Death of the Moguls: An Interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon
With his new book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Wheeler Winston Dixon has performed no mean feat in finding a fresh and illuminating perspective on what is probably the most written about phenomenon in film history, the Hollywood studio system. By placing the stories of the moguls, from Louis B. Mayer at MGM to the likes of Herbert J. Yates at Republic, one next to the other Dixon captures simultaneously the tremendous impact they had through sheer force of personality on the film culture of their era, but also how they ultimately were, one and all, products of their time, of a specific economic and cultural period. That is, Dixon’s book captures the dialectical interplay between individual and structure. In the end, not just the moguls, but their way of running an industry had to die. “[N]o one came along to take their place, because their kingdom itself had vanished,” as Dixon puts it, eventually to be replaced by today’s corporate media empires. The email interview that follows was completed in March 2013.
Daniel Lindvall: How did you come up with this perspective? What was it that suggested it to you?
Wheeler Winston Dixon: Most conventional histories of the studio era either focus on the “golden age of Hollywood” aspect, in which the producers become heroic figures bending ordinary mortals to their collective wills, or else they become dry statistical surveys with box office tabulations and production schedules. In this book, I set out to concentrate on the late 1960s as the era in which the reign of the great moguls came to an end, as a result of unionization, anti-monopoly decisions, and also the fact that in each case, during the 1930s to the late 1960s, the major studios were run by one or two key people who held unquestioned authority, and believed they were immortal, and irreplaceable.
Thus, it was during the collapse of the studio system that the inherent flaws, inequities, and dictatorial aspect of the Hollywood production machine became most apparent. At the same time, while these men – and they were all men – were monsters, not benevolent despots as some would have us believe, they also made some absolutely superb movies, by exploiting their employees as much as they possibly could. Thus, it seemed to me that to focus on the “end days” of the system could tell us much about the entire mechanism that created the studio system, revealed in full detail as it unravelled.
As you say, these men were despots ruthlessly exploiting their employees. They were very much businessmen first and foremost, and generally very unsentimental about the artistic side of it all. Was this a major reason for their success? I’m thinking about how, sometimes, it was when they became emotionally involved in productions as something more than money-makers that things went wrong.
I think Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, put it best when he told a studio employee one day, “let me give you some facts of life. Every Friday, the front door of this studio opens and I spit a movie out onto Gower Street. If that door opens and I spit and nothing comes out, it means a lot of people are out of work – drivers, distributors, exhibitors, projectionists, ushers, and a lot of other pricks… I want one good picture a year, and I won’t let an exhibitor have it unless he takes the bread-and-butter product, the Boston Blackies, the Blondies, the low-budget westerns and the rest of the junk we make.” In short, Cohn made junk, and he knew it, but he also made quality films, and he knew that. As Rosalind Russell put it, “he had taste – blind, instinctive, but it was taste.” In common with the other moguls of the era, he knew that bread and butter pictures would pay the rent, and make the better films fiscally possible.
But when a major studio exec became personally involved in a film, as Darryl F. Zanuck did with his disastrous production of Wilson (1944), they’d forget about the bottom line, and the results could be disastrous. But because bottom line costs were controlled so strictly during this era, with everything being produced in-house, cost overruns were kept to a minimum, so even a personal project gone wrong had limited financial exposure, and couldn’t sink a studio, unlike films today.
Perhaps even more of a potential disaster than moguls getting personally involved in the production process for artistic reasons, was when they allowed their love interests to cloud their thinking?
Yes, this is a sad theme that runs through the lives of a number of moguls; the dalliances of Darryl F. Zanuck, putting Bella Darvi in a series of films when she simply couldn’t act; Herbert J. Yates trying to make a star out of Vera Hruba Ralston when she had no screen presence whatsoever, and ultimately bankrupting his company, Republic Pictures, in part because of this; David O. Selznick falling for Jennifer Jones – the list is a long one.
In the end, though, would it be fair to say that the very strict control of the moguls, the very control that created the studio system, also became its undoing – faced with the challenges of television, anti-monopoly laws, unionization, etc., these men and therefore their organisations lacked the flexibility and foresight to adapt and had to be replaced eventually, given the nature of the economic system, by the corporate entities we see today? In Marxian terms it is a case of the good old contradiction between the forces and the relations of production.
Absolutely – the moguls made the films they did because they worked their staff mercilessly, pushing them from one project to the next with complete impunity, and if they didn’t like it, they went on suspension – a suspension period that was tacked on to their standard seven-year contract, until Olivia de Havilland finally fought the studios and won in 1944, when the Supreme Court of the State of California ruled that seven years meant seven calendar years, not seven years of continuous employment.
Under the old system, writers, directors, actors and technicians were little more than indentured servants, forced to do their master’s bidding or else, with little say in what projects they were required to work on. They could lobby for certain films, of course, but the whole thing was like court patronage; if you were in favor at the moment, you could get what you wanted – maybe. If not, you were out of luck. Such a completely exploitative system was bound to collapse, when the workers finally gained some much-needed power.
As for the challenges of television, anti-monopoly laws, unionization, etc. – the bosses simply couldn’t see this coming, and thought they could fight it off forever. Republic Pictures, for example, went under in 1957 not only because of Herbert Yates’ insistence on pushing Vera Hruba Ralston as a star, which she wasn’t, but also because he refused to pay residuals to the Screen Actors Guild for the screening of older Republic films on television. Rather than give in, he preferred to let the whole studio go under. The moguls knew only one way – their way – and when that was no longer feasible, they simply didn’t know how to adapt.
Perhaps what has always amazed me the most is their overall inability to understand the potential of television. How does one explain that? I mean, I can understand the psychological mechanisms that made the artists of cinema sneer at the new medium, but here we’re talking about coldly calculating businessmen who had themselves watched an industry grow from very modest beginnings.
It sounds crazy, but in a way, the moguls knew television was something they couldn’t control, and that it would take content production away from them, and they were sure it was just a fad, like sound – they all thought that in the beginning. The only mogul to really grasp the importance of television, as well as its usefulness, was Walt Disney, who instantly put on a Sunday night hour long show which served as a plug for the re-releasing of his animated features – a practice they’re still pursuing today.
For most, they simply couldn’t believe that people would stay home and look at small, black and white images about 15″ in diameter on a box, when they could go to the movies, and see color, CinemaScope, 3-D and Cinerama, all of which were invented in the early 1950s in a desperate attempt to lure people out of their homes and into the theaters.
Jack Warner also was an early advocate of television, but only for specially produced shows like Maverick, and not for old feature films. Amazingly, Warner had no idea that the entire WB back catalogue would be useful on television, or had any value, and sold it all off – including the cartoons – to a company entitled Associated Artists Production for a few million dollars – a real mistake. But he was aggressive in producing shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside Six, The Roaring Twenties and other series, and ran them like the czar he was.
But the other studios came late to the game, afraid to license their old films to television, unsure of how to create new programming for TV, leaving it to people like Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball to create I Love Lucy, and the three camera sitcom format, while buying the collapsing RKO Studio for a production center. Jack Webb created Dragnet. By the late 1950s, all the studios were creating new material for the tube. But they didn’t like it, one bit. They had enjoyed an imagistic monopoly since the industry began, and now there was a new player on the horizon – free, available to all, and a direct threat to theaters and the studios.
When you say that they couldn’t believe that people would want to stay home and look at a tiny television screen, that also indicates that they were completely out of touch with the social developments at the time in a broader sense, doesn’t it? I’m referring to the growing and more evenly spread affluence that changed homes for large sections of the working class (what is often in US speak mistakenly labelled the middle class) into a comfortable place where one would want to spend time, as compared to the days when cinemas stood in for the comfortable living room people didn’t have in their homes.
In answer to your question, here is L.B. Mayer of MGM, which fought off television as long as they could with a pathetic half hour TV show entitled MGM Parade, hosted by George Murphy, which was just trailers for upcoming MGM films in theaters, snippets from re-released “classics,” and old short films from the Pete Smith or Passing Parade series, speaking on what the American viewer really wanted, in his opinion.
In 1951, when MGM had just finished shooting John Huston’s version of Stephen Crane’s novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which the studio subsequently massacred in a terrible editing job, precisely because they were afraid of the novel’s content, Mayer complained to producer Arthur Freed:
“Art? The Red Badge of Courage? All that violence. No story? Dore Schary wanted it. Is it good entertainment? I didn’t think so. Maybe I’m wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I know what the audience wants. Andy Hardy! Sentimentality! What’s wrong with it? Love! Good old-fashioned romance! Is it bad? It entertains. It brings the audience to the box office. No! These critics. They’re too tony for you and I. They don’t like it.”
But audiences had deserted Andy Hardy long ago, and Mickey Rooney, who played Andy Hardy was no longer a promising juvenile. He was an actor trying to shift from teenage leads to adult roles and finding it difficult. But Mayer was stuck in the past, and couldn’t see the future. People had real homes, with real living spaces, but also, television had transformed the nation in a way that no one could imagine. Neighbors no longer swapped stories on the front porch. Civic meetings dwindled in attendance. People were glued to the tube. The moguls had never really had any real competition before – radio was just sound, not pictures – and they simply couldn’t adjust.
When the studio system was broken up it also signified the end of the Fordist period of filmmaking, which had guaranteed a certain steadiness of production and thus of work. The winners above everyone else seem to have been the stars and the big directors, no longer tied up by long contracts. In the old days even the most famous stars and star directors, like Chaplin or Ford or even Hitchcock, never became what George Lucas or Steven Spielberg are today. But what about all the others – the bit players and day labourers – were they winners or losers in this process?
The bit players and day laborers, as you suggest, were the losers here. They still are. The factory system of the studio guaranteed continuous employment, with films being churned out on an assembly line basis, good bad or indifferent. The lower echelon actors were the first to be cut from the payroll, and most of them went on to freelance work. The same for the former directors of cinematography, set designers, composers, editors and the like.
Some managed to set up their own shops, and become moguls themselves in the new environment; for example, when William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, creators of the cartoon series Tom and Jerry were summarily fired by MGM after decades as salaried workers, they took their last $3000 and opened their own shop, Hanna Barbera, and began producing cartoons – admittedly terrible cartoons, using limited animation – expressly for television. But another major animation director, Tex Avery, a much more adventurous and creative person, struggled in the post-studio world, and drifted from job to job until, ironically, he wound up working for Hanna Barbera more or less as a “mercy” gig, up until his death.
While stars like Humphrey Bogart could leave Warner Brothers and set up their own production companies, in his case Santana Productions, and make films for other studios, notably Columbia, supporting actors such as Whit Bissell, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Vincent Price, and many others simply had to take whatever work was offered, often at a cut price, simply to survive. And, of course, the early 1950s were dominated by the Hollywood Blacklist, which made it all that much easier for the studios, what was left of them, to exact “revenge” on those who had either jumped ship, or else were considered past their prime.
In short, those with a business sense survived in a very hostile climate; those who were artists, and needed the protection of the studio system to flourish, were left to fend for themselves, often with disastrous results. In the post-studio world, only those who realized that the movie business was just that – a business – would do well. The studios made junk films, but also quality projects they believed in, even as they mercilessly exploited their employees to create them. In the post-classical studio world, the bottom line became the dominant factor.
Ironically then, for those who had little business sense or interest in that side of things, the strict but predictable environment of the classic studio offered a better space for creativity than the supposedly “freer” post-classical world.
You grew up at the time when the studio system entered its final crisis and television became a common household item. What was your childhood relationship to Hollywood and the movies? You mention in the book having visited Universal studios on a Grey Line tour as a 10-year-old.
When I was four years old, in 1954, a television set came into our house, and at that time it was free. You put an aerial on the roof, plugged the TV in, and that was it. There were almost no commercials. Living near New York City, I suddenly had nine distinct channels of 24-hour movies and other programming at my fingertips. For the most part, the channels relied on Monogram, Republic, PRC [Producers Releasing Corporation] and other small studio films for their programming, since the majors had yet to decide that TV could be a lucrative market. I devoured the films – they also ran a lot of British films – and since we had three movie theaters near by, spent all the rest of my time watching everything from foreign “art” films to Disney stuff and more sensational exploitation films. I literally haunted the theaters, and that was because the classics may have been on television, but the new stuff was in the theaters, and all very cheap, as well.
When I was ten, my mother took my brother and I on a cross country camping trip, following the old Route 66 all the way to Los Angeles, and when I got there, naturally, I wanted to see a studio in action. So, at that time, the studios were all just film factories, and not yet amusement parks, so I got on a Grey Line bus tour that spent half a day at Universal. It was great; no guides, no hassle, shoot all the stills and home movies you want, and we were allowed to watch a western being shot close-up, as we all remained silent, and the bus turned off its motor. Then we shook hands with the cast and crew, got back on the bus and left. One got the impression that these were a group of dedicated professionals, who tackled each day as a working assignment, and just happened to be making movies. It was low key, relaxed, but with a real sense of creativity and urgency. I was hooked.
Do you remember anything more about that western or the cast and crew you met?
What I remembered most was their relaxed professionalism, a real sense that they knew that what they were doing was a job, not art, but commercial genre television, but they were going to do the best possible job of making a solid western to fit into an hour-long slot. There was a sense of egalitarianism; no one was really a star, and the actors just said their lines, threw a few punches, did two takes of two scenes, and that was it.
After we all talked for a while, and I took a look through the viewfinder of the camera, and spoke with the director, whose name I don’t remember, we all shook hands and the AD announced “Ladies and gentlemen, we are on our way to stage 2!” in a loud voice, and they were gone. The whole thing was so relaxed it was amazing – just one group of people meeting another. I remember they were tolerantly amused by my interest in film. I can’t imagine anything as informal and personal happening today.
Growing up with all these small studio films on television did that give you a certain special affection for the minor studios’ brand of films? Despite their shortcomings, that you obviously point out in the book, I get that feeling. Perhaps the rougher edges of their films sometimes came closer to real life than the more polished fare?
It’s true; I have said many times in my various writings that the smaller studios, like PRC, Monogram, Republic and others, offered a more authentic view of culture than the majors. MGM, especially, always struck me as dull and museum like; I loved the rough and tumble Universal horror films and Abbott and Costello comedies as an adolescent, but have grown out of them; Paramount in the early 1930s with Mae West and The Marx Brothers was also a favorite; and RKO was, of course, the “house of noir.” I also got to see a lot of British films on New York television in the early 1950s, because the screen was flooded with them, and so that gave me a real European flavor to my viewing.
Even French New Wave stuff ran on the local channels, dubbed of course, so I saw lots of early Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais on local NYC commercial television. But yes – the slick glossy musicals were of the least interest to me, and the more authentic and rough edged the vision, the better I liked it; that’s why I gravitated to making experimental films in the 1960s in New York as part of the Underground scene there.
Looking back, Godard and Resnais on American commercial television sounds rather surreal.
The NYC stations would run Alphaville, Breathless, Les Carabiniers, Le Mépris, all of it, all the time – all of Truffaut, too, and Resnais, Varda, you name it; Fellini, Dreyer, Bergman, just keep on going thru the canon. NY commercial TV in the 1950s was amazing. Now, forget it – all sports/talk. But at the time – and with very limited commercials.
How did a 10-15-year old American, like yourself around 1960, react to films by the likes of Godard, Truffaut and Varda?
I was not a typical 10-15-year old American boy, or even close to one, so I can’t speak for the average American teen of the era. Most knew nothing about film. I was movie obsessed from about age four on, utterly glued to the tube. Watched only feature films, around the clock. Saw A Matter of Life and Death by Powell & Pressburger at age four – my earliest memory of film.
By the time I was ten, I was so locked into film that I knew it would be my life’s work. I started making 8mm experimental movies in 1956, when I was 6, and switched to l6mm optical sound filmmaking by 1966, when I was 16. Godard, Truffaut and Resnais were names no one knew except a very few at that time.
For myself, I loved them all. I saw The 400 Blows the day it came out in NYC, age 9. Last Year at Marienbad, Breathless, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, same thing. Every new foreign film that opened in NYC, same thing. I would estimate that in my lifetime I’ve seen at least 300,000 films or more. I attended NY Film Festival every year from the 1960s through the early 1980s.
I saw every American and foreign film imaginable and was writing for Life magazine by 19 as a film critic on experimental film. I was let out of high school in my senior year every Monday to teach film at Rutgers University as part of the first film course ever offered there, which I co-created.
So, my view was that these men and women were way ahead of the curve, and I eagerly embraced every film I could possibly see. I averaged about three films a day from the time I was four until I was about 35.
Do you remember when these NYC stations stopped showing cutting-edge European films? I take it they didn’t do this anymore later in the 1960s, when Godard made his really political films?
I would say it stopped about 1980 or so – I remember it was still going strong in the 1970s, and started to fade out about 1976 – but still, the local stations like Channel 5, WNEW; Channel 7, WABC; Channel 9, WOR, which ran a lot of films; and Channel 11, WPIX, ran actual festivals of these films as late as the late 1970s. But no, by the time Week End (1967) rolled around, they had given up on running Godard!
Did the fact that minor studio films dominated on television also lead to them having a disproportionate influence on the aesthetics of television production?
This is absolutely true. When the smaller studios collapsed, and even a large one, RKO, in the late 1950s, the performers, technicians, directors, cinematographers, set designers and directors all went over to television; as one director, Joseph Kane, who worked for many years for Republic Pictures put it, “there was nothing else left.” A good example of this is the director Sam Newfield, who was so prolific during his years at PRC – indeed, he is arguably the most prolific director of the American sound film – that he had to work under two aliases; Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart.
When PRC collapsed in the late 1940s, Newfield went over to the equally small Lippert Productions, and from there to television, where he directed roughly half the episodes of the early television series Ramar of the Jungle, shooting a half hour “jungle drama” every 1 2/3rd days – that’s right – completing 25 minutes of programming (plus commercials) roughly every 14 hours for months at a clip.
Only the men and women who had made serials, low budget quickies, and similarly threadbare films on short schedules had the skills to “get it and forget it” which TV’s voracious appetite for programming so clearly required. Even an accomplished artist like Karl Freund, who directed a number of films, and as a director of cinematography shot Metropolis among many other films, was pressed into service by Desi Arnaz to create the “three camera” sitcom system of shooting, which proved to be the ultimate time-saver for half hour comedies. The actors perform seven-minute chunks like a play, while three cameras cover the action simultaneously; the one in the middle does the wide shot, and cameras to the left and right pick up single close-ups.
Thus, as fast as the actors shoot it, filming is done, and with a live audience providing much of the laugh track, each episode can be shot in a few hours, after rehearsal. Today, even that pace is too slow; the new series Anger Management averages 49 pages of script every two days. TV had an insatiable appetite for programming, and it didn’t have to be good; it just had be ready in time for the air date. So, even in the early days of television, such shows as Topper, My Little Margie, I Love Lucy and many others were shot on an assembly line basis, and only the lower-end production personnel knew how to do that.
As you became seriously involved in making your own films as part of the 1960s Underground movement, did that alter your understanding of, and your feelings for, Hollywood? Did you see your work – experimental, low to no budget – as in opposition to Hollywood?
No, never in opposition. You have to realize that during that period, commercial filmmakers would haunt the Filmmakers Cinematheque looking at experimental work for ideas to steal – frankly – for their own films. And the range of films was much greater. Not everything was a huge blockbuster; there were films in the $100,000 range, like Godard’s early work, or Resnais’s, or Corman’s, to take some wildly different examples. Hollywood made films on all levels of budgets, and lower-end filmmakers embraced the “funky” look of 16mm blown up to 35mm, and even helped experimental filmmakers create their work.
Perhaps the classic example of this is the ultra low budget Hollywood producer Sam Katzman, who, amazingly, gave Ron Rice the film to shoot his ultra low budget classic improvised feature film The Flower Thief. True, it was in the form of cartridges of 50′ 16mm black and white aerial gunnery film left over from World War II, but it was still usable, and Katzman gave him miles of it; more than enough to shoot a feature. The result was a classic. And lots of experimental filmmakers wound up working in Hollywood in the 60s, if only on a temporary basis – I worked there in the late 1970s at the TVTV Video Collective – and so it was a back-and-forth thing.
We were, of course, opposed to the wastage and stupidity of the huge blockbusters of the day, like Cleopatra, but commercial filmmaking then was still lively and open-ended, and one could work on a miniscule budget and still make a solid film. This ended with the collapse of the 1960s vision of egalitarianism, as the conglomerates took over and the moguls died off.
Now, instead of having thirty-year reigns of men and women who really loved making movies, the Hollywood system is run by bottom-line bean counters, and it shows. The death of the moguls was really the death of the authentic Hollywood vision of commercial cinema; now, at least on the major studio level, it’s just trash for cash. Smaller, adventurous films are still made, but they don’t get the distribution they once did. The conglomerate aesthetic rules the multiplexes and the studios, and work from the margins is harder to come by.
That’s the real tragedy here.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here. His newest projects include the just completed Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in May 2013.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.