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.