THE STUDIO GATES
This is a slightly different look at the Hollywood myth – mainly because we are going to take a ‘hardboiled” look at some of the ideas that nostalgic sites gloss over. Not all sites do yet this is an important part of the Hollywood story. Gloss over, just as the major studios did when something reared its ugly head and effected the ‘moral clause’ in a star’s contract. In other parts, we will shine our opinion light on the censorship system and child stars growing up. First, we enter the world beyond the studio gates.
These gates would be any major studio – WARNER BROTHERS, UNIVERSAL, MGM, RKO and COLUMBIA to Poverty Row as in PRC, MONOGRAM, and REPUBLIC PICTURES. Let us examine the studio system idea more closely.
I once said in a presentation at a convention that we essentially buy back our childhood. When one does that you tend to forget some of the poorer times we all had growing up or perhaps we compartmentalize them; yet they are still part of the our story. Some of us do that when it comes to Classic Hollywood: it brings us a sense of comfort. This Classic period took place during some of the most traumatic events of history such as The Depression and World War II. Was the studio system as a whole good for Hollywood? Mostly every star biography I have read said, “No.” WARNER BROTHERS was a factory where actors and actresses went from picture to picture with little or no break. Joan Blondell wrote that she and other performers often had to ride bicycles to different sound stages with scripts in hand in a basket. Why did stars like James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn all have incidents of refusing to report for work (which resulted in suspension)?
These were people with the clout to do things. What of the performers that made their careers playing policemen, magistrates, store keepers, and dancers that were forever in the background or brief scenes? If it was so good why rebel? The studio moguls once thought that they had made the stars and they should be grateful. I keep thinking as I write this of a line from the Bette Davis come back film ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) when Hugh Marlowe’s character, writer Lloyd Richards, says to Margo Channing, “That it’s time that the piano realizes it did not write the concerto.” Could that have been the writers speaking to the studio heads or the moguls speaking to the actors?
The studio system turned into a double edged sword. It produced some of the most endearing myths and new Gods for people to look up to in darkened theatres. It unleased dreams and imagination that flourish today and are constantly being given life to new generations. The film makers, and Hollywood style of that time will never be forgotten as it is often referenced (even if unknowingly) by popular culture and future film makers. It brings a sense of nostalgia and stability to those that dip into it as the work with repeated viewings becomes like a visit from an old friend. The standards for morality were less graphic in terms of images; often disguised in clever dialogue or situations that took skill and finesse to do.
The salary of Hollywood people as we all know was astronomical compared to the average working family. Men and women saw the fashions, jewelry; the lifestyle of clubs, cars, and food that were beyond their reach. Was this a bad thing? It happens today, but audiences now have more access to fashion and nightlife as manufactured by merchandising. The difference being that we don’t hear of actors fighting studios because they have done too many films in a row, and are on the verge of collapse. The emphasis has moved to the actors and the directors with the ever present agent or deal maker in the middle.
The side light to the studio system was the use of wake up and sleeping pills for many performers. How could one perform at such a pace of production and remain at your peak? Some pictures required dance training, horsemanship, or fire arms training for the role, so how could this all be poured into the performers? Many a bio I have read has mentioned the use of these pills to the point of addiction in later life. I look no further than Judy Garland who was introduced to these items at MGM early in her career. Garland was required to dance, to sing, to perform in these very strenuous pictures without break. The contract with the studio stated that if you were unable to perform in a role for whatever reason (even refusal), a contract could be terminated or the length of time you were off was added to the contract. This was before the Screen Actors Guild and other unions were formed. It amounted to indentured servitude.
It is important to note that the studios were not evil, drug pushing businesses because the use of these pharmaceuticals was accepted behavior. The knowledge of addiction was not as well-known as today. Many Hollywood people would succumb to opium, morphine, cocaine and, of course, alcohol. The military in the war years and after permitted pilots and soldiers in the field to use wake up pills for night duties or tasks requiring long hours of attentiveness. Elvis Presley was introduced to sanctioned stimulants when serving in the military as part of guard duties. Some blame this for his later drug troubles. One had a regime of pills to get to the studio and to rest afterward so one could get up early to be on set at your best. Not to mention the press duties, trips, photo sessions, and loaning out to other studios for roles. I am not saying every person in Hollywood used these to do their job, but the use was rampant.
The positives that come out of the studio system are undeniable in their scope and depth. You have an entire generation of people discovering the stories and stars every day. You have film makers who were directly influenced by the classic studio system in their career choice. The tiered studio system with A features to B movies and below created a training ground for actors, directors and technicians to learn their craft. Not to mention the publicity departments and other industries associated with picture making at that time.
Kevin Spacey once said at an Academy Award ceremony something to the effect that, “You think this is glamourous. It’s the only time we get dressed up and are together. We get up early to be on sets, etc.” Well, a lot of other people get up early to be somewhere like work. Classic Hollywood has a legacy of love and hate; even indifference to some people but never the public. Everything really does have a price. We all enjoy the dreams.