Between 1930 and 1945 the Hollywood industry consolidates and begins to produce classic movies. In 1929, the collapse of the Wall Street stock market is a tsunami that engulfs the entire nation. The difficult period of the great depression began in 1929 and continued until the end of the thirties, with a sensational recovery of the economy at the beginning of the 40s with the Second World War.
The advantages of export and cultural hegemony of the United States arise from the new balance of power that arose after the Second World War. The victory will make it possible to export classic movies all over the world and also to increase the number of internal viewers exponentially. The crisis is faced by President Roosevelt with incentives in favor of the development of large companies with the aim of favoring the control of the various sectors with vertical monopolies and oligopolies.
In Hollywood, economic support policies have a fundamental impact and will allow large studios to grow rapidly until the late 1940s. Roosevelt gives a great revival of the entertainment industry and allows the Hollywood industry to become the world leader in entertainment. film industry by taking advantage of the transition to sound cinema in advance.
American classic movies abroad
The economic, social and cultural hegemony of Hollywood cinema becomes undisputed and its products are able to reach anywhere in the world. Between the 1930s and 1940s the history of cinema is the history of classic Hollywood films, except for the small niches of the public still interested in avant-garde cinema. In Europe, very interesting films continue to be produced, often much more daring than classic movies, but for the general public around the world in search of entertainment, cinema is the dream world of classic movies.
In Europe plagued by war and dictatorships, classic Hollywood movies appeal to both those who share fascist and Nazi policies and those who reject them. Immediately after the war, classic American movies invade the old continent, reaching a percentage of distribution in cinemas that exceeds 80%. A cultural hegemony and cinematic imagery that lasts granite to the present day. Only France, the country that invented cinema and gave birth to the most vital avant-gardes like impressionism and surrealism, manages to implement policies to protect its production.
Marketing and packaging of classic movies
How is this incredible expansion and distribution hegemony of Hollywood classic cinema justified? The first reason is certainly the great economic strength and colossal budgets of the films. Second, the quality, the packaging, the marketing, the posters designed down to the smallest detail to please the public, are all things that film productions in other countries fail to do perfectly. The marketing teams of the Hollywood studios are numerous and made up of highly trained people who carefully study the launch of each film, building on it narratives with the private lives of the stars or about social events.
At the heart of this rich system is the producer, who is the sole owner of the film, the entrepreneur from whom each project starts and who decides, approves or rejects the final copy of the audiovisual work. He studies the tastes of the public, makes use of dozens of collaborators to choose the most profitable projects. In the production of classic Hollywood films, directors, screenwriters and actors always depend on the figure of the producer. They are production employees and their careers are continually at risk, linked to the economic outcomes of films, temporary fashions and public appreciation.
It often happens that many actors have to give up even their private life to feed scandals and magazines. In most cases they are marketing strategies, sometimes foreseen in contracts, which however confuse the minds of the actors who were beginning to live in a sort of limbo between reality and invention. Their love life, their marriages and their vices were put under the eyes of the mass audience who had to continue to dream even outside the cinema.
Even if the news was invented, or indirectly caused by the mechanism in which these actors ended up crushed, millions of people became passionate about the news and the advertising campaigns worked. In short, in the Hollywood classic film industry, marketing was more important than the ideation and production of a project.
The assembly line and genres
Classic movies are made in a real assembly line, with rigidly defined roles and tasks. The contracts are detailed and the finished products are subjected to an industrial verification process. Creativity is an ingredient held in high regard by Hollywood, but only with the aim of creating excellent products and controlling it and channeling it into a profitable and lasting business. The director who works in Hollywood becomes in effect the foreman of a factory.
The great artistic quality of the films, however, paradoxically comes from abroad, from all those emigrant filmmakers who end up working in Hollywood making it the crossroads of a cultural ferment and unparalleled ideas. European authors and many American directors do not like Hollywood’s standardized way of working, this logic of mechanized serial production, they contest it and try to modify and influence it. From this conflict and these influences are born the best classic movies of Hollywood cinema, the most successful works from an artistic point of view.
The rigidly codified genres and the rules of the factory and the Star System succeed in some cases in enhancing the creativity of the artists. Strict restrictions force screenwriters and directors to deal with the public’s demand for films that are always poised between homologation and novelty, creativity and standards. Audiences love to know what they’re going to see, what to expect from a movie or a star. Genres and the Star System are nothing more than decoding models for the public also adopted in other industrial sectors.
The advent of sound in cinema
The illusion of reality and the high technical packaging of classic Hollywood films is definitively consolidated through sound. Cinema loses its characteristic of expression through evocative images and becomes a complete and autonomous reproduction of reality. The movie screen encompasses a self-sufficient world that no longer needs either the live orchestra or the barker who tells the story. But there is no doubt that cinema is beginning to lose its visual power and its specific strength as the art of moving images. The sound and the dialogues gain a centrality in the narration of the story that flattens the expressive power of the silent films of the 20s.
The producers of the classic movies of the 30s and 40s are not interested in the search for new forms of moving images. The script and the dialogues acquire a fundamental importance to tell the stories. In most cases, the images lose value and are placed at the service of the narrative. The masterpieces of silent cinema, the previous avant-gardes, however, had almost always confirmed that the essence of cinematographic art was not in the narrative tale. The specific language of cinema is the time of editing, the plasticity of the forms of the shots, the spatial and pictorial connections of the scenes, the light.
Better silent or sound cinema?
Many years later one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, Federico Fellini, states that the perfect film should be composed only of images and music. And like him there are many masters who recognize the absolute centrality of pure images. The sound cinema and the enormous worldwide development of the classic Hollywood film, however, marks a point of no return.
The great silent interpreters like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton go into crisis and have to adapt to the new language. Silent cinema leaves the scene completely without ever returning to the big screen except in rare cases, such as in Samuel Beckett’s Film, Buster Keaton’s Last Acting Work. Or the most recent Oscar winner The Artist.
The debate on sound cinema will involve directors and scholars from all over the world, from René Clair to Eisenstein to Bela Balazs and Rudolf Arnheim, in a reflection on the integration of the sound dimension in films. Some artists like Charlie Chaplin will take a strong stand against and continue to produce silent films for a few years. But the Hollywood industry of classic movies immediately believed in the potential of sound and invests huge resources in perfecting microphone technology, recording techniques and audio post production, in the diction of the actors.
From an industrial and business point of view, sound represents a new potential. Within a few years, hundreds of sound films are produced and audiences quickly get used to the new language. In short, sound greatly increases the expressive possibilities of cinematographic language but it is clear right away that it depends a lot on the way it is used in each film.