In "To Be Or Not To Be," Carole Lombard, Jack Benny and the Warsaw cast of "Hamlet" seek refuge from enemy bombs in the theater basement after the Nazis invade Poland in September 1939, igniting World War II. Now, the studio where that Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece was filmed has been attacked from within -- and unlike in the movie, where the Poles eventually outwit the Germans, this time greed prevails over history. Take a look at this picture and weep:
That's the Pickford Building, one of the 1920s era structures from what is now known as "The Lot," but an area with a heritage that goes back to silent days, when it was where Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks films were made (including Pickford's "My Best Girl," in which a teenaged Lombard had a small unbilled role, and Fairbanks swashbucklers such as "Robin Hood"). Later, it hosted films from United Artists, Samuel Goldwyn and others, in addition to an array of television programs.
Over the protests of many in the entertainment industry -- including quite a few people who showed up outside its gates Sunday to protest -- CIM, The Lot's parent company, went ahead with plans (which had unfortunately been approved by West Hollywood officials) to raze several historic buildings for new, charmless, glass and steel replacements.
In contrast to the sad fate that has befallen the Pickford-Fairbanks studio, another famed filmmaking venue is going about its modernization with not only more tact, but more of a sense of its history...
...Paramount Pictures, where Lombard spent seven-plus years in the company of Cary Grant, Jack Oakie (he's the one with his hands on Carole's shoulders) and so many other greats.
Paramount, which is celebrating its centennial this year, moved onto the Melrose Avenue lot in 1926, eventually absorbing the adjacent RKO/Desilu lot in 1967. Both sites had redundant facilities -- mills to construct props, for example -- but given Paramount's ups and downs, the studio never had the financial wherewithal to make wholesale changes.
Now, Hollywood's lone classic-era studio is preparing for the future and the entertainment challenges that await. Last fall, it announced a plan, the Paramount Hollywood Project, that will enable it to remain a first-rate production venue with state-of-the-art facilities, while at the same time retaining its considerable Hollywood historical heritage.
The project overview notes the changes will be considerable, but gradual: "This 25-year vision for the future of the studio represents Paramount’s first opportunity to take a cohesive look at the entire studio and prepare for the future. It represents a major investment in the motion picture, television and multimedia business in Hollywood."
Let's compare a 2009 map of the complex to the site plan for the project:
You will note that on the southwest corner of the lot, a 15-story administrative building is planned. That might seem a bit incongruous with Paramount, but as its executive Frederick Huntsberry told the site planningreport.com last December, "We have 62 acres. We have 30 sound stages. We have 1.8 million square feet. The issue, of course, is that you can’t take those 62 acres and make them 80 acres. We also can’t build up everywhere. Yes, the design calls for a 15-story headquarters building on the southwest corner of the lot, but we cannot do that everywhere. This is about the efficient use of space; this is about making sure that we preserve the history."
Not everything will be preserved, of course; you can't expect an organization the size of Paramount to completely sit still. However, you can hope that a studio would be cognizant of its history, and to its credit, Paramount is doing just that. In that planningreport.com interview, Brenda Levin, one of the architects, said, "It’s important to note that there are no individually listed historic buildings on the lot. We are now proposing two historic districts as part of the plan, one from the original RKO and one from Paramount, all under Paramount now. But there’s nothing individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places."
That's Marathon Street, which will be enlarged and revived under this plan, according to the studio: "Marathon Street, which served as Paramount Pictures’ original street entrance, will become Marathon Paseo. Located next to the original administration building, this internal pedestrian and bike path will improve connectivity and create new outdoor gathering spaces for employees."
All the new buildings will be LEED-certified, boosting energy efficiency.
Paramount officials emphasize that they are seeking community input in order to minimize traffic and other potential problems. (They note that many employees now work in off-peak hours, thus lessening neighborhood road congestion.) Sometime this spring, an environmental impact report is expected to be released.
It looks to be a way to keep Paramount economically viable without compromising much of its future (although its famed outdoor water tank will go by the wayside in this era of CGI).
For more on the project, visit http://www.paramounthollywoodproject.com. For the planning interview with Paramount officials, go to http://www.planningreport.com/2011/12/20/paramount-pictures-modernize-studio-while-embracing-its-past.
By the time this project is completed, it will be 2037, an entire century after Lombard, Fred MacMurray and director Mitchell Leisen worked on "Swing High, Swing Low." If they and Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor (shown visiting the set; he lived until 1976, reaching age 103), were to see the Paramount of the future, they probably wouldn't feel entirely out of place. And that's more than Mary Pickford or Douglas Fairbanks Sr. could say.