Sunday, October 11, 2015

“Screenwriters? Schmucks with Underwoods.” by Karla Stover

The above quote--Jack Warner, President Warner Brothers Studio
           In Hollywood’s Golden Years, the triumvirate of studio heads, movie stars, and screenwriters had, at best, an uneasy alliance.  Each person owned a piece of a very lucrative pie, and each one was equally prone to keep a watchful eye on everyone else’s piece.  Everyone wanted something he felt he didn’t have but that others might. Studio heads wanted more power and the opportunity to pay the actors less.  The actors felt they were underpaid and wanted more money and choice in their film roles; and the writers wanted a little appreciation and acknowledgement of their contributions.

            While looking over a possible screenplay he professed to like, movie producer Samuel Goldwyn was once heard to say, “I read part of it all the way through.”  But when he didn’t like the writing, he would say something like, “Here I am paying big money to you writers, and for what?  All you do is change the words.” Or when speaking about television, “television has raised writing to a new low.”

            On the other hand, fellow producer Louis B. Mayer claimed to value writers more than actors.  At least he did when he was in the presence of writers.  The general belief among screenwriters, however, was that he considered them mere “slaves of the lamp,” a reference to the story “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.”  In fact, Mayer was so disliked by both actors and writers that some called him Louis B. Manure.  After a bull session, once, when he invited his writers to voice their complaints, those who weren’t fired got a cut in pay.  This is why playwright, screenwriter, and notable practical joker, Charles MacArthur, husband of actress Helen Hayes and father of James MacArthur (Jack Lord’s trusted Danno on the original Hawaii Five-O), decided to seek vengeance.  MacArthur figured with the right person and a proper introduction in an appropriate setting, that he could bamboozle Mayer into paying a writer, whether the person wrote anything or not, in other words, prove who was the bigger schmuck, a writer or a Hollywood mogul.

            For the right man, MacArthur hired an English gas station attendant named Basil whom he’d met on a tennis court.  MacArthur rechristened him Kenneth Woollcott.  The first name may have come from British art historian and Oxford professor, Kenneth Clarke who was very well known at the time.  The last name probably came from one of a celebrated group of New York City writers, critics, actors and wits who met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel:  Alexander Woollcott.  Admittedly, the connection to Kenneth might be a bit of a stretch, but Woollcott was well-known for a wit that was so caustic, he was, for a time, banned from reviewing certain Broadway theater shows.   Thus armed, MacArthur was ready to put his plan into motion.

            The first thing MacArthur did was introduce Kenneth Woollcott to various M.G.M. producers describing him as “the next Noel Coward—just out here for a rest—not interested in working in the pictures.”

            Next, MacArthur had Woollcott accompany him to all studio writers’ meetings with the explanation, “I wouldn’t make a move on a story unless I asked his advice.”

            Then he waited.

            Inevitably, of course, Woollcott was offered a job at M.G.M. 

            Speaking on behalf of Woollcott, MacArthur insisted that there was no chance.  Also inevitably, Woollcott was persuaded to discuss the matter in private.  And finally, of course, as planned, the British gas station attendant signed a contract for a screenwriter’s job.

            Reports of his income varied from one thousand to fifteen-hundred dollars a week.  Either was very generous considering Woollcott was paid regularly and wrote nothing.  Coached by MacArthur, the fake writer held on to every story idea sent his way for a few weeks and then returned it to the studio heads.  With the arrogant sniff that only a Brit can deliver, he simply said, “it just isn’t my kind of story.”

            And the checks rolled in—for a month—for four months—for ten months—and Woollcott continued to return every story idea he received.

            As his employment reached the first anniversary, M.G.M. sent him to Canada to develop a screenplay about the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Woollcott went and, of course, returned sans script.  MacArthur was ready, but disaster struck!  Uncomfortable about his ill-gotten income, Woollcott had never quit his gas station job.  With two employers paying into his social security, somehow, too much was contributed.  The government got confused and contacted the studio.

            Just before Kenneth Woollcott’s hasty departure from M.G.M., he sent Louis B. Mayer the following letter composed, of course, by MacArthur.

            I wish to thank you for the privilege of working this year under your wise and talented leadership.  I can assure you I have never had more pleasure as a writer.  I think if you will check your studio log, you will find that I am the only writer who didn’t cost the studio a shilling this year beyond his wage.  This being the case, would you consider awarding me a bonus for this unique record.  I leave the sum up to you.

            Louis B. Mayer’s response isn’t on record.  What is on record is the fact that not too long after the truth about the hoax broke, Charles MacArthur went to work for Paramount Studios.
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