Sunday, 24 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 3

In 1913, the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company, which included Lasky himself, Cecil B. DeMille, and Samuel Goldwyn, reached Hollywood by way of Flagstaff/ Arizona, to shoot The Squaw Man. The film has since been remade twice and on both occasions by DeMille himself. It is the filming of The Squaw Man more than anything else that we have come to associate with the dawn of Hollywood as the world’s Mecca of Film. But this, as we've seen, is not entirely true for there were a large number of film pioneers who beat Mr. DeMille to being the first filmmaker to discover Hollywood’s merits as a film location. The Squaw Man, however, was the first-ever feature film (= four reels or more) to be shot in Hollywood. Other feature films of that period such as Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (1913) having been shot in the San Fernando Valley while Adoph Zukor’s trailblazing Queen Elizabeth (1912), starring legendary actress Sarah Bernhard, was shot way back in New York!

The Lasky-DeMille barn, now the Hollywood Heritage Museum, located on 2100 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood

Initially bound for Flagstaff, in order to escape the Trust as well as New York’s whimsical weather conditions, they quickly made up their mind that the dry, deserted, flats of Arizona wouldn’t do and headed straight to California. To shoot their film, DeMille and his peers rented the barn of a German settler, Jakob Stern, located at the corner of what is known today as Selma and Vine, just a stone’s throw away from bustling Hollywood Boulevard, or rather, Prospect Avenue, as it was called then. The now legendary Lasky-DeMille barn is still standing, although not on its original location. Having been moved to its new site across from the Hollywood Bowl, the Washington Mutual Bank now occupies the barn’s former ground. In deference to Hollywood’s film pioneers and their film, The Squaw Man, the bank’s entire façade has been tiled in a mosaic that depicts various scenes from the landmark film that was shot there nearly a hundred years ago.

In 1916 the Lasky Feature Play Company merged with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players to form Famous Players Lasky, with Zukor as president, Lasky as vice president, Goldwyn as chairman, and DeMille as director-general. But, as Zukor’s biographer Will Irwin, puts it, “even this large company was too small, however, long to include four such able and positive characters”, and before long Goldwyn sold out to his partners and merged with Edgar Selwyn to found the Goldwyn Company, which eventually was fused into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. Goldwyn, obviously a free spirit, soon dropped out from the company that would thereafter bear his name to become the most charismatic of Hollywood’s independent producers. Zukor on the other hand, slyly merged his Famous Players Lasky Company with Hodkinson’s distribution company called Paramount, thus pioneering in the vertical integration of production, exhibition and distribution, a concept that would later be adopted by most other Hollywood studios.
As a name for his giant corporation Zukor opted for Paramount, which swiftly turned into the most influential and most powerful motion picture company, a position it held until the formation of MGM in 1924.

Things were developing at rapid speed when in 1915 William Fox founded his Fox Film Corporation, and took over the Selig studios in Edendale in 1916, joined by Louis B. Mayer in 1918, who became Selig’s tenant for a while, before building his own studio on Mission Road a year later. Metro rented its first studios in Hollywood in 1916, but was acquired by the cunning Marcus Loew in 1920, who four years later orchestrated the deal between Metro, Mayer, and Goldwyn, with himself as president, which led to the foundation of MGM, which in time, became almost a synonym for Hollywood itself.

Barbara Stanwyck, dressed by Edith Head, in Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944)

Film scholars generally name 1923/ 24 as the juncture the studio era began. All major studios were in place, except RKO, which joined the ranks of the majors a few years later- and literally all major studios followed the same pattern: the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition, which means that films were produced on the studio’s lot, distributed by the company’s distribution arm, and largely shown in cinemas owned by each respective studio. Not all studios were equally strong in each division, with some studios possessing a cinema chain smaller than that of other studios, while others had back lots and production facilities that were far superior to that of a rival studio.

Hedda Hopper, who wittily titled her autobiography From Under My Hat

Louella Parsons

In addition to that, all talent -from actors, directors, producers, to cameramen, set-designers, costume-designers and technical staff- was under contract to the studio. Again, not all studios equalled each other in their employment practices. Columbia, for instance, had scant talent under contract to the studio, and operated mostly by borrowing actors from other studios. A common practice, as it enabled the lending studio to, either make money on a contract player for whom no suitable project could be found. Or, in many cases, even a profit, as the asking price usually far exceeded the star’s salary, or else, punish a star who had gotten too big for his breeches by sending them off to a minor studio. Besides actors who were under contract to a studio, there were also a number of free-lancers like Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck. But free-lancing didn’t really become common procedure until the decline of the studio system gave rise to the more free-wheeling methods of the 1950s and 60s, when deals were struck between a studio, an independent producer like, for instance, Sam Spiegel, and a cast of bankable actors.

Travis Banton

Even though a lot of actors complained -and some famously even sued their studios for what they considered malpractice- to be under contract to a studio was in fact a blessing in disguise, as it meant steady work with a regular salary under the protection and guidance of a big studio whose aim it was to build up a face into a name and, eventually, into a star. Still, glorifying the contract system would be as wrong as flatly condemning it. Truth is, that it was a double-edged sword, since protection and a steady flow of work was only guaranteed as long as the star’s pictures continued to make money. While the duration of the contract was usually seven years -for that was the time the studios deemed necessary to build up a star-, the commitment on the studio’s side was only six months. This meant that a star, tied to a studio by a standard seven-year-contract, could be dropped by a studio with only six months notice.

Also, building up a star included complying with the demands of the studio’s publicity department, which could include anything from having your teeth fixed or your hair dyed to changing your name and completely reinventing your background. In order to get a young, promising actress’s name into the papers, the publicity department often saw to it that she would occasionally be escorted by one of the studio’s top-ranking male stars to a movie premiere, some lavish party, or even the Academy Award ceremony, thus also fostering the possibility of a romance between two contract actors, which was deemed very advantageous for the studio.

Dietrich - in Sternberg's extravaganza The Devil Is A Woman (1935)

Romances between actors -and the break-ups thereof- were the territory of gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Feared for their sharp tongue and poison pen, they were among Hollywood’s most weighty figures as their columns - Parson’s in Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner and Hopper’s in the L.A. Times, and both columns syndicated in newspapers all across the U.S. - were read by millions of eager readers every day, and their word had the power to make or break a career.

With the stars at the mercy of two gossip columnists, the studios’ respective publicity departments implored their stable of actors to comply with the columnists’ every request and demand, something which was next to impossible, for trying to satisfy the hunger for news of one, automatically entailed falling out of the other one’s favour, for the simple reason that both columnists were arch rivals, and getting the story first first was what it was all about. Tell It To Louella, is the adequately named title of Parsons’ second volume of her autobiography, published in 1961. Rumour has it, that the ties between Parsons and her boss, William Randolph Hearst, were closer than one might think, for she is said to have witnessed the notorious shooting, involving Thomas Ince, Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies, during which Ince was fatally injured, and to silence her, the newspaper magnate offered her a life-long position at the Los Angeles Examiner, one of his many publications. Parsons was unrivalled in her station as the queen of gossip, until in 1937 Hedda Hopper decided to hang her acting career and throw her fancy hat into the gossip-ring.

Legendary Edith Head whose influence on fashion was as as far-reaching as Paris

In spite of their rivalry, both women had more in common than they cared to admit. Equally relentless when it came to squeezing out the gossip out of their victims, both also held extremely conservative convictions, about which they made no bones, and which rose to the surface during the red baiting, with both vigorously supporting the House Committee of Un-American Activities(HUAC). Both loyal employees, Parsons’ flagrantly slandered Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane(1941) for its thinly veiled portrayal of her boss, William Randolph Hearst. Hedda Hopper, whose dim career as an actress had ended after she started working for the L.A. Examiner, was offered a bit part in Billy Wilder’s landmark Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which she plays herself, wearing one of the flamboyant hats that became her trademark.

In the case of directors, being under contract to a studio could be particularly frustrating as their individual influence varied from studio to studio. Some studios like MGM, or Warner’s under Darryl F. Zanuck, were very producer orientated, leaving the director with little or no say over the finished product. Others, like Columbia or RKO, gave their directors a fair amount of freedom, relying on their vision and skill to come up with a film that was both beautifully crafted yet also successful at the box-office. It goes without saying that a visionary, strong willed producer can be as important to a film as a visionary, strong willed director, and as both positions were generally filled with in-house staff, it was in the studio’s interest to ensure their compatibility.

Bette Davis wearing one of Head's typical gowns of understated elegance in All About Eve (1950)

Like producers, directors and actors, costume designers and set designers, too, were a vital part of the intrinsically woven studio net. They substantially contributed to giving the studio’s output its distinctive look. To recreate a certain period, they had large research libraries at their disposal as well as a prop department, where furniture and interior decorations from all eras and countries were available to them. Most noteworthy among the set designers was Cedric Gibbons, who in his position as MGM’s head of the art department, supervised all releases, and no product would reach the screen without his approval. He was responsible for giving MGM’s films its glossy, luxurious finish, making them easily identifiable, even to the casual viewer, as an MGM product. Gibbons famously also designed the Academy Award statuette, known as Oscar, when his boss, Louis B. Mayer, together with 35 other dignitaries from the film community, founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, as a response to the growing power of the unions.

Art directors Lyle Wheeler at Fox, and Hans Dreier at Paramount, both held equally powerful positions as Gibbons, but in neither studio was the emphasis on a film’s look as high as it was at MGM. Gibbons’ sumptuous sets were highlighted by the extravagant gowns MGM’s chief costume designer, Adrian created for in-house stars like Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. Orry Kelly had a similar role at Warner Brothers, being responsible for Bette Davis’ wardrobe during her Warner Brothers period.

Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1953)

Paramount, however, was home to two of Hollywood’s most outstanding costume designers: Travis Banton was responsible for creating Marlene Dietrich’s extravagant costumes in the films she made for her mentor, Josef von Sternberg, most memorable among them, The Devil is a Woman (1935), in which Banton turned Dietrich into a sequined siren, replete with towering mantillas and veils. The young woman Banton had taken under his wing would later become the most celebrated costume designers of them all: Edith Head. Her trademark of pure, understated elegance would eventually earn her eight Oscars and thirty-four nominations. She went on to dress Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), and Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1953), to name only three.

Just like all other divisions, writers had their own building, working in tiny, adjoining, offices, expected to churn out stories, rewrite scripts, or add dialogue to an already finished screenplay. At times, more than one writer was assigned to the same project. The position of a screenwriter gained considerably in importance with the advent of sound, as the studios were in dire need of well-crafted stories, spiced up with meaty dialogue.

This series will continue next week, Wednesday. For previous blog entries on Hollywood and Hollywood history, please visit the archives at the bottom of this page!