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‘As far as the filmmaking process is concerned, stars are essentially worthless — and absolutely essential. ’ -William Goldman It started with Florence Lawrence as the ‘Biograph Girl’ in the early 1900’s, and bred into the formation of the Universal Studios by one smart producer by the name of Carl Laemmle. The birth of Hollywood had never experienced a joyful transition for editors and actors, who back in the day were treated like hired help by directors.
The silent film era was not the commercial enterprise it is today; it was a mere impression of Vaudeville, and studios generated cheap and generic content, while actors remained anonymous and low paid.
Florence was one of the popular actresses of the time who helped create a celebrity culture that was infact a farce used by Studios to promote their cinematographic content. And this farce became known in history as the Golden Age of Hollywood. The celebrity culture that is idolized today was in actuality a ploy used to attract an audience following.
Stars were created, not born. The Studio System comprised of The Big Five (MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO and Fox), who are credited for creating some of the most legendary stars of the time, thus leading to the term ‘star system’. Studios invested a great deal of time and money into grooming and publicizing an actor, and owning him in the process, simply by signing him to a contract. When an actor had inscribed his name on the formidable piece of paper, he had no future of his own.
Depending on his talent and the response his image got from the audience, he was either crucial or dispensable to the Studio he had been employed by. The industry was relentless when it came to the treatment of actors. Fame, in all its shallow glory, was a high price to pay for the compensation of no personal life and no personal choice. Actors were required to play the roles they were assigned to without question or argument, made to indulge in publicity stints, and traded off or loaned to another Studio on mutually agreed upon arrangements without their consent.
Performers were very similar to the posters their faces were displayed on because they had absolutely no control over their careers, just as a poster has no control over how it is used or interpreted. An example of the extent to which a Studio went to glamourize its artists is Rita Hayworth, who was coerced into changing her name from Margarita Casino and made to get plastic surgery performed (hairline electrolysis) to make her more marketable. However, that is not to say that actors were treated with any respect when the silent era fell off its crippling platform.
The past was not a happy place for an actor before the term ‘celebrity’ came into being. The release of ‘The Jazz Singer’ is known to be the pedestal on which the studio era was founded upon because it was the first motion picture with a few minutes of synchronized sound. When sound entered the frame, Vaudeville rapidly depleted into obscurity, and former Vaudeville actors were faced with the bitter reality of unemployment, forcing them to migrate into the film industry. This immigration created a domino effect for the entertainers already present in the enterprise.
They had never been exposed to the element of voice being incorporated into a motion picture, and could not adjust to the inclusion of sound. Various hurdles included bad voices, thick accents and the inability to remember dialogues. Moreover, the Big Five circulated their own theatre chains, and adopted specific genre as labels for their reputation and glory. In this process, actors were never given much flexibility to explore or expand their potential, but were in a constant state of repeating the same theme over and over again in each new production.
On a more positive note, this repetition led to the recognition of some very creative artists, who explored a theme with such unabashed inquisition that no two films were ever shown in a tiresome cycle of alliteration. ‘One well-known actor in this situation was Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly was associated with musical films such as An American in Paris, Les Girls, Brigadoon, and Singin’ in the Rain. In virtually all of his movies, Kelly would sing and go through intricate dance numbers. MGM, the studio Kelly was contracted with, knew people expected this from Kelly, so the studio made sure to put Kelly in musical films.
The few movies Kelly was in that weren’t musicals did not do nearly as well as the ones he sang and danced in. When people saw a trailer for a movie with Gene Kelly in it, they expected to see a musical; this expectation kept people coming back to see more of Kelly’s movies, which brought MGM more and more revenue.’ The Studio System did not only control the lives of its performers within the confines of its sets or production houses. An employee had no concept of privacy or freedom of indulging in the luxuries offered outside the bubble of the world of film.
Due to the incredulous amount of acclamation an actor received, he could not ruin his public image, even by making the mistakes a common citizen could afford to overlook. Studios had contracts drawn with ‘morality clauses’ that forbade an employee from engaging in the utility of drug abuse, divorce and adultery as these would lead to the consequence of a foiled public image, thus resulting in loss of annuity. However, even though such social control was oppressive, it retained a modest reputation and acted as a form of deterrence for the artists.
However, the violation of these clauses led to no direct effect on the perpetrators, because the Studio they were assigned to would pay off the witnesses or offer exclusive stories to tabloids in exchange for not reporting on the truth of the matter. In this sense, actors were provided with free reign to do as they pleased. ‘Cinema is the culmination of the obsessive, mechanistic male drive in western culture. The movie projector is an Apollonian straight-shooter, demonstrating the link between aggression and art. Every pictorial framing is a ritual limitation, a barred precinct. -Camille Paglia Was it the male drive in western culture -if the term western culture can be deemed as appropriate- that led to the birth of explicit content in Hollywood, or the market demand for it?
Censorship created a massive propaganda in the late 1920’s. It was one of the major reasons why The Motion Picture Commission was established in 1921, the strongest form of government that induced censorship on films for the next 44 years. It began with ‘The Kiss’ in 1896, in which a man and a woman shared a kiss that barely lasted half a minute, leading on to ‘Know Thy Husband’ (1919), in hich the protagonist contracted a horrible disease after indulging in his primal desires in the city, evolving further into ‘Outside the Law’ (1921), a crime film with the same connotations. Hollywood was never subtle with its aesthetic imagination, and actors, as a result, developed a notorious reputation. Infact, Hollywood itself was renowned to be a place infested with scandal and immoral behavior. This splintered imagery of the sensational mirror that reflected the flaws of Hollywood was not for the righteous offence of the general public alone.
Celebrities suffered directly from the environment they presided in- literally in the fatal sense. For instance, one of the most tragic deaths a star faced was Thelma Todd, a young actress who had costarred in a number of classic comedies with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton (Monkey Business’ ‘Horse Feathers’). She died at the age of 30, in 1935, believed to have committed an accidental suicide when she was found dead in her car, although the general opinion suggested suspicions of cold blooded murder.
Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.
The Studio System gave rise to legendary personalities, faces of people that are remembered as icons of inspiration and unadulterated talent. It gave rise to films like ‘Casablanca’, ‘Gone with the Wind’, ’The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. It gave us Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, and countless other idols to look up to and admire.
However, with the emergence of Sound and Studio, even when Hollywood acquired so much recognition and wealth, it lost the sense of morality and the image of an honest corporation by degrading its own reputation, and that of its main components, the actors. Cinema is now associated with superficial glamour, it is a world that is infested with deceit and facade. A false pretense of joy through fame, a bubble of happiness that does not seem to exist in the first place. Ironically, the fall of the Studio System began with the reason for its accession.
War brought people to theatres, and war became its undoing. After World War II legal, technological and social developments converged on the Hollywood film industry, undermining the economic foundation of the studio system. The antitrust suit against Paramount in 1948, combined with the increasing strength of unions, encouraged the growing practice of freelancing’. This decision not only outlawed the practice of block booking, it also forced the studios to sell their theater chains, and reduce the number of productions. What was once a monopoly of the ‘Big Five’ turned out to be a doorway for minor studios and independent filmmakers to thrive in.
As far as the actors were concerned, they found the opportunity to become more genre savvy, and demand the right to refuse a contract, or opt to go to a free agency instead. They found the leeway to become more selective and demanding in their preferences regarding their professional services. The star system crumbled, but the stars found liberation.
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