Camera Rolls: 314:62-64
Sound Rolls: 314:32-33
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on July 17, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
I want to place us back, remembering that we're in California, it is the Depression, there's very hard times outside and the movie industry.
OK, we can begin. Tell me about Hollywood.
It's very difficult to tell anybody about Hollywood because Hollywood is so many things to so many people. It's a word describing a place, but the place no longer exists except as a suburb of Los Angeles. When they say Hollywood they mean the motion picture industry. Often you'll see films that are made in Rome or in New York or in London and they'll say "Hollywood's done it again," or whatever the case may be, meaning the film industry, and it had nothing to do with Hollywood. Most of the studios in Hollywood are no longer there. They're in Culver City, which is another section of outer Los Angeles, or they're in the Valley, in North Hollywood. I don't know right off hand of any studio in Hollywood. But it is a generic term for the film business.
OK, great. In 1933, can you tell me about the kinds of films that the studios were making? Were there a lot of big budget escape movies to help people deal with the fact that there's hard times outside?
The kind of films that were being made in those days, in the '30s, were to supply the companies' theaters, big interest in theaters all around the country. Many of the theaters had to have two features. Not all of them, but many of them had to have two features in the day and they had to change every week. So they had to be—[coughs]. Start again?
Now where were we? We have to start again.
I was asking you about the kind of movies that were being made in 1933.
People often want to know what kind of movies were being made in the '30s in Los Angeles, in California, in Hollywood, unquote. There were all kinds of films, actually, because of these theaters all over. Paramount had an enormous theater right here in New York and another one in Chicago and so forth. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had interest in theaters everywhere, in Europe as well as here. They had to keep them supplied all the time so there was a great big production schedule going on. Many of them, for instance, had to turn out a picture a week, fifty-two weeks a year.
Were movies made at that time to help people forget the Depression, forget the hard times?
I suppose automatically it was meant to entertain and to distract. I don't think they had that social conscience behind them. They said, "What's going to bring the people into the theater?" They weren't that altruistic. I suppose some of them were, yes, I'm sure some of them were, but for the majority of producers, or companies, rather, they just turned out films to supply the theaters every week with entertainment that people would buy. But there were two different kinds of producers, too. There was a producer who was under contract with a big company, like MGM that had Louis B. Mayer at the head of it. There were a lot of other producers down the line who followed the orders of maybe a production chief. Then there were the independent producers that really had more power on their own. Like Goldman, for instance, he was an independent producer, and my father and Chaplin and those. The word covered different kinds of producers.
Do you remember at that time Louis B. Mayer and MGM? We think of that as being the studio that produced all the big budget...
They had a good publicity department.
What do you remember...and that they were also very Republican controlled. Is that right?
Yes. Can you tell me a little bit about MGM and their politics?
The politics of MGM at the time was guided, or inspired by Mayer himself, Louis B. Mayer
** of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The individuals of course did what they pleased. They didn't report them to the boss. They just went out and voted any way they liked. Mayer tried to identity himself and the company as much as possible with the Republican Party. On the other hand Warner Brothers and First National did just the opposite. They tried to identify themselves with the Democratic Party.
** It didn't really have too much influence on the players or the writers or the directors, who did as they pleased and just paid lip service to what the boss wanted to hear.
I thought that the bosses like Mayer exerted a lot of control and kind of told you what you were supposed to do.
They did tell us what we were supposed to do but nobody did it. They did what they wanted to do. Once you got into the polling booth you voted as you liked. Mayer was the most dictatorial I would say.
What do you remember him as? How would you describe him?
Well, my relations were always quite pleasant. It was social and I never had anything to do with him professionally.
What about his reputation, Mayer's reputation?
I wouldn't have liked to work for him. I'd have been terrified. Except he had Thalberg, who was his production chief who was intelligent, easy, and very bright. We respected his sympathetic intelligence. I never had an opportunity...
Why were people terrified of Mayer?
His temper and his power. He had tremendous power throughout the industry. He could call somebody in another company and indicate a threat, not a direct threat, but indicate a threat. Other producers, other companies would be frightened without knowing quite why. It was the tremendous power of suggestion more than actual power that was exercised.
Do you know why would the studios, why would somebody like Mayer have been such a strong Republican? Do you know why their politics were that way?
I don't really know. I know that Mayer identified himself with President Hoover very early on and that sort of established a relationship and a connection with what might be called the conservative party of the day.
Was the movie industry more comfortable with Republican economic policies?
I don't think it was particularly comfortable with one group or another. It might have been for some, I think for the writers and producers, sub-producers, production heads and actors and designers probably the Democrats were the best. For the bosses the Republicans were best. This is the way I remember it and the influence that the producers had.
Was the movie industry and big economic and political force in California at the time?
The movie industry was a considerable political force in California at the time,
** more by what they might do or could do than what they actually did do. Their possible influence was always something which politicians were concerned about. If you were going to run for District Attorney or if you were going to run for governor or mayor of a local town you wanted to get the backing of one of the big companies
** because they had such implied influence.
And what could this influence do? How was it used?
Well, I don't think it was ever used very much, but it was the threat of what they could do or what they thought they might be able to do. I don't think they really had tangible power, power that you could say "This is what they could do." In some cases I suppose so. I need a little time to think it out and remember incidents.
Actually, we have this picture during the Sinclair race, which I know you don't remember much about. The studios were always threatening to move to Florida, and I understand that was a threat that was used quite a bit by the movie industry, that if they didn't like what was going on or if they were threatened with increased taxes or something they'd say, "Well, we'll move to Florida." And this picture is of Joseph Schenck and your father, actually, arriving in Florida. If you want to take a look at that—
—Warner Brothers and the image you had of Mayer and what it was like at MGM.
I think as far as the players were concerned, and the writers and directors one studio was like another. Zanuck was probably the most sympathetic of the producers because he'd himself been a writer and had known what the experience was like to work under one of the bosses. Thalberg was one of the most intelligent, sympathetic anyways. [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] , which gave him another inside view of the other side. There was no strict rule about it, no. People were different. Some were easier than others. There's no firm answer to that question.
OK, great. We're going to change reels.
People often ask me if we felt the Depression in those days. Well, we did indeed, because people were obliged to make salary cuts, if not, the option was dropped. We were all on a 40 week contract out of 52 weeks, so if you had a contract there were twelve weeks in which you didn't get paid at all, and yet you weren't allowed to work for anybody else. So what it really sounded like, if you got X for 40 weeks, it meant that for the year you got X minus whatever it was, because the other 12 didn't count. So they took advantage of things like that. It was not a very pleasant time for anybody. Even the big stars suffered...suffered is too strong a word, but I mean they were affected by it. Some of them were dropped entirely and brought up again because there's no where else to go.
Did you ever feel any contradiction or uneasiness on being in a place like a film studio where so much money was being spent on making a film and yet there were people on the outside that were having such a hard time?
Well, that is a good question, but surely the answer must be that money was going to go to people who were glad to get the jobs they were working: carpenters, electricians, set designers, painters, extras. I know that one time in a film my father made in 1923 called they used to have extra calls of a thousand people a day. But in those days the ones up front got five dollars a day. The others got a box lunch. That was the standard pay in those days for mob scenes, just masses of people. If you were a dress extra, up close you might get five dollars, six dollars. If you had evening clothes you got $10 a day.
You felt that the big budgets were going to employ people, or you just didn't think about it at all?
You didn't know where the big budgets went. Sometimes they went just into the labor cost. It was disguised often. You didn't really know too much about it. You read about it in the paper but it didn't always affect the people involved.
And when you were working on a film, if you were working a glamorous film, a big budget glamorous film, did it feel glamorous to you?
No. You're worried about "Do you remember your lines?" Do you have an idea of the character you're playing? You don't think of those things if you're really conscientious about it. You're wondering what the next job's gonna be and is this going to have them take up your option? Pretty material questions. Not as hardy as they should be.
I remember reading in your autobiography about a time when you went with...it was '33, it was New Years when you went to the Rose Bowl with your father and Pickford in a limousine and people kind of attacked—
Well, they rapped on the door of the car.
Can you tell me about that? Did you remember?
I don't remember too clearly. I remember that we did go to the big annual football game in the Rose Bowl, and we'd driven in a big car. I was invited by my father...of course I was pleased, I didn't have the opportunity to be with him as often as I would have liked. That was fine except this was a bad time for the nation. As we were stalled in traffic people would bang on the door of the car and yell at my father, and he wasn't used to that. He was used to people cheering him, not abusing him.
Why were they yelling?
Because he was in a big car and going to a big football game. It was just sort of a protest by the people who were out of work and having a tough time.
That's something that you remembered for many years after.
I do remember now that the question has come up, but there are other incidents like that which make one recall what bad times they were.
Do you remember any other incidents?
Not really, but probably now I will.
OK. You also said in your autobiography...we've been reading the autobiography.
Oh good. [laughs].
We remember all the statements. You said that the films of that time helped people escape to a world of happy endings. In their own lives they didn't know what was going to happen next. Can you talk a little bit about the movies in those kind of terms, those words, that they were escape movies and how they helped people escape?
The whole business of making movies was a means of escape. It was an escape industry. It was a place where people could live fairy tales which never existed, and every story had a happy ending. So if they were miserable themselves don't be too disappointed, because it's all going to come out all right. So movies were providing happy fairy tales to the masses of people throughout the world. I think we did it in this country better than anywhere else because we've got the brightest audiences.
Do you think that's why movies continue to do well during the hard times, during the Depression?
Unquestionably. They succeeded in those days because it did provide hope. It was a way for people to escape their own hardships or their own worries and anxieties for a couple of hours and lose themselves and go out feeling that "We'll be all right." Oh yes, I think it definitely did that.
Definitely what? The movies did that?
The movies certainly provided that. Like in the old days a good novel provided people with escape, romantic novels. This is another way of doing the same thing.
When you were in a movie were you conscious of that, that you were helping to...?
Well, in the background, but more conscious of trying to make a good movie and trying to make an interesting play or story out of it in the hope that it would strike a sympathetic cord with the public of course, and knowing what the public mood was like it was aimed with that in mind.
Do you remember, were you interested in those years of making films that were more escapist or were more realistic?
No, I think in those days we were more concerned with escapism. We knew that's what it was. We sometimes were cynical about it and wanted to do some more realistic pictures, and occasionally a company would maybe make one or two films a year that were down to earth and real and had some honesty to it. But most of them were fairy tales and deliberately, consciously so.
Great. We're doing wonderful. What did it look like to you from a distance?
A nice place in the sun, very comfortable climate. Lot of friends, but I didn't like the work so much. I liked it when I could get it but it wasn't aesthetically very satisfying except once in a great while. Occasionally someone would make a gesture and make a picture with a conscience, had real drama and had a real witty comedy to it, but not as often as we would have liked.
So that was a concern of yours, what the content was?
Oh, I think not only mine. I think it was most people on the creative side, or interpretive side, you might say. Most of the writers and actors and directors and so forth.
What were you concerned about? Can you describe what your concern was?
No, not really, not offhand. It's silly to say I can't describe it, of course I can, but it'd take too long. We were concerned about doing things which satisfied our sense of what was constructive, which was an intelligent, serious movie, not just bantering to the lowest tastes of the public you could get by the censors. There was very heavy censorship in those days too. Embraces were limited and so forth. I forget the kind of things which were not allowed by the Hayes Office, which was the official censor for the industry.
Was the feeling there at that time also that films were just being made to make money?
Was that a concern?
It was a concern, but you accepted it, because what was the alternative? They had to because they were so expensive to make, terribly expensive. No other art form is as expensive. Even today no other art form is as expensive as making films. The number of people involved behind the camera and the equipment itself. Even if you just think of the cameras themselves and nothing else, quite aside from the sound, which is also expensive. Everything to do with making a film is expensive. This is expensive, what we're doing now. I'm glad I'm not paying for it.
[laughs] Was there ever an effort to get away from the big budget films and to try to maybe make films with more content or more realism?
Independent producers, occasionally, but the independent producers were very few and far between, except those who were deliberately playing to cheap theaters, second run, third run. They did mostly what they call "Olders" which are cowboy pictures and so forth. Otherwise there just wasn't the opportunity, there wasn't the finance available.
Are any other of the movies that you did in '33 that are the ones that are really memorable to you?
Yeah. , , , .
It was based on a novel by Somerset Maugham.
So you could talk a little bit about either or ?
Tell me about working on . Did you like working on that film?
I did. I didn't have much to do. I was originally supposed to be the star and turned out that Katherine Hepburn was the star and I just went along with the show. But that was great, because she was so wonderful and wonderful to work with, and great character. We've been friends ever since. I loved working with her, and with Lowell Sherman, the director, and Menjou is a wonderful character, very amusing character. So it was hard work but it was interesting and amusing work.
Was it the kind of part that you liked to play?
No, no, I didn't say my part was very good. It was a good leading man's part, but there was not much character to it. No, a lot of parts I liked better, but I liked doing the film because I liked the association, the other people I was working with. It was sort of straight leading man stuff, which is all right.
And then you liked...
I liked . That was fun because you play the insane Czar of Russia, chew up the scenery, overact all over the place.
That's the kind of role that you like?
I think every actor loves the chance to overact if he can. Actually it was a very good film in its day and a darn good part.
OK, and what about ?
The best part of Captured was working with Leslie Howard, who was a great gentleman, very sadly lost in the war. He was shot down in the war, great loss to everybody, friends as well as his profession. But we had great fun making the film together, yes. It was hard work, but it was fun work too.
Give me a sense—you said that working the films you didn't feel the glamour. You felt the hard work. What, is it also fun? Was it fun being an actor in the '30s?
It wasn't fun being an actor in the '30s, '40s, '50s, or 1912 I don't think. It's only fun when you're doing something good. After all, acting is pretending to be somebody else. If you're interested in the story you're telling and the person you're pretending to be, whether it's an old man in a long white beard or a young fellow, whatever it is you're trying to be, if the story's interesting, the other people with you are interesting, and the play is well-written, it's like a bit of music if you're a musician, you're first violinist, let's say. If the music is good and it's by a fine composer and you're in a good orchestra then it must be great fun. But if it's a bad orchestra and it's a bad symphony you're playing with and the music is not very good, well it's just a chore then. You're just there because you're paid to be there.
Do you remember, was the New Deal and Roosevelt beneficial to the movie industry? Were the policies of the New Deal, the Democratic policies at that time, were they helpful to the movie industry, or do you remember at all?
I don't really recall whether they helped the industry or not. I was very for Roosevelt. I identified myself with him. I spoke for him, I went out and campaigned for him. I was interested in foreign affairs and his attitude towards foreign affairs was such that I did as much as I could to support him, and then later on worked for him directly and he sent me on special missions down to South America and different places.
You said at one point that they sometimes got angry at the studios because they didn't want to become more involved politically.
Yes. We were very concerned about the rise of Hitler and the threat that he made, and we weren't sure whether the Allies would be able to hold out. As a matter of fact, as it turned out only Britain was able to hold out against him. The studios didn't take a stronger stand because, well, the companies had an involvement in what was happening in Europe, and they ought to give more support, but they seemed frightened that it would alienate certain groups and they were thinking too much of business and not enough of their conscience, I thought at the time [coughs].
Wouldn't get involved with anything that was considered to be controversial?
That's right, yeah. They were very concerned about avoiding any issue which was going to be too controversial. I thought that was bad to take that attitude. They ought to take a stand. Of course, my idea was not very good business, but it was probably more honest politically.
Let's stop for a second.
I don't want to say publically...are we recording?
No, we're not.
What made some of us angry was that some of the leading people like Mayer, who was Jewish, did not seek to do anything for his own people. We thought that was wrong. A lot of others did, of course. The Warner Brothers were Jewish and they did wonderful work, but Mayer was one who did not. There were a couple of others who did the same thing. That made us rather angry.
That's an interesting thing about Mayer. It's like he wanted to deny his past, deny his own roots.
Yeah. He thought he was so popular he could afford to do it.
And he was making films that were—
Just neutral. They didn't side either way.
But they were mostly about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They didn't deal with none of the characters—
No, no. His son-in-law Goetz up at Universal had much the same thing, and I was always wanting to inject propaganda in my films, but I was my own producer. As I was my own boss with their support I went out on my course, not as strongly as I would have liked to have...
But weren't they instilling some kind of propaganda themselves by actually not taking a position? Was that a form of...
A form of staying of neutral, not sort of antagonizing anybody.
Right. And that's kind of a political position, a viewpoint, almost like a Republican position that you don't get involved.
I suppose you might say that, yeah.
It's interesting in trying to understand Hollywood, there in that period...it seems that there really was an effort to sell, to market an ideology. They sold films, people wanted to go and escape. But that's also what you wanted for people to feel...
Some of the films that were made were outright propaganda, but we tried to disguise it...all sorts of efforts were made to discourage me doing them.
Propaganda in what way?
Sympathy and support for the Allies. Getting ourselves involved.
Wow. That's good. But you only could do that when you were in England, right?
No, I did that in Hollywood too, because I had my own company there too.
Maybe you could tell me that when you became an independent, when you started producing your own films, how much more freedom that gave you to be able to make the kind of films that you wanted to make. Is that correct?
[production discussion][slate marker visible on screen]
Is that possible to talk about?
Rephrase the question.
That the studios themselves had so much control over content and over politics that it wasn't until you started producing your own films that you were able to introduce subject matter that was important to you.
I did reach the point in California where I was able to have a certain amount of influence over my own films. I did gain more power than most people, than my contemporaries. Not all of them, there were a few others like myself. It was very, very rare. But the controls got tighter and tighter so that's one of the reasons I decided to move my activities over to England where I found more production freedom. I couldn't get backing for my films in California unless I toed the line, but I could get backing abroad.
And again, what was toeing the line? What did that mean?
Being absolutely neutral. Not showing any favoritism to either side and not even hinting at any political side. Just make sheer trivial entertainment.
And you think that kind of Mayer was the master of trivial entertainment?
Well, he was at Metro-Goldwen-Mayer, but his influence was considerable and the others went along with it, except as I said the Warner Brothers were inclined to break the mold.
Can you tell me that again by saying "Mayer"?
Mayer was a tremendous influence over the film industry himself. He had tremendous power, by force of personality more than actual interest. He was the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Thalberg was the head of production. But other companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount...Warner Brothers were internationalists and they were all for supporting the Allied cause. They found it difficult to get the theaters to go along with them, so they had to rely on some of the theaters which they controlled themselves. I'm not being as I could be, because I want to get all my facts straight and get it off the top of my head, a little awkward.
The movies had at that time had almost a monopoly over both production and distribution, is that—
Movies? You mean...?
That they both produced the films and then they owned the theaters.
They owned or controlled the theaters, and that is one of the reasons why my father and my step-mother Mary Pickford and Chaplin broke away and started United Artists, so that they could do exactly as they wanted, and later on they got Joseph Schenck, who brought in his own group and Samuel Goldwyn, to sort of be independent of the bigger interests controlling the studios and distribution and the theaters.
Were the movies a powerful influence on people's lives?
Oh, I think so, yes, definitely. Probably still are. Television had probably over, but between movies and television. Television is another form of movies, anyway.
During those years can you tell me what kind of power you think the movies had on people?
It's difficult to say. How can I phrase it...movies had a way of influencing dress, mood of thought. I don't know how to express it but they certainly did have an influence.
Were you aware of that when you were making films?
Oh sure. Censorship, as I think I said earlier, was a considerable factor.
Let's stop for a minute.
This was New Years, going to the Rose Bowl New Years of '33.
Yes. I remember going to the Rose Bowl football game in 1933 with my father and step-mother, Mary Pickford.
Can I ask you to put your hand a little bit, your hand...
Oh yes. Sorry.
Start again. Start saying you were going to the Rose Bowl with your dad.
Trying to think back on things which might be of interest. I'm remembering right now going to the Rose Bowl with my father and step-mother, Mary Pickford. It was at a time when the Depression was hitting people pretty hard all over the country, but my father was quite...not above it but detached from it. He was so used to being universally popular and liked by people of all types, classes, and nationalities and whatever. It wasn't anything that directly affected him except when he read the paper. So it came as something of a shock to him as he was driving to the game through the crowds, the cars werne going bumper to bumper, inch by inch in the heavy traffic. Crowds were closing in on the cars and the public was looking and he saw angry, beating on the door of his Rolls Royce that he was traveling in, angrily instead of cheering him. They were not cheering him. He didn't know how to react. He'd never gone through anything like that before.
Did it make him and you realize how bad the Depression really was at that point?
I think I was closer to the world than he was, so I always knew pretty much what it was like. I think he lived in this little world of his own, up on the hill, and he read about it in the paper but it was like one of his movies I think, sort of a Never Never Land. Then he was abruptly brought down to earth by this crowd. He'd been so used to people cheering him. The crowd's abusing him, threatening and rocking the car and everything else, it just staggered him. He just didn't know how to react at all to it.