Hollywood loves Hollywood, and it loves to make and see movies about itself as well. For the most recent example, look no further than the Coen brothers’ latest dark comedy Hail, Caesar!, concerning a studio “fixer” tasked with cleaning up schedules in the early days of Hollywood’s movie industry. Though there are plenty of films about the concerns of modern day moviemaking, it’s always refreshing to see how the studios used to operate in a bygone era. And so, we present a list of other great movies concerning the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.
1. Barton Fink
The Coen brothers first dabbled in Hollywood period pieces as far back as 1991, with this surrealist sorta-comedy about a pretentious playwright who moves to Hollywood to work for a studio, only to find himself plagued by writer’s block and possibly even encroaching madness. Though nothing is made quite clear in Barton Fink, especially given the Coens’ penchant for anti-climactic endings and inexplicable symbolism, it does depict the old production model of Hollywood’s big studios wherein contract writers were given instruction to write “a wrestling picture” and left to their own devices, featuring stock characters like an alcoholic novelist turned screenwriter (a reference to William Faulkner) and a fat cat studio big wig who flips from enthusiastic to furious at the drop of a hat.
2. A Star Is Born
Judy Garland of Wizard of Oz fame made her comeback with a remake that overshadowed the 1937 original, centered around a falling star who helps a rising one achieve her own measure of fame. The story creates an affecting relationship between Garland’s character and James Mason’s declining idol, depicting both the intoxicating pleasures of fame and the pitfalls of such a fickle industry as show business. Their relationship anchors the nearly three-hour film that manages to tug at the heartstrings with each line and each memorable musical number.
3. Ed Wood
When Tim Burton takes on the early days of Hollywood, he didn’t focus on anyone successful but rather one of Hollywood’s most famous outsiders, who was making low budget dreck while high-profile directors were creating actual films of merit. The titular character of Ed Wood, played as zany but lovable by Johnny Depp, was an actual director who created some of the worst films ever created, including the “so bad it’s good” cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space. Burton paints a loving portrait of Wood and the group of financiers and friends he accrues to help bring his silly, exploitative ideas to life, making it clear that Wood is still admirable for pursuing a dream, even when it doesn’t always make sense.
4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
What better way to pay tribute to the Golden Age of animation than by mashing it together with old Hollywood noir tropes and a bit of actual Los Angeles history? Still the best film to mix live action performers with hand-drawn animation, Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is something like a crossover between Bugs Bunny and Philip Marlowe, making for a film that’s zany and silly even while providing a compelling mystery torn from yesterday’s headlines. Bob Hoskins plays the surly private eye forced to team up with Roger Rabbit, a “toon” he can’t stand due to his own hard-wired prejudices, in order to uncover a conspiracy by Christopher Lloyd’s terrifying Judge Doom to replace the city’s public transit with a highway system — an actual development that changed Hollywood history.
5. Singin’ in the Rain
Maybe the most beloved of Hollywood’s classic movie musicals, starring legendary triple-threat Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain satirizes a major turning point for Hollywood with plenty of lighthearted humor, dancing, romance, singing, and yes, even rain. After the introduction of sound, a production company is thrown into a new era, setting a new course for their planned film whose lead actress causes problems due to her cartoonishly obnoxious voice. The often hilarious depiction of the struggles to transition from silent films to “talkies” forms the backdrop for a simple love story between Kelly and Debbie Reynolds’s Kathy Selden that helps to make Singin’ in the Rain one of the greatest pieces of comfort entertainment in Hollywood history.
6. The Bad and the Beautiful
Kirk Douglas plays a struggling producer to end all struggling producers in this MGM melodrama from 1952. The son of a much-reviled studio head, Douglas’s Shields works his best to make it in Hollywood as his own man but his tendencies and resolve only alienate those around him who might be able to help him get his latest project off the ground. It’s a compelling and riveting depiction of Hollywood business struggles set in the sort of world where everyone puts themselves and their careers before others. On top of all that, the film has its basis in Hollywood truths, though there’s some debate on what real life figure Shields is based on. Most tend to believe he’s some amalgamation of such big names as Orson Welles, David O. Selznick, and Val Lewton.
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