Hollywood's Classical Period (1930-1945)

Gone with the Wind poster

"In 1929, the American film industry was in the late stages of its conversion to sound. The changeover was enormously expensive, but it did not alter the composition of the business profoundly. Some years before, the industry had settled into a structure dominated by a few large, powerful companies (e.g., Paramount, Fox, MGM). The cost of sound conversion helped to solidify this structure, leaving eight dominant studios and a mere handful of smaller struggling outfits to compete for the public's moviegoing dollars. A number of marginal, undercapitalized production firms (Chadwick, Inspiration, Tiffany, Producers Distributing Corp, etc.) could not manage the transition to sound and soon disappeared, while some of the larger companies (First National, FBO, Pathé) were, or soon would be, absorbed by the surviving giants. The structure of the industry was stable throughout the Classical Period.

But business was hardly smooth. After posting solid profits in 1929 and 1930, thanks primarily to the novelty of talking pictures, several of the major studios experienced heavy losses between 1931 and 1935. Business did begin to pick up around the middle of the decade, and all the major companies survived after considerable cost cutting and reorganization.

Men sleeping in the Beacon Light Mission in New York City during the Great Depression

While the Depression hit Hollywood slightly less hard than it hit most other American industries, its impact was still dramatic. Suddenly, many people couldn't afford to go to the movies. Box office attendance dropped by 25 percent and gross revenues by almost 30 percent between 1929 and 1933 forcing thousands of theaters to close their doors. The industry responded to the crisis by slashing admission prices and, eventually, by offering a variety of showmanship gimmicks to entice the customers back. The major stratagem was the widespread deployment of the double feature, wherein customers viewed two films for the price of one. Others included Bank Night, when cash prizes would be given to lucky ticket holders, several variations on Bingo (Screeno and Banko were two of the names used) and giveaway evenings when patrons received apiece of crockery or silverware, or some other useful culinary item. In the production arena, studios laid off employees, required others to take pay cuts and ruthlessly pared filmmaking costs.

Moviegoers during the Great Depression

Attendance rose slowly. By 1937, moviegoing was once again a regular habit for many Americans. While the "Roosevelt recession" that year did affect business, its bite was minimal compared to the chilling impact of the early Depression era. World War II caused some initial concern about foreign markets. By 1940, practically all of Europe, except for Great Britain, was off-limits to US pictures, yet even this did not damage business substantially. The studios began to cultivate other foreign territories (especially Central and South America) more intensively and managed to squeeze additional revenue from the domestic market.

After America entered the war the film business became a bonanza. Flush with cash from the newly expanded job market, Americans at home looked to movies as a preferred method of diversion. Their options limited by rationing, millions flocked to their local theaters where newsreels provided a visual sense of the war's progress, and theatrical films, often larded with patriotic sentiment, offered reassurance that the American spirit was too strong to be broken by any challenge from abroad. Film company profits soared, peaking in 1946 when an incredible $1.7 billion was recorded in the industry's ledger books. This magical year, however, would mark the end of the boom era; soon, most Americans would rely on television for their visual entertainment and movies would become an occasional pastime, rather than a regular habit." [1]

The Studio System

MGM studios

"Hollywood's major studios produced around 60 percent of the films that were seen on domestic screens during the era, but managed to collect approximately 95 percent of the film rentals generated in the United States. The largest companies, commonly referred to as the "Big Five" (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century-Fox and RKO), had production, distribution and exhibition arms; these vertically integrated outfits were able to control the manufacturing, marketing and retailing of their product more completely than the so-called "Little Three". Of these, Columbia and Universal both lacked theater chains (Universal owned about 60 domestic theaters until 1933), while United Artists functioned solely as a distribution company for independently made productions.

Finally there was "Poverty Row", a catch all term used to encompass any other smaller studio that managed to fight their way up into the increasingly exclusive movie business. It is worth noting that though the small studios that made up Poverty Row could be characterized as existing "independently" of any major studio, they utilized the same kind of vertically and horizontally integrated systems of business as the larger players in the game. Though the eventual breakup of the studio system and its restrictive chain-theater distribution network would leave independent movie houses eager for the kind of populist, seat-filling product of the Poverty Row studios, that same paradigm shift would also lead to the decline and ultimate disappearance of "Poverty Row" as a Hollywood phenomenon.

The Big Five majors The Little Three majors Poverty Row
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer United Artists Grand National
Paramount Pictures Columbia Pictures Republic Pictures
20th Century Fox Universal Studios Monogram Pictures
Warner Bros. Producers Releasing Corporation (aka PRC)
RKO Pictures Majestic

The Poverty Row included Republic Pictures, which specialized in westerns and children’s serials and absorbed the smaller Mascot Pictures corporation of Nat Levine, which also dealt primarily in action fare; Monogram, which would come to its greatest prominence in the 1940s as the home of an interminable series of Bela Lugosi horror movies and Bowery Boys comedies; and Producers’ Releasing Corporation (PRC), reputedly the cheapest studio in Hollywood history, where two-day westerns were cranked out with alarming regularity in the 1940s, along with five-day film noirs dealing with the darker side of human existence." [1]

Paramount studios

"The studio system was in essence an assembly line that cranked out roughly a feature film per week for each of the major studios, regimented into “A” pictures, with top casts and directors and luxurious shooting schedules, and “B” pictures, which were shot in one or two weeks on existing sets, using second-string players under contract to the studio for maximum economy. There were also short subjects, cartoons, serials, and even “C” pictures (mostly program westerns) shot on microscopic budgets in as little as two or three days from the barest of scripts. All studios maintained a roster of directors, writers, actors, and technicians under contract, to be used on any project at the whim of their bosses. Literary properties (novels, short stories, plays) for “A” and “B” pictures were purchased and then turned into shooting scripts. Cast, directors, and crew were assigned to shoot the films, while an army of decorators, costume designers, and prop men completed the sets. With shooting finished, the films would be edited into rough cuts and screened for studio executives, who would suggest revisions and retakes, while staff composers would create a suitable musical score. After sneak previews for selected audiences, the films would go out into general release across the country, often in the theaters owned by the studio, thus guaranteeing a regular market for their product. The films would sometimes be re-released later as either a second feature with a new “A” film or alone. The demand for product was intense, and the studios had to maintain a clockwork schedule to satisfy it. Almost immediately, each major studio established a generic identity, which differentiated it from its competitors." [2]


With Nicholas Schenck (left) as financial head in New York and Louis B. Mayer (right) overseeing studio operations in Hollywood, the company was generally viewed as the best in the industry. With actress Jeanette MacDonald

MGM was widely considered the Tiffany of all the studios, making allstar vehicles such as Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932) and George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933). "The most consistently profitable of the studios, MGM never so much as flirted with a losing year during the Classical Period. Even the Depression caused only a slight downturn in the profits of this show business juggernaut.

Actress Joan Crawford on the arm of Louis B Mayer at the 'Torch Song' movie premiere in Los Angeles

With Nicholas Schenck as financial head in New York and Louis B. Mayer overseeing studio operations in Hollywood, the company was generally viewed as the best in the industry. Although its production and distribution operations were actually subsidiaries of the Loew's chain of theaters, it was renowned for its films and, especially, its stars. MGM's famous slogan was "More stars than there are in heaven" and it backed up the boast by offering pictures that featured Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery,Robert Taylor, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, James Stewart, Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor and other household names.

Superintending the MGM films in the 1920s and early 30s was Irving Thalberg, whose reputation as the most creative production chief in Hollywood never changed until his death in 1936 at the age of 37. After that, Mayer took a more active hand in filmmaking decisions and the company's success continued unabated, though the critical reputation of its productions declined somewhat. MGM specialized in all-star vehicles that showcased its top-heavy roster of acting talent.


Adolf Zukor with Mae West

Paramount was home to the madcap antics of the Marx Brothers at their most anarchic, in addition to the sizzling double-entendres of reigning sex goddess Mae West and the droll misanthropy of comedian W. C. Fields. Paramount was also the studio that pushed the envelope of public morality with the greatest insistence, which had major consequences for the entire industry.

Paramount controlled more theaters than any of its competitors. The theaters were a great asset when business was good, but they drained the company's coffers and pulled it into receivership during the worst years of the Depression. It emerged in 1935 after considerable reorganrzation and was reasonably successful until the war years when its fortunes soared. The $39.2 million profit Paramount recorded in 1946 was an industry record.

George Raft, director Fritz Lang and Sylvia Sidney talk with Paramount head Adolph Zukor (dark suit) on the set of 'You and Me' in 1938

Adolf Zukor, often credited with developing vertical integration in the film business, stood atop Paramount's trademark mountain for more than 50 years. The studio's head of production changed with surprising frequency; between 1929 and 1938, Jesse L. Lasky, B.P. Schulberg, Emmanuel Cohen, William LeBaron and director Ernst Lubitsch each had his chance to run filmmaking operations. They were succeeded by Y. Frank Freeman who took control in 1938 and held the job until 1959. Another important Paramount executive was theater expert Barney Balaban who became president in 1936 when Zukor assumed the chairmanship of the board.

Paramount's star roster was the only one that offered MGM some challenge. It included Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Maurice Chevalier, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, George Raft, Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, and Ray Milland.

20th Century Fox

Darryl F.Zanuck

Twentieth Century Fox came into its own with Henry King’s Lloyd’s of London (1936), starring Tyrone Power. Though Fox was always rather thin in star power, the studio created a vision of America as a great cultural melting pot, relying heavily on non-copyrighted songs of the late nineteenth century. The last of the majors to be formed, Twentieth Century-Fox came into being through a merger of independent Twentieth Century Pictures and the venerable Fox Film Corporation in 1935. The driving force behind the latter company was William Fox, one of the most active and entrepreneurial executives of the silent era. But Fox endured a series of setbacks after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and lost control of his company in the early 30s. It languished until the management team that had formed Twentieth Century in 1933 - business chief Joseph Schenck and production expert Darryl F.Zanuck took over and began to run the combined organizaton. From 1935 until the end of the Classical Period, Twentieth Century-Fox was highly successful.

At first, the studio had only two bona fide stars, moppet Shirley Temple and folksy humorist Will Rogers. Rogers perished in an airplane accident in 1935, but Zanuck soon built a formidable stable of acting talent. It included Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Loretta Young, George Sanders, Betty Grable, Maureen O'Hara, Gene Tierney, Gregory Peck, Linda Darnell and Carmen Miranda.

Warner Bros.

Albert Harry Sam and Jack - the Warner brothers

Warner Bros. specialized in hard-boiled gangster films, social melodramas, and Busby Berkeley’s outrageously over-the-top musicals. Warner Bros. reaped the benefits of introducing sound features like The Jazz Singer (1927) and Lights of New York (1928), and became one of the most powerful studios by the end of the 1920s. Its acquisition of First National pictures and a large chain of theaters caused the company to suffer substantial losses between 1931 and 1934, but it survived the lean years and prospered from then on; the company was very profitable during world war II.

The two executives who ran Warner Bros. were Harry Warner, in charge of the New York office, and Jack Warner, who superintended studio operations in California. A third brother, Albert, was the corporate treasurer. Jack Warner was nominally in charge of production, but most of the important creative decisions were made by Darryl F. Zanuck (until 1933) and then Hal B. Wallis, who succeeded Zanuck and remained in place until 1944.

Warner Bros. had a solid contingent of stars, though it contained more character actors than glamour types. The biggest names were Bette Davis, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Paul Muni, Olivia de Havilland, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Kay Francis, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Claude Rains, George Brent, Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman, Ida Lupino and Ronald Reagan.

RKO Pictures

RKO RADIO PICTURES Photo date: 1935

Radio-Keith-Orpheum was created in 1928 by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to showcase its sound-on-film equipment and to compete with the well-established industry giants. This studio was much more volatile than the other majors, enduring regular changes of management and shifts in filmmaking philosophy. Like Paramount, it suffered substantial losses during the Depression and was forced into receivership in 1933. It took seven years for the corporation to emerge although, after 1935, its prolonged stay was caused by reorganization complications rather than perilous financial difficulties. The best years for RKO occurred during World War II.

The RKO stars included Irene Dunne, Richard Dix, Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor McLaglen, Lucille Ball, Orson Welles, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum. Fluctuation throughout this roster had heavy impact on the filmmaking trends of the studio. In the 1930s, a majority of female stars led RKO to emphasize the woman's film; by the 40s, however, a greater number of male-oriented pictures was produced.

United Artists

A very different business enterprise, United Artists had no stars, no studio facilities, no theaters. It functioned solely as a distribution outlet for independently-made productions.

United Artists: Griffith,Chaplin,Pickford,Fairbanks

Formed in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W Griffith both to market their pictures and to protect their creative autonomy, the company soon opened its doors to other suppliers. By the beginning of the Classical Period, it was handling the films of Samuel Goldwyn, Howard Hughes, Gloria Swanson and Joseph Schenck as well as Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin. The careers of Miss Pickford and Mr. Fairbanks faltered in the early sound era, but the company picked up the slack by bringing Walt Disney, Twentieth Century (before the merger with Fox), Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger and others into the fold.

Although United Artists was never highly profitable, it had only two losing years between 1929 and 1945, primarily because its overhead was low compared to other studios that maintained much larger staffs. However, during the World War II period when profits came easily to most of the movie companies, the performance of United Artists was desultory. The bulk of the company's problems derived. from management. Joseph Schenck guided UA skillfully through the worst years of the Depression, but after he left to form Twentieth Century-Fox with Zanuck, the organization never found an adequate replacement. The owners - especially Pickford and Chaplin - feuded constantly and eventually its most important filmmakers, Disney and Goldwyn, found new homes for their releases. The company's leadership woes would continue until the early 1950s when Robert Benjamin and Arthur Krim took control and transformed UA into one of the most dynamic studios of the post-World War II era.

United Artists was originally conceived as a prestige studio that would distribute many of the industry's most notable and expensive pictures. It maintained this reputation into the 1940s when more and more low-budget movies were added to the mix in order to keep the distribution exchanges busy. Nevertheless, the company philosophy of allowing independents to make their films without interference from the front office had its rewards.

Universal Studios

Carl Laemmle

Although Universal's history dates from 1912 and its founding mogul, Carl Laemmle, is often credited with the invention of the star system, the studio had a difficult time in the 1930s, losing money every year except 1931 and 1934, when it posted modest surpluses, and 1939 when it managed a profit of $1.2 million. Its fortunes improved in the 40s when it generated steady, if unspectacular, profits through the war years.

Laemmle, utilizing his son Carl Laemmle Jr. as production chief, ran Universal until 1936 when an investment group headed by J. Cheever Cowdin took control. R.H. Cochrane became the new president with Charles R. Rogers functioning as head of production. Two former RKO theater executives, Nate Blumberg and Cliff Work, replaced this team in 1938.

While Universal did own a small chain of theaters, it was forced to sell them in 1933 to escape receivership. Thus, it existed without a guaranteed exhibition outlet for most of the Classical Period. The company's biggest stars were juvenile songstress Deanna Durbin in the late 30s and the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in the 40s. Other members of the Universal acting company were Lew Ayres, Margaret Sullavan, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, John Boles, Lon Chaney Jr., Basil Rathbone, Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Robert Cummings, Ella Raines and Yvonne DeCarlo. In general, the studio made fewer big-budget pictures than its rivals (excepting Columbia), concentrating instead on inexpensive westerns, comedies, horror films and serials.

Columbia Pictures

Director Frank Capra Editing Film for 'You Can't Take It with You' at Columbia Studios

Columbia was even more cost-concious than Universal, concentrating on the production of modestly budgeted program pictures, plus a handful of more expensive and ambitious films each year. Steering this very tight ship from the silent era to the 1950s was Harry Cohn, the blustery president and head of production. Cohn's brother Jack headed up the New York office.

At a considerable disadvantage because it owned no theaters and had few stars under exclusive contract, Columbia's thrifty philosophy nonetheless paid off. While its profits did not rival those of MGM, it never had a losing year. Even during the toughest days of the Depression, Columbia made money. By far the company's most highly esteemed creative talent during the 1930s was director Frank Capra, whose timely productions (It Happened One Night, 1934; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936; You Can't Take It with You, 1938; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939) brought in millions and provided the studio with a level of respectability that it would not have otherwise enjoyed. Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Jack Holt, Rita Hayworth, Grace Moore, Ralph Bellamy, Lloyd Nolan, Ann Sothern, Melvyn Douglas, Glenn Ford, Larry Parks and Ann Miller were other members of the Columbia acting company." [1]

The Star System

MGM: More stars than there are in heaven. In 1943 Louis B. Mayer gathered all of his stars for a group photo to celebrate the MGM's 20th birthday. </br>Front row: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Katharine Hepburn, Louis B Mayer, Greer Garson, Irene Dunne, Susan Peters, Ginny Simms, Lionel Barrymore; </br>Second row: Harry James, Brian Donlevy, Red Skelton, Mickey Rooney, William Powell, Wallace Beery, Spencer Tracy, Walter Pidgeon, Robert Taylor, Pierre Aumont, Lewis Stone, Gene Kelly, Jackie Jenkins.

"At the dawn of the sound era, movie stars were well known throughout the world. To the studios, they represented a scarce and very precious commodity. If showcased properly, a star could generate revenue for many years, though star development and nurturing were recognized as inexact sciences. Even the biggest box office names were subject to the changing whims and tastes of the public. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks defined the meaning of stardom, but neither managed to survive the transition from silent cinema to sound. Yet their loss of status, evidently, had little to do with their voices or their ability to recite dialogue convincingly. The reasons for the declining careers of Pickford and Fairbanks are complex, but they are clearly related to the aging process and the inability of the actors to continue embodying the sorts of characters that made them public favorites in the first place. Like so many stars, Pickford and Fairbanks found it imperative, but impossible, to alter their screen peronas - the unique cinematic images which moviegoers adored. With such salutary examples as Fairbanks and Pickford to learn from, studio executives recognized that a premium would always be placed on youth and, therefore, were constantly on the lookout for fresh personalities who might be molded into stars.

For the public, stars meant two things above all else: a reliable kind of entertainment and an assurance of superior production values. Audiences who attended a Shirley Temple film, or a Mae West film, or a Bing Crosby - Bob Hope film had a very good idea of the sort of diversion they would experience. If the picture lived up to their expectations, they would likely return when the next production featuring their favorite(s) arrived at a convenient theater. Spectators also realized that studios tended to support stars with money and talent that would not be expended on "B" films and shorts. To most patrons, a star-driven movie represented the highest level of Hollywood production.

An advertisement for Spitfire (1934)

The star was also the most important element in each studio's marketing efforts. "A" pictures were sold to exhibitors and ultimately to the public based primarily on "star power". Exhibitors in the early 1930s who agreed to play blocks of MGM product knew very little about the stories and genres which they would later be presenting and even less about the quality and appeal of those productions, but they they did know that Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo and other crowd-pleasers would be featured. The exhibitor, therefore, bet his or her livelihood on the ability of these personalities to attract a requisite number of customers.

An advertisement for I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

In their advertising and publicity campaigns for "A" pictures, the studios gave prominence to the star. Story, genre, producer, director and supporting players generally took lesser positions than the key performer, who would be featured in both the textual and graphic elements of the promotional material. "Katharine Hepburn as the lying, stealing, singing, praying witch girl of the Ozarks" (Spitfire, RKO, 1934), "Foot-Free Fred and Joyous Ginger ... In Their Gayest, Gladdest Show!" (Shall We Dance, RKO, 1937) are examples. One need only compare the star-oriented approach in "A"-film advertising to the genre elements usually emphasized in "B"-picture advertising where the actors were often an insignificant element in the campaign (e.g., I Walked with a Zombie, RKO, 1943) to gauge the importance of the star." [1]

The long-term contract

"A key to the star system for the studios was the long-term, exclusive contract. New performers were required to sign contracts which bound them to a specific studio for a prescribed period of time - usually five or seven years. The company's actual commitment to the performer, however, was generally six months, for the usual contract contained six-month option clauses. If studio executives decided that the actor's potential value was not substantial, they could release the individual at the end of the option period. However, if the performer was thought to have potential, his or her option would be "exercised" meaning that the relationship would continue with the actor receiving a small pay raise.

Jackie Cooper signs his MGM contract in the presence of studio head Louis B. Mayer in 1931.

The actor did not have the same rights. Even if thoroughly dissatisfied with the parts he or she was assigned to play or the way the studio was managing his or her career, the actor remained exclusive studio property until either the executives decided not to exercise the option or the long-term contract came to an end. A typical studio contract called for 40 weeks of pay and 12 weeks of unpaid vacation. The studio had the right to determine when the vacation period(s) would begin and end.

In addition, if an irreconcilable disagreement arose between the actor and the studio (usually over the roles which the producers and studio head required the actor to play), the studio had the right to suspend the performer without pay. Suspension time was automatically added to the time frame of the original contract, lengthening it to the studio's benefit. In 1945, a film company's right to tack suspension time onto these contracts ended as the result of a historic lawsuit initiated by Olivia de Havilland against Warner Bros. From that point on, unhappy actors could "sit out" the remainder of their contracts and then start anew, as free-lance talent or with a different organization.

Five-year-old Temple signs a contract with Fox Films to receive $1,000 a week for the following seven years. The tiny cinema sensation is pictured with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Temple in 1934. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

The standard contract also gave a studio the right to loan its contract actors to other production entities. This might occur for several different reasons. The usual justification was that the home studio did not have an appropriate property ready for the performer. Rather than pay the individual to sit idly by until a fitting vehicle was ready to go before the cameras, the studio chief would call other studios, hoping one might be able to use the actor and absorb his or her salary. A very different circumstance arose when a studio developed a script with a role that was perfect for a performer who was under contract to a competitor. In this case, the studio might be able to obtain the actor, but would usually pay deatly for the privilege. The home studio often made a handsome profit on these loan outs.

Film companies, however, were generally cautious about loan-out arrangements, especially when they involved their most popular talent. While considering requests for these individuals, the head of the studio would demand to see a script and to know the producer, director and other members of the cast with whom their star would be working. No amount of excess income would be worthwhile if the project turned out poorly, damaging the value of the star. Harry Cohn at Columbia had a very weak group of contract players, yet he was able to borrow Clark Gable from MGM for It Happened One Night (1934), Gary Cooper from Paramount for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and James Stewart from MGM for both You Can't Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) because each of these films was a quality production directed by highly respected Frank Capra. And, in each instance, the actor returned to his parent company a bigger star than he had been before working with Capra. The studio's investment had been enhanced by the loan out to Columbia.

Some major stars had a contractual right to do one "outside" picture a year for which they (or, typically, their agents) could negotiate a deal. Claudette Colbert, for example, exercised this provision in her Paramount contract in order to co-star with Gable in It Happened One Night. This was a shrewd decision; she won a Best Actress Academy Award for her work in the picture. Bing Crosby had a similar clause in his Paramount contract, enabling him to make East Side of Heaven (1939) and If I Had My Way (1940) for Universal.

Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis (In this Our Life, 1942)

Still, there was less farming out of stars than one might imagine. The practice made certain performers angry unless it involved a role and/ or working relationship they coveted. More importantly, the studios recognized the value of major stars and wished to showcase them exclusively in company productions. Greta Garbo never made an American film for a studio other than MGM. Though Twentieth Century-Fox and MGM loaned stars back and forth frequently because Fox executive William Goetz was the son-in-law of Louis B. Mayer, Mayer found the door slammed in his face when he asked for Fox's biggest star, Shirley Temple, for The Wizard of Oz (1939). (Ironically, Mayer was forced to use his own contract employee Judy Garland as Dorothy, and the part elevated her star status.) All of Katharine Hepburn's films were made for RKO until her box office clout began to wane in the late 1930s. Only then would RKO agree to a loan out (to Columbia for Holiday, 1938). When Ms. Hepburn returned to the studio and refused to appear in a picture called Mother Carey's Chickens (1938), the studio released her from her contract.

The biggest complaint voiced by star actors was that the studios often forced them to play roles that were unsuitable or to appear in what they felt would be bad pictures. Most acting contracts gave the studio full control over the assignment of film material, though a number of big stars 'attained the right to refuse an assigned part. Warner Bros., always the most contentious of studios, was the site of numerous pitched battles between executives and such performers as Bette Davis and James Cagney over this issue. And yet Humphrey Bogart ascended toward stardom at Warner Bros. in roles that George Raft refused to play: Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941) and Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). MGM was extremely lenient; it rarely forced one of its many stars to take a role that he or she disliked." [1]

Star development

Garbo: The Ultimate Star

"Most studios invested heavily in star development. When a young actor was placed under contract, the individual received acting lessons, elocution lessons, grooming advice, physical fitness coaching, as well as voice and/or dance training when necessary. In addition, the neophyte was taught how to interact with fans, fan clubs, reporters, writers for fan magazines, gossip columnists and others. It was considered imperative that perceptions about both the on- and off-screen lives of actors be controlled by filtering them through the studio's publicity staff. If something went awry, the publicists were expected to minimize the damage.

Distilled to its essence, star development involved building up an actor's status through a series of roles. which would establish, stabilize and expand upon an image or persona which moviegoers found appealing. Once the persona was fixed in the public's mind, all publicity and promotional material was designed to complement and magnify this pleasing image. Greta Garbo, for example, was perceived to be just as melancholy, mercurial and unfathomable off the screen as she was on it. Likewise, Shirley Temple was considered by the public to be the same perfect child she played in her movies - precocious, energetic, respectful of her elders, adorable.

Photoplay fan magazine, June 1939

Though everyone assumed that movie stars lived glamorous lives and made lots of money, their publicity, with some exceptions, was tailored to convince the public that they were just as normal and down-to-earth as everyone else. Clark Gable supposedly preferred to rough it on hunting and fishing trips with his chums rather than indulge in luxurious vacations to Paris or New York. And, in spite of the exotic and erotic image she projected on screen, Marlene Dietrich was featured in fan magazines as an old-fashioned hausfrau who loved to cook and clean and take care of her daughter.

Except for a special case like Garbo, it was deemed important for stars to be almost constantly before the public. During the 1930s, most appeared in three or more films a year. In addition, they were often on the radio, either in their own shows (Bob Hope, Dick Powell, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Jeanette MacDonald, Fred Astaire, Eddie Cantor and others) or as guests on other programs. In addition, they were used to advertise every kind of consumer product, from cigarettes and automobiles to dishwashing soap and toothpaste. Most also made personal appearances, particularly around the time that one of their films was opening. During World War II, the responsibilities of the stars expanded to include selling war bonds, entertaining the troops and "working" in USO-sponsored GI hangouts like the Hollywood Canteen. In America during this period, movie stars were ubiquitous. A veritable cottage industry of fan magazines, gossip columns and radio and newspaper reportage existed to provide the public with a continuous flow of information about their favorites.

Bette Davis pouring coffee at Hollywood Canteen

Despite its considerable importance and the legions of professionals who played a role in the process, star development was a maddening business. The number of thunderous mistakes that would later haunt the studios' highly paid "experts" almost certainly equals the perceptive decisions made by those same individuals. Universal had Bette Davis under contract in the early 1930s, but its management did not foresee a bright future for her and let her go. Warner Bros. signed her, but she languished there until the studio loaned her to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934). Her stunning performance as sluttish waitress Mildred opposite Leslie Howard's Philip Carey caused the Warner executives to realize that they had a powerhouse actress and valuable commodity in the fold.

RKO helped turn Bette Davis into a star for Warner Bros., but it made plenty of mistakes with its own personnel. It had a chance to sign Clark Gable and passed him up. The studio did have Betty Grable under contract, but eventually let her go. So did Paramount after she made an uninspiring run of films for them in the late 1930s. The third try, however, was charmed for Grable who became a huge star at Twentieth Century-Fox in the early 40s. Joan Fontaine wasted away in undistinguished RKO parts before the company finally released her in 1939. Two years later, RKO borrowed Miss Fontaine back from independent producer David 0. Selznick for Suspicion. The studio was forced to pay a price many times that of her previous RKO salary and found its embarrassment compounded when her performance in Suspicion won the Academy Award for Best Actress." [1]

The End of the Studio System Era

"Although the leaders of the Hollywood companies did not realize it, profound changes would affect their business in the years that followed the end of World War II. The exhilaration that accompanied victory did continue throughout much of 1946. Movie moguls celebrated as extraordinary amounts of cash flowed into their coffers. The opening of European and Asian markets that had been off-limits for years, combined with robust domestic ticket sales, generated $1.75 billion in industry gross revenues in L946. Paramount led the way, posting unprecedented profits of $39 million. Twentieth Century-Fox (profit: $25 million), Warner Bros. (profit: $22 million), MGM/Loews (profit: $18 million) and RKO (profit: $12 million) also enjoyed their most successful financial years in history. Thus, no one could foresee the coming events that would rock the very foundations of the industry's economic model and soon bring an end to the studio system era in American film history.

These events included:
On what became known as “Hollywood Black Friday,” a six month strike by Hollywood set decorators turns into a bloody riot at the gates of Warner Brothers' studios 1. The imposition of a 75 percent tax on the earnings of all foreign companies in Great Britain, beginning in 1947. This tax would soon be rescinded, to be replaced by the old "frozen funds" concept (American movie companies could still earn large sums in Britain but were required to spend the bulk of these earnings within the country). The British decisions were the first of a number of protectionist laws instituted by foreign leaders whose countries had suffered much more than the US during the war and who were determined to control the outflow of capital from their fragile economies. These decisions, along with various incentives designed to lure filmmakers to produce movies in their lands, caused Hollywood executives to begin making movies all over the globe. The era of "runaway production" had begun, meaning that Hollywood's position as the unchallenged center of movie production was eroding.

2. Labor problems. The relationship between management and labor in the movie capital had been relatively harmonious throughout most of the war. But as soon as it was clear that the Allies would win, blue- and white- collar workers began demanding their share of the bounty that their employers had reaped during the previous years. A series of bitter, sometimes violent strikes and lockouts resulted between 1945 and 1947. In October 1945, for example, more than 1,000 people (picketers, scab workers, strikebreakers, police officers, studio security personnel) battled outside the gates of the Warner Bros. studio. Eventually, most of the workers were given pay raises and additional benefits, but photographs of the riotous conditions which ran in the nation's newspapers tarnished the industry's pubic image.

HUAC hearing

3. Anti-Communist paranoia which enveloped Hollywood in 1947. Convinced that the movie industry was a hotbed of subversive activity, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) subpoenaed movie veterans to testify about the alleged injection of communist propaganda in commercial films. After a group of "friendly" witnesses informed the committee that some individuals were indeed trying to co-opt the movies for their own nefarious purposes, the politicians summoned a group of "unfriendly" witnesses who belligerently refused to answer the key question: 'Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?' This group of eight writers, one producer and one director soon came to be known as the "Hollywood Ten"; they were held in contempt of Congress, denounced by most of their fellow workers and fired by their employers. All would later serve time in prison. And so the era of the "blacklist" commenced in Hollywood. Those suspected of being Communists or harboring sympathies for left-wing causes or for the Soviet Union, soon found themselves unemployable. The period would last for more than a decade, further corroding the industry's reputation and causing some potential customers to think twice before they opened their wallets at a box office window.

1950s TV set advert

4. The end of block booking and guaranteed outlets for studio product. The government's investigation into the distribution practices of the major studios was finally settled in i948. In a "Consent Decree" the Big Five studios, in essence, admitted that the marketing of their products to independent theater owners had been handled in an unfair, monopolistic fashion. These studios agreed to sell their theater chains, thereby severing exhibition from their production-distribution operations. After the "divorcement" was complete, every studio would have to compete with every other studio to release its movies in the best theaters, at the most propitious times of the year, and on the most favorable rental terms.

5. The growth of television. By the early 1950s, television had become a significant competitor for the public's leisure time. Television stations were popping up all over the nation and TV sets were flying off the department store shelves. Seduced by the novelty of "free" visual entertainment in their homes, fewer and fewer people felt compelled to frequent their local movie houses.

These and other factors, such as the baby boom and the large-scale migration of American families to the suburbs, which took them far away from the first run theaters, also contributed to an alarming decline in movie attendance. By the mid-1950s, most of the studios were releasing fewer films, had pink-slipped most of their contract employees and were moving toward the United Artists model which emphasized distribution over production. Indeed, by this time, a large contingent of independent companies had set up offices in Hollywood, and the major studios were scrambling to finance and/or release films made by the best of them.

1950s filmgoers watch a three-dimensional movie wearing the special goggles needed to see the 3-D effects (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

The changes that occurred in the post-war years affected the industry in other ways. Over time, the Production Code Administration lost much of its power, opening up the screen to stories that dramatized various aspects of human experience which had been taboo for many years, such as drug addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm, Preminger/United Artists, 1955). And the determination to offer moviegoers a more dynamic visual and audio presentation than they could ever hope to experience on their television sets led to an increase in color productions and the development of various wide-screen formats, stereophonic sound, even movies in 3-D." [1]

The films of the 1930s and 1940s in Hollywood thus consolidated an industry and gave rise to one of the most powerful and pervasive systems of image production and distribution that the world has ever known. The motion picture was still in its relative infancy, barely forty years old as a narrative entertainment medium. The pioneers who had built the industry watched in amazement as the Hollywood cinema became an international benchmark for glamour, star power, spectacle, action, and narrative compression. The motion picture industry was now a full-fledged business, with its own awards (the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929), a stable studio system that was a community unto itself, and a worldwide distribution system that ensured Hollywood’s continued international dominance.

The United States thus exported a way of life, a set of values and expectations, and a social order to the rest of the world, with the implicit suggestion that Hollywood’s cultural dominance was yet another example of manifest destiny. The studios were designed, like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle, to dominate the industry as a whole. But even as Hollywood’s pervasive influence increased, work abroad ensured that national film industries throughout the rest of the world would also have a lasting influence on the shape of the cinema. These are commercial pictures still ruled by a personal vision, expressing the needs, desires, and passions of those whom the Hollywood cinema too often marginalized. It is to these films and filmmakers that we now turn.