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Classical Hollywood Cinema

Classical Hollywood Cinema

In 1912, independent producer Carl Laemmle, who had doggedly fought the MPPC (Edison’s Motion Picture Patent Company), was pivotal in forming the Universal Film Manu­facturing Company, a distribution firm to release the output of his own Independent Motion Picture Com­pany and several other independent and foreign firms.

By 1913, Laemmle had gained control of the new com­pany, and in 1915 he opened Universal City, a studio north of Hollywood, forming the basis of a com­plex that still exists today. By that point, Universal was par­tially vertically integrated, combining production and distribution in the same firm.

Universal City Today
Universal City

Also in 1912, Adolph Zukor scored a tremendous success by importing and distributing Queen Elizabeth, a French feature starring Sarah Bernhardt. Zukor then formed Famous Players in Famous Plays to exploit the star system and prestigious literary adaptations. Famous Players would soon become part of the most powerful studio in Hollywood. Another step toward the studio system came in 1914, when W. W. Hodkinson banded eleven local distributors together into Paramount, the first national distributor devoted solely to features. Zukor was soon distributing his Famous Players films through Paramount.

Another feature-film company originated in 1914. The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company was centered primarily around the films of former playwright Cecil B. De Mille. Lasky also distributed through Paramount. In 1916, Zukor took over Paramount, merged Famous Players in Famous Plays and the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company into Famous Players-Lasky and made Paramount this new firm’s distribution subsidiary. This was another key move in fusing smaller American pro­ducers and distributors into larger, vertically integrated firms. Paramount soon controlled many of the most popular silent stars, including Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, as well as top direc­tors like D. W. Grifth, Mack Sennett, and Cecil B. De Mille.

Current Paramount
Current Paramount’s Logo

Other firms formed during the 1910s would be crucial in the industry. Sam, Jack, Albert and Harry Warner moved from exhibiting to distributing, founding Warner Bros. in 1913. By 1918, they began producing but re­mained a relatively small firm until the 1920s.

The Warner Brothers
The Warner Brothers
Wil­liam Fox, who had small exhibition, distribution, and production operations, founded in 1914 the Fox Film Corporation. Although he lost control of his movie empire in 1930 due to a hostile takeover, his name lives on in the names of various media ventures which are currently owned by Rupert Murdoch, most notably the Fox TV network, Fox News Channel, 20th Century Fox, and 21st Century Fox. The new firm would be a major player in 1920s Hollywood.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Also, Three smaller firms that would merge into MGM (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) in 1924 all began during this era: Metro in 1914 and Goldwyn and Mayer in 1917.

Metro-Goldwyn Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer’s living logo featuring the Lion Jackie

1920s: Rise of the Hollywood System

During the late 1910s, foreign audiences, who had been cut off from the Hollywood product during the war, marveled at how American films had changed. Aside from having appealing stars and splen­did sets, they were fast-paced and stylistically polished. One reason for this appeal was that American filmmakers had gone on exploring the classical Hollywood style, linking technique to clear storytelling.

By 1917, filmmakers had worked out a system of formal principles that were standard in American filmmaking. That is what we know today as the Hollywood System, but it was already put into practice well before the 1910s.

The basic problem that confronted filmmakers early in the nickelodeon era was that the audiences could not understand the casual, spatial and temporal relations in films, so people were up to some discussion regarding visual narrative. Staging in depth could show the spatial relationships among elements. Intertitles could add narrative information beyond what the images con­veyed. Closer views of the actors could suggest their emo­tions more precisely. Color, set design, and lighting could imply time of day, the milieu of the action, and so on. During these same years, camera tripods with swiveling heads were introduced and filmmakers now were able to tilt or pan and frame low angle or high angle.

Character-driven narrative

As opposed to social or natural forces. Character psychology had not been particularly important in early films. Slapstick chases or brief melodramas depended more on physical action or familiar situations than character traits. In Hollywood cinema, in following a series of characters’ goals and accomplishments, the spectator could comprehend the action. Also, the camera was placed closer to the actor for emotional expressiveness, and the 9-foot line rule was introduced. This meant that the camera, instead of being 12 or 16 feet back, was places only 9 feet away, cutting just below the hips (medium shot).

Star System

As a result of a major focus on character, actors became famous and fans started wanting to know who where the people on screen they were falling in love with. There are two main reasons why screen actors hadn’t been credited before:

  1. Stage performers were embarrassed to be in film. Silent film was only considered pantomime. One of an actors’ main skills was their voice. They were afraid that appearing in films would ruin their reputation. Early film was also designed for the working class. Film was seen as only a step above carnivals and freak shows.
  2. Producers feared that actors would gain more prestige and power and demand more money.

The star system was the method of creating, promoting and exploiting stars in Hollywood films. Movie studios would select promising young actors and glamorise and create personas for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. Examples of stars who went through the star system include Cary Grant (born Archie Leach), Joan Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur), and Rock Hudson (born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.)

Another important aspect of the Hollywood Star System was the stars’ ability to convey the myths and dreams of their society, such as the myth of the “self made man”, which for many viewers represented the belief that everyone has a chance of happiness in America.

From LIFE Goes to the Movies (1975)
From LIFE Goes to the Movies (1975)

Romantic Subplot

Hollywood films usually intensify interest by presenting two interdependent plot lines. Almost in­ every one of these involves romance, which gets woven in with the protagonist’s quest to achieve a goal.

Sense of Closure

The classic Hollywood narrative is structured with an unmistakable beginning, middle and end, and generally there is a distinct resolution at the end. The plot arouses suspense through deadlines, esca­lating conflicts, and last-minute rescues, but there is always an ending to everything. Whether good or bad (usually good) the audience needs to feel closure when the protagonist achieves (or fails to achieve) his goal.

Invisible Editing Style

Time in classical Hollywood is continuous, since non-linearity calls attention to the illusory workings of the medium. The only permissible manipulation of time in this format is the flashback. It is mostly used to introduce a memory sequence of a character, e.g. Casablanca.

The way shots were put together to create the story was a powerful tool for filmmakers, but they had to deal with editing carefully in order not to lead to confusion. It is the beginning of the Continuity System, coined in 1917 with a base in narrative clarity being enhanced if the spectator understands how the shots relate to each other in space and time. This system involved three basic ways of joining shots: inter­ cutting, analytical editing, and contiguity editing, all strongly centered upon the human body.

The use of shot/reverse-shot editing for conversation situations had been rare in the early 1910s, but by 1917 it occurred at least once in virtually every film. Similarly com­mon were cuts that alternated from shots of people looking at something to point-of-view shots revealing what they saw. Indeed, by 1917, the fun­damental techniques of continuity editing, including adherence to the 180-degree rule, or axis of action, had been worked out.

More on editing here: 1920s-1940s: Hollywood Editing Style


The look of individual shots also changed. As we have seen in previous chapters, most early films were shot using flat, overall light, from either the sun or arti­ficial lights or from a combination of both. During the mid-1910s, filmmakers experimented with effects light­ing, that is, selective lighting over only part of the scene, motivated as coming from a specific source. The most influential film to include this technique was Cecil B. De Mille’s The Cheat, which utilized arc lamps derived from the theater.

The Cheat (1915) by Cecil B. De Mille
The Cheat (1915) by Cecil B. De Mille

A Bunch of Films

The Poor Little Rich Girl, Wild and Wooly, Broken Blossoms, The Last of the Mohicans, Within Our Gates, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Safety Last!, Greed, Sherlock, Jr., The Thief of Bagdad, Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, The Gold Rush, The Black Pirate, The General, Flesh and the Devil, The Wind, and It.

1930s in Hollywood

The 1930s decade (and most of the 1940s as well) has been nostalgically labeled “The Golden Age of Hollywood”. While the boundaries are vague, the classical era is generally held to begin in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer. The 30s was also the decade of the sound and color revolutions and the advance of the ‘talkies’, and the further development of film genres (gangster films, musicals, newspaper-reporting films, historical biopics, social-realism films, lighthearted screwball comedies, westerns and horror to name a few). It was the era in which the silent period ended, with many silent film stars not making the transition to sound (e.g., Vilmy Banky, John Gilbert, and Norma Talmadge).

Most Hollywood pictures adhered closely to a genre in this period—Western, slapstick comedy, musical, animated cartoon, biopic (biographical picture)—and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. For instance, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at Twentieth Century Fox for twenty years, Cecil B. DeMille‘s films were almost all made at Paramount, director Henry King‘s films were mostly made for Twentieth-Century Fox.

The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer

Another great achievement of American cinema during this era came through Walt Disney‘s animation. In 1937, Disney created the most successful film of its time, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs In the mid-to-late 1930s box office profits contracted considerably. Strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach,Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again,Young Mr. Lincoln, Wuthering Heights, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Beau Geste, Babes in Arms, Gunga Din, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and The Roaring Twenties.

A Bunch of more Films

Among other films from the golden age period now considered classics, are: Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, King Kong, Citizen Kane, Swing Time, Some Like It Hot, A Night at the Opera, Sergeant York, All About Eve, The Maltese Falcon, The Searchers, Laura, North by Northwest, Morocco, Rebel Without a Cause, Rear Window, Double Indemnity, City Lights, Psycho, High Noon, Bringing Up Baby, Notorious, Singin’ in the Rain, Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, From Here To Eternity, and On the Waterfront.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock

1940s: Decline of the Studio System

The United States came out of World War II a prosperous country. Workers had earned good money in military industries but had had little chance to spend it. Returning troops rejoined their spouses or mar­ried, ready to set up households and buy consumer goods. The birthrate, increasing during the war, skyrocketed, and the new generation was tagged the “baby boom”.

During the three years immediately after the war’s end, Hollywood experienced pivotal high points and low points. It was a time of transition into a period of de­ cline for the studio system, though no one could have predicted that in 1946. The burst of consumer spending after wartime austerity aided ticket sales, and the year set a box-office record: over $1.5 billion in admissions­ a figure that, adjusted for inflation, remains the record. Every week, between 80 and 90 million people went to movies, well over half the total population of 140 million. (In 2001, each week, about 25 million people, out of a population of over 280 million, went to the movies).

Nonetheless, despite promising box-office figures, Hollywood firms confronted serious problems over the next two years. In 1947, anticommunist investigations by the U.S. government (House Un-American Activities Committee – HUAC) targeted numerous studio per­sonnel, and a legal decision that would help change the very structure of the industry was handed down in 1948. In September 1947, Republican J. Parnell Thomas chaired a HUAC hearing that set out to prove that the Screen Writers’ Guild was dominated by communists.

By now, the Studio System had changed into two different groups. ‘The Big Five’ or majors:

  • MGM,
  • Paramount,
  • Warner Bros.,
  • RKO and
  • Fox

and ‘The Little Three’ or minors:

  • Universal,
  • Colombia and
  • United Artists.

The decline of the studio system began in 1948 with the verdict in the antitrust case United States vs. Paramount Pictures, inc. This decision outlawed the practice of block booking and forced the studios to sell their theater chains. A lawsuit had already been filed in 1938 by the U.S Department of Justice, but it was settled with a consent decree in 1940, which allowed the government to reinstate the lawsuit if it had not seen a satisfactory level of compliance.

‘The Big Five’ suffered after the court decision. Because they didn’t have the assurance that their movies would be seen anymore, they had to cut back on productions and their list of stars, producers, directors and writers and made fewer movies. Paramount’s profits dropped from 20 million to 6 million dollars in one year.

Also, after the war, many Americans had enough money saved up to purchase homes and cars. Suburban housing sprang up, and many people now trav­eled by car to the city center. With small children, how­ever, they had little inclination to make the long trip into town for a film. Thus, changing demographics con­tributed to the late-1940s slump in moviegoing.

But a lot of people profited from the end of the studio system. For instance: independent filmmakers and minor studios finally stood a chance and could distribute a movie without the eternal interference of ‘The Big Five’. ‘The Little Three’ became more successful as well. But soon enough the movie industry suffered a final blow that would change Hollywood forever: the rise of television.

Previous: 1900s: Early Cinema in the United States
Next: 1920s-1940s: Hollywood Editing Style

1900s: Early Cinema in the United States

1900s: Early Cinema in the United States

This is the 1900s, pre-Hollywood era. The studios are still based mainly in New York but will move to Los Angeles not long after.

The Nickelodeon Boom

The main trend in the American film industry from 1905 to 1907 was the rapid multiplication of film theaters. These were typically small stores, installed with fewer than two hundred seats. Admission was usually a nickel (hence the term nickelodeon) or a dime for a program running fifteen to sixty minutes. Moviegoing had become less a novelty and more a regular entertainment. Film produc­ers took to renting rather than selling films. Since ex­hibitors no longer had to keep running the same films until they made back their purchase price, they could change their programs two, three, even seven times a week.

The Cascade Theater in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, was the first nickelodeon acquired by Jack, Albert, Sam, and Harry Warner. A sign promised:

«Refined Entertainment for Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children.»

The Warners went on to careers in exhibition and production, eventually establishing Warner Bros. Carl Laemmle, later the founder of Universal, opened his first nickelodeon in Chicago in 1906. Louis B. Mayer, later of MGM (Metro-Goldwyn­ Mayer), ran a small theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Other studio executives who started out running nick­elodeons included Adolph Zukor (later head of Para­mount), William Fox (who formed the company that became 20th Century-Fox), and Marcus Loew (whose Loew’s was the parent company of MGM). These men would help create the basic structure of the Hollywood studio system during the 1910s.


Motion Picture Patents Corporation

Or how Thomas Edison was a dick about the film business

90% of the newspapers, magazines, TV stations, movie studios and online news sources we drink in are run by six massive corporations: Comcast, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner and CBS. Is this a shocking warning signal of the deterioration of our Information Age? Or is it history repeating itself?

Back in the 1910s, the more established lead­ers of the industry consolidated power among them­selves and tried to exclude newcomers. They realized that control of the burgeoning film industry would be highly profitable.

Since 1897, the Edison company had tried to force its competitors out of business by suing them for patent infringement. After a court decision, some competitors agreed to pay Edison a fee to be able to go on producing (Association of Edison Licensees), but American Mutoscope & Biograph (AM&B) refused to because their camera had a different mechanism and was not subject to Edison’s patents and dealt with years of suing and litigations collecting money mainly from importers (Biograph Asso­ciation of Licensees).

There was Essanay Studios, the first major outfit to lure Charlie Chaplin away from his Mack Sennett roots with a thick, yummy contract. Kalem Studios, the first to try to make Ben Hur into a movie. Selig Studios, which launched the careers of Tom Mix and Harold Lloyd before gradually becoming a zoo (literally). Lubin, based out of Philadelphia. Vitagraph, which was later bought out by Warner Brothers and used to move Looney Tunes cartoons. And American Pathé, the US wing of France’s (and really Europe’s) biggest studio.

That was it, that was the Motion Picture Patents Company – six studios teaming up with Edison and setting up a system that would keep everyone else out of the business.


The oligopoly

But as the market approached chaos and less films were produced due to spending time in legal issues, Edison and AM&B decided to unite licensing forces and created in 1907-1908 the Motion Picture Patents Corporation (MPPC, also known as the Edison Trust). They also tried to limit importations and while Mélies, Pathé and Gaumont were ok, Italian films and Nordisk were banned.

The MPPC hoped to control all three phases of the industry: production, distribution, and exhibition. Only licensed companies could make films. Only licensed dis­tribution firms could release them. And all theaters want­ing films made by members of the MPPC had to pay a weekly fee for the privilege. Eastman Kodak agreed to sell film stock only to members of the MPPC, and in re­turn they would buy no stock except from Kodak.

The independents

That little loop meant functionality and protest.
That little loop meant functionality and protest.

But one third of theaters refused to pay the fee, serving a market for independent producers and distributors. In 1909, Carl Laemmle turned in his license and created the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP), a small firm that would later form the basis of Universal Studios. These independent companies claimed to use cameras with different mechanisms, and thus the MPPC hired detectives to gain evidence that producers were using cameras with the Latham loop and other devices patented by the MPPC. But the second severe blow to the MPPC came when court ruled that the technique of the Latham film loop had been anticipated in earlier patents, so now everybody could use any kind of camera freely. Also in 1915, the American government ruled against the MPPC as a trust (a group of com­panies acting in unfair constraint of trade)… so there you go Edison, nice try.

Independent film companies had already been forming another oligopoly themselves, the new oligopoly that would become the Hollywood film industry. These were the plucky, fresh-faced independents who beat out Edison and the MPPC, and because of whom today we face a different oligopoly of media; not because of patent-related dickheadery, but because of an increasingly corporate culture, one that does not appear poised to change gears anytime soon. So… yeah.

The Independent "Pirates": Adolph Zukor (Paramount), William Fox (Twenty Century Fox), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Samuel Goldwyn (MGM), William Wadsworth Hodkinson (Paramount). Defied the law and didn
The Independent “Pirates”: Adolph Zukor (Paramount), William Fox (Twenty Century Fox), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Samuel Goldwyn (MGM), William Wadsworth Hodkinson (Paramount). Defied the law and didn’t pay Edison’s MPPC Patents.

1910: The Move to Hollywood

By 1910 productions began to move from New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Philadelphia to Florida and, especially, Los Angeles. The reasons were:

  • Weather: Its clear, dry weather permitted filming outdoors most days of the year.
  • Diversity of Locations: Southern California offered a variety of landscapes, including ocean, desert, mountain, forest, and hillside. Also, Westerns emerged as one of the most popular American genres and such films looked more authentic when filmed in the real West rather than in New Jersey.
  • Escaping the Patent Wars in New York
  • Assembly line of production:  Europe was devastated by war and could never catch up to Hollywood’s mass production industrial system were everything was controlled (production, distribution and exhibition).

Not only was Southern California the best guarantee of sunshine in the country, along with a bountiful variety of natural topography for different movie genres, but it was an entire nation away from Edison and the other MPPC companies, which were all located in the northeast. As an added bonus, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, was not known for enforcing patent law.


1920s: The Roaring Twenties

In contrast to this fiscal conservatism, society seemed to lose much of its restraint during the Roaring Twenties. The passage of the Volstead Act (1919), outlawing all forms of alcoholic beverages, led to the ex­cesses of the age of Prohibition. Bootleg liquor was readily available, and outing the law by visiting speakeasies or attending wild drinking parties became common even among the upper classes. The film industry benefited from the high level of capital available during this period, and its films reflected the fast pace of life in the Jazz Age and the arrival of sound to movies.

Vertical Integration

The most obvious indication of the growth of the film industry was its increasing vertical integration. The biggest firms jockeyed for power by combining produc­tion and distribution with expanding chains of theaters. This three-tiered vertical integration guaranteed that a company’s films would find distribution and ex­hibition. The bigger the theater chain owned by the firm, the wider its films’ exposure would be. In dealing with the theaters they did not own, they employed block booking, which meant that any ex­hibitor who wanted certain films with high box-office potential had to rent other, less desirable films from the same company.

Vertical integration was an important factor that contributed to Hollywood’s international power. During this same period, Germany was just beginning to develop a vertically integrated film industry. France’s leading firm, Pathé, was backing away from ver­tical integration by moving out of production. No other country developed a studio system as strong as that of the United States.

Big Three and Little Five

The vertically integrated firms that controlled big the­ater chains and constituted the Big Three at the top of the American film industry were:

  • Paramount-Publix,
  • Loew’s MGM, and
  • First National.

Trailing behind them, but still important, were the Little Five, firms that owned few or no theaters:

  • Universal,
  • Fox,
  • the Producers Distributing Corporation,
  • the Film Booking Office, and
  • Warner Bros.

Assembly line production style

The studios developed methods of making films as efficiently as possible. By 1914, most big firms had differentiated between the di­rector, who was responsible for shooting the film, and the producer, who oversaw the entire production. A series of films could be made simultaneously on sets built side by side. The labor of filmmaking was increasingly divided among expert practitioners. The continuity script also al­lowed people working on the film to coordinate their efforts, even though they might never communicate di­rectly with each other. Again, no other country could match Hollywood’s approach. Few firms employed so many different film specialists, and only a small number of studios outside the United States could boast of facilities as extensive as those of big companies like Paramount.


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