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production war pictures producer

The war era saw a growing rift between the Big Five and the other studios in terms of production and management operations as well as overall market strategies. The major studios, with their superior resources, were able to respond to the wartime market more aggressively than the lesser studio powers. While the Little Three and the Poverty Row studios certainly benefited from the war boom, their overall production and sales strategies, for the most part, remained quite consistent during the war.

The one exception was United Artists. Its wartime success is scarcely surprising, given its established focus on high-end releases and the wartime premium on A-class pictures. While Universal and Columbia were content to simply sustain their prewar policies and enjoy the financial benefits of the war boom, UA under David Selznick lined up an impressive array of talent and film projects. Selznick signed the MGM producer Hunt Stromberg to a lucrative five-picture deal in 1942, for instance, and in early 1943 he closed a five-picture deal with James Cagney, just off his Oscar-winning performance in YANKEE DOODLE D ANDY (1942). 15 Both contracts involved financing as well as distribution, a significant innovation for UA in the 1940s, and one that attracted a number of independents. In late 1943, the Motion Picture Herald reported that UA had a record sixteen units “currently active.”

While those units were active, however, they were not all that productive, and in fact UA was in desperate need of product. Thus, in a stunning reversal of form, the UA board decided in mid-1942 and again in mid-1943 to purchase packages of stockpiled second-rate pictures from Paramount. UA paid $4.8 million for a total of twenty-one pictures in the two deals—less than $250,000 per film. The studio acquired a few A pictures, but most were B’s and series Westerns, including a number of Hopalong Cassidy programmers—hardly in the UA tradition. And in a further break with tradition, UA abandoned its long-standing singles-only policy and sold these pictures in blocks.

The Paramount packages covered UA’s shortfall, although they did not keep UA in the black. Incredibly, UA actually showed a net loss in 1944—the only company to accomplish such a feat during the war. But as Tino Balio suggests, the most severe loss was UA’s prestige, since by 1944 it was “supplying second features for double bills almost exclusively.” 18 Moreover, Selznick’s relationship with the UA board, and particularly with Chaplin and Pickford, deteriorated steadily during the war, thus aggravating the company’s long-standing instability.

Wartime production and market strategies on Poverty Row, meanwhile, were still geared to the subsequent-run markets—especially at Monogram and PRC, which continued to struggle simply to break even, despite the war boom. But Republic, always the strongest of the minors, enjoyed annual profits in the half-million-dollar range and thus was able to venture cautiously into A-class production. 19 President Herbert J. Yates replaced Gene Autry with Roy Rogers as Republic’s resident singing cowboy star, and Rogers likewise played himself in an uninterrupted series of near-A formula Westerns. 20 Equally important to Yates’s A-class aspirations was John Wayne, who continued to alternate between loan-outs to the majors and starring roles in high-end Republic productions. His value to the studio was underscored in 1945, when Republic signed Wayne to a star-producer deal which included 10 percent of the gross on his pictures. Yates made other important moves to crack the first-run market in 1945, including deals with the producer-director Frank Borzage and the writer-producer-director Ben Hecht.

The most significant wartime development at Monogram was the production of what were being termed “exploitation pictures,” which Variety defined as “films with some timely or currently controversial subject which can be exploited, capitalized on in publicity and advertising.” These ranged from offbeat actioners like WOMEN IN BONDAGE (1943), about a women’s prison, to topical melodramas like WHERE ARE YOUR CHILDREN ? (1943), an exposé of juvenile delinquency. The most successful of these was DILLINGER (1945), Monogram’s first release to earn over $1 million, and a picture whose graphic violence and glorification of the legendary gangster incurred the wrath of critics and parents’ groups.

PRC made some efforts to upgrade its product line during the war, but it continued to specialize in exceptionally low-budget Westerns (some shot in only two to three days), along with its signature B-grade crime dramas and actioners. While none of these broke through commercially on the scale of DILLINGER , several PRC pictures directed by Edgar G. Ulmer were modest hits and have become minor classics, including offbeat musicals like JIVE JUNCTION (1943) and CLUB HAVANA (1945) provocative thrillers like STRANGE ILLUSION and DETOUR (both 1945).


The integrated majors saw radical changes during the war, owing primarily to the volatile market conditions and the increased importance and clout of producers and top talent. Perhaps the single most important development was the sharp acceleration of unit production and hyphenate status for above-the-line contract talent. While these changes had considerable impact on production management, studio management—executive control of the company at large—changed very little. In fact, the war boom reinforced the Big Five’s established hierarchy of executive power, with ultimate studio authority still residing in the New York office.

Both Fox and RKO underwent changes in top management early in the war that underscored the market-driven mentality of the period. In March 1942, Fox’s president, Sidney Kent, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 56. 25 Coming in the wake of the Fox board chairman Joe Schenck being sentenced to federal prison, Kent’s death left a void atop the executive ranks. The Fox board responded in April by appointing Spyros Skouras, then head of Fox theater operations, as company president. The board also named as its chairman Wendell Willkie, just off his successful industry defense at the Senate propaganda hearings in late 1941. Willkie served essentially as a figurehead, assuming various public relations duties, but that role was cut short by his own untimely death (at age 55) in 1944. At that point, Spyros Skouras became the sole chief executive, while his brother Charlie, another theater man, took over Fox’s exhibition operations.

RKO, meanwhile, underwent a management shake-up which accompanied the ascent of the Wall Street financier Floyd Odium to board chairman of the company. Odium’s Atlas Corporation had begun investing in RKO in the 1930s, and by 1942 Odium had acquired controlling interest. 27 Odium promptly fired RKO’s president, George Schaefer, who had overseen both the New York office and studio operations, and replaced him with two executives: Peter Rathvon, a Wall Street colleague of Odium (and longtime RKO financial adviser), who took over the New York office as president of the RKO parent company; and the sales chief Ned Depinet, who became president of RKO-Radio Pictures. Meanwhile, Odium replaced Joe Breen as studio production chief with the head of RKO theater operations, Charles Koerner. The new team quickly turned things around: RKO’s profits rose from $600,000 in 1942 to $6.9 million one year later.

Thus, Fox and RKO followed the prewar strategy of Paramount and Universal, installing men with theater and sales backgrounds as top corporate executives. Variety speculated in March 1942 about the role of these former theater executives “in shaping studio production policies,” but in fact the chief executives at all of the integrated majors had even less control over actual filmmaking operations than ever. 29 A governing paradox of the period was that market conditions, and particularly the increased emphasis on A-class product, brought a general shift in production management away from corporate and studio executives and into the hands of top talent. This shift was more pronounced at some companies than others, of course, as the studios responded in quite different ways both to market conditions and to the prospect of yielding more creative control to their top producers, directors, and writers.

MGM and Warner Bros. provide an illuminating contrast in this regard. Warners, without question the most factory-oriented of the Big Five in the 1930s, overhauled both its market strategy and production operations during the war. In cutting its output in half during the war, Warners completely abandoned both B-picture production and block booking, producing only A-class products which were sold on a unit basis. The last vestiges of the old Warners vanished with two telling events at the dawn of the war era. In September 1941, Warners’ veteran B-unit head Bryan Foy was released from his contract. (Fox, less eager to eliminate B production, immediately picked him up.) 30 Then in February 1942, Warners made an even more dramatic change: the longtime studio production chief Hal Wallis stepped down, signing a new contract as a unit producer. 31 Jack Warner continued to oversee plant operations and to negotiate contracts and such, but for the first time since the 1920s—dating back to Darryl Zanuck’s regime as production boss at Warners—no individual executive oversaw production. Thus, Warner Bros. underwent a belated shift during the war from a central-producer system to a unit-producer system and actually began assigning on-screen producer credit for the first time in 1942.

MGM, meanwhile, did reduce its output by some 30 percent during the war but proved altogether unwilling to adjust its basic production and management policies. MGM continued to turn out high-gloss, high-cost product, with Louis B. Mayer actually expanding the studios bloated and inefficient supervisory system despite the decreased output. All production decisions were made by Mayer and his executive committee, comprising four MGM vice presidents and an elite group of eight producers, with another thirty or so producers supervising actual filmmaking. Metro also maintained the factory-system model, with multiple writers and directors working on individual pictures—a practice by then deemed wasteful and counterproductive by the other majors. An MGM study done in 1942 indicated that fourteen to sixteen writers worked on the average studio project, far more than was common elsewhere. 32 And in 1945, a trade journal reported that MGM had 116 writers under contract—three to four times the number of contract writers at the other studios.

Despite MGM’s efforts to maintain a central-producer (by committee) system, however, studio authority over actual filmmaking continued to erode during the war, because of the unprecedented demand for A-class product and the consequent increase in independent and unit production.

Studio-based Units and In-house Independents - CASE STUDY : DORE SCHARY AT MGM , VANGUARD, AND RKO [next]

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