The Hollywood Studio System: A Technology Whose Impact Is Still Felt Today

One kind of technology I learned about this semester is the Hollywood Studio System. What makes this technology so interesting is that it isn’t something that would usually come to mind when “film technology” is mentioned. I learned, through our studies, that technology doesn’t have to be some piece of equipment; in fact, one working definition of technology is just something that changes or shapes the way we view or think about the world. The Hollywood Studio System certainly changed very much of the way people viewed films during that era, and its impacts have shaped the way we view films even today.

The Hollywood Studio System began around 1917 and essentially created a new way of thinking about film and film-making. Previously, films had been made for predominantly artistic purposes, much like story-writing. Stories were made by an author or writer of some sort, films were carefully edited by some small-scale company, and eventually the films were distributed into the public by some other small corporation. Films were appreciated by the public, but film-making as a job was not necessarily very lucrative. It was an art, not really a business. This all changed with the Hollywood Studio System, which transformed film-making truly into an industry. Big companies (namely, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., and RKO) implemented vertical integration into the idea of film-making. In the past, the different aspects of film-making were pretty separate. For example, The New York Hat was a film made by D.W. Griffith that was produced and distributed by a company called Biograph Company. In comparison, other films by Griffith, such as Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, were written and produced by himself but distributed by Triangle Distributing Corporation and Epoch Producing Corporation, respectively. Something to notice is that the parts of the job throughout the film-making process were split among different people. In the new Hollywood Studio System era, one company controlled every aspect of film-making, from production to distribution to exhibition, and five companies (plus 3 smaller ones) controlled the entire film industry–they had a monopoly. 

Another thing to notice from the examples regarding Griffith is that he had no personal ties with Biograph, Triangle, or Epoch. The big companies of the Hollywood Studio System era had specific writers, actors, editors, etc. that worked under them, and people outside of one of those companies did not work on films made by those companies. Something that this system perhaps introduced was consumer loyalty. Fans that enjoyed films/actors from a certain company probably continued to view films made by that industry. However, a downside to this system would be the potential limitations it put on creativity (if the company didn’t like your work, it would be very hard to get your work to the public). Regardless, many of the films we studied this semester were born during this era, and we see that all of them were produced by one of the “Big 5” companies (for example, Laura was made by 20th Century Fox, Bringing Up Baby was made by RKO, and Merrily We Go to Hell was made by Paramount). The stars of the movies often belonged to that specific company and consistently acted for them. These stars gained their own following of fans and possibly increased the popularity of all the films made by that specific company.

Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant starring in RKO Radio’s Bringing Up Baby (1937)

Despite this era coming to an end in 1948 (as a result of the antitrust laws), we continue to see its effects today. Film-making is a big and lucrative industry. Though it is still a form of art, it will never just be that anymore. As we approach the next decade, we are beginning to see things (namely, Netflix, which has taken over production, distribution, and exhibition of its “Netflix Originals”) that are eerily similar to the ideas first presented in the Hollywood Studio System era.

For more information on how the Hollywood Studio System worked and its impacts during its time, visit this great website!

 

Works Cited

Bringing Up Baby.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bringing_Up_Baby.

Intolerance (film).” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intolerance_(film).

“Laura (1944 film).” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_(1944_film).

Merrily We Go to Hell.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merrily_We_Go_to_Hell.

“Studio System.” Hollywood Lexicon. www.hollywoodlexicon.com/studiosystem.html.

“Studio System.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studio_system.

The Birth of a Nation.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Nation.

The New York Hat.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_York_Hat.

The Studio System: An Industrial Marvel

As an average film fan, I rarely care to think about the production process beyond how certain scenes were filmed or how some special effects were added in. The most highlights part of the filmmaking process seems to be the actors and the storyline, while many of those who work behind the scenes in setup, decoration, and film editing are forgotten (by people like me, I admit). Learning about the idea of the Studio System caught me by surprise; every industry has an established process by which most companies abide, but I had never grouped cinema into this category. Since I am an Industrial and Systems Engineering major, the emergence of the Studio System immediately caught my eye.

This trend did, in fact, hold true for the film industry. All major companies used the Studio System whether they were one of the Big 5 (MGM, Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros, or 20th Century Fox) or in The Little 3 (Universal Pictures, Columbia, or United Artists). Today, we see companies like Amazon function at unimaginable efficiency, something every company wishes to replicate. In the 1920s, after the implementation of the assembly line to produce Ford automobiles, the assembly line idea was applied to the film industry among many others in the form of the Studio System.

On the set of Now, Voyager (1942).  Source

The Studio System divided film making into pre-production, production, and post-production phases. Pre-production was centered around the producer and included costumes, set making, contracting screenwriters, and hiring directors and actors. Production was the actual filming and involved cinematographers, special effects, props, and actors. Finally, post-production was the transmission of the film into viewable content via editing, music composition (background music), and the printing and copying process done in laboratories.

This system standardized Hollywood films during what is considered to be its “Golden Age”. Films tended to follow a similar structure, have similar plot schemes, and use the same types of technology (quality still depended on the budget of the film). The shortcomings of the Studio System were that the diversity of Hollywood was reduced, small budget films found it difficult to compete because they could not afford the technology of the time, and films had to follow a technical and social production code, which often constrained producers’ imaginations.

From its advent around 1917, the Studio System led to a rampant increase in Hollywood annual film production. Nearly 400 movies per year were produced in the Studio System Era, which includes The New York Hat, The Girl from Missouri, Bringing Up Baby, Laura, and In a Lonely Place. These films all feature technology that diverged from the preliminary film tech: rolling cameras, soundtracks, and even technicolor in some scenarios. They all followed the production code to promote positive behavior and discourage negative behavior. They all featured an active mystery murder or an elaborate romance trail.

The overhaul of the Studio System came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Paramount in United States v. Paramount (1948), which resulted in the loss of theater holdings by the major studios. The high costs associated with the Studio System became deadweight for many companies after they lost their guaranteed revenue streams after this case. Thus, in the next decade, lower-budget movies began to grow in popularity and take over small town America. But as Hollywood always does, they adapted to the change and continue their dominance today.

 

Works Cited

“The Hollywood Studio System: Art as Industry.” Silver Screenings, 8 Dec. 2017, https://silverscreenings.org/2016/08/04/the-hollywood-studio-system-art-as-industry/.

“Studio System.” Film Reference, http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Romantic-Comedy-Yugoslavia/Studio-System.html.

Studio System of Classic Hollywood – Hollywood Lexicon, http://www.hollywoodlexicon.com/studiosystem.html.

“Studio System.” Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, Encyclopedia.com, 24 Oct. 2019, https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/studio-system.

Charismatic Mary Miles Minter in Nurse Marjorie

Romance, drama, and defiance – this film had it all. In 1920, Realart Pictures released the silent film Nurse Marjorie starring Mary Miles Minter and directed by William Desmond Taylor. Based on a 1906 play with the same name by Israel Zangwill, this film embodied the progress of film technology and culture in a variety of ways.

Technology & Techniques

Although the first narrative film had only been released less than two decades earlier, Nurse Marjorie successfully incorporates many advanced film narrative technologies of the period. As one example, since this film is relatively long with a runtime of 88 minutes, Taylor includes numerous intertitles throughout the film. Furthermore, as sound film had yet to be commercially practical, the intertitles helped elevate the detail and complexity of the narrative and kept the viewers engaged.

Nurse Marjorie also utilizes several camera technologies. In multiple scenes, the film depicts two characters talking to each other in which Taylor incorporates shot reverse shot to alternate between the actors. Additionally, the film heavily integrates parallel editing to show two simultaneous scenes happening in different locations. For example, in one part, Taylor alternates between scenes happening at the hospital and at the house. Through the use of these techniques, Taylor successfully creates a better flowing story with major character development.

A scene from Nurse Marjorie with Mary Miles Minter on the left.

Film Review

After its release, the film received many favorable reviews across newspapers and magazines. As one periodical writes, “The charm of an adorable young woman plus wonderful heart interest, delightfully developed in a love story of universal appeal – this, and flashes of real comedy, will make ‘Nurse Marjorie’ one of the most powerful Mary Miles Minter productions.” (Exhibitors Herald) In another review, Nurse Marjorie receives enthusiastic praise about the production and narrative.

One reason I believe Nurse Marjorie performed so well was due to its incorporation of the star system. During this time period of the 1910s and 1920s, both William Desmond Taylor and Mary Miles Minter were very well known and popular as a director and actress respectively. As such, when the two of them produced Nurse Marjorie together, the film already had the name brand for a reputable film.

However, an interesting twist on this bond is that Taylor and Minter reportedly had a love relationship. This can be seen in the film as Taylor portrays Minter as a loving, caring, and overall perfect nurse. He displays her intense charm and wittiness which may be a sign for his love for her. Oddly enough, two years after the release of the move in 1922, Taylor was murdered, and Minter’s mother was thought to be a part of the scheme. Furthermore, this case remains unsolved even today. With this drastic shock to Hollywood, Minter’s acting reputation was severely tarnished, and she gave up her career in 1923.

A portrait of William Desmond Taylor in 1917.

Personal Impressions

As far as my personal review of the film, I thought that it was overall very well made and entertaining. On one hand, Nurse Marjorie has a charming story that reflects the class system in the UK. Through the rebellious side of Minter playing the role of an aristocratic daughter, the film leads to an interesting story. However, on the flip side, Taylor portrays an intricate story, and it can be difficult to follow the on-screen action with the many actors and successive camera swapping between scenes. In general, Taylor does a great job representing the hard work of women. For example, at the nursing home, there are almost exclusively women working.

Through a series of advanced film technologies and captivating narrative, Nurse Marjorie quickly captures its audience’s attention in the early 1920s. Produced by William Desmond Taylor and starring Mary Miles Minter, the film successfully accomplishes its goal and depicts the heavy involvement of women in the film industry.

Works Cited

“Exhibitors Herald (Apr-Jun 1920) : Exhibitors Herald Co. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Chicago, Exhibitors Herald, https://archive.org/details/exhibitorsherald10exhi_0/page/n597.

Goldfarb, Kara. “William Desmond Taylor And The ‘Crime Of Passion’ That Shocked Early Hollywood.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 13 Dec. 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/william-desmond-taylor.

Grost, Mike. The Films of William Desmond Taylor – by Michael E. Grost, http://mikegrost.com/taylor.htm.

“Mary Miles Minter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Miles_Minter.

“Nurse Marjorie.” IMDb, IMDb.com, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0011522/reviews?ref_=tt_ov_rt.

Sherman, Wm. Thomas. “NURSE MARJORIE (1920) — Mary Miles Minter, Dir. by William Desmond Taylor.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Aug. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUZ7VkYoRQI.

“William Desmond Taylor.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Desmond_Taylor.

Navigating the “Cursed Life” of Adela Rogers St. Johns

Adela Rogers St. Johns, via IMDb

Upon my initial search of Adela Rogers St. Johns’ novel A Free Soul, I seemed to have hit several dead-ends regarding the original text upon which my chosen film The Girl Who Had Everything (1953) was based. Rogers St. Johns had originally published her novel A Free Soul in 1927, and within four short years, it was adapted into a film which was also titled A Free Soul. Unfortunately, my initial search results of “A Free Soul” on Google consisted mostly of articles and websites featuring the 1931 film rather than the original text from which my film was created. From a superficial search, I gleaned a very limited amount of information about the novel written by Rogers St. Johns; however, with further research, I soon discovered a plethora of information even more intriguing and enriching than simple facts about the novel. My research has unveiled the various accomplishments and influences that helped shape Adela Rogers St. Johns’ successful career which spanned over six decades and further showcases her as an independent woman who had a large impact on the film and entertainment world during her lifetime. 

Early Life

Adela Rogers St. Johns was born on May 20, 1894 in Los Angeles, California to her mother Hazel Belle Bogart Green and her father Earl Andrus Rogers. In Adela’s early life, her mother alienated herself from the family, leaving her father Earl to raise her as a single parent. Although her father was a well-known and successful defense attorney in California, he drastically struggled with alcoholism. Adela inherently had to face the repercussions of her father’s addiction throughout her entire lifetime, and she referred to his alcoholism as “the curse of my life.” Her unconventional upbringing gave Adela a unique perspective at the time, which later influenced her work as an author. Furthermore, her background helps explain the protagonist’s lack of a maternal connection and the presence of an alcoholic lawyer father figure in her 1927 novel A Free Soul.

Career

Despite the familial adversity she faced as a young girl, Rogers St. Johns was able to create a career for herself using her background to give her audiences a fresh and new perspective at the time. Her career blossomed in journalism where she worked for Hearst Publications as a reporter covering topics from society to politics to sports. Her exposure to the media propelled her further in her career where she interviewed movie stars and created short stories for various magazines. Her distinctive style combining emotion and unorthodox topics allowed her to become known as a “sob sister” which allowed her work to become easily recognizable. In 1948, she returned to writing for the newspapers and later retired to write novels and teach at universities. 

Later Life

In her later life, Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote an autobiography titled Honeycomb (1969) in which she describes the complexities, achievements, and struggles of her life as both a daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother, as well as an author, journalist, and screenwriter. With a career spanning over sixty years, Rogers St. Johns had made many accomplishments in the public eye. In a 1970 interview with CBC, she proclaimed herself as the person who wrote the first piece about Hollywood for a national magazine, thus making her both an observer and contributor to Hollywood. Her connection to Hollywood was something many others of her time could not relate, as she had both an outside perspective as a journalist as well as an inside perspective due to her direct contributions as an author and screenwriter. This unique combination coupled with her broad experiences in Hollywood further emphasizes the importance and breadth of her career as a woman in the entertainment industry during the first half of the twentieth century.

 

WORKS CITED

“Adela Rogers.” Ancestry®, www.ancestry.com/genealogy/records/adela-rogers-24-4jhm1t.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Adela Rogers St. Johns.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Aug. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Adela-Rogers-St-Johns.

Morey, Anne. “Adela Rogers St. Johns.” – Women Film Pioneers Project, 2013, wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-adela-rogers-st-johns/.

Scutts, Joanna. “Adela Rogers St Johns: ‘The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter’.” Time, Time, 22 Mar. 2016, time.com/4265954/adela-rogers-st-johns/.