The Dunning of Gunga Din #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Dunning of Gunga Din

The article in Variety was, really, little more than a blurb. But it got my attention.

Reading it I felt sympathy for the individual affected by hard financial circumstances.

Locked Out

Hollywood, Oct 18 (1938)

With a bankroll of $2,250 earned acting in RKO’s ‘Ginga Din,’ Anna May has no place to park her trunk. While she was on location the sheriff plastered an eviction notice on the California Zoological Society, her old home. …

As it turns out the subject of our pity was Anna May – an actor with very special attributes – she was an elephant.

Having been brought to America from India at a tender age in 1913 by the pioneer filmmaker Col. William Selig, she was given a home at his zoological park in LA. She and its other denizens did more than earn their keep by attracting the curious to view them in their cages. They also brought home the bacon by appearances in film.

Anna’s first foray on celluloid was in the second ever serial The Adventures of Kathlyn. Between then and 1939 she racked up an impressive number of roles in over thirty films – including Chaplin’s City Lights and many Tarzan features.

Her home changed hands over the years and financial hardships plagued each new owner. Worst of all was a flood that hit LA in April of 1938. It killed several of their animals and rocked their finances back on their heels.

So this was the situation referred to in the blurb in Variety. The park was in trouble despite her earnings from her turn in Gunga Din.

I came across another article about Anna May. This time in Photoplay magazine for February 1939, page 68, which I quote in full:

Portrait of a New Star

Anna May. Recently risen to fame in RKO’s “Gunga Din,” is thirty years old and a spinster by choice. She has had many suitors in her day, but none that pleased her.

Quiet and conservative, she dislikes frills and folderols and was known during the filming of “Gunga Din” to object strenuously to wearing a jeweled headpiece that they cut it out of the script. She did consent, however, to don false eyelashes, since her own failed to photograph.

Anna May is something of a moralist. If her manager stays out late, she scolds loudly until he returns. She is also a tobacco addict, with a special yen for cigarettes, which disappear in her presence with disconcerting rapidity.

She is inordinately lazy, insisting on riding on various “Gunga Din” excursions when she is perfectly able to walk. Still, her earnings in pictures are sufficient to support three friends.

Like many women, she goes in for trick diets and will make a whole meal on carrots and perhaps a melon or two, including the rind. Like many women, she is terribly afraid of thunder and lightning and on the “Gunga Din” location at Lone Pine disrupted many a scene by her nervousness during bad weather. Also like many women, she harbors a strong affection for Cary Grant and used to follow him around at Lone Pine, much to his embarrassment.

There are a few rather queer things about Anna May, too. She likes to sleep standing up. She has ears something like Clark Gable’s. And she eats a bale of hay a day.

Still, these aren’t too queer when you remember that, after all, Anna May is an elephant.

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The Midshipman Who Wasn’t There – Thomas Theodore Turner

The Midshipman Who Wasn’t There T T Turner

I have researched 400 plus candidates who came to the Naval Academy between the years of 1857 and 1861, (both those who were accepted and those who failed either the academic or the medical exam).

In the course of running down what had happened afterwards to the successful candidates, I ran into numerous instances of obits and histories (family ones, written years later) that claimed such and such an individual graduated from the USNA. But according to government records, he hadn’t. Assumptions had been made that since ‘he’ was there – ‘he’ was a graduate.

The instances are almost too numerous to tally (a project for another day, perhaps). I was surprised then to come across a claim by an historian that one midshipman had not been there, whom I knew to have been there.

It happened early on when I was trying to winnow down the details behind the life of Thomas Theodore Turner.  Turner was appointed to the US Naval Academy from the first congressional district of Missouri in 1859.

One of my online researches turned up a reference in a book edited by Terry L Jones – “Campbell Brown’s Civil War: With Ewell and the Army of Northern Virginia.” The explanatory footnote for the individual mentioned in the diary on page 63 reads:

“Thomas Theodore Turner, of Baltimore, was eighteen years old and had received some military training in European schools and the Virginia Military Institute.  He accepted an appointment to the US Naval Academy when the war began but never attended. Turner also refused an offer by Brigadier General William T Sherman, a close friend of Turner’s father, to secure him a lieutenant’s commission in the 7th US Cavalry.  Instead, Turner apparently joined the Confederate navy but then resigned his naval commission and joined Ewell’s staff in the fall of 1861 as a volunteer aide.  Upon the recommendation of Ewell, Johnston, and Stuart, Turner was appointed first lieutenant on April 29, 1862, and was assigned to Ewell as aide-de-camp.  He stayed with Ewell for most of the war, was wounded at Spotsylvania in 1864, and was captured along with Ewell and Campbell at Sayler’s Creek on April 6, 1865.  In October 1865, Turner married Campbell’s sister, Hattie.”

This flummoxed me. The only detail that appeared correct was his age when examined. Through further research I was able to ascertain that most of the information could be tied back to my T. T. Turner from Missouri, but not the Baltimore reference, nor the statement that he did not attend.

What I could tell for sure, Thomas Theodore Turner of St Louis MO was at the USNA. I have the date that he appeared before the examination boards and was accepted (11/24/1859), and the pages from the Register of Demerits for 1859-1860 in which his infractions are listed. Then there was all that correspondence from Superintendent Blake about Turner’s dabbling in alcohol in the spring of 1860. The first instance was overlooked and not reported to Isaac Toucey, the Secretary of the Navy, predicated upon a promise from the guilty middie that he would not touch it again. The second time he crossed the line, the report went all the way to the top with details about the first, and much details about the second (which was tied to a third). Evidently Thomas sought to excuse his behavior (to Superintendent Blake’s obvious annoyance) in a sea lawyer fashion by claiming that he had not broken his promise.

“I once gave you my word of honor Sir, that I would never have any thing more to do with liquor on board the ‘Plymouth’ & I have not-“

To his thinking, since he had been found drunk on a cutter “stowed away in her sails,” just hoisted from the water, and NOT on the schoolship Plymouth, his honor was intact.

A subsequent search gave me the answer to the confusion of identity in the Jones book footnote. Here another diary (In the Shadow of the Enemy: The Civil War Journal of Ida Powell Dulany) contained a footnote about the cousins Turner, all with the given name of Thomas (to honor their mutual grandfather). To distinguish them within the family, each one’s locale was appended to their names – ‘Baltimore’ Tom, ‘Kinloch’ Tom (the Virginia family plantation), and our middie – ‘St Louis’ Tom.

Originally Blake had recommended ‘St Louis’ Tom’s dismissal based on his flagrant disregard for the regulations – and for the fact that he should have known better given his age – (at 18 he was one of the oldest members of the plebe class).

Turner had two uncles, both holding the rank of commander in the Navy. One Charles Cocke Turner then posted to the Washington Navy Yard may have lobbied Toucey upon his nephew’s behalf. Toucey wrote Blake and instructed him to supply a fuller explanation about the matter, Thus prompted to take a closer look Blake uncovered a possibility that Turner had not been intoxicated in the first instance.

The upshot was Turner remained in the class completing his plebe year in June, and went on the summer cruise as a member of the Third class. But almost immediately upon his return from the cruise – with the permission of his father, ’St Louis’ Tom Turner tendered his resignation from the naval academy – almost a year after his entrance.

Adventures Along the Rabbit Trail

Adventures along the Rabbit Trail

Research is always fun (for me). Especially when I find what I set out to discover. But sometimes it becomes a delight when something I was not looking for falls under my purview.

Such is the case recently when I was looking into the family background of Adolphus Dexter, a midshipman who had been appointed from the state of Ohio in 1857.
Adolphus was a first generation American. His father Edmond Dexter, had emigrated from England through Philadelphia in 1823. And soon found his way to Cincinnati where over the next quarter century he built a very successful business rectifying and selling whiskey. Trade was good, helped greatly via the nearby Ohio river, which extended his reach all the way down to New Orleans.

One of my web searches turned up a diary by someone who had worked for Adolphus’s father. Joseph J Mersman was the whiskey maker’s apprentice. He was an immigrant too, who went to work for Mr Dexter at the age of 15 for a total of ten years, during which he learned everything he needed to know to go out on his own. This journal which he kept between 1848 and 1862, was unearthed by Linda A Fisher. (She was researching a cholera outbreak in St Louis to which Joseph had moved when he went into business for himself). She found more than she was looking for. It was a treasure trove of daily life in Cincinnati and St Louis for that epoch in American history. Ms Fisher ended up transcribing the entire diary for publication, and copiously and in great depth annotated the text as an aid for the reader, creating a who’s who of the people therein and explanations for the customs etc. alluded to.

And here’s where I branched out once again on a rabbit trail. Joseph had a younger sister, Maria Agnes Mersman. She lived an unconventional life. A young girl with an affinity for horses, by age 16 (1842) she was performing as an equestrian. She ran off and joined the circus that headquartered near Cincinnati and exercised her equine gifts in the ring. While in their employ, she added to her repertoire – high wire and slack wire walking, and lion taming, and married the star (and clown) of the troop, William Lake Thatcher (stage name Bill Lake), eloping with him when they were performing down in Louisiana.

I was carried further afield, following what happened later in her life. She and her husband acquired their own circus company in 1861 (the year that Adolphus graduated from the Academy and went to war). Tragedy struck in 1869 when a bully at one of the performances in Granby Missouri shot and killed Bill Lake. She assumed control of their troop at the loss of her husband.

It was in this capacity that she met her future husband in Abilene Kansas in 1871. The town marshal, James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok took an interest in the vivacious widow. And the interest was mutual. They kept up a romantic correspondence over the next five years, which culminated in their marriage in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

She was a widow again only five months later, when Hickok was murdered in that infamous incident in Deadwood.

There were more rabbit trails branching out from here, but I’ll let you pursue those if you’ve a mind to.

Now I just want to circle back to my midshipman Adolphus Dexter and indulge in a rabbit trail of a purely imaginary kind (but not implausible). Maria’s brother Joseph mentions that he gave Christmas presents to the Dexter children in 1847, and I can’t help but wonder if he could have taken young Adolphus to see his sister that next spring when she debuted her new act as a rope walker somewhere out on the outskirts of Cincinnati – a decade before he would climb the rigging in a warship of the US Navy.

Columbia Strikes Back

Columbia Strikes Back

The Close Encounters story continues (and another brief hiatus for #1939TheMiracleYear)

When “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” was set by bid for Tom Moyer’s Westgate theater in Beaverton it was months before it was to open in December of 1977. They offered their largest theater in that complex, and there should have been no problem with opening the film in the normal course of business.

But that exact same house was the exclusive venue for a film that opened in Portland in May – Star Wars (aka Star Wars IV – A New Hope). Most films exhaust the available audience within a month or six weeks. Not so with this juggernaut. Yet there would not have been any problem if Star Wars could have been moved into a smaller house at the same complex. The contract, however, that Tom Moyer Theaters had with Fox for this film precluded such an arrangement. It possessed a provision that almost never kicks in – a ”hold over” clause. According to this provision, if the three day (Fri-Sat-Sun) gross exceeded a set amount, then it automatically held over for another week. When it became apparent that Star Wars was not losing steam, but actually picking up force six months after its opening, they contacted Columbia (the distributor of CE3K) to ask to move the opening of their film onto another (smaller) screen in the same complex.

That was not acceptable to Columbia – either CE3K went into the contracted theater on schedule or they would sue TMT for breach of contract. In any event TMT was going to be sued for breach of contract, for Fox would insist on suing if Star Wars was taken off while still doing holdover business.

Columbia took CE3K away from TMT and gave it to their competitor Larry Moyer (Tom’s estranged brother) and brought a breach of contract suit against TMT. When Tom brought a restraining order against Columbia, the distributor went another step further, by removing TMT from the bid list in Portland, effectively giving all of their upcoming films to Larry. This led Tom to claim that Columbia’s actions were in essence a group boycott and hence a breach of antitrust law.

The District Court ruling went against Columbia on their breach of contract claim, but against Tom on his antitrust claims. As these things go, appeals dragged the suits on well after the life of the films in the theaters. In fact, Star Wars V – The Empire Strikes Back came out in Tom’s theaters before the decision from the appellate court came down.

When it did come, the 9th District Appellate Court upheld the District Court’s judgement against TMT’s antitrust claims.

Per the Entertainment Law Reporter 4:19:5
“Columbia had sound justification for its refusal to deal with Tom Moyer on the basis of the ‘Close Encounters’ episode. In Columbia’s view, Larry Moyer had the next best available facilities in the area. And, even assuming that there was some type of ‘conspiracy’ between Columbia and Larry Moyer, there was no showing of any anticompetitive purpose or effect.”
(Evidently the records I dug up for the lawyers to analyse were the basis for the following section of the report):
“Tom Moyer was the only party likely to suffer from any conspiracy, and his system-wide grosses and profits had increased each year; the profits from the Portland market declined only four per cent from July 1979 to February 1980.”

I would like to close this out with a comment as to what happened afterwards, but I don’t recall how long Columbia locked TMT out of their product.  (A project for another day, when I can access some newspapers from the time period to check the ads).  I can’t help but think that Columbia got the worst of the bargain.

Benny the Smuggler #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Benny the Smuggler

I came across a surprising little bit in Variety dated 1/10/1939. The radio comedian/violinist Jack Benny made a court appearance in New York to answer to a charge of smuggling.

Based on the strength of his popularity over the air waves he had returned to the silver screen with a contract at Paramount (an initial contract with MGM in the late 1920s, was cancelled due to low grosses on his films for them). So, for a decade now he and his wife Sadie Marks (aka Mary Livingstone) were living in LA. These charges forced him to make repeated trips across the nation to tend to this matter. And in January 1939, as the case came to a close, he had to to leave off production on his then current Paramount film – “Man About Town.”

The article goes on to list his lawyer and his agent who were advising him. The best advice, however, came from his New York lawyer – another surprise – a man by the name of Colonel Bill Donovan.

This was a name I immediately recognized – the future founder of the OSS (the precursor of the CIA).

Of course, this immediately raised all sorts of speculation, indeed plots for screenplays percolated in my brain, involving a reluctant performer doing the bidding of a spymaster in a bumbling manner behind the lines in Fortress Europe in the coming world war.  (Not quite the plot for “To Be or Not to Be,” but what if?)

Further research revealed a more mundane course of events. Mr. Benny had been preyed upon by a conman on a trip to France where he bought over $2000 worth of jewels for his wife. The gentleman falsely claimed to hold diplomatic immunity when he offered to carry Benny’s valuables through customs, thereby avoiding duty taxes. In this the comedian foolishly acquiesced (as the judge duly noted when he passed sentence on him – a suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine).

Donovan, in his capacity as Benny’s legal advisor had wisely counseled him to plead no contest, and to take an apologetic stance before the bench. To do otherwise Wild Bill thought would threaten any good will his audience felt towards him.

His film ‘Man About Town’ premiered in Benny’s hometown of Waukegan IL on June 25th, with general release in early July 1939.

Other than this post I don’t plan to cover it any further in this series. It did smash summer business, which in itself was a minor miracle for Paramount, but it has not stood the test of time. As its contemporary critics noted, the music numbers ground the forward momentum to halt, something for which today’s audience have little patience.

Hoorah for Vaudeville #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Hoorah for Vaudeville

There is a large section in the first edition of Variety for January 1939 given over to the discussion of vaudeville. Unlike their reports on the state of film and radio which floated a generally upbeat prognosis, the future for vaudeville was looking rather bleak. Yes, it had been pronounced down and out before, but it was still with them – with even signs of a tiny resurgence. Emphasis on ‘tiny.’

Many performers in vaudeville had and were translating themselves into careers in film and/or radio. For example, Buster Keaton, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and George and Gracie Burns.

But as history has proved vaudeville as they knew it did pass from the scene.

[Aside – I have had the thought lately that it has reappeared in our age under the form and content of the reality talent shows].

One of the articles in this section entitled ‘Firsts’ by Joe Laurie jr.  enumerates for us milestones and first time acts in the world of vaudeville.

Several caught my attention and I now bring them to yours.

Michael Leavitt is generally credited to have first used the term “vaudeville.” Originally a blackface minstrel show singer in the mid 18th Century, he rose to become a theatrical entrepreneur by touring the country with US and European acts with his variety shows.  In France such entertainments were called “vaudeville.”

An early reference had a Civil War connection that captured my Civil War geekiness. “Nick Norton and Bill Emmett did the first ‘double-dutch’ act in 1864.” A double dutch act was a skit acted out by two people speaking an ethnic English, in this case German (called at the time dutch, springing from the name of their language Deutch). Humor arose from their fractured application of the language arising from their mother tongue. They would close with a song – in this instance “Going to Fight Mitt Siegel,” a reference to the Union general Franz Sigel, who led other German immigrants into battle against the southern armies in the Civil War.

Al Jolson was the first to sing on his knees. (Needing no further explanation).

Then, this oddity – “Harper & Stencil were the first and about the only double one-legged song and dance men. Harper had his right leg off while Stencil had his left. They wore the same size shoes and would buy a pair for both of them, one wearing the right and the other the left.”

“Lumiere’s motion pictures were first shown at Keith’s Union Square in July 1895.” The French brothers, inventors of the motion picture in France were here used as filler between the acts in this vaudeville house. Increasingly, this would be the case until the matter flipped topsy-turvy as vaudeville acts were used as filler in cinemas. RKO studios – (Radio Keith Orpheum) was put together with the old Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit making up its exhibition wing.

“Lew Randall the first buck and wing dancer.” I couldn’t find much on this individual, other than acknowledgements that he was first. The buck and wing is a particular tap dance style. The first time I became cognizant of the form was my viewing of “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor left me breathless with astonishment in their “Fit as a Fiddle” number early on in that film. The scene in this 1952 film is a flashback to when the pair were a couple of barnstorming vaudevillians, prior to landing in Hollywood where they landed work at the studios.

Many vaudevillians will be making appearances in this series. So, stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Tidbits from Variety #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Tidbits from Variety

I like perusing the pages of old film related periodicals (such as Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay, Motion Picture World,  American Cinematographer), and among such titles Variety is a particular favorite. I am especially attracted to the shorter blurbs when a name or film title catches my eye.

Below I have a selection of a few from its pages for the month of January 1939. With some exceptions I will be writing about these films as I continue in #1939TheMiracleYear.

“Boris Morros, draws the musical direction on Walter Wanger’s “Stage Coach.”
It’s his first assignment since leaving Paramount, where he headed the music department. Louis Lipstone succeeded him there.”

“Desert near Yuma Ariz., is the location of main operations for Paramount’s ‘Beau Geste’ slated to roll late this month with William Wellman producing and directing.
Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston are cast as the three brothers. J. Carroll Naish and Brian Donlevy the heavies.”

“C. B. De Mille Monday (1/9) directed ‘Union Pacific’ from a stretcher.
He suffered a recurrent attack of an ailment, which forced him to undergo surgery last summer.”

“Ernst Lubitsch’s two-picture deal with Metro is due to net him more than $200,000. First job is the direction of ‘Mme Curie’ starring Greta Garbo. Second is ‘Shop around the Corner,’ which he intended to produce on his own before he made the Metro deal.”

“’Titanic’ story of the greatest modern sea disaster, gets the gun April 1 at the Selznick-International studio. Alfred Hitchcock, British director, arrives late this month with Richard Blaker, English novelist, who is doing the script.
Hitchcock was also set to direct ‘Rebecca,’ but it is not likely to be filmed this year.”

“Lee Garmes is en route from London to be chief cameraman for David O. Selznick on “Gone with the Wind.”  
Susan Myrick, Macon Ga., newspaper columnist and friend of Margaret Mitchell gets the job of head coach of Southern accents and customs on ‘Wind.’ Latest addition to the cast is Hattie McDaniel in the mammy role.”

So – as a quiz to you, dear reader, which of the titles above do you think won’t be written about as part of the 1939 the miracle year series?

Boo Jr #1939The MiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Boo Jr

You got to hand it to Variety for their eye-catching and funny headlines, titles, and phrasing. They christened ‘The Son of Frankenstein” with the moniker – BOO, JR which at once encapsulated and entertained.

In its January 4 edition, it announced:

“Boo, Jr.
Hollywood Jan 1 [1939]

‘Son of Frankenstein’ completed Saturday (31) at Universal, goes into national release Jan
13 with heavier advance bookings than any other U feature.
Cutters kept pace with the shooting schedule to speed up the distribution.”

There is an excellent reason that Universal garnered “heavier advance bookings” than usual. Back in the spring and summer of 1938, when a dearth of product hit the theaters, an enterprising theater manager (Emil Uman at the Regina Theater in Beverly Hills) put together a triple bill of older films for his venue.

The unspooling of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “Son of Kong” caused the cops to be called out to control the crowds. Word spread and soon other theaters were looking to book the reissues. Universal gladly offered their titles “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” as a stand alone double bill (Kong, both original and Son were RKO properties – I’m sure Universal did not want to share the film rentals). And the crowds – and the cops – were repeated – from San Francisco to Boston. Initial short bookings were held over, in some instances, multiple weeks (Philadelphia ran seven).  St Louis packed in over 34,000 people in the first three days.

Such business was a bellwether indication that the horror genre was ready for a new installment. Thus, Universal decided to take the money coming in from the revivals and make a sequel. By October 1938 they were negotiating for talent. Boris Karloff took another turn in the monster role; and Bela Lugosi lurked menacingly as the murderous deranged cripple. Willis Cooper, a writer for radio horror programs and three Mr Moto films at Fox, was tapped for the scripting chores. By the 18th the cameras were turning, but not without a few hiccups. No director was listed for the first day of shooting (a role filled soon after by Rowland V Lee), and a principal actor (Peter Lorre) announced for the title roll dropped out. He was replaced on the 24th by Basil Rathbone.

It was given an ‘A’ picture status – better production values, sets, costumes etc., and shoehorned into the few available soundstages at Universal. (Their ‘B’ lineup, judged to be ahead of schedule for upcoming release, caused others of the same designation to be put on hold, freeing up stage space for the ‘A’s). Another ‘A’ production at Universal at the same time was the W. C. Fields vehicle, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”

I recently watched the film online and enjoyed it despite its predictability and formulaic writing. The atmosphere was fittingly dark and foreboding. And it wasn’t too far along when I realized that Mel Brooks must have used the plot as a template for his “Young Frankenstein.” Here too the son of the monster creator was returning to the scene of his father’s ‘crime.’ The clincher was the local police inspector, played by Lionel Atwill. The character sports an artificial arm, which Kenneth Mars spoofs in Brooks’ version.  The only thing is, Mars wasn’t all that far off of what Atwill had done in his characterization, even down to using the wooden arm when striking a light and while using darts.

A viewing is worthwhile just for the comparison.

What Tech Had to Do with It #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What Tech Had to Do with It

By 1939 the technology behind filmmaking had attained a comfortable maturity. It was a decade after the innovation of sound so that element of the process had been integrated into the studio factory system  (Inroads also were being made for the standardization of sound systems in the field for better quality – for the equipment in theaters tended to be a hodgepodge mix).

Sound was now a reliable instrument in the tool-belt of the artistic minds charged with creating the projects. In fact coming to grips with the disciplines that good sound recording called for, led to other time and money saving innovations. For instance advances in process backgrounds like rear-projection and matte shots (originally developed to get around noisy environments), were now saving money.

Add to this the special effects and miniature departments (the film King King, for instance) which opened the imagination to become filmed ‘reality.’ If someone could think it, they could figure a way to capture it on film.

Improvements also came to the very basics – the film stock – faster and finer grain panchromatic films made for crisper black and white pictures – first introduced by Agfa-Ansco – and then right behind them, Eastman Kodak. One could almost “see” color in black and white for the range of gradations was expanded. As for color film, though fifteen different companies claimed to have their own version in the works, only Technicolor was then in use. And it was glorious and gorgeous.

Advances in cameras did their part. The Mitchell swaddled in its hood (aka ‘the blimp’) kept the noise of the camera machinery from intruding upon the soundtrack. And Walt Disney’s multi-plane camera would lead to more and better advances in the field of animation.

It was indeed a good time to have a studio in Hollywood.

The Set Up – What the Studios Did #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What the Studios Did

Expansion was the word. In fact one could say that the year 1938 was one of expansion throughout Hollywood. When you total up all they spent on their facilities it was a respectable figure – 112 million.

Fox held an enviable position. They had already spread their productions across their two lots. The original on Western Avenue, and their brand new plant in Westwood.

Paramount, on the other hand, pinched by the confines of its lot on Marathon Street, was looking for other properties on which to expand, either, like Fox, up in Westwood or some place farther up in the Valley. In the meantime they were forced to build outdoor sets on their ranch property forty miles away in Malibu.

Columbia had a similar problem – and solution, utilizing their nearby ranch to ease the crush at their original lot on Gower Street. In addition they took a lease on another studio, the old B P Schulberg lot on Bronson Avenue.

Universal did not have the same problem – with 365 acres it had ample room. But what it did not have was enough sound stages for their productions. Two brand new ones were under construction and a new 6 story admin building. A recent turnover at the top (their principal founder- Carl Laemmle had been deposed) saw plans for major changes around the lot. Work was underway to modernize and soundproof three of the oldest stages on their lot – (one of which was nicknamed the “Phantom” after the Lon Chaney silent, The Phantom of the Opera, filmed there).

In 1938 MGM in Culver City, completed their Thalberg Memorial building at the cost of 2 million dollars. This administration office building was so named as a tribute to their recently deceased ‘wunderkind’ head of production, Irving J. Thalberg, the man singularly responsible for setting the precedent that the studio held the reins over the talent it employed.

Even smaller companies were feeling the need to expand. Monogram had maxed out all the space at the Talisman studios. Hal Roach, who recently switched from MGM to UA to release his comedies, was thinking about pulling down the admin building and replacing it with one larger that would house three stages and business offices. Republic was hampered in their expansion efforts by their relations with their landlord. They either wanted to buy it outright if they could negotiate a good price, or hammer out a longer lease for the property.

Only two film outfits had more pressing needs. Walt Disney, though riding the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was busy reorganizing his three companies (one of which was a realty firm) down into one unit. And RKO, which by the way had released Snow White, was in the midst of a financial reorganization, having just emerged from a 77b receivership (the prior bankruptcy instrument to the present-day Chapter 11).

So the stage was set, and the studios were humming.