Friday, May 29, 2020

The Industry Changes: PART FIVE

The collapse of the studio system and the Hayes Code ushered in a new golden age of filmmaking. Freed from the bonds of censorship and producer interference, a new generation of directors seized the new freedom and began making the type of films that their predecessors could only dream about. Under the studio system, directors were just another cog in the machine; forced by contract to make whatever they were assigned. The 1970’s ushered in a new era where directors could fully realize their visions.

Not everyone in Hollywood was happy about this new freedom, however. Many holdovers from the original golden era bemoaned the new films as vulgar, disgusting and obscene. They predicted that the public would eventually revolt against Hollywood and motion pictures would become a thing of the past. This obviously proved to be untrue, but the rift between old and new Hollywood would continue.

While adult themes would permit Hollywood to make cost effective, profitable pictures that would attract mature audiences, it was still willing to make big budget blockbusters that could get massive audiences into theaters. The film that would usher in the modern day era of blockbusters was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The film was a sensation, setting the stage for lavish, special effects laden movies. The film’s success showed that a sane balance between big budget films and quieter movies could be found.

Today, Hollywood seems to be at another crossroads. After Martin Scorsese’s recent comments about super hero films pushing out the quieter motion pictures, some media outlets seized upon his statements and gave them extensive coverage. Is Iron Man ruining the motion picture industry?

The answer is arguably no. The current state of motion pictures is more likely affected by the recent “peak television” phenomenon. Basic cable and streaming services are producing massive amounts of television shows that feature the sort of mature content that could only be found in motion pictures just ten years ago. Cable television has always been free to show whatever it wanted, but with the exception of premium channels, it never took advantage of this freedom. In the last ten years, however, basic cable has tested the waters by including  profanity, nudity and adult themes in its programming. This has reduced the audience for these types of theatrical releases. Why go to a theater when you can get this type of programming at home with the push of a button? Faced with this situation, the studios are merely repeating history; offering moviegoers something they can’t quite replicate at home. Will this be sustainable this time? Only time will tell.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Industry Changes: PART FOUR

With potential censorship issues resolved, Hollywood went back to work making motion pictures. The golden age of Hollywood and its studio system was on its last legs. This time the threat came from television. Today, nearly every major studio produces both films and television series. In television’s early years, however, major studios refused to produce programming for television. After all, why would they want to arm their mortal enemy? As studio titans worried about how they could protect their turf from this nefarious device that provided free programming in people’s houses, one titan decided to embrace television and use it to his advantage- Walt Disney.

Mr. Disney originally stood with his fellow studio heads in spurning television’s advances. However, he had big plans to diversify his company’s business and he saw that television could assist him with that. Walt Disney was certain DISNEYLAND was going to change the way families vacationed together, but he needed money and to get the word out about what he was building in Anaheim, California. ABC provided him with both. This initial “betrayal” angered Hollywood’s other moguls, but the sound business reasons for Mr. Disney’s decision would setup his company to become the behemoth it is today.

Other studios, reluctant to follow Disney’s lead, chose to start making films that television couldn’t compete with. Utilizing the full sized theater screens, Hollywood was soon awash in huge, budget busting spectacles. The most expensive and notorious of these films was Cleopatra, which almost took down Twentieth-Century-Fox. Obviously, this was not a sustainable way to deal with the upheaval Hollywood faced. So how could the studios provide a more cost effective way to get people out their houses and into theaters to see their latest films? To put it bluntly, tits and ass.

Adult themes couldn’t be shown on television, but maybe it would be possible to show them in a theater. The studios just needed to come up with a replacement for the aging Hayes Code. Thus the current rating system was created. This would allow filmmakers to depict themes that were unthinkable with the Hayes Code. The rating system would give a clear guideline to the public about what to expect from a film, opening the world of cinema up to new visions. Would audiences warm up to adult themes? They would.

One of the early successes of “New Cinema” was Easy Rider. The film was a massive success, making millions of dollars on a shoestring budget. Hollywood saw the future and it was edgy, auteur driven and in the eyes of old Hollywood- profane.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Industry Changes: PART THREE

After embracing MGM’s movie making process that would ensure a steady stream of motion pictures for the world’s theaters, Hollywood settled into an unprecedented period of profitability. The studios began concentrating on building up their actors and actresses into super stars. While the studio publicity machines wanted to put their performers up on pedestals, they also wanted them to appear like everyday folks who were just like you and me. This would prove to be a more difficult task than creating the industry itself.

A string of celebrity scandals would bring scrutiny to the studios and their films. Congress and local governments threatened to enforce strict censorship on the studios. Would the censorship survive constitutional scrutiny? Probably not, but the studios weren’t willing to risk it. In response to the scrutiny, the studios banded together to enact strict restrictions on themselves. They hired a conservative, Republican politician to enforce this new voluntary code- Will Hayes. These new restrictions would chase Mae West into a decades long exodus from Hollywood; if she couldn’t make the innuendo filled movies that she loved, she didn’t want to play along.

All of the major studios agreed to have their pictures approved by the Hayes Office and the vast majority of theaters vowed to never show unapproved films. This would succeed in getting the government off their backs.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Industry Changes: PART TWO

After the motion picture industry solved its problems with Thomas Edison by relocating to Southern California, it soon ran into another problem- supply. The world was clamoring for more motion pictures, far more than the industry could provide at that time. Theater owners decided to take matters into their own hands; establishing and buying studios of their own that could ensure a steady stream of product. William Fox’s Fox Films was one such enterprise. Fox’s theaters would get first pick of the studio’s films. The studio would sell its films to the highest bidders in markets without Fox theaters.

Marcus Loew, whose Loew’s Theater chain was one of the biggest exhibitors at the time, decided to assemble a supplier by buying three existing studios- Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Mayer Films. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. While it might have seemed like a pricy option to buy three established studios which were owned and operated by three opinionated moguls, it turned out to be one of the smartest deals Loew had ever made.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would reign over Hollywood during the golden age of films. Led by Louis B. Mayer, who ended up winning the studio power struggle, MGM proved that it was up to the challenge of producing the pictures its parent company needed for its theaters. Mayer created a literal motion picture factory whose film making prowess was unmatched by anyone else. MGM locked up Hollywood’s top talent- actresses, actors, directors and writers- providing them with a steady income based on their value to the studio. Whereas many in Hollywood today have to hustle for parts, at MGM the talent were full time employees, making weekly pay regardless of whether they were actively working on a project. Mayer’s dream factory often seemed to be less of a dream and more of a factory.

MGM would become the gold standard in Hollywood; the studio that all others would be judged against. Nobody could make films as quickly or efficiently as MGM and nobody had more power than its leader, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer’s power and influence wouldn’t insulate him or his studio from Hollywood’s next big challenge.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Industry Changes: PART ONE

Much has been made of recent comments made by acclaimed directors who derided the type of big budget movies that have become a staple of modern cinema. Bizarrely enough, the media has highlighted these statements as though they were anything other than a few older talents bemoaning the fact that these young people dared trampling on their lawns. The rise of big budget movies has happened because of changing audience expectations and competition. Adapting to change is nothing new and something that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola took advantage of themselves in the 1970’s when an even older group of legends bemoaned their lawn trampling. This week we’ll look at past changes and how Hollywood dealt with them. As we’ll see, the only constant in Hollywood is change.

Our story begins not in Hollywood, but in New Jersey. The burgeoning motion picture industry got its start in New Jersey, centered around Thomas Edison’s company. Edison had the earliest patents for motion picture equipment which originally consisted of a kinetoscope and a kinetoscope viewer. His early equipment would take numerous, quick pictures that when flipped would appear to depict moving scenes. Customers could view these vignettes at arcades where they would peer inside a machine to see them.

While some of the machines would feature risqué film of women in bloomers, mainstream machines would have short, captivating vignettes. The technology behind these “motion pictures” would advance quickly. Eventually, filmmakers could make short films that could then be projected on a screen to large audiences. The public soon had an insatiable desire to watch these films and the young entertainment business would spring up in New Jersey.

While Thomas Edison would attract these businesses to New Jersey he would also be responsible for chasing them away. The young studios wanted to buy Thomas Edison’s equipment outright, but Edison only wanted to lease them out. Additionally, Thomas required a royalty from every picture filmed with his cameras. These startups could barely afford to make their pictures to begin with. Having to pay an additional royalty to Edison on top of the camera rental threatened to kill the industry before it began. Enterprising “entrepreneurs” swooped in to build and sell their very own cameras, which probably violated a few of Edison’s patents. These grey market cameras were irresistible to the studios up until Thomas Edison sent in his goons to bust up studios he suspected were using equipment that violated his patents.

Yes, Thomas Edison had “goons”. These violent altercations proved to be bad for business, but instead of encouraging the studios to use his cameras, Edison encouraged the movie industry to make its first big change. The studios decided to move as far away as they could to escape Edison’s wrath- to Los Angeles, California.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Memorial Day Weekend: Tragedy at the Hollywood Canteen

Yesterday, we highlighted the happy times at the famed Hollywood Canteen. Bette Davis and her Hollywood friends were creating wonderful memories nightly. However, not everyone who walked out of the the Canteen had a happy memory of their time there. Gene Tierney's experience in the Canteen was sadly tragic.

The beautiful Ms. Tierney was born into a blue blooded east coast family that looked down its nose at the acting profession. Acting was something that itinerant lower classes did. When her family visited a Hollywood Studio on vacation, a studio executive instantly offered Ms. Tierney a contract, but her parents refused to allow it. They wanted her to return to the east coast, become a debutante as befitting their wealth and get married. Her father convinced her to try out the debutante circuit and only consider returning to Hollywood if she didn't like it. She didn't like it and he grudgingly agreed to let her try out this acting thing. She returned to Hollywood and soon found herself swept off her feet by struggling fashion designer Oleg Cassini. Her parents forbade her from marrying him, but she defied them yet again. They eloped against her parents' wishes.

Ms. Tierney soon found herself pregnant, but she chose to keep it quiet at first. Studio policy was to suspend a pregnant woman's contract, leaving her without a paycheck until she gave birth and returned to her pre-pregnancy weight. Mr. Cassini's career had not taken off yet and they couldn't afford to go long without Gene's paycheck. Gene planned to work as long as she could until it was impossible to hide her pregnancy.

One fateful night, Gene decided to visit the Hollywood Canteen to meet and greet the soldiers. The night was uneventful, though Gene would take ill not long afterwards. She was diagnosed with the measles, possibly contracted at the Canteen. Her doctors advised her not to worry about her pregnancy and the effect the measles might have on it. Her daughter was born and began having issues. They soon realized that the measles Gene had contracted would cause lifelong health problems for her daughter. Gene was devasted.

Years later, at a meet and greet, a young woman approached Gene. Did Gene recognize her, she queried. Gene admitted that she did not and the young woman mentioned having met her years earlier at the Hollywood Canteen. She said that she was such a big fan of Gene's that she went out to see her that night despite having the measles. Gene chose not to confront the woman whose selfish decision had caused so much grief. She merely just retreated from the situation. It is not known whether the woman ever realized what she had done.

Famed British author Agatha Christie wrote a fictionalized version of the encounter in her book The Mirror Crack'd. It would be one of the rare times when a real life event was used as the inspiration for one of Ms. Christie's mystery books. In the 1980 film The Mirror Crack'd starring Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor played the fictional actress who is confronted by the selfish fan who would end up dead. Did the grieving mother commit a murder? Angela Lansbury's Miss Marple spends the film trying to find out. This film would inspire CBS to cast Angela in Murder, She Wrote.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Memorial Day Weekend: The Hollywood Canteen

When World War II broke out, Hollywood was eager to help in any way it could. One of the most eager actresses was Bette Davis. Despite having a reputation for being difficult, Ms. Davis had a heart of gold when it came to honoring servicemen and women. She joined forces with character actor John Garfield to open up a unique venue- the Hollywood Canteen.


The Hollywood Canteen was a night club that offered free entry, free food, free drinks and free entertainment to any and all servicemen. Any and all soldiers, passing through Los Angeles on the way to fighting the war, could enjoy a marvelous evening that many of them would never forget. The club was fully staffed by volunteers from throughout Hollywood. Disney animators decorated the walls, Hollywood starlets danced with servicemen, world famous singers entertained. Soldiers could rub elbows with the likes of Donna Reed, Doris Day, Peggy Lee and Lena Horne.


It may sound too good to be true, but it was genuine. Actors and actresses gave their time, talent and cash to send America's heroes off to fight the war in style. The best part of it all was how progressive things were at the canteen- all at Bette Davis' request. The Hollywood Canteen would be fully integrated. Bette didn't care what race a soldier was; that he was fighting for his country is all that mattered. She decreed that there would be no segregation in her club, no 'colored' entrance, no separation. She encouraged the Hollywood starlets who volunteered to dance with the troops to entertain all races equally. This was revolutionary thinking at the time, even in Hollywood. Bette Davis was a trailblazer.


The openness and inviting atmosphere attracted a who's who of Hollywood legends including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bob Hope, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, Dorothy Dandridge and so many more. Oddly enough, future President Ronald Reagan, though active in Hollywood at the time, was not recorded as having helped out at the canteen. Noted progressive Gregory Peck, on the other hand, was a huge supporter of the Hollywood Canteen.


Millions of servicemen passed through the canteen during the war, getting memories that would last them a lifetime. Sadly, some of them didn't return alive, but Bette Davis and a cavalcade of Hollywood legends made sure that their last days in the country they fought for were amazing. This unique club was immortalized in the Warner Brothers film Hollywood Canteen, though the amazing enterprise is seemingly a forgotten part of Hollywood history.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Immortality: Wizard of Oz Part Five

On August 25, 1939 mere weeks after it was completed, The Wizard of Oz had its premiere. MGM pulled out all the stops to promote its answer to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 

The mighty lion roared, but that wasn’t enough to bring out the crowds. The Wizard of Oz barely made back its production cost. When promotional costs were factored in, the film actually lost money. As far as Louis B. Mayer was concerned, the film was a major disappointment. Any plans for subsequent Oz pictures were canceled and Louis B. Mayer tried to salvage his investment by selling the Oz rights to the person who inspired him to pursue them to begin with- his friend Walt Disney.

Subsequent re-releases would eventually put the film in the black by 1948, but even then it wasn’t a huge profit. The film would be mostly forgotten until 1956 when CBS chose to air the film as part of its Ford sponsored movie block. This would be the Showcase the film needed. The Wizard of Oz exploded in popularity, finally becoming the classic film that MGM had expected.

The Wizard of Oz would finally get its happy ever after ending. That the production would suffer through so many problems and still come out a quality, classic film is a testament to MGM’s movie making system. Any one of the problems that befell the film could have dragged down a lesser studio. For all of the bad things that have been said about Hollywood’s studio system, a quality film like The Wizard of Oz would have been impossible to make without it.

To this day, The Wizard of Oz still enchants and delights new generations of children who long to discover for themselves what lies over the rainbow. Ray Bolger summed it up best when he told an interviewer who asked him if he received royalties that he had actually gained something more valuable to him- immortality.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Making A Classic: Wizard of Oz Part Four

With all of the issues that happened before The Wizard of Oz began filming, MGM was probably hoping for a smooth production. With both the original wicked witch and director replaced before principal photography began, Louis B. Mayer was hopeful that the worst was over. That would not prove to be the case. A series of catastrophic events would befall the production.

The first casualty of the production was Buddy Ebsen. MGM’s famed makeup and design team was trying to ensure that Oz popped on screen. The silver paint they were using for the Tin Man caused a severe reaction in Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen collapsed on the set and was rushed to the hospital, where he lay in a coma for several days. According to legend he awoke to see Louis B. Mayer, nervously fidgeting in the hospital room. Mayer then broke the news that he was replaced by Jack Haley. Haley, meanwhile, had not been told what happened to Ebsen and assumed that Buddy had been fired. It is probably unlikely that Mayer had the time to sit at Ebsen’s bedside to break the news to him personally. However, it is definitely believable that MGM didn’t tell Jack Haley about the health problems the Tin Man makeup caused. They needed him to suit up and shut up.

The production hadn’t gotten too far behind, but Mervyn LeRoy took advantage of the minor delay to replace director Richard Thorpe with George Cukor. Cukor made huge changes to the film. Originally, Judy Garland was outfitted in a blonde wig and babydoll dress. Cukor wanted her to play Dorothy more naturally, so the wig was removed and the familiar blue gingham dress used. In order to save money, Jack Haley only re-recorded a few of Ebsen’s singing lines. Therefore Ebsen’s singing performance remained in the final film.

Cukor’s time on the set would be short. MGM saw the production as troubled and had only hired him to get things back on track. Victor Fleming would arrive in November of 1938 to handle the bulk of the directing duties. Fleming would suffer through the six month slog of filming the technicolor scenes before being pulled off to finish Gone With the Wind. The technicolor scenes were a nightmare for cast and crew. The lighting required for each scene made the sound stages extremely hot and the makeup and heavy costumes unbearable. Margaret Hamilton was the second casualty of the shoot, suffering third degree burns during the scene in which she vanishes in Munchkinland. The injury caused her to refuse doing more special effects scenes. It was a good decision- the stand-in hired to replace her was injured as well.

King Vidor was brought in to finally wrap things up on this very expensive project. Production finally ended in June 1939, just weeks before the planned release. Despite the delays and issues, the picture still came in close to its budget. Now it would be up to the audiences. Would this Wizard bring in as many customers as Snow White? 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Over the Rainbow

Populating Oz: The Wizard of Oz, Part Three

While The Wizard of Oz script was still being worked out, MGM set about casting the film. Casting the film turned out to be no easier than finalizing the script. Originally Shirley Temple was considered for the iconic role of Dorothy. She was the biggest young star at the time, but was signed to Twentieth Century Fox. MGM reportedly started negotiating to borrow Miss Temple from Fox, but once it was decided to produce The Wizard of Oz as a full fledged musical, she was not seen as being suitable for the role.

Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Louis B. Mayer

The MGM Casting directors soon turned their attention to Deanna Durbin, who was also under contract to another studio. As the script and songs began to finalize, however, her singing voice was not seen as being suitable for the role.

Of course, MGM contract player Judy Garland would eventually take the iconic role of Dorothy, which turned her into a superstar.

The next major roles to get cast were the Scarecrow and Tin Man. Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Scarecrow and Ray Bolger as the Tin Man. Bolger, however, had always wanted to play the scarecrow. MGM decided to grant his request and swapped their parts. Bert Lahr was the last of Dorothy’s friends to get cast in the film.

Buddy Ebsen, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland and Bert Lahr

The biggest challenge, however, was casting the dwarves who would portray the Munchkins. MGM needed hundreds of them to completely fill out Munchkinland. MGM was unable to finish the casting before production began, so the Munchkinland sequence was one of the last scenes filmed. MGM looked far and wide for little people who could sing, dance and act and flew them all out to Hollywood. The film would be a defining moment for the dwarves cast in it; most of them had never met another little person before. While their behavior on set was legendarily exaggerated, they were quite a raucous bunch.

For the actual Wizard of Oz, MGM looked outside its lot at first, wooing W.C. Fields for the role. As negotiations with Fields dragged on, the studio chose an MGM contract player- Frank Morgan to portray the Wizard. A similar issue came up with casting the wicked witch. MGM reached outside its fabled contract roster to hire Gale Sondergaard to portray the witch. Ms. Sondergaard was excited to play the role at first, mainly because the intent was to make the witch more glamorous, like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Gale Sondergaard

However, the character soon morphed into a more traditional, haggish witch. Gale was not interested in portraying such a character and bailed out just days before the shooting was supposed to begin. MGM turned to Margaret Hamilton, another MGM contract player to take the role.

Margaret Hamilton

Production on the film would begin in mid-October of 1938, with the film’s release planned for August of 1939. That the project ran into so many problems- with both script and casting- and still made it to production is a testament to MGM’s movie making machine. The film would need even more help as filming began.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Building Oz: The Wizard of Oz, Part Two

Once The Wizard of Oz was greenlit, the massive MGM production machine went into action. The script hadn’t been completed yet, but producer Mervyn LeRoy knew that Munchkinland, the Yellow Brick Road and The Emerald City would be major set pieces. MGM’s famed set crew was authorized to begin building the sets while the script was being worked on.

The first draft was soundly rejected. It ignored the fantasy aspect of the film and made Dorothy’s three friends regular guys whose defining traits were more realistic. In the first draft, the first friend she came across wasn’t a scarecrow come to life; it was an extremely stupid man who could only find work trying to scare crows in a field. The tin man would have been a heartless criminal who had been sentenced to live in a tin suit. The idea of Oz being a more grounded, realistic world had been previously explored in the 1925 version produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Louis B. Mayer wanted a more fanciful version, capable of competing with Walt Disney’s animated films. This idea was scrapped, though the ‘it was all a Dream’ aspect of the final film was inspired by this draft.

While set preparation and casting was going full speed ahead, script development was lagging behind. The final shooting script was completed on October 8, 1938, officially credited to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf. The full list of script contributors, however, included over ten people. Among the others who contributed to the script were Hollywood legends Victor Fleming, Herman J. Mankiewicz, King Vidor, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley.

Amazingly, filming would begin just five days after the script was finalized. Could a huge production made from a frankenscript that had barely been finished five days before production began finish in time and turn out to be any good? Maybe not at lesser studios, but this was MGM. Even more amazingly, script problems would be the least of Louis B. Mayer’s worries. Things wouldn’t get easier for this trouble-plagued production.

Monday, May 18, 2020

MGM’s Biggest Gamble- The Wizard of Oz, Part One

Making a motion picture has always been a massive undertaking. In order to introduce some sanity to the process, MGM had turned the art of show into a business. Its legendary motion picture machine could produce films more efficiently, more quickly and more successfully than any other studio. While it couldn’t completely eliminate the problems that could crop up on a motion picture, it could minimize their effects. One such film that might have collapsed under a less regimented production process was 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.

The success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs swept through Hollywood like an earthquake. Here was a musical feature, produced by an independent studio, that had shot to the top of the box office. The film sparked the infamous “box office poison” letter which called out Hollywood Stars for their excesses. If a cartoon princess could capture the hearts of the world, who needed Mae West or Clark Gable? The most notable studio chief who took offense at this turn of events was Louis B. Mayer. A musical such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had it not been animated, was MGM’s domain. Mayer pledged to beat back this interloper by producing a family musical picture that would rival Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He just needed the right material.

He thought he might have found it in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Samuel Goldwyn, whose Goldwyn Pictures had been absorbed into MGM, had purchased the Oz rights in the 1920’s and produced a 1925 silent picture based on the books. Mayer’s interest was further piqued when he discovered that Walt Disney was interested in the property as well. Walt Disney Productions in 1938 was no match for MGM. Louis B. Mayer acquired the rights and fast tracked a grand musical in the MGM tradition, based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

The Wizard of Oz would have the full resources of MGM behind it. How else could a gigantic project such as this one which had no script at that time get produced quickly enough to be released the following year? The production would soon run into several catastrophic roadblocks that might have sunk films that were produced by lesser studios. The Wizard of Oz, however, was being produced by the all powerful MGM. Louis B. Mayer was the one man in Hollywood who was just as powerful (if not more so) than the Wizard of Oz. If anyone could get this complicated picture made, it would be him.