Asking film scholar Rick Jewell: What made Hollywood's Golden Age so grand?

Cary Grant. Ingrid Bergman. Photo: Vivien Leigh, Hollywood's Golden Age star, in "Gone With the Wind"

FLORIDA, October 13, 2012 — When we think about the greatest of films, chances are that images of classic Hollywood are conjured. 

After all, who can honestly watch “The Philadelphia Story” or “Casablanca” or “The Big Clock” and say that most of what is in theaters today somehow stands superior? In order to understand why these celluloid pastimes are exactly that, it is best to learn about the era during which they were made. 

The Golden Age of Hollywood remains one of the movie industry’s most recognizable and acclaimed periods. Beginning with the advent of talkies — motion pictures having spoken audio — and ending alongside World War II, it literally transformed American society. 

Dr. Rick Jewell

Legendary personalities such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Vivien Leigh, and countless more rose to prominence during the Golden Age. 

In this first part of a candid discussion with me, film scholar Rick Jewell explains about what it was that made the Golden Age so distinctive.    

Joseph F. Cotto: Why is the period of filmmaking between 1929 and 1945 referred to as Hollywood’s “Golden Age”? 

Dr. Rick Jewell: It is bookended by the coming of sound movies (and the coming of the Depression) in 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945. During that period Hollywood dominated world film commerce, had no significant competition in the realm of “visual” entertainment, and movie studios were cranking out an average of one new feature film every week plus shorts, newsreels, cartoons, etc. Among those features were many titles now considered classics, including “King Kong,” “It Happened One Night,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Casablanca.”

Cotto: Generally speaking, how did the “Big Five” studio system differ from today’s film industry?

Dr. Jewell: The “Big Five” were movie companies. They might pick up a bit of extra revenue through music publishing and other related activities, but their raison d’etre was making films that would be popular and generate profits. All the major studios today are part of large conglomerates in which the feature film component is often less important than other corporate concerns, such as publishing, electronics, cable and/or network television, and so forth. 

The other major difference is that during the Golden Age, nearly all films were made “in house” with contact producers, writers, directors, actors, and technical staff, whereas today big films are made by independent companies with financing by the studios, which then function as marketers (distributors) of the product.

Cotto: Were Golden Age actors treated better by studio chiefs and film fans than their modern-day successors are?

Dr. Jewell: Most actors during the studio system era were employees under exclusive contract to a studio. The studios worked them hard and, generally speaking, did not tolerate a lot of prima donna behavior. That does not mean the big stars were undervalued, poorly compensated or handled in a callous manner. But today’s stars are coddled in ways that even a Clark Gable or Bette Davis could not have imagined and make much more money than their predecessors.

Cotto: How did censorship play a role during the Golden Age?

Dr. Jewell: Censorship began to have a significant impact on film content in July 1934 when the industry, bowing to pressure from a number of religious, civic and political groups, instituted the Production Code Administration. This severely limited the subject matter of films, as well as how certain narrative material could be treated. While this was certainly frustrating to writers and directors, it also challenged the best of them to be more subtle and, ultimately, more creative, resulting in work that is often quite wonderful.

Cotto: Throughout the Golden Age, actors often spoke with a transatlantic accent. How did this come about?

Dr. Jewell: All the studios had voice coaches who trained the contract actors to speak in a manner that would be acceptable (and understandable) in every section of the United States, plus other English-speaking countries such as England (which represented the most important foreign market for American pictures).

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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