The Genius of the System
by Thomas Schatz
1996, originally published 1989 • 493 pages • Henry Holt and Company
Despite living a stone’s throw away from Atlanta (assuming that you can throw a stone with enough force to make it fly through the air for an hour) as a kiddo, my family never really cranked up the old Turner Classic Movies—or any classic Hollywood movies, really. My mother’s cinematic tastes run towards British film, my father’s cinematic tastes run towards near-future sci-fi, and all their nostalgic childhood movies are French. Which sometimes makes me wonder why I’m so fascinated with Anne Helen Petersen’s pieces on Old Hollywood when I have no context or nostalgia for them. (I’m not a Only Lovers Left Alive-esque immortal pop culture junkie, although I pretend to be sometimes.)
But I think that total unfamiliarity might actually be why it fascinates me. To me, Classic Hollywood feels like a monolith that has always been there. A lot of the world feels like that, sometimes, because I rarely interact with it, don’t have context for it, or whatever. But, as Captain Cinema often reminds me, everything was weird once. The studio system that once dominated all of American cinema no longer exists, shattered into a thousand pieces by the Red Scare, the coming of television, and creative types chafing under the seemingly oppressive regime of the major studios—a designation Thomas Schatz bestows upon Universal, MGM, Warner Brothers, and David O. Selznick’s various independent companies in his portrait of the Hollywood studio system of the early twentieth century, The Genius of the System. This obviously excludes 21st Century Fox, among others, but Schatz points out in his introduction that he had to draw the line somewhere or get bogged down in minutiae when the bigger picture is his entire point.
While we live in a largely post-studio system world (although I could see some parallels drawn with the rise of films in connected universes and the ascendency of the Marvel House Style), there’s certainly some things to recommend a system like that. Steady paychecks, resources, and access to talented personnel across the board (even if that access sometimes came with hefty price tags and contract negotiations), as well as the services studios have always provided—distribution and marketing. Of course, it also comes with its downsides—such as the final say on a project resting in the hands of executives and the ease of exploitation of talent.
Schatz is more interested in the former than the latter. (In particular, he glosses over Hitchcock’s “fascination” with his leading ladies, which feels weird.) While his chapters on the main studios focus on the leading producers and executives at said studios, this particularly comes out in his chapters on Selznick. Selznick spends time at a lot of the major studios before setting out on his own, and watching him develop from young creative type yearning to break free to a man butting heads with Hitchcock over minute details is very telling of the industry as a whole. Schatz’s writing is dry and straight-forward, but livens up when he’s regaling the reader with the production of a Hollywood classic, like Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, or Meet Me In Saint Louis, or digging into the politics behind the scene. I did get lost plenty of times, though, and had to backtrack to make sure people were dead or who worked where.
And for a fairly dry, academic tome, I’m a bit surprised by how enamored of the word “bitch” Thomas Schatz is. While I try not to curse on the Internet (please imagine everyone I know in real life laughing so hard they cough a lung), I’ve been recently rethinking my own use of the word as of late and trying to be deliberate, positive, and generally reclaiming about its usage. There’s definitely a place for it, I think, but describing the majority of Bette Davis’ parts, actions, and motivations as “bitchy”… not so much. It’s hard to think of a writer as lady-unfocused when his subject material is almost inherently dude-focused, but there’s something unsettling about framing Desilu Productions as almost an entirely Desi Arnaz joint. It’s not overt, but it does remind me why I’m trying to focus more on non-straight white dude writing this year (and every year afterwards)—there’s an unpleasant taste in those unexamined waters, no matter how incredibly useful this book has been for my grasp of film history.
I rented this book from the public library.