House style

Every year or two, I re-read my battered copy of “The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies,” by Ethan Mordden. It may sound like a strange thing to re-read, but each time I read it I’ve seen more of the movies it references, and I always enjoy it a little more.

The book, sadly out of print (but still available as an Audible download, if any of you do that), is about the Hollywood movie studios during the 1930s, 40s and (to a lesser extent) 50s, when they were vertically-integrated companies controlling production, distribution and exhibition. Each studio had things it emphasized and did well, and Mordden gives a fascinating analysis of each studio and why it was what it was.

Universal Studios, for example, owned theaters in small towns and rural areas, while RKO owned theaters in the northeast, centered around New York. That affected which types of movies each studio thought would be successful. Paramount was a directors’ studio, where craftsmen like Ernst Lubitsch and Cecil B. DeMille could put their own distinctive stamp on things. MGM de-emphasized directors in favor of a producer-driven system and showcasing its unparalleled collection of stars.

Some of the studios had an emphasis that changed over time. At MGM, Irving Thalberg drove things in the 1930s – he was head of production for the first few years of the decade, then had to step back from that and become one of several producers. He guided the glamorous “Grand Hotel” MGM, with Garbo, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford as its biggest stars. After Thalberg’s death, Louis B. Mayer had more direct influence, and that led to the motherhood-and-apple-pie MGM of the 40s – Andy Hardy, for example, or the many Freed Unit musicals featuring Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.

There’s also a chapter on the smaller studios run by David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn and Harry Cohn (Columbia Pictures, now a major studio but then a tiny, poverty-row lot). Selznick, of course, ended up trumping the bigger studios by releasing the biggest picture of the golden age, “Gone With The Wind.” He had to give MGM distribution rights, however, in return for the services of Clark Gable.

In the late 1940s, a court ruled that the studios’ vertical integration was a violation of antitrust laws and forced them to divest themselves of their theater chains. The rise of television affected movie attendance, and the growing power of stars, directors and independent producers eventually killed the old in-house production system and led to the current environment, where pretty much everything is an independent production. No longer are stars, directors or other craftsmen salaried employees of a studio; they’re now freelancers, able to pick and choose their projects and demand whatever fee the market will bear. Most of the old studio nameplates (except RKO) still exist, but for the most part they only put together deals and distribute movies that have been produced by others.

“The Hollywood Studios” a great book, readable and funny, and as time goes on, and I see more and more of the movies it refers to as examples, I enjoy it more and more. I wish I could get a Kindle version; my hardback is falling apart.