August 12th, 2008

carole lombard 02
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Paramount's unsung hero

Ah, Paramount Pictures. Even though you could argue that none of Carole Lombard's best-remembered films were made there ("Twentieth Century" was at Columbia, "My Man Godfrey" at Universal, "Nothing Sacred" at Selznick-International and "To Be Or Not To Be" for United Artists), it still gave her a notable home base to work from while she was establishing herself. Had Lombard not signed a seven-year deal with Paramount in 1930, her career would have been substantially different.

Ironically, Carole's tenure at Paramount coincided with the roughest stretch in the studio's history. None of it was her own doing; in fact, when she signed in 1930, Paramount (actual corporate name: Paramount-Publix, after it acquired the Publix theater chain) was the film industry's most profitable studio. But it had acquired too much debt -- a devastating blow when the Depression hit full force -- and by 1932 it had to declare bankruptcy.

However, by 1936 and '37 Paramount was back on its feet. It had been re-listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1935, and by 1937 was actually running a profit. Reborn as Paramount Pictures, Inc., it won plaudits from the business press for its rapid revival.

And the person largely responsible for the upturn is barely known to most cinema fans.

The man on the right is Adolph Zukor, Paramount's patriarch and founder, a man whose innovations in the late 1910s had made his studio the biggest in the industry. But it's the man on the left who brought Paramount back to health. His name was Barney Balaban, and don't feel down if you've never heard of him.

People following show business sometimes get so wrapped up in the "show" angle they ignore the "business" aspect -- forgetting that without business, the show isn't possible. And while most classic movie buffs know of the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck, Harry Cohn and such, even they had to respond to higher authorities who largely kept their names out of the newspapers.

Most of those authorities were far away from the Hollywood glitter. They worked in New York offices, keeping the bottom line strong and staying in touch with Wall Street. So it was with Balaban, whose office was at the top of the Paramount Building in Times Square, many stories above the company's fabled flagship theater.

Balaban himself had a theater background, running the Chicago-based Balaban & Katz theater chain. In 1930, partner Samuel Katz was chosen by Zukor to run the chain's business operations -- a bad move, as Katz boosted the corporation's debts to a huge degree, and when box office receipts began declining, the mortgages nearly proved fatal. Paramount had to sell off many of its assets, including its share in the infant CBS radio network.

Paramount's board of directors drastically weakened Zukor's power, but not before he was able to persuade them to hire Balaban as president. He stabilized the company, increased efficiency by consolidating operations. Paramount's stock value now more than tripled its bankruptcy nadir of $8 a share. The studio remained profitable well into the 1940s, and more than held its own in the 1950s, but the business had changed and Paramount hadn't kept up. Balaban, now in his seventies, bowed out in 1964, and two years later the studio was sold to Gulf + Western.

You can read more about Balaban, Joseph and Nicholas Schenck, and later power brokers such as Lew Wasserman -- who created a new kind of studio system -- in a fine book, "The Hollywood Studio System: A History," written by Douglas Gomery and published by BFI Publishing.

It's generally a pretty thorough book, well worth reading; you'll find insights you never expected. However, it could have used a little better editing, at least where this photo's caption was concerned:

The errors include:

* Lombard's first and last names are misspelled.

* It's the right year (1937), but the wrong film. This isn't on the set of "The Princess Comes Across," but "Swing High, Swing Low" (the Spanish words in the background give it away; part of the film was set in Central America).

* The "unknown studio worker" behind Zukor is none other than the director of "Swing High, Swing Low," Mitchell Leisen. ( Wesley Ruggles directed "The Princess Comes Across."

Get beyond those goofs, and you have an excellent book.
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