Some films seemed to nod at the Hollywood factory on a representational level, including Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936). In it, his Little Tramp works in a factory that’s a model of efficiency, as evidenced by a new “feeding machine” that’s meant to serve workers as they labor, increasing production and decreasing overhead. When the boss tries the feeder out on the Tramp, though, the machine goes kablooey. Not long after he returns to work, tightening bolts zipping past him on a conveyor belt, he suffers a breakdown, his motions turn frenzied and he’s sucked into the machine, a still startling image of radical dehumanization.
Although some stars exerted their independence inside the system, especially those with savvy agents, the studios kept a tight rein on the majority of performers. By the early 1930s, the industry’s most overt means of exerting control over its most famous workers was the option contract, usually running for seven years. Studios didn’t just shape and refine the stars’ images, changing their names and coordinating their public relations, they also maintained exclusive rights to the performers’ services. They could drop or renew a contract, loan actors out, cast them in terrible roles as well as suspend and sue those deemed unruly.
“I could be forced to do anything the studio told me to do,” Bette Davis said of Warner Bros., which signed her to a standard player’s contract in 1931. Davis grew frustrated with her roles and said that her only recourse was to refuse, resistance that the company answered by suspending her without pay. “You could not even work in a five-and-dime store,” Davis said. “You could only starve.” She won her first best actress Oscar in 1936, but two years later, she said, she still didn’t have a provision in her contract for star billing. Her fame and salary had grown, though not her power: Her third Warners contract stipulated that she had to “perform and render her services whenever, wherever and as often as the producer requested.”
Directors and writers contracted by the studios similarly struggled for control and sovereignty, with the companies taking the view, as the screenwriter Devery Freeman once said, that when they hired writers they owned their ideas “forever in perpetuity. ” Every studio was different, and so were the terms of labor. In 1937, the independent producer David O. Selznick (“Gone With the Wind”) explained that, for the most part at M.G.M., the job of the director was “solely to get out on the stage and direct the actors, put them through the paces that are called for in the script.” At Warner Bros., he continued, a director “is purely a cog in the machine” who was given the script often just a few days before going into production.
Given the tension between art and industry that characterizes much of Hollywood history, it is no surprise that the “cogs in the machine” metaphor crops up frequently in chronicles about the good old bad days. I love many classic Hollywood films (and miss their competencies), but for all its genius, the system took its toll. The outrages of sexual exploitation and racial discrimination are, in the end, simply the most grotesque and flagrant examples of how thoroughly the system could, and did, chew up its own people. “We have the players, the directors, the writers,” Selznick wrote in his resignation letter to the head of Paramount in 1931. “The system that turns these people into automatons is obviously what is wrong.”
Selznick’s despair brings to mind one of my favorite scenes in “Blade Runner.” Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, it centers on Deckard (Harrison Ford), a gruff, Bogart-esque type who hunts renegade replicants, lifelike synthetic humans that are produced as slave labor. Fairly early on, Deckard visits the Tyrell Corporation, which builds replicants, to speak to its spooky eponymous founder. “Commerce is our goal here,” Tyrell says, as he explains his business with unctuous equanimity. “‘More human than human’ is our motto,” he continues, sounding very much like an old studio boss.