Superlatives are immediately suspect, and "greatest" more than most, so the subtitle of Catherine Jurca's book is likely to arouse critical misgivings. But it is soon apparent that the phrase doesn't represent the author's judgement. Rather, it's the name of a panicky public-relations initiative cobbled together in that year by Hollywood's major studios, fearing that their audiences might be slipping away.
The Tinseltown bosses, insecure as ever, saw ill omens on all sides. Attendance figures and box-office receipts were falling, the catch-all excuse of the Depression was wearing thin, and exhibitors reported that disgruntled patrons were grousing about lazy, complacent movies. Television was in its infancy, but the more far-sighted could recognise a looming rival. And in July 1938, the US Department of Justice, egged on by independent exhibitors resentful of the studios' restrictive practices, filed an antitrust lawsuit that threatened to sunder the Hollywood majors from their wholly owned cinema chains.
The response, dreamed up in six weeks, was a million-dollar PR offensive called "Motion Pictures' Greatest Year". (It was originally to be "Movies Are Your Best Entertainment", until some bright spark noticed that this would produce the acronym "Maybe".) Some 94 new releases, produced by all the major studios (and one of the minors, Monogram), would be promoted as "quiz pictures". At each screening, quiz booklets would be distributed, with film-goers encouraged to answer questions about the film they had just seen and compose a 50-word "essay". The best entries would share in a $250,000 prize fund.
Predictably, the scheme hit snags right from the start. To run nationwide, it needed the cooperation - and financial input - of the already disaffected independent exhibitors. But since, as ever, the studio-linked chains got all the major releases first and held on to them for as long as possible, the independents had trouble participating in the promotion - even if they had wanted to. The owner of a seven-cinema circuit in Cleveland dismissed the contest as "the biggest flop that ever was", reckoning it had netted him less than $25 in extra box-office takings.
Nor, it seems, was the cinema-going public impressed. Despite ads and puff pieces in local newspapers, of the 32 million contest booklets distributed, 30 million were never submitted to the prize draw, most of them being dropped straight on to movie-house floors. Hardly surprising, really: the 94 releases were an uninspiring bunch, ranging from starchy costume dramas such as the Norma Shearer vehicle Marie Antoinette to routine programmers (Bulldog Drummond in Africa, Mysterious Mr Moto), most of them long since consigned to oblivion. Far from being "Motion Pictures' Greatest Year", 1938 was probably among Hollywood's weakest that decade.
Jurca surveys the reactions of the exhibitors and the American press to the MPGY initiative before proceeding to consider the films themselves. She singles out four releases for particular attention - You Can't Take It With You, Four Daughters, Boys Town and Marie Antoinette - exploring how far they met the industry's professed aim of making films that featured "average Americans" and "normal, regular folk".
Oddly absent, though, are the regular folk themselves. We never learn what questions were asked in the quiz booklets, nor how moviegoers responded to them. In her concluding chapter, Jurca devotes three pages to quoting from the winning essays - all of them, as expected, offering heartfelt tributes to their chosen films. But it's otherwise impossible, she tells us, to know how moviegoers responded to the MPGY releases, or to the campaign as a whole. This seems hard to credit. Did no one write to their local paper, in support or in scorn? Did theatre managers not report back to head office? Like the studios themselves, Jurca seems prone to neglect the very people whose response was all-important.
Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures' Greatest Year
By Catherine Jurca. University of California Press. 284pp, £44.95 and £18.95. ISBN 9780520233706 and 1807. Published 25 April 2012