After the end of the First World War and before the Great Depression of 1929, the Hollywood film industry dominated the world and the history of films changed radically. An industry that presents itself to the general public as a dream factory that proposes the realization of the American dream. A series of characters, heroes and heroines almost always good-looking, in which the public identifies and who often embody models to be achieved.
Hollywood is a veritable factory of the imagination, an assembly line where films classified into easily codable genres are made. A way of making cinema very far from that of the European avant-gardes. The artistic research takes place in Hollywood sometimes almost by chance, sometimes thanks to the merit of good directors who are put into making commercial films and also take advantage of it to experiment with their most daring ideas.
The dream factory
But Hollywood’s goal is essentially commercial business and to offer the public worlds of escapism in a universe of optimistic dreams. In fact, films rarely take a negative and nihilistic point of view that we often find in European cinema. Instead, they often offer an excessively sweetened and positive vision of the world, both in the stories and in the style of the images.
The rise of Hollywood cinema is favored by the crisis following the end of the great war. The world economy is on its knees and the United States positions itself as a world leader in several key sectors. A policy of extreme liberalism is affirmed which allows American industrial products to impose themselves on foreign markets.
The 1920s are a phase of great economic development and great euphoria and general well-being. Some social groups such as peasant immigrants and miners are however excluded or even penalized by this consumerist euphoria. It is what is called the jazz age or the roaring 20s, in which you drink contraband alcohol and go in search of new dreams and mythologies.
Film was born as a consumer product
Hollywood cinema is favored by a large availability of capital and by an audience that passes from 40 to 80 million spectators in a few years. In addition, there is the possibility to export their film products all over the world.
The film is essentially seen as a consumer product and its production is rigidly structured in a vertical system of which the Studios control all stages, from writing to distribution. Writers, actors and directors are very generously paid employees in the service of the producer, and the film only has to exist if it produces a good profit.
Many production houses decide to build their own cinemas all over the country to maximize profits. The theaters that do not belong to the big studios have since that time been forced to book the film with a system called Block Booking: exhibitors are forced to book entire packages of the studios’ films, which include minor films along with the big hits. This is still a daily practice for exhibitors around the world today.
Vertical oligopoly of Hollywood
The studios join forces with each other and become a veritable oligopoly of the film sector, leaving no room for competition and independent productions, which had instead been of fundamental importance in the development of cinema in Europe. The halls are built as fabulous architecture, inspired by an exotic, Baroque and Rococo world, to give the popular public the temporary illusion of a journey into a world of rich and fantastic. That world that was always denied him in everyday life.
The show was also enriched by newsreels, comedies, musical interludes and other live performances. The big three studios were Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and First National. The smaller studios were Universal, Fox, Producer Distributing Corporation, Film Booking Office and Warner Brothers. Added to them is United Artists created in 1919 by actors and directors such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and David Wark Griffith. Their goal was to get out of the oligopoly and domination of the big production houses to continue making possible the existence of a more independent film production.
The stars as a marketing tool
Hollywood cinema was therefore born as an industrial and productive organism, in a work context oriented towards the efficiency and quality of the products. But it finds itself operating in a different context from traditional industry. For example, it is necessary to control and romanticize the life of the stars and their rough side. Gossip and gossip become one of the main tools to attract the public to watch the films of the stars, and the lives of certain actors begin to be controlled by producers even off the set, to make them a marketing tool.
Scandals, adulterers, the life of unbridled luxury and the love affairs of the private life of the stars spread through the press, to create an aura of unattainable myth on the world of cinema. World of enormous wealth and adventurous lives that lower-class audiences can experience through the daydream of the big screen.
The censorship and morality of Hollywood films
The church and religious groups do not look kindly on the news stories and the exaggerated riches of the Hollywood world and begin to take sides against it along with the right-thinking Americans of the time. This is why Hollywood, feeling in danger, in search of legitimacy, decides to start a moralistic and censorship-controlled editorial policy for its films.
In 1922 the main studios joined together to create Motion Picture Producers and Distributors with the aim of establishing a set of rules to regulate the moral content of films. Republican William Hays, a powerful minister who could act as a liaison with Washington, was called to head the MPPD. His reforms created restrictions on the contents of films until they were synthesized in 1934 with the enactment of a real law nicknamed the “Hays Code”. The code standardized and regulated the production of all US films, classified into well-defined genres, within narrow moral limits inspired by the Catholic Church.
The distinctive elements of Hollywood cinema thus became a repetitive and easily recognizable spectacular model with the presence of excellent technical and formal care, morally correct contents according to the dominant culture of right-thinking people. The viewer’s waiting before the films are released is fueled by marketing campaigns studied in detail and disseminated by the media.
The Hollywood director-entrepreneurs
The context of Hollywood will allow the rise to success of directorial and artistic personalities of a certain type. Many great directors of the European avant-garde would not have had the slightest chance to work in a film industry of this type, which operated in antithesis with their motivations for research and experimentation.
The father of spectacular and big budget American cinema is surely David Wark Griffith, who with his colossal films Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is attracting the attention of the whole world. Griffith’s films invent new codes of the cinematographic language in a context of large industrial production.
His pupilwill continue his trend, Erich Von Stroheim, with his poetics of the excess of European decadent ancestry. Comic cinema, on the other hand, is profoundly renewed by exceptional personalities such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. One of the directors who fully embraces the industrial logic of Hollywood production is Cecil B. De Mille, a director with the undoubted qualities of an entrepreneur and producer.
Cecil B. De Mille
His films focus on spectacularity and on very specific dramatic strands, such as those of the brilliant comedy with an erotic background and the fatal and unscrupulous woman often played by Gloria Swanson. Up to the decade following the great spectacular historical films such as The Ten Commandments of 1923, which narrates the biblical episode alternating with a modern parable. The film apparently condemns sexual wildness and vices from every angle, in line with the strict regulation of American censorship. But it takes advantage of it to show orgies and sinful scenes to attract audiences in search of transgressions.
De Mille’s brilliant entrepreneurial formula can be summarized in blood, sex and the Bible, and is the basis of subsequent blockbusters such as The King of Kings and the Sign of the Cross, until several years later in Samson and Delilah in 1949. De Mille is the perfect director for Hollywood who manages to channel his artistic creativity into a profitable and big business idea. Other directors such as Frank Borzage are at home in the politics of the Studios, which continued to produce a filmography of glitzy blockbusters until the 1950s.
One of the biggest hits on the film Ben Hur of 1926, produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. A colossal with tens of thousands of extras, for which the entire Circus Maximus of Rome had to be built as a scenography. Shot with innovative shooting techniques, such as that applied to chariot racing, which involved the simultaneous use of many cameras, located in different points of view.
Another great director of the Hollywood system of the 1920s was King Vidor who created a great pacifist epic entitled The Great Parade, from 1925, in which he skilfully alternated scenes of war conflict with sentimental situations: canons and stereotypes still widespread in Hollywood cinema today.
The success of the film gave MGM boss Irving Thalberg confidence in Vidor: the director was able to make a more committed and nonconformist film like The Crowd, from 1928. A rare film in Hollywood at the time, which investigates the existential parable of a man from childhood to maturity in a large metropolis like New York. A reflection on the conformism and the loss of individuality of the man of that historical moment in the new dimension of mass homologation and an ironic and disenchanted look at the falsely optimistic ideology of the self-made man and the American dream.
The crowd is perhaps the pinnacle of US silent cinema and shows bold technical and stylistic solutions that represent with extraordinary symbolic force the relationship between the individual and the crowd and the loss of identity. A film that is inspired and has the strength of German expressionism using camera movements and lights as powerful symbols of its narrative content.
Birth of a commercial cinema also capable of functioning as a social inquiry tool and politics that continued in the following years, in 1929, with Alleluia a film about the plight of black men in the Southern cotton plantations. Our Daily Bread, 1934, that faces the scourge of unemployment and which recounts the crisis of the great depression of 1929.
Vidor will continue his career in that system of classic genres that will be proposed by Hollywood in the following years to consolidate its production strategies and is imposed all over the world as a codification of the genres to which different target audiences and businesses correspond.
Within the genre some typical veins of those years are born such as the pacifist vein, the war film, the comic slapstick and the Western. Westerns were also made at low cost for the provincial public. One of the directors who debuted with just this kind of cheap andfilms, John Ford with his 1924 movie The Iron Horse.
In the following years John Ford will become the most important author of the Western genre, able to visualize the archetypal dimension of nature and landscape and to embody the mythology and ideology of the West.
The new film genres in Hollywood
Thanks to the success The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari of Robert Wiene which arrived in the USA in 1921, the Studio’s interest in the horror genre was born and which will be treated above all by Universal.
Actor Lon Chaney specializes in the genre by making films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom ofOpera theof 1925. However, MGM will sign the famous partnership between Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning with which the actor will make the most important films such as The StrangerThe of 1927.
Gangster film was born also for sociological reasons, linked to the increase in crime and liquor smuggling in the era of prohibition. Some films such as Chicago Nights (Underworld) Joseph von Sternberg’s 1927 made for Paramount, Morocco in 1930 and Shanghai Express 1932 slay the foundations and prototypes of the gangster genre.
Romantic and comedy
The various genres reflect the moods and evolving society of the Roaring Twenties as the Star System shapes itself to interpret the moods, desires and aspirations of the mass audience. Divas like Rudolph Valentino are born, embodying the Latin virility of a photo novel. John Gilbert interpreter of the great parade that embodies the freest and most unscrupulous Romanticism. A new model of Vamp actresses like Gloria Swanson, the opposite of American girlfriends like Mary Pickford in the Puritan and Victorian style of Griffith’s cinema. The atlético Douglas Fairbanks, who played the remarkable The Thief of Bagdad Raul Walsh of 1924, which represents the optimistic and positive thrust of the decade, a new kind of American who deals with cheerfulness and positive reconstruction of American society after the war.
Finally, stars and interpreters of themselves such as Charlie Chaplin and Erich Von Stroheim, interpreters of recurring characters such as the tramp and the cynical officer, who express a style of cinema that is more independent and of European taste. Showing the contradictions of American society and its fragile values that will soon be overwhelmed by the great depression.
The classic Hollywood style will reach its full maturity With the advent of sound in the 30s and 40s. Sound will allow us to get out of an idea of cinema as a partial and non self-sufficient language accompanied by live performances and sound performances in totally self-sufficient language. The world inside the big screen will become a world without any connection with the reality outside the screen to enjoy independently.