Best Documentaries About the Golden Age of Hollywood

Best Documentaries About the Golden Age of Hollywood

The Golden Age of Hollywood was a period in which five major studios — Paramount, MGM, Fox, RKO Pictures, and Warner Bros — controlled the movie business. During this era, many of the greatest films of all time were made. Iconic actors such as Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Grace Kelly, and Cary Grant, also got most of the lead roles. This was, therefore, when templates for how to create a perfect film, and how to give a great performance, were created.

There continues to debate regarding when exactly the golden age started and ended, but most historians agree that it began in the mid 1910s and stretched to the 1960s. So far, many stories have been written about this wonderful era. Movies have been made too, but anyone looking to get more detailed information can opt for documentaries.

Comprising actual footage, interviews from insiders, and soothing narrations, these documentaries remind cineastes of how wonderful (or flawed) cinema’s foundation was.

10 The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)

Numerous behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories have proven that many critically acclaimed movies came to life via strenuous processes. Citizen Kane was no different. Though it’s widely considered the greatest movie of all time, its creation phase was unpleasant for everyone involved.

The chaos is examined in the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, which specifically focuses on the feud between director Orson Welles, and media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The one-percenter felt that the movie was defaming him, so he attempted to torpedo the production process.

Additional Scoop for Viewers

Apart from the fact that William Hearst felt that the character, Charles Forster Kane, was too similar to him, little else is known about this particular feud. The Battle Over Citizen Kane thus does well by providing plenty of ‘exclusives.’

For example, it’s revealed that Charles Forster Kane isn’t just based on Hurst alone. He is a composite character based on other figures like Joseph Pulitzer, Chicago utilities magnate Samuel Insull, Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, and even Welles himself. It’s also revealed that Hurst manipulated the heads of the other four studios to buy Citizen Kane’s negative and alter it to his liking.

So captivating is the story that audiences will feel like they are watching a whole other movie, with Welles as the protagonist and Hearst as the villain. The awesomeness was also recognized by the Oscars via a Best Documentary Feature nomination.

Stream it on Plex

9 Girl 27 (2007)

Several decades before the #MeToo movement was formed, actress Patricia Douglas came out and exposed an MGM salesman for sexually assaulting her. According to Douglas, she and 120 other women were summoned to an MGM party in May 1937, under the premise that they were going to serve as extras in a movie scene. Douglas was then targeted and raped, and her story is harrowingly told in Girl 27.

The Rot in Hollywood

What’s sad about Girl 27 is the realization that such crimes have been happening for years. It’s only until recently that something was done about it. Douglas’ quest for justice was heartbreaking as she was ignored by a District Attorney, who happened to be friends with the MGM boss, and later subjected to a smear campaign to discredit her claims.

Overall, the documentary paints an accurate and somber picture of how hard life is for women in Hollywood. David Stenn (known for his work in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hill Street Blues, and Boardwalk Empire)) serves as the director here, so everything is handled with the meticulousness that’s required.

RELATED: The 15 Best Hits From Hollywood’s Golden Age

8 Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2017)

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood tells the story of bartender Scotty Bowers, who procured escorts for Hollywood’s elite for about four decades. Bowers waited until the death of most of his clients before spilling the beans in his book Full Service. The memoir was then used as the basis for this particular documentary.

Sensationalism or Fact?

Because Bowers waited until none of the mentioned individuals were alive to defend themselves, so the documentary could be labeled as pure sensationalism. The procurer himself claims that his intention was simply not to hurt his clients. That’s why he waited until they were all dead.

While the facts can be debated, there is no denying that Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is extremely enjoyable to watch. Even better is that the story doesn’t take a condemnatory tone. In fact, the hedonistic figures get glorified, making this feel like a typical Scorsese movie.

Stream it on Prime Video

7 Charlie: The Life And Art of Charles Chaplin (2003)

Directed and written by film critic Richard Schickel, Charlie: The Life And Art of Charles Chaplin presents an extensive survey of the life of one of the greatest Silent Era stars, Charlie Chaplin. From the movie star’s time as a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe to his decision to quit the industry after the poor performance of a film he cared about, no detail gets left out.

A Celebration of a Great Career

The documentary delights by combining archival footage, talking heads, and clips from some of the actor’s greatest works. Various big names offer their takes, creating the feel of a Hollywood festival. Among the interviewees are Woody Allen, Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, and Richard Attenborough, among others.

Shickel doesn’t play fast and loose with facts either. He includes the opinions of several people who knew the man well, namely his children Michael, Geraldine, and Sydney Chaplin, and his biographers Jeffrey Vance, and David Robinson.

Stream it on Plex

6 Moguls and Movie Stars (2010)

Narrated by Christopher Plummer, Moguls and Movie Stars takes viewers on a journey through cinema’s infancy all the way to its mature years. It kicks off by telling the tale of the early film investors who made a killing by tapping into an area that no one else was bothering with the development of sound movies, the impact of World War II on cinema, censorship, and the changing Hollywood landscape of the ‘60s.

Acknowledging All Parties

Because it’s a seven-part docuseries, Moguls and Movie Stars neither rushes to the juicy parts nor skips important parties. It includes footage from every box office hit in every decade during the Golden Age, while also giving an account of the life of every major star. Viewers will particularly be impressed by the stories of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Marylin Monroe. The living relatives of various studio heads are interviewed too, making this a wholesome viewing experience for history and Old Hollywood buffs.

Buy it on Amazon

5 Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

Based on the memoir of the same name, Tab Hunter Confidential chronicles the life of actor, singer, author, and film producer, Tab Hunter. Known for his charm and clean-cut looks, Hunter was a major figure in the Golden Age, starring in over 40 motion pictures. He would later make headlines when he revealed that he was a proud member of the LGBTQ community.

From the Horse’s Mouth

Here, viewers get to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. The documentary benefits from the fact that director Jeffrey Schwarz — who sat down with the actor several times — was not only good at extracting information but also found a character that was willing to give five-minute answers to 10-second questions.

Hunter serves gossip on plenty of interesting information, notably his romantic relationship with Psycho star Anthony Perkins, and the complicated mindset of no-nonsense studio head Jack Wener. For some extra spice, the film also features interviews with contemporaries like Clint Eastwood, John Waters, and Debbie Reynolds.

Stream it on Prime Video

4 Dial H for Hitchcock: The Shadow of a Genius (1999)

With a title that’s creatively spun from Alfred Hitchcock’s hit film, Dial H for Murder, Dial H for Hitchcock sheds light on the working process of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, whose peak years fell right within the Golden Age. The documentary explains how he managed to be so prolific, and how he rarely had a miss, despite rarely taking a break.

Filmmaking Masterclass

Dial H for Hitchcock isn’t just meant to entertain. It’s more of a masterclass, teaching aspiring filmmakers how they too can be like Hitchcock. There is a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage, revealing how the director micromanaged every single aspect of the production process.

Away from the set, viewers get to see how Hitchcock’s unerring focus on self-promotion helped push both him and his films to legendary status. With Kevin Spacey as the narrator, the documentary might not have aged beautifully, but it is still a worthy watch.

3 Showbiz Goes to War (1982)

How did Hollywood manage to consistently churn out movies while a global conflict was going on? Showbiz Goes to War answers that question. The 90-minute documentary examines the industry’s operations during World War II, pointing out the challenges and disclosing the creative ways in which some of the participants managed to keep the engine running.

A Mixture of Conspiracy Theory and Fact

Showbiz Goes to War wows by presenting newsreel footage and plenty of exclusive clips. Furthermore, the narration is wonderfully done. Unsurprisingly, it also leans towards conspiracy theory territory. In some scenes, it’s suggested that certain Hollywood figures might have influenced the outcome of the war. It’s also suggested that some iconic films were purely made to shape the public’s perspective on the conflict. It’s, therefore, up to the viewer to choose what to believe.

2 Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980)

Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film consists of thirteen 50-minute episodes chronicling the evolution of cinema from an arcade extravaganza to a screen art form. Each episode touches on a different aspect of the industry that made everything run smoothly. Some focus on the cameramen, and others focus on the extras, among others.

Highs and Lows

The docuseries features interview contributions from stars like John Wayne and Douglas Fairbanks, making it a true nod to fans of the Silent Era. Some of the interviews are the only ones ever given by the subjects, hence there is some ‘exclusivity’ aspect to this production.

What Hollywood does best is honoring the work of stunt performers. Silent Era films heavily relied on gags and dangerous stunts, yet stunt performers hardly received any credit or decent pay. The docuseries also reminds everyone that the pioneers weren’t necessarily saints. One of the forgotten scandals covered is the manslaughter trial of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s mentor, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle.

RELATED: 10 Iconic Movie Quotes From Hollywood’s Golden Age

1 The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind (1988)

David Hinton’s The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind accentuates the legacy and production challenges of the 1939 Oscar-winning film Gone with the Wind. Events stretch all the way back to the source material’s publication, and conclude at the glamorous Oscars ceremony of 1940.

What If?

The documentary excels by exploring many “What If?” scenarios. This stems from the fact that many final crew members were not the ones originally selected to work on the film. Producer David O. Selznick had a difficult time steering the ship, so he worked with three different directors. So, what if either of them had seen the project through? The possible scenarios are all touched on.

The same goes for the acting roles, with the director wondering what the reaction would have been like if Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn had played the protagonist, Rhett Butler.


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