An Epic Tale
The recent passing of Kirk Douglas at the age of 103 reminds us that this celebrated giant of the silver screen (“Spartacus,” “Lust for Life,” “Paths of Glory,” etc.) was born just as the golden age of Hollywood was getting underway. (Imagine, just a year before saw the release of “Birth of a Nation” – 1915 – the first movie blockbuster that demonstrated the cultural impact this new media could exert.) While we properly emphasize the extraordinary growth of the United States as an industrial power in this period (e.g., Henry Ford and the mass production of automobiles), the concurrent rise of the movie industry foreshadowed the over-sized role entertainment would play in the rapid economic advance of the U. S. in the 20th Century.
It all began on a modest scale – store fronts in urban areas, often in working-class districts, given over to penny arcades and peep shows, popularly referred to as nickelodeons. Sitting in front of a screen, often in chairs borrowed from the local funeral parlor, patrons watched up to 20 minutes of short scenes in motion. Typically, they might include moving trains, parades, chases, pranks, fights or scenes from a familiar play. A longer presentation (12 minutes) of “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) was hugely successful and demonstrated the potential of offering dramatic plot lines to audiences. These brief entertainments proved exceptionally popular and, for these who invested in them, remarkably lucrative. While many regarded these amusements as little more than passing fads, those in the business thought otherwise and began expanding from one neighborhood to another.
These entrepreneurs were a surprisingly homogeneous group of Jewish immigrants or sons of immigrants recently arrived from Eastern Europe. Eager to make their mark in the new country they sensed an opportunity here where few others did, and they made the most of it, gradually building more elaborate theaters (ultimately movie palaces like the Roxy, Rialto, Rivoli, Capitol, and The Radio City Music Hall – 1932 – all in New York), displaying lengthier features, then moving on to become producers and film makers themselves.
Most all of this activity happened back East, primarily in and around New York City. And then, in short order, the “movie industry” picked itself up and headed West, specifically to Hollywood, California. By 1918, 80% of the world’s movies were made by 70 production companies in Los Angeles. “Sunny” California played a role in this: one could film scenes outdoors mostly all year round. Also, land was cheap. And bankers, who financed most projects, were back East and thus would not be snooping around, asking too many questions. And, finally, the movie pioneers – Adolph Zukor William Fox, Benjamin Warner, Harry Cohn, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, and others could fashion their own separate world here, a social system and pecking order independent of the genteel establishment back East, which had kept these aggressive newcomers at arm’s length.
And so the stage was set as the 1920’s began, and Kirk Douglas was yet a child, for the first golden age of film in Hollywood. The decade would see the emergence of the major movie studios, such as Fox, Paramount, RKO, Warner Brothers, Universal, Columbia and MGM, all operating with tight control over the industry, from the talent to production, distribution and exhibition. Movie goers in major cities were entertained in luxurious settings in new vast theaters, seating thousands and including full orchestras. And movie stars were created, the likes of Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and Rudolf Valentino, whose fans eagerly awaited their latest film releases. At the end of the decade “Talkies” arrived (“The Jazz Singer”) so audiences could hear dialogue and enjoy movie musicals.
A mature film industry now entered the 1930’s, a decade of economic depression. The studios, though under stress, nevertheless continued to release a torrent of new titles enabling Americans, at least temporarily, to forget their troubles as they flocked to the movies, now a familiar, even an essential feature of their lives.