11 September 2021

You should face the fact that he has no talent

In 1952, Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini approached Rebecca West, British author and literary critic, to write the dialogue for his next film, to be based on Colette's novel Duo. West then travelled to Italy to meet with Rossellini and his wife Ingrid Bergman who was to be the female star of the film. Meeting Rossellini, West found the director "a show-off, very gabby, ignorant and pretentious" and thought that his idea for the screenplay was "not enough to make a good film". (As Rossellini had not been able to purchase the rights to Colette's novel, he had presented her with a plot line that was quite different from the book.) Also unimpressed with Rossellini's previous film Europe '51 (1952), West eventually declined the assignment and went back home.

Above and below: Rebecca West and Ingrid Bergman at the Women's National Press Club in April 1948.


Returning home from her disappointing Italian trip, West received a letter from Ingrid Bergman who apologised for the failure of their joint project. The letter shown below is not Bergman's letter, though, but West's brutally honest reply ("an extraordinary letter", as she herself called it, unlike anything she had ever written).

Incidentally, although West felt Bergman had "great talent and a great personality", she once made some derogatory remarks about the actress, saying that she was "common and mannerless" and that —after West's husband had told her that Ingrid's mother came from Hamburg, Germany— "she might well be a housemaid in a big Hamburg hotel".


10 March 1953

Dear Miss Bergman,

Thank you very much for your letter, which I am going to answer honestly. My feelings were not in the least hurt by the abandonment of what was for both of us a trial trip. But I was distressed by the whole incident, from your point of view. I had been asked to write the dialogue of a film which was being founded on an important novel, Duo, by an important writer, Colette.

Instead I was faced with a ridiculous idea, incapable of development in any way not likely to be prejudicial to your reputation.

You may love your husband very much, but you should face the fact that he has no talent. You have great talent and a great personality, and it is absurd that for the sake of your private emotions you should allow these gifts to be wasted in a film like Europe 1951, which is so inept that even your performance, which excites admiration by itself, cannot save it.

You will not believe this when you read it, and you will think me an odious woman. But when your husband has made two more films for you, you remember this letter, and think about putting yourself in the hands of a competent director.

I never wrote such an extraordinary letter as this in my life. But I have also never seen such an extraordinary situation as the wreck of your artistic life.

With all good wishes,

I am, 

Yours sincerely,

Rebecca West  

[Source: Selected Letters of Rebecca West, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott (2000)] 

 

The film that Rossellini eventually made without West's help was Journey to Italy (1954), starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as an estranged married couple vacationing in Italy. While both a box-office and critical flop upon release, the film is now regarded by many as Rossellini's masterpiece and according to director Martin Scorsese "one of the most honest portraits of a marriage ever put on film". Loosely based on Colette's novel Duo, the screenplay was written by Rossellini and Vitaliano Brancati.

George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman as Alex and Katherine Joyce in a scene from Journey to Italy aka Viaggio in Italia or Voyage to Italy.
Roberto Rossellini on the set of Europe '51 with Ingrid Bergman and another cast member. Rossellini and Bergman worked together six times — on Stromboli (1950), Europe '51 (1952), We, the Women (1953), Journey to Italy (1954), Fear (1954) and Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954). 

19 August 2021

I'm sorry to have to tell you I'm hopelessly normal

By the summer of 1950, Judy Garland was overworked, dependent on pills and had already suffered a few nervous breakdowns. Her marriage to director Vincente Minelli was in serious trouble and would ultimately end in divorce in 1951. Despite having completed successful films like Easter Parade (1948) and In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Judy was largely discussed in the press in connection with her failures. She had been fired from The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Royal Wedding (1950) —due to her showing up late to the set and at times not showing up at all— to be eventually replaced by resp. Ginger Rogers, Betty Hutton and Jane Powell.

When the movie fan magazine Motion Picture announced in its June 1950 issue that Judy's film career was over, this not only evoked many reactions from her fans but also from the actress herself. Tired of all the negative gossip and the incorrect assumption that she was quitting films, Judy sent a letter to Motion Picture editor Maxwell Hamilton, assuring him that everything was okay and that soon she was to star as Julie in Show Boat. Judy's letter was published in Motion Picture in September 1950, the same month she and MGM parted ways after fifteen years. Of course the role of Julie LaVerne in Show Boat (1951) eventually went to Ava Gardner.

While her film career wasn't over, from then on Judy would only make a handful of films, most notably A Star Is Born (1954) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Sadly her problems continued and a barbiturate overdose ultimately led to her untimely death (at age 47) on 22 June 1969.

Judy Garland in New York, September 1950
__________


This is the introductory text to Judy Garland's letter in Motion Picture (it's obvious that the magazine already considered Judy a has-been star), followed by the letter itself. 

In the June issue of Motion Picture, we published some pretty ugly, but well-founded, rumors about Judy Garland, to the effect that she would never make another picture. Judy denied our story and, on her own behalf, wrote us the letter printed on these pages, a letter we felt —and we told Judy so— was one of the frankest, most honest we've ever received from a star. Then, on June 20th, came the shocking news that Judy had attempted to take her life. We still think you'll want to read this dramatic letter, written, as we know it must have been, while Judy was under the strongest of emotional strains. For, to us, it paints a vivid picture of Judy Garland, the one picture which perhaps shows Judy as the truly beloved star she certainly has been. 

Via: The Judy Garland Experience (via twitter)
Original source: Motion Picture, September 1950

Summer Stock (1950), co-starring Gene Kelly, was Judy's final film for MGM. While it was a difficult shoot because of Judy's personal problems, the film contains one of the best musical numbers she ever performed on film, Get Happy.


29 July 2021

Our system must be an ideal one

During the 1920s, Darryl F. Zanuck worked as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers before becoming head of production in 1931. Around the same time Edward G. Robinson, one of Warners' contract players, was having his big breakthrough with Little Caesar (1931) and eventually became one of the studio's biggest stars. Growing increasingly unhappy with the scripts that were submitted to him, Robinson wrote to Zanuck in the fall of 1932, uttering his grievances. Unfortunately I don't have Robinson's letter to show you, but Zanuck's reply —in which he told Robinson that he had nothing to complain about and to just have faith in "the system"— can be read below. 

Mr. Edward G. Robinson
Essex House
New York, N.Y.

October 26, 1932

Dear Eddie:

To start with the last paragraph of your letter first and then go backward, you accuse me of not submitting to you some of the pictures that we have made recently with other people which have turned out to be outstanding hits, and you state that you are certain that anyone of them would have been acceptable to you.

In the first place, you have no complaint as you have received absolutely nothing but the best in stories and, in the second place, you have repeatedly rejected stories that later turned out to be successful pictures...

As I see it, Eddie, the whole fault lies in the fact that you want to be a writer. By this I mean that you want to put your views into whatever subject we purchase rather than to accept the views of the men I engage here who are specialists at a high salary in this specific work.

When I submit you a Grand Slam [1933], you say we have taken the wrong slant on the story —the idea is good but it should be something else. When I submit you a Lawyer Man [1933] or an Employees' Entrance [1933], you say the same thing.

By the way, Lawyer Man is the best picture [William] Powell has ever made and it would have been a perfect vehicle for you. It will be previewed in a week or so and I will send you the preview notices.

I have always wanted and asked for your suggestions and the suggestions of every star, as to story, etc., and those suggestions you made as to dialogue, etc., have, to my knowledge, for the most part been very effective and certainly appreciated by me.

The point I am trying to make is that when we submit a Lawyer Man or whatever it happens to be, you must have some faith in us. After all, our record of successes and box-office hits places us as the A-Company in the industry today, recognized thus everywhere. Our system, therefore, must be an ideal one. You can't make a lot of hits with a lot of different directors and a lot of different stars and some of them with no stars at all unless "the system" is a perfect one as, in our studio, it isn't just a case of one director or one star continually making a hit and the other ones flopping. This should be the greatest assurance in the world to you that our judgment is more or less correct, especially on the selection of stories and if I were in your shoes, I would be greatly guided by this "system."
After all, our sole interest is getting great pictures out of anything we select and we will accept anybody's ideas or suggestions, but the treatment of the subject in script form should be left largely to the judgment and intelligence of our "system", at least until the day comes —if it ever does— when our flops are more numerous than our hits ...

Sincerely,

Darryl Zanuck

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

Edward G. Robinson in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1931), the gangster film that made him a star.

19 July 2021

The Short-Lived History Of Oscar Write-Ins

For two years in Oscar history —in 1935 and 1936— the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed its members to vote for anyone they chose, even when that person was not officially nominated. Reason for the Academy to permit these write-in votes was the public outrage that occurred over the snub of Bette Davis' performance in RKO's Of Human Bondage (1934). Bette's powerful and daring portrayal of the coarse waitress Mildred was unanimously praised by critics, audiences and Hollywood celebs alike, with Life magazine even calling it "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress". The fact that Bette wasn't among the Best Actress nominees led to a huge uproar and a write-in campaign followed to have her nominated anyway. (Even Norma Shearer who herself was nominated for The Barretts of Wimpole Street supported the campaign.)

Among the general public there were many people shocked by the omission of Bette from the list of Oscar nominees. A man named James Fitzgerald sent this letter to the movie fan magazine Movie Classic, showing his indignation and calling on others to also make themselves heard.
 
Source: Movie Classic via archive.org
__________


In order to put an end to all the criticism, several days after the announcement of the nominations the Academy decided to change the rules and issued a statement: "Despite the fact that the criticism fails to take into consideration that the nominations have been made by the unrestricted votes of each branch, the awards committee has decided upon a change in the rules to permit unrestricted selection of any voter, who may write on the ballot his personal choice for the winner." Bette Davis became the only write-in nominee that year but eventually lost to Claudette Colbert for her performance in It Happened One Night. When Bette did win the next year for her role in Dangerous, she called the Oscar her consolation prize for losing out with Of Human Bondage.



The next year, write-in votes were again allowed and there was one studio that decided to go all in. Studio boss Jack Warner encouraged all Academy members among his employees to submit write-ins for Warner Bros. films. This resulted in unofficial nominations in seven different categories, including Michael Curtiz for Best Director in Captain Blood and Paul Muni for Best Actor in Black Fury (Warners being the only studio that year with write-in nominees). Warners' active campaigning eventually paid off when the unofficially nominated Hal Mohr (see photo) took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Technical issues of write-in voting aside, the Academy realised that this kind of voting was not the way to go, seeing how easy it was for studios to manipulate the system and win Oscars. (It was later revealed that write-in nominees Muni and Curtiz had come close to beating the eventual winners Victor McLaglen and John Ford, who both won for The Informer.) 

Write-in voting was thus abandoned a year later and Hal Mohr remains the only write-in winner in Oscar history.

4 July 2021

Please keep me posted on all the news

After their church wedding on 19 April 1956, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier immediately left on their honeymoon, a seven-week Mediterranean cruise on Rainier's yacht Deo Juvante II. The newlyweds went ashore in Spain, among others visiting the island of Mallorca (where they attended a bullfight) and the cities of Madrid and Valencia. A few days after returning to Monaco, Grace wrote a letter to her friend and MGM publicist Morgan Hudgins, in which she commented on her honeymoon in Spain and meeting some of her Hollywood friends there (Cary Grant and his wife Betsy Drake as well as Ava Gardner and Ava's then-husband Frank Sinatra). Her departure from Hollywood still very fresh, Grace was of course quite anxious to hear all the news and urged Hudgins to keep her in the loop, especially regarding the critical reception of her two last films The Swan (1956) and High Society (1956). 

Grace's letter to Morgan Hudgins, in which she also worries about the press reactions to the wedding, is seen below. Incidentally, I don't know who "Nadia" is but I assume she was an assistant to Grace.  




Transcript:

Saturday 

Dear Morgan

We arrived back on Thursday after a very wonderful honeymoon – Spain was so nice and we thoroughly enjoyed it – Saw Betsy + Cary Grant and Ava in Madrid – Ran into Frank briefly in a restaurant and I don't think he likes Spain very much – But the others all seem well and happy – 

Your records arrived yesterday and we are thrilled to have them as it is impossible to get them here – many many thanks – 

What a pity to hear of all the bad luck on those two big pictures – and I am very sorry to learn of Louis Calhern’s death*– 

And Monty Cliff [sic] who hasn’t worked in such a long time the moment he starts something happens*

Sydney is here and is coming for tea with me this afternoon –  so I will get some more news from him –

Morgan I can't thank you enough for all you did for me through a very trying period – You were just wonderful – 

Please send me any reviews of The Swan +  High Society as I would love to see them – am delighted that the previews went so well – 

I still don’t know how the press was reacting during the week of the wedding – Do you think it was alright – and was anyone in particular offended? 

I learned on our return that Nadia intends to write a book – Which came as a great shock to me since she never mentioned a thing to me – I am not surprised really as she was such a disappointment to me when I really needed her – She was too busy minding other people’s business + having a good time to do anything I asked her – I guess she just felt as she was leaving me anyway so why bother? – But I was very hurt + disturbed by her attitude in N.Y. + on the boat –

Give my best to everyone + please keep me posted on all the news –

Affectionately
Grace –

*Note
On 12 May 1956, Louis Calhern (Grace's High Society co-star) suddenly died of a heart attack at age 61. On the same day, Montgomery Clift had a near-fatal accident after his car crashed into a telephone pole. At the time Clift was filming  Raintree County (1957), his first film after From Here to Eternity (1953).

Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier boarding the Deo Juvante II for their honeymoon



Grace photographed by her new husband aboard the yacht




Grace talking to the press with Morgan Hudgins on the left

27 June 2021

Let him look a little swashbuckling, for Christ sakes!

Inspired by the box-office successes of MGM's Treasure Island (1934) and United Artists' The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), Warner Brothers made its own swashbuckler film in 1935— Captain Blood, directed by Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz. Based on the 1922 novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood tells the story of Doctor Peter Blood who, after being wrongly convicted of treason and being sold as a slave, escapes with his fellow slaves and eventually becomes the most feared pirate of the Caribbean. (For a full synopsis, go here.)

Finding the right actor to play Peter Blood proved to be a difficult task. While Robert Donat was signed to play Blood in December 1934, due to ill health (asthma) he eventually bowed out. Clark Gable and Ronald Colman were considered for the role but they had to be borrowed from MGM, so studio boss Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis decided to let them go. Other candidates were Fredric March, Leslie Howard, Brian Aherne, George Brent and Ian Hunter — all experienced actors who were ultimately uninterested or unsuited. And then there was also Australian newcomer Errol Flynn, who had previously played in an Australian film In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) and done bit parts in The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) and Don't Bet on Blondes (1935). By July 1935, after many months of casting, Warners still had no Peter Blood and eventually decided to take a chance on the inexperienced, 26-year-old Flynn (a considerable risk since Captain Blood was a big-budget project). On 8 July, Jack Warner wrote to studio executive Irving Asher, seemingly confident about their choice:"[I] am sure Flynn will come through with flying colors. His tests are marvelous. If he has anything at all on the ball he will surely come out in this picture and go to great heights. If he hasn't it will be one of those things, but we will do all in our power to put Flynn over in grand style."

In the end, Warners' gamble paid off. Captain Blood became a huge box-office hit and its leads Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, who had been cast in favour of Jean Muir, became overnight stars. Having rewatched Captain Blood for this post —I had not seen the film in ages— I can only say that it was as great an adventure as I remembered. Errol is fantastic as the swashbuckling hero, brimming with infectious energy, and Olivia —very young (only 19) and radiantly beautiful— is perfect as his leading lady. With their chemistry jumping off the screen, it seems only natural that they would go on to make another seven movies together. 

Above, from left to right: Jack Warner, Michael Curtiz and Hal Wallis. Below: Errol Flynn with Curtiz on the set of Captain Blood. Giving the inexperienced Flynn a hard time, Curtiz was told by Wallis to "work with the boy a little" and not crush his confidence ("... the fellow looks like he is scared to death every time he goes into a scene.")

While Captain Blood turned out to be a big success, the shooting of the film was an often frustrating experience for Hal Wallis. After Darryl Zanuck left the studio in 1933 due to a salary dispute with Jack Warner, Wallis had taken over from Zanuck as head of production and Captain Blood was his most important project thus far. With so much at stake —the film had a budget of one million dollars — Wallis was determined to make it a success. His collaboration with director Michael Curtiz, however, was not without problems. Curtiz, who was a personal friend of Wallis, was someone who liked to do things his own way. Wallis, in turn, wanted to control every aspect of the production and throughout filming kept bombarding Curtiz with memos, demanding all kinds of changes and also giving advice to Curtiz on how to direct the cast (especially how to handle an insecure Flynn). 

Here are two of the many memos from Wallis to Curtiz, both written after Wallis had watched the daily rushes, clearly feeling exasperated and frustrated by what he'd seen. Much to the producer's annoyance, Curtiz simply ignored his memos and continued to direct the film in his own way. (Despite their professional differences, Wallis held Curtiz in high esteem and would later call him his "favorite director, then and always".)

 

TO: Curtiz
FROM: Wallis

DATE: August 28, 1935
SUBJECT: "Captain Blood"

I am looking at your dailies, and, while the stuff is very nice, you got a very short day's work. I suppose this was due to bad weather.

However, I don't understand what you can be thinking about at times. That scene in the bedroom, between Captain Blood and the governor, had one punch line in it; the line from Blood: "I'll have you well by tonight, if I have to bleed you to death," or something along these lines, anyhow. This is the one punch line to get over that Blood had to get out of there by midnight, even if he had to kill the governor, and instead of playing that in a close-up —a big head close-up— and getting over the reaction of Errol Flynn, and what he is trying to convey, and the crafty look in his eye, you play it in a long shot, so that you can get the composition of a candle-stick and a wine bottle on a table in the foreground, which I don't give a damn about.

Please don't forget that the most important thing you have to do is to get the story on the screen, and I don't care if you play it in front of BLACK VELVET! Just so you tell the story; because, if you don't have a story, all of the composition shots and all the candles in the world aren't going to make you a good picture. ...

Hal Wallis 

Despite Wallis' memo, Curtiz didn't go for a close-up and kept the candlestick and the wine decanter in the shot.

__________


TO: Curtiz

FROM: Wallis

DATE: September 30, 1935

SUBJECT: "Captain Blood"

I have talked to you about four thousand times, until I am blue in the face, about the wardrobe in this picture. I also sat up here with you one night, and with everybody else connected with the company, and we discussed each costume in detail, and also discussed the fact that when the men get to be pirates that we would not have "Blood" dressed up. 

Yet tonight, in the dailies, in the division of the spoil sequence, here is Captain Blood with a nice velvet coat, with lace cuffs out of the bottom, with a nice lace stock collar, and just dressed exactly opposite to what I asked you to do.

I distinctly remember telling you, I don't know how many times, that I did not want you to use lace collars or cuffs on Errol Flynn. What in the hell is the matter with you, and why do you insist on crossing me on everything that I ask you not to do? What do I have to do to get you to do things my way? I want the man to look like a pirate, not a molly-coddle. ... 

I suppose that when he goes into the battle with the pirates (the French) at the finish, you'll probably be having him wear a high silk hat and spats. 

When the man divided the spoils you should have had him in a shirt with the collar open at the throat, and no coat on at all. Let him look a little swashbuckling, for Christ sakes! Don't always have him dressed up like a pansy! I don't know how many times we've talked this over. ... 

I hope that by the time we get into the last week of shooting this picture, that everybody will be organized and get things right. It certainly is about time.

Hal Wallis 

Director Mike Curtiz ignored Hal Wallis' pleas not to use lace collars or cuffs on Errol Flynn, as can be seen in the photos above and below. Above Flynn is pictured with Henry Stephenson and Olivia de Havilland and below he is shown dividing the loot, as mentioned in Wallis' letter. 
Source of both memos: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

This post is my contribution to the THE 2021 SWASHBUCKLATHON, hosted by SILVER SCREEN CLASSICS. For more swashbuckling entries, go here.

13 June 2021

God Bless, Charlie Brown

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow met in 1964 when he was 49 years old and she 19. Sinatra immediately fell for Farrow and later reportedly said: "I was hers, instantly. I loved that hair, man. I think the hair's what got me." (Farrow would later cut her hair and while it was said she had done it to spite Sinatra, in her book What Falls Away: A Memoir (1997) she denied this and said that Sinatra loved her pixie cut the minute he saw it.)

The couple got married on 19 July 1966, each wanting different things out of married life. Sinatra wanted Farrow to give up acting and be a housewife while she wanted to be an actress, refusing to give up her career for him. In 1967, Farrow accepted the leading role in Rosemary's Baby (1968), Roman Polanski's horror film, which would ultimately lead to the couple's divorce. Since production of the film got delayed by several weeks, Farrow wasn't available to co-star with her husband in his next film The Detective (1968) which she had agreed to do with him. Sinatra demanded that she drop Rosemary's Baby but she refused and insisted on finishing it. A furious Sinatra then served her with the divorce papers on the set of Rosemary's Baby in November 1967. Unable to overcome their differences —according to Farrow the age difference was the main reason for their breakup— the two eventually divorced in August 1968.

After their divorce, Sinatra stayed friends with Farrow, like he had with his other ex-wives Nancy Barbato and Ava Gardner. (He married Barbara Marx in 1976, his last wife until his death in 1998.) Farrow said in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2013 that they "never really split up", calling Sinatra the love of her life and saying that her son Ronan (thought to be Woody Allen's son) was "possibly" Sinatra's. Several people close to Sinatra have denied the implication made by Farrow, including Sinatra's daughter Tina (stating her father had a vasectomy in 1968) and Sinatra's close friend Tony Oppedisano who addresses the subject in his recently published book Sinatra and Me: In the Wee Small Hours.

At any rate, until his death Sinatra remained close to Farrow, at times writing her letters which showed his continuous affection for her. A few of these letters can be seen below, the latter two written after the divorce. The first note (on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines stationery) was penned by Sinatra in July 1966 from London, just before he married Farrow later that month in Las Vegas.

Incidentally, Sinatra used to call Farrow "Angel Face" and she nicknamed him "Charlie Brown".


Transcript:

Angel Face —

The moment I discovered you I became a tower of contentment and happiness, and Christopher Columbus became a bum. 
I adore you
Francis
alias 
Charles Brown

love to Samantha
[sketch]

(on envelope) ONE GUESS!








Transcript:

Wednesday
May 1st [1974?]

Good morning darling,

It's very early here, and I'm on my way to Washington to meet with the vice-president for a couple of days. Will be back in N.Y. Friday.

I'm fairly well these days except for being terribly lonely. I miss you a great deal. Please look after yourself and stay well.

I love you I love you
C.B.

P.S. The snapshot is to make you smile. [snapshot of a cute little dog]

Source: Vanity Fair








6 June 2021

"Coco": I cannot see anyone but you in the part

In 1969, after an absence of seventeen years, Katharine Hepburn returned to Broadway to perform in Coco, her only musical in a long and impressive career. The musical was written by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and André Previn (music) and was based on the life of French fashion designer Coco Chanel, focusing on the 1950s when Chanel came out of retirement after fifteen years. Initially Hepburn, who couldn't really sing, wasn't eager to play the role, but after weeks of vocal lessons with MGM vocal coach Roger Edens and after meeting Chanel she decided to accept. (When she heard herself later on the cast album, she famously quipped: "I sound like Donald Duck".)

Coco
opened on 18 December 1969 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre where it ran for 329 performances. After eight months Hepburn's contract ended and she was replaced by Danielle Darrieux. With no major star to attract audiences and the show garnering poor reviews, Coco with Darrieux closed after only two months. The original Broadway production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning in two categories, i.e. for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (René Auberjonois) and Best Costume Design (Cecil Beaton). Hepburn was also nominated but lost to Lauren Bacall in Applause.

Following her Broadway run, Hepburn went on a national tour with Coco from January through June 1971 and, despite mediocre reviews, the show was sold out everywhere. Although Coco was a big success financially, Paramount Pictures, who had put up the money for the original Broadway production (a then record amount of $900,000), decided not to turn it into a film. 

At age 62, Katharine Hepburn in Coco (above and below). When Chanel learned that Miss Hepburn was going to play her she was very pleased, assuming it was Audrey and not Katharine. She thought that the musical was going to focus on her younger years, as initially agreed upon, but Alan Lerner later decided to tell the story of Chanel as an older woman.

The man behind the Coco project was producer Frederick Brisson. Brisson had bought the rights to Chanel's life story in the early 1960's and originally intended the musical as a vehicle for his wife Rosalind Russell. Russell —previously successful on Broadway with the musical Wonderful Town (1953-1954) for which she won a Tony Award, and Auntie Mame (1956-1958) for which she was nominated— was quite eager to return to Broadway and desperately wanted the role. But while Lerner and Previn had started to write their material with Russell in mind, they gradually became convinced she was all wrong for it. They told Brisson how they felt, who naturally told his wife. Trying to hold on to the role that was meant for her, Russell next gave an interview to the press saying she had already been cast as Coco. When the announcement appeared in the New York Times on 27 September 1967, Lerner was outraged — blaming Brisson rather than Russell— and urged Roz to announce her withdrawal from the project, "for a reason to be mutually agreed upon"*. 

*Several sources claim that Roz withdrew from Coco because she had developed acute arthritis. According to her autobiography Life is a Banquet (1977), however, it wasn't until 1969 that she started to develop arthritic symptoms. So the reason for her withdrawal that was communicated to the press in late 1967 must have been a different one, although I couldn't find what it was. 

Rosalind Russell and husband Frederick Brisson who were married from 1941 until Roz's death in 1976 (above) and Katharine Hepburn flanked by Brisson and Alan Jay Lerner (below). Lerner is probably best remembered for his collaboration with composer Frederick Loewe on such musicals as Brigadoon, My Fair Lady and Gigi.

Seen below are two letters written by Alan Jay Lerner regarding the casting of Coco. In the first letter to Frederick Brisson, dated 13 September 1967, Lerner said that while he initially had doubts about Roz Russell playing Chanel, he was now "unalterably opposed" to it (as was Previn) and also explained why. Convinced that Katharine Hepburn would be the perfect Coco, Lerner wrote Hepburn an impassioned letter four days later, trying to persuade her to accept the part ("... never in my entire professional life have I ever wanted anyone to play any role in anything I have ever written as much as I want you to play Coco."). Probably that same month Hepburn agreed to consider the role.

 

September 13, 1967

Dear Freddy, 

Contrary to previous information as you can see I am still in London. I had a marvelous ten days work with André and all the melodies are now completed, including the verses. We may have to add one small interlude but that remains to be seen. In any case, it would only be a short afternoon's work for André.

Not only that, but at long last the book is finished to my satisfaction and you should have a copy in your hands by the time you receive this letter. It is still long in the beginning and I don't mean to imply that I have finished work on it, but for the first time there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and the play at least has an architecture. I hope you will agree.

If you do agree then I think you will also feel as André and I do that —as I have been fearing for many months— this is definitely not for Roz and Roz is definitely not for it. I am totally, irrefutably convinced that each would do the other a great injustice. Her special warmth and ingenuousness that shine through her talent and make it unique would, if called upon as it is now written, give the play a softness which would destroy the whole fabric of it. To ask her to bury it completely would be like hiring Merman and asking her not to sing. What the part requires is a certain emotional brittleness; it is a quality someone either has or has not. It cannot be assumed. That particular kind of cracking along on top of the feelings if it isn't natural emotionally and stylistically comes out at best, hard and at worst, heartless. It is the kind of role that is very much in the vernacular of two or three of the leading British actresses and Katharine Hepburn. As for the musical portion, the gay, uninhibited, irresistible zest that Roz uses instead of a voice would be so out of character that she and the songs would be fighting each other all the way with each winding up the loser, not to mention the play. I know we have discussed this before. I know you have been aware of my doubts. Those doubts no longer exist. I now find myself unalterably opposed.

I wish with all my heart I could explain this to Roz myself because aside from my own personal feelings for her, I have very deep respect for her as an artist, and I would be bereft if she in any way misunderstood. I frankly believe she is too intelligent an actress, as well as person, not to see this herself upon reading the play. I am more than certain she would turn it down anyhow. If, by any chance, she sees the role differently than it is, I will do anything to make my position clear to her. (I have been saying "I" when I should have been saying "we" because André is equally as definite as I about her not playing the role. Actually, after reading this draft he called me up and the first thing he said was: "I love it, but this is certainly nothing for Roz.")

It is such a relief to get the thing off my back that I am going to stay over until next week and relax a bit. I will stay here until Friday and then go to Paris until about Wednesday, then home. I will be at the Plaza. I have not been in touch with anybody here because I think we must first cast the part. Obviously, the star will have a say and I don't want to go off half-cocked again. I will call you the instant I am in New York and if you would like me to go see Roz, wherever she is, I will of course do so.

I hope you are happy with the script. I look forward to seeing you as soon as possible. Be sure not to give any love to Jack Warner and Arthur Jacobs but keep it all for the Brisson family.


Always, 
Alan
__________


September 17, 1967

Dear Miss Hepburn: 

I have been trying to leave you alone until I get back this week but today is Sunday and I have no "hommes d'affaires" to see and I never visit the French in the country because the men wear neckties and everybody stays indoors and so I've been working on the lyric for "Always Mademoiselle." (André did the music while I was in London. I think you'll like it. It's in the "My Man" genre but the melody is stronger and no self-pity. There will be none of the latter in the lyric either.) And so because I have been working on something that I fervently hope will be for you, writing you has become irresistible. 

First of all, I must tell you that our paths have been crossing all week. Monday, I saw Anatole Litvak in Claridge's and we had a bite together. He told me that he had been working on a script for Peter O'Toole called "The Ski-Bum" and that it was not developing well and that it would probably be abandoned. The next day I heard that "Lion in Winter" may be moved forward because Peter O'Toole had suddenly become free. Friday evening I arrived in Paris and as I walked into the hotel, the very first person I saw was Terrence [sic] Young. Short chat and, unsolicited, he informed me he suddenly had two pictures at the same time: "Mayerling" and "Lion in Winter" because "Lion" was going sooner than expected. Period. The night before I left London, I ran into Sam Spiegel who fixed his misty blue eyes on me and said "Did you get her?" "Get whom?" said I. He answered with an all-knowing wink, murmured something in classic Estonian in which your name was prominently placed, and disappeared into the night.

Needless to say, any sort of unexpected prompting was hardly necessary to bring you to mind. For the past few weeks my thoughts have not been elsewhere. And since last Monday night I have been elated into orbit. I couldn't possible have made you know on the phone the length, breadth and height of my enthusiasm. Probably, not even face to face either. Unfortunately, enthusiasm in our profession has been so squandered by pitchmen and barkers that by now it rings with the hollow sound of insincerity. However, to me it's still precious stuff and I have never used it either to hoodwink others or myself. So I feel I am entitled to ask you to take mine seriously; and to believe me when I tell you that never in my entire professional life have I ever wanted anyone to play any role in anything I have ever written as much as I want you to play Coco. If you allow me, I will prove it to you by doing anything and everything within the bounds of artistic, legal, economic and social reason to make it possible for you to do it conveniently, happily and comfortably.

Because I cannot see anyone but you in the part, I feel I ought to acquaint you with a few of the facts concerning the origin and history of the play to date. The idea was brought to me seven years ago by Freddie Brisson, who is, as you know, producing it. (Actually, we are co-producers but I don't wish to be so-billed.) André and I began working on it roughly a year ago May. It began as a possible venture for Roz. Sometime around late March or early April it became patently clear to André and me that it was not developing into a Roz Russell vehicle. I had a meeting with Freddie and told him. He was most understanding, but suggested withholding the final decision till the play was finished. By June André's and my feeling had hardened into a firm conviction that it never would be or could be a part for Roz and at a meeting with Freddie suggested we begin looking elsewhere. I returned to Long Island to continue work and André and I made a date to meet in London in September, where he would be conducting, to complete the score.

I did not tell Freddie or anyone outside of your intimate circle that I was sending you the script nor shall I until after I have seen you on the coast. I'm sorry that has been delayed a few days. (I have a house here I'm trying to sell that is all entangled in French black tape — red is out this season.) I will be back in New York on Friday and I will call you the instant I set foot in the New World. If you can see me, I'll come right to the coast or anywhere you are.

Please give my love to Gar[son Kanin], Ruth [Gordon] and George [Cukor] and I hope and pray I will soon know you well enough to send you the same and not have to remain

Only sincerely yours,

Alan 

(from left to right) Kate Hepburn in Coco, the real Coco, and Roz Russell in the 1956 Broadway production of Auntie Mame.

__________

Coco wouldn't go into rehearsal until October 1969. After Hepburn had been cast —the announcement to the press was made in mid-December 1967— the next two years she would often clash with Lerner about the show. Eventually, however, the two became good friends and as a personal favour to Lerner Hepburn, quite reluctantly, allowed a segment of Coco to be recorded for broadcast on television at the 1970 Tony Awards. This 15-minute segment is the only known surviving footage of the original Coco production and shows the exhilarating finale where Hepburn performs the song Always Mademoiselle (an emotional and very memorable performance, even though Hepburn speaks rather than sings the lyrics). Here it is:


Concluding this post, I will leave you with a sweet note from Alan Jay Lerner to Katharine Hepburn, written after recording the above segment for television (broadcast on Sunday 19 April 1970). 

Dearest Kate:

You were absolutely marvelous today.
I thought so, the director thought so, the producer, everyone.
I know you hated doing it, but Sunday night will present the first good reason they invented the goddamn medium at all.
Thank you for doing it. I've had intestinal spasms ever since I asked you. 
But you were simply wonderful.
Always, 
Alan

 

Source of all correspondence: Alan Jay Lerner: A Lyricist's Letters (2014), edited by Dominic McHugh.

31 May 2021

Paul Henreid will not play the part when he reads it

Austrian-born Paul Henreid is best remembered for his roles in two Warner Bros. pictures: as Jerry Durrance opposite Bette Davis in Irving Rapper's romantic drama Now, Voyager (1942) —on loan from RKO— and as Ingrid Bergman's husband and resistance leader Victor Laszlo in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942). The latter film was not a film the actor had wanted to make, though. Having been previously cast in two leading roles (i.e. in Joan of Paris (1942) and Now, Voyager), Henreid was offered a relatively small part in Casablanca and was afraid it would affect his status as a leading man. Besides, he found the script lousy and also didn't want to play second fiddle to Humphrey Bogart. It was only after the studio assured to build up his role and to give him above-the-title billing along with Bogart and Bergman that Henreid accepted.

The actor whom Warner Bros. had initially wanted for the role of Victor Laszlo was the Dutch actor Philip Dorn but he was unavailable. Convinced that Henreid wouldn't be interested in the role, producer Hal Wallis complained to director Michael Curtiz in a memo that there was no one else available (".. aside from Philip Dorn, whom we cannot get, and Paul Henreid who I am sure will not play the part when he reads it, there is no one else that I can think of."Screen tests with unknown European actors, including French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, had led to nothing. So eventually a deal with Henreid was made —his co-star billing with Bogart and Bergman had clinched it— and Warners next signed him to a seven-year contract. (Henreid was reluctant to sign with Warners but was encouraged to do so by his agent Lew Wasserman.) 

While the studio began building him as a new leading man casting him in such films as In Our Time (1944) and The Conspirators (1944)— in the end Henreid never became a major star. As his chances to be cast as a romantic lead diminished, the actor eventually turned to producing and directing. In the early 1950s, he started directing both film and television productions, including tv episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza and The Big Valley, and for the big screen Dead Ringer (1964), starring his friend and former co-star Bette Davis.

Shown below are three memo's regarding the casting of Henreid in Casablanca. First up is the memo mentioned above from Hal Wallis to Michael Curtiz, in which Wallis complained about nobody being available for the role. Next is a memo from Steve Trilling (Jack Warner's executive assistant) to Wallis regarding the deal with Henreid, followed by Wallis' short reply.  

Philip Dorn 
DATE: April 22,1942  
SUBJECT: "Casablanca" 
TO: Mike Curtiz 
FROM: Hal Wallis
Dear Mike: 
I have been going over with Trilling the possibilities for the part of  "Laszlo" and, aside from Philip Dorn, whom we cannot get, and Paul Henreid who I am sure will not play the part when he reads it, there is no one else that I can think of. I think you should satisfy yourself on this point; that is, that there is no one available, and then begin to adjust yourself to the thought that we might have to use someone of the type of Dean Jagger, Ian Hunter or Herbert Marshall, or someone of this type without an accent. 
I am as anxious as you are to have a type like Philip Dorn in the part, but if there is no one available there is just nothing that we can do about it. 
Hal Wallis


__________



DATE: May 1, 1942

TO: Hal Wallis

FROM: Steve Trilling

RE: Paul Henreid for Casablanca

Discussed making a separate picture deal with his agent first before talking to Henreid. As you know, we have been trying to work out a deal to take over his RKO contract —and one of the deterrents was Henreid's reluctance to assign himself here exclusively— and then possibly be relegated to small parts. In this respect, you are aware by this time, he is a bit of a ham —and until the negotiations for the RKO deal are behind us— which should be in the next few days— I think we should let this separate picture deal ride...

An obstacle we encountered in consummating the original deal was the billing situation —and after great persuasion, we got him to accept a special billing clause for the first two pictures — thereafter, he was to be starred or co-starred and I think if he gets assurance of co-star billing with Bogart and Bergman, it would clinch the matter. This might not be such a bad idea if we really are attempting to build him.

Steve Trilling

__________

 

DATE: May 1, 1942

SUBJECT: "Casablanca"

TO: Steve Trilling

FROM: Hal Wallis

If we can get Henreid for Casablanca, we will give him co-star billing with Bogart and Bergman.

Hal Wallis

 

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid play a game of chess on the set of Casablanca, while Hal Wallis (center) and Michael Curtiz (right) look on. (Don't know who the other guy next to Wallis is.)

24 May 2021

Audrey Hepburn is fabulous! Truly!

In a film career that spanned forty years during which she starred in such classics as Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and My Fair Lady (1964), Audrey Hepburn had declined many a film role. One of the roles she turned down was that of spinster Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke (1961), a film based on the 1948 play of the same name by Tennessee Williams. Both Williams and producer Hal Wallis had wanted Audrey to play the role of Alma and visited her at her home in Switzerland in 1955 to discuss the project. In the end, Audrey declined the role, which (years later) went to Geraldine Page who had also played it on stage. 



In the summer of 1955, Tennessee Williams wrote a letter to his agent Audrey Wood, part of the letter concerning Summer and Smoke and Audrey Hepburn. Here is the part that deals with Hepburn, who was 26 years old at the time and married to her first husband Mel Ferrer.

 

Wallis is here and we were at the Ferrers for dinner last night because Hal wants to sign Audrey Hepburn for Summer and Smoke. I think it's an excellent choice ...

Audrey Hepburn is fabulous! Truly! She was Miss Alma in the flesh! I can't think of better casting for this part. She has long thin arms, a long thin neck, long thin body and long thin legs - and eyes that break your heart with their youth and sweetness. No accent: exquisite grace. I almost found myself admiring Hal Wallis for thinking of her for it. Her price is $350,000 and he is willing to pay it! The deal is not yet completed but I had a distinct feeling that both she and Mel were very favorable to it. We discussed directors. Do you think the man who directed "Marty" [1955, Delbert Mann] would be right for it? Another one mentioned was William Wyler who directed her in "Roman Holiday". 

[The 1961 film Summer and Smoke was directed by English director Peter Glenville.]


Source: The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 2: 1945-1957, edited by Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler (2004).

Playwright Tennessee Williams (above) and Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey in the 1961 film Summer and Smoke (below).