During the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood, the studios produced one film each per week per year. At its height, the studio system released 350 films in a single year. The studios were able to achieve such remarkable production figures through rationalization of working practices.
Adopting a 'scientific management' approach to film production, the studios began to model themselves on factories, employing assembly-line techniques, hierarchical structures, and a strict division of labour; the 1920s also witnessed hundreds of Model T Ford cars as well as an array of other consumer items rolling off assembly lines. In fact Thomas Ince had initiated such practices in the film industry as early as 1908 in the first Hollywood studio, Inceville. Each studio had its own back lot, wardrobe department, props and contract actors. At first, studio heads exercised almost total control over film production, holding responsibility for approving the original film concept and its budget, allocating the director and team of writers, approving the completed screenplay, supervising casting and hiring of other personnel, checking the film's progress, and overseeing the editing.
In 1931, however, Columbia announced the introduction of a producer-unit system whereby a head of production was responsible for running the studio; directly beneath him/her were several associate producers responsible for supervising a number of films and delivering them to the head of production. These methods were designed to save money since each associate producer could now monitor his/her own projects more closely than one central figure could. Often, the producer was the only person to see the film through from conception to completion. In addition to this, particular specialisms could be developed under particular associate producers, which led to more innovation, creativity, and ultimately better quality films. Altogether, these new working practices improved the efficiency and consistency of film production in the Hollywood Studio System.
At Warner Brothers, for example, as many as 20 writers would work on a single script. The script was prepared to an extremely detailed standard and the writers were usually present on set. Once the producer had approved the completed screenplay, the stars/actors were cast and the director, art director, composer, camera operator and editors were appointed. During the studio era the director rarely had any say over any of these personnel; directors were salaried employees 'there to make sure the actors hit their marks while the camera was running' and who left production once shooting had been completed (Biskind, 1998, p.19). The film was then passed on to the editing department, which cut it according to a set of general specifications. Indeed, the style of each film owed more to the values of the studio as a whole than to those of any particular individual working on it.
As the largest, most profitable and productive of the studios during the 1930s, MGM mainly produced melodramas, musicals and literary/theatrical adaptations notable for their high key lighting, rich production design and middle-class American values (The Wizard of Oz, 1939; Gone with the Wind, 1939). In contrast, Paramount had a definite 'European' feel since many of its directors, craftspersons and technicians had come from Germany. It made sophisticated and visually lavish films such as 'sex-and-violence' spectacles, musical comedies, and light operas (The Sign of the Cross, 1932; The Love Parade, 1930). Warner Brothers had a reputation as the studio of the working class and focused on low-life melodramas and musicals with a Depression setting (The Public Enemy, 1931; Wild Boys of the Road, 1933; Gold Diggers of 1933, 1933). Under Busby Berkeley, the musical flourished at Warner Brothers (the Gold Diggers series) while RKO became the home of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical as well as of literary adaptations (Flying Down to Rio, 1933; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1938). 20th Century Fox films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1942) were characterized by their 'hard, glossy surfaces' (Cook, 1996, p.292). As for the minors, Universal produced low-budget features designed for the double bill, but did make a niche for itself in the horror-fantasy genre (Dracula, 1931). Columbia specialized in westerns, while UA became more a distributor for independent directors than a production company (City Lights, 1931; The FrontPage, 1931).
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