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By Sam Jaffe

As Told to Sam Locke

Reprinted from The Los Angeles Magazine with the permission of Barbara Jaffe Cohen


How a worrywart’s graveyard revelations saved a budding studio

The Night Paramount Burned

"I talked with Zukor an hour ago," Ben Schulberg said to me in the decisive voice he reserved for Big Moments. "We’re going to start building soundstages as of now. You’re in charge, Sammy."

Schulberg always called me Sammy when he laid impossible jobs on me. It was January 1928. I was not quite 28, and, as production manager of Paramount Pictures- even then a giant studio-I worked full time supervising the budgets on the 52 pictures a year we turned out.

Schulberg wagged his head and sighed. "Why the hell didn’t Zukor start this a year ago?"

I suppressed a smile. Schulberg was one of the best studio heads in the industry, but even he suffered from a common Hollywood ailment: selective forgetfulness.

Only a year earlier, Warner Bros. had unsuccessfully released a number of one-reel "sound" films, as well as the first feature with a musical soundtrack – Don Juan, starring John Barrymore- and the company was rumored to be considering beginning production on a "talking" picture.

I’d been present at the top level Paramount conference about the near-bankrupt Warner’s scheme. "It’s a small-time novelty," Schulberg said at the time. Adolph Zukor and Jess Lasky, chairman of the board and vice president of Paramount respectively, agreed with Schulberg’s judgment. After all, Paramount had been raised to global status by his vision. And he was, incidentally, my brother-in-law.

Then on October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, opened at the Warner Theater on Broadway in New York. The sound accompaniment to the film was limited to a few musical sequences plus some lines of dialogue in one scene, using Warner’s Vitaphone process, which utilized phonograph records played in imperfect synchronization from behind the screen. It was a mediocre story, poorly executed even by the standards of the day. And it was a smash.

The Jazz Singer broke box-office records at the Warner Theater and every theater in which Vitaphone equipment could be installed in time to share in this unexpected windfall. Hollywood was in a state of shock-actually a condition not too unusual in the entertainment industry.

The race had begun. Which studio would reap the sound bonanza first? Who would convert to talking pictures quickest and thus most profitably? Who would be the first to send their box-office receipts skyward?

"We’re aiming for five studios - four stages apiece - 100 percent sound proofed," Schulberg said of Paramount’s construction plans. "As soon as you finish each studio we rush four pictures into it. I’ve picked the four simplest productions for starters. We’ve got to take it easy at the beginning - learn to handle sound while we‘re shooting. Once you finish the first set of stages we’ll be ready for bigger productions. Twenty stages ought to put us way ahead.

Listening to Schulberg, you’d have thought he was ordering lunch at the Paramount commissary. As I reeled out of his office, his last dictum rang in my ears, "Build ‘em good and, for chrissake, build ‘em fast!"

Walking back to by own office in a welter of self pity, I brooded that all my life I was required to do too much too fast.

Born in a Lower East Side tenement, I was the fourth child of Russian immigrant parents, and the first born on this side of the Atlantic. By the time I was seven, I was already leading a double life - actually a triple one. On the streets I was a dead end kid, skilled at crap shooting, penny pitching and other gambling activities unwittingly financed by neighborhood shopkeepers whose eyes weren’t as quick as my fingers.

Saturday mornings, I was a religious prodigy, showing off my skills at davening (praying aloud in Hebrew from the torah) at various local synagogues, under the proud eye of my father. The rest of the week, I earned a precarious income working as a delivery boy for different shops, selling newspapers and running errands for local gangsters and gamblers for tips.

What saved me from catastrophe was the marriage of my older sister, Ad, to Ben Schulberg, a bright young man. Schulberg worked for the newly formed Paramount – Famous Players – Lasky Company, whose business offices were located on 5th Avenue across from the famed 42nd Street Library, and he got me a job there as a summer office boy.

I rose speedily to shipping clerk and then to film salesman. And then in 1919, at age 18, I was offered the job of purchasing agent at United Artists, which had just been founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and D.W. Griffith. With Schulberg’s blessing, I took the job and since I’d always been good at saving money and cutting costs, I did well and achieved the dizzying heights of a private office.

A year later, when Schulberg left Paramount to form his own film company – Preferred Pictures – I unhesitatingly left United Artists to join him. Financed by backers, Schulberg had rented a Hollywood studio, plus personnel and a leading lady – all by long-distance phone. Sensing an opportunity, I asked him to let me work in the studio. In 48 hours I was on my way west by train.

Preferred Pictures turned out to be a typical early-century film studio. There was a roofless stage open to the sun to save electricity, and at dusk a canvas ceiling was unrolled above the walls and lights were turned on in order to continue filming.

I came on the scene with the title of assistant property man. It took me two days to learn what that meant- and not much longer to realize that the people my brother-in-law had hired by phone to run his studio were incompetent. I wrote him to propose he come west and run his enterprise himself. He must have been aching for just such a suggestion, because he promptly uprooted his family (his son "Budd" Schulberg would become the author of What Makes Sammy Run), moved out to L.A., took charge of Preferred, made me production manager and we were off and running.

I spent all of my waking moments at the studio, and I soon saw how its limitations were draining us. Since we had no storage space, we had to rent props for each new production and dismantle the sets after each film was finished. Our roofless stage wasted us more time than the savings in electric lights was worth.

The answer, I told Schulberg, was a bigger studio with the facilities our present one lacked. Convinced, my brother-in-law said, "Find one."

I found what we needed in less than a month- the Selig Studios and Zoo on Mission Road, just north of downtown. It was spacious and well equipped, with four roofed stages. Colonel William N. Selig, a film pioneer famous for his jungle pictures was ready to retire.

"You know we can’t afford the rent they’re asking," Schulberg told me.

"How do you feel about splitting the rent with another producer?" I asked him.

"Where are you going to find one of those?"

"I already have. An ex-junk dealer from Boston. He’s made a few films. Not in our class."

"What his name?"

"Louis Mayer."

A huge half-moon bearing the legend Mayer - Schulberg replaced "Selig Studios and Zoo." And we were in business. Schulberg and I compensated for little production money with ingenious showmanship. I would scour the rental companies for an extravagant set. Then we would build a story around it in collaboration with a scenario writer. Thus we’d create a sense of size with a miniscule budget.

Our first production, Rich Men’s Wives, starring Claire Windsor, was a success. We followed it with Poor Men's Wives, which didn’t do as well at the box office, but had the distinction of being the first film sequel in history. Next we secured the services of an actor who had won fame playing the title roll in Chu Chin Chow. There were no makeup departments then, and Lon Chaney was the only film actor at the time who realized the power of makeup to rivet an audience’s attention. The picture he did for us, Shadows, was picked as one of the best films of 1922-23 by the National Board of Film Review.

Clara Bow came to us in 1923 as an 18-year old. Schulberg signed her to a long-term contract. After nursing her along with small parts, he gambled by buying a controversial novel by Percy Marks about jazz and flappers called The Plastic Age, and cast her in the lead. It became Bow’s breakthrough to stardom - and Preferred Pictures’ entry into the big time.

Six years passed and the Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky Company shortened its name to Paramount Pictures and established a studio at Sunset and Vine. By now, Schulberg was an important enough figure in the industry for his old boss, Paramount chairman Zukor, to offer him the position of studio chief. Since Louis Mayer had run out on Mayer-Schulberg without notice several years before, to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Schulberg saw no reason not to accept Zukor’s offer. He brought along his contract players, his staff, and me as his production manager.

At Paramount I encountered the same problems I had faced at Preferred Pictures. It was the richest, most powerful film company in the world, but it had an undersize production plant. I immediately started lobbying for the purchase of a studio large enough to allow the filming of 50 to 60 movies a year- our annual output in 1926 – and to house sets and props, which we now had to rent for each picture we made.

I found an ideal studio in the heart of Hollywood, next to an old cemetery. Schulberg gave his okay, as did Lasky, and, once Zukor, back in New York,  gave his approval, Paramount moved to the same quarters it occupies today.

It was the most powerful studio in filmdom, and I was soon charged with building its first soundstages.

The construction took almost a year of unrelenting toil. My days were filled with yelling on the phone, running around the lot, squabbling with contractors, fighting with sound engineers and poring over blueprints. On top of that, I was doing my regular job of checking every film in production at the studio.

Finally came the day the last nail was pounded in, the last piece of wiring secured, and I could announce that soundstage 14 at Paramount was ready for the shooting of the first talking picture, which would start the following day. It was January 16, 1929, and we had beaten out every other studio – we’d won!

I can still recall the euphoria that hit the studio, the thrill that went through me every time a top Paramount executive – from Schulberg to his boss, Lasky – congratulated me.

That evening was the first time in many months that I’d returned home by dinnertime, and my wife, Mildred, had prepared a sumptuous meal for the occasion. Just as she set down a bowl of soup before me, I heard a siren in the distance, then a second, a third, a fourth. The spoon dropped from my hand and I burst out. "My God, I’ll bet it’s the studio!"

I could see the flames shooting into the dark sky from the direction of the studio a few miles from our home. I ran back into my house and telephoned Paramount. The operator there recognized my voice and confirmed my worst fears. The new soundstages were on fire.

In no time, I was in my car speeding to the studio. Fire trucks zoomed past me and the accumulating clangor of sirens grew deafening.

Driving into Paramount, I saw my just-completed soundstages enveloped in flames and smoke. It was the most heart-sickening sight of my life. When I got out of the car, I found my legs had turned to Jell-O: I had to lean against the door to keep from sinking.

Schulberg, Lasky and several of the producers and executives were already there, a clump of somber figures, dark against the bright leaping flames. There was nothing any of us could do but stand and watch, in the awful heat, and watch our beloved soundstages turn to ashes. The fire department was equally helpless: the more water hosed into the fire, the higher the flames seemed to go.

One producer given to wisecracks noted, "Paramount’s a good short sale tonight, huh, Sammy?"

"Keep you f…... jokes to yourself!" I barked. I can still recall his stunned expression, as much at my vehemence as at the fact that he’d never heard me use foul language before.

By morning the new stages were soggy, black, smoking ruins. We would have to start from scratch.

I’d been up all night, waiting until it was late enough in the morning to contact our head contractor. He told me it would take five month, working day and night, to get to where we had been before the fire. In a matter of hours we had gone from leader of the "talking picture" to bottom of the list.

Zukor was awakened in the middle of the night in New York with news of the disaster. The next morning, he took the first train west. Since I was production manager of the studio, mine was the first office the chairman of the board of Paramount pictures visited when he arrived four days later. His first question was:

"How long will it take to rebuild?"

"We’ve already started – the work is going on night and day."

"You haven’t answered my question," he said.

I took a deep breath, "According to our chief contractor, it will take five months."

"Five months?"

"Working night and day."

Although under average height, Zukor’s never-failing air of cool, unemotional authority had always made him a towering presence to me. This was the first time I had ever seen him lose self-control. His lips were bloodless and trembling as he tried to regain his composure.

"But we can do something just as good right now, Mr. Zukor." I anxiously offered. "Sound effects!" The RCA lab can put things like that on our films right now - you know, footsteps, doors opening and shutting, audiences applauding, a phone ringing."

Zukor didn’t stop shaking his head. "Not good enough…not good enough," he’d responded. When I ran out of steam, he said, "Without talking pictures, we can’t compete." He was silent a moment, then announced in a stricken tone, "Paramount will be out of business in six months."

I’d heard the death knell. And, as I resumed the back-breaking schedule I kept when the soundstages were being built - now intensified by trying to re-build in a fraction of the time - an irrational fear that somehow I was to blame kept preying on me.

Hadn’t I been the one to find the studio and recommend its purchase to the board of directors? Maybe there wouldn’t have been a fire if I had picked another location.

One night, I quietly got out of bed, dressed and went for a walk to tire myself enough to get some sleep. I found myself outside the Paramount studios. I remember thinking, ironically. The murderer returns to the scene of the crime.

As I wandered past the cemetery that flanked the Paramount lot, I took note of the remarkable peace and quiet amid the graves. Out of nowhere, like a noiseless bombshell, came the thought: No soundstage could be any quieter than this!

If we filmed at night, we wouldn’t need soundstages. We could use our old stages and put 12 talking pictures into production right away. Plus, we would have an advantage over other studios, whose production of sound pictures would have to be limited to the number of soundstages they could build.

By the time I was back in bed, I’d worked it all out. We would film on our old stages from 9 until dawn each night. During the day, construction of the soundstages would proceed at full speed. I fell asleep feeling like a man who has crawled out from under a giant iron wheel.

The next morning, I assembled all our sound engineers and presented my solution. They informed me there shouldn’t be any problems, even though our old silent stages were huge and cavernous, with very high ceiling, that tended to reverberate voices. To counter this, they suggested we buy lots of blankets and hang them around the sets to deaden the echoes.

At first I was apprehensive about how turning night into day would affect our actors and directors. But it seemed to inspire them, perhaps because they knew how much was at stake. In any case, morale shot way up. Carole Lombard, in fact, announced to all and sundry that she preferred our revised schedule.
"I’ve always preferred screwing in daylight," she declared.

As for me, I thought of Thomas Gray’s Elegy: Written in a Country Churchyard, which Ad [Ed. his sister] had once pressured me into reading. Gray had contemplated a graveyard for 27 years and produced a poem. I had looked at a cemetery for about 10 minutes one night and saved a studio.

Several distinguished pictures came out of our period of enforced nighttime shooting.

The Way of All Flesh, loosely based on Samuel Butler’s classic novel, was one of these nocturnal productions. Directed by Victor Fleming, it starred the brilliant Emil Jannings, who won the first Oscar for Best Actor.

Another Paramount nighttime production, Underworld, was the first gangster picture. It was also Ben Hecht’s first film script – he was rumored to have written it in one week. One of the box-office hits of 1929, it won Hecht an Academy Award and initiated a gangster-picture style that included Paul Muni in Scarface. Jimmy Cagney in Public Enemy Number One, and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.

And just about that time, my contract at Paramount was coming up for renewal. What terrific timing. I thought. Lasky called me into his office to set the new terms, and told me with an air of great magnanimity, "Sam, in our new contract, we're raising you $250 a week."

"Is that all?" I said.

Lasky was an amiable, easygoing man, and he didn’t hide his genuine shock at my response. Speaking in his characteristic gentle style, he pointed out that $1,250 weekly appeared a very substantial sum for a young man still a year shy of his 30th birthday.

"Two hundred and fifty dollars a week is a very good raise," I said with a forcefulness I hadn’t dreamed I’d ever be capable of mustering against a vice president of Paramount pictures. "But what has my age got to do with it?  Do you know what they gave the man who gave the Coca-Cola people just two words of advice? 'Bottle it' was what he told them - that’s all. Just 'Bottle it!' They gave him a million dollars and they didn’t even ask him his age. Adolph Zukor said I was the one who saved Paramount Pictures and you’re offering me a $250-a-week raise for that? Thank you, but no thank you!"

I walked out of his office.

At the end of the day, I was summoned to Schulberg’s office, where he gave me a blistering dressing-down. "You were out of line, kid," he barked. "You don’t walk out on the vice president of Paramount. You are still a snot-nose and, if you ask me, you’ve gone Hollywood." I had never heard the phrase before, and I didn’t like it any more than anything else he said.

I was still livid when I got home. Mildred silently put dinner on the table. By the time we got to dessert, I’d started having pangs of regret.

Twelve hundred and fifty dollars weekly was a lot of money for a man of 29. Where I came from, a family that had that much income a year could live comfortably.

The worrywart in me arose. By the next morning everybody in the industry would know how I had behaved. It was possible - even probable - that I would be marked as a trouble maker. Then I remembered that it wasn't $1 million bestowed on the fellow at Coca-Cola. It had only been $25,000. My anxiety level zoomed.

I was tempted to phone Lasky at home and tell him I would accept his offer. But to perform such an ignominious surrender, I needed support. I said, nervously, "Maybe I shouldn’t have walked out. Mildred. It’s very possible we may have to go back to New York and start over again."

I forgot about calling Lasky that night. The next morning, he called me into his office and informed me that Paramount had decided to raise my salary to $1,750 a week, plus a $50,000 bonus for my rescue of the company after the catastrophic fire.

I immediately offered him my hand in acceptance. "I’ve got to confess, Mr. Lasky," I said, "it wasn’t a million dollar payment for 'Bottle it'."

"It was $25, 000," nodded Lasky, smiling. "But I thought it was a nice touch, Sam."