The idea of re-opening seemed like a distant vision but now, suddenly, the shutdown is almost over and a resurgence is at hand. But on whose terms? Is this the moment for stars and working crews alike to demand new rules governing everything from working hours to rehearsals to meals to dressing rooms — to personal encounters in general?
But I’m referring to 1933, not 2020. That year, as now, Hollywood had been traumatized by an industrywide production shutdown with massive firings. All of it had been triggered, not by a pandemic, but rather by the shockingly abrupt collapse of the economy. “I hear the steel doors crashing shut all around me,” said a shocked Jack Warner, as banks closed across the country.
The joyride of the 1920s had suddenly come to an end and the process of recovery would be arduous but ultimately successful. Looking back on it a century later, there were lessons (see below) to be learned from that process of recovery — albeit with one footnote: The key element in the renewal, both America’s and Hollywood’s, could be traced to new leadership. Franklin Roosevelt had the vision and political clout to rebuild society. That leadership, to be sure, has not surfaced in 2020.
The Hollywood of the early ‘20s and ‘30s had grown smug in its success. Despite the turbulence of the stock market, box office continued to be strong. The studios had built up a stable of stars decorating a range of films like Cavalcade, Grand Hotel, Little Caesar and even Baby Face, with its glimpses of nudity. Barbara Stanwyck, its star, was a faithful Republican, as were studio chiefs like Warner.
When most of the nation’s 25,000 banks suddenly shut their doors, shell-shocked studio mavens huddled for weeks of meetings, then emerged with tentative offers. Limited production would start again on sharply reduced budgets, with stars taking 50% pay cuts as would minimal crews. The rejections were immediate. A few defiant stars like Clara Bow agreed to work for nothing on movies in mid-production, provided new deals with heavy profit participations could be carved out. A new coalition of writers announced that screenplays would be blockaded until management came up with better deals. ”This is chaos,” responded Louis B. Mayer, reminding the creative community that MGM could not make its payroll.
The “chaos” extended to the top: Darryl F. Zanuck, then the strong-minded production chief at Warner Bros, angrily submitted his resignation accusing his bosses of exploiting the crisis to confiscate the surviving assets.
The battles quickly went beyond money. Fay Wray complained that she was working 22 hours nonstop on King Kong “to satisfy the money people back East.” Other actors said they’d worked seven day weeks, with meals skipped or delayed until late in the evening. “We work absurd hours and it is brutal,” announced Ralph Bellamy. “And the work suffers.”
According to Robert Young, the studios were so paranoid about the formation of unions that stars skulked to meetings at midnight, “sneaking through alleys to avoid the spies and ex cops hired by the studios to keep an eye on us.”
Faced with a rebellious creative community, the studio chiefs began to back down. Though it would be years before the guilds eventually achieved their muscle, the groundwork was laid and the hierarchs took notice.
But meanwhile, the federal government was itself taking the initiative to create a curtain of civility. President Roosevelt’s Emergency Banking Act eliminated banks that were deemed insolvent, guaranteeing deposits in new ones. A new heretical concept of social security was propounded, sending Republicans into shock. “The true measure of economic restoration,” Roosevelt intoned, “lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
Hollywood was astonished when the WPA (Works Progress Administration), created to build bridges and highways, suddenly revealed a cultural branch, encouraging writers to create plays and film scripts, even preparing meticulously written guide books for the towns and cities.
Roosevelt did not pretend that he had a magic pill to bridge the gap between rich and poor, but he succeeded in creating a sense of national unity which, ultimately, was reinforced by the incursions at Pearl Harbor and the Nazi aggressions in Europe. Today, of course, the gap between rich and poor is even wider, despite the well publicized pay cuts taken by CEOs. But the 2020 behind-the-scenes meetings presently taking place concern themselves with many difficult issues beyond money — issues that mirror some of the battles of 1933.
“The whole spectrum of interactions on the set will have to be re-invented,” states a senior corporate official involved in these meetings. Directors and actors will find themselves interacting in a vastly different manner. Those intense dressing room arguments over last-minute script changes will be a thing of the past. So will rehearsals of romantic encounters.
Other changes: COVID-19 advisers will be added to the payroll. So will intimacy coordinators. Insurance fees will rise. Schedules will lengthen as crews work shorter hours. Call times will be staggered. Craft services will deliver boxes – those congenial gatherings around coffee and donuts will disappear.
“I understand social distancing, but I worry about a new era of creative distancing,” observes one studio leader who once was a producer. “The post COVID-19 movie world will take some re-