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A year in Hollywood

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I wonder how commercially successful CITY LIGHTS was...because remember that came out in 1931 and was totally a silent picture-- well after everyone else had abandoned silent features and turned entirely to sound.

 

But even if CITY LIGHTS was a hit, it doesn't mean studios were interested in silent films that would make money. The trend was towards sound, it was a novelty, a craze.

I'm guessing it was successful because for reasons unknown to me, I hated the guy, Charlie Chaplin was beloved by one and all.

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I'm guessing it was successful because for reasons unknown to me, I hated the guy, Charlie Chaplin was beloved by one and all.

If you think about it, he was either brave (or flat out stubborn) because he resisted sound films until 1940, when he made THE GREAT DICTATOR. Nobody else had the clout or guts to do that.

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If you think about it, he was either brave (or flat out stubborn) because he resisted sound films until 1940, when he made THE GREAT DICTATOR. Nobody else had the clout or guts to do that.

Wow. Either he was smart for doing that, since he became a gazillionaire anyway, or he was stupid for losing out on all the sound films people like me (and I'm betting there were a few) who liked him would have gone to see had he made sound films in the 1930s.

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Wow. Either he was smart for doing that, since he became a gazillionaire anyway, or he was stupid for losing out on all the sound films people like me (and I'm betting there were a few) who liked him would have gone to see had he made sound films in the 1930s.

I think he was of the mind that Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were-- that silent film allowed more artistic expression and freedom. So he was determined to continue with it for as long as he could. But you know, his sound films are quite good-- I love MONSIEUR VERDOUX; and I feel A KING IN NEW YORK (the last one where he starred) is vastly underrated.

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But the visionaries in the studio knew sound was the way to go. They knew, as Madison Avenue knows now, that all was needed was PR hammering (no internet then, and more than an impressionable audience) and they would swallow anything.

 

So it was easy for them. Ditch the silents, pour all the money into sound, and reap the rewards. The likes of Jack Warner would have bust a gut at the idea of double the trouble for silent and sound.

 

Remember, it's not REALLY art for the sake of art, it's art for the sake of money. True then, even more true now.

I'm sorry,but that's just not how things were. There was nothing easy about any of it at all.

They were already making a fortune,and the moguls all had to be coerced into making the switch.Sam Warner was the one who had to convince his brothers to go along,and it was a huge risk in doing so. Harry took out an enourmous loan (again) and had Don Juan or The Jazz Singer flopped,they were out of business,for good this time. Theaters and studios all had to be fitted for sound...that was incredibly costly and difficult to do so. People snickered and laughed at many of these films,and it was looked upon as a cheap novelty that wouldn't last. You know Samuel (my favorite Warner) gave up his life to make this happen. There were,and still are far easier ways of making money than movies. Those people really did (aside from Laemmle ) enjoy movies,and the business of making them.

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I'm sorry,but that's just not how things were. There was nothing easy about any of it at all.

They were already making a fortune,and the moguls all had to be coerced into making the switch.Sam Warner was the one who had to convince his brothers to go along,and it was a huge risk in doing so. Harry took out an enourmous loan (again) and had Don Juan or The Jazz Singer flopped,they were out of business,for good this time. Theaters and studios all had to be fitted for sound...that was incredibly costly and difficult to do so. People snickered and laughed at many of these films,and it was looked upon as a cheap novelty that wouldn't last. You know Samuel (my favorite Warner) gave up his life to make this happen. There were,and still are far easier ways of making money than movies. Those people really did (aside from Laemmle ) enjoy movies,and the business of making them.

You do have to wonder why, if they were making gobs of money on silent films, that they would even consider transitioning to sound. My guess is that they were trying to develop and exploit new markets. So maybe they planned to do both silent and sound. Then, when sound took off, they just decided to focus solely on it.

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I've misplaced the notebook where I had written my summary for 1930. Weak excuse but true. So this means I will have to rewrite it. My goal is to work on this after breakfast this morning. I really want to start discussing 1930...

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I've misplaced the notebook where I had written my summary for 1930. Weak excuse but true. So this means I will have to rewrite it. My goal is to work on this after breakfast this morning. I really want to start discussing 1930...

No rush. We're not going anywhere.

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No rush. We're not going anywhere.

Thanks. I didn't feel starting over, but the amount of time I will spend trying to find a misplaced notebook isn't worth the hassle! LOL

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Thanks. I didn't feel starting over, but the amount of time I will spend trying to find a misplaced notebook isn't worth the hassle! LOL

Tor would agree.

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I am procrastinating. I am going to work on this now. It will be a relatively short essay-- three or four paragraphs at the most. Look for it this afternoon. 

 

I did plan to cover each year on up to 1959...

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1930

 

Five thousand actors are out of work on Broadway, because of the Great Depression. Many of them start to look towards Hollywood for employment opportunities. The movie capital needs skilled stage performers for sound pictures. 

 

Irving Thalberg, MGM's super producer, remains skeptical about the new technology. He delays sound films for his wife Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. 

 

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Thalberg recruits Alfred Lunt and wife Lynne Fontanne to make a picture for Metro. They will make a sound version of Molnar's play The Guardsman.  However, it takes almost two years for the project to come fruition, and it will be the only film headlined by Broadway's top couple. 

 

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In the meantime, Thalberg also secures rights to Noel Coward's Private Lives, which will be filmed with Shearer. Robert Montgomery is handed the leading man role. 

 

MGM also tries to entice stage actress Katherine Cornell to come out to Hollywood to make a movie, but she declines. In fact, Cornell refuses offers at all the major studios and never does appear in a motion picture. 

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However, the studios do succeed in bringing unemployed character actors out to Hollywood to work in films. This group of supporting players includes Aline MacMahon (she signs with Warners); Will Geer (he goes to RKO); and Lee Tracy (he is recruited by MGM). Others worth noting in this category are Henry Hull; Dean Jagger; Lionel Atwill; and Dudley Digges. 

 

Meanwhile, in addition to Noel Coward, we have several other playwrights selling the rights to their hit stage productions. Hollywood is eager to make movie adaptations of Broadway hits. A few of the playwrights go to Hollywood to write the adaptations themselves and stay on to write original screenplays. But most of them do not, choosing to remain on the east coast, looking down their high-brow noses at the movies, considering them a lesser art form. 

 

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Most Broadway directors also choose to remain in New York. But one notable exception is George Cukor. Cukor is brought west to be a dialogue director on sound films, and he quickly finds his niche working with producer David Selznick at RKO. Cukor is so successful that by and large, he remains in Hollywood and turns down offers to return to New York. 

 

Another Broadway talent that finds more permanence in Hollywood is director Rouben Mamoulian. His reputation for stylish productions is quickly (and firmly) established in movies. Other directors dabble in films, like George Abbott, though with much less success than Cukor and Mamoulian.

 

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The big film this year is Howard Hughes' HELL'S ANGELS. James Whale, like Cukor, has been brought out to the west coast to be a dialogue director--in this case, by Hughes. Whale helps the tycoon-turned-producer realize a goal of making the greatest air war film ever. For the past two years, Hughes has been hiring pilots and young actors (mostly from Europe) to work with him and Whale on HELL'S ANGELS. 

 

Hughes decides on a Swedish actress (Greta Nissen) and Ben Lyon to play the leads. The production begins filming in Europe in 1928. Originally, Lyon is hired for just a few weeks. But when Hughes decided to make the film with sound and orders endless retakes, the production takes 104 weeks to film-- exactly two years. Because of Nissen's thick accent, she is dropped. Lyon recommends a girl he had watched in a dancing scene, and the sexy extra is brought to Hughes' attention.

 

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The extra is none other than Jean Harlow. Of course, as they say in show biz, a star is born-- and Harlow generates just as much excitement in HELL'S ANGELS as all the spectacular aerial sequences do.

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1931


 


Filmmakers were striving to bring realism to the screen. This was the year ceilings were first seen in movies (though that claim would be erroneously made by Orson Welles in 1941). Designers also worked hard to make sure sets more accurately reflected the interiors of real-life homes.  


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Overall, a higher standard of artistry was brought to studio productions. Craftsman who led the way included James Wong Howe, a top cinematographer to emerge during 1931; as well as set designer Anton Grot, the man responsible for the stunning look of THE MAD GENIUS and SVENGALI. Also, cinematographer Gregg Toland, who later worked with Welles on CITIZEN KANE, was beginning some of his own experiments with lighting and photography that would become a staple of films produced by his boss, Sam Goldwyn.


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Speaking of Goldwyn, the super producer decided his first sound feature would be WHOOPEE!, starring Eddie Cantor. This would be a film adaptation of the immensely popular Ziegfeld musical that earned Cantor accolades back on the east coast. Cantor signed a long-term contract with Goldwyn, and together, they would make many hit films during the 1930s. 


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At this time, a few starlets got their big breaks. For some of the musical numbers in WHOOPEE!, Goldwyn assembled his very own 'Goldwyn Girls.' Among this chorus were such hopefuls as Virginia Bruce and Paulette Goddard. When Florenz Ziegfeld saw Bruce and Goddard's work in the film, he hired them for some of his upcoming Broadway shows. 


 


Another person who received their big break was a choreographer named Busby Berkeley. He was hired to be the dance director for Goldwyn's musical films, which started a trend (maybe a revolution, is more like it?). After WHOOPEE!, Berkeley would choreograph three more musicals for Goldwyn, before moving over to Warner Brothers where he achieved even greater fame. Because of Berkeley's innovative approach, musicals with semi-naked dancers and kaleidoscopic patterns became all the rage, and they would retain their popularity for several more years. 


 


 


While Goldwyn was exploiting popular Ziegfeld properties with Berkeley and making Eddie Cantor a bonafide movie star, other things were happening across the Hollywood landscape. Over at Universal, Carl Laemmle was dealing with his studio's declining fortunes. Out were ambitious sociological dramas, like the Oscar winner he had produced a year earlier, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. Universal needed to do something, and do it fast, to keep up with the times. 


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Laemmle's solution? To make cheap thrillers the public would enjoy. European talents were brought to Universal to usher in a new era of horror films based on classic literature. These talents included people like director James Whale, cinematographer Karl Freund and actor Bela Lugosi. The horror flicks Universal cranked out during 1931 were often low on budget but high on imagination. Movie goers loved them. Universal soon reestablished itself as a profitable Hollywood studio, especially with hits like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA.


 


At the same time, rival company Warner Brothers was developing its own low-budget/high-imagination formula. Warners began to produce violent crime tales that focused on the lives of gangsters. One example was THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director William Wellman had teamed up with screenwriter Harvey Thew to adapt John Bright's book. But the story was aided considerably by the cast. In particular, Hollywood newcomer James Cagney had his star-making role in this picture, and he would quickly be typecast playing similar characters for much of the decade.


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1932


 


The Depression was worsening under the Hoover administration and this affected Hollywood studios that had borrowed from banks with increasingly complex loan renewals. Paramount especially found itself in trouble, and Adolph Zukor's company was headed into receivership. If not for the spectacular success of Mae West in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (her breakthrough in a supporting role) and SHE DONE HIM WRONG (her follow-up as star), Paramount might have gone belly up. 


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Other studios were barely hanging on. Fox was staying afloat due to hit movies featuring stars Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor. Both performers were cast in the first version of STATE FAIR, directed by Henry King. Filming concluded at the end of 1932 and it would be released the following year.


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Also at Fox, Erich von Stroheim would make what was to be his last motion picture as a credited director. But WALKING DOWN BROADWAY, with James Dunn and Boots Mallory in the main roles, did not score with test audiences. It was taken out of von Stroheim's hands with sequences partly reshot. To add insult to injury, the director's surviving footage was badly recut.


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Across town RKO was going under, and fast-- owners had filed for bankruptcy, prompting producer David Selznick to leave for MGM with his top director George Cukor. One costly project that RKO had attempted in 1932 involved the opening of New York City's Radio City Music Hall, which would be the central point of its vast theatre chain. Ambitious stage shows accompanied the week's films, requiring large amounts of money to be spent on a permanent orchestra and a chorus line known as the Rockettes. Some of the ornate design was done by a very young Vincente Minnelli.


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While RKO struggled financially, Warner Brothers continued doing quite well. The studio was still riding high on its hit from a year earlier, THE PUBLIC ENEMY. And producer Darryl Zanuck had more exciting product going into theaters that Depression era audiences would not be able to resist. Among the new batch of films was I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and featuring Paul Muni in the lead role. Muni played a real-life Georgia convict who refused to extradite back to prison. 


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Over at MGM, the Barrymores costarred in a lavish production called RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. Not only did the film fail to connect with movie goers, but a prince sued Metro on grounds that the story erroneously suggested his wife was raped by Rasputin. After prolonged litigation, the studio eventually lost the suit, shelling out $750,000 in damages awarded to the plaintiffs plus another $400,000 in legal fees. As a result of the lawsuit, studios began to put disclaimers into the credits of motion pictures stating that stories which resembled actual living persons and events were purely coincidental. 


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1933


 


The Selznick family was dealt a blow-- David and Myron's father, Lewis J. Selznick, died in January. The Selznick patriarch entered the film business on the east coast in 1914. Six years later, he was out in Hollywood, partnered with Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky. He retired from the business (or was retired, depending on different points of view) in 1925. 


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Another death rocked Hollywood in '33. It happened in June when 46-year-old Fatty Arbuckle died from a heart attack. For the past decade, Arbuckle's career had slowed down considerably after a widely publicized sex scandal. But starting in 1932, he had begun to appear in short comedy films again and supposedly had signed to do a feature film at Warners on the day he passed away.


 


While some of silent cinema and old Hollywood was dying off, newer things were taking place in the film capital. Mack Sennett lost $5 million after the stock market crash and by 1933 he filed bankruptcy. His studio in the San Fernando Valley became the lot for Republic, which had just started its filmmaking operations. 


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Meanwhile, the Depression continued to hurt the motion picture industry. Over 15,000 cinemas closed across the U.S. and banks were adding tougher conditions when extending loans. One of those conditions required studios to start cutting back on costs, notably the humongous salaries that directors and stars were making. Universal suddenly cut pay by 50%, which was supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Directors Guild was particularly vocal about this, accusing AMPAS of becoming a political tool used by the studio for bargaining.


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Over at Culver City, it was MGM's turn to cut costs. Production chief Louis B. Mayer broke down in tears while asking his staff to agree to a reduction in pay. Interestingly, he did not reduce his own pay and cried all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, at Warners, boss Jack Warner told his next-in-command Darryl Zanuck that cuts at their studio would only be temporary. Zanuck believed Warner and relayed the news to their biggest star James Cagney, who reluctantly agreed to take less money for his services. But after a few weeks, it was learned that Warner was going to keep the lower salaries in place. So Zanuck left to form his own company, and Hal Wallis took his job.


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Zanuck quickly formed 20th Century Pictures with Joseph Schenck and William Goetz. They would release their new product through United Artists. Much of the money that initially went into 20th Century Pictures came from L.B. Mayer (Goetz was married to Mayer's daughter). Another source was Nick Schenck, Joe's brother. One of Zanuck's first movies at 20th Century was THE BOWERY, starring Wallace Beery (borrowed from MGM) and George Raft (borrowed from Paramount). Zanuck also made a gritty realist drama called BLOOD MONEY, which starred Frances Dee, George Bancroft and Judith Anderson in her first movie role.


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I will be posting 1934 this weekend...

 

Oh yeah... that is the year many of the shorties, including Jimmy's Traveltalks, were being shot in "full" (not "two-color") Technicolor. Of course, the Disney Silly Symphony cartoons had a two year head start. Leon Errol's Warner Bros.-produced SERVICE WITH A SMILE is probably my favorite of this early crop.

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Oh yeah... that is the year many of the shorties, including Jimmy's Traveltalks, were being shot in "full" (not "two-color") Technicolor. Of course, the Disney Silly Symphony cartoons had a two year head start.

Thanks for mentioning those. I appreciate it, since I usually focus on the business side of Hollywood and the evolution of full-length features.

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Oh my! You were quick to respond! Faster than the cop catching the neckin' couple in that shortie I mentioned below. Ha ha!

 

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Oh my! You were quick to respond! Faster than the cop catching the neckin' couple in that shortie I mentioned below. Ha ha!

 

 

LOL..I just happened to be looking at the thread when you posted on it! 

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1934

 

This was a better year for Hollywood, despite the on-going Depression. Movie admissions reached 70,000,000 tickets sold. The average cost of a full-length studio movie was $250,000. MGM doubled its profits over the previous year, while rival studio Warner Brothers formed a partnership with William Randolph Hearst. This meant that Hearst's girlfriend, actress Marion Davies, would switch studios and take her own production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, across town to Burbank. 

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Davies' last MGM picture was OPERATOR 13 with costar Gary Cooper. Her first film for Warners would be PAGE MISS GLORY, but it did not premiere until the following year.

 

Meanwhile, William Fox, owner of Fox studios, found himself involved in several protracted court battles with rival studios. At issue was the use of a certain sound technology which Fox claimed he owned the patent on. Fox won the first round, but the other studios appealed. The case was headed to the Supreme Court where it would eventually be settled.

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As if this was not enough, the industry was dealing with censorship practices. These had been foisted upon the studios by the National League of Decency which had helped appoint Joseph Breen as the production code authority in Hollywood. With the weight of the Catholic Church behind him, Breen had the power to license films for exhibition and deny screening to films that violated the code. The code had been instituted in 1930 but had largely gone unenforced until mid-1934. 

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As a result of the tougher production code, studios could now be fined up to $25,000 if a film was exhibited without an approval certificate. Certain films, if made before 1934 and re-released, might need to undergo cuts if they were to pass the production code office. A notable example here was Myrna Loy's role as an adulteress which was removed from John Ford's 1931 motion picture ARROWSMITH, so it could be re-issued to theaters.

 

While Hollywood dealt with the firm hand of Joe Breen over the content of its films, it managed to produce some noteworthy classics. Warners' drama HEAT LIGHTNING was one of the last films to be released before the code took full affect, and it struck a chord with movie goers. Other pictures that hit the market later in the year were just as successful with audiences.

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One of those pictures was Paramount's BELLE OF THE NINETIES, starring Mae West. A Catholic, Leo McCarey, was the director, and Mae's typically suggestive dialogue and sexuality was toned down considerably. Another way the studio got around the demands of the production code office was to make sure their star was cast in period pictures, where her brand of femininity could be excused as an expression of Edwardian society, not seen as anything modern. 

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Another one of the big successes of 1934 was a modestly budgeted Columbia Pictures release called IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. Frank Capra's classic screwball comedy did not come together so easily. Initially, three actresses turned down the female lead-- Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan and Miriam Hopkins all said no. Paramount star Claudette Colbert was then approached, and she agreed to do the part, if it could be filmed in four weeks-- which it was. The movie became a runaway hit for Harry Cohn's studio, and it was awarded five Oscars. One of those went to Colbert.

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I will be posting 1935 this weekend...

 

I am going to work on it tonight while watching THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE...

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