Winter 2011

Arthur Jacobson

New York to Hollywood

Arthur Jacobson

Arthur “Artie” Jacobson’s life in moviemaking stretched so far back, directors wore megaphones around their wrists and the all-male crews called women on the set “dames.” He was a charter member of the Junior Guild (then the AD branch of the Guild) in 1937 and three decades later served on the DGA National Board.

In 1937, Jacobson was part of a group of directors and assistants who met at the Hollywood Athletic Club to help draw up what would become the first ever Directors Guild contract (approved by producers two years later). Talking about his long and colorful career in a 1980 DGA oral history interview, Jacobson recalled how he ingratiated his way into the movie business as a teenager in New York City, initially cleaning lights at Biograph Studios and carting flammable nitrate prints around to midtown theaters.

The love-struck Jacobson followed Clara Bow out to Hollywood, where he was fired by Paramount Pictures production head B.P. Schulberg for dating the budding starlet. But before long he was secretly rehired at the studio as a 2nd AD by Sam Jaffe - Schulberg’s brother-in-law. The personable Jacobson crossed paths with the famous and infamous.

He was at Josef von Sternberg’s side as the fabled autocrat ventured out barefoot in a rowboat on Lake Arrowhead to shoot An American Tragedy (1931); and he sheltered Gary Cooper (in the star’s Duesenberg) from Tallulah Bankhead’s lusty advances on Devil and the Deep (1932). Jacobson even presided over the dawn of talkies on Chinatown Nights (1929), assisting director William Wellman, who tucked himself under the camera - a microphone in his lap under a pillow - for one of Hollywood’s first walking and talking scenes.

“In those days,” Jacobson remembered, “the first assistant ran the show. He broke down the script, cross-plotted it, and with the various departments made the whole budget. Then, when you went on the stage, you directed everything but the actors. You picked the extras and directed them.”

All of which came easily for Jacobson, who in 1939 was asked to head Paramount’s talent department, but it was his gift for on-the-fly problem solving that directors loved most. For example, there was the time he procured a grain forklift from a milling company (before camera cranes were invented) so George Cukor could shoot Fredric March dashing up a staircase in various states of undress for The Royal Family of Broadway (1930); or when he had a prop man swap iced tea for whiskey in W.C. Fields’ glass so the actor would be sober for the 45 minutes of overtime not in his contract on If I Had a Million (1932).

Although the Hollywood legends - Lubitsch, Welles, Hawks - tumble out gumballs from his resume, Jacobson insisted he judged every assignment by the quality of his director’s character. Jacobson worked with George Seaton for 10 years and said assisting him on Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was one of the highlights of his career.

Among his adventures on that film, Jacobson arranged for nine cameras to simultaneously film the Macy’s Parade live on Thanksgiving morning, and plunked actors Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood in the department store cafeteria line during a weekday lunch-rush. He even pooh-poohed Maureen O’Hara’s request for a special police escort for a Christmas shopping spree through Macy’s. “I know New Yorkers,” Jacobson told the then-world’s most famous redhead. “They aren’t going to pay any attention to you. And don’t wear a bandanna around your head or dark glasses. Just be normal.”

At Work With

Short profiles of Guild members in all categories sharing their experiences at work.

More from this issue