Hollywood’s Golden Age.

by John Waco April. 07, 2017 337 views

The decade marked by the Great Depression and leading into World War II is remembered as Hollywood’s Golden Age. During this period, new genres were formed, new stars were born, and the studio system rose to mammoth status. The eight major studios, each known for its distinctive style and stars, collectively produced 95% of all American films. More than 7,500 features were released by the studios between 1930 and 1945 to eager audiences. More than 80 million people took in a least one film per week at the height of the cinema’s popularity. This period also saw the introduction of the Production Code, B-Films, and the first animated feature of Snow White. Hollywood’s Golden Age began to decline in the late 1940’s due to the introduction of television, Hollywood blacklisting, and the ability of actors to become ‘free agents.’ A final blow to the industry occurred in 1948, when antitrust suits were filed against the major studios.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford is undoubtedly one of the names most profoundly linked with Hollywood’s Golden Age. Born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, Crawford was a chorus girl when MGM signed her to a contract in 1925. She often played independent young women, who rose in life through their own hard-work, a typecast that greatly appealed to the Depression-stricken audience. Her fans packed theaters, especially when Joan co-starred with Clark Gable, such as in Possessed and Dancing Lady.

The 1940’s brought Crawford a decline in popularity, but they also enabled her to prove herself a gifted performer with films like Mildred Pierce – for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. In the 1950’s, Joan continued to get steady roles like in Johnny Guitar and Sudden Fear. In 1962, she shared the screen with Bette Davis in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

As for her personal life, Crawford adopted five children, one of them, Christina, infamously depicted the actress’ alleged abusive behavior in her memoirs Mommie Dearest. The book has been questioned by many of the people close to the family and although Joan’s reputation has suffered, she remains an undisputed Film icon.

Hollywood's success during the Golden Age was built upon the "studio system," which began during the Silent Age but truly took off during this time. 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 of varying quality. If you think that this would allow the studios to slack off with the quality of their movies, knowing that the theater would be required to show them anyway, then congratulations — you're thinking like a Golden Age Hollywood executive! 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 (the theaters needed good reasons to buy the blocks in the first place), one needs only to flip to TCM on a Tuesday morning to realize that Sturgeon's Law applied during the Golden Age just as much as it does today. Theater 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 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 early 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.


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