Clark Gable on loan from MGM as punishment for refusing to toe the line for MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, Capra created It Happened One Night (1934), which swept the Academy Awards, made Gable a major star overnight, and put Columbia on the map. MGM was widely considered the Tiffany of all the studios, making all-star vehicles such as Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932) and George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933), featuring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, and other luminaries from their glittering roster of contract players. According to studio publicity, MGM had “more stars than there are in heaven.
” Their more modest films still retained a high production gloss, such as the long-running Andy Hardy series, chronicling the small-town life and misadventures of an idealized American family, with a young Mickey Rooney starring as the family’s irrepressible teenage son. Twentieth Century Fox came into its own with Henry King’s Lloyd’s of London (1936), starring Tyrone Power. Though Fox was always rather thin in star power, the studio created a vision of America as a great cultural melting pot, relying heavily on non-copyrighted songs of the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, RKO Radio Pictures’ King Kong (1933), directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and with special effects by Willis H. O’Brien and his assistant, Marcel Delgado, made a Willis H. O’Brien’s spectacular stop-motion special effects work was the real star of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoed-sack’s King Kong (1933).
Performers were typically under contract for seven years, during which a studio would use its considerable resources to build a career, guiding players through a series of minor roles in modest films, along with singing, dancing, and acting classes, grooming them for their big breakthrough. For some, Hollywood stardom never came. The seven-year contracts were entirely one-sided; the studio had a six-month option clause and could terminate an actor’s employment on the merest whim, or put someone on suspension for refusing to accept an inferior role, with the suspension period tacked onto the end of the seven-year term.
At the same time, a morals clause in each star’s contract, prohibiting wild parties, extramarital affairs, and the like, kept actors in line. In addition, directors, cameramen, composers, screenwriters, set designers, costumers, and other key personnel were under long-term contracts so that their services could easily be arranged for several pictures a year. The Hollywood studio system at its zenith was a true factory; in the 1930s and 1940s, a freelance director or star was a rarity. The studio’s identity was defined by the stars it had under contract, the kinds of films it made, and the visual look of its product, the result of an army of designers and technicians behind the scenes.