The Studio System

The Studio System

The Dominance of the Big Five Hollywood Studios

The period between the coming of sound and World War II was dominated by the studios. They controlled the production–including story, the role of the directors, and the selection of actors–distribution, and exhibition (they owned their own theaters). In the 1930s America went to the movies; by the end of the decade some eighty million people saw a movie every week.

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Morals at the American Movies

So the motion picture in the 1920’s. But still further triumphs awaited this popular amusement which had so marvelously evolved from the vitascope of only three short decades earlier. In 1928 Warner Brothers released a new film — Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. 37 Science had brought together sight and sound: here was the talkie. There had been several prior talking pictures, but the great success of The Jazz Singer marked the turningpoint.

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Gone With The Wind and Romance

The diversity of pictures that sound made possible was the most characteristic feature of the movies in the 1930’s. They were filling the democratic role that the theatre itself had played a century earlier, and nightly programs often showed a startling resemblance to those of the popular playhouses of that earlier day. As well as straight theatre, the movies offered a modern equivalent for the equestrian melodramas, elaborate burlesques, and variety shows which had once had such wide appeal.

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Gangster Movies in the 1930’s

Between the beginning of the Depression in 1930 and the early days of the Roosevelt administration in 1933, when confusion and desperation gripped much of the country, Hollywood momentarily floundered. Not only did the studios have to make the difficult transition to sound, they had to adjust to the rapidly changing tastes of a nation in upheaval. These two variables–sound and the Depression–created a whole new set of aesthetic demands requiring that the old Formula be placed within a new context.

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National Film Traditions

Little by little the various firms reorganized themselves, and American firms either opened branches in France or made arrangements for French distributors to handle their output. Various changes were made on the producing side and by 1915 the industry was once more functioning almost normally. But it had undergone considerable changes. Western Import had opened a big branch in Paris managed by Jacques Haik.

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Nationalism in the Cinema

The United States, the largest consumer economy in the world despite the Depression, remained immune to cultural incursions from abroad, and had no difficulty in following a policy of cultural as well as political isolationism. Elsewhere the commercial power of exported American culture, both of Hollywood and of the consumer goods it celebrated and advertised, was regarded as a threat. In response, governments round the world encouraged cultural nationalism in resistance ‘to the invasions of American-dominated international culture.

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Film and War Propaganda

How far the films were being used as propaganda was another point sometimes raised. Movies played the role in promoting war sentiment through their big navy and aviation films. Working with the US government’s Office of War Information (OWI), one of Hollywood’s wartime roles was to wake the United States up to the end of its period of international isolation.

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Soviet and Nazi Cinema

The ethnic nationality and socio-economic class ascribed to villains in Soviet films have in general coincided with those of real enemies under attack by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In addition, screen villains have usually been depicted as motivated by social goals in the realm of political power.

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Soviet and Nazi Cinema

Soviet and Nazi Cinema

The ethnic nationality and socio-economic class ascribed to villains in Soviet films have in general coincided with those of real enemies under attack by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In addition, screen villains have usually been depicted as motivated by social goals in the realm of political power.

Soviet film heroes, on the other hand, as a rule shared the ethnic nationality and socio-economic class of Communist Party members and their allies. They were portrayed as strong, active and capable of resistance to the villains. As Communist control over Soviet film content stiffened with the passage of time, the Party periodically required changes in the characterizations of film heroes and villains to keep pace with new developments in the domestic and foreign policies of the Bolshevik regime. Quantitative content analysis of Soviet films provides evidence that these demands have guided film-makers in the U.S.S.R. for many years.

Among the combatant nations of World War ll, only the Soviets had a cinema which was dedicated completely to the war effort, with all its production geared “to help in the moral, political and military defeat of Fascism”. Such unembarrassed propaganda was possible in the Soviet Union, where the media openly operated as instruments of the state.

Areas of motivation used in this analysis are: “politics,” including motives pertaining to power, diplomacy, nationalism, war, communism, and so on; “economics,” motives concerned with commerce, production, construction, technology, profiteering, graft, piracy, and so forth; “culture,” those connected with education, science, the arts, communication, and recreation; “romantic love,” those involved in flirtation, love, courtship, and sexual relations; and “family,” motives pertaining to married life, children and domestic activity.

The residual category “other areas” includes motives of religion, social prestige, health, and so on. Audiences recognized the appropriateness of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky – which depicted the peoples of 13th century Russia repelling the invading Teutonic Knights – being withdrawn after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, and reissued after the German invasion of 1941.

The Nazis confined most of their wartime propaganda to Die Deutsche Wochenschau, an extended weekly newsreel. During the early war years newsreels emphasized the speed and power of Blitzkrieg to demoralize potential opponents, as well as boosting morale at home. Some wartime tiction films contained overt propaganda messages and, !ike other belligerents, the Nazis put history to propaganda service.

Postwar investigation suggested that only 20 percent of Nazi feature films were directly propagandist, and took this as confirmation of Goebbels’ proclaimed strategy of filling cinemas with entertainment features, and carrying propaganda in the newsreels that accompanied them. Subsequent analysis, however, has been less prepared to make such a clear distinction between propaganda and entertainment – even light-hearted items can be seen as reinforcing the political status quo.

Next Page: Depression Era and Sports

Film and War Propaganda

Film and War Propaganda

How far the films were being used as propaganda was another point sometimes raised. Movies played the role in promoting war sentiment through their big navy and aviation films. Working with the US government’s Office of War Information (OWI), one of Hollywood’s wartime roles was to wake the United States up to the end of its period of international isolation.

The enduring appeal of Casablanca comes from the way it encapsulates the essential quaIities of the Hollywood studio production: dialog pushed just the other side of plausibility (“l remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.”), delivered by stars enacting their archetypal personas.

But in early 1943 Casablanca, like many other Hollywood movies, deliberately set out to convince American audiences that World War II required the nation’s committed entry into world affairs.
The most general answer to how it is possible to think about the film qua abstract object is that film’s contents, which are information stored in retrievable form on rolls of celluloid, can be actualized so that those who experience the film build up from it an intelligible content, one we even might be tempted to call ‘a world’.

The real world includes among its contents things, people, relations, abstractions; so does the world on film; the world we can discern on film simulates the real world so closely that we can speak of a resemblence, even of a continuity, between the two. Yet since the film world is a world contained on celluloid, it is philosophically important to discuss whether we know in principle how to demarcate this imaginary world from whatever we take to be the real world that it resembles.

Film and War Propaganda

Only if we can demarcate the film world from the real world can we ask the question of whether the presuppositions involved in making the contents of film intelligible to ourselves resemble those presuppositions we need for intelligibility in general and hence whether film is a useful way to think about thinking and making sense in general.

A basic condition enabling us to think about film, then, is that it is such that we are able to discern in its content something resembling a world; something, that is, like the world, but yet in some definite way not the world, merely like it. ‘World’ here could be expanded: it connotes order not chaos, contents not void, intelligible not meaningless. So we can redescribe what is presupposed by our discerning a world on film by saying that it permits us to impose order, to make intelligible, to individuate and to identify things. What we might call the project of constituting a world on film is merely a small part of the wider project with which we are constantly engaged; that is, imposing intelligibility, order, individuation and identity on the world in which we live. Precisely because film in some way replicates locally what we are constantly engaged in globally there is the possibility that we may learn from our constitution of the film world about our world-constituting activities in general.

The overwhelming majority of the intelligibles, the ordering forces, the individuals and the identities to be found in the film world are people; or, as some philosophers prefer to call them, persons. Each narrative film such as Casablanca has what we may call a cast of persons. But films in general also have casts of persons, persons who reappear in one film after another—shifting their personae from one story to another, changed yet the same. I am referring to stars, a by no means trivial variant of the notion of a person. Here then we have a feature of the world on film that both differs from and resembles our world. Stars provide points of continuity and recognition across or between films. They may be a principle or cause of whatever reality we decide the films have, as well as another clue to the very possibility of thinking about the film.

Why not now go on to explain how it is possible for us to discern a world on film? This Kantian question is better avoided here, for the simple reason that it is too ambitious. Our understanding both of thought and of the objects of thought is rudimentary, no more so than when we try to tackle world constitution. We have only the dimmest idea of how infants build up their picture of the world from the undifferentiated manifold of experience, especially when all our communication presupposes our results being coordinatable. It is possible that studying how it is done with films may illuminate that murky area. If world constitution from films is to illuminate world constitution tout court we have some way to go as yet.

Not only do we discern a world on film, but that world resembles our world. Here again the theory of resemblance is bitterly disputed territory—ironically, since none of the competitors has strength to do much more than throw a punch or two at their opponents before collapsing.

For the present, then, I take it that thinking about film is possible because we have the physical and mental equipment and they provide the materials for us to constitute something it is natural to write of as a world, both resembling and differing from ours, differing in particular because the world on film is an artifact, not a natural occurrence. Furthermore, although resembling our world, it differs from it decisively in being known not to be real.

Bogart’s character rehearsed a heroic role constantiy re-enacted in American culture: the man drawn reluctantly into a conflict he cannot avoid unless he compromises his principles. During the course of the film his cynical isolation is converted into energetic resistance to the Nazis through the resolution of his love affair with the charaeter played by Ingrid Bergman. At the end of the film, he sends her to America with her Resistance leader husband.

Bogart’s renunciation of her completes the pattern in which characters sacrifice their personal desires for a greater cause. Hollywood’s own sacrifice was a limited affair. Along with every other entertainrnent business, the film industry enjoyed a boom during the war.

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Nationalism in the Cinema

Nationalism in the Cinema

The United States, the largest consumer economy in the world despite the Depression, remained immune to cultural incursions from abroad, and had no difficulty in following a policy of cultural as well as political isolationism.

Elsewhere the commercial power of exported American culture, both of Hollywood and of the consumer goods it celebrated and advertised, was regarded as a threat. In response, governments round the world encouraged cultural nationalism in resistance ‘to the invasions of American-dominated international culture.

Nationalist propaganda was latent in the very notion of resistance to American cultural influence, and there was widespread antipathy to Hollywood’s “superficiality” – in 1936 Lithuanian censors rejected the Katharine Hepburn movie / Alice Adams because it was “banal” – among European intellectuals. This did nothing to hinder the emergence of more extreme forms of nationalism.

For purposes of content analysis a sample of heroes and a sample of villains in Soviet films have been classified as to their ethnic nationality, socio-economic class, motivation, age, and sex. Motivation was divided into goals, in terms of a personal-social dichotomy, and into areas such as politics, economics, romantic love, family, and culture. Classification was based on total judgments which considered all clues pertaining to heroes and villains. The units chosen for analysis were complete full-length feature films produced between 1923 and 1950.

Practically all Soviet films discussed in available English-language publications were included in the two samples, provided that an adequate description of their content was obtainable. The titles of over 400 Soviet films were found by perusal of books, magazines and newspapers in the English language, but information about the villains depicted was available for only 130 films, and about heroes for only 240. The representativeness of these samples cannot be determined. It is estimated, however, that they are based on about 10 and 20 per cent, respectively, of all feature films produced in the Soviet Union during the period 1923-1950.

In all the countries of Europe, bourgeois guardians of “traditional national values” linked American and indigenous working-class culture together through their “vulgarity”. The appeal of Hollywood to the working classes was taken as evidence of their need for “education” in the superiority of their own traditions. Cultural nationalists throughout the 1930s attempted to restrict the flow of American cultural imports, protested about Hollywood’s misrepresentation of their national culture, and sought to create and disseminate a rival cultural idiom.

Goals are defined so as to focus on the people affected. The term “personal goal” is applied to motives which aim to affect the character portrayed or a small group of people well known to him. The category “social goals” is reserved for motives intending to affect large social groups, such as the population of a particular nation, “the workers of the world” or all mankind. All motives are rated as personal or social, depending on which goal received greater emphasis in a given film.

Such attempts were most effective where cultural nationalists exerted most institutional power; in Britain the monopolistic BBC presented its own version of national culture more effectively than the British cinema, which was in economic thrall to Hollywood, while in Japan the film industry, which enjoyed sufficient economic protection as well as cultural distance from American forms, developed genres of its own.

Wartime propaganda intensified the cultural nationalism of the previous decade, and for those on all sides whoever their political opponent was represented as being, the cultural struggle was directed against the American institutions of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The war changed the industry. Many residents of Hollywood took time off to participate in the war effort. Some like John Ford and Frank Capra made films for the government.

Others like Fritz Lang continued to make commercial films, but they were propaganda-oriented and helped build morale. The stars went to the battle areas to entertain the troops. Even studio space was commandeered to produce war documentaries, and war films became a dominant fictional genre. After the war the rate of change accelerated. Anti-trust suits broke up the large companies and forced them to sell their theaters. And television began to keep the public at home. The movie industry responded with attempts at expanding the medium to attract new interests: 3-D, CinemaScope, Technicolor; and it continues to experiment: quadraphonic sound, sensurround, holographic images, and giant leaps in special effects have been tried.

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National Film Traditions

National Film Traditions

Little by little the various firms reorganized themselves, and American firms either opened branches in France or made arrangements for French distributors to handle their output. Various changes were made on the producing side and by 1915 the industry was once more functioning almost normally. But it had undergone considerable changes. Western Import had opened a big branch in Paris managed by Jacques Haik.

Keystone was distributing all its comedies, notably those of Mabel Normand, in France through Aubert. Eclair never entirely ceased production but had kept going with war newsreels, on which it now continued to concentrate. The Film d’Art had passed into the control of Nalpas: he had reorganized its personnel but kept its character. Other firms, less well managed or less stable, had entirely disappeared, the one among them most to be regretted being, of course, that of Méliès.

The making of war newsreels led naturally to the production of patriotic films. In 1915 Film National brought out an ambitious picture based on Victor Margueritte’s patriotic novel, Frontiers of the Heart. “Extolling as it does the national sentiment of France,” so the producers advertised, “this film has been so adapted as to fit perfectly with the following patriotic airs: The Sambre-et-Meuse Regiment, The Bugle Call, The Marseillaise, The Call to the Colors and The Charge.”

The same firm announced A Sacred Love, “showing on the screen the most poignant conflict of emotions that could rend the heart of a young Frenchman today.” They also produced The Burgomaster’s Daughter and The House at the Ferry Ferry, not to mention The Independence of Belgium from 1830 to 1914, a piece which was highly edifying as well as historical. The influence of American culture in other countries was not always welcome.

The main essentials of the postwar film, when Baroncelli and Léonce Perret were to dominate the scene, were thus all ready prepared. Actually the sum total of the French wartime film is rather a sorry one. There was neither development nor originality to be found; only the old Film d’Art on the one hand and the serials on the other. In between these there occurred no genuine contribution to the art of the film, now stemming rather from Chaplin and Ince and Griffith in America.

There was in France only a film industry and the desire to exploit popular taste. The war was doubtless to blame, but so were the producers, and the writers who lacked courage, and the absolute lack of any standards, and the prevailing bad taste. The prophetic words of Louis Delluc might appropriately be repeated here, for though they were written in 1919 they remain true to this day: “I should like to believe that we shall eventually make good films. It would be very surprising, for the cinema is not in our blood. There are few nations which nurture all of the arts, and France, which has so much to pride herself on in poetry and the drama, in painting and the dance yet has no feeling, no understanding and no love for music. I prophesy–we shall see in the future if I am right–that France has no more aptitude for the cinema than for music.”

In the 1930s Japan was the most prolific filmmaking country in the world, producing 400 to 600 features a year. Like Hollywood, Japanese cinema had its established genres. The most popular were historical films, swordfight action dramas appealing largely, like Westems, to male audiences. Gendai-geki, films set in modem Japan, included comedies, films about the lower middle class, and home drarnas, which dealt with family problems.

Like the Japanese, the German and Italian governments restricted the import of foreign films, but they produced their propaganda in newsreels and radio. Their feature films tended instead to express the feeling of their cultures about entertainment, social relationships and individual emotions.

Under Mussolini the ltalian industry produced far more ltalian “pink” films – sentirnental comedies and romantic melodramas, – than “black” or truly Fascist films. Similarly, the German film industry produced far more drawing-room comedies and operettas than Nazi propaganda.

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