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Facing Zanuck

July 2024
14min read

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.

“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.

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.


A few days after LeBaron sent the script to Zanuck, I picked up my office phone to make a tennis appointment and found it dead. Using my next door neighbor’s phone, I reported that mine was out of order. The studio operator told me to hold on. Another female voice came on and said, “Mr. Schrank? Your phone isn’t out of order. It is temporarily shut off for outgoing calls. Please stand by for a story meeting with Mr. Zanuck.”

“Oh! When is that?”

“No telling,” she replied cheerily. “Just stand by until further notice.”

At Bob’s office the situation was the same—he also was standing by with his phone shut off. We learned from other writers that when you were on call for a story meeting with Zanuck, there was no advance notice of the time or even the date, but when his secretary summoned you, there must be no delay, not a moment lost due to your phone being busy. So now we were in a state of suspension, living in a void of time, waiting for our hour of judgment. Days went by. The word having got around, other writers dropped in as though for a last visit, bearing fearsome tales of Zanuck’s story meetings.

THERE WAS THE ONE ABOUT THE little group of writers, who, with a producer and director, were listening to Zanuck extemporizing on their screenplay while he strode up and down his office swinging a polo mallet.

“This fellow,” said Zanuck, referring to the hero, “thinks his wife has become a milestone around his neck.”

One of the writers, recently out from the East, said, “Millstone, Mr. Zanuck.”

Zanuck stopped in mid-stride and stood stock still, looking at the rash writer. There was an appalling silence. Moments dragged heavily by. Then Zanuck turned abruptly on his heel and went into his private toilet, banging the door shut.

“Now why did you have to do a thing like that?” someone asked.

Becoming aware of the enormity of his act, the writer stuttered, “I—I—well—it just slipped out. He did mean millstone, you know.”

The others chimed in: “Yes, but why did you have to say it?” “Don’t you know any better than that?” “What’s going to happen now?”

No one knew. A sense of doom pervaded the room. After an eternity Zanuck emerged from his toilet and said, “All right—millstone. ” He resumed his pacing. “This fellow thinks his wife is a millstone around his neck. …” The meeting ended, the group dispersed. Moments after the writer returned to his office, his phone rang. He was asked to please report to the cashier’s office. There he was handed a check covering the balance of his contract, which still had several months to run, and was asked to leave the studio immediately.

Recently I came across a piece of information that throws light on a puzzling point in this story: Why did Zanuck go into the toilet? Mel Gussow’s biography of Zanuck, “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking,” quotes Zanuck speaking of his early days working as a gag writer for Charlie Chaplin: “Chaplin would love to use words he looked up in the dictionary—to crush us. Words like outré. He would say something was ‘uttra,’ and then say, ‘You understand what I mean?’ Very superior, you know. But if Reisner [Chaplin’s chief gag writer] deliberately used a word Chaplin didn’t know, Chaplin went immediately to the toilet. He kept a dictionary there.”

Another story told of a writer whom I will call Mike Katz. Having spent an entire week on call, Mike reported for the usual half-day on Saturday and hung around waiting for the phone to ring. He had a much-prized ticket to the big football game of the season that afternoon. When noon came without a call, Mike decided it was safe to leave the studio: the meeting had doubtless been put off. He went to the game. As fate would have it, Zanuck’s busy schedule had finally permitted him to get around to the Mike Katz meeting that afternoon. The secretary called Mike’s office. No reply. She called the commissary and had him paged. No luck. She called his home. No answer. Frantic, she called his agent, his lawyer, his psychoanalyst, his dentist. None of them knew where Mike was. An irate Zanuck meanwhile had called her a couple of times demanding to know where the hell that lousy writer was. On the edge of hysteria, she canvassed the writers’ building by phone and ran into a bit of luck. One of Mike’s friends, working late, told her who Mike’s current mistress was. The secretary called her and at last learned where Mike was. Thereupon, to the astonishment of fifty thousand fans, and to Mike’s dismay, the loudspeaker boomed out: “Attention please! Attention please! Mike Katz! Report to Mr. Zanuck’s office immediately!”

“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.

In the meantime, my baby, Low Pressure, was being hammered into a screenplay by George Seaton and had survived a few of the frenetic Zanuck story meetings. At Zanuck’s behest it had undergone four title changes: Lazy Galahad, Strictly Dynamite, The Magnificent Jerk, and finally, The Magnificent Dope. But though it had been taken from me, its name changed, its shape twisted this way and that, I still loved it.

I WAS BROODING OVER THE INJUSTICE of it all one quiet morning, sitting in my office, some time after Song of the Islands was released and playing nationwide, when the receptionist called and said that a Colonel Williams of the United States Army was here to see me. We were in the war by then. My hearing had earned me a 4-F classification, so what did the Army want of me now? I told the receptionist to send the colonel up. He was in full uniform, an imposing figure of a man. He snapped to attention and saluted smartly.

“Yes … ,” said I, rising uncertainly.

“From the Secretary of War.” He handed me a cardboard tube, saluted again, turned on his heel, and marched out. From the container I extracted a parchment-like scroll, hand lettered and emblazoned with the insignia of the War Department. It was a citation for distinguished service in contributing to the morale of the armed forces of the United States. My name was prominently displayed in Old English lettering.

I called LeBaron. “Funny thing just happened, Bill. Some colonel was here and gave me—.”

“Yeah,” he interrupted, “we all got one of those. Betty Grable was voted the favorite movie star by the soldiers in the training camps all over the country, and Song of the Islands their favorite picture.”

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