Sunday, March 20, 2011

Anecdote of the Week: "I'm just a little afraid of this kind of music."


John Gregory Dunne's classic, The Studio, tracks his unlimited access to 20th Century Fox over the course of what would turn out to be a not terribly good year for them, 1967. Still very much in print, the book needs little introduction to many of the Siren's patient readers. But a viewing this week of Three Smart Girls, directed in 1936 by Henry Koster, reminded her of an episode in The Studio, and since the Siren couldn't get it out of her mind, she's getting it out here.

In Dunne's 1985 preface to his book, he said, "The story of Henry Koster's meeting with Zanuck troubles me more than anything in the book, yet I think I would probably still put it in: a fact of the movie business is that people are used and discarded like so many wads of Kleenex."

No matter how many times she reads it, the story still shrivels the Siren's heart.

Koster arrives for a meeting with Richard Zanuck, then vice president in charge of production at the studio; with him are producer Robert Buckner and three agents from William Morris. As Zanuck toys with a bronzed baby shoe on his desk, and one of the agents starts to nod off, Koster, whose huge hit was the Deanna Durbin vehicle One Hundred Men and a Girl in 1937, pitches his idea for a movie.

The picture would open in Moscow, with a Lenny Bernstein-type conductor performing Shostakovich. The orchestra is scheduled to leave for New York for a charity concert, "for crippled children." Unfortunately, the entire orchestra comes down with a malignant disease that requires quarantine, except the conductor; "I think we can work out that he had the right shots," says Koster. It looks like the concert won't happen.

As it happens, there is a youth orchestra in New York that can do the concert, Eugene Ormandy and George Szell being otherwise occupied. But the Bernstein character sternly says they aren't good enough. The crippled children are out of luck.

Koster's voice softened. 'But then the president of the charity comes to plead with him against cancellation.' Koster's head swiveled around, taking in everyone in the room. 'In his arms, he is carrying a small boy--with braces on his legs.'

Buckner seemed to sense that Zanuck's attention was wandering. 'We have a love story, too, Dick,' he said.

Koster picked up the cue. 'Yes, we have a love story,' he said. 'There is a beautiful Chinese cellist who does not speak a word of English and a beatnik kook who plays the violin.' The words rolled over his tongue. 'They communicate through the international language of music.'

'Don't forget the jazz,' Buckner said.

'We can get jazz into our story, Dick,' Koster said. 'You see, the concert is only five days away and there are not enough players in the youth orchestra, so the conductor--the Lenny Bernstein character--goes out and hunts them up in a bunch of weird joints.'

'Jazz joints,' Buckner said.

The top of Koster's head was slick with perspiration. His voice began to quicken. 'Working day and night, the conductor molds these untutored players into a symphony orchestra. In just five days.' Koster's face grew somber. 'Then we get word from Moscow. The quarantine has been lifted. The orchestra can get back to New York in time for the concert.'

Zanuck gazed evenly, unblinkingly at Koster.

'Here is the crux of our story, Dick,' Koster said. 'Will our conductor use the youth symphony, or will he use his own orchestra, thus destroying by his lack of faith this beautiful instrument'--Koster's hands moved up and down slowly--'he has created in just five days.'

Koster sighed and leaned back, gripping both the arms of his chair. There was silence in the office. Zanuck cleared his throat.

'Very nicely worked out,' he said carefully. 'Very nicely.' His jaw muscles began to work as he considered his thoughts. 'But I'm afraid it's not for us at the moment.' He squared the bronzed baby shoe against the edge of his desk. 'We've got a lot of musical things on the schedule right now--The Sound of Music is still doing great business, just great, we've got Dr. Dolittle and we're working on Hello, Dolly!--and I don't think we should take on another.' He paused, seeking the right words. 'And quite frankly, I'm just a little afraid of this kind of music. You'll get the music lovers, no doubt about that, none at all. But how about the Beatles fans?'

Koster made a perfunctory objection, but the meeting was over. As if on cue, the dozing agent awoke, and after an exchange of small talk, agents and clients departed Zanuck's office, hurling pleasantries over their shoulders. For a long time, Zanuck sat chewing his fingernail, saying nothing.

'Jesus,' he said finally.


26 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

I love "The Studio" too. My favorite story in it concerns Hello Dolly!. Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau loathed one another with a passion that coverted into kilowatts could light all of California for a year. The "last straw" came when one day Walter found little Jason playing outside of his trailer and screamed at the kid with the sort of fury only Walter was capable. Well as you might expect Mama marched right into producer Ernest (Sweet Smell of Success) Lehman's office to complain as only she can. When she left Lehman was about to give Walter a ring when the man himself marched into the office to let loose with his litany of Barbra barbarity. Lehman listened calmly, and told Matthau he sympathized but added "As I'm sure you know the title of this picture isn't Hello Walter."

Peter Nellhaus said...

Gee, we could have had a movie with Nancy Kwan and Fabian, and probably Stuart Whitman as the conductor, if past Koster casting provides a clue to what he had in mind.

I do have warm memories of my grandparents taking me to see a double feature of Story of Ruth with Please Don't East the Daisies.

The Siren said...

I don't think this Koster movie could have been that much worse than Star!.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Or as my late pal Ralph Blais called it Bitch of Broadway

X. Trapnel said...

Bozhe moy, kakoy skaz! This story is like a car wreck involving the most dilapidated thirties jalopy and the gaudiest vehicle of sixties (fill in your own choice). Mind you, I treasure the delirious absurdity of 100 Men and a Girl (especially when Stokowski's conducting arm starts twitching involuntarily to the musicmaking of the Durbin Philharmonic. And of Stoky's phony accent is always a treat [yes, Y; I can imitate it]).

The subject of thirties/forties film and classical music (as subject, bio, fictional [usually the same as far as the former goes]) is a whopping great book waiting to be written.

Ned said...

It really makes you wonder how many of the big hits shepherded by guys like Zanuck (the son) would have been phenomenally successful without his touch, and conversely, how many films (or pitches) he trampled upon with troglodytic temerity, could have been equally, or more successful. Unfortunately, stories like the ones Dunne relates in The Studio--this in particular--are legion in Hollywood.

One wonders whether the faith Zanuck's father placed in Henry Koster created a certain amount of pique where the son was concerned. After all, Darryl, after the studio mortgaged its future on Cinemascope, handed Koster the job of staving off ignominious defeat and bankruptcy by hand picking him to direct The Robe which changed Hollywood overnight.

But Hollywood operates like no other industry on the "what have you done for us lately" rule.

But there couldn't have been too many other directors at 20th Century able to accommodate films as disparate as the Deanna Durbin films, a fantasy about a shape shifting pooka, a war picture set around the D-Day invasion, and a singing nun who breaks into the top 40, and one who make them all hits. I mean, who does that?

Perhaps the film that Koster pitched wouldn't have been a world cinema classic, but the cavalier way he was dismissed is, as the Siren suggests, dismal.

Tonio Kruger said...

Zanuck was afraid of jazz and yet he was willing to work with the great Louis Armstrong on Hello, Dolly? Perhaps because he had no idea what type of music Armstrong was most associated with. Or maybe it was just because he couldn't get Paul McCartney...

The Siren said...

Ned, I can't say that I entirely blame Zanuck. The story proposal is just impossible for 1967, although it's funny to contemplate that Hello Dolly! (or Hello Walter) was also a bit of a dinosaur project, as was Star! and god knows Dr. Dolittle. I'm not sure what I'd have done differently from Zanuck; kind words for Koster's past might have made the man feel worse. What gets me is just the abject pity I have for Koster, pitching a story that might have played really well in 1937, 30 years later, and the merciless details that Dunne piles on. And, as you say Koster was, a man who had helped save the studio's bacon years before with The Robe--although that isn't a good movie. On the other hand, I'll happily plump for My Cousin Rachel, another teenage favorite of mine. Wonder how I would like it now.

Tonio, Armstrong is just about the only thing I really like about Hello, Dolly!. That's a fun scene.

The Siren said...

XT, it's striking how in 30s and 40s films, classical music is often pretty matter-of-fact, just something a cultivated person was assumed to have some level of familiarity with. Even as late as A Letter to Three Wives, where the Brahms that Kirk Douglas listens to marks him as a intellectual, but not some sort of way-out highbrow.

I'm trying to remember--I think it's I'll Cry Tomorrow where Susan Hayward is listening to something, I think as she's trying to dry out, and remarks casually, "I like a lot of longhair music." (anyone?)

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, let's not forget that Mark McPherson goes to concerts even if he does fall asleep. And since when didn't Don Birnam like Brahms?

One of the interesting points about classical music in movies (especially Warners) is the note of idealism and spiritual uplift asociated with it; this in addition to romance and quite beyond mere kulchural aspiration. Examples: Arthur Kennedy's NY symphony, Victor Francen as Not Toscanini in Tales of Manhattan. (though think of all those long evenings on the Upper West Side with Victor Laszlo playing his Bach 78s while Ilse dreams of fox trotting to "Perfidia" with Rick).


Koster will always have a little corner in my pantheon for The Rage of Paris

DavidEhrenstein said...

About "Hello Walter". . .

Buttermilk Sky said...

Siren, it's "I Want To Live!" where Hayward is enjoying some longhair music on the radio (Debussy, I think)while waiting to be executed. Still the most unsparing depiction of capital punishment in any film.

It's been some time since I read "The Studio." Didn't Gene Kelly want to do something involving stunt flying? Was that for "Hello, Dolly"? It might have helped.

Jaime said...

re musical taste signifying culture, one of the most sublime passages in recent film for me is that amazing little scene in Desplechin's A CHRISTMAS TALE where the family patriarch sits not just listening to Charles Mingus, but following along with the sheet music! (I recall it being something from "Pre-Bird Mingus," maybe "Half-Mast Inhibition"? I haven't seen it since the NYFF premiere-- definitely time for a re-visit)

B said...

WIth a little tweaking (make it a kid chorus instead of orchestra, etc) that plot sounds like it would be very apropos for an episode of "Glee"

The Siren said...

XT, there's a passage in Gelsey Kirkland's Dancing on My Grave that's always fascinated me, when she's discussing the process of getting clean from drugs. And she says that while she was detoxing, all she listened to was classical music; nothing else was going to have the "spiritual uplift" that you describe and that she needed. Rage of Paris I have from Netflix awaiting me, btw.

Buttermilk Sky, YES! Thank you! I knew somebody would come up with it. I had a picture of Susie (I don't know why she's Susie in my brain, but she is) listening to the radio, and deep in some trying circs, but I think that instead of the guard/nurse that she was with in IWTL, mentally I had her with Eddie Albert.

It's still a harrowing movie, I agree. Unforgettable moment at the end, when the nurse tells her to inhale deeply when the cyanide drops, because it's "easier that way," and Susie snaps back, "How would you know?"

The Siren said...

Jaime, that reminds me of a detail in a great Charlie Parker doc I once saw, that described him arriving in New York with the sheet music to Stravinsky's Firebird in his suitcase...

B, ha! I haven't seen Glee, but from what I've heard, yeah, it would fit that retro vibe just fine.

X. Trapnel said...

We tend to snicker these days at the idea of spiritual uplift, even with art (which of course is supposed to be "transgressive" or punitive/disciplinary, one of the crappier aspects of modernist aesthetics, esp. as formulated by Prof. Adorno). Joseph Horowitz, a brilliant cultural historian, has written about the near religious veneration of music in early twentieth century America which I believe carried over into the movies, more often than not in a working-class context. I would also recommend Horowitz's Artists in Exile (a good companion volume to City of Nets); very good on Stravinsky (who admired Charlie Parker in turn) and Balanchine. Honesty compells me to add that the book is marred by Horowitz's incomprehensible incomprehension of Lubitsch.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MrsHenryWindleVale said...

For me, the most embarrassing classical music/"spiritual uplift" moment is Cary Grant conducting Brahms at the end of the Mankiewicz PEOPLE WILL TALK. Not entirely sure whether this is due to the awkwardness of the film or the sheer unimaginability of Cary Grant having his spirit uplifted.

... and I am someone who enjoys classical music, for the record.

X. Trapnel said...

Mrs. HWV,

That's the gawdawful Mankiewicz; people WILL talk and talk and talk, without a good word said. Ever.

He thought he knew better than Scott Fitzgerald.

However, my inner Thumper reminds me that The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is Mankmade.

estienne64 said...

Apropos of changing cinematic tastes in music, especially classical: Joan Crawford's presumably witty remark about martinis in Humoresque, 'they're an acquired taste, like Ravel.' I wonder if that's still true of either.

X. Trapnel said...

The multitudinous absurdity of this line surely lies in the fact the fact that EVERYBODY likes Ravel, from the mouth-breathing Bolero enthusiast to the happy few who breathe the rarefied air of the Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme or the sublime Piano Trio.

Is this the proper venue to confess that I've never had a martini?

DavidEhrenstein said...

My take on Todd's Mildred

FDChief said...

"XT, it's striking how in 30s and 40s films, classical music is often pretty matter-of-fact, just something a cultivated person was assumed to have some level of familiarity with."

I'd go beyond that; up until some time in the Fifties, the typical moviegoer was assumed to have at least a passing acquaintence with the classics; not an "understanding", perhaps, but enough familiarity to be able to recognize certain classical pieces and have some vague knowledge of the genre and the most popular bits of it.

As proof I'd point to the Warner's Bugs Bunny cartoons of the Forties and Fifties. Bugs covers everything from Rossini's Barber of Seville to Wagner's entire "Ring" cycle, Liszt (in "Rhapsody Rabbit"), as well as Rossini (again), Donizetti, Wagner (again)and von Suppe all in one six-minute short ("Long-haired Hare").

Sure, they were gags, but you had to know at least a little bit about classical music to "get" a lot of the gag. The "Figaro Fertilizer" Bugs applies in "The Rabbit of Seville" is funnier if you know that there's an opera called "The Marriage of Figaro". The conductir in "Long-haired Hare" is funnier if you recognize the wascally wabbit's mannerisms parody Stokowski.

I'm not sure what happened first; films stopped referencing classical (because the public had stopped listening to it), or the public stopped listening (and so the films stopped using it).

X. Trapnel said...

Good question, FDC; I tend to think the sixties rendered classical music culturally suspect, and this has continued ever after. It isn't uncommon to indicate a character's badness/strangeness by a taste for classical music (God, how I dislike that phrase). I submit as evidence an odious item from several years back called The School of Rock in which rich kids are weaned from filthy Mozart to find true humanity via that oxymoron rock music (sorry).

Lionel Braithwaite said...

@X. Trapnel: The thing is, the rock music heard and played in School Of Rock is quite complicated, requiring a ton of fretwork, keyboard and finger control similar to classical music; it's not '50's rock music by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the rock is the heavy metal type and the rock opera type (or at least is as complicated as the rock opera type.) So, if you think that rock isn't as amazing as classical, you're wrong-I think that you (and the others who've responded here) need to come off of your high horses with regards to rock music, and also with regards to this movie of Koster's. As for why Koster's movie wasn't greenlighted while Hello, Dolly was, it's simple; Hello, Dolly was a jazz romp set in the early 1900's; Koster's movie was a jazz movie set in the present day (1967) and it just didn't fit, and most likely wouldn't have.