired an iconic new dress style, and starred in Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood feature film, The Major and the Minor.
WATCH: Gold Diggers of 1933, Top Hat, Bachelor Mother
“One day after our supposed battle, a plane lands. Guess who’s on it?”
“I don’t know. Bob Hope?”
Perhaps no other star is as connected to the military as Bob Hope; his commitment to wartime efforts was so significant that he was officially granted status as an honorary veteran by Congress in 1997. He primarily helped by providing entertainment for troops overseas at USO shows, ultimately going on 57 tours over 50 years, starting in 1941. Hope also starred in the long-running “Road” movie series with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, which was already on its fourth entry—Road to Utopia—by 1946. Hope hosted the Oscars ceremony 14 times, starting in 1939, making him the most frequent host of all time.
WATCH: Road to Bali, My Favorite Brunette, Bachelor in Paradise
Cagney was well known for his tough guy roles, playing gangsters in films like The Public Enemy (1932), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), and White Heat (1949). He started his career on the vaudeville circuit—in addition to being an actor, he was also an accomplished dancer, starring in musicals like Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney served for two years as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
WATCH: The Public Enemy, Footlight Parade, White Heat
Although not explicitly mentioned in the show, the loose blonde waves of Peggy’s disguise in the first episode were certainly reminiscent of Veronica Lake’s signature “peek-a-boo” hairstyle. (Katie notes that Lake’s look was explicitly referenced in the script, so I’m not just grasping straws!) Lake’s hairstyle was reportedly a happy accident—her hair fell over her eye during one take, and the rest was movie history. A bit of a sad endnote, but after her career declined, she found work as a bartender at a women’s hotel in Manhattan—much like the Griffith Hotel we see in the show.
WATCH: Sullivan’s Travels, I Married A Witch, This Gun For Hire
For more ideas on what to watch after you finish Agent Carter, check out the rest of Katie’s post here. And if this sounded appealing, make sure to catch up on Agent Carter before season 2!