The Golden Age of Hollywood

Based on a lecture by Author/Professor Brian Rose under the aegis of Smithsonian Associates.

“Two forces bookended The Golden Age of Hollywood,” host Brian Rose begins, “the coming of sound and onset of the Depression and what happened after WWII in 1946.”

The Jazz Singer 1927 Lobby Card – Public Domain

In 1927, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson was the first full (90 minutes) talking picture. “To be fair,” Rose  clarifies, “about one quarter of it was synchronized dialogue.“ Its success created a revolution in film. Timing couldn’t have been worse. Banks closed. There was massive unemployment. Suddenly studios had to invest in sound proof cameras and production facilities. Stars were required to talk clearly. Some like John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks didn’t successfully make the transition. Rose tells us theaters resorted to “gimmicks” like free dishware, glasses or even cash to entice patrons. Even though one third of American movie theaters closed, however, every week 65 percent of the population went to theaters.

An explosion of gangster films made use of sound with screeching tires and gunshots. Urban violence and prohibition commandeered screens. There was Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface. James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni reigned. We watch the iconic scene in Public Enemy where Cagney pushes a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke and the finale of Little Caesar where Edward G. Robinson is cornered and shot up beyond measure as Bonnie and Clyde would be on film decades later. Unrepentant criminals all.

Mae Clarke and James Cagney in The Public Enemy 1930 Publicity Still-Public Domain

Around the same time scandals like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle being accused of rape (he was tried and vindicated three times, but lost everything) and the suspicious poisoning death of Jack Pickford’s wife (Mary’s brother) threatened Hollywood. Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face boasted “She played the love game with everything she had for everything THEY had and made IT pay…It was fatal to offer her love.”

Conservatives, especially the Catholic Church, found the business too often shocking. “Studios realized they had to do something about it and hired the former postmaster general, Will Hayes, to clean up their acts. Hays set up The Production Code of America. Starting in 1934, every film had to receive code approval or it wouldn’t be released in theaters.”

Baby Face 1933 Lobby Card Public Domain

It was resolved “that those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated.” First on the list were: Pointed profanity—by either title or lip—this includes the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), Hell, S.O.B., damn, God, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled; Any licentious or suggestive nudity—in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture; The illegal traffic in drugs…”

Hays went after Maureen O’Sullivan’s skimpy skins in Tarzan and His Mate. Gone were the original gangster movies with drugs, alcohol, violence, and sex. Softer versions came in, Rose tells us.” In G-Men, Jimmy Cagney’s police character acted just as violently as gangsters, but was now on the right side of the law. The code held till 1949’s White Heat when Cagney’s character returned to earlier ways.”

Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple stair dance from The Little Colonel 1935 20th Century Fox Press Photo Public Domain

Middle American family values were supported by MGM’s popular Andy Hardy series of 16 films from 1937 to 1946. All were successful except the last made in 1958. And Twentieth Century Fox’s Shirley Temple films (29 films from the ages of three to ten). We watch Temple dance up and down the stairs with the wonderful Bill Robinson in The Little Colonel.

Mae West came to Hollywood for a wildly successful career on Broadway and more or less wrote her own ticket. She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel were made before the Hayes Code went into effect however. Lines like “Caught between two evils I generally like to take the one I never tried,” were an issue. “West was sacrificed to censorship and eventually fired by Paramount, the studio she helped survive the Depression.”

Strand Theater Advertisement for Charlie Chan at The Circus 1936 Public Domain

“Classic films came about through a rare combination of imagination, creativity, incredible talent, and the industry’s ability to understand the needs of its audiences. At the heart of this was the studio system itself.” Hollywood was a one industry town ruled by five “major” studios: MGM, Paramount, RKO, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers. (The “minors” were Columbia, Universal, and United Artists.) Real money wasn’t made with movies but rather owning theaters, a ready showcase for big budget pictures, Rose tells us. “B” films like Charlie Chan, westerns, and The Ritz Brothers comedies were released weekly.

Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born 1937 Publicity Still- Public Domain

The star system controlled every aspect of an actor’s life from name to appearance. Players were taught to walk, talk, sing, and dance. They went out on arranged dates and learned to be otherwise discreet due to a strictly observed morals clause in contracts. We watch clips from the 1937 A Star is Born where Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett  is remade into Vicky Lester, an Oliver Niles Studio creation.

One has only to think of Frances Gumm, the young Judy Garland who was groomed and manipulated from shorts to musicals to Andy Hardy to her breakout role in The Wizard of Oz and far beyond. Hers was a life steeped in drugs procured and administered by a system exploiting her talent. “Master control was a hallmark of The Golden Age. They could fire you, but you couldn’t leave. It was indentured servitude. It was also for the most part a mutually beneficial system.”

Grand Hotel MGM 1932 Lobby Card Public Domain

Film aficionados will remember newsreel clips of MGM’s great publicity meal featuring the assembly of “All the Stars in Heaven.” The roster is amazing. The studio specialized in all-star productions like Grand Hotel and The Philadelphia Story. RKO had Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, King Kong and Citizen Kane, still considered by many the greatest film ever made. Warner Brothers featured melodramas with Cagney, Bogart, and Bette Davis as well as Busby Berkeley musicals. And, of course, Casablanca. Paramount made sophisticated dramas, but it was Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies that floated the bank. Twentieth Century Fox had Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, and Henry Fonda. We watch a clip from each studio. Rose illustrates with marvelous choices.

In 1939, at the height of the business, The Academy of Motion Pictures increased its Best Picture competition from five to ten entries. They Were: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Of Mice and Men, Stage Coach, Ninotchka, Dark Victory and the winner, Gone With the Wind. Compare these with today’s offerings.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh Gone With the Wind Publicity Photo Public Domain

The system held out another five to six years. After the war, film attendance flagged. Veterans had other things on their minds and other ways to spend money. Television came on the scene. Though it wouldn’t be until the mid 1950s that half the country owned a set, the new device immediately began making dents. The monopoly-busting coup de grace was a law requiring studios to give up owning theaters. Studios went from 50 to 20 features a year. Cinemascope and Cinerama tried to coax back audiences. There was 3-D and even smell-a-vision. More adult content rose. The Man with The Golden Arm explored drug addiction, Anatomy of a Murder, was about rape. Stars started creating their own production companies.

Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak from The Man With the Golden Arm 1955 Public Domain

“The Golden Age would be a memory by the end of the 1950s. In decades to come, the very definition of movies would change. Hollywood became a new kind of factory churning out films with special effects.” The youth market took over. More’s the pity.

A wonderfully illustrated and elucidating lecture by Brian Rose.                                      All unattributed quotes Brian Rose.                              

Based on indicates I have added to/elaborated on some of the lecture content

Check out other wonderful streamed Smithsonian Associates lectures.

About Alix Cohen (1288 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.