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  • The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era
  • Ron Briley
Thomas Schatz The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era University of Minnesota Press, 2010; $24.95

This attractive paperback edition of Thomas Schatz’s study of the classical Hollywood studio era, originally published in 1989, assures that this essential piece of film scholarship remains readily available for academics as well as film fans seeking to better understand the contributions of Hollywood [End Page 52] to cinema from the 1920s through the 1950s. Schatz, a professor of communications at the University of Texas, challenges the “auteur theory” of film authorship, which celebrates the film director as an artist whose personal style often negated the dehumanizing and profit-driven studio factory system. Instead, Schatz argues that greater attention and credit should be awarded to producers and executives who drafted unique studio styles, and, accordingly, that “any individual’s style was no more than an inflection of an established studio style” (6).

Asserting that a history of the entire studio system would be unwieldy, Schatz focuses his book upon four representative examples: Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Universal, and independent producer David O. Selznick—whose Selznick International Pictures constituted a personal studio while introducing the concept of the independent producer and eventually undermining the studio system. MGM and Warner Brothers were integrated major studios whose ownership of theater chains allowed them to dominate the market, while independents such as Selznick relied heavily upon the majors for performers, technicians, production facilities, and distribution. Universal, on the other hand, was a “major-minor,” lacking in capital and resources, which forced the studio to emphasize lower grade and more systematic production. Schatz incorporates these four companies into a narrative that examines the studio system chronologically from its inception in the 1920s to the breakdown of that system in the post World War II period.

Schatz credits Irving Thalberg with pioneering the producer-dominated mode of operation that came to characterize the studio system. Thalberg, often referred to as the “boy wonder,” was appointed general manager in charge of production at Universal Studio when he was only twenty-one years of age. A salary dispute in 1923 led the young film executive to depart Universal for MGM, where Thalberg assumed charge of production and suffered through a somewhat strained working relationship with Louis B. Mayer. Schatz maintains that Thalberg, in occupying a critical position between capitalization and production, carved out the role of production chief, which became “the single most important role in the Hollywood studio system” (47).

The sound revolution, pioneered by Warner Brothers in 1927, was expensive and creased the need for a well-supervised process in which the shooting script assumed an essential function. In addition, Schatz insists that in response to the economic challenge of the Great Depression, studio executives created the “holy trinity” of the studio system, emphasizing the interplay among budget, star, and genre. Thus, studio house systems were developed in which Universal featured the horror film, while Warner Brothers, under production chief Darryl F. Zanuck, concentrated upon social realism and the gangster picture. MGM, however, continued to focus upon such major productions as Grand Hotel (1932) in which grace, glamour, and beauty often took precedence over substance. The 1930s also witnessed the formation of [End Page 53] Selznick International Pictures (SIP) following the producer’s career at Paramount, RKO, and MGM. With an emphasis on prestige pictures and detailed supervision, SIP captured Best Picture Oscars for Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). The latter production was the result of an independent arrangement, which Selznick negotiated to bring Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood and foreshadowed the disintegration of the studio system.

While the studio system struggled during the Depression, Hollywood profits were strong during the Second World War with a robust economy and growing theatrical ticket sales. Nevertheless, MGM, the studio that best weathered the early depression years, was in decline following the premature death of Thalberg in 1936. With bloated production costs, studio wartime profits were modest, with the exception of the studio’s musical films. After a brief post war boom, the entire studio system would break down...


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