Hollywood has gone through a lot of different eras, but perhaps none were more influential on society than the golden age. But when was the golden age of Hollywood? What made it golden? And why did it end? We’re going to answer those questions by looking at some examples from The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, and more – but first, let’s review where the era began.
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What Years Were the Golden Age of Hollywood?
When did the golden age begin?
When was the golden age of Hollywood? Many film historians cite D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as the first film of the golden age. The Birth of a Nation was no doubt a groundbreaking film, but it was also unabashedly racist, and largely responsible for the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
To learn more about The Birth of a Nation, let’s review this video below:
In many ways, The Birth of a Nation laid the table for the golden age of Hollywood. It showed what movies were capable of, both as technical creations, and stories that affect social consciousness.
After its release, Hollywood veered in a variety of new directions, many of which were far more liberal. The Silent Era (1915-1929) and the Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) both existed as minor periods within the golden age, and included some iconic films, like The Ten Commandments, City Lights, The Public Enemy, and Frankenstein.
But when we think of the golden age of Hollywood, we tend to think of the glitz and glamour that were popularized in the mid 1930s to the early 1960s. We’re going to cover that iconic era in further detail, but first, let’s do a golden age of Hollywood definition.
GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD DEFINITION
What is the Golden Age of Hollywood?
The golden age of Hollywood was a period in American filmmaking in which the five major studios, MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO, dominated the production of major motion pictures, controlling every aspect of a film's production, from casting to shooting to distribution. The golden age relied on “stars” such as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and Rita Hayworth, to carry its films to success at the box office. Although there’s some contention as to when the golden age began and ended, most critics agree that it “existed” in some capacity from the late 1910s into the early 1960s.
Characteristics of the Hollywood Golden Age:
- Star Power
- Studio System
- Emergent Filmmaking Devices
The Golden Age of Hollywood 1930s/1940s
The golden age begins
The 1930s produced some of the most iconic films in cinema history. Think The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for example. These movies seemed more magical than their predecessors for two groundbreaking reasons.
The first was the introduction of sound in cinema. The first film to coin the term “talkie” was The Jazz Singer, and it was released in 1927. But even though The Jazz Singer was considered a big success, it took a few years to get sound in film to work as intended.
The second development was Technicolor; a filmmaking process that allowed films to be shot in color. Not every film was shot in color though. Some of the best golden age movies were shot in black and white, like Casablanca, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Citizen Kane.
For more on Citizen Kane, check out the video below:
There’s a reason why many refer to Citizen Kane as “the greatest movie ever made,” – it truly changed the way films were made, from conception to execution. Orson Welles used revolutionary camera angles and mise-en-scene to expert effect.
Along with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Welles constructed a narrative of unrivaled scope and intimacy, through the use of flashbacks and complex themes. Ultimately, Citizen Kane encompassed the best of what made the golden age of Hollywood truly golden.
What is the Golden Age of Hollywood and Its Stars?
Stars of the golden age
Every one of “the Big 5” studios had their own “bankable” stars. These were actors who they could count on to drive a film to success at the box office. Some of the biggest stars of the golden age were men like Cary Grant, James Stewart, James Dean, Clark Gable, and Gregory Peck, and women like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor.
But if there’s one actor who didn’t quite conform to the conventional attractiveness of the golden age’s biggest stars, it was Humphrey Bogart. Despite his rugged look, Bogart proved to be a big-time box-office driver.
This next video explains how he climbed his way to the top of American cinema during the golden age.
One of Bogart’s greatest assets was his versatility. He starred in romances like Casablanca, hard-boiled detective films like The Maltese Falcon, and comedies like We’re No Angels. Many of the stars of the golden age were sought after for their good looks, or for being great “character actors,” but few had as much range as Bogart. The couple of actors who were especially versatile, like Sophia Loren and Paul Newman, were often typecasted.
But if one thing’s for certain, it’s that actors were never bigger in cinema than they were in the Hollywood golden age.
Why Did the Golden Age of Hollywood End?
The end of the golden age
The golden age of Hollywood ended for a myriad of reasons; chief among them were the growing popularity of television, the blacklisting of prominent screenwriters, the rising costs of film production, and the “Big 5” anti-trust legislation.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled against the “Big 5” by determining that Hollywood had become oligarchical. Every one of the “Big 5” studios were vertically integrated — in other words they controlled every facet of a film from pre-production to distribution.
This allowed them to monopolize the cinema industry, and some argued that it went against the idea of a free market. This next video explores some of these movements in further detail.
It took some time for the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling to be felt, but once they were, Hollywood was never the same. Independent theaters began to show movies made by studios other than the “Big 5,” including foreign films from the Italian Neorealist movement and the French New Wave.
By the 1960s, the golden age of Hollywood had met an unceremonious end. Many of the stars of the era were retired, and others were dead. It was clear that Hollywood needed some “new blood” to survive.
What is New Hollywood?
The end of the golden age brought about a New Hollywood. “New Hollywood” was a film movement that made studio films immensely popular again, but it was markedly different from the golden age. With New Hollywood, “blockbuster cinema” was born and filmmakers were given unprecedented control over studio productions. In this next article, we break down New Hollywood with examples from Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Spielberg.