Stars powered the American Studio System from 1934-1946. Various studios, such as 20th-Century Fox (1935), Paramount Pictures (1912), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924), Columbia Pictures (1920), and Warner Brothers (1923) held long-term contracts both on directors and stars. A listing of some of the stars under contract to the studios gives some idea of the Studio System's power during these years.
20th Century Fox: Directors--Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, Henry Hathaway, and Elia Kazan. Actors--Shirley Temple, Loretta Young, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, and Gregory Peck.
Paramount: Actors--Mary Pickford, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Alan Ladd, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas.
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM): Directors--Eric Von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, George Cukor, Victor Fleming. Actors--Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor.
Warner Brothers: Actors--Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Peter Lorre.
|1934||It Happened One Night||Frank Capra|
|1936||Mr. Deeds Goes to Town||Frank Capra|
|1937||Captains Courageous||Victor Fleming|
|1939||The Wizard of Oz||Victor Fleming|
|1939||Gone With the Wind||Victor Fleming|
|1940||The Grapes of Wrath||John Ford|
|1940||His Girl Friday||Howard Hawks|
|1940||The Philadelphia Story||George Cukor|
|1941||Citizen Kane||Orson Welles|
|1941||Maltese Falcon||John Huston|
|1941||Meet John Doe||Frank Capra|
|1941||How Green Was My Valley||John Ford|
|1941||Shepherd of the Hills||Henry Hathaway|
|1942||The Magnificent Ambersons||Orson Welles|
|1944||The Maltese Falcon||John Huston|
|1945||It's a Wonderful Life||Frank Capra|
|1945||The Lost Weekend||Billy Wilder|
|1946||The Big Sleep||Howard Hawks|
|1946||My Darling Clementine||John Ford|
Stars weren't free to seek their own contracts during these years. Often stars would be "loaned" by one studio to another for a particular project with the expectation that such offers would be reimbursed in kind. Stars also worked on more than one picture at a time and often were expected to churn out four or five pictures a year. For instance, Humphrey Bogart starred in 36 films between 1934 and 1942. Casablanca was one of four pictures he completed in 1943.
A major source of revenue for the studios was their ownership of large theater chains. But in 1949 the studios were forced to divest themselves of these theater empires because of their monopolistic practices. The advent of television in the 1950s, the rise of the director as auteur, and the ability of actors to become "free agents" led to the demise of the old Studio System.
The four films directed by Frank Capra, noted on the list above, represented a major source of income for Columbia Pictures, the studio who had him under contract. He worked for Columbia for more than ten years, and his films appealed to a broad audience hungry for sentimental stories about the underlying goodness of the common man and woman. Gary Cooper, who starred in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941) was the embodiment of this theme. His tall, awkward, and humble persona created an instant empathy with his audience. He was the quintessential American--a bit naive, inarticulate, and stumbling. But push him too hard and he became determined, focused, and unbeatable. Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1945) has become a holiday classic on American television for similar reasons. Jimmy Stewart plays a halting, bumbling family man who has never set foot outside his small town American setting. But by the end of the film the good deeds he has done for his townspeople are repaid a hundred fold by his neighbors.
When the English director Alfred Hitchcock made his first American film in 1940 (Rebecca), he joined the pantheon of famous directors under contract by the American studios. His 1941 film, Suspicion, was made for RKO Pictures (Radio-Keith-Orpheum); and the same studio took a gigantic risk by refusing to back down under the campaign waged by William Randolph Hearst to prevent Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles, from ever seeing the light of day.
But the list of films above is gleaned from thousands of films that were made by the studios between 1934-1946. Most of the films were little more than popular entertainments. These films have become classics partly because they represent some of the best work done by the following actors: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Ray Milland. They also are classics because their directors maintained a consistent style and achieved a vision of their genre--Capra of the sentimental comedy, Hitchcock of suspense, John Ford of the American Western, Howard Hawks of the fast-paced comedy of dialogue.
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