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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW: Sam Jaffe : Looking Back at Hollywood by One Present at the Creation

March 19, 1995|Donna Mungen | Donna Mungen is a producer for A&E Network and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." She has been nominated for a Cable Ace award

When Sam Jaffe stepped off the train at terminal annex in the early 1920s, Los Angeles was on the verge of becoming the new "El Dorado." As the mecca for the celluloid spin doctors, the City of the Angels had a halcyon, siesta, mestizo quality. City center was Olvera Street, and west of the Beverly Hills Hotel was mostly winding dirt roads that opened to a lush shoreline. Out of this tropical sunland, Jaffe, and others, built an industry that folded Old World entertainment concepts into the new format of film.

Jaffe was born May 21, 1901, in Harlem, N.Y., to a poor immigrant family of Russian Jews. While still in high school, he was hired by his brother-in-law, B.P. Schulberg (father of novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg), to work as an office boy for the Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky Company. Jaffe's relocation to Los Angeles coincided with the birth of the studio system, and before it was over, Jaffe would put his imprint on both the city and the film industry.

In a short time, the 28-year-old Jaffe was supervising 52 films a year as Paramount's production manager, while negotiating the deal for the studio's new Melrose Avenue lot and updating facilities for sound production. But just as the last nail was hammered in Jan. 16, 1929, an electrical fire consumed the renovated sound stages. In the aftermath, Paramount's ability to survive was in jeopardy. As a quick solution, Jaffe invented "shooting night for day" production, while working day shifts overseeing reconstruction. Jaffe's innovation multiplied Paramount's output. Then, when his contract expired nine months later, the studio's meager offer so incensed Jaffe that he tendered his resignation. A lucrative counteroffer was hastily assembled but not before Jaffe was accused of having "gone Hollywood."

By the 1940s, Jaffe was a leading agent with a star-studded stable that included Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel and Frederick March. But the McCarthy period of the 1950s would destroy his agency and the careers of many of his most progressive clients.

Jaffe's commitment to the human spirit resurfaced as the producer of the war classic, "The Fighting Sullivans" and continued through his 1966 production, "Born Free." The Jaffe legacy endures. Today, one grandson, Matthew Tolmach, is a vice president for TNT, and the other, Peter Kohn, is a leading assistant director.

Jaffe attributes his longevity to the 60 years of blissful marriage to his beloved wife, Mildred, who died many years ago. He was interviewed in his Beverly Hills townhouse surrounded by his cherished African and Indian artifacts; works by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore and hovering Calder mobiles.


Question: How did you get started in the film business and what was it like?

Answer: These days, young people in the business sometimes call me "a legend"--which means I'm an old man. But I'm a 93-years young man.

But how I got started was my brother-in-law, Budd (B.P.) Schulberg. He had a New York office taking care of the advertising and distribution of films. I was 18, and he gave me a job, but after a while, I went to him and said, "I'm appreciative, but I want to go where I can find out about the business." So he wrote to the studio boss . . . and I bought a steamer trunk and told my parents, "I'm going to Hollywood."

The studio was located on Pico in an old car barn. I became an assistant property man. In those days, we photographed until the sun went down, then covered the stage with canvas and used our lights. So you can imagine what the photography looked like. And it didn't matter if it rained, because we didn't have sound--though it was uncomfortably cold.

Also, we worked on Saturdays, while some worked on Sundays. Our days started at 9 a.m. and ended at midnight or when the actors started falling down. But we had to finish a picture in 18 days, so we worked those long hours. And the eventual coming of unions was a good thing, because the owners would do anything they wanted to in those days.

Q: What kind of town was Los Angeles during the 20s?

A: Most of the town was a small village . . . . West of the Beverly Hills Hotel was all dirt roads and empty lots, and the beach front along Malibu and Venice was an overgrown forest. As a matter of fact, we used to use the coastline for our tropical locations.

Q: What impact did the studios have on the system?

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