Dore Schary

Isadore Schary had a long and checkered history in motion pictures. He was first employed as a screenwriter at then-lowly Columbia after a story editor was struck by the crispness of a writing sample. The editor also happened to think that the writer was a woman, mistaking Dore for Dora. By 1933 he’d been lured away to the first of a number of writing stints at MGM at $200 per week working under producer Harry Rapf. Schary and Rapf (known as “the anteater,” he’d prove to be his lifelong nemesis), then in charge of MGM’s B-productions (although Louis B. Mayer frowned on the term), didn’t see eye to eye on a number of issues and fought continually. Schary soon left for work as a hired gun with a typewriter but found himself back at MGM writing a Spencer Tracy vehicle, Big City (1937), when he became intrigued in the story of Father Flanagan’s Nebraska Boy’s Town, envisioning Tracy for the role. But Tracy was weary at playing a series of priests and the script was shelved. On top of that he was unable to escape the irritating presence of Harry Rapf and he quit again. Boys Town (1938) was resurrected after Tracy reconsidered, becoming one of it’s biggest hits of the year and co-writer Schary nailed an Oscar for best original screenplay. E.J. Mannix dangled more money at the now-hot property and he was back again at MGM developing Joe Smith, American (1942) with Mayer offering him a dream job as a producer, except that he’d be back working for Rapf. Sensing he could do more as a producer across a wide range of projects and undoubtedly drawn to a whopping salary increase, Schary accepted. He definitely favored scripts with liberal allegories, which represented the very antithesis of the ultra-right-wing Mayer. But even Mayer was impressed by the man’s versatility and ability to deliver hits such as Lassie Come Home (1943) and Journey for Margaret (1942) which introduced the biggest box-office draw the studio ever had in a child: Margaret O’Brien. But a planned return to liberal allegory with a proposed project with Nobel prize winner Sinclair Lewis called “Storm of the West” failed to win Mayer’s final approval and he quit once again in protest. At the end of 1943 Schary accepted an offer with David O. Selznick’s new independent division, Vanguard. He soon moved to RKO where he enjoyed a brief period of total autonomy prior to it’s purchase and ultimate ruination by eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. Schary’s textbook liberalism was called into question after he made a vigorous appeal on the behalf of the brilliant writer Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott, both RKO employees, before HUAC in 1947, but seemed to back pedal after helping draft the so-called Waldorf-Astoria declaration (the result of which, ironically would affect writer Maurice Rapf, his nemesis’ son, profoundly), denouncing employment of known Communists. Coincidentally, it was during the HUAC hearings that he ran into Loew’s Inc. (and MGM’s parent) chief Nicholas Schenck on a train bound for New York. MGM itself had begun to feel the financial effects of changing public tastes by 1947, which could rightly be laid on the lap of the Victorian-minded Louis B. Mayer. While other studios were booming in the immediate post-war era, MGM’s releases were rapidly losing their appeal. It truly was a dismal period for the studio, highlighted by the recent flops The Sea of Grass (1947), Lady in the Lake (1946) and what many film historians consider the nadir of big-budget MGM releases, Desire Me (1947), a film so awful it was released without a directorial credit (the two assigned directors disowned the film). The Tiffany of Studios had fallen into 4th place in profitability and the prospects for 1948 were decidedly mediocre (and would prove to be so, suffering a whopping $13.8 million slide from their peak in 1946). Schenck, who had ascended to his position after founder Marcus Loew’s death in 1926 never enjoyed an ideal relationship with Mayer but tolerated their rancor in light the studio’s enviable financial record. As a reward for it’s remarkable profitability during the Great Depression, Mayer became the highest paid executive in the country year after year. Schenck may not have initially envisioned Schary as Mayer’s replacement, but he wanted to reinvigorate the studio with new (or at least, recycled) blood. Mayer first proposed his son-in-law, Selznick, who flatly refused to work for him. Schary, by then at RKO, was having his own troubles. His latest pet project, Battleground (1949) had been rejected by an increasingly invasive and erratic Howard Hughes, who felt the public was weary of war pictures. Schary, sensed his career had hit another brick wall and opted to jump back to MGM as production chief and took the project with him, purchasing the rights from RKO. Mayer’s position at MGM by this time was considerably weakened but he counseled Schary against producing the picture, reiterating the opinion of the public’s distaste for war stories, predicting it was doomed to failure. Mayer’s veto of the project was overridden by Schenck, irritating Mayer to no end. Battleground came in under budget, largely thanks to casting numerous then-unknown contract players and became a huge hit. Schary’s stock grew enormously in Schenck’s eyes and undoubtedly further infuriated the aging Mayer. Schary announced a huge increase in MGM’s 1949-50 production schedule, detailing some 67 projects, compared to it’s meager 24 the previous season (many of which proved to be outright flops). With this new sense of vitality, the studio’s profits rose 50% in 1949 but faced the looming threat of television. Like nearly every major studio in Hollywood (with the exception of Columbia and Paramount) MGM chose to fight TV’s burgeoning popularity— MGM reverted to what the box couldn’t: provide spectacle. The result would become Mayer’s last greenlighted hit, Quo Vadis (1951) and the cause of another one of many fissures in his relationship with Schary, who wanted to interject an anti-fascism allegory into the biblical plot. Innumerable production delays would mean it’s success would be an empty victory for Mayer; he was ousted prior to it’s release. One of the final straws would involve the production of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), when Mayer appealed to Schenck regarding his disapproval of the picture (Mayer’s instincts here proved correct; the picture, although now considered a minor classic, failed financially). Inevitably Schary was played as a pawn by both Mayer and Schenck in a power gambit. Mayer, in a repeat of his 1934 falling out with Irving Thalberg, was irate over Schary being awarded 100,000 shares of stock without his consultation and threatened to quit. Schenck called his bluff and accepted his resignation on June 22, 1951 and the 46-year old Schary found himself in charge of MGM. At this point Schenck sought to solidify his position of overall control by reviving the old executive committee, his early concept of centralizing corporate management. But he oddly chose to retain Mayer loyalists within the command structure, who considered themselves higher up the Loew’s corporate ladder than their new studio chief. This committee held MGM’s purse strings and many of Schary’s requests for production funding would be nixed by Benjamin Thau, whose office dealt with all of the studio’s contracts. Athough MGM would appear to again thrive in 1952, the actions of the executive committee, the impending Supreme Court ruling demanding theater divestment (a subject worthy of a book itself), and the external threat of TV would ultimately threaten MGM’s future. MGM/Loew’s had fought theatrical divestment for over a decade but failed to take advantage of this temporary reprieve by corporate political in-fighting and a severe lack of industry vision. In retrospect, it should have embraced television production and re-invented itself as a media conglomerate in the later mold of Warner Brothers. Instead, austerity measures were enacted, UK production was increased (due to lower labor costs) at the expense of it’s Hollywood operations and the studio drastically cut its roster of talent. The undeniable fact was that MGM was in irreversible decline, based primarily on the actions of Mayer, Schenck and Rapf in the preceding decade. But even Schary failed to grasp both the threat and promise of television and backed the board’s decision to withhold it’s massive film library from broadcast licensing. Schenck himself rebuffed NBC chief David Sarnoff’s repeated offer of a MGM-NBC alliance. The studio finally approved a foray into television with MGM Parade (1955) on ABC, then an also-ran network. The series, featuring the somewhat bland career MGM contract star, George Murphy and largely consisting of old film clips, and gratuitously promoting upcoming MGM releases, was no great success. Another power struggle occurred within Loew’s in late 1955 when Arthur Loew opted to assert familial control over his father’s company. Schenck was kicked upstairs and the film library was finally made available to TV, bringing in an infusion of cash that glossed over worsening problems within the film industry and MGM in particular. Arthur Loew’s tenure proved brief; he held no particular fondness for corporate politics and abruptly quit, reverting to his previous position as head of Loew’s International and chairman of the board. Schenck’s tenure as President of Loew’s Inc. was marked by one pronounced gross oversight: he never groomed a replacement. A search for a new company president resulted in the ascendancy of career company man Joseph Vogel, who viewed Dore Schary as a plausible scapegoat for the under performance of MGM in the mid-1950’s (among other things, the disappointing performance of the $1.9 million Forbidden Planet (1956)—originally conceived as a modest B-picture— rankled the board). Vogel asked for Schary’s resignation, which was refused; he wanted to be fired. Schary left his 20+ year on-again, off-again employment at MGM for the final time, pocketing $100,000 in cash and another $900,000 in a deferred salary package. In retrospect, Schary was probably ill suited for corporate world; too creative to effectively macro-manage and possessing a genuine desire to be liked even by those he disagreed with. Unlike Mayer, Schary had a second career after life at MGM. He’d wind down his career as a successful Broadway producer, director and playwright focusing much of his attention on the life of his personal hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (see “Other Works”). He died in 1980.

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