By the early 1950s, many producers, directors, and actors in Hollywood were looking to start up their own production companies. Several forces brought about this major change. First, with the breakup of the studio system after the Paramount antitrust case of 1947, the major studios – MGM, Warner Bros., Twentieth-Century Fox, Paramount, Columbia, Universal, RKO, and United Artists – lost their lock on film production as a vertically integrated oligopoly. Secondly, changes in tax laws made it far more profitable for key Hollywood artists to incorporate and pay the 52% maximum corporate tax rather than the 75% to 92% rate on individual incomes. Other factors, such as the new competition from television for theater audiences, the trend towards co-productions and “runaway” production in Europe, and the struggles over the Production Code in the wake of more European imports, also began to shake up the US movie industry. A few far-sighted artists were able to catch this new wave and ride it to considerable success.
Kirk Douglas founded Bryna Productions, named after his mother Bryna Demsky, in 1955, one of the first Hollywood stars to become an independent producer, and one of the most successful of the period. Peter Lev defines independent production as “a flexible, free-lance system where the personnel and other elements of a production are assembled for each individual film.” (24) It helped if the independent company could supply a central, sure-fire box office draw, such as a major star, and this is exactly the advantage Kirk Douglas lent to his new company.
Bryna’s first production was The Indian Fighter, which began pre-production in 1954 and was completed and released in 1955. The company went on to produce 18 more films between 1955 and 1986, with 6 more produced by Joel Productions, a Bryna subsidiary. Many starred Kirk Douglas himself, but others resulted from his judicious selection of talented actors, directors, writers, and producers; as Douglas himself would often assert, “there is no art form that is more of a collaborated effort than movie making.” In particular, Douglas succeeded in drawing the best efforts out of an astonishing array of some of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood, including most notably Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, The Last Sunset), Dale Wasserman (The Vikings) and Albert Maltz (Scalawag), as well as directors like Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Spartacus), John Huston (The List of Adrian Messenger), and John Frankenheimer (Seven Days in May, Grand Prix).
-- Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Peter Lev, Transforming the Screen, 1950 – 1959. Vol. 7 of “A History of The American Cinema” (Charles Harpole, General Editor). NY: Scribners, 2003.
Paul Monaco, The Sixties: 1960-1969. Vol. 8 of “A History of The American Cinema” (Charles Harpole, General Editor). NY: Scribners, 2001.