14 November 2019

The Oscar thing has deteriorated into a sickening mess

This summer I saw My Fair Lady (1964) on the big screen for the first time which was an absolute joy. Rewatching the film, however, I still found it hard to believe that Audrey Hepburn wasn't even nominated for an Oscar for her delightful portrayal of Eliza Doolittle. The snub is one of the biggest nomination snubs of all time and I can imagine how devastated Audrey must have been.

Someone who was outraged by the Academy's failure to nominate Audrey was Deborah Kerr. Deborah was a friend of Audrey's and, according to Audrey biographer Barry Paris, one of the very few friends Audrey had in the film industry. Both women lived in Switzerland, not very far from each other. About her friendship with Audrey, Deborah said in later years: "To the world it may not have seemed that constant or deep an association, but we became very close even though we didn't see each other much. I couldn't say, 'She was my best friend in my whole life'. Yet in a way, perhaps she was.

7 November 2019

Censoring "The Great Gatsby" (1926)

In 1922, following the public outcry against immorality in Hollywood films and the scandals involving some of Hollywood's biggest stars, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was founded. The main goal of this new trade organisation, with former Postmaster General Will Hays at the helm, was to clean up the film industry's bad image. Also, the industry was worried about the increase of city and state censorship boards, fearing that federal censorship was not far away. In order to avoid outside meddling, the MPPDA eventually set up its own censorship guidelines in 1929 -- i.e. the Motion Picture Production Code, to be rigidly enforced from mid-1934 on.

Before Hollywood started censoring its own films, state and local censorship boards decided whether films were fit for screening or not. In 1907, the city of Chicago created the first censorship board in the U.S. and other city boards soon followed. State governments also began to follow suit, with the state of Virginia being the last of seven U.S. states to create its own censorship board in 1922. Because of their different censorship rules, these boards were a major headache to Hollywood -- what was acceptable in one city/state could be unacceptable in another, meaning that studios often had to issue multiple versions of the same film (costs being paid by the studios)

31 October 2019

You are one of the truly great young actors

In 1940, Laird Cregar portrayed Oscar Wilde on the stage to great acclaim, attracting the attention of 20th Century-Fox who signed him to a contract. Someone who was also enthusiastic about Cregar's stage performance was John Barrymore, an actor who had been Cregar's idol since childhood. In the fall of 1941, Cregar starred in another play, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and again Barrymore was excited about his performance. Barrymore was so impressed with the acting abilities of the young actor that he wrote Cregar a fan letter, calling him one of the most talented actors the stage had produced in years.

15 October 2019

80 Years of "Dark Victory": Spencer Tracy was born to play this part

Edmund Goulding's successful weepie Dark Victory is one of the many great films from 1939 celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. In a nutshell, the film is about a young, spoiled socialite who is terminally ill and falls in love with her doctor. Bette Davis stars as the socialite Judith Traherne, a role originally played by Tallulah Bankhead on the stage. (The original play Dark Victorywritten by George Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch, only had a short run on Broadway in 1934.)

11 October 2019

Book Review: Letters from Hollywood

Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking is a gem of a book. Compiled and edited by author/producer Rocky Lang and film historian/archivist Barbara Hall, this beautiful-looking hardcover volume contains 137 pieces of classic Hollywood correspondence (letters, notes and telegrams), spanning five decades from the early 1920s through the 1970s. The correspondence not only comes from famous Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo or Joan Crawford, but also from people less known to the general public yet important to Hollywood history, e.g. Irving Thalberg, Will Hays and Joseph Breen. (And there are also letter writers and recipients I had never heard of, among them screenwriters and agents.) Introducing the letters, authors Lang and Hall provide ample background information so the reader understands the context in which they were written.

Below: Rocky Lang grew up in the film business having agent-turned-producer Jennings Lang and singer/actress Monica Lewis as parents (here they are photographed in 1968). When a letter from his father to agent H.N. Swanson was discovered, Rocky got the idea for Letters from Hollywood and also included his father's letter in the book.

4 October 2019

The hottest tip I've got is a damn cold one

When filming on location, weather conditions are not always favourable. Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961) -- an epic film about the Spanish hero Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, aka El Cid, who freed Spain from the Moors in the 11th Century -- was almost entirely filmed on location in Spain. Charlton Heston, who played the titular role, found the weather in the Spanish mountains unbearably cold and complained about it in a letter to Mike Connolly, journalist for the Hollywood Reporter (seen below). Heston said he was not the only one suffering from the cold; his leading lady Sophia Loren suffered as well as did the horses and two extras even passed out due to the cold. Fortunately for Heston and the others, their next shooting location would be the Comunidad Valenciana where the weather was considerably warmer.

Incidentally, the mountain scenes were shot in the Guadarrama Mountains in the autonomous region of Castilla y León, which borders Extremadura where the ice cold weather supposedly came from. Several other locations in Castilla y León were also used, as well as locations in other regions such as Comunidad Valenciana, Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid. Studio scenes were filmed in the city of Madrid and Rome.

Above and below: Charlton Heston,  Sophia Loren and director Anthony Mann on the set of El Cid.

25 September 2019

Darling Merle

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon couldn't stand each other while making William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939). Although they had gotten along during production of the comedy The Divorce of Lady X (1938)their working relationship on Wuthering Heights was far from pleasant. Olivier had lobbied to get his then-lover and wife-to-be Vivien Leigh cast in the role of Cathy but producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted Oberon. (The supporting role of Isabella was offered to Leigh but she refused.) Olivier was unimpressed with Oberon's acting abilities and is said to have called her "an amateur", feeling that Leigh would have made a much better Cathy. Oberon, in turn, wasn't happy with Olivier either. During a kissing scene she accused him of spitting on her. When Olivier retorted "What's a little spit for Chrissake between actors? You bloody little idiot, how dare you speak to me..."Oberon fled the set crying and director Wyler made Olivier apologise to her.

Above: Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Below: Vivien Leigh visits Olivier and Oberon on the set of Wuthering Heights.

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".

Donna Reed's wholesome, ordinary girl image prompted many a soldier to write to her and confide in her, as if they were writing to a girl back home. After Reed's death in 1986, it came to light that she had kept about 350 letters from soldiers, secretly hidden in a shoebox. Reed's daughter Mary Owen, who made the letters public, said that her mother had never mentioned them. Still, they must have made an impact on young Donna, who was only 20 years old when America entered the war, about the same age as the majority of the soldiers.

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.)