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Golden Age of Hollywood
The glitz! The glamor! The Black Face!

"Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star
And everybody's in showbiz, it doesn't matter who you are
And those who are successful, be always on your guard
Success walks hand in hand with failure along Hollywood Boulevard"
The Kinks, "Celluloid Heroes"

Ah, the Golden Age. In the popular imagination, this is a glitzy era stretching from the '30s to the late '50s that is, essentially, present-day Hollywood cranked Up to Eleven with Hollywood Costuming and Gorgeous Period Dress (although Costume Porn was actually present in the films made at the time). While there were some really great movies made during this era, let's remember that Sturgeon's Law and the Nostalgia Filter apply.

However, this period was a time of actors like Cary Grant, James Stewart, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, James Cagney, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Joan Bennett, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, James Dean, all more or less contemporaries working at the same time. In addition to directors like John Ford, King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, Samuel Fuller, Douglas Sirk, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch etc. This period was simply the greatest collection of talent gathered in one place at one time in film history, which inevitably led to an incredible outpouring of creative energy. This leads to Archive Panic since the plethora of films made at the time, meant that newer film-makers and new classics are being rediscovered constantly.

The start of the Golden Age, also known as the "studio era," is generally held to be the year 1927, with the release of The Jazz Singer, the first motion picture to have synchronized sound. Or so its reputation says — in reality, only a few minutes of the movie had synchronized vocals, with most of the rest being a silent film. It was no matter, though. Advances in technology combined with the success of The Jazz Singer meant that, by 1930, "talkies" had completely overtaken silent films.

This had several major effects on the entertainment industry. Vaudeville became Deader Than Disco virtually overnight, unable to compete with the talkies. Many former vaudeville actors and radio actors migrated to film to find work. Many silent film actors, including some of the biggest stars, saw their careers ruined by the rise of sound — some had bad voices or thick accents, others had trouble remembering their lines. Thousands of piano players who had played Background Music for silent movies also lost their jobs, unless they could compose film music or play piano on-set. Smaller studios that didn't have the money to switch to sound got left behind and went bankrupt, solidifying the power of the "Big Eight" Hollywood studios.

A further problem with the arrival of sound was that film craftsmanship actually took a step back. By the end of the silent era, films like Sunrise and The Crowd as well as comedies by Buster Keaton showed amazing technical facility in cutting, editing and camera techniques, benefiting greatly from the lightweight cameras that prevailed at the end of the 20s. The arrival of sound and theatre talent as well as the primitive recording equipment led many early films to be what Hitchcock once dismissed as "pictures of people talking" or filmed theatre with little in way of using camera techniques, lighting or background music to tell the story. Sound equipment also led to heavier cameras (most importantly, the soundproofing, known as a sound barney made them HUGE) which made it harder, for some time, to achieve the Tracking Shot and other impressive techniques. This helped make rear projection the standard way to film driving scenes.

In 1929, the The Academy Awards were founded. The first few ceremonies honored movies from the previous two years. In the first ceremony, basically a dinner party with an award ceremony tacked on, Best Picture went to two films: The World War I romantic drama Wings and the dreamy arthouse romance film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Whereas most encyclopedic sources list Wings as sole winner, Sunrise is better known today due to its critical acclaim and for being the Ur Example, Trope Maker or Trope Codifier of many camera and special effects techniques common today, such as tracking shots. This first Academy Awards is often considered to be the last major hurrah for silent films before talkies took over almost completely.

The studio system

Hollywood's success during the Golden Age was built upon the "studio system," which began during the Silent Age but truly took off during this time. The studio system was a model of vertical integration — the "Big Five" studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO and Fox) all had controlling stakes in their own theater chains, ensuring that their films would get distributed. There were a number of situations where one studio would control all of the theaters in a town or city — perhaps the most egregious instance of this was when Paramount owned every theater in Detroit, enjoying a monopoly on film distribution in one of America's largest cities. The "Little Three" studios — Universal, Columbia Pictures and United Artists — would never own more than small theater circuits, and relied on independent theaters to carry their movies; the "Poverty Row" B-studios — Monogram Pictures, Republic Pictures and Producers Releasing Corporation — ranked still lower in power and prestige.

A key part of the studio system was a practice known as "block booking," in which they would sell a year's worth of films to the theaters as a unit. Blocks would include a number of particularly attractive, big-budget films, which would be used to entice theaters to buy the whole block, as well as a mix of lower-budgeted B movies of varying quality. If you think that this would allow the studios to slack off with the quality of their movies, knowing that the theater would be required to show them anyway, then congratulations — you're thinking like a Golden Age Hollywood executive! Block booking was all too often used by the studios to cover for releases of mediocre quality — although many classic movies were made during this era (the theaters needed good reasons to buy the blocks in the first place), one needs only to flip to TCM on a Tuesday morning to realize that Sturgeon's Law applied during the Golden Age just as much as it does today. Theater anger at the practice of block booking first began to boil in 1938, following the blockbuster success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an animated film that was not made by the major studios and did not employ their stars.

Early on, this era had a wealth of content variety for the cinema goer far beyond the feature film, with newsreels and short subjects like film serials, animation (much of early Disney and Warner Bros. animation was composed of shorts), musicals, and comedies like Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. Alas, by the 1940s this was gradually replaced by the double feature programming, which helped create the above complaints of the dreck that theater companies had to show thanks to block booking.

A 1947 Supreme Court Anti-Trust decision effectively divested the Studio System from its Distribution arm. This paved the way for the rise of independent theater chains(at least until the Multiplex era) but spelled the beginning of the end for the Studio System, with many different players like agents becoming more involved in movie production in the 1950s.

Studio control of artists, and censorship

Another cornerstone of Hollywood during this era was the "star system," which was basically the Golden Age version of the Hollywood Hype Machine. Under the star system, actors were effectively employees of the studio that they were working for, and were bound to them in contracts. And by "bound to the studio," we mean "the studio pretty much owned them." The studio would take promising, good-looking young actors and give them brand new public images, sometimes changing their names (Archie Leach became Cary Grant, Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, Harriet Lake became Ann Sothern) and even getting them plastic surgery (which is how Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth, and how countless Jewish actors became WASPs) in order to make them more marketable. Type Casting was the typical outcome of this molding process.

Although acting and voice lessons were usually part of the package, the main emphasis was clearly on image and presentability. Stars would have their films chosen for them by the studio, even if the star in question had other ideas of what movies to do. The studio would arrange dates and romances between its male and female stars in order to drum up publicity, especially if one of the stars was secretly gay. Contracts often came with morality clauses to keep stars from engaging in such indiscretions as drug use, alcoholism, divorce and adultery, which (it was feared) would ruin their public images and make them unprofitable. Women had to behave like proper ladies off set, and men had to act like gentlemen. Of course, if they did violate these clauses, the usual response would be to use hush money to silence witnesses, or promise exclusive stories to the tabloids so that they wouldn't report on it. (Any similarities to how present-day Disney manages its teen stars, or how Japan's anime industry manages its seiyuu, are purely coincidental.)

Directors were also contractually bound to their studios. As a result, the way that movies were made came to be standardized, almost like a production line. Standardization was so powerful that each studio developed its own "style," distinct from the rest, with regards to how their movies looked. Executive Meddling was the norm, and headstrong directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and John Ford often fought against the restrictions put on them by the studio. The concept of the "auteur" — a director who controls most aspects of the production — did not exist in Hollywood until well after the Golden Age. Ironically enough, the concept was first applied to studio directors by the critics of the French New Wave, who argued that even under restrictions, directors like Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Vincente Minnelli and Howard Hawks asserted an individual style and managed to make personal content despite restrictions of studio censorship and the Strictly Formula mandate of the studios.

This was also the era of The Hays Code, enacted in response to both moral panic over indecency in early film and a perceived number of immoral people within the industry itself (Fatty Arbuckle being the most infamous), as well as the National Legion of Decency, a largely Catholic censor group that could effectively destroy a film's profitability by declaring it "morally objectionable" (basically, imagine the Parents Television Council, but Catholic, movie-focused and far more powerful). This placed extremely strong censorship on films in addition to the demands of the executives. The combination of these two factors meant that Strictly Formula, more often than not, ruled the day when it came to filmmaking, though as noted by Martin Scorsese in his documentary note  several directors became "Smugglers", who managed to criticize, subvert and secretly issue TakeThats to the censors and America's moral majority, with several, little-known radical films made in this system anyway, often in genres that were Beneath Suspicion.

As one could guess, not everyone in Hollywood was pleased with these restrictive arrangements. Indeed, as early as 1919 (a decade before the official start of the Golden Age), Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith founded United Artists in order to subvert the studio system and have greater control over their work and their lives. Later, during the '30s, Hollywood's main unions formed to protest the low wages and grueling work schedules experienced by actors, directors and writers. At the time of United Artists' founding, the head of Metro Pictures, Richard A. Rowland, described it as "the inmates taking over the asylum." In time, however, UA's model would come to be the standard for Hollywood, especially once the Golden Age studio system began to fall apart...

Exactly when the era ended is difficult to pinpoint. While 1930 (or 1934) is the generally agreed-upon starting point, there are a number of claimants for the ending date: 1947 (vertical integration - the economic foundation of the studio system - declared unconstitutional); 1953 (Hollywood cinema starting to feel heavy competitive pressure from television); 1954 (Marlon Brando and his revolutionary style of Method Acting, which ushers in a new age of realism); 1955 (Marilyn Monroe, the biggest actress of the era, walks out on her contract with Fox, attends the Actors' Studio in New York, and returns to Hollywood demanding a new contract and more creative freedom, thus helping to usher in the era of actors as auteurs); 1956 (The Hays Code liberalized to allow freer depiction of once-taboo subject matter); 1960 (era of the modern "slasher" film heralded by Psycho); or 1968 (The Hays Code finally scrapped for good and replaced by the MPAA rating system). The 60s was a period of transition in that many of the actors and great stars died (for instance, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable - the cast of The Misfits), retired and/or faded away. The classic Hollywood star idea was challenged increasingly by more working-class and ethnic actors who challenged the general WAS Py look common to the Golden Age, younger film-makers influenced by European and Asian films also challenged the conventional film narrative of the Golden Age. By the 70s, the Golden Age ended and American Cinema entered the period known as New Hollywood which was in many ways seen as a brief, Darker and Edgier "golden age" in its own right.

In hindsight

Despite the jade-tinted view that this page gives towards the era, the Golden Age of Hollywood wasn't all bad. There is, after all, a reason why it's called the Golden Age — when the system worked, it really worked. The year 1939 in particular has been called Hollywood's "golden year," seeing how it gave us Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and many other classics. Fiction set in the Golden Age of Hollywood will nearly inevitably take place in 1939. Other classic films from the Golden Age include Casablanca, It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, King Kong, The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, proving that, when push came to shove, Hollywood knew how to get results with its regimented system. And Universal, meanwhile, was pretty much inventing the modern horror genre.

For information about the animated side of the industry during this time, see The Golden Age of Animation.

The Golden Age of Hollywood in fiction:


Provides examples of:

  • Crapsaccharine Place
  • The Empire: Studios sure acted as such at the time, owning pretty much every theater in the country, barring the way for independent and foreign productions.
  • Evil Counterpart: Nazi Germany set up a similar movie industry to favour its image.
    • It might be pushing it, but Leni Riefenstahl to Orson Welles. Both are the geniuses of their time, after all. Though Riefenstahl wasn't exactly evil.
    • In Inglourious Basterds, Winston Churchill asks Lt. Hicox how Joseph Goebbels (Nazi minister of propaganda) was doing compared to Louis B. Mayer. Hicox says Goebbels thinks of himself more like David O. Selznick.
  • Determinator/Plucky Girl: Actors, when they wanted better roles.
  • Knight Templar: Hays and his Media Watchdog Mooks.
  • The Scrappy: A few actors who are beloved today were considered box office poison in the late 30s. A few examples are Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Fred Astaire. They all recovered spectacularly.
    • Ingrid Bergman, when her affair with Roberto Rossellini became public. She became a persona non grata, and theaters refused to show her films.She also recovered.
      • This is hard to believe since Hollywood affairs are the light fodder of tabloids these days, but the Rossellini affair was such a big deal that Bergman was DENOUNCED ON THE FLOOR OF THE SENATE. Her daughter Isabella Rossellini argued that racism was a factor since a great Swedish actress left America and fame for an Italian artist solely to make personal films.
    • It's important to note that many of the films which these actresses appeared and denounced then as box-office poison were later Vindicated by History. For Katharine Hepburn, films like Bringing Up Baby and Sylvia Scarlett were later regarded as among her best performances despite being flops at the time. Ingrid Bergman's films with Rossellini were later regarded as her best performances by several critics and it was later released on The Criterion Collection.
    • Kay Francis also appeared on said list after starring in the now classic Lubitsch film ''Trouble in Paradise" and several films with William Powell in the earlier part of the decade. While she never developed an iconic status in later years the way the people above did, her work is under a rediscovery of sorts, despite the fact that her biography is titled "I Can't Wait to be Forgotten."
    • Hays and The House Committee of Un-American Activities, who would subsequently be regarded as a black mark on the entire industry.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Movies produced by MGM tended to be far down the idealism end, while those made by Warner Bros. (basically the patron studio of Film Noir) were usually on the cynical end (well, as cynical as they could get). There were, of course, exceptions: Warners did quite a few musicals and light-entertainment films, while MGM was responsible, near the beginning of the era, for the shockingly gritty The Big House (1930).
  • The Theme Park Version: Surprisingly averted during the early years of the era and then toward the end of the era as well. Many of the pre-Code films were shockingly realistic and only seem clichéd today because they've been parodied so mercilessly by much less serious films; Warner Brothers, in particular, was renowned for its docudrama style throughout the era. However, there were quite a few films during this period that tried to gloss over both the Great Depression and World War II, depicting the former as merely a rough patch in everyone's lives rather than a massive economic and sociological crisis, and the latter as a patriotic adventure rather than the bloodiest and most destructive conflict the world had yet seen.
  • Values Dissonance: On account of censorship and the overall conservative mind-set of the studios under the The Hays Code and government pressure, quite a number of old Hollywood films feature racist and sexist attitudes as well as dated assumptions about class. It was also common for actors and actress from ethnic backgrounds to change their names to fit in to general tastes, such as the Hispanic Rita Cansino becoming Rita Hayworth, not to mention that several African-American actors such as Stepin Fethchit and others often had supporting roles playing stereotypes.

Silent Age of HollywoodHistory Of HollywoodThe Pre Code Era
The Generation GapThe FiftiesGreaser Delinquents

alternative title(s): The Golden Age Of Hollywood
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