Since the early days of movie making, Hollywood has habitually copied its successful ideas over and over again until audiences finally get sick of them. Then they move on to the next fad or trend and do the same thing.
This isn't a recent phenomenon. Back in the 1910s, studios hired Charlie Chaplin imitators to churn out dozens of "Chaplinesque" comedies during periods when Chaplin wasn't releasing films. And Rin Tin Tin became a big star in part because another German Shepherd had caused a huge sensation in a film, and producers were looking to capitalize off of that.
Over the years, Hollywood and other producers have turned swimsuit-wearing teenagers, vaudeville comics, and titanic monsters into the stars of their own film franchises. They've terrorized audiences with dozens of films about masked slayers and man-eating aquatic creatures. And they've adapted dozens of television shows into feature films.
Some of these trends have been short-lived. Others have continued for decades. As long as the "next big thing" keeps turning a profit, Hollywood studios will happily churn out more of the same.
Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" was one of Hollywood's first icons. The character was created for Chaplin's second film, Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914). From the minute Chaplin put on the clothes and makeup, he said, "I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born."
Chaplin's work pace slowed after he formed his own studio. After starring in 12 films in 1916-17, he released just five films in 1918-19. But demand for Chaplin-type films remained high, and Billy West was ready to fill that void.
West had already imitated Chaplin in a vaudeville routine by the time he got hired in 1916 to appear in a Chaplinesque comedy film. After coming to Hollywood, West starred in 15 Tramp-type films in 1918 alone.
West copied Chaplin closely, even sleeping with his hair in curlers and learning how to play the violin lefthanded. There were other Chaplin imitators in Hollywood, like Ray Hughes and Billie Ritchie, but West was the only actor who possessed enough name recognition to draw in audiences.
In addition to the imitators, many of Chaplin's early films weren't copyrighted, so small companies were able to recut and reissue these movies. These bootleg films became so common that Chaplin had to sign his name under his real films' title cards in order to authenticate them.
During the silent-film era, a dog named Rin Tin Tin was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Rin Tin Tin was a male German Shepherd rescued from a World War I field by an American soldier named Lee Duncan.
In the early 1920s, Duncan would take Rin Tin Tin to the various Poverty Row (B-movie or low-budget) studios, looking to get him movie work. In 1921, a German Shepherd named Strongheart caused a sensation when it appeared in the film The Silent Call, and studios were looking to cash in by using other German Shepherds in films.
"Rinty" got his first role in The Man from Hell's River. After making a few more films, Duncan convinced Warner Bros. to produce Where the North Begins, casting Rin Tin Tin as the lead. The film was a huge success and has been credited with saving Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. Rin Tin Tin made 24 more film appearances between 1923 and his passing in 1932, all of them successful - so much so that studio insiders dubbed the dog "the mortgage lifter."
At the height of his fame, Rinty earned $6,000 a month and received as many as 12,000 fan letters a week. Other studios looked to cash in on his popularity by releasing films starring dogs; the most notable example was Ace the Wonder Dog, a German Shepherd who appeared in a number of films from 1938 to 1946.
Take a lighthearted plot; add themes of teenaged fun, freedom, and sexuality; then remove any hint of parental figures. Then add original music that kids will respond to. This is the formula that American International Pictures (AIP) used for its series of "beach party" movies that were released between 1963 and 1968.
Beach Party (1963), starring teen idol Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, is the film that ushered in this genre. Made on a budget of less than $400,000, it was a surprise hit, earning over $2 million at the box office.
“We were constantly filming,” Avalon told the Los Angeles Times. “We were doing 28 setups a day. I would say to [director] Bill Asher... ‘I don’t think my character Frankie would say this.’ And he’d say, ‘What are you talking about? Just say the line. Let’s have fun with it.’”
AIP churned out these movies quickly; in 1965 alone, the studio released five "beach party" films. They used many of the same cast and crew, and of the 12 AIP films that fall into this category, only one didn't have either Avalon or Funicello in it. The plots were all similar, centering around an Avalon-Funicello romance.
Although AIP was the leader in producing these movies, each of the seven major studios released at least one film that fell into the genre, while independent studios made a total of seven "beach party" films.
With the box office failure of Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), AIP turned its focus away from the beach and towards other teen-friendly trends, which marked the beginning of the end of the "beach party" film era.
There is a long tradition of cowboys entertaining themselves by singing around the campfire, or while taking part in a cattle drive. Hollywood adapted this tradition to introduce audiences to the "singing cowboy."
Cowboy stars had sung in Hollywood films prior to 1933, but the first true singing cowboy appeared in 1933's Riders of Destiny. The character was played by John Wayne, although his singing voice was dubbed. The film was a modest box office success, but Wayne tired of fans asking him to sing and soon refused to play any more singing cowboy roles.
Wayne was replaced by Gene Autry, who had built a following by selling large numbers of records though the Sears catalog. Autry was given a small role in Ken Maynard's film On Old Santa Fe singing two songs, then quickly moved into serials. By 1937, he was doing so well that he asked the studio for a bigger share of the profits.
Instead, he was replaced by Leonard Slye, who soon changed his name to Roy Rogers. Like Autry, Rogers quickly rose to fame. By 1940, every studio but MGM had at least one singing cowboy star; these included Tex Ritter, Jack Randall, and Ray Whitley. With both Autry and Rogers in their stable, Republic dominated the box office in this genre.
The singing cowboy film combined things seen in the Old West with more modern conveniences like cars and phones. Many of the films were serials or B-films, and, as a result, often had low budgets and were shot on tight schedules.
The era of the singing cowboy came to an end in the mid-1950s after Autry and Rogers moved into television.