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?

Zefferelli at the Jewel Box

zefferrelli-at-the-jewel-box

It shouldn’t be surprising that I used to dream about my work. Probably every one does. But these dreams were the weirdest when it came to my job at Saffle’s Theater Service over on John Street in Seattle. In some respects they were like walking through an Ingmar Bergman movie.

In this particular recurring dream, the streets were empty, and I was wandering them alone. I moved in the silence, not a single person anywhere, and no vehicles either, just buildings and trees and other such landmarks. I would follow the familiar boulevard towards my workplace. But I stopped a block short, and took another street on a vector away from my goal. And then another turn brought me up a hill and over to Second Avenue. I felt awake and conscious – all was recognizable to me because it was the landscape across which I circulated for my job. And there was a deadline somehow involved in the logic of the dream, yet not binding, as time itself was slowed down.

My movements always came to an end over on a little section of Second Avenue between Bell and Wall Streets.  There all the film distributor offices were huddled together in one little section that was called “Film Row.” And there also was the focus of the “fun” part of the job, the screening rooms.

There were two main venues on film row, where the screenings for new films were scheduled. Fox was the only distributor to have their own in-house screening room. I have absolutely no recollection of this screening room (my boss must have covered the few offerings there). I have been told that it was tiny and uncomfortable, and every seat had a bad view of the screen.

The other venue was a different story. The Jewel Box was a gem. (The choice of name was a genuflection to that old favorite choice for a theater name. If you’ve seen those old theaters with the name Bijou above the marquee, you’re were looking at something akin to the same thing – ‘bijou’ is French for jewel). It was built in 1927 by B. F. Shearer as a showcase for his theater equipment company.

With only sixty seats one might say it was the size of a shoe box, (compared to the theaters of that day – not now), but it was comfortable. One center aisle divided two seating areas. At the front there were individual theater seats, but as you moved to the back there were a series of booths – bench seats with their own long tables upon which you could place your meals, ordered up from the Rendezvous restaurant next door (a side door of the theater led straight into it). One might call the arrangement with the booths an early example of stadium seating, for each pair of them had their own riser.

The summer of 1976, I spent a lot of time at the Jewel Box viewing films. Here are a few titles:

In May- Food of the Gods (AIP) Marjoe Gortner

             – Ode to Billy Joe (WB) Robby Benson

             – Eat My Dust! (Parnell) Ron Howard

              – Drive In (Col) a film made with Texas state tax incentives for the (what else) the drive in market

In June – The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (AIP) Lee Marvin

              – Special Delivery (AIP) Bo Svenson and Cybill Shepherd

               – The Outlaw Josey Wales (WB) Clint Eastwood

               – Survive (Par) about the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mtns and cannibalism

                – Obsession (Col) Brian de Palma pulls a Hitchcock with Cliff Robertson and Genvieve Bujold

In July  – St Ives (WB) Charles Bronson

              – Squirm (AIP) man-eating worms

              – Gumball Rally (WB) Michael Sarrazin

              – Futureworld (AIP) sequel to Westworld

In August  – Moving Violation (Fox) Stephen McHattie and Kay Lenz

                – The Shootist (Par) John Wayne

                – Car Wash (UN) Richard Pryor

                – Winds of Autumn (Film Brokers) Jack Elam

                – Drum (UA) Warren Oates, Ken Norton

[These movie “dreams” may have impacted somehow my “dreamlife.”]

One night we had the Jewel Box all to ourselves or rather all to our families, mine and my wife’s. And some few choice friends. I had arranged to rent it for my wife’s birthday party. (We all had dinner at the Spaghetti Factory before coming to the Jewel Box).

But what would renting a theater be without a movie? So I arranged for that too. I contacted Joe Vigil, my Paramount rep (and friend) down in San Francisco and ordered up a film title by one of my wife’s favorite directors, Franco Zefferelli. You may be familiar with his Shakespeare films “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Along with our snacks and cake we sat down to watch “Brother Sun Sister Moon.” The film tells the story of the life of St Francis of Assisi.

I believe for a time this director’s films may have eclipsed Gone with the Wind as her favorite.

Before the Wind Came

before-the-wind-came

In writing my most recent Memories post (The SoCal Trip 1975), I was curious about one of the sites we visited on that particular vacation, so I did a little research.

The site was (and is) the Selznick Studio, which is wedged away in a small enclave in Culver City, California. (It still does business but now under the name of the Culver Studios). Formed in 1919 when Thomas Ince broke away from Triangle Pictures (whose other two partners of the troika were D. W. Griffith and Hal Roach), it has changed hands a number of times over the years. After the mysterious death of Mr. Ince in 1924, Cecil B. DeMille moved into the lot. He merged the concern with the Pathe company in 1926, which in turn was acquired by RKO in 1932. Selznick leased the lot from RKO in 1936.

[Check out this history, that chronicles some of the films (and TV shows) done on the lot. Of particular note were the old sets on the lot (i.e. ones for King Kong, etc.) that were torched for the burning of Atlanta sequence for GWTW.]

When doing some research for another project, I came across this brief article in Variety for October 30, 1935 p 7.

Shearer-Garbo in with Selznick-Whitney Prods.

Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo are among those who are reported tied in financially with the new Dave Selznick producing firm in which Jock Whitney is also concerned.

I realized this article heralded the genesis of Selznick’s involvement at the Culver Studio (then RKO). Shearer and Garbo disappear from any connection to Selznick, in so far as any corporate involvement is concerned. He had been pursuing Garbo prior to this for the role that finally went to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” when the rights were sold to WB. Instead Garbo chose to do “Anna Karenina” as one of Selznick’s last projects as a producer in the employ of MGM. Garbo was close to Shearer and her husband Irving Thalberg, so this conjunction of their names is not unusual. The untimely death of Thalberg the following year and the subsequent turmoil may explain their absence from the concern going forward.

This article also set me off on another “rabbit trail,” in so far GWTW was involved.

The name in the last phrase, Jock Whitney, was completely new to me, and it proved fascinating to learn more about him.

Whitney was the young well-to-do scion of an East Coast family (who inherited 20 million from his father after 1927, and 80 million from his mother after 1944). His full name – John Hay Whitney gave the first clue to his family history. To anyone who has read about Abraham Lincoln, John Hay is a familiar name. He was one of Lincoln’s secretaries during his time in office. Later he was appointed ambassador to London, and later still served as Secretary of State under both McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. And Jock Whitney is his grandson and namesake. His other grandfather, served as Naval Secretary under Cleveland.

  Whitney graduated from Yale, and was a member of the Scroll & Key secret society while there, (his father also was an alumnus, but a member of the Skull & Crossbones secret society). He started as a clerk in a banking house. But once he came into money, he invested in personal interests. He was a major “angel” for Broadway productions during the 1930s. – “Here Goes the Bride,” “Life with Father,” and “Jumbo.” From there it was short hop to film.

He had been brought into the film business by Merian C. (“King Kong”) Cooper, then a producer and head of production at RKO. By 1933, Jock founded his own production company, Pioneer Films.  And around the same time he acquired a 15% interest in Technicolor. He used the process in making a musical short “La Cucaracha,” and later the first technicolor (three strip process) feature “Becky Sharp.” Pioneer was merged with Selznick Int’l Pictures in 1936, and Whitney ended up as chairman of the board of the new company.

Together on the Culver lot they were responsible for such films as “A Star is Born,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Rebecca,” and “Gone with the Wind.” In fact, it was through Whitney’s direct investment that Selznick acquired the rights to the Margaret Mitchell novel, which laid the foundation for what would be Selznick’s “signature” film.

In the Yale yearbook for 1926, in its write up about Whitney it noted that his future plans looked to an occupation in either the field of literature or diplomacy. Actually he “checked off both boxes.” The thirties and forties mark his time of involvement with literature as literary projects were translated to the stage and to the screen (in the 1940 census he lists himself as an executive in the Motion Picture Industry). He was an Eisenhower supporter in the fifties, and was consequently appointed the US ambassador to London, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather.

The SoCal Trip 1975

main-street-parade-disneyland-1975

Have you ever flown on an airplane with a head cold? With your sinuses full up and all you can do is sit there with your eyes clamped shut and teeth gritted? The take-off had been no problem, so there had been no “theatrical trailer” heralding the excruciating experience waiting in the wings.

The landing was the horse of a different color. It felt like an invisible fiend was exploring the inside of my head with the point of an icepick. I chalk it up to the change of air pressure that occurred as we descended. It was with great relief that we finally touched down, and the experience was soon relegated to a distant memory, (with a note to self – never to fly with a head cold again). Our vacation could finally begin in earnest.

This was our first ever vacation to Southern California, and to some of its choice attractions – Disneyland and “Hollywood” to be precise. I do not remember the exact details as to arrangments but we had passes (open sesames) to each stop. It was through favor of the branch managers that my Dad knew (and I would later know myself when working at Saffle’s).

Our first day in SoCal was spent in the Magic Kingdom – Disneyland, courtesy of the BV branch manager in Seattle, Homer Schmidt. It was my second visit, and I think it was perhaps the second time for my wife. The park was prepping for the big bicentennial for the United States the following year, and had already added pertinent events – like America on Parade –  a bicentennial version of the Main Street Electrical Parade.

From here on out, “Gone with the Wind” seemed to be the theme for the rest of the vacation. For, the next day we had an appointment to take a tour of the MGM studio in Culver City, courtesy of the MGM branch manager Connie Carpou. We were driving up Washington Blvd in that fair city, when my wife’s eye caught a curious sight. It appeared to be the mansion from her all-time favorite film – “Gone with the Wind.” Or to be more precise the mansion on the beginning clip that announced it was a David O. Selznick production. There it was in all its glory. And what did we do? We turned the car around and drove back to get a closer look.

We found a side street and parked the car. Nearby we found the studio gate and its guard. As I remember it now, it was a bit of a tunnel, overhung like a garden arbor. So we questioned him about the lot and the mansion out front, and he confirmed our guess that it was indeed what we had seen in the movies. They did not allow visitors at this studio, and since we had our appointment at MGM to get to, we left.

MGM was only a short distance away. We checked in at the Thalberg building to begin our tour of the lot. We were taken through the east gate and down the main street (I think there was advertising for the upcoming release of The Sunshine Boys). First stop was the MGM Scoring Stage. Here we learned that the music soundtracks for the “Wizard of Oz,” “Ben Hur,” and, of course, “Gone with the Wind” were scored. (And to my amazement, one of my all-time favorites “Lawrence of Arabia”).

Our guide pointed out to us the water tank beside the main street, and informed us that it had been built for and used by the swimming film star, Esther Williams. We next got a peek inside an empty sound stage. It was just that, empty, and big.

The rest of the tour at MGM is hazy in my memory. I thought we went briefly into the back lot, where the exterior sets stand – like the New York set; the Carvel town set (Andy Hardy’s hometown), etc. But since “That’s Entertainment” had come out just the year before, I more than likely conflate my memories of its sequences that were shot on this same backlot with those of our tour. I recall mention of certain restrictions that were in place due to insurance concerns.

The last stop on our vacation was a tour of Universal Studios, courtesy of Russell Brown the Seattle branch manager for Universal. It was not at all like the amusement park venue that it is now. We actually got to get out and walk around in certain areas. I remember walking through covered areas where props and greens were set out in the open. We attended a demonstration of movie make up in which members of the audience were “made up” as the Frankenstein monster. (I did not volunteer). But the most memorable item (especially for my wife) was an exhibit that contained a Techincolor camera – one of the cameras that had been used when shooting “Gone with the Wind.”

Our trip back was via an Amtrak train on an over night schedule to Seattle. It had been planned that way from the beginning, not because of my recent experience on the plane. In the main it was memorable because we were sidetracked some time in the night due to heavy snow. We awoke to find that the tracks had just been cleared.

We enjoyed ourselves very much. So much so, that we have been back a number of times, the next one being the very next year.

A future post or posts on that experience to come.

universal-studios-makeup-demo-1975

Moving on Up to Booking Films

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The Seeley Theater in Pomeroy, WA

After I left the UA Cinemas 150 and 70, I applied for other “film biz” jobs in the Seattle area. One of the first places I applied was the Saffle Theater Service, a film buying and booking firm that covered the Northwest. I did not hear anything from them then, but soon after an assistant manager position opened up with Mann Theaters at their Fifth Avenue Theater, so I forgot about that application. However, the owner, Bud Saffle, must have remembered me, for a less than a year later something had changed and he contacted me with an offer for a position as his booker.

When I was hired on at the Saffle Theater Service, it was a big promotion in more ways than one. The salary was better to be sure. But so were the hours. They were regular “bankers’ hours.” A nine to five job. No more late, late nights. And there were other perks as well, but more on that later.

It was in a part of Seattle that was “new” to me, (possibly explained by the fact that it was in the opposite direction from the Fifth Avenue theater, and hence off my normal path). From our apartment on Fifth Avenue, I just had to head over to Westlake – a boulevard that cut diagonally across the regular grid. On the other side of Denny Way I took a right on John Street, and another right on Terry Avenue and looked for a spot to park.

I always took the Roadrunner and parked on the side of the small two story office building on the corner of John and Terry. The Saffle Theater Service was on the second floor on the Terry Avenue side. You entered through glass doors into a large open area, presided over by the company secretary and the company records. Mr Saffle had the office on the right; mine was beside his on the left (from its window, I could keep tabs on my Roadrunner).

Mr Saffle’s company represented about thirty independent exhibitors, i.e. theater owners, spread throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They were small town cinemas dating back to the thirties or before; or drive-ins from the fifties. Mr Saffle personally handled the larger accounts, the Mike Mercy Theaters of Yakima and the Kenworthy theaters of Moscow/Pullman. I had the smaller theaters around the hinterlands, like the Seeley in Pomeroy, WA. (It was only open a few months, being closed to store potatoes the bulk of the year). Of particular interest to me, was the Alpine Theater in Colville, WA. It was my Mom’s home town, and I was familiar with this theater, having lived in Colville when a boy.

Mornings were taken up with collecting grosses from our theaters and disseminating them to the pertinent distributors. You can be sure the distribs wanted to know, especially on Mondays after the weekend. They would press us to hold their films over (or try to get us to take off a competitor’s to bring their new title in – exhibitors and distributors have a notorious love-hate relationship). Monday mornings could be a real trial, especially for my boss, for he made all the big decisions – regarding hold overs and terms.

I had to learn new aspects of the “film biz.” Contracts, terms, booking dates and cutoff cards. Much of it was phone work, calling my counterparts with the distributors for film availabilities and terms, and advising my clients about what would perform well in their locations. Mr Saffle tutored me in the whole system that was in place governing the split of the box office monies, which is an interesting topic. Some films were flat $100 or $125, but those were always older films, usually booked as a lower half to a double bill. The newer films were paid on a percentage basis.

The stated percentage is what the exhibitor paid the distributor. So, for instance if the terms were 35%, that meant my client kept 65%. And that’s the way we liked it. Subsequent weeks bottomed out at 25%, and we liked that even better. Bigger films had bigger terms and required playtime commitments. For our bigger towns the minimum was four weeks. The first week was 70%, the second 60%, the third 50%, and the fourth 40%. If business held up the film could be held beyond that for 35%.

But there could be another wrinkle to the big term pictures – the dreaded 90/10. Each theater had an agreed upon house expense, the cost the exhibitor incurred just to open the doors for a week. (One which our firm always tried to negotiate up as high as possible). You would subtract that “nut” from your gross for the week, and of the balance you only kept 10%.  But hold on. There was an “if” involved. The distributor always took whichever was greater, the result of the 90/10 calculation, or the floor percentage for that week.

[Aside – I had heard one time that the whole 90/10 business had its origin back in the late thirties. An exhibitor came up with the formula in a bid that he put forth in an attempt to win the rights to show “Gone with the Wind” over his competitor. Then the floor was 25%]

When you ended up paying the floor percentage, you theoretically might not be covering your costs in that week. (And you always wondered why concessions cost so much. Many exhibitors would claim they weren’t in the film business, but in the popcorn business. They probably still do).

Then at multiple times during the week we had screenings to go to, (and the main reason I drove to work rather than walked). The distributors arranged these for film buyers in the exchange area to see their new product in advance of their release.

It was a much anticipated perk.

But more on that next time – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.