LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW: Sam Jaffe : Looking Back at Hollywood by One Present at the Creation

<i> Donna Mungen is a producer for A&E; Network and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." She has been nominated for a Cable Ace award</i>

When Sam Jaffe stepped off the train at terminal annex in the early 1920s, Los Angeles was on the verge of becoming the new “El Dorado.” As the mecca for the celluloid spin doctors, the City of the Angels had a halcyon, siesta, mestizo quality. City center was Olvera Street, and west of the Beverly Hills Hotel was mostly winding dirt roads that opened to a lush shoreline. Out of this tropical sunland, Jaffe, and others, built an industry that folded Old World entertainment concepts into the new format of film.

Jaffe was born May 21, 1901, in Harlem, N.Y., to a poor immigrant family of Russian Jews. While still in high school, he was hired by his brother-in-law, B.P. Schulberg (father of novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg), to work as an office boy for the Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky Company. Jaffe’s relocation to Los Angeles coincided with the birth of the studio system, and before it was over, Jaffe would put his imprint on both the city and the film industry.

In a short time, the 28-year-old Jaffe was supervising 52 films a year as Paramount’s production manager, while negotiating the deal for the studio’s new Melrose Avenue lot and updating facilities for sound production. But just as the last nail was hammered in Jan. 16, 1929, an electrical fire consumed the renovated sound stages. In the aftermath, Paramount’s ability to survive was in jeopardy. As a quick solution, Jaffe invented “shooting night for day” production, while working day shifts overseeing reconstruction. Jaffe’s innovation multiplied Paramount’s output. Then, when his contract expired nine months later, the studio’s meager offer so incensed Jaffe that he tendered his resignation. A lucrative counteroffer was hastily assembled but not before Jaffe was accused of having “gone Hollywood.”


By the 1940s, Jaffe was a leading agent with a star-studded stable that included Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel and Frederick March. But the McCarthy period of the 1950s would destroy his agency and the careers of many of his most progressive clients.

Jaffe’s commitment to the human spirit resurfaced as the producer of the war classic, “The Fighting Sullivans” and continued through his 1966 production, “Born Free.” The Jaffe legacy endures. Today, one grandson, Matthew Tolmach, is a vice president for TNT, and the other, Peter Kohn, is a leading assistant director.

Jaffe attributes his longevity to the 60 years of blissful marriage to his beloved wife, Mildred, who died many years ago. He was interviewed in his Beverly Hills townhouse surrounded by his cherished African and Indian artifacts; works by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore and hovering Calder mobiles.


Question: How did you get started in the film business and what was it like?

Answer: These days, young people in the business sometimes call me “a legend”--which means I’m an old man. But I’m a 93-years young man.

But how I got started was my brother-in-law, Budd (B.P.) Schulberg. He had a New York office taking care of the advertising and distribution of films. I was 18, and he gave me a job, but after a while, I went to him and said, “I’m appreciative, but I want to go where I can find out about the business.” So he wrote to the studio boss . . . and I bought a steamer trunk and told my parents, “I’m going to Hollywood.”


The studio was located on Pico in an old car barn. I became an assistant property man. In those days, we photographed until the sun went down, then covered the stage with canvas and used our lights. So you can imagine what the photography looked like. And it didn’t matter if it rained, because we didn’t have sound--though it was uncomfortably cold.

Also, we worked on Saturdays, while some worked on Sundays. Our days started at 9 a.m. and ended at midnight or when the actors started falling down. But we had to finish a picture in 18 days, so we worked those long hours. And the eventual coming of unions was a good thing, because the owners would do anything they wanted to in those days.

Q: What kind of town was Los Angeles during the 20s?

A: Most of the town was a small village . . . . West of the Beverly Hills Hotel was all dirt roads and empty lots, and the beach front along Malibu and Venice was an overgrown forest. As a matter of fact, we used to use the coastline for our tropical locations.

Q: What impact did the studios have on the system?

A: These companies were just being formed when I came . . . . We jointly shared the Selig Studio and zoo, located just north of Downtown on Mission Road, with Louis B. Mayer, and it was called the Mayer-Schulberg Studio. But Mayer was a difficult man. One day, he could love you, and the next day, hate you. His brother, Jerry Mayer, acted as his production manager, but (Louis) Mayer liked my work better, so he put his brother in charge of the commissary--which was tough on Jerry. I also knew his two daughters--who were about my age. And I’ll never forget Mayer had produced a picture using this stylized Chinese furniture, and I had dinner at their house and saw the furniture. He had gotten it for nothing, but it didn’t belong there. It was silly, but later on, we all learned.


Afterward, Mayer made a deal to head up Metro. But Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wouldn’t have happened without the intellect Mayer brought. Sure, he engaged Irving Thalberg when he learned about this brilliant young man working for Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, but Mayer ran Metro. I met Thalberg during this time, and I knew he had a great future, because he was the first to put more than one star in a film--which was an important move in the picture business.

And Harry Cohn of Columbia was another studio pioneer I worked for. He was a very smart, but a very demanding man. That famous line--”I don’t have ulcers, I give ulcers!”--has always been attributed to him. I remember one time he looked out his office window and saw a writer’s light on . . . . So he called the writer and said, “Turn off the light, when you leave, you son of a bitch. It costs money, you know!”

Q: Why was the Paramount Studio relocated?

A: After Mayer, Schulberg and I became a successful production team. We produced several major films, including “Shadows,” starring Lon Chaney, and “The Plastic Age,” featuring the beautiful Clara Bow, whom we had under contract. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures was located on Vine Street, and was losing money. Eventually, they absorbed our company and I became Paramount’s production manager. But after a year, I realized that the studio was outdated. So I told Schulberg, “This studio is costing us too much, we rent everything over and over.”

So he arranged for me to go to New York and meet with our chairman, Adolph Zukor. I was only 28, and I was really frightened when I entered the boardroom. But Mr. Zukor gave me the go-ahead to buy this studio located in the heart of Hollywood, directly across from an old graveyard. So we moved to Paramount’s present location.

Q: Tell me about the night Paramount burned down.


A: That day, we’d just finished remodeling all the stages for sound, and I was having dinner at home for the first time in months, when suddenly the phone rang. I rushed to the studio, only to join Schulberg, Lasky and others watch our dreams go up in hot flames. We all left depressed and waited for chairman Zukor’s arrival four days later. He wanted everything immediately rebuilt, but I informed him that, working around the clock, it would take five months to sound-proof concrete stages. The usually calm Zukor mumbled, “We’re finished!”

Then a few nights later, I was returning home from a movie around midnight, and I noticed everything was quiet. So I thought, “Suppose we shot at night? Then we could use all our stages.” So the next day, all the actors and crew were told we would start at 8 p.m. and end at 5 a.m.

Q: Was it difficult for crews to adjust to sound?

A: No, but when we started making sound pictures, we only had directors who had never used dialogue before. So we bought out dialogue directors to rehearse the actors, and we had the technical directors handle the camera, because we thought the technical directors couldn’t understand dialogue or direct people. Eventually, however, these dialogue directors learned the technical side and they took over.

Q: Why did you leave film production?

A: I felt that with a growing family, depending on a job was no security, and I wanted my own business. So I became an agent, and we represented many stars, i.e. Jennifer Jones, Lauren Bacall and Stanley Kubrick.


Q: What impact did the McCarthy period have upon you?

A: I got into trouble and I lost a lot of business when all those people got ostracized. And it wasn’t just the famous “Ten,” but there were hundreds of people eliminated overnight.

I represented the writer Lester Cole and many other wonderful writers and actors. And it’s true a lot of them were communists, such as Zero Mostel. Why did I have so many radicals? I don’t know. But I guess being a liberal, I attracted those people.

Anyway, these men were my friends, and I broke down when they went off to jail. They weren’t going to upset the government . . . they were making money and they were trying to make it a better world--I know, because I went to some of their gatherings. But I told them, “You’re too radical. I can’t get involved, because I have a lot of people working for me . . . .” I didn’t fire anyone, but my income was reduced by 50%.

Q: Who were the women whom you helped get started in the business?

A: At Paramount, I gave the writer Lillian Hellman her first job as a reader but, later on, she left, because Metro paid her more money. And Dorothy Arzner was another woman I helped. She was one of our top cutters, and we decided to let her direct, and I surrounded her with a top-notch crew. And there were others.


Q: You’ve said Clara Bow wanted to marry you.

A: She was my girlfriend, but she had no sense of value. One time she went gambling and lost a lot of money, but she claimed she was only playing for dollar chips. But the gambling man called me and said she was playing for five-dollar chips. So I called Clara and said, “Why are you fooling around? You’re dealing with the Mafia; they’ll throw acid in your face. You better pay back that money.”

Q: Was it difficult to manage Bogart or work with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields?

A: Bogart was wonderful to represent. He was brought up in the theater and being an actor was something he took seriously. Some people got the impression he was a drunkard, but he drank only when a picture was completed.

Whereas the Marx Brothers would do the craziest kinds of things. One day, they stormed into Schulberg’s office and took off his pants and left the Paramount lot, and never returned.

And on the other hand, W.C. Fields was a totally different character. He’d say in that twangy voice, “In every story you have romance between a boy and girl and then I come in with the jokes. Why can’t we have just jokes? We don’t need that romance.” But you see every film needs a little romance.


Q: Do you think the creation of a new studio by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg is a good idea?

A: It’s marvelous and I think they will get a lot of financing from Wall Street. If Mayer, Fox and Goldwyn can own a studio, why not Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg? They have a better understanding of story and a better right to have a say in how their product is handled and distributed. I think it’s wonderful.