Taylorizing the Movies: Hollywood and the Factory Production System

Frederick Taylor, pioneer of scientific management and motion-time studies, died on the morning of his fifty-ninth birthday after winding his watch. His body stopped, but like his watch, his influence persisted. That year, 1915, D.W. Griffith released Birth of a Nation, which broke all profit records. Though he considered himself an artist and not a factory manager, Griffith adopted the scientifically-managed, factory-styled production system developed by Taylor. The Taylorist production system divided tasks into their component parts and coordinated these tasks on a schedule. This production system, which Henry Ford had adopted for his auto assembly line, permitted greater efficiency – less cost and greater output. It allowed production teams to handle projects so huge that they would have been unthinkable without Taylorist production methods.

Griffith bought the rights to a popular novel, and cast famous actors for Birth of a Nation; it cost close to a million dollars to make. Griffith’s enormous profits from Birth of a Nation inspired others to embark on similar ventures. Once productions of this size became the standard, no individual producers could compete with the factory-like production companies and their massive resources. Movie moguls developed the studio system as a means of maximizing profits while minimizing risks, and the key to this system lay in putting decision-making in the hands of managers who divided and supervised the labor. The artists who worked on the films, cinema’s equivalent of Taylor’s “skilled worker’s,” were reduced to limited tasks. Unlike D.W. Griffith, directors would no longer see a film through from conception to final editing. No one but the producer could do that.

This system achieved its most Taylorized form at MGM, under the regime of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. Films followed written scripts, whose writers followed daily instructions and punched time clocks. Each department and worker was given a set of instructions at the beginning of the day for the execution of a particular task. The departments, and their tasks, were often subdivided – MGM’s writing department, for example, had “one team for plot, one for construction, one for character, one for gags, and so on.” And that was just for revisions!

MGM rationalized film by budget as well as script. Indeed, the amount of money spent on a film contributed as much to a movie’s “look” as any script. MGM insisted that money spent on a film should appear on the screen. (Hence Thalberg’s objections to Von Stroheim’s famous attempt to equip his cast with silk underwear.) Bigger pictures meant bigger stars, more lavish sets, and, sometimes, more “decorative” shots. Audience responses also worked to rationalize film production. The profitable elements of a film (those that the audience liked) could be isolated and repeated in other films. The wasteful elements could be eliminated.

The rationalizing mania with the film industry encouraged the standardization of production. The studios became factories, with some (like MGM) cranking out nearly a feature a week. Inevitably, this insistence on production efficiency translated into a demand for narrative efficiency, since economical storytelling eliminated “wasteful” shooting, now defined as narratively irrelevant. Unlike Eisenstein, for example, Hollywood studio directors could not rely on editing to locate the raison d’Ã?ªtre concealed in multiple takes of the same event. Instead, the shooting script – produced by committee, subject to endless revisions, strict with its instructions – dictated the filming process. Since the studios quickly realized that the standardized narratives of genre pictures made these films the most economical to make, Classical Hollywood production became almost exclusively committed to recognizable formulas: the musical, the western, the gangster film, the screwball comedy, etc.

But although the studios rapidly managed to rationalize the production process, they achieved only mixed results with the system’s other crucial part – consumption. Movies, after all, are not the same kind of commodity as ball bearings, since their “buyers” (the audience) base purchasing decisions not on utility but on pleasure. Recognizing this difference, the studios set out to rationalize consumption, working to encourage the dynamics of identification, fascination, and voyeurism that would result in box office revenue. Hollywood distinguished itself from its principle alternative, Soviet Cinema, by refusing to adopt education as any part of its goal. Ironically, however, by restricting itself to commercial entertainment, classical Hollywood demonstrated that a secular movement can seduce and enthrall a mass audience.

The most famous and successful Hollywood studio of the golden age was MGM, managed by Louis B. Mayer. Mayer began his career in the film business by buying a theater, the Orpheum in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He booked expensive films to show in his theaters whenever he could, realizing that with bigger, more spectacular pictures, he could charge more and attract more customers. He acquired more theaters as his profits grew and in 1915, Mayer secured the New England rights to exhibit Birth of a Nation. He reportedly made a million dollars on that film alone. Armed with great optimism and capital, he became a distributor and then a producer.

Unlike Griffith, Taylor, and Ford, Mayer was more interested in making profits than he was in spreading Protestant morality or in creating a society free from want and strife (though by today’s standards, his interest in the personal lives of his workers and his love of stories praising the sanctity of home make him distinctly old-fashioned). Mayer’s profit-oriented attitude served him well while the moral paternalism of Griffith, Taylor, and Ford became outmoded by the late 1920s. The sensuous consumer-oriented lifestyles proffered by Hollywood clashed with the sober production-oriented lifestyles advanced by Griffith, Taylor, and Ford (all of whom were greatly admired by the production-obsessed Soviets). Unlike the moralists, who were all Protestants born in the United States, Mayer was a Jew born in Europe; patriotism meant something different to him. MGM films, under the management of Mayer, had put a patriotic face on conspicuous consumption.

“Remember, that time is money.”
– Ben Franklin, Advice to Young Tradesman 1748

Ford, Taylor, and Griffith all had a passion for dividing tasks into segments and re-ordering those segments according to principles of efficiency. Taylor, who pioneered modern methods of efficient production, achieved efficiency by eliminating all unnecessary movements, leaving only the tasks necessary for production, stripping those tasks to their bare essentials, and linking them to the next set of tasks. Hollywood film resembles these production methods; the pieces of a Hollywood film, the individual shots, must be made to fit together much like the individual tasks fit together in a Taylorized factory.

Montage is the process of breaking a scene (its spacial and temporal dimensions) into bits and recombining them. Continuity editing, Hollywood’s form of montage, links shots by “matching” forms and gestures to create the illusion of continuous time and space. An eyeline match links the gestures of two charactersesting that they are sitting across from each other; a match on action links the beginning of a sequence (turning a door handle) with its succeeding motion (opening the door and walking through), suggesting to audiences that they are seeing the same door in both shots, and an unbroken sequence of action.

Of course, the continuity method of editing masks the ruptures of time and space required by montage. Carl Reiner’s comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, starring Steve Martin, reveals the techniques of continuiting to audiences. Reiner matches footage of Martin with shots from classic Hollywood films like Maltese Falcon and Public Enemy, creating the illusion that Martin’s character is talking with Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney. This illusion is quite convincing in all respects except that the audience knows that Bogart and Cagney are dead. Thus they can see the technique that creates the illusion without accepting the illusion.

Bunuel, in his film An Andalusion Dog, played a different variation on the rules of continuity editing. A man puts his arm through an opening in a door and a woman closes the door on his arm. The illusion of continuous space and action would be easy to believe if it were not for the fact that the man puts his left arm through his side of the door, but the woman, seen from her side of the door, closes it on his right arm. It cannot possibly be the same door, yet the editing matches the continuity rules in every other respect. The discontinuity between the two shots reveals the techniques of continuity editing as a means of creating the illusion of continuous space and time.

The continuity method of matching shots resembles Taylor’s “scientific” method of linking tasks in any production enterprise. Twentieth century people are accustomed to breaking any process into its component parts; MGM films attracted audiences who lived Taylorist lives. The movies were as much a part of those lives as they were an escape from them. The consumer economy required that people spend their “free” time and “surplus” money consuming things. Corporations aimed to control this consumption as much as possible. The movie theater, after all, is a controlled environment; the audience faces a screen, the lights go down, the film progresses at a rate determined by a machine. Hollywood standardized this time to roughly ninety minutes for a feature length film. Furthermore, Hollywood standardized its stories to conform to a set of audience expectations about time and structured events created in part by cinema itself. Film narratives were routinized to an enormous degree; narratives followed an 8-act format that conformed to the number and length of each reel: eight reels lasting about twelve minutes each. In this format, an act is a series of cause-and-effect actions that reach a climax and resolution within twelve minutes. With this narrative structure, cinema ticked off workers’ time as predictably as a clock. Even after the length of the reels themselves was increased, Hollywood stuck to the original narrative format.

Despite seeing hundreds of films that followed the same predictable format (in fact, BuÃ?±uel was able to predict with complete accuracy the endings of any Hollywood film once he heard the beginning), audiences still went to see more. Predictably, movies that didn’t fit the expected format seemed “wrong” to these audiences. Why then did they keep coming back to the same stories? How did Hollywood establish itself as the dominant form of cinema and the dominant form of entertainment worldwide?

Part of the answer lies in the careful balance Hollywood struck between narrative efficiency and visual excess. Hollywood cinema offers predictability, but it also offers a surplus of signifiers. In contrast to the cinema of, say, Pudovkin, Hollywood cinema provides more and lengthier establishing long shots and close-ups. A classic example of the lengthy close-up is the moment when Garbo and Gilbert sit in the woods together in Flesh and the Devil. This excess is framed carefully by a narrative, but exceeds it in many ways. The excess in Hollywood films was an essential part of their allure.

In order to distinguish between efficiency and excess, if we are to use Taylor as a guide, we must distinguish between essential motion and wasted motion. If we are film makers, we need to take several “motions” into account – camera motions, actors’ motions, cuts between shots, viewers’ eye motions as they scan the screen for information. If any of these elements “move,” noticeably, more than necessary to establish narrative elements – plot, setting, characters – then we are in the realm of excess. Lack of motion may also be excessive. If a shot holds longer than is necessary to convey a piece of information, then we are again in the realm of excess. By this standard, the Garbo and Gilbert scene in Flesh and the Devil exceeds narrative efficiency. I would add that some genres allow a greater degree of excess (musicals) and some less (detective stories). MGM was in a better position than any other studio to find the balance in each genre. MGM had more money and more stars to play with.

One more area of excess seems pertinent here – the “documentary” status of all film. When audiences become aware that they are seeing this actor at this age in this real location (or set), they become distracted from their primary job of reading the diegesis of the film narrative. Mayer realized that this excess was not debilitating, but was instead a key to success. Mayer knew that audiences were willing to pay to see not just a character played by Clark Gable, but to see Clark Gable himself. Lengthy close-ups helped to emphasize the real actor over the character, creating a surplus of signification.

A surplus of signifiers, Barthes notes, is the necessary pre-condition for an erotics of the image. The cinema is an escape from (as well as a part of) a Taylorized life, in which signifiers have their “rational” place in the chain of signification and every signified is understood according to conventions. Yet MGM films offer many opportunities for fetishistic pleasure, if the viewer is predisposed to find pleasure in excess.

Hollywood films strike a balance between “replaceable parts” (the generic elements) and the recognizably unique. Extras are replaceable, but stars possess an excess or lack that marks them as different. Sometimes the studio is able to predict which elements of a film will exceed narrative signification, but sometimes the audience behaves unpredictably, fetishizing elements that the studio did not intend to be fetishized. In order to rationalize the market for fetishism (or is that a contradiction in terms?) Hollywood relies on the fashion system, which is now institutionalized in its relationship to television shows such as Entertainment Tonight and to product tie-ins. Products tie-ins, such as the fashion articles seen in the movies, are designed for fetishistic pleasure. The tie-ins are attempts to rationalize a system that negotiates production and consumption, efficiency and luxury.

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