Saturday, June 09, 2007

Two Tales of Leverage

The post down below led me to muse on these stories about labor contracts, work, and leverage.

Tale the first: Clark Gable was a movie star for twenty-eight years. For most of that time, he had it written into his contracts that he worked until 5 p.m. and no later. Comedian Don Rickles relates the following story about the WWII drama Run Silent, Run Deep, on which Rickles was a supporting player and Gable (along with Burt Lancaster) was the star. It goes like this:

...Burt Lancaster, a serious man, says to me, "This is a serious movie, Don. You really need to know about submarines. It will help you in your character development if you know the intricate workings of the submarine."

Burt says all this as if we're about to be ordered to our battle stations.

Meanwhile, Gable is one of the most relaxed movie stars in the history of the business.

"Look," he tells me. "I'm a five o'clock guy."

"What does that mean, Mr. Gable?" I ask.

"It means, kid, that my day ends at five. Regardless. Five is scotch-and-soda time. And then I'm on my way home."

Every day at five, Gable sticks to his guns. Five o'clock comes and he's in the trailer. He enters as a Navy commander and exits as a Brooks Brothers model. Driving off the lot in his Bentley convertible, he waves goodbye as he passes through the security gates.

Because he's a producer of the picture, Lancaster is far more intense and worries about overages.

...Most of the action isn't done on location but in the studio. One scene involves a series of explosions followed by a deluge of water. The mechanics are tricky and the technical guys work on it all day. They can't quite get it right. Finally, at about five to five, it all comes together -- the bombastic explosions and a deluge of water.

Gable and I are in the battle scene, the climax of the film. [Director] Robert Wise signals action and all hell breaks loose. The special effects are spectacular.

In the midst of this drama, Gable says, "Sorry, boys, Mr. Five O'clock is done for the day."

And then, with the grace of a European prince, Gable struts to his trailer.

Lancaster chases after him.

Clark," says Burt, "we finally got this thing to work. It'll cost a fortune if we dismantle it. We gotta film it now."

Ever the gentleman, Gable looks at Lancaster sympathetically. "Relax, Burt," he says. "I'll dive with the submarine tomorrow."

-- Don Rickles' Book; Don Rickles with David Ritz; pp. 76-78.

Okay. So you can look at the above and think: That damn movie star. Only cared about himself. Not a team player..."

Or you can say to yourself: "Good for him. He had a contract, and he followed it."

But either way, your basic reaction probably is: "It's Clark effing Gable. He can do what he damn well wants."

Now consider this second story: During the long string of Disney feature hits, from the late 1980s to the turn of the century, the animation checking department at WDFA took every break and every lunch that they were entitled to. At precisely the same time each day, they got up and walked out.

They didn't work past five unless they were getting overtime.

People in another department in the feature building (who will go unnamed, along with the department) didn't do these things. They worked through breaks. And many lunches. And sometimes worked after five whether they were authorized for overtime or not.

Yet despite all their extra effort, they were laid off at exactly the same time as the animation checkers. That is, when the studio stopped making hand-drawn films (for the first time).


Anonymous said...

Not about animation, but too good to pass up:

Not only Gable had that "quite exactly at 5" clause-several others of the A-list stars of the 30s and onwards did. Most non-superstars didn't-you worked until the scene was done(they were paid by the "day" , per movie, while under contract).

In director Mitchell Leisen's telling, he was shooting a scene with Claudette Colbert and a male costar. Some scenes had to be finished so the set could be struck that day for the next day's shooting-the set guys would work all night, overnight to strike the set and get the next one up. They had just one more scene to shoot, but it was a minute to 5 and when called for, Colbert had left. They'd lose an entire day tomorrow.

Leisen was...unhappy. So, the next morning he walked casually onto the set wearing a large alarm clock around his neck--with the hands set to 5pm. Claudette saw it and ran up to kiss him and apologize, understanding the meaning.
All well and good--but at the end of the day, in the middle of a dramatic scene, closeups, big moment-the alarm clock went off. And everyone--director, script supervisor, cameramen, makeup, lighters--they all walked off and left the two stars standing on an empty stage. Leisen had made his point--not just for him, but for the entire crew(who'd been pissed).

So I see Burt's point as well as the actors'; the reason for the clause wasn't prima donna perks, it as that actors knew that a lot of fussing and time wasting was possible on the set, between a fussy cinematographer, a director who might demand way too many takes, etc.--and of course their day was mostly waiting for the couple of hours (if that) of actual shooting. The 5pm thing was a reaction to not being exploited, so the studio wouldn't abuse the possibility of the actors staying around for a 4 minute scene all night, until a director said they were "done".
BUT, in a case like Lancaster's on RSRD, I have total sympathy with him--and in all my reading on the subject of film directors and actors of the golden age, virtually all those performers would bend their own contractual rules and stay later for a crucial scene like that under those special circumstances--albeit, THEY got to make that decision, it couldn't be expected of them.

But you're right--Gable just wasn't going to do it-tough. He really didn't need the money or the job, and it was only a job to him, not a vocation or an obsession.

Anonymous said...

Actually--now I have to amed my lengthy story--I can remember it more clearly now:

It was Colbert, the costar and Leisen who were deep into an intimate rehearsal together, the three of them, in the middle of the set when the alarm clock went off--and it was the crew who walked out, staging that "protest"...Leisen wasn't involved. But THEY, the "powerless" peons were, and they'd been more angry than Leisen with the inconvieninc they were put through for Colbert's 5pm clause the previous day. I think that makes the story even better. Sorry about that. Darn it--have to reread my studio books.

The funny (or not so funny) thing is how much the same the studio situations of the 30s are to situations today. Human nature, business, and work don't change much.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Gable's approach is selfish or "prima donna" ... I think it's smart. I've been guilty of being one of those who's done the free overtime thing, slaving away on a project late at night , extra hours on the weekends and it's true... they lay you off just as soon (or sooner) than the regular 9 to 5'rs . One is never rewarded for putting in the free hours. The management doesn't care , they just think you're stupid and easily exploited. (weak)

It's a matter of developing discipline to make the most of the work day . I'm sorry to say this seems to be something that is hard for many people of my generation, and younger , to develop. In his book "The Animator's Survival Kit" Richard Williams describes the work day of veteran animator Ken Harris:

"Ken Harris worked intensely from 7:30 a.m. until Noon, relaxed at lunch, hung around doing bits for a while, went home to watch TV or play tennis and thought about what he was going to do the next day -- then came in early the next day, avoided social contact and DID it . He worked carefully and thought very hard about his stuff."

The few times in my life I've been able to stick to this regime -- up early in the morning, work intensely from 7:30 in the morning 'til around lunch time -- then wrap things up by early afternoon and off home by 5:00 , I've actually been as productive (maybe more productive) than when I've been keeping crazy "crunch time" hours (interrupted , of course , by the inevitable and wasteful "production meetings").

Gable had it right. Ken Harris had it right.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah--I agree that Gable had good reason for what he did.
And I've been asked and agreed to stay late, do insane OT hours with no notice, giving up weekends etc. There's a time & place for that where everyone has a gut feeling it's really got to be done, period.
Then there's the rest of the time. In the SHORT term, it's appreciated-you feel like you got the gold star. But interestingly and tellingly, after you've done this a couple of times it can go super fast from loads of thank yous and appreciation to having it taken for granted, and sour looks if you didn't want to do it this weekend, because your kid has a birthday or your brother's getting married, or you just need family time. That taught me the facts of the business. Management has short memories.

Also it often happens that the powers that be that make "requests"-or insist-on crunch madness don't last out a film's or show's production so there's no future paybacks from the company in terms of any special gratitude from the person that asked it of the crew. The most important thing in a career isn't totally burning yourself out on a project, it's just plain doing a good job, being a pleasure to work with (instead of a pain in the ass), and getting your work finished well. Those are the attributes that will help you in the long run, much more than working 65 hours per week vs. the other guy who just did 45-assuming you both did great jobs.
Of course production always wants you to think otherwise, that's their job, after all. But a healthy, happy artist is a much more productive and loyal artist.

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