Film History: Golden Age of Hollywood – Timeline of Cinema Ep. 3


Hello everyone and welcome to our video series,
“A Timeline of World Cinema” I’m Bradley Weatherholt and I will be your
host on this journey through the history of film. In this episode, we will discuss the Golden
Age of Hollywood and how the major “Big Five” studios navigated the birth of sound, censorship,
and major global events like the Great Depression and World Wars. In 1927, Hollywood shook the world with “The
Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie.” Within the first twenty minutes, Al Jolson
said the now immortal line… “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard
nothing yet!” Within two years after the success of “The
Jazz Singer” the majority of American cinemas were wired for sound and Hollywood had, more
or less, abandoned silent film production. Through sync sound, Hollywood was able to
provide a distinct American flavor to their films through dialoge. “If you ain’t out of town by tomorrow morning,
you won’t ever leave it except in a pine box.” However, it was not always a smooth transition
to “sound cinema.” Dialogue posed a serious problem for America’s
international dominance. Before dialogue, American studios could distribute
their films with little to no confusion or language barrier. But now that narratives depended so much on
dialogue, American studios were having trouble branding their products to foreign markets
that didn’t speak English. The problem was resolved with the invention
of dubbing, where an additional audio track was laid over the original film. [Dubbed Spanish Dialogue] Now that Hollywood had a product that did
well, domestically and internationally, they experience a talkie boom, where they considered
themselves depression proof. In the wake of Wall Street’s collapse in 1929,
theater admissions and gross revenues reached a record level. However, by 1931 the Depression caught up
with the industry. During this time, the industry was composed
of five major studios, termed the “Big Five.” Paramount, Fox, and RKO all experienced financial
collapse in the 1930s. Warner Bros. survived only by selling 1/4
of its assets. MGM, meanwhile, thrived due to its relatively
limited chain of theaters. The three “major minor” studios survived by
different strategies. Like MGM, most of the “major minors” didn’t
have their money tied up to theatre chains. United Artists focused on high quality films,
while Columbia and Universal pursued a different strategy. They produced low cost, low risk features
that fell into a new category, the B movie. Though some of these strategies worked for
the industry, the key to Hollywood’s survival came from the intervention of both Wall Street
and Washington. Realizing the political and economic potential
of the industry, Washington lobbied a bailout of the firms. The studios rose back to power by the late 1930s. And while the theater holdings of major studios
had been a severe financial burden during the darkest Depression years, they again were
keying the Big Five’s utter domination of the movie marketplace. At the center of this dominance was the big
budget, A class picture. Of these pictures, “The Wizard of Oz” describes
this period perfectly. What better to illustrate the Golden Age of
Hollywood than the Yellow Brick Road. Like “Gone With The Wind,” another film produced
in 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” was a huge, ambitious undertaking by the major studio MGM. The film highlights what the major studio
films aimed to do at the time and with brilliant color. Starring Judy Garland and base on L. Frank
Baum’s novel, the film employed two of the major studio strategies. The use of a star vehicle, or the Star System,
and adaptation from literature. Adjusting for inflation, “Oz” is the highest
grossing film of all time. However, upon its initial release MGM actually
lost money. Being the most expensive picture of the time,
it was huge gamble and one that didn’t pay off until successful rereleases. Despite the early financial disappointment,
the film had immediate critical acclaim. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the film
ultimately won two and cemented MGM’s studio personality. In the Golden Age each studio had a distinct
personality. For example, RKO’s musical taste, MGM’s mastery
of the epic, and Universal’s B movie expertise. “It’s alive!” These personalities were championed by the
studio’s head producers, who had more power during this period than any other. More than anything else, the head producers
sought to give audiences the most exciting pictures possible. To do this, cultural boundaries were often
pushed. Because of this, Hollywood soon came under
government scrutiny and censorship. One man, Will Hays, led this campaign. Formerly the campaign manager for President
Warren Harding, Will Hays served as Post Master General before his appointment to what would
soon become the Motion Picture Association of America. Pressured by the general public, Hays introduced
the now infamous Hays Code, a list of “don’t do”s and “be careful”s. Among the list of “don’t do”s was “Pointed
Profanity” and “White Slavery.” The Code urged caution, when showing theft
or robbery for fear that–and I quote, “A too detailed description of these may have
upon the moron.” Worse, excessive or lustful kissing should
be reviewed, especially when one kissing a “heavy.” The Code required Hollywood to be innovative
on how it would push the boundaries as studios found ways to go around the Code legally. This maneuvering eventually led to the screwball
comedy, a genre popular for the time. By 1940, the Senate had conducted hearings
on the major studios for influencing the public towards an anti isolationist approach in World
War II. That being said, within a year after Pearl
Harbor, almost 1/3 of every Hollywood film involved war material. Unlike before the war, the government now
mandated two genres: the combat film and the home front melodrama. On the home front, demographics were changing. Audiences moved to suburban areas and away
from urban areas, where the studios had invested most of their capital in their theater chains. To combat this, Hollywood began to purchase
drive-in theaters in suburban areas. This helped the studios maintain their hold
over distribution, however audiences were beginning to change their tastes. Television started to challenge cinema. Unlike radio, Hollywood had trouble with this
new home entertainment medium, since it provided a similar visual experience at a much easier
convenience. As a response, Hollywood began to change its
pictures. One of the most lasting impacts of this was
the adoption of the widescreen format. However, not all studios were quick to pick
up the format change. Studio head Samuel Goldwyn even sardonically
commented that “a widescreen just makes a bad film twice as bad.” If the demographic and technological changes
weren’t enough, Hollywood began to come under political fire during the early Cold War. The studios were labeled as “communist” and
some communities shied away from cinema. However, of all of these changes none had
more lasting impact than the antitrust measures. In fear that the studios could operate uncontested
and in a monopolistic fashion, the government soon intervened to split up the major corporations. In the landmark case “United States v. Paramount,”
the Supreme Court decided that the movie studios had violated antitrust laws. As a result, the major studios were forced
to sell their theater holdings and they lost ultimate control of distribution. Oversees, the studios were challenged as well. After the War, Hollywood expected to resume
film trade with European markets under free market lines without protectionism and other
economic policies. Hollywood had stored almost 5 years worth
of films, including “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With The Wind,” that they hoped they could
release to the European market now that the War was over. However, the European market balked at this
cinema. The War had permanently changed the world
and international markets began to flock and crowd to a new, international type of cinema. We call this period, the Foreign Wave of cinema
and we will discuss it later in the future episode.

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