Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Paramount's 100th Anniversary Part Two

The exact date varies, but it was in the mid to late spring of 1912 that Paramount Pictures was founded as Famous Players Film Company by Adolph Zukor and Daniel Frohman. The studio would pioneer the production of feature films. With the slogan "Famous players in famous plays," it was the first studio to emphasise its stars. The studio amassed a huge chain of theatres, through which it could release its own movies. Paramount would prove instrumental in the creation of the studio system that dominated Hollywood from the Thirties through the Fifties. Paramount would also pioneer such practices as block booking, which would ultimately lead to the end of the studio system with the Supreme Court decision on the case United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc. in 1948.

At one point in its history Paramount Pictures Inc. was the largest motion picture concern in the world. During the Golden Age of Hollywood it was still among the biggest of the major studios, surpassed perhaps only by MGM. Like the other major studios Paramount Pictures developed its own niche. MGM specialised in melodramas and lavish musicals. Warner Brothers was known for its gangster movies and swashbuckler films. Universal was known for its horror movies. Fox specialised in social dramas. RKO was known for both its musicals and literary adaptations. Paramount's particular niche would be comedy.

Paramount's association with comedy goes back to the earliest days of the company. It was in 1916 that the company made Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle the then unprecedented offer of  $1000 a day and complete creative control. Mr. Arbuckle formed his own company, Comique, with Joseph Schenck to produce short subjects that would be distributed by Paramount. This arrangement would prove so successful that Fatty Arbuckle would graduate to making feature films at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. His features at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation included the second screen adaptation of Brewster's Millions (1921), The Dollar a Year Man (1921), The Travelling Salesman (1921), and others. Roscoe Arbuckle's feature films at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation were very successful. Unfortunately, Mr. Arbuckle's career as an actor would be all but ended by the infamous scandal involving the death of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe.

The Fatty Arbuckle scandal would hardly impede Paramount with regards to comedy. During the Twenties Paramount would release such comedies as Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), Are Parents People? (1925), and The Kid Brother (1927). The studio's association with comedy would be cemented in the late Twenties. It was in 1929 that Paramount released The Cocoanuts, the feature film debut of the Marx Brothers. From the late Twenties into the Thirties it would be Paramount who would distribute the Marx Brothers' movies, including their best known films: Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). The studio would also benefit from the Lubitsch Touch, as many of director Ernst Lubitch's comedic musicals and outright comedies would be released through Paramount. Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), One Hour with You (1932), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), Angel (1937), and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) were all Paramount releases. Throughout the Thirties Paramount would also release a number of collegiate comedies: College Humour (1933), She Loves Me Not (1934), College Holiday (1935), College Swing (1938), College Confessions (1938), Million Dollar Legs (1939), and $1000 a Touchdown (1939). Mae West's classics, from Night After Night (1932) to Everyday's a Holiday (1937) were released through Paramount.

If anything Paramount would become even more associated with comedy in the Forties and even into the Fifties. In fact, perhaps the most famous comedies released by Paramount were those starring Bob Hope. Mr. Hope would make his feature film debut in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). He became a major comedy star with The Cat & the Canary in 1939. By far Bob Hope's most famous comedies were those in which he appeared with friend, partner, and fellow Paramount star, Bing Crosby--the "Road to..." pictures. All of the "Road to..." movies except for the final one (Road to Hong Kong in 1962, released through United Artists) were released through Paramount. Mr. Hope's movies would all be released through Paramount through to Beau James in 1957.

Hope & Crosby would not be Paramount's only famous comedy team. Starting with My Friend Irma in 1949, Paramount released movies starring Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis as well. All of the team's classics were Paramount films, including At War with the Army (1950), Scared Stiff (1953), and Artists & Models (1955). After the team broke Paramount continued to release movies starring Jerry Lewis. All of the comic's films were released through Paramount until Three on a Couch in 1965, including The Bellboy (1960), The Nutty Professor (1963), and The Disorderly Orderly (1965). In addition to Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis, Paramount would be home to some of the greatest comedic actors of all time, including Dorothy Lamour, Danny Kaye, Betty Hutton, and others.

Given Paramount's close ties to the genre of comedy, it should come as no surprise that it would produce some of the greatest comedies ever made. Indeed, Paramount was the home of auteur Preston Sturges for many years. It was at Paramount Pictures that screenwriter Preston Sturges would make his directorial debut with The Great McGinty in 1940. Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (filmed 1942, released 1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and The Great Moment (filmed 1942, released 1944) were all released through Paramount. Indeed, Sullivan's Travels is not only often counted among the greatest comedies of all time, but the greatest films of all time as well.

The fact that both Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges called Paramount home not only shows that the studio produced some of the greatest comedies of all time, but that it was also a studio that showcased some of the greatest directors in the history of motion pictures. This was the case from the earliest days of the studio. One of the companies that became part of Paramount, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, was co-founded by none other than Cecil B. DeMille. With but few exceptions Mr. DeMile's movies would be released either through the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company or Paramount Pictures. Cleopatra (1934), Union Pacific (1939), The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and The Ten Commandments (1956) were all Paramount Productions. Cecil B. DeMille was one of the first directors to become a celebrity on his own and as a result he put in cameos in Paramount films, including Son of Paleface (1952) and most famously in Sunset Blvd. (1950).

For years Paramount would also be the home of Billy Wilder. Mr Wilder would make his American directorial debut at the studio with The Major and the Minor in 1942. Billy Wilder directed some of the greatest films released through Paramount, including Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Stalag 17 (1953), and Sabrina (1954).  Indeed, Paramount Pictures Inc. is as much as star of Sunset Blvd. as Gloria Swanson was, its back lot figuring prominently in the film. Sabrina would be his last film at Paramount and Billy Wilder would go onto even greater heights of success at other studios, but his long, illustrious career began at Paramount.

Mitchell Leisen would work the majority of his career as a director at Paramount. Mitchell Leisen started his film career as a set and costume designer. He worked with Cecil B. DeMile on such films as Madam Satan (1930--released through MGM), The King of Kings (1927, released through Pathé Exchange), and Male and Female (1919). Mitchell Leisen directed his very first film at Paramount, Cradle Song, in 1933. He would direct all of his best known and arguably his very best movies at the studio, including Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Easy Living (1937), Midnight (1939), Frenchmen's Creek (1944), and Golden Earrings (1947).

Not only could Paramount Pictures boast having released films directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Cecil B. DeMille, and Mitchell Leisen, but it could also boast that it released films directed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his career. Starting with Rear Window in 1954, Paramount would release To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960--although it would later be distributed by Universal).  These six films are often counted among the best that Hitchcock ever directed.

While Paramount was the studio for great comedies and home to some of the greatest directors of all time, for a time it also released animated cartoons that rivalled and sometimes even surpassed those of Warner Brothers and Disney. It was in 1928 that Fleischer Studios, Inc., founded in 1921 by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, signed a production and distribution deal with Paramount. While the Fleischer Brothers were already well established and respected animators in the Twenties, it was arguably during their years with Paramount that they released their best work. It was at Paramount that they introduced their best known creation, Betty Boop. Betty would be an incredible success from her introduction until the Production Code would force the Fleischers to tone down the raciness of her cartoons in 1934. Even thereafter she remained a popular character and continued to appear in animated shorts until 1939.

Fleischer Studios would see even more success with a series of cartoons based on Popeye the Sailor from the King Features comic strip Thimble Theatre. The first cartoon featuring the character, "Popeye the Sailor," would begin 25 years worth of Popeye cartoons, with the character continuing to appear in animated shorts following Paramount's takeover the Fleischer Studios. It would also be the Fleischer Studios who would introduce Superman to the big screen. The Fleischers' Superman cartoons were among the most lavish, exquisite animated shorts ever produced. Indeed, the initial entry in the series, "Superman (AKA "Mad Scientist") was even nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). Paramount would continue producing Superman cartoons for a year after their acquisition of Fleischer Studios. Fleischer Studios would also produce two animated feature films, Gulliver's Travels (1939) and  Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941).

Fleischer Studios would produce some of the finest animated cartoons ever made. They would be nominated four times for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). Arguably, not only should they have been nominated more times, but they should have also won many times as well. Unfortunately, quality costs money, so that the Fleischers' cartoons were often expensive to produce. To make matters worse for Fleischer Studios, in 1938 the company borrowed money from Paramount to move to Miami, Florida both to take advantage of tax breaks and escape the reach of the unions. Producing two animated feature films would also place a strain Fleischer Studios' finances. Despite the continued popularity of their cartoons, Fleischer Studios continued to lose money and as a result they continued to request loans from Paramount. On 24 May 1941 Paramount Pictures Inc. finally called in the Fleischers' loans and as a result acquired Fleischer Studios. The Fleischer brothers both tendered their resignations.

Paramount renamed the animation house "Famous Studios." While veterans of Fleischer Studios would be placed in charge of the studio, it is generally agreed by animation historians that the quality of Famous Studios' work would be dramatically less than that of Fleischer Studios. Much of this was due to the fact that Paramount downsized the studio a great deal, cutting both the staff and the budgets of animated shorts. While the popular Popeye cartoons would continue for years, the costly Superman shorts would be ended a year after Paramount took over Fleischer Studios. Famous Studios would introduce its own characters who would go onto become famous in their own right. Casper the Friendly Ghost, Herman & Katnip, Baby Huey, and Little Audrey were all characters who emerged in Famous Studios' cartoons. The studio also licensed popular comic strip character Little Lulu for successful series of cartoons.

Unfortunately, Famous Studios would never see either the quality or the success of Fleischer Studios. In 1956 the studio was downsized again and renamed  Paramount Cartoon Studios. In 1960 Paramount sold many of their characters (Casper, Baby Huey, and so on) and the cartoons featuring them to Harvey Comics, who had published comic books featuring the characters for years. Paramount attempted to create new characters, such as The Cat and Honey Halfwitch, none of which saw much success.  Paramount Cartoon Studios would eventually close up shop on 31 December 1967.

Paramount did not simply release cel animated shorts, but also released stop motion animation shorts as well. George Pal had made several animated puppet films in Europe. Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 he remained in the United States. In 1940 he signed a contract with Paramount to produce a series of Puppetoons. George Pal would produce and direct several Puppetoons for Paramount, many of which would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). George Pal would continue his Puppetoons series until 1947, after which he switched to producing live action films. He would go onto produce such classics as When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine (1960), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).

From its founding in 1912 Paramount had grown into what was at one point the biggest movie studio in the world. It owned a thriving theatre chain and released some of the most successful movies ever made. The studio became identified with comedies and released some of the best films in the genre. It was home to some of the greatest directors in the history of film. Through Fleischer Studios it produced some of the greatest animated films ever made. Paramount would also become the first studio to become involved in the medium of television. It would also increase its involvement in the new medium even as its own fate hung in the balance in the Fifties.

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