Facing Zanuck

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“COME ON OUT, DAD. SWANIE.” These homely words unlocked the gates of paradise, opened the road to fortune and easy living. They were from my West Coast agent, H. N. Swanson, and climaxed the telegram announcing the sale of my story Low Pressure to the 20th Century-Fox Film studio and giving the terms. It was a nice deal—a tidy sum for the story and a six-week writing contract, all traveling expenses paid, first class of course—the 20th Century Limited to Chicago, the Santa Fe Chief to L. A. The year was 1940; the trip started with the red carpet laid down at Grand Central for 20th Century travelers. It put one in the right mood for Hollywood.

The chain of circumstances that led to this journey started in Boston, where a play of mine trying out had, as the expression went, closed down “for repairs.” There is nothing more traumatic for a playwright. Desperate and immediate therapy is called for. The choices are few: a psychoanalyst’s couch, a new love affair, the bottle—or Hollywood. I had been there before—a year and a half at Warner Brothers—and I had left after five screenplays to continue writing for the theater. In those days of “contract writers,” when every studio had a stable of authors signed up on a standard seven-year contract, leaving Hollywood was considered very disloyal. And with good reason. You couldn’t depend on a community of free spirits to turn out the five hundred or so feature films a year that was then the Hollywood norm.

So the question now was how to get back in. Paradise lost is not easily regained. I was a playwright with an out-of-town flop. To slink back to Hollywood under such a cloud and look for a job would be humiliating, perhaps unavailing. But the solution was at hand. I had written half an act of a new play, Low Pressure, about an easygoing, shiftless, lazy character who enters every kind of advertising contest hoping to strike it rich. The one he wins is a contest to find the “greatest failure in the United States” run by a Dale Carnegie type, a high mogul of success whose business is failing. The success mogul proposes to turn this “greatest failure” into a success through his courses. The failure wins because he has no idea he is one, and he ends up by converting the success mogul to his point of view and turning the “How to Succeed” business into a “How to Relax” business.

I quickly turned the story of the play into a movie “original,” sent it westward, and went out and got drunk. Swanie’s telegram was the prompt result. Now, relaxing in the Santa Fe Chief’s bar car, speeding across the prairies, highball in hand, brooding over what I had done, I consoled myself with the thought that Low Pressure would make an amusing picture and would be a pleasure to work on.

Arriving at my destination and experiencing that feathery blanket of lethargy that descends on one almost immediately, I dismissed all further qualms and entered the studio the following morning bright and shining, my favorite mechanical pencil freshly loaded—the new boy arriving at school.

The present 20th Century-Fox Studio bears no resemblance to what it was then. It has been compressed and shoved into a corner of its former self to make room for Century City, an incongruous complex of skyscrapers towering over a four-lane highway and a few pathetic palm trees. Today the studio looks like an overcrowded, untidy factory complex strewn with spare parts, trucks, machinery, parked cars, and fragments of old, decaying sets. But on that far-off sunny morning when I arrived, it was an imposing place indeed, with spotless, white, air-conditioned buildings, manicured lawns, coddled flower beds, neat walks, and a special, imitation, half-timbered English Tudor writers’ building. Over it all was a smogless, perennially bright, blue sky. This emollient setting did nothing to prepare me for the shock I was about to experience.

The studio had bought Low Pressure , yes, and they had given me a six-week screenwriting deal. But it was not specified that the writing was to be on my own story. In fact, it was already assigned to one of the studio’s crack writers, and I had an entirely different assignment. The story editor explained that the studio heads were so enamored of my story that they considered it far too good for me to work on.

My startled reaction apparently aroused his sympathy. He assured me that my story was in excellent hands, and that Henry Fonda was being cast in the leading role.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We have something good for you, too. You’ll like Song of the Islands.”

“What the hell is Song of the Islands?” I asked.

“Your assignment,” he replied. “Go see Bill LeBaron. He’s your producer. He’s in his office now. You’ll like Bill.”

Full of misgivings, I dutifully presented myself at the producer’s office. LeBaron was a gentleman of the old school with a long-suffering, patient air about him. He introduced me to a pleasant-looking young fellow, Robert Pirosh, who, he explained, would be my collaborator.