Having lived through the Roaring '30s, '40s and early '50s in Culver City (from 1933 to 1954 to be exact), I would like to add a few ghost stories to Charles Champlin's knowing and feeling studio obituary, "Ghostly Last Roar of a Hollywood Class Act" (Calendar, June 12).
The "class 'act' " was real. Not that the people who ran the place necessarily had class. Louis B. Mayer, personally, was on the crude side and a lowbrow. Nor did he want to have class. But he wanted to produce it--and did. He was convinced that with class you could make more money and more lastingly than without.
Mayer's general manager, the tough-minded, roughnecked, soft-hearted Eddie Mannix, had been a bouncer. Oh, he could still be that in MGM's heyday, when it was time to fire a Mario Lanza or a Judy Garland! But in his crusty manner he was also capable of discussing subtleties with producers, directors, writers, artists. They respected him because he had horse sense and was without pretense.
You didn't need a contract to keep MGM to its word. Sam Goldwyn's line that in this industry an orally pledged word isn't worth the paper it's written on did not fit Metro. An example: Once a star, Garbo never had a contract. Her deal was an understanding between casting wizard Benny Thau and herself. He once asked me to explain to her that if she would cut her salary by almost a third, she would earn exactly the same amount per picture (in a lower tax bracket) and MGM would enjoy the savings.
I declined because I didn't wish to discuss money matters with her nor would I have been good at it. But I promised to bring her to his office (no mean feat!). She came and saw at once, and he conquered. The transaction took 10 minutes and nothing but a handshake sealed it.
Joe Cohn, one of Hollywood's most efficient and imaginative production managers, wasn't born in Bloomsbury, didn't study at the Sorbonne and hadn't learned his manners at Newport, R.I. Yet his instincts, his mind and his acquired taste equipped him for one of the most delicate tasks in film making: to keep that slippery balance between economy and quality. In a way, by performing it, he epitomized MGM's specialty.
In other words, he was very "class-conscious" and at the same time ruled his realm with an iron hand. And a realm it was: his army of hands, the huge stages, the vast back lot, the locations all over the world, the budgets, mammoth and shoestring. But once agreement was reached in his office between the creative and the administrative contingent, everyone was held mercilessly to it. And you shot the script .
I remember, when shooting the trapeze episode of "The Story of Three Loves," I became fascinated with the way the stunt doubles coached Kirk Douglas and Pier Angeli. I persuaded my producer, Sidney Franklin, for me to improvise scenes--that were not in the script!--in which Kirk would coach Pier in the same manner. But knowing the studio policy, we decided to proceed on the Q.T. It didn't take more than 10 minutes before I had visitors on the set. They multiplied menacingly until I was surrounded by a phalanx of finks, managers and executives. I was forced to explain what I was doing before I could continue doing it. I was allowed to (because I could explain it). Class scored another victory.
Flops and misbehaviors were forgiven. No one was as good as his last picture. It was the aggregate that counted. And absolute loyalty to the esprit de corps. "We're all croupiers in a high-rolling, crooked game," the writer Sam Hoffenstein used to say. "As long as we're keeping our mouths shuts, we can be sure of our generous rake-off."
I was once accused--unjustly--of violating the esprit de corps and summoned before a tribunal that included every MGM mogul. Besmirching the flag was the charge, by bringing Lillian Ross, the New Yorker's investigative reporter, on the lot. (Irwin Shaw dubbed her "the mistress of the invented quotation.") Not only that, I was accused of abetting her expose of MGM's civil war behind my Civil War production, "The Red Badge of Courage."
What several of my judges obviously resented was that they had made jackasses of themselves in her interviews with them, while I, a reader of the New Yorker, had been more careful. It wasn't difficult for me to clear myself, since I hadn't the power to bring any newspaper person on the lot, and nothing that appeared in the New Yorker hadn't been presented to her on a silver platter by every fawning executive concerned.