Monday, August 8, 2011

16 Days of Birthday, Day 2: The Golden Age of Hollywood



You may remember that around three/four months ago I did a 'Classic Movie Marathon', which had me watching twelve classics within two weeks, with some being ones that I have seen before, and some being ones that I hadn't. These days, I don't watch as many classic films as I'd like to, as I've turned my interest into watching a whole lot of critically acclaimed movies from a few years back (like Magnolia, The English Patient, The Pianist...) Anyway, something you probably didn't know about me is the fact that I know craploads of stuff about the Golden Age of Hollywood. This is one area of cinema that interests me the most...

No doubt, when you went to school, you had to do a research project of some sort. In my first year of high school, we were allowed to do a research project on one topic that interested us. Most people did a poster displaying bits and pieces of information they found. Me? I handed in a booklet that was at least 60 pages long, all about the Golden Age of Hollywood. The topics I covered started with the silent era, which was all about the different types of actresses there were (flappers, innocents, etc), silent film successes and the decline of the silent era and it's stars. Then I moved onto the large bulk of the Golden Age, talking about everything from studios to pre-code Hollywood and one essay which I'm pretty proud of, all about new Hollywood versus old Hollywood. Looking back at it now, some of the things which I put in it were pretty random, but I realise that the teacher must have thought I was insane. It's not my fault that I had such a wealth of knowledge that I felt needed to be shared!

I don't really know why the Golden Age interests me so much. I think it's just the fact that films and film-making were so different back then. One thing that really interested me, though, was the studio system. Now I always thought that this was unfair, seeing as actors had practically no say in what they had to star in, whereas these days actors will choose something for the sake of their art. Back then, you'd see all of these actors and actresses maybe always being in the same types of movies, whether they were playing the romantic love interest or the swashbuckling hero. But the people I liked the most were the stars that had balls, and often starred in just the right movies.

Take Katharine Hepburn, for example. She was one actress who didn't take any shit from anyone. She was also an actress who may be one of the best of all time. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, she often didn't conform to what Hollywood wanted from her, and starred in films that showed off her masculine qualities and genuine brave attitude. I believe that she was an actress who, even though she was seen as 'box office poison', encouraged other actresses, and other women, to be who they felt comfortable being. It goes without saying, her films are the best. I mean, who doesn't love good old The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby?

Anyway, the studio system never fails to interest me. All of these studios were basically at war with each other...it was pretty much like a whole lot of schools at a sporting tournament. Just for fun, let's look at each studio from those days:


20th Century Fox was the envy of many studios because it had the one star who everyone wanted: Shirley Temple. They were especially jealous when she made $20 million for her studio in the late 1930's. While Fox was good with their musicals starring either Temple or War pin-up queen Betty Grable, it also had a particular knack for making serious types of movies, before returning again to musicals when technicolour came out in full force. After the Golden Age was over Fox invested in a lot of big-budget movies which often didn't provide the success they wanted (e.g. the infamous Elizabeth Taylor starring Cleopatra). Mind you, it got out of it's sticky spot and these days it has such franchises under it's belt as Avatar, X-Men, and Star Wars. It also has a subsidiary called 'Fox Searchlight' which specialises in prestigious independent films, most recently Black Swan, 127 Hours and Never Let Me Go.


RKO is a studio which broke down in the late 1940's. However, during it's heyday, it was one of the most prolific studios out there. Thanks to the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, RKO boomed. The one film that made them a huge success? None other than King Kong, which was mad when David O. Selznick had a huge influence on the company. While RKO didn't have a particular 'type' of movie as such, it was a great studio for giving many stars their first chance to shine. Katharine Hepburn started off here, winning an Oscar in one of their films before moving to MGM. Bette Davis was loaned out from Warner Bros to star in Of Human Bondage, which earned her critical acclaim and a write-in nomination at the Oscars. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane there. If your looking for Golden Age Hollywood with prestige, look no further than RKO.


Universal was the place where all the horror movies happened...Frankenstein, Dracula, you name it. Boris Karloff was the studio's main star, which means they capitalised on his star-status as a monster as much as they could have. Other than that, there wasn't anything else that special about it. These days Universal lends it's name to a whole lot of films, like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Inglourious Basterds. But most importantly, it is the brains behind a major tourist attraction in America, the Universal Studios. That place looks fun. I'd like to go there.


Before Paramount became Paramount, it had merged with Famous Players-Lasky, which was a formidable provider of quality silent films with the biggest stars, like Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow. But with the depression, Paramount lost most of it's money and stars, apart from the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard. They, along with a couple of films from Mae West, managed to lift Paramount out of it's bankruptcy. Paramount continued having sporadic success, with films like Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend being made there. But I suppose Paramount is best known for it's partnership with such directors as Cecile B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. These days you can see Paramount lending it's name to the Tranformers franchise, and recent flicks like True Grit and Marvel movies Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.


Columbia was one of the smaller players during the Golden Age. It took a while for it to finally get successful, which was done with the help of director Frank Capra, a man who knew how to make a screwball comedy. Capra made many successful films for Columbia, but the most memorable was It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Neither of the stars wanted to be in it at all, but by the time it came out, it was a huge success, and became the first movie to win the 'Grand Slam' at the Oscars (Best Pic, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay). Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth were among the stars under contract there, but even their considerable star power didn't make the studio a huge one like MGM or Warner Bros. Now Columbia is owned by Sony, and is responsible for recent successes like The Social Network and Zombieland.


Warner Bros has always been a major player in the film industry. They started off with Busby Berkeley musicals and hard-hitting gangster flicks, both of which were huge successes. Thanks to it's gangster status, the studio was mainly male dominated, with many of it's films led by such stars as Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson. Humphrey Bogart and Paul Muni. But along with the males came some of the most ballsy actresses around at that time, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland and Lauren Bacall. Warner Bros always made the best movies, like Casablanca, which is probably one of the most famous classic movies of all time. These days it is the place where my main man Christopher Nolan has his films made, and not to mention, they have all of the Harry Potter movies to their name. Warners truly is the biggest and best studio, and it's always been that way.


We all know the logo: the big lion roaring. Obviously, that's because MGM was pretty fierce back in its early days. Why? Because it claimed to have "more stars than there are in heaven". This was true. Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart were all contracted to this studio. So it didn't really matter what type of films MGM made, you just had to know that they were the pinnacle of film-making in those days and they had so many stars at their disposal that it was obvious that names sold movies for them. MGM used the studio system to it's absolute advantage, which meant after the studio system faded out, the studio declined too. Just recently it filed for bankruptcy, and then it later crawled out of that mess. Still, it doesn't have many films to call it's own, and they're mainly co-produced with other studios like Columbia.

Oh well, maybe you knew some of this stuff, or maybe you didn't. Mind you, there's a lot more knowledge on the studio system from where that came from...

What do you think of the studio system?

10 comments:

  1. I wish I had such a wealth of knowledge about the golden age as you do! This is fantastic, great post! Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Lubitsch films are some of my favourites, but, like Chris Nolan films, haven't seen nearly as many from that era as I wish I had.

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  2. I love the studio rivalry. I'm pretty sure there have already been films made on them, but god that would make one sexy-arse film.
    Golden Age was cool because though films were a new art form, they was getting revolutionised so rapidly that it was plain fascinating.

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  3. It's interesting how a lot of directors couldn't handle the transition from silent film to 'talkies'. You'd think they'd rejoice, but some just couldn't handle it.

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  4. Gosh, you've crammed a lot of info into this post here. I could never learn all this... the companies all look the same to me! As usual this is great work, Stevee, and I'm now thoroughly enjoying the 16 Days of Birthday series.

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  5. I remember that marathon and thinking you had gone mad and tried to fit too much in!! But you did it!

    I remember back in my college days studying the Studio system. I found it completely interesting and almost mafia like!! Unfortunately the last 20 years have left me with little memory of my studies, but this post has reminded me!!

    Thanks Stevee

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  6. Ruth - Haha, thanks! And Lubitsch comedies are just the best! I also find the transition from silent to sound quite interesting too...a lot of jobs were lost even though that was one remarkable achievement in film.

    Nikhat - Gosh, a studio rivalry movie would be awesome! There have been a few done, but none that are really important or at least good...

    Tyler - Yes...there is a lot of information, but that doesn't even cover the half of it! And I'm glad that you are enjoying it :D

    Custard - I did it...it was so hard, though!
    Mafia like...that is totally the right way to describe it! I'm glad that I reminded you of this stuff, too :D

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  7. I thought Katherine Hepburn was an RKO lady? But then I guess she had to move around after her box office poison/comeback days.

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  8. Paolo - I can't remember exactly when Kate moved from RKO to MGM...but I know it was just before her partnership with Spencer Tracy.

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  9. It felt like I was reading a very engaging textbook on cinema. I also did a research on the Golden Age a couple of years ago when we had Films as a subject at our university English classes. Thanks for refreshing it in my memory. You surely know more than me + you made it very interesting and captivating.

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  10. Haha, maybe I should write a textbook when I grow up! Thanks!

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You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

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