If I Had a Million: Paramount’s 99 Percent

Most people talk about movies on the basis of stars, directors, plots, sometimes genres. In some ways, though, the surest indicator of tone, style, and resonance, if not overall quality, is the production company.

Film programmers tend to think about this rather often. More than we like to acknowledge, repertory screenings are dictated by the vagaries of which studios make continued efforts to circulate their titles and which don’t. Booking prints is more complicated than it might sound at first. Keeping tabs on who has what demands a near-encyclopedic command of corporate merger dates, decades-old television licensing agreements, the whereabouts of archival deposits, and individual tastes of collectors and curators long since gone. It’s easy to take for granted today, for example, that a film made by Warner Bros.-First National seven decades ago can be rented directly from Warner Bros.; for a long time, the classic WB titles were held by United Artists Classics, later MGM-UA, subsequently Turner Entertainment, itself now conveniently under the Time Warner umbrella.

It’s easy to forget about studios when the studios themselves made such all-encompassing efforts to divest of their back catalog. RKO’s library traded hands from one disinterested owner (the General Tire and Rubber Company) to another (C&C Television Corp., a cola company subsidiary). Paramount’s 1929-1948 holdings were sold off to an MCA shell-company, EMKA in 1957, with many titles forever after only available in copies that bare the marks of quick, cheap, and frenzied duplication for television distribution. (Luckily, MCA’s subsequent acquisition of Decca Records, itself the parent company of Universal-International, brought the Paramount library under the auspices of a studio that would demonstrate exceptional stewardship of this complex collection.)

Once we find a path through this thicket of malleable ownership, we begin to notice qualities common across a studio’s production schedule. Their form speaks to the ideology. The Warner Bros. picture of the 1930s is, of course, instantly recognizable—rarely more than 75 minutes, rough around the edges, focused so intently on elemental striving that it neglects to notice or much care about the finer things in life. M-G-M’s features of the same period are, with only a handful of exceptions, insufferable—invariably half an hour longer than they need to be, never content to simply show something when it can be spoken, repeated, and hammered home in expository dialogue delivered disarmingly late in the picture. Watching M-G-M output can actively make you angry: so much waste on such pallid, undercooked, but overdetermined material. After the anger subsides, you feel a strange pity: the pictures demonstrate such an enfeebled, narrow notion of class that the monolithic (and conservative) M-G-M house style just sounds tinny.