Fan Letter · Historical

The Hollywood Studio System: Art as Industry

On the set of Now Voyaging (1942). Image: idividi.com
On the set of Now, Voyager (1942). Image: idividi.com

Dear Studio System:

We (as in, yours truly) are fascinated by you and your impressive film-making output during your prime, from the 1920s to the late 1940s.

Rumour has it you made as many as 400 movies per year. Some of them were achingly beautiful, and they continue to enchant audiences today.

Not every film you made was good, but with such an array of products, not every film had to be. You were developing new art form, and making buckets o’ money besides.

In your hands, film became Art and Big Business.

We believe film is, in essence, Art. In your day, films noir reflected German Expressionism, musicals explored Dance, screwball comedies celebrated Wit. You fostered innovation and creativity, while embracing the spirit of industrialism.

French film critic André Bazin (1918-1958) noted, “The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system.”

Jane Loring, editor for Paramount Pictures. Image: Cutting Women
Jane Loring, editor at Paramount Pictures. Image: Cutting Women

You really were a genius. Who else could turn Art into an assembly line, and make each new product seem fresh?

as•sem•bly line  (noun)  A manufacturing tool, first made popular by Henry Ford… The principle of an assembly line is that each worker is assigned one very specific task … then the process moves to the next worker … [until] the product is made. It is a way to mass produce goods quickly and efficiently (businessdictionary.com, emphasis ours).

By incorporating Ford’s vision into American cinema, you created a thriving industry that employed thousands.

The steady demand for new films made year-round production schedules necessary and provided the impetus for the development of a factory-based (Fordist) mode of production. In the studio era, all members of cast and crew were workers under contract to the studio, and the different kinds of work—editing, music, script, and so on—were divided into departments (Film Referenceemphasis ours).

Instead of auto workers welding steel or manufacturing parts, your studio employees designed costumes or built sets – mostly on time and within budget. You were a model of efficiency.

The MGM studio orchestra, ca 1951. Image: Behind the Stave
The MGM studio orchestra, ca 1951. Image: Behind the Stave

Your most visible (read: money-making) studio employees enjoyed big salaries and free publicity, but many others became disillusioned. Look at the 1941 novel, The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald, drawn from his experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s.

A cynical Fitzgerald describes your manufacturing in an exchange between a studio executive named Stahr and a novelist-turned-screenwriter named Boxley:

     “I might as well leave,” said Boxley. “I’m no good to you. I’ve been [in Hollywood] three weeks and I’ve accomplished nothing. … It’s this mass production.”
oo “That’s the condition,” said Stahr. “There’s always some lousy condition… Our condition is that we have to take people’s own favorite folklore and dress it up and give it back to them” (The Last Tycoon, Chapter 5, Episode 16, emphasis ours).

Directing... Image: Fast Company
Lights! Camera! Action! Image: Fast Company

Fitzgerald, among others, had reason to be bitter. Even though you hired the best actors, directors and scriptwriters, you were known to misuse their talents – sometimes with disastrous results.

Just look at Buster Keaton.

It’s because studio execs, such as Darryl F. Zanuck (Warner Bros.) and Irving Thalberg (MGM), devised a system that swallowed the individual. “[B]y 1933 those very accomplishments rendered [these men] expendable,” writes historian Thomas Schatz. “The machinery they designed was geared to run – with or without them” (The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, p. 155).

Ask Louis B. Mayer about that.

You adhered to the Production Code not because you believed in it, but because it sold movie tickets. This led to a hypocrisy when you exiled people who became disgraced, as if you yourself were so righteous you couldn’t be sullied by their presence.

Remember Roscoe Arbuckle?

Yet, without a trace of irony, you made films about kindness and acceptance and being a better person. You were good at it; these films are with us today and are now regarded as Classics.

You were eager to mass-produce Art, and we were eager to devour it as quickly as it came off the assembly line.

We still are.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.

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27 thoughts on “The Hollywood Studio System: Art as Industry

  1. I love your championing film – film created by the studio system – as art!

    So often, it seems like movies get dismissed….precisely because they are made by a “system” that could run “with or without” specific individuals. I recently read an article arguing that individual films cannot be called “masterpieces,” because they are not made by a “master,” but by a whole swathe of people.

    I wonder why we are so resistant to considering something art that is not the product of a specific vision from one person?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, you pose a good question about art not being “art” if it isn’t one person’s vision. Of course, some of the studio system films feel like they were being ground out to meet a release date, but you could say the same thing about some films today.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I’ve been awfully disappointed in the last five or so movies I’ve seen in the theater. Now I just stay home and watch a classic. 🙂

        I wonder if people resist the idea of art being a product of multiple people because we like the idea of hero worship…or because it becomes much more complicated to parse out what makes art (like a film) great if it’s the product of multiple people and so less gratifying to our own intellect.

        And I wonder – if it’s true what some scholars say about Shakespeare having collaborated with others – if it would make people less inclined to celebrate him?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You might be onto something there. Do we feel collaboration makes something less unique?

        That is an interesting theory about Shakespeare, and if it were true, would he be the literary hero?

        Speaking of which, have you seen the 2011 film Anonymous? It has a distasteful ending, but it’s a really imaginative & interesting twist on who Shakespeare “really” was.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I find the studio system mind-boggling in that it provided so many artists and craftsmen the opportunity not only to make a living at their various trades, but to spread their creative wings. Truly, as your charming fan letter expressed it so well, it was that oxymoron, a production line for art.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I often wonder what today’s films would be like if we still had the studio system. To me, it wasn’t perfect, especially with some of the restrictions put on its artists, but it worked really, really well too. If memory serves me correctly, even Bette Davis admitted in an interview (maybe with Dick Cavett?) that the studio system was great, despite her many battles with it. Great post.

    By the way, my entry for animation is ready to go:
    http://loveletterstooldhollywood.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-czech-melies-karel-zeman.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The studio system certainly was imperfect but yes, Bette Davis said it was an excellent place to learn your craft.

      Thanks for the link to your entry. I’ll be adding it to the recap tomorrow evening. Looking forward to it!

      Like

    1. I know what you mean about recognizing names in the credits. I totally agree!

      Thanks for the link. Your post will be included in the recap – and if I don’t upload it tonight, it will be uploaded early tomorrow morning. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on the Disney magic! 🙂

      Like

  4. Hi Ruth. “…the genius of the system.” I like that. There was a lot of criticism of the system, but it generally worked quite well and gave a lot of creative people steadier employment than they knew before or after. Wonderful essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was just what I needed after a few rough days. I smiled through the entire thing – because of the content and your clever handling of it. (CLAPPING)

    As for the Studio System. Um…I am a fan. Negatives aside look what it created.

    Aurora

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautiful post! Yes, it is a contradiction: there are many things we don’t agree in the studio system (the Code, the wasted talents, the prejudices, the could-have-beens), but at the same time we love the studio system, and are grateful for it on a daily basis. Damn, it is like the studio system is part of the family!
    Thanks for co-hosting this wonderful event that is as good as a film course.
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love this piece because I often have a love/hate relationship with the studio system. I think the exclusivity of it made Hollywood and it’s stars seem more magical and unique. On the other hand, as you’ve mentioned, it could be so detrimental to the artists by not allowing them to work to their full potential. But it is definitely interesting that Hollywood was way more creative and magical then rather than today. The big business of Hollywood today seems to just be sequels and or remakes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you agree that Hollywood did seem more creative during the studio system than it does today. (I keep thinking it’s just me!) Also, I love your use of the word “magical”.

      I realize Hollywood has to make money if it’s going to stay in business, but what was the last sequel or remake that you truly enjoyed?

      Like

  8. This was a very educational post for me. I learned a lot. I enjoyed the way you presented the information as well. A lot of pros and cons to the system. I find it so interesting that the same principles that were applied to assembling cars were applied to making movies. I had never heard that before. The comments were thought provoking as well. Fascinating post, Ruth!

    Like

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