What is a Screen Gem?
If you watch television, you must have wondered
The answer: a TV show machine-made to earn a profit by the factory that turns out the lion’s share of the canned entertainment on our screens. This is a profile of the factory and the shrewd men who run it in the United States and Canada
THE WRITER COULD TELL he was in the presence of an Executive Producer because the walls of the office were oak-paneled, the untouched books in the shelves were bound in colored hides and there was a paperweight on the desk in the form of a riding crop (sent up by the property department).
“I've read your script," said the Executive Producer, with a shake of his tweedy head, “and it’s not bad, not bad at all. In fact, parts of it are very good. That’s the trouble, I’m afraid. It’s just too good. You’ve got a message in here.
“You haven’t quite grasped what we’re trying to do around here," he went on. “Generally speaking, messages are Out. They’re for educational television. Now, Screen Gems isn’t in the educational television business. Screen Gems is in business, period. This is no Ford Foundation, baby. This is the entertainment business. And / mean business."
THE LADY’S NAME is Columbia, and she is the trademark of Columbia Pictures. There is a song called Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, one of those depressingly rousing airs that U.S. school children sing with mindless patriotism, so it is wholly fitting that the lady also is the trademark of the wholly owned Columbia subsidiary called Screen Gems, Inc. The Columbia who stands atop the Capitol in Washington wears a peaked hat with stars on it. carries a sword and trails a flag. Columbia’s Columbia, who stands erect and radiant at the beginning and end of most Screen Gems television productions, looks more like the Statue of Liberty. Her right hand holds aloft a torch and she seems to be clutching a book or a tablet or just possibly an accountant's
ledger, to her bosom. The rays of the torch streak like starlight — movie-and-TV-starlight — into every Canadian home in which there is a television set.
No other company produces as much television programming seen on both Canadian networks and all Canadian independent stations as Screen Gems does. There are four other big U. S. television factories grinding out television series and programs that are consumed, if that’s the word I am looking for, by Canadian viewers: Desilu, headed by Madame President Lucille Ball; Warner Brothers, now under the direction of Jack Webb; Four-Star, founded by :he late Dick Powell with David Niven and Charles Boyer; and Revue, which was a part of the talent agency called MCA before the U. S. government told MCA to make up its mind which business it was in. None of these manufacturing complexes is in it with Screen Gems. No other company offers Canadians so much to sit and stare at. day in day out, night in night out.
Screen Gems is the biggest and most efficient outside-based company producing and distributing programs in Canada. It is more willing to spend its money than any other outside organization. And it has more plans for Canadian television than any other foreigner.
If I were a Canadian, I should not be altogether overjoyed about that. I should not like to think that my choice of what I am now seeing, and what I will see in the future, will be dictated for me, in terms of sheer volume, by a few men in Hollywood who are directly under the control of a few' men in New York, all of whom are primarily businessmen, and therefore as coldly calculating about their
work, and indeed as antiseptic and methodical, as the dry-sausage makers of Geo. A. Hormel & Co.
To most viewers, television ought to be at its least ambitious a medium of entertainment and communication; at its most, another art form. To the Screen Gems people, television is a business.
On November 27, 1962, at the Annual Meeting of Stockholders, Jerome S. Hyams, executive vice-president and general manager of Screen Gems, said in part:
“. . . I would like to emphasize that in our fourteen years, we have never been guided by the idea of growth for growth’s sake. What has been — and what will continue to be our credo — is the concept of growth with profits!” (The exclamation point is Hyams’.)
TOO MANY PROGRAMS TO COUNT
Just how much “growth with profit” is readily indicated. In fiscal 1962, the company grossed $52,188,900. Its net income was $3,466,294. In fiscal 1961, it paid dividends on 2,538,400 shares of common stock outstanding at a rate of $1.05 per share. In fiscal 1962, it paid $1.37. In fiscal 1963, which will close on June 30, it will gross more, net more and pay more.
It is impossible to estimate exactly the value of the baubles Canadians have set in Columbia's crown. Officials of Your Company, as Screen Gems folksily refers to itself in its annual report, and as Canadians are privileged to consider it whether they want to or not. appear vague when asked about this figure. They say proudly that Screen Gems programs are licenced in fifty-six countries, but no reporter has found them especially eager to
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WHAT IS A SCREEN GEM?
continued front pape 14
"The idea of being original seems to make most Screen Gems officials a trifle uneasy”
thrust a country-by-country report into his hands. The Canadian business, one told me guardedly when I embarrassed him hy asking, has accounted for between twenty-two and thirty-five percent of volume outside the United States. He would not tell me how much the inside volume was. All he would say was, “An exceptionally successful series, such as Father Knows Best, would earn about sixty-five percent of its gross in the U. S.” Other series, he said, would not earn that much. No amount of questioning could get him to be explicit. One of the ironies of capitalism is that it seems to force those who believe in it to pretend that there is something disgraceful about it when they are asked how it has profited them. (Only Texans seem wholly secure.)
A safe guess, based on the questioning of my above mentioned anonymous informant and several of his coworkers, is that Screen Gems in Canada does a business of between seven million and ten million dollars a year.
The programs that earn this money cannot he tabulated exactly. Screen Gems people in New York would he willing to tell what programs they have on when, hut they just don't know. There are too many programs on too many independent stations which are billed in a blanket manner, monthly. To tell exactly how many shows Screen Gems has on the air in Canada in a single day would require them to take the schedule of every last station and check off every last program they own
or have a hand in. We must be satisfied with general statements, such as one given to me hy a man who might have been named hy Congreve, for destiny hurled him somehow into being what he is. Now the business director for the Canadian operation, he is a former chartered public accountant named—as God is my judge—Bruce Ledger.
"We’ve got ten hours of original production in Canada right now, every week,” Hedger told me, his voice breaking slightly on the word “original.” (The idea of being original makes most Screen Gems officials a trifle uneasy.) “There's The Pierre Berton Hour, five hours a week out of Toronto and other cities. There's a half-hour show called People in Conflict out of Vancouver, five days a week or two-and-a-half-hours per week. There’s also the game show. Line ’Lin Up, out of Montreal, same amount of time.” (Since our conversation, this has gone off the air.)
“Then we have the five-minute children's show, Pick a Letter, with cartoonist George Feyer, produced here but also seen in seven other countries. Wc also have By Pierre Berton, another five-minute show, in syndication.'’
Hedger drew a breath, understandably enough.
"We have Huckleberry Hound, Yopi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Lather Knows Best, The Flintstones, Hazel, Empire, Our Man Hippins all running on networks. In syndication, we have The Donna Reed Show, Dennis the Menace, Route 66 and Naked City all in major cities.”
Again he paused, as though muttering "What hath God wrought.”
“We are syndicating (this means selling to individual stations programs that have already been sold once to
networks) forty other properties,” he said. "We have a full feature film catalogue.” (And this means Screen Gems owns over sixteen hundred films originally made for theatre showing.) “We also distribute Hanna-Barbcra’s cartoon catalogue and The Three Stoopes, plus some cartoons from other companies, plus some French products we are acquiring, plus French versions of our own shows.”
Nor does the activity stop there. Screen Gems’ Elliot, Unger and Elliot Division produces commercials for such companies as General Motors, General Foods, General Mills, Procter and Gamble, du Pont, Polaroid and many others. Screen Gems’ Merchandising Division is busy licencing the manufacture and sale of clothes, novelties and toys that either are endorsed hy, are effigies of, or are somehow connected with characters in Screen Gems shows — guns, dolls, sweaters, records, etc.
Screen Gems also owns two television stations in Puerto Rico and one in Salt Lake City, Utah, and has been looking at a couple of Canadian stations with interest. (Sometime in the future it may try out new programs on these stations, one executive told me.) Screen Gems owns the Cellomatic C orporation, which makes audio-visual aids for instruction and presentation, and produces industrial shows.
Last, hut hy no stretch of the imagination least, Screen Gems owns Audience Studies, Inc. the “pre-testing services” of which, says Your Company’s report, “are being used with increasing frequency hy many film producers, agencies, advertisers, as well as two ot the three major networks.” In some ways Audience Studies, Inc., is the most startling and disturbing tentacle of Your Octopus, as wc shall sec in the second part of this study.
Companies are made up of human beings. Screen Gems often acts as though it wishes it weren’t. There are about two hundred permanent employees in Hollywood, around two hundred and fifty in New York, and forty-four (plus twelve contract employees) in Canada. But at least fifteen thousand people work part time in various programs the year around, according to Jim Hardiman, Screen Gems’ publicity man in Hollywood, a former Canadian. The world in which these people work is as impersonal as anv society of the future ever conceived by H. G. Wells.
“These people, you must understand, are businessmen,” says an actor who worked for Screen Gems (and who hopes to work for the company again, w'hich is why I do not use his name). “They have reduced their operation to a point where the human element hardly exists.” This was in February 1962.
At the same time, a Screen Gems producer said to me, “We had a terrible time around here the other day. Joe Kearns, of the Dennis the Menace show, died of a cerebral hemmorrhage. The whole damned script had to be rewritten on a Monday mornini’.”
Screen Gems’ ideal employee is one content to regard himself as only an anonymous part of a vast mechanism that pumps away soullessly. Stars always were treated as merchandise by Columbia, and she passed this policy on to her little jewel. Cary Grant once was kept waiting at the Columbia gate for nearly an hour because he had forgotten his pass; it made no difference to the guard that he was starring in a Columbia film. Today the treatment of stars is not quite as cavalier as that (although the gate cops are just as stupid and slow-moving as they are in every other studio in Hollywood), but Screen Gems’ featured personalities know their places.
One was approached by a writer who was in trouble with his producer over policy. The writer had been trying to get some “quality” into his show, and he appealed to the star of the program to back him up in his fight with the brass.
The star listened to the writer’s side for a moment, then said, “Look here —before 1 got this series I was a roadcompany Hank Fonda. Today people know me because of Screen Gems. In four years I’ve made almost two million bucks. Now you’re asking me to back you in a fight with Management. You’ve got to be kidding.”
This star was merely following the self-effacing lead set by Columbia’s president, who signs himself “A. Schneider.” His first name is Abe, but his last is far more intriguing if one reflects that the word “schneider” in Yiddish means “tailor” or “cutter” or “trimmer.” Gin rummy, a card game demanding total mathematical concentration. has been popular for thirty years with suntanned moguls in the entertainment business. In this game, when one opponent beats the other without allowing him to score a point, he is said to have “schneidered” or “trimmed" him. Abe Schneider has schneidered all other television factories in Canada. If one considers the names Bruce Ledger and Abe Schneider, can anyone maintain that destiny
does not have a sense of humor?
A. Schneider maintains a certain austerity about his own person, especially where reporters are concerned. Those who ask if they might interview him always are told that he is too busy for that sort of thing. Jim Hardiman in Hollywood tells reporters to see Bob Ferguson in New York for an interview with The Boss, but when one approaches Ferguson, whose first name is Robert and whose full and majestic title is Executive in Charge of
World-Wide Ad er.¡sing and Publicity. one gets this hearty but uninformative statement:
“I'll tell yuh this—he’s, uh, a busy guy. but he still finds time, don't ass me where he gets it, to shoot a rounda golf in duh low sevvenies.” Then he adds, in what he assumes is a reassuring voice, "LU senn yuh a Bio.” (“Bio” is pressagentese for “biography.”)
Whoever wrote the Screen Gems Bio of A. Schneider was no Strachey. Here it is in all its punchy entirety:
“A. Schneider: President, Columbia Pictures Corporation—born April 25, 1905, in New York City—B.S. from New York University — entered motion picture industry in bookkeeping department at Columbia: later became assistant treasurer, then treasurer, 1943 appointed also vice-president: member of the Board of Directors; first vice-president 1956.”
Apart from that. Ferguson says, as though betraying something highly confidential, A. Schneider became
president on March 14, 1958, thereby achieving the summit of a human pyramid of interlocking relationships in blood and in marriage that recently was described for me by a former executive in a kind of chant that went as follows:
“Harry Cohn, now dead, was the founder of Columbia. Harry’s brother Jack, also now dead, was executive vice-president who took care of business in New York. Jack’s son Ralph, now dead he should rest in peace he was a very nice guy, started Screen Gems in television. Harry’s son Bobby is a producer with Columbia; he recently produced the feature film The Interns. Two of Harry Cohn's closest associates in Hollywood were the Briskin brothers, Irving and Sam. Sam is a director of Screen Gems. Irving is a producer. A sister of the Briskins married Abe Schneider. Irving Briskin’s daughter married Seymour Friedman, the production supervisor and chief budget-watcher. Abe Schneider's son, Berton Schneider, is treasurer. Abe Schneider’s son Stanley is Leo Jaffe’s assistant ...”
Checking up on the booze
There are other marriages and other relationships locked carefully away from public view in other rooms, but nobody at Screen Gems likes to mention them. A. Schneider is determined to present only the company’s collective face to the world. To do that he relies not only on the flacks Hardiman and Ferguson but on a public relations counseling firm called Infoplan. At the 1962 annual meeting of stockholders, one Harold Rose, identified only as one of them, stated that “he believed the company’s public relations could be improved.” The presiding officer, none other than A. Schneider himself, in person, not a motion picture, “answered that his point was well taken and would he given further consideration.” Infoplan then was hired. It charges Screen Gems around fifteen hundred dollars per month, plus a fee for manpower hours expended, plus expenses. The bill runs to around twenty-five hundred dollars per month.
This must make many Screen Gems executives wince, for the entire complex of management thinks in the manner of A. Schneider’s bookkeeper’s mind. One day last year Jim Hardiman took me to lunch with William Dozier, the production chief, in the latter’s private dining room. When we got hack to Hardiman’s office he sat down to think of whom 1 ought to see next. His telephone rang. “Hardiman,” he snapped (Screen Gems personnel try to save words as well as money). “Oh,” he said, somewhat startled. “Let’s sec. Well . . . Bill had a Dubonnet, I had a Scotch and Gehman had a Scotch. Yes, that’s right. Sure. Sure. 1 understand.” Putting down the instrument, he confronted my incredulity with a nervous giggle. “Someone’s been stealing booze,” he said. “They were just asking how much we drank.”
“They” was budget-watcher Seymour Friedman, 1 later learned, although not from Hardiman. The telephone call had its counterpart in a sign I saw while wandering around the studio area. It told all carpenters and
prop men to be sure to account for lumber used in building sets, FAILURE
TO DO SO MAY MEAN INSTANT DISMISSAL the sign said. It was signed MANAGEMENT.
Writers, always a prodigal lot, are especially annoyed by the company’s high respect for a low budget. “We are partners in misery,” a team told me one day. Another, sitting in his gray cubicle, waved a weary hand at the scaling walls. “Paint has to fall off before they'll re-do a room around here,” he said. And a third told me, “One day I got back from the commissary and noticed some wood shavings in a desk drawer, plus some carcasses of termites. I called management to report it. Somebody up there said, 'Buy some bug spray and we'll reimburse you.’ A couple of days later I called and said, ‘Listen, they're marching on the bookcase. What shall I do?’ They didn't want to call an exterminator. No exterminator would come to do just one room, and exterminators are expensive. So they moved me into another office. The termites are still there, I guess.”
A writer working on The Donna Reed Show told me, “They'll go to almost any length to keep from giving you a raise around here. I was in bad shape emotionally, all mixed up, having trouble with my wife, irritable all the time. Tony Owen, Donna’s husband and her executive producer, called me in and said, ‘Look, you oughta go to a psychiatrist. 1 know the only thing holdin' you back is money. I figure an analysis will cost you about five thousand, so I'll blow you to one. I’m raisin’ you five thousand a year.’ 1 had tears in my eyes. I wrung his hand and almost kissed him. Then, when I got home that night, it dawned on me that I’d been planning to ask him for a twelve-thousand-dollar raise, which was what 1 had coming—hut the s.o.b. had beaten me to it. He wasn’t interested in getting me into analysis. All he wanted was to make sure I kept on writing the show I'd helped create.”
Later I repeated this yarn to Tony
Owen. He shrugged. “That’s gratitude,” he said.
One writer finally retaliated. He was enraged because one day, after he had drawn a box of paper clips from the Screen Gems supply room, someone had called him to ask if he really needed a whole box, considering the tact that he was leaving to work with another company in two weeks. On the final day of his employment he rented a u-pull-it trailer and hitched it to his car and drove on the lot. During the day he kept drawing things from the supply room — reams of paper, boxes of pencils, stacks of manila envelopes, staplers, wads of carbon paper, enough to outfit a small stationery store. Then he punched the clock for the last time and drove home. His fellow writers considered electing him president of the Writers' Guild.
Screen Gems people in the Toronto offices at 108 Peter Street (a floor and a half) and 72 Carlton Street (a small building), perhaps because they are so far from the direct gaze of the pennypinchers, are not as conscious of the short-ration policy. One of the workers on The Pierre Berton Hour told me. “Our budget is low, but we can operate on it. However, our top pay for a guest is two hundred dollars plus expenses, as opposed to the three hundred and twenty dollars that guests get on Tonight, with Johnny Carson in New York. The only way we’ve been able to get people like Jack Benny and Arthur Godfrey is by giving them a chance to plug something they are interested in. But in general we’re not complaining. Oh, sometimes the brass will complain that we’re sending too many limousines to the airport for visiting guests, and we cut back a little.” Some Canadian guests, he neglected to tell me, get as little as $84.50. The producers have resorted to making deals in order to save money. They have an arrangement with an airline to fly guests in and with a motel to put them up. Both get plugged on the show.
When pressed, Ross McLean, the producer, will admit that he would be happier with more money to work with. Nobody in Screen Gems, except possibly A. Schneider and his cadre, is truly happy with the company's tightwaddedness. The stockholders are happy, however. In New York there are two brothers, Lewis and John Gilbert, who have made careers for themselves as professional stockholders. They go to stockholders’ meetings and ask rude, tough-minded questions of the management and directors. Frederick Kappel, chief executive officer of A. T. & T. affects a stern silence when their names are mentioned. The Gilberts regard Screen Gems as an almost-perfcct company, and A. Schneider as a paragon. “He is a very, very capable man.” Lewis Gilbert told me. “He conducts a model of an annual meeting. 1 admire him very much. He is a splendid businessman, and has a good head on him.”
Canadians, too, are happy with Screen Gems; or so Screen Gems officials like to think. They may be correct. Five television critics whose opinions I solicited did not regard Screen Gems in Canada as a menace. Most of them echoed Nathan Cohen of the Toronto Star, who told me, “It isn’t a monopoly here . . . it's just got
more money and more ideas than any other company. But it’s made a lot of mistakes,” he went on, and singled out a favorite target of his, The Pierre Berton Hour. Cohen’s feelings about this are well known to his readers. They were not well known to me. and so he favored me with them for several sentences. I gathered that he does not regard Berton with esteem as a performer. He then returned to the Screen Gems operation in general and said, "Calling it an American invasion
is unwarranted and untrue. The local groups, the networks and the packagers, just don’t have the know-how and connections to do what Screen Gems is doing in Canada.”
Screen Gems itself feels that it is liked in Canada. Like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, it wishes it were we//-liked, but it is willing to settle for what it’s got. Herbert Sussan, the executive producer for Berton and the other Canadian shows, believes that his organization has
brought something valuable to Canada, and that Canadians are grateful. "Canadians love Screen Gems,” he said to me. "Why, when I first came up to Canada, everywhere 1 went I saw nothing but smiling faces.” Then he added what only could be regarded as a Freudian comment. "I can’t understand it,” he said.
Sussan is a veteran of American television. He went to work for CBS “the day the first station went on the air.” he told me. He is a most amiable
man, and is so regarded by Screen Gems people in Canada. "He is the ideal executive producer, because all he does when he comes up here is just sort of take up our time without interfering,” one Berton staff member said. C anadians appreciate Sussan’s background as a professional showman; after all, it is not often that one can tind a man who was capable of getting Eddie Fisher on the air as not just an idol of gum-chewers but as a master of ceremonies. ("I w-as responsible tor developing him as a television personality,” Sussan told me one day, "and before 1 left NBC to go to Screen Gems—I went to NBC from ^ BS I was in charge of their spectacular programs.” He referred to Fisher without blanching.)
Sussan's functions in Canada are mainly supervisory. The ten and onehalf hours that he was overseeing when 1 was researching this piece, since diminished by two and one-half hours as a result of Line ’Em Up having gone off the air, do not require elaborate production techniques or exertions. In the case of Berton. the producer, Ross McLean, or his associate, Sam Levene, call up guests, or write them, and say something like, "Hey, how about coming on our show?” People in Conflict requires more production and a good deal of writing, for actors portray people with genuine problems. The mummers must be given lines to speak, and the producer must find panelists of some standing — a doctor, a lawyer, a social worker, a clergyman — to sit and watch the acted-out problems and pontificate on solutions.
Pure Berton, no guests
Herbert Sussan had a hand in the creation of the two Pierre Berton shows. (The second, only five minutes long and now running in syndication, is pure Berton, unencumbered by guests.) He was assisted by Steve Krantz, another Screen Gems man who formerly was in Canada as general manager but now is based in New York in the International Division. Krantz brought Sussan and Berton together. Krantz and Sussan both had a hand in getting Screen Gems to back the making of pilots for Pick a Letter which despite the fact that it fs only five minutes long demands more production efforts than the other four shows. People in Conflict and Line ’Em Up were the creations of Dan Enright; so was Showdown, another game show which was on the air for a time in Montreal.
Screen Gems executives hate to talk about the use of Enright as a consultant. One of the men mentioned most prominently as a “fixer” in the big-quiz scandals in the U. S., Enright no longer can work in television there, even though many of his former associates feel, as one put it to me, “He got a raw deal—they made him the guilty party as a result of the hearings in Washington, even though he was just following what was ordinary practice throughout the U. S. television industry.” Enright is now in Vancouver, developing another show for Screen Gems. Executives deny that he is on the Screen Gems payroll, but admit that he draws royalties for the creation of Line ’Em Up and People
In Conflict. They also say that they will continue to be receptive to his ideas for future shows in Canada. “This is a very, very capable television producer,” Herbert Sussan said to me. “We see no reason why a man should suffer all his life for what may be regarded as errors he made in the course of normal industrial procedure.”
The real magnitude of the Screen Gems program can only be seen in Hollywood (only one show, Naked City, is shot in New York, although Route 66 is filmed all over the United States). The headquarters of Screen Gems is at 1334 North Beechwood Drive, right in the heart of the Hollywood where the pioneers of the film industry first began functioning fortyodd years ago. The building at 1334 was formerly an apartment hotel, often used by women who produced entertainment for much smaller audiences than those reached by the present tenants’ productions. The office doors all have little peep-holes, or ventilators, in them.
The Beechwood building is part of the Columbia Pictures main lot, which covers ten acres. There are eleven sound stages on this lot, and four more on a four-acre tract not far away which is referred to as The Ranch. Although the Screen Gems organization reminds me of something that H. G. Wells might have visualized, when I first visited it and spent some time there I found myself feeling more like a character in Franz Kafka, a man who could not quite establish sensible contact either with his surroundings or his fellow human beings.
This feeling oppressed me particularly when I went out to The Ranch. Near the entrance was a gas station sitting next to a New England town square, which was adjoining a London street that gave off to a New York street with a subway well. “There’s Dennis the Menace’s house,” said my guide, Jim Hardiman, “and over there’s the Father Knows Best house, now used by Donna Reed . . .” We went on through Mexico to San Francisco’s Chinatown, hard by a dock where the fragment of an ocean liner was drawn up ready to push off into a sea that would be supplied by special effects. Everywhere were huge vases such as Ali Baba’s thieves might have hidden in, plastic deer, piles of papier-maché rocks, and — suddenly, to my startled eyes—a group of statues, including one of Christ. We came at length to the warehouses where there were stacks and stacks of fences, doors, shutters, fireplaces, brick walls,
stone walls, pillars, posts, staircases, panels, railings, balustrades, log cabin walls, potted palms, bandstands, bars, parts of ships and railroad cars . . . “We can make almost anything here,” Hardiman observed, matter-of-factly. “Over there’s the commissary. Just by putting different walls on the outside and landscaping it, we can make a country club, a night club, a high school or a public auditorium.”
My sensation of being in another world, or several others, was re-emphasized when we wenl hack to Beechwood Street and entered the main lobby. Here, under the gaze of photographs of such odd wall fellows as Dennis the Menace and Winston Churchill, as well as all other big-time Screen Gems stars, sat actors and actresses waiting for interviews with producers. To my casual glance they all had excellent chances for landing parts in Screen Gems productions, for they all looked very much alike. The men had that carefully-studied casualness that characterizes all actors out of work: the girls all sat with their pretty nyloned knees crossed, very erect, so that their breasts stood out prominently. A gum-chewing receptionist, who might have been cast for her role by one of the producers inside, now and then called out a name, and the actor or actress vanished into a long hallway—possibly never to return, the w'ild thought struck me, but to be chewed up by this factory and spewed onto film.
The amiable Hardiman yanked me back from these nightmarish speculations by suggesting that we go and have our scheduled lunch with “Bill.” This was William Dozier, the head of all Screen Gems production in Hollywood, and therefore the man most responsible for the Screen Gems products that Canadians see.
A day or two before, Hardiman had given me a Bio, as he insisted upon calling it, of Dozier. Other people, not connected with Screen Gems, had given me their Bios of him, too. They regarded him as a phenomenon in Hollywood, not necessarily because of his record as a producer, but mainly because he always has landed on his feet. “Bill has bounced around a lot,” they said, not w'ithout envy.
Dozier, born in 1908 in Omaha, Nebraska, started out to be a lawyer but, as he freely admits, show business always had fascinated him, as it did two other native sons of his own home town, Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando. He quit his law studies at the University of Southern California at Fos Angeles and joined the Phil BergBert Allenberg talent agency, an organization that devoted itself to representing actors, directors, writers, and others who wished to work in Hollywood’s industry. From the agency he went to Paramount as head of the story department, and from then on he held more jobs than any other individual in his pay bracket (Dozier earns around $200,000 a year, one of his associates estimated for me). He went from Paramount to RKO to Universal-International to Sam Goldwyn to Columbia Pictures to CBS Television (in New York) to CBS Television (in Hollywood) to (hack to) RKO. and finally to Screen Gems.
Few Hollywood executives can boast such a background. Few would
want to. Hollywood is as stratified as Detroit, and once a man is in a big job he is supposed to stay in it, the rules say. Dozier’s leapfrogging alarms some of his peers and makes others suspicious. So does his appearance, which counts a good deal out there. He is faultlessly groomed in a way that suggests that while in New York for CBS he used his lunch hours not just in lining up sponsors but visiting some of the sharper Madison Avenue men’s clothing shops. Yet he does not dress like a New Yorker, exactly. He dresses like a Californian’s, or a Nebraskan’s, idea of what a New Yorker dresses like. The shoulders of his jackets are a little wider than the real New Yorker’s, the button-down collars blouse out like spinnakers, and there seem to be cuffs and lapels all over the suits.
This production chief is easily as handsome as any of the actors he hires, and could on a minute’s notice walk into the role of a high-pressure manufacturer, which he is, or a suave public relations man, which he was when he and 1 had lunch. His hair that day had just the right touches of grey at the sides, as though he might have had a man in from Makeup that morning. His physical attraction, at least in part, has led two beautiful women to marry him. In 1946 he was married to Joan Fontaine, the actress. They were divorced in 1950. In 1953 he married another actress, Ann Rutherford.
If it sells — it’s good
Charm is an important part of Dozier’s operational arsenal. It is fired when necessary and discarded like a spent shell when it is not necessary to impress and then to sell. On his desk is a button that opens the door to his office. When he finishes with a visitor he presses the button, the door comes ajar, and the interview is over. If the visitor does not take the hint and depart quietly, Dozier can become pointedly rude. A man from the Screen Gems office in New York one day was trying to tell Dozier something he did not believe or did not wish to hear. “But, Bill . . . but. Bill ..." the man kept saying. Dozier pressed his button; the man kept pressing his but-Billing. Dozier then stood up and walked deliberately into the lavatory adjoining his office. The man went on talking desperately. Dozier came out of the lavatory drying his hands. The man knew he was defeated; he left.
There are those in Hollywood who say that Dozier’s place at Screen Gems is not secure. There are others who believe that because of his record as a drifter he soon may go elsewhere. He has been in conflict with the New York bookkeepers on several occasions, one Screen Gems executive told me cautiously. This is hard to believe, for when Dozier talks he sounds as though he too had come up through the business office ranks. A green eyeshade would not seem inappropriate on his handsome brow.
“When 1 first joined the Berg-Allenberg agency,” Dozier told me when Jim Hardiman ushered me in, “I quickly developed a philosophy for myself. That was this: the only good stories are the ones you can sell. I used to read some things my writer
clients did andJM love a lot of them . . . but if JT couldn’t sell them they automatically became no good. After six years I went to Paramount Pictures as head of the story department. On the other side of the fence, I quickly transferred my philosophy to this: the only good stories are the ones I want to buy.”
Now that he was warming up, Dozier’s statements blew out like his sailboat collars. “In the production of television,” he said, as I wondered what had prevented him from changing his suit to a toga, “the extension of my personal philosophy is this. The only good television shows are the ones you can sell. You may have great ones lying there in the vault, and you can keep running them for your relatives . . . but you don’t stay in this business unless you make successful shows.
“There are no rules and standards, exactly. Selecting a show to produce becomes a kind of intuitive thing. In evaluating an idea you first look at it negatively. Is there anything that would keep it from selling? Anything that would keep the average advertiser from wanting to have it represent him on the air? Would it militate against the sale of a product? If you answer all those questions negatively, you ask yourself what are the positive things.
“Is it unlike any other show on the air? Does it have a flash idea? Is it castable with an important personality? Are there any presale values? I mean, Dennis the Menace had a presale value because everybody knew the cartoon. Hazel did—she was a cartoon, too. Then, also, has it been done before? Is anybody else doing the same idea, and if so how far along are they? So, you decide if this is something you want to put your chips on and then you get four or five other people’s opinions within your organization, and then you go to the salesman—but he’s only thinking, can he sell it? He’s not worrying about your problems, he’s wondering if he can go out and convince a sponsor that it will sell his toothpaste ...”
Dozier denied emphatically that he just had said that the salesmen had the final say, as I suggested he had. “We counsel with our sales people as to what we propose to do, but never as to how we propose to do it,” he insisted. “We hold what we call The
Summit Meeting with the people from New York about the first week in June every year. A couple of weeks before that I hold what I call my PreSummit Meeting. I take my three executive producers from here and we will go to Palm Springs for three or four days and we will sit down and go over all the ideas that we have for the next year. This is for broadcast in October a year and a half later. We will cull from those ideas maybe twenty . . . and then at the Summit
Meeting we will sit with the sales people, and we will get their ideas.” So, 1 pointed out to him again, the New York businessmen really were in control. He could not move without them. "No,” he said again. “Production responsibility is left entirely up to the organization here, which is a great tribute to the whole Columbia organization, for there have been too many examples of fiscal people ruining entertainment.”
His jaw set firmly above his button-
down collar and his faultlessly-knotted tie, Dozier appeared determined to be the last man in the world who would allow businessmen to interfere with his “creative” operations. For a moment I thought he was going to reach into one of his drawers, pull out that torch that his company’s trademark holds, and brandish it aloft. ★
This is the first of two articles on the television factory that machines much of what we see on the screen.