From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, American film production was utterly dominated by a handful of Hollywood film companies: Paramount, MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and RKO Radio. They were known as the Big Five or the ‘majors’. In the second division of the studio leagues were three studios: Universal, Columbia and United Artists. In fact, United Artists was not a studio but a distribution company formed in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in order to gain greater control over the marketing of their films. The financing of motion pictures was based in New York. Wall Street had consolidated its hold on the big film companies during the financial crisis of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, when the cost of sound stretched the resources of most companies to snapping point. As the Depression set in, cinema audiences fell away by almost 50%. It was on the West Coast that the flamboyant and legendary moguls who had built their dream stories in Hollywood created a superstructure that become known as the studio system. This system was an attempt to make films in the most efficient and orderly way possible. Studios not only had directors, actors, supporting players and writers on contract but also cameramen, art directors, special effects men, editors and composers, all of whom could be ordered about as it suited the studio, regardless of the wishes of the individual.
MGM More than anyone, Irving Thalberg at MGM refined the system of delegated responsibility that became a management blueprint for other studios. Louis B. Mayer handled the temperamental actors, looked for new talent, welcomed important guests, made big speeches; Thalberg, who abhorred publicity and declined any form of screen
credit, chose the pictures and got them made. He would keep an eye on the script but tended not to view the rushes during the shooting. Believing, however, that ‘films aren’t made, they’re re-made’, he took a keen interest in audience previews, re-cutting and even re-shooting sections of a film until audience reaction satisfied him. After Thalberg’s early death in 1936, Mayer reigned supreme over the studio until 1948 and encouraged a committee system of decision-making. (‘Key Concepts In Cinema Studios’) It was ‘Gone with the Wind’ which is one of the most well known films ever made by MGM, along with ‘The Wizard of Oz’. ‘Gone with the Wind’, directed by Victor Fleming in 1939, was such a success earning many Academy Awards; among them was Vivien Leigh who won the Best Actress award for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara. In the late 1940’s, the Big Five came under government pressure to break up monopolistic control of the film industry into smaller units. It was inevitable that the monolithic studio system should begin to fall apart: more stars and directors sought independent projects to work on. Production declined and it was no longer feasible to have so many artists on contract expecting to be paid weekly; it was better to hire them when necessary.
United Artists Charlie Chaplin had produced many of his films with United Artists. His last silent film was ‘City Lights’ which he directed in 1931. In fact, Orson Welles claimed that ‘City Lights’ was his all-time favourite film. This shows how Chaplin did not need to jump on the bandwagon and refused to be one of the first to do a ‘talkie’. The inevitable happened and he realised that ‘the little fellow’ would
eventually have to talk. His first talkie was ‘The Great Dictator’, which caused a huge scandal at the time, but luckily enough, it did not destroy his career. After Mary Pickford and Chaplin sold their interests in 1951, United Artists passed into new management. United Artists reaped rewards from a large number of independent producers who brought their projects to them for additional finance and guaranteed distribution. After World War II, when the ownership of cinema chains had been divorced from the production side of the business, the roster of Hollywood studios reflected the loss of economic advantage held by the Big Five. Columbia, Universal and United Artists now ranked alongside the others; all were on an equal footing for the upcoming battle with television. (‘Key Concepts In Cinema Studios’) During the period of the studio system’s ascendancy, at least two forms of product standardisation may be observed: 1. The 1930’s and 1940’s are commonly regarded as the golden years of the classic Hollywood text: of films, that is, marked by a highly specific type of narrative structure combined with a circumscribed range of cinematic expressions of narrative. 2. During this period, film genres – such as the gangster film, the western and the musical – were developed and refined to what is now regarded as their classic forms: genre films, which are of course a means of securing standardisation, may be regarded as guarantors of a reliable return of investment.
Yet films cannot be totally standardised: they must differ from one another. The films consequently embodied a series of tensions manifest, for example, in
various struggles between creative personnel and the front office, the business side of the industry, as well as in conflicts and disputes over the content, editing and marketing of individual films. The studios had different styles of films, which they produced. For example, MGM went in for large-budget costume drama and later, musicals, and Paramount had a taste for raciness and decadence. The genre for which Warner Brothers is perhaps most famous is the gangster film. In 1931, Darryl F. Zanuck announced a series of films whose subject matter would be drawn from contemporary newspaper stories. This is the inspiration behind both ‘Little Caesar’ (1931) and ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931), and the commercial success of these films served to determine studio policy throughout the rest of the decade. Gangster films, it was clear, made money.
Columbia Throughout the 1930’s, Columbia (one of the ‘Little Three’ majors) supplied the cinemas owned by the Big Five, with low-budget supporting features for double bills, with running times of only 70 minutes or so, few – if any – stars, and little or no prestigious production values. Around 70% of Columbia’s annual output of 50 to 60 pictures were in fact in this ‘B’ category. Although the bulk of Columbia’s productions during the 1930’s were low-budget ‘B’ features, the studio occasionally invested in more expensive films, such as ‘It Happened One Night’ directed by Frank Capra in 1934. Columbia was also the first of the eight majors to enter television production. Around 1950, Columbia chose to invest some of its still very limited resources in the formation of a television subsidiary, Screen Gems. Thus Columbia was able to produce films which both related to, and also to some extent differed from, contemporary trends in television drama. (‘Key Concepts in Cinema Studios’)
20th Century Fox In 1935, the Fox Film Corporation (which was founded in 1914 by William Fox) announced a merger with 20th Century. With Zanuck as head of production, the company would be known as 20th Century Fox. In the immediate post-war years, 20th Century Fox embarked on a series of ‘serious’, ‘realistic’ crime films employing semi-documentary devices and often including newsreel footage of the kind Fox had made famous with their ‘March of Time’ newsreels. In the wake of the 1948 antiTrust decision, declining audiences, and increasing competition from television, Fox’s first response was to reduce production budgets. In 1947 the average cost of a fulllength Fox feature was about $2 400 000; by 1952, films were regularly being produced at less than half that amount; since location shooting actually proved cheaper than a studio shooting. In 1952, Fox finally signed the Consent Decree agreeing to divorce its exhibition chain from its production/distribution apparatus in accordance with anti-Trust laws. The company could no longer guarantee the screening of its films simply by controlling first run theatres. (Class notes: ‘The Sound Film and the American Studio System’)
Universal Universal, which was established in the 1920’s, adapted its studio to sound production relatively early: by 1930, all of its releases were ‘talkies’. By the mid1940’s, Universal was in economic difficulties. The studio’s welfare was resting on Deanna Durbin and Abbott & Costello; their pictures, while still profitable, were not doing as well as in the past. Universal decided to try to attract major stars to the studio by giving them a percentage of the profits from their films, and simultaneously to increase budgets, thereby attracting a number of independent producers. The
company also merged its distribution activities with the independent production company, International. From then on, all Universal films were to be prestige films and absolutely no ‘B’ or cheap films would be produced. In 1958, Universal recorded $2 million worth of losses, and that since the mid-1950’s, space in the Universal studio lot had been regularly rented out to television production companies. Furthermore, while ‘Touch of Evil’ was being made, ‘trade papers were filled with rumours of sweeping changes within the Universal hierarchy, including reports that the film division would fold altogether in order to save their second arm, Decca records. ‘Touch of Evil’ was directed by Orson Welles and starred Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. It is a fine example of Welles’ exceptional directing style, with the opening sequence having a particular effect with its long-lasting shot. Unfortunately, Universal took it upon themselves to edit and cut out many scenes much to Welles’ disgust. After much pleading, Universal agreed to leave some of Welles’ original shots in the film. This film is a final example of Universal’s ability to attract big stars by offering them a percentage of the profits from its films. (‘The Cinema Book’) By 1959, when Universal sold its studio lot to MCA, its westerns and melodramas were being undercut by competition from television. The studio’s new owners divided film production into expensive blockbusters on the one hand and small movies on the other. From the development of silent films, which were predominantly made by Mack Sennet in the US, to ‘talkies’ is amazing. Since the 1930’s, the studio system in Hollywood has continued to develop at an amazing rate and continues to grow to this day with the emergence of more and more animations and high-technology to produce films. Could the Lumiere Brothers ever have predicted this?!
Published on Mar 21, 2010