john gregory dunne’s the studio: when the influencers were influenced by the influencees

Over Christmas, I finally picked up a book I’d been wanting to read for years: John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio. The book is Dunne’s reporting on Twentieth Century Fox and its head of production, Richard Zanuck, ca. 1967, when Zanuck gave Dunne reign to poke around the studio and write up it with little-to-no supervision, to such a degree that Dunne himself didn’t understand why Zanuck was so open.

That is to say, there is much to anticipate from a book with such unfettered access, and yet, it’s never clear to me what Dunne is intending to show with his reporting. He offers us transcribed conversation after transcribed conversation – a great primary source about what Hollywood was like in the late sixties, to be sure – but I still can’t figure out what he thinks it all means or whether it hangs together. It’s as though Dunne believes that the significance of the episodes he recounts is always self-evident. Either I’m too dense to see the significance, or (I pray more likely), Dunne just didn’t put it in there.

I only finished the book, actually, hoping Dunne would end on an editorial note that would at length or even briefly touch on what he thought of the preceding scenes. Not so, even when it would seem ideal for Dunne to step in and weigh in on what he’s recounting. This failure might be most acute when Dunne quotes Darryl Zanuck, Richard’s father and president of the studio, talking about how the life of Malcolm X might make a good story. As quoted by Dunne, Zanuck the elder explains the social impact of the Studio:

A picture like this can make a social contribution. Like The Snake Pit. After I made that, eleven states changed their laws about insane asylums. And How Green Was My Valley. It was laid in England, but it was the first picture to attack unfair unionism.

These claims would seem to be prime choices for journalistic interrogation, but Dunne ends the section there and then launches into another. After Zanuck’s quote is delivered, Dunne has section break, suggesting a kind of lacuna between the scenes and the sense that this quote is somehow the natural conclusion of a scene with obvious import.

But I can’t figure what that importance might be, and it isn’t clear to me if Dunne thinks what Zanuck has spouted is clearly pompous, or merely not worth commentary, or whether Dunne has some philosophical objection to presenting his own opinion of whether Zanuck is full of it or not. Dunne simply doesn’t say.

The evidence of The Studio, at any rate, would seem to contradict the notion that studios have much of any real effect on the rest of the culture, at least not any intended one. Reading the book, it seemed most likely to me that the relationship of Twentieth Century Fox to America on whole is that the studio is taking wild bets on what the public wants to see and hoping they pay off.

Dunne admits as much. Among other reasons, he wanted to write about the culture of Hollywood because of “the way in which millions of dollars were gambled on ephemeral, unpredictable, and uncomfortably often, invalid ideas of marketability,” as he put it in 1968. He would later write, in an introduction from 1997, “There are no surprises: everyone can smell a stiff in the making,” but the book suggests otherwise when it depicts the marketing of Dr. Dolittle, the picture Dunne devotes the most time to:

The Studio, after the Minneapolis preview of Dr. Dolittle, would have liked to cut the picture’s prologue in its entirety. … But eliminating the prologue meant cutting the only sequence in the picture in which Rex Harrison rode the giraffe, and the giraffe with Harrison aboard was the major motif in the Studio’s advertising and promotion campaign for Dr. Dolittle.

The prologue eventually is cut, because Richard Zanuck realizes he can use the giraffe scene later, sandwiched between a scene where Dolittle heads off into the jungle and another where he arrives at his destination on the coast; the giraffe scene, inserted between the two, can be made to show Dolittle in transit. The only problem is that this means Dr. Dolittle will have “disappeared into the jungle in shirtsleeves and one pair of pants, rode the giraffe wearing a frock coat and another pair of pants, and arrived at the coast in the first costume.”

The director’s reaction: “’Who’s going to notice it?’ he said. ‘If they [the audience, I assume he means] start picking on that, we’re dead anyway.”

In other words, the studio swaps one sort of continuity – continuity within the film – for continuity between the film and the advertising campaign, on the theory (I can only guess) that if Dr. Dolittle doesn’t actually ride a giraffe in the movie, audiences all over America, upon leaving their local screening, will turn to their significant others and grumble, “That was all fine and well, but where was that giraffe-riding scene I was promised?”

I will stipulate that if the Twentieth Century Fox feared this to some degree, I can’t blame them; sadly, this scenario seems all too plausible. So instead of using this scene to indict the Studio for pandering, let’s just let this incident stand for how haphazard and catch-as-catch-can Hollywood’s influence with the American public is. It’s a mistake to think – as Darryl Zanuck has it – that the studio effectively advances any social agenda. Rather, it seems much more likely that studios, then as now, are mostly just guilty of reliably churning out some form of pablum that it believes/hopes will be palatable enough to the public that they’ll fork over cash for it.

That’s a fine lesson, I think, but Dunne never quite articulates or underlines it, so I’m sort of left wondering if it was his intent to show that.

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