I’ve been picking up some new subscribers to this blog lately and it occurred to me maybe I should actually write something for people to read. It’s not that I’ve been idle; I am deep into research for my next book, which to me is the mother of all ideas and I can only hope I do it justice.
So I’m back where I’m comfortable: 1941 and 1942 Hollywood. I’ve landed in this grand place at a time when an avalanche of great scripts was being turned into a stream of enduring pictures, one after another. I marvel at how fast the pictures we know by heart were turned out. For example, I saw a little Dec. 30, 1941, item on the sports page of the Los Angeles Times: “Cooper to Play Role of Lou Gehrig in film.” The article describes how Lefty O’Doul, manager of the San Francisco Seals (Pacific Coast League), had begun tutoring Gary Cooper on his swing and throwing motion so he can pass for a credible major league ball player. The news item stated that Cooper had been the only one cast to date and that no start for shooting had been scheduled here at the tail end of the year. My friends, Pride of the Yankees premiered the next August! They finished the script and chose a cast, shot the thing, and edited and scored it, then made prints, all in a span of seven months, January-July. Compare that to today’s glacial pace, which I know all too well because I’m living it: years to arrive at a concept and then a script, years to make a deal for production and distribution, then years more to line up the director and cast. In 1942 they made great pictures in seven months; in 2022 they can lumber along toward fair-to-middling pictures in seven years.
Let’s scrape away the egos and bureaucracy of Hollywood today and look at the mightily efficient factory system of Hollywood’s major studios of 1942. The downside of course was the seven-year player contract that bound even the biggest stars to one studio and assignment to any production deemed suitable. Another factor was the workload, which saw stars working 10- or 11-hour days five days a week and at least a partial Saturday, usually under hot lights in Southern California soundstages that back then lacked air conditioning. Plus, actors faced the pressure of nailing the first or second take because when cameras rolled, precious film stock was exposed, quite the issue after World War II broke out and film stock was rationed across town.
As fame grew, so did resistance to material the stars deemed beneath them and in the case of my favorite studio, Warner Bros., titanic battles saw James Cagney and Bette Davis preferring suspension to mediocre productions, and then Olivia de Havilland took Jack Warner to court to free herself from the bondage of the seven-year contract. Her victory meant the beginning of the end of the factory system capable of turning out a Pride of the Yankees in seven months.
But it wasn’t all bad for the stars. That system put them on the path to fame and paid extraordinarily well, in some cases six grand a week in 1930s dollars. Think about that; the U.S. was off and on gold standard and dollars meant something back then, and your Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn took home genuine fortunes. Even in 2022 dollars six grand a week makes you an executive.
Anyway, leaving alone the factory workers great and small, here’s how fast magic was made. A Warner Bros. memo related on May 19, 1941, that freelance player Mary Astor had seen the script for The Maltese Falcon and pronounced it a “humdinger” and would love to play the part of Brigid O’Shaughnessy. As late as June 6 George Raft was to be Sam Spade but turned the part down saying it was beneath him and went on suspension. Into the breach at the very last minute stepped Humphrey Bogart with precious little time to learn his lines because the picture began shooting June 10, then wrapped July 19 with a couple of short days for retakes afterward. It premiered in New York City on October 1 to rave reviews. To recap, Mary Astor didn’t know she had the part as late as May 19 and Bogart didn’t know at sunrise June 6, but both could see themselves 20 feet high in a theater about four months later in a picture now considered groundbreaking film noir, a picture I’ve probably seen and marveled at 15 times.
Then think about the Custer biopic They Died with Their Boots On, a fair-to-say epic picture in terms of scope, settings, costumes, and action—both small and large battles including the climactic Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, which was shot outside L.A. with a high steel tower erected to capture more than 200 mounted horsemen doing battle. The picture began shooting in time for Olivia de Havilland’s 25th birthday July 1, 1941 celebrated on set with Errol Flynn presiding over a cake, and despite all that went into making it, including Max Steiner’s memorable musical score, Boots premiered in mid-November. The first call of “Action!” July 1 and in theaters four-and-a-half months later.
What I take from my research is how damn hard everyone worked, as if their lives depended on it, which sometimes they did. A stunt man fell off his horse and was impaled on his saber during that tower shoot of the Last Stand and died in the hospital the next day, and let’s not try to count all the people behind the scenes who worked themselves near to death turning out pictures at such a breakneck pace. But I’m happy to say I’m back among them and can only hope to keep up.