Stars in the Hollywood studio system

The following blog entry is an attempt to offer a perspective from which students might evaluate films made within the Hollywood studio system rather than just view the study of this as an historical topic. I should make a minor disclaimer here, in that the variables within the system were legion but understanding certain institutional determinants are crucial in any reading of a film from this period in the US, and one of these was the star system, both as a marketing device in delineating popular tastes and as a determinant for production practices.

The economics and politics of the studio system had a profound impact on the movies made within it, as much the result of conflict (between the two convergent facets; Art and Commerce), as the smooth imposition of institutional norms. As such, knowledge of the context of production provides a critical and analytical framework to understand the films through challenges and choices made by film makers, and the dynamics of film making, distribution and exhibition in this institutional context.

The star system was one of the key components of the Hollywood studio system (and much of film production today), but is by no means exclusive to it.
If for a second one could adopt a very broad perspective on this, the focus on stars as the principal appeal of films caused by a shift in the priorities of popular fictional film from a dramatic art form, to a spectacle. The reasons for this shift were principally economic, but the impacts were wide ranging; from adoption of a narrative form led by the struggles and heroism of an individual (the heroes journey), to the birth of the culture of celebrity. Thus the need for highly charismatic and conventionally beautiful individuals (who might or might not have been able to act) to star in narrow linear story structures,  as opposed to skilled screen actors who were effectively demoted to the role of character actor.

The evolution of the form is hinted at in the films of Porter but began to develop into a more coherent form in the later films of DW Griffiths. However, by the time the oligopolies of the Studio system were in place, this (heroes journey) was broadly accepted as the dominant narrative form.

So, why should this narrative form work so well with audiences (who are a component of any institution) and cause the studio to institutionalise it into long-term contracts for players and evlove a system for finding and nurturing potential stars.

To give you a little more context, the Hollywood studio system was an oligopoly of eight vertically integrated corporations (the big five MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and RKO, and the little three United Artists, Columbia and Universal, which had much smaller cinema holdings), ie. meaning that they controlled the virtually all aspects of film production, distribution and exhibition in the US between the late 1920’s and about 1950. One aspect of this you may have already heard of, were the policies of ‘blind bidding’ and ‘block booking’ in exhibition (for the cinemas which they didn’t already own).

But I believe that for us to explore the narrowing of popular tastes along the lines of Genre and star vehicles,  it would be useful for us to understand the following epithet so we can begin to understand that movies are made in an institutional context, and this seems particularly germane when considering the HSS;

The principle product of the media are its audiences.

This highlights that there is a negotiation between the audiences and media texts (in our case films), and that these are constructed to be attuned to the dominant ideologies and fashions of their historical period. This isn’t to say that audiences have sovereignty in this relationship, it is far more complex than that, but that audiences have needs, and a degree of literacy in understanding dominant film forms, and that most films will conform to these in an institutional mass media context. In the case of the Hollywood studio system, the particular form of audience literacy began to develop with the dominance of the hero-led linear narrative, and by the 1930’s this had coalesced with economical studio practices for story-telling into the fully formed continuity system.
If you don’t fully understand the continuity system and its application, stay tuned as I hope to address this in a series of forthcoming blog entries.

So how does these characteristics of the studio system complement the star system. Well, given that the principal product of the media is its audiences, one must begin with the premise that the most crucial component Hollywood studios were the points of sale, ie their cinema chains, they were sales led. The single biggest priority was to fill cinemas week after week, but to do this as economically as possible. And these enormous conglomerates were strategic in planning to do just that. The work of each of the arms  completely complemented the work of the others. Generating income were the cinema chains, creating demand for the products was the function of the distribution arms (including restrictive practices exploiting their monopolies; blind bidding, block booking), and meeting the demand was the function of the production arms.

Because of the way labour was divided in the production arm this meant that the nature and scope of material which was exhibited in cinemas and indeed popular tastes were limited to either genre films or star vehicles, sometimes a combination of the two, depending on the ‘house style’ of the studio.
For example Warner Brothers films in the 1930’s tended to have a gritty socially realistic edge, and production was firmly confined to generic lines, so their contract stars Edward G Robinson and James Cagney became rather typecast in the gangster genre, and Bette Davis typecast as a siren in melodramas, while MGM who claimed to have ‘more stars than in the heavens’ relied on glamorous star vehicles. It could be argued with some conviction that each of the big five studios operated as a creative cartel, seldom making incursions into the house style or generic territory of another studio, so that there was no real competition between them.

So, it is in this context that we should explore the idea of stars in the studio system. Stars were a key element of the products, indeed in some cases (MGM) they were its sole attraction. Therefore, the studios, wished to control as much of this element as they could, ‘discovering’ and developing their own stars to meet changing market demands, thus while one physical type might be a star one year, they might fall from favour the next. What remains consistent is that the properties (stories, screenplays) chosen were to exploit the physical and performing strengths of the contract stars, and that the main system for lighting a film in the studio system had little interest in anything but the star, thus the three point lighting system developed to become a ubiquitous part of the continuity system for shooting and editing.

What is important to remember in studying American film is that while the Hollywood studio system is long gone, many practices established during that period endure in mainstream US (and many other countries’) productions today; the focus on star, and genre as a mainstay of marketing and therefore story structure and production practice (heroes journey, three point lighting) being crucial in this.

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