Genre



THE CLASSIC STUDIO SYSTEM

For decades Hollywood produced appealing fantasies in an industrial context. Regularized film exhibition developed as a result of the popularity and rapid growth of nickelodeons, the first venues devoted exclusively to cinema exhibition. The steady demand for new films made year-round production schedules necessary and provided the impetus for the development of a factory-based (Fordist) mode of production. In the studio era, all members of cast and crew were workers under contract to the studio, and the different kinds of work—editing, music, script, and so on—were divided into departments.

Within this industrial context, genre movies are dependable products, assembly line products with interchangeable parts. The James Bond series has continued because of the formula—lots of action, fancy gadgets, beautiful women, and colorful villains—despite the changes in directors, writers, and even the actors playing Bond himself. Individual genre films may lift elements from one genre and put them into another, as The Band Wagon (1953) incorporates film noir and the detective film into the climactic ballet, "The Girl Hunt." Hybrid genre movies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966) mix elements from seemingly disparate genres. More recently, movies like Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and Alien vs. Predator (2004), both of which are simultaneously hybrids and sequels, show the same process at work despite the end of the studio era. But hybridity has always been characteristic of genre films. Stagecoach (1939), one of the most famous and important westerns ever made, was described as a " Grand Hotel on wheels" on its release, and it also contains elements of the road movie and disaster film as well. Movies such as The Thing (1951), Alien (1979), and the movie on which it was in part based, It, The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), all combine elements of science fiction and horror, visually turning spaceships and laboratories into the equivalent of haunted houses.

Genre filmmaking thus developed quickly, with producers seeking maximum acceptance at the box office through the repetition and variation of commercially successful formulas. The formulaic qualities of genre films meant that studios could turn them out quickly, and audiences could understand them just as quickly. Genre movies allow for an economy of expression through conventions and iconography. This system of signification, developed over time and with repetition, served well the fast pace of classic narration in films intended to be shown as part of a double feature.

In the studio era, directors were employees, like the other members of a film's cast and crew. Even those few directors who wielded some degree of clout in Hollywood, like Frank Capra (1897–1991) and Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), had to work within the parameters of the producing studio's dominant style or genre. Directors, like actors and electricians, rarely had the right to final cut. Yet while some directors floundered against the pressures of the studio system, many in fact flourished, using the rules of genre as convenience rather than constraint, as guidelines from which to deviate or deepen rather than as blueprints to follow. By providing the received framework of genre, Hollywood gave film-makers a flexible tradition within which to work. Some directors developed their vision within particular genres, such as Sam Fuller (1912–1997) with the war film, John Ford (1894–1973) with the western, and Douglas Sirk (1897–1987) with the melodrama. The auteur approach provided a way of looking at directors' style foregrounded against the background of genre.

Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981), an action film with elements of the western and science-fiction film genres.

Despite its constraints, the studio system provided a stable context for filmmakers to work with consistency and to be expressive. As Robin Wood notes in Howard Hawks (1968), Hollywood is one of the few historical instances of a true communal art, "a great creative workshop, comparable to Elizabethan London or the Vienna of Mozart, where hundreds of talents have come together to evolve a common language" (p. 9). The justly famous opening scene of Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) tells us almost everything we need to know about the heroes played by John Wayne and Dean Martin (1917–1995) well before the first word of dialogue is spoken. Director Hawks (1896–1977) uses the conventions of the western to express his sense of professionalism, heroism, and self-respect, which would not have been possible without the established conventions of the genre as his raw material.



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