Memos from Zanuck: “It All Depends on How You Tell the Story”

blogopenerA few weeks ago, I wrote about the behind-the-scenes memos between Jack Warner and his producers, directors, and stars that can be found in a book titled Inside Warner Bros. 1935 – 1951. Compiled by Rudy Behlmer, the memos are fascinating and revelatory. Not only do they offer insights into the daily operations of the major studios, they also revealed the personalities, peculiarities, and peccadillos of the moguls who ran Hollywood during the Golden Age. This week, I thought I would skim through Behlmer’s Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox to uncover forgotten details of the studio’s history that classic movie fans might find enlightening. Though his memos are not as quirky or unintentionally funny as Warner’s, they confirmed my opinion regarding his strengths as a producer.

I have always thought of Zanuck as a literate man whose early years as a scriptwriter for Warner Bros. served him well as an executive producer. Zanuck exhibited a talent for shaping scripts during preproduction and sharpening films during editing. While directors such as John Ford and Preston Sturges often bristled at his interference and disagreed with him about cutting down scenes and sequences, Zanuck was a stickler for linear narratives with sharp pacing, which he called “tempo.” Often, his judgment was correct. His cut of My Darling Clementine did tighten the narrative without losing the majesty of the visuals and gravity of the characters.

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The Memos of Jack Warner: “The Mustache Is the Thing for This Picture”

blogopenerIn last week’s post, I offered snatches of internal memos from Warner Bros. regarding their day-to-day operations during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I quoted from memos between executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz, because I detected a long-term tension between the two, especially on the part of Wallis. Based on comments I received (including on Facebook), I don’t think some readers quite believed me, claiming that Wallis was only doing Jack Warner’s bidding, and that Warner was far worse. This week I focused on the memos of Jack Warner to see if he was, indeed, “worse” than Wallis. Warner could certainly be bad-tempered, irritable, and downright crabby, but, in my opinion, he was cantankerous with everyone. In a way I can’t fully explain but certainly intuit, it didn’t seem personal. My favorite aspect of the Warner memos was something I didn’t expect—a quirky humor that made me laugh out loud. Below is the unfiltered wit and venom of Jack Warner, vice-president in charge of production, i.e. the mogul behind Warner Bros.’s movies during the Golden Age. Make of it what you will.

As mentioned last week, memos on Warners’ pre-Code movies are scarce, but Jack did weigh in on certain issues that would not be relevant after the Code was enforced in 1934—most notably the breasts of some of his stars. In a 1933 memo about the dailies for Convention City, he wrote, “We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts,. . . .for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” In a pre-production memo regarding The Case of the Howling Dog, he reminds producer Sam Bischoff, “Be sure that Bette Davis has her bulbs wrapped up.” Davis’s “bulbs” became a moot point because the actress refused to appear in the film. She was suspended for this infraction of her contract, and the role was given to Mary Astor.

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What I Didn’t Know About Harry Cohn

harryyoungI recently picked up a used audiotape of the biography of Harry Cohn by Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn. First published in 1967, the book was revised in 1990 with additional interviews and material; in 2000, it was republished, including an audiotape edition with a forward by Peter Bart. King Cohn is not groundbreaking in structure or shocking in content, but I did learn a great deal about the meanest movie mogul in Hollywood as well as the love of his life, Columbia Pictures.

Most of the Golden Age movie moguls started at the bottom in the movie business and worked their way up to head of production at their studios. While Cohn was no exception, I discovered that his entrance into the film industry was quite unique. He was working as a song plugger for sheet-music publishers when he had a brilliant idea to increase sales. The latest songs were routinely plugged at movie theaters between films by the house orchestras who played them while slides of pretty pictures were shown to the audience. Cohn believed that audiences would respond better to movie footage than slides, so he began to produce footage for theaters to project during the songs.  To maximize the effect, Cohn learned to match the content of the images to the songs’ lyrics. Jack Cohn, Harry’s brother, worked for Universal Pictures at the time, and he showed Cohn’s innovation to studio owner Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was impressed enough to give Harry a job.  Eventually, Harry and Jack left Universal to form their own production company.

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Mogul Mania

Tonight begins TCM’s original documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, a seven-part series that will air every Monday till December 13, with each episode repeating on the following Wednesday. An ambitious, meticulously crafted interpretation of the history of American film, Moguls & Movie Stars focuses on the famous (movie stars) and the infamous (the moguls) as the threads that tie this history together.

While I have been anxiously awaiting the series since I first heard about it months ago, I feel especially eager because I have already seen the first two episodes, and I know the quality and level of detail to expect. At the Telluride Film Festival, director John Wilkman presented Episode 1: “The Peepshow Pioneers” and Episode 2: “The Birth of Hollywood.” Another reason I am excited about Moguls & Movie Stars is because I got to contribute in a small way to the terrific-looking website that supports the series. I wrote four of the site’s biographies of the legendary moguls: Sam Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse L. Lasky, and Irving Thalberg. I urge everyone to peruse the website for the wealth of historical information it provides. However, I can’t help but wonder if the other writers experienced the same difficulty that I did in paring down the anecdotes and stories about the moguls into just a few paragraphs. Some of the information and insight I uncovered but discounted will pop up in the program’s interviews with the moguls’ relatives and offspring, including Carla Laemmle, Daniel Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. But much information I came across will be left out. I thought it might be fun and enlightening to offer a few extra facts and details on these larger-than-life moguls who, for better or worse, shaped the Hollywood industry.

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