One afternoon in March 1954, after dubbing part of the soundtrack of his latest movie Betrayed, Clark Gable drove his custom made Jaguar car out of the gates of MGM for the last time. He would never return to the studio that had made him the most famous movie star in the world.
During his 23-year reign as “The King of Hollywood”, Gable had made over 50 movies for Metro including the timeless classic Gone with the Wind (1939). But the majority of his early 1950s films had been box office failures, resulting in MGM president Dore Schary deciding he could no longer afford Gable’s $520,000 salary, and as a consequence wanted to re-negotiate his contract.
Gable instructed his agent to “see how high you can get those sons-of-bitches to go. When you get their best offer, tell them to take their money, their studio, their cameras and lighting equipment and shove it all up their ass!”
This acrimonious episode has been identified by many film historians as the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and its once highly innovative and hugely successful so called “studio system”.
Hollywood did not invent the movies but it honed and perfected the art of making them and the business of selling them to a global audience of millions, making it at the time the greatest medium of mass communication the world had ever seen.
In the early 1920s Hollywood was awash with small, independent motion picture companies, but less than a decade later practically all of them had been bought out and absorbed by a few astute Jewish immigrant businessmen such as Adolph Zukor, William Fox, the brothers Warner and Marcus Loew. These so called “movie moguls” studied the manufacturing and distribution processes which were innovated during the 1920s at the General Motors Automobile Corporation, and adopted the concept for their individual film companies. The result was a virtual factory system for manufacturing motion pictures based on rigid control of the labour force with long term contracts for actors, directors, writers, composers and lavish in-house production facilities and publicity departments.
Actor Cary Grant perfectly captured, in his own inimitable way, the studio system of manufacturing celluloid entertainment for the masses when he said, “ We have our factory, which is called a stage within a studio. We make a product, we colour it, we title it, and we ship it out in cans.”
The production, distribution and exhibition of motion pictures was originally handled separately, but as the industry rapidly grew, these functions became vertically integrated. These powerful studio executives could now maximise profits by distributing and exhibiting their movies into theatres they now controlled in practically every major city in America.
By 1930 there were eight corporations that totally dominated the US motion picture industry. “The Big Five” – Paramount, MGM, Fox, Warner Bros. and RKO – owned substantial production facilities in California, a worldwide distribution network and an extensive theatre chain. These five corporations would rule and monopolise Hollywood for the next three decades. And then there were “The Little Three” – Universal, Columbia and United Artists – who maintained only the production and distribution parts of the system. They lacked a sizeable chain of theatres – one of the crucial elements of vertical integration – to be a major player, and consequently had to depend primarily on independent theatre owners to show their pictures.
Another integral part of Hollywood’s studio system was its “star system”.
All the major studios had a talent department whose personnel would scour the country, attending entertainment venues such as Broadway shows, vaudeville houses, regional theatre productions, nightclub acts and beauty pageants in search of young people with charisma and potential star quality. Those with the necessary photogenic credentials received an all expenses paid trip to Hollywood to take a screen test, followed by a sound test. If approved by the studio executive, they were signed to a seven-year contract with options, which simply meant that the studio could drop them at the end of each six month interval of the contract period if they did not generate interest from the moviegoing public.
Studio bosses such as Louis B. Mayer (MGM) and Darryl F. Zanuck (20th Century Fox) had definite ideas about how a star should look and refashioned their new talent accordingly. Now contractually bound and literally owned by the studio, the newcomers were exposed to an elaborate star development apprenticeship. They were taught to walk, talk, sing, and dance. Teeth were fixed, hair and eye colour adjusted, false biographies were written for them, and those with mundane names had them changed to fit their new image: Archibald Leach became Cary Grant, Frances Ethel Gumm became Judy Garland, Issur Danielovitch Demsky became Kirk Douglas, and so on. The studio’s casting director would now cast these fresh young actors into either small parts in A productions or star them in a B picture and await the public reaction, usually gauged by the amount of fan mail the actor received.
Although this system gave the newcomers job security, if they ever reached “full star status” their contract contained many terms that were highly unfavourable and detrimental to the actor. With relatively little control over the roles they were cast in or the movies they made, the actors could even be loaned out to other studios without their consent. A studio could terminate the contract at will but the actor could not. If they refused to appear in movies they believed was typecasting them, they were immediately suspended and their contract extended to make up the lost time whilst on suspension. Also, following the Roscoe Arbuckle sex scandal in 1921,
all actor contracts customarily contained morality clauses that gave the studio extensive and often intrusive control over the star’s private life.
Actors as employees became valuable commodities and Hollywood created the myth that stars weren’t made, they were born, when in fact the studios manufactured their own homegrown movie celebrities as a mechanism for selling movie tickets. Publicists, marketing departments and the Hollywood press joined together to create this incredibly successful celebrity industry. Through its movie stars, the studios would show an idealised America and the glamour that became synonymous with Hollywood.
By 1939 the Hollywood studios, having gathered together the most accomplished collection of creative talent in the history of the movies, were at the height of their power and productivity. With American moviegoers buying tickets at the rate of 80 million a week, what could possibly go wrong with this integrated movie money machine?