No one would have invited journalist John Gregory Dunne to observe the inner workings of Twentieth Century Fox in 1967 had they know how badly the project was going to backfire. The studio was enjoying a commercial peak, The Sound of Music (1965) continuing to set records, the public turning out in droves for the critically-lambasted Valley of the Dolls (1967). Fattening up studio coffers were Von Ryan’s Express (1965), The Blue Max (1966) and spy franchise Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). By the time Dunne’s book, The Studio, was published however, in 1969, the studio was in financial meltdown.
On a hubris high was studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, who a few years before had saved Fox from bankruptcy. Dunne (later a screenwriter, most notably of A Star Is Born, 1976) had carte blanche to sit in on all sorts of meetings. The studio was going for broke with big-budget musicals, $18 million on Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1964) , $12 million for Star! with Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music), both actors considered bankers for their previous work in musicals. There was even $4.5 million allocated to The Boston Strangler which lacked any star commitment.
There were actually two Zanucks. Father Darryl and whizz-kid son Richard who was in charge of production and with whom Dunne had most of his dealings. Dunne observed first-hand how the younger Zanuck whittled down director Martin Ritt’s salary from $350,000 to $200,000 by threat of legal action.
Script problems had pushed back production on The Boston Strangler, a first attempt by English playwright Terence Rattigan (The VIPs, 1963) rejected and the project now in the hands of Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964). And it lacked a star.
Robert Shaw was one possibility. He was being paid $300,000 for a picture that would never be made, The Nine Tiger Man, to be directed by George Cukor, deemed too expensive at $7.2 million. Zanuck could save money if Shaw accepted The Boston Strangler as an alternative. He didn’t. Or another, cheaper, project A Severed Head. He didn’t. Instead, Zanuck dumped A Severed Head (released by Columbia in 1971).
Christopher Plummer also walked away without doing any work. When Rex Harrison quit Doctor Dolittle, Plummer (The Sound of Music) signed up as his replacement for $300,000, Harrison said he hadn’t meant to quit. That wasn’t the only issue Harrison caused. He refused to pre-record his numbers and then mouth the lyrics to a playback. The Harrison, more expensive, method was to be recorded live. As if producer Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes, 1968) hadn’t already been through the mill. Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) was contracted to do the music. But after 15 months: nada. Jacobs turned to Leslie Bricusse. The budget had risen by 50 per cent, from $12 million to $18 million.
It was hoped the 50-plus companies involving in licensing and contributing $12 million in overall marketing spend would bring in the public. Over 300 items would be sold on the back of the picture, resulting in 45,000 displays in retail stores. This was a picture you couldn’t miss. Expecting a soundtrack bonanza, the initial print run was set at half a million copies – bigger than that for The Sound of Music. Jacobs was perturbed to learn he would have to pay for window space – retailers paid with free copies.
Legendary producer Joe Pasternak was making his 100th movie The Sweet Ride. One of his concerns was that Jacqueline Bisset’s bikini didn’t look tight enough. “It looked baggy in the rushes,” complained Pasternak. Bisset countered, “It fits when it’s dry. It just got a terrible pounding when I was in the water.” She mentions the scene where it got such a pounding in fact that the sea whipped the top off. She reckons that crossing her arms to protect her modesty prevented her tugging the pants on tighter. Once that picture was finished so was Pasternak – he never made another picture.
Another legendary producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to interest English directors John Schlesinger or Lindsay Anderson in Justine (directed by George Cukor in 1969) and on that basis wanted to hire a writer Laurence Marcus (Petulia, 1968) to rewrite the existing Ivan Moffat script in order to entice them. Zanuck’s take: he expected a director to make script changes but couldn’t see the point of altering a script to suit a director you didn’t know would be interested. Nonetheless, Marcus got signed.
All the time agents and directors were pitching movies. Agent Phil Gersh pushed a comedy version of Candy – screenplay by English writing duo Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (it ends up minus the Englishmen at Cinerama Releasing). Veteran director Henry Koster’s idea for a musical was nixed. As was the original trailer for Tony Rome, Zanuck hating the voice-over.
On Deadfall (1968), the Michael Caine heist movie directed by Bryan Forbes, actress Giovanni Ralli was having trouble with her English and her contract prevented her being dubbed. It would mean the actress having to lip-synch in post-production. The solution – “tell her she’s got 500 loops and when she hears that maybe she’ll get discouraged and let someone else dub her.” The studio had come up with 14 alternative titles to The Magus (1968) including Seduced by Fate and The Goddess and the Demon.
Fred Zinnemann was priming a $10 million western about Custer. He thought he might save $3 million by shooting in Mexico. The picture was to have no big stars. The only actor who could pull it off was John Wayne and he hated Custer. So Zinnemann planned to go with big names in cameo roles and Toshiro Mifune as Crazy Horse. That picture, too, would be dumped.
Also in the wings, Hello, Dolly! which would get made and Tom Swift, which would be canned despite advance work on building his aeroship, which would not. Nor would another Berman project John Brown’s Body.
Apart from insights into the way movies are made, marketed and released, Dunne’s book captures the extraordinary Hollywood mix – cynicism and greed coupled with fervor and bone-headed optimism.