Chapter 35: Supervisors Run the Studios Now

Summary: After recovering from a stroke, Mama comes out west to live with Aggie and Frank. Aggie struggles with a script, but knows that a certain scene can bring the story to life; however, she quickly finds out that she can no longer take her ideas directly to Irving Thalberg. It’s the end of an era, and also the end of her autobiography.

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Although I didn’t get the raise in salary I’d expected, a year’s contract at $1250 a week seemed reasonable security. Izzy was working hard in her “sob sister” job on the New York Journal, so I had Mama brought out to stay with us. As her companion came my sweet, distinguished-looking, white-haired cousin Laura, who, having raised her family of five children, considered the trip a vacation.

We fixed up a little guesthouse for them where Mama could have quiet when she wanted. Her illness had taken a blessed turn. The paralysis had wiped from her memory all those horrible years of frustration and hardship. She remembered nothing of the past except the happy times when we’d been a family together—Papa and Mama, Izzy and I. As for the present, it was a whole new world for her. And how she loved it! When Laura wheeled her out to the garden, the grandchildren played around her chair. With Olaf chauffeuring, she and Laura would take long afternoon rides in the Pierce-Arrow, grande dames indeed! Olaf would always try to search out panoramas of beauty, and he never drove beyond the 25 miles an hour that Mama seemed to enjoy. The toured the Palisades in Santa Monica, Malibu Lake, and Mulholland Drive where the Pacific stretches on one side and the green San Fernando Valley on the other.

When I gave parties, Laura would bring Mamma in to meet the guests. I bought her the loveliest gowns I could find, and with Laura’s delicate arranging of her snowy hair, Mama looked beautiful. I don’t think she knew one movie star from another, but they’d crowd around her as though she were a queen and her wheelchair a throne, laughing and kidding with her about how many cocktails she was taking—which was usually three.

The first story under my new contract was a dud and, to make things worse, it took me weeks and weeks to find out why. It was Channing Pollock’s stage play, “The Enemy,” the star to be Lillian Gish, the director Fred Niblo. Fred was artistic and intelligent, the first of the high-class directors. No riding pants and puttees for him! He directed in a morning coat and striped trousers.

A New York stage hit, a sensitive star, a most able director. What could be wrong with that set up? But the more I wrote, the deader the script seemed. Channing’s dialog was good, the subject appealing, but the whole thing somehow added up to a great big beautiful firecracker that refused to go bang. I ground out a first draft and took it to Fred Niblo’s office, put my pages on his desk, and sank into a chair.

Fred looked at me closely. “Aggie, are you ill or something?”

“No, I’m not the least bit sick, but my script is.”

“Why, what’s the matter? I saw the play in New York, and thought it was tremendous.”

“In New York it may have been tremendous. It’s a smart idea—portraying war as it goes on behind the enemy line, hearing about it through the enemy’s lips. But, Fred, that’s just talk. Fine for the theater, but…”

“Well, what do you want?” Fred asked. “Big battle scenes?”

“Of course not. Battle scenes have been done to death. And anyway we’d never top ‘The Big Parade.” Look, Fred, how about a great procession? The enemy troops, heavy with defeat, marching dejected to their homes? Out of step and without banners?”

Fred’s brown eyes gleamed. “A great defeated army crawling home!” he cried. “There would be pathos and grandeur.”

“And Lillian wouldn’t know whether her sweetheart was with them or not,” I went on. “There’d be soldiers, limping with ragged bandages. Women shrieking with joy as, in the weary ranks, they saw husbands, fathers, lovers they’d thought dead. And always Lillian, frail and haunted, searching rank after rank.”

“I could put that over, “ said Fred. “And it would certainly give a lift to the story. Cost plenty of money though.”

“Well, what of it? Let’s go see Irving.”

“Aggie…” Fred looked at me curiously. “Where on earth have you been keeping yourself since you’ve been back at the studio?”

“Mostly hiding in my office. Ashamed of my script.”

“Let me tell you, child, things have changed. MGM’s gotten big, the biggest in the industry.”

“Then why worry about money?”

“We’ve gotten so big,” said Fred, “that the bankers have been brought in. And, naturally, with a big investment, they are afraid Irving might break down. So now he has people to help him. Supervisors.”

“Supervisors?” I said. “I’ve heard about them, but I’ve never worked for one. In all my years in pictures, it’s always been just the director, me, and the big boss.”

“Well, you’ve got a supervisor now,” said Fred. “I’ll try to get us an appointment with him for tomorrow morning.”

Our supervisor turned out to be a good-looking, affable young man. I had never heard of him as an actor, writer, or director and, as I found out later, he’d had experience in none of these arts. However, as assistant to an investment company vice-president back East, he’d acquired a reputation as a “bright young man.” And, as he had important friends and relatives, it was only natural to install him as a supervisor.

Fred and I explained our big scene and the very grave need there was for it. After listening sympathetically, our young boss said we had a really wonderful idea, but that he was afraid the scene would raise the cost of the picture to far more than what he’d promised the front office to bring it in for. I cried out that nothing could be more costly to the studio than an inferior picture. But the more I argued, the firmer became our supervisor’s pleasant denials. After a while, I notice Fred was saying nothing, so I just gave up.

Out in the hall, Fred said, “Aggie, don’t you get the set up? He’s told the front office he’ll make the picture for just so much. If he goes over budget that will count as a failure for him.”

“But what if the picture’s a flop? Won’t that hurt him too?”

“It won’t be released for a year and a half, and by then he may have a couple of real successes to boast about. As for ‘The Enemy,’ if that doesn’t go over…” Fred smiled a little dourly. “Our supervisor can always put the blame on me or the script or Lillian Gish.”

The Enemy” did turn out to be one of those horrible “success d’estimes,” but, as our supervisor became one of the most important men in the company and stayed with them at a vast salary until his death, his approach to pictures must have been right—for himself at least.

It was about this time that the movies were consolidating their position as the fifth largest industry in the nation, and the banks bit into all the big studios. And, with Eastern capital, came supervisors or “producers,” as they were later termed. Commodore Blackton, the Thanhousers, Mary Pickford, Ince, Schulberg—when I worked for them, I worked for people who had their own money at stake. With a stakeholder, you can talk straight from the shoulder. You can argue with him, tell him he’s wrong. Once or twice I’ve even heard Frank swear at a conference. With a supervisor, whose first interest is to maintain his political power at the studio, his next to stroke his own ego, one must walk on little cat feet. If he lets a writer prove him wrong, how horrible if word of it got around the studio!

Of course, I’ve been with producers like Joe Pasternak and Carey Wilson of the Andy Hardy films, and others whose pictures are their very lifeblood. With them it is possible to have an honest conference. With the politician-producer, unless there is a strong-minded director or an exceptionally important star, a writer can only grind away and trust to luck.

Supervisors were not the only problem. Writers have always complained that “the director’s crazy” almost from the beginning of pictures. On my next assignment, I worked with a director who actually was insane. At first I couldn’t believe it. He’d argue in the most irrational way over the substitution of one word for another in the description of a scene or even the position of a comma or a semi-colon, none of which would show on the screen. He’d lash into rage at even my most timid protest of the rambling, undramatic, and dull story line he demanded. And he was fanatical about working hours. We’d start at 9:00 a.m. sharp, take only half an hour for lunch, and then he’d keep me….

***

Editor’s note: This is where Aggie’s manuscript ends. Aside from the missing page or pages, she may have written more chapters, but these are all I found in the stack of papers given to me by my father. The last movie mentioned is “The Enemy,” released in 1927, but The Dazeys worked in movies and television until the mid 1950’s. Agnes Christine Johnston has 89 credits listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Frank Mitchell Dazey has 52 credits listed and three Broadway plays to his credit. He may have been trying to catch up to his father, Charles T. Dazey (Editor’s note: This link is to Wikipedia, which includes color lithographs of his plays), who has nine plays listed on the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB). Both Charles T. Dazey and Aggie’s sister Isabel have movie credits listed on IMDb, although Isabel’s IMDb biography mistakenly profiles her mother with the same name.

 I will write a more complete epilogue soon that briefly describes their later years, and I will post an essay, “My Most Unforgettable Character,” that Frank wrote about Aggie. Until then, thank you for reading about my unforgettable family. ~Susanna Dazey Sayre

 

 

 

 

 

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