Jerry Wald — Home Maker In a Hurry (1949) 🇺🇸

Jerry Wald — Home Maker In a Hurry (1949) |

March 09, 2024

It was a few hours after the presentation of the 1948 Academy Awards. Two powerful studio heads, both unsuccessful contenders for the Thalberg Award for distinguished achievement in movie production, were rehashing the events of the evening at Romanoff’s restaurant. One turned to the other. “Who is this Jerry Wald to be stealing our thunder?” he said, in effect. “I thought a man had to own a studio to win the Thalberg Award. Now they’re handing it out to employees.”

by Dwight Whitney

“Yes, I know,” said the other morosely. “They say he steals all his ideas, too. I wouldn’t have a man like that working for me if I could get him for $500 a week, would you?”

“No, I wouldn’t,” replied the first mogul. “Let’s make a pact. We’ll both agree not to hire him.”

“Excuse me,” said the second mogul, and arose from the table. Five minutes later he returned. As he sat down he whispered to his wife, “I couldn’t get through to Jerry Wald because our host already had him on the telephone.”

The man they were trying to hire is the happiest, best adjusted movie maker in Hollywood. While other producers are losing sleep over skidding box-office receipts and wondering how to turn out their accustomed epics on a strictly cut-rate basis, Wald is facing the future with the enthusiasm of a hungry man sitting down to a 10-course dinner. His specialty is turning out moneymaking movies in quantity, and often turning them out faster and better than anyone else.

Last month he was shooting six major productions at once, a prodigious feat, while having no less than 11 others in various stages of preparation for filming. To all his movies, good, bad or indifferent, he manages to impart a sort of breathless urgency and high cinematic polish which serve to elevate them above the general run. As in the case of “Johnny Belinda” last year, he frequently contrives to convert the most shamefully old-fashioned melodrama into the freshest hit of the season. If, as sometimes happens, his latest picture fails to turn out as well as he had hoped, Wald never worries. He always has half a dozen more coming along to take its place.

Approaching 38, Wald is a rotund, loquacious, good-natured man who likes to call people “Coach” and always seems to be in a hurry. He operates on the theory that if a man has a sufficient number of ideas working for him at once, one of them must surely pay off. In this connection he has developed a storytelling and selling technique which is second to none in the industry. He thinks so rapidly that his tongue often has difficulty keeping up.

Yet it takes a strong man to resist him and it is said that, if Jerry put his mind to it, he could talk his employer into making a movie based on the Los Angeles telephone directory. For this proficiency he receives $2,700 a week and the distinction of being the most sought-after individual producer in Hollywood.

Of all Wald’s gifts perhaps the most potent is his ability to cover failure with success. His production accomplishments during the past year constitute a dazzling object lesson in how to get ahead in Hollywood. Wading in with the combined energies of a coal heaver and a Brahman bull, he produced no less than nine films for Warner Brothers.

Only Two Were Really Good

Several of these, including “Adventures of Don Juan,” “One Sunday Afternoon,” “Flamingo Road,” “John Loves Mary” and “To the Victor,” were not likely to have made a lasting impression on anyone short of the Warner Brothers themselves. But Johnny Belinda, with a deft assist from “Key Largo,” was enough to make Jerry Wald Hollywood’s man of the year in anybody’s estimation. Belinda, which had for its heroine a deaf-mute, surprised its studio by becoming one of the year’s conspicuous successes.

For its star, Jane Wyman, it won the Academy Award; for its producer, Wald, it won the highest honor in the industry, the afore-mentioned Thalberg Award which has usually been reserved for the year’s top studio head or executive. It has seldom been given to individual working producers.

The headache and the ulcer are very real occupational hazards in Hollywood. Most producers find that scheduling two or three pictures at once is enough to engender both. Wald has no headaches. He does have ulcers. But it is his proud boast that they result from his stormy career on the old New York Graphic in the early thirties. “I am the only man in Hollywood,” says Jerry, “who brought his ulcers with him.”

Wald’s childlike enthusiasm for his work is as touching as it is genuine. “If I were a wealthy man,” he explains solemnly, “I would make this business my hobby. I am happy in the Happy Medium.”

Today the importance of such a man in the Hollywood scheme has multiplied astoundingly. Once a producer with a reputation could afford to make pictures at a lazy pace, relying on one picture a year to maintain his studio’s affluence and his own prestige. But now the war boom is over and revenues are diminishing. The British still persist in their efforts to cut down Hollywood’s take in the foreign market. Yet the cost of making movies remains astronomical.

All producers, from executives in major studios to the lowliest independents, are finding it necessary to make cheaper pictures. To make matters worse, as audiences become poorer they also become more critical. It is no longer considered good business to disguise a thin idea in a gaudy set. Anyone in Hollywood today will tell you, in a windy blast of rhetoric, that what is needed is more pictures in which the idea will outshine the setting.

No one knows better than Wald that this is more easily said than done. “You see,” he explains with the air of a man composing his own epitaph, “no one deliberately sets out to make a bad picture. It is simply that, in this business, too many things can happen. Start out to make a good picture and the Little Gnomes always slip in.”

The Little Gnomes are an important yet little-publicized force in Hollywood.

They may turn up in the form of temperamental leading ladies who do not deign to play scenes which, in their opinion, do not suit their talents; directors with grandiose ideas for script changes, or studio bosses who shy away from anything untried or new. Wald is the acknowledged champion gnome fighter of the movie colony.

His allies in his gnome-fighting activities include the telephone and the memorandum. It took him three days of solid talking to persuade Joan Crawford to wear simple $8 dresses without shoulder pads in Mildred Pierce. For Miss Crawford, the celebrated clotheshorse of another decade, this was tantamount to a request that she hawk popcorn at the opening of the Met. Wald convinced his star with 16 phone calls, three and a half memo pads and seven “story conferences.” The result made the difference between Miss Crawford’s professional demise and a bright new career in motion pictures. Mildred Pierce was one of the hits of the 1945 season and the critics praised it for its realistic feeling.

Wald campaigns so effectively for what he thinks is cinematically right that his studio habitually gives him second-best material and even second-best stars in the belief that he will somehow conjure up luster where none exists. His bosses have learned that all they have to do is shed crocodile tears on his shoulder and murmur sadly, “Jerry, we’re in trouble.” Wald reacts as if he had just backed into a hot stove.

“What?” he bellows. “You can’t lick the script? Now, look. Here’s the way I see it. There’s this salesman, Robert Montgomery, who meets this sexy dame, Lana Turner, in a night club, see? Now, the guy that owns the night club is Pat O’Brien and he wants Lana to…”

Wald’s associates at Warners have dubbed him “Bubble Boy” or “Roman Candle” in deference to this talent for effervescent action.

Many Hollywood people sneer at Wald as an opportunist and a borrower. Indeed, the subject of Jerry’s originality — or lack of it — may be the town’s most consistently controversial after-dinner topic. One widespread notion is that he may have been the model, along with others, for Sammy Glick, the predatory hero of the Budd Shulberg novel What Makes Sammy Run? From this assumption they conclude that he cribs other people’s ideas. Wald is guilty to this extent: He retains most of what he reads, hears and sees. He has the knack of drawing out the best in the people who work for him. He cannot smell a flower on the way to his office without instinctively figuring how to work it into a scene for his next picture.

Qualifies a Producer Needs

lf this constitutes borrowing, then Wald is a borrower. But these qualities, by definition, are also those which go to make up a good producer. In his feverish search for “good” pictures, he leaves no stone unturned. He subscribes to 69 magazines and periodicals. A Beverly Hills bookstore has a standing order to send him each new play as it is published. “Pride of the Marines” was suggested by a short news item, and Destination Tokyo was a front-page story in the New York Times.

“No one man makes a picture.” says Wald. “He can’t, because a picture is a collaboration of the most intimate and complex kind. But, nevertheless, good pictures are made possible by one stubborn mind. I have just one policy. I don’t make any Westerns.”

Wald prefers to create trends of his own. The attitude began shortly after he was promoted from writer to producer in 1941. “I just sat down and figured it out,” explains Jerry. “There was a war on and I didn’t want to be known as the producer who made the best musicals. So I decided to find out what made most war pictures so horrible.”

The result of Wald’s research is a sort of white paper on movie clichés. He discovered that war plots traditionally fell into one of three classifications:

(1) Two men fight over the same girl (Quirt and Flagg in “What Price Glory?”).

(2) The coward (played by Richard Cromwell) goes to war and in reel seven he saves the regiment. And

(3) the spoiled playboy arrives on the post swinging a tennis racket. In reel seven he gets his comeuppance. In reel eight the general pins a medal on him.

This breakdown, which sounds merely funny in the telling, actually turned out to be a sensible antidote for what ailed Hollywood’s conception of war. Wald realized that the public would no longer swallow the old oil about war being fought between dances at the local country club. Armed with this rudimentary but valuable information, he set out to make what he calls “destination” pictures. Instead of fighting over ingénues, his soldiers merely progressed from place to place in an orderly fashion. The emphasis was shifted from plot per se to a more honest evaluation of character.

The result was five war pictures of superior quality. “Air Force” (which Wald conceived and wrote, but did not produce) simply reported the flight of a B-17 to Manila and back. “Action in the North Atlantic” took a freighter through German U-boats to Murmansk — and back. Destination Tokyo detailed life on a U.S. submarine during a mission to Tokyo Bay — and back. Pride of the Marines showed a blind Marine making the trip back to his home in Philadelphia. And “Objective Burma” took the audience along on a paratroop invasion of Burma.

In recent years Wald has gone in even more heavily for films with topical themes. Most of them stem from his “Future Book” or the “Project File.” The former is a plain black notebook in which he jots down ail possible grist for the movie mill. At the present moment it contains more that 5.000 notations on plays, books, stories or original thoughts. As a subject becomes “hot,” it is placed in the “Project File.” When a “project” folder becomes an inch thick, Jerry reasons it’s time to make a picture about it.

Wald began conditioning himself for Hollywood at a tender age. His early life is a snapshot of the typical urban American boy whose basic instinct is to be successful. He couldn’t sing and he couldn’t act, but he was determined to be accepted on the same level as those who could. Success was the answer to everything, not in terms of money but in what other people would think of him. His compensation was the acclaim and good fellowship of all the people. And he himself dates his existence from the time he first began to be successful.

Jerry was born Jerome Irving Wald on September 16, 1911, the eldest son of a Brooklyn dry-goods merchant. He inherited his gift of storytelling from his father who was, in many ways, the living reincarnation of Willy Loman, the tragic hero of the current Broadway prize play, Death of a Salesman.

Father Goes on the Road

The senior Wald was a large, kindly, solidly built man who brought to salesmanship the romance of the early American medicine man and the ardor of a crusader. Due to reversals in his business he found it necessary in the mid-twenties to go on the road. He became famous as a salesman’s salesman, a drummer in the classical sense of the Word. Along with his bargains in underwear and hosiery he brought gossip, news and his own ineffable good humor and gregariousness.

When Rudy Wald came home he still told stories. Jerry and his younger brothers, Harold and Malvin, were brought up in “an aura of storytelling.” From the senior Wald, son Jerry picked up inventiveness; from his mother, a nervous, tongue-tripping style of delivery. It was from her that he first learned how to hurry.

For 20 years the family lived in the same stucco house on Nineteenth Avenue. Jerry was a skinny kid who ran with the pack. His scholastic record at P S 153 was impaired only by his passion for extracurricular activities.

At Boys’ High School, and later at the new James Madison High School, his classmates were Irwin Shaw and Garson Kanin, two pretty successful young men of the theater in their own right today. Jerry played soccer and managed the team, ran the half mile in track, and reported and wrote a column for the school paper. His youngest brother. Malvin, now a successful screen writer in his own right, remembers that Jerry was “an energetic big gun.” When he was graduated, Jerry’s classmates paid him a backhanded compliment. The senior yearbook elected him “Class Pest.”

During his high-school days Jerry hung around the offices of the Century Publishing Company, doing menial jobs and picking up a taste for journalism along with a little spending money. In September, 1929, he became a freshman at New York University. Because he was majoring in journalism, he got a job as office boy in an advertising agency, but this proved unsatisfactory for a man of his talents. Thus one day in the fall of 1930 a thin, scraggly ferret of a kid turned up in the office of Ted Von Ziekursch, managing editor of the tabloid New York Graphic. He wore a frayed tennis sweater and carried a notebook bearing a NYU sticker.

“I would like to write a radio column,” the sophomore said stoutly.

“Well,” purred the editor, letting him down as gently as possible, “I’ll tell you what you do. Just send in a sample of your work.”

Young Jerry had decided on the radio column by laudably cool and logical processes. A radio column was the only kind of column the Graphic did not already have! And so he took Von Ziekursch at his word.

Lucky Start as Radio Scribe

Because he knew nothing about radio, he plunged in directly at the source. The next day he turned up at the offices of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Here, by a lucky happenstance, he was greeted by a publicity employee named Robert Taplinger who was just as green and just as ambitious as Jerry was. Taplinger, mistaking Wald for the big operator that he even then wanted to be, seized on the opportunity to promote himself. He took Jerry by the hand and introduced him as a big-shot radio columnist to Ted Husing, Tony Wons and several other important figures at CBS.

Jerry played the part to the hilt. Armed with his new-found sense of power, as well as several sheafs of studio publicity handouts, he hurried home, concocted six columns, and mailed them to Von Ziekursch. A week later he opened up the Graphic to read Not on the Air, by Jerry Wald. Shortly thereafter he was hired at the princely sum of $12.50 a week. “It was an incredible experience,” Wald enthuses today. “I was entranced. For a nineteen-year-old kid it was a glamorous adventure.”

Jerry soon began to make a mark for himself in his new job. He cultivated all the press agents and celebrities he could get in touch with. He made it his business to know the exact time and location of all the best testimonial dinners and other possible sources of free meals. His column, Not on the Air, whose title by this time had been changed to The Walds Have Ears, began to take apart everyone from Rudy Vallée to Merlin Aylesworth, president of the National Broadcasting Company.

When Vallée, enraged by repeated digs at his talent, took a sock at Jerry outside Lindy’s restaurant one night, the ensuing unpleasantness made the front page of the Daily News. Crooner and Columnist in Bloody Battle, screamed the headlines.

His feud with the NBC president resulted in his being barred from the company’s broadcasting studios. Finally the executive relented and called Jerry in for a peace conference. When he saw what his young adversary looked like, Aylesworth burst out laughing.

By this time Wald had quit NYU after two years and his salary had been raised to $50 a week. But his well-being was short-lived. On July 16, 1932, he slammed the sports announcer, Graham McNamee, in his column and slammed him a little too hard. Von Ziekursch could no longer put up with the numerous complaints lodged against his radio reporter. He fired Wald.

Now there is no sadder spectacle than a columnist without a portfolio. The characters up and down Broadway were not quite as anxious to please as they once were. And the waiters at Lindy’s gave him the cold shoulder. But he bounced back with a job as press agent at the Park Central Hôtel. He busily set about corralling celebrities to liven up the hotel ballroom. But three weeks later the Park Central fired the young bail of tire.

Luckily, Jerry had several other irons in the tire. He used his radio connections to talk Warner Brothers into letting him make six short subjects featuring radio stars. The series was called Rambling ‘Round Radio Row. He also dabbled in fan magazine writing.

He ghostwrote a piece for the late Russ Columbo, who was fast supplanting Vallée as the singing idol of the day, called Columbo Discovers. Through a friend the story was brought to the attention of Dick Powell, then a reigning Warner Brothers star, who thought the life story of the crooner would make a capital musical. Thus its author, Wald, came to Hollywood in the fall of 1933 to collaborate on the script. The result was “Twenty Million Sweethearts” starring Powell, Pat O’Brien and a newcomer named Ginger Rogers. But when the picture finished, Wald was rudely dropped by the studio. Licking his wounds he returned to New York.

The following March there took place an incident as dramatic as anything that ever occurred in a Wald movie. The head of the studio, Jack L. Warner, was taking his first look at Twenty Million Sweethearts in a New York projection room. At the back of the room sat Wald. When the lights came up and Warner’s enthusiasm for the film was evident, a well-meaning friend. pushed Jerry forward and introduced him to Warner as “the man who wrote Twenty Million Sweethearts.”

“Well,” said Warner in surprise. “What are you doing back East? A little vacation?”

“No, sir,” replied Wald gloomily. “Don’t you remember? You fired me.” The next train took Jerry Wald back to Hollywood for good.

Real Talent Develops Slowly

In the years between 1934 and 1941, Jerry wrote or collaborated on 32 movies, including one with Vallée, now an old friend. Most of them were characterized by footloose characters out of the quasi-cosmopolitan world he knew best, and by titles like “Hard to Get,” “The Kid from Kokomo,” “Naughty but Nice,” and “Three Cheers for the Irish.” The fast [INCOMPLETE]

Wald himself, was a recurrent figure in most Wald pictures, and was supposed to have been Wald’s invention. But not until the late thirties did his real talent begin to assert itself.

Meantime he had married a small, dark. rich girl named Eleanor Rudolph in 1935. The marriage broke up in less than a year. Jerry moved into a two-bedroom duplex with some friends. This modest edifice, known to its habitués as Boys’ Town, was a sort of catchall for unattached young geniuses. In Jerry they found a peerless new ringleader.

Wald was no longer the skinny runt he had once been. Too much free chicken à la king had taken its toll and he was known as Porky.

By the time he became a producer in 1941, making movies had become for Jerry an all-consuming passion. He was like a miler running against the clock. It was as if he lived in mortal terror of waking up one morning to discover that he no longer had an idea, that Hollywood had forgotten Jerry Wald, or that he was again just a grubby little radio columnist out of a job. One of his many unofficial biographers has explained it: “Jerry always has had a fiery compulsion to produce as many pictures as he could. His prolific output is evidence for him that he is where he is.”

Two Good Influences at Work

Wald’s “fiery compulsion” might have been merely ridiculous had it not been for two powerful influences. One was his old Broadway friend, Mark Hellinger, who by 1936 had switched from newspaper columning to producing pictures, and the other was Connie Polan, whom he married on Christmas Day, 1940. Hellinger taught him the difference between being merely flashy and lending certain overtones of detachment and interpretation to his flash. For Wald this distinction was, and still is, discerned more by instinct than by intellectual evaluation. The powerful roadhouse scene in “They Drive by Night,” featuring the truck drivers, waitresses, tarts and hangers-on that he knew so well, still marks the moment when Jerry became semiliterate as a movie maker.

Connie Polan taught him how not to waste his energies on unimportant matters. A small-town girl from West Virginia, she had done some modeling for Hattie Carnegie in New York before she came to California and met Jerry. She quickly perceived that any woman silly enough to marry Jerry would have an eternal, insuperable rival — the movie business. And just as quickly, she married him anyway.

The Walds live with their children, Robert, seven, and Andrew, three, in an elaborate New England-style farmhouse strategically located in the middle of fashionable Beverly Hills. The master of the house rises at seven thirty and sits down to a medically prescribed breakfast of toast and coffee. He leaves for the studio in his 1947 Sedan shortly before 8:30 a.m. But if he is particularly pressed that week, he may get to the studio as early as six thirty in the morning. He finds it easier to work in the early hours.

His day is hectic, but well organized in the sense that he is a busy man who has time for everything. The first two hours of the morning are reserved for mail, memoranda or wires to New York to find out what’s cooking at Forty-second and Broadway. At ten thirty, conferences begin with writers, art directors, actors, location managers, couturières, publicity men, columnists or just about anyone else who insists on seeing him.

His phone keeps up an interminable obbligato throughout. He is never too busy to exchange the latest studio gossip with a friend or to chat with a female columnist. If the phone should not ring a decent number of times, he actually feels neglected. And he makes many calls himself. They may be to old cronies from his Boys’ Town days, to “sources” in New York, or merely to casual friends.

Wald finishes at the office by five-thirty or a quarter of six, just in time to see the day’s rushes. He is home by seven. The first thing he wants to know is whether anyone is coming for dinner. If so, he hurries into his book-lined study in order to get in a little reading before the guests arrive. Twice a week he runs a double feature at home, using a pair of 35-mm. projectors. And twice a week he goes to bed early (at eight o’clock) in deference to his doctor and his mild case of stomach ulcers. As often as not, his friend Oscar Levant calls or comes by of an evening. Levant occupies a special position in Wald’s world. Jerry first brought the professional pianist and wit to Hollywood for the movie “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Oscar liked the atmosphere so much he stayed. Jerry promptly staked out Levant as a friend of his. Levant was not Hollywood. Instead, he was Broadway — Smart sophisticated Broadway, a cut or two above the Broadway in which Wald had been schooled. Levant became an important milestone along the road to what Jerry, among other things, would dearly love to be: a true cosmopolite. Wald, on the other hand, appears to be some kind of milestone in Levant’s life, too. The two of them chatter on endlessly, trying to outdo each other’s stories and top each other’s jokes. It is miraculous, then, considering his heavy schedule, that Jerry still finds time for his children. But he does. Saturday afternoons are devoted to long 16-mm. sessions of Tarzan and Mickey Mouse, eagerly attended by Jerry himself. On Sunday he sleeps until, at noon, it is time to take the kids to the beach. “Yes,” says Connie, “Jerry is a good father. He manages that very well, too.”

Varied Themes for New Films

Since early last month Wald has been busier than ever before. In addition to shooting six pictures and preparing to shoot 11 more, he is mulling over a myriad of other projects. They include movies dealing with such dissimilar subjects as socialized medicine, unwed mothers and the life of Jack Benny (played as a lampoon of screen biographies). Already he is well into the filming of Young Man with a Horn, the story of the late, great cornet player, Bix Beiderbecke; “The Glass Menagerie,” from the Tennessee Williams play and starring Jane Wyman; a Milton Berle comedy called “Always Leave Them Laughing;” “The Cage,” a story about a women’s prison with an all-female cast; and “Perfect Strangers,” a study of 12 jurors who come to serve justice and bring their prejudices with them. In addition, he will be pushing forward with plans for a new $2,000,000 playhouse with which he and his partners, Gregory Peck, John Garfield, Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Deborah Kerr and several others, hope to bring the legitimate theater to Beverly Hills. In between times he is thinking about television. “At the moment,” he explains, “I am just an interested looker. Television is in such a crude stage that nobody knows. But I will be there when the time comes.”

What Movie Makers Don’t Know

If Wald has a weakness, it is perhaps that, because he is so busy making movies, he is deprived of the normal experience of everyday living. This can prove to be a serious limitation, but one which he shares with many other movie makers. They are apt to know little about the ordinary man whose trials and tribulations they try to interpret on the world’s screens. They have forgotten what it is like to live on $75 a week, Wald has an advantage over them. He cares neither for swimming pools, gin rummy, parties nor any of the other fripperies which normally characterize life among the Hollywood great. He does not smoke or drink. And he can remember all too vividly the day when he had to scramble to determine where his next meal was coming from. The memory of that spurs him on. Then, too, he is trying to live down Sammy Glick. But Wald doesn’t have to worry. His professional competence and fervor for his work combine with an insatiable curiosity and fondness for people to make him a sort of poor man’s white hope for the movie industry. There is not much that escapes Wald’s notice, but occasionally something does. Recently a friend suggested that Jerry had completely passed up one of the best movie bets of all, namely, his own life story. “Say, that’s great,” he cried. “Now, look, here’s the way I see it. There’s this hep young punk from Brooklyn, Robert Montgomery. He tries to get a job on a big New York daily, but the tough editor. Pat O’Brien, tries to give him the brush-off, see? Well, pretty soon…”

The End

Jerry Wald — Home Maker In a Hurry (1949) |

Photograph for Collier’s by Phil Stern

Jerry Wald — Home Maker In a Hurry (1949) |

Jerry Wald — Home Maker In a Hurry (1949) |

Jerry Wald — Home Maker In a Hurry (1949) |

Jerry Wald — Home Maker In a Hurry (1949) |

Collection: Collier’s Magazine, August 1949