The ultimate stars of the Studio Era weren’t Gable and Bogart and Garbo. They were logos, the ones that preceded each feature presentation: the MGM lion, Universal globe, Warner Bros. shield, RKO radio tower, Columbia torchbearer, 20th Century Fox searchlights, Paramount mountain. Each was a kind of visual “Open, sesame” for the wonders about to follow.
Steven Spielberg pays the Paramount logo loving homage in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), when he has it fade into an actual mountain of similar shape. A tribute of another sort kicked off Friday at the Harvard Film Archive. “100 Years of Paramount Pictures” celebrates the studio’s centenary. The retrospective concludes Sept. 3.
Those logos looked so different from each other for a reason. A defining characteristic of the Studio Era was that studios had defining characteristics. MGM, with its inflated luxe and domestic piety, would never be mistaken for tough-talking, streetwise Warners.
Paramount? During the ’30s, it specialized in swank, sophistication, and comedy. It’s inconceivable that Josef von Sternberg could have made his six American features starring Marlene Dietrich — those unsurpassed indulgences in cinematic stylization — at any other studio. “Shanghai Express” (1932), which may well be the most entertaining of them, screens Sunday at 7 p.m. (Boldface indicates titles in the HFA series.)
During the ’40s, Paramount gave rise to the writer-director, courtesy of the presence on the lot of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. As the film industry changed after World War II, studios increasingly focused on distribution rather than production. Yet somehow during the late ’60s and first half of the ’70s, Paramount managed to emerge with another defining characteristic: a consistent openness to innovation and risk-taking. Actually, it wasn’t a case of somehow but someone: studio chief Robert Evans.
Among the 40 Paramount films it’s showing, the HFA offers examples from all three periods, as well as several titles that come before, during, and in between. The earliest film is the Cecil B. DeMille silent “The Cheat” (1915). The most recent is Blake Edwards’s “S.O.B.” (1981). That film isn’t as well known as Edwards’s other movie in the series, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). But what better chronological (and thematic) conclusion to a tribute to a Hollywood studio than a movie satirizing Hollywood, with no less a denouement than Edwards’s wife, Julie Andrews, baring her breasts?
Edwards followed in a long comic tradition at Paramount. The studio was home to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the ’50s. Frank Tashlin’s “Artists and Models” (1955), starring the comic duo, screens this Friday. Sturges flourished there in the first half of the ’40s. And in the ’30s, Paramount was the original studio of the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, and Mae West. If you don’t think there was such a thing as house style in the Studio Era, compare the Marxes’ increasingly anarchic Paramount pictures with their far tamer work at MGM. The brothers’ absence is the retrospective’s one obvious omission. There’s a Fields comedy in the series, “It’s a Gift” (1934), and two from West, “I’m No Angel” (1933) and “She Done Him Wrong” (1934). Both feature a young and surprisingly lounge-lizardish Cary Grant.
Paramount in the ’30s was also home to Ernst Lubitsch. His peerless look at larceny and love, “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), screened Friday. From 1935-36 he was production head at the studio. His influence can be felt in Mitchell Leisen’s romantic comedies “Hands Across the Table” (1935) and, especially, “Midnight” (1939).
The Lubitsch element in the latter owes not a little to Wilder having co-written the screenplay. After becoming a director himself, he put a sign over his desk, “How would Lubitsch do it?” One of the few times Wilder was ever topped in repartee was at Lubitsch’s funeral. “No more Lubitsch,” he lame. “Worse than that,” replied William Wyler. “No more Lubitsch pictures.” Anyone who’s seen “Trouble in Paradise” knows that Wyler wasn’t being facetious. (Wyler’s “The Desperate Hours,” 1955, is on the bill in August.)
If it was Lubitsch’s style that Wilder imitated, it was Sturges’s career he wanted. Like Wilder, Sturges was a very successful writer at Paramount. Between 1940 (“The Great McGinty”) and 1944 (“Hail the Conquering Hero” ), Sturges, as writer-director, had one of the most delirious runs in Hollywood history. His comedies are to screwball as bebop is to swing: faster, fiercer, and, well, jazzier.
Sturges’s success paved the way for Wilder. Three of his films are in the series: “A Foreign Affair” (1948), which screened Friday; “Double Indemnity” (1944); and “The Lost Weekend” (1945). All are dark: a sardonic view of postwar Berlin; the greatest of all film noirs; and a still-powerful (if overly melodramatic) story of alcoholism.
Paramount wasn’t necessarily wedded to darkness. Two of its biggest hits during the ’40s were “Holiday Inn” and “Going My Way.” It was also home to the Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures. But you wouldn’t know it from the other films of that decade in the series. “This Gun for Hire” (1942), based on Graham Greene’s crime novel, made a star of a startlingly good Alan Ladd. Fritz Lang’s spy thriller “Ministry of Fear” (1944), also based on a Greene novel, helped prepare Ray Milland for the demands of “The Lost Weekend.” Ladd also stars in “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), from a script by Raymond Chandler, about a veteran suspected of murder. Best of all is “The Big Clock” (1948), with media magnate Charles Laughton trying to frame Milland for murder.
Paramount certainly didn’t stop making movies after the war — some of them very good, such as “A Place in the Sun” (1955) and “Hud” (1963). But like the other studios it stopped being distinctive — until Evans came along. No one studio or studio chief can take credit for Hollywood’s Silver Age, but Paramount and Evans made a major contribution. Beside the first two “Godfather” pictures, the studio released Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico” (1973); Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which Evans produced, and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (both 1974); and Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978). The series ends with Robert Altman’s “Popeye” (1980), also produced by Evans. Look at the sailorman’s bulging biceps. Kind of mountainous, aren’t they?
For more information on “100 Years of Paramount Pictures,” go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.