April 7th, 2020

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What we can learn from how the flu altered Hollywood

When Jane Alice Peters, the future Carole Lombard, made "A Perfect Crime" at age 12 with Monte Blue in early 1921 (her film debut), she likely wasn't thinking about just how much the motion picture industry -- which Jane had been a fan of from her final months in Fort Wayne in the mid-1910s -- had changed since then, or since the World War of a few years before.

But it had, thanks in part to the influenza epidemic of late 1918 and early 1919. And while history never follows in a precise parallel path, what happened more than a century ago could follow a similar pattern today.

Long before the current coronavirus pandemic, we've written about the earlier outbreak (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/883814.html). Now a noted film historian has examined how what happened in '18-'19 forever altered the movie industry...and what we thus may expect for films in the wake of covid-19.

William J. Mann wrote "Tinseltown," a book about post-World War I Hollywood and the still-unsolved 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor, in 2014. He and TV director Kevin Murphy ("American Horror Story") are adapting the book into a TV series. Interviewed at the Deadline Hollywood website (https://deadline.com/2020/04/hollywood-coronavirus-impact-spanish-flu-history-lessons-william-mann-interview-1202899630/), Mann makes several interesting observations.

Mann calls the postwar silent era "when all of the structures that would define the American film industry were put into place -- how movies were made, how they were sold, how they were shown." The war had weakened European filmmaking, and the U.S. took command.

Sounds a bit like what streaming is doing to theatrical films today...and cast in the role of yesterday's Netflix and chief content officer Ted Sarandos is Paramount and its mogul, Adolph Zukor, here shown in December 1922.

Zukor, shown below with Lombard (a employee of his from 1930 to 1937) on the set of "Swing High, Swing Low" with co-star Fred MacMurray and director Mitchell Leisen, today has a largely benign reputation among classic Hollywood moguls, but here's how Mann refers to the Paramount patriarch:

"Zukor is a fascinating guy. He's a villain but he's also a guy with vision, and what he did put so many people out of business but at the same time created the American film industry, and it ran this way for the next 60-70 years. In some ways Zukor's vision of filmmaking is still used today, even with new technologies; it's the model of vertical integration, which means top-down control."

Zukor's pioneering studio had lost $2 million (the equivalent of $30 million today) in the 1918-1919 season, but others in the industry -- still largely a mom-and-pop operation -- fared far worse. Many theaters closed for several months from the flu.

The mogul took advantage of the situation, Mann said:

"...he had this idea way before the epidemic that if I could get control of all of these theaters, then I could control the entire industry, so he uses the epidemic to put that plan into place."

The result? According to Mann:

"The cinema in 1921, just two years after the epidemic, was nothing like the industry in 1918, it had so radically changed. The length of the movies and the way people bought tickets for movies, akk of this changed."

Exhibitors such as Sid Grauman in Los Angeles and Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel in New York had led the way in creating cinematic palaces, and Zukor followed suit, as did other, newer studios -- Fox, Warners, Loew's (MGM) and RKO. By the sunset of the silent era in the late '20s, such stunning venues were found in city downtowns large and small. My parents spent much of their youth at the fabled Brooklyn Paramount, whose interior is shown in 1937, as well as a page from the Hearst press saluting its 1928 opening:

But while Zukor and other major studios were winners -- controlling production, distribution and exhibition -- there were many losers. Mom-and-pop theaters found they had to play by the chains' rules if they wanted their overwhelmingly popular product. Film companies catering to black, Asian and Latino audiences, which were developing in the teens, now struggled. (Turner Classic Movies recently showed 1927's "The Scar Of Shame," from an all-black Philadelphia production company whose two other features are lost, on its "Silent Sunday Nights.") As the '20s went on, the majors also diminished the role of women in directorial and other production roles.

Mann said of the streaming services that use Zukor's model, he "would be cheering them on." (Well, not if the mogul, who died at age 103 in 1976, owned Paramount stock; his studio now is clearly the weakest of the majors, well behind Disney, Warners, Universal and Sony.)

Mann also is uncertain whether people will return to theaters en masse once they reopen, especially since so many have discovered the joys of streaming and may find it superior to being with an audience whose current etiquette (e.g., incessant cell phone use) can prove irritating. Some experts anticipate chains such as AMC and Regal to fall by the wayside.

For now, though, we'll have to wait for the pandemic to play out and get a feel for its aftermath.
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