Cecilia Brady is flying to California for a summer vacation from college. On the plane she meets Wylie White, an alcoholic screenwriter, and Schwartz, a ruined film producer. Monroe Stahr, the partner of Cecilia’s father, is also aboard, though traveling as Mr. Smith. When the plane is grounded in Nashville, Tennessee, Schwartz sends a note to Stahr warning him about Pat Brady, Cecilia’s father. When the plane takes off again, Schwartz stays behind and commits suicide.
Stahr had been the boy wonder of the motion-picture industry. He had been in charge of a studio in his twenties and almost dead from overwork at thirty-five. Indeed, he is half in love with death for the sake of his dead wife, Minna Davis, a great star with whom he was deeply in love. Since her death, he has worked harder than ever, often remaining in his office around the clock. In contrast to Stahr, Brady is mean and selfish. Lacking taste and understanding little of the technical end of the industry, Brady acquired his share of the studio through luck and has retained it through shrewdness. One night, while Cecilia is visiting the studio, an earthquake occurs, rupturing a water main and flooding the back lot. Stahr, working with his troubleshooter, Robinson, to clear away the mess, sees a film-set sightseer perched on top of a huge idol, a piece of a set that has come loose and is now floating in the flood. The girl reminds him of his dead wife, and he tries to discover her identity. That night, Cecilia falls in love with Stahr, but she feels that her attachment is hopeless.
A self-made man and paternalistic employer, Stahr personally manages almost every detail at the studio. Though he is not an educated man, he has raised the artistic level of motion pictures and does not hesitate to make good films that might lose money. As a result, he has incurred the distrust of the studio’s stockholders, who see filmmaking only as a business. Their distrust of the producer is, however, mixed with genuine respect for his many abilities.
In addition to dealing with opposition from the stockholders, Stahr is concerned because the studio’s writers are the target of Communist union organizers; he works closely with his writers and wants them to trust him. Wylie White, in particular, enjoys the producer’s favor, although he resents Stahr. White is hoping to marry Cecilia for the sake of her father’s influence. Typical of Stahr’s interest in his employees is his investigation of the attempted suicide of a cameraman, Pete Zavras. Stahr learns...