American Studies Seniors Examine the Big-Studio Era of Hollywood and the Uncertain Future of the Film Industry in Southern California.
Hollywood. This uniquely American word evokes everything from swimming pools and movie stars to tawdry supermarket tabloids and the obligatory happy endings of popcorn cinema. At once a place, an industry, and an idea, Hollywood has played an outsized role in shaping modern American culture and international perceptions of American life.
Yet the prevalent cultural image of Hollywood masks certain realities. At the height of the Hollywood film industry in the 1930s and 1940s, 65 percent of Americans went to the movies at least once a week. With the advent of television, video, and digital media, that number steadily declined to fewer than 10 percent by the end of the 20th century. American feature films are increasingly produced and filmed outside of California. The heavyweight Hollywood studios—Fox, Universal, Warner Bros., and Paramount Pictures—still underwrite big features, but what’s considered the “Golden Age” of Hollywood faded into nostalgia with the passing of the old studio era, when motion pictures were generated en masse upon vast studio back lots by a team of writers, directors, and heavily publicized stars, all laboring under long-term studio contracts.
With generous assistance from the American studies program and the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, senior American studies students in English professor Edward S. Cutler’s capstone seminar turned a critical eye upon Golden Age Hollywood and its afterlife. Drawing upon perspectives from philosophy, anthropology, film studies, social history, and archival science, students conducted original research into such classic films as The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and Sunset Boulevard. The seminar culminated in a field-study trip to Hollywood, where students visited Fox and Universal Studios, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, TCL Chinese Theatre, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“The site visit enabled us to put our theoretical understanding from the classroom into a more immediate material context,” explains Cutler. “We discovered how nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood wrestles with the economic realities of today, and how movie sets, props, and other traces of old Hollywood have themselves acquired an unusual aura, and function for visitors much like relics of a secular pilgrimage.” As student Sarah E. Martin observes, “Tourists, many of whom were foreign, seemed to come in awe, if not in an attitude of worship. Vestiges of celebrities, such as the handprints at the Chinese Theatre and the stars along the sidewalk, were crowded and photographed incessantly.”
Despite the academic purpose of the visit, students couldn’t help but find themselves susceptible to the Hollywood aura. “At Fox Studios, one of the archivists pulled out one of the Wilsons used in the film Cast Away,” recalls student A. Alexis Oldham. “There was a chill among all of us, because here before us was a ‘real’ Wilson actually used in the film. However, even though this volleyball is a famous prop recognized around the world, it remains simply a volleyball.” Film scholar and English professor Dennis R. Cutchins, who accompanied the field study, pointed out that for years studios failed to realize the social “value” associated with such props, which many studios had simply discarded or sold off after production: “Universal was the first studio to recognize that people will pay to see this stuff. Today, the studios use props proactively, not only to attract visitors but to market their film catalogue and current productions.”
Despite the global reach and cultural influence of its productions, Hollywood has always been foremost an industry, and recognizing that was the takeaway lesson for most students. Student Thomas C. Corless recalls: “While showing us many incredible artifacts in the Fox archives, archivist and BYU alum Jeffrey P. Thompson told us, ‘The studios care if money is involved.’ This represents one of the inescapable themes of our trip to Hollywood: money. That is what drove the industry to Hollywood in the first place. Money also led the studios to change from their all-powerful position in the Golden Age to their less-powerful position in the digital subcontractor age. Even now, storage of old posters, pictures, and props is an underfunded operation mostly closed to the public. Storage and preservation is still mostly motivated not by history, but by money.”
Hollywood’s diminishing stature in film production underscores these economic challenges. BYU alum D. Leron Gubler, current president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, explained that in 2013 more feature films were actually produced in Louisiana than California. Tax incentives from competing states continue to erode the once-dominant industry position of Hollywood. Student Jane E. Rollins recounts, “I appreciated how President Gubler openly discussed Hollywood’s financial situation with us. It’s interesting how much tourism, not actual production, is the foundation of Hollywood’s economy today. ‘They wanted to see stars, so we gave them stars,’ the president said about the Walk of Fame.”
“I enjoyed learning along with the students,” says Cutler. “The seminar was a departure from the kind of course where a teacher dispenses information and students take notes. I set the direction and consulted with students on their individual projects, but BYU alumni like archivist Jeff Thompson at Fox Studios and Leron Gubler at the Chamber of Commerce, who were so very generous in taking time to provide us unique access and insights, were as much the teachers as I was. I’m equally grateful for James V. D’Arc in BYU’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections, who has built a world-class Hollywood film archive at BYU, and for Professor Cutchins, both of whom volunteered considerable time to make the seminar successful.”
While the allure and future of Hollywood may be uncertain, students learned to recognize and better analyze the intersecting historical, technological, and economic forces at work in the rise and decline of America’s most recognized cultural product. Such interdisciplinary perspective is the draw for many American studies majors. Student Sarah A. Flinders explains: “With history, sociology, anthropology, and other subjects included [in American studies], I didn’t feel as specialized as I did when I considered other majors. I had the independence I needed to find things I liked to do and learn. I was able to personalize my undergraduate experience without feeling like I sacrificed any learning opportunities or pigeonholed myself into one discipline.”