The Studio System

by Malvin Wald

I entered the Hollywood studio system in 1939 as a 21 year old screenwriter and for the next ten years served time at every major venue -- Warner Brothers, M-G-M, 20th Century-Fox, Paramount, Columbia, Universal-International and R.K.O.

The studios were like prisons. You had committed the crime of selling an acceptable story and now were condemned to write a suitable screenplay for possible production. The odds were frightening. Only one out of every five studio scripts reach the screen.

At Warner Bothers, I was ordered to follow studio rules.

I would report to work every weekday at 9 A.M. I would spend a half-hour reading the trades "Daily Variety" and "The Hollywood Reporter" to learn what was new in the industry. Then I worked on my script.

Writers were assigned a personal secretary. Some of my fellow-prisoners dictated directly to the secretary. Others wrote the material on legal pads. I chose to type my work, correct it by pencil and pass it on to my secretary for final typing.

We inmates were required to write 25 pages a week until a first draft of 150 pages was completed. Like convicts at Sing Sing who had to turn out a quota of license plates, we writers had to meet deadlines. My final pages would be sent to my producer, Sam Bischoff, who performed the duties of as deputy warden.

If he was satisfied, he would send the script to Jack Warner, president of Warner Brothers,who behaved like a chief warden of the writers.

His window overlooked the Writers' Building and if any one dared leave before noon, he was intercepted by a studio guard and advised to return to his office until noon.

I had previously worked in the Brooklyn, N.Y. Post Office as a clerk and had been assigned the graveyard shift from 6 P.M. to 2 A.M. Thus my personal time clock was out of whack and by eleven o'clock every morning I was starving.

Unable to go to lunch, I prowled the halls anxiously. On my first day at the studio. March 13, 1939, I met another hungry hall-prowler. He had been up early hiking in the Hollywood Hills because they reminded him of his home in England. He introduced himself to me.

I was staggered to learn that he was James Hilton, world-renowned author of GOODBYE,MR. CHIPS and LOST HORIZON. I confessed to him that I felt like leaving the studio at once. How could a hopeless amateur like me compete with a famous writer like him?

Hilton ask me to tell him the story I sold the studio for actor John Garfield. It was about a young Brooklyn attorney, who finds success is a charade and returns to his youthful idealism,just like the doctor in A.J. Cronin's THE CITADEL.

Hilton praised me for choosing such a fine plot line and suggested there was room at the studio for all kinds of writers - ones like him who wrote about British schoolmasters and others like me who dramatized the life of a Brooklyn attorney.

At lunch, Hilton introduced me to John Huston who acted as ringmaster for a long writers' table. I was seated next to W.R. Burnett, author of the gangster classic, LITTLE CAESAR.

I revealed that I was raised in a tough section in Brooklyn, just like Al Capone. Burnett suggested I write a gangster story. It took twenty years, but in 1958 I co-authored the Rod Steiger hit, AL CAPONE.

Seated opposite me was a veteran writer, George Bricker. He warned me that if I didn't make it big by time I was forty, I would be considered a washed-up hack .

Luckily, in 1948 I received an Oscar nomination for writing the best story for THE NAKED CITY, which ended with the now famous line "There are eight million stories in the Naked City."

The great thing about the writers' tables was that an unknown like myself would be able to network with older writers who were kind enough to offer advice and help to a struggling novice like me. I even got to chat with special guests Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn.

In 1946 at Paramount, there was no writers' table since most writers lunched at Oblath's Delicatessen across the street. But every Friday afternoon there was a farewell party for distinguished authors like John McNulty or Joseph Wechsberg who were returning to their literary careers in New York.

Billy Wilder was the head honcho for these events. Networking with him paid off in 1958 when director Dick Wilson was shooting my AL CAPONE script.

One of our climactic scenes took place in a Chicago garage where the infamous St. Valentine's massacre took place.

Wilder was shooting SOME LIKE IT HOT at M-G-M with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witnessing the massacre in the large garage with 1929 automobiles. I asked Wilder if he could get M-G-M to rent the set out to us and thus saving the cost of construction.

He did so and nobody noticed that the two films used an identical set.

Another writer was Frank Gruber, a prolific mystery novel writer. He said that if I write a mystery and he would send it to his publisher. A year later I did so, but my novel didn't sell.

An exceptional colleague at Paramount was Gilbert Seldes, critic for Esquire Magazine. He gave me all the swing band records sent to him for review.

Later he became dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. He invited me to come to his campus one week a year and I received $1,000 for chatting with the students in classrooms and fraternity houses.

Mel Shavelson became president of the Writers Guild Foundation. He appointed me to its Board of Trustees, where I met with famous writers like Dan Taradash, Julius Epstein, Allen Burns, Tom Schulman and James Brooks.

With the coming of television program success in 1950s the writers no longer had the long studio tables.

Instead they ate with the fellow-writers like the Sid Caesar staff, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen who were brilliantly dramatized by Neil Simon in LAUGHTER FROM THE 23rd FLOOR.

I belonged to such a team for the TV program, GRIZZLY ADAMS in Ruidoso, New Mexico and on the Rich Little show, YOU ASKED FOR IT.

As interesting as the small TV groups were, they never were as fascinating as the big studio writers' tables which I encountered from 1939 to 1957.