PART FOUR - The Golden Age of Hollywood: 1929-1940
Technical advances in the 1920s allow movie engineers to link a recorded soundtrack with a projected image. Warner Bros. devises a method for capturing sound on a disc while the picture cameras rolled, but Fox does one better: an optical system that puts both picture and soundtrack on the same film. Sound arrives in the movies, first with newsreels and short films, then features with music and sound effects, but no dialogue.
Then, in October 1927, Warner Bros. releases THE JAZZ SINGER: the first* feature-length film with synchronized dialogue sequences. The film's first line of spoken dialogue is, fittingly, Al Jolson calming an enthusiastic crowd, "Wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!"
*The question of “first” is debated, but THE JAZZ SINGER is generally awarded the title.
1929 - The Stock Market Crash ends the movie industry’s winning streak. High mortgages on lavish movie theaters and the cost of converting the industry to sound hits Hollywood hard. Declining attendance cuts profits in half. Creditors seize control of William Fox’s studios, leaving the mogul empty-handed. Carl Laemmle is forced to sell Universal, the company he built from the ground up. Soon, banks step in and offer loans to studios and filmmakers, putting the money – not the moguls – in charge of the industry.
1930 - Radio rises as a competitor to the movies, able to bring the show into the audience’s own living rooms. At first, the moguls ignore radio and refuse to let their stars perform on the airwaves. The moguls eventually accept radio as an opportunity, not a competitor, and lure pre-existing radio stars to the movie business. Among these is Bing Crosby, who becomes the biggest box office draw five years consecutively. In the end, the movie industry doesn’t defeat radio, but rather absorbs it.
As filmmaking adapts to sound, the industry stages a remarkable comeback as audiences return to theaters, intrigued by the talkies. Suddenly, Hollywood needs voices, not physical actors, and look to stage performers to fill its casts. Among those recruited from Broadway are the Marx Brothers, whose routines were perfected onstage and fit perfectly within the new medium.
The studios also hire screenwriters to give the movies their talk, beginning a still-contentious relationship between executives and writers. Former journalists Herman Mankiewicz (THE WIZARD OF OZ, DINNER AT EIGHT, PRIDE OF THE YANKEES) and Ben Hecht (SCARFACE, STAGECOACH, NOTORIOUS, SOME LIKE IT HOT), thrive as screenwriters in the 1930s. Hecht is the first writer to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the inaugural Academy Awards for his film UNDERWORLD.
Will Hays’ first attempt at movie censorship was met with little success, but in 1930, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America adopt the Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code. The Code spells out specifically what is and isn’t acceptable for Hollywood films, seeking to promote “traditional values”. Forbidden elements include blasphemy, nudity, miscegenation, white slavery, ridicule of the clergy, disrespect towards authority figures, and any inference of sexual perversion.
Despite the new rules, the Code has little effect -- until 1934, when an added amendment requires all films to receive a seal of approval before release. For the next twenty years, the Code rules Hollywood. Hays and his successor Joseph Breen have the power to change scripts and revise scenes, earning the scorn of writers, directors, as well as the studio moguls.
1931 - Warner Bros. attracts a new kind of actor: not the perfect, glorious movie idols of the silent era, but more unconventional, down-and-dirty theater actors. Stage stars James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson make their debuts in the bullet-ridden crime tales THE PUBLIC ENEMY and LITTLE CAESAR. The gangster film gains popularity among the disillusioned audiences of the Great Depression: the merits of honest hard work and careful financial planning had crashed along with the stock market.
During the 1930s, in the shadows of grand Hollywood, a smaller group of less-than-prestigious studios – referred to as Poverty Row – fights for its own voice among the major players. The biggest of these studios is Columbia Pictures, founded by temperamental, foul-mouthed Harry Cohn. To lift Columbia from the depths of Poverty Row, Cohn partners with a former director of Sennett comedies, a young Italian named Frank Capra. Together, Cohn and Capra produce IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, starring up-and-comers Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The film’s success immediately raises Harry Cohn to the ranks of the moguls and moves Columbia Pictures out of Poverty Row. The film goes on to win the top five Academy Awards, a feat that has since been matched only twice (by ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST in 1975 and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in 1991).
After breaking ground with 1928’s STEAMBOAT WILLIE, former commercial artist Walter Elias Disney wins audiences and an Academy Award for his animated short film THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. But Disney aims higher, and begins plans for a feature-length animated film, even amid heavy skepticism from the industry. In December 1937, Disney completes SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, a box office and critical success that paves the way for feature animation.
1939 – Producer David O. Selznick sets his sights on breaking the box office record set by THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Selznick buys the rights to the Margaret Mitchell novel and produces GONE WITH THE WIND, a Civil War romance that wins ten Academy Awards and shatters the box office record. Adjusted for inflation, the film is still the highest-grossing movie of all time. The year 1939 is considered one of the best for American film due to the high number of critical and financial successes released, including THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH, GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, OF MICE AND MEN, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE WOMEN, and GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.