Sunday, December 31, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: The Bad and the Beautiful

The Set-Up: For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 

"Von Ellstein to direct"

Well...that is if you're in Hollywood, and you're expecting Your Big Break that, instead, gets dealt away in order to secure The Deal.

I'm sure there are a lot of crocodile tears flowing out there for just this sort of injustice, but think of it for a moment—you've worked on something, hammered out all the dents, polished it to a fine chromium finish, sometimes for years—you've solved all the problems that will come up and the thing is golden. Then, it gets taken out of your hands where you can watch the same mistakes being made, the waste of effort, and the singular wrong-headedness that creative ego will wreak on something that, to your creative ego, is perfect.

This is commonly known as being a script-writer. In fact, you could use those points above on a resume and anybody hiring would know exactly what you might be applying for. In the movie Hearts of the West, a character says "You're only a writer if somebody says you are." In Hollywood, you're only a real scriptwriter if you've been re-written. It's an inevitable part of the process and only a person of more ego than talent (or certainly experience) understands that. One is reminded of the story where even George S. Kaufman (while attending a rehearsal of his play "Animal Crackers" stopped The Marx Brothers with the line: "Pardon me for interrupting, but I thought for a minute I actually heard a line I wrote." And that was Kaufman.

But, creativity isn't the coin of the realm in Hollywood. Coin is the coin of the realm in Hollywood. After all, Hollywood is based on the old ethic "you have to spend money to make money," but you want to make sure that after you spend your money, that you get some of it back, and *huzzah* maybe even turn a profit.  So the tried and true—what has made money in the past—is less risky than trying something new. That's Hollywood 101. And the stomping on egos— rightly or wrongly—in pursuit of the golden ring is Hollywood 102.

And so, The Bad and the Beautiful is the familiar story of ambition overcoming ethics, greed overcoming loyalty, lust overcoming fidelity with the overview that your word isn't worth the paper it isn't printed on...

And as it is produced by John Houseman, the script is basically "Citizen Kane in Hollywood", with the same flashback structure going over the history from the perspective of principals involved with the one individual the story is based around. Except that Houseman's urges have far more melodramatic than dramatic flourishes and the basis of it is much more shallowly "romantic" than reality-based. The only thing true about this version of Hollywood is the back-stabbing. If it wasn't for that, this movie would be the same as Mickey and Judy putting on a show in a barn.

And being petulantly bitter about their billing.

The Story: Producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) calls in screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) to the offices of Shields Studios. After a series of flops producer and studio head Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) has done some restructuring and is ready to make more pictures, but transatlantic calls to Bartlow, Lorrison and Amiel to participate have gone unanswered. So, Pebbel has summoned them to have a little "heart to heart" and go over some history (in flashback form). We're at the point in Amiel's part of the story where, after working for years making B-movies with Shields, they have the script, the star, and momentum to make a million dollar picture—if studio head Harry Pebbel will bankroll the film. 

Amiel paces outside Pebbel's office while Shields makes the presentation pitch that will change their lives. 


FRED AMIEL (narrating) A conference was held in Pebbel's discuss production plans for "The Faraway Mountain". The suspense was killing me. - 
PEBBEL's SECRETARY Yes, Mr. Pebbel? 
HARRY PEBBEL: You can go to lunch now. 
PEBBEL's SECRETARY Why don't you take a look in there? 
AMIEL I think I'll stay here and be nervous. 
AMIEL Thanks, honey. 
AMIEL Jonathan... - 
AMIEL What happened? Didn't he go for Gaucho? - 
AMIEL Didn't he go for Gaucho? - 
JONATHAN SHIELDS Go for him? He had a hemorrhage! 
SHIELDS The first time a star said he'd shine in a Pebbel picture.
SHIELDS I'll tell ya this for Harry: He went to bat for us.
SHIELDS He slugged it out with the front office!
SHIELDS "The Faraway Mountain" will be made with a million-dollar budget.
SHIELDS Location in Veracruz. Von Ellstein to direct.
SHIELDS Eh...Gaucho.
SHIELDS Wendy for the girl.
SHIELDS Chapman my cameraman... 
AMIEL Von Ellstein to direct... 
SHIELDS You're taken care of. Harry agreed. It won't be a separate panel, but your name on the screen: Assistant to the producer. - 
AMIEL Thanks. - 
SHIELDS Ah, Fred, You know the story better than anyone else.
SHIELDS It's your baby. I want you on the set.
SHIELDS You have any ideas, I'll tell Von Ellstein. 
AMIEL Thanks, again. Von Ellstein to direct... 
SHIELDS You always said he was the best in the business. 
AMIEL Sure he is. 
SHIELDS Fred, I'd rather hurt you now than kill you off forever. You're not ready to direct a million dollar picture. 
AMIEL But you're ready to produce one. 
SHIELDS With Von Ellstein, I am. 
AMIEL You're stealing my picture! It was my idea! I gave it to you! 
SHIELDS Without me it was only an idea. 
AMIEL All right, Jonathan. Let's put it this way. You gave me your word. 
SHIELDS So I did. 
PEBBEL: Jonathan, I just got the starting date.
PEBBEL: In two weeks you leave for Veracruz. 
PEBBEL: Mr. Von Ellstein, you'll go one week earlier. 
VON ELLSTEIN Right. Mr. Shields, I'll tell you a secret: I don't like producers, but for a man who hands me such a script, eh?... it'll be a pleasure to break my rule. Today, I shall buy a producer lunch, Mr. Shields. - 
PEBBEL: Am I included? - 
VON ELLSTEIN By all means, no. 
VON ELLSTEIN Mr. Shields, I've seen a thing I thought I'd never see. Today I've seen a script prepared by a producer who thinks like a director. - 
VON ELLSTEIN For 13 years I've been making pictures... - 
AMIEL Goodbye, Jonathan. 
SHIELDS Fred... So long, Fred. 
VON ELLSTEIN And this is the first time I've found a script I can direct exactly as it is...Shot by shot (shot by shot) 
PEBBEL: I always said the boy was a genius. 
PEBBEL: What are you looking at? The Oscar he got for "The Faraway Mountain?" 
PEBBEL: Oh, I know what you have against Jonathan, and no wonder. 
PEBBEL: Look what he did to you, Fred. He brushed you off his coattail, so you had to stand on your own two feet. 
PEBBEL: And all you've got in the world is a wife, six kids, two Academy Awards...and every studio in town after you. 
PEBBEL: Why, Jonathan ruined you! Look what he did to me. 
PEBBEL: I gave him his chance to do "The Faraway Mountain" and what does he do?. Four months later, his contract's up, and he walks out of the studio. 
PEBBEL: And I go right with him.

The Bad and the Beautiful

Words by George Bradshaw and Charles Schnee

Pictures by Robert Surtees and Vincente Minnelli

The Bad and the Beautiful is available on DVD and Blu-ray from M-G-M Home Video.