Friday, December 25, 2020

Born Today December 25: Joseph M. Schenck




Two movie moguls in as many days! And...Joseph Schenck was the kind of studio executive that people think of when we use the term.  Born Joseph Michael Schenck (or possibly Ossip Schenker) on the 25th of December in Rybinsk, Russia; he and his brother Nicholas, emigrated to the United States in 1892.  They started a business together in the New York area that eventually involved getting into real estate.  Some seventeen years later the pair got into the film business in the New York area, forming a partnership with Marcus Loew, who would go on to found MGM.  Loew at the time was a well connected and prosperous owner of a chain of movie theaters--something almost completely new at the time.  The Schenck's purchased the Palisades Amusement Park in 1910 and marked their first real foray into performative arenas in regards to cinema (they are been involved with amusement park activities for some, but Palisades had performance stages).  Despite that he and Nicholas had been in the film industry as business people for several years, Schenck's first direct credit for an individual film doesn't show up until January of 1917, as a direct producer of the Allan Dwan directed Siberian-set melodrama Panthea--starring Vitagraph girl Norma Talmadge, whom Schenck had married in 1916. At this same time, through actual theatrical investments and distribution associations he got into the movie "presentation" business.  His first "presentation" was the now famous Roscoe Arbuckle/Al St. John slapstick short The Butcher Boy (April, 1917). The film featured a comic actor by the name of Buster Keaton. There are some sources that make a great deal out of his association with Buster Keaton, giving him unwarranted credit for "discovering" Keaton (now, mind you--most of these are old at this point, but it was a narrative that was around for a long time). Trustfully Joseph, unlike his rather serious brother Nicholas ("Nick"), was a wheeler and dealer. His meeting of Norma, for example, is a classic example of what we today recognize as grooming (he would later do the same with another Norma: Norma Jean Mortenson). Schenck was nearly twenty years her senior and was in "cahoots" with her very controlling mother to "manage" her career. It's a wonder that the marriage lasted as long as it did! Keaton was already in Arbuckle's world when he first appeared in Butcher Boy. No one can be said to have "discovered" Buster Keaton, he was a talented player on the vaudeville stage from childhood--Arbuckle knew his work, and would sometimes reportedly use some of his stage gags in films with his nephew Al St. John.  Keaton (and others) always said that his film debut in The Butcher Boy was basically accidental (though I suspect the shrewd Arbuckle did have designs on Keaton's abilities for films--Keaton was not just invited, but persuaded, to attend the filming that day). Keaton's association with Schenck came only in terms of physcial proximity. Arbuckle's new Comique Film Company had set up shop on the third floor of a building on 48th in Manhattan--on the first two by the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation were working. Arbuckle must have made a deal with Joe and Nick for the space, because no one made deals with Norma (even after their divorce in 1934, Schenck continued to act as her financial advisor).  Schenck's deal with local theater ownerships and partnerships meant that he could legally be a "presenter" for Arbuckle--hence the credit on The Butcher Boy.  Keaton would, of course, go on to have a disasterous marriage to Norma's sister Natalie!  Guess how he met her in the first place?!  As a producer Joseph was directly involved in all the Norma Talmadge Film Corp. releases during this time; as a "presenter" he gets credit for most of the New York Comique releases as well.  By 1919, Schenck was also involved in presentation/production of the Constance Talmadge Film Company as well (Constance, of course, being another sister of Norma). A good example of one his "presentations" from her company is A Virtuous Vamp, released in November of 1919; the feature film is now part of the National Film Registry. Buster Keaton did not marry into the Talmadge family formally until 1921, but Schenck treated Keaton's career as if he were a family member before (and don't mean this in a positive light). Joe Schenck was in some way or another involved with Keaton's films after Keaton had parted ways with Arbuckle as a film partner. If you look at Keaton shorts from 1920, you find Schenck's name somewhere within the credits--sometimes as a producer, most times as a presenter. Take Convict 13 as an example; co-directed by Keaton and Edward S. Cline (as Keaton's shorts were), Schenck is listed as both the producer and presenter. So bankable was Keaton, that one narrative has Schenck seriously pressuring Keaton's marriage to Natalie to solidify familial legal ties. And, by this time, the entire entourage had moved west to Hollywood. While his wife's career slowed with each passing year, Keaton's star kept ascending. You would be hard pressed to look at a list of Schenck's credits from the 1920's and forget for a minute or so that you are not looking at Keaton's credits from the same time period.  Aside from a few titles sprinkled in that a any die-hard Keaton fan might not recognize--the list is almost identical.  Okay, so I am a life-long Buster Keaton it goes that, yes, I am biased--but it is hard for me not to envision that Schenck exploited the master comedian for his own ends. One does not see any let-up in this activity until the making of Keaton's famous The Cameraman. The last famous "pairing" of the two was on Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928.  One of Joseph's first film's that he got into distribution that didin't have anything to do with Keaton or the Talmadge family was Tempest. Set in Czarist Russia (where he was born) the film starred John Barrymore, featured Camilla Horn in the female lead, sported three directors--with Sam Taylor getting the official credit, was released in May of 1928 and won an Oscar (for Best Art Direction:  William Cameron Menzies).  Tempest was also a partial silent; Schenck was never again involved in the making of another silent film after.   By the time that his wife made her The Woman Disputed--there was no longer any ambiguity as to who was in charge; the film was produced by his namesake company Joseph M. Schenck Productions--the company that he set up to produce some of his last films with Keaton. There were no more Talmadge sisters production houses.  The last film that he produced and presented in the 1920's was New York Nights, which was released on the 28th of December, three days after his 53rd birthday and just two days before the dawning of the new decade. The film, which starred his wife, was a "jazz age" crime romance and was directed by Lewis Milestone.  His first two film associations in that new decade couldn't be more different from one another. The very first was a little dandy short musical that his company produced called Glorious Vamps, starring Bobby Watson as himself and a featured a joke walk-on role by Joyzelle Joyner.  The other film was about as opposite from that as a film could be. Lummox was a serious drama about a poor immigrant woman played by Winifred Westover and featuring a story of a hard working woman facing the privileged people for whom she works (it was Westover's last acting role and her only speaking role--she had been previously married to western star William S. Hart).  Later in 1930, as a kind of "blast from the past," Schenck was a silent executive producer on D. W. Griffith's first sound film Abraham Lincoln (Schenck was a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; though many think Griffith was, he was not)--to my knowledge the two giants of early New York cinema had never worked together before. With the coming of the 1930's however his production influence broadened significantly; so did his power in the financially weakened studio system. In 1933 he partnered with Darryl Zanuck (who was a much younger man than he, so it was a shrewd move on both of their parts) to create Twentieth Century Pictures. There was significant help from Louis B. Mayer and Schenck's brother Nicolas (quite the feat considering that Mayer and Joe Schenck literally hated each other before and long after the deal was sealed). Schenck had been a big player in the distribution side of the business with United Artists for years--it went back to before his move to the west coast. So, for a short time 20th Century as an independent studio, it released it's films through U.A., and became the biggest independent studio success in film history for two short years. The fall of the stock market in 1929 and the Great Depression that it caused had significant impact on Hollywood studios. Most of them were smaller outfits and many went belly up, but one was not small.  Fox Film Studio was in deep financial straits and that obviously made it vulnerable to a take-over.  So when 20th Century bought out Fox in 1935...well we've all heard of 20th Century Fox, enough said. Schenck's name, though is not one of the names that easily comes to mind in regards to this important merger in film history, but in truth his involvement was crucial.  His hands-on involvement in films came to an end in 1936. His last formal credit came as a distribution presenter of the action adventure film White Fang which was released and distributed by 20th Century Fox on the 17th of July. And there is a reason for this rather abrupt end to his passion of sort-of making films. Joe Schenck was not the sort of guy to retire to a completely behind the scene studio executive...his brother Nick was that guy. But in 1936 he was the one person busted for making a pay-off to a younger remnant of Al Capone's old gang William Morris Bioff.  Boiff literally shook Hollywood down and they all paid (for among other things not having their theaters set on fire); only Schenck paid one of the pay-offs with a personal check. This landed him under indictment toot-sweet and then convicted. He actually served prison time! So here is where I find myself in a weird place this Christmas night....trying to finish a long post, knowing that it about a very important figure in Hollywood history and silent film....and having, in 2020, to talk about Presidential pardons.....but here we are.  Schenck served four months in prison before receiving a pardon from Harry Truman (Schenck's involvement was through "tax issues"--his personal check had set off alarms at the IRS).  He returned to Hollywood relatively unscathed and continued to work, albeit behind the scene, until his retirement in 1957 at the age of 80, which he had no time to "enjoy" (as he simply wasn't the sort to retire in the first place), as he suffered a stroke very soon after. Although he lived another four years, he never really recovered. He died in Los Angeles on the 22 of October of 1961 at the age of 84.  He was not buried in California however. His body was transported back to New York, where he was laid to rest at Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn in an elaborate crypt. As a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences he was given what amounted to an lifetime achievement award in 1952.

With Zanuk in 1937

[Source: Elliot (Find A Grave)]



Find A Grave entry 



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