“It’s interesting being a consultant,” Tom Pryor said over lunch at Musso & Frank’s a few days ago. “You just wait for people to ask you questions.”
It is an unaccustomed role for Pryor, a feisty and strong-willed Irishman who had been the editor of Daily Variety from 1959 until he eased into the consultancy spot at the trade paper earlier this year.
Pryor is 76, so the idea of setting aside the daily pressures of the editor’s chair is not exactly astonishing. But he has about as much enthusiasm for idleness as he has for warm milk and cookies. He has continued to write articles and signed editorials and he is using his newly freed time to attend film festivals and conferences, which he was seldom able to do before.
“I’d been talking with Syd (Silverman, Variety’s longtime owner-publisher) about this (consultant status) two years ago,” Pryor said. Subsequently Variety was sold to new owners and the move seemed timely. Pryor’s son Peter remains in place as the paper’s editor.
Tom Pryor’s career began when he got a summer job as a copy boy at the New York Times in 1929. “Long summer!” he said at lunch. “I worked at the Times 29 years, six months and three days, just long enough for them to deny me a 30-year badge.”
He started reporting on the movies in 1931 and began reviewing in 1934. He came to Los Angeles in 1951 as the New York Times’ Hollywood bureau chief and stayed in the job nine years before moving over to Variety.
At Variety he acquired a reputation as a hard taskmaster who brought along a number of able young reporters and developed a fierce esprit de corps. He refused to let his people write for other publications and discouraged them from joining organizations.
In the often uneasy relationship between the trade papers and the studios that are their principal advertisers, Pryor built a reputation for personal integrity and even-handed--if not adversarial--reporting. The film reviews by A. D. (Art) Murphy, now teaching at USC, and his successors have been notable for their no-punches-pulled candor and for the accuracy of their predictions of box-office success or failure.
A recent pair of articles about the dismissal of David Puttnam from Columbia--skewed to the studio’s point of view--appeared in Weekly and then Daily Variety at the insistence of the new owners. Pryor then wrote what was in effect a rebuttal to the articles in Daily Variety, defending Puttnam. His move to consultancy status followed soon thereafter. Pryor tactfully declines to discuss the matter further.
Pryor has fond memories of his reviewing days at the New York Times. “Atkinson was reviewing theater as J. Brooks Atkinson. Later on he dropped the J. David Selznick once told me I should change my byline to T. Matthew Pryor; it would give me more class.
“Atkinson wrote his reviews in longhand but he did his Sunday pieces on the typewriter. Olin Downes was doing music, a bulldog of a man who’d do his reviews in 45 minutes to make the second edition. He typed his reviews but then corrected them in longhand so heavily it drove the typesetters crazy.”
The movie-reviewing fraternity itself was remarkable in those days, Pryor said. “We all loved movies and took them very seriously. His colleagues included Frank Nugent of the Times, Richard Watts and Howard Barnes at the Herald-Tribune, Thornton Delehanty of the Post, Rose Pelswick of the Journal, John Chapin Mosher of the New Yorker and a writer Pryor admired greatly named Andre Senwald, who tragically developed glaucoma and committed suicide.
Pryor’s own writing has been for the two publications he has worked for in his nearly 60 years in the business. But at one stage David Selznick gave Pryor the rights to his life story. Through an agent, the late Helen Strauss, Pryor tried hard to find a taker, but no one wanted the book. “It didn’t make that much difference to me,” Pryor said. “The hard part was having to tell David O. Selznick, of all people, that nobody wanted his story.”
Pryor has two contrasting stories about the Times days. When Bosley Crowther blasted “Alexander Graham Bell,” the Roxy theater pulled its ads in protest. Months later, the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, told Crowther casually, “It cost us $40,000. So what.”
But Sulzberger had become friends with Sam Goldwyn, and when Crowther savaged Goldwyn’s film, “They Shall Have Music,” Sulzberger, who had seen the review in proof, demanded Crowther rewrite it. Walter Winchell got hold of the story, to the paper’s embarrassment. Olin Downes was so furious that he took his Sunday column to eviscerate the film from a musical point of view. Sulzberger, Pryor says, later apologized for his interference.
The industry, Pryor says, sipping a martini to keep the corpuscles flowing, is completely changed. “The difference is that the moguls--the Cohns, Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner--could say, ‘Stop wasting my money.’ That’s changed, and you don’t see the dollars on the screen the way you used to. There’s so much money involved it makes people surrender their good judgment.
“But it’s still a big boys’ business.”
Pryor, who is 76 years, 4 months and 14 days old, is again a few months short of a 30-year badge. But he might get one yet.