The Golden Age of Hollywood: Crash Course Film History #11

The Golden Age of Hollywood: Crash Course Film History #11


When I say Hollywood, you probably think of
big-budget movies, star-studded premieres, and studios with giant backlots pumping out
film after film. Most of those associations really began sometime
between the 1920s and the 1950s. Once audiences could hear actors speak, listen
to pre-recorded musical scores, and enjoy sound effects, film cemented its place as
the main medium for mass communication, art, and commerce. And as important as Hollywood was during the
Silent Era, nobody could compete after the arrival of sound. New major film studios emerged, each with
their own style and favorite celebrities: before George Clooney and Jennifer Lawrence,
there was Clark Gable and Janet Leigh. This cascade of films led to more technological
innovations, too, like color film and the widescreen formats we still use today. This was the Golden Age of Hollywood. [singing] Hollywooood ba-ba-da-ba-d– OK,
I’ll stop. [Opening Music Plays] After the Stock Market Crash in October of
1929, most parts of the American economy took a real hit. But not Hollywood. And at the height of the Great Depression
in 1933, roughly a quarter of the American workforce couldn’t find a job, and millions
of others were barely making ends meet. So you’d think that the last thing people
would do with their hard-earned money was go to the movies. And yet, the Depression was one of the best
things to happen to the American film business. That’s depressing… In fact, more films were released by the major
studios during the 1920s and ‘30s than any other decade – averaging about 800 a year,
compared to less than 500 per year today. It was cheaper to go to the movies than a
play or a concert, and cinema became a means of escape. As we’ve talked about, films are an illusion
of reality. And that illusion was super attractive to
people whose day-to-day reality was often pretty bleak. Genre films became more popular – things
like gangster films, musicals, westerns, and screwball comedies. Anything to take people’s mind off their
own struggles and celebrate good old American values of optimism, resilience, ambition,
and courage. At the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age,
five film studios ruled the town. All five were vertically-integrated, just
like the major studios of the Silent Era. They each had their own distinct reputations
and focused on different kinds of films. First up, we have Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – or
MGM – which was the biggest studio in the 1930s. Louis B. Mayer ran MGM with his business partner,
Irving Thalberg. Mayer was the savvy businessman of the two;
he approved the budgets and oversaw the distribution and marketing. Thalberg, on the other hand, was a former
producer, and the mind behind the stories and actual production. Together, they made slick, big-budget musicals,
comedies, melodramas, and literary adaptations – sparing no expense on sets, costumes,
extras, and the biggest movie stars. Think of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind,
and Mutiny on the Bounty. I’m talking opulence, people! Next is Paramount Pictures, which was known
as the most “European” studio, because they lured a lot of filmmakers away from Germany
and the U.K. They also gave these filmmakers more leeway
to put their own stamp on movies – hits like Shanghai Express, The Sign of the Cross,
and Morocco. Our third player, Warner Brothers, branded
itself as the studio of the working class. They churned out low-budget melodramas, gritty
gangster movies like The Public Enemy with James Cagney, and musicals set in the Depression
like Footlight Parade, with James Cagney. The fourth major studio was 20th Century-Fox,
which made its reputation thanks to its chief director and its most profitable star, not
James Cagney That director was John Ford, who won back-to-back
best director Oscars for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, while Shirley
Temple sang and danced her way through a string of wholesome hits. And lastly, RKO was the home of the extremely
popular Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. Can I do a dance number Nick? Nick: Nope. RKO also took a lot of chances, producing
everything from Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, to the 1933 version
of King Kong, and one of the most influential films of all time, Citizen Kane. Never heard of it. Now, all five of these studios dominated the
production, distribution, and exhibition of films – for a while. But a U.S. Supreme Court Case in 1948, along
with the coming of television, signaled a major turning point. In the case, known as United States versus
Paramount Pictures, the government argued that the major studios were in violation of
antitrust laws. In other words, by owning both the production
studios and the movie theaters, they were exercising an unfair monopoly and stifling
competition. The Supreme Court agreed, and forced the studios
to break up their businesses, sell their theaters, and focus on just production and distribution. Hollywood continued to lead the global film
market for another 10 or 15 years, but that near-complete control over the industry was
ending. We’ll talk a lot more about this next time. Now, the Golden Age of Hollywood saw some
major technical leaps in the film business, too, including: color. Filmmakers had been experimenting with color
since the dawn of cinema. The earliest techniques involved hand-tinting
individual frames, a painstaking process that had to be repeated for each print of each
film. Not great. Over the next few decades, engineers found
ways to use stencils to tint films much faster. They also developed other means of adding
color, like bathing the film stock in dyes that fit the mood of the scene, called toning
– red for violence, blue for sorrow, green for…grassy. By the mid-1920s, nearly 90 percent of Hollywood
films were either tinted, toned, or some combination of the two. Which was great, except the color itself looked
wildly artificial. And once Hollywood converted to sound-on-film
technology, the tinting interfered with the film stock’s ability to record proper sound. Crash Course Film History, tl;dr: it’s hard. So filmmakers needed to figure out color cinematography
– capturing color with the image. As early as 1861, a Scottish physicist named
James Clerk Maxwell – who we talked about in Crash Course Physics (well, I didn’t,
Shini did) – built the foundations of color photography. The light all around us is made up of a spectrum
of different wavelengths, some of which we see as visible colors. Knowing this, Maxwell figured out that all
those colors can be derived from some combination of red, yellow, and blue. Beginning in 1906, artists and engineers tried
for 15 years to use this knowledge to achieve color cinematography. But, much like me in high school, they kept
failing. Their experiments were unreliable or too expensive. Then along came Technicolor. In 1922, the Technicolor Corporation saw its
first success with a special beam-splitting camera that could make two separate negatives. The light entered the camera and was split
into different wavelengths, just like how sunlight hits a prism and splits into a rainbow. Half continued straight ahead, while the other
half was diverted 90 degrees, to produce two film negatives. These negatives were chemically treated, dyed
either blue or red, and cemented together. Then you could run that final film strip through
a regular projector, and voilà! Even though they weren’t spot-on, the colors
in these films were more reliable and accurate than any of the earlier attempts. And while that beam-splitting camera was expensive,
at least theaters didn’t have to buy new projectors to show color films. Over the next decade, Technicolor expanded
its system into a three-color process, with a camera that recorded the original image
onto three separate negatives – red, blue, and green. And by 1932, this process created such high-quality,
vibrant results, that Technicolor ended up with a virtual monopoly on color film for
the next 20 years. Throughout the 1930s, filmmakers and studios
gradually began playing around with Technicolor. By the middle of the decade, producer David
O. Selznick turned a corner by casting big stars in color films for the first time. And as the 1930s came to a close, Hollywood
released a series of high-profile hits that proved color was here to stay. These films that used Technicolor ranged from
the Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood, to classics like The Wizard
of Oz and Gone with the Wind, and even animated features like Disney’s Snow White and Pinnochio. Advances in color cinematography would continue
to develop over the years, but the basics stayed the same until film stock gave way
to digital video in the 21st century. Now, a third technical element of cinema was
standardized during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s something called aspect ratio – that’s
the ratio of the movie screen’s width to its height. Back in 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences – the folks who give out the Oscars – established a standard aspect
ratio of 4:3, which looks like this. Also known as the Academy aperture, this ratio
isn’t a square, but it’s closer to one than we’re used to these days. That’s because most movies we see today
are shot in an aspect ratio of 16:9, which looks like this. That’s more like it! We often call this widescreen. And so much film and TV is shot at this ratio
that most new screens are built to fit it. But those are just two possible aspect ratios. Back in the 1950s, some filmmakers experimented
with an extreme widescreen ratio called Cinerama. This process involved shooting a film with
three separate synchronized cameras hooked together in an arc, and projecting it from
three synchronized projectors. Weird. The screen was shaped in a similar arc, kind
of wrapping itself around the audience. Y’know, for a real immersive experience. And the final aspect ratio of Cinerama was
about 8:3, which looks like this. The most famous film shot in Cinerama was
the western epic How the West Was Won. But, as you can probably guess, this process
was too expensive and complicated to achieve widespread use. And it was bad for performer’s necks. On the heels of Cinerama came CinemaScope. Rather than shooting with multiple cameras,
CinemaScope utilized something called an anamorphic lens. This was a special lens for cameras that recorded
a wider image, but squeezed it laterally so that everything would fit onto standard 35mm
film stock. When the film was projected, a similar lens
attached to the projector would “unsqueeze” the image, expanding it back out, and projecting
it up onto the screen. The result was an impressive 2.55:1 aspect
ratio. Audiences got their first taste of it in the
1953 biblical epic The Robe. And by the end of that year, every major Hollywood
studio except Paramount was licensed to make CinemaScope films. Over time, the ratio was reduced to 2.35:1,
and in the mid-1950s, the American film industry had almost entirely converted to shooting
anamorphic widescreen films. It took some time for filmmakers to adjust
to widescreen shooting. When you move from an aspect ratio of 4:3
to 16:9, that’s a whole lotta extra room to fill. So what do you do with it? Well, we fill it with, like, knick knacks
and stuff. Close-ups, especially of faces, became difficult
to frame, while landscapes got easier. At first, widescreen films rewarded composition
and long takes over editing. Filmmakers built their stories by filling
the frame, rather than cutting to new images. Genres like the western, the musical, and
large-scale epics all lent themselves to these kinds of world-building possibilities. In the end, the technical advancements of
sound, color, and an aspect ratio that could surround the audience made the powerful Hollywood
studios the center of the cinematic universe from the late 1920s to the late 1950s. It was a Golden Age whose echoes are felt
in our films today. Today we learned about how the the American
studio system took advantage of sound film and the Great Depression to achieve global
dominance. We discussed the development of color cinematography
and what it meant for filmmakers and film audiences. And we examined aspect ratio, and how the
move to widescreen cinema affected films being made. Next time, we’ll learn about how filmmakers
in Europe and the United States reacted against the formulaic movies coming out of Hollywood
and created a new wave of gritty, irreverent, and innovative cinema. Crash Course Film History is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like Blank on Blank, PBS Spacetime, and Global
Weirding with Katharine Hayhoe. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these aspect ratios and our
amazing graphics team, is Thought Cafe.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. "Can I do a dance number next?" says Craig, only because it's in the script.
    "Nope," says an off-camera voice.
    "Whew, that was a close one!" thinks Craig. "I was really taking a risk there."

  2. My local Kmart is closing and they have a big "sale" for all their stuff.
    They have, like, 20 of those Rey and Kylo figures that are 20% off.

    I'm debating getting a set, but I would still be out about $40 or so.

  3. What are people's top 5 films? Mine are:
    5. La La Land
    4. Groundhog Day
    3. Lotr trilogy
    2. The big lebowski
    1. Lost in translation

  4. Guys, I know this is Crash Course. But it's going way too fast. I wanted to know more about focusing techniques (Citizen Kane), Special effects (how kingkong or early Disney animations were made), rise of musicals and dancing. Most importantly how different genres were put into place. Seems like CC did it all in under 10 minutes.

  5. Why you guys in crash course talk like if you were in race all the time? If you were really interested in teach and have people to understand what you say you would take the time to breathe between sentences.

  6. It's videos like these that make me wonder when the next "Golden Age" of Movies will be. Are we already in it? How many movies that we see in theaters will be considered classics or timeless in 20 or 30 years? It's amazing to think about

  7. Pls also make an episode on the contemporary indian cinema which also took shape in the very same era and was actually more bold that time

  8. hey guys you should put in the description the movies mentioned in the video and maybe some other suggestions!! :)))

  9. maxwell did not figure out that colours can be derived from the primaries– that has been in practice through painting for a long long time.

  10. Small error: 16:9 is a video and television aspect ratio. The aspect ratio of standard widescreen films is 1.85:1. That's why when you watch these movies on your widescreen television (that is 16:9), you still get thin black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

  11. Hey guys, thank you so much for every single episode, each one is exceptionally well crafted and interesting. Crash Course is truly one of the highest quality educational resources out there. My favorites are philosophy and film history. I really wish I had time to sit around every day and watch every single series. I was wondering if there are any plans for a history of photography or simply a photography series? Thanks again for being so consistently amazing! Cheers

  12. If anyone plays backwards compatible video games sometimes they'll get a game that's in a eye shattering 4:9 or something like that.

  13. Actually, at least in North America, widescreen as a cinema standard generally refers to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which is slightly wider than the now-standard TV ratio of 16:9 (1.77:1). Despite how common 16:9 TV screens are, 1.85:1 is still the standard for cinema, which is why you can often see slight letterboxing when you play theatrically released widescreen movies on a 16:9 TV. This is also why 4K and 2K are technically different formats from 1080p and UHD. The former are cinema formats (1.85:1), and the latter are TV formats (16:9). It's still uncommon for films to be projected theatrically at 16:9, although I'm sure that will change. Also confusing: of the two most common aspect ratios used today, widescreen is the less wide (the other is scope, 2.35:1).

  14. Virtually no films are filmed in 16×9 (1.78:1)–it's more or less a television aspect ratio. I assume you meant to say 1.85:1.

  15. I don't know about you guys but i'm feeling pretty lucky to be able to watch this on my personal smartphone seeing what these people have to deal with. Heil to the smartphone, the greatest invention of our century yet.

  16. from 4:07 to 4:14 , I like that visual aethesetic the way it looks splotchy and how there are chaotic stains floating in the air

  17. I love this episode! It's beautiful how you give us a visual comparison of the cinema screens, something I had never thought of too deeply before!

    I was just reading American Cinema / American Culture, and realized how much of some films are lost at TV.

  18. This is a top notch explanation yet color films were still rare until the late 1950's. We had three breakthrough films around 1938-39 in color ( Gone w/ the Wind, Adventures of Robin Hood, Wizard of Oz)….but black and white remained the norm until mid to late 50's. Low budget films were still being made in B&W up to about 1964. So it is risky to claim that the Golden Age had color films as a major component, since color was rare. I assume cost was the deciding factor ?

  19. Will you eventually be doing a timeline of your videos? It's starting to get tricky to figure out what happened when.

  20. Now I finally understand the widescreen setting in the early to mid-2000's DVD menu choices before the movie.

  21. You would have thought the Great Depression would lead to socialist revolution and the emancipation of humanity. But no. They went to the movies.

  22. What happened to Columbia Picture Studios who produced such hits as: ' Born Yesterday', ' Picnic' and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'. They also had mega star's: William Holden, Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford under contract???

  23. what about Columbia pictures?? I know they made the stooges shorts….. but were they not a competing studio??

  24. I think the 70s and 80s should be called "the golden age", all the best movies came out in those decades. all the classics and big franchises. it's like movies peaked in the 70s and 80s.

  25. Just a slight correction, Technicolor was actually replaced in the 50s with 1 roll color film, that uses 3 layers of color/light sensitive material on 1 role, not 3 separate ones. Which would mean that you can put it in the same camera as you use for black and white film, which was waaaay smaller than a Technicolor camera. And THAT technology was used until digital.

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