Monday, 30 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 6: RKO

Considered one of the five major studios during Hollywood's golden age, RKO is mostly identified today as the studio that produced Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) and the lavish Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers musicals, which struck a chord with Depression audiences.

RKO during its heyday

But RKO was also the studio of the young and zany Katherine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball, who would later buy the studio when it was on the skids. Besides its strong focus on black-and-white features, the most remarkable thing about RKO probably is the fact that during its brief, torn and torrid history (1928 – 1957), it went through more presidents and reshuffles than any other studio, inducing Andrew Sarris to quip that “Rko is the closest thing we have in Hollywood to a schizophrenic studio experiencing nervous breakdowns”. Although the founding of RKO was preceded by a merger of RCA(= Radio Corporation of America) and FBO(= Film Booking Office), its history officially starts in 1928, when the RKO/ FBO conglomeration fused with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain to form the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation, or RKO.

With practically no stars or talent of note under contract to the studio, RKO was lucky to start at a time when proceeds were high, tapping the audience’s hunger for the newly invented sound pictures. Concentrating on musicals RKO did well, and in an act of folly took over the Pathé studio in 1930. With it came a modest roster of stars like Ann Harding and Constance Bennett. The same year the studio landed a critical hit with Cimarron (1930), which garnered a couple Oscars, among which the one for best picture. In 1931 David O. Selznick replaced William LeBaron as head of production, and with his go-getter temperament he was quick in changing things around by plundering the New York stages in order for RKO to sign up a line-up of promising stars and directors.
Joining the roster of stars inherited from Pathé were Katherine Hepburn and Mary Astor, enrolling in 1932, and 1930, respectively. RKO went the way of all film studios, when a - you guessed it! - reorganisation took place in 1932, and RKO’s president Hiram Brown was replaced by Aylesworth, who soon started breathing down Selznick’s neck, causing the latter to join MGM, where Louis B. Mayer was desperate to find a capable replacement to fill in for the missing prowess of Irving G. Thalberg, who had suffered a heart attack and was on an extended leave of absence.

Katherine Hepburn

Katherine Hepburn turned into the company’s most reliable actress, winning an Oscar (her first of four) for her performance in Morning Glory (1933). The studios had a reputation for keeping their stars busy - especially if they were new on the scene - and so the very same year Hepburn also starred in Christopher Strong and Little Women, which was directed by her friend and RKO colleague, George Cukor.

Weathering the storms of the Depression, the studio had a good year in 1935, releasing three films which all went on to become classics. Alice Adams won Hepburn yet another Oscar nod, the Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat was nominated in four categories, while John Ford’s masterpiece The Informer ended up winning four, including one for its director and one for Victor McLaglen, who played the title role. The Atlas Corporation, headed by Floyd Odlum, bought a major stake in the studio, which led to yet another reshuffle, with Leo Spitz emerging as the new president.
But being RKO, this constellation was to last for a mere 3 years, before the next restructuring brought on the ousting of Spitz, who was succeeded by George Schaefer.

Amidst all this muddle at the top, the studio nevertheless managed to come up with a number of memorable pictures, among which one that led to Bette Davis’ (on loan out from Warners) breakthrough as an actress, Of Human Bondage (1935). Based on Somerset Maugham’s novel and directed by RKO’s John Cromwell, the part of the ferocious Mildred Rogers paved the way to turn her into Hollywood’s Grande Dame of Sturm and Drang. Gregory LaCava’s hilarious screwball comedy Stage Door (1937), which united in-house actresses Hepburn, Ball and Rogers in a hilarious romp about the travails of aspiring actresses, room-mating in New York. Stage Door, like many of RKO’s films, catered mainly to women. Having turned the studio’s chronical lack of male talent into a virtue, RKO churned out a string of films aimed at female audiences. The much underrated LaCava also directed the witty morale raiser Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), in which Ginger Rogers has this to say about the upper crust, “Rich people are just poor people with money”.

Bette Davis as the villainous Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes

To make up for the shortage of talent, studio boss Schaefer was adept at encouraging independent producers to work for RKO, thus being a trail-blazer in the Hollywood landscape, for independent productions would only start to become popular with the demise of the studio system in the early 1950s. He struck up deals with early independents like Samuel Goldwyn, Walt Disney and David Selznick’s Vanguard Company, thus limiting RKO’s risks as well as limiting its profits, while at the same time substantially adding to the studio’s cachet, as Goldwyn’s films like The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) and The Best Years Of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) went on to be showered with praise, not to mention a multitude of Oscars and Oscar nods. His association with Orson Welles’ Mercury Productions, however, led to Schaefer’s downfall, as due to a smear campaign by the Hearst press in which Louella Parsons’ poison pen infamously panned Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), RKO suffered sizeable losses, which led to Schaefer’s resignation in 1942. Floyd Odlum became chairman of the board, with N. Peter Rathvon in the position of corporate president, as his helpmate.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

With the US entering the war in 1941, President Roosevelt encouraged the film studios to contribute to the war effort by producing morale-boosting, patriotic films. RKO’s offerings included Edward Dmytryk’s film Tender Comrade (1943), which in the end turned out to be part anti-Nazi, part women’s picture. In it Ginger Rogers had to utter the now famous line “share and share alike, that’s’ democracy”, which with Russia still an ally, went completely unnoticed. When, however, once the war was over the tides rapidly turned, Dmytryk’s patriotic effort backfired, and it was held against him when the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated against Communist infiltration among the film community. Ginger Rogers’ mother, Lela, used those very lines against the film’s director, Edward Dmytryk, who subsequently was subpoenaed before the Committee on charges of being a Communist (which, as a matter of fact, he was, but that should never have been the point).

Dore Schary

Milking the high cinema attendance during the war years, reaching its peak in 1946, RKO did well, releasing now classic films like Fritz Lang’s The Woman In The Window (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). By 1947, RKO was in trouble again, resulting in Dore Schary being hired as production chief. Schary, however, didn’t last long. Odlum’s decision to sell the studio to aviator-turned-tycoon Howard Hughes in 1948 spelled the end of Schary’s stint at RKO, and he left to come to MGM’s rescue, which, with the studio era coming to a close, had also fallen on hard times.
Schary’s departure was followed by a succession of production chiefs and presidents, none of whom managed to rise to the occasion of dealing with the whimsical and elusive Hughes. The difficulties of the incessant change of management notwithstanding, RKO released a string of memorable pictures during its last years, most significant among which are the films by Fritz Lang (Clash By Night, 1952, While The City Sleeps, 1956, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, 1956), Howard Hawks(The Thing From Another World, 1951), Nicholas Ray (They Live By Night, 1948, On Dangerous Ground, 1952), Otto Preminger (Angel Face, 1952, Sudden Fear, 1953), and Robert Wise’s brilliant boxing-film-noir, The Set-Up(1949).

In 1952, with red baiting still rampant, Hughes, a notorious Communist hater, closed the studio, laid off over a thousand people, in order to implement a screening system with the aim to get rid of possible Communists on the lot. Having run the studio to the ground, Hughes sold RKO to the General Teleradio Corporation in 1955. But failing at injecting new life into the suffering studio, RKO was acquired by Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz in 1958. Renamed DeSiLu Productions, they went on to produce their highly successful and profitable I Love Lucy TV series, until a mere few years later they sold the studio to their next-door neighbour, Paramount, which has since restored the famous RKO globe to its former splendour.

The former RKO lot has become fully and un-distinguishably integrated in the Paramount grounds. However, when director Billy Wilder was told that Paramount had named a building after him, he was touched at first, until he found out that the building in question was on the RKO part of the property.

The RKO globe today

Monday, 16 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 5: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Metro Goldwyn Mayer, or MGM, as it is generally referred to, was founded in 1924, when Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions merged into what would become Hollywood’s biggest, most influential motion picture studio. The merger was very advantageous inasmuch as each individual arm of the future corporation had their own invaluable assets, to be absorbed by the new studio and thereby much contributed to MGM’s meteoric rise.

Louis B. Mayer

Metro’s Marcus Loew and Louis B. Mayer both had an impressive line-up of stars and craftsmen, while Samuel Goldwyn contributed a modest-sized studio on 10202 Washington Avenue, in Culver City (which had previously belonged to film pioneer Thomas Ince), a small chain of cinemas, and a company logo of a roaring lion, which the new corporation quickly turned into their own. However, before MGM got off the ground, Goldwyn dropped out over a falling out with Mayer. According to his biographer, Scott A. Berg, “Goldwyn was bought out of the company, which would thereafter not only bear his name, but also use his grounds, being paid one million dollars”.

Hence, MGM’s lion would roar without Goldwyn.

Samuel Goldwyn

The imperial Louis B. Mayer became head of the studio, assisted by Eddie Mannix, who was the studio’s general manager, and Benny Thau, in charge of labour relations, both of whom would stay with MGM for many years to come. Mayer’s most important sidekick, however, was the feverish Irving G. Thalberg, who had tagged along from Mayer’s previous outfit, and continued in his old job as head of production.

Irving G. Thalberg marrying MGM star, Norma Shearer

A lot has been written about Thalberg’s role in the MGM conglomeration, and his real value appears to be difficult to assess. Considering the relatively few films of artistic value that were produced under his reign, it might well be that Thalberg was “as overvalued as Columbia’s Harry Cohn was undervalued”, as film historian Andrew Sarris states in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, and I think Sarris does indeed have a point.

Marcus Loew was appointed MGM’s president, pulling the financial strings from the company’s headquarters in New York, thereby following a well established pattern, adopted by most other major film studios, whose financial and artistic power was divided between New York and Los Angeles. Mayer and Thalberg saw eye to eye in terms of their vision for MGM’s future, which was “making beautiful pictures for beautiful people”, and together they turned MGM into the studio of sequined sirens and knights in shining armour. And indeed, besides their technical polish, MGM’s films had a distinct look, almost like a signature, which made it next to impossible for the viewer to mistake them for what they were: MGM motion pictures. Lavish musicals and glossy, escapist visions of an idealised world were the company’s stock in trade, and they were worlds apart from the gritty realism of Warner’s gangster movies or the gritty look of Universal’s horror flicks.

Cedric Gibbons

Cedric Gibbons, who was the head of the art department, was largely responsible for the uniform, sumptuous look of MGM’s films, and next to Thalberg and Mayer himself, he probably was the most important man on the lot, supervising literally every production to make sure it was up to MGM’s high standard.

With so much emphasis on the film’s look, it is hardly a surprise that directors had a tough time at the studio as their artistic freedom was very much curtailed. As a result, directors, who are visionaries by nature were the only creative force MGM had a perpetual lack of, as they chose the artistic freedom at studios like Warner's or Columbia, over MGM’s glitz. Consequently, only few of the early films the studio produced are at all memorable.

MGM’s biggest asset, though, was its massive line-up of stars.

“More stars than there are in heaven” ran the company’s ad-campaign during its golden age, and with names like Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, and Norma Shearer, all under contract to the studio, the statement wasn’t far off the mark.

But there were casualties, too.

Buster Keaton

When Joseph Schenk announced to Buster Keaton in 1928 that he would no longer continue to produce his films, and that Keaton would henceforth be under contract to MGM, whose president Joseph’s brother, Nicholas became, the stunned comedian couldn’t quite fully grasp what he was in for. Used to unbridled freedom, the “man who never laughed” would soon have even less reason to do so, when in 1933, over one last run-in with Mayer, Keaton walked out on the MGM colossus, - never to return there ever again.

The “one big, happy family” the belligerent Mayer deluded himself in having, was only so as long as all the staff complied with his demands and orders. And there are indeed numerous examples - mainly stars and craftsmen - for whom this set-up worked brilliantly. But when it came to having visions and ideas of one’s own, the family ties proved to be more brittle than Mayer cared to admit. MGM’s was Hollywood’s best-oiled, most sophisticated assembly line. But it was nevertheless an assembly line.

The rather tyrannical reign at MGM notwithstanding, during its infancy the company did turn out a small handful of outstanding features, notably Victor Sjöström’s unsettling masterpiece The Wind (1928), starring the legendary Lilian Gish, Todd Browning’s eerie masterpiece Freaks (1932), and King Vidor’s riveting Halleluja (1929), and his equally astonishing The Crowd (1928), which was nominated for two Academy Awards at the first Oscar ceremony.

King Vidor was somewhat an oddity on the MGM lot. Influenced by the German expressionism of the early 1920s, he regarded silent films as superior to sound, labelling the tempo and composition of his films “silent music”. Primarily a visualist, he was one of MGM’s hottest properties, and he would later direct the opulent western melodrama Duel In The Sun (1944), on which he ended up walking out, put off by the incessant meddling of his boss, David O. Selznick.

Boasting an all-star cast, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932), revolving around the travails of a handful of illustrious guests at a Berlin-based luxury accommodation, based on Vicki Baum’s novel, won the studio its second Best Picture Oscar.

Irving Thalberg suffered a massive heart attack in late 1932, which required him to take a long leave of absence, prompting the industrious Mayer to restructure the company and replace Thalberg with David O. Selznick, then married to Mayer’s daughter, Irene. When the stalwart Thalberg returned to MGM, he found a different company with his authority greatly diminished.

David O. Selznick

He died in 1936, the same year Selznick left MGM to found his own production company, though releasing his pictures through MGM. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had been living and working in Hollywood during the 1930s, immortalised the MGM wunderkind in his novel, The Last Tycoon, whose hero, Monroe Stahr, is modelled on Thalberg.

After Thalberg’s death, Mayer decided to oversee the production of MGM’s films himself, and although box-office returns remained stable, the quality of the pictures didn’t much improve. However, the company landed a huge commercial and critical hit with the original Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), starring the brilliant Charles Laughton, winning the company yet another Best Picture Oscar, followed the year after with The Great Ziegfeld (1936), a musical based on the life of legendary theatre entrepreneur, Florenz Ziegfeld.

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

From early on MGM had focused on musicals. However, with the pairing of producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli, and the company’s new asset, Judy Garland, signed in 1937, and soon to become Minnelli’s wife, musicals became MGM’s biggest artistic contribution during the 1940s. The Wizard Of Oz(1939), Meet Me In St.Louis (1944), and Easter Parade (1948) have since become landmarks in movie history.

Taylor in Lassie

With the arrival of the young British import Elizabeth Taylor in 1943, MGM had yet another asset in its ever-growing stable of stars, with her films Lassie Come Home (1943) and National Velvet (1944) turning out to be immensely successful box-office winners.

Motion picture attendance in the US reached its peak in 1946. Over the years MGM, like most other film companies in Hollywood, had expanded on a steady basis, its lot in Culver City having grown to almost 190 acres, from its original 40, boasting a lake including a harbour, a railway station, a small jungle, and various streets and parks, making it the biggest studio in Hollywood.

In 1951 MGM won yet another best picture Oscar. For a musical, to be sure! An American In Paris struck a chord with post-war audiences, when an American artist, played by the incomparable Gene Kelly falls for a young French waif, played by the elfin Leslie Caron. The film also scored Oscars for Cedric Gibbons and Vincente Minelli, who at that time was still married to Judy Garland, but would divorce her a year later. The Government Consent Decree in 1950 didn’t leave MGM untouched, either, and in 1951, with profits at an all time low, Mayer was asked to leave by Nicholas Schenk.

Dore Schary

Replaced by Dore Schary, who himself would only last until 1956, Mayer’s demise echoed that of his peers, and he died in 1957. However, even after Mayer and Schary had left the sinking ship it was business as usual for MGM, still focusing on sleek and glossy colour productions. Only that now they were shot in 70mm, in a last attempt to draw lost audiences back into the cinemas.

Outside its musicals, MGM also joined other film companies in investing in religious and historical epics, which not only lent themselves to the new widescreen formats, they also went very well with the right-wing leaning political climate of the time. It was hardly a surprise that a rehash of Ben Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston, who made no bones about his political leanings, won MGM yet another best picture Oscar in 1959, after having scored one for the innocuous musical Gigi (1958) the year before.

But the success of those films couldn’t disguise the fact that the crisp and glossy crust had become very brittle, and that underneath was the festering wound of a company that more than ever lacked talented directors to draw the increasingly fastidious audiences back into the theatres. And with most everyone gone, discharged, or dead to give the company some much needed artistic input, MGM eventually turned into a company run by business men and tycoons, who had little or no interest, let alone the know-how, in running a film studio.

By the late 1960s a fresh and new breeze, coming from the left, caught Hollywood. During that time MGM released two outstanding, noteworthy pictures, which also did more than respectable business, not to mention winning a handful of Oscars. Though old fashioned, Dr. Zhivago (1965), David Lean’s tightly woven epic, was as engrossing as Stanley Kubrick’s space opera 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) was disquieting and disturbing. However the box-office failure of Lean’s follow-up, the much underrated Ryan’s Daughter (1970), set MGM back another 14 million and further contributed to its demise.

By 1969 the Las Vegas behemoth Kirk Kerkorian seized control over the studio, and branching out into television and record deals, MGM ceased distributing its own pictures in 1973, just shortly before in 50th anniversary, which was nevertheless celebrated with the highly profitable release of That’s Entertainment (1974), a revelry of fifty years of MGM musical making. Even though continuously losing its clout, MGM still came up with the odd masterpiece, most notably among them are the uncanny, clever science-fiction thriller Soylent Green (1973)and the sardonic Network (1976). Both films were way ahead of their time, and sadly, did hardly anything to give the company’s box-office returns the much-needed boost.

After having added United Artists to his shopping cart, billionaire Kerkorian sold both companies to media tycoon Ted Turner, who promptly re-sold them to Kerkorian, who then sold them once again, this time to Pathé Communications in 1990. Eventually Crédit Lyonnais took control of MGM in 1991, but sold its back lot to Sony Pictures in 1993, forcing MGM to relocate temporarily to Santa Monica, until a few years later, the company finally settled in their new headquarters, which, ironically, are located in Century City, sitting on what used to be part of the Twentieth Century Fox back lot!

Unbelievable but true, in 1996 Kerkorian bought the much messed-about company for a third time.

Kirk Kerkorian

To add a sad coda to MGM’s story, what used to be the studio’s back lot and headquarters, is now home to Columbia Pictures, or rather Columbia-Tri-Star, as it is now named, with the whole mash owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. And even though classics like The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Wizard Of Oz (1939), and Some Came Running (1960), were all shot on the lot, there is little mention of the studio’s historical link to MGM during the two-hour studio-tour, as it focuses chiefly on recent Sony productions, and of course, television.

It is no surprise that there was little time or room for artistry within all this big-time money traffic and business shenanigans. Norman Jewison’s old-fashioned love-story Moonstruck(1988), Ridley Scott’s feminist road-movie-turned-cult-film Thelma And Louise(1991), and Get Shorty (1995) were among the few artistically interesting films of note that stood out amidst the flood of life-less entertainment.

Monday, 9 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 4: 20th Century Fox

Looking at the history of the major Hollywood studios, it quickly becomes apparent that the one thing they all had in common was the fact that, being the product of a fledgling industry, they all expanded rapidly while trying to adapt to the shifting tastes of an ever fickle audience.

Depending as they did, of course, on an ever erratic economy, this usually resulted in a number of sudden changes of ownership and takeovers.

This applies in particular to Twentieth Century Fox, and hardly any studio - with the possible exception of RKO - matched its extraordinary ups and downs. The choppy and inconsistent history of Twentieth Century Fox was reflected in the quality of its product. Unlike Warner Brothers, MGM, or Paramount, whose output during the golden age of Hollywood often bore a distinct, idiosyncratic look, the films of Twentieth Century Fox were as incongruous in quality as their look was interchangeable.

William Fox

The Fox Film Corporation was founded by William Fox in 1914, who, similar to his competitor, Adolph Zukor, also was of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Like Zukor, Fox had once owned a chain of penny arcades and nickelodeons before breaking into distribution, and later, production. Operating from his studio on Staten Island, Fox then relocated to New York. He is credited with discovering the sultry siren Theda Bara, whose box-office appeal was contributory to the company’s speedy growth. Also under contract to Fox were Raoul Walsh and J. Gordon Edwards, Blake’s father, who became Bara’s main director. Like MGM and Paramount, Fox, too, acquired a chain of theatres to ensure his company’s presence on the ever-expanding film-market.

Theda Bara

But after years of steady expansion, by 1924 the studio began to face strong competition from its rivals, which, unlike Fox, had the advantage of having an impressive array of bankable stars and directors. John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Frank Borzage joined the line-up of directors, and in 1927 Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau arrived from Germany. Murnau’s films of his German period, Nosferatu (1921), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), and Faust (1926), were resounding triumphs that didn’t go unnoticed in Hollywood, which was forever on the hunt for new talent.

Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau

Murnau’s first film for Fox, Sunrise (1927) was enthusiastically received. At the first Academy Awards ceremony, held in the Blossom Room of the newly built Roosevelt Hotel, Sunrise won in three categories,including one for the film’s leading actress, Janet Gaynor. Following up on the success of Sunrise , Murnau shot Four Devils (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1929), which were both box-office failures. Tragically, just shortly after the completion of his masterpiece Tabu (1931), Murnau died in a car crash outside Santa Barbara.

The late 1920s were a highly competitive period for the ever-expanding studios, which one by one left their - silent - infancy behind and broke into sound. Fox had embraced sound early on, developing its own sound system, called Fox Movietone. In order to accommodate the requirements of the fledgling technique, Fox built a new studio, including sound stages, in the Westwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

The year 1929 was a bad one for William Fox: Not only was he seriously injured in a car accident, his company was also badly hit by the stock market crash. To make matters worse, the Justice Department sued him for his monopolistic dealings, and he was eventually forced to sell his shares in the company. Harley Clarke, who apparently had a hand in ousting Fox, took over as president, only to be replaced by Sydney Kent a few years later.

Financially however, the studio was prospering again, due mainly to the commercial hits of Janet Gaynor’s films and the arrival of Will Rogers in 1929, who was the studio’s biggest box-office draw until his premature death a mere 6 years later.
Cavalcade (1933), based on Noel Coward’s play, won Fox its first Best Picture Oscar to date, also resulting in big box-office receipts. In 1935, the Fox Film Corporation merged with Twentieth Century Pictures, headed by Joseph Schenk and the fast and furious Darryl F. Zanuck, who, prior to founding his own company, had been production chief at Warner Brothers.

Thus, Twentieth Century-Fox was born.

Zanuck, along with Kent, became the company’s presidents, and he went on to oversee the better part of the company’s 50 or so A features a year, supervising everything from production to editing. During the second half of the 1930s, the films of Shirley Temple became the company’s bread and butter. In dire need of stars, Zanuck signed Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Loretta Young, whom he had brought along from his former company, Twentieth Century Pictures. Even tough Zanuck’s pictures were successful in terms of box office receipts, their artistic merits remain somewhat debatable, and apart from John Ford’s efforts such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), the bulk of Fox's fare was sheer escapist entertainment.

In 1941 Syndey Kent died, and with Zanuck being called into war service, Spyros Skouras, formerly running the company’s theatre chains, was appointed president.

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

The 1940s saw an artistically more interesting period for the company, releasing films like The Oxbow Incident (1943), Wilson (1944), and the sinister film-noirs Laura (1944) and Leave Her To Heaven (1946), to name but a few. The quality of the films during that decade is unparalleled in the studio’s history. This is underlined by the fact that three Best Picture Oscars would go to the studio during that period, starting with John Ford’s Going My Way in 1941, followed up by Kazan's Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1947, leading up to the classic All About Eve (1950), which currently ranks at number 16 of the American Film Institute’s list of the best American films of the past 100 years. In addition to that, in-house director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, won the Academy Award for best director twice in a row, first for A Letter To Three Wives in 1949, and a year later for All About Eve.

The 1950s got off to a bad start when Twentieth Century Fox, too, was forced to get rid of its theatre chain, which, with the advent of television, resulted in a box office slump. However, with a young, so far neglected starlet under contract to the studio, the fate of Twentieth Century Fox would soon turn around again.

Her name was Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn was first signed up by Zanuck in 1946, who, failing to fully realise her potential, put her in the mediocre Scudda-Hoo!, Scudda-Hay!, where she had a mere decorative part, only to drop her contract the following year yet again. Passed around from studio to studio, and doing a pin-up calendar in between, by 1950, Monroe had met a number of influential honchos and executives. One of them, Johnny Hyde, was a big shot at the William Morris Agency. Upon reading the screenplay to All about Eve, he persuaded Zanuck to give his protégée the part of Claudia Casswell, the famous “graduate of the Copacabana School of Acting”. Zanuck bowed, and so Monroe was back at Fox, with a seven-year contract and the part of Miss Casswell in her pocket. Of course, Marilyn went on to become the studio’s biggest draw since the days of Will Rogers and Shirley Temple, and her films How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1954), River Of No Return (1954), and Bus Stop (1955) were among the studio’s biggest grossers during the 1950s.

La Monroe

But apart from Monroe, who, to be sure, would end up doing her best work for other studios (Some like it Hot, 1959, and The Misfits, 1960, both United Artists), there was little else the studio had going for itself. Elia Kazan and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the studio’s most notable directors, both left in 1953 and 1951, respectively. Resident actors were few and far between. They included bomb shells Jayne Mansfield and Joan Collins, as well as the no doubt brilliant Joanne Woodward. With Zanuck’s exit in 1956, there was no disguising the fact that the studio was in trouble and in dire need of some much needed artistic input and talent.

The extravagant production of Cleopatra (1960-1962), whose costs were skyrocketing by the minute, turned out to be the studio’s downfall. In order to pay for the extraordinarily expensive film, the studio had to sell off a part of its back lot while the film’s star, Elizabeth Taylor, was hospitalised in London, fighting for her life. Hence, what used to be a thriving film studio was subsequently turned into a sprawling new neighbourhood, called Century City, abounding with hotels, offices and apartment buildings. Cleopatra remains the most expensive production to date by any studio. And even the four Oscars, which the film ended up receiving, didn’t help to boost its box-office receipts.

To stop the bankers from further pulling the rug from beneath the sinking studio, Spyros Skouras was sacked and Zanuck was called back from his self-imposed exile in France. Running the studio in collaboration with his son Richard as his sidekick, they slimmed Twentieth Century Fox down by getting rid of overheads and staff, and nixing unpromising projects. During his second coming at his old studio, Darryl F. Zanuck produced the second world war drama The Longest Day (1962), which became a respectable hit, and prevented the studio from further collapse. The extraordinary financial success of The Sound Of Music in 1965, however, was of little help when a couple of expensive flops at the end of the 1960s (Hello Dolly!, 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora!, 1970) threatened once more to ruin the shaky studio, which resulted in the departure of the Zanuck-duo, to be replaced by Alan Ladd Jr.

Under Ladd’s reign Fox regained ground financially, but lost further ground artistically. While the New Hollywood movement was in full swing, Fox had already subscribed to the soon-to-be-popular blockbuster rage, producing escapist fare like The Towering Inferno (1974), Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Nine to Five (1980), which were all tremendously successful at the box office, but did little to live up to the studio’s quality pictures of the past.

Alan Ladd left Fox in 1979 to found his own production company. Then, media magnate Marvin Davis acquired the studio only to sell it a mere few years later to another media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, in 1985. The studio’s artistic output has since declined with films like The War Of The Roses (1989), The Thin Red Line (1998) and Moulin Rouge (2001) being the exception rather than the rule, as Murdoch is reaping the profits of light-weight fare like Independence Day (1996), Titanic (1997), Ice Age (2002), and I, Robot (2004).

Monday, 2 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 3: Warner Brothers

Like other major Hollywood studios, Warner Brothers, as the name indicates, was originally a family-run operation. Albert, Harry and Jack Warner all having started out in different fields, joined their brother Sam when he opened a Nickelodeon in Youngstown, Ohio in 1904. Moving on to a travelling picture show they eventually ran a cinema, before they ventured into distribution, which then led to producing their first feature film in 1917, cashing in on the Anti–German sentiment at the time, called, My Four Years In Germany.

The subsequent success of that film led to the opening of their first, modest, Hollywood studio, located on Sunset Boulevard. The building, which still exists today, is now called Tribune Entertainment. The company was incorporated as Warner Brothers in 1923,with Jack Warner as studio head, releasing an average of around 15 films per year, among which were the profitable Rin-Tin-Tin pictures.

With the studio gradually expanding, and thus in dire need of talent, they poached Ernst Lubitsch from Mary Pickford, who in turn had lured him away from his native Berlin, where he had already established himself as a successful director. Warner sweetened the deal by offering Lubitsch a plum contract that granted him complete control over his films. Hiring the sophisticated European seemed a very unlikely move for the young company, still operating on shoe-string budgets, and to nobody’s surprise Lubitsch soon left for Paramount, whose European touch proved a much better home for his talent.

Darryl F. Zanuck

The following year Jack hired an ambitious young man, who had previously worked as a writer, Darryl F. Zanuck, who would soon infuse the fledgling studio with his boundless energy. Shortly after, in 1925, the ever-growing corporation acquired the Vitagraph company and began experimenting with sound, and a mere two years later, released the landmark film, The Jazz Singer (1927), commonly known as the first sound film (although that is not entirely correct, for Warner’s had already experimented with sound the year before, which resulted in the filming of several operas, among which Don Juan and Manon Lescaut, both 1926), which was made in partnership with Western Electric.

Sam Warner, who had played such a vital role in the company’s humble beginnings and who was also instrumental in the studio’s foray into sound, died unexpectedly in 1927, the night prior to the opening of the Jazz Singer, thus never able to hear Al Jolson utter the magic words that were to change the face of Hollywood, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, folks. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, you ain’t heard a thing”, which officially not only marked the beginning of the age of sound, but also turned Warner Brothers overnight into a so-called ‘major’ studio, next to MGM and Paramount.

Movie attendance grew rapidly after the introduction of sound, and with Zanuck’s rise from writer to producer, by and by he went on to give the studio’s output the distinct look with which Warner Brothers films of that period are identified with.

Hiring new and promising talent, like Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, Zanuck introduced an altogether different style of hard-boiled gangster films with titles like Doorway To Hell (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and I’m a Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), that breathed new, deadly, life into the glossy world of Hollywood. Warner’s, under Zanuck’s reign, is indeed credited with having invented the modern gangster film, a claim which is not altogether correct, as Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (Paramount, 1927) predated Warner’s films by a number of years. But even though Underworld opened to a cascade of rave reviews and also was a box office winner, nobody picked up on it, until Warner Brothers made the genre their own and would henceforth be forever identified with them.

Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933

The tough and hard-boiled gangster films were counter-balanced by the visually stunning and beautifully choreographed musicals of Busby Berkeley, like Gold Diggers Of Broadway (1929), and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).

The year 1928 saw Warner’s takeover of the Stanley theatre chain, followed a year later by the acquisition of First National, including its theatres, stars and production facilities in Burbank, which then became Warner Brothers new headquarters, famously immortalised on the cover of the Pink Floyd album, Wish You Were Here (1972).

The Depression hit the studio hard, resulting in record losses of $14 million in 1932, which prompted Jack Warner to cut the employees’ salaries during an eight–week period. However, when Jack Warner failed to restore them a heavy fight erupted between Zanuck and his boss, leading to Zanuck’s resignation after having been the studio’s head of production for four years.

Zanuck was replaced by Hal Wallis, who would operate as the studio’s production chief for the following ten years, shepherding most of the Bette Davis vehicles, which became the company’s bread and butter during the 1930s and early 40s.
Signed by Zanuck in 1932, the unlikely Davis went on to turn into the Queen of the lot, winning Oscars for the studio in 1935 for Dangerous, and a second one in 1938 for Jezebel, which was Warner’s answer to MGM’s Gone With The Wind (1939).

"Shall we have a cigarette on it?", the signature scene from one of Bette Davis' greatest triumphs during her reign at Warner's Now, Voyager

Apart from the Davis vehicles, the studio scored with its William Dieterle-directed biopics such as The Story Of Louis Pasteur(1935), and The Life Of Emile Zola (1937), the latter of which won the studio an Oscar for Best Picture. Another Best Picture Oscar followed in 1943 with Casablanca. When the winner was announced, Jack Warner got up to accept the award, which understandably enraged the picture’s producer, Hal Wallis, who subsequently left Warner Brothers to become an independent producer.

With Bette Davis’ career on the wane, John Huston’s (The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, 1948) and Howard Hawks’ (The Big Sleep, 1946) pictures provided more or less the only sparkle in an otherwise lacklustre output in A –movies.

John Huston

However, Warner Brothers, after having been influential in the rise of the gangster film, is the one studio, next to RKO, that is most identified with film noir, a movement that had its origins in the Warner gangster films, but was also heavily influenced by the German expressionism of the 1920ies and the poetic realism that suffused French films in the late 1930s. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) is generally quoted as the first film noir, but the movement reached its peak after the war, and Huston, as well as Hawks, are both responsible for some of the genre’s finest films. Clear definitions of the genre, however, remain somewhat vague, and they have been the subject of countless discussions and disputes between film historians. Mildred Pierce (1945) is no exception: Drama, melodrama or film-noir? Curtiz' classic transcends clear genre definitions. Starring Warner’s latest addition, Joan Crawford, who had recently arrived on the lot after having been let go by her alma mater, MGM, Michael Curtiz’ film noir–drama won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Like all the other studios, Warner Brothers, too, was forced to divest themselves of their string of movie theatres by the Government’s anti-Trust laws in 1950, which inconveniently came in the same year that television found its way into the ordinary American household, thus spelling the end of the studio-era. Jack Warner was relatively slow in breaking into the lucrative television market, setting up Warner’s TV division in 1955, with his son-in-law, William Orr in charge.

But even though movie attendance was in decline, the studio had a number of impressive hits during the 1950s, most significant among which are the films of Elia Kazan and George Stevens, whose Giant was Warner’s biggest box-office of that period, earning $12 million dollars in North American rentals. The year Giant was released Harry and Albert Warner resolved to retire, selling their shares in Warner Brothers to an investment group. Their brother, Jack, stayed on as president, but with the new part-owners on board, his power was considerably reduced.

Davis and Crawford, the divine feud during the shooting of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Bette Davis, who had contributed considerably to turn Warner’s into what it is today, returned to her old studio in 1962 for the garish Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. The film’s director, Robert Aldrich, had great difficulties in getting the picture financed, as he couldn’t convince anybody to invest in a film starring the “two old broads”, Davis and Crawford. Eventually, Warner agreed to come up with the money, and the film, made on a shoestring budget, became one of the studio’s biggest hits, reigniting Bette Davis career in the process.

Dunaway, about to write fashion history with her iconic look in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde

In 1964 the studio was awarded a third Best Picture Academy Award for the glossy musical My Fair Lady. The studio’s biggest grosser of the 1960s, however, was a film Jack Warner hated, Bonnie And Clyde (1967), which rang in an altogether new era in Hollywood film making. Even though the picture was directed by Arthur Penn, it had been Warren Beatty’s baby, and he did everything to get the project off the ground, running into severe road blocks on the way, as the ageing Jack Warner, who by that stage was hopelessly out of touch with the public’s taste, didn’t believe in the picture’s potential. As it was, the picture not only raked in millions, but also garnered a total of ten Oscar nods. And maybe it was this misjudgement that finally caused Jack Warner to sell his share in the company to the Canadian based Seven Arts Corporation in 1967.

The eve of the 1970s was a tricky and trying time for any Hollywood studio as audience tastes shifted rapidly and most of what was held dear by Hollywood’s old guard had to be violently thrown overboard if the studios wanted to survive.
And like most other film companies, Warner’s went through a myriad of takeovers and changes over the years to come, which had former employees and movie buffs alike nostalgically reminiscing about the golden days of the studio era, for even though the former studio bosses might have been autocrats and even hated by some, at least they loved and believed in what they were doing.

Nevertheless, the studio had a couple of commercial as well as artistic hits with films like Deliverance (1972), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), The Goodbye Girl (1977), and most famously, with The Exorcist (1973), which apart from making millions also made waves by causing people to faint and commit suicide, as it brought an entirely new meaning to the word ‘horror film’.

Marisa Berenson, in one of the Gainsborough-inspired images created by John Alcott for Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, Barry Lyndon

In 1971 Warner Brothers started its affiliation with Stanley Kubrick, who henceforth produced and released all his films through Warner’s, without ever having to leave his adopted country, England, where he settled at the beginning of the 1960s.
Clockwork Orange (1971) was the first of the five films he would make for Warner’s. And even though an outsider, and much older than most of the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ directors, he moved with the times, his films like The Shining (1980) and the aforementioned Clockwork Orange being as controversial as they were commercially successful. Kubrick’s best film, however, the elegiac Barry Lyndon (1976) proved to be a box-office failure, even though it deservedly ended up with a handful of Oscar Nominations, of which it received four.

Today Warner Brothers is part of the world’s biggest media conglomeration, Time Warner AOL. And after having gone through a rough patch, financially during the 1990s, things are looking up again, due to the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter and The Matrix series. More noteworthy, though, is the studio’s independent company, New Line, producing exciting, off-beat films like Boogie Nights (1997), Wag The Dog (1998), and Magnolia (1999), and, more recently, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

Warner Brothers is one of the remaining Hollywood studios that offers studio tours, and unlike Paramount, where I didn’t find the tour-guide to be particularly knowledgeable, the one at Warner’s was willing to delve deep into the history of Warner Brothers rather than concentrating on the recent activities on the lot, which, like in most other studios, mainly revolve around television and a number of blockbusters.