The Studio Years by Gerald Mast
(notes taken from the essay as titled above.b)
The System came up along the slow evolution of cinema as an art. In 1916 Adolph Zukor( Famous Players-Lasky company) assumed control over Paramount distributing company. In 1924 Marcus Loew set up MGM studio with Louis B.Mayer as head of Production. By 1925 the Warner Brothers Company,the Columbia Pictures Corporation,Universal Pictures and the Fox company had been set up.
Like the production of Ford motor cars out of Detroit the heads of the Production planned an entertainment factory from which a large number of goods(films) of consistent and dependent quality were to roll out without any snarl. Like any factory, guiding principle of a studio was division of labor, by which each department contributed to the whole. Writers, actors,technicians and mechanics were all part of it. Studio publicity was another that pitched the finished product to the public. Time saving devices were more welcome than inspiration a human quality that made writers or stars at time excel themselves from their usual. There was a front office that planned the year’s production,managed all the budgets and kept the assembly line smoothly running.
Introduction of sound system meant a bigger financial out lay that only big studios could afford. Conversely it made the studio more rigorous with their production costs. The informality of early silent films was gone and in the complicated technically savvy world of dream factory nothing was left to chance or human tantrums. The stars emoted come what may according to detailed shooting scripts that went dead against the intent of the author and script writers who still nursed certain literary integrity. Their principles and feelings had been bought by the studio when they signed the carefully worded contracts prepared by their lawyers. The studios had also battery of legal firms that helped them to control the production all along the line.
From 1930 to 1945 the Studio system reigned supreme.
When films found their feet among masses the need was to produce more while the demand was very strong. With the crash of 1929 and lives of men growing desperate, films as an escape from everyday circumstances were real. Those who produced them knew they had to account for every cent they spent. They knew the commercial need for large quantities could only be justified when these were of good quality and technically competent and also were entertaining. After the World War II the studio system died when television came into vogue. It brought entertainment right into homes of Everyman. There was no more need for such quantity as the studio system planned for a year.
The Hollywood Studio system was uneven. Take two giants as MGM and Paramount studios. In the former Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had much more control than the other . Paramount was a studio of directors and writers-Ernest Lubitsch, Joseph von Sternberg,Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder. This also had such names as WC Fields and Mae West. MGM was the studio of stars- Greta Garbo Jean Harlow Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. MGM inherited the Marx brothers and made their zany chaotic routine fit with their intricate production numbers and trite plot and the result was lacklustre. Similarly Buster Keaton was flattened out when MGM took control. In the 1930s the MGM policy seemed wiser of the two. Audiences treated MGM films as the most impressive and artistic of their day and Paramount’s chaotic individuality ran the studio into severe financial difficulties and imposed restructuring of the studio in 1935 . Paramount lost in the process WC Fields Marx Brothers to name a few. Today the MGM films look flat and dead besides the exuberant vitality of Paramount’s.
The studios also differed in the genres they handled. RKO was remarkable for the smooth comedies with Cary Grant,and both the adventure films and comedies directed by Howard Hawks.Warner Brothers was most remarkable for its gangster,musicals and biographies. 20th Century Fox excelled in historical and adventure films directed by John Ford,Tyrone Power,Henryhathaway,Henry King. Universal excelled in the horror films-Frankenstein,Dracula,WolfMan, and the comedies of WC Fields.
Most directors were staff directors-competent,proficient and unimaginative technicians who took every script the received ,shot it and then passed the footage along to the editing department for shaping into its final form. There were exceptions to these those who were to individualistic that they like great stars could do films for other studios other than the ones thy had signed their contract. Walt Disney and Charley Chaplin worked for themselves. Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Clair made films for the studios and were imported from abroad. Maurice Stiller, Orson Welles( destroyed by the studio) couldn’t work within the system. Then there are directors like Lubitsch, von Sternberg, Hawks,Ford,and Capra who were products of the system and could work within it. In order to do their own Ford and Hawks had to make a number of mediocre films. These great directors avoided the Hollywood clichés and infused so much life about them to give the cliches a fresh cast and color.
Ernest Lubitsch for example could avoid formulas of what to say and how to say it. He even enjoyed playing with them. Central Lubitsch subject was sex, something that the studio system accepted as a necessary evil. In 1933 the formal code was to eliminate sex from the movies. In the studio years a woman was pure or fallen and a gentleman either faithful or a rake. Lubitsch could show that even faithful husbands have their rakish streak and women were not statues but women with powerful drives of their own. In an era of plaster-cast idealism of American male his cynicism was not as grotesque or bitter as of Erich von Stroheim.
On the whole studio system helped great many directors hone their skills and learn the craft. It was a liberating experience for them to make some good films if not the films that we treat as classic films. Mervyn LeRoy din’t direct a film as The Graduate of Mike Nichols. LeRoy made more films between 1930 and 1933 than Mike Nichols will make in a lifetime.
About the system there are two opposite critical opinions. The system created a very clear tension between art and commerce. Art defies mass production and assembly lines.The system bred popular entertainment, a myth as people who lapped up everything that flashed in front of their eyes. They were in awe of the stars, the glamor and the glossy perfection of a system that made the problems of life go away at least for a short while. The system played upon the wishes and dreams of the masses : the poetic justice worked too well and the crime paid in the end. Optimism of the good despite of every bad thing that visited them and reward of suffering the greed of crooked bankers, politicians gave them a false sense of American idealism as distinct from the way things worked in Europe. In a sense the system played too safe to displease public opinion and the powerful lobbies.(in the way the Motion Picture industry handled the Hollywood Ten during the Red Scare of 1947 one cannot miss fear of commerce than morals among the studio heads. They created a blacklist of their own.) The system stoked the gullibility of the masses and made them participants of a communal experience and a religious affirmation of the society. Such optimism which we see now by hindsight was based on misplaced naivete. Most films produced under the system are more interesting sociologically than aesthetically. The system ironed out what it considered as
too individualistic and no wonder MGM could not stomach WC Fields who,ripped up the sentimental cliches of propriety,Protestant ethics, or Marx Brothers who ridiculed high finance,higher education democracies and everything that the studio bosses held in mortal awe.