Paramount Pictures was created in 1916 through the merger of two prominent film production companies, the Famous Players Film Company and the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, and a nationwide film distributor, Paramount. Famous Players was created in 1912 by Adolph Zukor, a Hungarian immigrant who started in the penny arcade and nickelodeon business in New York in the early 1900s. Based in New York City, Famous Players enjoyed early success producing and distributing multi-reel ("feature-length") films and developing a star-driven market strategy, and soon the fledgling company was competing with the likes of Fox and Universal. Meanwhile, three young filmmaking entrepreneurs, Jesse Lasky (1880–1958), Samuel Goldfish (1882–1974) (later Goldwyn), and Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959), launched a production company in Hollywood in 1913 and scored a major hit in 1914 with their first feature production, The Squaw Man . That same year, as the movies were rapidly becoming a major entertainment enterprise, W. W. Hodkinson (1881–1971) formed a nationwide distribution company, Paramount Pictures, to release the films produced by Famous Players, Lasky, and others.
Born in Vienna, raised and educated in both Austria and the United States, Josef von Sternberg was one of several contract directors who brought a distinctly European inflection to Paramount's house style. In Sternberg's case the accent was notably Germanic. He fashioned a unique Hollywood expressionism, with its play of light and shadow, sensuous images and exotic production design, sexual symbology and frank eroticism. Sternberg's best films—all made for Paramount between 1930 and 1935—often were set in foreign locales and were populated by cynical, dissolute outcasts; they generally were weak on plot but remarkably strong on style and characterization. And they all starred Marlene Dietrich, whose rapid rise in Hollywood coincided with Sternberg's, and whose screen persona was perhaps the most essential component of his inimitable style.
Sternberg learned filmmaking in various departments during the silent era, and added the "von" to his name once he started directing. He signed with Paramount in 1926 and scored an early hit with Underworld (1927), a seminal Hollywood gangster saga scripted by Sternberg's frequent collaborator Jules Furthman. In 1929 a career-defining (and life-altering) assignment took Sternberg to Germany to direct a Paramount-Ufa coproduction, Der Blaue Engel ( The Blue Angel , 1930), Ufa's first sound film. The film was tailored for German star Emil Jannings, but he was utterly eclipsed by Dietrich, whom Sternberg discovered singing in a cabaret and cast as the wanton temptress, Lola Lola.
The film was a sensation in Europe, and by the time it was released in the United States, Dietrich had been signed by Paramount and had finished her first Hollywood picture, Morocco (1930). Thus began a stunning five-year, six-picture run of Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations that included Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Each was a technical tour-deforce and a bold, sensual love story, although the crucial romance involved Sternberg's camera (which he often operated himself) and Dietrich's extraordinary screen presence. Sternberg enjoyed complete authority over these films, assembling a production unit at Paramount whose key figures were Furthman, costume designer Travis Banton, art director Hans Dreier, and cinematographers Lee Garmes and Lucien Ballard. Sternberg's only non-Dietrich film during this stretch was the 1931 adaptation of Drieser's An American Tragedy , which he wrote, produced, and directed.
The Deitrich films marked both the sustained peak but also the culmination of Sternberg's career. He left Paramount in 1935, never to return—and never to work again with Dietrich or recapture the success they had enjoyed at Paramount. His subsequent films seemed empty and self-indulgent without Dietrich, and his headstrong arrogance made it increasingly difficult to find work.
Der Blaue Engel ( The Blue Angel , 1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
Baxter, John. The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg . New York: A. S. Barnes; London: Zwemmer, 1971.
——. Just Watch! Sternberg, Paramount, and America . London: British Film Institute, 1993.
Prawer, S. S. The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) . London: British Film Institute, 2002.
Sternberg, Josef von. Fun in a Chinese Laundry . San Francisco: Mercury House, 1965.
Studlar, Gaylyn. In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic . New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
Zukor quickly recognized the advantages of an integrated production-distribution setup, and he moved with the kind of savvy, ruthless aggression that made him the prototypical Hollywood "mogul." By 1915 Zukor already had begun integrating the star system with the practice of "block booking," using the films of Mary
Pickford (1892–1979) and other top stars to leverage the sale of an entire production slate, and he began to see the logic of a bicoastal production operation wed to a nation-wide distribution machine. In 1916 Zukor engineered the merger of Famous Players-Lasky and Paramount, and within a few months he forced Goldfish and Hodkinson out, assuming complete control as president of the sprawling enterprise (with Lasky as vice president in charge of production and DeMille as "director general," the studio's top contract filmmaker).
Paramount's subsequent success was truly staggering. Zukor signed top stars like Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), William S. Hart (1864–1946), and Fatty Arbuckle (1887–1933), and brought other production companies into the Paramount fold as well, increasing the company's output to over a hundred feature films per annum. Although scarcely a centralized studio, given its far-flung production operations, and not yet a vertically integrated company, Paramount was eminently successful as a producer-distributor—so successful, in fact, that other companies like Fox and First National developed their own vertically integrated production-distribution-exhibition setups simply to compete. These counter-moves induced Zukor to move more forcefully into film exhibition, an effort that began in earnest in 1919 and culminated in the 1925 acquisition of the nation's top exhibitor, the Chicago-based Balaban and Katz theater chain, giving Paramount 1,200 theaters. The success of its massive operation enabled Paramount to acquire an enviable stable of stars—notably Gloria Swanson (1897–1983), Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), Clara Bow (1905–1965), Mae Murray (1889–1965), Pola Negri (1894–1987), and John Barrymore (1882–1942)—and to maintain its dominance through the height of the silent era, when the studio produced scores of top hits, ranging from Valentino vehicles like The Sheik (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922) to western epics like The Covered Wagon (1923) and DeMille spectacles The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927).
After the Balaban and Katz merger, Zukor and Lasky developed a more coherent production operation based primarily on the West Coast. In 1926 Paramount moved into a larger and better equipped Hollywood facility that became its production headquarters, with B. P. Schulberg (1892–1957) installed as head of production (under Lasky). This setup proved eminently successful, enabling Paramount to begin functioning as a centralized studio and to cultivate a more coherent, recognizable house style. While centralized production and capable studio management were crucial, the emergence of Paramount's house style in the late 1920s and early 1930s was the company's extraordinary talent pool—a pool that deepened considerably during the Lasky-Schulberg regime, as two distinct waves of new contract talent signed on in the late 1920s. The first came as the new studio regime coalesced, and included directors Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969), Rouben Mamoulian (1897–1987), and Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) (all signed in 1927), and top stars like Harold Lloyd (1893–1971), Gary Cooper (1901–1961), Claudette Colbert (1903–1996), Frederic March (1897–1975), and Maurice Chevalier (1888–1972). The second wave came with Paramount's rapid conversion to sound, when the studio recruited talent from vaudeville, radio, and the stage—notably W. C. Fields (1880–1946), the Marx Brothers (Chico [1887–1961], Harpo [1888–1964], Groucho [1890–1977], and Zeppo [1901–1979]), Bing Crosby (1903–1977), George Burns (1896–1996) and Gracie Allen (1895–1964), and the inimitable Mae West (1893–1980).
Paramount rode the talkie boom to unprecedented heights, reaping industry-record profits of $18.4 million in 1930 (and out-earning all of the other majors), only to suffer financial collapse a year later under the weight of oversized budgets, the costly conversion to sound, and the massive debt service associated with its huge theater chain. After net losses of $21 million in 1932—another industry record—Paramount declared bankruptcy in
early 1933. The financial turmoil led to a massive executive shake-up in which Zukor was stripped of power (but retained as board chairman), while Lasky, Schulberg, and other top executives including Schulberg's second-in-command, David Selznick, either left or were fired. Theater czar Sam Katz was installed as chief executive by the Chicago and New York financiers who guided the studio out of bankruptcy, and he was succeeded in 1936 by his former partner Barney Balaban (1887–1971), who would successfully guide the company for some three decades. The Balaban regime returned the studio to stability, although Paramount had managed to remain productive and relatively successful during its three-year recovery from financial collapse.
The Paramount house style that took shape in the late 1920s and early sound era continued to develop more or less unabated throughout the 1930s, despite the studio's financial and administrative tumult, which involved a succession of production bosses, including Lubitsch for a brief period in the mid-1930s. Like the other majors, Paramount's house style was geared to a range of stargenre formulas; but the studio was unique in that these generally were handled not by unit producers but by specific directors who were granted considerable creative autonomy and control—as with von Sternberg's highly stylized Dietrich melodramas ( Morocco , 1930; Shanghai Express , 1932; Blonde Venus , 1932; The Scarlet Empress , 1934; The Devil Is a Woman , 1935), for instance, and Lubitsch's distinctive musical operettas with Jeanette MacDonald ( The Love Parade , 1929; Monte Carlo , 1930; One Hour With You , 1932; The Merry Widow , 1934). While the key elements in these star-genre units were director and star, other filmmakers were crucial as well: writer Jules Furthman (1888–1966) and cinematographer Lee Garmes (1898–1978) on the Dietrich films, for example, and the production design by Hans Dreier (1885–1966) on all of the films directed by both Lubitsch and von Sternberg during this period.
Another important element of the studio's emergent house style was its markedly "European" dimension, which was a function of Paramount's market strategy and talent resources. Zukor had expanded international operations throughout the 1920s, setting up a worldwide distribution system and investing in production and distribution systems overseas, particularly on the Continent. Paramount owned considerable stock in Germany's Ufa studios, where it actively coproduced pictures and cultivated talent that might be "imported" to Hollywood. Lubitsch, Dietrich, and Dreier were German recruits, and Mamoulian was trained in Russia. Von Sternberg was born in Vienna and raised in the United States, but the German influence was quite genuine; in fact, he had discovered Dietrich while directing Ufa's first sound film, Der Blaue Engel ( The Blue Angel ), a Paramount coproduction that became a huge international hit in 1930.
Paramount's European dimension was countered in the 1930s by two significant generic (and stylistic) trends. One involved the studio's heavy investment in comedy during the early sound era, best typified perhaps by its run of Marx Brothers romps: The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). W. C. Fields, Burns and Allen, Jack Oakie (1903–1978), and Mae West all contributed to this trend, whose roots ran deeply into American vaudeville, as did a number of contract directors like Leo McCarey (1898–1969) ( Duck Soup ; Belle of the Nineties , 1935; Ruggles of Red Gap , 1935) and, later in the decade, the vastly underrated Mitchell Leisen (1898–1972) ( Hands Across the Table , 1935; The Big Broadcast of 1937 , 1936; Easy Living , 1937; Midnight , 1939). The second crucial Paramount trend was its signature DeMille epics, which actually were on hiatus from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, when the studio's most distinctive house director left for independent status and a brief stint with MGM. DeMille returned in 1932 to produce and direct a succession of historical spectacles, concentrating on biblical and ancient epics earlier in the decade ( The Sign of the Cross , 1932; Cleopatra , 1934; The Crusades , 1935) before shifting to epic Americana ( The Plainsman , 1937; The Buccaneer , 1938; Union Pacific , 1939).
DeMille's shift to American subjects in the late 1930s was directly related to changes and uncertainties in the international marketplace, particularly the political turmoil and the threat of war in Europe. Anticipating the loss of the Continental market and determined to contain costs, the ever pragmatic Balaban ordered Y. Frank Freeman, the studio production chief hired in 1938 from one of Paramount's theater subsidiaries, to severely cut production expenses, including high-paid talent as well as film budgets, and to shift the studio's emphasis away from more lavish and exotic productions in favor of lighter fare designed for the domestic market. This proved to be an ideal adjustment to the wartime social and economic conditions that transformed the industry in the 1940s and returned Paramount to a position of unchallenged supremacy.