Authors: Garson Kanin
By Garson Kanin
Copyright © 1967, 1974 by T.F.T. Corporation
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Originally published by
The Viking Press
New York, New York
Mr. Samuel Goldwyn and I sat alone in his throne room, looking at each other.
We had met for the first time some five minutes earlier, and he had insisted, testily, that our interview be private. Abe Lastfogel of the William Morris Agency had brought me in, made the introduction, and now was gone.
It was a crucial moment for me. A nod of this formidable man’s head could signal the beginning of my career in films. Was there anything I should be doing—could be saying—to elicit the movement? The pause stretched out.
Mr. Goldwyn, his right forefinger clamped firmly to the side of his nose, continued to study me through his small gray eyes. It was as though I were a mysterious, unopened box that had been delivered to him, and he was trying to guess the contents.
In the inflating silence I was taking him in. A large man. Why had I expected him to be small? Beautifully dressed and groomed and shod. A smooth, pink face under a finely shaped, bald dome. An impressive presence.
At last his finger came down from the side of his nose.
He clasped his hands under his chin and said, in a high, penetrating voice, “Sidney Howard tells me you’re a very clever genius.”
Could it be? Had I heard correctly? Did I own, so soon, a personal Goldwynism? Never mind. He had cued me neatly into a story that would at least give me a chance to show him I could talk. I had begun to feel doltish, sitting there mutely.
“Well, Mr. Goldwyn,” I said, “that’s certainly kind of Sidney Howard—and generous— but I have to tell you every time I hear that word I’m reminded of a letter Bernard Shaw once wrote to a young playwright.”
word?” asked Goldwyn.
“ ‘Genius.’ The playwright was a fellow named James Elroy Flecker and he’d written this play called
and—” Oh, Christ. Goldwyn looked bored. I was flopping. My palms were moistening. Should I stop? Too late. I forged ahead. “—and he sent it to Shaw. And Shaw wrote back, ‘My dear Mr. Flecker,
is a work of genius, but do not take this as a compliment. Geniuses are tuppence ha’penny in London. What is difficult to find is a writer who is sober, industrious, honest, and has been for several years at his last situation.’ ”
Goldwyn digested the story and nodded, sagely. Had I done all right, after all? My spirits rose.
“Shaw,” said Goldwyn, “is a real tough bastard. Hard to get along. To do business with. And say, listen—me, I can do business with
But not with him. Still and all, anyhow—what he says there about geniuses and tuppence and working-men there—he’s damn right.”
He poured a glass of water from a silver carafe, and drank it slowly.
“Is it true,” I asked, “the story that he ended a negotiation with you saying, ‘The difficulty is, Mr. Goldwyn, that you are interested only in art, while I am interested only in money’?”
“Listen,” he said, nettled. “Don’t believe everything you read in the goddamn papers. In the newspapers. F’Chrissake.”
He studied me again.
“Well, young man. What can I do for you? What do you want?”
want, Mr. Goldwyn?”
?” he repeated, amazed.
“Certainly,” I said, without breaking the rhythm. “You paid my fare out here, didn’t you?”
The ping-pong of negotiation was under way. I could almost hear him say, “Good shot!”
Instead, he grinned and said, “Say, you’re pretty good!” Suddenly, the grin disappeared. His piercing eyes grew smaller, intensifying the sharpness of their focus.
“Well, young man, let me ask you. How would you like to learn the business?”
“I’d like it,” I said.
the same time.”
“I’m not making a firm offer, y’understand,” he added quickly. “I'm only asking.”
“All right,” he said. “Now. So tell me something about yourself.”
He leaned back in his chair and waited. His finger was back on the side of his nose.
I told him something about myself, carefully, all the while reflecting upon the curious set of circumstances that had brought me to this time and place:
I had been for several years an assistant to George Abbott, working with him on
Three Men on a Horse, Boy Meets Girl, Brother Rat, Room Service,
and other plays.
After a string of failures, Mr. Abbott was enjoying a meteoric streak of success. Gossipy Broadway had it that the change in his fortunes had a good deal to do with that kid in his office. Although I did or said nothing to encourage this nonsensical idea, I confess I did or said nothing to discourage it, either.
There existed, at that time, a Broadway rivalry between George Abbott and another George—George S. Kaufman. They both wrote, both directed, both (at times) acted, both specialized in comedy, although now and again each ventured into other fields as well.
Each of them had champions and detractors. I thought them
surpassing. When a new comedy came up, the agent or producer or author or star usually had to decide: Abbott or Kaufman?
Beatrice Kaufman—Mrs. George S.—was Samuel Goldwyn’s eastern representative. It was she who got the idea that I might be a valuable piece of manpower for Mr. Goldwyn in California.
That is why an odd-looking, twenty-four-year-old bundle of nerves who had been an early high-school dropout, a mediocre musician, a burlesque stooge, a stock clerk at Macy’s, a drama student, a mildly successful minor New York actor, and the director of one Broadway failure, was sitting here reciting a bowdlerized version of his professional life to Samuel Goldwyn.
“That’s enough,” I heard him say. “I get the whole idea of you.”
“Sure. You’re an ambitious kid. Like
used to be.”
“Some people say you still
He wheezed a laugh, his face crinkling with delight, and said, “They’re right! You know it? They’re right!”
He rose. So did I. We shook hands, firmly.
“I’ll talk to Abe,” he said. “We’ll see what we can work out. On some reasonable basis. How’s your health?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
“Take care of it. Your health. And it will take care of you. Listen. You haven’t got your health, you haven’t got a goddamn thing.
that. You lose a hold of your health and not only you’re not worth a goddamn thing to yourself, you’re not worth a goddamn thing to
I get up every morning. What time do
get up? Me, always before seven. And no coffee. Hot milk and sugar. You should be careful not to eat. Too much, I mean. And walk. I walk four, five miles every day at least. This night life, f’Chrissake. I’ve seen it
’em. Listen, you know what I love? Ice cream sodas. That’s why I never eat them. Because one is not enough. I need
So I don’t have
Nobody can take care of you but you yourself, y’understand?”
“I tell you I get more goddamn sick people around me here all the time—they all got migraines and ulcers and f’Chrissake heart attacks. I seem to pick ’em. That’s why I asked you your health.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “So far.”
He looked at his watch, said, “Jesus!” and propelled me out of the room.
Abe had left a message for me with Goldwyn’s secretary. I was to get a taxi and meet him back at the office.
On the way, I reviewed the meeting and made notes. When I reached the end and recalled Goldwyn’s complaint that he always seemed to pick men with migraines, ulcers, and f’Chrissake heart attacks, it gave me pause.
“How’d it go?” asked Abe.
“I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like it before so I’ve got no basis of comparison. He said he’d talk to you.”
“That’s good. That’s a good sign. Now. I’m having lunch with Pan Berman—he’s the head of RKO now—so you better come along. And tonight you’ll have dinner with Frances and me at Chasen’s. And with Benny Thau. He’s Metro. It’ll all get back to Sam, see?”
“These meetings. These two meetings. With Pan and Benny. I don’t want him to think—Sam—he’s getting a free ride.”
“Well, he paid for my trip out here, didn’t he?”
“But you’re not talking business with Benny or with Pan. They’re not interested in you.”
“Let me handle it, okay?”
The next morning, he handled it and got Goldwyn to offer me a seven-year contract starting at $250 a week for the first year, $400 the second, then in yearly stages—$600, $750, $1000, $1250, $1500.
I would be paid fifty-two weeks a year. Holidays would be worked out. Duties? Learn the business and then we’ll see. Like most signers of seven-year contracts, I concentrated on the far end, the promise it held, the opportunity, the $1500.
It was 1937 and, along with the rest of my generation, I was still groggy from the slugging we had taken during the desperate Depression years. Further, having spent years in the hit-or-miss theatre, which offered possibilities of glory, but no security, the idea of a weekly paycheck throughout the year was intoxicating. Still, I was troubled by the vagueness of the arrangement.
“Don’t worry about it,” Abe advised. “Part of your job will be to
yourself a job.
The main thing is to get in there. Get to know the business. Get to know
. And him, you.”
Actually, there was no alternative. I had no prospects back East. My job with George Abbott had dwindled to a routine, part-time dead end.
I accepted Goldwyn’s offer and did not return to New York. Instead, I checked into the Goldwyn Studios on Monday morning and Alice in Wonderland was a piker.
My first month there was euphoric.
I had somewhere to go every morning, a pleasant office, and an efficient secretary to assist me. I had the fascinating studio world to play with; charming, witty, talented colleagues; and a library of films at my disposal.
I was indeed learning the business. Each day was a revelation. I was acquiring not only the language of films, but the lingo.
The second month was less happy since I began to see that my chances of becoming a director were remote. Each of the major studios was making some seventy or eighty films a year. They ran huge factories with contract players and writers and directors constantly assigned, reassigned, and substituted. Goldwyn, however, made only two or three pictures a year. Each one was expensive and important and it was doubtful that he would ever entrust one to someone who had never before made a movie.
The subject was seldom absent from my mind. I discussed it with friends, with people at the studio, with my agent, and (by mail) with my family.
A strategy occurred to me, and later became a plan. I would continue to study and work and observe. When I thought I was ready, I would try to get a small picture somewhere to direct on a loan-out basis. When that and the next two or three proved to be smash hits, I would return triumphantly to the Goldwyn Studios and become one of Goldwyn’s directors.
To this end, I tried to find work involving the camera. I attempted to become part of a second unit on the Goldwyn lot. No luck. Second-unit directors were often required to have even greater expertise than the director.
Tests! I thought. That’s it. Why not? Tests were being made constantly for makeup, hairdressing, costumes, and often for acting. But I was unsuccessful in getting even a test to direct, although they were being made daily by assistants, second assistants, casting directors, and, once or twice, by a casting director’s secretary.
One afternoon, I took the matter up with Mr. Goldwyn at his home. I thought it best to pursue it in an informal, casual way.
“There are so many tests to make next week,” I said. “Would you want me to direct one or two—to help out?”
“No, no,” he said impatiently. “I can’t spare you for that. That’s silly, a waste of time. Most tests are nothing.”
“Still,” I said, “it would give you some idea about what I can do.”
what you can do,” he said. “I would just like you to
“I think a lot of these tests are poorly made,” I persisted. “Sometimes you don’t even get a chance to judge the person fairly, because the tests aren’t really directed, they’re just photographed.”
“Well, what the hell do you think, we’re going to spend a lot of time and money producing tests? A test is a test, that’s all, it’s not a picture.”
“But why wouldn’t it be a good thing for me? You say you want me to learn the business. If I directed a few tests and cut them myself and showed them to you—”
“What’s the matter with you?” he said irascibly. “Jesus Christ, here you are, a young nobody, and you’re getting this great opportunity, and you want to be a
“I don’t want to be a test director,” I said. “I want to be a director.”
“How can you be a director?” he said. “You’ve never directed.”
“Well,” I argued, “there was a time when Willie Wyler and John Ford and Leo McCarey had never directed.”
“Don’t you believe it,” he said gravely.
The conversation ended, but not my determination.
In the months to come, I was to bring up the subject over and over and over again, always with the same result.
One afternoon, I went too far, pressed too hard. Goldwyn exploded.
“God damn it!” he shouted. “I don’t want to hear any more about it! I want you to, God damn it, develop the way I’m developing you. You can be very helpful to me, very valuable. Directors, f’Chrissake. Directors are a dime a dozen. You know how many directors are in Hollywood? Yes! And most of them looking for work. But executives, producers—real producers, not these jerks call themselves producers. Producers, men who can take charge. With authority. What’s a matter with you? Don't you see that when you’re a producer, you
directors? Producers hire directors, and sometimes they
directors. Did you ever hear of a director hiring a producer? Did you ever hear of a director
a producer? Did you? No. So what do you want to be, the fellow who can get fired or the fellow who can do the firing?”