WHY HOLLYWOOD IS SCARED
Ruin faces filmland’s spoiled darling. Rich living has made her flabby and stupid, and sleek young rivals are stealing her public. Does she deserve a happy ending?
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
HOLLYWOOD - the lyrical cliche that Hollywood has put to it's whistling in the dark during the Iast year is: there's nothing wrong with the movie business that a good picture won't cure. You hear it everywhere. The president of the Motion Picture Association, Eric Johnston, chants it in New York and 20th Century fox tycoon Darryl F. Zanuck in Hollywood, and the whole push of picture people echoes it fervently into the high fog of California's springtime.
This, of course, is narcotic nonsense. It is like a bank president on the verge of failure saying there’s nothing wrong with his bank that $50 millions won’t cure.
It, is indeed true that good pictures can cure what ails Hollywood, but before Hollywood can make films that will meet today’s intellectual demands, at a reasonable price, the whole crust and caboodle of the industry must be broken down and rebuilt.
The best Hollywood executives—and there are some excellent brains here know this, but it comes hard because they themselves are an integral part of the purging process. It is not easy for the bravest and more aware of men to cut off his right arm to save his life. Thus far the executives have merely clipped their fingernails as a gingerly start in the hope that a miracle will intervene to prevent a bloody amputat ion.
On the night of March 24, in Hollywood’s tiny Academy Theatre, the climax of a glamourous evening came when Ethel Barrymore stepped to the stage. She read the nominations for the best
picture of the year as voted by 15,000 actors, writers, technicians and executives of the industry. They were Zanuck’s “The Snake Pit” and “Sitting Pretty,” Jack Warner’s “Johnny Belinda,” and J. Arthur Rank’s British productions, “The Red Shoes” and “Hamlet.”
Robert Montgomery handed her an envelope sealed by the auditing firm of Price, Waterhouse. Miss Barrymore broke open the envelope. Her eyes widened, and she gasped, “Hamlet.”
A murmur ran through the distinguished audience, there was a split second of silence, then polite applause. Hollywood itself had voted a British picture superior to anything it could produce.
It was a brave thing to do, brave as a man who says: I’ve got cancer. I might as well tell it to
my friends. They probably suspect it anyway.
To understand the crisis in Hollywood, you must study its earliest history, because there is the root of its present towering failure.
Thirty-five years ago Hollywood was the most favored little place in all the world. It was a very tiny community, made up among others of Cecil B. De Mille, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Marshall Neilan, Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne and Pearl White. Their individual studios, set in the wild hills of a Los Angeles suburb, were cheap frame buildings perhaps three t imes the size of the garage behind your house. The equipment consisted of a hand-cranked camera, a few lights and two or three stock backdrops.
From this community cans of film went out all over the world, and in return the world poured back millions of dollars. There were no such things as picture failures in Hollywood, only degrees of success. With income taxes less than five per cent
the most stupid netted not less than $5,000 a week, the better actors and producers, like De Mille, Pickford, Chaplin, Sweet and Neilan, made as much as $30,000 a week.
The novelty of flickering entertainment had caught the world as nothing else since the introduction of tobacco 400 years before, but, unlike tobacco, the wealth from the new fad went into a comparatively few pockets in a single community.
This was the golden age of Hollywood. Small wonder the scandals of the time were rife. Here were people of meagre beginnings who, in return for a miserly investment or nature’s gift of a small, straight nose, suddenly rolled in wealth. Sweepstake winners and gold-strike millionaires have been known to go mad.
A few years ago an astute Chicago manufacturer flung the first ball-point fountain pen on the market and sold millions of them at $12.50. His bonanza lasted only scant months until public awareness and competition caught up with him. A good bail-point pen now costs less than a dollar.
Not so with early Hollywood; the cheap, flickering films continued to pour wealth into Hollywood for more than 15 years. In 1929 came the first cloud a bit bigger than a man’s hand—increased taxes and the talking picture. Not only were talking pictures vastly more expensive to produce, they also raised by several degrees the public standard of acceptance. Once the movie-goer saw “The Jazz Singer” he could no longer be entertained by “Gertie in a Taxi.” The film ceased to be a fad; it was an industry and nosing up to becoming an art form.
The lush dream that was broken in 1929 continued to splinter through depression and recovery,
into war and out of war. The motion-picture industry became a great banking project handled by hard-faced men in Wall and Threadneedle Streets. It was soon almost as demanding, financially and artistically, as the legitimate theatre.
Poor pictures, even reasonably entertaining pictures, lost money; only the finest showed a return.
When the war ended, artists in Britain, France and Italy began to produce one or two pictures far superior. People who saw them became dissatisfied with the routine Hollywood product. Then came the dollar crisis and an intense nationalism found a ready expression in the refusal of foreign governments to allow their precious hard currency to pour into Hollywood.
The fall was long and shattering. After being the world’s darling for so many years Hollywood found itself just another scrambler in the world’s market places.
During the last year these factors intensified the Hollywood crisis:
(1) Domestic box-office returns, including Canada, fell off an average of eight per cent.
(2) Foreign markets practically disappeared.
Before the war the average Hollywood picture made its cost in America and its clear profit in the foreign market.
(3) The few good foreign pictures like “Hamlet,”
“Open City” and “Monsieur Vincent” again raised the standard of public acceptance several notches.
(4) Television, already more than a threat, became a menace. On Tuesday nights, the best night for television entertainment in the east, box offices slumped. Paul Raibourne, executive vicepresident of Paramount, concluded recently from a survey that television has already doomed the “B” or cheap-budget picture and that Hollywood can survive television only by producing top-grade pictures at a reasonable price.
Most of the major producing studios showed a huge operating loss during the last year. The few that still show a book profit do so because they own chains of theatres, but even this escape hatch is being closed by government antitrust action.
In short, Hollywood
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is foundering on the rocks of financial ruin. With a head start technically, financially and artistically, Hollywood might have readjusted itself to the new conditions. It hasn’t. Why? Because the tradition of big money persists.
The people of Hollywood still behave as though they live in a golden palace, although they know full well they toil in a highly competitive industry. Executive producers still draw $1 mil| lion a year in salary and bonuses.
Actors still make from $5,000 to I $10,000 a week. You can’t turn a J camera on an “A” picture under I $1,500.000.
The top people still like to behave i as though they were the Chaplin,
; Bickford and Fairbanks of 1920; they ! can’t quite adjust themselves to the ; notion, although they are aware of it,
! that the motion-picture industry is just I another business with profits for the talented and efficient and losses for the wasteful and stupid.
A few executives have, as I have indicated, begun to clip their fingernails. One executive producer, an ! exceptional realist, recently cut his own salary from $5,000 a week to $3,000 i a week. He also fired a few $40-a-week stenographers.
Most of the studios have now I adopted the principle that a story property will not be purchased unless its place on the production schedule can be clearly foreseen. This is an amazing innovation. There was a time when every new book and play was snapped up at a fabulous figure whether or not it would ever make a picture. A few weeks ago a major studio inventoried its shelves of unused story purchases. It had paid more than $3 millions for useless story properties in a single year.
Recently a studio head ordered a ; survey of the box-office value of his ! stars. He discovered that 20 actors whom he was paying anything from ; $2,000 to $5,000 a week, year in and ; year out, had a box-office value of I almost zero. He let their options lapse.
These are beginnings, only beginnings. They won’t save Hollywood. Only a complete revolution in the money standards of this community i can save the industry as it is presently
constituted. When a good associate producer gets the same salary as a high | executive of any other major industrial ; venture—say $50,000 a year-—and a j good actor gets around to believing j that $100,000 is a lot of money, perhaps | a good picture will show for 30 cents j (not $1.20) and make a profit.
Otherwise the place must blow up. j and out of its ruins may emerge men and women of talent and integrity who ; will make pictures on a scale consonant ! with life and work everywhere else in the nation and the world.
Is Hollywood worth saving? It is a j large question. Here we run up against another cliche: Give the public what
it wants and a picture will make money. The short answer to this is that Hollywood has been losing money consistently, so perhaps it is not giving the public what it wants.
I asked one of the more enlightened directors in Hollywood his views. His reply was interesting: “To make a good picture in this town you’ve got to blast your way through the system. What is the system? It is a sense of values built up so thick and strong since 1915 it takes dynamite to break through it. Take, for instance, a story 1 wanted to do last year. It was a sensitive love story of two ordinary people you might meet anywhere in the country. ¡ It’s life. Ninety-nine per cent of the married people in this country once met at a dance, or in business, or were introduced by mutual friends. They | fell in love, maybe they just liked each j other and were lonesome. Anyway they l got married. Sometimes marriage turns j into drama, or tragedy, or happiness. But we start with two ordinary, sensitive people.
“Well, 1 discussed it with a producer. He liked the idea, called in some reputable Hollywood writers, and we began to break it apart for its story values.
“Before I knew it the girl had become a night-club singer and the man a croupier in an adjoining gambling house. Of course they fell in love. In Hollywood you can’t have two people fall in love unless the girl is a night-club singer and the man is an underworld character who is ripe to be reformed.
“Well, 1 accepted that. We came to the body of the story, the little household tragedies and happinesses. In two days of conferences this was changed. The man tried to reform but his old gang boss, who was always secretly in love with the night-club singer, wouldn’t let him reform. There was gunplay. The gang boss was shot. The man became a fugitive from the police—anyway, that’s what came out of starting a nice, sensitive love story about two ordinary people. 1 dropped the whole project.”
Here again is an example of what ails Hollywood. It is not that producers willingly make the same old plots over and over again. They know the public wants fresh new stories. They buy such stories with the brave purpose of departing from the beaten path. But when the story makes its slow journey through the production machinery through executive producers, studio censors, industry censors, scenario writers, directors, cutters, film editors and finally the studio’s sales force, each changing an angle or a situation—it comes out like a thousand pictures that liave gone before it since 1915.
It is like the salary situation. Story values, like money values, are so deeply ingrained in the people who have been here many years that it is hardly possible to make something fresh.
Three of the best Hollywood pictures of last year—“Treasure of Sierra Madre,” “Johnny Belinda,” and “The Snake Pit”—were fought through inch by »'.ich by men of integrity who
refused to have them watered. Until j the last day of shooting on these films j there was powerful and organized j studio opposition to them.
What is the solution to this curious Hollywood problem? It may be a slow process of reform. Tradition can’t be broken down overnight. When enough money bas been lost, when excess capital has been used up, the process of reform might quicken.
There is a school of thought here which believes Hollywood is too big. that it assumes too much financial and social importance in its present state.
The disadvantage of being big and important is obvious. Hollywood is watched closely by governments, by women’s clubs, by religious organizations and by political parties. Each seeks to exert a pressure which cannot but detract from the integrity of a film.
I sold my novel “Sealed Verdict” to Paramount some months ago. As a novel it received decent reviews and, in one or two notable instances, ecstatic reviews. It was agreed, even by its j detractors, that it would make a good j film. I thought so too.
Nearly Offended France
Let me trace the studio’s difficulties in transferring the story to the screen.
In the first place the Johnston code, which is the industry’s supreme arbiter, placed a cold hand on a hot love scene which was an essential part of the story’s motivation. Out went the love scene.
Then, because the story involved the behavior of American military people in occupied Germany, the Washington authorities were required to poke around it. Part of the dialogue was watered. A minor example was this:
In a scene in a German civilian hospital a German doctor is handed a bottle of penicillin. He looks at it wondrously, saying, “I have never seen it before. We have no penicillin here.” To satisfy authority, the doctor in the film was made to add, “But I understand some is going to arrive tomorrow.”
Having survived the Johnston and Washington sensitivity about love and Germany, the story had to undergo still another revamping. The French Government wouldn’t like it because it showed a French woman as friendly toward a German war criminal. In the midst of the trials of dozens of French women on charges of being j friendly with Germans, the French | Government might object to this phase of the story.
The result was that the film bore some scant resemblance to the physical setting of the novel and very little more.
In large measure this wasn’t the studio’s fault. It was due to the fact that Hollywood has assumed such importance that a film will cause people to riot and governments to frown.
When Roberto Rosselini went about Italy making “Open City” he didn’t submit his script to anyone. He was unimportant. He was a man with a story and a couple of cameras.
There is great talent here in Hollywood: scores of admirable actors
(although not as many and not as expert as the British) move through the studios; good directors are plentiful; there are two or three superb camera artists; good writers are woefully lacking, but the writers’ market is the world; and the Hollywood technicians are without peers in any country.
Once Hollywood breaks its diseased traditions—as the gold and cat tle states J broke theirs and became normal, civilj ized, competitive communities—a lot ! of good pictures will emerge from these ¡ hills. Pictures like “Belinda” and j “Snake Pit.” Even like “Hamlet.” ★ !