Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Star System Effect in the Classical Hollywood Era

The aspect of the Classical Hollywood system of production that seems important in regards to what types or what film genres the studio focused on is the star system. What the star system meant was that the Big Five fully integrated major studios of the time: MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and RKO. These studios had all of their talent under contract, to work in only their films. The movies were mass produced one after the other, with the same crew behind them, same director, they had offices full of writers cranking out screenplays, and equally editors slicing and putting the films together, like an assembly line.

This affected the types of films a studio made. Since what you would see in the films of a particular studio would be the same actors playing similar roles over and over again, in similar films. Since the directors and writers and producers were all the same and they knew how to tell crime stories for example, they would make crime films after crime films. In what follows we will see how this standardization made a studio produce unvarying films, using the Warner Bros. studios of the Classical era as an example.
 In the Classical Hollywood era Warner Bros. became known as “the gangster film studio” *1, not because of how it operated its business (sure hope not) but by the films that they were making. They had a formula for producing gangster films, so they made Outside the Law (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), The Last Gangster (1937), Angel with Dirty Faces (1938) and White Heat (1949), to name a few, which all either featured James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson in the leading role of the gangster that gradually gain control of the criminal underworld only to be slain at the end because crime ultimately did not pay.
These actors were good at playing those characters and the audiences expected them to see them. Now did they appear in the same roles over and over again because that was the only thing they knew how to do, or because the studios only made those films, well this is a typical chicken and egg argument that we could get into, however we have seen these actors playing different roles, James Cagney played George M. Cohan in the musical biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), meaning that he had acting range, an ability to play different roles, nevertheless the studio using the same talent and using shorthand formulas to deliver films with set expectations that they knew their audience would enjoy, some of that included seeing James Cagney playing the tough gangster role.

In brief, the star system of the Classical Hollywood contributed to the standardization and the mass production of similar pictures, with actors playing the same roles in the studios’ Fordist production of films.


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