In the early 1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most storied, opulent, and productive motion picture company on earth, hovered on the cusp of chaos, and nobody knew it.
The Board of Directors in New York was an aggregation of financiers. Their acquisitional skills were unsurpassed but they understood next to nothing about the, at times, mystifying art/craft mix that went into the making of a movie.
The executives who directed production in Culver City were presumed to know better, but at the moment their delinquency equaled that of their Eastern colleagues.
Heavyweights in the studios have a long and troubled history of misinterpreting signs and signals. The legendary Irving Thalberg, who ran M-G-M for L. B. Mayer, thought color and sound in pictures would evaporate with the passage of very little time. Charlie Chaplin dismissed the entire industry early and in toto. "The cinema," he declared in 1916, "is little more than a fad."
And then, in the dead center of the twentieth century, a couple of disturbing elements combined to defeat Metro. Every other major production company recognized that a great deal of money, an absolute guarantee for survival, could be made by producing entertainment through the new medium of television, whose output was not much worse than the general yield of Hollywood moviemaking, and it was, moreover, served up in your living room, free. M-G-M ignored it.
Another distressing obstacle hit production everywhere, Metro included: the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee requiring loyalty oaths by industry people and the [End Page 70] imprisonment of those who didn't comply or who refused to name names of colleagues who may or may not have been members of the Communist party.
Many critics and interpreters of our American culture concur in the worrisome belief that a correlation exists between the rash of sex and violence that has dominated pictures for the past half-century and the blacklist inquisition of the late 40s and 50s when progressive ideas in film expired and, except for a few pallbearers, nobody came to the funeral. The void left by the abandonment of humanism was filled by an uncomplicated physicality because many writers feared a recurrence of the bad old days and a revival of the Committee. It would be curious indeed if, for half a century, the emphasis on heroic athleticism, both in bed and on the battlefield, derived to some considerable degree from the fear that kept many screenwriters, directors, and producers from exploring the vast and challenging country of ideas.
During the late 1940s and early 50s there had been a few protest films that bucked the tide. One of them was Bad Day at Black Rock with its indictment of racism in the golden west. And it came at a time when the consternation of M-G-M's Hollywood executives peaked with the realization that a crisis other than loyalty oaths and blacklists had to be dealt with immediately.
In 1954 Spencer Tracy, an extremely valuable and expensive commodity, had an air-tight, pay-or-play contract with the studio. If he refused to accept whatever picture was offered him in the next few months, the company was still obliged to pay him an exorbitant sum of money because the decision to commit to a picture or to reject it was entirely Tracy's—a state of affairs the brass viewed with anguish.
Dore Schary, in charge of production, had nothing in his cupboard that he thought might whet Spencer's appetite. He recalled, however, a screenplay scrapped months earlier, an uncompelling dramatization of a Howard Breslin short story called "Bad Time at Hondo." Buried deep beneath the ineptitude of the vehicle (a somewhat deceptive Hollywood term for "story" or "screenplay") was a concept of consequence [End Page 71] —the oppression of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and their internment in camps set up to isolate them and, perhaps coincidentally, to allow unhyphenated Americans in the real estate business to acquire the property the hyphenates were forced to abandon.
The subject had been explored once before, by M-G...