The Studios

"It was the night of the Titanic all over again, with women grabbing the wrong children and Louis B. [Mayer] singing 'Nearer My God to Thee."

-William Haines, actor

Looking back, years later, on the world of the Hollywood studio in 1928, this is how William Haines described the state of chaos that "The Jazz Singer" had created. Al Jolson's little sixty-one word monologue had shaken the movie industry at its very foundation, and every studio was left scrambling to adapt. The introduction of sound to motion pictures wiped the slate of studio power clean. All the successes and failures of the past became inconsequential, everyone returned to ground zero, back to the drawing board, and all of Hollywood began the learning process again together. In early 1928, one could not find a studio executive in Hollywood talking about anything but the advent of "the talkies." How would this newborn technology change the industry? Was it just a passing fad, as some suspected, or did "The Jazz Singer" toll the death of the silent era?

"If the human voice had been a drug in 1929, Hollywood would have been hellbent on taking a monumental overdose."

-Barrios, p. 309

Everybody was a virgin in the infant world of the film musical, so Hollywood was making the rules as it went along. Nonetheless, given the excitement that the prospect of talkies generated in the American people, the studios felt the pressure to generate a product quickly. The studios were in such a crisis mentality, struggling with corporate and marketing questions, that considerations about production quality were often placed on the back burner. It was not so important, in the eyes of executives, that their studio make a great picture, but that they make one posthaste. Sound was enough; package it and sell. In the earliest Hollywood talkies, "novelty was the drawing card, creativity took a vacation" (Barrios, 41). "The Jazz Singer" and "The Singing Fool" being merely part-talkies, virtual silents with a few especial moments of dialogue, the dash between the studios to release a true talking motion picture was not unlike the Space Race of the 1960s. Everybody wanted t! o know what the other guy was up to, and everything depended on who had the technology when.

In order to understand the state of haste and uncertainty of late 1928, one must first consider the technological foundation from which the talkies sprang. In 1923, the four Warner brothers, Harry, Sam, Albert, and Jack incorporated their movie studio, relative latecomers to the game. Ironically, this belated arrival aided the Warners in getting ahead quickly. The more well established of the Hollywood studios were complacent with the status quo, and did not really consider the consequent rise of radio in American culture, but the Warner Bros. Studio were sensitive to their coming of age alongside radio. Without any significant box office success or any prospect of landing exhibition in the premiere halls, the Warners decided to try combining radio, the all-audio experience, and film, the all-visual experience.

Sam Warner, regarded as the "father of the talking motion-picture," despite passing away before the premiere of "The Jazz Singer," purchased the exclusive rights to Vitaphone, a process developed by Bell Telephone that recorded sound onto discs in synchronization with pictures and played the discs simultaneously with the film. The Warners implemented the process on their swashbuckling romance "Don Juan," starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor, making it the first motion picture with sound. Previously an afterthought, Warner Bros. was now a prime time player, and they followed "The Jazz Singer" with "The Lights of New York," the first all-talking picture, on July 28, 1928. Meanwhile William Fox of Fox Studios, developed Movietone, which recorded the sound straight to the celluloid. The technology was in low supply and high demand. Universal did not have a fully functional sound stage until 1929 and borrowed Fox's processing equiptment for the making of "Show Boat," origina! lly a silent with a few scenes reshot with sound. Meanwhile, MGM still langored in complete silence. For a medium still unsure of its method, the musical genre seemed the most adaptable to the sound stage, since music is what America thought of when they thought of sound as performance and the sound came to film in the form of song.

"Irving [Thalberg] called me in and would have to be a hurry-up job, we thought we would do it with synchronized sound effects. But everybody was clamoring for 'all talk.' So we switched to that."

-Laurence Weingarten, producer

Every studio had at least one musical in the work if not more, and it was anybody's guess who would make it to release first. Warner, being the genius behind the Vitaphone and producer of "The Jazz Singer" had the obvious advantage, but Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), the last studio to sound, ironically struck first with "The Broadway Melody," which premiered February 1, 1929. Not only was "The Broadway Melody" the first full musical, it was MGM's first sound feature, period. "The Broadway Melody" was by no means perfect, or even that ambitious, it was complete. Seemingly an afterthought a year earlier, MGM now held the trump card, as "The Broadway Musical," produced for a total cost of $280,000, grossed over $4 million and became the first talkie-and second film ever-to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1930. The film's production quality was very simple and much of it's dialogue jejune, but this simplicity is what allowed MGM to get it out there first, despite the fact that vir! tually every other studio had a headstart: "Those responsible for "The Broadway Melody" were aware that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points" (Barrios, 78). Warner Brothers had purchased the screen rights to the Broadway sensation "The Desert Song" in 1926 and, with experience on their side, gone into production months before MGM. By December 1928, everything was complete, but the reels sat on the shelf for over six months and the opportunity was lost forever. In the quest to be creative, many studios had fallen behind. In the quest to catch up, MGM had remained incredibly predictable. Still, the years to come would bring more and more similarity, as every studio shifted toward the dominant paradigms of proven success.

"What was to become convention in every backstage musical is present here in pristine simplicity: the imperious impresario, his cohorts of yesmen, the dilettante backers, the star of the show breaking her leg at rehearsal, her replacement wowing the audience by apparnetly not even singing a note or swinging a limb or doing anything else except simply stand there, and the big-hearted heroine surrendering her own chance of stardom and happiness for the sake of her kid sister." -Alexander Walker, film historian on "The Broadway Melody"

In the middle of 1929, every studio was coming to grips with the advent of sound, and box office sells were at an all-time high throughout the nation. Then came the Crash, and Hollywood suffered like everyone else. The glamour and schmaltz that were so integral to the musical, and Hollywood in general for that matter, seemed somewhat inappropriate all of a sudden. Box office numbers virtually dropped in half from 1930 to the next year, prompting Variety to label 1931 "the worst year financially in the history of pictures [and] also, virtually, the worst annum in the existence of almost every other industry." Just as the studios had been forced to adapt to sound, they now faced the challenge of suiting America of the Depression. Subsequently, the 1930's witnessed each studio developing its own unique identity, each forming a very different character, but the fear of failure in this time of economic slump drove all of Hollywood deeper and deeper into established conv! ention.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president on November 8, 1932, the studio system-and the nation as a whole for that matter-began to hope, to believe that there was a light at the end of the dark tunnel. By the time Roosevelt assumed office, a strange optimism began to surface in Hollywood. The economy was not necessarily any better, and unemployment was still at a devastatingly high percent, but people were, for some reason, more upbeat. As it always had, the film industry followed the collective sentiment of the nation. Whether they addressed the Depression or turned their backs on it completely, the studios began to mold the formula to make fantasy plausible, to once again inspire hope, and provide American audiences with an outlet for escape.

Warner Bros, having invested more into sound technology, was consequently the in the worst shape at the beginning of the year, but by the end, Warner's troubles would seem like ancient history. As 1933 was the year of Hollywood's revival and perhaps the apex of the musical's heyday, it is only appropriate that the studio which started it all back in the twenties should be the one to set the trends again. On March 9, 1933, Warner Brothers released "42nd Street," produced by Hal B. Wallis and Darryl F. Zanuck. The film, packed with star power and exploring the rather hackneyed world of stage shows, almost singlehandedly salvaged the Hollywood musical.

"The pioneers in talking pictures, first to smash box offices with a screen musical comedy, first to set the crowds agog with gangster films, and first in many other aspects of production innovations, now lead the way again in the return of musical pictures...The success of "42nd Street" will probably bring a new avalanche of musicals."

-Carle Gillettee, critic

"42nd Street" was so powerful that 1933 basically saw two kinds of films: those that sought to copy "42nd Street" and those who had gone into production before its release. It set all the rules for what a film musical should be, proving that the genre was still worthwhile, but severely limiting it as well. In fact, MGM scrapped several fantasy projects it was working on halfway through production to begin their own version of the show musical, falling victim to a condition which Barrios labels "The '42nd Street' Virus" (387). Warner Bros., always conscious of the nation's political state, intentionally corresponded the release of the film with the week of F.D.R.'s taking office, declaring the film "The Inauguration of a New Deal in Entertainment." Warner followed this landmark smash with another show musical packed with talent, that had actually begun production before "42nd Street." "The Gold Diggers of 1933" cost the same to produce as "42nd Street" and grossed over a million dollars more, while boldly recognizing the nation's economic troubles. More realism than escapism, this comedy is often upbeat and contains many very playful moments, but the show, and indeed the film itself, ends with a very solemn tribute to the veterans of the Great War now suffering economic crisis. Soon, this sort of material became the trademark of all Warners projects, stories about the working class, boxing, organized crime, societal ills, and brutality; naturally, their musicals felt these influences too.

Despite the extreme success of the Warner projects, other studios found their own unique identities and found success as well. Paramount was basically everything that Warner was not, offering to the public the nearly absolute escapism. Paramount relied on a broad spectrum of designs and a wide array of star power, contracting everyone from Mae West to Nancy Carroll, from Bing Crosby to Maurice Chevalier. Paramount trumped Warner in pizzazz, only to be trumped itself by MGM. MGM was truly the gala studio, often spending more money on its minor projects than most studios did on their A films. Soon, Darryl Zanuck, the uncredited producer and true mastermind behind "42nd Street" left Warner to form Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon merged witht Willaim Fox's struggling studio. More than any studio, Twentieth Century Fox stubbornly adhered to formula and paradigm, focusing on the talents of Shirley Temple and Alice Faye. Universal slowly fell out of the musical race and what few musicals RKO produced virtually all focused on the romantic combo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. As one can surmise, so much of a studio's character depended on the stars they had under contract, and, likewise, the public perception of so many Hollywood stars resulted from the worlds to which their studios adapted them. As Mordden writes, "Astaire and Rogers never mention the Depression; they're too busy dancing. The Warners characters are obsessed with the Depression: that's why they dance" (81).

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Last Updated December 16, 2000

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