The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


Hollywood: The Triumph of the Studio System



The 1920s had been a decade of tremendous growth and prosperity for the American motion picture industry, with all phases of production, distribution, and exhibition expanding rapidly as movie-going became the nation'sand indeed much of the world's -- preferred form of entertainment. Following the industry's conversion to sound films in 1927-8, the so-called 'talkie boom' capped this halcyon period, providing an additional market surge at the decade's end and further solidifying the dominant position of Hollywood's major studio powers. The talkie boom was so strong, in fact, that Hollywood was touting itself as 'Depression-proof' in the wake of Wall Street's momentous collapse in October 1929, and the American movie industry enjoyed its best year ever in 1930 as theatre admissions, gross revenues, and studio profits reached record levels.

The Depression caught up with the movie industry in 1931, however, and its delayed impact was devastating. Between 1930 and 1933, theatre admissions fell from 90 million per week to only 60 million, gross industry revenues fell from $730 million to about $480 million, and combined studio profits of $52 million became net losses of some $55 million. Thousands of the nation's 23,000 theatres closed their doors in the early 1930s, leaving only about 15,300 in operation by 1935. Among the Hollywood powers, the Depression hit the Big Five integrated major studios especially hard because of the massive debt service on their theatre chains. Three of the Big Five -- Paramount, Fox, and RKO -- suffered financial collapse in the early 1930s, and Warner Bros. survived only by siphoning off roughly one-quarter of its assets. MGM, meanwhile, not only survived but prospered during the Depression due to its relatively limited chain of first-class metropolitan theatres, the deep pockets of powerful parent company Loew's Inc., and the quality of product turned out by its Culver City studio.

Hollywood's three 'major minor' studios-Columbia, Universal, and United Artists (UA) -- fared somewhat better in the early 1930s. These companies produced top product and had their own nation-wide and overseas distribution operations, like the Big Five, but they did not own theatre chains. While this had been a tremendous disadvantage during the 1920s, it proved to be a blessing during the Depression, since these studios avoided the related mortgage commitments. The major minors also adjusted their production and market strategies more effectively than the integrated majors. UA, which was essentially a releasing company for the A-class productions of its active founders (Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks) and for major independent producers like Sam Goldwyn and Joe Schenck, simply limited its output to about a dozen A-class pictures per annum. Columbia and Universal pursued a very different course, gearing their factories to low-cost, low-risk features which fell into a new and significant 1930s product category: the 'B movie'.

The rapid rise of the B movie and the 'double feature' was a direct result of the Depression. To attract patrons in those troubled economic times, most of the nation's theatres began showing two features per programme, and changed programmes two or three times per week. The increased product demand was met largely via B movies- that is, quickly and cheaply made formula fare, usually Westerns or action pictures, which ran about sixty minutes and were designed to play on double bills in subsequent-run theatres outside the major urban markets. Not surprisingly, this period saw the emergence of many companies which specialized in B pictures. Referred to as 'independents', these were straight production companies without distribution set-ups; they released through the states' rights system, farming out their films to small-time independent distributors on a regional basis. A few of these B-picture studios, notably Monogram and Republic, not only survived the Depression but became relatively important companies by the late 1930s.

B-movie production was scarcely confined to the poverty row' outfits, but in fact became an important element in the studio system at large. All of the integrated majors produced Bs during the 1930s, with up to half of the output of Warners, RKO, and Fox falling into that category as the decade wore on. While most of the major studios' revenues came from A-class features, the production of B movies enabled them to keep their studio operations running smoothly and their contract per-


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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