Friday, November 11, 2011

Hollywood and Classical Uplift

One book I recently read for the first time (I don't know why I didn't before) is John Gregory Dunne's The Studio, his account of a few not-very-good months in the life of Twentieth Century Fox. Because he happened to be there while the studio was previewing Dr. Dolittle, shooting Star! and planning Hello, Dolly!, he got a look at the three big, disastrous roadshow musicals that would sink the Zanuck regime at the studio and condemn Fox to near-irrelevance until 1977.

The book is rather short, and doesn't dig very deep into what was happening in Hollywood in 1967 -- Dunne notes early on that the Zanucks were trying to operate as if the studio system was still in effect, and there are some hilarious examples of their failed attempts to revive it (like their training program for new stars, which is run as if star behavior and public taste in stars hasn't changed since Darryl's heyday), but the sense of why studios choose the projects they do, and how (or if) they respond to changing public taste, isn't always clear; the people Dunne talked to were so completely in the Studio bubble that he sometimes seems to be in there with them. This is why, although Dunne was trying to create a Picture for the '60s, he didn't quite achieve it; we now know that Fox was on the verge of crumbling the way early '50s MGM was on the verge of crumbling, but the things that would sink Fox are not fully present in the book. Except for the deservedly famous chapter on the horrible premiere of Doctor Dolittle, it pokes around the edges of a studio in trouble rather than showing it; it's more of a supplement to what we now know about the end of the Zanuck era. Maybe Dunne just came to the studio at the wrong time -- if he'd been there a little later, to see the studio thrown into panic by the collapse of the big roadshow musical, then the book would be different.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in the book is the one Dunne himself said he was "troubled" by, when Henry Koster, the veteran director, comes in to pitch a movie to Richard Zanuck. (With Koster, though not speaking as much, was Robert Buckner, a writer-producer almost as old as Koster.) Koster's pitch is literally thirty years out of date, an idea similar to the Deanna Durbin vehicles he had directed in the '30s. Self-Styled Siren quoted from this passage a few months back, and it's a really brutal scene. Koster piles one Old Hollywood cliché on another, somehow condensing his 30-plus years of sentimental family films into one pitch; Buckner speaks up only to show that his idea of popular music involves "jazz joints"; Zanuck gazes "unblinkingly" at Koster while waiting for him to finish so he can let him down easy.

Zanuck's reply is a lesson in the art of rejecting someone's idea without directly telling him how bad it is (instead he sort of puts the blame on himself and the studio: it's not right for them because they don't need another musical, because they can't sell a classical story). Of course, since he was putting all that money and promotion into Dr. Dolittle, he wouldn't really have had much of a right to tell anyone that their story was too creaky and old-fashioned. Besides, Koster had done a lot of work for Fox, including The Robe.

Dunne later wrote that the scene is an illustration of how "people are used and discarded like so many wads of Kleenex" in the movie business, but I think the book shows how much respect and power Old Hollywood people still commanded in the studio system at this point. Not just the fact that Koster got a meeting, but that Fox had brought over two veteran MGM producers who had been cut loose by MGM, and neither of whom really had much to offer. (Actually, Joe Pasternak, the veteran producer of sentimental schlock -- including Koster's Deanna Durbin vehicles -- seems reasonably with-it despite working on a bad film; he is a cynic who doesn't have much regard for the young audience he's trying to appeal to, but he knows what he's doing and he understands how public tastes have changed. Pandro Berman, a producer with a better track record of quality, comes off as clueless.)

Fox in the post-Sound of Music era had more of an Old Hollywood style to it than any other studio of the era, probably because of Darryl Zanuck's involvement and the larger-than-usual number of studio employees it had (which allowed it to get Oscar nominations for movies like Dolittle through the votes of its employees), and because it tried to cultivate a roster of stars and directors, including trying to turn Richard Fleischer into something like what Henry King had been at Zanuck's old Fox: the all-purpose director of major projects, from musicals to war pictures to true-crime. What was happening at Fox in this period was almost an attempt to rebuild the old system and put the brakes on the independent producers; this didn't last beyond the departure of Richard and Darryl Zanuck, and Richard wound up as a successful independent producer.

But back to Koster, the thing that gives the scene more weight and interest than most in the book is that it's one of the few scenes where the changes in the movie industry, and the world, really break through and become clear. (Another one is the frustrated comment of one of the people in charge of finding new young stars: he points out that Fox is still looking for beautiful people like Tyrone Power, as if nothing had changed at the studio since the '30s, even though the actual stars of the period are unconventional-looking people like Streisand and McQueen.) Koster's pitch sounds awful because it's caught in a time warp, based on a certain set of assumptions about what appeals to movie audiences. He seems genuinely enthusiastic about bringing "a story of great music" to the public, and this is an idea that went over well with movie studio executives and audiences for the first 25 or so years of sound movies. It just becomes absurd cringe comedy when it's delivered to a studio executive in 1967.

It does seem weird now -- and must have seemed weird even in 1967 -- that American entertainment executives were so enthusiastic about classical music for so long. Sometimes the classical movies bombed (Fantasia flopped, and Lawrence Tibbett didn't work out that well as a Fox star), but that didn't dim the enthusiasm of producers and directors, partly because they loved the music, partly because music appreciation was considered something of a cultural duty, and partly because classical crossover movies were often big hits. But after Mario Lanza, the classical movie faded away pretty fast, and classical had a boom-bust cycle on television -- Koster pitches Leonard Bernstein as the star of the film, seemingly unaware that Bernstein was no longer a bankable TV personality, let alone a movie personality. The assumption that most people knew and liked certain elements of classical music (if only a few pop-concert pieces and arias) was part of movies for a long time, and a lot of cartoons and comedy routines were created on the understanding that we already knew Brahms' "Hungarian Rhapsody" or various Wagner bleeding chunks. And then suddenly that was gone, and the only thing left was Henry Koster, in the Fox office pitching a collection of sure-fire ideas (sentimentality, cute children, classical uplift) that weren't sure-fire any more.