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  • Carrie Specht

The Studio System Explored on TCM

The classic film channel often showcases movies under a specific theme. This time TCM looks back at a colorful era. Every Tuesday this coming January, TCM will air films from the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” which is a time period beginning in the late 1920s stretching all the way into the ’60s. During these years moviemaking was dominated by a group of studios known as the “Big Five”: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros., 20th Century-Fox, Paramount and RKO. These giants among a variety of production houses were responsible for creating a standard form of operating known as the "Studio System".

The average movie-goer is at a loss as to exactly what the term, "Studio System" means. As referred to by film aficionados, it is a period of time in which a handful of studios controlled the manufacturing and exhibition of the majority of American movies. It is often used interchangably with another equally elusive moniker; the "Golden Age of Hollywood". Why are the two terms interchangeable, you may ask? Because one would not exist without the other. The amount of control the studios held over the entire industry created (one might say forced) an atmospehre of servitude that resulted in excellence. And because companies had controlling stakes in their own theater chains (ever seen a "Fox" theater?) they ensured the exhibition of all of their films regardless of quality.


When that steel fist of temperamental moguls crumbled under the advent of "free agency" and the destruction of monopolized distribution, things became better for theater owners and the artists in front of and behind the lens. Workers of any kind were no longer bound to lengthy and often unreasonable contracts. Although films continued to grow as an art form, the magic produced by the "dream factories" was gone. Tinsel town had changed forever. For good or bad, film entertainment just hasn't been the same since.


Regardless of how or why the films of the "Golden Age" came about, there is no refuting the indelible mark these films have left upon the art form and popular culture. Once you've seen a few of these old classic movies, you'll understand why they matter so much. And you're going to want to devour more. Bon Appetit!


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the biggest, richest and most glamorous film factory of the studio era. Established in 1924 with the consolidation of Metro Pictures Corporation, the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures, its Glossy MGM films were mostly escapist entertainment. MGM films to be shown in this retrospective are Red Dust (1932), starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow; Smilin’ Through (1932), starring Norma Shearer and Fredric March; Camille (1937), starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor; The Women (1939), starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell; Love Crazy (1941), starring William Powell and Myrna Loy; National Velvet (1944), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), starring Lana Turner and John Garfield; Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; and Summer Stock (1950), starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.


Warner Bros. was the most down-to-earth of the major studios leaning toward grit and realism, as exaplified in their gangster films. The studio was incorporated in 1923 by the brothers Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack who ran the studio with a firm and frugal hand. The tyranical studio head frequently argued with stars and directors over financess and control of content. The studio made history in 1927 when it (under the irging of Sam) released The Jazz Singer, the first film with synchronized songs and some improvised dialogue. Warner Bros. was also the main home for "women's" pictures starring studio divas such as Bette Davis. Movies from Warner Bros. chosen for this theme include The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; Dark Victory (1939), starring Bette Davis; The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart; The Sea Wolf (1941), starring Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino and John Garfield; and White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney and Virginia Mayo.


The look for 20th Century-Fox was rich visuals. Formed in 1935 through a merger between the Fox company and Twentieth Century with Darryl Zanuck in charge of production. Regarded as a demanding and sometimes volatile taskmaster, Zanuck was credited for turning Fox into a major force. The studio's logo is perhaps the most iconic of all the studios, due in no small part to the still recognizable fanfare created by Alfred Newman in 1933. This studio's movies included in the month's theme are A Connecticut Yankee (1931), starring Will Rogers; The Little Princess (1939), starring Shirley Temple; The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power; Down Argentine Way (1940), starring Betty Grable and Don Ameche; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison; and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.


Paramount was formed in 1912. Through a series of mergers of smaller companies, the studio 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 one of its founders, Adolph Zukor. Known for his mild manner yet ruthless decisions, Zukor remained associated with the studio until his death at age 103. Paramount’s trademark, a pyramidal mountain surrounded by a circle of stars, is the oldest surviving movie logo. Films scheduled from this illiustrious lot include Morocco (1930), starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper; I’m No Angel (1933), starring Mae West and Cary Grant; Road to Utopia (1946), starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour; The Blue Dahlia (1946), starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake; and The Nutty Professor (1963), starring and directed by Jerry Lewis.


Columbia Pictures incorporated in 1924 was once considered part of “Poverty Row”; the studios that could barely afford to operate. However, Columbia developed into a major player in the 1930s. Studio head Harry Cohn was considered quick-tempered and ill-humored, 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). Films representing Columbia include Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur; His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell; Gilda (1946), starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford; It Should Happen to You (1953), starring Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon; and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) starring William Holden and Alec Guinness.


RKO Pictures has a complicated history beginning in 1928 when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) arranged for its Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain to join forces with the Film Booking Office of America to create the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation (that's a hell of a mouthful). The new company produced, distributed and exhibited of films - all the ingrediants to be considered one of the "Big" production companies. In the early 1930s, the company flourished under David O. Selznick as head of production. The most enduring version of the RKO logo is a giant radio tower perched on a globe of the world and emitting animated signals as the sound of Morse code beeps out “an RKO Radio Picture.” Films featured in the month's TCM's theme include Swing Time (1936), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Love Affair (1939), starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer; Citizen Kane (1941), starring and directed by Orson Welles; The Set-Up (1949), starring Robert Ryan; and His Kind of Woman (1951), starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.


Universal Pictures is the oldest surviving film studio in the U.S., having been founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle and other industry pioneers. Among the 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) and a number of classic monster movies starring Boris Karloff and others. But hard times ensued, and the studio narrowly avoided bankruptcy before being saved by a profitable series of Deanna Durbin musicals. The Universal logo has had many variations over the years but has always had a globe of the world with the words “Universal” or “Universal International” in front. Representative films from that studio on TCM include Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi; Buck Privates (1941), starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; It Started with Eve (1941), starring Deanna Durbin and Charles Laughton; All That Heaven Allows (1955), starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson; and Six Bridges to Cross (1955), starring Tony Curtis.