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Covered Wagons and Decalogues: Paramount's Myths of Origins

From: The Yale Journal of Criticism
Volume 13, Number 2, Fall 2000
pp. 361-389 | 10.1353/yale.2000.0019

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The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000) 361-389



"I am big! It's the pictures that got small," Norma Desmond announces in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, making explicit the kind of story Paramount Pictures is telling in 1950: an autobiography of the studio that "made the pictures big." Paramount had many reasons to see 1950 as an appropriate moment for autobiographical musings, as it faced the end, in the wake of the 1948 Supreme Court-mandated breakup of its vertical monopoly, of a way of life that had governed its production practices since its founding in 1916. Almost immediately, Paramount began doing everything in a smaller way -- breaking up production units, letting go top salaried stars, and renting out studio space to the new kid on the block, television. Paramount's system of production could exist only so long as the major studios maintained monopolistic control, and by 1950, Hollywood was in the process of once again restructuring its entire system in the midst of the most severe upheavals it had experienced since the coming of sound in 1927. The system that had cast aside the Erich von Stroheims and the Gloria Swansons -- the ghosts that haunt the gothic landscape of Sunset Boulevard--was being itself cast aside.

"No one leaves a star," Norma hisses at the film's climax, "that's what makes one a star!" This is a thin definition of a star, but as a definition of a studio, it comes surprisingly close to the principles of enclosure and combination that were the model of Paramount's success for decades. That Norma is meant to represent the passing system is spelled out deliberately and systematically throughout the film: under her roof we find star, screenwriter, director, and movie theater -- and, when she has gone over the edge as the law closes in to shut down the operation, she even wills into existence the entire studio under her roof for one last scene. Together with DeMille and Stroheim, the directors who made the biggest pictures, and the Paramount lot, the studio that made the pictures big, she establishes the vertical monopoly in her mansion on Sunset Boulevard for one triumphant moment before the law comes to take it all away.

If Sunset Boulevard is, as one critic has termed it, "the most autobiographical film Hollywood ever made," it was not an act of studio autobiography that emerged out of nowhere. Indeed, in what follows I will argue that telling stories about itself at moments of industry and cultural crisis was central to the Paramount system from its origins, and that in Covered Wagon (1923) and Ten Commandments (1923) Paramount worked, in the face of mounting external pressures, to tell its own story in the biggest terms possible. But it was not, from the start, a story that could be told in only one voice, or only one way, and thus Paramount's historical epics of the 1920s provide an especially valuable site, not only for investigating the autobiographical imagination that motivated some of the most important developments in the classical Hollywood cinema, but for considering as well the studio system's corporate authorship and its inevitable refusal of monologic history and mythmaking. Paramount in particular offers a rich case as different forces within the studio were invested in very different understandings of the ways in which history should be deployed in the service of a model of studio self-fashioning and cultural identity. On one hand, the studio's chief, Adolph Zukor, as a first-generation immigrant and a target of the increasing anti-semitism directed against Hollywood in general and Paramount in particular, had need of a myth of national origins that drew direct parallels between nineteenth-century pioneer myths and the twentieth-century Jewish story of the founding of Hollywood. On the other hand, Paramount's chief director, Cecil B. DeMille, heir of an established Broadway family, worked in his own epics to tell a very different story, one of cultural purity and the need to guard against the intrusions of corrupting external forces in order to protect the "city on the hill."

That DeMille's Anglo-Saxonist model of citizenship...

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