GEORGE ZUCKERMAN ON SIRK
Robert Wilder’s novel had been shelved and written off (because of Breen office objections and a threatened lawsuit by the Reynolds tobacco family) when I first came to Universal in 1949. I met Wilder in ’46 at Paramount, and then and there decided that his book would make a great picture. Albert Zugsmith had come to Hollywood about 1950, made some small films, and “arranged” to land a post as a U-I producer. He bought an original of mine, The Square Jungle, and then I “sold” him on trying to get Wind off the shelf and shit list. Finally, with Zugsmith leading the blocking, Muhl allowed himself to listen to “the Z and Z maniacs.” I was allowed to write a treatment or two, and then a first-draft screenplay. The rest is history. The movie was a blockbuster. I became, at the time, the highest-priced screenwriter in U-I’s history.
I honestly don’t recall consciously constructing this film along classical lines. Basically I saw it as a Sunday Supplement American melodrama … which, incidentally, isn’t a dirty word to me … not so long as character is action. As to the flashback: In the ’50s the exhibitors watched the opening minutes of the film, and they had to be hooked. Hooking the audience was secondary. Also no social criticism was intended — not at Universal (Western Union sends messages) … just things as they were and are. In the Stack character you’ve found — and rightly so — a little Gatsby. If you’re looking for awareness, you won’t find it in most American drama. The critics take it for self-pity, and only Shakespeare and Hamlet can get away with it … and not necessarily at the box office … or the bookstore.
On The Tarnished Angels
I fell in love with the novel in 1936. When I came to Hollywood in ’46, I learned that the town’s top talent had tried and failed to ride the property past the Breen office. I suspect the novel was neglected by critics because, in truth, it wasn’t in Faulkner’s genre of Southern novels. Though it’s set in New Orleans, it could have happened in Hackensack, Oakland, or Pessary, Ohio … But after the success of Wind, in conversation with Sirk, I suggested Pylon. His face turned white. He said it was exactly the property he had in mind.
On the Auteur Theory
You may have seen Wallace Markfield’s New York Times article on his favorite old B movies. He identified The Incredible Shrinking Man as a Jack Arnold film. True, Jack directed it. But it would be closer to the truth to call it a RICHARD MATHESON FILM (he wrote the novel and, with my tutoring, the screenplay). Or a ZUGSMITH FILM. He had the guts to buy it and bull it through. Jack Arnold put in his 21 days of shooting, plus his time working out the shots with the art director. But hardly a JACK ARNOLD FILM. So much for Markfield and other outsiders who don’t understand what the hell went on here … Sirk, much as I admire the man, wasn’t and couldn’t have been an “auteur” the way the studio was run in those days … Your “hero” should be Ed Muhl, who ran the studio. I don’t mean to demean Sirk’s work. But he had no chance. The budgets were tight, the schedules tighter. A director who went over budget or shooting schedule never worked at U-I again. Sirk knew this. He was rushed, he was harried by the stars. He did what he could — which was better than the other directing talent on the lot.
The preceding comments were edited from several letters by George Zuckerman to Michael Stern between August 28, 1975 and mid-1976.
Sirk had a marvelous relationship with Rock, with all the actors. I remember once Bob Stack was in the office. Doug had a little problem with Dorothy (Malone). She didn’t want to do the dance scene — something that really wasn’t in the script. I talked to her and got her to do the prior dance scene — she’s dancing in the house, at a party, and she leaves Rock for another man. But the other dance … she objected to making love to the picture of the man she loved. She’s very Texas and he’s (Sirk) continental. Outside of that, I can’t recall any problems. Stack loved him. Bacall — I don’t think anybody gets close to her.
On the Creative Process
As far as Douglas Sirk and myself, the relationship couldn’t be finer. He’s one of the two finest directors in the world, the other being Orson Welles. There’s nothing bad I could say about Douglas. He was the quintessence of elegance, an artiste, a gentleman, a master of camera placement. Douglas and 1 never had an argument. He was a very sensitive man, a private man. We became good friends socially as well as practicing our art. He never tore down our initial planning in our attack on (film) properties. He did nothing but add to things.
I precut my pictures. Sirk was an absolute willing doll in conforming to anything that made dramatic sense. There was no improvisation, none whatsoever on the part of the actor in these films. There were conferences, meetings, quasi-rehearsals. Improvisation was unnecessary.
Sirk worked very closely with the cameraman, placing the shots himself. In this respect he was similar to Orson Welles. Metty was an excellent cameraman. He detached himself into the background somewhat. We had a sensational operator on those films.
George Zuckerman was a third partner with Sirk and myself. It was a creative team — something exceedingly rare in the film world. Usually you have no creative producer. I would almost say that the front office, in the form of Ed Muhl, was a fourth partner. They allowed us to make an actor out of Rock Hudson. Ed Muhl was a constructive, sensitive man.
On the Producer
Ed Muhl doesn’t go to sets. George (Zuckerman) wasn’t there a lot, particularly on location. Sirk and I were there. The producer’s place is on the set. Ross Hunter would be introduced to the director, but at that time, Hunter would not go on the set. He would meet the director before the film was shot and say, “See you at the preview.” His contribution at that time was, he was a marvelous handler of female stars. He has a marvelous ability to handle women — with all the social graces. Aaron Rosenberg and I were the only producers actually on the set. Sirk intimated — being too much a gentleman to come right out and say it — that always on his Hunter films, up to the time I worked with him, he had to do everything himself. George (Zuckerman) worked under my direction, and I was his editor. Some of the dialogue in the films was mine. Sirk’s main talent was the execution of the script. I can remember no major suggestions he made to affect the screenplay. Universal considered him their top director. At least Ed Muhl did.
The preceding was excerpted and edited from a phone conversation with Gary Morris, September 17, 1977.