The Jews who invented Hollywood were smart.
They knew that if the actors in their movies were to become popular, they might start to make unreasonable demands upon their employers.
Their initial solution was to withhold the names of their performers from the public.
When that troublesome public fell in love with some of the key players and demanded to know their names, the founding fathers of the film industry came up responded with a quick fix: they put their actors under contract.
If a star attained super-nova status with a multitude of fans and, like Oliver, dared to ask, “Please, sir, I want some more,” their response was “MORE? You want MORE?!”
In other words, FUGGEDABOUDIT!
If that same star refused to appear in substandard fare that would disappoint the public and degrade his or her image, the architects of the studio system responded with the threat of permanent suspension.
Thus, the familiar phrase….
YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN!
It was an almost perfect system.
And it worked, almost perfectly, until the late forties and early fifties when stars like James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart succeeded in breaking away from the contract system and going independent.
It was the beginning of the end.
The realization of the founding fathers’ worst fears.
The stars began to demand…and get millions of dollars for their work. This, at the same time, that the studios had to deal with the loss of ownership of their distribution systems (the Paramount Consent Decrees) and the threat of television!
They got luckier with writers.
Oh, boy, did they!
The old gang knew that writers, like actors, could become problems.
Writers, after all, own the copyright of their work. What if they started to demand control over their pathetic scribblings?
The pioneers scotched that snake long before it could coil and strike.
By insisting that their writers assign their rights to the studios…
“…throughout the universe unto all eternity.”
I swear that phrase or some variant of it is in every contract I ever signed!
Novelists own the copyright to their novels.
Playwrights own the copyright to their plays.
Screenwriters, in America at least, have no rights at all.
And so it is that we suffer the slings and arrows of that wonderful process called…wash my mouth out with soap…development.
Under this totalitarian system…
…we become pregnant with an idea. We suffer wretched morning sickness as that notion grows inside us. We bear the unbearable pain of birth, delivering a beautiful child…
…which the studio midwives take from us and raise as their own.
And unless we get very, very lucky, our child grows up unrecognizable, dysfunctional, abused by studio executives, audiences and critics alike.
Some writers handle this better than others.
They laugh…all the way to the bank.
Adam Kennedy, whose real name was Jack and who wrote a highly successful novel called The Domino Principle—a novel that became a Gene Hackman film, was also a screenwriter. His wife told me that she had accompanied him to the premier of a film for which he had received co-credit. They sat in the darkened theatre, watching the movie unreel, for about ten minutes. Finally, she leaned over to her husband and asked, “Jack, did you write any of this?” His response? “God, I hope not.”
Then, of course, there is the immensely talented Chris Columbus, whose work on Young Sherlock Holmes I chronicled in my last blog.
His first produced screenplay was Reckless.
I read it at Paramount years before it reached the screen and was quite frankly blown away by it. It told the story of a good girl from a well-to-do family falling in love with a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
Romeo and Juliet set in an Appalachian high school.
But it was told with the same intensity and passion that Shakespeare brought to his seminal play, and the boy was an amazing character.
Remember James Dean shouting to his parents in Rebel without a Cause, “You’re…tearing…me…to…pieces!”?
Well, this kid was being torn to pieces by his love/hate relationship with his father, and his plight tore this reader to pieces as well.
The movie made from this extraordinary script?
It was…how shall I put it?…a disappointment.
Badly cast, badly directed, heavily rewritten.
Though I never met him, the word around town was that Chris Columbus attended a private screening of the film and cried.
Not, of course, because it was so moving but because it was so bad.
Possibly an apocryphal story but clearly an instructive one.
The next Columbus script to make it to the silver screen was Gremlins.
Conceived and written as a terrifying horror film, director Joe Dante—a huge fan of Chuck Jones and Bugs Bunny—transformed it into a live-action cartoon, trading most of the chills for laughs.
It was anything but the movie Columbus had seen in his mind’s eye and captured on the printed page.
But it was a huge success at the box-office and launched Columbus on one of the most remarkable careers in Hollywood history.
Then, of course, there was Young Sherlock Holmes, the film that followed Gremlins by a few months.
I know that in the case of Holmes, Columbus dutifully executed every misinformed studio and production company note without complaint, and I’m guessing he conducted himself in the same gracious way in the development of both Reckless and Gremlins.
It was the smart thing to do, and it has paid huge dividends over the years.
It was the course of action my friend Lorenzo Semple, Jr.—who, after an amazing career, passed away recently at the ripe age of 91—counseled all Hollywood writers to follow.
Lorenzo—who created the unforgettable Batman series back in the sixties and went on from all those POW’s and BAM’s and ZOWIE’s to earn credit on The Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Papillon, ultimately becoming Dino DeLaurentis’ go-to writer—almost never saw his work get to the screen intact. He was, invariably, rewritten on virtually everything he ever did.
But he never complained.
He had a wonderful life, and he made a lot of money, and what else, he asked, could anyone want? He had little patience with whiners like me who constantly ask, “What have they done to my song?”
He was right, of course.
But I can’t help remembering that his favorite of all his work was Batman, the series where he called the shots, and that his finest film was Pretty Poison, the little masterpiece that, to the best of my knowledge, was not reworked by other writers.
PUT OFF BY DAN’S WHINING?
PREPARE YOURSELF FOR SHOCK AND SURPRISE.
READ CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD NOBODY.
SEE DAN SUBMIT TO STUDIO NOTES.
WATCH AS HE HELPS USA CABLE TURN
A TASTE FOR KILLING
Well, I guess that explains why the movie “Gremlins” was so awful. The studio system seemed to miscast a lot of actors. They cast Spencer Tracy as a portuguese fisherman named Manuel. Father Flanagan I can believe, but a portuguese fisherman? Unfortunately, the title of the movie espaces me, but he did spend the whole movie talking in the worst accent imaginable.
Wasn’t there some kind of writers strike a few years back? To bad they did not break this system like the actors did.
The movie was CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS. As for the strike, the plural might be more appropriate. As I recall the last one was nine or ten years ago, but the big one was in ’88. It lasted almost a year and derailed many careers, some temporarily, others permanently. It’s hard to go an entire years without income! However, if we’d been striking for restoration of our copyright, we’d still be on strike. The studios will never give it up.
Well that sucks. I hate it when someone changes my song. I would not last an hour as a screenwriter.
Does this mean that “Tremors” was initially Oscar material?
I actually entitled my chapter about the making of THE LAST INNOCENT MAN “What Have They Done To My Song?” As for TREMORS,” I suspect that it’s exactly the movie it intended to be. Whatever you may think of it, it did indirectly give us CITY SLICKERS, which would have been a different movie without Ron Underwood.
Dan – While it’s true that the Jews “invented” Hollywood (Note: in actually fact it was Greek immigrants who started the “industry”), lest we forget it was the Jewish lawyers who deconstructed those onerous contracts that were the “rebar” of the studio system.
I wish I could take credit for the phrase, “the Jews who invented Hollywood,” but it’s simply my allusion to the subtitle of Neal Gabler’s landmark book, AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN, in which Gabler tells the story of the Eastern European Jews who created Hollywood. (I don’t recall his mentioning the Greeks. Are you thinking of the Skouras brothers?) Let me assure you I haven’t forgotten those Jewish lawyers or writers like Herman Mankiewicz, directors like George Cukor, producers like David O. Selznick, and many, many others both in front of the camera and behind it. As much as I hate the screenwriters’ loss of copyright and as ruthless as the studio heads often were, I have grudging admiration for all of them. They built the business out of nothing, and Sam Goldwyn actually put his home at risk every time he made a movie.