Inside Hollywood’s Big Studio System
Ronald L. Davis – 1993
Hollywood’s big studio system is unique in Western civilization, its size and impact unparalleled, its product – the glamorous films that are now viewed as the industry’s Golden Era. If film was the first art to utilize technology for humanistic purposes, that same technology made the Hollywood output available around the world, satisfying the global thirst for American movies. Yet the Hollywood phenomenon, with its hype and hyperbole, fits into the mainstream of American culture, its mores less exceptional than magnified. The nation’s materialism, devotion to profit and social advancement, belief in dynamic leadership, technological knowhow, practical invention, and expanding markets all emerged as goals and values within the old studios. At its height the movie industry mirrored the corporate ideology that catapulted the United States into economie prominenee. Business practices within the big studio system were not unlike those of other American factories, and the moguls in motion pictures resembled those in railroading, banking, real estate, and oil during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Old West was disappearing as Hollywood was establishing itself as a movie colony, but frontier attitudes prevailed, creating an atmosphere much like that of the California gold fields. The town was full of irresponsible agents, who reminded me of gamblers and confidence men in a gold rush camp,” film pioneer Adolph Zukor observed in his memoirs “The Public Is Never Wrong.”
”Producers had tremendous power at MGM,” said Armand Deutsch, who himself was briefly a producer at the studio during the 1950s, “and they were structured very meticulously.” The top group, producers like Pandro Berman, Sam Zimbalist, and Arthur Freed, received the best properties and major talent. Under them was another group, and under that, another. Deutsch was part of the third group, yet below him were the producers of B pictures.
The prince of production heads was Metro’s Irving Thalberg, the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Young, hypersensitive, full of ideas, Thalberg had entered the picture business as Garl Laemmle’s secretary in New York. By age twenty he had become Universal’s general manager, hailed as the boy wonder of Hollywood. Largely self-educated, Thalberg gave the impression of intellectual depth. A voracious reader, he persuaded Laemmle to film Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which Thalberg envisioned as a spectacle rather than a horror picture, with legendary results. Soon he emerged as one of the greatest minds in the business.
In 1923, at age twenty-three, Thalberg left Universal, to Laemmle’s dismay, to become vice president and production assistant of the Mayer Company. A year later, with a corporate merger, he became Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer’s chief of production, content to let L. B. Mayer receive the major publicity, while he built the studio into the artistic jewel it became. Despite conflict from the beginning, for a decade Mayer and Thalberg remained the most successful partnership in Hollywood, developing a star system without equal. Impressed by his protege’s taste and story sense, Mayer rarely interfered with script matters or easting decisions. Thalberg respected Mayer’s powers as a negotiator and depended on him to execute policy decisions and deal with the New York office. As one observer put it, “Thalberg made the bullets and Mayer fired them.” (B. Thomas, Thalberg)
Gentle, chivalrous, fun-loving, but shy, Thalberg gave the appearance either of aloofness or modesty. When Lillian Gish arrived on the lot, her mother handed him the keys to their trunk, thinking he was an office boy. “He looked all of eighteen,” Gish recalled. “He was charming about Mother’s giving him the keys; he said, ‘Oh, that happens to me all the time.’ I immediately liked him very much.” Actress Joan Fontaine remembered that his eyes seemed to look right into you. “Whereas David Selznick came on very strong, rather like a social bull,” Fontaine remarked, “Thalberg came on like a scientist.”
He seemed to thrive on responsibility, quietly confident of his own abilities and judgment. His method was to shoot a picture quickly; then he’d examine the results and make the necessary adjustments. As publicist Walter Seltzer explained, “They hated the term ‘retakes,’ since that implied mistakes. So ‘retakes’ became ‘added scenes.’ But Thalberg was able to construct the films he supervised by a very sensible system of seeing what was lacking, considering what additional footage might accomplish, and then shooting it.”
Whereas Mayer remained the manufacturer, Thalberg was a creative force. “Thalberg,” said actor Jackie Cooper, “was the guy in the front room —as they say in the clothing business —and Mayer was the guy in the back room.” Thalberg regularly visited sets and enjoyed watching rehearsals. He was unconventional and courageous, yet he knew how to handle people. Eventually jealousy, greed, and a thirst for power pulled the Mayer-Thalberg partnership apart. They had always been a paradoxical pair. Mayer was widely hated; Thalberg was genuinely loved. Mayer was older, robust, pugnacious; Thalberg was politically naive, frail, retiring. Mayer became convinced that his production head was out to lower his standing with the parent office in New York; Thalberg was certain that Mayer was thwarting his efforts artistically. Even after Mayer’s protege had been relieved of his duties as production head and assigned his own unit, tension existed between the two.
Thalberg and his wife, actress Norma Shearer, had been friends of writer Charles MacArthur long before MacArthur’s wife, Helen Hayes, became an actress at MGM. The four of them went to Europe together and became close friends. “Thalberg was a man that I particularly loved,” Hayes recalled years later, “and was great fun; we had a lot of laughs.” But by then Thalberg and Mayer were locked in a struggle over the future of MGM. “The company’s theory was to make cheaper pictures and charge less for them,” Hayes explained. “Irving said. We’ll make fewer pictures and better pictures, so that audiences cannot resist going to an MGM film.’ Those were the two theories on how to handle the crisis presented by the Depression.” The powers in charge opposed Thalberg’s theory. “So they undercut him and they dumped him,” Hayes continued. “We were abroad when it happened, and it was a terrible time. He was so ill anyway, and this was just the beginning of the end.”
While much of silent screen acting was posturing aided by a pianist or a small ensemble playing mood music, at its best silent picture acting became an art. All the dramatic values had to be conveyed in action and facial expressions, and the story had to be told with the camera. “I think the people who worked in silent pictures really perfected the great techniques of motion pictures,” director Joseph Newman said, a view many who rose to prominence after the introduction of sound shared. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., agreed: “The best of the sound films are those which come closest to being silent. Otherwise we’re just photographing stage plays.”
Stars became an integral part of movie magic early, and none made a greater contribution than Lillian Gish, who enhanced most of the D. W. Griffith classics. ‘‘I felt the screen was invented for a few faces’ actress Dolly Haas said, “only a few, and Lillian’s face belongs to them’ The Birth of a Nation (1915), Way Down East (1920), and The Wind (1928) established Gish as a silent actress without peer, a fact Griffith himself acknowledged. “I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me,” the celebrated director admitted. (St. Johns, Love, Laughter and Tears) Gish remained the consummate professional throughout a career that spanned seven decades.
Ronald L. Davis