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Photography & media

The 1930s: A golden age of Hollywood films

— March 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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Robert Nippoldt, an image from Hollywood in the 30s

Stardom, success, death and disillusion – it could all be found in Hollywood from its earliest days

Hollywood in the 30s by Daniel Kothenschuite; illustrated by Robert Nippoldt

Hollywood in the 30stakes us back to the golden age of American filmmaking, thanks to the beautiful graphic illustrations of Robert Nippoldt and the words of Daniel Kothenschuite.

This book covers the fascinating and exciting period of Hollywood from the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s and explores the history, personalities and technical advances that transformed American filmmaking over a single decade.

During the early 1930s ‘talkies’ were gradually replacing silent movies but, as Daniel Kothenschuite explains, the change from silent to sound was not instant or universally popular.  Warner Brothers was a minor Hollywood studio during the mid 1920s and it took quite a risk to produce a film featuring a synchronized soundtrack rather than accompanying music.  The 15 reels of film for The Jazz Singer (1927) needed to be matched with 15 gramophone records that the projectionist had to change in perfect time to synchronize speech, music and action. 

As talking movies developed, two competing sound systems emerged.  A sound-on-disk system used by Warner Brothers called Vitaphone and a sound-on-film system offered by Western Electric.  Foreign-language versions of films could easily be produced on a separate set of Vitaphone disks. Western Electric’s soundtrack attached to the film itself was an easier, simpler system for domestic US screenings and it allowed better synchronisation of audio dialogue. 

To some the introduction of sound was a step backwards in the development of film and cinema.  The pioneers of American filmmaking came from a theatrical background and having established what they felt was a new form of art and entertainment they did not want another influx of stars from the theatre.  Theatre and music hall celebrities such as Mae West and The Marx Brothers brought their stage shows to the screen.  Relying on his mime acting skills, Charlie Chaplin was notoriously not a fan of talking films.  His last and still silent movie, ironically titled ‘Modern Times’, was released in 1936, by which time sound cinema was well established. 

During his film career Charlie Chaplin won four Oscars, an award system that was founded during the 1930s.  The awards were voted and presented by the newly formed ‘Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’, which was created by over 30 Hollywood business performers, producers and industry players in 1927.  Presentation of the awards first occurred in 1929 and evolved into the lavish awards ceremony that we have today.  Charlie Chaplin was a shrewd and successful businessman; other Hollywood actors and actresses were not as fortunate. 

The publication explains the emergence of the film studio Star System in the 1930s, whereby actors were tied to particular studios. This system meant that the power of the studios gradually eclipsed individual true artistry.  Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton was another successful silent film star and Oscar award winner.  Nonetheless MGM, his film studio, treated him unkindly by giving him undemanding parts with repetitive storylines.  Keaton eventually descended into alcoholism after finding good roles hard to find.  Fame could also be short lived, as it was for the beautiful silent movie star Louise Brooks.  Her film studio dropped Brooks after a few successful films and the Hollywood industry almost instantly forgot her.  Even worse than this was Jean Harlow’s tragically early death aged just 26.  Nonetheless, Robert Nippoldt treats the reader to a light-hearted double-page spread devoted to Harlow’s wandering beauty spot.  A drawn-on addition to her made-up face, it moved between films and publicity photographs, moved during scenes of a film and sometimes disappeared completely. 

Hollywood in the 30sdraws together the historical context of film studios with the filmmakers and film stars working at the time.  It features illustrated mini-biographies of actors, producers and directors who were working during these years.  In addition to famous film stars, the publication also reminds us of less well-known but still fascinating personalities who, together, made Hollywood. 

Robert Nippoldt is a commercial graphic illustrator living and working in Muenster, Germany.  Daniel Kothenschuite is a film and art critic, writing for several German newspapers and film magazines. 

Hollywood in the 30s  by Daniel Kothenschuite and illustrated by Robert Nippoldt is published Taschen 2014. 160pp. ISBN 9783836544986


Ian Jones
National Army Museum, London.
Head of Photography

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