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.