Film Studies The Studio System

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Faculty of English

Llanishen High School

Film Studies

The Studio System

Key point about the studio system could be:

Despite being one of the biggest industries in the United States, indeed the World, the internal workings of the 'dream factory' that is Hollywood is little understood outside the business.

The Hollywood Studio System: A History is the first book to describe and analyse the complete development, classic operation, and reinvention of the global corporate entities which produce and distribute most of the films we watch.

Starting in 1920, Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, over the decade of the 1920s helped to fashion Hollywood into a vertically integrated system, a set of economic innovations which was firmly in place by 1930. For the next three decades, the movie industry in the United States and the rest of the world operated by according to these principles.

Cultural, social and economic changes ensured the demise of this system after the Second World War. A new way to run Hollywood was required. Beginning in 1962, Lew Wasserman of Universal Studios emerged as the key innovator in creating a second studio system. He realized that creating a global media conglomerate was more important than simply being vertically integrated.

Gomery's history tells the story of a 'tale of two systems 'using primary materials from a score of archives across the United States as well as a close reading of both the business and trade press of the time. Together with a range of photographs never before published the book also features over 150 box features illuminating aspect of the business .

During the 1920s, and 1930s the Hollywood film studios undertook a major evolutionary period. The inception of the Hollywood ‘studio system’ was to change the film making process radically. The following essay will examine how these changes took place, and what impact it had on the film making industry in America. We shall also examine how the system relates to the current production methods used in film making. The main issues raised within the text will be summarised concisely within the conclusion. Before a film reaches the cinema screen, and its audience it must go through a three stage process. Firstly and most obviously it has to be produced, following this it must then be distributed, and finally exhibited. Before the introduction of the studio system in the 1920s all of these processes were controlled separately. Although this gave the makers of films, such as directors and producers, room to express their creativity it placed a heavy constraint upon the amount of movies that could be made, and financial profits. However, despite Hollywood’s uneasy birth, by the 1920s it had become one of the worlds leading film producers (Dirks, 2002). This was largely due to the introduction of the producer, or studio syste

Cinema is a collaborative art so it is difficult to determine the influence of one particular person on a film. The only way to truly judge a single person's contribution to film is to look at their entire filmography, in that way you can begin to distinguish patterns that can be identified with individuals. With this in mind, it is fair to say that the art director has more influence on a given film than nearly anyone else who works on the project. This was especially true in the 1930s when the Hollywood Studio system was at the height of its power.

The way that credit was given for art direction makes it difficult to judge the work of the individuals who did the actual set design and visual design of the films of the thirties. In looking at art direction in the 30s you are really looking at the work of the heads of the art department. The style of these art directors is often difficult to judge because their personal contribution to the films they made is often debatable. Their control over the visual aspects of the films is unarguable.

If a movie-goer of the 1930s new the name of a single art director it would have been Cedric Gibbons. Gibbons was the supervising art director at MGM from 1924 until his retirement in 1956. Gibbons was credited with everything related to art direction at MGM during that time, over 2200 films. Obviously he did not do the art direction on all of those films, some of them he may have done no more than approve drawings. He did however have complete control over design decisions, the personnel of the department, the assignment of tasks, and the attribution of credit. In the autocratic system that prevailed at MGM Gibbons had complete control. According to the director, Pandro S. Berman, "He was the most influential person on the lot except for the owners, Nick Schenk in New York and Louis B. Mayer in Culver City (Affron 17)."

Gibbons was nominated for the Academy Award for Art Direction 40 times. He received the Oscar, which he also was credited with designing, 11 times. He won his first Oscar in 1929 for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. His other Oscars were: The Merry Widow (1934), Pride and Prejudice (1940 - b&w), Blossoms in the Dust (1941 - color), Gaslight (1944 b&w), The Yearling (1946 - color), Little Women (1949 - color), An American in Paris (1951 - color), The Bad and The Beautiful (1952 - b&w), Julius Caesar (1953 - b&w), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956 - b&w). He was nominated for Wizard of Oz in 1939, but didn't win.

In some ways you could say that Cedric Gibbons was the most influential set designer of the 1930s, because he controlled such a large studio. His autocratic control ensured that his vision and his visual style would end up on the screen. Artistically, however, it is probably safe to say that the most influential set designer of the 1930s was William Cameron Menzies.

William Cameron Menzies was the supervising art director of United Artists during the 1920s and 1930s. United Artists was an unusual studio because it was founded by artists in reaction to the studio system. Menzies did his most important set design during the silent era. Some excellent examples of his work during this period are: Rosita (1923), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Cobra (1925), Son of the Sheik (1926), and Beloved Rogue (1927). Menzies won the first Academy Award for set design in 1927 for The Dove.

In the 1930s Menzies divided his responsibilities between director/co-director and art director/production designer. Production Designer was a title invented for Menzies when he worked on Gone With the Wind (1939). As a director Menzies had a serious drawback in his belief that actors and action spoiled the visual effect of a film. As production designer his work is unmatched. Some highlights: Raffles (1930), Abraham Lincoln (1930), Alice in Wonderland (1933), Things To Come (1936 - director), Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1936), Made For Each Other (1939), Thief of Bagdad (1940 - uncredited).

Van Nest Polglase was the supervising art director at RKO. He ran the art department along the autocratic lines of Gibbons, but did not exert the same kind of influence. According to Maurice Zubarano, Polglase "had a certain amount of taste but no time to exercise it, he was too busy being an executive (Affron 19). Orson Welles adamantly denied that Polglase had anything to do with the art direction of Citizen Kane (1940). Although Polglase was nominated for an Academy Award for it, "Citizen Kane was entirely the work of Perry Ferguson (Affron 19)." Some examples of Polglase's work: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Carefree (1938), Love Affair (1939) and My Favorite Wife (1940).

Hans Dreier, the supervising art director at Paramount in contrast to the aloof methods of Gibbons and Polglase, and the artistic split of Menzies, ran his art department as a highly disciplined school. Dreier considered himself the head master and he was involved at some level with all of the projects at Paramount. Robert Boyle, who worked in the Paramount art department at this time says of Dreier, "…His stamp was on everything…. Hans was a tremendous influence…. He knew what everyone was doing, and he would give a critique of these things (Affron 20)." Some examples of Dreier's work: The Vagabond King (1929), Morocco (1930), Farewell To Arms (1932), Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), If I Were King (1938) and Beau Geste (1939).


Works Cited

Affron, Charles and Mirella Jona Affron. Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative, (Rutgers Univ. Press, New Jersey), 1995.

Academy Awards Database --

William Cameron Menzies Filmography --


Hollywood's Golden Age: An Overview 

The Hollywood Studio System


  • Known For: glitz and glamour
  • In Charge: Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg
  • Directors: George Cukor, Frank Borzage
  • Actresses: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow
  • Actors: Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, William Powell, Walter Pidgeon, Melvyn Douglas, Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, James Stewart
  • Typical Films: Camille, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, Mutiny on the Bounty, Thin Man series of films, The Wizard of Oz 


  • Known For: European sophistication
  • In Charge: Adolph Zukor, Barney Balaban
  • Directors: Cecil B. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Rouben Mamoulian, Mitchell Leisen, Dorothy Arzner
  • Actresses: Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, Sylvia Sidney Actors: Maurice Chevalier, Marx Bros, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Ray Milland, George Raft 
  • Typical Films: Trouble in Paradise, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Death Takes a Holiday, Easy Living 

Warner Brothers

  • Known For: Working-class grittiness; also, musicals and biopics
  • In Charge: Jack & Harry Warner, Hal Willis
  • Directors: Michael Curtiz, Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
  • Actresses: Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck
  • Actors: James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Erroll Flynn, Humphrey Bogart
  • Typical Films: Little Caesar, Public Enemy, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, The Roaring Twenties, 42nd Street, The Life of Emile Zola 

20th Century Fox

  • Known For: John Ford films, Shirley Temple films
  • In Charge: Darryl Zanuck
  • Directors: John Ford
  • Actresses: Shirley Temple, Loretta Young
  • Actors: Henry Fonda, Charles Boyer
  • Typical Films: Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Shirley Temple films, Charlie Chan films


  • Known For: stylish and sophisticated musicals; literary adaptations, King Kong; this is also the studio that allowed Orson Welles to make Citizen Kane 
  • In Charge: kept changing through the 1930s
  • Directors: most often on loan from other studios (e.g. John Ford, George Cukor, Howard Hawks)
  • Actresses: Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers
  • Actors: Fred Astaire
  • Typical Films: King Kong, Astaire and Rogers musicals


  • Known For: Horror and melodrama
  • In Charge: Carl Laemmle, then various others
  • Directors: James Whale, Todd Browning, Karl Freund, John Stahl, Lewis Milestone
  • Actresses: Deanna Durbin
  • Actors: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi
  • Typical Films: Frankenstein, Dracula, All Quiet on the Western Front, Imitation of Life 


  • Known For: Frank Capra films, screwball comedies
  • In Charge: Harry Cohn
  • Directors: Frank Capra
  • Actresses: Jean Arthur (plus many on loan from the majors) Actors: Ronald Coleman (plus many on loan from the majors)
  • Some Typical Films: It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, His Girl Friday 

United Artists

  • Charlie Chaplin (part owner of United Artists)
  • City Lights 
  • Modern Times 
  • Samuel Goldwyn (classy features)
  • Stella Dallas 
  • Wuthering Heights 
  • other William Wyler films
  • Alexander Korda (British; costume dramas)
  • The Private Life of Henry VIII 
  • Rembrandt 


  • David O. Selznick (blockbusters)
  • A Star Is Born (through United Artists)
  • Gone With The Wind (with MGM)
  • Walt Disney
  • Pioneer in sound and color cartoons
  • Silly Symphonies (shorts; 1928-1933)
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  • Pinocchio (1940)
  • Fantasia (1940)

“Poverty Row” and Ethnic Cinema

  • B-Studios
  • Republic, Monogram, Grand National PRC, Eagle-Lion
  • B-films for the bottom halves of double bills
  • Sold at flat rate (little risk, but little profit)
  • African American films
  • Oscar Micheaux (Within Our Gates, Body and Soul, A Murder in Harlem, Lying Lips)
  • Spencer Williams (Blood of Jesus, Go Down Death, Dirty Gertie From Harlem USA)
  • Yiddish-language films
  • Sidney Goldin (Mayn Yiddishe Mame, His Wife’s Lover)
  • Joseph Green (Yidl Mitn Fidl, The Dybbuk)
  • Edgar Ulmer (Green Fields, The Singing Blacksmith, The Light Ahead)

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Analysis of the Hollywood Studio System

During the 1920s, and 1930s the Hollywood film studios undertook a major evolutionary period. The inception of the Hollywood ‘studio system’ was to change the film making process radically. The following essay will examine how these changes took place, and what impact it had on the film making industry in America. We shall also examine how the system relates to the current production methods used in film making. The main issues raised within the text will be summarised concisely within the conclusion. Before a film reaches the cinema screen, and its audience ...

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