The classic era movie studio heads! They were awful. But which one was the worst?
Barney Balaban (Paramount): So boringly professional he’s mostly known for creating a system of theater chains and being character actor Bob Balaban’s uncle as opposed to anything he did as a studio head.
Carl Laemmle, Jr. (Universal): Given the studio as a 21st birthday present (the Laemmles had over 70 relatives working at Universal), he subsequently ran the studio into the ground with expensive productions. The changes made afterward resulted in Universal’s reputation as a low-budget studio for independent actors and horror thrillers.
Darryl F. Zanuck (Twentieth Century Fox): When a TCM biography calls someone “one of the more pleasant of the Golden Age studio titans,” you know they won’t get much traction on this list. Sure, he was a serial philanderer — but, much like being a HUAC witness, union buster, or admirer of fascist dictators, that’s just what studio heads did. He’s remembered these days for his cigar-chomping affectations and as a model “creative producer” who helped usher significant, socially conscious movies into existence. Okay, sure, he might have bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox by showering lavish gifts on his Parisian girlfriend and putting his incompetent son in charge, but considering his peers, that barely registers.
Jack Warner (Warner Bros): Essentially cruel for fun, the garishly suited Jack Warner would crack bad jokes and fire anyone who didn’t laugh. Or he’d fire people to keep them on their toes. Or he’d fire people just because it was Tuesday. A noted bully among notable bullies, he engineered a shadow coup against his brothers and seized control of the studio, taking credit (and even accepting the Academy Award!) for Casablanca despite having absolutely nothing to do with it. Actors hated dealing with his personality, and directors hated his cheapness and fondness for quick and dirty productions. As Director Gottfried Reinhardy put it, “Harry Cohn was a sonofabitch but he did it for business; he was not a sadist. [Louis B.] Mayer could be a monster, but he was not mean for the sake of meanness. Jack was.”
Jack Warner’s sole redeeming quality was the studio’s strong anti-Nazi stance: Under his banner, Warner Bros. produced anti-Nazi films while other studios were quietly removing names from credits that looked “too Jewish” for German theatrical runs. This decision could have been less ideological and due more to the fact that the studio’s representative in Germany had been murdered for failing to sieg heil, but with these guys, you take what you can get.
David O. Selznick (Selznick International Pictures/The Selznick Studio): David had a lot of personality and a desire to distinguish himself from the Hollywood royalty he married into, which manifested in a need for creative control of all the movies he produced (he wanted Rebecca to end with a huge smoky “R” floating over the wreckage) as well as his numerous lengthy memos sent to anyone remotely involved in a film’s production. He was furious at Hitchcock for not providing enough alternate takes and coverage so he could produce his own cut of the movies he was making. Hitchcock cast Raymond Burr as the villain of Rear Window based on his resemblance to Selznick. While filming The Third Man, Selznick introduced director Carol Reed to amphetamines so he could pull 22-hour days. (No one else got amphetamines, they just got 22-hour days.) His speed habit meant he sometimes gave rambling speeches to houseplants at parties.
But Selznick’s story is dominated by Jennifer Jones. In short: David Selznick meets a young actress on the set of her first movie (co-starring with her husband, Robert Walker), gives her a new name, and then becomes slowly, terribly obsessed with her. Selznick then starts courting Jones right under Walker’s nose, and Jones can’t say no; this man has the power of life and death over her career and they’ve been struggling for so long. They begin an affair, with Selznick giving notes on how the real-life husband and wife team of Walker and Jones should act together in Since You Went Away, rubbing the affair in Walker’s face. Selznick pulls out all the stops to make Jones a huge, bona fide, grade-A Star. She separates from Robert Walker, who starts drinking a lot. A lot. Like “Judy Garland Is Concerned You’re Drinking Too Much” a lot. Eventually Jennifer files for divorce, but she has to wait four years until Irene Mayer (one of the Ms in MGM) divorces Selznick. In the interim, Jones became a pariah, a failed home-wrecker. Walker goes off the deep end, eventually dying from a drug complication after he had to be sedated due to “an emotional state.” Lots of people assume Selznick forced Jennifer into marrying him, and that is what killed Robert Walker. For this, Selznick ends up an outcast (although people would never say it to his face) and gets more and more insular and dependent on Jones, who’s acting less and less. The whole family remains a lighting rod of misery until Selznick’s death in 1965.
Howard Hughes (RKO): Every classic Hollywood story eventually ends up in Howard Hughes’s pants, and he was eccentric enough for several competing biopics, but was he personally awful? Oh, boy…
While his wealth and secrecy makes it hard to suss out the truth from the gossip, it’s public knowledge Hughes preyed on underage girls (and, by some accounts, slightly older men), essentially imprisoning them in his mansions or stuffing them away in hidden apartments. He micromanaged people right down to their hair and outfits, employed a network of spies and informants to keep people in line, and treated everyone like machines he could turn off or on. Sure, he bailed out Kate Hepburn by buying the rights to The Philadelphia Story. While he gave Ida Lupino a director gig that would make her one of the first female directors in Hollywood, it doesn’t obscure the fact that he started dating Ida when she was literally high school-aged. Or that he locked people in long contracts that put them out of work for years. Or that he had Ava Gardner professionally stalked by detectives for the audacious crime of not marrying him, to the point where she nearly killed him by knocking him unconscious with an ashtray. The word “creep” comes up a lot when reading about Hughes.
Plus, one of his movies gave people cancer. The Conqueror (starring john Wayne as Genghis Khan) was shot downwind of above-ground nuclear bomb tests. Out of 220 cast and crew members, 91 developed some form of cancer, not counting people who developed cancer after visiting the set.
Harry Cohn (Columbia): You can talk about his notoriously bad temper, his pettiness, the signed photo of Mussolini on his desk, his ties to organized crime, or the bugs he planted all over the studio, but nothing quite summarizes Cohn like the rumor that he had secret passages installed leading into his leading ladies’ dressing rooms because sleeping with him was a requirement for getting a contract. When Rita Hayworth wouldn’t sleep with him, he ruined her professional life. In her own words: “I used to have to punch a time clock at Columbia, every day of my life. That’s what it was like. I was under exclusive contract, like they owned me … I think he had my dressing room bugged … He was very possessive of me as a person, he didn’t want me to go out with anybody, have any friends. No one can live that way. So I fought him … You want to know what I think of Harry Cohn? He was a monster.”
When it became clear Sammy Davis, Jr. was dating Kim Novak, Cohn tried to get his mob buddies to break Davis’s legs. They settled for forcing him to marry Loray White, a Black singer he’d never met. (There was a one-year contract and everything! The whole thing is here, and it’s worse than you can imagine.)
Louis B. Mayer (MGM): Mayer was the top of heap, the biggest cheese, the most mogul of moguls. As the head of the most lavish studio in town, he was the highest-paid man in America and best friends with William Randolph Hearst. He was The Guy, the one who gave Hedy Lamarr her name and paid Judy Garland’s hospital bills after encouraging her pill addiction.
Other studio heads could ruin people’s careers; Mayer could have people killed.
The Los Angeles District Attorney was super chummy with Mayer and his right-hand man, Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer whose preferred method of shutting people up was to hit them with his car. Mayer went on Louella Parsons’s radio show weekly and lied his ass off about how “stars are born, not made,” how the public decides what’s popular, and how wholesome and all-American Hollywood was. Privately, he was more “I made you and I can break you.” No one in the press or law enforcement was ever going to go after Mayer.
Which is why he could cover up things like the “Girl 27” scandal, the rape and silencing of a bit player over the course of decades. They made a movie about it, and you can read the original David Stenn Vanity Fair article here or listen to the You Must Remember This podcast episode about it. Essentially, women were hired to be hostesses at an MGM distributor party which turned into a violent, drunken horror show. One woman, Patricia Douglas, fought back, pressed charges, and had her entire life ruined by MGM over the course of the next 40 years. This one cover-up and campaign of destruction was not uniquely terrible — although it was gross and horrible and involved an enormous corporation dedicating itself to the systematic ruination of a single person over the course of decades — but what’s shocking is how commonplace it seemed. The kind of misdirection, bribery, and casual intimidation and assault carried out against Douglas was everyday business for the studio. Keeping MGM clean meant making a lot of things dirty, and at the peak of the system’s power and influence, someone working on Mayer’s orders could literally get away with murder. That’s why he’s number one.
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John Leavitt is a cartoonist, writer, director, and illustrator, His cartoons and illustrations have appeared in: The New Yorker, The Chronicle Review, The New York Press, The Common Review, The Journal Of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. He has worked with Molly Crabapple to produce posters for The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others.