A still from 1932's Grand Hotel. Produced by MGM mega-producer and boy wonder, Irving Thalberg.

A still from 1932's Grand Hotel. Produced by MGM mega-producer and boy wonder, Irving Thalberg.

There was a time when Hollywood, California was, quite literally, the dream-making capital of the world.  The classical studio system, before becoming part of larger corporate conglomerates, regularly churned out massive films like Casablanca, The Searchers, Grand Hotel, and Gone with the Wind.  This culture of competition pushed the studios to invest in large scale films with large scale talent on a regular basis, often times releasing multiple prestige pictures a year.  The budgets that are now reserved for escapist tent-pole summer releases were then used to make films like Gold Diggers of 1933 and All Quiet on the Western Front.  Directors, writers, stars, and technicians were employed by the studio on a contractual basis instead of hired by the job.  The studios all had a particular personality: the socially conscious pictures of Warner Brothers or the high-gloss sophisticated films at MGM.  By the 1930s all of these factors would contribute to Hollywood films being seen on every corner of the planet, provided it had a screen, a projector, and the means of obtaining film prints. 

Though it was not fair to other global cinemas, the proliferation of Hollywood would come to be recognized for decades as the singular standard for the aesthetic and narrative techniques utilized in narrative cinema.  This effect was so widespread that it would not be until the European art house boom of the 1960s and the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s (over half a century after the invention of the film camera) that this approach to narrative filmmaking would be usurped.  The study of classical Hollywood is essential for these very reasons.  It is not the job of the film scholar to watch a film as an isolated and self-contained specimen, but instead she must ask herself, “What does it mean?" 

What does classical Hollywood mean?  It certainly means more than can be said here. Classical Hollywood merits close analyses, generally, because no other system of cinema has ever reached such a globalized pollination and industrialized mechanization since or before.  If one is to understand where the state of cinema rests today, one has to look back to the state of Hollywood then.  There is a reason why a big budget Hollywood film, a Mexican soap opera, and a cable television show all look the same.  Filmmakers are still employing the techniques pioneered in classical Hollywood: screen direction, screen position, and continuity editing.

A study of classical Hollywood is also important because, from the New Hollywood filmmakers (e.g. Bagdonovich, Scorsese, Spielberg) to the current ones (e.g. P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, Baumbach), a certain amount of self-reflexivity is at work in contemporary films.  Think of the Wizard of Oz inspired opening of Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or the Grand Hotel like tapestry of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia.  The elements at work in these and many other contemporary films draw directly upon films from classical Hollywood.  There are things happening in these films that can only be understood and appreciated by one who is aware of what inspired them in the first place.

Today the studio system is little more than a group of distribution companies.  Of course studios still make films, but the passion of the executives and owners of the studios has been misplaced.  There is no Irving Thalberg or David O. Selznick.  Contemporary producers care about their films, and some of them make very good ones, but their bosses and their bosses’ bosses only care about one thing; and it’s not making quality movies.  Then, however, Hollywood synthesized so much of how America saw and still does see itself.  In fact, it practically invented classic American themes: the American dream, the frontier, and the self-made individual.  Now films like Love Finds Andy Hardy and The Crowd are so readable because they perfectly crystallize the values and perspectives of the majority of American mindsets during the time in which they were released.  Classical Hollywood matters because it so clearly mirrors many founding American ideals, respectable or not.  Film scholars must continue to analyze, preserve, and theorize about Classical Hollywood because without it we could never understand the state of American cinema today or the trajectory of its future.

Comment