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October 3rd, 2014 6 Comments


A round bomb skips like a stone across the surface of a lake.


It slams into the backside of a dam.


The dam goes up in a sudden blossom of flame.


And I, fourteen or fifteen years old, stand up and cheer. The Brits have done it! Dealt a devastating blow to the German cause in Europe.


I must have watched The Dam Busters on television half-a-dozen times back in the late fifties. It was one of those special films that inspired my obsessive love of the movies.


Little did I know that many years later, its director—Michael Anderson—would welcome me into his circle of friends.


Childhood heroes encountered later in life almost always disappoint.


The man is never as large as the myth.


Not so with Michael.


Compact, dapper, strikingly handsome, eyes full of merriment, he is warm, charming, funny…and one of the world’s best storytellers.


You should hear the one about the time he won an entire year’s production of a Champagne vineyard…in a drunken poker game! And you will hear it because Michael is currently writing the story of his life.


But I have another of his stories I’d like to share here…because it provides such insight into the difference between the studio system under its founding fathers and the studio system today.


After Around the World in Eighty Days, Michael was golden. In fact, he was Jack Warner’s favorite director. Now Jack wanted Michael to do a certain film. Michael had no interest in the project, and one day, in Warner’s private office, he summoned the courage to tell him.


Warner stared at him, pressed a button on his desk, and a concealed door swung open, giving the studio head’s favorite toady access to the office.




“Get me Michael Anderson in London,” Warner roars.


“But sir,” the toady timidly replies, “Mr. Anderson is standing right there.”






A pause as the toady dials the overseas number. Then…


“There’s no answer, sir.”




And Michael never did work for Jack Warner again.


In the old studio system, everything was up close and personal.


In today’s corporatized studios, everything is remote and bureaucratic.


Under the old system, decisions (and pictures) were made quickly and…well, decisively.


Under the corporations that control the studios today, decisions are deferred, bucks are passed, and pictures almost never get made.


None of this is to suggest that the old studio barons were fair.


They were not.


In fact, the Jack Warners and the Harry Cohns inspired as much fear as admiration. Michael’s story is convincing evidence of that. But these men knew the movies, knew them because they’d invented them, and they knew how to get them made.


It was, I’m sure, more than a little challenging to be a laborer in the film factory and to bend to the will of the despots who ran it, but you did have the satisfaction of seeing your work on the screen, satisfaction denied many of the talented folk doing hard labor in reinvented studios of today.


Michael Anderson worked successfully in the studio system, in the independent revolution of the sixties and seventies, and in the corporate shambles that followed. If you have any interest in the history of film, watch for his memoir. I guarantee a great read.











“a compelling book”

“a must-read”


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6 thoughts on “DAM BUSTER

    1. Dan Bronson Post author

      You don’t know tough until you’ve sat through a development meeting with an executive who picked up everything he or she knows about screenwriting from a weekend workshop with Robert McKee.

  1. Mary D.

    I was under the impression that actors did not like that old studio system. If they worked for a studio they could be forced to make movies that they did not want to make. Maybe I am wrong about that. There are a couple of interesting things though. For example the public did not know that Rock Hudson was gay until he died from Aids. Some how the studios were able to kept the private lives of actors secret. Now every actors business is in the tabloids or on TV. I am not sure that is a good thing.

    1. Dan Bronson Post author

      I’m the last to idealize the studio system. Actors, writers, directors chafed under it, and some of the founding fathers were little better than monsters. Michael’s story of his last encounter with Jack Warner is pretty convincing evidence of that. My point is that the studio system, for all its flaws, worked.

  2. Mary D.

    The best World War II movie I remember seeing was called “The Bridge over the River Kwai.” I saw this on TV when I was a kid and I still remember it. What I remember most was Alec Guinness standing up to the Japanese commander and the part where is put in solitary confinement for so long that when he gets out he is barely able to walk. Yet, he holds his head high and walks right up to the commander. I heard someone say once that was one of the best pieces of acting he ever saw.

    1. Dan Bronson Post author

      It’s one of David Lean’s masterpieces. What I remember best is the ending–James Donald standing in the midst of the devastation that Guinness’ obsession has wrought and pronouncing judgement: “Madness. Madness.”


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