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Useful Notes / The Golden Age of Hollywood

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"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."

The Golden Age. In the popular imagination, this is a glitzy era stretching from 1927 to 1969; that is, essentially 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). Sure, there were some really great movies made during this era, but obviously Sturgeon's Law and Nostalgia Filter apply, right?

Well, 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. Few film historians would dispute that it is 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 means that newer film-makers and new classics are being rediscovered constantly.

The essential reason why this era provokes nostalgia is that this was the era in which cinema was the uncontested mass medium, without any real contenders or rivals. It was the era where Hollywood put out more movies in a year than the audience had time to see, far exceeding the number of current day Hollywood theatrical releases. No other mass media had that level of unmitigated and uncontested public favor since then, and it's unlikely that any other art form would come close, nor will the movies ever quite return to the good old days. The success of the Golden Age depended on a host of factors — lack of competing visual media like television (radio, which was having its own Golden Age, had its own niche in popular culture), home video, and the Internet (meaning piracy of films was more difficult), a greater population of housewives and stay-at-home homemakers who had more time to see movies and was in fact the bulk of the regular moviegoing public, the considerably greater affordability of movie tickets, a virtual monopoly on distribution, exhibition, and production — that is unrepeatable.

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    The Studio System 

The studio system

The Golden Age as we know it is traced to the origins of the "studio system", which began during the latter half of Silent Age but truly took off when sound arrived. 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. 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, and even some of the B Movies are now considered excellent works by film historians. 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 (though it was distributed by RKO) 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 the early animation from both 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. However, despite the "de-facto" ending of the studio system, it continued in spirit until the mid-sixties if only because many of the independents who had come into existence wanted to Start My Own and become as successful as the big five, and the wealth and prestige of the major studios was such that they actually cashed in on many trends in The '50s as well as introduce fads like widescreen theaters (CinemaScope, VistaVision, Cinerama and so on) and the distinctly Hollywood genre of the Epic Movie. As such many of the symbols one associates with the Golden Age actually came after the period when the studio system ended. Many American towns still have a Paramount or Fox Theater long since repurposed as a local performing-arts venue (the other studios not seeming to have branded so blatantly).

     Contract System 

Studio control of artists, and censorship

A major part of Hollywood was of course the "star system". This was the Golden Age version of the Hollywood Hype Machine and so the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier. Under the star system, actors were contracted to work by the studio. The contracts were generally restrictive and favored the studio and producers over the actors. A key part of the mystique of the star system, something worked into the studio publicity itself, was the idea of "discovery". That is, the idea that agents and producers could take anyone off the street and make these people into stars by giving them new images, new names, and entirely new personalities for makeovers. The idea was almost that the studios put out stars from something like an assembly line. There is some truth to this legend. Some promising, good-looking young actors were given 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 Cansino became Rita Hayworth, and how countless Jewish actors (such as Lauren Bacall, who changed her name from Betty Perske since it was considered too "Jewish-sounding") became WASPs) in order to make them more marketable. Typecasting 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 and 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 were screenwriters, technicians, gag-men, cinematographers, costume designers and production designers.

As such, it was noted that each of the different studios produced films with distinct looks and feels that others did not share. They also specialized in particular genres. MGM Studios was renowned for being the most "family friendly" of the studios, and were particularly noticeable for being highly controlling of their stars' images and personal lives. Warner Bros. was the studio that specialized in crime movies, Ripped from the Headlines real-life stories and were more gritty than others. Universal found fame for their horror films. And so on. This standardization, however, did co-exist with some room for flexibility. Many artists managed to find more wiggle room, and hire prominent agents such as Leland Hayward, and later Lew Wassermann, who negotiated contracts in their favor. Likewise, studio bosses and producers occasionally would loan out actors, directors, technicians to other studios for certain projects — for a price and a cut on the receipts of course. Others were shrewd enough to be un-contracted and operate as a free agents (Howard Hawks and Barbara Stanwyck were the most notable instances) who, owing to their high demand and recognizable name, managed to work for a number of studios and several great movies without ever being bound to any one producer or studio.

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 A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Film-making, several directors became "smugglers", who managed to criticize, subvert and secretly issue Take Thats 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 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. Actresses such as Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge managed to get more important roles than their fellow African-American actresses, but leading roles for them were limited to all-black productions, as the Hays Code forbade romances between a white person and a black person. Otherwise, they were pretty much consigned to relatively small supporting roles (in Lena Horne's case, getting one musical number in a film that was otherwise dominated by white actors). 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 more broad-minded 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 and others). Of course, a number of these movies were fair for the time period. They were certainly a far cry from the Blackface of The Jazz Singer, let 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 their 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.

The Golden Age is popularly known as a time of Executive Meddling. The behind-the-scenes wrangling for each film — much of which is documented in detail and in some cases can be traced day-to-day, thanks to the unveiling of the archives to film historians since The '60s — shows the intricate level in which artists, producers, and censors clashed with each other for their particular vision, as well as how the level of creative and artistic control on films was never a complete or total thing. Certain headstrong directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and John Ford fought against the restrictions put on them by the studio and asserted a strong visual style despite restrictions. The likes of Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra became known for putting their names above the title. There were also producers such as Darryl F. Zanuck and Val Lewton, and even the notorious Harry Cohn who had strong personalities and who on occasion would support directors and other creators against censors. The concept of the "auteur" — a director who controls most aspects of the production — was first applied to studio directors by the critics of the French New Wave to the directors who came to prominence during the studio system and the period after that. They focused on directors like Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Vincente Minnelli and Howard Hawks, who they argued asserted an individual style and managed to make personal content despite restrictions of studio censorship and the Strictly Formula mandate of the studios. Yet most of these film-makers were rather open about the fact that they never quite had full control or were entirely satisfied with most of their films, and the presence of a strong visual style was nurtured and valued by the studio system, who saw such tendencies, so long as it didn't get in the way of getting the film finished on budget and ready for premiere as another hook to sell their movies with.

The Fall of the Studio System more or less ended the star system and contracted players for good and the period of The '50s was actually one that showed greater creative control to actors/directors/screenwriters/independent producers. It was also in this period where the likes of Otto Preminger, Elia Kazan, and Billy Wilder mounted a committed a series of ultimately successful challenges to the censors that eased censorship — and eventually ended it altogether.

    Changing Times 
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); 1952 (a US Supreme Court decision held that films were entitled to First Amendment protection, removing much of the rationale for censorship); 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); 1968 (The Hays Code finally scrapped for good and replaced by the MPAA rating system); or 1969 (when Sharon Tate was murdered by members of Charles Manson's "family"). The late '50s and the '60s were a period of transition in which 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 All-American look common to the Golden Age. Younger filmmakers 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.

The Golden Age of Hollywood wasn't all bad nor was it all good, but it is still the Golden Age — when the system worked, it really worked. The year 1939 is particularly symbolic for some aficionados since it arguably provided more proverbial classics than any year. In that year, there was Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Other representative titles include Casablanca, It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, King Kong (1933), The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me in St. Louis, It's a Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives, His Girl Friday, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo and Citizen Kane.

Some of these films — The Wizard of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane, Vertigo in particular — were commercial failures only to be Vindicated by History, proving that the afterlife of these films, and the value they have to later generations, is not mere nostalgia. A number of films of this era are considered to be ahead of their time. Some of the most valued Hollywood films of this era such as the modern horror genre, Film Noir, the B-Movie were considered disposable low-culture even by the studios, but many are now considered great trailblazing films that have inspired not only mainstream filmmakers but also arthouse and experimental filmmakers, as well as novelists, painters, musicians, and comics artists, in addition to a host of people from a variety of fields. The anarchist LGBT filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder best encapsulated the appeal of Hollywood in this era, noting that, "What I would like is to make Hollywood movies, that is, movies as wonderful and universal, but at the same time not as hypocritical."

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: