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In-Depth Documentary-Essays on the History of American Film Production
If there's anything which can be learned from this superb 12-part documentary on the production and culture surrounding American film, the current sensibilities driving the market today in the early 21st century are quite different than the so-called "Golden Age" of Hollywood. During "Old Hollywood", circa 1920 to 1955, drama films reigned supreme and were the largest budgeted films with the biggest stars who were expected to create huge box office receipts. Also, the biggest film stars tended to be female, an aspect of entertainment which began to decline by the 1960's. (Today, female character-driven films are labeled as "specialized" whereas male-driven films are labeled "universal" by the industry, which I think is hog-wash.)
The segments "The Hollywood Style", "The Studio System", and "The Star" explain what drove Hollywood films and how they were produced prior to 1965. The female film actress of old Hollywood ruled as the biggest stars until the mid-1960's: they were like figurehead queens reigning over entertainment, even though the studio executives were the real power behind the thrones. Martin Scorsese who touts himself a film scholar as well as a director, talks about the "Hollywood" style, which is code for the narrative or storytelling style, meaning films in which a script with actors tell a story. (Other types of styles of films exist, such as documentaries.) Before the reinvention of Hollywood into a new frontier when offerings from the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas hit the screens in the 1970's, genre films, aka mystery/suspense, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, were largely budgeted and marketed as "b-films" for a primarily youthful audience at matinées. Even many westerns were b-films, but they were probably the most popular and lucrative of genre films prior to circa 1960.
Hollywood during its "Golden Age" was quite dictatorial by today's standards. Movie actors, be they the super-stars, like Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, or Jean Harlow, or character actors like Claude Reins, Margaret Hamilton or Thelma Ritter, were under studio contract and were not freelancers. Even actors as prestigious as Bogart and Reins were under contract by the studios, and a typical contract would last for seven years. (Humphrey Bogart began as a character actor of tough guys until "Casablanca" reinvented his persona.) In other words, the studios essentially owned their talent. Stars like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney are all freelancers and not under contract.
The film executives also blamed their stars for box office bombs, even if the problems had more to do with the script and production. In the late 1930's, the term "box office poison" was coined, and the studios took notice of whose films were making money and whose were not. The executives, wielding dictatorial power wouldn't take the blame for box office bombs but could easily point shaming fingers at their stars. In the early 1940's, a host of talent, most notably Joan Crawford, would lose renewal of their contracts. Crawford, who had had a good run with MGM but had been labeled box office poison by her studio, was able to sign with Warner Brothers. Under her new studio she starred in their production of "Mildred Pierce" and won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Because films were the dominant form of American entertainment prior to circa 1955 when television started to cut into the film industry, the studios produced films much like an assembly line. The studios had everything in-house: sets, costumes, furniture, etc., and even their actors and crew. From circa 1920 to 1970, many scenes used either stock or footage backdrops, called rear projection in the lingo. Most scenes with characters driving in a car used pre-shot stock footage of streets and roadways in rear projections to give the illusion of people driving distances. According to my dad who grew up in the 1940's and 1950's, he never once thought the rear projections were "fake" until he toured Universal Studios and saw how they were achieved.
In "The Film School Generation", the documentary shows how the likes of a handful of filmmakers, most notably Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas, and to some extent Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, changed filmmaking. What I gathered from this documentary is from the late 1970's onward, the genre film overtook Hollywood and has become the reigning force behind Hollywood entertainment output. Unlike the female-star driven dramas from the 1930's to circa 1965, genre films became the rage, thanks to the genius of Spielberg and Lucas who brought high-class sensibilities to genre films, particularly with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In "The Edge of Hollywood", the documentary unveils the rise of the independent filmmaker and the "negative pickup deal". Director-writers Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and a few lesser-known talent such as Julie Dash, Annabella Sciorra, and Jim Jarmusch, describe how they wanted to write stories outside the contrived studio system which is constantly focusing on "universally" popular films at the expensive of artistic visions. Recalling a telling encounter with a studio executive, Julie Dash describes pitching her film "Daughters of the Dust" to studio executives, saying her film is potentially something which hasn't been seen before. To which the executive replied the studios don't produce films which haven't been seen before! Jarmusch also relates a similar encounter in which a studio exec asks why the independent filmmaker makes only "amateur" films, to which he naively asks the difference. "Professional" films cost at least $5 million, the exec replies.
Overall a profoundly interesting and telling look at the film industry. Unfortunately, this series is very hard to find on DVD. (I lucked out and was able to buy a copy.) I wish PBS would re-release this documentary because it is one of the better offerings about entertainment. PBS also produced a similar documentary about the history of Rock 'n' Roll, also never released on DVD.
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