Tuesday, 26 April 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 2: Paramount


In its heyday Paramount was nicknamed “the country club of the Hollywood Studios”, and by looking at the photos, revealing the beautifully manicured lawns, it becomes evident why. However, the nickname doesn’t just refer to the studio’s impeccably maintained grounds, but also to Paramount’s output of films, which were rivalling the sleek and polished look MGM’s pictures were known for, but also belied the fact that, as film-historian Andrew Sarris puts it, “the films of Lubitsch, Sternberg, Wilder, McCarey, and Leisen have put a gloss on the Paramount logo that the bulk of its productions doesn’t deserve”.

Paramount’s founding father, Adolph Zukor was a true film pioneer. A Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, he arrived in the United States in 1888, barely sixteen years old.
Hooking up with distant family members, who had settled in New York a few years earlier, Zukor started out in the fur business before he began investing in a Penny Arcade, located on New York’s Union Square as early 1903, the year Edwin S. Porter directed his groundbreaking film The Great Train Robbery.

Adolph Zukor

Moving with the times, Zukor switched to Nickelodeons, and later combined vaudeville with one-reelers, until in 1912 he had the trailblazing idea of turning a stage play, Queen Elizabeth, starring the legendary actress Sarah Bernhard, into a feature-length film. Although filmed statically, with the camera fixed on a tripod, the film was a raging success, leading to the foundation of the Famous Players Film Company, named after the company’s motto to film “famous players starring in famous plays”.

Mary Pickford, dubbed America's Sweetheart

At about that time Mary Pickford, who had already been working with David Wark Griffith, starred with great success in a Broadway play, A Good Little Devil, which is why he decided to sign her, thus establishing the contract system, which later would be adapted, and pushed to the limit, by all the big studios. With Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company still pulling the strings in the fledgling film business, Zukor successfully joined Carl Laemmle and William Fox in challenging Edison’s power, and asserted himself as one of the industry’s leading figures. While Zukor was building his first film studio on 26th Street in New York, another bunch of film pioneers, led by Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse Lasky was busy getting Hollywood’s first feature length film, The Squaw Man, off the ground.

Cecil B. DeMille, the Steven Spielberg of his day

A few years later, in 1916, Zukor merged his Famous Players Company with DeMille and Lasky’s Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company, and together they founded Famous Players Lasky, with Zukor as president, DeMille as director and Goldwyn as chairman, the latter of whom would soon drop out to go into business with the Selwyn Brothers.
Famous Players Lasky’s films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, a distributing company founded by W.W. Hodkinson, through which the newly founded Famous Players-Lasky made their films accessible to the public.

As with every industry, its infancy is usually marked by a myriad of sudden changes and takeovers, the film business being no exception. Zukor, always a few steps ahead of his competitors, soon began to realise the advantages of a vertically operated film company and swallowed Hodkinson’s Paramount Pictures, allowing him to combine production, distribution and exhibition all under the same roof. His new company, now called Paramount, quickly signed another fleet of rising stars, among them the now forgotten William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow, and Fatty Arbuckle, enabling Zukor to increase his output of films, of which only some were big, prestigious productions. However, by shrewdly inventing the so-called block-booking system, which also would later find its way into the other film companies, he forced exhibitors to take the smaller, less prestigious pictures in order to get the big ones.

Continuing to acquire various theatre chains (which later, with the Government Decree in 1950 would backfire), the company grew steadily, establishing itself as the largest movie corporation in the United States, operating unrivalled until the foundation of MGM in 1924.

With Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford creating their own company, United Artists, in 1919, and a handful of other stars gone as well, it was Gloria Swanson who, by becoming De Mille’s muse and starring in hits like Male And Female (1919), and The Affairs Of Anatol (1921), became temporarily Queen of the lot, and Paramount’s biggest draw, along with Valentino, whose films The Sheik (1921) and Blood And Sand (1922) were huge hits, ensuring Paramount’s constant expansion. In 1926, the company moved from its location on Sunset and Vine to its present location on Melrose and Gower. B.P. Schulberg (Budd Schulberg’s father) was hired as the new head of production.

The man with the cigar: Ernst Lubitsch

This was a clever move, for it was Schulberg who signed directors like Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, and William Wellman, whose film, Wings (1927) went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture. And it was Sternberg, who, while on a loan-out to UFA Studios in Berlin, Germany, with which Paramount was affiliated, brought his newly found muse Marlene Dietrich to the US, with one of the famous 7-year- studio-contract stashed in her pocket.

Berlin import: Marlene Dietrich, seen here in Paramount's Shanghai Express (1932)

Box-offices receipts peaked in 1930, before they dropped sharply as the country was ravaged by the Great Depression. Of the many stars Paramount had under contract, it was Mae West whose films, I’m No Angel (1933) and She Done Him wrong (1933), helped substantially to see the company through those meagre years. With the company in serious trouble, solutions to help Paramount were few and far between. As a result of the slump in business, Paramount went bankrupt, and in 1932 Schulberg and Lasky were ousted, and Barny Balaban was named president, a position he would hold for almost thirty years, with Adolph Zukor himself being pushed into the harmless position of chairman of the board of the reorganised company.

A number of production chiefs were brought in to help Paramount to get back on its feet, and at one time the post fell to Ernst Lubitsch, who held the job down for a year (1935-36), before he ran into roadblocks and went back again to his old job as a director. And even though it wasn’t Lubitsch himself who brought Billy Wilder on board, it was the screenplays Wilder and his colleague wrote for Lubitsch, and also for Mitchell Leisen, that turned out to become some of the biggest Paramount hits during the late 1930s.

Polish film poster for Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Poster for Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), which he co-wrote with Raymond Chandler

Other outstanding directors during that period included Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey, and the unsinkable Cecil B. DeMille, whose films, even though their artistic merits might be somewhat doubtful, were money in the bank. By the mid-1940s, with Sturges and Lubitsch gone, Wilder had established himself as the leading force on the lot, becoming one of Paramount’s most prolific and successful directors. His films Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1946), and Sunset Boulevard (1950), not only won the studio praise and a handful of Academy Awards, but they were also among the studio’s biggest money makers during that period.

With the multitude of cinemas Paramount owned, it was hardly a surprise that the studio suffered greatly from the Government Consent Decree, issued in 1950, that forced the studios to separate themselves from their theatre chains. The introduction of television at around that time made matters worse, prompting millions of Americans to stay home and enjoy the pleasures of the new medium. As a response to lure the audience back into the cinemas, most big Hollywood Studios launched a wide screen system, which in Paramount’s case was VistaVision, introduced in 1954 with big fanfare with the musical White Christmas, featuring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby.

The famous RKO globe on the corner of Gower and Melrose

Eventually, Paramount took over the adjacent RKO studios, which had previously belonged to Howard Hughes and Lucille Ball, who co-owned them with her husband Desi Arnaz. Having painted over the famous RKO trademark globe, thereby erasing all traces of the once glorious neighbour, the globe has since been restored to its original colours.

The Bates mansion from Psycho (1960), which was built on the Universal lot where it still stands today

Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark shocker, Psycho (1960), was, even though shot on rented space on the Universal lot, essentially a Paramount production. The film, containing the most discussed and analysed scene in film history - the stabbing in the shower - went on to become a major commercial hit for Paramount as well as for Hitchcock. Shot on a shoestring budget of just over a million dollars, Psycho took in more than $9 million in American rentals.

One of the best films of all time, Chinatown (1974)

In 1966 Paramount was yet another film company that fell prey to being taken over by a big conglomeration. Gulf Western, an oil company, became the new owner, with Charles Bluhdorn as president, and Robert Evans, a former actor, as head of production. Under the valiant Evans Paramount was thriving again and the studio entered its most profitable and artistically riveting period since the 1940s. Landmark films like Rosemary’s Baby(1968), Love Story (1970), The Godfather (1971), The Godfather 2 (1974), and Chinatown (1974), were all produced under Evans’ helm. The flamboyant Evans left Paramount in 1975 to operate as independent producer, distributing his highly successful films such as Marathon Man (1976) through Paramount.

John Schlesinger's landmark thriller Marathon Man (1976)

In 1976, Paramount’s founding father Adolph Zukor died at the age of 103, having outlived all other first generation moguls.

Robert Redford’s Ordinary People won Paramount an Academy Award for best picture in 1980, repeated three years later by James L. Brooks’ high-class soap opera Terms Of Endearment (1983), which finally also won the incomparable Shirley McLaine her long-overdue best actress Oscar. Like all the other film studios, Paramount would go through a swarm of presidents and chairmen, until in 1992 Sherry Lansing was appointed Chairman of Paramount, a position she held until 2004, withstanding even the studio’s merger with Viacom in 1994. In 2005, Paramount purchased Dreamworks, which was owned by erstwhile Paramount executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Among the few noteworthy films Paramount has produced over the past 20 years are Lasse Hallström’s truly remarkable What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994), and Peter Weir’s clever The Truman Show (1998).