Feeding the Maw of Exhibition
4The Shift to the Producer-Unit System
Feeding the Maw of Exhibition
The Status of the Director
The Status of the Screenwriter
Creating the Studio "Look"
How the Big Five Rationalized Production
How the Little Three Rationalized Production
So far this book has implied that the vertically integrated structure of the Smajor film companies profoundly influenced the quantity and quality of the motion pictures produced by Hollywood. Because real estate assets (theaters) rested on a base of intangibles (motion pictures), the production process of these companies had to be well organized to accomplish three goals: first, motion pictures had to appeal to a large cross section of the public; second, they had to attract audiences consistently over long periods of time; and third, they had to be produced in sufficient quantity and on a regular basis to permit quick audience turnover.
To meet these demands, Hollywood had honed an efficient means of producing large numbers of feature films containing stars called the studio system. In place since the mid teens, the system organized production around a central producer who oversaw a large, fully staffed studio containing talent, technical workers, and craftsmen. Using the continuity script as a blueprint, production was divided into discrete parts, such as script development, art and costume design, cinematography, directing, and editing, which corresponded to departments that supplied talent and material as needed. Harnessing this work force, Hollywood churned out from four hundred to five hundred films a year during the thirties in an attempt to satisfy every taste in every city and town. The following discussion will demonstrate four things about the studio system: (1) the growing domination of producers over the production process; (2) the diminished status of the director and the screenwriter in the system; (3) the "authorship" of distinctive studio house styles; and (4) the methods used by the majors and elite independent producers to rationalize production.
To elucidate the nature of the studio system in Hollywood during the thirties, it is appropriate to begin by quoting Leo Rosten:
Each studio has a personality; each studio's product shows special emphases and values. And, in the final analysis, the sum total of a studio's personality, the aggregate pattern of its choices and its tastes, may be traced to its producers. For it is the producers who establish the preferences, the prejudices, and the predispositions of the organization and, therefore, of the movies which it turns out. (Hollywood, pp. 242-243)
Studios were organized hierarchically.1 At the top sat an executive who typically held the corporate title of vice-president in charge of production. Moguls such as Louis B. Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Jack L. Warner at Warner Bros., Y. Frank Freeman at Paramount, and Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox headed the most important studios and were perpetually in the limelight. However, within the larger corporate structures of their companies, the moguls were beholden to the chief executives who typically held the title of president or chairman. For example, at Warners,
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986], p. 112">
Jack L. Warner… the stereotype of the crude, rough, all-powerful movie mogul… ruled feature film-making with an iron hand. Yet his management style only mirrored his older brother Harry's wishes. The brothers Warner sought a cut-rate movie factory, which would produce the required number of features and shorts for Warners' theaters each year. Warner Bros. operated on a volume basis, trying to make a small profit on every film. Jack Warner supplied the films; Abe Warner routed them to appropriate theaters, but there was no question who mapped overall corporate strategy and had the last word in all decisions—Harry M. Warner. (Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986], p. 112)
Harry Cohn, the production chief at Columbia, was the only mogul to serve in the dual capacity as chief executive officer of the corporation and the studio.
To motivate its production chief, a company might give him a cut of the profits in addition to a handsome salary. Louis B. Mayer, for example, became the highest-paid American executive during the thirties as a result of his unique profit-sharing agreement with Loew's. When Loew's acquired the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corp. in 1924, Mayer wanted neither cash nor stock for himself and his two partners, Irving Thalberg and Robert Rubin, but a percentage of the profits—to be exact, 20 percent of the profits (after a dividend set aside of $2 per common share) up to $2.5 million and 15 percent of the profits over that. In addition to receiving weekly salaries ranging from $1,000 for Rubin to $4,000 for Thalberg, the three executives divided up more than $1 million in profits in 1935 alone.2
Studio chiefs did not rule their empires single-handedly, but administered staffs of high-salaried managers who took care of the myriad business affairs of operating a studio plant, including payroll, security, industrial relations, maintenance, and food services. Production was delegated to a central producer. MGM's Irving Thalberg, the prototypical central producer, had no set daily routines; Fortune said, "His brain is the camera which photographs dozens of scripts in a week and decides which of them, if any, shall be turned over to MGM's twenty-seven departments to be made into a moving picture. It is also the recording apparatus which converts the squealing friction of 2,200 erratic underlings into the more than normally coherent chatter of an MGM talkie."3
To assist him in producing the forty or fifty pictures the studio turned out each year, Thalberg employed a group of ten associate producers. Each associate producer specialized in a certain type of picture—prestige pictures, sophisticated comedies, melodramas, action pictures, and so forth. Functioning as surrogates for Thalberg, these men worked on two or three pictures simultaneously. To begin a project, the associate producer conferred with writers on the story idea and worked with them to develop the shooting script. After submitting the script for Thalberg's approval, he coordinated the efforts of the designers, director, and cast. Describing the associate producer's job, Fortune said, "Without being able in most cases to act, write, or direct, they are supposed to know more about writing than either the director or the star, more about directing than the star or the writer."4 Associate producers stayed with a picture until it was completed, while resolving whatever problems arose. Thalberg treated the finished film as raw material. Thalberg was noted for testing audience reaction to his films before they were released. If audiences did not like something or failed to respond in the appropriate way, he did not hesitate to have parts of the picture reshot.
Darryl Zanuck, the producing "genius" at Warners, ran the studio practically as a one-man show early in the decade. In addition to his regular responsibilities as head of a production, Zanuck acted as the chief talent scout, story editor, and head writer. Allen Rivkin, a Warner screenwriter recalled,
I remember when I came to Warner Brothers [in 1930], Zanuck would read a story on Friday, think about it over the weekend, get it set in his head and call the writers into his office on Monday morning. He'd say, "Okay boys, here's the story, it'll have Jimmy Cagney in it. We'll start shooting four weeks from this morning and we'll open at Warner's downtown eight weeks from today." (Quoted in James R. Silke, Here's Looking at You Kid: Fifty Years of Fighting, Working, and Dreaming at Warner Brothers [Boston: Little, Brown, 1976], p. 64)
To keep tabs on actual production, Warner employed "supervisors" to visit the set each day to anticipate and stop any costly overruns. They worked anonymously until 1932, when the studio gave them a supervisor credit on the screen.
Weaknesses in the central producer system became apparent straight off. Placing a studio's entire annual output in the hands of one person minimized originality and the exchange of ideas. As Paramount's Jesse L. Lasky put it, "The output of a studio must of necessity cover the entire field of motion-picture entertainment, and the mind and creative instincts of no one man is able to encompass every type of motion picture." Another weakness of the system surfaced during the Depression when it became apparent that a single person could not monitor production costs on a day-to-day basis. Some studios therefore modified the central producer system to create what became known as the producer-unit system. As the term implies, production was apportioned among a group of producers, each of whom headed a core group of talent responsible for three to six pictures a year. Because a unit producer specialized in a certain type of picture, the new system was supposed to improve quality while greatly lowering overhead costs.5
MGM instituted the producer-unit system in 1933 after Thalberg suffered a heart attack. Restructuring the studio, Mayer assumed all the administrative chores, formed a production unit for his son-in-law David O. Selznick to produce prestige pictures, and then upgraded Thalberg's associate producers by giving them responsibility for their own films and by giving them screen credit as producers. Until his premature death in 1936, Thalberg thereafter functioned as a special-projects producer to sustain MGM's reputation for "polished elegant craftsmanship." Among these special projects were The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).6
Warners shifted to the producer-unit system in 1933 following Darryl Zanuck's walkout in protest over Harry Warner's decision to retain salary cuts after the national bank holiday. To replace Zanuck, the studio made Hal B. Wallis associate executive in charge of production under Jack Warner. Over the next several years, Wallis upgraded the authority of the supervisors, changed their title to associate producer, and gave them appropriate screen credit. Unlike the shift at MGM that dispersed control, the reorganization at Warners left Wallis with a good deal of centralized authority. Fortune reported that "Wallis initiates many scripts and passes on all of them, dickers with stars, assigns budgets, and in fact takes bows for the whole Warner picture program." Like their counterparts at MGM, Warners' six associate producers specialized in certain types of pictures. Henry Blanke, for example, was assigned "the most artistically ambitious" projects, such as the prestigious biopics Juarez, The Life of Emile Zola, and The Story of Louis Pasteur. Lou Edelman had the job of producing two types of low-cost movies, "service" pictures "glorifying some branch of uniformed forces of the nation" and "headliner" stories plucked from the newspapers. And Bryan Foy was given all of Warners' Â pictures.7
Paramount followed suit when it followed Joseph P. Kennedy's advice on restructuring the studio. Barney Balaban, Paramount's new president, appointed Y. Frank Freeman head of the studio. Since Freeman was basically an administrator, he placed William LeBaron in charge of production. LeBaron assigned all the Â pictures, which amounted to half the studio's output, to a single producer who functioned autonomously. To handle the A pictures, LeBaron organized two types of production units, one around the talents of producer-directors Cecil B. DeMille, Leo McCarey, and Henry Hathaway and the other around the talents of unit producers Arthur Hornblow, Al Lewin, Barney Glazer, and others. As Fortune said, "With the available Paramount star material more or less in mind, they sooner or later find a story that blossoms in their minds into a successful film. They clear it with LeBaron, get a budget from [George] Bagnall, and are off."8
The shift from central producer to the unit-producer system grew out of the Depression and answered a need to maintain fiscal restraints. This slight restructuring of production at the executive level did not loosen the studios' grip on talent; rather, the shift further concentrated production into the hands of executives. A Screen Directors Guild survey published in 1938 revealed that in 1927, Hollywood used 34 producers to make 743 pictures; ten years later, Hollywood was using 220 producers to make 484 pictures. "In other words," said Leo Rosten, "800 percent more producers were used in 1937 to make 40 percent fewer pictures than in 1936!"9
The pressures of mass production continued unabated as the decade progressed. Because the necessity of meeting the needs of exhibitors was often at odds with the creative impulses of moviemakers, the moguls resisted any encroachment on their prerogatives. In fact, the shift to unit production resulted in greater specialization in the design and execution of motion pictures as studios attempted to satisfy a cross section of audience tastes, particularly interest in big-budget prestige pictures.
To keep artistic personnel in line, studio chiefs had formed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. Conceived by Louis B. Mayer, the Academy was created to "improve the artistic quality of the film medium" and embraced five categories of filmmakers—producers, directors, actors, writers, and technicians. These employees apparently were given sufficient financial rewards to forestall serious labor organizing among their ranks for five years. Labor problems with the rank and file during the Depression were solved quickly and expeditiously. Among the talent groups, art directors, cinematographers, and editors joined unaffiliated professional associations, such as the American Society of Cinematographers and American Cinema Editors, which kept them content throughout the decade. Directors, actors, and screenwriters formed unions. Working conditions for these groups somewhat improved as a result, but the control of production remained firmly in the grip of producers.
Describing the status of his profession, Frank Capra, in his capacity as the founding president of the Screen Directors Guild (SDG), sent the following open letter to the New York Times in early 1939:
There are only half a dozen directors in Hollywood who are allowed to shoot as they please and who have any supervision over their editing. We all agree with you when you say that motion pictures are the director's medium…. [But] we have tried for three years… to have two weeks' preparation time for "A" pictures, one week preparation time for "B" pictures, and to have supervision of just the first rough cut of the picture…. We have only asked that the director be allowed to read the script he is going to do and to assemble the film in its first rough form.… It has taken three years of constant battling to achieve any part of this. I would say that 80 per cent of the directors today shoot scenes exactly as they are told to shoot them without any changes whatsoever, and that 90 per cent of them have no voice in the story or in the editing. (Quoted in Leo Rosten, Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers [New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1941], pp. 302-303)
Capra echoed a common complaint. Not only directors but most artistic personnel chafed at the demands of rigid production schedules. Once a dominant creative force behind the motion picture, the director did not retain even the right of the final cut by the thirties. Clearly, the decline in status of the director vis-à-vis the producer resulted from the efficiencies mandated by the reorganization of studios during the Depression. Wall Street's opinion of the director can be glimpsed from a piece by C. F. Morgan, who said,
Wall Street, 11 November 1933, p. 98">
What is the biggest production obstacle? The director. Five years ago he was king; today almost generally he's a liability. Any man who is so unsure of what he is doing and so lacking in confidence that he has to shoot 100,000 feet of film to be sure of 7,500 for his resulting picture, should be sent back to whatever he was doing before he began to infest the picture studios. ("Sanity Reaches the Movies," Magazine of Wall Street, 11 November 1933, p. 98)
Describing the function of the director, David O. Selznick said that at MGM, for example, "the director, nine times out often, is strictly a director, in the same sense that the stage director is the director of the play. His job is solely to get out on the stage and direct the actors, put them through the traces that are called for in the script." Elaborating on his point, Selznick noted that at Warners, the director is "purely a cog in the machine" for "ninety per cent of the Warner films" and is "handed a script, usually just a few days before he goes into production." A similar situation existed at 20th Century-Fox. Zanuck became deeply involved in script development, but he backed off during the shooting. However, while watching rushes he gave comments to the director, dictated notes to the editor, and chose the takes he wanted for the picture.10
The concept of authorial freedom as it is understood today did not exist in Hollywood during the thirties. Not even when Paramount made Ernst Lubitsch head of production in 1935. Although Lubitsch's short tenure marked "the only time in Hollywood studio history that such a noted director was given full creative control of a major studio's product," Lubitsch, in his capacity as production chief, disregarded so-called directors' prerogatives and used previews and the "retake and remake" method to improve pictures.11 At best, the top directors such as Frank Capra at Columbia, John Ford at Fox, Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount, King Vidor at MGM, and a few others enjoyed ample preparation time, participated in story conferences, and consulted with the editor and music director. In this manner, they were able to exercise a measure of influence over the entire production process.
In an attempt to reassert its prerogatives over production, a group of seventy-five directors organized the Screen Directors Guild on 16 January 1936 (the name was changed to the Directors Guild of America in 1960). The guild's manifesto stated, "It is the firm conviction of the Screen Directors' Guild that rehabilitation lies, first in changing the present 'system of production' which pervades the Industry, namely, eliminating the involved, complicated and expensive system of supervision which separates the Director and Writer from the responsible Executive Producers."12 To lead the fight for recognition, the guild elected Frank Capra as its first president.
Capra undoubtedly enjoyed more authorial freedom than any of his fellow directors. Capra earned it by directing a string of enormously popular pictures, by parlaying this success into control over production, and by constructing with the compliance of Columbia Pictures what Charles Wolfe called "the notion of what a successful, yet self-respecting and in some sense 'autonomous' filmmaker in Hollywood might be thought to be like."13
When Capra joined Columbia Pictures in 1927, the studio serviced the low end of the market. A member of Poverty Row, the studio owned no theaters, had no stars under contract, and generally operated on shoestring budgets. To make it into the majors, Columbia had to produce an occasional class-Á picture. Harry Cohn, Columbia's president, gave Capra this job. Capra responded by directing a series of inexpensive but well-received comedies. Trading on his value to the company, Capra insisted on having more authority over his work and on receiving public recognition for his labors. Columbia complied and, by the end of his first year of work, billed his films as "Frank Capra Productions."14
Going into the thirties, Capra's stature as a director of class-Á pictures grew with each successive release. By the time he made American Madness in 1932, critics were referring to him as "one of Hollywood's best." After It Happened One Night (1934) swept the Academy Awards, Capra literally became a star and received top billing in Columbia's ads. "A New Frank Capra production" and other such heralds thereafter became standard. To promote Lost Horizon (1937), Columbia's most expensive picture of the decade, "Columbia launched a promotional campaign that stressed Capra's direct supervision of all aspects of the lavish production.… By 1938 a special place for Capra as a filmmaker controlling all aspects of his work within the context of the studio system had been clearly established in popular commentary on the movies." The Saturday Evening Post, for example, published a profile by Alva Johnston entitled "Capra Shoots As He Pleases." Time featured Capra in a cover story about the status of the director in Hollywood. During the production of You Can't Take It with You, Life ran a photo spread entitled "How Frank Capra Makes a Hit Picture," in which Capra is seen studying the set designs, discussing the script, directing the cast, viewing the rushes, and even physically cutting the film. Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune proposed that Capra was "the most important figure in motion pictures today," by defining "the importance of the director in the complicated business of turning out a photoplay."15 Columbia, which lacked big-name stars, had created a star out of its top director. In the process, the studio gave the illusion that it was possible for a talented director to achieve the status of an auteur within the studio system.
When Frank Capra was fighting for recognition of the Directors Guild, 244 contract directors were working in Hollywood. More than half had started out in silent pictures, and only twenty-one had come from Broadway. Using Film Daily's annual poll as a measure of critical esteem indicates that Frank Capra and George Cukor led the pack with six pictures; followed by Sidney Franklin with five; Clarence Brown, William Dieterle, W. S. Van Dyke, and King Vidor with four; John Ford, Edmund Goulding, Henry King, Mervyn LeRoy, and William Wyler with three; and Richard Boleslawski, Frank Borzage, Jack Conway, Victor Fleming, George Hill, Robert Z. Leonard, Frank Lloyd, Leo McCarey, and Lewis Milestone with two.
The directors who won recognition in the Academy Award sweepstakes during the decade were Frank Capra, with three Oscars, followed by Lewis Milestone, Norman Taurog, Frank Borzage, Frank Lloyd, John Ford, Leo McCarey, and Victor Fleming. Every picture that won an Academy Award for best direction also appeared on Film Daily's Ten Best.
The directors whose pictures as a group made it to Variety's annual list of box-office winners were W. S. Van Dyke with four mentions; Frank Capra and George Cukor with three; followed by David Butler, Michael Curtiz, George B. Seitz, and Norman Taurog with two. Victor Fleming was mentioned only in 1939, but that year his two pictures, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, grossed more money in one year than any other group of pictures by a director in the decade. Practically all the above-named directors who were active in 1938 are listed in Leo Rosten's roster of the forty-five highest-paid directors, which is to say, directors with an annual salary of more than $75,000.16 As might be expected, a close correlation exists between a director's compensation and the number of times his name appeared on the lists, particularly Variety's. But more interesting is the correlation between a director's esteem as measured by the number of times his name appeared on the lists and the types of pictures he directed. This comparison reveals that the prestige picture most often constituted the prism through which a director's talents were measured.
Although contract directors were expected to be versatile and skillful technicians capable of directing up to six pictures a year, the elite corps also specialized in superspecials constructed around a studio's top stars. George Cukor made his reputation as a woman's director, eliciting remarkable performances from such famous stars as Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford at such studios as RKO, MGM, and Columbia. Clarence Brown made his reputation directing Greta Garbo—two silents and five of her most successful sound films at MGM. Henry King was best known for his pictures recreating Americana, but Darryl Zanuck also entrusted him with Fox's top stars, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche, in two big prestige pictures, Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) and In Old Chicago (1938).
Michael Curtiz's forty-two pictures for Warners during the thirties consisted of horror films, crime films, women's films, swashbucklers, and comedies, among other types. However, Curtiz also specialized in handling the studio's newest young stars, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, in a series of swashbucklers. W. S. Van Dyke, MGM's work horse, directed Manhattan Melodrama (1934), a gangster film; Marie Antoinette (1938), a historical drama; the Thin Man detective series; an Andy Hardy family comedy; and three Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy operettas.
The Directors Guild finally won recognition in February 1939 after Capra threatened to call a strike of all directors in Hollywood. The contract the studios signed with the guild gave most contract directors "greater freedom at the expense of the associate producers and supervisors who held power over them" and won for elite directors the status of producer-director. Unlike the contract director, the producer-director was allowed to select his own writers, cast, and cameraman, and to see his film through to the end. Moreover, he was allowed to concentrate on maybe two or three pictures a year instead of rushing through five or six. For his efforts the producer-director was paid a salary ranging from $90,000 to $300,000 a year and might even earn a share of the profits.17 However, in every case the studio invariably retained rights of approval over the key ingredients of a production—namely, the underlying property, the script, the budget, and the stars—and, of course, over how the picture was to be marketed.
Rosten estimated that around thirty directors had achieved producer-director status in 1939, among them Ernst Lubitsch and Mervyn LeRoy at MGM; Cecil B. DeMille and Wesley Ruggles at Paramount; Frank Capra and Howard Hawks at Columbia; David Butler at RKO; and John M. Stahl and Rowland V. Lee at Universal. Warners and 20th Century-Fox were the only studios that denied any director producer status.18
Capra, the leader of the pack, gained the most autonomy over his work by becoming an independent producer. Leaving Columbia at the end of 1939, he formed Frank Capra Productions in partnership with his screenwriter-collaborator, Robert Riskin. To make his next picture, he signed a production-distribution deal with Warners and secured financing from the Bank of America, a package that gave him rights of approval over the creative ingredients as well as authority over marketing.19 By taking this step, Capra joined the vanguard of the industrywide shift to independent production that took place over the next ten years.
Talking pictures added a new dimension to the craft of screenwriting—the ability to write realistic dialogue. Numerous contract writers from silent films easily made it into the talkies. Anita Loos, for example, returned to MGM after temporarily giving up screenwriting to write San Francisco (1936), Saratoga (1937), and The Women (1939). Frances Marion, who wrote for Mary Pickford in the teens, continued her career at MGM, where she wrote The Big House (1930), Min and Bill (1930), The Champ (1931), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Camille (1937). Jules Furthman, who started out selling stories to the movies in 1915, collaborated with Josef von Sternberg at Paramount on three major Marlene Dietrich films, Morocco (1930), the picture that launched Dietrich's career in America, Shanghai Express (1932), and Blonde Venus (1932). Furthman also wrote two pictures directed by Howard Hawks, Come and Get It (Goldwyn, 1936) and Only Angels Have Wings (Columbia, 1939).
Nonetheless, Hollywood needed fresh writers after converting to the talkies and sent its agents to New York, where they scoured publishing houses, newspaper and magazine editorial offices, literary agencies, and Broadway in search of talent. One result of the search was that a large chunk of the eastern literary establishment boarded Santa Fe's Super Chief for the West Coast. Joining the exodus were Maxwell Anderson, S. N. Behrman, Robert Benchley, Charles Brackett, Sidney Buchman, W. R. Burnett, James M. Cain, Marc Connelly, Rachel Crothers, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Moss Hart, Ben Hecht, Lillian Hellman, Sidney Howard, Nunnally Johnson, George S. Kaufman, Charles MacArthur, Dudley Nichols, Clifford Odets, Dorothy Parker, Samson Raphaelson, Robert E. Sherwood, Donald Ogden Stewart, Preston Sturges, and Thornton Wilder.
The experiences of these writers at the hands of producers generated the myth of Hollywood-as-destroyer, which Richard Fine described as follows:
Novelists and playwrights of acute sensibility and talent… were lured to Hollywood by offers of huge amounts of money and the promise of challenging assignments; once in the studios they were set to work on mundane, hackneyed scripts; they were treated without respect by the mandarins who ruled the studios; and they were subjected to petty interferences by their intellectual inferiors. In the process, they were destroyed as artists. Hollywood was a loathsome and demeaning place which invariably corrupted writers. Although writers prostituted themselves by accepting Hollywood paychecks, the film industry itself was the true villain of the tale. (Hollywood and the Profession of Authorship, 1928-1940, p. 3).
In analyzing the substance of the myth, Richard Fine discovered that the exodus of novelists, poets, playwrights, and newspapermen to Hollywood did not begin in earnest during the conversion to sound, as commonly believed, but in 1933 when the Depression forced half of Broadway's theaters to close and many venerable publishing firms to file for bankruptcy.20 In other words, they were not necessarily lured to Hollywood by offers of fat paychecks but were driven there by economic circumstances.
Back east, relations between authors and publishers were surprisingly cordial. Writers who earned a measure of notoriety gained respect and prestige. From a business and legal standpoint, an author owned his literary output, functioned as an independent economic agent, and retained creative control in the publication process. In the theater, playwrights enjoyed similar rights and privileges, thanks mainly to the Minimum Basic Agreement of the Dramatists Guild.
Once these writers nestled into their studio offices, they encountered circumstances totally different from what they had left behind. They learned that motion-picture production was big business dominated by five vertically integrated corporations and that creative authority resided in the financial-managerial class—namely, producers. As Fine put it,
For writers, Hollywood was New York turned topsy-turvy: instead of owning and controlling their work as independent economic agents, they found themselves employees, workers stripped of all proprietary rights; instead of their individuality and creativity being admired and rewarded, it was all too often prohibited or penalized; instead of editors, publishers and theatrical producers who acted as friends as well as business partners, they dealt with movie producers who were their absolute bosses in what was frequently an antagonistic relationship; and, finally, instead of receiving prestige because they were writers, they found themselves denied prestige because of their profession. The studio system, then, judged in terms of the world view of the New York literary marketplace, was an unmitigated disaster. (Hollywood and the Profession of Authorship, 1928-1940, pp. 127-128).
In terms of specifics, writers did not labor endlessly under long-term contracts; rather, they found employment "notoriously uneven, short-termed, and unpredictable."21 Studios sometimes preferred using length-of-picture contracts, un der which a writer was hired to work on a single script usually for around six months, or even short-term contracts lasting anywhere from one week to three months. In between jobs, writers went unemployed for long periods.
Studios paid higher salaries than New York—about $1,000 a week—but a writer seldom worked the full year. Fine reported that of the 238 writers under contract at the four largest studios in 1938, "only 165 earned more than $15,000 a year. The median salary of these 165 writers was approximately $25,000, or half what a writer earning $1000 a week would make working a full year."22 And unlike back east, Hollywood contract writers more often than not had to keep regular hours at the studio, normally from ten to five daily and a half day on Saturday.
Once they found employment, eastern writers complained mostly about three things: (1) the speed at which they were forced to work; (2) compulsory collaboration; and (3) unfair assigning of screen credits. Said Fine, "Despite the innumerable story conferences called by producers and the interminable delays they engendered, and despite the long periods during which contract writers waited to be assigned to projects, many writers felt pressured to work quickly." They were also forced to collaborate with other writers by working as a team and to take on projects that had been simultaneously assigned to others. Studios rationalized compulsory collaboration by saying the practice "promoted efficiency and used the special talents of each writer to enhance the total effect of the film—the whole being more than the sum of its parts," said Fine. But writers disagreed and countered that team writing was the result of producers having a compulsive need to control the writing process.23
The practice of assigning screen credits caused the most rancor. Before the Screen Writers Guild achieved recognition, the producer of a picture decided who would receive screen credit. Since more writers worked on the development of a screenplay than could receive credit, writers who worked on intermediate drafts could work for years without receiving recognition. "Writers constantly complained that the system of granting credits was corrupt and counterproductive in that it insidiously pitted writer against writer," said Fine.24 As will be explained below, writers had to wait until 1941 before studios accepted the Screen Writers Guild's plan for fairly arbitrating credit decisions.
In the meantime, a writer finding Hollywood's norms distasteful had several options. Top talents like Lillian Hellman, Dudley Nichols, Preston Sturges, and Nunnally Johnson refused to collaborate with other writers. A few screenwriters teamed up with elite directors who were sympathetic to their work. Dudley Nichols, for example, acquired considerable creative control writing screenplays for John Ford. Described as "the most successful sustained collaboration of screenwriter and director in Hollywood's history," Nichols and Ford made thirteen films together beginning in 1929, among them The Informer (1935), and Stagecoach (1939).25 The Informer was nominated for best picture and won Oscars for best screenplay and direction. Stagecoach, of course, became a Western classic. Another director-writer team to enjoy similar long-term success was the Frank Capra-Robert Riskin unit at Columbia. Their collaboration resulted in the acclaimed pictures American Madness (1932), It Happened One Night (1934), Broadway Bill (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), and You Can't Take It With You (1938).
A few writers even moved up to the producer ranks. Herman J. Mankiewicz functioned as associate producer for two early Marx Brothers films at Paramount, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). Sidney Buchman was made a producer at Columbia after writing the original screenplay for Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, the unofficial sequel to Mr. Deeds. Nunnally Johnson was promoted to writer-producer by Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox in 1935, a position he held for twenty years. Preston Sturges parlayed his writing credits into an opportunity to direct his own scripts. Doing stints at Paramount, MGM, and Universal, Sturges wrote over a dozen hits, based mostly on his own ideas. Finally, in 1940, Paramount permitted him to direct his seven-year-old script The Great Mcginty and revived screwball comedy in the process.
For those writers who could not find relief within the system, the option of unionizing always existed.26 As pointed out earlier, the salary cut instituted by the studios after the 1933 bank holiday precipitated a crisis in labor-management relations and resulted in the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (SWG) on 6 April 1933 and of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) that June. The producers recognized the SAG on 15 May 1937, but recognition for the Screen Writers Guild came only after a protracted and acrimonious battle. Since the SWG platform went far beyond the bread-and-butter issues of the Actors Guild by demanding more creative authority over production and copyright protection that would make writers part-owners of the movies based on their scripts, the studios fought back with obstinancy and indiscretion.
Although the SWG won certification from the National Labor Relations Board as the sole bargaining representative of motion-picture writers on 10 August 1938, the result of studio-by-studio elections, producers stonewalled during bargaining sessions. A guild shop was finally established in May 1941. Needless to say, none of the goals of the original platform were realized. The studios agreed to ban speculative writing, set a minimum wage, and made the guild the sole arbiter of screen credits, but they would have nothing to do with elevating the creative status of the screenwriter. The means producers used to oppose the SWG provided "one of the less flattering commentaries on the men who control movie production," commented Rosten.27
A commonplace of film history states that during the thirties each studio developed a distinctive style, a special visual "look." The notion needs qualification. It is more accurate to say each studio typically developed a distinctive house style when it produced the most important films on its roster at the level where differentiation would normally be most effective. And the extent of this differentiation depended on a combination of factors, among them the stars on the payroll, the specialty genres of the studio, the creative personnel on the staff, and the size of the production budgets.28
Studio art departments potentially had the greatest impact on the look of a picture. Describing MGM's operations, Morton Eustis said the art department is responsible for "everything that can be seen on the screen, with the exception of the faces, the figures and the motion of the actors themselves. This includes settings and props, real or unreal, lights and costumes and other less tangible but no less important elements." Organized during the twenties, the great Hollywood art departments used a two-tier system of organization that divided responsibility between a supervising art director, who visualized the script, and a unit art director, who did the actual design and oversaw its construction. The most powerful supervising art directors in Hollywood, Cedric Gibbons at MGM, Van Nest Polglase at RKO, and Hans Dreier at Paramount, headed departments of between fifty and eighty people, among them unit art directors, architects, illustrators, model makers, and set decorators.29
Original sets were designed for class-A pictures; class-B pictures either reused older sets or were shot on standing sets to save money. As each class-A picture was placed in development, the art department broke down the script to determine the number of sets, costumes, exterior locations, and other requirements to physically produce the film. The studio wanted the breakdown not only to determine costs but also to inform each technical department (property shop, special effects, miniature shop) exactly what was required and in what sequence. After the front office approved the picture and its budget, the supervising art director gave the go-ahead to the unit art director who had been assigned the project.
Having created the basic design concept of the picture, the unit art director produced sketches of the master scenes. From these sketches would emerge the selection of locations and the final designs for the sets, miniatures, and special effects. Some unit art directors and sketch artists specialized in certain types of pictures, such as crime films or Westerns, but most had to be versatile enough to work in every historical style. The actual building of the sets was done by construction crews working around the clock, six days a week, with most of the work being done on the night shift. Afterward, the set decorator completed the process by dressing the set with furniture, draperies, and props acquired from the property department or from rental sources or by purchase.
From the point of view of studio investment, Hollywood's most ambitious efforts of the decade were prestige period pictures. Whatever the period—ancient Rome, medieval Paris, Elizabethan England, eighteenth-century Versailles, or Victorian London—films had to conform to commonly accepted norms of authenticity. Working hand in hand with art and costume designers, a studio's research department authenticated the setting, costumes, and other elements of the mise-en-scène that reflected the period of the picture. To aid them, specialists in the research department organized reference libraries containing art history books, prints and illustrations, and art and architecture magazines.
Although the unit art director did the designing, the supervising art director customarily received the main production credit above the name of the unit art director whether or not he personally contributed to the project. MGM's Cedric Gibbons may have initiated the practice. Joining the studio as head of the art department in 1924, he had a clause inserted in his contract stipulating that his credit would appear on every picture the studio produced, a stipulation that the studio respected with few exceptions until his retirement in 1956.30
Art directors, like other creative and technical personnel at the studios, worked under exclusive term contracts. For example, Anton Grot at Warners worked on year-to-year contracts. In 1932, Warners paid him $250 per week, about the same amount as Joan Blondell and other contract actors, but considerably less than James Cagney's $1,750 weekly salary. During this period Grot single-handedly designed as many as eleven productions a year. By 1939 his lot improved somewhat; he was earning $450 a week on a two-year contract and had to design only two pictures. Art directors were not unionized until the mid forties when the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors, which had been functioning as a professional organization, became affiliated with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).31
The famous MGM look was created mainly by one individual, Cedric Gibbons. "The nearest thing to a movie star that Hollywood art direction ever had," Gibbons was "one of the most powerful personalities in America's most powerful studio for thirty years."32 Joining the newly merged MGM in 1924, Gibbons oversaw the construction of a vast assortment of permanent sets on the studio's backlot—a village, several town squares, city streets, a park, and a waterfront, among others. He also set up some of the finest ancillary departments in Hollywood, such as scene painting, models and miniatures, and special effects. Unlike those of other studios, MGM's ancillary departments were tightly centralized and existed to serve one person, and that was Gibbons. In one way or another, Cedric Gibbons's art department affected the work of 70 percent of the studio's forty-five hundred workers.
As the industry's most prestigious and financially secure studio, MGM became justly famous for the designs of award-winning period pictures and fantasies such as The Merry Widow (1934), David Copperfield (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Good Earth (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), and Wizard of Oz (1939). But MGM is equally renowned for popularizing modernism in Hollywood art design. After attending the landmark Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, Gibbons came under the influence of art deco and art moderne. He first promoted these modernistic styles in Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Modern Maidens (1929), and Our Blushing Brides (1930), MGM's trilogy of carefree youth in the Jazz Age starring Joan Crawford. The designs for these pictures "were drawn in accordance with what he called his philosophy of the uncluttered—they were clean, functional and often highly stylized, a look that was to cause a major revolution in movie decor."33
Since modernism became associated with luxury, glamour, and affluence, it became the perfect visual style to complement Thalberg's urban strategy of producing pictures based on contemporary sources and themes. MGM's most famous modernistic set is undoubtedly the stunning art deco lobby of Grand Hotel (1932), which Gibbons designed in collaboration with Alexander Toluboff. Donald Albrecht described its design as follows:
Circles are prominent in every aspect of the Grand Hotel's design—an appropriate image for the spinning-wheel-of-fortune scenario. The circular motif appears in the hotel's round, multilevel atrium with open balconies, in the continually revolving doors, and in ornaments on balcony railings. It also appears in the round reception desk, which acts as a pivot for the curving shots that follow the movement of the film's characters, who travel across the black-and-white floor like pawns in a chess game. Movie plot and architecture have seldom been so closely harmonized. (Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies [New York: Harper and Row, 1986], pp. 139-140)
Influential exhibitions held in America such as the Museum of Modern Art's "Modern Architecture" in 1932 and the Chicago Century of Progress the following year marked the peak of modernism's popularity. By then, modernism had become the style of choice of Hollywood art directors when designing such perquisites of wealth as penthouses, nightclubs, executive suites, and ocean liners.
Some of the most dazzling modern set decor of the period was done at RKO. Under the leadership of Van Nest Polglese, RKO's art department was "second to none in stylishness, tasteful flights of fancy, and an enjoyably identifiable studio imprint." King Kong (1933), The Informer (1935), Mary of Scotland (1936), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), to name a few, demonstrated the range and quality of RKO's atmospheric designs, but the studio's most polished work was done for the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Van Nest Polglase and unit art director Carroll Clark received credit for most of the pictures, but the designs were actually collaborative efforts that also used the talents of set designer Allan Abbott and illustrator Maurice Zuberano. This design team introduced what Arlene Croce has called "the fixed architectural institution … known as the B.W.S. (Big White Set)." It appeared as grand hotels, nightclubs, and boudoirs in such pictures as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swingtime (1936). Using art deco to "evoke a feeling of stark elegance," the B.W.S. characteristically incorporated streamlining, sharp contrasts of black and white in the decor, and geometric decorative motifs.34 Describing their effectiveness, Ellen Spiegel said,
The sets were simple enough to act as backdrops for the dance sequences, which were after all what the public came to see, and to highlight the costumed, elaborately-decorated bodies. But the attention given the design of the sets by Polglase and the art department shows that they were more than just rooms to be danced through. Their style had to co-ordinate with that of the costumes and the movement, since the sets formed an integral part of the action. Astaire and Rogers danced over the banisters, down staircases, over chairs, and around balconies in all their movies. ("Fred and Ginger Meet Van Nest Polglase," Velvet Light Trap 10 , p. 19)
Working in the same architectural tradition as Gibbons and Polglase but using expressionism rather than modernism to create atmosphere and mood, Charles ("Danny") Hall designed Universal's most distinctive defining genre, the horror film. Hall's formula was perfected in Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Dracula's mysterious castle with its crumbling stone staircase and cobwebbed rooms and Frankenstein's modernistic laboratory housed in a decaying tower, among other sets Hall designed for these pictures, did more than differentiate Universal's films from its competitors; they also participated in the action.
Hans Dreier, supervising art director at Paramount, was even more concerned with individual shots and scenes. A Munich-born architect and former scene designer at the UFA studios in Germany, Dreier joined Paramount at the invitation of Ernst Lubitsch and served as the head of its art department from 1932 to 1952. Dreier ran a tight ship, but unlike Gibbons and Polglase, he encouraged his unit art directors to develop their own personal styles. In addition to his administrative duties, Dreier remained a practicing designer and developed a distinctive style as a master of "subtle and evocative atmosphere" collaborating with the studio's European-oriented directors. Among Dreier's most influential designs were the art deco set for Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932); the enchanting fairytale kingdom for Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (1932); and a stylized expressionistic setting for Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934). Dreier collaborated with Von Sternberg more closely than with any other director and was responsible for many arresting effects in Von Sternberg's pictures. Like Danny Hall's sets, Dreier's created mood for each scene and participated in the action. As Beverly Heisner described it, Dreier's sets "must be stepped through, seen through, they interfere with the actors. Curtains fall into faces, the camera moves with erotic intent through crevices in the wall—first blocking and then admitting the viewer. In a Von Sternberg film the surroundings engage the actors."35
Two designers, Anton Grot of Warner Bros, and the free-lancer William Cameron Menzies, had the most success in translating their ideas into completed motion pictures. Born Antocz Groszewski in Poland, Grot worked as a full-time art director for Warners from 1927 to 1948. An extremely prolific and imaginative designer, Grot exerted a tremendous influence on directors Michael Curtiz, Mervyn LeRoy, and William Dieterle. (Grot received four Oscar nominations, but Warner's only Oscar for art direction during the thirties was awarded to Carl Jules Weyl, for his storybook designs for The Adventures of Robin Hood .) Designing for Warners, Grot had to work with tight budgets, but he made a virtue out of necessity by doing storyboards, frame-by-frame sketches in black ink or charcoal containing finely detailed shadings of light and shadow. As Grot did them, storyboards ensured that only the parts of the set that showed were built, but they also had the secondary effect of limiting "directors to the camera positions and angles he visualized."36
Fashioning sets seemingly "only of light and shadow," Grot created superb designs for the studio's specialty genres, among them the horror film (Svengali ), the gangster film (Little Caesar ), and the musical (Gold Diggers of 1935). When Warners moved into the prestige market in 1935, the new studio look was largely of Grot's creation. His continuity sketches for Captain Blood (1935) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), for example, were followed almost shot by shot. In addition to these pictures, Grot designed A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939).
Hired by David O. Selznick as production designer for Gone with the Wind, William Cameron Menzies made a major contribution by preplanning the color and design of the entire picture. To save money and to retain tight control over the shooting of the epic picture, Selznick wanted almost every last camera angle nailed down before production began. Working directly from the book—since a screenplay had yet to be written—Menzies created a "complete script in sketch form, showing actual camera setups, lighting, etc." Executed in color and with daring, Menzies's storyboards are the most famous of the period. The directors who worked on the film followed his storyboards slavishly. In recognition of Menzies's contribution to Gone with the Wind, Selznick created the special credit "Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies." Since there was no precedent for what Menzies had done, the Academy awarded him a special plaque at the Oscar ceremonies to recognize his "outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone With the Wind."37 Although storyboarding is a common practice today, Grot's and Menzies's influence over the visual look of their pictures confounds the notion of film authorship that is focused exclusively on the director.
Like the art department, the costume department of a Hollywood studio was hierarchically organized, supervised by a chief designer who was assisted by the head of wardrobe, several junior designers, sketch artists, period researchers, wardrobe assistants, and seamstresses. Responsible mainly for dressing the stars in a picture, the chief designer sketched their clothes and prepared a wardrobe plot indicating what they would wear in each scene. Costumes, like sets, served a narrative function; they helped define character, social status, and historical period.
Take the case of Scarlett O'Hara's costumes in Gone with the Wind. Walter Plunkett's designs were among the most famous of the period. They were authentic in every detail and also had the distinction of revealing character in an original and complex way. Scarlett's costumes clearly reflected the two different periods of her life—"the petulant Southern belle, and later the postbellum woman who turns her back on her earlier life of picture-book elegance to face despair, poverty, and the bare necessity to survive." For the first period, Plunkett designed a wardrobe of organdy and tulle, light and sheer fabrics. For the second, Plunkett used velvets, a heavier and darker fabric. Costume reveals the start of Scarlett's second period of her life when she tears down the green velvet curtains in her mother's dining room and orders Mammy to sew a dress she can wear to ensnare Rhett Butler, who has the means to pay the property taxes on Tara and save it from foreclosure. Thereafter, as Scarlett rises to greater affluence, Plunkett dressed her in different colors and weights of velvet, creating a kind of motif.38
The fame of Hollywood's leading costumers—Adrian of MGM, Travis Banton of Paramount, Orry-Kelly of Warners, and Walter Plunkett of RKO—rested primarily on the clothing they designed for their studio's superstars. Undoubtedly, the most famous costume designer in Hollywood's history was MGM's Adrian, born Gilbert Adrian Rosenberg. "During his tenure at the studio [1928 to 1942]," Edward Maeder said, "he was treated like a star, and he was so well known that press releases would often trumpet his work as a special—sometimes the most important—element in a film."39
Adrian's most ambitious project was Marie Antoinette (1938), a vehicle Irving Thalberg conceived for his wife, Norma Shearer, the queen of the MGM lot. Taking three years to produce, the film probably involved more period research than any other picture of the decade. Research experts were dispatched to Europe to gather antique prints, folios of drawings, actual garments of the period, and rare accessories. Adrian carefully studied the objects and made hundreds of sketches for his staff. The MGM costume shop turned out twenty-five hundred costumes; Max Factor and Company made more than two thousand wigs; and an international assemblage of artisans executed Norma Shearer's thirty-four costumes. Describing the effort that went into Shearer's costumes, W. Robert La Vine said,
Special silk velvets and brocades were woven in Lyons, France's silk center, and hundreds of yards of gold and silver lace and intricate trimmings were imported from the few small factories in Austria and Italy that still manufactured them. Eight embroiderers were brought from Hungary to decorate the costumes with exquisite handwork, and a former milliner of the Imperial Russian Opera costume department, discovered in Paris, agreed to oversee the making of hundreds of hats and headdresses for the film. Sydney Guilaroff, MGM's famed hairdresser, … made Norma Shearer's eighteen wigs, and Jack Dawn created her porcelainlike makeup. Dozens of copies of eighteenth-century buckled shoes were made by hand. Embroidered gloves and a fortune in jewelry, some set with genuine precious stones and diamonds, were assembled. Not even history's real Marie Antoinette had been dressed with a more lavish hand! (In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980], pp. 44, 50-51)
Conceived in a modern idiom, Adrian's stylish outfits for Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford made a huge impact on women's fashions. For example, a white ruffled organdy gown Adrian designed for Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932) became all the rage and was widely copied by the fashion industry on New York's Seventh Avenue. Macy's claimed to have sold fifty thousand inexpensive copies of the dress. Even more influential was Adrian's famous design for Crawford, the wide-shouldered, narrow-hipped silhouette that became her most important fashion trademark.
Contrasting with the theatricalism of Adrian's designs, Travis Banton's designs for Paramount's stars such as Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Claudette Colbert were elegantly simple. La Vine said,
Travis Banton's understated and deceptively simple designs elevated motion picture costumes to the status of high fashion. His innate understanding of the bias cut … and his sense of exquisite balance in a garment perfectly captured the new sophistication that arrived with the thirties. A Banton gown, with a softness and sultriness that followed a woman's body, was Hollywood design at its most sublime. (In a Glamorous Fashion, p. 63)
For the likes of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, Banton outdid himself. To underscore the campiness of Mae West's comedies, Banton's formula was "'Diamonds—lots of 'em' and huge hats, feather boas, fox stoles and vertical panels of light material or brilliants with darker side panels to slim her down." To complement the exoticism of Marlene Dietrich's Sternberg pictures, Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Blonde Venus (1932) Banton's formula consisted of "chiffon," "mountains of fur," "white tie and tails," and "lustrous black coq feathers."40
To costume Bette Davis, Warner's prima donna, Orry-Kelly used "utter simplicity and high fashion without theatricality." Unlike other superstars, Davis loathed being type-cast and insisted on changing her appearance from film to film—for example, from a spoiled Southern belle in Jezebel (1938), to a rigid spinster in The Old Maid (1939), to a headstrong and vulnerable queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Bette Davis's rather plumpish figure presented problems, but "with the skill of an engineer, Kelly restructured her figure with cleverly cut, well-made garments that successfully created the desired image."41
The necessity of creating the desired image for a star was also a principal responsibility of the director of photography. The impact of new technology on cinematography during the thirties is discussed elsewhere. What is at issue here is the relationship of the director of photography to the studio look. Professionally, cinematographers were tied to the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), which was neither a labor union nor a guild, but a tightly knit professional association that held a closed-shop contract with all the major studios. The first craft organization of any kind in the industry, the ASC was incorporated in 1919 for the interchange of ideas and technical information. Membership was by invitation and open only to accomplished directors of photography; later the ASC accepted second cameramen and assistant cameramen as members in a junior division. Firmly established by the thirties, the ASC became the only reliable talent pool from which producers could draw experienced cameramen. The ASC served as bargaining agent for all cameramen, but this function was taken over by the cameramen's union in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees during the mid thirties.42
The return of single-camera filmmaking following the conversion to sound reorganized the camera crew and more clearly demarcated the cinematographer's responsibilities on the set from the director's. The camera crew now consisted of the director of photography or cinematographer, whose principal creative input was to design the lighting for the shot and to oversee the camera setups in consultation with the director; the camera operator, who actually ran the camera, was "responsible for the mechanical perfection of the scenes"; and the assistant cameramen, who took care of the equipment, loaded and unloaded film and acted as focus pullers, among other jobs.43
A combination of factors influenced lighting style above and beyond the inclinations of the cinematographer: the house look, the star, and the story. A studio's specialty genres obviously dictated a certain look. Warners, for example, developed a somber house style for its social-problem pictures. To fit with the realism of these pictures, the style consisted of austere, flat lighting and highly contrasted images. To complement MGM's opulent and sophisticated house style, Gibbons imposed on MGM's pictures a consistency of style and mood; settings were bathed in brilliant high-key lighting that created a soft gray-white glossy look. In practice, this meant that Gibbons supervised the lighting of all the large, important sets, but left the lighting of close-ups entirely to the judgment of the cinematographer.44
Since the entire production process revolved around stars and since stars constituted some of the biggest investments of a studio, the prime responsibility of the director of photography in a picture was to safeguard the image of a star. Protection meant designing the lighting to present the star's image to best advantage. As cinematographer Gregg Toland pointed out, "The best angle, the most appropriate lighting for the scene, may have to be discarded in favor of the particular angle or light value most flattering to a star or principal. Such photo-flattery often means the subjugation of realism to personality." Karl Struss, director of photography at Paramount, put it another way: "We must strive to convey an impression, not alone of actuality, but of perfected actuality. Our aim is to show players and settings, not merely as they are, but as the audience would like to see them."45 In practice, this meant that at MGM and Paramount, for example, cinematographers typically used a glamorous form of backlighting called "Rembrandt lighting" in close-ups of both its male and female stars.
Certainly the most famous star-cinematographer collaboration of the era was between MGM's Greta Garbo and William Daniels. Working with Garbo on her first U.S. picture, The Torrent (1926), Daniels was able to capture Greta Garbo's unique features, and after Garbo became a star, she had it written into her contract that the cinematographer on all her pictures would be Daniels. Lee Garnies collaborated closely with Josef von Sternberg at Paramount on a number of the most stunning Marlene Dietrich pictures. Ernest Haller was Bette Davis's favorite cameraman at Warner, but she also admired the work of Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito. Arthur Miller at Fox was entrusted with young Shirley Temple. Commenting on how he created her image, Miller said, "I always lit her so she had an aureole of golden hair. I used a lamp on Shirley that made her whole damn image world famous." And Joseph Valentine's handling of Deanna Durbin at Universal was described as "the difference between making a musical bright and fluffy or allowing it to settle like a cold souffle."46
Efficiency would suggest that cinematographers be brought in early to consult with the art director, costume designer, and director. But cinematographers were seldom consulted in pre-production. Typically, they were required to move from project to project with little preparation time in between. Once production had begun, tight schedules and budgets kept expensive retakes and experimentation to a minimum. Because the system forced cameramen to fall back on conventional forms of shooting, Hollywood cinematography during the thirties all too often lacked individuality.
But the wonder is that so many cinematographers transcended these institutional constraints to imprint their visual signatures on their films. Gregg Toland's experiments with deep-focus photography working for independent producer Sam Goldwyn distinguished him as one of the most inventive and creative cinematographers of the period (see Chapter 5). MGM's most distinctive cinematography was done not only by William Daniels who photographed the studio's leading ladies—Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jeanette MacDonald, and Eleanor Powell—but also by Hal Rosson, who shot The Wizard of Oz (1939), and by Karl Freund and Joseph Ruttenberg, who won Academy Awards for their cinematography on The Good Earth (1937) and The Great Waltz (1938), respectively. Paramount's most distinctive cinematography was created by Karl Struss, who devised the filter work for the transformation process in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) and by Lee Garnies, Charles B. Lang, Jr., and Victor Milner, who won Academy Awards for Shanghai Express (1932), A Farewell to Arms (1933), and Cleopatra (1934). Warner's most distinctive work was done by Hal Mohr and Tony Gaudio, who won back-to-back Academy Awards for A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and Anthony Adverse (1936). Tony Gaudio also designed the cinematography for Little Caesar (1931) and the Paul Muni biopics. Sol Polito designed the effective black-and-white cinematography for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and the expressive lighting for the Technicolor The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Polito and Tony Gaudio together designed the lighting for another dazzling Technicolor production, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). After shooting Jezebel (1938), a Bette Davis vehicle, Ernest Haller co-photographed Gone with the Wind (1939) with Ray Rennahan at Selznick and then returned to work with Davis again on Dark Victory and other pictures.
Other distinguished cinematographers include J. Peverell Marley, who established the lighting style for 20th Century-Fox's prestige pictures; Arthur Edeson and John Mescall, who designed the lighting for Universal's horror pictures; and Joseph H. August, who created the atmospheric photography for some of John Ford's most memorable films at RKO.
The discussion has so far implied that the majors rationalized production first of all by dividing output into A and B groups and then by allocating a specified amount of the total production budget to each group. The number and types of A films produced in a season depended mainly on the financial health of the company and the strengths of its personnel. For example, MGM budgeted $500,000 on the average for each of its top-grade pictures during the Depression, about $150,000 more per picture than any other company. MGM's outlay reflected, of course, the financial status of its parent company, Loew's Inc. In contrast, Warner Bros., which referred to itself as "The Ford of the Movies," produced its class-Á films cheaply and efficiently, from $200,000 to $400,000 per picture during the Depression. Reflecting Harry Warner's determination to pay off company debts, Warner's class-A pictures consisted mostly of fast-paced topicals based on stories plucked out of the day's news. The studio discouraged costly retakes and rigidly cut costs to the bare bones. RKO's tenuous financial condition during the Depression forced the studio to cap the production costs for its top-grade product at around $200,000, but because of constant changes in front-office personnel, RKO never succeeded in formulating a successful production strategy. When economic conditions improved, the gap in production costs between MGM and the other majors closed somewhat, but Loew's remained the most profitable company throughout the decade and in 1939 had allocated $42 million for production, the highest such budget in the industry.47
Average production costs, however, do not tell the entire story, because the class-A output of the majors was actually divided into three tiers—superspecials, specials, and programmers. Superspecials typically consisted of prestige pictures and big-budget musicals with top stars, expensive production values, and running times as long as two and a half hours. Costing $1 million and more to produce, only a handful of such pictures would be produced by a studio in any given year. Specials constituted the bulk of the class-A line. Like superspecials, they were based on presold properties and contained popular stars, but they followed the principal production trends, conformed to regular running times, and had lower production budgets. Programmers had the lowest budgets of the group. They were typically based on original stories and contained minor stars and running times as short as fifty minutes. Such films were called programmers because they could fill either the top or bottom of a bill, depending on the genre, size of theater, and audience. A typical programmer, such as MGM's The Chaser (1938) featuring Dennis O'Keefe, was reviewed by Variety as follows: "Satisfactory programmer. Has fairly good plot, workmanlike script, capable direction and lucid acting though weak in marquee rating. Okay for the duals."48
A prevailing myth states that the motion pictures produced by a studio reflected pretty much the tastes of its chief executive.
Hailing, as many of them did, from carnivals, nickelodeons, and amusement parks, studio executives compensated for any lack of aesthetic criteria by a "feel" for what would sell. They claimed to possess a kind of anatomical Richter scale on which they relied for their pronouncements about the taste and salability of movies: a sinking in the stomach, a tug of the heartstrings, or Harry Cohn's oracular stimulus—a tickle on the buttocks. (Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960 [Garden City: Anchor Press, 1980], p. 7)
But like everything else about production, the majors also rationalized story acquisition and development. All the companies had story departments with large offices in New York, Hollywood, and Europe that systematically searched the literary marketplace and the stage for suitable novels, plays, short stories, and original ideas. Scouts for the studios sometimes even secured new works in manuscript or galleys, which was how Selznick acquired the motion-picture rights to Gone with the Wind.
The question is, what policy, if any, guided a studio in acquiring properties? Robert Gustafson has attempted to answer such a question in his analysis of story acquisitions at Warners from 1930 to 1949. Warners' story department may not be representative of all the majors; nonetheless, Gustafson's study provides unusual insight into this phase of the production process. Gustafson argues that "the pattern of source acquisition demonstrates two often contradictory goals: (1) the desire to base films on pretested material, that is, low-risk material that was already well known and well received by the public and (2) the desire to acquire properties as inexpensively as possible, especially during declining or uncertain economic circumstances."49 In practice, this meant that in good times, Warners invested in pretested properties such as best-selling novels, hit Broadway plays, and popular short stories. In bad times, it offset the high costs of pretested properties by using original scripts written in its screenwriting department and by relying heavily on "the cheapest pretested material of all"—earlier Warner pictures.
Using its windfall profits from innovating sound, Warners splurged on Broadway hits, best-selling novels, popular nonfiction works, and short stories from popular magazines. From 1930 to 1934 these expensive pretested materials were used to produce nearly 50 percent of the studio's output, while original material, such as unpublished, unproduced, and untested short stories, novels, and plays created by Warners' writers, were used for 14 percent of the roster. Exploiting pretested source materials was an expensive but nonetheless conservative practice. But the remarkable thing about Warners' use of these pretested properties is that little relationship existed between acquisition costs and production costs. As Gustafson points out, "motion pictures that cost $200,000 or less to produce had an average source cost of $7,000. However, films that cost more than $200,000 to produce had an average source cost of $8,000."50
When the studio sank into the red, Harry Warner demanded a radical change in the operations of the studio to eliminate waste. The story department, in particular, was directed to tie acquisitions to the company's gross revenues; to be precise, Harry Warner mandated that the annual budget for the department was to be pegged at one-half of 1 percent of the company's gross for the previous year. Pegging the budget to revenues would prevent "wild" buying and link the department to the overall performance of the company.
Harry Warner's directive resulted in the story department moving away from expensive, tried-and-true properties to material written by salaried screenwriters working for the studio. From 1934, the first year of the pegged budget, to 1941, the last year before the World War II box-office boom, the studio relied on its writers for 40 percent of its source material, an increase of over 25 percent from the 1930-1933 period. Expensive, pretested properties were used for 21 percent of the studio's output in the same period, a drop of nearly 30 percent. In other words, Harry Warner's business plan reduced costs by substituting labor for capital.
Harry Warner's business plan had the effect of further rationalizing source acquisition formulas for A and B pictures. After 1934 the story department continued purchasing expensive properties at nearly the same rate as before to stay competitive, but Harry Warner added a new wrinkle to the process; all big-ticket items had to be sent to Jack Warner for approval. Jack insisted on being presented with a one-page synopsis of the property under consideration. If he liked it, he wanted to read a sixteen-page treatment before saying yea or nay.
The spending policy on properties for the class-A films seems to have been this; the higher the estimated production cost, the more that could be spent on the underlying property. On the average, class-A films in the $200,000-$400,000 range used sources that cost $12,000, while those above $400,000 used sources that cost $16,600. Having once acquired an expensive property, it seems reasonable that a studio would want to reuse it often. After all, it had great name value and would provide a cheap and easy way to replicate success. But the studio seldom recycled expensive properties (e.g., Green Pastures) because they were by definition easily recognizable by many people and therefore were likely to make audiences feel cheated if reused. The number and percentage of remakes Warners produced increased significantly after 1934, but the majority of these pictures were Bs.
After the rise of double features, Warners boosted B production from 12 percent to 50 percent of annual output beginning in 1935, where it remained until the war. Since budgets for B pictures were between one-quarter and one-half the size of the A pictures, Harry Warner's business plan dictated that the cost of source materials for these pictures be scaled down accordingly. From 1934 to 1941, plays used in B pictures cost $8,400 on the average, compared to $42,500 for those used in A pictures; for novels, the ratio was $6,400 to $18,500; and for short stories, it was $1,500 to $10,500.
To stay within the new budget constraints, the story department tapped Warners screenwriters for original scripts. From 1934 to 1941, 44 percent of the B films were based on original sources compared to 18 percent of the A films. To save more money, the B unit also recycled previously purchased source material from films that had originally done "fair" or "poor" at the box office.
But how did a studio determine before the start of production what the public wanted? Howard T. Lewis noted in his 1933 study of the motion-picture industry that "no company has been able to develop to its own satisfaction any method by which it can guarantee in advance that a proposed picture will be a box office success." In deciding what to produce the next season, producers scrutinized box-office receipts; evaluated exhibitors reports, fan mail, and reviews; and watched newspapers, magazines, and books to keep abreast of public tastes. But no studio ever devised a "wholly satisfactory method of determining the probabilities of success of a proposed picture…. The method followed is still one of guessing; the producers don't know just what the public wants, and it is doubtful if they ever will know," Lewis concluded.51
The best a producer could do in the way of market research was to test a completed picture at a sneak preview before releasing it. Although it was a common practice, previewing did not help much; the producer had already committed himself to the basic concept of the picture, and all he could do after analyzing audience reaction was to trim here and there or to reshoot a scene or two to eliminate the dull moments and to highlight the good ones.
As a result, producers attempted to protect their investments by reducing risks. The most common way, of course, was to rely on stars, which is the subject of a later chapter. Another way was to diversify the roster. Although Warners is best remembered for its gangster pictures and films of social consciousness, a survey of its output during the 1930s and 1940s conducted by John Davis reveals that the studio produced close to thirty different types of pictures, which he categorized into six groups—crime, the American scene, love, comedy, musicals, and costumers.52
Another way to reduce risks was to follow trends. Production trends ran in cycles. Lewis described it thus: "What actually happens is that an outstanding gangster or war picture is produced. Immediately other directors imitate it in an effort to take advantage of the new idea conceived by someone else and to capitalize on the favorable publicity which the good picture has received. As a result a flood of such pictures, more or less copies of the original, inundates the screen." Thomas Simonet states this idea another way: "Cautious moviemakers might minimize their risks by emphasizing the familiar—recreating with slight changes films that have proven successful in the past. More risk-oriented moviemakers, on the other hand, might emphasize the original."53 During the thirties, companies with the deepest pockets proved the most adventuresome, and the Little Three and Poverty Row studios, the most conservative.
The era is replete with examples of production cycles; but studios did more than imitate picture types; they even mimicked narrative structure. For example, the so-called "one locale" setting of MGM's Grand Hotel, which provided the basis for interweaving several unrelated narrative threads, inspired such pictures as Columbia's American Madness, which is set in a bank, Warners' Employees' Entrance, which is set in a department store, and Paramount's Big Broadcast, which is set in a radio station.
The best way to hedge bets was to launch a series. Once successfully launched, a series creates loyal and eager fans who form a core audience. By keeping production costs in line with this ready-made demand, series pictures are almost guaranteed a profit. The problem, of course, is to hit upon a theme or subject that will keep an audience's interest beyond the sequel. Although series pictures were typically associated with B production, studios produced several important A series. For example, MGM's Thin Man series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the husband-and-wife detective team of Nick and Nora Charles, sustained itself for more than a decade. Consisting of six pictures that came out every two or three years beginning in 1934, the thirties' pictures in the series consist of The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), and Another Thin Man (1939).
Warners' Gold Diggers musicals is another good example of a successful A series. The series had its roots in 42ND Street (1933), a surprise hit staged by Busby Berkeley, featuring two juvenile leads, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. The picture led to Gold Diggers of 1933 and a succession of Berkeley backstage musicals, including Gold Diggers of 1935, Gold Diggers of 1937, and Gold Diggers in Paris (1938). Although the plots varied only a little from picture to picture, the series was unusual in that the original leads were not repeated in the subsequent pictures. Rather, the series was held together by Busby Berkeley's elaborately staged musical numbers.
Family series, particularly MGM's Andy Hardy series, starring Mickey Rooney, were popular at the end of decade. A Family Affair, (1937), the first Andy Hardy picture, was a decidedly low-budget item, but the warm reception of the picture and the others it spun off earned the series class-A status, at least outside the largest metropolitan areas.
Representing 50 percent and more of the Big Five's annual output, B pictures enabled studios to operate at optimum capacity and to provide a training ground for young actors and actresses on their way up and a resting place for performers on their way down. B pictures cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to produce.54 The majors reduced the risks of making these pictures by using the least expensive source material of all (mostly original stories ground out by studio screenwriters), by hiring supporting players on a per-day basis, and by adhering to rigid shooting schedules of from fifteen to twenty-five days.
Regardless of the quality of these pictures, they all found exhibition outlets for the simple reason that the majors block-booked the B pictures along with their A pictures. But unlike the percentage-of-the-gross rentals charged for the higher-grade films, B's were typically rented on a flat-rental basis. Although flat rentals prevented a producer from enjoying the extraordinary profits of an unexpected hit, the terms had the advantage of returning a predictable gross, meaning that if a studio kept costs in line, it could make a small but assured profit on its Bs.
To rationalize B production, studios relied extensively on the series. The economic rationale for B series was simple enough. As Thomas Schatz put it, "Not only the casting but the sets, props, music, even the story formula itself could be standardized, rendering what was already a low-budget enterprise that much more efficient and economical."55 By the end of the decade, series pictures had become staples of double-feature exhibition and provided reliable entertainment for the intrepid moviegoer. Hollywood produced over seventy different series to reach every segment of the audience—the family trade, the Western buff, the adolescent set, and the horror aficionado, among others. Series Westerns were especially cheap to produce because they were shot outdoors using standing sets and contained scenes intercut from old pictures or from a studio's stock-footage library.
Warners' B unit was headed by Bryan Foy. Called "the Keeper of the Bs," Foy produced half the studio's pictures, around twenty-five a year on a total annual budget of $5 million. 20th Century-Fox's B unit was headed by Sol Wurtzel. Like Foy, he churned out half of the pictures on the studio roster. If Foy's strategy was to remake Warners' old silents and to produce cheap versions the studio's social-problem films to fill out the roster, Wurtzel sought to develop long-running series. Charlie Chan, for example, began in 1931 and lasted at Fox until 1942, even though its original star, Warner Oland, died in 1938 and had to be replaced by Sidney Toler. As Douglas Gomery noted, "This 'oriental' detective constantly changed locales in order to solve his mysteries, so in 1936 he went to the Circus, visited the Race Track, and attended the Opera."56
MGM, the most prestigious studio in Hollywood, with "More Stars Than in Heaven," never admitted publicly that it produced Â pictures. MGM took this position despite the fact its parent, Loew's, Inc., announced that all its subsequent-run theaters were converting to double features in 1935. No one was fooled by MGM's posturing; MGM kept a stable of B-picture specialists busy like every other studio. Producers Lucien Hubbard and Harry Rapf divided up such pictures between them; the busiest directors were George B. Seitz and Edwin L. Marin. However, MGM's low-budget entries looked like no other B films. "When Metro goes out to make a Class B picture," said Variety, "they give it plenty of production, steady direction and a certain amount of class. It may not have big draw stars and the situation may be overdone, but it certainly will stand up on the second picture shelf in the theatres for which it was designed."57
The Columbia production policy was described by Harry Cohn:
Every Friday the front door opens and I spit a movie out into Gower Street…. I want one good picture a year. That's my policy … and I won't let an exhibitor have it unless he takes the bread-and-butter product, the Boston Blackies, the Blondies, the low-budget Westerns and the rest of the junk we make. I like good pictures too, but to get one I have to shoot five or six, and to shoot five or six I have to keep the plant going with the program pictures. (Quoted in Joel W. Finler, The Hollywood Story [New York: Crown, 1988], p. 71)
Columbia mainly serviced the B-feature market. From 1930 to 1934, the studio produced thirty pictures a year; afterward, as a result of the spread of double features, the annual output increased to more than forty. The B films and programmers cost from $50,000 to $100,000; the better-grade pictures, around $200,000. To build a firm financial base, the studio also produced series Westerns starring Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Ken Maynard and a wide selection of cartoons, comedy shorts, and serials.
Columbia's policy was to follow trends and to churn out economy versions of hit class-A pictures produced by the Big Five.58 During the first half of the decade, Columbia specialized in contemporary stories with realistic settings, such as crime pictures, mysteries, and comedies. Later in the decade, Columbia further rationalized its B output by initiating series, among them the Lone Wolf in 1935 and Blondie in 1938.
Shorts and B pictures paid the overhead, but Columbia needed a hit now and then to maintain its credibility as a principal player in the industry. Columbia could have existed without hits as a Poverty Row studio, but as a member of the Little Three, it needed box-office winners to strengthen its financial reserves, to pay dividends to stockholders, and to keep the interest of Wall Street. Since producing a hit was a difficult and elusive task, the studio needed stars. To secure them, the studio had three options: (1) it could develop stars by casting players in different roles and testing audience reaction; (2) it could borrow stars from other studios; or (3) it could pretend it had stars and hope that exhibitors and the public would play along. Early in the Thirties, the studio chose the third option. For example, the studio "starred" Jack Holt in over a dozen pictures. A typical Holt picture contained plenty of "love interest, melodramatics, outdoors and he-man stuff," said Variety. In its review of The Woman I Stole (1933), Variety said, "Jack Holt has been making pictures like this for years and has prospered. There's nothing especially distinguished in the output, but it is all eminently saleable material. Factory product, but factory product of a successful kind, with a ready market and satisfactory returns."59
Since developing stars required time and money, Columbia typically opted to borrow stars from the majors to produce its class-A pictures. The best example of this practice is Capra's great hit It Happened One Night (1934), whose stars, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, came from MGM and Paramount, respectively. Columbia's A pictures were grouped mainly around its prize director, Frank Capra, and a few free-lance directors, such as Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, and George Cukor.
Universal's principal market was the rural, small-town theater. Like Columbia, the studio specialized in series Westerns and inexpensive versions of popular class-A genres. Early in the decade the studio tried to break into the first-run market by producing a prestige picture, All Quiet on the Western Front, and a number of horror films, such as Dracula and Frankenstein, but after Carl Laemmle was bought out, the new owners reverted to the previous production policy of concentrating on the low end of the market.60 To produce the occasional class-A picture, Universal borrowed talent from the majors, just like Columbia. The studio did not develop a top star of its own until it discovered Deanna Durbin near the end of the decade.
United Artists, the smallest company of the Little Three, was solely a distributor of quality independent productions. Independent producers had existed since the earliest days of the industry, but during the period of oligopoly control, three types did business: (1) indies that owned their own companies and produced quality product for release by United Artists; (2) indies connected with the majors as producers or directors; and (3) Poverty Row companies that worked outside mainstream Hollywood (see Chapter 8).
By the 1930s, UA had carved a secure niche for itself as a distributor of independent productions.61 Of the four founders, only Charlie Chaplin remained active as a producer. Because the star system was now firmly controlled by the majors, the day of the actor-producer had passed. Chaplin was therefore an anomaly in the business. He not only produced his pictures using his own money, but he also wrote, directed, and starred in them as well—a one-man show. He produced two pictures during the decade, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).
UA's most active producers were Samuel Goldwyn, Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick, Twentieth Century Pictures, Howard Hughes, Edward Small, Walter Wanger, and a few others. Two members of the group, Goldwyn and Korda, were also partners in the company. These producers constituted a new breed of independent; such a producer typically headed his own production company and produced only a few pictures a year. What linked these producers to UA was the distribution contract, a document guaranteeing that in return for a fee, UA would sell and promote a picture in all the principal markets of the world. UA released relatively few pictures each year, from fifteen to twenty, but the pictures were consistently among the most acclaimed. Using Film Daily's Top Ten as an indicator of public esteem during the decade, UA, with sixteen pictures, ranked second behind MGM, with thirty-five. Warners came in third with thirteen.
UA's archetypical producers, Goldwyn and Selznick, obtained production financing from commercial banks, such as the Bank of America, in the form of residual loans. To qualify for a residual loan, a producer needed a distribution contract in hand and completed pictures in release. In return for a loan, the producer had to mortgage his old pictures by pledging whatever residual revenues remained in them as well as the net producer's share of the revenue from the proposed picture. Such conditions made it extremely difficult to break into the business and help explain why so few first-class independents existed during this period.
In tailoring pictures for the high end of the market, first-class independents modeled their operations on the majors. Selznick operated out of the old RKO-Pathé studio in Culver City, which he renamed Selznick International Studios. Goldwyn operated out of the United Artists Studio in Hollywood, a rental facility originally owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, which was renamed the Samuel Goldwyn Studios. Unlike the contract producer at one of the majors who was concerned mainly with the creative end of motion pictures and had an entire studio backing him, Selznick and Goldwyn also had to know the business end of motion pictures. Another difference was the way each type of producer interrelated with his staff. Playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard described the collaboration process at Goldwyn as follows:
The larger studios of Hollywood divide their picture making into various departments which have little contact with one another. Smaller production units, notably Mr. Sam Goldwyn's, are too clever for this. It is Mr. Goldwyn's custom to keep his highly gifted art director, Mr. Richard Day, in constant touch with the progress of the script. The result of this triple collaboration is a completely illustrated edition de luxe of the script which contains literally dozens upon dozens of thumbnail sketches both of photographic compositions and of camera angles. ("The Story Gets a Treatment," in Nancy Naumberg, ed., We Make the Movies [New York: W. W. Norton, 1937], p. 43)
Selznick said, "With me [the director] is in on the script as far in advance as it is possible for me to have him. He is in the story conferences with me and the writers, in the development of the script, and I always have my director in on the cutting right up to the time the picture is finished. That is not obligatory with me, nor is it the custom in most of the larger studios."62
UA's most prolific producer, Goldwyn made forty pictures during the decade, all of which he personally financed. His production staff included some of the best talent around—art director Richard Day; cinematographer Gregg Toland; music director Alfred Newman; directors John Ford, Leo McCarey, King Vidor, and William Wyler; and writers Sidney Howard, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Lillian Hellman, Ben Hecht, Robert E. Sherwood, and S. N. Behrman. Goldwyn specialized mainly in musicals and prestige women's pictures. His best musicals consist of six Eddie Cantor vehicles, starting with Whoopee! (1930), which was shot in two-strip Technicolor and marked Busby Berkeley's entry into the movies. Goldwyn's prestige women's films included three abortive attempts to launch his Russian-born protégée, Anna Sten, as another Garbo or Dietrich, and moreadmired fare such as King Vidor's Cynara (1932) and Stella Dallas (1937) William Wyler's These Three (1936), Dodsworth and Wuthering Heights (1939).
Selznick's production staff consisted of production manager Ray Klune; story editors Val Lewton and Katharine Brown; art director Lyle Wheeler; editor Hal Kern; and color cameraman Howard Greene. Selznick also specialized in prestige pictures and the women's market. The prestige pictures consisted of adaptations of literary classics, such as Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938); the women's films, of such romantic dramas as A Star Is Born (1937), Made for Each Other (1939), Intermezzo (1939), and Gone with the Wind (1939).
As modern business enterprises, the major film companies perfected a system of motion-picture production during the thirties that enabled them to meet market demand in a rational and relatively efficient manner. The principal changes in the mode of production were at the executive level. Greater executive control over production came mainly at the expense of directors who were relegated basically to staging the action. Although motion-picture production remained a collaborative art, the description needs refining. Actually, the studio system allowed little time for collaboration, not even for big-budget productions. Artistic personnel were expected to be versatile professionals capable of performing highly skilled and specialized tasks quickly and efficiently. This system of artistic production was at odds with norms in publishing and in the professional theater, but the necessity of supplying theaters with new product on a regular basis mandated tight production schedules and breakneck speed. That Hollywood produced such a wealth of entertainment in the decade is a testament to the system and especially to the vast pool of talented workers employed by the studios.
Subsequent chapters on production trends will highlight the importance of the prestige picture to the business. This chapter has also revealed that top-ranking independent producers distributing through United Artists specialized in this trend and tailored the production process to allow for greater collaboration, in order to carve a niche for themselves in the market. In so doing, they anticipated the era of the blockbuster, which has characterized the motion-picture business to this day.