Happy Birthday Paramount
Hollywood’s first studio celebrates its 100th birthday
Paramount Studios celebrates its centenary in 2012. And Paramount’s anniversary is also the anniversary of Hollywood studios, of Hollywood stars, and of feature length films. Paramount’s story is a journey through the films and stars we all love. But it is also the story of its remarkable early days, and how the company has survived and prospered for a century in the toughest business of them all.
Before 1912 American films were made in New York and production was strangled by the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC), created to protect Thomas Edison’s patents on film equipment. Films were restricted to a reel of about 15 minutes, and independent filmmakers had their equipment trashed and their staff beaten up by MPPC strong-arm tactics.
In 1912 emigrant ex-fur salesman called Adolph Zukor bought a French four reel film for distribution to theatres. This was `Queen Elizabeth’ starring the most famous actress of the age, Sarah Bernhardt. Its great success led him to set up a production company, `Famous Players in Famous Plays.’ Starting by taking them from the Broadway stage, Zukor created the first great American film stars, such as dashing John Barrymore and opera diva Geraldine Farrar. They starred in films up to six reels long – the first feature length films made in the United States.
Meanwhile, an ex-Vaudeville player and agent, Jesse Lasky, was planning his first full length film, `The Squaw Man’. He sent his friend and director Cecil B.DeMille to Flagstaff in Arizona, where the scenery and extras promised to be better suited to a western than New York. Unfortunately Flagstaff was covered in snow and DeMille wrote to Lasky,
`Flagstaff no good for our purpose. Have proceeded to California. Want authority to rent barn in place called Hollywood for seventy-five dollars a month.’
Hollywood was perfect for making films. It had lots of sunlight, varied scenery, and most important of all, was out of the reach of Edison and the Motion Picture Patents Company. Lasky said yes and in 1913 the barn on Vine Street became the first studio in Hollywood.
Lasky Features released 36 pictures in the next year and was strengthened by merging with Zukor to become `Famous Players Lasky’. Zukor and Lasky were making the films but these were being distributed to the exhibitors in the cinemas by a company called Paramount. Zukor was a ruthless and highly effective businessman. In 1916 Famous Players Lasky took over Paramount and became the first integrated production and distribution company, now fronted by the Paramount name.
But what of the films and their stars? Paramount’s films opened with the famous logo of a mountain topped with stars from the very beginning. There were originally 24 stars – one for each of the 24 film stars that Paramount then held under contract. Paramount led Hollywood in the silent era, particularly with the great spectacles of Cecil B. DeMille, such as `The Ten Commandments’. It created the greatest stars, with Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Clara Bow all under contract. And its World War One fighter pilot picture `Wings’ won the first Academy Award ® in 1928.
Paramount moved to its present site in Melrose Avenue in 1926 and is now the only major film studio still based in Hollywood. 1929 saw the building of sound stages and the importing again of stars from Broadway for the new `talkies’. With America in the Depression, the 1930s was a difficult time for all the Hollywood studios. Paramount even had a brief period in bankruptcy, but kept going with Bing Crosby musicals, Mae West sex comedies, and more epics from Cecil B. DeMille.
It was often known as the `European’ studio, with sophisticated comedies and dramas made by émigrés like Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and starring exotic actresses such as Marlene Dietrich. Starting as a writer, Wilder made many great films for Paramount, including `Double Indemnity’ and `Sunset Boulevard’. Narrated by a screenwriter, much of `Sunset Boulevard’ is filmed among the offices and soundstages of the Melrose studio.
Paramount’s most popular films of the 1940s were the `Road’ series with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, and audiences also enjoyed the comedies of Preston Sturges and noir thrillers with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
Film audiences peaked in 1946 and Paramount saw profits of $39m, the largest ever registered by any film company. But the years after the Second World War saw the beginning of the end of the classic Hollywood studios and their films. By now studios like Paramount had also been exhibiting films in their own chains of theatres, creating monopolies across the business. In 1948 Anti-Trust laws made the studios sell off their theatres. Paramount’s profits fell from $20m in 1949 to $6m in 1950. These years also saw the drop in cinema going after the introduction of television and the breaking of the infamous star contract system by actress Olivia de Havilland at Warner Brothers.
The studios adapted and fought back. Twentieth Century Fox introduced CinemaScope and Paramount developed its own wide-screen process, VistaVision, which had a sharper picture quality. And with `Roman Holiday’ in 1953, Paramount launched one of its greatest stars. Audrey Hepburn went on to make many memorable films at the studio, including `Funny Face’ and `Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.
In 1966 Paramount became the first major film organisation to be owned by a corporate group when it became part of `Gulf and Western’. Yet the following years were some of the most successful for the studio, both financially and artistically. The films ranged from `The Godfather’ and `Love Story’ to `Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and `Grease’. Paramount merged with Viacom in 1994 and in 1997 released `Titanic’, the highest grossing picture of all time, and the winner of eleven Oscars ®.
Paramount was the first studio to dip its toe into television in the 1930s, but didn’t undertake production until 1968. In that year it bought the neighbouring DesiLu studios from Lucille Ball. It also inherited DesiLu’s shows, which included `Mission Impossible’ and `Star Trek’. These both went on to become `franchises’ for the studio, producing films, TV series and `reboots’.
CBS became the television division of Viacom in 2006, but Paramount had created a legacy of quality half-hour comedies, such as `Happy Days’, `Taxi’, `Cheers’, and `Frasier’.
A hundred years on, Paramount is the Paramount Film Group, making its own pictures like the `Paranormal Activity’ and `Transformers’ films. It also distributes films for Marvel, such as `Ironman’ and `Thor’ and for DreamWorks, with `Shrek’ and `Puss in Boots’ recently.
Adolph Zukor lived to be 103. Now the company that he and Jesse Lasky built celebrates its centenary. So from all of us who have enjoyed its films over the years – Happy Birthday Paramount!