not in our stars, but in ourselves
Dear readers, every now and again I get ideas in my tiny mind – ideas not specifically triggered by a given film or actor or what have you, but general and nebulous and possibly futile ideas. Back when I first started this blog, I threatened (I think) to sketch such ideas here, with the possibility of eventually filling them in as a book. Possibly. Maybe. We’ll see.
The idea I’ve had kicking around in my head over the past few months is this: back in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, each of the major studios had its own unique “look.” MGM was the prestige studio, with the biggest stars and the greatest displays of its wealth and success.
Paramount was the sexy and sophisticated studio, with films as heady and sparkling as champagne.
Warner Bros. was the gritty gangster studio, with heavy Expressionistic shadows cutting across scenes of hardscrabble lives.
Of the slightly less major studios, Universal became best known for its horror films…
RKO for its union of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers…
and Columbia for being a Poverty Row studio that made good.
But how did each studio develop? Of course there were economic factors, and marketing decisions, and things as simple as different personalities in charge of each studio. The one-two punch of the advent of sound and the Great Depression caused different studios to react in different ways. They all shed a bevy of stars, whose voices either didn’t record well or didn’t match the public’s idea of what their voices should have been, and picked up new ones who could handle dialogue. That dialogue, often rapid-fire and filling every square inch of the soundtrack, was written by freshly imported East Coast newspaper men – who got the palaver that the public wanted to hear.
There’s plenty to examine in those paragraphs alone, and many film historians have done so, far better than I ever could. But I don’t think it’s possible to look at the heyday of Hollywood without also looking at why so many supremely talented European directors, most of whom had been working at the peerless UFA in Berlin, suddenly jumped ship. The answer is pretty obvious: they were, often enough, Jewish. Things started getting a whole lot worse for Jews in Germany as the Weimar Republic died out, and Nazism rose up. Many artists in Germany, and then in the rest of Europe, saw how bad things were and left – whether they were Jewish or simply opposed to state-mandated antisemitism. Some stayed behind, and tried to fight Nazism, like Kurt Gerron. Some, like Leni Riefenstahl, stayed behind to throw their full artistic support behind the Third Reich. The story of the film industry in the Weimar Republic, and then in Nazi Germany, has again been considered and analyzed by historians much more capable than yours truly.
What I would like to do, if I were to write a book, is unite these few threads into one narrative: the story of how early 20th-century volatility provided one tributary into the river of Hollywood during its Golden Age; whether some studios (mostly owned and operated by American Jews, who were usually immigrants or sons of immigrants themselves) specifically sought out and/or attracted those émigré artists; how that Continental influence affected the studio’s “look”; what goes into that “look” – whether it’s genre, star, set design, choice of subject matter, choice of thematic matter, etc., etc.; how the studios responded to the advent of sound; how the studios responded to the Great Depression; if and how directors working at one studio made noticeably different looking films when they moved to other studios; and all of this restricted mostly to the 1930s and perhaps 1940s.
Quite a sprawling idea, as you can see. I don’t think that each of these separate strands would receive equal emphasis and importance, since plenty of them are just sort of background information, but they’ll all give me plenty to read and think about over the next few lifetimes.
What do you think, reader(s)? Sound like something anyone other than its author would want to read? As incentive, I promise it would have lots of pretty pictures. You know when you pick up a nonfiction book, and you flip through it to make sure there are at least a few photos sprinkled throughout? Fear not. I have no intention of making anyone read such tedious details without being rewarded by the odd still from a Lubitsch film.