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.)
To control the images they so assiduously and expensively developed and to safeguard their irreplaceable assets, the studios deployed the notorious “option contract,” which normally gave them control over actors’ roles and public appearances and bound actor to studio—but not studio to actor—for seven years. If an actor refused a role, the studio could tack on the time the actor sat out to the end of the contract—an extraordinary practice that was rescinded only in 1945 when, in a suit brought against Warner’s by the demure and wide-eyed Olivia de Havilland (poor Melanie!), the California Supreme Court famously upheld a ruling that the clause violated the state’s anti-peonage laws.
No wonder Hollywood’s “golden age” is a history of driven, freakishly hardworking, unhappy people, including its show-horse stars—with such exceptions as the thoroughly louche and blithe Flynn and the preternaturally serene (and happily married) Dunne. And no one was more unhappy than four-times married, two-times Oscar-winning Bette Davis, an actress whose high-strung, spiky screen persona famously matched her personality. The unusually intelligent Davis suffered all the indignities and frustrations the star machine could dole out. Put through some two dozen movies in her first four years in Hollywood, she was done up as a platinum-blonde flirt and a vamp. Even after she won acclaim, her studio, Warner’s, seemed perversely unwilling to give her consistently good roles. She refused a part assigned her, flamboyantly went on suspension, and was forced to return. Warner’s then bought Jezebel for her, the movie that made her a star and gave her her first serious—and strict—direction (by William Wyler). But for every great part she was assigned (dying finely in Dark Victory, loving the man she killed in The Letter, nobly self-sacrificing in Now, Voyager), she’d get a rotten one. Her salary grew enormously and she was given more vacation time, but Warner’s never granted her total control over her roles (her greatest turn, in All About Eve in 1950, was as a freelance at the end of the studio era).
Davis has been the subject of a number of good biographies and wrote The Lonely Life, her characteristically flinty, self-dramatizing, and unsurprisingly well-written autobiography. (A strictly educated Yankee—her grandmother found her Spartan boarding school through an ad in this magazine—Davis read avidly and widely; I own her copy of David M. Potter’s pretty arcane History and American Society.) So Ed Sikov, who concentrates on Davis’s work rather than her intense love life, has very little new information to dish. But his Dark Victory joins James Spada’s More Than a Woman as one of the two best Davis biographies. While his is an admiring and even affectionate portrait, Sikov refuses to attribute Davis’s truculent personality wholly to her experience in Hollywood. Although his account makes plain how Davis at once craved stardom and held its process in contempt (now there’s a crazy-making combination), Sikov makes equally plain why he concludes that “Davis was an angry woman for reasons nobody who knew her ever adequately explained to me and for reasons I still cannot fully understand.”
If there was a group in Hollywood as angry as Davis, it would have to be the screenwriters—the “schmucks with Underwoods,” Jack Warner called them, and not without some justification, as Marc Norman unintentionally shows. His brisk What Happens Next recounts the history of American screenwriting from the silents to 2005, but its cynosure is the studio era, a period he writes about with romanticism and passion. Norman advances the familiar tale in which the moguls and “the system” are cast as the heavies, constantly thwarting the artistic ambition and vision of the witty, politically engaged screenwriters who, lured by easy cash (MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS, Herman Mankiewicz famously wired Ben Hecht, one of his New York chums), took the Sante Fe Super Chief to the Coast. The studios, Norman insists, had devised “a system to defeat caring,”and “the moguls did not understand [the writers]; they knew of employees’ pride, but pride in their attendance record, years of service, not the writer’s pride that came from making something never before seen.”
Leaving aside the fact that it was the moguls, not the writers, who rightly experienced the pride of “making something never before seen,” the film historian Thomas G. Schatz offered a more convincing explanation of writers’ discontent in The Genius of the System:
Few eastern writers made it as screenwriters. The most successful transition was made by journalists like Ben Hecht and Robert Benchley, who were accustomed to deadlines and copy editors and writing for an anonymous public that liked its information meted out in economical and dramatic doses … Journalists shared with veteran screenwriters a tendency to think of their work more as a craft than as an art. They rarely considered what they wrote their own, and put little stock in creative control … They understood the movie business—and that it was a business.
More important, what would the screenwriters have offered in place of the studio system’s slick—and at their best, smart and chic—entertainments? Norman approvingly tells the story of one of those dreary, self-congratulatory, politically progressive evenings that Hollywood is all but genetically predisposed to organize. This one, in support of the Loyalist cause in Spain, featured the reading of “a bitter antiwar play,” after which Donald Ogden Stewart speechified, “exhorting those there to make movies with meaning: ‘Let us have no more million-dollar revolving staircases … but let us have some simple truths, as we have had tonight … on a bare stage, against nothing but a plain background.’” Fun, fun. And then there’s another hero of Norman’s chronicle, Howard Koch, “a serious New York dramatist, quiet, thoughtful,” who was brought in to revise the Casablanca script. Koch recalled that the picture’s director, Michael Curtiz, whom Norman wrongly dismisses as “never more than a facile studio journeyman” (Curtiz also artfully directed for Warner’s the charming and dashing Errol Flynn swashbucklers, the great noirish melodrama Mildred Pierce, and the exuberant Yankee Doodle Dandy), “leaned strongly on the romantic elements.” But Koch wanted to transform a movie whose great appeal would be, as Pauline Kael wrote, its “schlocky romanticism” into a movie with meaning, and so he pushed for “the political intrigues with their relevance to their struggle against fascism.” Now that would have been the way to go.
The cure Norman’s schmucks with Underwoods proffered was, of course, the great monster that has always beset the pictures and has stifled them in ways crass commercialism never could: the deadly urge to make movies with meaning—ones that, as they used to say, “the Industry can be proud of.” Kael (in pretty much everything she wrote) and Joan Didion (in “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind”) most memorably exposed the lures and dangers of making Important Films and message-y pictures that flatter our image of ourselves. Literary types fall easily under its spell, though the moguls (Thalberg, for example) have also submitted to it, and when they have, they’ve given us stately and all but forgotten prestige pictures (Gentlemen’s Agreement)—and, recently, the thankfully all but forgotten American Beauty as well as the soon to be forgotten Crash.
The anger of the frustrated writers was always easy to understand, but why was everyone else in Hollywood so despondent? It has to do, I think, with movies’ promise and their inevitable failure to reach it fully. In the opening scene of the play on which Jezebel was based, the character played by Davis greets the other characters as she walks onstage. In the movie, Davis rides up to her mansion at a gallop, dismounts, and almost imperceptibly scoops up the hem of her dress from the back with her riding crop. Wyler sensed that the gesture, if made with offhand self-possession, would instantly establish character. He also knew that if he told Davis what he wanted, the move would be too studied. So he made the increasingly angry actress do 48 takes before she got it right. A movie contained thousands of such crucial moments, each with a hundred different moving parts, and with cast and crew assembled, time cost big money. And despite enormous expenditures, no matter how many takes were devoted to each shot, inescapably many moments wouldn’t live up to their potential.
Moviemaking was colossally complex, backbreakingly difficult, obscenely expensive—and it almost always failed. Even the meanest and coarsest of the moguls, Columbia’s Harry Cohn, in describing the Sisyphean task of feeding the exhibitors’ and the public’s insatiable appetite, betrayed the bleak and despairing hope:
“Every Friday the front door opens and I spit a movie out into Gower Street … I want one good picture a year … and I won’t let an exhibitor have it unless he takes … the Blondies, the low-budget Westerns and the rest of the junk we make … To get one [good picture] I have to shoot five or six, and to shoot five or six I have to keep the plant going.”
It was a recipe for misery.