From The Archive
Jerome Christensen
No. 13  December 1999

Hollywood’s Corporate Art

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Men don’t make movies. Industries don’t make movies. Corporations do. Hollywood studios make films not only to achieve the usual corporate goals of profit and prestige, but also to advertise, to tell audiences what kind of institution the corporation would like to be and to describe the kind of social role that the corporation would like to have. Hollywood’s speech is corporate speech, with a distinctly populist inflection. Its studios make products that represent corporate interests as the inchoate aspirations of the people. They contrive to form a people happy to be incorporated as an audience and gratified to want what the studios devise, tout, and screen. This corporate populist formula was established in the early sound era, as the studios of the Thirties confected and propagated an American popular culture which was and is the culture of the corporation.

No commentator of the first two decades of the century could mistake the growing economic power of the modern corporation. But after the Crash in 1929, numerous observers began to worry about the absence of any guiding economic intelligence that could keep the engine of capital from combusting the social fuel that sustained it. Surveying the industrial scene in 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr lamented the “lack of social intelligence in all of our economic groups,” and gloomily concluded that “power is never checked by the voluntary action of those who hold it but only by raising power against it.” Niebuhr turned out to be wrong. Corporate America did check its power, if only briefly, when company after company signed on to cooperate in the National Recovery Administration, the New Deal’s solution to disastrous competition. But voluntary cooperation with federal regulators was not enough to redeem big business in the eyes of the public. The Thirties were marked by an unprecedented hostility to big business, as politicians, labor leaders, and journalists denounced the “soulless” corporation. Corporations responded, as historian Roland Marchand has shown, with “institutional” advertising campaigns that imagined the likes of GM and U.S. Steel as neighbors and friends, people just like everyone else.

The Supreme Court had bestowed upon the corporation the legal status of a person; the Hollywood movie made it a natural fact.

How did businessmen know what people were like? They went to the movies just like everyone else. What they saw there, what everyone saw there, was a novel and practically irresistible form of institutional advertising—brilliantly contrived, glamorously mounted tableaux of the social world as the Hollywood studios saw it. Whatever else they did, Hollywood films worked obliquely but relentlessly to promote the Hollywood studio as the business uniquely endowed with social intelligence. They formulated and expressed the needs and desires of an audience that encompassed businessmen and immigrant laborers alike. More importantly, they advertised a new culture of the studios’ creation, a place in which corporations could make themselves at home, in which the corporation would be indistinguishable from the people. The Supreme Court had bestowed upon the corporation the legal status of a person; the Hollywood movie made it a natural fact.

Niebuhr overlooked the role of Hollywood in generating the cultural intelligence so critical to the survival and prosperity of corporate capitalism, but Fortune magazine did not. In 1932 it profiled MGM as the studio whose moving pictures made manifest the destiny of the American corporation:

MGM is neither one man nor a collection of men. It is a corporation. Whenever a motion picture becomes a work of art it is unquestionably due to men. But the moving picture has been born and bred not of men but of corporations. Corporations have set up the easels, bought the pigments, arranged the views, and hired the potential artists. Until the artists emerge, at least, the corporation is bigger than the sum of its parts. Somehow, although our poets have not yet defined it for us, a corporation lives a life and finds a fate outside the lives and fates of its human constituents.

Fortune’s respectful consideration of MGM’s corporate status was unusual. By ordinary standards of accounting the motion picture corporations were extraordinarily profitable, but they hardly rivaled the likes of General Motors and DuPont as bulwarks of the economy. But in the face of widespread overproduction—of all-too tangible factories idle and empty, of tangible inventories clogging tangible warehouses—the sheer mass of industrial capital suddenly counted less than the intangible “it” that gave Hollywood access to the hearts and minds and pockets of the consumer.

For the central fact about a movie producing company is the legal unreality of its assets. No matter how expensive, Paramount’s collection of cameras, contracts, and miscellaneous property is as useless as the negative of last year’s program picture without that hugely flickering intangible, its value as a going concern. Which resides not in Celluloid and brick but in the smiles of stars, the vitality of stories, the guts of producers, the shrewdness of salesmen, the digestions of exhibitors. Not only is the product itself a mere shadowed dream, but its manufacture and its routes to an unpredictable market … are zigzagged with maybes and haunted by states of mind.

Then as now Hollywood films were as much the calculated revelations of the aims of the studios that made them as they were the product of writers’, directors’, or producers’ genius. They were the medium through which studios revealed their agendas and sought to realize them. Through their movies the studios stated what they wanted from other studios and other industries, from their labor force and managers, from exhibitors and distributors, from the government and from their customers. Through movies the studios sought to mold their audiences into the kind of people who wanted what the studios wanted, what the corporations wanted. Hollywood art was and is corporate art; and corporate art, whether in the specific form of institutional advertising or in its broader cast as public relations, is allegorical: It says one thing while meaning many other things; it manifestly addresses one audience—say, the administrator of the famous male gaze—while covertly addressing numerous others: vigilant censors, truculent stars, gung ho trustbusters, corporate players, and Midwestern garden clubs.

Consider The Nuisance, an MGM picture that appeared in early 1933 when American corporations, already unnerved by the Depression, fearfully awaited the coming of the New Deal. At the outset the protagonist, a shyster personal injury attorney and ambulance chaser by the name of J. Phineas Stevens, defends himself against the imputation that he is a shyster lawyer and ambulance chaser with the sarcastic claim that he is only “seeking justice from the soulless corporation on behalf of the forgotten man and the forgotten woman.” Later, in court, defending a client under indictment for stealing from his employer, the Street Railway Company, Stevens again denounces the “soulless corporation.” Such anti-corporate talk, complete with references to FDR’s famous “forgotten man,” clearly signaled a political commitment. Except that Stevens is openly cynical: He does not believe a word he says.

The narrative leaves no doubt about Stevens’s cynicism, but neither does it try to prove that the Railway Company has a soul. The corporation lawyer’s tactics are fully as unethical as the shyster’s. He hires a pretty girl to entrap Stevens and collect incriminating evidence. Stevens does eventually get hauled into court, but he escapes conviction by marrying the corporation’s plant thus blocking her testimony. When the prosecutor retaliates by jailing the turncoat bride for perjury Stevens finagles her release. Having seen his only friend die and his wife go to jail as direct consequences of his chicanery, he solemnly promises his bride “no more ambulance chasing.” It’s not long, however, before Stevens falls off the wagon and hands his business card to a “flopper” who has just staged an accident on the street. The film ends on a note as cynical as that with which it began.

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The Nuisance makes no brief against the social order. On the contrary, the film argues that laws are necessary because corporations, even “soulless” ones, are necessary. Personal injury lawyers depend on the prosperity of corporations, whose liability the law defines. In The Nuisance the soulless corporation pays everyone, whether in wages, settlements, or damages. And because both the corporation and Stevens are in business only for the money, Stevens’s adversarial practice implies no adversarial politics. However he might play the “soullessness” card, as long as he stays in the legal game he is the corporation’s witting accomplice. And why not? Without corporations accidents would still happen. It’s just that there would be nobody to pay the damages. Personal injury law may be a mild form of distributive justice, but not only is it better than none at all, for the principals it surpasses any other. Thus Stevens fits in a world where the evolved corporate mode of production is manifestly necessary. As if to demonstrate that the Railway Company hurts people only accidentally—that it has nothing to do with the profit motive—the film tolerates the incidental staging of accidents as part of the cost of doing corporate business. Whatever is profitable is right. Pain and suffering may occur, but accidentally, not necessarily. And once damages are paid off, accidents no longer count; they have no history.

The golddigger worked, offstage and on, to get either a paycheck or a sugar daddy.

But why a lawyer? All lawyers may be cynics, but a cynic need not be a lawyer. The answer seems to be that as a fee-driven attorney, Stevens’s sophistries become a form of commercial speech—as is a motion picture, according to a Supreme Court ruling of 1915. In the Thirties commercial speech was a kind of quasi-legal speech; it could be published, broadcast, and screened, but it was not protected in the way individual citizens were when they published or broadcast their speech. Precisely because the Supreme Court would not protect commercial speech against the outrage of moralists or the opportunism of politicians, MGM had a considerable interest in doing so (as studios still have today). In The Nuisance MGM addresses its audience in commercial speech on behalf of commercial speech as socially serviceable, worthy of legal protection if not constitutional immunity. A toleration of cynicism counts as a defense of a business in which making a living requires continuous manipulation of the law.

You can learn a lot about the world of the Thirties by studying MGM, but you inevitably learn about MGM’s world. RKO cared about nightclub life in New York; Fox about narratives as tight as its budget; Paramount about the decor of its sets, the temperament of its directors, and the ambitions of its writers. When Warner Bros. depicted nightclubs or the rackets or the big house or the assembly line, it was looking for metaphors to figure the business of making movies that make money. The golddigger worked, offstage and on, to get either a paycheck or a sugar daddy.

MGM, meanwhile, cared about an America fashioned in the likeness of MGM’s own happy corporate family. MGM projected its organizational profile on the law, the theater, politics, and the family to show that human interest depends on its similarity to the motion picture industry, on people’s organized capacity to be entertaining. In Fortunes epitome, Warner Bros. material was “sensational happenings in the lives of everyday people.” Warner cultivated the belief that such sensational happenings are both symptomatic and representative—symptoms of systemic problems and representative of a host of dramatic events that actually happen to everyday people. MGM proposed that such sensational happenings are accidents and that some accidents are staged by people who are not everyday at all, but undiscovered talents, potential stars, or, as in Stevens’s case, producers manqué. J. Phineas Stevens organizes a production unit, not a gang or a union; he makes his money with “cheap, theatrical tricks,” not guns or muscle. We can forgive him his faults because, finally, he’s entertaining.

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The Nuisance belongs to an accident genre that can be tracked in MGM from the late Twenties to the end of the Thirties. It picked up momentum from King Vidor’s illustrious The Crowd, which prepared the way for prominent MGM features that hinge on accidents which occur in a world without insurance, such as Captains Courageous, Boys Town, and, crucially, The Wizard of Oz, MGM’s first post-New Deal and last major prewar motion picture. Oz executes a major shift in the way MGM understood itself and the way it wanted its audience inside and outside the industry to understand it. After the death of boy genius Irving Thalberg in 1938, L. B. Mayer took over production at the studio. Anxious to show the world what he could do, Mayer gave the go-ahead to The Wizard of Oz, even though he suspected its massive production budget would squelch profits. Oz would prove that MGM, Hollywood’s flagship studio, could detach its corporate interests from short-term financial goals. In other words, Oz was the product of the same sort of calculations that gave rise to the big institutional advertising campaigns of other corporations, campaigns which—despite the lack of any data proving such advertising paid for itself with increased profits—had become standard practice because they were thought to raise company morale, increase product recognition among customers, consolidate the power of CEOs over unit managers, and protect the corporation from government interference.

This last had become a critically important consideration by 1939. The palmy days of the corporate liberal concordat had not survived into the second Roosevelt administration. The person the studio imagined itself to be was no longer the soulful corporation eager to cooperate with the feds, but a beleaguered monopoly directly in the sights of Thurman Arnold, head of FDR’s Antitrust Division, who threatened a vigorous campaign of prosecutions against the five major movie studios.

The Wizard of Oz responded to Hollywood’s antitrust crisis by targeting not one or a set of legal regulations, nor even the social engineering trustbusters, but law and society themselves. There is very little framing narrative in L. Frank Baum’s 1905 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and nothing at all about Miss Gulch or Professor Marvel. Baum focuses on a girl, a dog, and a cyclone. If MGM had been Fox, if L. B. Mayer had been Darryl F. Zanuck, and if the screenplay had been written by Nunnally Johnson rather than the MGM writers’ colony, Baum’s populist allegory—in which the shoes of silver triumph over the bricks of gold—might have been given a Depression updating. Surely the sheriff would have arrived on behalf of the banks or some other grasping capitalist to threaten trouble. But MGM not only discards all traces of Baum’s populist economics, it voids economics altogether as a category of concern. Oz induces an instant hatred for an unattractive and unpleasant spinster who has been bitten by a dog she was chasing from her garden and who now seeks legal redress. The mortgage is not at stake; nor is the callousness or greed of capitalists at fault: It’s a matter of a dog and an order from the sheriff. Furthermore, Miss Gulch’s indictment of the dog as a “menace to society” is patently absurd. In close up Toto looks nothing like Little Caesar. Not only does the dog’s cuteness easily outweigh the damage of the unseen bite, but we are automatically more sympathetic to the vividly dramatized affective family of Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, Dorothy, and the hired help than we are to a “society” personified by the horrible and intimidating Miss Gulch. “Society” means as little as “law” to Dorothy, whose response to Miss Gulch’s threat is to accept personal responsibility—she volunteers to go to bed without supper—but not liability: the damage to Miss Gulch means nothing to her, nor does the law that the injured woman invokes.

Auntie Em has earlier told Dorothy to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble,” and Dorothy has dutifully wished for a trouble-free place “Over the Rainbow.” The twister would seem to have fulfilled her wish by depositing her, house, and dog in Oz. But of course Dorothy does get into trouble in Oz, for the twister has dropped her house on a witch. When the Wicked Witch of the West arrives on the scene and wrathfully inquires, “Who killed my sister? Who killed the Wicked Witch of the East, was it you?” Dorothy replies, “No, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to kill anybody.” Now in Kansas, this might be the prelude to the kind of lawsuit for damages that Miss Gulch had threatened. But while there may be trouble in Oz, there is no law; people can “cause accidents,” if not with impunity, at least without threat of damage suits.

MGM was a lot like Oz in that respect. According to author Aljean Harmetz, one of the film’s expensive theatrical tricks actually resulted in a gruesome accident to the actress Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West. After threatening, “I can cause accidents, too,” the Witch was to suddenly disappear in a cloud of smoke and flame. The technicians knew that the shot would be difficult: Hamilton had to move backward to a small trapdoor, and as the elevator descended, both avoid the flames and make sure that her bulky costume would not be caught in the apparatus. After many rehearsals they got the shot; everything worked fine. But the director, Victor Fleming, insisted on a backup shot and an accident did happen. Hamilton got caught in the machinery and suffered first-degree burns over her arm. She left the set and spent the next six weeks in bed, ignoring orders to return to the studio but also rejecting advice from friends to sue, since she knew that no matter how strong her case, should she sue she would never work in Hollywood again. It was MGM’s privilege and power, as the dominant company in a company town, to cause accidents with impunity. That is how monopoly works on the ground: It hurts people who are powerless to obtain justice.

Margaret Hamilton’s condition of powerlessness was the flip side of the Wicked Witch’s conditioned power. The witch can fly through the air on a broom; she can survey the kingdom; she can write orders in the sky; she can dispatch legions of slaves at her command. The Western Witch appears to have a statelike monopoly on violence in Oz. Yet she cannot cause accidents. That privilege belongs to Dorothy alone. It is by an accident that Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the East, and it is by an accident that she bumps off the Wicked Witch of the West. It should be no surprise that a piece of institutional advertising by MGM would have its focal character say, “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to kill anybody.” That has always been MGM’s story, and the studio would stick to it even in the face of Thurman Arnold’s charge that monopolies do widespread harm and are a “menace to society.”

This emptying out of power and authority in the world of Oz is nowhere clearer than in the Emerald City itself. If the dominion of the Wicked Witch of the West looks like the Chicago Tribune’s nightmare version of federal totalitarianism, then the Emerald City looks like the idealization of corporate liberalism—a happy kingdom of various subsidiary companies under the canopy of a corporate headquarters that resembles the “cathedrals of commerce” of lower Manhattan. The corporation seems to work just fine, but it can protect it self from outsiders only by projecting an illusion of wizardry with—not concidentally—the same kind of apparatus and the same special effects that were the stock-in-trade of MGM in the Thirties.

When the Wizard is finally exposed and Oz demystified, we are presented with what looks like a debunking of the “genius” Thalberg legend that would surely gratify Mayer. Except that the bogus wizard is not replaced by another, more authentic wizard. He is replaced by a group of creatures. The pseudo-wizard’s departure by balloon thus dramatizes the evacuation of the center of power and tells the corporate fortune of MGM. By recognizing the various virtues of the scarecrow, tin man, and lion, the wizard has acknowledged a new form of mastery: complementary talents organized in a loosely democratic fashion, happily collaborative and adept at improvisation in tight spots—in other words, a team very like the Freed unit, the talent package that would emerge out of the production of The Wizard of Oz, dominate the studio’s production facilities, define its corporate image during the postwar years, and herald the new mode of independent production that would succeed the studio system. So the allegory does not really work for Thalberg, no matter what Mayer might have wanted the munchkins of Culver City to believe. It was Mayer, not Thalberg who—like the Kansas Wizard—started out in life as a peddler and who bragged about his associations with the “crowned heads of Europe.” And if anyone was meant to fly away in a balloon, it was Mayer, a mogul of vast assurances and petty betrayals. In the corporation that MGM had defined itself as being, there was no law to prohibit such usurpation, no insurance against such guile, such finesse. A “kindly philosophy” indeed.

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