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Studio Styles

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Simplifying things quite a bit here. 

MGM's style is generally described as opulent, lavish, full of big stars, owned the musical after 1939.  Warner's was blue-collar, underworld, common-man, nothing flashy. 

But what about the rest of the Majors?  Universal owned horror in the 30s, but did they have style beyond that?  Columbia, Paramount, RKO?  Did these studios have an overriding style or look or philosophy?

 

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Warner Brothers was known for their grittier, more realistic locales and costumes.  The gangster movies with Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney are representative of this.  Paramount films seem to have an air of sophistication and elegance about them.   

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Paramount was known as the classiest, most sophisticated studio in the late silent, early sound era. You left Fox off of your list, and they seem to have embraced color movies quicker than the others, especially with their run of musicals in the late 30s and 40s. Besides the horror movies, Universal also released a lot of comedies.

 

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Not sure if it's wise to characterize a studio by just one genre. MGM did some noir in the postwar years, as well as legal dramas and comedies that were not related to music. MGM had modestly budgeted programmers too.

As for Warners, they ventured into musicals in the late 40s and early 50s with Doris Day and Virginia Mayo. In fact Doris probably sold more tickets in the musical genre than almost all of MGM's top musical stars.

Universal reinvented itself when it merged with International to become Universal-International after the war. The late 40s, 50s and 60s saw the studio do very well with westerns. Also Universal made a lot of film noir that TCM does not play.

The so-called lesser studios like Columbia, Republic and RKO dabbled in everything. However Republic seems to be remembered for B westerns, though it made its share of "A" pictures across genres. Columbia had success with noir, westerns, social message dramas and war films in the 50s. RKO had a very up-and-down history because there were a lot of wonder boy producers (Selznick, Berman, Lewton, Schary) who all had their own preferred stars and products. But then when Hughes came in during the late 40s, he took things in a different direction and the studio went into sharp decline.

Fox had success with social message dramas during the postwar years, but when Zanuck was ousted in the late 50s, the studio faltered. 

Paramount benefited from associations with iconic directors. People like Cecil DeMille, Mitchell Leisen and Ernst Lubitsch. 

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22 minutes ago, LawrenceA said:

Paramount was known as the classiest, most sophisticated studio in the late silent, early sound era.

 

Mixing in with that elegance, Paramount also attracted clever witty screenwriters who would later become directors there, like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. The studio also had the services of Ernst Lubitsch, perhaps the most elegant and sophisticated of all directors, with his sexually risque comedies. And, speaking of sophistication in a presentation of sexuality there were also the films of Von Sternberg and Dietrich.

When I think of sophisticated romantic comedies, particularly any set in Paris, I think of Paramount.

But the studio did not just make films of a refined elegance. For many years Parmount's biggest money making director at the studio was Cecil B. DeMille, with his lavish spectacles, depicting everything from ancient Rome to the American Wild West. These films are anything but sophisticated but they knew how to give the public what it wanted in a big way.

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Shanghai Express (1932)

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One Hour With You (1932)

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Midnight (1939)

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Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

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Road to Utopia (1945)

 

 

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On ‎3‎/‎13‎/‎2018 at 2:40 PM, ChristineHoard said:

I think Paramount pushed the Code boundaries the most.

That's true. For all the sophistication and elegance, some of those same films were very "earthy". 

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I appreciate this thread. This is one area I have little knowledge of, which studios specialized in what ? I have only just started researching this. This thread was quite helpful.

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On 3/13/2018 at 11:07 AM, speedracer5 said:

Warner Brothers was known for their grittier, more realistic locales and costumes.  The gangster movies with Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney are representative of this.  Paramount films seem to have an air of sophistication and elegance about them.   

Even the Warner precode Busby Berkeley musicals were considered "street-grittier" than RKO's or MGM's, since they were more about the pavement-pounding jobs of producers and cheap-apartment showgirls just trying to get by with keeping variety-show gigs going during the Depression (Gold Diggers, 42nd St., Footlight Parade), and didn't bring in champagne and hotel suites and until after the Hays set in.

So, apart from Fred Astaire, Orson Welles, King Kong and Walt Disney, what was RKO's image?  Seemed like they also aimed for an artsier upscale audience.

Universal had Lon Chaney, the Monsters, and comedy series like Abbott & Costello and Ma & Pa Kettle almost straight out of the gate, and they've prided themselves on cheap-thrills ever since.

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I think it's worth noting that those celebrated WB musicals of the '30s were ABOUT making musicals. Usually, only at the end would you get the all-out production numbers, and although Busby Berkley's numbers were clearly impossible to present on a regular stage, we were supposed to believe that was what was happening. There was a distinct lack of a fantasy element to them, unlike MGM and RKO, where music came out of nowhere, and characters broke into song and dance with no logic or explanation. They just did it because it was a movie musical. There was always context behind a musical number in those early WBs.

I don't know that I can offer a definition of what exactly a typical RKO movie was, but I would add in addition to the things you listed that they had Katharine Hepburn for the first eight years or so of her movie career, and she usually did pretty prestige/highbrow fare, the occasional screwball comedy aside.

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On 3/13/2018 at 2:40 PM, ChristineHoard said:

I think Paramount pushed the Code boundaries the most.

WB pushed them quite a bit too in films like Baby Face and  Three on a Match. So maybe second to Paramount or tied for first?

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1 hour ago, EricJ said:

Even the Warner precode Busby Berkeley musicals were considered "street-grittier" than RKO's or MGM's, since they were more about the pavement-pounding jobs of producers and cheap-apartment showgirls just trying to get by with keeping variety-show gigs going during the Depression (Gold Diggers, 42nd St., Footlight Parade), and didn't bring in champagne and hotel suites and until after the Hays set in.

 

*So, apart from Fred Astaire, Orson Welles, King Kong and Walt Disney, what was RKO's image?  Seemed like they also aimed for an artsier upscale audience.*

 

Universal had Lon Chaney, the Monsters, and comedy series like Abbott & Costello and Ma & Pa Kettle almost straight out of the gate, and they've prided themselves on cheap-thrills ever since.

*RKO--  In the thirties RKO had the extraordinarily unique talent of Katharine Hepburn, thanks to George Cukor. Kate, along with the equally extraordinarily unique talent of Fred Astaire made RKO somewhat of an esoteric Studio.

Nevertheless, it was the average movie- going public's demand for the films of Astaire and Rogers, which got the studio out of receivership during the Depression. In 1936 Astaire and Rogers were  #3 Top Box Office, only behind Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.

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