Toiling in the Dream Factory

Editor’s Choice: Moviemaking in Hollywood’s classical period was colossally complex, backbreakingly difficult, obscenely expensive—and it almost always failed.

The movies made during the studio era—what the cineastes have dubbed “the classical Hollywood cinema”—are, along with jazz, America’s best creative work from the late 1920s to about 1950. But although those pictures are revered, they’re contested. Products of a system run by five vertically integrated companies, they spark ardent and surprisingly nasty debates—about the relationships between art and commerce, convention and innovation, individual and collaborative effort, administrative constraint and creative freedom. These boil down to a single argument: Were the great pictures made because of, or despite, that system? To be sure, plenty in these books could be used in a hackneyed indictment of the studios as fiendish machines that stifled individual creativity, talent, and vision.

More important, any Hollywood history illuminates the dichotomy between those movies that the system most highly prized and those we love now, raising some doubts about the much-vaunted “genius of the system.” MGM under its production head and later special-projects producer Irving Thalberg (Fitzgerald’s model for The Last Tycoon) was the most factory-like and systematized studio, with the biggest and most shimmering collection of stars. When Jeanine Basinger and Marc Norman expatiate about the methods and practices of “the studios,” they’re usually describing processes that only MGM had the organizational wherewithal to realize fully. Its luxe “product” was considered Hollywood’s best. But many of its luminaries (Norma Shearer, say) and its self-important “prestige” pictures (Rose-Marie, Romeo and Juliet) long ago lost their magic; glamour, unlike style, is inherently ephemeral. True, the mystique of Metro’s greatest star, Garbo, remains undiminished. But for the most part, those pictures Holly­wood thought would endure (Metro’s lofty movies from the 1930s, Warner Brothers’ ponderous “artistically ambitious” Paul Muni biopics of Socially Progressive men) are now far overshadowed by the studio era’s stylish entertainments, whether rollicking (My Man Godfrey), effervescent (Trouble in Paradise), light-headedly lovely (the Fred and Ginger movies, the highest and purest “art” Holly­wood ever produced), hard-boiled (Double Indemnity), or high-trash melodramatic (Dark Victory)—movies no one thought would be watched in 10 years, let alone 70.

At the height of the classical era, each major studio released at least a movie a week. Organized along industrial lines, the studios had staffs of readers to find stories (MGM’s had to be proficient in at least one foreign language), writers, technicians, costumers, art directors, cinematographers, directors, film editors, and actors—an army of well-paid, talented, intensely skilled people working on tight production schedules at breakneck speed. Over this presided the central producer, who—in some cases directly, in some cases through a small number of associate producers—conducted contract negotiations, developed stories and scripts, assigned directors, and edited the pictures. This system engendered two seemingly contradictory results. In the interests of brisk and efficient story­telling, the studios—shot by shot, sequence by sequence, cut by cut—achieved a seamless and uniform style. But just as the Hollywood movie came to have a specific look, so the movies of each of the studios or of their smaller production units (the biopic unit at Warner’s, the Astaire/Rogers unit at RKO) developed a signature style, thanks to the consistent way they were written, lit, photographed, directed, and edited, the way their costumes and sets were designed, even the way their film was processed.

Of course the prejudices and self-images of the studios and of the men running them helped shape that style. But the elements that defined it served and revolved around only one set of people: the stars, for whom most of the studio-era movies functioned as “vehicles,” delivering them to their public and broadening and enhancing their appeal. Among the highest-paid people in the country, stars were the primary engines driving one of America’s most profitable industries. They taught generations of Americans—specifically young, middle-class women, the viewers for whom most of the pictures were made—how to light a cigarette, wear a suit, kiss, decline or accept a pass, how a gentleman ought to behave.

The Star Machine examines how the studios manufactured and maintained the stars’ personas, and how, in turn, the stars responded to and maneuvered in the studios’ often suffocating embrace. Basinger goes over ground well tilled in Andrew Walker’s Stardom and, in a more scholarly and precise way, in two extraordinary works of history, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson; and Tino Balio’s more recent Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939. Her potted biographies of an eccentric assortment of screen idols (she eschews the era’s biggest stars) make this, at some 600 pages, a work at once bloated and elliptical. But her dissection of, for example, Errol Flynn’s and Irene Dunne’s overlooked careers is perceptive, and the case she builds for their strengths is cogent. Moreover, almost nothing about the movies makes sense without the stars—not the directors, not the screenwriters—at the center of the story, because their fame and appeal pretty much exclusively ensured a market for Hollywood’s product in what was a notoriously risky and unstable business. As Balio starkly puts it, “In economic terms, stars created the market value of motion pictures.”

Too important a commodity to be left to chance, stars were made, not born. They were subjected to studio-directed dentistry and surgery, and were taught how to walk, to speak, even to breathe. Then their personas were just as meticulously and methodically manufactured. A studio would cast a potential star in many small, wildly different roles, and test audience response to each. This inherently humiliating, usually fruitless, and always exhausting process—Gable made 17 movies in his first three years at MGM—ensured that novices soon became professionals on the set and in front of the camera. (Movies can never again approach the craftsmanship the studios commanded when their employees at every level, from grips to stars, worked six-day weeks, month in and month out.)

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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