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.