Enterprise Studios: The Story of a Short-lived Independent Utopia

As the majority of the western world was still licking it’s wounds after one of the greatest global catastrophes of the modern age, a large part of the early postwar years was spent rebuilding the debilitated infrastructure, and reintegrating back into society those in the allied armed forces that were now returning home en masse.

In 1946, at the dawn of a new ‘baby boomer’ generation, and with major shortages domestically in both the job and housing markets, Hollywood too was undergoing some drastic changes- not only in the way it went about it’s business, but in the kind of cinema it was now manufacturing.

As well as seeing the first United Nations assembly held that same year, the Atomic Energy Act, or AEC was set up by president Truman in order to regulate and oversee the creation of nuclear weapons, as the USA and the Soviet Union were locking horns in an arms race that was to signal the beginning of a whole new conflict altogether, in the Cold War. And as many creatives in the film industry would soon find out, the casualties of the conflict would eventually spill over into the arts too.

Society’s perception of Hollywood in 1946 was also shifting significantly from the glamorised image that it’s stars had enjoyed before the war. With it, the public’s former appetite for lavish and excessive stories were being traded for darker, more sinister tales of fatalism and disenfranchisement, as noir films such as The Big Sleep, Gilda, The Killers, The Stranger and The Blue Dahlia were being screened across the country almost in succession.

The year of 1946 is also notable for the very first (and quite possibly most politically correct) Cannes Film Festival; of which an unprecedented 11 films from as many countries tied for the grand jury prize, including the Hollywood entry, The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder.

It was within this very backdrop, amidst a volatile political climate and film industry that hung in the balance, of which a former Hollywood producer, a publicity chief, and one of the most promising actors of the time formed Enterprise Productions, or The Enterprise Studios.

Clearly wielding considerable influence over many in the industry at the time, the small production company managed to lure some of the biggest and brightest stars of the day, including such actors as Charles Laughton, Joel McCrea, Dana Andrews, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck, and Veronica Lake. Some of the many talented directors that would work behind the camera included Richard Fleischer, Stanley Kramer, Robert Aldrich and Max Ophüls. On set at any given time too one may have brushed shoulders with cinematographers like Russell Harlan and James Wong Howe, or perhaps even screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, editor Robert Parrish, or celebrated composer Adolph Deutsch.

With 9 films released in just over 2 years before the studios went abruptly belly-up, their’s was a short-lived independent utopia… so where on earth did it all go so wrong?

The son of MGM founder Marcus Loew, producer David L. Loew formed the independent studios with Warner Brothers head of publicity James Enfield and actor John Garfield in 1946 shortly after the war, and after Garfield’s working contract at Warner Brothers had recently expired. John Garfield had recently earned praise for his role in a string of successful films, including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Humoresque; and for his moving performance in the supporting role for the Oscar winning film Gentleman’s Agreement.

But soon enough he grew restless, largely due to his dissatisfaction with the kind of roles that were quite often written into his contract. And with roots in method acting and the stage, he was yearning for a deeper, more authentic and humanistic style of drama, as well as a greater form of creative control over the type of characters he wanted to bring to life before the camera. No doubt he saw the independent studios as an opportunity to liberate himself from these constraints, as well as a chance to offer those within the industry of which he had developed relationships with a similar creative freedom.

A promising student of the 1930’s Group Theatre and the American Laboratory Theatre in his native New York, John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle) had in truth never really intended to make the transition over to Hollywood. The son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Garfield had initially been enlisted into public speaking and acting classes as a last resort by his then principal at a school for troubled teens, after being expelled three times from his former high school. The principal had insisted upon the classes to combat a bothersome stammer that was affecting the young man’s confidence, but pretty soon his interest in the theatre began to flourish, as he showed promise both on the stage and behind the scenes, eventually volunteering after school as a stagehand.

It was during these hours at the American Laboratory Theatre that he was first introduced to the famed Stanislavskysystem’ of acting that was being introduced to the New York stage by way of former members of the Moscow Art Theatrethe likes of whom were raising the funding and overseeing a majority of the performances. In a style of authentic drama that would later become known in the west as ‘the method’, Garfield would eventually incorporate this brand of acting into many of his most iconic roles for the silver screen; years before others like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean would go on to popularise it.

In addition to this invaluable experience on the stage, Garfield was also accumulating real life, hands-on experience between production by freight-hopping and hitchhiking his way across America’s great west, gaining a wealth of firsthand stories and character building that would arguably give him a more relatable edge over his Hollywood counterparts.

These personable, hands-on tales would go on to influence those in the industry as well (director Preston Sturges got the idea for his film Sullivan’s Travels after hearing Garfield’s colourful experiences of vagrancy and riding the railways up and down America).

After a couple of brief but nonetheless moving performances on Broadway in the early 1930’s, the Hollywood studios endeavoured to entice Garfield to make the move westward; with both Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers making their intentions known by inviting the promising actor for screen tests. Initially he turned the offers down; not wanting to leave the stage altogether and act exclusively for the screen.

But when Warner Brothers agreed to include this clause into a seven-year contract deal (a move that was rare for the time, and controversial among other executives) Jacob Julius Garfinkle signed the papers, with executive Jack Warner’s first request for the young actor to change his birth name to a more ‘palatable’ one, like John Garfield.

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The onscreen magic of Garfield was infectious in the 1938 Warner Brothers production of Four Daughters.

Garfield’s Hollywood impact was almost instantaneous, gaining praise from critics for his minor role in 1938 for Michael Curtiz’s film Four Daughters, in which he was nominated that year for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. After the wave of acclaim the actor received his contract was swiftly revised, promoting him from a secondary actor to that of the star role, effective almost immediately.

But as a sign of the turbulent time of which Garfield was beginning to make his everlasting stamp on the industry, so too would he eventually be dragged unwillingly into the grubby political witch hunts headed by the HUAC, in what was to become known as the infamous McCarthyism era.

‘If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become public enemy number one…’

-John Garfield

The first two films released by the newly established Enterprise Studios would be distributed with the assistance of United Artists, and screened to select audiences across America in May of 1947.

Both of these films were directed by Hungarian-American filmmaker Andre DeToth, who managed to recruit his wife at the time, Veronica Lake for the star role in the studio’s first feature, Ramrod… in what would be her first motion picture outside of her contract with Paramount Pictures.

In a move that would undoubtably have surprised many in the industry at the time, DeToth managed to enlist actor Joel McCrea for the other lead role alongside Lake… this being despite the pair’s infamous fall-out on set during production of the 1941 picture Sullivan’s Travels, the likes of which prompted McCrea to promise to never make another film with Lake again.

With the script adapted from western novelist Luke Short’s book of the same name (the following year would see 4 more of his novels adapted to the screen as westerns), Ramrod is an intelligent cowboy film that bares many distinguishing characteristics prevalent in the noir work DeToth would explore in such later films as Pitfall in 1948, and Crime Wave in 1954.

Having being formally introduced to the genre by the greatest in the business (none other than western filmmaking maverick, John Ford), DeToth went on to direct a string of cowboy films through the 1950’s for several major studios. Yet these were almost always produced by DeToth on a strictly freelance basis, as the director opted to work within an independent creative environment. Ramrod is also notable for the sharp cinematography of Russell Harlan, who would go on to shoot such westerns as Red River, The Big Sky and Rio Bravo with the great Howard Hawks.

DeToth’s second picture for the newly established studios was The Other Love; by and large a romance film, yet in typical DeToth fashion the film’s darker, more pessimistic side exploring themes of terminal illness and psychopathy render the relationships within the film much more complicated to be painted with one brush alone.

This time the studios recruited the star-studded pair of Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Conte for the lead roles as onscreen lovers. The film also received a 1-hour radio adaptation later that year for Lux Radio Theater, with both Stanwyck and Conte reprising their film roles for the broadcasted presentation.   

Released in November that same year was Enterprise Studios’ most widely known, well-received, and influential film from their catalogue. Body and Soul was the first of only two feature films that studio co-founder John Garfield starred in. It also happens to be the only motion picture released by the studio that was considered a box-office success at the time.

Widely praised nowadays in film circles as one of the finest sports-oriented films of all time, the influence Body and Soul has had on future work is most obvious in Martin Scorsese’s 1981 film, Raging Bull. Like Raging Bull, the story follows a boxer (in this case a fictional one named Charley Davis) as he is catapulted from humble beginnings to success and stardom, attracting an entourage of advantageous and exploitive associates that leech the young fighter of his money.

Very much a tale of how material wealth can corrupt the soul, the reaction to Body and Soul at the time would prove, as you will soon see, to be a double-edged sword for some of the cast and crew, and inevitably too for Enterprise Studios.

Raging
The influence of Body and Soul on Martin Scorsese’s 1981 film Raging Bull is self-evident.

Reaping the fruits of their considerably stacked book of contacts, the studios were able to fish through a pool of talent for the production of Body and Soul… recruiting- among others, director Robert Rossen, who had been previously under contract with John Garfield at Warner Brothers.

The pair had worked together in 1941 for Sea Wolf; of which Garfield played the rebellious crew member that dared to defy tyrannous ship captain, Wolf Larson (played by Edward G. Robinson). Rossen had reworked the script from Jack London’s celebrated novel of the same name, gaining praise for his work but also alerting executives on what they perceived as it’s anti-fascist stance and socialist undertones, with many political scenes being cut from the film’s final print.

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Rossen’s rework of the script for the 1941 production of Sea Wolf was praised, yet Warner Brothers cut multiple scenes that they deemed too controversial.

Meanwhile, for the script the studios enlisted another New York native that, like Garfield, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, in writer Abraham Polonsky. Under contract with Paramount Pictures before the war, Polonsky (himself a dedicated socialist, union advocate and editor of left-wing newspaper The Home Front) had only ever written the script for Golden Earrings for the studios, having left for Europe shortly after signing with Paramount to serve in the war for the Office of Strategic Services.

Still, Polonsky had already proved his penmanship as an acclaimed essayist, novelist and radio scriptwriter, and was to receive an Academy Award nomination for Body and Soul, only his second Hollywood script. However, like Rossen, Polonsky was gaining unwanted attention from those that felt that his work was an anti-American take on the perils of capitalism… and pretty soon executives and censors would single out Rossen, Polonsky and eventually Garfield for what authorities perceived as a festering infiltration of communist ideology within the ranks of Hollywood.     

Of the many other accolades, including John Garfield’s Academy Award nomination for best actor, Body and Soul was also praised for it’s outstanding black and white cinematography, shot by revolutionary cameraman, James Wong Howe (read more about this work here in our other article, Through the Lens), alongside the Oscar winning editing by Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish.

The following year of 1948 was to prove the most active yet for the independent studio, with 5 major pictures released that year. However, if the political and ideological problems of the previous year were any indication of the coming adversities the young studios were to face, then another major setback would prove catastrophic.

This time the adversity was a financial one; with one drawn out production and exorbitant commercial failure in Lewis Milestone’s wartime romance retelling of Erich Maria Remarque’s celebrated novel of the same name, Arch of Triumph.

Fresh off the recent success of Gaslight for MGM in 1945 (for which she had won the Academy Award for best actress), and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 spy film Notorious, starring alongside Cary Grant (also an official selection into the Cannes Film Festival), the studios persuaded Ingrid Bergman to fill the star role of grieving widow Joan Madou, with Frenchman Charles Boyer and British actor Charles Laughton in other major roles.

Milestone had reworked the script from the novel with the assistance of poet and novelist Harry Brown, after screenwriter Irwin Shaw had walked out on the job when the director requested he shoehorn a greater romantic narrative into the plot.

In what was undoubtably an epic feat for those in the editing room, the original film was cut in half to just over 2 hours, meaning that a number of actors had to be removed entirely from the final print.

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The box-office failure of Enterprise Studios most ambitious picture would continue to haunt the independent production company.

Additionally, Hollywood censors insisted upon taking the scalpel to the film again, after some scenes were deemed too distasteful for the public.

In the end, Arch of Triumph was one of the biggest box-office disappointments of the decade, bankrupting Enterprise Productions Inc. and prompting distributor United Artists to sever ties with the independent studios… a move that would prove disastrous for a small company that was already yielding under considerable strain.

‘David Loewe and Charles Einfeld’s (US) 5 million dollar production of Arch of Triumph was far from a triumph, being one of the biggest flops for many a decade. Lewis Milestone’s direction plodded gloomily for two hours in an old-fashioned manner through a studio-bound prewar Paris…’

-Ronald Bergan ‘The United Artists Story’

The last Enterprise Studios picture to be distributed by United Artists would be in August of 1948; with the independent company’s second western, Four Faces West (known outside of the US as They Passed This Way).

Touted on the film poster as: ‘The strangest desperado the west has ever known!’, actor Joel McCrea signed on in the lead role for the studios one last time; playing cowboy Ross McEwen, an unconventional thief with a conscience, that leaves an I.O.U letter at a New Mexico bank after robbing it of $2,000… this all transpiring under the nose of the new marshal, Pat Garrett (played by Charles Bickford) who is being welcomed to the town by a bandstand parade.

McCrea was paired on set with his wife, Frances Dee, who plays nurse and love interest, Fay Hollister. This western is particularly notable for not following any of the conventional narrative paths of any in the genre that came before or after it. An age-old tale of love and loyalty, Four Faces West is as complex and rough-around-the-edges as it is compassionate and tender. Being that not a single bullet is fired throughout the duration of the film tells you that this is no ordinary cowboy film, and should not be pigeonholed as such. 

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McCrea met Frances Dee on set for The Silver Cord in 1933. The pair wed in Brooklyn later that year and stayed together up until he passed, almost 57 years later.

Directed by silent film actor and veteran filmmaker Alfred E. Green, Four Faces West also happened to be the last film produced by western legend, Harry ‘Pop’ Sherman, who introduced the character Hopalong Cassidy to the silver screen and worked on over 70 cowboy films during the 30’s and 40’s.

In the fallout over the calamity of Arch of Triumph, after it was released to unimpressed audiences in February of 1948, the studios had to scramble to find another major distributor willing to push the remainder of their catalogue. For the latter half of the short-lived period from which they were active, Enterprise Productions Inc. managed to find a last-minute financial backer in MGM.

 

But they were soon to find that the Hollywood studio was far from willing to invest any means of sufficient funding into neither the production, press or publicity, after the losses United Artists had suffered from Arch of Triumph.

As a result, the tail-end of their catalogue was scaled back considerably, with some of the films rushed through wafer-thin shooting schedules; and in most cases inadequately promoted upon release.

This was indeed a terrible misfortune for the three founders of Enterprise, who no doubt had grand visions of a thriving hub for creative expression; almost free (yet never entirely) from the restrictive constraints of the major studios. It would prove a shame too for the talented cast and crew involved in the remaining string of pictures released, as the majority of these were seldom screened, and inevitably lost in the shuffle of legalities and licensing issues upon the studio’s eventual liquidation

This included a pair of intelligently written satirical comedies, the first of which was released in the summer of 1948, with a witty and offbeat script that was fashioned around the signature sardonicism of radio personality and comedian Henry Morgan.

So this is New York was only the second feature film directed by Richard Fleischer (the son of the great animation pioneer, Max Fleischer), who was persuaded to make the move over from RKO Studios by the film’s producer, one Stanley Kramer (this film also being Kramer’s debut production credit). The sharp and sophisticated script for So this is New York was adapted from Ring Lardner’s 1920 novel Big Town, by screenwriters Carl Foreman and Herbert Baker.

Famous at the time for his satirical takes on everything from sports corruption, married life and the theatre, Lardner’s cynicism and dry wit (the writer was held in high esteem by Hemingway, Woolfe and Fitzgerald among others) was a perfect fit for Morgan, with the film utilising voiceover narration, and freezing the action at times to give this swift-paced comedy on the misconceptions of high society it’s warmth and charm.

“Stanley Kramer’s first independent production was not the type of solemn ‘message’ movie with which he was soon to be associated, but was an unusual and amusing comedy based on Ring Lardner’s novel The Big Town…”

-Ronald Bergan ‘The United Artists Story’

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Ringgold Wilmer ‘Ring’ Lardner was a big influence on the work of Hemmingway, Woolfe and Fitzgerald among others. His son, the journalist and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jnr. was one of the Hollywood Ten who were blacklisted from Hollywood.

So this is New York was produced on a modest budget (about 15% of what was spent for Arch of Triumph), with a large part of the finance raised coming from a handful of smalltime investors. Still, the film didn’t fare well at the box-office, and most certainly wasn’t enough to reverse the surmounting debts that the studios were now faced with.

After the inevitable failure of Arch of Triumph, the studios were desperate to keep the business afloat; and in order to obtain as much revenue from their back catalogue as possible, the board of directors endeavoured to produce a handful of pictures on a shoestring budget to stop the doors (and the coffin) from being nailed shut on Enterprise Studios. With this in mind, co-founder Charles Enfield enlisted Lewis Milestone for one more collaborative project: the company’s next satirical comedy, No Minor Vices, which was released later that year.

According to Milestone, the director was given the title of the film and nothing more, and simply instructed to make the film. Arnold Manoff had adapted the screenplay from his own story, and the studios managed to recruit actor Dana Andrews for the lead role as neurotic paediatrician Perry Ashwell, to play alongside Lilli Palmer and Louis Jourdan. Andrews was even persuaded to invest in the film’s production, a move which would see him come up short in the end; prompting the star actor to point the finger at MGM for poor publicity and promotion, signalling the end to the working relationship between he and filmmaker Lewis Milestone.

Still, for what it’s worth, despite Milestone’s insistence on bloating the film with cheap, throwaway gags (a case in point is the various tiresome, unnecessary cutaway scenes to the old man at the window), No Minor Vices wins over it’s audiences with the standout performances from it’s stellar cast, and it’s attempts to unravel the psychology of both artist and doctor succeed where the thin storyline fumbles at times and fall flat.

Released on Christmas day in 1948 was perhaps the studios most powerful social commentary and drama, the crime noir classic Force of Evil. The film was studio co-founder John Garfield’s swan song performance for Enterprise Productions with his role as Joe Morse; a New York City lawyer working for the mob who are trying to seize control of the numbers racket, consequently muscling others out of the business– like Joe’s older brother, Leo Morse (a powerhouse performance by Thomas Gomez).

Adapted to the screen once again by Abraham Polonsky, the scriptwriter for the studio’s most successful film Body and Soul would get the opportunity this time to direct the action; working closely with Garfield and cinematographer George Barnes to bring his vision to life on camera (Polonsky modelled much of the look of the film from American realist Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue Paintings).

‘Force of Evil stands up under repeated viewings as one of the great films of the modern American cinema…’

-Andrew Sarris

Very much a revelatory ‘David and Goliath’ tale of one man’s struggle to stay honest and hold onto virtue in a crooked and amoral world, film critic Thom Anderson once described Force of Evil as an example of what he coined film gris, or a grey film; a brand of noir that came out specifically between 1947-1951 that presented it’s stories with a left-wing stance, inevitably bringing it’s producers into conflict with the communist investigations lead by the House Un-American Activities Commission.

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Enterprise Studio’s production of Force of Evil stands true as one of the finest examples of American realism of cinema in the 1940’s.

At this particular juncture, this is precisely what was unfolding, affecting both the careers and livelihoods of many who had been on the working roster at Enterprise Studios, in particular director Robert Rossen, screenwriters Carl Foreman and Arnold Manoff, Abraham Polonsky and now John Garfield himself (all of them were forced to testify before the courts and eventually blacklisted from Hollywood in the early 1950’s). 

‘I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. My life is an open book. I am no Red. I am no ‘pink’. I am no fellow traveller. I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life…’

-John Garfield, from a statement read before the HUAC

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Protests for the Hollywood Ten, who were cited for contempt before the courts for refusing to name names and subsequently blacklisted from working again in Hollywood.

By the end of the 1940’s, the obvious financial and political strain had, by this point, well and truly taken it’s toll on the independent studios, and as a result the three founders were no longer looking to the future with Enterprise Productions in mind.

By the time the studio’s 9th and final film, Caught, was released in February of 1949, they had already begun to pack it all in and the Enterprise offices were pretty much inoperative.

 

Surprisingly, the studios still managed to recruit, by and large, a cast and crew of considerable talent, including actors James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan… as well as the German-born duo of filmmakers Max Ophüls and Wolfgang Reinhardt.

Reinhardt was contracted out to Warner Brothers at the time, having produced the noir Three Strangers in 1946, from a screenplay by John Huston. Ophüls, on the other hand had already etched out an highly illustrious career making films in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

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The great Maximillian Oppenheimer, or Max Ophüls made nearly 30 motion pictures in 5 countries. Though wherever he went, he never lost his European brand of filmmaking.

In truth, he had only made the temporary move to Hollywood during the rise of Fascism in Europe because he had no other real choice. Caught was 1 of only 4 Hollywood motion pictures made by the acclaimed director; in a short period that only lasted from 1946-1949 (Ophüls had been recommended to executives by Preston Sturges and Robert Siodmak, both of whom were fans of his previous work in Europe).

Two years prior, on the set for Douglas Fairbanks Jnr’s swashbuckling epic adventure film The Exile, when asked about Ophüls as a director, Fairbanks had stated:   

He needed the money desperately to get back to Europe and was a most interesting director…’ 

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The Exile was Max Ophüls’ first credited Hollywood picture as director, after being fired from the calamitous film Vendetta for verbal and creative disagreements with producer Howard Hughes.

Still, in spite of all this, along with the fact that once again MGM didn’t see fit to promote the film causing it to fare poorly at the box-office, Caught is still a surprisingly sophisticated film that boldly explores a number of valid themes of psychology, emotional violence and domestic abuse.

Robert Ryan’s performance as deranged sociopath millionaire Smith Ohlrig is particularly menacing, and Ophüls’ signature use of tracking shots and fluid camera movement was so prominent that actor James Mason even wrote a poem about it on set:

‘A shot that does not call for tracks

is agony for poor old Max,

Who, separated from his dolly.

is wrapped in deepest melancholy.

Once, they took away his crane,

I thought he’d never smile again.’

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