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Posts Tagged ‘The Hollywood Studio System’

New Book Published – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

I have a new book out today from Rutgers University Press – Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist.

Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema. More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

Here are some early reviews:

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.”—Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.”—David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped with this very complex project.

James Wong Howe, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

James Wong Howe knew how little the public understood cinematography – and wasn’t afraid to say so.

In December 1945, as reported in the American Cinematographer, “Stephen Longstreet, a nationally-known novelist, editor, critic and currently a motion picture scenarist, made passing comment that ‘brilliant cameramen are the curse of the business’ in an article appearing in the August issue of the Screen Writers Guild monthly publication The Screen Writer. He generated a quick retort from James Wong Howe, ASC.

Replying with an article published in the October issue of The Screen Writer under the title ‘The Cameraman Talks Back,’ Howe described the important contributions of the director of photography to the overall results of a motion picture production. It’s one of the best explanations of the many responsibilities and achievements of the cinematographer, and makes decidedly interesting reading. As Howe wrote:

‘I agree with the criticism of placing camera gymnastics and an epic of sets over, or in place of, story values. I take issue with the statement that this is the fault of brilliant cameramen, and that “dumb cameramen” are a necessity for good pictures, along with less money, a good script, old standing sets and some lights and shadows. Who makes the lights and shadows which creates emotional tones on the screen? They don’t come on the old sets. The cameraman makes them.

The trouble with many critics and ex-critics is that for all their skillful talk, they don’t understand the techniques of motion pictures. They still criticize movies from the viewpoint of the stage. This results in any number of false appraisals, but the one with which I am concerned here is that this approach leaves out the cameraman entirely. For the stage, there is the audience eye.

For movies, with their wider scope and moving ability, there is the camera eye. If these two were one and the same kind of production, the cameraman’s part would merely be to set his camera up in front of the action as a static recorder, press a button and go fishing. Let the lights and shadows fall as they will, or better still, paint them on some old sets. The director, the actors, the writers, the producers, the bank — and the audience and critic — would object to this, but there you have the recipe for making movies with a dumb or inanimate cameraman.

This critical ignorance affects the cameraman in still another way. When the photography of a picture is good, the critic usually praises the director for his understanding and handling of the camera. It is true that a good film director knows and makes use of this knowledge, but the good cameraman is not merely a mechanic to carry out his orders.

His contribution may be technically expert and artistically creative. His understanding of the dramatic values of the story will carry over into his creation of mood. His manipulation of lights for such effects requires both technical and skillful imagination. His handling of the camera on certain action produced by the writer and interpreted by the director may well contain some added dramatic value of its own, which enhances and further interprets.

A scene from Hud (1963), photographed by James Wong Howe – masterful work in black and white.

Camera gymnastics and strange angles are not what I would call the stock of a “brilliant cameraman.” A man of limitations, director or cameraman, may use these mechanics to cover his thinness of understanding. Some of the most well-known writers possess technical skill and slickness and very little else. A limited writer can do far more harm, or lack of good, than a limited cameraman, because of the power of word and thought. I believe that the best cameraman is one who recognizes the source, the story, as the basis of his work.

Under the best conditions, the writer, the director and the cameraman would work closely together throughout the production. In spite of the present setup, a measure of cooperation is achieved, especially between the director and cameraman. Writers have often consulted me on how to get over certain scenes with lighting and the use of lenses.

Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation. By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story.

He is concerned with the makeup and the costume coloring. He works with the art director to see that the sets are properly painted to bring out their best values photographically. (I refer here to black-and-white, as well as color film.) For the same reason, he confers with the set director as to the colors of furniture, drapes, rugs.

The cameraman alone is responsible for the lighting, which is a part of photography but often referred to separately.

John Frankenheimer, James Wong Howe, and star Rock Hudson on the set of Seconds (1966).

Naturally, the cameraman studies the script. His main responsibility is to photograph the actors, action and background, by means of the moving camera, composition, and lighting — expressing the story in terms of the camera. I believe in a minimum of camera movement and angles that do not violate sense but contribute intrinsically to the dramatic effect desired.

“Unseen” photography does not at all mean pedestrian photography; in its own terms it should express emotion, and that emotion, according to the story, may be light, somber, sinister, dramatic, tragic, quiet. Within this frame there may be “terrific shots,” but there should be none outside it for mere effect. Photography must be integrated with the story.

The cameraman confers with the director on: (a) the composition of shots for action, since some scenes require definite composition for their best dramatic effect, while others require the utmost fluidity, or freedom from any strict definition or stylization; (b) atmosphere; (c) the dramatic mood of the story, which they plan together from beginning to end; (d) the action of the piece.

Because of the mechanics of the camera and the optical illusions created by the lenses, the cameraman may suggest changes of action which will better attain the effect desired by the director. Many times, a director is confronted with specific problems of accomplishing action. The cameraman may propose use of the camera unknown to the director which will achieve the same realism . . .

These things may amount to no more than ingenuity and a technical trick, but they carry over into the dramatic quality of a scene. There are many studio workers behind the scenes whose contributions toward the excellence of a motion picture never receive the credit, because outsiders have no way of discovering where one leaves off and another begins.’”

Read more in my new book Black & White Cinema: A Short History, out September 17th 2015 from Rutgers University Press.

Dorothy Arzner – Starmaker

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

Here’s an interesting article on pioneering feminist director Dorothy Arzner.

As Ella Morton notes in the web journal Atlas Obscura of this talented but often forgotten filmmaker, “type the name ‘Dorothy Arzner‘ into Netflix’s search bar and you’ll get zero results. It’s an odd outcome, considering Arzner, a prolific golden age film director, has 16 feature films—among the most of any woman in Hollywood, ever. She gave Katharine Hepburn one of her first starring roles. She navigated the transition from silent films to talkies with panache, inventing the boom microphone in the process. And yet, she is largely unknown today.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner attended the University of Southern California with the intention of becoming a doctor. World War I interrupted her studies, but when it was over, she decided not to go back to medical school. ‘I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly. I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of medicine,’ said Arzner, according to [Judith Mayne's indispensable] book Directed by Dorothy Arzner. ‘So that took me into the motion picture industry.’

Arzner’s film career began in 1919 with a trip to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation—the film studio that would later become Paramount Pictures—at the invitation of director William DeMille. Exploring the various departments, Arzner gauged which aspects of filmmaking held the most appeal for her. ‘I remember making the observation, if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do,’ she said, according to [Donna R. Casella's] essay What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.

It would take years, however, before Arzner got the chance to prove her directing chops. She began working at the studio as a script typist, tapping at a typewriter all day. Though the work was humdrum, the opportunity to read major Hollywood scripts helped hone her instincts for what made a good film. The short-lived stint as a script transcriber—she was a less-than-stellar typist, and lasted only three months—was followed by a solid run in the Paramount editing bay.

In 1922, while editing the dramatic film Blood and Sand, about a peasant who becomes a champion bullfighter, Arzner saved money by intercutting stock footage of bullfights into the narrative. It was a shrewd move that both endeared her to the purse-string holders and helped establish her as a filmmaker with a keen eye.

By 1927, Paramount was ready for Arzner to take the reins on a studio feature. They assigned her Fashions For Women, a silent film about a cigarette girl named Lulu who impersonates Celeste de Givray, the best-dressed model in Paris. The novelty-ridden hi-jinks—actress Esther Ralston played both roles—didn’t set the world on fire, but the film gave Arzner the opportunity to put what she’d learned into practice. And there was much more to come.”

There absolutely is “more to come” – click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Stewart O’Nan’s novel covering the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is the real deal.

This was recommended to me by the writer Timothy Schaffert, who, knowing of my own work on Fitzgerald many years ago, thought I would find it interesting. And he’s absolutely right. Most Hollywood fictionalized bios ring rather false, given the fact that the era of classic Hollywood is now so long ago and far away, and the tendency to sentimentalize, or over sensationalize Fitzgerald’s last truly harrowing years, from 1937 to 1940, when he batted around Hollywood in a number of jobs, starting at MGM but eventually sliding down the ladder to near oblivion before his premature death from a heart attack in 1940, seems almost irresistible to most writers.

But here, O’Nan brings the story of Fitzgerald’s last days to life, when he struggled to stay sober in the face of crippling alcoholism – not always with success -and managed to alienate almost everyone around him when he fell off the wagon. Agents deserted him, his powers were declining, and he never really understood the way the Hollywood game was played. O’Nan captures all of it, in a book of such page turning intensity that I sat down and read it straight through in a matter of hours. As the end of the narrative nears, the velocity picks up with truly cataclysmic intensity, and one feels that one gets a new, and appropriately sympathetic vision of Fitzgerald, an artist who waged war against his own self-destructive impulses and lost the battle.

There may be one too many star cameos here and there, and Humphrey Bogart looms larger in the book than he did in Fitzgerald’s real life, but others, such as Hunt Stromberg, Robert Benchley, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, and of course, Sheilah Graham, the great love of his later life, a gossip columnist who seemed to understand Fitzgerald better than anyone else during his tenure in Tinseltown, and in whose apartment he died on December 21, 1940, are real and tangible presences. Not for the faint of heart, this is a novel about irrecoverable loss and isolation – the promise of youth and the collapse of overnight fame – and most importantly, about the Hollywood studio system, which never understood artists – then or now. O’Nan’s book is a stunning achievement, in which Fitzgerald appears as a fully rounded person, with all of his flaws and charm intact.

All in all, an amazing accomplishment.

The Horrifying Future of Movies – Nothing But Franchises

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Here’s an absolutely brilliant and deeply impassioned piece by author Mark Harris.

Writing in the journal Grantland, Harris sees a future of nothing but utterly predictable franchise films, made by cost accountants and others with no real investment in film as an art form, which it most certainly is. As he writes, in part, “I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”

You can see the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; essential reading.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

Death of the Moguls: An Interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Here’s a new interview with Daniel Lindvall in Film International on my book Death of the Moguls.

With his new book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Wheeler Winston Dixon has performed no mean feat in finding a new and illuminating perspective on what is probably the most written about phenomenon in film history, the Hollywood studio system. By placing the stories of the moguls, from Louis B. Mayer at MGM to the likes of Herbert J. Yates at Republic, one next to the other Dixon captures simultaneously the tremendous impact they had through sheer force of personality on the film culture of their era, but also how they ultimately were, one and all, products of their time, of a specific economic and cultural period. That is, Dixon’s book captures the dialectical interplay between individual and structure. In the end, not just the moguls, but their way of running an industry had to die. “[N]o one came along to take their place, because their kingdom itself had vanished,” as Dixon puts it, eventually to be replaced by today’s corporate media empires. The email interview that follows was completed in March 2013.

Daniel Lindvall: How did you come up with this perspective? What was it that suggested it to you?

Wheeler Winston Dixon: Most conventional histories of the studio era either focus on the “golden age of Hollywood” aspect, in which the producers become heroic figures bending ordinary mortals to their collective wills, or else they become dry statistical surveys with box office tabulations and production schedules. In this book, I set out to concentrate on the late 1960s as the era in which the reign of the great moguls came to an end, as a result of unionization, anti-monopoly decisions, and also the fact that in each case, during the 1930s to the late 1960s, the major studios were run by one or two key people who held unquestioned authority, and believed they were immortal, and irreplaceable.

Thus, it was during the collapse of the studio system that the inherent flaws, inequities, and dictatorial aspect of the Hollywood production machine became most apparent. At the same time, while these men – and they were all men – were monsters, not benevolent despots as some would have us believe, they also made some absolutely superb movies, by exploiting their employees as much as they possibly could. Thus, it seemed to me that to focus on the “end days” of the system could tell us much about the entire mechanism that created the studio system, revealed in full detail as it unravelled.

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book — Death of the Moguls

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Here’s the cover of my latest book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, from Rutgers University Press, published Fall, 2012.

“In this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful through sheer force of personality, Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.” —Barry Keith Grant, Brock University

Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film.” Wheeler Winston Dixon examines the careers of such moguls as  Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. He asserts that the sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.

Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Dixon briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

He details such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

Complemented by rare, behind-the-scenes stills, Death of the Moguls is a compelling narrative on the end of the studio system at each of the Hollywood majors as television, the de Havilland decision, and the Consent Decree forced studios to slash payrolls, make the shift to color, 3D, and CinemaScope in desperate last-ditch efforts to save their kingdoms. The aftermath for some was the final switch to television production and, in some cases, the distribution of independent film.”

WHEELER WINSTON DIXON is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).

Paperback: 978-0-8135-5377-1

Cloth: 978-0-8135-5376-4

E-book: 978-0-8135-5378-8

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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