Classic Hollywood, in book form

Anyone who follows me on social media knows that I’m a old-movie fan and a heavy viewer of Turner Classic Movies.

Back before I had access to TCM, not long after TCM launched and when American Movie Classics was the better-known classic movie channel, I was given a copy of the book “The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies,” by Ethan Mordden.

This is a wonderful book, which really did a lot to pique my interest and understanding of classic film. As strange as this sounds, I reread it about once a year — and each time, I get more out of it, because each time I come back to it, I’ve actually seen more of the movies that are referenced.

My original copy is falling apart. I’ve tried gluing it in the past but even my past repairs are coming undone. The book had been completely out of print, but recently I found it on Kindle — for what seemed like an exorbitant price, nearly $30. Even so, once I got Christmas shopping behind me I finally decided to bite the bullet and get it as an e-book. I’m now on my annual re-reading.

The book is a study of how various studios and independent producers each had an individual house style — that might mean strength in a particular genre, for example, or it might mean a slightly-different balance in the roles played by producers, directors, stars, writers and technicians.

Paramount, for example, was the home to many iconic directors, from Cecil B. DeMille to Ernst Lubitsch to Preston Sturges, but sometimes fumbled in how it handled its roster of contract stars. MGM, on the other hand, drew its power from stars like Greta Garbo and Clark Gable, and its directors tended to be less individualistic — their job was not to show off as auteurs, but to showcase MGM’s talent roster.

No studio gave too much power to writers, but Warner Brothers, because of its speedy production process, had less time for rewrites, and so its films tended to be closer to the original script than those at other studios, allowing political viewpoints and statements that might have been buffed away at other studios.

Back then, the studios owned their own theater chains, before a federal court found this to be monopolistic. That guaranteed each studio that its product would be seen — and the location of those theaters had an impact on a studio’s output. Universal had far more theaters in small towns, which is why it was the last studio to completely abandon silent movies and why (except for its monster movies) it tended to be less innovative or experimental. RKO was just the opposite — most of its theaters were in the northeast, and so it could take a chance on movies like “Citizen Kane” (even though “Citizen Kane” was a flop in its theatrical release). Even so, some of those experiments failed, and RKO paid the price.

The mogul running each studio also had a great impact on that studio’s output. At MGM, in the later years of silent movies and the first half of the 30s, even though Louis B. Mayer was head of the studio, Irving Thalberg was head of production, Mayer’s golden-boy protege. In the early days of talkies, Thalberg oversaw the sexy, high-glamour era of MGM‘s big box-office draws were Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. But Thalberg had health issues, compounded by his intense devotion to his work, as fictionalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon.” Thalberg was demoted and died tragically young, a few years later. In the latter half of the 30s, even though Thalberg wasn’t in charge any more, the studio continued to run on his formula, and to build movies around the type of stars that had been signed during his tenure and were still under contract.

But around the time of “The Wizard of Oz,” with Thalberg out of the way, Mayer started taking a more active role in content selection. Mayer liked gee-whiz, Mom-and-apple-pie content like Andy Hardy movies, and the MGM of the 1940s reflected Mayer’s sensibilities instead of Thalberg’s. Arthur Freed, a songwriter, impressed Mayer with his work as an uncredited producer working with the music on “Wizard of Oz.” Mayer soon allowed Freed to set up his own team within the studio, the so-called “Freed unit,” which produced a string of musicals featuring Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and others.

This really is a great book for learning more about classic movies and the era in which they were produced. Mordden’s writing style is sharp and often slyly humorous. If you have a Kindle, it’s worth the high price. If you happen to find it in a used bookstore somewhere, even better.