tv Al Jazeera World News LINKTV February 5, 2013 7:00pm-7:30pm PST
behold his mighty hand. hello? this is cecil b. de-mille in hollywood, california. the trouble with movies as a business is it's an art. and the trouble with movies as an art is it's a business. and it is. every one of us who makes films struggles with that. the system demands success. it rewards it, but punishes failure as well. annenberg media ♪ and: with additional funding from these foundations and individuals:
and by: and the annual financial support of: hello, i'm john lithgow. welcome to "american cinema." during the golden age of hollywood, the film studios became incredibly powerful. they controlled production, distribution and exhibitio the mass pduction system that made ford motors a success worked for the lm studios as well. a very efficient assembly line was built
that enabled a studio to release a film a week. adventures, comedies, romances, westerns, gangsters, musicals. ford was famous for one model; thstudios had many. but the genius of the system was although they were factories,s. individual artists were still able to pursue their vision and create some of the best pictures ever made. take paramountictures, for example. it was home to billy wder, josef von sternberg, and ernest lubitsch, great artists who left their individual stamp on the films they made. the paramount story is a model of what happened in hollywood over the last 70 years. a rporate giant that suffered with the fall of the system, only to rebuilt in the era of the conglomerates and turn out some of the most memorable pictures of the last 20 years, as we will see in this program narrated by peter coyote, "the studio system."
(dramatic music playing) (edward dmytryk) the film studio was a city. you have your commissary. you have your hospital where a child can be born, or a person can die. you'd walk up these streets and you'd hear tap dancing up in the back ofhis lo we had a full orchestra of 55 people who came in every day and worked. you knew when grandmother died, or when a new baby was born, or when sobody got engaged, there was a big thing going on. and you couldn't see past it, you could anywhere. it was enclosed like a cocoon when you were in there. why, you were in another world completely. who wrote that scene? the english writer, monroe, boxley. it's the last thing he wrote before -- before he left. we'll have to rewrite the scene and re-shoot it, it's absolute crap. people don't speak like that any writers arou here understand the way people talk?
yes, monroe. get rewrites and show me results before they shoot it. sure, monroe. how much is it gonna cost? i don't care, make it. (door slming) i don't know what's wrong with the scene. i ought that was a pretty touching scene. gar nin put it right, garson kanin said, "the trouble with movies as a business ist's an art. and the trouble with movies as an art is it's busine." and it is. and every one of us that makes films, struggles with that, every d--- day you do it. (sounds of helicopter) (music playing)
(machine gun firing) (music playing) (narrator) we all know the names -- paramount, mgm, universal, warner brothers, 20th century fox. the hollywood studios. but these film companies have been so lost in mythology the public knows very little about how they actually worked. they completely controlled the american movie industry during the golden age of the 30's and 40's. how were they able again and again to create the cinema's timeless classics and exercise their power? paramount, historically, the most profitable and powerful film corporation is the focus of our story,
like the classic studio era, it begins in the early 1930's. every artist or technician who came to work through these famous gates was under contract. this was the first rule to run a hollywood studio lot. everyone was owned. when you're under contract, it's a family feeling. you have a family to go to. if you have a problem, you can to somody on the lot it's a family feeling. you have a family to go to. that has your interests at heart. (mace neufeld) it enabled people to learn their craft inside and out. it guaranteed them employment so you weren't afraid to fail. a failure dn't put you out on the street. and so, writers wrote great things and poor things, but being under contract for a periodf time, they had an opportunity to write a lot of things. (catherine turney) the studios took the position that they paid their talent, the actors, or writers, or directors and all.
therefore, they should be happy and not want too much say, or control of their own material. no, you were generally told what you were going to do. and if you didn't agree, you'd easily go on suspension. (music playing) within these portals, you may see such famous stars as the marx brothers, chevalier, carole lombard, richard arlen, mae west, cary grant and many favorites. over here on your right, playing hide-and-seek, are gary cooper and herbert marshall. hi, boys. (narrator) of all studio personnel, stars were the biggest asset in the fight for the public's attention, loyalty, and money.
their popularity guaranteed studios success so they were tied to companies with exclusive contracts. no one understood star power more than paramount's founder, adolph zukor. as early as 1912, zukor had had success with the film queen elizabeth, starring sarah bernhardt. convinced there was a market for films featuring stage stars zukor had formed the famous "players company" in new york, pioneering the production of feature films on star names. every studio built, not only production schedule, but its entire operation around anywhere from 2 or 3, say in the case of a universal or a columbia, to 12, 15, 20 in the case of paramount or mgm, stars. you're nma desmond. used to be in silent pictures. used to be big. i am big. it's the pictures that got small. warners had to produce so many cagneys and so many ronsons and so many bette davises
that mgm had to produce, and so on and so forth. a kind of unity between star and genre developed. and this is marketing. this is good marketing. (horn blaring) hold that noise. hey! to see mr. demille. open the gates. mr. demille is shooting, you got an appointment? no appointment necessary. (thomas schatz) and every star was a virtual genre unto himself. this is heavily oriented toward the contract system and toward long-term contracts that major stars would sign. where is mr. demille shooting? stage 18, miss desmond. thank you, jonesy. teach your friend some manners. tell him without me he wouldn't have any job, because without me there wouldn't be a paramount. you're right, miss desmond. go on, max. the studios would loan actors back and forth, but that was just like trading in grain futures, you know. the actors were, as i understand it largely properti then and treated as such,
though very deferentially and lived marvelously. that was really very good, indeed. (woman) you think so? it was absolutely terrific. it was really wonderful. it was s---. here we go again, billy. it was forced. didn't you notice?! i want to do it again. you'll never do it better. i'm ready. let's do it again. the stio system gave more people more tns at bat and more chances to play, you worked for one studio and they made a lot of movies. and if by chance you made one that was lousy, by the time they figured out how lousy it was, you'd already made two more anyway. and remember, darling, i don't work before 100 a.m. and never after 4:30 in the afternoon.
(narrator) the struggle of creative people and a strict studio system was also very evident in contract studio directors. say, honey, could you put that other hand around your throat? (narrator) here, only talent guaranteed a degree of freedom from interference by the studio boss. as harry cohn said, "i get five guys i trust and i don't talk to 'em when they're making the movie." and he said, "the other guys, i tell 'em exactly what to do or i throw 'em out." (thomas schatz) at the b level, the emphasis is genre, formula. and it's without question, the emphasis is on efficiency. just turning out the product like sausages. but in dealing with top talent, you're dealing with people who have certa notion of their role in the process. and they areware they're producing top product. there was a lot of creative conflict and negotiation particularly above the line. particularly involving producer writer, director, star. mr. von elsen, am i to understand that you consider this scene complete? i do. well, i don't. you call that directing?
that is what i've been calling it for 32 years. to be a director, you must have imagination. whosimagination, m sears, yos or mine? it'll be done your way, but not by me and not by any other director who respects himself. (edward dmytryk) howard hawks had the greatest technique if a producer came on the set, he would say to the prop man, "hey, come on, bring a chair over here." and he'd say to the producer, "come on, sit down, let's chat." and everybody else would go off the set. and the producer would talk and in about 5 or 10 minutes, he'd realize that nobody was working. and he would also realize that nobody would be working until he left. so sooner or later, he'd get up and go. there were any number of peopl that we cago back to, kind of von stroheim and work our way up and we can run out that litany of filmmakers who were done in by the constraints of this dehumanizing, highly industrialized, profit-motivated system. but, the more i look at it, the more i see the system as. as enabling as it was constraining.
i mean, whoever supplies the money is t enemy. the studio's no different. there's always that tension. listen, on "the godfather," i'd go up to francis coppola and i'd say, "you know this picture, bob evans and i have been discussing it and we need another action scene." the tollbooth murders, francis didn't wanna shoot it. he said, "i don't want to go over budget. i'll go way over budget. it's bad for the studio." i said, "forget the d--- studio, shoot the scene. the picture needs to be opened up a bit. just shoot it and shut up." (machine gun firing) i think out of that tension comes better movies. (narrator) ruthless, conservative, tyrannical, even vulgar, the studio boss was the system's father figure. sometimes possessed by an uncanny intuition for mass taste and devotion to production.
however, the paramount lot, unlike its competitors, had no such figure. rapid turnover of studio chiefs in the 30's meant that a degree of control was left to its strong roster of highly successful directors. paramount's reliance on its essential creators led to german filmmaker ernst lubitsch taking over all studio operations in the mid-30's. i think it's an artists' studio in the 30's in a way that no other udio is. and i think that has a lot to do with the fact that t of the founders of what eventually s paramount, jesse lasky, cecil b. demie, were both filmmakers. there was a tremendous amount of creative responsibility that was given to people like sternberg, in the 40's, to people like lubitsch and later, billy wilder, preston sturges. they had a tremendous amount of control over their careers, relatively speaking. it built production units around, say, a von sternberg, who did a series of movies with marlene dietrich
using the same creative people on film after film. (mace neufeld) the studio system could do that. when they found talented people who could work together, they put them together in a ut and said, "give us 2 mysteries year, give us 2 musicals a year, or give us 4 westerns a year." (dramatic music playing) and i think that a style then developed for producers and directors which is difficult to duplicate today. (sounds of train)
(narrator) the destruction in europe caused by the great war allowed the studios to internationalize their system. paramount in particular established european ties in both germany and france. contract director josef von sternberg discovered marlene dietrich while making "the blue angel." the studio immediately signed her up for what were to be 6 movies with von sternberg back on hollywood soil in the early 30's. dietrich, she knew exactly how she wanted to be lit. she had been lit by von sternberg and she had gotten this certain kind of look from a high light coming dow and she knew exactly where she wanted that light up there.
e was the only one that ever asked me to change a light up, because she thought it would be better if i moved it that way or this way. (charles lang) von sternberg developed a kind of a lighting that was very, very interesti. and it w different from what other lightinwas. and it was important to change things. and at that time german film was reallyhe best, especially, i think, modern in that they were way ahead. so that these germans, lubitsch a von sternberg and marlene dietrich and billy wilder, fritz lang. and naturally i didn start out working with them. i just was a draftsman; was a great learng period. quite literally top executives particarly from paramount and universal would regularly go to europe for what to demille,ved overart is international.s. so tonight we find him looking at a european picture,
starring a young hungarian, franciska gaal. stop the picture a minute. get me budapest. c.b., it's 5:30 in the morning in budapest. you cat get at girl t bed and why not? operator. get me budapest, miss franciska gaal, g-a-a-l. (thomas schatz) and of course we're not importing movies, we're importing the talent developing in othecountries. hello. franciska gaal? this is cecil b. demillein . who? cecil b. demille, paramount director, speaking from hollywood. cecil b. demille! oh, yes! we want you to come to america for a picture. i want a fine emotional actress for the part i have in mind.
you'll have to leave in one week. one week. oh, you americans. styles and techniques are being imported, appropriated a transformed to accommodate this system. (narrator) superficially, it seemed as if the major american studio was operating as factories, mass producing dreams for expanding foreign markets. (robert parrish) they were factories; they manufactured things. and if i'd been in detroit, i might have sold automobiles. but in this town, they made movies. and everything in the town was connected with the movies. it was a manufacturing system where they had parts that they could bring in and the parts were actors. they were on staff. they were there. you had script writers, you had directors.
they were there. (richard brandt) and all you did was to put these together like automated manufacturing in the 30's. just like ford, or general motors. but it really wasn't a factory system. a factory system makes the same product over and over and over again. each looks like every other. with cinema, the problem is to make a sense of the assembly line for motion pictures that will all be different. unique combinations of stars and screen writers and action and narrative. (douglas gomery) the genius of the studio system was the ability to make and minimize that risk. to make a system making picture after picture that was the same but always different, always better, always more fun, always more outstanding. what makes great popular th century culture
is the ability to practice over and oveand over again. (robert parrish) i was a ten-year-old kid in school. and i worked on the paramount back lot, on the swing gang at night. there was a depression all over the world, every place in the world except hollywood. and they wanted the product that came from hollywood. so there were jobs for everybody. i don't know anybody that was ever out of work. they would make, in the height of the era, the 30's and 40's, 52 films a year. it's not... an unpredictable number. that's the number of weeks in a year. (robert parrish) unless a picture came out about every week, they had no product. and the people in singapore were not entertained. everything just went crazy when sound came in. we did pictures day and night and just get a lot of them out, because there was a big demand and we didn't have pictures out so we just had to make lots of them right then. they had an assembly stage where we built the sets. the minute they finished a set, it struck, moved out
and the other ones moved in. and that's the only wa they were able to do it. and i can member they had three 8-hour shis, day and night. charlie, stop the d--- construction. quiet, quiet, quiet! all right, let's go. and i went almost 50ears without a day off. (narrator) by the 30's set construction was the only movie craft to have been unionized. the frantic production of films was marked by hollywood's first strike action of unprotected labor force. you see, when we started making those films so fast, in the early days of sound, whwe finally just got fed up and the photographers anwe formed a union. (meta wilde) we said, "we would like to join the iatse." and there was dead silence.
and in about 10 seconds, one of the producers said, "now girls, girls, you don't need to join the iatse, you're going to get everything that everybody else gets." and i thought to myself, this is really not true. (meta wilde) the women had standing, except for the studio stars. and it is still a man's world. and still the old "buddy game." there is a glass ceiling, i know they do not want women in vitally important positions. even though they kept saying, "why do we have to strike? we could all work it out." but you never could. they never wanted to give up anything. their autonomy was important to them. all writers are children. fifty percent are drunks. and up 'til very recently, hollywood writers were gag men. most of them still are gag men but we call them writers. uh huh. it looks to me like a try for power, mr. bremer,
and i will not give them power. i'll give them money, i won't ve them power. (narrator) but real power was not the studio bosses to give. hollywood was merely the place where the movies were made. these corporations were actually run from new york, where less glamorous presidents dictated the movie budgets, studio policy, film distribution, publicity. it was east coast president, barney balaban, who ran all corporate affairs for paramount from the mid-30s, by which time the company was already a vast multinational with nearly 200 listed subsidiaries. the story with barney balaban evidently is he was encouraged by his mother to get into the business because she was quite impressed by a business in which people paid cash, before they made the product. so when she saw these nickels and dimes and quarters crossing the transit and said, "it's a good business to be in. i like this business." (announcer) in the lobby, more and still more crowds.
(douglas gomery) in an era when business people were just wingg it, he hired a statistician from columbia university it was the statistician's job to get figures reported out from all the theatres all over the world and distribution figures as best they could, with the constraints of the telephone at the time and have those reports on barney's desk as he arrived. when you finished working on a film, whatever you did, the brass, the money came from new york to see it before the negative was cut which was the final thing. and the picture was shipped to new york. so you would be faced with anoth group, not the guys that were running the studio. usually the eastern offices trusted the western executives to make the pictures that they wanted to make. (edward dmytryk) in that respect, the authority was divided. but the ultimate authority was back east.
the stars were the louie b. mayers, the adolph zukors, mostly men in on the scene. they were created as larger than life, all-powerful corporate beasts, while the true powers remained invisible. i've just been speaking with new york. (douglas gomery) behind the scenes, unknown to the public. and were able to maintain their power for decades. this studio will fall without me. take a break, monroe. this is a waste of time, i'll be talking to new york. we'll see the stio doesn't fall. (douglas gomery) it's the star system applied to the industry. although louie b. mayer was more famous than schenck. nicholas schenck operated the company, operated the theatres, operated world distribution. and in the 1940's, fired louie b. mayer. (narrator) ultimately, owning cinemas secured real economic strength. the large companies all owned theatres.
and at the height of the studio era, 94 percent of their investment went into this real estate. the big studios were really extensive theatre chains simply making movies to fill their own cinemas. it was a monopoly actively encouraged in the 30's by president roosevelt's national recovery act, designed to help america out of the great depression. (thomas schatz) he basically allows the studios to develop what economists call "mature oligopoly." to create a cartel of companies that are complicit with one anoer in utterly controling a market. the 5 majors broke the u.s. up into 5 geographical parts. loews, the parent company of mgm and rko, had new york city and parts of the east. paramount had the midwest and the south. fox had the far west. and so they would trade amongst each other. the studio might only be a few hundred acres in l.a.,
but if you own 1500 movie theatres, thatat's a h--- of a lot of real estate. paramount would have the best locations in chicago. the best locations in detroit. the best locations in new orleans. the best locations in memphis. warner brothers did not own as many first-run theatres in major metropolitan areas as paramount. (thomas schatz) and since those major metropolitan theatres for paramount generated much of its capital, it made more sophisticated, its product was more slick, more sophisticated than warners. warners was emphasizing more of a midwestern and rural and smaller urban clientele. this affects the kind of movies that the companies made. (actor) i had an original story kicking around paramount. my agent told me it was dead as a doornail. but i knew a big shot there who'd always liked me. (thomas schatz) paramount was much more likely than warners say, or fox, to adapt a literate best-seller. all right, gilles, you've got five minutes, what's your story? paramount saw its audience within this larger sense
of the studio system, in terms of exhibition, had a lot to do with their product. exactly what do you recommend? james joyce? dostoyevsky? i just think a picture should say a little something. oh, a message kid. just a story won't do. you'd have turned down "gone with the wind." no, that was me. i said, "who wants to see a civil war picture?" ♪ we've got another ♪ bond to buy ♪ we've got another ♪ bond to buy ♪ the bonds we bought ♪ bought the bomb -- ♪ (narrator) the major studios may have seemed unstoppable, the first crack in the system came with world war ii. in the early 40's, to help finance the war effort, the u.s. government radically lowered tax thresholds. suddenly, individuals earning more than $200,000 a year had to pay 90 percent tax. top hollywood stars, therefore, had to find ways of maintaining their income other than as salary.