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The Classical Hollywood Studio System

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1892 words Published: 12th May 2017

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The Hollywood studio era can be traced back to the beginning of sound in film. The first feature film with sound was The Jazz Singer (1927), directed by Alan Crosland based on a play by Samson Raphaelson. In the period of the silent cinema, the cinema itself was considered a technological marvel. But like all technologies, the inventors needed to find ways to sell their products, and seen as a large business potential, nickelodeons, through numerous theatres around America, laid down the basis of the Hollywood cinema.

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The golden age of Hollywood of course began with the introduction of sound in film and theatre, a big investment for the studios. With the approach of the US Recession in the early 1930’s (in fact it was still felt until 1938) the studios looked for financial back-up by Banking Giants, the Wall Street which led to the total control of the studios by bankers and businessmen.

Between the 1920’s and the late 1940’s Hollywood cinema was an oligopoly dominated by the ‘Big Five’: Paramount, MGM, Warner Brothers, FOX and RKO which were vertically integrated and also the ‘Little Tree’: Universal, Columbia and United Artists. Throughout this period, Hollywood was in a ‘mass’ mode of production, it was heavily capitalised, it used precision machinery, employing thousands of workers(over 33000 people) and it had a centralised management. The modes of production continuously changed since 1895. There was the cameraman system (1895-1906), in which the film was shot and distributed by cameramen, the Director System (1907-1909), the Director-unit (1909-1914), a Central Producer System (1914-1930), a Producer-Unit System (1930-1945), and Package-Unit System (1945-1955). As the banks and businessmen took over the studios, it was clear that the most important aspect to them was that the films produced needed to be created for economical purposes. The studios began to look like big factories with the division of labour on the studio lot with 33000 people in production and over 133000 people in the industry. They had a story department, unit department, an assistant director department, art department, various workshops and wardrobe departments and many more.

Paramount Pictures, considered one of the defining studios of the classical era was founded by Adolph Zukor, as an investor, he saw that the films were being enjoyed by the working class people, mainly immigrants. By the 1920’s the studio expanded to an industry colossus with theatrical chains of 2000 screens and two production studios. “. During the Depression period Paramount went near bankruptcy but in the late 1930’s under Barney Balaban, Paramount became one of the biggest and most important of the “Big Five”. They released over 60 films a year and with the rise of sound in cinema, numerous stars were born: Gary Cooper, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy Lamour, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby and the Marx Brothers.

Metro-Golden-Mayer was founded in 1924 and by 1940’s it was considered the one to dominate the industry. Marcus Loew bought Metro Pictures Corporation in 1916 and Goldwyn Pictures in 1917 and in 1924 he bought Mayer Pictures. The producer Luis B, Mayer was made vice-president and head of studio operations in California, along with Irving Thalberg and Harry Rapf. MGM was considered a ‘producer studio’, there films were glamorous and they were considered quality productions. The studio was a ‘star vehicle’ with names like William Haines , John Gilbert, Norma Shearer , Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, but they also had names hired from other studios like: Wallace Beery, Lon Chaney, William Powell and Buster Keaton. In the 1930’s new stars were added: Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Warner Bros. was the first studio to introduce sound. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first talking film and began to expand by acquiring large studios in Burbank and several important stars. While MGM was making start stuttering lavishing dramas, and musicals, Paramount made films about decadence, Warners was combining different genres: the gangster movies, backstage musicals and romantic adventure films. The way to identify a Warner Bros. film from other studios way in the way of the production value and a unique visual style (simple sets and low-key lighting)

“Sets at Warners were customarily bare and workmanlike…The scale of a film could be judged by its budget, and in 1932 the average production cost per feature at Warners was estimated at $200,000, lowest of the majors except for Columbia ($175,000): MGM by comparison, averaged $450,000” (Campbell, 1971, p. 2).

With the introduction of color, the studio began to flourish. Thorough 1929-1931, Warners, were producing a staggering number of colored films, the majority being musicals. After associating musicals with color, the studio began to abandon it, and instead turned to a more social realistic storyline, the gangster films. Films like: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) G-Men (1935), Racket Busters (1938) etc.

20th Century-Fox was created through the merging of Fox Film Corporation and Twentieth Century Pictures. The studio’s stars did not compare with the likes of MGM, Warner or Paramount, but FOX managed to produce some A-grade films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) the most expensive adaptation of that time- who won 2 Oscars, Thanks A Million (1935) with stars like: Shirley Temple and Will Rogers.

RKO was formed in the beginning of sound in film and the stars working for the studio were: Cary Grant, musical team Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: In The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1934) ETC. The most famous films at RKO were King Kong (1933) and Citizen Kane (1941). With every other Studio being associating with a genre, KRO didn’t have any specific genre.

The way to understand Hollywood’s peculiarity as a mass entertainment industry ‘the dream factory’ is through the couplet of standardisation/differentiation. The studios can be compared by classical narrative, genre and stars.

“The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity” (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility” 1935). According to Benjamin the stars are human beings turned into a commodity, a product that can be sold and reproduced for economic purposes.

According to John Ellis a star is “A performer in a particular medium whose figure enters into subsidiary forms of circulation and then feeds back into future performances” (Ellis, 1982, p. 1).

Joan Crawford is the ideal example for a star. “I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door” (Joan Crawford).

John Belton suggests that: “A star’s persona […] differs from that of an actor. For an actor, the persona provides a primary mask, which disguises the real person underneath. For a star, the persona includes the actor’s persona as well as the star’s persona”. (John Belton, 6).

The star is a product, an investment. They must have the power to be identified with a particular type of film; many stars will only play in particular genres bearing the same persona: for example thorough the 1930’s Joan Crawford was always playing vulnerable roles. By being in the centre of attention, stars always portrayed cinema’s ability to show the passing of time (the mortality).

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Greta Garbo had a successful transition from silent film to sound, and she received an Oscar nomination for Anna Christie (1930), her first talkie. But Garbo wanted to be considered an ageless star. She didn’t need to act in front of the camera; her natural looks and presence differentiated her from anyone else. Because she wanted to be seen as a myth, forever remembered as a beautiful and talented ageless star, she quit Hollywood after just 21 years in the business.

Almost every Hollywood studio was associated with a specific type of genre; MGM had musicals and dramas, Warner Bros. Had gangster films, Universal had its share of horror films. Although different genres, they fallowed the same classical narrative structure. Problems arose in the beginning of the film and they must be solved in order to restore the balance in the world. To identify a genre we must look at their components. For example a western genre has elements, symbols to identify that world: for ex, there are sheriffs, outlaws and also the wilderness. Different genre requires different types of stars. In Warners gangster films the stars were associated with working class people, the only predominant audience left after the Great Depression. As they watched these movies they were attracted by the attack on the government and Warner’s profited from it. This may be considered an ideology. All the genres presented an idea, a ritual.

All the studios had their own stars, they followed the same modes of production but the difference here is that on economic restraints the production quality of the studios differed from studio to studio. MGM had lavishing productions even with low budgets. A great example is Grand Hotel (1932) with an all star cast and just one massive set. Universal for their horror film used low key lighting, minimal sound and small sets, but the way in which they used low angle shots to mask the cheapness of the sets is impressive. To give a sense of depth to films like Dracula (1931), Universal brought along cinematographer Karl Freud, who worked on Metropolis (1927), to give the film a German expressionist style.

As Hitchcock was begging to direct classical Hollywood films like Rebecca (1940), Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958) etc., and putting his own stamp on them through its in camera editing he did not want control from his producer. During the producer-unit system the films were collaboratively made by different classes of labours, and they didn’t have an individual artistic signature. They were controlled by the producer or the producer-director in some cases and not by the director.

“The strong director imposes his own personality on a film […]. The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression” (The American Cinema (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema 1968, p31).

A director like Alfred Hitchcock produces a rupture or a change in the narrative, so he can put its mark, to make the film individual and personal. The same thing can be said about Orson Welles who produced, directed and starred in his own production Citizen Kane (1941) with ought any constraints from the head office. Casting his own actors, with a closed set and his individualism it came out to be one of the greatest films of all times.


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