A Crash Course in Studios
by Chris Dashiell

I've always loved old movies - they used to show them on TV all the time, albeit with commercials - so I grew up with them. I knew the names of the stars, and later I started learning about directors. But I never paid much attention to what studio made a particular film. If a woman was holding a torch before the movie started, or a lion was roaring, or a little airplane was flying around the earth - it didn't make much difference to me. But then, years later, when I developed an historical curiosity about Hollywood, I started to learn about the studios. And along with knowledge of their history, their dominance of the world market for over three decades, I learned that they each had something like a style. Each studio generally made a different kind of picture. Well, there were many similarities and overlaps, but by and large one can tell what kind of a movie it will be by the beginning logo, or by what stars happen to be in it.

So, for those of you who share my love of old movies, but who never quite got it straight concerning which studio was which, I offer this crash course in the studios. I don't include much in the way of history - for that would take much longer. But I hope to at least enlighten you as to American studio styles, genres and stars.


In the early days, from 1895 through the mid-1920s, the idea of film as entertainment was in a continual state of reinvention. Production companies of one sort or another held the purse strings, but the creative process was largely the province of the directors, performers, and other members of the film crew. The studio as factory - churning out three to five hundred films a year, with the production heads controlling the output of the directors, writers and actors - did not emerge, at least not fully, until the tail-end of the silent era and the beginning of sound. Therefore I will not dwell at length on these studios, but only give thumbnail sketches.

EDISON COMPANY. The famous inventor did not create motion pictures, but he was the first to commercialise them. Initially attached to the idea of movies in slot machines, Edison eventually got into projected film. Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery ('03) for Edison. Edison headed The Motion Picture Patents Company, which tried to monopolize film production. That led, indirectly, to the creation of Hollywood by companies trying to break free of MPCC. Eventually the government disbanded the Patents Company - that was the end of the East Coast studios and the beginning of Hollywood as the center of production.

BIOGRAPH. Edison's biggest competitor, with whom they eventually joined forces as part of the MPCC. Biograph will always be associated with D.W. Griffith, who made all his ground-breaking one and two reel films for them. The short-sighted producers let Griffith go when he wanted to make longer films - little dreaming that "features" were the wave of the future.

KALEM. One of the earliest Holywood studios, makers of the first (one reel) Ben-Hur and famous for their location shooting. It was bought by:

VITAGRAPH. The only MPCC company that survived the break-up of the trust. Valentino got started there, as well as Norma Talmadge and Clara Kimball Young. It was eventually absorbed into WARNER BROS.

SELIG. An early studio out of Chicago. Tom Mix gained fame there before going to FOX.

KEYSTONE. The leader in comedies - Mack Sennett was first director and production chief. We of course remember The Keystone Cops. Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand were Keystone stars. The greatest Keystone discovery was Charlie Chaplin, who made his early masterpieces for them, and later for Keystone's parent company, MUTUAL, which evolved over time into RKO.

ROLIN (Hal Roach). The company's name is now obscure, overshadowed by the name of its production chief Roach. This was Keystone's main comedy rival - with Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, and later the Our Gang series. Roach also did westerns and adventures.

ESSANAY. Westerns ("Broncho Billy") and comedies, notably with Chaplin after he left Keystone in 1916, and before his defection to Mutual a year later.

NEW YORK MOTION PICTURES. Producer-director Thomas Ince turned this small outfit into a powerhouse for a brief period, especially with westerns featuring William S. Hart.

FAMOUS PLAYERS. Adolph Zukor's company, specializing in film versions of stage classics.

FEATURE PLAY. Jesse Lasky's studio, with a similar angle to Zukor. They merged in '16 to form FAMOUS PLAYERS-LASKY, and later became PARAMOUNT.

FIRST NATIONAL. Formed by exhibitors in reaction to Famous Players-Lasky's "block-booking" policies. Chaplin and Mary Pickford were there briefly. It eventually merged with Warner Bros.

IMP (Independent Motion Pictures). Carl Laemmle's company, credited with creating the first movie star (Florence Lawrence), later changed its name to UNIVERSAL.

Production was a very fluid affair then. Trying to track the various corporate permutations can be dizzying. And as soon as a director or star got rich enough, he or she would go independent. Griffith did that with TRIANGLE (with Sennett and Thomas Ince) and later with UNITED ARTISTS (which I will discuss later). Pickford and Chaplin weren't the only stars to jump from company to company as their salaries skyrocketed - they were just the most famous. But with the advent of the studio system as we know it, the star was tied down with long-term contracts, and directors became subservient to the producers and the overall production scheme of the studio as mapped out by the production chief.

Most of the major studios had already come into being by the mid-20s. Paramount was already Hollywood's premiere studio. METRO merged with GOLDWYN (although its founder, Sam Goldwyn, had already been booted from his own company) and LOUIS B. MAYER PICTURES to form MGM in 1924. By the early 30s, there were just five "major" studios in Hollywood (or six, depending on how you view Universal), seven or eight "minors" and "independents," and a group of little companies known as "Poverty Row."

There were always exceptions to the studio styles, of course. One studio might try to copy the successes of another. Or changes in ownership might signal changes in style. Another caution: the stars I list under each studio aren't always associated with that company. There were "loan-outs" from one studio to another, some of which resulted in films that are now famous (I'll mention some of them), and then of course a star might change studios in mid-career. (There were also stars who never quite got pinned down to one studio, like John Barrymore and Joan Bennett.) In general, though, one can discern a certain studio's "personality" just by looking at a list of its stars. It should be pointed out, also, that each studio made "B" pictures for the bottom half of the bill, and since these were much cheaper, the differences between studios become much less pronounced at that level.


The majors were major because they owned theaters. That's right - not only did they control production and distribution, but exhibition as well.


Logo: Circle of stars around a mountain peak.

Key phrases: Continental style and wit, anarchic comedy, DeMille spectacles, relative creative freedom.

Executives: Adolph Zukor as NY money man, Jesse Lasky as studio chief, followed by several others in later years.

Stars: Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper,
Fredric March, Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Sylvia Sidney, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, W.C. Fields, Mae West, The Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Alan Ladd.

Cecil B. DeMille was one of the co-founders of Paramount, and for years his movies carried them. His lurid social comedy/dramas, and later his epics (in the silent days he even combined the two) were hugely popular. They depicted sexuality in a sensational way while ostensibly branding it with moral disapproval. Later Paramount films dropped the pretense: Ernst Lubtisch's comedies of seduction (he was actually production chief for a brief time in the early 30s), and Josef von Sternberg's deliciously wicked series of Marlene Dietrich movies - these had a frank, adult quality rare for Hollywood. Paramount's philosophy seemed to be that a star wasn't enough to make a picture - you needed good writing and direction. Consequently, writers and directors had more freedom there than at any other studio. You can see this especially in their wonderful comedies -W.C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers made movies there that are still startlingly funny today. Paramount's excellence in romantic comedy persisted into the 1940s as well - there is an intelligence and wit in the films of Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder that hasn't lost its freshness. And Paramount films had a luscious visual look, the very cinematography, with its slightly hazy quality, lending them an air of sophistication. Sometimes, though, the studio didn't know how to take advantage of its stars - Carole Lombard was a Paramount star, but most of the films we remember from her were made at other studios. In the 40s, the studio was carried by the very successful "Road" movies featuring Hope and Crosby.


Logo: Roaring lion.

Key phrases: Glamorous stars, safe middle-class appeal, high budgets and production values.

Executives: Nicholas Schenck ruled from NY. Louis B. Mayer was studio chief. Irving Thalberg was production chief in the early 30s, followed at his death by a complex network of producers. Mayer's son-in-law David Selznick was an important producer there for a while.

Stars: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Wallace Beery, Norma Shearer, James Stewart, Hedy Lamarr, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas, Greer Garson, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn (from the 40s on), Robert Montgomery, Margaret Sullavan, Gene Kelly, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner.

MGM became the most successful studio in the sound era, and success bred success. They had the biggest stars and the highest budgets - so their pictures seemed more glamorous and more professional than any others. An MGM film had high-key lighting and lavish production design. They did period pieces and literary adaptations (Marie Antoinette, David Copperfield), star ensembles (Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight) and adventures like San Francisco or Captains Courageous. Their Greta Garbo romances are sublime, but their bread and butter came from the Clark Gable-Joan Crawford pairings, the Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney, The Thin Man mysteries with Powell and Loy, and (somewhat out of character) the Tarzan movies. In the 40s and 50s they became the great studio for musicals, starring Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire (formerly of RKO). If you ask anyone to pick their favorite classic Hollywood films, you're bound to get a bunch from MGM - The Philadelphia Story, The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain, you name it. But if I may be allowed to criticize - there was always a middlebrow element somewhere in even the best MGM film - they wanted to please everybody and preach a moral, too - so there's rarely a since of boldness or risk. A case in point is what happened to the Marx Brothers when they moved to MGM from Paramount. The studio put romantic sub-plots with singing lovers into their movies to appeal to women, and their films kept going downhill. Metro films have plenty of glamour and size but sometimes, as if in compensation, they lack style and sophistication.


Logo: WB in a shield-shape frame.

Key phrases: Tough, fast-talking urban dramas, swashbucklers, biopics, low-budget, working class values.

Executives: Harry Warner was money man, rascally younger brother Jack was studio chief. Daryl Zanuck ran production in the early 30s. Hal Wallis was later one of their more prominent producers.

Stars: Bette Davis, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Errol Flynn, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Mary Astor, Paul Muni, Ann Sheridan, Olivia De Havilland, Jane Wyman.

Warners was only a minor studio in the silent era - but they took a chance by introducing sound technology (Don Juan, The Jazz Singer) and it made them a major. They were penny-pinchers, though, and the Warner pictures' fast-cutting style is partly due to the need to cut corners. The studio is justly famous for its gangster films featuring Cagney, Bogie and Edward G., but it's a lesser-known fact that they were the leaders in musicals during the Depression (thanks to Busby Berkeley). Warners films had more of a social conscience - while other studios were offering glamour and escapism they gave us I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and other works of amazing toughness and realism. Dialogue was fast, action furious - they pioneered the newspaper picture and their outlook was decidedly working class. Even their queen of the lot -the unbeautiful Bette Davis in romantic melodramas - appealed to the common woman. When Warners spent money it tended to be on their prestige biopics (usually starring Paul Muni) and their lavish (for them) swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn. Bogart came into his own as a star in the 40s, and such classics as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Big Sleep elevated Warners style in a big way. Their movies were generally darker than the other studios, and therefore many have aged more gracefully. Even their cartoons featuring the immortal Bugs Bunny and others, have a tougher quality of humor than their counterparts at Disney. If there is a weakness, it is that their writing will often descend to the corny or formulaic.


Logo: Studio name in huge letters being swept by searchlights.

Key phrases: Folksy Americana, stories and musicals aimed at a rural or small town audience, John Ford dramas.

Executives: The maverick William Fox founded the company. After he went bankrupt, it was merged with a new outfit named 20th Century - Joseph Schenck (Nick's brother) was the money man, and Daryl Zanuck was studio chief.

Stars: Janet Gaynor, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Loretta Young, John Wayne, Betty Grable, Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Gregory Peck (after Selznick), Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark.

It wasn't that Fox didn't have urban theaters - it was just that they had far more theaters in rural and small town areas, and their films reflected that. Even when they tried their hand at an art film - hiring F.W. Murnau to do Sunrise - the story was about the corruption of a country boy by the big bad city. (Will Rogers was actually sort of a star there, too, and you can't get more folksy than that.) When Fox became TCF in '35, Zanuck brought a little more class, but the basic direction was the same - conservative, a follower rather than a creator of trends. Their biggest star was Shirley Temple - she carried them in the mid-30s. Fox's one great artist was John Ford - movies like The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley gave TCF prestige, and the westerns were consistent moneymakers. Their dramas would often feature Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, their musicals Betty Grable. TCF occasionally ventured into more complex territory in the 40s, with films like Laura or Jane Eyre. A successful studio, but in artistic terms, a second-class studio, it must be said - always with the exception of Ford's efforts.

RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum)

Logo: A signalling radio tower perched on a globe.

Key phrases: Eclectic, New York sophistication, experimental, theatrical.

Executives: No real mogul - studio by committee much of the time, which may be one reason why RKO foundered. Selznick was a producer there for a time. Pandro S. Berman was perhaps their most consistent producer. Dore Schary produced there in the 40s.

Stars: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn (before her jump to MGM in the 40s), Irene Dunne (for awhile), Cary Grant (ditto, after Paramount), Maureen O'Hara, Orson Welles, Robert Mitchum (during the Howard Hughes reign).

RKO is the hardest studio to define because it never quite found a consistent style. Ownership changed hands a lot. The instability may have contributed to some risk taking - the outlandish King Kong was an RKO film. In the 30s they seemed to aim mostly at a sophisticated, East Coast crowd. Their Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals are arguably the most stylish in film history. They tried literary adaptations such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Little Women, theater stories like Stage Door, adventures like Gunga Din, always with a great deal of panache, and intermittent box office success. In the 40s they made a series of unusual horror films produced by Val Lewton (e.g. Cat People). When an RKO film worked, it was often bolder and more experimental than anything else around - they didn't just do any screwball comedy, they did Bringing Up Baby, not just any newspaper picture, but Citizen Kane, which they had enough guts to stick with despite great pressure. Their courage ran dry with Welles' later efforts, and in general their fortunes were so up-and-down that the company was never sure of surviving year to year. With very few stars under contract, they often had to buy them from other studios - Cary Grant made several good pictures there on loan. RKO's bread-and-butter was actually its B-movie section - adventure serials and westerns, mostly - but the studio is memorable for the number of unusual films it managed to produce. It was finally bought by Howard Hughes, who ran it into the ground.


The minors owned no theater chains. Therefore they relied on deals with the majors to have their films exhibited. Their budgets (and profit margins) were a lot lower, and they generally borrowed stars from the majors since they couldn't afford to keep their own under contract.


Logo: A world globe - sometimes in the old days it had a little airplane flying around it.

Key phrases: Horror movies, weepies, low-budget musicals and dramas.

Executives: Carl Laemmle was the founder. Thalberg was briefly studio chief before going to MGM. Laemmle's son Carl Jr. ran things through the mid-30s, when the studio was bought by other interests.

Stars: Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Margaret Sullavan (before she jumped to Metro), Deanna Durbin, Marlene Dietrich (after she left Paramount), Abbott & Costello.

Some people count Universal as a major, because of its long history (it was quite successful in the silent era) and its occasional stab at big-budget respectability. The fact remains that Universal had no theaters and virtually no stars. When they copied genres from other studios, such as the screwball comedy in My Man Godfrey, their stars were all borrowed (in this case William Powell from Metro and Carole Lombard from Paramount). Mostly we remember its horror movies, a genre in which it excelled - first with Lon Chaney, then with the Frankenstein and Dracula films. Directors James Whale, Tod Browning and Karl Freund brought a sense of style to the horror picture that other studios could never match. Laemmle Jr. tried to turn Universal into a major with big prestige productions like All Quiet on the Western Front and Show Boat. He did gain prestige, but unfortunately he lost money, and the Laemmles lost their studio. Universal mainly stuck to their B-movie programmers, "weepy" women's melodramas like Back Street, and of course horror movies. In the late 30s and early 40s they were carried by Deanna Durbin musicals, later by Abbott & Costello comedies. It is ironic that this perennial bottom-feeder eventually turned into a powerhouse in the 50s and remains one of the biggest distributors today.


Logo: A woman holding aloft a torch (somewhat reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty).

Key phrases: Frank Capra, screwball comedy, Rita Hayworth.

Executives: Rude, boorish Harry Cohn was the big fish in this little pond.

Stars: Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck (for awhile), Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford. Virtually everyone else of note was borrowed from another studio.

Columbia was so cheap that it seems a miracle it made so many memorable pictures. The credit for that can go to one man more than any other: director Frank Capra. He worked for a lot less than directors in other studios - but in exchange he got more autonomy. It Happened One Night stunned the movie world by sweeping the Oscars in '34. Its stars, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, had considered working there a sort of punishment by their studios (MGM and Paramount). Capra also helped create star personae for Paramount's Gary Cooper and (especially) Metro's Jimmy Stewart, who was slipping into supporting roles until Columbia rescued him. The studio also excelled in screwball comedies such as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday (two of Cary Grant's best efforts, another Paramount loan). Perhaps the slipshod Columbia atmosphere encouraged this wild form of comedy. In the 40s, bombshell Rita Hayworth virtually carried the studio. All in all, a rather strange case. They didn't come much cheaper than Columbia, but some good luck and creative people make it seem like a major in retrospect.


The difference between "independents" and "minors" was that, generally, the independents produced on a picture-by-picture basis rather than as a studio, although the lines could be fuzzy sometimes.


Logo: a stately mansion, headquarters of Selznick International.

Key phrases: Big-budget prestige productions, Hitchcock.

Executives: Why, David O. Selznick, of course.

Stars: Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones. Most talent was bought from the majors.

Selznick's idea in going independent was to produce just a few movies, but movies so big and of such a quality that they would reap very big profits. He was remarkably successful, considering the odds. Three films, all in color, typify this approach: A Star is Born ('37), Nothing Sacred and of course Gone With the Wind. The latter was Selznick's greatest triumph and a marvelous example of how publicity can create a mega-hit. Selznick also had a long creative relationship with Alfred Hitchcock - Rebecca and Notorious being two of the fine results. But his obsession with other big projects, and financial difficulties, caused him to loan Hitchcock out on more than one occasion to different studios. If there was a Selznick style, it was a kind of grand pretension to classic stature - a strong sense of craft combined with a story sense that had more sweep than depth.


Samuel L. Goldwyn was an illiterate mogul with a talent for malapropisms, and a touching desire to make films out of literary classics. He hired all the New York stage writers he could get, as well as English stars like Ronald Colman, Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. Mostly he borrowed stars from other studios. Sometimes the results were quite good, especially from director William Wyler: Dodsworth, Dead End, Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives. He made mistakes too - most memorably in his grooming of Anna Sten as the next big star. But his ratio of good-to-bad was pretty impressive, considering the low output.


Walt Disney didn't invent film animation, but he brought it to a level that no one else dreamed possible. His studio invented the animated feature - Snow White began a series of successes that hasn't stopped yet. Technically, Disney's animation was better than any of the competition, although in terms of content there will always be champions of Warner Bros. and the Fleischers (makers of Betty Boop and Popeye, also independents). Disney expanded into live action film in the 50s.


Wanger was a maverick with a much more sporadic output than Selznick or Goldwyn, but he's notable for being a forerunner of the sort of independent producer that eventually triumphed in the 50s, putting together pictures by offering short-term contracts to selected directors and stars. His credits include Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, and some interesting films directed by Fritz Lang.


UA was a different sort of animal. Not a studio, really (although it had tiny production facilities), but more a distribution company for independents, with a few scattered theater holdings. It was founded by four movie titans: Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. The idea was to provide a way for independent producers to get their product onto screens. Goldwyn used UA, as did Britain's Alexander Korda for his films, and other independents such as Walter Wanger and Hal Roach. UA came into its own in the 50s, when the studios were being broken by the antitrust rulings. The lack of overhead gave it the freedom to bid for stars and producers at that time, and it became a successful production company into the 60s.


We tend to think of the studio era in terms of its successes - the classic films like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, or Grand Hotel. But Hollywood survived on a steady output of lesser vehicles, the B-pictures and programmers, the eighty percent or so which are now largely forgotten. The "Poverty Row" studios specialized in only these kinds of movies - cheap westerns, cheap adventures, cheap entertainment of all sorts. The most famous is REPUBLIC, run by Herbert Yates, home to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and, for quite a while before his comeback with John Ford, to John Wayne. Republic also showcased Yates' talentless spouse Vera Hruba Ralston, I kid you not. Even lower on the scale were such entities as Monogram, Majestic and Tiffany. Often these were places where a fading star's career would go to die. The films are mostly awful and unwatchable today (although Rogers and Autry had charm and good singing voices), but they filled a need at the time, when there was no TV and everyone went to the movies all the time. Republic eventually gained some stature when John Ford came on in the 50s - they scored a surprising coup in 1952 with Ford's The Quiet Man - an Oscar for Best Director, and a fitting ironic cap to the studio era.

It is common to bemoan the loss of the studio system. To be sure, there was a level of creativity, a sense of craftsmanship and style, which went along with it, and that we are sorely in need of today. On the other hand, the system tended to flatten everything out to a common denominator - the need to churn out product that was acceptable to the mass audience made interesting experiments such as Citizen Kane rare events indeed. In this respect, the studio era doesn't differ that much from today, except that the supposed profile of the mass audience being catered to is now a good twenty years younger, and apparently illiterate. But one has only to compare the best studio films to the films of, say, Jean Renoir from the same period, to get a sense of how the system tended to confine cinematic style within certain restraints. Furthermore, if you contrast all this with advances in written literature that were being made at the same time, you will see how young an art form the cinema really was, and still is.

I hope that I have helped to outline the styles and stars of the different Hollywood studios in a way that is easy to understand. Maybe you'll remember this the next time you watch an old movie, or when you wonder why Bette Davis never did a picture with Katharine Hepburn....

©Chris Dashiell, 1999

CineScene© 1999