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We sit in the dark, surrounded by strangers. Gradually, and then suddenly, it happens. On the big screen, a familiar logo appears — maybe it’s a huge “WB” in the shape of a shield, or the Earth partially encircled by the word “UNIVERSAL” — and just like that, we’re not a room full of strangers anymore. We’re an audience, we’re fans, ready and willing to be entertained. For decades, for countless moviegoers the world over, no movie studio logo has been more iconic, or more immediately and purely suggestive of imminent celluloid bliss, than Paramount Pictures’. We see that soaring, solitary mountain crowned by a halo of stars, and we think to ourselves: Here we go. Show time!
Founded in 1912 by Hungary-born Adolph Cukor (left, at 97 years old, in his chauffeured golf cart), Paramount might have lacked the strong identity forged by some of the other major studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Warner Bros. was for years known for its gritty crime thrillers; MGM produced glitzy extravaganzas and musicals. Paramount, on the other hand, was all over the map — but that was perfectly okay. After all, if a studio could deliver movies like (just to name a few) The Ten Commandments, Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Godfather, it had to be doing something right.
But even hugely successful companies that have been around for generations sometimes need to take stock and reassess — which is exactly the situation that Paramount, and Hollywood as a whole, found itself having to navigate in the early 1970s. AS LIFE magazine put it in a February 27, 1970 cover story entitled, “The Day the Dream Factory Woke Up”:
Here, LIFE.com presents a series of photos chronicling that “painful housecleaning” — pictures that capture both the faded magic and the heady appeal of a unique, profoundly self-absorbed industry that, perhaps more perfectly than any other, has always embodied the enduring struggle between Art and Commerce.
Photo credit, Zukor and chauffeur: Co Rentmeester—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.