18 July 2018

Every word was affectionately devoured and savoured

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Crawford met in 1927 after Joan had seen Doug Jr. perform on stage in the play Young WoodleyCaptivated by the young and handsome Doug, Joan (who was on the brink of stardom) sent him a note which led to their first meeting. Soon after, the two fell in love and had a much-publicised romance, eventually leading to marriage in 1929.

Doug Jr. was only nineteen years old when he married Joan who was four or five years his senior*. While Joan grew up in near poverty, Doug came from a wealthy and influential family. His father was Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his stepmother Mary Pickford, two of the greatest stars of the silent era and regarded in Hollywood as royalty. Fairbanks Sr. and Pickford were against Doug's marriage to Joan and didn't invite the couple to their legendary home Pickfair until eight months after the wedding. Later Fairbanks Sr. did warm up to Joan but the relationship between Joan and Pickford remained cool.

[* Joan's year of birth is uncertain; read here]

Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Joan Crawford photographed by Edward Steichen in Malibu, February 1932.

About a year and a half into their marriage, Doug and Joan started having marital problems. Possibly during the filming of Possessed (1931), Joan began an on-and-off love affair with co-star Clark Gable that would last for several decades. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was well aware of the affair and in order to separate Joan from her lover and to show the world that everything was fine between her and Doug, Mayer sent Joan and Doug on a belated honeymoon to Europe in June 1932. But by then it was already too late. While Doug wanted to save the marriage, for Joan it was over. The couple divorced in May 1933.

Doug and Joan maintained a friendly relationship for the rest of their lives. After Joan's death, Doug was one of her friends who defended her when Christina, Joan's adopted daughter, published Mommie Dearest (1978) in which Joan was accused of abuse. Doug couldn't bring himself to read the book and said: "The Joan Crawford that I've heard about in Mommie Dearest is not the Joan Crawford I knew back then." 

The letter below was written by a then 67-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Joan Crawford in January 1977 (with Doug addressing Joan by her nickname "Billie"). It's a reply to a note which Joan had sent earlier. Apparently Joan had said something nice about a painting on a Christmas card she had received from Doug, and with his letter Doug wanted to let her know how much her words meant to him (having just had a difficult year)Sadly, Joan would pass away four months later, so they probably never had that drink together like Doug suggested.


The Brook Club
111 East 54th St. 
NYC 10022

January 26, 1977

Billie dear,

Few things have happened to me this past year or so which have given me more pleasure, made me feel so nicely warm deep inside, than your sweet letter about my painting on my Christmas card. This may not sound like the compliment or thanks I mean to convey because this past year or so have (has?) been lousy! I've had a great deal of professional success and that was, of course, very gratifying-- especially as I consider myself virtually "retired" (professionally, that is).  I've been very lucky with the plays I've done-- but otherwise I've been in less than robust health, have worked too hard on too many things, have had more problems than Prof. Einstein and got thoroughly run down + depressed. I'm now down in Florida for a while trying to get in condition before going off to Australia where, at the end of February, I'm to play the same play I did in London last summer- "The Pleasure of his Company". However, I must also go up to N.Y. a couple of times before then-- for dentists, doctors, my regular office business, getting a bit more settled in a new apartment, having meetings of all sorts- with all sorts. All of which is to show the kind of state I was in when your dear, dear note came!

It arrived at just the right time, in every way -- and every word was affectionately devoured and savoured-- not only am I glad -indeed delighted- that you liked it but your reaction to it, and the way you phrased your note, was more appreciated than I can say.

Perhaps someday we can have another drink (the last was over a year ago I think!) and, with luck, another-- and we can do some more "catching up". Meanwhile, if you ever have reason or inclination to write me again, I suggest you send it to me c/o The Brook Club, 111 East 54th St., NYC, 10022, marked "Personal". In that way, no secretary or anyone else is apt to see it before I do (your last note did, happily, get to me directly, with no "interception" en route). This is a long-winded way of Thanking you  for thanking me-- but I did appreciate it so very much. 

Love, dear

If I'm not in N.Y, I leave word at the Club where to forward such mail as I may receive there (usually bills of some sort!).

Above: Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at Pickfair with Mary Pickford circa 1932. Below: Apart from being an actor, Fairbanks Jr was also a painter and had even studied art for a while in Paris.

3 July 2018

You are as wrong for role as role would be for you

Following her legendary role in Gone with the Wind (1939) Vivien Leigh desperately wanted to play the female lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). While initially uninterested in the part of the second Mrs de Winter, Leigh became eager to play it after Laurence Olivier (whom she was having an affair with and would later marry) had been cast as Maxim de Winter. Determined to be in a picture with Olivier, Leigh went after the part and was ultimately tested for it twice.

Rebecca's producer David O. Selznick, who had previously worked with Vivien Leigh on Gone with the Wind, was far from enthusiastic after seeing Leigh's screen tests. Selznick felt that Leigh didn't "seem at all right as to sincerity or age or innocence or any of the other factors which [were] essential to the story coming off at all". Others agreed with him, including Hitchcock and George Cukor, and even Laurence Olivier, who had lobbied to get Leigh cast, later said he found her wrong for the part.

David Selznick and Vivien Leigh on a plane to Atlanta for the premiere of Gone with the Wind in December 1939. 

In August 1939, while aboard the ocean liner Île de France (having just spent a holiday with Olivier in Europe), Vivien Leigh received a radiogram from David Selznick, informing her that she would not be starring in Rebecca. The radiogram can be read below as well as a radiogram from Selznick to Laurence Olivier (sent that same day), in which Selznick also explained to Olivier his decision not to cast Leigh .

[Click here to watch Vivien Leigh during her screen test for Rebecca opposite Laurence Olivier (see also photo below). I think David Selznick was right! Leigh was indeed wrong for the role while Joan Fontaine, who was later cast, was the perfect second Mrs de Winter.]

August 18, 1939
Vivien Holman* 
Île de France 
New York Radio  
Dear Vivien: We have tried to sell ourselves right up until today to cast you in "Rebecca", but I regret necessity telling you we are finally convinced you are as wrong for role as role would be for you. You must realize it is this same patience, care, and stubbornness about accurate casting that resulted in putting you in most talked-of role of all time in what everyone who has seen it agrees is greatest picture ever made. It would have been very simple to cast Bette Davis as Scarlett, thereby satisfying millions of people including everyone in the profession. It would be much simpler to cast you, who are under contract to us, in "Rebecca" lead, and thereby have saved us all great deal of expense and agony searching for right girl. And even though you must be completely wrong casting, we might still have put you in it had we thought it was good for you, regardless of the picture. But I am positive you would be bitterly criticized and your career, which is now off to such tremendous start with Scarlett, materially damaged. Although Hitchcock feels even more strongly than I do on this question, I was still not satisfied and therefore ran the tests of all candidates for Robert Sherwood, who is working on script, without giving him any hint of our feelings. His first and immediate reaction was how completely wrong you were for it. Still not satisfied, I repeated the procedure with George Cukor, knowing his high regard for you, and George's first and immediate reaction was identical with Sherwood's. Am hopeful of having something soon for you that we will both be happy about, and also hopeful you will recognize that same care that has gone into "Wind" and "Rebecca" will go into selection and production of your future pictures, which is something I have no hesitancy in saying does not exist in many studios. Affectionately,
 [*Vivien Leigh was married to Herbert Leigh Holman whom she divorced in 1940. She and Olivier were married that same year.]
August 18, 1939
Laurence Olivier
Île de France
New York Radio
Dear Larry: Please see my wire to Vivien. I know you must be disappointed, but Vivien's anxiety to play role has, in my opinion, been largely, if not entirely, due to her desire to do a picture with you, which was best demonstrated by her complete disinterest in part when I first mentioned it to her as possibility and until she knew you were playing Maxim. You will, after all, both be working here, so I think her eagerness has become exaggerated and not rationalized. Because of my personal affection for Vivien and my high regard for you both, am hopeful you will recognize that my judgment has been fairly sound and successful in these matters for many years. Hopeful we will be able to find something for the two of you to do together for us at some future date. Script is coming along splendidly, and glad be able tell you Robert Sherwood is doing final dialogue rewrite. Believe we are assembling exciting cast including Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers, George Sanders as Favell, Reginald Denny as Frank, and Nigel Bruce as Giles. Possible may be able let you have day or two in New York if you want it and if you will contact us before leaving for coast. Cordially,
Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

Joan Fontaine received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of the second Mrs de Winter, but lost to Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle). Apart from Fontaine's nomination, Rebecca was nominated for ten more Oscars, eventually winning only two-- Best Picture (David Selznick) and Best Cinematography (George Barnes).