The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era is the way that author Thomas Schatz structures his book. Rather than attempting to deal with all of the studios equally, instead he follows the growth of the systemic approach to filmmaking as it evolved, wherever it lead. In the first section of the book, for instance, the silent era begins at Universal with Irving Thalberg’s unsuccessful attempt to get Carl Laemmle to make more prestige pictures. It then moves with Thalberg to the consolidation of MGM and their hiring of Thalberg, who oversaw production as well as his hiring of David O. Selznick, who streamlined the story department before being fired after a confrontation with Thalberg. But that’s really all of the silent era covered. He then transitions to Warner Brothers’ embracing of sound and their hiring of Darryl Zanuck to run their film production.
One of the most interesting things that emerges from Schatz’s book is just how important these production heads were to the studios. Most film histories tend to focus on the studio heads, the moguls, like Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, William Fox and Adolph Zuckor, and their iron-fisted control of the studios they ran. But the reality is much different. While the studio heads primarily controlled finances, it was the heads of production who determined the kinds of films that the studios were making, from story ideas and scripts, to casting and direction, it was people like Selznick, Thalberg and Zanuck who were responsible for creating the “house style” that defined the look and the feel of the pictures produced at their studios. They were also the ones primarily responsibly for setting up the “system” that each studio used to produce their films, taking into account yearly budgets and the resources available to their particular studio.
Unknowingly, however, the machine that they created wound up working for the studios whether they were there or not. So, initially at least, while the moguls found their production heads indispensable once the depression was in full swing, Selznick, Thalberg and Zanuck found themselves being marginalized as the decade wore on. Thalberg succumbed to pneumonia in 1936, while Zanuck quit Warners to head the new 20th Century Fox conglomerate and Selznick bailed out altogether to form his own independent studio. But the studios themselves would not be immune for long. The common myth is that the breakup of their hold on talent began in the fifties with the introduction of television, but the reality is that it began much sooner than that. The war years saw increasing power shift to the stars and directors, aided by court cases that limited the studio’s dominance and, even without television it seems, things would have proceeded apace.
It’s a fascinating look at the history of American films precisely because of its de-emphasis on stars and studio heads. What emerges is a look at an industry that really flourished because of the artistic talents of producers and the assembling of production units that worked semi-independently to produce quality films at whatever studio they operated. Further, the development of production evolved to a point where independent producers like Selznick and Walter Wanger could make deals with different studios or work on their own and merely distribute through studios or independents like United Artists. Whatever your knowledge of film history is, The Genius of the System adds a new dimension to that history that can’t help but put it in a new light. Schatz has an casual and engaging that is never the less convincing for the massive research he put into it. It’s a great history and is highly recommended.