The Golden Age of Hollywood: Defining Films + Faces of the Industry’s Most Glamorous Era

Article Image
Photo Source: Jari Hindstroem/Shutterstock

Tinseltown has always been associated with bright lights and shimmering stars, but only one period of Hollywood history can truly be called golden. Beginning with the dawn of talkies in the late 1920s and ending around 1960, the era’s impact can still be felt in the industry today.

What’s the golden age of Hollywood?

The early days

There are different schools of thought regarding the timespan of the golden age, but most agree that it began in the mid-1910s and lasted until the late 1950s.

Some credit D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film “The Birth of a Nation,” which managed to be both incredibly racist and pioneer filmic techniques like deep focus, jump cuts, and close-ups. Others point to Alan Crosland’s equally insensitive yet influential “The Jazz Singer” (1927). Crosland’s film was not, as was believed for many years, the first feature-length film to include synchronized music and vocal tracks, but it was the first to garner widespread attention, ushering in the era of “talkies.”

There were mini-periods within the golden age. The “silent era” lasted roughly from the advent of moving pictures in 1894, beginning with the work of the Lumière brothers, up until the normalization of sound in film around 1929. These years produced enduring classics like Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” (1921), Rupert Julian’s “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman’s “The General” (1926), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928).

Next came the pre-code era, a brief window of time (1929–1934) after the advent of talkies but before Will H. Hays, the then-president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, introduced the Motion Picture Production Code. This was a set of moral guidelines that restricted what kind of content could and couldn’t be shown in movies, including profanity, premarital sex, suggestive nudity, violence, and interracial relationships. The pre-code era is known for daring, boundary-pushing films like Robert Z. Leonard’s “The Divorcee” (1930), William A. Wellman’s “The Public Enemy” (1931), James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931), and Alfred E. Green’s “Baby Face” (1933).

The “Big Five” studios and their stars 

During the golden age, five studios stood at the top of the Hollywood food chain: Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century Fox, RKO, and Paramount Pictures. These companies controlled every aspect of the industry, locking talent above and below the line into exclusive contracts and mandating how, where, and when their films were shown. 

To stay competitive, these studios relied on their most bankable in-house talent to churn out projects at a breakneck pace. This led to the rise of famous faces with recognizable star power. Audiences flocked to theaters not because of the titles, but because of names on the marquee like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, and Rita Hayworth. If a smaller studio like Universal, United Artists, or Columbia Pictures wanted an A-lister like Clark Gable or Joan Crawford to star in one of their films, they would have to agree to loan terms with the actor’s in-house studio.

But the glitz and glamour that popular magazines of the day depicted didn’t reflect the reality behind the scenes, as studio contracts heavily restricted their stars’ personal and professional lives. For example, Warner Bros. suspended “Gone With the Wind” star Olivia de Havilland several times and added an additional six months to her seven-year contract as a penalty for turning down roles that the actor said were “unsuited to her ability, and which she could not conscientiously portray.” 

Movie moguls like MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer held all the cards in the star system. When Mickey Rooney expressed his desire to marry fellow golden age star Ava Gardner, Mayer reportedly denied the request, saying: “It’s not your life—not as long as you’re working for me. MGM has made your life.”

Films of the golden age 

Because of the sheer output of projects, the amount of money studios were making, high-wattage star power, and the number of filmmaking innovations taking place, the golden age produced many classics that endure to this day. Notable titles include:

  • “King Kong” (1933; dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) 
  • “It Happened One Night” (1934; dir. Frank Capra)
  • “A Star is Born” (1937; dir. William A. Wellman, Jack Conway, and Victor Fleming)
  • “Gone With the Wind” (1939; dir. Fleming, George Cukor, and Sam Wood)
  • “The Wizard of Oz” (1939; dir. Fleming and King Vidor)
  • “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940; dir. Dorothy Arzner)
  • “Citizen Kane” (1941; dir. Orson Welles)
  • “Casablanca” (1942; dir. Michael Curitz)
  • “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946; dir. Capra)
  • “All About Eve” (1950; dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
  • “Sunset Boulevard” (1950; dir. Billy Wilder)
  • “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951; dir. Elia Kazan)
  • “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952; dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)
  • “Rear Window” (1954; dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  • “Carmen Jones” (1954; dir. Otto Preminger)
  • “The Defiant Ones” (1958; dir. Stanley Kramer)
  • “Ben-Hur” (1959; dir. William Wyler)
  • “North by Northwest” (1959; dir. Hitchcock)
  • “Some Like It Hot” (1959; dir. Wilder)

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression didn’t stop the public from clamoring for entertainment, nor did they reduce the number of movies getting bankrolled. At the peak of the golden age, 88 million people per week were heading to the cinema to forget their troubles. 

Filmmaking innovations of the golden age 

If you watch a movie from this era, you’ll likely spot storytelling techniques and visual effects that are still used by modern filmmakers.

Technicolor: Aside from sound, color film was the biggest shift that took place during the era. Although directors had been adding rudimentary color to moving images as early as 1908, with George Albert Smith’s short “A Visit to the Seaside,” the invention of the Technicolor three-strip camera in 1932 changed everything. The new equipment recorded three negatives—red, blue, and green—that were then combined to create the highly saturated, eye-popping visuals of films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.” 

Continuity editing: The earliest pioneers of the golden age—particularly Griffith in films like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” (1916)—revolutionized a style of narrative editing that seamlessly moved from one action to the next, keeping audiences grounded in the moment. Hallmarks of the technique include: 

  • The 180-degree rule: the idea that two characters in the same frame should always have a consistent left-right orientation to each other 
  • The 30-degree rule: the theory that, when cutting to a new angle on the same subject, the frame should always change by at least 30 degrees; anything less, and it appears as if the subject has moved, not the camera. 
  • Establishing shots: a wide-angle shot placed before a new scene that quickly indicates setting and context 
  • Match-on-action cuts: a cut to a new angle placed in the middle of an action that naturally maintains momentum—e.g., an image of a man swinging an ax that cuts to a close-up of the ax head making contact with a tree

A new form of film acting: The Stanislavsky- and Method-trained Marlon Brando—particularly with his performances in Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” (1954)—introduced film audiences to a naturalistic style of acting that contrasted with the theatrical, Transatlantic accent–tinged performances that were popular at the time.

24 frames per second: During the silent era, frame rates—the amount of still images per second that creates the illusion of movement—varied wildly. With the introduction of sound, a standard frame rate had to be agreed upon in order to synchronize audio playback. The industry landed on 24 frames per second, which is still the most widely used—and the one viewers associate with a “cinematic” look.

Blue/green-screen VFX: The composite effect used to create digital landscapes in modern blockbusters, such as the Russo brothers’ “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) and James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009), was originally developed at RKO Pictures in the 1930s. Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan’s “The Thief of Baghdad” (1940) was the first to put the process into practice, in a scene featuring a genie escaping from his bottle. 

Animated features: In 1937, Disney released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first feature-length English-language animated film to be produced in Technicolor. Its success at the box office effectively set the template for the studio's future, as well as for the animation industry as a whole. 

Costume departments: Thanks to the rise of major studios assembling in-house talent rosters and increasing demand for large, lavish movie musicals, costume designers became a vital part of the industry. Legendary figures like Edith Head (“Roman Holiday,” “All About Eve”), Adrian (“The Wizard of Oz,” “The Philadelphia Story”), and Helen Rose (“Silk Stockings,” “The Tender Trap”) dominated the field.

The end of the golden age

The exact end date of the era is as hotly debated as its beginning. The first significant sign that the golden age was in decline came in 1948 with the landmark case United States v. Paramount Pictures. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Hollywood studio system model violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, effectively ending the monopoly the Big Five had on the film distribution and exhibition pipeline.

Around the same time, the censorious Production Code began to lose influence. The growing popularity of television, along with cultural shifts in the 1950s and ’60s sparked by the anti-war and civil rights movements, made the code feel outdated. It was officially dissolved in 1968, later replaced by the MPAA rating system that’s still in use today.

Freed from the restrictions of the Hays Code, independent film found footing in America, and brash young directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Elaine May, Shirley Clarke, and George Lucas ushered in the New Hollywood era. Together with the French New Wave and the advent of lighter, more accessible film equipment, this new generation put a bit of dirt on the golden age’s perfect, gleaming surface—and audiences ate it up.

Recent studio mergers—like Disney’s $52.4 billion acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019—and the rise of streaming platforms that control every aspect of their productions suggest that everything old is new again. The golden age didn’t last forever, but its influence both behind and in front of the camera has never gone away.