Harry Jastrow popped the hinge on his gold and porcelain pocket watch. Twenty-two minutes remained until his call to action—too much time to kill and too little to run for cover. Behind its towering bronze doors the Supreme Court stood impregnable. Settle down, Harry. You’re pleading a case, not storming a beach. Regardless of who wins in there, no one dies—just like the movies.
“Your Honors, the Department of Justice has accused the chief executives of Paramount Pictures, RKO, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Twentieth Century–Fox, and Warner Bros. of multiple violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. But my clients are not corrupt monopolists. They are, in fact, pioneers who have carved out a new industry. . . .”
“Dad, you’re mumbling.”
Harry smiled reassuringly at AJ, his twelve-year-old son. “I’m rehearsing.”
“Could you do it inside? I need to use the bathroom.”
They marched into the building expecting to confront history; instead, they bumped into Bette Davis mugging for photographers in front of a bust of John Marshall. Was that Clark Gable talking to reporters by the Scales of Justice? The Great Hall looked like the lobby of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre at a world premiere. In lieu of a bullet, Harry bit his bottom lip. He had warned the moguls who ran Hollywood that they couldn’t manipulate the American judicial system like an audience in Peoria. But they’d told him nine old guys in long black robes couldn’t keep their hands out of their pants when Lana Turner winked at them from the front row.
Mel Cantwell, Harry’s Washington-based co-counsel, elbowed through the crowd. “Who’s responsible for this circus?” Harry indicated a longshoreman costumed in a three-piece suit—Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century–Fox. Cantwell mopped his brow with an already damp handkerchief. “The justices hate grandstand plays.”
“Don’t worry, Mel. I’ll be so riveting they won’t notice.”
“Dad, Mr. Cagney says hello.” AJ returned from the men’s room, struggling to comb his unruly hair. “I look like Einstein.”
“You look handsome.” Harry felt guilty because he’d used the last of their Brylcreem to tame his own black mop.
“Sir?” The head of publicity at Warners interrupted. “We need you for a moment.”
Harry checked his watch again, for more than the time. His father had stolen it off the corpse of a Russian nobleman who’d frozen in an ice storm outside St. Petersburg. Too bad Poppa wasn’t alive to see where it had ended up. Ten minutes remained. “Let’s go.”
The publicist escorted him into the courtroom to shake hands with Paul Muni and Lana Turner . . . in a low-cut blouse that might just do the trick. Harry listened dutifully to Muni. “You have to be bold, Jastrow, bold in your speech, bold in your being. That’s how I played The Life of Emile Zola. I’d have won the Oscar if Metro hadn’t bought it for Spencer Tracy.”
“A grave miscarriage of justice.” Harry’s irony sailed past the actor. “Why don’t you folks get seated. Show’s starting any second.”
He nudged his son toward the appellant’s table, but a man with a bald pate and wire-rimmed glasses intercepted them. Adolph Zukor, founder and chairman of Paramount, had spent his life creating an industry that didn’t exist the day he kissed the ground at Ellis Island in 1888. “Bubbala, look how big you’ve grown!” He squeezed the cheeks of his favorite grandnephew. “Did you help your father prepare for today?”
“He didn’t need help,” AJ declared proudly.
Zukor nodded. “Your dad is going to do great! He’s so honest those judges couldn’t not believe a thing he says when he says it.”
The courtroom grew still. Static electricity welded Harry’s suit to his skin. His son and Zukor scurried to the gallery as the marshal’s “Oyez” thundered.
Chief Justice Frederick Vinson pounded his gavel. He reminded Harry of a “hit ’em hard” football coach. “We will hear arguments this morning in the case of United States of America versus Paramount Pictures, et al.”
Robert Wright, the deputy attorney general of the Anti-Trust Division, rose to address the Court. His puritanical upbringing as the son of the demanding architect Frank Lloyd Wright had stripped him of compassion. Like many of his WASP colleagues in the Justice Department, he resented the eastern European Jewish immigrants who wielded untrammeled cultural influence over his country. This was his chance to cut the Horatio Algerbergs down to size. “I have prosecuted scores of businessmen for violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but none has been so deliberate and deceitful a defendant as the so-called Big Five motion picture studios.”
“Basd meg!” Zukor cursed in his native Hungarian, while Skouras muttered an unflattering epithet in Greek.
Wright glared in their direction. “The Big Five not only produce and distribute virtually all the movies made in America, they also own a significant number of the nation’s theaters. They have used their monopoly power to harm independent exhibitors. And who are these exhibitors? They are small businessmen—families, for the most part—working to keep their one theater in operation. The FBI conducted a secret, fifteen-month investigation of five hundred towns which conclusively proved the industry’s guilt. The trial jury convicted the Big Five on all counts. Now the defendants are demanding a reversal. We ask that you order the studios to sell all of their theaters and exit the exhibition business permanently. Divorcement is the only remedy that will curtail their abuses.”
“Off with their heads!” “Hang ’em high!” “Fry the bastards!” That was how “divorcement” translated to panicky movie executives. Economic catastrophe loomed because the studios earned most of their profits from their theaters. In typically understated fashion, Variety, Hollywood’s newspaper of record, had labeled today’s hearing Armageddon.
Harry knew that the Big Five had played far over the edge of legality for decades, so three months ago he’d negotiated a settlement with the Justice Department that would have allowed them to maintain ownership of a limited number of theaters. But the moguls were too greedy to lose any profits. They’d rejected the compromise and assigned Harry the mission of keeping the Court from approving Wright’s draconian request.
He’d reminded everyone that, as a studio executive, he hadn’t tried a case in years. But his bosses and colleagues had argued that no one knew more about the issues than him—including their attorneys, who’d lost in the lower courts—and no one presented a more true-blue image of the industry. Insiders whispered that if Harry succeeded, he was destined to head a studio. But that prospect meant nothing today. It was the specter of failure that gripped him. The bigwigs had a habit of pumping up their expectations only to wind up bitterly disappointed. He feared joining those actors marked for stardom who’d disappeared after the movies that were supposed to make them stars died at the box office.
For fifteen minutes Justices Black, Jackson, and Burton lobbed softball questions at his opponent. Harry exchanged disbelieving looks with Cantwell. Did the justices intend to invite Wright over for tea? In the face of the Court’s obvious sympathy, Harry waived his opening statement to devote full time to questions from the skeptical judges.
William O. Douglas fired first. “Dimitri Glendakis built a state-of-the-art theater in Fresno, California, but no major studio sold him a single feature. Is that how your clients reward excellence and innovation?”
“Our attorneys advised Mr. Glendakis, before he broke ground, that we could not provide films for his proposed theater because we had preexisting obligations to other theaters in that zone.”
“Weren’t those ‘preexisting obligations’ to your own theaters?”
“And to the theaters of other companies,” Harry responded. “But we did offer him three other areas in which to build.”
Vinson cut to the government’s most damaging assertion. “Mr. Jastrow, how do you defend the practice of block booking? It sounds to the Court suspiciously like a dictatorship.”
“We admit to selling in blocks of ten to fifteen films. We specify exactly which films are to be shown on what dates and for how many weeks. Otherwise, the independent theater owners would cherry-pick our highest-profile product. Then the studios couldn’t make movies that look less commercial up front—we call them ‘sleepers’—because there wouldn’t be guaranteed play time.”
“If those movies are so marginal, perhaps you shouldn’t make them at all.”
“Each year sixty percent of our movies lose us money. Unfortunately, before we make them, we don’t know which sixty percent.”
The courtroom burst into laughter. Harry maintained a straight face, but the echo of his son’s giggle buoyed him.
“The motion picture business is one of the riskiest in America. Each of the major studios produces approximately thirty films annually at an average cost of two million dollars and spends millions more in marketing. The exhibitors bear none of this risk. If the public doesn’t come, they return our prints at no cost.”
The more probing the questions from the bench, the more unflappable Harry became. Skepticism switched to curiosity. Zukor, Skouras, and the stars edged forward, anticipating a Capra moment. Go for it, Harry told himself, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
“Early in this century—when movie producers didn’t own theaters—there was chaos in our industry: product shortages, bankruptcies, broken contracts, illegal combines. For the past thirty years the studios’ ownership of theaters has created prosperity, and the peace has allowed our filmmakers to create the first truly American art form. That progress will wither if the Court grants the Justice Department’s request and obliterates the core structure of the business. We admit that abuses have occurred. But we urge you to abandon the overkill of theater divorcement and concentrate instead on more limited solutions.”
The moguls mobbed him. “You’re the greatest counterpuncher since Tunney,” Skouras proclaimed. “We’re going to beat those fuckers.”
“Watch your language.” Zukor pointed to AJ.
“Sorry. Your dad’s a genius, kid.”
Trying to mimic the adults, AJ shook his father’s hand.
That made Harry feel like a hero.
They burst onto the steps of the Supreme Court building, bracing against the chill winter winds, just in time to see officials from the Justice Department slapping Bob Wright’s back for a job well done. Reality trumped elation. Court was a crapshoot—and it would be May before the Big Five learned if their dice had rolled lucky seven or snake eyes.
AJ studied the room-service menu at the Hay-Adams Hotel with the intensity he applied to a multiple-choice quiz in Miss Alder’s math class. Rule 1: Eliminate obvious no’s. That killed oatmeal, because he hated the lumps, and eggs, because he’d eaten them scrambled, boiled, and shirred on the train coming east. Rule 2: Go with a choice that makes sense. It was Rice Krispies with a banana . . . until he ignored Rule 3: Avoid unknowns. AJ didn’t recognize the name, but he enjoyed an adventure, so he ordered toast, bacon, and coffee for his father and smoked kippers and a glass of milk for himself.
In fourth grade he had abandoned his given name because he intended to win the Academy Award and thought that “Produced by Albert Julius Jastrow” would look old-fashioned on the screen. Alternatively, if he joined the PGA tour, “AJ Jastrow” would fit better on the trophies. Only his father knew his golf ambition, because Mom would have brained both of them. AJ Jastrow, Esq.—after Dad’s triumph yesterday, he had to consider the law. He’d heard Miss Turner tell Mr. Cagney how his father’s square chin and Roman nose reminded her of a Jewish Clark Kent. AJ checked his jawline in the mirror. He looked more like Jimmy Olsen.
“Son, are you ready?”
“I’ve got to finish packing.”
“Well, hurry up. I’ve got a couple of surprises for our last day.”
When room service arrived, a black waiter with gray hair and a gold front tooth laid out gleaming silverware on a linen tablecloth. He set two plates in front of the Jastrows and removed the domes with a flourish. AJ had assumed kippers were a sausage, not a relative of the herring. They looked and smelled like the soles of his old sneakers. But he’d ordered them, so he tasted a bite, which was so salty that he had to gulp down the milk. The combination reminded him of castor oil.
“No, the kippers are really good . . . for kippers.”
“Let’s skip breakfast and get doughnuts at our first stop.”
His father’s bad knee—the one shot up in the war—froze in the cold, but together they hiked up the marble stairs to the Lincoln Memorial. Dad whispered, as if he were in temple, describing how the thirty-six marble columns represented each state on the day the president died. The statue of the man seated in his chair made AJ feel small. “Why does Lincoln look so sad? He won the Civil War.”
“He wanted to take his family back to Illinois, but there was still a big job left to do. Maybe he knew he would never see home again.”
Usually Dad gave more details. The heroes of American history were his heroes, unlike AJ’s; he preferred the Yankees. The words carved into the wall intrigued him. “With malice toward none and charity for all.” It was from the Second Inaugural Address. He didn’t know what it meant but decided to learn more about Lincoln so that he could understand why his father so honored him.
The second surprise topped the first. Instead of taking the train, Dad had booked them two seats on a flight to Chicago. When they arrived at the airport, AJ was sure the cabdriver had made a mistake.
“It’s going to be the only way to travel, so I thought you might want to try it.”
“Dad, are you . . . I mean, are we . . . really? You’re not kidding?”
As they bumped down the runway, his father looked more nervous than before the hearing. I bet he wishes we’d taken the train, AJ thought. Then they were airborne and the whole city appeared below, the white marble of the monuments brilliantly reflecting in the sun. This was the best day of his life.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Action! by Robert Cort. Copyright © 2003 by Robert Cort. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.