Now with historical Add On ... and Add On Too!.
The Boston Globe holds forth on the old "dream factory" ... otherwise known as the Golden Age Hollywood studio, has been reimagined in Emeryville:
... [T]he heyday of the Studio Era [was] a period roughly coinciding with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, 1933-1945.
The Studio Era was the assembly line as art... Its most notable achievement didn't lie in the work of any one filmmaker or given genre or style. Rather, it was the systematic organization of talent, craft, and technology to manufacture a high-quality, high-volume entertainment product which managed to achieve two seemingly opposed ends: to create work of considerable artistry at the same time that it generated even more considerable profits.
... The greatest living testament to the genius of the system comes from a name no one would have recognized 15 years ago, let alone 60, and the studio that bears the name isn't even in Hollywood. Pixar Animation Studios is based in Emeryville, Calif., 350 miles and several sensibilities away from contemporary Hollywood. It's not all that far, though, from the Hollywood of six decades ago.
In terms of product, what most distinguished Studio Era Hollywood was a devotion to three principles: a corporate approach to creativity, being in it for the long haul (rather than just a one-weekend killing), and reaching every part of the moviegoing public ...
One point the Globe misses: All the Golden Age studios were run by savvy, creative execs who turned out a large number of quality films with small administrative staffs. There were no huge lumbering bureaucracies, no focus groups, no herds of "producers" jostling for screen credit, just the film-makers and a few test screenings and then .... the release of Wee Willie Winkie, The Sea Hawk, Grapes of Wrath or Gone With the Wind.
And the staffs inside studio front offices were lean. At 20th Century-Fox, there was Darryl Zanuck, who supervised forty films a year with the assistance of a handful of associate producers. Zanuck read the scripts, cast the pictures, ran the story conferences and made the editorial decisions. Everybody else, from directors to writers to actors to art directors, performed to his specifications.
At Warners, Hal Wallis did much the same job that Zanuck did over the hill at Fox, with about the same number of aides.
At M-G-M, there was Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer's son-in-law David Selznick doing the creative exec thing. In pretty much the same way it was peformed at the other Golden Age studios. But the well-oiled Metro machine had some sand tossed in its gears in the late thirties, when Thalberg died and Selznick went off to be an independent producer.
And then of course there was Walt Disney at his small, start-up studio. Most people thought of Disney as a one-man show from the beginning. (He was a Hollywood God by the end.)
All these studios had something in common with Pixar. The power to create product was in the hands of a few driven men who knew how to make films. Zanuck started as a writer, Selznick and Thalberg had been line producers, as had Hal Wallis. Disney, of course, had started as a cartoonist at a drawing board. At the studios over which they presided, there were no committees, no sign-offs by layers of bureaucracy, just studio bosses who'd long-since proven themselves in the movie trenches making the crucial decisions.
This time-honored, streamlined system doesn't always work. You get an exec who doesn't make the grade with his less-than-inspired choices (former Disney movie top-kick Joe Roth comes to mind), then the resulting features and production deals are neither stellar nor long-lived. But in modern times Pixar has done it, also Mr. Katzenberg, also Steven Spielberg (who, over thirty-plus years, has been a studio mogul unto himself.) And the odds are good that there will be others (J.J.Abrams?) as we travel deeper into the 21st century.
But the Globe has one thing right: Pixar is the most obvious current example of a rebooted "Golden Age" studio system where the creative exec rules.
Add On: A couple of examples of "Golden Age" micro-management by the heads of studios come from memos of Darryl Zanuck and Hal Wallis. Here's Zanuck giving writer Nunnaly Johnson directions about what he wants in the script for The Grapes of Wrath (1940);
[The Joads'] money practically gone -- gas low -- and the terrible realization that what they were told [about there being no jobs] is true ...
We come in on them driving into town and asking somebody where they should go about finding work -- maybe showing the fellow the handbill. The man just looks at them and laughs. Someone else comes along and they ask him. We see the fellow look at the car and down on the license plate. "Oh -- Oklahoma. There's a camp on the edge of town -- maybe somebody there will tell you --"
Their hopefulness and terrible disillusionment. They drive into the Hooverbille camp and their hearts drop at the terrible sights. The futility of what has occurred. They just look at each other as the stark truth dawns on them. "Don't seem very encouragin', does it" ... Ma snaps them out of it -- they'd better pitch the tent, etc.
Zanuck biographer George Custen points out that "the sequence as shot is a virtual transcription of the memo ..." ("Twentieth Century's Fox -- Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood" Basic Books, 1997, pp. 234-35.)
Then there is this 1941 memorandum from Hal Wallis to line producer Henry Blanke about director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon):
Huston's second day's dailies are better than the first, but I still feel that they are too leisurely in tempo. I think my criticism is principally with Bogart, who has adopted a leisurely suave form of deliver. I don't think we can stand this all through a picture, as it is going to have a tendency to drag down the scene and slow them up too much. Bogart must have his usual brisk, staccato manner and delivery, and if he doesn't have it, I'm afraid we are going to be in trouble... [W]e must quicken the tempo and the manner of speaking the lines ...
Director Huston "quickened the tempo."
Lastly, here's Wallis complaining to director Rauol Walsh about dailies on The Roaring Twenties (1939) [both Wallis memos from the book "Inside Warner Bros."]:
... I don't like your camera setups; those straight-on two shots, and individual closeups are going to get monotonous and make for choppy cutting ... [I]n the courtroom instead of just shooting a big, choker head of the judge, why didn't you shoot over-the-shoulders of Cagney and Jeffrey Lynn up at the judge. Get a little composition in the thing and a little grouping so that we don't have to cut from one big closeup to another and just have a series of portraits on the screen with the people speaking the lines ...
Detail oriented, wouldn't you say? And not a focus group in sight.
Add On Too: But here is my favorite Wallis memo, in all its steaming, un-P.C. glory, to director Michael Curtiz during Captain Blood (September, 1935); apologies in advance:
I have talked to you about four thousand times, until I am blue in the face, about the wardrobe in this picture. I also sat up here with you one night, and with everybody else connected with the company, and we discussed costume in detail, and also discussed the fact that when the men get to be pirates that we would not see "Blood" dressed up.
Yet tonight, in the dailies, in the division of the spoil sequence, here is Captain Blood with a nice velvet coat, with lace cuffs out of the bottom, with a nice lace stock collar, and just dresssed exactly opposite to what I asked you to do.
I distinctly remember telling you, I don't know how many times, that I did not want you to use lace collars or cuffs on Errol Flynn. What in the hell is the matter with you, and why do you insist on crossing me on everything that I ask you not to do? What do I have to do to get you to do things my way? I want the man to look like a pirate, not a molly-coddle. You have him standing up here dealing with a lot of hard-boiled characters, and you've got him dressed up like a God damned faggot ...
I suppose that when he goes into the battle with the pirates (the French) at the finish, you'll probably be having him wear a high silk hat and spats.
When the man divided the spoils you should have him in a shirt with the collar open at the throat, and no coat at all. Let him look a little swashbuckling, for Christ sakes! Don't always have him dressed up like a pansy! I don't know how many times we've talked this over.
I hope that by the time we get into the last week of shooting this picture, that everybody will be organized and get things right. It certainly is about time.
The only thing to add to this is "Yeowch."