A screenwriter scrutinizes a 1930s movie studio mogul amid the glory and greed of a golden age. 3,536 words. Illustration by John Mann.
Control was not only Amos Zangwill’s goal but his gift. He could smell when a picture was going bad, and this was most often because he could smell the people on it losing confidence. "Mossy" didn’t so much understand films as he did filmmakers: writers, directors, producers, stars. Not that he didn’t know what he liked and, with even greater decisiveness, what he disliked; but his gift was in knowing who to hire and when to fire. If a writer groused to Mossy about being made to write a script that was only a reworking of a standard formula, Mossy would say, “Formula! Formula? Do you know what formula is? It’s what works, what will work. Okay, I’m a baby and I’m crying, so go out and make me some formula. But make it new and fresh, the stale stuff gives me indigestion.”
Loving his pictures, Mossy also loved having power over his audiences. Once we walked together into a theater playing one of his movies. “Look at this,” he said as the opening credits finished. “In four minutes I will cause the people in this theater to laugh. In 22 minutes they will be scared out of their wits, and in 37 minutes I will make them cry.” And so it came to pass.
Mossy was the Jubilee Pictures studio chief — double-breasted and gold cuff-linked, dark reddish hair shining, nose pointing like the prow of a ship. Yes, I knew Amos Zangwill, knew him before the war. He was different then. This is what happened when I was in my twenties in the Thirties, a story of wilting bloom. Picture a time when left was right and right was wrong. We came, we wished, we dined out on promise. Seeing that tumultuous dawn break over us like a great wave, who could know if we’d be borne on it toward a gleaming new world or drowned in its foaming fury? Compared to the Big Strike in San Francisco, Hollywood’s guild wars were milkshakes. Compared to the Communist Party, Jubilee Pictures was anarchy itself. Compared to the Depression, our salaries were not merely astronomical but pornographic. I, slave to regard, was shackled to the keep’s lowest rung.
Driving to work that morning, I was queasy. Movies and fame: what a perfect marriage, each dependent on projection. In the search for identity that was my Grail over these teeming months, I attributed divine powers to those whose prominence endowed them with a magical existence. What was a star’s glamour anyway? Glamour was no less than the radiant moment extended and absorbed into personality. It became a defiance of inevitability, of time and death. It made up for something that wasn’t there or that had been but had vanished. My wait for a portion of this existence, I assured myself as I approached the studio gates, was over.
A vast moan arose from the waiting mass as I steered my roadster toward the guard booth at Jubilee Studios. Hopeful and hopeless, patient and impatient, the dispossessed bunched around my car. Even more than with the stars, who they didn’t dare bother, they implored anonymities like me to get them inside for a day’s work. I had learned to ignore them, real people wishing only to become part of the fakery. The alternating current between dreams and reality in Hollywood during the Great Depression yielded such high voltage that the contradictory flows of energy made you dizzy. Almost every movie was in some way a denial of the Depression itself.
From Jubilee’s gates, the studio looked like a dozen airplane hangars in a well-guarded penitentiary for high-risk repeat offenders. Inside was a miniature civilization with a caste system both rigid where authority was concerned and flexible when talent showed itself. A factory town with each filmmaking task having its own little company. I reported for duty to a large boom-voiced courtly southern colonel who was often playful in his husbandry of writers and liked to joke he was really only in charge of keeping them sober. I scuttled to my office to begin work on an original and wait for Mossy’s triumphant summons.
Meanwhile, morning was heating up in the throne room. Mossy began so calmly with his supervisors and flunkies, they all thought it was going to be only a Monday morning preview of the week’s work. Perhaps one of them, the conniving production chief, suspected a storm was percolating beneath the calm. Others present, the lineup of fugitive grotesques it took to run a studio, were the deceptively genteel assistant production head; the hatchet man; the suave overeducated nasal-accented British turncoat; the chunky head production manager; Mossy’s icy chief of staff; a pair of yes-men; and the villainous assistant studio manager. These functionaries were a palace guard, variously capable of acting as modest ambassadors, jocular persuaders, or ruthless enforcers depending on what roles their maestro felt the situation required.
“Fine weekend everyone?” Mossy asked as he casually leafed a script.
“Very little fun, whole lot of work,” said one of the suck-ups. It was his job to keep Rag Daze, a special calendar for charting the menstrual cycles of the important actresses on the lot. Directors were warned not to make harsh demands, not to have them swim if they don’t want to, during their periods.
“How dare not a single one of you know where our stars are?”
“Boss, it was a weekend…”
“Oh, that’s right, scandals don’t happen on weekends. Remember Fatty Arbuckle? Blockheads! I expect you to know where our talent is at all times. Now one of our actors is still in lockup when he should have been bailed within two hours of his arrest. He’s been there all night, and we can be sure someone from the Times, the Examiner or Variety will be at the jail within half an hour, maybe all three plus the Reporter. Those of you with cop friends, get to them right away. And the rest of you – I don’t want any of you overpriced baboons ever not to know where our stars are. If somebody does land in a lockup, you get them out of there within an hour, half an hour. Always have cash ready for bail even on weekends, especially on weekends. Does any of you dopes not get this straight?”
“We all get it, Boss,” said the production chief Hackley, suddenly a spokesman for the chastened chamberlains. We let you down, and…”
“It never happens again!” said Mossy. “You can all be replaced. I want you bastards I pay obscenely high salaries to be on sentry duty with my stars, and I don’t want no actor or actress to be fifteen minutes in a lockup before one of you is on the case. Am I understood?”
That done, Mossy surveyed his staff. Their ambition, greed, cunning was overmatched by his own. Mossy’s system was simplicity itself. Loyalty was all he demanded, not agreement, only loyalty.
His office was crafted to intimidate. At the end of a private corridor, the seat of power was huge, an emblem of his necessities. Symbolic of his need always to be a step ahead of his visitors, to show money when that helped and to conceal it when crying for economy. It expressed domination in every gesture and design. A reflecting pool on one side of the room was a grandiose distraction. As were Monet’s water lilies hanging above it. Strong men slumped in their seats because of the way Mossy had the chairs tilted backward on the supplicants’ side of his desk.
An aggressive wash of light shone on whomever sat across from Mossy; the person was virtually Klieged by a ceiling spot and a light from below, both of which Mossy controlled from his desk which itself was massive and platformed like Mussolini’s.
But Mossy had another lighting idiosyncrasy. One side of his face was lit, while the other dipped into shadow. Disconcerting first-time visitors, Mossy became both sinister and cherubic because if he leaned one way the light on his head would tend to halate while his face looked like Beelzebub himself. This added to his mystery, and he often used the shadowy face when greeting a writer and again when firing him.
Like he did to an immense $2,000-a-week writer whose weight was said to be about one-third his salary and a man given to bombast.
“You knew there was a problem in the first draft,” Mossy said.
"Oh, but that’s what I’ve clearly solved,” the scribe replied. “When I changed the…”
“Oh, but you clearly haven’t,” Mossy told him. “I’m going to solve this problem or I’m not going to make the picture.”
“But why?" The screenwriter stammered. “Why? Why?…
Mossy silenced the man with a look of contempt, his eyes shining as if through the visor of a helmet. “Why? Because it rhymes with ‘I’. Meeting over.”
At 34, as old and as young as the century, Mossy was beginning to lose a small amount of his dark russet-tinged hair from the top of his head, and the halo would often be highlighting a tiny bald spot on his crown. With his little tonsure, Mossy could resemble a medieval monk gravely purposed to sentence a dozen suspected heretics to a session on the rack prior to their execution. All he actually told an actor or director was, “I’m afraid we’ve decided to go in another direction,” but the effect was as if he’d told them their testicles were to be snipped and fried in whale oil.
In the long corridor leading to his office, one wall held photographs (some real, some composite fakes) of Mossy with stars and potentates, while the other was lined with a one-way mirror enabling Mossy to see into his waiting room and who was nervous, apprehensive, hopeful, annoyed. People had been known to cross themselves when the nod finally came.
When Mossy deemed a visitor important enough to rise from his desk and come across the room to greet, what he saw was what he loved, an infinity of Amos Zangwills. The most treacherous mirror was behind Mossy’s desk, concealing a private door; actors were so inhibited by being made self-consciously aware of how they looked that they were disabled from conferring about anything more significant than a fresh wrinkle.
Mossy himself was the best actor on his own lot. Dressed as fastidiously as a gangster, he could charm, berate, mother, father, rage, cajole, play the fool when he had nothing to lose, become a tragedian with everything to gain – all better than anyone he hired. He could withhold approval, vengefully suspend an actor for refusing a bad picture and then, when he heard the actor was about to sign with a rival studio, offer him the role of his career. “A super-precautious son of a bitch,” a labor racketeer once described Mossy, “with a pair of mountains for balls.”
His constitutional discontent seldom permitted Mossy, even on social occasions, not to be working.
After Mossy’s secretary had shooed the chastened executives away, she led in a petitioner – an old silents tycoon. The man had been given to apoplectic rages, but had a stroke that left him speechless. The stroke occurred in 1927 after he had taken his new wife half his age and gone into a tirade against sound on film. He clutched at his throat, flailed his arms, and fell down a flight of stairs, a scene he had filmed many times in his pictures. Mossy had been given his first job in Hollywood by the man and had learned moviemaking at his feet. Literally. On one occasion, before a premiere, he had made Mossy shine his shoes. When he was told the circumstances of the old man’s stroke, Mossy had shrugged, “Melodrama is so old-fashioned.”
Yet Mossy granted the movie pioneer a brief appointment, and he was wheeled in by his wife who hadn’t yet figured out how to leave her helpless husband. He had a book in his lap he wanted to produce. A bitter romance, a rich man, his unhappy wife, their lovers. By Sinclair Lewis. Dodsworth.
“I know the book and I saw the play. Keep your copy. It’s a downer, people don’t want that now,” Mossy said. “Glad you came in, keep your chin up old man.” Then the secretary hustled them out, wheelchair and wife, almost before they saw how much Mossy had enjoyed turning his old mentor, and tormentor, down. Instead Mossy suggested the book to Sam Goldwyn. When he heard about it, the tycoon had another stroke, this one fatal.
This morning his office was a hive of dispute. A producer charged in saying as much as he admired a certain actress, he thought she’d be wrong in his next picture. The script was a brittle satire on an upper-class marriage in which the husband’s fortune plummets along with the stock market, whereupon his scheming wife dumps him in favor of a mortgage-foreclosing banker. The picture would belong to the two men; the fickle wife was only a lever setting up the antagonism between them. The producer said the actress had the flesh of a hot water bottle, looking as though she might be running a slight fever, her eyes dark and bright at the same time. No camera could hide that. Mossy promised to have a writer, his ace construction man, warm up the wife’s part to please the producer by the time shooting started.
Next, writers slouched in. As MGM was known for being a producers’ studio, Jubilee prized writers. “In the beginning was the word,” Mossy repeated to his salaried dreamers, “and in the end is my word. If you guys don’t do your job, no one else has a job.” That didn’t mean writers were happy; always disgruntled, they had to sit still for being condescended to by everyone else in the food chain.
Ordered to appease church attacks on Hollywood, four writers were working on the story of Job, complaining they were in as much pain as Job himself. Mossy told them it would be spectacular when the Red Sea parted. They said that wasn’t the Job story.
Mossy’s next meeting was a ream. The scribe was in to hear instructions on the adaptation of a novel he’d taken over from another writer. This one was difficult and surly. He and Mossy were like animals genetically programmed to fight, but Mossy knew the scripter made gritty pictures and anyway he had a two-year contract.
“Story has no charm,” the writer said.
“Charm’s not what it needs,” said Mossy. “It needs pace, action, toughness.”
“This picture and I can’t find each other.”
“Good,” Mossy said, “keep looking. That’ll make whatever you do find better. The novel’s okay, for a novel anyway. I bought it for the characters: the ex-con, his wife and daughter, the detective, the teacher who drinks, the crooked lawyer, the bowling alley guy. Now we’re going to have those people do what it makes sense for them to do in a motion picture. They’re no longer going to be staring at each other while they think and we read what they’re thinking. They’re going to be doing, playing, fighting. They need visible energy. The characters are still the meat, but we need gravy badly, and mashed potatoes, beans, then ice cream. Gravy comes from what’s already inside them, like a turkey’s gravy from giblets – heart, gizzard, liver.
“Part of this gravy is the ex-con maybe wants to prove he was innocent in the first place. I know in the novel he is guilty, but the people who go to pictures really like a man come back against the odds and right the wrong. We don’t know that at first, everyone just assumes he’s guilty, his wife and daughter included, but he wants to clear his name. So naturally he has to find out who actually pulled off the robbery he did time for. See?”
Though inherently hostile, Mossy and the writer both believed in happy endings. “But you’ve stuck me on a story without a heart,” the scripter persisted.
“Not every story needs a heart, goddammit,” Mossy said. “This one has kishkas. All you have to do is push the bittersweet relationship, more bitter if you want, give me some mystery about why the detective hates the ex-con so much – are they long lost brothers? Or did the detective see someone who looks like the ex-con kill his mother? Gimme a chase, underground maybe, in the sewers, I don’t know, then punch up the ending. Meeting over.”
Next, a red-maned actress had two minutes to convince Mossy she was right for a gangster moll after he had lost faith in the producer’s ability to cast his own picture. “The part is important,” Mossy told her, “because if we don’t believe she has a mind of her own we won’t care when the heavy pushes her into a wall.” Declaiming a line from the script, the actress said, “This broad don’t take no guff from nobody, and that means you, Mr. Big Nobody!” Mossy liked that. When they stood to shake hands, the actress stared at Mossy’s fly before fixing on his eyes, keeping hold of his hand. Mossy said to his secretary after the actress had gone, “find out if she’s free for lunch tomorrow. Maybe today.”
Near the end of the day, his secretary ushered in a small squad of writers with their flustered director. Finding Mossy gone, one of the writers said it was like a reprieve from the governor just before an electrocution.
A week of shooting had produced an indecipherable mess. The first writer, a former reporter, had been brought in to adapt a current novel. Writer number two came for scene construction and continuity. Writer number three, a playwright, was enlisted to brighten dialogue. Writer number four added physical and visual tension, screen pacing. Writer number five came for gags, despite the fact that the story was fairly serious. Then writer three had returned to touch up the dialogue just before shooting, after which number two came back to tighten the structure. Before all this happened, a reader had synopsized the novel, giving it three pages plus a recommendation, which was don’t touch it. It got touched anyway.
As the writers fidgeted, a door slammed in the outer office as Mossy began speaking while no one in his inner office could yet see him. “Over and done with, cut our losses, this is a baby only a mother could love, and I’m no mother. Picture’s canceled.”
They still couldn’t see him and he’d already executed them, especially the director. The writers looked at each other, then at the director, who had his head down, and nobody knew whether he was starting to cry or trying to say something but couldn’t push out his words.
At last Mossy was visible in the office itself. One of the writers, who had been in the Army, stood as though an officer had entered. Another writer thought hopefully, desperately, perhaps Mossy was referring to a different project. “What’s that you’re talking about, Chief?” he asked. Trying to come to the director’s aid, a third writer said, “We’ve just been clearing our throats so far. The best stuff starts getting into the can tomorrow.” “We can fix it, Boss, fix it fast,” said the youngest writer in the room, who happened to be number four.
Now Mossy had heard something he could pounce on. “Tell me how right this minute. And a minute is just what you have.”
This writer, whose ideas had been routinely rejected by his senior colleagues, asserted himself. “The aviator,” he said, “shouldn’t be an aviator but the captain of a cargo ship that’s being taken away from him unjustly after he’s rammed by a Coast Guard cutter driven by a man who hates him for having won the girl they were both in love with.”
At the word “love,” Mossy’s ears almost literally pricked up. He leaned forward, saying nothing, always the sign for a writer to continue.
“Meanwhile, the girl herself, a morsel everyone wants but only the captain has, is being blackmailed by another guy she rejected who happens to know her father was also once involved in a shipping scandal of his own. She wants to save the two men she loves, but doesn’t have the money the blackmailer demands to keep quiet.”
Something had happened to change the room from a funeral parlor to the starting gate at a race track. “Stop shooting. Have the new script by Friday, do all of you understand?” said Mossy.
Eagerness is a poor word to describe the joy, gratitude, alacrity and enthusiasm with which the writers and directors felt about their salvation. Before they had even retreated to the other end of Mossy’s corridor, the director was kissing the youngest scribe. “It’s a different picture, but you saved it. I owe you my firstborn.”
“One more thing," Mossy interrupted. "I’m not in the complicated-picture business on this one, I’m in the love business. The father, the captain, the guy in the boat, the blackmailer, they all love the girl. Go type me some love.”