Hollywood’s Golden Age
The late 1920s to the late 1950s are generally considered Hollywood’s Golden Age, although some have pushed the boundaries of this period to as late as the mid-1960s. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the beginning of the era where Hollywood hit a streak of major growth that laid the foundation for the American (and in some aspects, the global) film industry as we know it today.
The advent of sound in the 1920s greatly increased the kinds of stories that could be told. The western was one of the most popular films, representing a nostalgic view of America as a free land of promise and opportunity (for law-abiding whites, at least). Slapstick comedy, musicals, cartoons, and biopics (biographical pictures) were all popular. The rise of genre films was both an indication that audiences wanted to experience different kinds of stories, and more practically a result of studios churning out more movies each year so that unique, original ideas were in high demand to maintain a steady pipeline of hits.
The Depression Era saw fierce rivalries between competing studios. Directors and producers would attach themselves to certain studios, and to collaborate with any others was considered as good as treason. The competitive streak, however, resulted in many fantastic films. 1939 was a notable year for bringing us several hits, such as Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Wizard of Oz.
The Second World War, despite hurting Hollywood, actually gave the film industry a tremendous boost. Filmmakers like Frank Capra cut propaganda films to support the American war effort. We’ll touch on propaganda and foreign films of the era in more detail in next day’s episode.
1941, the year America went to war, was also the year of Citizen Kane. Starring and directed by Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is understood to be the best film of all time, using a complex narrative and visual structure to explore themes like memory, ambition, and the true meaning of happiness.
Another standout of the war years was Casablanca (1942), an award-winning drama that was at once a tender romance, sharp-witted comedy, and gritty film noir. Casablanca produced some of the most memorable lines in film history.
The post-war 1940s and 1950s were a time of big budget “sword and sandal” epics, often expressing religious (especially Christian) themes like in The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. For the younger market, sultry James Dean captured the look and attitude of a generation in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Marilyn Monroe was at her peak, and Alfred Hitchcock thrillers shocked audiences everywhere.
The stories were big, the budgets were bigger, and the money was flowing in. The Golden Age, as its name implies, was a great time in the movie business. With the invention of the television in the 1950s, however, self-proclaimed prophets suggested that movies would disappear. After all, it was easier to watch short programs at home than crowd into a dark theater with a few hundred strangers for two or more hours.
Despite TV’s popularity, cinema survived. Unfortunately, RKO, one of the original Big 5 studios, did not. The studio that brought us King Kong (1933) and Citizen Kane floundered under the direction of business mogul Howard Hughes until its doors were finally shut in 1957.
As the shine of booming post-war America began to rub off in the early 1960s, audiences became less interested in traditional, cookie-cutter westerns and comedies. In the subsequent turmoil of the latter half of the 1960s, Hollywood—and America itself—would find itself flipped upside down.
Did You Know?
Orson Welles was only 26 years old when he co-wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, now considered the greatest film of all time. His earlier career as a radio announcer made him a massive star at age 21.
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