The Big Knife: Synopsis
In the golden age of Hollywood cinema, actors may have all the glory, but studio execs have all the power. The Hoff-Federated studio has had its most successful star, Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) , over a barrel ever since it helped cover up a mistake that could have ended his career. When a woman with insider knowledge threatens to come forward, the studio heads will stop at nothing to protect Charlie’s secret... but how far is he willing to go before he quits the movie business for good?
The Big Five: The Power of the Movie Studios
Charlie Castle’s conflict with Hoff Studios reflects the reality of actors, directors, and writers—like Clifford Odets himself—working for the movie studios during the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” Until 1948, five major studios (MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and RKO studios) along with three smaller studios (Universal, Columbia, and United Artists) controlled every aspect of the film industry, from production to distribution-a structure of “vertical integration.”
With the advent of sound and “talkies” in 1927, movie stars became valuable commodities but had little control over their careers. Actors were contracted to the studios, usually for seven years at a time, and contracts were subject to renewal at the studio’s option. Studio executives determined whether actors would become stars or merely supporting players, which roles actors would play, and what publicity they would receive. Under contract, actors were forbidden to work for any other producer; if they did not cooperate, they could be suspended without pay. Furthermore, studios oversaw their stars’ personal lives. Pregnant actresses were sent out of the country and gay actors were setup with fiancés and public marriages.
Similarly, film directors were hired, and fired, by the studio producers, who oversaw how films were shot and edited. Screenwriters in Hollywood had even less status and no authorial control over their own scripts.
The studios controlled where, when, and how movies could be shown. Each of the Big Five had their own movie theaters that took in more than half of the studios’ revenues. Through a policy of “block booking,” the studios required independent theatres to rent a block of 10 movies; theatres were required to show all the films rented in a “block.” Although the studio system created many excellent films, block booking also allowed studios to produce cheap, low quality “B-movies” and force them into the theatres.
The studios’ power was challenged in 1948 with an important legal decision in the Paramount Case. The Supreme Court declared vertical integration and block booking to be a violation of antitrust law; studios would have to sell each film individually and divest their ownership of movie theatres. This gave independent producers an ability to compete with the majors. As a result, the studios found it less profitable to keep actors on long-term contracts, and in the early ‘50s, movie stars gained more control over their careers. The financial structures of Hollywood have continued to change, and the studios are still important—but today the stars and accomplished directors wield far more influence in Hollywood than anyone half a century ago could have imagined.
To meet 20th Century Fox executive Darryl Zanuck and a tour of how the studio operated in 1935, watch this video:
Read more about the end of the studio system in Life Magazine.
The Big Knife plays at the American Airlines Theatre March 22 through June 2, 2013. For more information and tickets please visit our website.
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