Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Darryl Zanuck, Walt Disney and Hollywood Polo

What follows are the memories of novelist and screenwriter Niven Busch ("Duel In The Sun," "The Westerner," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" etc.) Niven played polo in 1930s Hollywood, with people like Spencer Tracy, Will Rogers, Darryl Zanuck, and Walt Disney... When I got to Hollywood in the early thirties, I found that my boss Darryl Zanuck was a polo enthusiast. Somebody had told him that polo was a game that required guts, and brains, and above all required money and indicated high status and class and this was something that Darryl wanted. Darryl was production head of Warner Brothers at that time, and he'd found several guys at Warners that played a little polo. One was director Mike Curtiz, who had this weird seat on a horse. Mike had been a Hungarian cavalry officer, and apparently in the artillery they taught officers to ride leaning forward and way up on the saddle, and he played polo like that. Now of course he couldn't get back to hit, but he'd dribble, and he was a very good dribbler. But he was always riding up on his horse's neck and so everyone called him a pommel f*cker. In addition to Mike, Darryl had two or three semi-pro players. He said to me at a story conference, "I hear you play some polo," and I said "Oh yes, Mr. Zanuck, I played at Princeton." Well, my experience at Princeton was minimal, but I let him know I was a big star instead of a second string stiff who occasionally got into a game, and the next day, when I got to the office, there was a pink envelope on my desk and it said READ AT ONCE FROM DARRYL ZANUCK." I thought it was my pink slip, but it was a note that read: "Polo practice will be held at the Warner field tomorrow at seven a.m. Please be mounted there and ready to play at that time." In other words, it was a command from the front office and if I hadn't showed up I felt that my contract was in jeopardy. Anyway, I showed. But I liked it, and we played polo in the mornings. Before long, Zanuck left to form his own company, but we kept playing. We got another bunch of players including some backcountry cowboys from down by the stockyards. In those Depression days, and right on until the war came along, we were playing all over the San Fernando Valley on dirt fields, and over at the Riviera Country Club on grass fields. Our polo team was called "Los Amigos" and we were located at the old Warner Bros. field. The Black Fox military school had a polo team where the Disney Studio now is. There was a dirt field down by the stockyards, and a grass field in a little subdivision in the Valley near Woodland Avenue -- Green Acres, a little off Ventura Blvd. It looked good but it was full of gopher holes. VARIETY kept writing polo up as long as Zanuck and movie producer Walter Wanger were in it. Nobody else very classy was into it. Then the different studios began to talk about teams. At the start there were only two, one at Warner Bros. and one at Twentieth Century, and Zanuck had started both teams. Now I'm going to jump ahead a little to where Zanuck formed his own successful company when he merges with the old Fox Company out on Pico. And Zanuck begins to acquire some real high-end polo players. The trades start making a big play of reporting polo games every Sunday, because more motion picture personalities are now getting involved. VARIETY describes the games like they were international matches at Meadowbrook, and they also kid them because some people getting into the games had absolutely no business on a horse, let alone a polo field. So now, into the polo scene come other people who want part of this publicity and also think it would be one hell of a lot of fun. Spencer Tracy comes on and buys himself a couple of horses and stables them at Riviera. By now we've all moved away from the dirt fields in the Valley and we're out on the grass at Riviera and we've got grandstands and people are coming out and there are pretty good-sized crowds who pay to sit in the stands and watch us make asses out of ourselves. Zanuck used to LOVE to play the number one position, which is the player that takes out the number four, so he's up there in front where if somebody hits a long ball to him he can poke it through the goal "Goal by Zanuck!" He LOVED that. One time he scored a spectacular goal that won a game, but what happened was he missed it and his pony kicked the ball and knocked it through the goal. So the announcer said, "Goal by Pony!" Darryl fired the announcer. I sent to England for special boots and Zanuck had boots you wouldn't believe. He had a kid at the studio shining them up, and I don't think the kid did anything else. Zanuck was by now trying to develop his wrist for polo. He had a sawed off polo mallet with a four-pound head made of solid lead and the mallet was only a foot long. And he went around his office and he'd always be swinging it. He'd walk up and down the carpet in story meetings and sometimes he'd train his eye by flipping a tennis ball to guys and he expected them to toss it back. If you didn't you were liable to get a closing slip the next day. Around this time others start playing. Clark Gable, who was a very good athlete, was on his way to becoming a good polo player, but he didn't get huge about it. He didn't play more than about a year, because the studio kept him so busy promoting and running around. The little time he had he wanted to do hunting and fishing. A lot of actors were really pretty timid players, because if they got hit in the face there would go their careers. I remember one time I was taking the ball down the field, and Spencer Tracy was playing opposite me on the other team. I hit a shot off the boards, and Tracy should have ridden right at me and tried to take the ball. But he was scared he'd get hit, so he rode across the boards and damn near went into the stands, and the grooms were standing there laughing, which was really mean because he was new to the game and my horse was going all out like an express train. Walt Disney got into the act. We played a lot of games, and I only had about two horses, and without Disney, I wouldn't have been able to play a full game. He said, "Niven, take any two of my horses," and this gave me four horses to play. We didn't socialize much away from the polo field, but I always liked Walt. He had a little moustache and a shy smile and was always smoking cigarettes. Will Rogers was a very aggressive polo player, and a hell of a horseman. But he'd do mean things, like if he rode you off the ball, instead of pushing you and riding straight to take the next shot, he'd push right across you and take the next shot on the near side, which could be a foul if the referee wanted to call it. He could throw you that way, and if you knew he was going to do it you would watch for it, but he'd kind of look back with a dirty smile and say, "Well, take that you silly son of a bitch." Rogers was very bad with horses. He was mean with a horse, he'd pull them around. I didn't think he was a very nice fella, I really didn't. Nobody liked him very much around the polo barns, I can tell you that. What they thought of him on the sets at Fox, I don't really know. But he was such a beloved character with the public that if you said anything against him they'd put you down as a freak. Just say he had bad manners on the polo field. (The above is part of a long interview I did with Niven Busch years ago. Not a lot there to do with animation, but a LOT to do with Hollywood in the 1930s.)


Jenny Lerew said...

This is priceless stuff.
I'd like to read more of it. Niven Busch, incidentally, has a great, long chapter in "Backstory", a collection of such interviews with screenwriteers of that era. He was quite a guy.

I've always been told that the small white cottage over at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center(where I stable my horses)is from the polo days. All of that area(of course, no 101 Fwy back then to split Griffith Park up)was polo fields and wrangler's ranches, with horses rented by studios like nearby Warners. Bette Davis had a "farm" where the Bette Davis park now is at Sonora and Riverside, and her old house is still there, on Western near the "easter field". There's a stable nearby called "Riverbottom"--which was the name of Bette's farm, according to her biography--so she likely owned all that acreage at one time in the 30s-40s. This old history completely fascinates me. Didn't Walt give up polo after an injury, btw?

Steve Hulett said...

Walt, as far as I know, played a few years and drifted away from the game. I never heard he had an injury.

Zanuck, however, DID have a bad injury. In '41 he got a broken nose when he blocked a ball from hitting his face with his mallet, and the mallet hit him. Shortly thereafter, WWII started and he sold his polo ponies, never going back to it. Zanuck took up croquet after the war, and became a fanatic.

Niven told me why he stopped playing: "After the war, four guys I had played with were killed playing within a period of three years. The closest call I had was when when five polo ponies ran over me after I fell, but horses will try like hell to avoid stepping on you, and all I got out of it was a chipped elbow. But by that time I was married and raising a family, and I just gave polo up."

I knew Niven Busch for thirty years -- he was a professor of mine -- and I think about him all the time. So of course, I go and spell his name wrong in the post. Neat.

Jenny Lerew said...

Wow, what a lucky thing to have had him as a teacher!
They sure as hell don't come like that any more. That book I mentioned is one I'd use if ever I taught story--for animation or otherwise. Not that it's all nuts and bolts, but reading the attitudes of the men and women screenwriters of that period is an education; suprisingly, little has changed in a lot of ways. I also admired the fact that so many of those guys worked til they dropped.

Re polo: every few years they have a match at the LAEC; we went to watch one once, and I have never seen such a shockingly dangerous sport. Hockey on horseback. It makes the cowboy stuff--team penning, roping--look like kid's stuff.
I was flabbergasted that no one fell off--although they came close several times, when they weren't slamming into the wall while going after a ball.. And these were professional players--one team played for Mercedes-benz.
I seem to remember now that I've read that either Roy or BofA or whatever entity invested the most heavily in Walt Disney Productions begged Walt to give polo up in the late 30s, and he did. For the obvious huge insurance risk it posed to the core of the company. I wish I could remember where I read it!

Steve Hulett said...

Yeah, insurance issues might have pushed Walt off the polo field.

I have other material with Busch that I plan to post here in the future. Niven was an amazing guy right up to the end of his life. He published his last novel at 86. Led an amazing life.

Anonymous said...

Bill Tytla used to play polo with Walt as well. Babbitt told me Bill kept his polo mallets and boots in his office closet, along with a crutch. Bill was always getting busted up falling off his horse.

Jenny Lerew said...

Tytla was really into it, that's for sure!
Polo was like an addictive drug for the players, it seems...there was also at least one or more additional Disney employees who played at Walt's insistence...I think the guy who wrote the self published book "One Of Walt's Boys", Harry Tytle, was one.

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