A movie studio executive refereeing a ruckus wonders how he got in the middle of it. 1,841 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1953
The Paramount Pictures executive suite was decorated in muted blue and green tones with aqua adorning the walls of the sumptuous offices where the top men nested on large sofas and chairs that reflected the paint scheme. An interior designer, probably a set decorator from the studio, suggested the colors because they had a soothing effect on the inhabitants and their visitors.
But this soothing atmosphere was having little to no effect on the meeting taking place inside James McLaren’s office. Jimmy to his friends, Paramount’s Chief of Studio Production was in the process of mediating between one of the most heralded directors and the current hot blonde commodity that the studio had produced.
“Sie ist faul und kann nicht handeln!” Hart Winslow, nee Reinhardt Wisner, shouted, slipping into his native German whenever he began to get angry. Winslow was one of many of the great artists that Hitler managed to chase out of Germany in the thirties. The director belonged to the legendary Berlin school of filmmakers that also produced Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. His escape was aided by the exiled Europeans now living in Hollywood; Bertolt Brecht had been his traveling companion.
McLaren didn’t speak a word of German but knew that Winslow was upset. “Hart, please, calm down.”
Winslow tried to stay in his chair. “Jimmy — excuse me, Mr. McLaren — she is… unprofessional!” He was using both hands as if praying or pleading.
Lisa L’Anore was sitting in the opposite chair and looking down at her shoes, at the plush carpet, at her fingernails and seeming, frankly, bored. She was gorgeous, McLaren had to admit, and filmed even better on the big screen. Today she was dressed in a conservative blue dress with a short jacket but even in this professional outfit it was hard not to see the smoldering body underneath. Paramount had put a lot of money into grooming her in the last few years. She’d had some bit parts but, after two very successful comedies and a second female lead in an Alan Ladd Western, the studio was now ready to make her a star. She was going to be their Marilyn Monroe and no expense had been spared in sculpting every bit of her appearance.
McLaren had to shake himself back to the conversation.
“Miss L’Anore,” McLaren said, trying to make contact with her two very blue eyes. She had come to the studio with that name and every time McLaren tried to say it, he winced. Finally she looked up at McLaren and gave her best impression of giving him her undivided attention. “Miss L’Anore, what exactly is the problem with making this picture? What can we do to make this a wonderful experience for you?”
“Fire him.” She said this with barely a glance towards Hart Winslow.
“Hündin…” Winslow growled. He was a big man with a ruddy complexion and a bulbous nose from drink. His appearance reminded McLaren of something Jack Warner had once said to him at a party: “All these Germans do is drink and make great pictures!”
McLaren stood up. “Hart, please…”
Winslow put his head down. McLaren couldn’t help feel sorry for the man. Here was one of the truly great directors of his time whose name was mentioned in the same breath as Ford, Wyler and Capra. A four-time Best Director nominee without a win who’d directed some of the best pictures in the thirties and forties. But, like most artists whose time had come and gone, he was falling from grace now and the studio had stuck him with this picture. A musical no less! It was only a short distance before he’d be walking that one last mile into television.
McLaren hated meetings like these but the film’s producer, not one to stick around whenever there was conflict, had given himself a week’s vacation to go deep-sea fishing off Catalina and dumped the whole mess into the Chief of Studio Production’s lap.
McLaren sat back down and took in the situation, wondering how he would work this So all the parties could be satisfied. He often asked himself what he was doing in this position. It had happened so fast! But it was not surprising that he wound up working in motion pictures; it was the family business after all. He’d heard it said all his life, “Most Hollywood dynasties worked their way up. The McLarens muscled their way to the top.”
Both his parents, Donald and Maggie McLaren, had started with Thomas Ince, the director and producer of silent pictures, back in New York. Then Uncle Jack, his father’s younger brother, followed them to California when Ince decided to move his operations to a better climate and beyond the reach of Thomas Edison’s agents who were constantly spying, harassing, assaulting and destroying any motion picture set that did not conform to the rules and payments of his trust.
In the new community of Hollywood, the McLarens thrived. Jimmy’s father was a master carpenter and started out constructing sets and props for Ince. His mother was an artist with a needle and thread; soon she was creating costumes and stitching together scenery for Ince’s fledgling studio.
Donald McLaren was soon in charge of all construction for Inceville, the first fully incorporated studio complete with sets, editing rooms, offices, labs, a prop department, dressing rooms and a cafeteria to accommodate the hundreds of employees and extras that eventually worked at the studio. As the years went by, his father traded in his tool belt for custom-made suits and a chauffeured Packard as his status grew in Hollywood, and he became the liaison between the trade craft unions and all the studios. Maggie McLaren was just as ambitious and parlayed her dressmaking skills into a business; she was sought out by all the great Hollywood designers. In time, she had her own shops filled with dresses and gowns created by her and her staff. McLaren passed one store every morning on his way to the studio. It still bore the family name even though his mother retired to Arizona years ago.
The family was still everywhere in Hollywood. Jimmy knew at least a dozen McLarens and several Hennesseys, his mother’s side of the family, that worked at Paramount alone. His father had put his money into land especially in and around Los Angeles, up north by Sacramento and west by Santa Monica. The son recalled that during the late twenties and early thirties right after the Depression hit, relatives from New York, Boston and the old countries of Ireland and Scotland came to California by train and the carload, invited by his parents to live in the houses that his father and uncles were building. There was plenty of work at the studios and the ranches outside of Hollywood for all.
Jimmy noticed there were two distinct physical types among the men. Compact builds with broad shoulders, square jaws and dark red hair; his father had those attributes. Or tall and slender with sharp handsome features and black hair; Uncle Jack and McLaren himself fell into that category, and their jet black hair began to turn gray by the time they reached their thirties.
Donald McLaren had passed away several years ago; overworked and not yet satisfied with all he had, he suffered a heart attack while surveying some farmland out passed Bakersfield. But Uncle Jack still held power in Hollywood. Now with a shock of white hair and in his sixties, he’d kept his suave trim looks by playing tennis and taking laps in his oversized built-in pool. He was a partner at the William Morris Agency, although he represented no writers, directors or actors. He was on the payroll, at one time or another, of every major studio in the industry. He never produced or directed a picture but he was the man to see if there were tough negotiations. Whereas McLaren’s father had handled studio business upfront with the heads of the unions and studios, Uncle Jack made deals in the shadows and dealt with the underworld on behalf of the studios. Jimmy didn’t know all of his uncle’s secrets and his father had advised him not to pry too deeply. “Better off you don’t know. I don’t ask and I don’t want to know.”
It was Uncle Jack who’d given Jimmy that first boost into the motion picture business. For a while it seemed Hollywood would skip a second generation of McLarens. Jimmy’s older brother Sean became, inexplicably, a cop and was now a homicide detective down in Long Beach. Younger brother Eddie took off at age eighteen to play coronet with Tommy Dorsey’s band and now owned a night club in lower Manhattan. Jimmy himself, an exceptional athlete all his life, was signed to play shortstop for the New York Giants just before the war. But that dream ended when shrapnel from a mortar shattered his right knee on Omaha Beach.
When Jimmy came back home, his father encouraged him to go into the construction business with him or join a union. But McLaren had had enough carpentry to last him a lifetime after working every summer since he was in elementary school at the studios or on construction sites. He wanted more. That’s when Uncle Jack got him a job in the publicity department at MGM. With Jimmy’s contacts and his own considerable charm, he’d climbed to his current position in less than ten years. Now nearing forty, he was all grey-haired with some white creeping in. With a little luck, in a decade or two more, he’d look as good as Uncle Jack.
The tension evident in Jimmy’s office had not lessened and now a full-scale argument ensued with Winslow mixing English with German and L’Anore slipping into her native New Jersey whine. When the phone on McLaren’s desk rang, he held up his hand for quiet, and both combatants finally complied. The caller was his secretary and, as McLaren listened, the color drained from his face. “Tell them I’ll be there in a half hour. Have Connie bring the car around immediately.”
McLaren hung up the phone, stood up and then came around from his desk buttoning his jacket. He spoke very calmly but there was a touch of menace behind every word. “Hart, Miss L’Anore is a very valuable commodity to this studio and I would greatly appreciate it if you would bring all your filmmaking experience and nurture her fullest potential.”
The executive then turned towards the starlet. “Now Lisa, Mr. Winslow should be accorded the respect of one of the great artists of our time.”
When she rolled her eyes and turned away, McLaren raised his voice.
“Do you hear me, Miss L’Anore? Because if you are late one more time or hold up production on this picture for one more moment, I will invite you to my office and you can watch me tear your contract to shreds and you can go crawling back to Columbia for a hundred-fifty a week.”
This got her attention and she slowly nodded, then put her hand out to Winslow who reluctantly shook it.
“Good.” McLaren said, as he walked towards the door. “Now you’ll have to excuse me. My Uncle Jack was just shot while sitting poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel.”