The Year Was 1938 – May 18th

Zanuck’s strategy for 20th Century Fox
  • Darryl F Zanuck expounds on the biz – some are saying that negative costs must come down to meet a lesser box office take, but he points out that quality films never are made with short budgets. And that is why they are spending more on their films than ever before. He agrees with exhibitors when they say that double billing is a mistake. Little pictures are a good training ground for up and coming actors. He would rather go with his solution – cast the younger players in big pictures (and cites the example of Tyrone Power in ‘Lloyd’s of London’). He intends to gamble on Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Richard Greene and Arlene Whelan. He goes on to give credit to their writers – touting originals, written in “the technique of pictures.” The future of films counts on writers.
  • Twentieth Century Fox cut the vacation allotment for Tyrone Power down to 10 days this summer in order to ease his schedule once ‘Jesse James’ starts shooting.
  • Scat singer, Johnnie Davis is the latest added to the cast of ‘Brother Rat,’ being made for WB. Eddie Albert who had the lead in the NY play takes the lead here too. The leading lady is yet to be selected, between Priscilla Lane and Olivia DeHavilland. Camera crews are now at work shooting exteriors in Virginia at VMI, the film’s setting. [The decision was for Priscilla Lane (or did Olivia say no?). Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were also added to the cast. Johnnie Davis appeared in four films in 1939, 2 features and 2 shorts].
  • Carole Lombard is building a home for her mom in Brentwood.
  • Edward Small rests at home under a doctor’s care. [The powerhouse independent producer had ‘The Duke of West Point’ for this year, and two for 1939, one of which was ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’].
  • Leon Schlesinger is welcomed by an office party after a long hospital seige. [I can only imagine what that would have been like. Schelsinger was head of the animation unit at WB, so the likes of Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, and voice talent Mel Blanc would have been on hand].
  • Gene Autry starts work back at Republic today after nearly a half year absence.
  • According to Ed Sullivan, “most wigs for the movies are made from human hair from the Balkan and Scandinavian countries.”

SOME SIDE NOTES

  • Howard Hughes planning an around the world flight to promote the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. He will bear invitations to the European nations.
  • According to a reporter taking in the shooting of the latest Sonja Henie film at 20th Century Fox, she had to be provided with special socks, costing $35 a pair. Even then she puts runs in them when strained by the leaps she does, running through five pairs a day. The makeup department in preparing her for the day, sprays a glue in her hair to keep her tresses from flying every which way.

ON THE MOVE

  • Hal B Wallis, associate in charge of production at WB, in NY today for business & pleasure, to look over the current stage plays. [Given his position at the company his name is on linked to 47 film for 1939 – 16 credited (including The Old Maid, in which his wife, Louise Fazenda, played a maid), and 31 uncredited].
  • Departing for London from NY on the Normandie – Danielle Darrieux with her husband Henri de Coin, writer-director (though she would like to stay in US, she needed to return to France for her mandatory one film per year, according to French regulations), Brian Aherne, David Niven, Diana Barrymore
  • NY to LA – Billy Halop, Fredric March, Luise Rainer.
  • Arrivals in LA – Olivia DeHavilland, Mr & Mrs Paul Lukas, Lily Pons, Claudette Colbert, John Hay Whitney.

The Year Was 1938 – May 17th

Samuel Briskin
  • Sam Briskin, producer, left RKO last November, being recalled to Columbia to an exec prod post. Had been there between 1926-1934. [Briskin was the real talent behind the successes at Columbia in that earlier period. Cohn lost him over a dispute about the stock options in the company. Briskin could have gone anywhere in 1935 – Fox – MGM – Universal – and wound up at RKO. Cohn got him back at Columbia with a seven year contract and stock options. He was immediately involved in the dispute between the directors and the producers].
  • As part of their economy, Paramount announces they are trimming film budgets and film schedules (cutting 8 weeks to 6). No bidding against rival studios for novels or plays. Tightening in all departments. 
  • RKO now has a writing staff with 38 writers working on 22 scripts.
  • Tailors and seamstresses are busier than they have been for several years, because of a flock of historical films upcoming – for Paramount – 6 (includes ‘Zaza’ for 1939); for WB – 6 (includes ‘Juarez’ and ‘Dodge City’ for 1939); 20th Century Fox – 1; Metro – 1 (‘Northwest Passage’ for 1939). [20th Century Fox actually had many more – ‘Jesse James,’ ‘Young Mr. Lincoln,’ ‘Drums Along the Mohawk’; and the MGM title did not make it into release until 1940. MGM did have ‘Gone with the Wind,’ but not at this point in 1938].
  • Jerry Wald, writer at WB, is going to court to untangle the problem of three agencies claiming to represent him. They are – Zeppo Marx Inc, Myron Selznick & Co and Leland Hayward, Inc. [Wald had four screenplays made into films for 1939, including the gangster film ‘The Roaring Twenties’].
  • Deal in the making between David O Selznick and W C Fields. Selznick tried to borrow him from Paramount before, but was unsuccessful. Now that Fields left Paramount, it is possible that Fields will be in their film ‘Heartbreak Town,’ about the trials of Hollywood moppets. [Sounds like they were trying to capitalize on the Jackie Coogan situation. W C Fields ended up at Universal instead]. (See May 9th)
  • Cecil B DeMille settles with the IRS on a tax bill going back to his 1934 earnings.
  • Robert Pirosh and George Seaton called in to collaborate with Irving Brecher on the script for MGM’s ‘A Day at the Circus,’ the next Marx Bros movie. Brecher started it last week. [Pirosh and Seaton had worked together on Marx Bros films before, and ended with no credit on this one, their only film for 1939 was ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and even that was uncredited; Brecher did get the credit for ‘A Day at the Circus,’ but he also was uncredited for Oz].
  • Gene Autry to draw $10,000 per picture in his new pact. It had been $5000. When he was out due to  his feud with Republic, his side kick Smiley Burnett was assigned to work as Roy Rogers’s sidekick. (Roy was filling in for the missing Autry). [Now what to do about Burnett].
  • Buck Jones sues Republic to restrain the release of their serial ‘The Lone Ranger’ – for imitating those films in which he played a Texas Ranger. On top of that the name of horse was Silver also. [His only film for 1939 had him as a boxer, not a cowboy – ‘Unmarried,’ a remake of a 1932 film – both Paramount].

ON THE MOVE

  • Wesley Ruggles dueling with Paramount on a new contract (to produce and direct) before departing on a European vacation. [He got the contract and did ‘Invitation to Happiness’ for Paramount in 1939].

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.