I read the news today, Oh boy/
About a studio that’s changed its name/
And though the news might make some sad/
Well, I just had to grin/
I knew it way back when.
My apologies to the Beatles for stealing and butchering the lyrics and meter of “A Day in the Life,” but it was the most appropriate song I could think of to express the bittersweet and mixed feelings of loss and relief I felt as I read the Washington Post story about the Disney Corporation’s decision to drop “Fox” from “20th Century Fox.” For almost 15 years I grew up under those searchlights that swept across the great silver screen as the swirl of drums leading Alfred Newman’s soaring fanfare heralded the arrival of yet-another wonderful movie produced and/or written for the screen by my grandfather, Charles Brackett.
Growing up with a Hollywood icon
I was born one year before my grandfather and his writing partner, Billy Wilder, parted ways at Paramount Pictures as one of the most successful writing and producing teams in Hollywood, as documented in “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age,” for which I wrote the foreword.
By the time I was old enough to see my grandfather’s movies, he’d moved to 20th Century Fox and was on his way to earning the second two of his four Academy Awards (he won his first two for Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend, under the Paramount logo). At 20th Century, Gramps (as we called him) wrote and/or produced some of the most iconic films of the 1950s, including: Niagara, with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton; Titanic (his third Oscar); The King and I with Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr; John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus, with Jayne Mansfield; Ten North Frederick, with Gary Cooper, and Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason and Arlene Dahl. Of my grandfather’s more than 45 credited films from 1926–1962, 18 were 20th Century Fox productions.
Charles William Brackett was a Hollywood oddball…a politically conservative but liberally-aware old-school (Williams and Harvard Law) gentleman’s gentleman. He’d put off law school to join the Army and serve in France during Word War I. After the war, and with a law degree, he pursued a journalism career, writing short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, authoring five novels, drafting a few plays, and working on the staff of The New Yorker as a theater critic, associating daily with his friends and colleagues who made up the Algonquin Round Table.
In the mid-1920s, he and Hollywood flirted with each other, with the relationship firming up in 1936 when he finally caught a contract sufficient to support him and his family in Hollywood.
In a Hollywood environment known for casual wear and tennis courts, my grandfather was a double-breasted suit kind of guy, getting almost daily haircuts, making sure his ties and pocket handkerchiefs were “just so” and choosing to drive Packards, Lincolns, and touring Jaguars rather than smaller, spiffier sports cars or coupes.
Politically Right, Socially Left
Although he was rabidly anti-FDR, and often hosted national Republican candidates at his Bel Air home, Brackett nonetheless advocated for, and often financially contributed to, civil rights movements in the 50s and early 60s. He was especially attuned to the fates of his friends who had either fallen on hard times, or who were struggling with alcoholism — Dorothy Parker among them. He had little use for the anti-communist fervor which swept over the movie industry, and he did not turn his back on friends who had been blacklisted.
During his time at 20th Century Fox, my grandfather made sure that whenever my family and I were visiting (my dad was military, so we were on the road a lot, and the Brackett house in Bel Air was our respite home in between duty stations), Gramps would bring me to the various sound stages and back lots where his movies were being produced. It was pretty heady stuff for a little kid to sit behind the cameras and watch a scene go through a dozen iterations, or to climb into the partial cockpit of a bomber that would appear in a war movie, or to walk the streets of a western town that moments before had been action-central for a gunfight.
For me, the stars of the day were welcome guests at the house, and it was not unusual for my grandparents to share their Sunday breakfast table with the likes of Raymond Massey, Richard Haydn, Bing Crosby, Walter Pidgeon, Olivia de Havilland, the columnist Hedda Hopper, and whatever actors, writers, and producers were working on a Brackett film at the time. Even Walt Disney stopped by for dinner. How ironic.
The old system ran into the new reality
That was the 20th Century Fox era that I knew and grew up in, and it marked the beginning of the end of a halcyon time for an industry that still reflected the glow of the golden age of Hollywood. By the time of my grandfather’s death in 1969, the Hollywood he knew was long gone, and the art of screenwriting, producing, and bringing a film to the audience was more intertwined with the “business” of movie-making than he would have been able to cope with — practically and philosophically. He certainly would not have tolerated someone like Rupert Murdoch overseeing a film, television, and news empire with such rapacious corporate greed and politically freighted control.
That is all in the past, and with Fox dropped from the 21st Century brand, it feels like the echoes of the fun days of Hollywood have finally petered out, more with a whimper, I’m afraid, but it was inevitable. My grandfather and our whole family had a wonderful time of it, and I’m forever grateful to him for his legacy and his body of work.