- Historic Sites
It was a great life being a contract writer for a major studio during the high noon of the American movie industry—but it could also be a nightmare. A survivor recalls the pleasures and ardors of working at 20th Century-Fox forty years ago.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
“You’ll love Song of the Islands,” he said. “What the hell is Song of the Islands?” I asked.
These stories and others like them did not ease our minds. The studio, which originally had impressed me as a cross between a country club and a sanatorium, began to take on the overtones of a prison. So when the call finally came for our meeting, we were, to say the least, a bit keyed up. We gathered in Zanuck’s outer office—Bob and I, LeBaron and the director, Walter Lang, and waited there, a solemn little group under the benign eye of the secretary, until another similar group came out of Zanuck’s office. We scrutinized them anxiously, hoping for some reassuring sign. Their drooping walk and haggard expressions offered none.
“You can go in now, gentlemen,” said the cheery secretary.
Zanuck’s office was about the size of Mussolini’s, with his enormous desk at the far end of the room. Along the walls stood rows of hard-backed chairs; and one of them was centered directly in front of the desk. As we trooped in, we saw Zanuck seated behind his deak—it seemed a mile away—big cigar in mouth, watching us intently. I noticed at once that the members of our little group dropped off into the chairs along the walls in order of their importance—or their feeling of security. Bob sat down at once in a chair nearest the door. Lang sat in one a little farther along but still a respectful distance away. LeBaron kept going for another couple of chairs before sitting down.
Only one person kept walking toward Zanuck’s desk—me. As I continued to advance, Zanuck fixed his piercing gaze on me. A series or expressions crossed his face: surprise first, changing to puzzlement and settling into something hard and flinty, as though he was being directly challenged. I felt like a man walking the last mile. I managed to reach the hard-backed chair in front of his desk and moved it down along the side a scant three feet away from him. As I did, I caught out of the corner of my eye the horrified expressions of the other members of the group. A young lady, Zanuck’s script coordinator, seated with notebook poised, watched me with open-mouthed surprise. And Zanuck himself was now staring at me as though trying to decide whether I was just a harmless lunatic or suicidal. It was a terrible moment.
Zanuck was now staring at me as though trying to decide if I was a harmless lunatic or suicidal.
But relief was on the way. I wore a hearing aid, a cumbersome device consisting of three parts—the aid itself, a battery pack in a carrying case, and the earpiece. It worked well enough but, naturally, the closer to the speaker the better the results. On an occasion of this importance I felt it essential to be as close to the speaker as possible. So although I was thoroughly aware of the rashness of my behavior, I had to choose between that and missing some of what he had to say. I decided that the latter would be worst of all. Now seated alongside him, I placed the battery pack and aid on his desk, where it would work most effectively, inserted my earpiece, and sat back with the air of an expectant listener. There was not a sound in the room. Zanuck had watched my preparations, fascinated, and as the explanation of my foolhardiness became clear, he said, “Oh, I see. …” His expression relaxed. So did the tension in the room.
Without further ado Zanuck plunged into the business at hand. He unleashed a fusillade of ideas about the script of Song of the Islands. Leaping out of his chair, seizing the polo mallet on his desk, he skirted around me and started pacing the room, swinging the mallet, the amazing barrage of ideas never slackening. We had created the character of a retired American businessman who was now the owner of a large cattle ranch in Hawaii. Zanuck zeroed in on that character. “This guy retires to Hawaii,” said Zanuck. “Why? Because he wants to get away from the rat race—that’s why!” Turning, he paced swiftly to where I sat, bent down, and yelled into my hearing aid, “Wants to get away from the rat race!” He continued his pacing, working himself into a frenzy of enthusiasm over this idea. “He’s a guy who wants the better things in life—money isn’t everything!” Again he bore down swiftly to my hearing aid and yelled into it, “Money isn’t everything!” Now, completely carried away, he paced the room again and shrieked, “He hates money!” and again he ran to my hearing aid and shrieked into it, “Hates money!” I thought of Zanuck’s millions, the stable of polo ponies, the Lincoln Continental that stood in front of the administration building and wished that he would stop deafening me by yelling into my hearing aid.
The outcome of the meeting was an okay to go ahead. Song of the Islands was made with Betty Grable and Victor Mature as the stars and Thomas Mitchell in the part of the ranch owner who “hates money.” It did nothing for the art of film making; it won no Academy Awards; it did only what it was meant to do—make millions of dollars, as did all of Betty Grable’s pictures. Bob and I were rewarded with another assignment. My six-week deal stretched into its second year.