Screenmancer Exclusive presents
Photo Credit: Joe Rubalcaba
POINT OF VIEW: Del Reisman
Interview by Quendrith Johnson & Introduction by WGA and Del Reisman
The following is a brief look at the early days of writers' struggles in the Studio System, and later in the explosive growth of television. Some of these comments are based on frequent conversations with many of the prominent users of studio-owned Underwoods and Royals, during these dynamic days. Del Reisman's mother, an employee of the great majors, was an additional source of attitude and opinion. Del Reisman himself wrote scripts and story-edited in the last years of the system and in the formative years of television. As a WGAW activist of many years, elected President from 1991-93, he knew the industry in both full shot and close-up.
DEL REISMAN: The Screen Writers Guild was founded in March 1933 at the absolute depths of the depression when America was on its heels. The industry was in turmoil. The studios were all declaring cuts in fees. There was a famous meeting at MGM, which was the giant studio at the time, in which the head of the studio, Louis B. "LB" Mayer, presided. All employees were there: movie stars, grips, everyone. Mayer announced there would be a salary cut of 50 percent. Those earning less then $50 a week would get cut less, and those earning above $50 a week would be cut [back] more. in those days $50 a week was a very livable income. There was a popular star, a great character actor named Wallace Beery sitting in the back, he said: "LB are you going to take the cut too?" And LB said: "Well, no. We plan to restore the cuts in six months." And Wallace Berry walked out of the meeting.
QUENDRITH: This was really in the swing of the Great Depression. I mean the Stock Market crashed in October 1929, but the general public really felt it hit throughout the 1930's.
DEL: There were salary cuts all over. Earlier, some of the writers under contract went to see the creative head of MGM, Irving Thalberg. [Thalberg] said: "I can't do anything about this." And the writers said: "You raised the regular salaries of the [below-the-line] people on the set. "And Thalberg said: " Well, they are represented by unions." The writers left and said: "I think he just told us what to do." The connection that I make, just a personal reaction, is this -- there was a tremendous earthquake in Hollywood [at this time], and it shook down most of Long Beach and Compton -- [but] there were faults that came up into this area. A lot of the office buildings downtown lost their decorative statuary and miles away at Hollywood High School, where I attended years later, were, were damaged. There was some death and some injury... terrible property damage. Then a month later the Writers Guild was founded. I always make the connection there were two great shakes of the earth that historic month.
Studio-contract writers, which is to say virtually all screenwriters, joined the new organization, many of them under front-office threats to fail to renew their contracts at option time. A significant number chose not to join, some of them very prominent writers. They formed a rival group, Screen Playwrights. The new Guild was not officially recognized as a bargaining unit by the Federal Government; so the whole thrust of the Guild was to get recognized so they could negotiate with the companies.
In 1938, there was an election held at the old Athletic Club on Sunset. The Guild won over Screen Playwrights, a company-supported group, frequently called a sweetheart union. The Guild thus became the official bargaining unit for the writers, recognized by the Federal Government.
A lot of the members of the Screen Playwrights joined immediately. The job then was to negotiate with the major studios -- there was no television.
It took the Screen Writers Guild until 1942, the first big war year, to get their first contract, which was I think was five and a half pages long. (Today, in 2007, it's close to 500 pages, covering every aspect of writers' activity, except the new so-called reality shows.) The one thing they got was the right of the new guild to the exclusive determination of the onscreen writers credit. That was a huge gain. And we still have that. (The companies can recommend what they think the credits should be, but the determination is made by the Guild.) So the founding years were very difficult; there were a lot of writers signed up, and there were only [the] major studios to deal with. There were virtually no independent production companies. And that was the world as it was before TV.
There were a lot of great writers working in those tough years, many of them brilliant. Their work still being studied in film schools throughout the world. To name a few: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Philip Dunne, Herman Mankiewicz, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, Jules Furthman...
QUENDRITH: What about Lenore Coffee? The other female writer...
DEL: I know who you mean, Mary Pickford's writing partner.
QUENDRITH: Yes. Frances Marion.
DEL: Right. Frances Marion, Lenore Coffee, Anita Loos. Anita Loos was a very famous writer. Frances Marion was at one time the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood; she was Mary Pickford's writing partner.
QUENDRITH: So these big names were behind the crediting process?
DEL: Again, I'm giving you a point of view gathered from many conversations with many writers. I could quote those who believe the system works, and those who believe it should be changed radically; suffice to say, the old system of awarding writing credits was very casual. It was done by the studios. Sometimes the studios would award credit like "well, we owe this guy something" -- the proverbial nephew.
In 1942 when the first contract was signed, the contract went for a period of something like three years. That became true for all unions, both above and below-the-line. Negotiations, however, became complicated for all unions when television came in. Coast-to-coast broadcasting was engineered in 1948.
I may be jumping ahead, but I wanted to tell you this: television developed seemingly overnight. All of a sudden, people were staying home and watching whatever was on the tube. They'd see commercials done visually and it was the 'new medium,' meaning [audiences] stayed away from the theaters. There was a tremendous reaction from the studios about this. One studio, 20th Century Fox -- not related to the present FOX -- [in which] the head of the studio was a man named Darryl Zanuck. [He] brought back [a specially designed lens] to America from France in the 1950's developed by the Ingenue Company, I believe.
The lens became what he [Zanuck] called, or 20th Century Fox called Cinemascope, which projected a widescreen image. Philip Dunne [whose portrait and brief bio adorn the walls of the WGA] wrote the first movie in this new aspect ratio, "The Robe," based on a best-selling book by Lloyd C. Douglas. It was a big biblical epic. It brought people back into the theaters just to look, and say: "What's going on here?"
QUENDRITH: It was a different aspect ratio?
DEL: The normal projection was more of a square, so when this came along, it was big. It had a huge curiosity factor. It instituted a lot of widescreen films. People began to return to theaters. But parallel to this, television continued to simply expand. By the time of early 50's TV audiences were enormous all across the country. There were the two basic networks, NBC and CBS. Then they split off, and ABC was formed. That was the world in which writers functioned. Seven majors and three networks, hardly any independent productions. Then in the mid 50's, RCA which owned NBC, developed color for television.
QUENDRITH: Where were you in your own career at this time?
DEL: I was working at NBC as a story editor. They developed a show called NBC Matinee Theater that was done in color. It sounds incredible now, but there were 5 shows a week, 1 hour. It was an anthology of new stories. It was in NY and here, but it was shot here in Los Angeles. NBC opened its new studios in Burbank, which they still have, to accommodate everything they were doing.
QUENDRITH: So it must have skewed female?
DEL: Not only that, but it gave the appliance places something to show in the middle of the day. You'd walk past a window full of TVs and see color televisions.
QUENDRITH: And their advertisers?
DEL: Exactly. I think Matinee went on the air in '54 or '55. It was on the air two or three years. I was on the very first GI bill at the end of the war. How I get there, how I ended up in the new 'medium.' When I was discharged, honorably discharged. I went to UC Berkeley on the GI bill and kind of rushed through. I found it very difficult to adjust [back to civilian life] -- I was a bomdardier in a B17. If you ever say the movie "The Best Years of Our Lives"? Dana Andrews went into the nose -- that's it. These planes were prop-driven. No jets. So I flew 35 missions.
QUENDRITH: Did you go into the Pacific Theater of Operations?
DEL: No, just the "ETO," the European Theater of Operations. The name of the outfit was the 381st Heavy Bombardment Group, Eighth Air Force. France was occupied by Germany. We bombed some targets in occupied France, but most if it was Germany itself. The Ruhr Valley with Essen and Dusseldorf , Cologne -- that was the manufacturing world. I went to Berlin six times. I can tell you that was not fun...
QUENDRITH: It was complete devastation, I'm sure...
DEL: They lost a lot. We lost a lot of planes. We went as far as Munich and in the north, Hamburg, Peenemunde, where they launched the V-2s over London.
QUENDRITH: May I segue by saying Hollywood and its politics must have been lightweight compared to that?
DEL: Hollywood was nothing compared to that, because nobody was shooting at you. I didn't come home to become a writer. I had no interest in it. But I thought that somehow, I'd become a part of the studio system. Maybe film editing, maybe camera. I was a studio brat. My younger sister and I were studio brats. My mother was a secretary at the old Universal Studios (Carl Laemmle and all that). We used to, as little kids, go out to see her at Universal, at her office. The family story is an old Depression story... my father kind of took off -- so she was it, she was the income for us. If Universal went bankrupt, that was always being threatened there would be nothing for us. You know that the secretaries in those days knew everything that happens and was about to happen. My mother was the production unit's contact with the Breen office, later the Shurlock office, the administrators of the code. She took down their problems and passed them on to a very angry studio.
My kid sister and I would frequently be on set. They would allow kids on set, if they shut up. The grips, everyone at the studio, had the same problem: kids, baby-sitters cost money. My mother was a member of the SOEG (Screen Office Employee Guild). So the Executive Director was Herbert K. Sorrell. All we did as kids was go in the back row [during SOEG meetings]. There were chairs there; the kids would just flake out and sleep. Usually were a dozen or more children there. SOEG was a guild. A wild union. Years later, after the war, Herb Sorrell, executive director of the union, wrote his autobiography. He had fought hard for the below-the-line people in the industry. He identified himself as a Communist.
QUENDRITH: We'll lead into the Black List from here.
DEL: Let me leap ahead to the Black List. I was on the Guild's Black List credits committee.Our job was to check to see the identities of the real writers behind the fronts or pseudonyms. We began this process trying to cut through the fog of memory and the series of obfuscations by the studios. That started in 1996 and went up to 1999/2000.
QUENDRITH: Paul Jarrico, he was one --
DEL: Exactly. Paul Jarrico, and my friend George Kirgo. Both are deceased.
QUENDRITH: Were you ever on the Black List?
DEL: I was never on the black list, and neither was George. But we were both young writers working in the Blacklist years -- that tragic time. Well, it left its mark on everyone. It lasted 15 years. Some of those denied work (under their own names) were struggling for the full 15 years. Sure, some were Communists. The Guild's first President, John Howard Lawson, he is remembered as the first, but he was actually the second President of the new Screen Writers Guild in 1933. People knew of his politics -- did I mention the name Lester Cole?
QUENDRITH: Right, the writer?
DEL: Yes, he was a Communist. As were others of great talent and great determination to create and develop the Guild. There was not a great love of their politics across the unions or from Hollywood -- most just found them difficult in labor union matters because they were so well organized they controlled meetings by legal parliamentary proceedings. The writers who were around then spoke angrily of their maneuvering, but the Guild was a First Amendment organization above all.
QUENDRITH: So they had political agenda already not connected with anything to do with Hollywood?
DEL: Yes, essentially support of the Soviet Union. Actually, this was before the war, or at least the entrance into war.
QUENDRITH: What an incredible mix of issues for the country and Hollywood!
DEL: I want to mention this date. In 1954 when all of this was developing, the Guild merged with the Television Writers of America, and merged with the Radio Writers Guild of New York and Los Angeles. So that was [this] merger, and under a new name [that is] now Writers Guild of America.
QUENDRITH: Are New York and LA autonomous? If not, which is the controlling body? Or is there a controlling entity?
DEL: For various corporate reasons, there were actually new corporations formed, Writers Guild West and Writers Guild East. Hollywood was the center of moviemaking at the studios. New York, with all of its history in live television, had been the center of TV.
But with the major studios getting into TV, the New York group had fewer and fewer people to represent because writers literally moved here physically.
QUENDRITH: Who is the final arbiter?
DEL: That's a good question. The leadership is separate, so they have their board and their special needs. For example, in New York they represent many newswriters, so they have special needs. And we [WGA West] continue to represent mostly TV writers, animation writers, and screenwriters because of the huge amount of activity that continues here. Face-to-face meetings, despite email, faxing, even teleconferencing, continue to be critical.
QUENDRITH: Amidst all the technology and other changes, are the majors retaining their loyalty to Hollywood? What I mean is, to clarify, is LA still the magnet for the decision makers in the industry? Is there loyalty to the area, the concept of "Hollywood" as a physical location and a symbolic icon of the industry?
DEL: If you have runaway production with major studios making films anywhere where it is cheaper, literally the Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania, etc. -- that means that they are made without our labor union contracts, without labor union protection or [with] different labor union protection.
QUENDRITH: How about all the productions that went to Canada?
DEL: There was so much shooting in Canada because of the currency exchange. The protections can be avoided -- like the Black Dahlia story --
QUENDRITH: The recent one with Hilary Swank?
DEL: Yes. I'm pretty sure that was made in Bulgaria. They made the sets, everything; they did not have to pay the standard fees. It is cheaper. To answer your question, they film there because [production costs] are cheaper. And our city, L.A., doesn't look like the L.A. of the 30's, 40's, and 50's, not anymore.
QUENDRITH: What is the net effect on the psyche of the industry -- is there still loyalty in LA to Hollywood?
DEL: My mother at the old Universal wouldn't recognize the industry today. Announcements in the trades would baffle her, because there are four or five production entities.
QUENDRITH: They split the costs?
DEL: Right, they split the cost. So the financial partners that split the cost are as much involved as the studio. The authority has changed a lot. Who runs the movie has changed a lot.
QUENDRITH: How does that affect the writers?
DEL: You have many bosses. You will get attitudes and opinions from a number of the financial sources. I don't think there is any history of them giving notes -- "Do this on page 14" -- but they wouldn't put money in unless the project was in good hands [as far as] writers, producers, directors, actors. The only reason they would put money in is "we want more action adventure" -- otherwise they won't put money in.
If it is a big Will Ferrell comedy -- "We want big laughs or we won't put money in." Well, maybe they leave Will Ferrell alone. Apparently, he can do no wrong.
They have to be secure that it is the film they want, that wherever they are from, they get the movie they want. Take "Mission Impossible: 3," they pretty much know what kind of movie it will be [with Tom Cruise]. They know the nature of the film they are making.
QUENDRITH: The regular machinery of Hollywood, how writers and actors and directors work, is changing as fast as the technology almost. Non-traditional arrangements are everywhere in the business now.
DEL: I'm thinking of Philip Dunne right now. Phil wrote the terrific screenplay for "How Green Was My Valley" -- I think that was '41, maybe '40. He had one boss, Zanuck. Then both he and Zanuck sat down with the director, John Ford, and the star, a 12-year-old Roddy McDowall. They made the picture, not layers of authority, not tons of notes.
QUENDRITH: Where is your life now as a writer?
DEL: I'm still in the game. And I've been teaching for the last twelve years at AFI.
QUENDRITH: Are you writing a book about your experiences, the history of the business from your POV?
DEL: Up to now, I say no. I'm not writing a book.
QUENDRITH: You are saving that for old age?
DEL: We'll see.