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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

The Studio System Examined and Explained in Four Easy Episodes

The “Golden Age of Hollywood” existed over a specific stretch of time when the film industry was dominated by a small group of studios that became known as the "Big Five", which included 20th Century-Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, RKO, and Warner Bros. These companies developed a specific way of making films during this time that became known as the "Studio System". This system is widely known, yet mostly not understood. This short series presneted by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) helps to clarify the purpose, style and function of the modus operandi that made Hollywood the power house production center of the world.

The "System" was not always utilized. It didn't really become a common approach by filmmakers until the medium had matured beyond its akward age of early to late silent films and the major studios began to solidify. It was then that a standard of how to develop, produce and exhibit movies emerged as the most effeciant way to utilize resources while maintaing absolute oversight. This included extremely restrictive contracts with producers, directors, writers, and star players in particular ,were “owned” by their studios.

By having the controlling stakes in their own theater chains, studios ensured their movies would be properly exhibited; an operation known as "vertical integration". The decline of the Studio System began in 1948 with the disentegration of vertical integration after an anti-trust case brought against Paramount determined the practice was a type of monopoly that placed independent theaters at a severe economic disadvantage.

The studios were then forced to sell their theater chains. The change resulted in significant cut backs on production and a reduction in the number of contract employees. Basically, everyone was now free to make their own deals and work for whom they wanted on a case by case basis. Subsequently, there was a substantial decrease in the number of films studios could guarantee for release every year, which effected gross earnings.

With this special themed programming, TCM looks back at the films produced during the colorful era commonly known as the “Golden Age of Hollywood", studio by studio. Here are the studios and films in the TCM retrospective:

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the biggest, richest and most glamorous film factory of the studio era. Their extensive chain of movie theaters provided an outlet for the consistent output of glossy MGM films that were mostly escapist entertainment. Helping create the sleek MGM “look” were some of the industry’s top producers, directors, designers and cinematographers. MGM lived up to its motto “More stars than there are in the heavens” with a roster of resident luminaries that included June Allyson, Ava Gardner, Greer Garson, Van Johnson, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, James Stewart, Robert Taylor, Esther Williams and many more. MGM signature films include Red Dust (1932), Smilin’ Through (1932), Camille (1937), The Women (1939), Love Crazy (1941), National Velvet (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Summer Stock (1950).

Warner Bros. was the most down-to-earth of the major studios, leaning toward grit and realism, especially in their social dramas and gangster films. The studio was incorporated in 1923 by the brothers Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack L. Warner. The company was headed by Jack, who ran the studio with a firm hand, frequently tangling with stars and directors over financial matters and content. Actors who made their mark at the studio included Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman Paul Muni and James Dean. With the introduction of Doris Day, the studio found a musical star to rival MGM’s Judy Garland. The studio made history in 1927 (upon brother Sam's insistance) when it released The Jazz Singer, the first film with synchronized songs and dialogue. Warner Bros. movies included in this retrospective are The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Sea Wolf (1941), and White Heat (1949).

20th Century-Fox, noted for its rich visuals and a sparkling roster of stars, was run by Joseph Schenck became the company’s president and Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck, who was regarded as a demanding and sometimes volatile taskmaster, was credited with turning Fox into a major force in Hollywood, with a reputation for entertaining films, glamorous stars and inventive directors. It was Fox who first employed the spectacular wide-screen process of CinemaScope. Fox female box-office attractions included Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Susan Hayward, and Shirley Temple. Tyrone Power, Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda, were among Fox’s reliable leading men. The studio is also remembered for Zanuck’s “message movies.” Representative Fox movies on TCM include A Connecticut Yankee (1931), The Little Princess (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), Down Argentine Way (1940), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Paramount emerged as a major Hollywood player known for the high quality of its product and its lineup of illustrious players and filmmakers. A key executive in the development of Paramount was Adolph Zukor. During the silent period he was instrumental in hiring such stars as Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks. A true survivor known for his mild manner and ruthless decisions, Zukor remained associated with the studio in one position or another until his death at age 103. Other notable players includ Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, George Raft, W.C. Fields, Betty Hutton, Jean Arthur, Ray Milland, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The studio was as well known for its impressive roster of directors, such as William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Cecil B. De Mille, George Stevens, and the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Representative films on TCM: include Morocco (1930), I’m No Angel (1933), Road to Utopia (1946), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and The Nutty Professor (1963).

Columbia Pictures was the outgrowth of a film-sales company founded by Harry and Jack Cohn. Once considered part of “Poverty Row” (studios without verticle intergration) Columbia developed into a major player among Hollywood studios in the 1930s. Studio head Harry Cohn was considered irascible by many, but was nonetheless a dynamic leader. He elevated his company early on by recognizing the creative genius of Frank Capra, whose breakthrough film was It Happened One Night (1934). In the 1940s Columbia focused on low-budget "B" pictures and produced the occasional blockbuster. In later decades the studio produced more ambitious films, including such prestigious titles as From Here to Eternity (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and Lawrence of Arabia (1964). Representative Columbia on TCM are Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), Gilda (1946), It Should Happen to You (1953), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

RKO Radio Pictures had a complicated and sometimes troubled history beginning in 1928 when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) arranged for its Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain to join forces to create the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Corporation. The new company would include the production, distribution and exhibition of films. In the early 1930s, the company flourished under the “RKO Radio Pictures” banner with the infamous David O. Selznick as head of production. RKO created a stream of popular entertainments that included the Astaire/Rogers musicals and the achievements of such artists as Orson Welles. The studio also distributed releases from Samuel Goldwyn and Walt Disney. Other RKO classics included King Kong (1933), comedies starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and a series of striking low-budget horror films produced by Val Lewton. RKO films on TCM this month are Swing Time (1936), Love Affair (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), The Set-Up (1949), and His Kind of Woman (1951).

Universal Pictures, the oldest surviving film studio in the U.S., was founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle. Among many silent-screen stars who made Universal their home were Rudolph Valentino and Lon Chaney. In the early 1930s Universal enjoyed success with such films as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), a number of classic monster movies starring Boris Karloff, and narrowly avoided bankruptcy before being saved by a profitable series of Deanna Durbin musicals. In the 1950s the studio developed two male superstars, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, and benefitted from the colorful melodramas of director Douglas Sirk. Shelley Winters became the studio’s resident “blonde bombshell” around the same time Doris Day, Lana Turner and Jane Wyman found renewed stardom at Universal after leaving their home studios. This studio's representative films on TCM are Dracula (1931), Buck Privates (1941), It Started with Eve (1941), and All That Heaven Allows (1955).


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