The Year Was 1938 – May 10th

Joan Crawford
  • 20th Century Fox calls off their 2 million dollar building plan for two reasons: 1) the unsettled state of the foreign markets, and 2) the current tax situation at home. This effects plans for five new sound stages.
  • Republic Pictures plans to start building their own studio on a 48 acre lot next to the old Mack Sennett lot which they are currently leasing. 
  • RKO, in trouble financially since 1933, is looking to reorganize and emerge from their 77B bankruptcy by end of summer.
  • Paramount has over 2000 people currently employed at the studio – a high for the past 12 months. The number of the people in the back lot and in technical positions has increased 50%.
  • Major and minor companies are turning away from screwball comedies in favor of outdoor, big action historical and/or biographical films.
  • Joan Fontaine has been selected for a part in director George Stevens’ big action film “Gunga Din.” Her costars will be Cary Grant and Jack Oakie. Victor McLaglen will also be aboard, the Oscar winner is on loan from Fox. [Stevens had his latest film open on this date – ‘Vivacious Lady’ starring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers – a screwball comedy – so it seems the director is trying to get ahead of the curve for 1939].
  • Ginger Rogers is guaranteed a month long vacation between pictures as part of her new RKO contract. [Could screwball comedy be more tiring than dancing with Fred Astaire]?
  • Stan Laurel is marrying a Russian singer, Ileanna, (Vera Ivanova Shuvalova) for the fourth time since Jan 1. [This may be popping up over and over for they were battling constantly all the way through 1939].
  • Joan Crawford re-upped with MGM, signing a five year contract for 1.5 million dollars. She came to Hollywood in 1925, at the height of the flapper era, and could dance the Charleston. [In her interview with Ed Sullivan at this time Crawford states that her first picture was a western with Tim McCoy, entitled ‘Winners of the Wilderness,’ instead of ‘Pretty Ladies’ from 1925. I’m not sure if her memory was playing her tricks, for ‘Pretty Ladies’ was her first credited role, and the McCoy film was in 1927. Perhaps she remembers the western fondly because it was a co-starring role (with no other ladies sharing the spotlight). Or maybe, being from Texas, she liked playing a cowgirl].
  • To make westerns more realistic the William Hays office is proposing meeting with author Will James (author of Western fiction Smokey) and Harry Carey to work on a possible code.
  • Gene Autry goes back to work at Republic after holding out since December on salary and other contentions (radio and in person appearances – acting for other producers and for his own company). [Things look good for Westerns, if the film execs are sensing the right direction].

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.