Here is your starter question. In the following four trios, explain what the three people have in common, and identify what unifies each of the groupings:
a. Alan Hale; Henry Blanke; Sid Hickox
b. Arthur Freed; Joseph Ruttenberg; Frank Morgan
c. Travis Banton; Daniel L. Fapp; Victor Young
d. Albert S. D'Agostino; Nicholas Musuraca; Kent Smith
If that's leaving you cold, try this by way of introduction: In your daily life in Los Angeles, how often do you find yourself saying or thinking, "It's an antiques store just a few blocks east of Paramount," or, more poignantly, "I heard about this Thai restaurant near Metro."
I say poignant because the most aspiring or pretentious lot ever built in Hollywood — the white citadel where Arthur Freed ran the musicals unit, where Joseph Ruttenberg photographed so many of Garbo's pictures, where Frank Morgan was Mr. Matuschek in "The Shop Around the Corner" and the Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz" — is a property in Culver City that is now identified as "Sony." Truth to tell, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has no more existence than the studio system itself.
But in the crucial three or four decades — from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second World War — in which the city of Los Angeles found its shape and its identity, to say nothing of a prosperity that would guarantee its eventual size, the studio system was its core structure.
Yes, there were universities and schools; there was local government and a police force; there were highways and automobiles. But L.A. was like Italy before Garibaldi. It was a set of small kingdoms and principalities . And these were called MGM, Warners, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Universal, Columbia and RKO. (If you still haven't settled the starter question, a. is Warners; b. is Metro; c. is Paramount and d. is RKO.)
The studio system was a set of competing filmmaking powers, with their alliances to the means of distribution and exhibition and their access to big bank money. There were smaller studios (like Republic and Monogram), and there was, for a long time, United Artists, which released films throughout the world. The system bloomed in the early '20s, its crown jewel being the 1924 amalgamation of three companies — Metro, Mayer and Goldwyn — at the Culver City premises, with Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg as heads of the West Coast operation, and Marcus Loew, then Nicholas Schenck, heading the East Coast administrative center.
If you do make a detailed study of the Metro organization, you will find a tremendous stress on viable star personalities. MGM had Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable. It had Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, after Thalberg had lured them away from Paramount. For a vital part of the studio system was that talent was hired with seven-year contracts. You had a star property for that period, and you knew in advance the rising scale of his or her salary. More or less, the stars had to do the films chosen for them. Reject one and time could be added at the end of your seven years.
The contract system shrewdly stabilized economics in an explosive situation. Starting in the '20s, the movies became a bigger business with every year. The public was — more or less — paying to see the stars, and the story atmospherics that supported them. But the studio system, even after the first attempts to gain control by agents, never allowed the proper recognition of star power. So a star's salary went up by reasonable increments. Stars had a lot of cash in hand, but very few were able to get their hands on any of the profits and residuals from their work.
The studios' power only began to break in the '50s, and it was later still before stars as a whole became their own producers, with points on the net or the gross and residuals through the entire life of a project. Today, we take such things for granted, even if we are only onlookers. But in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios enjoyed the upper hand.
If you want an example of how that worked, try this. David O. Selznick was the son-in-law of Louis B. Mayer, and he had been a staff producer at MGM before he broke away to be independent in 1935. His major project, working on his own, was "Gone With the Wind." But in putting the film together, he faced great problems: How could he find the money from his small group of partners for a $4-million picture; how could he get it distributed; and how could he resist the overwhelming public belief that Clark Gable was born to play Rhett Butler?
In the end, he had to compromise his independence. He made a deal with Metro (or with his father-in-law) whereby he got Gable, plus $1.25 million in funding, and Metro got the right to release the film (for seven years) on a 50-50 split of the profits. Gable was paid a salary of just over $121,000. Later on, when Vivien Leigh was "discovered" for Scarlett, she got $25,000. Both stars got modest bonuses after the film became a great hit. But that's all they got.
Today, a Gable might easily have had 5% of the picture's gross — the formula for a fortune. MGM was literally kept alive by revenue from the film, especially after Selznick had been chump enough to sell off his last piece of the property. Put simply, the studios had begun early enough to secure massive leverage. That's what made those names of theirs household words. In fact, the contract system went far beyond stars: It included supporting actors, writers, directors, craftsmen and crew members. That's how the Hollywood style of filmmaking fluency bloomed: because veteran teams worked together time after time. "Casablanca," made at Warners, is famous in one way for the chaos of its production: Who would play the parts? How would the story end? But the film also benefited from the way its cast — Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre — were pals who had already played a lot of scenes together. In addition, the film was made by a corps of old associates: the Epstein brothers as writers; Michael Curtiz as director; Max Steiner as composer; Arthur Edeson on camera; to say nothing of the studio production chief, Hal Wallis, who had hired most of the others.
The quality of house style, or of a house pursuit of certain themes, is clear in the way, for the next few years, Warners used "Casablanca" as a model for wartime films set in shady cafes in trouble-spots; "To Have and Have Not" is the best example. Studios had their stars, their favored stories and ways of lighting them. Warners did gangster pictures, social problem stories — they liked low-key lighting. MGM had far higher-key lighting, more literary adaptations, family pictures and musicals. Columbia was built around the populist comedies of Frank Capra. Paramount tried to be as sophisticated as its guiding light, Ernst Lubitsch. Universal specialized in horror and women's pictures. RKO did Rogers and Astaire and film noir. And so on.
Stars often complained about the straitjacket of being typecast. But they were looked after. Studio publicity departments were elaborate machines for projecting the good news and killing the bad. Some say the nature of archetypes became oppressive. Others contend that from 1920 to 1950, America made its greatest films, and enjoyed the absolute loyalty of the audience. There is no going back, but everyone points to the conditions of a hit TV show as being the closest to the model of the studio system. And as on "The Sopranos," say, surely the steady company of a group of writers and directors and a family of actors has been good for these series.
Some of the old studios exist as logos in the credits of movies. And some exist as names and premises. They have bosses and parking lots still — and in Los Angeles, that is basic existence. Films are made at the studios sometimes, or some work is done there, and quite a lot of money still passes on their checks. But the names mean nothing in terms of character — a picture's look, its stars, the kind of story it will be.
There are studios where history lingers, though. Years ago, in the late '80s, I visited a Hollywood studio in Culver City with Jeffrey Selznick, the son of David Selznick, the man who made "Gone With the Wind." In fact, we were making a documentary about "Gone With the Wind." And we came to a back door with a patch of grass, and Jeffrey said, "In 1938, Jock Whitney — Dad's partner — planted some mint outside that door. For making mint juleps." Then I realized that Jeffrey was in tears. For the green stuff was still growing, still fresh and sharp. It was just that nobody knew why or what it was for. I wonder if it's there still.
David Thomson's books include "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" and "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun