Using concepts of studio allegory and corporate identity, with a touch of business magazine writing, Jerome Christensen, Professor of Literature and Film at the University of California Irvine, argues that the key concept of the understanding the Hollywood film industry is the studio. Sadly, Corporate Art does not recognize that Hollywood corporations include the studio only as part of the portion of larger corporations. Contrary to theories of single person authorship, America’s Corporate Art argues that the studio has been the “author” of Hollywood motion pictures both during the classic era of the studio system and beyond when studios became subsidiaries of massive entertainment conglomerates. Jerome Christensen tries to walk tightrope between the corporate world of Hollywood and the literary authorship through contrasting only two of the Hollywood studios, Warner Bros. and MGM. This seems fair except that after the 1960s Warners prospered while MGM has done poorly.
The book concludes with an analysis of the Disney-Pixar merger and the first two Toy Story movies in light of the recent extension of the First Amendment rights of corporation. This makes the book read like a series of essays more than one coherent historical analysis. Finally, the book is mis-titled. Its first word in the title should be Hollywood – as a set of corporations, now owned as multinational companies. But Hollywood has always been the movie distributor around the world. Outside the United States, the Hollywood corporations have dominated markets that surround the USA. Hollywood has always dominated the rest of the Americas – North, Central and South.
Christensen relies on the corporation as the organization fed by the studio. But this ignores cinema distribution and presentation. In the TV era this includes many forms of new distribution and presentation; in the digital era films are not even projected by way of 35mm copies sent from Hollywood. Simply, Christensen wants to make his case for the corporation as the auteur – not the director or producer.
For Christensen, corporate art should not be confused with the term “house style.” Corporate art – for Christensen – is a tool of corporate strategy – that is, as one of a set of actions taken to maximize profits for the studio as a part of a media conglomerate. This profit maximization, implemented by top executives, also seeks to use social, cultural, or political interests – but always to create maximum profits. For Christensen – a literary trained scholar – individual movies are understood as corporate behavior and must be restored to the social, economic, and political environment in which they competed and generate popularity and thus revenues to maximize profits.
With the phrase corporate studio, Christensen includes just those Hollywood production sides of movie companies – and ignores world-wide distribution and national theatrical chains. So while he lavishes over MGM’s and Warner’s production, he ignores the New York City corporate headquarters and power in New York City (run by Nicholas Schenck and Harry Warner, respectively.) He ignores Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, RKO Radio Pictures Inc., Paramount Pictures Inc., Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists. He washes over different organizations that make pictures that have different objectives and meanings, not mere differences in style – a truth that cannot be deduced from a flow chart or a biography of an executive, or a table of revenues, or a theoretical model of the development of capitalism.
Despite “gentlemen’s agreements” among the majors, which were designed in 1922 with the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and later renamed the Motion Picture Association of America (1945-date) to cooperate among the studios for common collective purposes: to extract market shares from nations outside the USA, and to agree upon rule for the sale of movies across the USA (“Hays Code,” and later the Production Code ratings under Jack Valenti and successors). Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System, a producer-oriented study, one that makes a stronger case for studio executives as the “chief architects of a studio’s style,” has had the most influence on this book.
Most puzzling is that Christensen dismisses The Classical Hollywood Cinema, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kirsten Thompson. This study recognizes the Hollywood film industry during the classical era studios sharing a specific mode of production and that manufactured standardized industrial commodities-that is, motion pictures-which conformed to “integral and limited stylistic conventions” that emerged from and fed on Hollywood production practices. That is Hollywood has always shared a small number of owners, and a single, continuous style. The basis of the Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson book is a random sample of movies and seeks to document collective traits. In contrast, Christensen offers up seven chapters – cherry picked – that make up this book read like a series of essays. He starts with “The Rackets: Entertainment Inc. and the Warners Gang (1928-1939); 2 MGM and the Invention of the Postwar Era: Mrs. Miniver and Battleground (1940-1949); 3 “Til the Stars Go Cold”: Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Executive Suite (1952-1954); 4 Ownership and Authorship: Warners’ Fountainhead and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1949-1958); 5 Saving Warner Bros.: Bonnie and Clyde (1964-1968); 6 Post-Warners Warners: Batman and JFK; You’ve Got Mail (1989-1998); & 7. The Conscience of a Corporation: Toys United the Disney-Pixar Merger, and the Assertion of “Cultural” Authorship (1995-2010).
For example, Chapter 2 explores the implications to MGM after Irving Thalberg’s death to evaluate Louis B. Mayer’s record as the studio head. The chapter engages Mrs. Miniver as MGM’s chief statement of the importance of breeding for the creation of stars and for asserting the authority of the studio in the postwar era. The second section examines the chief cinematic exponent of change at postwar MGM, Battleground, the pet project of the studio’s new vice-president of production, Dore Schary. But through both periods Christensen underplays the role of Nicholas Schenck who ran Loew’s – MGM’s parent company – and replaced Mayer with Schary.
In sum, America’s Corporate Art neither understands an industry where the studio is based in the United States, not any of the other Americas, misreads a corporation where CEOs and owners of the corporation have the final say on the corporate products, not studio heads, and has been sold as entertainment – not art.
Jerome Christensen, America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.