Friday, 8 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 1

Films arrived in Southern California in 1907.

The completion of the Santa Fe railway in 1885 triggered a massive land boom within the Los Angeles area, and was fuelled by the subsequent discovery of oil wells, all of which had already begun to alter the nervous system of the prospering city prior to the arrival of the first film folk.

There can be little doubt, however, that the Pacific metropolis wouldn't be what it is today without its film industry.

The studio era officially began in 1923/ 24, a time that marks the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and the arrival of Joseph Schenk at United Artists. During its heyday, the Hollywood studios were divided into majors and minors. The so-called Big Five were MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, and RKO, the latter of which joined the ranks of the majors with the advent of sound. The three minors consisted of Columbia, Universal, and United Artists. One of the things all studios had in common is the fact that the corporate power was divided between the money boys in New York and the moguls who presided over the studios in Los Angeles. Not only was New York America’s, if not the world’s, financial hub as much back then as it is now, but before the centre of movie-making shifted from the East Coast to the West Coast, most of the companies were based in New York.

On the fringes there were a number of others, also-rans, like Republic, Eagle Lion and Monogram, film companies which operated on a much smaller scale, cranked out B-pictures, and whose company history was in many cases even more bumpy than that of their bigger brothers and sisters. In the pool of majors and minors, almost each studio had its own specific handwriting, serving as a signature or stamp, which made it relatively easy to identify a film’s birthplace.

MGM, with its impressive line-up of skilled technicians, its awe-inspiring roster of stars, and its charismatic production chief, Irving G.Thalberg, quickly established itself as the glamour studio and the proverbial dream factory, while Warner’s toiled mainly on the dark and gloomy side of the street, focusing on jailbirds, crooks, and gangster molls.

Fox, under the tutelage of Darryl F. Zanuck, for many years lacked a specific look other than being the studio of Sonia Henie and Shirley Temple, until later Zanuck acquired a certain reputation for producing message pictures. Columbia, with a tiny roster of stars, operating on a single block, and the miserly Harry Cohn at the helm, was simply known as the black hole of Calcutta, until, of course, the tremendous success of Frank Capra’s films changed all that.

Universal, besides being the home of Deanna Durbin, whose musicals saved the studio from ruin during the 1930s, also made a name for itself as the studio of horror movies. Paramount, referred to as the country-club of studios, had a wide range of European talent under its roof, and became known as the studio with the continental sheen.

Apart from the big dream factories, Hollywood also hosted a number of independent producers like David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn and Orson Welles Mercury Productions. United Artists, RKO, and Columbia would all become havens for independent producers. Lacking sufficient resident talent to keep their operations going, they rented out their facilities to independents, and often co-produced and distributed their films. With the onslaught of television, which arrived in tandem with the Hollywood witch hunt and the Government Consent Decree that forced the studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains, all of which spelling the end of the studio era, independent productions became the norm in Hollywood. As Billy Wilder once observed, “In the olden days you went to see an MGM picture. It had its own handwriting. Or you knew it was a Warner Bros.picture – Cagney and Bogart and the small actors that were under contract there. Now studios are nothing but the Ramada Inn – you rent space there, you shoot, and out you go”. Billy Wilder chose to ignore the fact that independent productions were precisely what -rightfully- made him the rich man he eventually became.

Billy Wilder

After the studio system had become dust, Hollywood was up for grabs as independent producers were calling the shots, striking up deals between director, studio, actors and writers, each of whom was entitled to their share of the cake, whereas during the studio era, it was the studio that reaped the profits of other people’s labour, but it also shouldered the potential risks. Looking at Hollywood’s output today, it stands to reason that the quality of the films during the studio era was superior, and that today’s free-for-all atmosphere has turned Hollywood into a very shallow gold-mine. Not that all that glittered was gold, of course. And yet, it seems to me that every so often art was being produced not in spite, but because of the studio system. Outside the mogul’s genuine interest in film and their willingness to take risks, with an annual average of forty to fifty releases per studio, they could afford a few box-office duds without losing too much sleep over it. Besides, everybody involved in a film was usually under contract to the studio, which greatly minimised a film’s cost. The studio system’s finely wrought mesh of rules, regulations and restrictions were a safety net as well as a cobweb from time to time.

D.W. Griffith

Above all, the story of Hollywood and its studios is a story of immigration, and thus reflects the story of America itself, as a fact virtually all moguls had in common was, even though they chose to play it down, that they were all first or second generation Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, with the exception of Twentieth Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck and the founders of United Artists: Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith, and Chaplin.

Darryl F. Zanuck

The Tsar of all moguls, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, was born in Russia in 1885, but left his native village of Demre a mere three years later to settle in the US by way of Nova Scotia. He started his career by working in his father’s scrap iron business before selling tickets at a Boston cinema, and buying his own movie theatre as early as 1907.

Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, born in Ricse, Hungary, arrived in the US in 1888, and started working in the fur trade before investing in a penny arcade in 1904.

Coming from the Polish village of Krasnashiltz, the Warner family emigrated to the United States 1882, settling first in Baltimore, were the four Warner brothers eked out a living by doing menial work ranging from shining shoes and selling soap to cobbling. In 1904 Sam Warner opened up a nickelodeon in Youngstown, Ohio. Joined by his brothers, they eventually ran a larger cinema, until they gradually expanded into distribution.

Samuel Goldwyn

Also born in Poland, Schmuel Gelbfisz grew up in a Warsaw ghetto. At the age of twenty, in 1899, by way of Hamburg, London, Birmingham and Liverpool, he arrived in New York, where, changing his name to Samuel Goldwyn, he began working as a gloves salesman. Later, he got married to Blanche Lasky, the sister of film pioneer Jesse Lasky, with whom we would eventually go into business. In the eyes of Katherine Hepburn, Goldwyn was “the most compelling and colourful of all the movie moguls”. And, she added, “of all those pirates, and they were all pirates, he was the only one with a sense of humour”.

Goldwyn went on to enchant and amuse Hollywood with what was dubbed Goldwynisms, which were largely the result of his struggle with the English language. Not only did he refer to Miss Brontë’s classic as "Withering Heights”, when he was about to acquire the film rights to Lilian Hellmann’s The Little Foxes, he was cautioned by Edwin Knopf that "it is a very caustic play", prompting Goldwyn to reply, “I don’t care how much it costs. Buy it!”. In fact, Goldwynisms have become classics just like most of his films. When showing a painting he recently purchased to one of his friends, he proudly announced that this was his “new Toujours Lautrec”. During the House Committee of Un-American Activities(HUAC) hearings, Goldwyn was the only one of Hollywood’s producers to speak up against its activities, releasing a press statement that said, “…The most un-American activity which I have observed in connection with the hearings has been the activity of the Committee itself…. I assure you that as long as I live no one will ever be able to dictate what I put on the screen as long as I continue to honour and obey the laws of our country”.

Unlike most of his peers, Columbia’s Harry Cohn was born in the United States, in 1891 in New York, to a Russian-Jewish mother and a German-Jewish father. Having been a pool hustler and song plugger along the way, Harry Cohn wound up in Hollywood, where he started out on Poverty Row, a label which he didn’t manage to shake off for a long time.

Carl Laemmle

Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, was born in 1867 in the South-German village of Laupheim. Coming to the United States in 1884, he began his career as an errand boy, and by 1906 worked as a nickelodeon operator in Chicago.

None of the film industry’s founding fathers had much of an education to speak of, although not for want of trying but simply because they lacked the necessary means.
Having grown up in poverty, all of them shared a determination combined with an astute business sense and a willingness to take risks. Fascinated by the fledgling film industry, which is hardly what it could be called back then, through hard labour and foresight they slowly became part of it, and eventually shaped it and made it their own. As screenwriter Nunnally Johnson’s daughter, Marjorie Fowler, observed, “The Cohns and Mayers may have been tough sons-of-bitches, but they had instinct".

For Part 2 of City Of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, please log on to FILM-TALK on Tuesday!