Nobody’s Oscar

by Nat Segaloff

OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An unceremonious tale behind the history of Hollywood and the mob. 2,125 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

In a glass case at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 7B44E679-DD00-4B87-9873-6B80A7AA57E8there stands in silent solitude a lonely Oscar statuette. It carries no name plate. And its hollow eyes stare in gilded oblivion at the countless people who pass it every day without so much as a moment’s curiosity. The award belongs to screenwriter Harper Monroe Farrow, yet it’s never been claimed. That’s because there is no such person, male or female, living or dead. Of this I’m certain.

The Academy, in its unyielding discretion, has never spoken of the orphaned Oscar. New employees are told only that it must remain under lock and key because AMPAS rules dictate it can go only to the person who won it. And no one has ever proven to be Harper Morrow Farrow.

Speculation abounds why this is nobody’s Oscar. It’s clear to me that Harper Morrow Farrow is a pseudonym. Some believe it belongs to the prolific Ben Hecht, who famously wrote or rewrote some 100 films during his colorful career and reputedly maintained a cadre of apprentices to churn out first drafts that he would polish before attaching his name and sending an invoice. Others say it was any of a number of contract writers fed up with scripting crap for their studios but who couldn’t take credit for the winning screenplay because they would have been fired for moonlighting. A few spin that it’s a blacklisted writer who died without revealing his or her true identity. Still more insist it was a Hollywood insider who dared not claim authorship of such a truthful screenplay.

The fact is that Harper Monroe Farrow won the vote for Best Original Screenplay in 1939 for the movie Beyond Utopia. Official records, of course, show that Gone With The Wind, written by Sidney Howard (but rewritten by Ben Hecht and others) was announced as the winner. Not to take away from David O. Selznick’s crowning achievement, but Farrow’s script for Beyond Utopia was deemed better written that year.

No copy of the Beyond Utopia screenplay exists anywhere — not in the Academy’s library or at the Writers Guild. Nor is the film available either because all prints were destroyed. Finally, anyone connected with the production has long since died. Trust me, I’ve searched for anything and anyone connected to this film.

I’m convinced that Harper Monroe Farrow is the pen name for a newspaper writer lured to Hollywood at the dawn of sound like Hecht, Herman Mankiewicz, and others were. I also surmise that Farrow is female — most probably Marjory Doyle, a feisty sob sister who worked on Hearst’s Chicago American under the legendary editor Walter Howey. “Sob sisters” in those days wrote bleeding heart stories about widows and orphans but also could drag tearful confessions out of death row killers during a ten minute visit in their cells. I’ve heard she was the model for Hildy Johnson when Charles Lederer rewrote Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page into His Girl Friday.

So please picture Roz Russell circa 1940 in your mind as you read further.

Marjory was chased out of Chicago when she wrote a story about Al Capone’s illegal income that drew the attention of Elliott Ness and his Untouchables unit from 1929 through 1931. Just before he went to jail for income tax evasion, Capone took out a hit on Marjory. The only way her life was spared was through the quick action of William Randolph Hearst who himself called in a fix from Scarface and shipped her to Hollywood for her own safety — and to boost his L.A. readership.

Marjory kept filing stories for Hearst but not about the movie business. That beat was jealously — make that psychopathically — guarded by Louella Parsons. Instead, Marjory took up full-time crime reporting, much of which was committed by the Los Angeles Police Department whose campaign against unions, minorities, immigrants, and the poor in the depth of the Great Depression was a blue-suited scandal going public.

Inevitably, Marjory stumbled onto a story about mob influence in Hollywood. A former Capone capo, Willie Bioff, had installed one of his soldiers, George Browne, as head of IATSE, Hollywood’s large crafts union. Movie moguls were soon making payoffs to the gangsters.

“There was a reporter, Majory something, She got wind that we were being shaken down and wanted to know how much was collected,” said producer Joe Schenck in his oral history for the Academy.  Schenck — the brother of Nicholas Schenck, who ran Loew’s Inc/MGM — wa-s convicted of tax fraud for taking part in the payoffs. “I told her the majors had to ante $50,000 and the minors $25,000 to make union problems go away. She pledged to keep my name out of the story. But it came out anyway.”

Not only that, Hearst himself kept the story out of his newspapers. Because his Cosmopolitan Productions was set up at MGM and inarguably involved in payoffs, too. So he spiked Marjory’s story and warned her never to write another one like it.

So she did what any thwarted journalist of the day would do: she wrote a screenplay.

According to trade reports in the 1930s, Beyond Utopia was a gangster story about a charming tough guy who shows up one day not to take over the town’s mobsters but to organize them against the Big Boss. What he doesn’t tell the mobsters, however, is that he has been hired by the Big Boss to keep all the gangsters fighting amongst themselves, thereby preventing the very rebellion they empowered him to bring about.

To get away with as much fictional truth as possible, Doyle made the film a comedy.

The trade reports show a string of studios were interested in the project. First Selznick, but he could never make up his mind whether to do a gangster film. Then RKO executives, but they had their hands full with Ginger Rogers’ mother. Warner Bros unfortunately was making both The Roaring Twenties and Brother Orchid at the time, so that studio was out along with a lot of its filmmaking siblings.

Still another problem was the Production Code. It demanded punishment for all lawbreakers in a movie, and a comedy about poetic justice for gangsters didn’t satisfy the morality needing to be imposed.

So Marjory took her script to independent producer Max Wollcroft, the son of a shoe business tycoon who fancied himself a film financier. He backed Beyond Utopia with his own money, as unheard of in Hollywood back then as it is today.

Wollcroft may have known the can of worms he was opening by bringing Marjory’s script before the cameras. For one thing, shooting took place in Canada to fly under the mob ‘s radar. Once the move rolled into post-production, it was clear to Wollcroft that holding the footage was like grasping a lit fuse. When the first answer print screened at the lab, there were more people watching it from the projection booth than the seats.

Wollcroft arranged to qualify Beyond Utopia for Academy Award consideration, booking a Downtown L.A. theatre for a one week’s run. Then he took the sole print to his office and waited for an offer.

It wasn’t what he expected.

“Of course I want your picture, Wooly,” MGM’s Louis B. Mayer said in his most avuncular manner. (Wollcroft’s nickname wasn’t Wooly, but who was he to argue with L.B.?) “I’ll pay you top dollar.”

“That’s very generous of you, Mr. Mayer. But I’d rather take a lower advance against a percentage of the gross.”

“That’s not how we do business, son,” L.B. said. “This is MGM. We will buy you out. You’ll never get a better deal anywhere else, so don’t even bother phoning the other studios. “In fact,” Mayer continued, “I’m authorized by everybody on your call list to make a preemptive offer.”

“What do you mean by ‘everybody’ and ‘preemptive offer’?”

“Let me lay it on the line for you, Wooly,” Mayer said, his throat tightening with anger. “Beyond Utopia will never be released. It’s bad for the movie industry. And it’s definitely bad for you.”

Wollcroft replied with equal intensity, “It sounds to me like you’re afraid Beyond Utopia will be a hit.”

“Oh, it’ll be a hit all right. But not the kind you think.”

“Thanks, L.B. I’ll take that as the best review it could ever get.”

“You don’t know how deep you’re in, sonny,” the mogul concluded.

When Wollcroft arrived home that night, a very large man was waiting for him in the driveway. “You the guy who made the picture?” the hulk asked.

“I like to think of film as a director’s and writer’s medium,” the producer said magnanimously.

The large man pulled out a pistol and jammed it into Wollcroft’s mouth. “I like to think of this gun as my medium, and if you don’t want me to use it right now, you’ll burn everything connected with your stinking movie.”

“I can’t do that,” Wollcroft foolishly argued. “I have distributors, theatres, audiences waiting to see it. I have a lot of partners.”

“I’m the only partner you gotta worry about,” the large man said, “and I think you need to leave the movie business and go back into the shoe business before I fit you with a pair of size eleven cements.”

“You’ve made your point,” Wollcroft agreed.”

That night, Beyond Utopia disappeared. The cut nitrate negative, all the outtakes, trims, and soundtracks, and the sole print went up in the same fire that burned Wollcroft’s house to the ground.

The producer stood watching it beside the large man, who turned to Wollcroft and asked, “Where do I find Harper Monroe Farrow?”

This is where the real mystery pf nobody’s Oscar both begins and ends. Wollcroft drove the large man to Farrow’s home on Norma Place. She was not there. In fact, nothing was there. It was merely a mail drop.

Beyond Utopia might have remained a Hollywood rumor had it not been for the people who worked on it or screened it. When it was never released, they fumed. Word spread of the studios’ perfidy and the mob’s threats. Only a few crew members had saved their scripts, but so many tantalizing fragments turned up here and there that even Academy members began paying attention. By the time Oscar ballots went out for the films of 1939 – a year still revered as the finest in Hollywood’s history – the movie that was never distributed had become the one that everyone was talking about.

Frank Capra, the outgoing President of the Academy, had leveraged his prestige in 1935 to save the organization. But now he panicked. It seemed unfathomable that an independent movie might unseat Gone With The Wind. Capra demanded that Wollcroft provide a print. The producer couldn’t. Capra requested a meeting with Farrow, but no one showed. The behind-the-scenes plot not only thickened, it congealed.

Capra hoped the Oscar buzz on Beyond Utopia was more imagined than real. But when write-in votes started arriving at AMPAS, the lit fuse had become a firestorm. The studios were asghast: this was a film that not only ridiculed the moguls and the mob, it could result in indictments.

Finally, the Academy came up with a solution. A special Oscar would be announced for the writer of “an unnamed film” who had “boldly addressed matters of artistic merit in ways that challenged the status quo.” The award would be announced in the trades but not bestowed at the 1940 ceremony. Instead, the golden statuette would be held at AMPAS for Farrow to collect in person. It was a combination honor and sting. Not unlike the Academy keeping the 1956 Oscar for “Robert Rich,” scripter of Theem> Brave One, to claim by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.

Needless to say, Harper Monroe Farrow never accepted the statuette. The next year, AMPAS ensured all members’ votes would be confidential from then on. As for Marjory Doyle, she went back to writing sob sister columns for Hearst and died at the age of 90. But some journalists who also couldn’t publish the truth about the biz followed her into fiction. IATSE still exists, and the studios still cower before it. The mob’s influence has lessened in today’s Hollywood, but not the ever growing number of gangster movies greenlighted.

But the biggest mystery of all is why the Academy hasn’t removed its unclaimed Oscar. The answer might be because those who know the history want it to stay – as a reminder of the industry’s bad old days.

This story first posted here on January 12, 2016. Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS. Author photo by Liane Brandon.

About The Author:
Nat Segaloff
Nat Segaloff is a journalist, producer, author and critic whose memoir Screen Saver: Private Stories Of Public Hollywood and its forthcoming sequel Screen Saver Too are published by Bear Manor Media. He has been a professor (Boston University, Boston College), publicist (Fox, UA, Columbia) and broadcaster (Group W, CBS). He has written more than a dozen books, the latest A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison (NESFA Press).

About Nat Segaloff

Nat Segaloff is a journalist, producer, author and critic whose memoir Screen Saver: Private Stories Of Public Hollywood and its forthcoming sequel Screen Saver Too are published by Bear Manor Media. He has been a professor (Boston University, Boston College), publicist (Fox, UA, Columbia) and broadcaster (Group W, CBS). He has written more than a dozen books, the latest A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison (NESFA Press).

  One comment on “Nobody’s Oscar

  1. Thank you Nat Segaloff for yet another story combining intrigue, history and mystery. Your stories always seem to get my mind working and these days that is quite an accomplishment. The writing is provocative and has me wondering what is truth and what is fiction. Thank you, Nikki Finke,for providing the platformt that allows writers such as Nat to share his talents with what Stephen King likes to call the Constant Reader. I am looking forward to the next submission.

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