The Classical Hollywood CinemaFilm Style and Mode of Production to 1960
David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson
Hollywood as the dream factory: 'How can you tell if people would want drugs so much today, if we still gave them this dream-world on film?' (Ruth Waterbury). Hollywood as an arm of the culture industry: 'The tone adopted by every film is that of the witch handing food to the child she wants to enchant or devour, while mumbling horribly: “Lovely, lovely soup. How you're going to enjoy it!”' (T.W. Adorno). Hollywood as celluloid imperialism: 'Hollywood may be physically situated in this country, but it is an international enterprise.' (Will H. Hays). Hollywood as escape: 'All the adventure, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in-Pictures.' (Advertisement for a film). Hollywood as nostalgia: 'Take a good look, because we'll never see its like again.' (That's Entertainment!). Hollywood as imaginary landscape: 'Hollywood is a place you can't geographically define. We don't really know where it is.' (John Ford). 1
The number of books promulgating all these versions of Hollywood (and more) would fill the library of a small town in America. Hollywood has been celebrated by cultists and camp followers, castigated by reformers and social theorists, and boosted by an army of publicists. Anthropologists have treated it as a tribal village, economists as a company town. The films of Hollywood have been lumped together as indistinguishable vulgarity, and they have been splintered into a hundred categories: the films of Garbo, of Goldwyn, of Griffith; the Paramount pretties, automobiles in the cinema, the gangster film, the serial, music for the movies; direction by Alfred Hitchcock, costumes by Edith Head, cinematography by Gregg Toland, sets by Van Nest Polglase; silent films, sound films, color films, films noirs.
Yet another treatment of the subject requires some justification. This book is an examination of Hollywood cinema as a distinct artistic and economic phenomenon. We will look at American studio filmmaking much as an art historian would trace the stylistic traits and business transactions of Parisian academic painting in the nineteenth century, or as a historian of music would examine the aesthetic and economic forces involved in the development of Viennese classicism. We take Hollywood seriously, treating it as a distinct mode of film practice with its own cinematic style and industrial conditions of existence.
A mode of film practice is not reducible to an oeuvre (the films of Frank Capra), a genre (the Western), or an economic category (RKO films). It is an altogether different category, cutting across careers, genres, and studios. It is, most simply, a context. And we cannot arrive at this context simply by adding up all the histories of directors, genres, studios, producers, etc.; this would be, as George Kubler suggests, like trying to determine a country's network of railroads by studying the itinerary of every traveler. 2 Just as the railroad system is of another logical order than your or my trip on it, so the Hollywood mode of film practice constitutes an integral system, including persons and groups but also rules, films, machinery, documents, institutions, work processes, and theoretical concepts. It is this totality that we shall study. And while we could justify this book as filling in the background for this or that individual's achievement, our aims go further. We hope to show that understanding this mode of film practice is indispensible to a full grasp of the art and industry of cinema as it has existed in history.
Recent academic film criticism has focused more and more exclusively upon the text. Sophisticated methodologies drawn from anthropology, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism have dramatically broadened our sense of how a film works. But too often shaped textual processes. 3 On the other hand, the new generation of film historians, while an exciting development, has generally avoiding confronting the films themselves. 4 Detailed accounts of Hollywood financing, labor, distribution, exhibition, and technology have not usually sought to link economic factors to stylistic ones. In this book, we show how the concept of a mode of film practice can historicize textual analysis and connect the history of film style to the history of the motion picture industry.
The concept of a mode of film practice situates textual processes in their most pertinent and proximate collective context. This context includes both a historically defined group of films and the material practices that create and sustain that group. Raymond Williams has posed the problem: 5
We have to break from the common procedure of isolating an object and then discovering its components. On the contrary we have to discover the nature of a practice and then its conditions…. The recognition of the relation of a collective mode and an individual product-and these are the only categories we can initially presume-is a recognition of related practices. That is to say, the irreducibly individual projects that particular works are, may come in experience and analysis to show resemblances which allow us to group them into collective modes. These are by no means always genres. They may exist as resemblances within and across genres. They may be the practice of a group in a period, rather than the practice of a phase in a genre. But as we discover the nature of a particular practice, and the nature of the relation between an individual product and a collective mode, we find that we are analyzing, as two forms of the same process, both its active composition and its conditions of composition, and in either direction this is a complex of extending active relationships.
For the Hollywood cinema, the practices of film production constitute a major component of that process of which Williams speaks. Film production must be understood not simply as a background to individual achievement but as a crucial 'condition of composition' of resemblances among texts. The ways that films are conceived, planned, and produced leave their marks upon the films-not only directly, in telltale details, but structurally as well. 6 At the same time, stylistic aims have shaped the development of the mode of production. The relations between film style and mode of production are, we argue, reciprocal and mutually influencing.
A mode of film practice, then, consists of a set of widely held stylistic norms sustained by and sustaining an integral mode of film production. Those norms constitute a determinate set of assumptions about how a movie should behave, about what stories it properly tells and how it should tell them, about the range and functions of film technique, and about the activities of the spectator. These formal and stylistic norms will be created, shaped, and supported within a mode of film production-a characteristic ensemble of economic aims, a specific division of labor, and particular ways of conceiving and executing the work of filmmaking. Through time, both the norms and the mode of production will change, as will the technology they employ, but certain fundamental aspects will remain constant. Thus to see Hollywood filmmaking from 1917-60 as a unified mode of film practice is to argue for a coherent system whereby aesthetic norms and the mode of film production reinforced one another. This argument is the basis of this book.
If we have taken the realms of style and production as primary, it is not because we consider the concrete conditions of reception unimportant. Certainly conditions of consumption form a part of any mode of film practice. An adequate history of the reception of the classical Hollywood film would have to examine the changing theater situation, the history of publicity, and the role of social class, aesthetic tradition, and ideology in constituting the audience. This history, as yet unwritten, would require another book, probably one as long as this. While we have not treated reception fully, the present book does introduce certain issues-e.g., the activities which the Hollywood film solicits from the spectator, or the importance of early advertising in establishing classical canons-which we believe to be necessary to any future study of how the classical film has been consumed under specific circumstances.
As a historical account, our argument makes use of a great deal of empirical data about filmmaking, including much information not previously brought to light. But we should stress that the concept of a mode of film practice is not one that can be retrieved by 'simply looking' at films, documents, and machines. For rhetorical purposes, our argument is cast chronologically, but the idea of a 'classical Hollywood cinema' is ultimately a theoretical construct, and as such it must be judged by criteria of logical rigor and instrumental value. This book thus stands out not only as a history of the Hollywood cinema but also as an attempt to articulate a theoretical approach to film history.
There are many ways to organize a study such as this one. It would be possible to trace the history of the Hollywood cinema three times-once recounting changes in the mode of production, then treating changes in film style, then tracing technological developments. This we rejected, since the length of the three sections would be likely to break apart the parallels and causal connections we wished to bring out among the three realms. And placing one realm, such as the mode of production, first might imply that it had a monolithic determining status. But another alternative, that of simply limning a chronological account of American cinema and raising each argument seriatim, was clearly too atomistic. It would not allow us to treat broad institutional and stylistic patterns in a systematic way. We finally settled upon a format which permits us to delineate theoretically distinct realms while still weaving our arguments into a fundamentally chronological pattern. Our seven-part structure is a compromise between the need to analyze several 'levels' of historical change (style, economics, technology) and the need to cut 'vertically' across those levels at moments in which significant changes occurred. In this way, we balance localized accounts and generalized explanation. The book should then be seen as outlining the fundamental principles of historical stability and change at work in the Hollywood cinema and as displaying those principles in detail in particular instances.
The result can be sketched out in broad strokes. Part One establishes the stylistic norms fundamental to Hollywood filmmaking from 1917 to 1960. It is here that the concepts of norm, function, and style are defined and the ordinary Hollywood film is analyzed.
In Parts Two, Three, and Four, we consider three aspects of pre-1930 Hollywood filmmaking: the economic, the stylistic, and the technological. Part Two examines the economic aims and principles of the Hollywood mode of production and traces how that mode created a series of hierarchical, divided work systems. Part Three shows that while the Hollywood mode of production found its definitive form, the stylistic norms were also becoming consolidated. Part Four shows how the norms and the mode of production impell and respond to technological change.
Parts Five and Six deal with developments in the classical Hollywood cinema in the sound era. Part Five examines the effects of organized labor and large-scale financing upon the mode of production and traces further changes in production processes during the period. Part Six relates developments in technology to changes in film style during the same years.
Part Seven suggests the historical influences and the current state of this mode of film practice and concludes with some consideration of alternative modes.
This book has had its own stylistic norms and its own mode of production. Although parts and chapters are the work of single authors, we have conceived and executed the book as a unified argument, sharing common assumptions and terminology. We have not, however, striven for complete homogeneity. Differences of emphasis, value, argument, and style thus remain to remind the reader that the forms of the medium and the division of labor leave their marks, for better or worse, upon any cultural artifact.