Hollywood History, Part 5 - The Rise of the Studios

The Rise of the Studios

1) 1912 Universal
2) 1916 Paramount
3) 1919 United Artists
4) 1920 Columbia
5) 1923 Walt Disney
6) 1923 Warner Bros.
7) 1924 MGM
8) 1928 RKO
9) 1935 20th Century Fox

The years 1910 to 1929 saw 2 major events:

Firstly, the transfer of power from New York to Hollywood accelerated until the west coast became the dominant region not just of American cinema, but also of World cinema, and it remains so to this day.

Secondly, the large number of small competing studios reduced dramatically through mergers and amalgamations. Several famous movie moguls, future household names, began to make their mark, notably Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, William Fox and Cecil B. deMille.

It was apparent to these sharp businessmen who ran the early studios that the success of their enterprises depended on three factors: Production - creating the product; Distribution - getting the product from the film studio to the movie theater: and Exhibition - showing the product to the public.

The changeover from Silents to Talkies was very costly and caused a shakeout among the smaller companies which led to a further consolidation of power into the hands of the large studios. They began to put emphasis on contracts, usually long term, for their stars, directors and technicians.

Eventually, the nucleus of the so-called Studio System was left, including some of the most famous names in the history of cinema: MGM, Paramount, Fox, and Warner Bros. and the new RKO Radio - followed by the four mini majors - Universal, United Artists, Columbia and Walt Disney. These studios would dominate and control every aspect of movie-making in Hollywood for the next 30 years

Carl Laemmle
Carl Laemmle

1) Universal Studios

Universal studios was formed by the amalgamation of a number of smaller studios: In June 1909, Carl Laemmle started the Yankee Film Company with his brothers-in-law, Abe and Julius Stern. The same year the company evolved into the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), working in studios at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where America's movie industry was based, before it moved to Hollywood.

In 1912 Laemmle amalgamated IMP with other up and coming studios, Pat Powers Picture Plays and Bison Life Motion Pictures, owned by Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman, together with the Nestor, Rex, Champion and Éclair studios. The new creation was named The Universal Film Manufacturing Company and in July of that year Laemmle, the prime mover in the partnership, was named President. Eventually Laemmle bought out all the other partners.

The new company was vertically integrated, which meant that it contained the three elements of the modern film studio - Production, Distribution and Exhibition.

In 1915 Laemmle opened the 230 acre Universal City in the San Fernando valley, and proceeded to make some 250 films during the year.

Future Hollywood giant, Irving Thalberg, began working for Universal in their New York offices. In a meteoric rise he became in 1919 the youngest studio head in the history of Hollywood. After four years, aged 24, he left Universal, partly due to a failed romance with Carl Laemmle's daughter. He became head of production with Louis B. Mayer Productions and went on to become the Hollywood "boy wonder", one of the driving forces of the industry.

Adolph Zukor
Adolph Zukor

2) Paramount

Paramount Pictures emerged from the union of three organisations:
1) Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company was founded in 1912 and grew rapidly with the slogan "Famous Players in Famous Plays". Their early releases in 1913 included 'The Prisoner of Zenda' and 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' and their stable of top performers included Lily Langtry and the young Mary Pickford.
2) Jesse L. Lasky formed his Feature Plays Company in 1913 with his brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later changed to Goldwyn), actor and future director, Cecil B. DeMille and lawyer, Arthur Friend. DeMille shot their first feature, 'The Squaw Man' in Hollywood in just 18 days. When it was released in early 1914 it was a sensation and grossed $244,000 on production costs of $15,000.
3) Paramount Pictures Corporation was formed as a nationwide distribution company in 1914 by a theatre owner from Utah, W. W. Hodgkinson. Both Zukor and Lasky used Hodkinson's company to distribute the films which they made. Until this time films were normally sold on a statewide or local basis which was costly to film producers. Paramount was the first company to distribute films on a nationwide basis.
During 1915 both Zukor's and Lasky's companies thrived, with John Barrymore and Mary Pickford starring for Zukor and Wallace Reid and opera star, Geraldine Farrar boosting Lasky's bank balance.
In June 1916 the two production companies merged and Zukor and Lasky bought Hodkinson out of Paramount, merging the three companies into one. Initially they called the new conglomeration the Famous Players- Lasky Corporation but later changed it to the simpler and more memorable Paramount Pictures.

Chaplin, Zanuck, Goldwyn, Pickford, Schenk, Fairbanks
Back: Charles Chaplin, Daryll Zanuck,Sam Goldwyn
Front: Mary Pickford, Joseph Schenk, Douglas Fairbanks

3) United Artists

United Artists was founded in 1919 by a conglomerate of movie people - D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. It was based on the premise that performers should be allowed to control their own careers, rather than being dependent upon contracts with the large studios.

Their first film, 'His Majesty, the American', written by and starring Fairbanks, was a commercial success, but in its first few years, UA saw difficult times and did not enjoy reliable profits until the late 1920s.

The original idea had been that each of the partners would produce three pictures a year but this quickly proved unworkable as both Chaplin and Pickford were already committed to their original studios. The target was reduced to two pictures per partner, but this, too, proved impracticable.

The new studio made some brilliant movies such as 'Broken Blossoms' in 1919, 'Pollyanna', with Mary Pickford and 'The Mark of Zorro' with Douglas Fairbanks the following year, but they had to put second-rate fare alongside such as Mack Sennett's 'Down on the Farm', also in 1920.

So the studio started with only a handful of films, and it didn't break into reliable profits until the late 1920s. The first film Chaplin made for the new outfit was the experimental 'A Woman of Paris' in 1923 which the critics loved but which was not a big hit. It was only in 1925, with 'The Gold Rush', that Chaplin began to make a difference and the reputation of UA began to grow.

The studio was strengthened with the addition of producer Joseph Schenk, who brought new product from his actress wife, Norma Talmadge, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, whom he lured across from Paramount, and independent producer Sam Goldwyn.

By the late 1920s the Studio could boast Keaton's 'The General' and Doug Fairbanks in 'The Gaucho', both in 1927, and Gloria Swanson's production of 'Sadie Thompson' in 1928. They had well and truly arrived.

4) Columbia

Columbia Studios was founded in 1920 by 3 employees of Universal Studios - two brothers, Jack and Harry Cohn together with their friend, Joe Brandt. The three men formed Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Films Corporation, better known as C.B.C. Films, and leased studio space in a low life and low income area of Hollywood known as "Poverty Row".

C.B.C. developed a reputation for producing low-budget movies, particularly westerns and comedies, and was referred to contemptuously as “corned beef and cabbage" in their early years. In 1924 the partners changed the name to Columbia in an effort to improve the studio's image. It was difficult and extremely rare for a small studio to successfully compete with the large studios like MGM and Paramount, and Columbia continued to have a "Poverty Row" reputation for many years.

Harry Cohn
Harry Cohn

Columbia did not own any theaters but had complete control of production and distribution. The exhibition side of the business would prove a constant problem as they tried to find outlets to show their films. Nevertheless, the studio gradually attained respectability, making cheap two reelers with adventure, comedy, sex and romance making up their standard fare. Jack Cohn and Joe Brandt ran the business from New York whilst Harry Cohn ran the production side on the West coast.

The company's climb was a accelerated with the arrival of an ambitious young director, Frank Capra who, between 1927 and 1939, directed a string of successful and profitable movies which cemented Columbia's status as a growing and healthy company.

In 1932 Jack Brandt left the studio. Harry Cohn assumed the Columbia presidency and was now the unquestioned boss, remaining so until his death in 1958. Two years later the Capra comedy 'It Happened One Night' won all five top Academy Awards - best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay - a record which stood for more than forty years. Columbia had escaped its humble beginnings. It was now one of the major studios.

5) Walt Disney

The Walt Disney company was started in 1923 by Walt Disney and his brother, Roy. Originally called the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, the company soon changed its name, at Roy’s suggestion, to the Walt Disney Studio.

They started with a series of live-action/animated films collectively called the 'Alice Comedies', but in 1927, they decided to move instead to an all-cartoon series starring a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. They made 26 0f these cartoons but then discovered that their distributor had secretly signed up almost all their animators, hoping to make the Oswald cartoons for less money without Walt Disney. Disney learned his lesson and from then on, he made sure that he owned the rights to every character he created.

A new cartoon character was soon created, called Mickey Mouse. After two silent films which did not sell they made a third Mickey Mouse cartoon, this time with fully synchronized sound, and a star was born. 'Steamboat Willie' opened to rave reviews in November, 1928. Micky was followed by Minnie, Goofy, Donald Duck and the rest of the well known cartoon gang.

The company continued to specialise in what they were good at - animation. They soon produced another set of cartoons — the Silly Symphonies — to go with the Mickey series and their first full length animated feature, 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves', was released in 1937 to worldwide acclaim.

6) Warner Brothers

The Warner family originated in Krasnosielc in central Poland. The father was Benjamin Wonsal, a cobbler. Harry, Albert, and Sam were born in Poland. The family then moved first to Baltimore, and then to Ontario in Canada where Jack was born.

The brothers began in the movie business in 1903, when they played films from a portable projector around Pennsylvania. One of the first pictures they showed was Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, the first motion picture to tell a definite story. By 1908 they had acquired 200 film titles and were trading as the Duquesne Film Exchange, distributing their films around the local area.

Realizing, however, that the large profits from movies would come not just from distribution and exhibition, but also from production, the Warners moved to California and established a small production base at 18th and Main Streets in Culver City. Their first full-scale picture, 'My Four Years in Germany' premiered in 1918 and grossed an astonishing (for that time) $1.5 million.

Later that year, the Warner brothers purchased property in Sunset Boulevard, and the Warner Bros. West Coast Studios was born. With Harry as president and Albert as treasurer, guiding the company's finances, Sam and Jack focused on production, incorporating their new movie studio in April, 1923.

And although Warner Bros. was now established as a complete film company, showcasing both successful commercial and artistic properties, it lacked company-owned theaters and thus struggled to compete in the Hollywood community. Until the coming of Sound.

In May 1925, Sam and Harry were apprised of “talking pictures” in the New York offices of Western Electric.Recognising the massive potential of this new technology they immediately installed the new sound equipment in their recently acquired Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn.

On October 6, 1927, Warner Bros. Pictures released The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, and a whole new era began, bringing the Studio to the forefront of the film industry. The Jazz Singer played to standing-room-only crowds throughout the country and earned a special Academy Award for technical achievement.

In 1928, the brothers bought The Stanley Company of America for its theater chain, which included one-third ownership of First National Pictures. Later that year, they purchased the rest of First National, acquiring a newly built studio in Burbank (in California’s San Fernando Valley, which today remains the home of Warner Bros. Studios). The Warners invested heavily into converting the new studio into the finest movie sound facility in the world. Stages were soundproofed, and underground conduits linked each stage with a special state-of-the-art sound building where recording could take place under exacting laboratory conditions.

The Studio’s “contract players” became some of the greatest stars of all time: Bette Davis, James Cagney, Paul Muni, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Errol Flynn, among others. Behind the camera were Hal Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck, Busby Berkeley, Michael Curtiz, William Wellman, Howard Hawks and Mervyn LeRoy, to name just a few. Warner Bros. had well and truly arrived.

7) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

MGM became the pre-eminent studio in early Hollywood, the studio by which all the other studios measured themselves. It was created in 1924 by Marcus Loew by merging three smaller studios, Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures.
Marcus Loew
Loews Theatres, the oldest theatre circuit in North America, was founded in 1904 by Marcus Loew, whose first “nickelodeon” in a rented store evolved into the Loews Theatres circuit. By the start of World War I, the young chain of theatres numbered over 400 throughout the U.S. and Canada and Loew needed a steady supply of movies to screen in them.
Metro Pictures
Metro Pictures Corporation was formed in 1915 as a movie production and distribution company. It built up a library of silent movies, including classics such as 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' in 1921, 'The Prisoner of Zenda' in 1922 and 'Scaramouche' in 1923, It was purchased by Marcus Loew in 1919 to supply a steady flow of pictures for his theater chain.

louis b mayer
Louis B. Mayer

Goldwyn Pictures
was founded on November 19, 1916, by Samuel Goldfish partnering with Broadway producers Edgar and Archibald Selwyn using an amalgamation of both last names to create the name, Goldwyn. Goldfish liked the name so much that in December 1918 he changed his own, unusual name, to Goldwyn.

Goldwyn Pictures was successful and produced and distributed hundreds of silent movies with big name stars such as Lon Chaney and Mabel Normand. In 1917 the company's logo of a reclining lion was designed by lyricist howard Dietz, together with the words "Ars Gratia Artis" ("Art for Art's Sake"), which first appeared on the film 'Polly of the Circus' in 1917.

As the company grew bigger, Goldwyn had major disagreements with his partners and in 1922 after six successful years he sold his shares in Goldwyn Pictures.

Loew purchased the company, and its lion logo, in 1924 to improve the quality and variety of his picture stock and also for its 40 acre Hollywood studio lot. As Goldwyn had left the company 2 years earlier, Loew needed someone to effectively manage his expanding Hollywood empire. He found the ideal man in Louis B. Mayer and his production chief, Irving Thalberg.

Louis B. Mayer Pictures
Set up in 1918 by Louis B. Mayer, its first production was 1918's 'Virtuous Wives'., Mayer had a proven success record as a producer and was an obvious choice for Loew. He was named head of studio operations and Loew's vice president, based in Los Angeles, reporting to Loew's longtime right-hand man Nicholas Schenck. He would hold this post for the next 27 years. Before the year was out, Mayer added his name to the studio with Loew's blessing, renaming it Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. As Goldwyn had already left Goldwyn pictures he, amazingly, never owned or worked for the new company which was formed in 1924 and which bore his name - Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
In 1925, in its first full year of operation, the new company produced over 100 films including the highly successful 'Ben-Hur' and made almost five million dollars profit. Its success continued under Louis B. Mayer and his Head of Production, Irving Thalberg who began to create a philosophy of star making. They created and glamorised a host of star names including Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, William Powell, and Joan Crawford, and hired top directors to take charge of the movies, including King Vidor, and Erich von Stroheim. When Talkies arrived in the late 1920s, new stars were brought into the studio including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy.

The result was a spectacular and glamorous company which established a reputation for quality, and sophistication. It was the only Hollywood studio that continued to pay dividends during the 1930s and until the mid-1950s, the studio could make a claim its rivals could not: it never lost money.

8) RKO Pictures

The full name is Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures and it was formed in October 1928 by means of a merger between the vaudeville theater circuit called Keith-Albee-Orpheum, and the film studio owned by Joseph P. Kennedy, called Film Booking Offices of America, a producer and distributor of mainly low-budget films. The two companies were merged with RCA, (Radio Corporation of America) to form RKO.

The new studio became famous for its string of glamorous musicals in the 1930s such as 'The Gay Divorcee' in 1934, 'Top Hat' in 1935 and 'Swing Time' in 1936, all starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The studio was responsible for two of the most influential and famous films in Hollywood history: 'King Kong' in 1933 and 'Citizen Kane' in 1941 and had many top stars on its books including Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant.

9) 20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox was formed in 1935 by the merger of two companies: the Fox Film Corporation and Twentieth Century Pictures.

The Fox Film Corporation was formed by William Fox on 1 February 1915. Fox worked in the fur and garment industry as a youth. He started his own business in 1900 and sold it four years later in order to buy his first nickleodeon. He continued buying theaters and became a highly successful film exhibitor. He took a firm and brave stand against the Thomas Edison Motion Pictures Patent Company which enabled him to start his own production company in 1913 which became the Fox Film Corporation in 1915.

His company eventually controlled over 1,000 theaters and made successful pictures starring early Silent actors such as Tom Mix and Theda Bara. Fox also became famous for the 1927 news series 'Movietone News', the first commercially successful sound film.

Fox pioneered the widescreen film with 'The Big Trail' in 1930 but in the same year he lost control of the Fox Film Corporation in 1930 during a hostile takeover. Fox, himself, was seriously injured in a car accident and because of the expense of converting 1,100 theatres to sound equipment and the economic crisis of the early 1930s, his empire crumbled. He declared bankruptcy in 1936 and in 1942 served a term in prison for attempting to bribe a judge and for committing perjury. Paroled in 1943, he found himself a pariah in Hollywood. For the remainder of his life he lived quietly in Long Island, New York.

Twentieth Century Pictures was created in 1933 as an independent production company by Joseph Schenck (the former president of United Artists) and Darryl F. Zanuck from Warner Bros..The highly intertwined, incestuous nature of the film industry at this time.can be illustrated by the fact that finance for the new company was provided by Schenck's younger brother Nicholas Schenck, who was president of Loew's, the theater chain that owned MGM, and by the head of MGM himself, Louis B. Mayer. The company's movies were distributed by United Artists and they leased studio space at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

Twentieth Century-Fox was formed in 1935 by the merger of the two companies - Fox Film Corporation and Twentieth Century Pictures. At first, it was expected that the new company was originally to be called "Fox-20th Century", even though 20th Century was the senior partner in the merger. However, 20th Century was more profitable than Fox and had considerably more in-house talent, which meant that its name came first.. The new company, 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, began trading in May, 1935. In 1985 the hyphen was dropped to give it the name by which it is known today.

After completion of the merger, fresh young talent was recruited by Zanuck, including Tyrone Power, Carmen Miranda, Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney and Betty Grable. He also built up the career of seven year old Shirley Temple, already on the studio's books.

The company's films retained the the searchlight logo used and owned by 20th Century Pictures was retained on their opening credits as well as its opening fanfare, and is indeed used to this day.

Hollywood History, Part 1 - Early Technology 1888-1900

Hollywood History, Part 2 - The Movie Industry Evolves 1900-1910

Hollywood History, Part 3 - The Growth of Hollywood and of the Studios 1910-1920

Hollywood History, Part 4 - The Development of Silent Movies 1910-29

Hollywood History, Musicals - pre 1940