Sunday, November 8, 2015

Book Review: The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne (1969)

Paperback cover of The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne, 1969. I took this photo because I couldn't find any decent pictures of the cover of the book. On my bookshelf you can see Lana Turner and Natalie Wood making cameos. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Rex Harrison as Doctor Dolittle, 1967. Dr. Dolittle lost 20th Century Fox a huge amount of money. By all accounts, Rex Harrison was not overly fond of his human co-stars, one can only imagine what he thought about making a movie with so many animals.
John Gregory Dunne’s 1969 book The Studio is a fascinating achievement in writing about the movies. Dunne asked for, and was granted, full access to the Twentieth Century Fox studio for a year. Dunne shows the reader many vignettes, but the main plotline that we follow in The Studio is the publicity campaign for Doctor Dolittle, the 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison as the doctor who can talk to the animals. Fox was hoping that Dolittle would follow the path of the studio’s earlier musical success, The Sound of Music. Unfortunately for Fox, Dolittle flopped, grossing just $9 million, which was half of its swollen $18 million budget. ($18 million in 1967 dollars is about $130 million in 2015 dollars.) 

Throughout The Studio a certain desperation creeps in, as everyone is fervently hoping that Doctor Dolittle will become a huge hit. What they should have spent more time worrying about was whether or not it was a good movie. (It wasn’t.) Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck told Dunne, “We’ve got $50 million tied up in these three musicals, Dolittle, Star!, and Hello, Dolly!, and quite frankly, if we hadn’t made such an enormous success with The Sound of Music, I’d be petrified.” (p.240-1) Zanuck should have been petrified, as all three of those movies lost a lot of money for Fox. 

Where Lilian Ross’ book Picture featured a father and son-like relationship between MGM executives Louis B. Mayer and Dore Schary, The Studio features an actual father and son relationship between Darryl F. Zanuck, president of Fox, and Richard D. Zanuck, executive vice president of Fox. Darryl had been ousted as president of Fox in 1956, and then returned in 1962 to save the studio, as it was sinking under the massive cost overruns on Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The Sound of Music had made Fox flush once again, but the failures of the massive musicals that followed in its wake led to Darryl firing Richard in 1970. The next year Darryl Zanuck was fired by the Fox board of directors, thus ending the career of the last of the great movie moguls. Richard Zanuck went on to a very successful career as an independent producer, producing huge hits like The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy, and eventually entering into a very successful partnership with director Tim Burton. 

The Studio features cameos from stars like Tony Curtis, Julie Andrews, Charlton Heston, and Gene Kelly, but Dunne doesn’t dish any dirt on them. Dunne doesn’t really get close enough to any of the stars to get a sense of their personalities. Although I did learn that Gene Kelly wore a toupee, which really surprised me. Of course, it took me a long time to figure out that Liberace wore a toupee too, so I guess I’m easily fooled. 

Dunne’s book owes a debt to Lillian Ross’ 1952 book Picture, and in the 1997 introduction to The Studio Dunne acknowledges her influence, and says that Picture, The Studio, and Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy are the three best books written by outsiders about how Hollywood movies are made. An interesting fact is that Reggie Callow, an assistant director, appears in both Picture and The Studio, as he was the assistant director for The Red Badge of Courage, the making of which is chronicled in Picture, and 1968’s Star! 

In the 1985 foreword to the book, Dunne admits that once he finished The Studio, he didn’t read it for ten years. He didn’t read it in galleys, and he didn’t read it in manuscript form. Because of this, I’m blaming Dunne, and a very lackadaisical proofreading team, for the small errors that should not have made it into the book. Quotation marks open but never close, or they open twice. And, most egregiously of all, on page 185 Minneapolis is referred to as the capital of Minnesota, when the capital is actually Saint Paul. For a Minnesotan and Saint Paul resident such as myself, this counts as heresy. These small errors should have been corrected over the years, as there’s no reason for the 1998 edition of a book that was originally published in 1969 to still be plagued by a sloppy proof job.

But, those quibbles aside, The Studio is an excellent look at the craziness of a major Hollywood studio at a time of great transition in the movies.

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