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A Brief History of Hollywood, Part III
In which the Twenties roar.
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PART THREE - The Studio System: 1920-1929

1921 - As the movie industry accelerates and movie stars gain public influence, their often sordid personal lives inspire concern from morality watchdogs. In 1921, comedian Fatty Arbuckle is charged with manslaughter following the death of actress Virginia Rappe during a raucous San Francisco party. One year later, Paramount director William Desmond Taylor is found shot to death in his home, amid rumors of a love triangle involving stars Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand. These scandals earn Hollywood a sinful reputation, inspiring the movie moguls to keep their business clean, lest their booming industry catch the attention of the government.

1922 - To regulate content and avoid government interference, the movie industry founds its first censorship board. Politician Will Hays is elected president of the newly-formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Hays writes a list of do’s and don’ts for movie production to follow, though the mandate has little effect: moviemakers can still display all the sex and debauchery they want, provided they end the film on a wholesome note.

Carl Laemmle hires 21-year-old Irving Thalberg as General Manager of Universal, at that point known only for low-budget formula movies. Nicknamed “the Boy Wonder”, Thalberg oversees the nearly forty productions underway at Universal, including 1923's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, starring Lon Chaney. Already a well-known character actor, pantomime-trained Chaney stars in over 150 films between 1915 and his death in 1930. Chaney makes a name for himself through his portrayals of grotesque, tortured characters, such as 1925's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and helps establish Universal as the undisputed master of early horror movies.

The movie industry consolidates and strengthens throughout the 1920s as moguls focus on acquiring theaters, building studios, and expanding their power. Fox, Paramount, and Loew build their empires by managing the biggest theater chains in the country. In 1922, small-time producer Louis B. Mayer lures Irving Thalberg away from Universal to his own company. Bought out by his colleagues, fiercely independent producer Sam Goldwyn forms his own production company, Goldwyn Pictures. In 1924, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions are purchased by Marcus Loew, who merges the studios with his own Metro Picture Corporation. The result: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Productions, later shortened to MGM. In 1925, MGM surpasses Universal as the largest studio in Hollywood, a title it would hold for thirty years.

As Charlie Chaplin moves behind the camera, two new comedians arrive to fill the void: former bit players Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd. Roach invests an inheritance in his own studio and hires Lloyd as his first star. 1923's SAFETY LAST cements Lloyd's status as a silent comedy icon. By 1926, Lloyd is earning $1.5 million per year and breaking new ground with the first romantic comedies, turning the slapstick comedic heroes of traditional movies into relatable everymen. At the same time, former vaudevillian Buster Keaton arrives in Hollywood and independently releases his first comedy, ONE WEEK, which quickly raises Keaton to the ranks of Chaplin and Lloyd.

1927 - The audience’s appetite for stars grows as the industry merges with big business and financiers, including Joseph P. Kennedy. The Roaring Twenties change Hollywood’s tune with regards to its actresses. The innocence embodied by Mary Pickford gives way the energetic revolt of flappers like Clara Bow, the “It” girl. Bow’s portrayal of a liberated, promiscuous woman earns both admiration and condemnation.

1927 – Filmmakers and stars form the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, both an eager ploy to promote the industry, and an attempt to keep the unions away by giving the film business a self-contained way to mediate labor disputes. The Academy holds their first awards ceremony two years later. The silent war epic WINGS is named Best Picture, but it will be the last silent film to win the award until 2011’s THE ARTIST. The advent of sound will change the movie industry forever.

Part Four coming soon...


Alex Eylar
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Dr. Monster
  September 28, 2013
Wonderful! Thanks for another great episode.
  September 28, 2013
I am enjoying this beyond measure on many counts: I was a theatrical costume design major and I am a retired teacher and love history, bios and true stories. Your research is incredible! keep up the good work! You may win a LEGO Oscar for best documentary!
By Alex Eylar
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LEGO models my own creation MOCpages toys shop A Brief History of Hollywood, Part III

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