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HOLLYWOOD
THE GOLDEN AGE

The term Golden Age of Cinema is generally used for the period in the 1930s when the Hollywood studio was king. From a commercial perspective this is probably correct, but from an artistic point of view it would be better described as Silver.

The true Golden Age of Cinema commenced in the early 1920s and ended in 1934 with advent of the Hayes code. During this period Hollywood was the international centre of excellence, drawing on talent from across the world.

Before the end of the First World War, Hollywood was just one of a number of locations where films were made. It hardly mattered to an audience whether a film was made in Hollywood, Berlin, Rome, London, Paris, or New York. It was the silent age, and a film could be marketed anywhere with a simple change of title cards. But by 1920 economic pressures had arisen that would lead to the dominance of Hollywood.

There was only one real winner at the end of the war, America. It had come in at the very end of the conflict, suffered relatively few casualties, and was now reaping the benefits. It's economy was booming - the "Roaring Twenties" - whereas the European powers had to cope the enormous problems that the war had caused.

The German film industry had always been a leader in artistic excellence, but with the collapse of the economy, Hollywood began to look very attractive to ambitious young professionals. A good example is Ernst Lubitsch who had made his name as a top director in his native Germany. In 1920 he visited New York, ostensibly for a holiday, but he also planned to visit Hollywood where he could make contacts and possibly get some offers. But in fact he never left New York. There was still strong a anti-German feeling in the US, and the telephone calls he received from Los Angeles were threatening. Lubitsch was a Jewish German, but in the eyes of many, the fact that he was a "Kraut" was more important than his Jewishness.

(This was an attitude that would continue for many years. In Twentieth Century (1934), when Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) fires an employee with the words "[you] who came to me as Max Mandelbaum, and now for some mysterious reason has become Max Jacobs", the joke is Max is not trying to hide his Jewishness, but hide his German origins. Of course this situation would eventually change: in 1934 the actor who played Max was known as Charles Levison, but he later became Charles Lane.)

Lubitsch finally made it to Hollywood when he received an offer from Mary Pickford to direct Rosita (1923). She was attempting to relaunch her career and get away from her screen persona as a permanent adolescent, and wanted a top director to handle this make-or-break film. The attempt failed - the audience would not accept the new Pickford - but it did no damage to Lubitsch. He went on to a great career with Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Twentieth Century Fox.

In the 1920s, Hollywood was not so much American, as International. Films were expected to cover their costs within the US, but the profits were made overseas. And although the people who made the films were predominantly Americans, these were the carpenters, the scene painters, the extras, the typists, the people who filled the whole gamut of the lesser-paid jobs.

But it was different with the producers, directors, and major stars. A high proportion had been born outside the US. Today they are usually classed as immigrants, but that is an erroneous perception. Movie-making was an international industry and if a new centre of cinema excellence had sprung up outside the US, these same people would have been part of the stampede. But of course competition never arose. The rise of the Third Reich and the outbreak of World War II ended any possibility of that.

To get a sense of this internationalism, one has only to look at the people involved. Of course many well-known directors and actors were born in the US, but a significant number were born overseas:
Producers: Sam Goldwyn, the Warner brothers, Louis B Mayer, Carl Laemmle, etc.

Directors: Charles Chaplin, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Rex Ingram, Rupert Julian, Paul Leni, Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, F W Murnau, Billy Wilder, etc.

Actors: Pola Negri, Greta Garbo, Alla Nazimova, Vilma Banky, Marlene Dietrich, Al Jolson, Ronald Colman, Ramon Navarro, Rudolph Valentino, etc.
They brought with them a legacy, sometimes good and sometimes bad. In the case of the British it was the English class system, where those who were not public school (Charles Chaplin, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock) were never really accepted by the middleclass English clique (Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, David Niven, Basil Rathbone, etc.) But the less said about them the better.

The German directors brought something more worth while to Hollywood, not only the advanced techniques that had been formed in Europe, but also the idea that movies were an art form. If you went to an art gallery, the size of the paintings varied according to the type and importance of the subject. Similarly, music. So why should movies have to conform to a standard number of reels?

Of course Von Stroheim is the paradigm of this line of thought. His films were conceived in truly Wagnerian proportions. Naturally he didn't survive. It was people like Lubitsch who successfully married European ideas with American production norms who came out on top.

In Hollywood during that Golden Age there were (at that time) no unions to worry about, few labour laws, and an endless supply of cheap labour arriving from the Midwest. The resulting mix of ideas and the low Hollywood production costs produced some of the finest movies ever.

However by the mid 1902s, American production methods and the increasing rigidity of the studio system was already eroding this vitality. It couldn't last. But even in the Golden Age's last days just before the dead hand of the Hayes Code crushed the life out of American cinema, there are still golden moments which stand out from the banality of what was to follow.

Hollywood's Golden Age of Cinema is epitomised in the career of Ernst Lubitsch. He made his name as a director in Germany. He then then moved to Hollywood where he directed and produced some of the best - and wittiest - films of the period. But by the mid-1930s, although still a major player, Lubitsch was no longer able to make the sort of films that had brought him to prominence. Wit was no longer wanted, nor were the great stars of his time. Bland conformity had taken over.

Which of course is the usual fate of human artistic endeavours.