Monday, May 6, 2013

The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz

The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era
by Thomas Schatz
University of Minnesota Press
Edition: March 2010
528 pages

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 Some of us are satisfied with enjoying films for what they are, entertainment and we are perfectly happy to leave it at that. But when we start asking questions, especially the hows and the whys, we need to evolve from being just an observer of movies to become well-versed and knowledgable film buffs.

The Genius of the System was originally published in 1988 and has since been revised with the latest edition released in 2010. Thomas Schatz takes a look at film history with two major constraints. First Schtaz focuses on the business of the studio system as it existed from 1920s through to the beginning of its demise in the early 1950s. Secondly, Schatz narrows his study to some of the major studios including Universal, MGM, Warner Bros. and Selznick's various collaborations with studios plus his own Selznick International Pictures.

The book is organized in chronological order, each section is devoted to one time period and each chapter within each section is devoted to one studio in particular. Schatz delivers an overwhelming amount of information about the studio system, an important time in film history .and I think it's crucial that the book be well-organized, orderly and clearly written. That structure and clarity helps keep the book tidy and makes it a lot easier to follow.

In this book, you'll learn about budgets, business decisions, the roles different people had in the script development, casting, filming, production and distribution. Different studios had different ways of doing things. For example, Warner Bros. was strict about typecasting and were reluctant to loan out their stars which proved stifling for many including Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.  Other studios and independent contractors depended highly on loan outs from big studios in order to boost their films with big names. Sometimes the movie business worked like a well-oiled machine: efficient and fast. Other times it dragged along and was plagued by excess and poor decisions. Deals, contracts and economic shifts changed how studios utilized their big stars and their small players as well. The Great Depression, World War II, the advent of TV and the HUAC all affected how the studios worked.

I learned a lot of interesting things about the business of filmmaking during the studio era. I learned that Universal focused on making horror pictures because they could be made with low budgets, partial sets, they could hide things with smoke and fog and they didn't need major stars. The focus of these movies were the monsters and in the end these films were cheap to make and proved to be both profitable and popular. That wasn't to say that Universal didn't have any big names. Deanna Durbin provided Universal with one box office hit after another and helped keep them afloat during a difficult time in American history. MGM's early history could be divided into Thalberg and post-Thalberg years. There are a couple chapters in the book devoted to the collaboration between Selznick and Hitchcock and it's very interesting to see how it evolved and how it came to an end.

While Schatz tries to keep the focus on the studio during a particular era, he sometimes stops to focus on a film in particular especially if it's story is a complex or important one and demonstrates the workings of that studio. Films spotlighted include Gone with the Wind (1939), Wizard of Oz (1939), Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946), Key Largo (1948) and others.There are some plot spoilers but not many because the real focus is on the business side of filmmaking and not about the stories themselves.

It took me quite a long time to read this book because I really wanted to take in and reflect on the information I was acquiring by reading it. I highly suggest not reading this from cover to cover but taking it one section or one chapter at a time.

The Genius of the System  is a wealth of information and an absolute must-have for any film buff who wants to know more about the mechanics of the studio system and how that business influenced how and why certain movies were made. This book can prove to be a challenging read but if you are committed to learning about the history of film then this books is not to be missed.

Thank you to the University of Minnesota Press for sending me a copy of The Genius of the System to review.


  1. Wow, thanks for this review! I didn't even know this book existed until now and will DEFINITELY purchase it soon. I just added it to my amazon wish list ;)

  2. Sounds like a great book. I am a binge book buyer & have added it to my list.

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