Scorsese Screens - Picks for January
In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film director and classic movie lover Martin Scorsese.
Special Theme: The Studio System (Tuesdays in January)
This month TCM is looking at films through the lens of the studio system, with selections from all the major American studios. Each one developed its own “house style,” which meant different things depending on the studio. Warner Bros. and MGM had the most recognizable styles. MGM emphasized opulence—everything looks bigger and brighter and cleaner than the life depicted in the pictures. Warner Bros. was almost diametrically opposed—dynamism, speed, tight storytelling, a sharp urban flavor, a “stable” of ingenious character actors who enhanced every movie no matter how low the budget. The quality of the sound in Warner Bros. pictures, from the dialogue to the orchestra, was easily identifiable. So was the softer texture of RKO sound in the ‘40s. Fox films were recognizable because of their attention to detail, especially in the period stories. Each studio had its own artisans, musicians, composers, writers, DPs, art directors, costume designers, actors and directors all under contract and producers with their own units. Louis Lighton at Fox, Arthur Freed at MGM, Jerry Wald at Warner Bros., Ross Hunter at Universal and, of course, Val Lewton with his low-budget horror unit at RKO each created slates of pictures with their own distinctive sensibilities. In certain cases, individual directors set the tone at the studio—this was absolutely the case with Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Ernst Lubitsch at Paramount in the ‘30s (where Lubitsch became production manager); Frank Capra at Columbia in the ‘30s; John Ford and Henry Hathaway at Fox in the ‘30s and ‘40s; and Douglas Sirk at Universal in the ‘50s. Some directors harmonized beautifully with their studio house’s styles—George Cukor, Frank Borzage and Lubitsch worked seamlessly within the MGM system, and Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly actually seemed to enhance it. Raoul Walsh made good films before he went to Warner Bros. in 1939, but his output there through the ‘40s is a thing of real beauty, and the same could be said of William Wellman’s run there in the early ‘30s. The selections devoted to each studio are small in number—there are five or six per studio with the exception of MGM, which for some reason gets nine. The individual cases are interesting to consider in relation to each other—the definition of good programming. His Girl Friday looks like a Columbia movie but feels like a Howard Hawks movie—true of all Hawks pictures, I think, because he just merged with the house style wherever he happened to be working. The Maltese Falcon is a Warner Bros. movie but with all the elements individually re-arranged, so that it becomes every inch a John Huston film. As for Citizen Kane, which neither looks nor feels like anything else made anywhere else by anyone else, could it have been done at another studio? Sure. But RKO made it possible, and that’s another important aspect of the studio system: making works of individual expression possible. Which, on rare occasions, they actually did.