america 18 Facts Most People Don't Know About How The Old Hollywood Studio System Worked  

Lisa Waugh
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The history of Hollywood is a far cry from the shiny Technicolor stories churned out during the days of the old studio system. The Dream Factory was controlled by the Big Five, which studios owned a significant portion of theaters across the United States. 

It’s interesting to look back at how the old Hollywood studio system worked compared to today. Studios controlled all things film from the early ‘30s to the late ‘50s, including the lives and careers of screen legends. The system began unraveling when the US government banned block booking, a method of locking down screens through ownership and an onslaught of films. Television stole eyeballs. Agents undermined bargaining power. The Red Scare sparked the Blacklist, and the industry and government overplayed their hands. 

Another death knell was the Hays Code, censorship that made Hollywood whitewash and water down film content. While it worked just fine for a while, it eventually undermined Hollywood, as European and independent filmmakers made bold storytelling choices that didn’t adhere the code. Audiences filled art house theaters to watch Italian Neorealism, Japanese imports, the cerebral films of Ingmar Bergman, and the beginning of the French New Wave. 

Old Hollywood stars under contract may have lived the dream, but a lot was expected of them. Studios controlled every aspect of their lives, from marriages to pregnancies. How they looked mattered more than how well they could act. Scandals were handled and buried. Studio abuses went unchecked. 

But it wasn’t all bad. Tinsel Town historical facts also reveal how screenwriters created the template for American cinematic narrative. The studio system made it possible for writers to transition to directing by helping them understanding camera work and character blocking. The environment of collaboration helped produce countless classic films, including Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and some not starring Humphrey Bogart.   

Let’s look at some old Hollywood system facts and look back on a time where “action” was a command. 

The Big Five And Little Three Studios Dominated Hollywood


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Photo: MGM

Five studios emerged from the silent film era of the 1920s to to dominate American cinema. Those studios, known as The Big Five, were: MGM, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, RKO, and Paramount. Various other studios and production companies clamored for a piece of the pie. The three others that ate at the big boy table, known as The Little Three, were Universal, United Artists, and Colombia. 

The Men Behind The Big Five Were Jewish Immigrants With A Background In Theater


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Photo: Warner Bros.

Jewish immigrants Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, and brothers Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack Warner came to Hollywood when the vaudeville and burlesque circuit began to flag in the Northwest. They owned theaters that attracted working class immigrants and first generation Americans. 

They chose Hollywood for several reasons. California was as far as they could get from Thomas Edison, who was more than happy to sue filmmakers for patent infringement. They also came for the weather. The warm and practically rainless climate allowed for longer production time, particularly inland from the coast. The terrain mirrored many other national and even international locations, and the light is perfect for filming. 

The biggest reason they choose film over theater, though, is very simple: it was more profitable. 

Block Booking


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Photo: RKO

Studios sold films to theaters in blocks. A standard block contained of 20 or more features, one of which was a high quality picture with broad appeal, the rest of which were a grab bag of B-movies of varying quality. Theater owners weren’t fans of the block system, because it ate up the majority of the playbill for the year, but they had to go along in order to get the biggest films each year. 

In many cases, when theater owners bid on block from a studio, some films included weren't even made yet. Because of this, programmers had no idea how bad a picture might be. What's more, if the final product differed from descriptions provided by the studio, programmers would have no idea to whom the project might appeal and how to promote and schedule it. Theaters were also required to take short films, which were tacked onto features. Block booking was a major impediment to theater owners meeting the taste of clientele. 

On top of this, the Big Five owned controlling stakes in theater chains, which were exempt from block booking, and therefore would only show the best, most commercially successfully and high quality films. This cut into the business of theaters lashed to the block system. 

War Was A Huge Boost For The Studio System


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World War 1 exploded the American film industry. The public wanted stories and escape from their lives, yet also craved news from the front, which theatrical newsreels provided. Public demand led to technological advances, while Hollywood’s competition, European cinema, had a hard time getting much done with all the fighting going on.

Hollywood stars were a huge part of the war effort during WWII. Bette Davis headed up the Hollywood Canteen, where stars Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Merle Oberon, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, and Mickey Rooney entertained the troops. Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Leslie Howard even joined the armed forces, and Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Hays Code Was A Self-Censorship System Created To Avoid Federal Interference


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Photo: Warner Bros.

Formally known as The Motion Picture Production Code, the Hays Code was put in place in 1930 but not strictly enforced until 1934. The code was a way for the studios to self-censor in answer to the government’s threat to ban films the public might deem offensive and morally unacceptable.

Pre-code films were far racier and more tolerant than post-code films. Sexuality, nudity, feminism, and gay characters were part of the cinematic landscape before the code was enforced. Will H. Hays was president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America when the code was adopted, hence the name, but it was more closely associated with Joseph Breen, who was appointed by Hays to enforce it. 

The code drastically changed American cinema by banning sex, pregnancy, and promiscuity, upholding the sanctity of marriage, and adding twin beds in the budoir. The code also banned biracial relationships and gay characters. Villains couldn’t get away with murder. Violence was squelched or sanitized. 

The American happy ending was born. Meanwhile, in Europe, characters had angst, were betrayed, and pondered real life issues where a happy ending was never guaranteed. The upside of the Hays Code? It created snark. Many took direct shots at the code, mocking it outright. 

The Talent Scout System Was Wide Ranging And Ravenous


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Photo: Warner Bros.

Hollywood talent scouts searched for fresh talent on Broadway, vaudeville, and radio. They were on the lookout for a fresh face just about anywhere, including the street. 

In 1936, someone (by some accounts The Hollywood Reporter founder William R. Wilkerson, by others a talent scout) spotted 15-year-old Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner drinking a soda outside a shop in Hollywood after she ditched a typing class. She was approached, brought to Marx Brother Zeppo (who was an agent as well as an actor) once her parents approved of the situation, signed with him in 1937, and cast in They Won’t Forget.

Turner was an instant success, not because of her talent (she had no lines and was killed off pretty quickly), but because of her tight skirt and chest-hugging sweater. Turner, who chose Lana as her first name, was known as the “Sweater Girl.”  

Turner said of her studio years

”It was all beauty and it was all power. Once you had it made, they protected you; they gave you stardom. The ones who kept forging ahead became higher and higher and brighter and brighter and they were stars. And they were treated like stars. We had the best."

Stars Had To Look Good (The Studio Took Care Of The Rest)


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Photo: Screen Book

The average actor’s contract ran for seven years, on account of the De Havilland Law. Actors performed in whatever films the studio desired. Studios also loaned actors to other studios without consent or permission, sometimes as punishment for misbehavior on the actor's part. Actors of all types were under contract; lead, supporting, and extras. And all casting was typecasting. 

Looks-over-talent was Hollywood's philosophy. An actor was groomed, chiseled, and molded to have a screen presence. They were given diction lessons and schooled on posture, and took horseback riding, fencing, and dance lessons. Appearance was hugely important. Weight maintenance was standard in contracts. Physical fitness was strictly enforced. What couldn’t be worked off was surgically altered. If a nose was too big, a chin too wide, plastic surgery was a given.  

“A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing,” said Louis B. Mayer. “All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I'd have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest.”

Studios Owned Their Stars And Controlled Their Personal Lives


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Photo: MGM

The studio controlled every aspect of a star’s life. From how they spent their private time to who they dated, married, and pretty much every other aspects of their personal lives. If an actor had an affair, got pregnant, had a drug or alcohol problem, or a child out of wedlock, the studio made it a high priority to deal with it and keep that knowledge from the public. 

If an actor was gay, that knowledge was closely guarded. Actors stayed in the closet and were regularly forced into cover marriages. Crimes and misdeeds were covered up. The studios worked with law enforcement and the press to keep things under wraps.