Useful Notes / The Golden Age of Hollywood
aka: Golden Age Of Hollywood

"I grew up in a small town hidden from the outside world, and the films from the '40s and '50s were like a window into the future...They weren't about us, they were about people bigger than us, living more on the edge than us - strange morality tales, more like Greek theater. Individuals overcame problems instead of merely surviving them, so you knew you could do that too. The people we saw on the screen were more real than real people...Cult figures. Heroes and heroines. Anti-heroes. Top of the world. Brute force. Themes of salvation. Echoes of Shakespeare and of Aeschylus. Those films had a powerful effect on all of us who grew up with them."

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 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. You can see examples in such programming such as the feature selections in select Warner Bros. dvds of classic films of the era. 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, Constance Ockleman became Veronica Lake, 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 representation. 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.

The Golden Age also coincided with Jim Crow and segregation and The Hays Code was intended to be a national code that ensured that their movies could play in every US State, including the Deep South, which proved to be the most active state censorship bureau during the The Pre-Code Era. As such African-American actors and actresses had very limited roles, often playing maids, servants and sidekick characters, or in the case of Stepin Fetchit, a stock character stereotype of lazy shifty men who are helpless without white handlers. American films made in this era perpetuated the "Lost Cause" myth and on account of this, a number of films made in this era suffer from Dated History and Values Dissonance. A number of notable Jazz and Blues singers did, however, appear in these golden age films often in cameos and brief appearances (such as Nat "King" Cole in The Blue Gardenia, Louis Armstrong in High Society, Duke Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder, where he also composed the score). Some liberal producers and directors, sympathetic to African-Americans and anti-racist causes, tried to work around these restrictions resulting in a Golden Mean Fallacy; the uniquely weird genre known as the "all-black film", i.e. an inverted Monochrome Casting genre peopled entirely with African-American performers that appeared to be set in a Constructed World without whites, which more or less codified segregation into a film genre (examples include: Hallelujah!, Cabin in the Sky, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess). Of course, a number of these movies were Fair for Its Day and it's a far cry from the Blackface of The Jazz Singer, leave alone The Birth of a Nation (1915), and if nothing else they are valuable documents showcasing the artistry and potential of great African-American artists. There were also a handful of genuinely anti-racist films made in this time, that critics celebrate for its Values Resonance, such as Intruder in the Dust (produced by MGM of all studios) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out (1950), the latter of which was Sidney Poitier's first major film role.

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...

The Golden Age of Hollywood encompassed World War II, which not only occasioned a slew of films aimed at boosting morale on the home front, but also helped bring to Hollywood a great contingent of exiled or expatriated Europeans who had previously made their careers in France, Germany and Austria, including actors such as Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt, writers such as Bertolt Brecht and Franz Werfel, directors such as Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, and composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Franz Waxman and Kurt Weill.

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, Humphrey Bogart in '57, Clark Gable in '60, Gary Cooper in '61, Marilyn Monroe in '62, Montgomery Clift in '66), retired and/or faded away. The classic Hollywood star idea was challenged increasingly by more working-class and ethnic actors who challenged the general WASPy 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 (1933), 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:

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

Alternative Title(s): The Golden Age Of Hollywood, Golden Age Of Hollywood