August 8, 1938 Volume 32, Number 6
Tourists in Hollywood are sometimes disappointed by their first visit to a movie set. Unfortunately, there were no visitors on the Columbia Pictures Corp. sound stage where one day last June five albino canaries, a crate of firecrackers, the studio's mascot cat and half-a-dozen property movers were assembled. One of the prop men, breaking rules by smoking a cigaret, dropped a spark into the firecrackers, causing them to sizzle. The whole crateful exploded and, in the ensuing commotion, the five canaries flew away, the cat produced five kittens.
Canaries, firecrackers and some $200,000 worth of other miscellaneous equipment were part of the paraphernalia for Columbia's biggest feature of the year: You Can't Take It With You, Screenwriter Robert Riskin's adaptation of the smash hit play by Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman, for which Columbia's President Harry Cohn last year paid a record price of $200,000. By the end of June, with a new flock of birds added to a cast which already included such rarities as Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Donald Meek, Spring Byington and Mischa Auer, shooting on the picture ended and 329,000 feet of film were sent to the cutting room. A finished feature picture contains 8,000. By last week, You Can't Take It With You was only twice that size and almost in shape for its first previews. Cost of the picture is so far about ten times what Columbia paid for the story, but Producer Harry Cohn confidently expects that when it is released the first week in September, it will bring back the $2,000,000 and $1,000,000 or so besides.
Reason for Producer Cohn's confidence is simple. You Can't Take It With You is directed by Frank Capra. Unlike most of Hollywood's major cinemanufacturers, Columbia controls neither a huge chain of theatres nor a long roster of famed stars. For both of these, Capra, as the company's strongest financial asset, has been a more than acceptable substitute. A genial, stocky, 41-year-old son of Sicilian immigrants, he has twice won the top honors of his profession, the Motion Picture Academy's Award for It Happened One Night in 1935, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936. Last year, after a prolonged dispute in which he charged Columbia with breach of contract, their differences were composed on a basis that pays Capra roughly $350,000 a year. He has personally created or vastly improved half-a-dozen stars, including Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, and Jean Arthur. More important than all these is the simple fact that in his 17 years in the cinema industry, Frank Capra has an almost unparalleled record of having turned out only one real flop. On the strength of this record he is regarded not only as the mainstay of his company but as the top director of his industry.
The cinema industry is full of exhibitionists. Consequently, before any picture starts, audiences are compelled to sit through several minutes of tedious visual roll call which includes practically everybody connected with the enterprise, from the carpenter who made the sets to the musician who rewrote Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser, and omits only the banker who put up the money. Because cinemaddicts pay little attention to this list except to deplore it, they entertain vague notions that moving pictures are either: 1) made haphazard by a collection of overpaid addleheads who speak only a few words of English; or 2) the result of mass inspiration upon the most miraculously gifted group of creative artists ever simultaneously assembled on the globe. Twenty-five years ago, movies were indeed manufactured helter-skelter by almost anyone who had $5,000 and an urge to see his name or image magnified. Influx of money and brains long since turned Hollywood's film studios into sharply defined units organized along the lines of most other agencies of mass production, except that the nature of their product makes the system more complex.
The Hierarchy of the cinema industry is confusingly simple. At the top are financiers who run the industry from Manhattan or San Francisco. Hollywood is tenanted by hirelings. Top hirelings of the movie industry are a handful of producers, generally one at each studio, who are ultimately responsible for he success or failure of its total output. Under the producers and associates in the scale of authority are directors. Under the directors is everyone else on the lot, from grips to Greta Garbo.
Most generally confused classes in this hierarchy are producers and directors. Actually, producers and directors are not only quite distinct, but they are natural enemies. Producers may be defined as glorified executives who wear immaculate street clothes, sit in luxurious offices, hold conferences around shiny tables and concern themselves primarily with Ideas. Producers' ideas are mostly about money. Top producers in Hollywood currently are Twentieth Century-Fox's small, dynamic Darryl Zanuck, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's aging, pompous Louis B. Mayer, Warner Brothers' Harry Warner and Hal Wallis, Jock Whitney's placid David Oliver Selznick, United Artists' socially conscious Walter Wanger and legendary Sam Goldwyn. Producers may be onetime writers, theatre owners, book peddlers or glove salesmen. Their pay usually runs from $1,000 weekly up.
Directors in general wear shabby looking work clothes, function mostly on sets or stages instead of offices, think more about getting money than about spending it, and are primarily concerned with cinema as a craft, not a business. One the story is picked and the case hired, the director is in sole charge until, cutting finished, the picture goes on view. A director's function is primarily that of a high-school dramatic coach, raised to a fabulous power of complexity. He tells $5,000-a-week stars where to stand and how to speak, screenwriters with millionaires' incomes how to rewrite the classics they are translating into the tropical vernacular, photographers where to point cameras as big as limousines, art directors to fabricate rooms, streets, or cities. If producers are top dogs of cinema as a industry, directors are its top craftsmen. Their pay runs from $200 a week (for beginners) to what Columbia pays Capra for turning out one or two films a year.
To say that Capra is now the cinema's outstanding director does not imply that he is tops in all respects. As they acquire prestige, directors acquire specialties. Capra's is a certain kind of peculiarly American, peculiarly kinetic humor, in which the most individual characteristic an extraordinarily adroit and constant use of "business" to accent the comic line. Unlike Gregory La Cava (Stage Door) or Leo McCarey, whose The Awful Truth took top honors for direction at the Academy this year, Capra has no interest in jokes whose appeal is touched with neuroticism. He is sufficiently versatile to have made a successful picture from a story as fantastic as James Hilton's Lost Horizon. But as a master of pace, he is certainly no better in his department than England's enormously fat, lethargic Alfred Hitchcock (Thirty-Nine Steps) in the department of nightmarish melodrama. For sheer sentiment he is probably no match for pudgy, high-voiced George Cukor (Camille, Holiday). For action pictures he is topped by John Ford (Hurricane), or Victor Fleming (Captains Courageous, Test Pilot). For capitalizing girlish sweetness at the box office, he is certainly no rival to Viennese Henry Koster, imported by Universal two years ago, to whom Deanna Durbin and Danielle Darrieux owe a large part of their popularity. For urbane, continental sophistication, he is outclassed by Ernst Lubitsch, who last week announced that he would henceforth produce his own pictures, backed by Myron Selznick, Producer David Selznick's agent brother.
Directors, unlike producers, are rarely graduates of the cloak-&-suit trade. They are more apt to be onetime actors, writers, theatre directors or assistant cameramen. The career of the cinema's current No. 1, better story material than some of the screen plays he has worked on, provides a fair example.
Capra. Brought to the U. S. by his parents when he was 6, Frank Capra was reared in Los Angeles, where he and his brother Tony sold newspapers on street corners. When trade was slow, Tony punched Frank to attract attention, make Frank's papers sell quicker. Bright in school, Frank Capra graduated at 16, worked to save enough money to enroll at California Institute of Technology, where he majored in physics, learned to like the essays of Montaigne, won a $500 scholarship. In 1918, the year he graduated, Capra enlisted in the Coast Artillery. After the war, he became successively tutor to a grandson of Los Angeles' famed gambler, Lucky Baldwin; a pruner of orange trees at 20¢ a day; a writer of unsold short stories; a prop boy at an independent studio at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, site of Columbia's present studio; and, according to legend, a prosperous traveling salesman of worthless securities. According to Capra, the legend, brilliantly embroidered by Alva Johnston for the Saturday Evening Post, is apocryphal.
In 1921, in San Francisco, Capra encountered an ex-actor named Walter Montague, who was trying to produce movies there. Anyone who knew much about the movie business would have been highly skeptical of Montague. One of his notions was that San Francisco was going to become the U. S. cinema capital because it was so misty. Another was that he could make a fortune producing movies based on poems, either classic or written by himself. As Montague's assistant, Capra helped produced a one-reeler based on a Kipling ballad and made for $1,700 called Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse, by Pathé and to play theatres all over the U. S. When Montague tried several other pictures based on his own writings, Capra knew enough about picture-making to get a job as a gagman for Hal Roach. When he had worked out gags for five Our Gang comedies, Capra asked Roach to let him try directing. Roach refused. Capra spent the next two years writing gags for Mack Sennett comedies, specializing in supplying gags for Comedian Harry Langdon. When Langdon went to First National as a feature comedian in 1926, he took his gagman with him, as director.
Since 1926, Capra's career has been eventful but straightforward. His one flop was For the Love of Mike, with Claudette Colbert, in 1927. The picture that made him tops in Hollywood was It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in 1934. He had been discovered by Harry Cohn long before that, repaid his benefactor with hits like >That Certain Thing (1928), Dirigible (1931), Platinum Blonde (1931), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Lady for a Day (1933). From 1930 to 1932, Capra worked only on pictures written by Jo Swerling. Then Capra, who by this time had the privilege accorded only to directors of proven worth, of collaborating on stories, got a new team-mate, Robert Riskin, who had started writing scenarios at the age of 17. Lady for a Day one of their early collaborations, got runner-up honors from the Motion Picture Academy and indirectly facilitated Capra's triumph the next year. Before Producer Cohn borrowed Clark Gable from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for It Happened One Night, Gable had been cast only in heavily romantic roles. Capra decided he was a comedian, directed him accordingly. Now Gable is called upon frequently for comedy roles.
Decision to transform Gable from a menace to a mountebank was characteristic of Capra. The formative period of his artistic career was spent teaching Mack Sennett actors to put curves in their custard pies. Regarding himself as an average cinemaddict, he feels sure that anything he enjoys will be enjoyed also by 10,000,000 other people. Old line directors, before talkies cramped their style, liked to stamp and bellow at their actors, strut and show off on the set. Like most of his contemporaries, Capra works without mannerisms, confers quietly with his actors and technical crew before each take. In Hollywood, long since ashamed of ego-parading outside of working hours, it is now fashionable to have a private telephone number, small car, cottage on the beach and one wife at a time. Frank and Lucille Capra, as befits two of the community's most dazzling celebrities, spend most of the year in a vacation cottage at Malibu Beach, send two of their three children to the U. C. L. A. nursery school. Capra's present contract at Columbia calls for one more picture. A major subject of current Hollywood gossip is whether, now that writer Riskin has left Columbia to join Sam Goldwyn, Director Capra will follow him next year.