Posted by Moira Finnie on December 30, 2009
Imagine yourself hopscotching through time in Hollywood at the holiday season in the 1930s and 1940s. Chances are, if you are a just a visitor, a civilian with little interest in show biz, or even one of the hoi polloi, eking out a pretty fair living as one of the worker bees in the film industry, often working six days a week, if you are lucky, and trying to make your pay packet last from week to week, you might be feeling a bit exhausted by New Year’s Eve.
If you are like many visitors, you may be overwhelmed, charmed or appalled at the way that tinsel town celebrates the season. The film capitol, along with the rest of America, seems to have taken to the holidays with a vengeance. Public and private parties, movie premieres, assignations and charity events come at a person in a blinding rush. Before we know it another year’s December festivities is a blur, a New Year is upon us, and, after the warmth of the holiday becomes a memory, the crumpled wrapping paper is cleaned up, the headaches have eased and the indiscretions half-forgotten, we move on…though perhaps one more tiny look back is warranted?
On Christmas Eve, 1921, Germany sent America one of their very first of many gifts to the movie capital when filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch arrived to embark on his own stellar career, amusing audiences for the next quarter century, making Americans in the hustings feel far more cosmopolitan than they had ever been before with his droll and cosmopolitan movies. The director and on of his wives might invite you to one of their Sunday soirees at home, even for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, extending “the Lubitsch touch” of generosity to people from the top of the heap to the bit players and assistant directors for many years. You might find yourself talking to a doctor, an electrician or, as some learned, that cadaverous man next to you at dinner might turn out to be Nobel Prize winning author Sinclair Lewis or a newly arrived, sleekly groomed Rex Harrison. As Walter Laemmle recalled, the Lubitsch crowd “never pretended to be anything they were not. You could talk to [Lubitsch] anytime about anything. You were not in awe of him…[nor] can I say I had the feeling that he was pulling rank, and we were all younger than he was. Many of the newly arrived, from at these idyllic parties gave themselves the ironic name of ‘The Foreign Legion’ even though they knew how lucky they were to be together in such a salubrious time and place.
If you are British writer J.B. Priestley alighting there one December in the early ’30s, you begin to suspect that “the studios found it easier to illuminate themselves with Christmas trees than the Christmas spirit.” That nagging thought doesn’t keep you from enjoying an evening recorded by Priestley with Charlie Chaplin and none other than H.G. Wells as a fellow guest, a jolly time with émigrés Edmund Gwenn and Nigel Bruce, or a particularly “droll evening of dining and boxing in the company of two of the Marx brothers”. You just know that Priestley probably is not referring to Zeppo and Gummo, either.
If you were to be a distinguished visitor in the late ’30s you might have been feted by the very prominent Irene Mayer Selznick and her husband–that producer fellow, David O.–in between “world premieres” of a little movie called Gone With the Wind. Maybe Irene showed you the 24 karat “medal” she’d been awarded that Christmas and had attached to her watch. Enchanted by the inscription reading “To the real heroine of GWTW from her four-eyed Rhett”, she had been enchanted, but, in a moment of candor, even Mr. S. was heard to murmur “Heroine yes, but, alas, the victim.” It would be some time before Irene ruefully realized that “we were both victims, but David paid the higher price.”
Debuts of movies in extravagant premieres were everyday events in December. Several opened on the last day of the year with many audience members warming to the romance of Gilbert Roland and Norma Talmadge in The Dove in 1927, while others escaped to medieval Paris in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939. Some marveled at the improbably delightful show stoppers Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway in 1941, and Depression era audiences watched the mighty industrialist played with flourish by Warren William get his just desserts in The Match King in 1932 and Mr. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun sizzled onto screens in all its nonsensical glory in 1946. Many of the premieres in the early ’30s wound up with a party at the Brown Derby, while Ciro’s, which opened on New Year’s Eve, 1939, became the place to rub elbows with a diverse crowd that might include a Lana Turner and even, (at least for one night) Albert Einstein appeared during the war years. Others might find the Hollywood Canteen, where Bette Davis and John Garfield coordinated activities serving the enlisted men during the war to be a good place to touch base with more earth bound concerns.
If you were in LA in the late ’20s, maybe you dropped by the Hollywood Coliseum to watch a football game in shirt sleeves, catching a glimpse of apple-cheeked Clara Bow wondering “What’s all this fuss ’bout a football game?” A few years later you might catch some of the tenants at the Garden of Allah toasting one another’s health at an endless cocktail party. Did you overhear Bob Benchley worrying that he might decamp soon for New York again. Suspicious of all that the glittering Babylon-by-the-Sea offered, the writer, (soon to become a fixture in many movies) mumbled into his martini that “I don’t trust that ocean. It’s just pretending to be peaceful. It’s waiting for the right time to sweep up and in and over everything.”
For the vast majority of people, though, the holidays, especially during the Depression years and the war that ended it, might mean window shopping more than buying.
Maybe you arrived in town early enough in the holiday season to catch the Hollywood Santa Parade. Begun in the 1920s, the parade, which has lasted until today under various names, (and with a hiatus during WWII), was originally a way to promote holiday business in Los Angeles. It was the brain child of successful merchant and future county supervisor, Harry Baine, a Texas-born businessman who built an office building that still stands at the corner of Hollywood and Whitley Boulevards. The original event began in 1928 with just a lone Santa being pulled in a wheeled sleigh down Hollywood Boulevard while a starlet was in attendance such as the lovely Jeanette Loff (who had appeared in an uncredited bit in the silent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that year). Sidewalks were decorated with live Christmas trees and larger than life papier-mâché Santas peaked out at strollers of cardboard chimneys along the street.
Soon, big name celebrities such as Mary Pickford and Edward Everett Horton were persuaded to have a photo taken aiding in decorating the street. By this time, 16-foot-high, 750-pound metal trees, with each lamp post bearing a glistening wreath with a cameo style, photographed likeness of a Claudette Colbert, a Gloria Stuart or Joe E. Brown, who would be named the first grand marshal of the parade in 1932, blending bonhomie with advertising in an early form of synergy, as seen in the picture at the left of Mr. Brown.
By the late ’30s, the parade on Hollywood Boulevard usually included marching bands, movie stars and more elaborate floats, as well as an estimated crowd of nearly one million people in 1939. The coming of the Second World War meant the suspension of the parade until after the war, when it returned with even more people involved, eventually being televised on KTLA between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The thumbnail gallery below gives some idea of the changing face of the parade over the decades of the ’30s and ’40s:
At other times, extravagant gestures and real charity was in evidence, as when the devoutly Jewish entertainer Eddie Cantor gave enough presents to the Hollywood Canteen in 1943 for ten thousand service men. During the holidays, William Randolph Hearst confidante and actress Marion Davies invited impoverished children in Los Angeles to a Christmas circus on the MGM studio lot, reportedly making sure that each child received a gift, and that food baskets would be delivered to their homes for their families to enjoy–all, reportedly, paid out for out of her own pocket. Some made a show of their generosity, going into debt to lavish presents on powerful figures such as Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, hoping to appease the goddesses of gossip for another year. Others, perhaps a bit, shall we say, “frugal”, gave their co-stars an 8 x 10 glossy of themselves (a gift that some co-workers recalled came from Bing Crosby, a man who might raise millions for charity, but who was more economical in private.)
Writer Budd Schulberg recalled the Christmas just after his father B.P. Schulberg, had been fired from his position as head of Paramount Studios in 1932, (though he would not sever ties to the studio completely until 1937). With their children accustomed to finding masses of presents from execs, stars, directors and writers from Clara Bow to Cecil B. DeMille during the holidays, the former mogul and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Adeline Jafee-Schulberg, purchased numerous gifts they could ill afford. Placing them carefully under their luminous tree in their home, each gift card was signed as if it came from one of those celebrated past donors.
Some of the families in Hollywood celebrated their Jewish heritage quietly, while publicly indulging in the festive celebrations of the dominant and often insistently Christian population as well. As Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling commented, “My parents were religious but never forced it on us kids. But I was Jewish. I never felt for a moment that I was not Jewish. We had a menorah, the special candleholder for Chanukah, but we also celebrated Christmas. Not with Grandpa Benjamin or Pearl! [her great-grandparents]…There was always a Christmas tree and presents. We all believed in Santa Claus, but the word ‘Jesus’ was never spoken in our house.” Fortunately for these often understandably conflicted children, Passover was often more carefully observed.
If you were level-headed writer Donald Ogden Stewart, you found the atmosphere a bit more muted after the hardworking men and women at the studios recovered from their annual bacchanalia/office party the week before. “The afternoon before Christmas was the big common festival of ‘anything goes’ at alll the studios. There was an unwritten law that everyone got drunk without penalty.” At normally circumspect MGM, “Thalberg and Rapf and even the great Louis B. Mayer would find their offices filled with bit players and ‘juicers’ and prop boys with loud, uninhibited suggestions as to what they could do with the studio.” Usually the ramifications for this behavior were nil. Some sound stages found movie crews going about their work in a frantic or a desultory fashion over the holidays, depending on the director’s temperament and the times.
“On some of the stages”, Stewart wrote, “any star who had a reputation for being overly impressed with his or her own reputation acted that afternoon in great danger from nuts and bolts and monkey wrenches being dropped from the scaffolding above.”
On this special day, a mogul like Louis B. Mayer might mount a rostrum extolling the quality of the previous year’s worth of movie production, and, of course, assuring those within earshot that the next year would be the same. Once he left the studio, however, the sometimes the public corporate wholesomeness might fade rather quickly, with the mogul’s tacit knowledge, allowing the workers to blow off steam, even if the celebrations sometimes degenerated into what veteran production manager Wallace Worsley, Jr. described as “an orgy that might have made Caligula feel at home.” A Harry Cohn was fond of a tradition that was described as “a Herod-like present…for a secretary, when he allowed one of his favorite clerical workers to choose someone to be fired.” A Jack Warner might don a Santa suit to distribute presents, a pep talk or cheer to his troops just before laying many of them off until the New Year (a good way to avoid paying Christmas bonuses in a lean year).
Yet, particularly at the rambunctious “working class” studio of Warner Brothers, employees enjoyed a quasi-regular ritual that has re-surfaced in recent years thanks to public domain sites such as youtube. The studio workers at Warner Brothers looked forward to a relaxed day and evening as well as a reel showing the glorified stars of the many pictures the studio cranked out at their most human.
The out takes below show when the stress of filmmaking and the pace of production caused some very prominent feet of clay to stumble, and–be warned–to indulge in some pretty colorful language. It provided many laughs for the lesser mortals who made the dreams in the factory. Perhaps it will do the same for you today…look for everyone from Edward G. Robinson, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart to Bette Davis, Kay Francis, David Niven and Olivia de Havilland earning their stripes as veterans of Warner Brother’s follies…on with the revels…tomorrow is soon enough for another real try at those resolutions.
Happy New Year to All !
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1935
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1936
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1937
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1938
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1939
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1940
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1941
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1942
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1944
Warner Brothers Breakdowns of 1949
Dick, Bernard F., The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
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