The Concession Stand

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Modern Times: The Industry Changes

The dismantling of the Studio System is often credited to the brash young Turks who were unwilling to follow the old rules and wanted to shake up Hollywood. The truth was a bit more complicated than that.

Then as now, the road to stardom is littered with the memories of people who never quite made it. Despite the many shattered dreams of those who never gained the fame of the superstars, Hollywood's moguls were never wanting for new superstar wannabes. Bus loads of fame seeking dreamers streamed into town daily. If a young Turk tried to stir things up, he or she would often find him or herself back waiting tables at Chasen's. It was more than just new blood that took down the Studio System; in fact the biggest factor was rapidly entering American homes- television.

Television didn't just steal Hollywood's audiences; it also forced the movie studios to try to differentiate themselves from their younger rivals. The quieter B films that every major studio produced to keep their operations humming between the major releases were no longer attracting audiences because they could see those sorts of productions at home for free. To combat this, the bigger studios started to produce bigger, more lavish films in CinemaScope and other large formats not available to home audiences. With every movie needing to be a major event, the poverty row studios either had to embrace Sci-Fi gimmicks or try bigger productions. Columbia Pictures made the leap to the big leagues around this time. Other studios faded away. Cleopatra was the nadir of this bigger, better period. Hollywood realized that it couldn't produce only big epic films. It found its salvation in the young Turks and the new letter rating system.

While the movie rating system was supposed to be a valuable tool for parents, the studios saw it as a way to produce small films that were different from television. Content found in PG & R rated films was often banned on television. Hollywood would still rely on big epic filmmaking for part of its production slate; but now it could also produce smaller, less expensive 'today' pictures featuring nudity and adult language. Hollywood's total movie output would never equal what it was in its heyday, but at least it found a financially viable road forward paved by its new generation of auteurs.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Forbidden Planet: Trog

Towards the end of her career, Joan Crawford seemingly had two requirements for any role she took- the check had to clear and the studio had to let her promote Pepsi, on whose board she sat after the death of her husband. Trog satisfied both of these requirements.

The troglodyte of the title was not Ms. Crawford, but her co-star, a man in a Bigfoot suit who her character discovers in a cave. Joan plays an anthropologist who discovers "Trog" and gets the task of spouting the technobabble dialogue that pushes the story (such as it was) along. Along the way, we get shots of Ms. Crawford and Trog enjoying Pepsi and learning from each other.

The film was typical of the sci-fi movies of the 1950's. Too bad it was being released in 1970. With Joan's needs met, however, she cared little for the film's success or failure.

Subtle product placement!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Star is Born: Sharon Tate

Hollywood likes to present the idea of the "overnight success"- the regular person who gets plucked out of the crowd to become an instant star. This was rarely the case, even in Hollywood's golden age. Studio chiefs often held back their biggest discoveries until they thought those finds were ready for the spotlight. This often meant background roles and disguises in smaller films. At the dawn of television, it meant paying your dues on the small screen, like Sharon Tate.

Martin Ransohoff signed Sharon to a film contract, but he wanted to test her out on some of his television shows. Her first few roles were on Mr. Ed, once as a telephone operator and another time as a young lady "entertaining" a sailor.

Her biggest television role was as Janet Trego in The Beverly Hillbillies. Since this was a higher profile role, Ransohoff placed her in a black wig.

By the time Sharon began making features, she would be sold as a bright new star- who was hiding in plain sight.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Hooray for Hollywood: Afterthought Toons

When most people think about the Warner Brothers, the Looney Tunes are probably the first thing that comes to mind. They most definitely don't think about the actual Warner Brothers who founded the company; as a matter of fact, they probably couldn't identify any of them in a line-up.

Is this Jack Warner? Maybe.

To the actual Warner Brothers, however, animation was an afterthought. With Walt Disney revolutionizing the field, the Warners felt they had to do something in the medium, so they hired Leon Schlesinger to produce some of these cartoon pictures out of a decrepit building on the studio lot affectionately called "Termite Terrace".

It was at Termite Terrace that the legendary Chuck Jones would hone his craft. The studio's first and biggest star would, of course, be Porky Pig. (Surprised?) Audiences couldn't seemingly get enough of Porky Pig whose cartoons would rival the popularity of Disney's shorts at the time.

That wouldn't be the end of the story, obviously, as Porky would eventually get shoved aside by the rascally rabbit Bugs Bunny, who would become the public face of Warner Brothers to many moviegoers around the world.

Would this success earn the admiration of the Warner Brothers? It wouldn't; at least, not from Jack Warner. When asked about his studio's animated output, Jack stated that all he knew about it was that Warner Brothers owned Mickey Mouse, which wasn't true. The final insult would come in the 1950's when Jack oversaw the sale of the entire animated catalog to AAP for just $3,000 per short. It would take 40 years for the cartoons to return home.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Studio System: Louis B. Mayer - King of Hollywood

So why would some of the bigger names in Hollywood hate the Studio System? Aside from their lack of profit participation, anyone who aspired to see their artistic vision on screen would often find him or herself disappointed. In order to work in Hollywood, one had to sign a contract, many for seven years. For the length of the contract, the performer would have to do whatever the studio asked them to do. Didn't like the script? Too bad. Not sure of the movie's casting? Tough luck. If you were on Louis B. Mayer's payroll, you did as he wished. 
If you didn't do what he wanted, there'd be hell to pay.

Now most of the time, if one party were judged to be in breach of contract, the other party could then sever all ties and cancel the contract. Many stars tried this tactic to get out of contracts; maybe they decided that Warner Brothers had better scripts or opportunities than MGM, so they would refuse to take on a project and try to get fired. Louis B. Mayer, however, would often not let them out so easy. What could be worse than getting fired? Having Louis B. Mayer enforce your contract and pay you to do nothing. While that might sound like a good idea, Hollywood celebrities have to stay in the limelight to remain famous and bankable. In this case, getting paid to do nothing was often disastrous for their career. Mayer typically wouldn't enforce the contract for its full remaining time; after all, paying someone to do nothing is obviously a waste of money. He would, however, enforce the contract just long enough to cause damage to the recalcitrant actor's career. Nobody challenged Mr. Mayer and got away with it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Studio System: Coverups!

Why did it seem as though the legends of Hollywood had fewer scandals than the Stars of today? It wasn't that they were purer of heart; they were just better at hiding it. 

The studios had invested thousands, if not millions in their talent. The seven year contracts that were common in those days gave the studios a serious reason to cover up any improprieties. MGM's "security" force rivaled that of the LAPD itself, offering its stars a 24/7 hotline they could call to get out of any sticky situation. 

Eddie Mannix was MGM's prized fixer; he not only knew where Hollywood's deepest, darkest secrets were buried, he most likely was the person burying them. The vast resources at his disposal were there to preserve the public image of MGM's stars and MGM's investments. 

After the fall of the Studio System, the reputations of the bigger stars were no longer a major concern of the studios. Hollywood actors were all free agents now and the studios became less willing to assist them when trouble arose. In some cases, they might benefit from a scandal if an actor's asking price had to be lowered. While a wealthy celebrity could fund his or her own coverup, their resources and reach pale in comparison to MGM's during the golden age of Hollywood. Oftentimes even the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies operated as though they were subsidiaries of MGM and the other studios. This protection vanished when the Studio System fell- and not everyone in Hollywood was prepared for it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Studio System: The Little Guys

The Little Guy!

One element of the studio system that is often overlooked is how it provided stable work for just about everyone, including the supporting cast and many of the extras. They didn't make the same amount as the bigger stars, but they were able to establish their families and receive full benefits as employees of the studio. 

They had less control over the roles they took than the big names did, but then most of them were just happy to have steady work. An additional benefit of doing what they were told was that it could lead to bigger roles and larger contracts. They were also guaranteed a ton of screen time because the studio had to pay them regardless of how much work they did, so it behooved the studio to keep them working.

So why would a big studio like MGM want to keep such a large group of second tier stars under contract? The studio's constant need for content meant that Louis B. Mayer needed to keep the cameras rolling. Having a standing army of talent at his disposal meant that he could instantly summon an actor or actress to any production. His crews wouldn't have to stand idle for too long waiting for production to resume. Thus he could keep his well oiled machine humming along.

Today, most actors and actresses have to hustle for work. They get paid per project and have to make their pay stretch to last throughout a dry spell. The studio system might not have been perfect, but there were more than a few people who might have preferred it to what came later. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Studio System: Control!

The studio system that guided Hollywood through its golden age has been oft-maligned. Seen as a relic of an era in which movie producers took advantage of talent with one-sided deals, it is often misunderstood. This week we'll take a look at the good and the bad of an era that produced some of the Silver screen's greatest films.


One part of the Studio System story that most everyone gets right is that it placed control of just about everything in the hands of studio management. At MGM, that was Louis B. Mayer, undoubtedly the most powerful man in Hollywood.

In the Studio System, every element of a film was seen as a separate factor, much like at a manufacturing facility. Scripts, actors, directors, props, sets, etc were all interchangeable and could be swapped or changed out based on the whims of management. At MGM, Mr. Mayer would purchase scripts, book rights and ideas. He would sign actors, actresses and directors to long or short term contracts. Then he and his staff would take these various pieces and start putting them together in projects. Grab an idea, hand it to a studio screenwriter to have it turned into a shooting script, choose actors and actresses from the studio's contract players, get the studio staff to start building sets and voila- you had a releasable film! 

Whether or not any of the assembled talent actually liked their assignments was beside the point. If Louis B. Mayer wanted you to act in a film, you did it. If you tried to defy him, you would literally never work in Hollywood again. Even the big name stars had to do as Mayer said or face his wrath. If you wanted to remain a big star, you'd best do as you were told. The idea of an auteur having an inspiration and seeing it through to production was unheard of in Mayer's Hollywood. Despite these creative limitations, however, an impressive array of films were produced in Hollywood's golden age.