GENERAL ARTICLES

A Writer Looks at Hollywood

NORMAN REILLY RAINE April 15 1933
GENERAL ARTICLES

A Writer Looks at Hollywood

NORMAN REILLY RAINE April 15 1933

A Writer Looks at Hollywood

GENERAL ARTICLES

NORMAN REILLY RAINE

LIGHTS BLAZE and glitter along the length of Hollywood Boulevard, and, at a point where the coruscation is thickest, the broad white pencils of searchlights sweep the sky with nervous stabbing. Klieg lights, focused upon a building’s white façade, glare brighter than noonday, and the martial notes of a military band quicken the steps of passers-by. There is the tramp of marching feet, and the gaudy uniforms of an American Legion Post drumand-bugle corps appear and halt smartly at the signal of the drum major in his impressive shako.

Another gala première of a superpicture, attended by scores of world-famous Hollywood stars? Perhaps. But probably not. Probably the opening of a new Chinese restaurant—four-course dinner, thirty-five cents—or the birth of a cleaning and dyeing shop where for fifty cents you may have the creases readjusted in your old tweed suit. For that is the way they do things in Hollywood.

Probably there is no other city in the world which presents such contradictions, such sharp contrasts; where the sublime and the ridiculous rub elbows quite so intimately; where the idols of the movie-going public let down the bars and whoop themselves hoarse at man-killing wrestling bouts, and the scourings of humanity thrill, in the huge Hollywood Bowl, to symphonies under the stars.

Another contrast which Hollywood presents is the word picture of life in the film centre, as fed to the inflamed public imagination by fan magazines and casual outside visitors, and as it actually is lived on the lots and sound stages of the major studios. To picture the night orgies of the stars, where beautiful women are served up. with or without dressing, in fountains of wine, is thrilling, no doubt; but there is satisfaction of another sort when, after spending the day shooting scenes on a great sound stage, after hours of the hardest kind of physical work and emotional expenditure and scores of abortive rehearsals, a successful “take” is recorded and the weary players can go home to a quiet dinner, a game of cards and bed.

It must be apparent that an industry with a payroll of one and a half million dollars a week that grew steadily in

importance and profits up to the time of the depression, cannot be composed entirely of fools. It may be true, as has been said, that the successful motion picture producer is he who has guessed wrong less often than his competitors; but it is also true that into all of those guesses, right or wrong, had gone much hard work, much sincere endeavor to give the movie public the kind of entertainment it thinks it wants. Bizarre and occasionally outrageous things do happen, but they are rare. And one cannot measure with the same conventional yardstick an ordinary commercial centre and a city like Hollywood, which, because of its specialized industry, must draw to it, in order to exist, large numbers of rather extraordinary people.

How Picture Stories are Chosen

WRITING, acting and directing are important parts of a finished film; but these form so small a part of the aggregate of work, intelligence and personnel that has gone into it, that the comparison is negligible. For each worker in one of the three arts mentioned, there are hundreds of technicians—electricians, carpenters, painters, tinsmiths, scene painters, camera men, prop men, sound experts, costume people, make-up staffs and so on—each of whom has a definite and important, even if prosaic, part to do before the picture is previewed, passed, and finally placed “in the can.”

The steps taken by a story from the time it is bought by a studio to the time it is released for showing, follow a definite path. Each of the larger studios maintains a staff of trained readers whose sole job consists of reading current magazine and book fiction and plays. A story or play with definite picture possibilities is marked and sent to a synopsis writer who. after reading, attaches a synopsis—about 300

words—and passes it on to the assistant storyeditor. If approved it goes to the story editor, who reads the synopsis and, if he likes the idea, the story.

The next step is to the head of the studio. If passed, it is sent to a supervisor who is in charge of one or more production units. The supervisor requests the services of one or more staff writers and a story conference is held, attended by supervisor, writers and a director. After one or many conferences, the definite line which the story is to take is decided upon, and the writers hie themselves away to their cubicles and have a sleep to refresh themselves after the hectic arguments of the conference. This post-combative nap the writers occasionally and quaintly refer to as a brown study. Or sometimes they call it "coasting.”

After due cogitation, the story idea is set uix>n paper and given to the supervisor, who, if he likes it. asks the writers to do a “treatment.” A treatment is an extended synopsis, written in scenes and extending to thirty or fifty typewritten pages. It contains the full feature story, with high lights of business and dialogue fully written out, so that the studio head, as he reads it, may have a running picture in his head of what the finished product is to be like. He says “Lousy,” or beams and grunts “Great ! Swell ! Okay !” and the delighted and incredulous writer hops off before the head changes his mind to write a full continuity-dialogue script. This is the document, generally running to about 130 typed pages, from which the picture actually will be shot.

The finished script, the writing of which may take from four weeks to three months, again must have the approval of the studio head; and. this secured, the script—a number of copies having been made —is turned over to the director. He breaks it down into scenes, and it is from this list of scenes that the shooting time is estimated and the shooting schedule made.

Checking up at Previews

F IT IS NECESSARY for the company to go on location.

the location manager takes a hand and decides where the outdoor scenes will be done. 'Ehe interior sets are built and set up in the great sound stages. Costumes are made and fitted, and the process of shooting the picture gets under way. It is at this point that the director becomes carnivorous and begins to cast unkind comments about the optimistic morons who made up his shooting schedule. But nobody listens to him.

Shooting time on the ordinary feature picture takes about six weeks, with an average cost to the larger studios of S300,000 sometimes a great deal more, sometimes a little less. At the end of each shooting day. the day’s work is exhibited in a projection room to the director, supervisor

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and studio head. This is called viewing the “rushes,” and if the “takes” are not satisfactory “retakes” must be made on the following day.

With the picture completed, that part of the organization which has been concerned with turning it out begins to get the “preview jitters.” With great secrecy, an obscure theatre in a small town, generally many miles away from the studio, is selected. The theatre announces a feature preview to its audiences without, however, revealing the name of the picture or the company; and on the night selected, the makers of the film assemble, mingling with the general public audience, to watch its launching.

Included in the studio group are men whose duty it is to check and clock laughs, tears and other audience reactions. Sometimes the laughs are grouped too closely together, with deserts of moroseness between. This is remedied at the studio next day. Sometimes laughs that were meant to bring titters win “belly laughs,” and the intended “bellies” fall flat. These, too, are adjusted. Sometimes a laugh comes where a tear should fall, and this is just too tragic; and occasionally there are unexpected tears. But every reaction is carefully noted. The picture is gauged for timing. One part is too staccato, another too slow; the action later is adjusted accordingly. The studio cutters are present, making notes, because upon them falls the job of maintaining the proper tempo; and upon the skill of a cutter may depend the success or failure of the picture when eventually released.

Often, after a preview, extensive retakes are necessary in the studio—which is why, after a picture has been shot, the cast stands by, and the sets are not torn down, until the picture is in the can and on its way to the distribution centres. And it sometimes happens that the reaction of a preview audience causes an entire picture to be thrown out or put indefinitely upon the shelf. Not so long ago a picture, featuring a very prominent star, was previewed. The picture had looked pretty good in the studio projection rooms; but at the end of the preview performance a dejected audience trailed out, and with it the studio staff, who clustered about the studio head.

“Well,” said one brave soul to the chief, “what did you think of it?”

At that moment a woman and her husband—Mr. and Mrs. Audience—walked past. The woman said, “That’s the silliest picture I have ever seen.” The studio head raised his brows, his shoulders and his hands, palms upward. That was all. The picture was rewritten and reshot—ninety per cent of it—at an additional cost of $270,000 and nearly four months work; but when it did appear, it was a box-office sensation and the initial loss was covered a hundred fold.

Keen Competition for Stories

"THE MAJOR STUDIOS maintain a force I of fifty to eighty highly paid and highly trained staff writers, who write adaptations of published works and also original stories; and it has become an unbreakable rule that no unsolicited manuscripts will be read, unless recommended by responsible persons well known to the studio story personnel. The reason, of course, is danger of plagiarism. Studio contract managers will tell you that every feature picture which is released—every one—carries in its wake anywhere from three to twenty lawsuits from individuals who claim that their brainchild was kidnapped by the studio. From a cold business standpoint, the idea that responsible studios steal ideas is, of course, ridiculous. Every studio is out for good stories, and is only too pleased to accept and pay for them, in the hope that the writers will be able to turn out further masterpieces. Competition for good stuff is so keen that even the unknown has a definite chance if he will only put his ideas in fiction form and eventually sell

them to the studios via the surest route— the magazines.

A striking instance of how plagiarism may be charged on a basis that seems quite sound yet has no foundation in fact, was demonstrated to this writer last year. A major studio was preparing an original story for a prominent and extremely popular feminine star, and the job of writing the story idea was in the hands of a writer who fell ill before it was completed. The studio requested me to come in and take the story over. The first third of the story, as developed by the original writer, placed the principal character in Alaska, running a dance hall and honky-tonk during the gold rush days. She was elderly and rough but good-hearted, and had a younger, goodlooking sister. The older woman’s sweetheart, a miner, fell in love with the sister and they carried on an affair behind the principal’s back. The older woman went out with the claim seekers to stake a claim for her sweetheart, who had pleaded illness so that he could remain behind with the younger sister; and eventually the principal returned and discovered them in each other’s arms, and so on. The rest of the story does not matter. I completed the story idea, carrying it on from the point of the elder sister’s return from the mining claim, and. when the job was done three weeks later, left the studio. Some months later I was talking picture ideas with a well-known fiction writer, who remarked:

“I’ve got a grand story idea for so-andso,” mentioning the feminine star.

I asked him what it was.

“Well,” he said, “she is the owner of an Alaskan dance hall during the gold rush. She is in love, but her sweetheart has fallen for the woman’s attractive younger sister ...” and he went on, recounting in almost identical outline the very story idea I had worked on six months before.

I went to my files, and in place of comment handed him a copy of the treatment I had written for the studio at that time. It is needless to enlarge on his astonishment; also, it is unnecessary to stress how fixed and apparently well-founded would have appeared his charges of plagiarism against the studio had he sent in his idea without having first talked it over and seen the predated copy of the studio’s treatment containing the identical idea and situations.

It is during the actual shooting of a picture that one realizes that, enviable as a star’s position may be to the world outside the studios, within the gates there is more of hard work than glamor. While a picture is in production, the cast—including the stars, of course—may be called upon to report on the set, made up, at six or seven or eight a.m. They may work all through the morning, snatch a hurried lunch at twelve o’clock and be back on the set at a quarter to one; go through the afternoon’s shooting and continue to work, frequently without dinner, until eleven o’clock or midnight and, frequently when a picture is behind schedule, until any hour before or at dawn. Scenes are rehearsed and rehearsed —the same business and lines over and over again with deadly, numbing monotony, until exactly the desired effect is achieved— and the director expects that the final “take” or cameraed sequence shall show the cast more brisk, more vitally emotional and realistic at the end of the long grind than when they came on the set fresh in the morning. And the way the players respond when that last, “Quiet, please! Action! Camera!” is spoken, is something to pay tribute to. Wild parties? Yes—in about the same proportion that one finds them among people in other centres where work must come before any other consideration.

180,000 Dolls

AN ANGLE of film work that is of / \ absorbing interest to the studio personnel but which rarely gets outside notice.

I is the work of the miniature department. Not long ago this writer witnessed the rushes I of a film in which one of the major sequences ! was an attack by an American submarine upon the port of Durazzo during the war.

The screen picture showed the port, with its mole, its castle and fortifications, and the fortified hills beyond, with scattered villages, vineyards and cultivated fields. Surf battered the foot of the precipitous cliffs flanking the castle; a tramp ship lay at anchor in the inner harbor. Then from seaward appeared the submarine. The shore batteries opened fire. Fountains of water jetted about the approaching menace. The guns on the mole slammed madly, j From the shore fortifications came spurts of flame as the batteries went into action. The submarine’s gun opened up, and bits of masonry exploded from the forts and the hills beyond as the shells found their target. Suddenly, from the inner harbor appeared an Austrian destroyer, belching smoke, its knifelike bow slicing the waves, its guns spitting death as it raced onward to intercept the submarine.

The latter, laden with explosive and with a sacrifice crew on board, crashed into the castle and disintegrated with a terrific roar, the great walls of the castle crumbling, then sliding down upon the undersea craft with catastrophic force and burying it beneath the water. The destroyer, unable to check its way, crashed into the wreckage and lay dismasted, its funnel bent and twisted, the bow plates showing gaping rents. The smoke of war rolled across the peaceful hillsides; there was a stunning silence after the brief but epic attack, and the sequence faded out. Seventeen seconds of thrills, realistic to the last degree; yet the whole affair—port, houses, forts, surf, cliffs, submarine and destroyer built by months of painstaking effort—was in miniature, in exact scale and perspective, on the sound ! stage of a Culver City studio. The destroyer model was perhaps two feet long, and the rest of the set-up in proportion. Yet so natural was the whole sequence that a casual spectator would not dream that it was not an actual attack with real ships upon a genuine port.

Those who remember the film Ben Hur, in the days of the silents, may recollect a sequence which showed a vast concourse of spectators who arose, watched the course of the speeding chariots; then, as the wave of enthusiasm was carried around the great arena, settled back in their seats again, i But what looked like a great multitude of humans actually was 180,000 mechanical dolls in a miniature arena which took more than a year to build and perfect. Expensive? Yes, of course; but infinitely cheaper than engaging 180,000 extras at $7 a day for the several days that the shooting might require.

Accuracy of Detail

IN SPITE OF the many slips that do creep I into films, accuracy of detail is a fetish, and the major studios have reference libraries which embrace practically every branch of human knowledge that by any conceivable chance could have a bearing upon a film. If you wish to know the costume of a Zulu warrior in 1845 you can learn it; if you would like to find out what Queen Victoria wore at her coronation, you can not only be told but if necessary her costume will be reproduced in fabric as well as in style. If you are in doubt as to the type of a sub; marine torpedo warhead used by the British navy—or any other navy for that matter— there are experts in the employ of the studios who can tell you with exactness. The libraries include costume, music— unbelievable thousands of records methods of criminal court procedure in all the civilized countries of the globe, meticulously written descriptions of moments in modern history such as the signing of the peace treaty at Versailles, and so on. Still, slips do occur; and because of occasional British criticism of things appearing in Hollywood films which appear to denote ignorance of British customs, here is one slip that Canadian audiences will note when a certain picture is released in this country, i The sequence takes place in a disreputable

café in Marseilles during the war. The place is crowded with Allied soldiers, and a number of British privates and officers. This writer was on the set at the time, and protested to the director that this was inaccurate since British army regulations forbade commissioned and non-commissioned ranks to frequent the same cafés. The same objection was made by some of the extras, former British officers and men, one of whom was an ex-Royal Artillery major. The director’s comment was, “What is the difference; the public won’t know,” and the sequence was shot. The point for Canadian audiences to remember is this; the director was an Englishman who himself had spent more than three years in the British army during the war.

One of the fascinations of writing in a Hollywood studio is that one occasionally is given the unusual and sometimes disconcerting feeling that he is the wielder of a magic wand. Not so long ago two writers were in collaboration on a picture story in which hero and heroine were to push off to Europe together. They debated in their office one morning as to whether they would have a sequence with the couple talking about going, and then dissolve through, to show them in Paris. “What the heck!” said one. “Let’s show them getting on the boat.” Careless, just like that.

It happened that it was a rush picture, for which the scenes were being written as it was shot. They wrote the ship-boarding sequence, and a few days later when they went to the set to watch the scene being shot, stared at each other dumbfounded, for the prop department had built one whole section, gangway and decks complete, of the side of the Leviathan, and had engaged 100 extras to give the departing lovers the proper background.

“What do you think of it?” asked the director proudly.

“It’s s-swell,” stammered one of the writers. “I hope it goes over big.”

“It had better,” remarked his collaborator grimly, "or we’ll come in one morning to find new names on our doors.”

The Woman from Sweden

j UDICROUS THINGS happen now and [__ then to lend spice to the workaday life of the industry. A year or so ago an African river and jungle picture was produced, in which a large number of hippopotami were rented from one of the big California animal farms which specialize in this service for the studios. The hippos, nearly a score of them, were shipped to a small lake some miles from Hollywood, and the picture got under way. On the first day two of the hippos disappeared, and the most rigorous search failed to discover them. They were written off as lost, and after the film was completed the company and the rest of the animals returned to Hollywood.

Months passed. Late summer came along. One night, with moonlight over the lake, a young man and his sweetheart were canoeing, and it is presumable that Darkest Africa was farthest from their thoughts. “Gwendolyn,” said Harold in that kind of a tone, "I love you. I would die for you.” And at that moment, on the quiet California lake, there arose on each side of the canoe a snorting African Hippo. Was Harold’s face red !

It is not all comedy in Hollywood; it is not all hard work either. Occasionally it is heartbreak—not for the studio workers or stars, but for those whom the distant glare of the Klieg lights has drawn across the world to beat their wings in futile endeavor against the blinding rays. Last winter this writer arrived at the studio gates and was accosted by a woman who had iust alighted from a bus. She was about thirty-five, rather poorly but neatly dressed, with a mass of flaxen hair pulled under an oldfashioned straw hat. Her large blue eyes, filled with infinite faith, roved over the façade of the studio administration building. She clutched, a little more firmly, the roll of manuscript which she carried, and said, in a strong Swedish accent:

“Is dis de studio?” Assured that it was, she said: “I vant to see de manager.”

Questioning elicited that she had come from Sweden to New York with her savings, and from New York to Hollywood; that she carried with her an epic picture which she had written. (Her English, learned at school, was quite good.)

“Have you had anything published in this country?” I asked her.

“No; but vonce I had a story printed in Sveden.”

I glanced at her manuscript. It was hopeless. I knew she would never get within the studio gates. In an effort to ease the bump, I volunteered to ask the story editor for an appointment for her.

“Very kind, you are,” she said, and added quickly, with appalling confidence that her request was a natural one: “But tell him, please, he cannot have my story unless I play the female lead.”