By Mark Borchardt on 26th February 2015
The spectacle of the movies as we know them as both an art form and a populist entertainment has been with us for almost 120 years as of this writing. The first public exhibition of that miracle of motion occurred on December 28, 1895 and we‘ve been enthralled ever since.
Turner Classic Movies has bestowed us with a seven part series, “Moguls & Movie Stars” (narrated by venerated thespian Christopher Plummer), a fascinating glimpse into a wondrous, as well as, tumultuous history of this seventh art. Covering territory from well before its existence as a tangible form – that is, celluloid itself, when it was still just a dream-like idea of linking still photography, movement and projection all into one – and meaningfully bowing out in 1969 when the film school generation was on its way to grabbing the reins of the trade, leaving the tight strictures of full-on studio control well in the dust: for this is a series on the old-school Hollywood system.
Hollywood partially came to be as an avoidance of Thomas Edison’s close scrutiny of his patents on motion picture equipment (and of course the welcoming and necessary sunshine to burn into film stock) – and the space put between independent (of Edison) filmmakers and Edison’s wrecking crew worked as a stop-gap until the dissolution of the patent enforcers. As to that famous sign up in the hills, “Hollywoodland” was a housing development before the “land” was dropped and the remaining letters became a trademarked icon recognized the world over.
Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, the Warner brothers and Samuel (Goldfish) Goldwyn, to name some of the original lions of the industry are highlighted – many being tough Jewish immigrants from hard-scrabble lives who put their nose to the grindstone while casting an eye toward the “stars” as they produced the films that made Los Angeles famous.
I was already familiar with many of those moguls and “their” movie stars as an early teen when I haunted the shelves of the local library. The black and white photos of times gone by were fascinating in those books of early Tinsel Town lore. I’d read about the classic era of Hollywood and caught what I would on TV in those younger days; and as the overall immersion of VHS tape rental came to the fore, that of course opened up even more opportunities of cinematic indulgence.
The motion picture industry carries a fascinating history and has weathered many, many storms, some so mighty that they threatened the essence of the business. To hit the highlights of the many intimidating fronts, there was: the advent of sound, the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, the 1948 de-monopolization of the studio production-exhibition chain, the end of “kept” movie stars on seven year contracts, and the HUAC witch-hunts – and then, if that wasn’t enough, the arrival of the greatest beast of all: Television.
And that imperiling invasion of the small screen in American living rooms could have been the death-knell of the motion picture. But by then, the institution of the movies had been a half century old and it was not going to bow down just like that. Ironically, just when movie attendance reached its all-time pinnacle in 1946, the post-war appearance of TV coincided. But the big screen medium fought back with everything that it had with techniques and advantages that the small box just couldn’t provide: color, sweeping widescreen, drive-in theaters, movie stars that remained exclusive to the big screen and even a short-lived burst of 3-D thrown in. Finally, the two worlds collided in a mutually beneficial way as the Academy Awards were first broadcast into living rooms in 1953.
Then another seismic shift occurred in the 1960’s as the cultural revolution took hold. Strict censorial enforcement increasingly found itself weakening with the likes of the morally testy “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and such like fare. While Sidney Poitier broke down racial barriers onscreen, the old code gave way to the MPAA ratings system in 1968, the same one that we have to this day. And the dam holding back the freedoms of the new age burst completely when 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” a then X-rated film, took home the Oscar for Best Picture. And it’s with that year, that the series appropriately ends as “Easy Rider” that summer pushed the underground above ground as it economically blazed in glory across mainstream screens and solidified the youth culture as an immense force to be reckoned with both socially and cinematically.
The vast machinations of the social tide played out across the decades in all of its challenges and upheavals from the Great Depression, World War II, teenage rebellions and social revolutions. And the Hollywood screen captured it all.
This series certainly can’t cover everything and obvious gaps are substantial: Florence Lawrence is acknowledged as the first recognized movie star but she’s not even mentioned in this series. But as a basic indoctrination to the grand history of cinema, it’s a great start – now it’s up to you to hit the books and fill in the rest.
And as the fascinating saga of the motion picture continues to unfold, “Moguls & Movie Stars” provides an entertaining, insightful stepping stone in understanding its formative history.