The Studio System marked a period of Hollywood history when a handful of studios known as “dream factories” controlled the manufacturing and exhibition of American movies, creating a new industry and framing the fantasies of millions. It was a time noted for escapist entertainment and steady masterpieces, as well as temperamental moguls and tempestuous stars.
With this Special Theme, TCM looks back at the colorful era, also known as the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” beginning in the late 1920s and extending into the ’60s. Moviemaking of the time was dominated by a group of studios known as the “Big Five”: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros., 20th Century-Fox, Paramount and RKO. These companies had controlling stakes in their own theater chains, ensuring that their movies would be properly exhibited.
Columbia and RKO were lesser entities, without the advantage of theater ownership, although each eventually achieved impressive results in filmmaking. (An eighth company, United Artists, did not have its own studios and functioned basically as a releasing and distribution outlet for independently made films.)
The studios controlled every aspect of moviemaking. Most of the actors, producers, directors and writers were under contract, and star players in particular were “owned” by their studios. Usually, the companies had film processing labs and created their own prints. The decline of the Studio System began in 1948 with an anti-trust case brought against Paramount. The studios eventually were forced to sell their theater chains, forcing them to cut back on production and reduce the number of contract employees.
Here are the studios and films in the TCM retrospective:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the biggest, richest and most glamorous film factory of the studio era. It was established in 1924 with the consolidation of Metro Pictures Corporation, the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures under the corporate control of Loew’s, Inc. Mayer, famed for his stern yet paternal manner, was named head of the studio, with Irving G. Thalberg as vice president in charge of production. In 1948, Mayer would be replaced as studio head by the more progressive Dore Schary.
Marcus Loew’s extensive chain of movie theaters provided an outlet for the consistent output of glossy MGM films that were mostly escapist entertainment. Helping create the sleek MGM “look” were some of the industry’s top producers, directors, designers and cinematographers, along with an army of technicians and crew members. Leo the Lion, the studio’s mascot and trademark, roared over a slogan that read “Ars Gratia Artis” (“Art for art’s sake”).
Below are representative MGM films that will be shown on TCM:
Red Dust (1932), starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, directed by Victor Fleming; Smilin’ Through (1932), starring Norma Shearer and Fredric March, directed by Sidney Franklin; Camille (1937), starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, directed by George Cukor; The Women (1939), starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, directed by Cukor; Love Crazy (1941), starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, directed by Jack Conway; National Velvet (1944), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, directed by Clarence Brown; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, directed by Tay Garnett; Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, directed by Cukor; and Summer Stock (1950), starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, directed by Charles Walters.
MGM lived up to its motto “More stars than there are in the heavens” with a roster of resident luminaries that also included June Allyson, Fred Astaire (in his post-RKO days), Ava Gardner, Greer Garson, Van Johnson, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, James Stewart, Robert Taylor, Esther Williams and many more.
The studio was noted for such Oscar-winning or nominated epics as Gone With the Wind (1939, a David O. Selznick spectacle released through MGM), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). Just as renowned was a delightful array of spectacular musicals, including two directed by Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris (1951), and Gigi (1958), that won Best Picture Oscars. Another classic MGM musical, although it won no Oscars, was Singin’ in the Rain (1952), from Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.
Warner Bros. was the most down-to-earth of the major studios. If MGM represented gloss and glamour, Warners leaned toward grit and realism, especially in their social dramas and gangster films. The studio was incorporated in 1923 by the brothers Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack L. Warner. The brothers soon expanded into distribution and, in 1925, absorbed Vitagraph and First National Pictures. Their fledgling company was headed by Jack Warner, who ran the studio with a firm and frugal hand and would frequently tangle with his stars and directors over financial matters and control of content.
Warner Bros. made history and became a major player in 1927 when the studio released The Jazz Singer, the first film with synchronized songs and dialogue. In addition to its hard-hitting crime movies, Warner Brothers also created a lineup of romantic melodramas starring studio queen Bette Davis and other dramatic divas. The Great Depression was brightened with a series of toe-tapping musicals starring Dick Powell and others, often under the direction of Busby Berkeley.
The Warner Bros. logo, updated and streamlined over the years, is traditionally a shield imprinted with the monogram “WB.”
Representative movies on TCM: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley; Dark Victory (1939), starring Bette Davis, directed by Edmund Golding; The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart, directed by John Huston; The Sea Wolf (1941), starring Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino and John Garfield, directed by Michael Curtiz; and White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney and Virginia Mayo, directed by Raoul Walsh.
The single film most identified with Warner Bros. is Casablanca (1942), the classic wartime romance with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and an impressive lineup of the studio’s character actors. MGM alumnus Joan Crawford succeeded Bette Davis as Warners’ leading star after Crawford’s Oscar-winning triumph in Mildred Pierce (1945). Other actresses who made their mark at the studio included Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman and freelancer Barbara Stanwyck. With the introduction of Doris Day, the studio found a musical star to rival MGM’s Judy Garland.
Among male actors, Paul Muni was a leading light at Warner Bros. during the 1930s and ‘40s. Later, James Dean enjoyed his all-too-brief stardom at the studio, ending his career with the Oscar-winning 1956 epic Giant.
20th Century-Fox, noted for its rich visuals and a sparkling roster of stars, was formed in 1935 through a merger between the Fox company and Twentieth Century, a production firm established two years earlier by Joseph Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck. Schenck became the company’s president and Zanuck the vice president in charge of production. Zanuck, regarded by studio workers as a demanding and sometimes volatile taskmaster, was credited with turning Fox into a major force in Hollywood, with a reputation for entertaining films, glamorous stars and inventive directors.
The 20th Century-Fox logo, in its most iconic form, is the company name as a three-dimensional monolith surrounded by art-deco buildings and searchlights, accompanied on the soundtrack by a thrilling fanfare created by Alfred Newman in 1933.
Representative movies on TCM: A Connecticut Yankee (1931), starring Will Rogers, directed by David Butler; The Little Princess (1939), starring Shirley Temple, directed by Walter Lang; The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power, directed by Rouben Mamoulian; Down Argentine Way (1940), starring Betty Grable and Don Ameche, directed by Irving Cummings; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, directed by Howard Hawks.
The Fox musicals starring blonde box-office attractions Alice Faye and Betty Grable (and later Monroe), were particularly noted for their extravagant colors and lively cinematography. In the 1950s, Fox was the first studio to employ the spectacular wide-screen process CinemaScope.
When it came to drama and adventure in the 1950s, the queen of the lot was fiery redhead Susan Hayward. Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda, meanwhile, were among Fox’s reliable leading men. The studio is also remembered for Zanuck’s “message movies,” which included Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949); and the sophisticated comedies of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, including A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).
Paramount was formed in 1912 as a film-distribution company, Paramount Pictures Corporation. Through a series of mergers of smaller companies, the studio emerged as a major Hollywood player, known for the high quality of its product and its lineup of illustrious players and filmmakers. A key executive in the development of Paramount was Adolph Zukor, one of its founders. During the silent period he was instrumental in hiring such stars as Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks. A true survivor known for his mild manner and ruthless decisions, Zukor remained associated with the studio in one position or another until his death at age 103.
B.P. Schulberg, who became head of production in 1925, introduced new performers, including Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, George Raft and Emil Jannings. After a period of upheaval in the early 1930s that resulted in bankruptcy and the ouster of Schulberg, the studio found its way again with a series of entertaining and successful films.
Paramount’s trademark, a pyramidal mountain surrounded by a circle of stars, is the oldest surviving movie logo.
Representative films on TCM: Morocco (1930), starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper, directed by Josef von Sternberg; I’m No Angel (1933), starring Mae West and Cary Grant, directed by Wesley Ruggles; Road to Utopia (1946), starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, directed by Hal Walker; The Blue Dahlia (1946), starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, directed by George Marshall; and The Nutty Professor (1963), starring and directed by Jerry Lewis.
Paramount was famous for movies with a light touch starring such performers as W.C. Fields, Betty Hutton, Jean Arthur and, later, Audrey Hepburn and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Among the studio’s more serious actors were Ray Milland, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston. The studio attracted such legendary directors as William Wyler (The Heiress, 1949), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, 1950), Cecil B. De Mille (The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952), George Stevens (Shane, 1953) and Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, 1954).
Columbia Pictures, incorporated in 1924, was the outgrowth of a film-sales company founded by Harry and Jack Cohn and others. Once considered part of “Poverty Row” studios, Columbia developed into a major player among Hollywood studios in the 1930s. Harry Cohn, as studio head, was considered irascible by many who worked for him, but was nonetheless a dynamic leader. He elevated his company early on by recognizing the creative genius of Frank Capra, whose breakthrough film was It Happened One Night (1934).
Columbia’s logo was introduced in 1924 as a depiction of a female Roman warrior holding a shield in one hand and a wheat spike in the other. Over the years the artwork evolved into various versions of the famous “Lady with a Torch” who symbolizes quality in filmmaking.
Representative films on TCM: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, directed by Frank Capra; His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, directed by Howard Hawks; Gilda (1946), starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, directed by Charles Vidor; It Should Happen to You (1953), starring Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon, directed by George Cukor; and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, directed by David Lean.
In the 1940s, Columbia had focused on B pictures and occasional blockbusters with audience favorite Rita Hayworth (later to be replaced by Kim Novak as the studio’s most glamorous star). In later decades the studio produced more ambitious films, including such prestigious titles as From Here to Eternity (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), Picnic (1955) and Lawrence of Arabia (1964).
RKO Radio Pictures had a complicated and sometimes troubled history beginning in 1928 when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) arranged for its Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain to join forces with the Film Booking Office of America to create the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Corporation. The new company would include the production, distribution and exhibition of films. A subsidiary, RKO Pictures Corporation, emerged as an important Hollywood studio. In the early 1930s, the company flourished under the “RKO Radio Pictures” banner with David O. Selznick as head of production.
Through that decade and into the ‘40s, RKO created a stream of popular entertainments that included the Astaire/Rogers musicals and the achievements of such artists as Orson Welles. The studio also distributed releases from such important producers as Samuel Goldwyn and Walt Disney.
The most enduring version of the RKO logo is a giant radio tower perched on a globe of the world and emitting animated signals as the sound of Morse code beeps out “an RKO Radio Picture.”
Representative films on TCM: Swing Time (1936), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, directed by George Stevens; Love Affair (1939), starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, directed by Leo McCarey; Citizen Kane (1941), starring and directed by Orson Welles; The Set-Up (1949), starring Robert Ryan, directed by Robert Wise; and His Kind of Woman (1951), starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, directed by John Farrow.
Other RKO classics included King Kong (1933), comedies starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and a series of striking low-budget horror films produced by Val Lewton.
In 1948, the capricious multi-millionaire Howard Hughes gained a controlling interest and greenlit films that sometimes suited his own interests more than the public’s. Five years later the RKO Hollywood studios were sold to Desilu, the production company owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Universal Pictures. the oldest surviving film studio in the U.S., was founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle and other industry pioneers. Among many silent-screen stars who made Universal their home were Rudolph Valentino and Lon Chaney.
In the early 1930s, Universal enjoyed success with such films as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and a number of classic monster movies starring Boris Karloff and others. But hard times ensued, and the studio narrowly avoided bankruptcy before being saved by a profitable series of Deanna Durbin musicals.
The Universal logo has had many variations over the years but has always been some version of a globe of the world, usually with the words “Universal” or “Universal International” in front.
Representative films on TCM: Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, directed by Tod Browning; Buck Privates (1941), starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, directed by Arthur Lubin; It Started with Eve (1941), starring Deanna Durbin and Charles Laughton, directed by Henry Koster; All That Heaven Allows (1955), starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, directed by Douglas Sirk; and Six Bridges to Cross (1955), starring Tony Curtis, directed by Joseph Pevney.
In the 1950s, when it was known as Universal-International, the studio developed two male superstars, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, and benefitted from the colorful melodramas of director Douglas Sirk. Meanwhile, Shelley Winters became the studio’s resident “blonde bombshell.” Around the same time such major actresses as Doris Day, Lana Turner and Jane Wyman found renewed stardom at Universal after leaving their home studios.