Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Toons Who Were An Afterthought

When most people think about the Warner Brothers, the Looney Tunes are probably the first thing that comes to mind. They most definitely don't think about the actual Warner Brothers who founded the company; as a matter of fact, they probably couldn't identify any of them in a line-up.

Is this Jack Warner? Maybe.

To the actual Warner Brothers, however, animation was an afterthought. With Walt Disney revolutionizing the field, the Warners felt they had to do something in the medium, so they hired Leon Schlesinger to produce some of these cartoon pictures out of a decrepit building on the studio lot affectionately called "Termite Terrace".

It was at Termite Terrace that the legendary Chuck Jones would hone his craft. The studio's first and biggest star would, of course, be Porky Pig. (Surprised?) Audiences couldn't seemingly get enough of Porky Pig whose cartoons would rival the popularity of Disney's shorts at the time.

That wouldn't be the end of the story, obviously, as Porky would eventually get shoved aside by the rascally rabbit Bugs Bunny, who would become the public face of Warner Brothers to many moviegoers around the world.

Would this success earn the admiration of the Warner Brothers? It wouldn't; at least, not from Jack Warner. When asked about his studio's animated output, Jack stated that all he knew about it was that Warner Brothers owned Mickey Mouse, which wasn't true. The final insult would come in the 1950's when Jack oversaw the sale of the entire animated catalog to AAP for just $3,000 per short. It would take 40 years for the cartoons to return home.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Strange Oscar Tales: Alice Brady

In 1937, Alice Brady won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She was unable to attend the ceremonies, so the Academy allowed her representative to accept on her 

behalf- except, the man was not her representative. He and her Oscar were never seen again.

Everyone thought it was just a publicity stunt and few believed that her award had been stolen in front of hundreds of celebrities. Sadly, the Academy didn’t replace her stolen Oscar until after she had passed away. The rules were eventually changed- Oscar nominees who can't attend the ceremony are now required to identify who is authorized to pick up the Oscar on their behalf. If they do not choose someone, the Academy presenter is to accept the award on the winner's behalf.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Olivia de Havilland vs. Jack Warner

While she might not have single-handedly killed the Hollywood studio system herself, the legendary Olivia de Havilland began its death spiral when she took on the mighty Jack Warner and won.

In Hollywood’s Golden age, most actors and actresses were required to sign seven year contracts. (The maximum amount of time allowed by California law.) These contracts guaranteed a weekly salary regardless of whether the studio needed them to work or not. The salary was commensurate with the actor’s popularity at the time the contract was signed. If the actor hit it big, the studio often tore up the old contract and created a new one with a large raise. It sounded like an amazingly fair process.

These contracts were horribly one-sided in favor of the studios. While the studios could choose to re-negotiate a contract, the actors could not. They could try to raise the issue, but if the studio wasn’t amenable, actors could find themselves on the bad side of the mogul who held their contract. MGM, for example, might sit an intransigent actor out, keeping her from making any films at all. It was a fate worse than a firing in an industry in which the public could easily forget a ‘missing’ actor. As long as the studio was still writing the paychecks, there was little the actor could do. MGM head Louis B. Mayer would use this tactic to not just remind the errant actor, but also everyone else, who was in charge at MGM.

MGM, however, was the king of Hollywood with deep pockets. It could afford to keep paying out salaries to non-working actors. The other studios could not; at least, not long enough to keep the actor benched long enough to matter. Jack Warner’s studio was splitting profits four ways between the four Warner brothers. How could they punish their talent without punishing themselves? They decided they could suspend actor contracts as punishment for violating morals clauses or refusing to take an assigned role. Since they had cause to take such an employment action, they could keep the contract valid without having to pay the salary. At least, they thought they could.

These contracts hadn’t been challenged legally until Olivia de Havilland did so in 1943. Her seven year contract should have expired by then, but Jack Warner contended that she still had extra time owed to Warner Brothers because her contract had been suspended several times during her time at Warners. Others in Hollywood just accepted such studio shenanigans, but not Ms. de Havilland. Olivia sued Warner Brothers alleging that the contract was one sided and unenforceable. Others had contemplated challenging these contracts before, but had thought better of it. Olivia was a trailblazer.

In the end, the courts all ruled in Olivia’s favor, invalidating these contract “suspensions”. If the studios felt that an actor was not fulfilling her part of the contract, they could tear it up and fire the actor, but could not consider the contract still valid, thus preventing the actor from working elsewhere. This court ruling began the dismantling of the studio system and paved the way for the modern studio era.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Sir Alfred’s Prank

Alfred Hitchcock's home away from home on the Universal Studios backlot was bungalow 5195. Whenever he had a long night of filming or needed to concentrate on a script, this would be the place to find him.

With the introduction of the studio tour, the prankish Sir Hitchcock couldn't resist playing a joke on the thousands of tourists who visited Universal Studios each day. He put his famous silhouette in the window to trick guests riding the tram into thinking he was busy inside the bungalow.

Monday, July 20, 2020

MOGULS: Louis B. Mayer, Part Six

Louis B. Mayer was said to be the most powerful man in not just Hollywood, but also Los Angeles. His reach and power extended much further than his studio gates; the legendary MGM Security Office was often referred to as an unofficial Culver City police substation. However, it could have been said that the MGM Security Office was more powerful than the Culver City PD or even the LAPD. And the leader of that office was Eddie Mannix.

Eddie Mannix was Louis B. Mayer’s henchman, a problem solver who not only knew where all the bodies were buried, he most likely put them there. MGM stars and staff were told that if they encountered a sticky situation, their first call shouldn’t be to the cops- it should be to the MGM Security Office was. Eddie Mannix and his team would descend upon the scene and sanitize it before the actual authorities arrived. Under the guidance of Mayer, witnesses and survivors would get bought off, illegal substances removed from the scene and local authorities paid to look the other way.

The MGM Security Department was empowered to keep the studio’s reputation squeaky clean to avoid the sort of controversies that ruined Fatty Arbuckle’s career and sullied Hollywood in the eyes of the ticket buying public. That typically involved buying the cooperation of local “law enforcement” officials who were invited to many of the lavish bacchanals that MGM secretly hosted for theater owners and booking agents. Booze, loose women and illegal gambling awaited those city officials who were willing to “cooperate” with Mayer and MGM. The seemingly never ending profits earned by the studio allowed it and its king to lord over Southern California. Unfortunately for MGM and Mayer, the end of its reign would arrive with the advent of television.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

MOGULS: Louis B. Mayer, Part Five

As MGM grew, so did Louis B. Mayer’s power in Hollywood. What we currently know as the Hollywood Studio System was primarily the brainchild of Mayer and his “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg. By locking down the best talent in Hollywood MGM could, for the most part, produce more films more efficiently than anyone else in town. For lesser known talent, MGM’s system provided a steady upper middle class income. They didn’t have to hustle around town to book roles; it was up to MGM to find work for them, since they were paid regardless of whether they worked or not. Since MGM could pretty much sell every picture it produced, having a large staff of actors on its payroll allowed the studio to crank out pictures at an amazing rate. If someone got sick or was injured, MGM could quickly cast another person in a role with minimal downtime. A notorious example of this happened during the expensive production of The Wizard of Oz. When original Tin Man Buddy Ebsen became gravely ill due to the paint used for his costume, MGM quickly replaced him with another actor in its stable of talent- Jack Haley. A similar incident nowadays would result in delays and budget overruns as the studio tried to find another actor or waited for the injured actor to get better.

While lower tier actors might have appreciated the stability this system provided them, the bigger names chafed under it. The bigger stars had to sign the same contracts, and while they earned much larger checks, many of them felt that they should have been allowed to choose their own projects. MGM, however, exercised full control over its talent. If Louis B. Mayer wanted an actor to play a clown, that actor had to play a clown- or else. MGM also reserved the right to “lend” out any of its actors to other studios without the actor’s consent. While the studios used the term “lend” to describe these deals, there was always a cost involved. These deals were very lucrative for the “lender” who typically negotiated a healthy profit that went right into the studio’s coffers. The actors still earned just their regular paychecks.

While MGM’s policies could have led to troubling abuses, the studio was originally quite fair in its dealings. This was mostly due to “Boy Wonder” Irving Thalberg, who kept his operations above reproach. His shocking death of pneumonia at just age 37 sent shockwaves throughout the MGM lot and Hollywood. With MGM’s ‘conscience’ silenced at far too young an age, Mayer’s power became fully unchecked and MGM became a much darker place.

Louis B. Mayer began flexing his power by punishing some of the more outspoken and intransigent actors. Actors who had gotten on Mayer’s bad side would be given lesser roles or- even worse in image driven Hollywood- no roles at all. There was little that the actors could do about this unfortunately, because as long as MGM kept paying them as outlined in their contract they had no recourse. Why would MGM continue to pay someone who wasn’t working on any pictures? To teach them and others that failing to obey Louis B. Mayer had grave consequences. At the time, he could truly make or break anyone’s career on a whim and by all accounts he relished this power.

Friday, July 17, 2020

65 Years of A Dream Come True!

Today, our affiliated site- is honoring the 65th Anniversary of the opening of another Hollywood mogul’s Dream- DISNEYLAND. Come back tomorrow for part five of our series on Louis B. Mayer.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

MOGULS: Louis B. Mayer, Part Four

With Loew’s money and a top notch creative team, Louis B. Mayer put his foot on the gas and never looked back. Within three years of its founding, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer overtook its Hollywood competition to become the number one studio in town. For the most part, MGM could sell everything it produced, so Mayer setup an operation that would be unrivaled- then and now.

Since Loew’s theaters needed as many pictures as MGM could supply, Mayer built the studio into an assembly line. MGM would hire the best talent- actors, writers, directors, costumers, set dressers, etc.- signing them up for seven year contracts, essentially making them employees of MGM. They would get weekly paychecks regardless of whether they worked or not. This seemingly wasteful policy was actually setup to permit continuous production. If an actor was sick or injured, Louis B. Mayer could instantly cast another person in his or her place. In Hollywood, time has always been money and having a stable of talent who could be instantly plugged into any picture saved MGM thousands of dollars, despite the huge overhead. Since every motion picture MGM made could be easily sold, this production process made the studio huge profits.

Certainly, MGM was the biggest, most successful studio during Hollywood’s golden age and Mayer was its king. As the king of MGM, he also ruled Hollywood and would have been held to higher esteem had he been more of a benevolent ruler. Instead, he would misuse his power to further tighten MGM’s stranglehold on the motion picture industry.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

MOGULS: Louis B. Mayer, Part Three

Louis B. Mayer’s new studio was a respectable operation, though Mr. Mayer quickly realized that he lacked the capital and talent to produce the sort of pictures that would really make him a fortune. His business acumen, which served him well in arranging deals, wouldn’t get him much further in Hollywood. He would find the talent part of the equation at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures. A young, talented producer named Irving Thalberg captured Mayer’s attention and he quickly offered him a job whenever he grew tired of working at Universal. Luckily for Mayer, Thalberg would bring his immense talent to Louis B. Mayer Pictures and they became a powerhouse in the burgeoning film colony.

The powerhouse duo would attract the sort of attention that would Eventually solve Mayer’s problems with financing his films. Marcus Loew, owner of Loew’s Theaters, was desperate to acquire a steady stream of pictures for his theaters. To accomplish this, he purchased Mayer’s former employers- Metro Pictures. Their output was lackluster, so Marcus purchased Samuel Goldwyn’s studio, which had been producing higher quality content. Things improved, but  Loew’s headquarters were in New York, seemingly worlds away from Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer had the business acumen that Marcus Loew felt was needed to keep his west coast operations running profitably and efficiently. Loew combined Metro Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer-

The new film company would become known as MGM and Louis B. Mayer would be well on his way to becoming the most powerful man in Hollywood.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

MOGULS: Louis B. Mayer, Part Two

After he moved to Boston, Louis B. Mayer originally opened up a scrap metal business like the one he helped his father run in Canada. His heart wasn’t really in it, however, and he saw it as a temporary way to make money until he could find a way into show business. He found that opportunity in nearby Haverhill, Massachusetts in a rundown burlesque theater. Mayer bought the Gem Theater and fixed it up, reopening it as the Orpheum Theater, newly retrofitted to exhibit newfangled ‘motion pictures.’ Louis’ empire quickly grew to a small, successful chain of theaters.

Mayer soon ran into the problems that faced every theater owner at the time- a lack of product and patent threats from Thomas Edison. To tackle the first problem, Louis B. Mayer partnered with other theater owners to form a theater booking firm- Metro Pictures. Originally, Metro Pictures purchased films from others, guaranteeing its affiliated theaters a steady stream of programming. It eventually began producing/financing its own films, setting up shop in Los Angeles, California after fleeing the east coast due to Thomas Edison’s endless harassment.

Believing that the future profits from motion pictures would mostly accrue to the producers of the films, Louis B. Mayer followed the motion picture industry out to Southern California, setting up his very own studio- Louis B. Mayer Productions. Mr. Mayer was on his way to becoming Hollywood’s most powerful mogul.