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The Beauty of the Old Hollywood Studio System

Posted by bwmm on July 14, 2009


This is one of my favorite books. It’s about the old Hollywood studio system and how it operated. When you learn how the old system work you realize the genius that went into it. Yes it had it’s flaws. The way studios treated it’s stars, because they signed contracts with them, having to be loaned out to another studio if that studio wanted them to star in a movie or if an actor or actress did, not being able to do a project with another studio because the studio you are signed with says no. Or as in Clarke Gable’s case having to be in a movie which you think is a stinker (It Happened One Night, but we all know how much of a classic that is now)because the script is so bad every other actor and actress turned it down, but you have to do it, because you’ve been turning down too many movies. I didn’t know that the studios didn’t know what to do with Bettie Davis. They couldn’t place her talent. The studios of course made it hard for filmmakers outside of the system. Let us also not forget the portrayals of black people as well as other non white people in Hollywood.

They also had great aspects of the system. For one thing they controlled the hell out of it. It was a cheaper system (yes monopoly when you look at it)because they controlled the studios, the distribution (most studios had their own theater chain) It was run like Ford assembly line (that can be good and bad), but each studio had it’s own feel and style of movies. Star making in the old studio system is both fantastic and crazy as hell at the same time. Coming up with names and even a crazy back history that most people today would laugh at intrigued the American movie going audience. The studios realized that people wanted someone who seemed mysterious. They would come up with the story of the person an exotic name and then find the right actor/actress to play the part, and this is just the actor/actress. They were not playing the character for a movie. They were the character. Of course people would later find out that a certain star wasn’t a love child of dancehall girl and a maharaja, but it would just add more mystery to the person and make people want to see and know them even more. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_system_(film) for more on the star system. Hollywood also controlled newspapers, magazines for a time to control what got out about their stars. They also had wonderful movies during those years (yes along with some stinkers)they made smaller pictures inorder to make bigger ones. Not only that unlike the Hollywood of today the had an apprenticeship system. New filmmakers, writers etc. would work under others. In order to write a feature you had to write shorts first. In order to direct you had to direct shorts and docus etc. and some did the b movies (real b movies, not as what we associate with bfilms today, bfilm was just a movie that wasn’t A list) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-movie

I loved reading about Irving Thalberg. Talk about hard worker and someone who created many of the lessons I had to learn in screenwriting. As in watch movies of others to see the talent/style, learn to be a better screenwriter as well as to know what the competition was doing. He also believed that just because they were an asembly didn’t mean that the movie shouldn’t look beautiful. His hard work is also the reason for his life being so short.

I would urge many interested in getting into Hollywood or any other film industry, filmmaking or creating an industry to read this book on how the old Hollywood system started from it’s silent days to talkies to 1948 ruling against it being a monopoly. It’s a wonderful read.

Oh and did you know that both John Wayne and Humphry Bogart were b movie actors for years before becoming A list.

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