The Producers

A look back at the pioneering team of Hal B. Wallis and Joseph H. Hazen
by Ed Sikov  posted June 4, 2008
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Introduction

A bedridden shrew's telephone wires get crossed one night, and she overhears two men plotting her murder—the tense Barbara Stanwyck film noir Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). A spastic film buff itches, twitches, and jerks his way across a cartoonish America with his roué friend and a dog that drives—the glorious Lewis and Martin comedy Hollywood or Bust (1956). Elvis Presley sings and surfs in a tight swimsuit—Blue Hawaii (1961). The Archbishop of Canterbury clashes with Henry II over church, state, and friendship—Becket (1964). Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in screwball love in a fifth-floor walk-up—Barefoot in the Park (1967). John Wayne as a one-eyed drunk—True Grit (1969).

What links these wildly disparate films, other than the fact that each is perfectly cast, superbly crafted, and immensely entertaining? They were all made by the independent producing team of Hal B. Wallis and Joseph H. Hazen.

Wallis and Hazen's taste was both broad and finely tuned, their box office instincts consistently sharp. Between 1945 and 1970, they made more than 60 pictures together across an extraordinary array of genres: comedies, combat films, westerns, costume dramas, and film noirs. They worked with performers from Loretta Young, Joan Fontaine, and Shirley MacLaine to Richard Burton, Kirk Douglas, and Dennis Hopper. Three of their films won Academy Awards for their stars—Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952); Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo (1955); and Wayne for True Grit—and 17 others earned Oscar nominations in categories ranging from acting, editing, and costume design to cinematography and art direction. Financially, Hazen and Willis each made a mint.

Wallis-Hazen Productions set the mold for independent Hollywood film production in the second half of the 20th century. In 1944, with the studio system on the brink of collapse, Wallis and Hazen formed a company that was independent enough to afford them great latitude in the films they produced and yet was financially secure, thanks to its affiliation with a major studio. (The Justice Department's landmark antitrust suit, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. et. al., would be decided four years later.) Paramount distributed their films, but Wallis and Hazen were free to produce them as they saw fit, without the meddling of any moguls or rival executives. This neat arrangement, the best of both worlds, is not uncommon these days; producers like Scott Rudin, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and others enjoy similar production and distribution deals with studios but remain independent of studio control. Wallis and Hazen did it first.

Hal B. Wallis: "The Wallis Touch"

Hal Brent Wallis was born in Chicago on September 14, 1899. He dropped out of high school at age 14 to support his mother and two sisters, his debt-ridden father having abandoned them. Wallis worked first as an office assistant at a real estate company and, later, as a salesman for a heating firm. Moving to Los Angeles in 1922, Wallis started out as a movie theater manager but was soon hired by Warner Bros. as assistant to the head of publicity, Charley Kurtzman; when Kurtzman left only three months later, Wallis took over. Although he was inexperienced, he had a knack for the ballyhoo game. One of his early triumphs was to coin—and, more important, publicize—the simple expression "the Lubitsch touch," a catchy, pithy way of capturing what Wallis later described as "the deftness, the special flavor" with which Ernst Lubitsch, then at Warners, inflected his work.

By 1928, Wallis was studio manager at Warners' new corporate acquisition, the First National lot in Burbank; shortly thereafter he was named head of production. After he had been head of the studio for three years, he arrived at work one morning to find his nameplate being removed from the door of his office, and replaced with one bearing Darryl Zanuck's name. (Wallis' reaction was to sit on the steps and laugh.) Zanuck left Warners to form Twentieth Century Films in 1933, and Wallis was made head of production again.

Wallis was an exacting, hands-on producer. Thirties Warner Bros. is best known for its hard-hitting crime pictures, and Wallis produced one of the earliest, Little Caesar (1931). But he supervised a wide range of the studio's output. In 1932, Wallis put as much care and finesse into preparing The Cabin in the Cotton, a Bette Davis melodrama (in which Davis declares to a startled Richard Barthelmess, "I'd love to kiss ya but I just washed my hair!") as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni. In 1933, Wallis oversaw both Mystery of the Wax Museum, in which Lionel Atwill (as Mr. Igor) drowns in a vat of molten wax, and the lavish and risqué Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933. The list of Wallis-produced Warner Bros. classics goes on and on: A Midsummer Night's Dream and Captain Blood (both 1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Jezebel and The Dawn Patrol (both 1938), Dark Victory (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), Sergeant York and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Casablanca (1942).

Joseph H. Hazen: A 20th-Century Renaissance Man

The film historian David Shipman once described Joseph H. Hazen as "a Medici-like figure, expert in law, commerce, and art. As well as being a prominent lawyer, a philanthropist, and a distinguished art collector, he was a force within the film industry—a wheeler-dealer."

Hazen was born in 1898 in Kingston, New York, and received both a bachelor's and a law degree from George Washington University. In 1923, he began to practice law in New York City with Thomas & Friedman, the firm that represented Warner Bros., and the following year he was recruited by Harry Warner to work directly for the studio as Warner's assistant. (In those years, most of the filmmaking was done in Hollywood, but the studios' legal and financial business was headquarted in New York.)

Warner Bros. was not the only studio interested in exploring the possibilities of synchronized sound in the mid-1920s, but it was certainly the most aggressive about it, and it was Hazen who conducted the negotiations and wrote the contracts with Vitaphone, the company that was developing its patented sound-on-film system. (Vitaphone's process converted sound to optical signals that were printed on the celluloid alongside the images, read by a beam of light in the projector, and converted back into sound.) When Al Jolson opened his mouth in The Jazz Singer (1927) and said the immortal words, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!" audiences entered a new era in filmmaking. Hazen had played a key role in the revolution the film inspired, though as in most of his work throughout his life, he remained out of the public eye.

In the 1930s, while Hal Wallis was production chief at Warner Bros.—choosing directors, ordering rewrites, watching dailies, trying to keep Bette Davis under control—Hazen was tending to the company's legal and financial business. He spent much of his time in Europe, particularly London, Berlin, and Munich. When he returned to the U.S. later in the decade, he was chosen to be Hollywood's legal representative in the Justice Department's antitrust suit against the studios.

Wallis-Hazen Productions: A New Way of Doing Business

By the early 1940s, both Wallis and Hazen had begun to chafe under the nagging interference of the brothers Warner. Promises were made to them that, they believed, were all too often broken. The last straw came on Oscar night, 1944. The crowd at Grauman's Chinese on March 2 actually gasped in astonishment when Casablanca was announced as Best Picture of 1943, such a dark horse was it against nominees like For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Song of Bernadette. Hal Wallis's own surprise only multiplied as the gasps turned to applause. As he reported in his autobiography, Starmaker: "I started up the aisle to receive my award. To my astonishment, Jack Warner leapt to his feet, ran to the stage, and received it ahead of me. Almost forty years later, I still haven't recovered from the shock." Stung and offended, Wallis left Warner Bros.

Hazen resigned from Warners along with Wallis, and together they formed Hal Wallis Productions, later Wallis-Hazen Productions. Swiftly securing a $2.5 million revolving fund with First National Bank, the two producers were approached by various studios waving independent production agreements, including MGM, United Artists, and J. Arthur Rank. They ultimately decided to sign a deal with Paramount Pictures, which offered, as Wallis put it, "to subsidize our productions in a transaction that gave us profit participation, a producer's fee, and complete autonomy."

With Wallis based in Los Angeles overseeing most of the artistic aspects of their films, Hazen was in New York taking care of all the legal and business transactions—buying properties, writing contracts, securing financing, and negotiating with actors, writers, and directors.

Under its initial setup, the company lasted until 1953, when the risks independent producers took began to exceed Wallis and Hazen's willingness to take them. With the collapse of the studio system came more independent producers, but with independence came bigger risks. In the old days, a single, ordinary flop wouldn't have bankrupted a large corporation. For an independent producer in the 1950s, all it took was one turkey. As Hazen said at the time, "The history of this business proves that too many individual producers, using their own money as we do, have gotten into trouble and wound up broke because they didn't know when to quit."

By "quit," Hazen evidently meant something more like "adapt," since his collaboration with Hal Wallis and Paramount continued for 15 more years; the films he and Wallis produced during this latter period, from The Affairs of Susan (1945) through True Grit, were made under individual joint-venture agreements with the studio. They stayed at Paramount for 15 more years; in 1969, Hazen orchestrated a move to Universal, where the duo produced Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). It was their final picture together.

Art and Philanthropy

Hazen devoted his later years to philanthropy and buying art. His collection included important works by such artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Braque, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Modigliani. Particular highlights included Vincent van Gogh's Sous-bois, a verdant landscape painted just before the artist died in July 1890; Fernand Léger's La Pipe, a boldly industrial painting in red, black, and yellow; Joan Miró's 1938 Shooting Star; and several Picassos, including the 1901 Pelouse a Auteuil, a jaunty grouping of grandes dames at the races. Hazen donated the Miró to the National Gallery in 1970. The van Gogh eventually sold at auction after Hazen's death for $26.9 million, the Léger for $6 million.

Wallis was no slouch in the art world either. His collection included Monet's Houses of Parliament, Sunset; Degas's On the Scene; works by Bonnard, Vuillard, and Cassatt; and his favorite, a Monet still-life pastel from 1880 called Asters, which sold at auction after Wallis's death in 1986 for $9.4 million. (The Wallis Collection brought in a total of $39.6 million at that particular Christie's auction; Houses of Parliament, Sunset alone sold for $14.3 million.)

The Wallis-Hazen Films

"When I stop at a gas station these days," Wallis said in a 1973 New York Post interview, "the young kids at the pump say, 'Are you Hal Wallis?' Then when I say yes, they say, 'Oh, you're the man who made the Elvis Presley pictures!' And I want to say, 'But I made Becket, too.'"

According to Shipman, the eight enormously successful Presley pictures produced by Wallis-Hazen, which include Michael Curtiz's King Creole (1958), Norman Taurog's G.I. Blues (1960) and Blue Hawaii, and Richard Thorpe's Fun in Acapulco (1963), were born the moment Hazen saw Presley performing on television. Shipman records that he told his family, "This is the voice that everyone in America is going to want to hear." There's more than just a hint of kitsch in the Elvis films, but most of them made money, and they gave the world some classic Presley tunes: "Can't Help Falling In Love" from Blue Hawaii and "Return to Sender" from Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), to name two.

In 1954, Wallis was in the audience the night a replacement went in for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game on Broadway. As the producer of the enormously popular Martin and Lewis comedies, Wallis had something in mind for the quirky sub—Shirley Maclaine, who was to shoot her first film that fall, The Trouble With Harry—and he quickly signed her for the duo's upcoming comedy Artists and Models (1955).

Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin had already made nine films for Wallis-Hazen by that point, from My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950) through Sailor Beware (1952) and Money From Home (1953) to Three Ring Circus (1954). The films were hugely successful and have some great gags in them (particularly Jerry's "Dance of the Seven Veils" in Money From Home, which he performs before a tubby sultan who gets weirdly aroused). But both teams—Martin and Lewis, Wallis and Hazen—really hit their stride with Artists and Models, directed by the great Frank Tashlin. A former animator, Tashlin appreciated and enhanced Lewis's manic cartoon quality; their subsequent collaboration, Hollywood or Bust, is even loonier. At one point, Jerry's character attempts to milk a bull. (Ahem.) After Lewis and Martin's breakup in 1956, Lewis went on to make four solo films for Wallis-Hazen: The Sad Sack (1957), Don't Give Up the Ship (1959), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), and Boeing, Boeing (1965).

Martin, meanwhile, made The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) for Wallis-Hazen, under the direction of Henry Hathaway. Co-starring John Wayne, the film was only one of a number of Wallis-Hazen westerns; others include Anthony Mann's The Furies (1950) and John Sturges's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). The latter film stars Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday; the former, a Freudian western, pits cattle baron Walter Huston against his spitfire daughter, Barbara Stanwyck. But True Grit remains the best known Wallis-Hazen western. As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review of the film, it's "as good as we remember certain movies of our childhood to have been (but seldom are when we revisit them), a marvelously rambling frontier fable packed with extraordinary incidents, amazing encounters, noble characters, and virtuous rewards." Wayne's Rooster Cogburn, drunk much of the time and unapologetically fat, falls off his horse at one point, only to announce grandly that the ground on which he fell would make a perfect campsite. The climactic shootout is one of the greatest in Wayne's career. Taunted by one of the four bad guys ("Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man"), Rooster lets loose with a rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other and dispenses frontier justice to the lot of them.

Other notable films made by Hal Wallis and Joseph Hazen include William Dieterle's Love Letters (1945); Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Robert Siodmak's The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), both with Barbara Stanwyck; Joseph Anthony's The Rainmaker (1956) with Katharine Hepburn; George Cukor's Wild Is the Wind (1957); Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory (1958) with Richard Burton; Peter Glenville's adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke (1961); and Henry Hathaway's Five Card Stud (1968).

Becket, of which Hazen and Wallis were particularly proud, is an adaptation of Jean Anouilh's Tony Award-winning play (by director Peter Glenville and screenwriter Edward Anhalt). Starring Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O'Toole as King Henry II, the film hinges on a set of overlapping dramatic conflicts: class and ethnicity (Becket is a common Saxon, Henry a royal Norman), youth and age (both men enjoy a wanton immaturity, but only Becket grows out of it), and most significantly, state and religion: Henry appoints Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury thinking that he would be able to manipulate the church by way of his enabling friendship with the priest, only to watch in stunned rage as Becket becomes truly spiritual. Becket earned a total of 12 Oscar nominations—Best Picture, Best Actor (two of them: one for Burton, one for O'Toole), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (John Gielgud), Best Cinematography, and six others—and won one: Best Screenplay. "Becket may seem like a movie of yesteryear," the critic Desson Thomson wrote in the Washington Post when the film was re-released in 2007, "but its timeliness brims over with rousing, meditative discourses between Henry and the church leaders on the separation of church and state." And Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the interplay between the restrained Burton and the jumpy, flamboyant O'Toole: "The pleasure of these two extravagantly gifted actors at the top of their game—their diction! their conviction! their beauty!—is enormous."

Joseph Hazen and Hal Wallis made 64 films in their joint 26-year career. Their pictures ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, but from casting and contracts to postproduction and advertising, they were all the result of the pair's exquisite sense of what worked with audiences and what didn't. They were groundbreakers, forging and sustaining great careers in the high-stakes game of commercial entertainment. They were true movie men. 

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THE AUTHOR

Ed Sikov is the author of several books, including Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (Henry Holt and Co., 2007) and On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (Hyperion, 1998).

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