11 September 2019

I must face the fact that you are married to Clark ...

Clark Gable was no fan of David Selznick -- to put it mildly. Ever since they had worked together on Night Flight (1933), Gable did not like nor trusted Selznick and hated the producer's relentless perfectionism. (Due to Selznick's constant changes, production of Night Flight had run weeks over schedule causing Gable to miss one of his beloved fishing trips.) Although Gable wasn't eager to work with Selznick again after Night Flight, they made three more films together, i.e. Dancing Lady (1933), Manhattan Melodrama (1934) and of course the epic Gone With the Wind (1939).

1 September 2019

From the WWII battlefield to Donna Reed

During World War II, while being miles away from home, many American soldiers sent letters to their favourite actresses, asking them for pin-up photos and telling them about life on the war front. (It was during WWII that the term "pin-up" was coined, with soldiers literally pinning up photos on lockers and walls of barracks.) For the soldiers the pin-up actresses were a symbol of home, a reminder of what they were fighting for. For the actresses who posed for pin-up photos or wrote letters to lonely soldiers, it was a way to contribute to the war effort. The pin-ups were a huge morale booster for the troops, so it's no surprise that the creation and distribution of photos, magazines and calendars was encouraged by the US Army.

Probably the most famous pin-up actress during WWII was Betty Grable. Her now iconic photo (see left) was distributed to the troops in large numbers, five million copies having been provided by Grable's studio 20th-Century Fox. Other famous, sexy pin-up girls included Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Jane Russell. For a lot of soldiers, however, their favourite pin-up was not the sexy, sultry type but the type they'd most like to come home to. A farm girl from Iowa, Donna Reed belonged to the latter type. She was the girl next door who, according to biographer Jay Fultz, "probably came closer than any other actress to being the archetypal sweetheart, wife and mother".

27 August 2019

The Politics of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe's political flavour was decidedly left wing. Having grown up in poverty during the Great Depression, Marilyn always identified with the working class, feeling they were her kind of people. She was passionate about civil rights and a staunch defender of black equality. But while her views had always been left wing, Marilyn's political awareness only fully blossomed after she married playwright Arthur Miller in 1956. (Miller was a leftist too and particularly during their marriage, which ended in 1961, Marilyn often mixed with people who talked politics a lot.)

13 August 2019

Don't worry, everything will be Jake

John Barrymore fell instantly in love with Dolores Costello after she had been cast as his co-star in The Sea Beast (1926). Still married to his second wife Blanche Oelrichs, Barrymore started an affair with Costello which eventually led to their marriage in November 1928. Barrymore and Costello had two children, daughter Dolores in 1930 and son John Drew in 1932. (With Oelrichs Barrymore also had a daughter, Diana, born in 1921.)

By 1934, the marriage was in serious trouble, mainly because of Barrymore's excessive drinking. Barrymore, addicted to alcohol since the age of fourteen, had been drinking continuously for two years (according to Costello) and began to experience several alcohol-related health issues, both physical and mental. Afraid that his wife was going to declare him mentally incompetent, Barrymore left Los Angeles in the fall of 1934, travelling to England to work and afterwards spending time in India. He came back to the US at the end of January 1935, not returning to Costello in LA but settling in New York instead. There, a month later, Barrymore fell ill and was admitted to a hospital where he was visited by a 19-year-old fan, Elaine Jacobs. The two became friends and started a much-publicised relationship. Jacobs (later Barrie) eventually became Barrymore's fourth and last wife.

7 August 2019

This script would make a very good trailer

During her impressive career, Ginger Rogers had turned down many a role. Some of the parts she had refused were terrific parts, for example the female leads in His Girl Friday (1940), Ball Of Fire (1942), To Each His Own (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948). Ginger later admitted that she should have accepted these roles, but at the time she was waiting for something better to come along (the ultimate part that never came).

Ginger also rejected Bachelor Mother (1939). She hated the script and refused to do it, after which RKO production chief Pandro Berman suspended her without pay. Ginger eventually agreed to do the film, reluctantly. When the film was finished, she still didn't like it. Audiences, however, loved it and the film became a big hit, one of the biggest of Ginger's career.

Above: Ginger Rogers with Bachelor Mother's director Garson Kanin (middle) and Pandro Berman who suspended Ginger after she had refused to make the film. Below: Ginger and co-star David Niven in my favourite scene from Bachelor Mother.

27 July 2019

Praising "The Killers"

For his first independent production, Mark Hellinger paid $36,750 for the movie rights to The Killers, a short story written by Ernest Hemingway in 1927. The story is about two hit men who visit a local diner one night, searching for an ex-boxer aka "the Swede" whom they've been hired to kill. Nick Adams (generally regarded as Hemingway's alter ego) is in the diner and goes to the Swede to warn him, but the latter waits passively for the hit men to come and kill him. The whole plot of Hemingway's short story takes place in the opening sequence of the film — the first 15 minutes being a fairly faithful adaptation of the Hemingway story  while the rest of the film is original, explaining in flashbacks why the Swede was killed. Hellinger hired Anthony Veiller, John Huston and Richard Brooks to write the screenplay, the latter two giving uncredited contributions. (For the full plot, go here). 

(Left to right) Robert Siodmak, Burt Lancaster and Mark Hellinger are discussing the script of The Killers while office secretary Lois Regan is making notes on her typewriter.

23 July 2019

Deep feelings have never had adequate speech

I love letters that concern old Hollywood friendships. Here is a heartfelt letter from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Clifton Webb, written in September 1931. Webb had just visited Fairbanks and his wife Joan Crawford and Fairbanks eloquently thanks him, calling Webb's stay "a welcome rain after a long drought". Joan was a close friend of Webb's too and I've also included a letter from her to him written around the same year. 

Incidentally, Clifton Webb was very loved in Hollywood. He and his mother Mabelle regularly hosted parties visited by Hollywood's finest. Webb maintained close friendships with a number of Hollywood stars including Humphrey Bogart, a letter concerning theĆ­r friendship can be read here.

14 July 2019

James Cagney on "Yankee Doodle Dandy"

This summer the Filmoteca in Barcelona is offering a wonderful retrospective of Hollywood musicals, giving me the opportunity to see some of my personal favourites on the big screen (like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Band Wagon and Hello Dolly) as well as a number of new-to-me films, such as Yankee Doodle Dandy which I saw last week. 

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, is a very entertaining musical biopic about American  composer/ actor/ singer/ dancer/ producer George M. Cohan who in his time was known as "The man who owned Broadway". The role of Cohan is energetically played by James Cagney (who worked hard to master Cohan's typical stiff-legged dance style), a performance which earned him an Academy Award. Cohan was still alive when Yankee Doodle Dandy was made, but due to ill health he wasn't really involved in the making of the film. Before his death in November 1942, Cohan did see the final result, approving of both the film and Cagney's portrayal. 

4 July 2019

To My Lady Of Courage

Barbara Stanwyck maintained a correspondence with Vivian Cosby while the latter was recovering from a horrible accident that happened on New Year's Day 1939. Cosby, a Broadway playwright, had just started working in Hollywood when in her new home her dress caught fire from a heater, leaving her burned so badly that doctors thought she would not survive. Luckily Cosby lived, but it took several operations and several years to recuperate.

Barbara was one of the Hollywood celebrities who stood by Cosby during her fight for survival and recovery. Apart from visiting Cosby whenever she could, Barbara also wrote to her regularly, keeping Cosby up to date about the films she was making, her daily life etcetera. Barbara's letters were published in the November 1941 issue of the fan magazine Photoplay, of which several are shown below. 

28 June 2019

Elia Kazan and HUAC: I believe what I did was necessary and right

Despite being one of the great American directors, Elia Kazan will always be remembered for his damaging testimony before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on 10 April 1952, a testimony which would taint his reputation for the rest of his life. During his first testimony earlier that year in January, Kazan had refused to name the names of people who had been members of the Communist Party with him during the 1930s. In order to avoid being blacklisted, however, Kazan testified again a few months later, this time volunteering the names of eight of his old friends (including Clifford Odets and Paula Strasberg), thereby destroying careers.

Kazan decided to cooperate with HUAC so he could continue making films. While he was an established stage director and could have kept working if he had been blacklisted —the blacklist didn't have much effect on Broadway — he didn't want to focus on the stage any longer, wishing to make motion pictures instead. To his close friend, playwright Arthur Miller, Kazan said prior to his testimony: "I hate the Communists and have for many years and don't feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this".