Facing Zanuck

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It has always been the practice in the Hollywood studios, especially in those days, to put a couple of writers together. You were not asked if you wanted a collaborator. I never did. But like it or not, you got one. I had already experienced this forced marriage at Warner’s, where the canny practice was to pair a writing writer with a nonwriting writer. What is a nonwriting writer? If a favor had to be repaid by way of giving someone a job, he was invariably put on the payroll as a writer where he could do no damage. But this time I was lucky. Bob Pirosh was a writing writer and a man of charm and intelligence, with a fine sense of humor.

WE CAME NOW TO THE explanation of the assignment. LeBaron went about it with a vaguely discouraged air. A couple of years before, the studio had bought the rights to a song called Song of the Islands, which had swept the nation and stayed on top of the Hit Parade week after week and month after month. The intention was to build a picture around it. The studios often did things that way. They would buy a dog (Rin Tin Tin), a moppet (Shirley Temple), an ice skater (Sonja Henie), a swimmer (Esther Williams), and then prod the writers into working out what to do with them. Eventually a story would be knocked together. The picture was made. It made money. Every picture made money, some more than others, of course, but there were no losers. In the golden age of Hollywood, the studios owned the theaters, and there was no television.

But a song? And especially one like Song of the Islands. It was a vapid little number—something about Hawaii and moonlight and hula girls, of course—but the sugary little tune stuck in the mind. To this day I can whistle it. On either side of LeBaron’s desk was a stack of bound scripts, some fifteen or eighteen in each pile, with LeBaron peering out at us from this framework of futility. “This is what we’ve got on it so far, boys,” he said, waving a limp hand at the scripts.

The horrible facts began to emerge. Song of the Islands was intended as a starring vehicle for Betty Grable, America’s favorite pinup girl and the studio’s number one money-maker, but an actress of very slender gifts. The studio had already burned out dozens of teams of writers as well as four or five producers on the project. Every new writer hired by 20th Century-Fox was thrown first into Song of the Islands. It was the studio’s purgatory.

“You want to read any of this stuff, boys?” asked LeBaron.

Bob and I looked at each other in silent agreement, and I told him, “No, thanks.”

“I guess you’re right,” he said. “There’s nothing in them.”

The meeting ended on a slight note of hope. One of the numerous writing teams that had preceded us had done a great deal of methodical research. They had come up with the fact that Hawaii, generally associated only with tourists, pineapples, and hula dancers in grass skirts, also had vast cattle ranches with Hawaiian cowboys riding the range. So LeBaron diffidently suggested, “What about a Hawaiian western, boys?” Then he sent us off with a doleful smile: “Now, as Sam Goldwyn would say, you two boys go ahead and cohabitate.”

I pass over the weeks of travail during which we turned Song of the Islands into a Hawaiian western. Swanie dropped in regularly to see if everything was all right—did I like my office, was I satisfied with my secretary, was the air conditioning working? My only complaint—that there was no cushion on the couch on which, after the huge lunches in the studio commissary, I took my two-hour naps—was speedily remedied. After a couple of months we turned in a first draft to LeBaron. He seemed pleased even before he read it and phoned us a day or two later to say he thought the script would “work.” “I’m sending it over to Darryl,” he added.

Like the other big studios, 20th Century-Fox was an absolute dictatorship. There was Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack Warner at Warner Brothers, Harry Cohn at Columbia, and Darryl F. Zanuck. These tycoons ran the industry and had absolute power over everyone working in it. Rumor had it that they got together regularly for a poker game, played with thousand-dollar chips, and over the card table settled the fates of any troublemakers. I was never able to verify this rumor, but the fact is that anyone who, for example, broke a contract with one studio could not get a job with any other. Our own dictator, Zanuck, was the youngest of them and considered the fiercest. Every picture made by the studio, whether personally produced by him or not, had to pass his scrutiny. Every decision as to script, casting, and direction, as well as whether the picture would be made at all, was entirely his. So along with the relief at having at least been able to concoct a first draft of Song of the Islands, there ensued a period of anxious waiting.