13 June 2019

The Curious Stage Career of Jean Arthur

By the early 1930s, Jean Arthur's Hollywood career had failed to take off, making Jean turn to the theatre instead. She made her Broadway debut in 1932 with a small role in the play Foreign Affairs and a year later had her first starring role in The Curtain Rises which earned her good reviews. Jean later recalled that these two years on Broadway had been "the happiest years of [her] life". She preferred the stage over Hollywood, having said at one time: "I don't think Hollywood is the place to be yourself. The individual ought to find herself before coming to Hollywood.... On the stage I found myself to be in a different world. The individual counted. The director encouraged me and I learned how to be myself." 

Having made a name for herself on the stage, Jean returned to Hollywood and signed a contract with Columbia Pictures in February 1934. Ten years later, after a string of very successful films including Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and The More The Merrier (1943), her contract with the studio ended and Jean reportedly ran through the streets of Columbia cheering "I'm free! I'm free!". Jean retired from making films, accepting only two more film offers, i.e. Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948) and George Stevens' Shane (1953). Over the next few decades, she would return to the stage a total of five times.

26 May 2019

Dear Bill Holden

Fredric March and William Holden starred together in two films, i.e. Executive Suite and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, both released in 1954. March, who belonged to an older generation of Hollywood actors being 21 years Holden's senior, was one of Holden's acting idols. In September 1950, a month after the release of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard starring Holden in one of his best roles, March wrote the following letter to his younger colleague praising his performance in the film. Holden must have been thrilled to receive this letter from March, not knowing he would be working with him (twice even) in a few years' time.

14 May 2019

R.I.P. Doris Day

Doris Day has always been one of my mum's favourite singers and her beautiful, unique voice often filled our house when I was growing up. Long before I began watching her films, I listened to her songs. She was so much part of my childhood that I felt quite sad to hear about her passing yesterday.

Doris began her singing career in 1939 as a big band singer, scoring her first big hit with Sentimental Journey with Les Brown and His Band of Renown in 1945. A few years later she started a highly successful solo career, spanning several decades and recording hundreds of songs. But it was with Les Brown that Doris had her first success and in 2012 when Les was honoured at the Les Brown Centennial Festival, Doris sent the following heartfelt letter to 'Friends of Les', remembering those early days with Les and his band.

11 May 2019

Joan Crawford & her devotion to her fans

When biographer Donald Spoto was eleven years old, he went to the movies with his mother to see Sudden Fear (1952) starring Joan Crawford. Afterwards young Donald told his mum that he was going to write Miss Crawford a letter saying how much he had liked the film, to which his mum said: "Movie stars don't have time to answer letters from strangers, so try not to be disappointed". Not long after, a letter arrived in the mail.

Dear Don, 
Thank you for writing such a sweet letter.  
I am so happy that you liked my new picture, "Sudden Fear". It was a challenge for me, and there were some very hard scenes. But I enjoyed working in San Francisco, and I was very lucky to work with fine actors like Mr. Jack Palance and Miss Gloria Grahame. 
I am so impressed that you read Miss Edna Sherry's book that our movie was based on. I don't think there are many eleven-year-old movie fans who do that! 
Thank you again for writing to me. I hope you will stay in touch, and that we will meet some day. Good luck in school!  
Your friend,
Joan Crawford

(Source: Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford (2010) by Donald Spoto)

Spoto's mother obviously didn't know that when you wrote a fan letter to Joan Crawford you would always get a letter back-- guaranteed. No one was more devoted to his or her fans than Joan was and I guess it's safe to say that no other actor or actress has been ever since. Joan personally replied to all her fan letters, its number estimated at roughly three million (!) throughout her career.

4 May 2019

There is only one you

In his 1996 biography on Audrey Hepburn, Barry Paris stated that Audrey was not only a biographer's dream but also a biographer's nightmare. A beloved actress and a passionate advocate for children's rights, Audrey was (and still is) só admired and revered that practically nobody had anything negative to say about her. Paris found that the worst thing Audrey seemingly did was her failure to mention Patricia Neal at the 1965 Oscars (read more about that here).

Audrey is and has been an inspiration to a lot of people, even long before she reached her icon status. One of the people she inspired in the early 1960s was Cherylin Sarkisian, an insecure teenage girl who became later known as Cher.

21 April 2019

John Ford's love letters to Maureen O'Hara

After completing Rio Grande (1950) director John Ford started preparations for his magnum opus The Quiet Man (1952), his personal tribute to Ireland which he had wanted to make for a long time. In the fall of 1950, Ford left for Ireland developing his story and seeking locations, while his preferred leading lady Maureen O'Hara flew to Australia to make the film Kangaroo (1952). It was at a stopover in Honolulu where O'Hara received a strange letter from Ford addressed to "Herself", the first of many letters which surprised and confused her. In her 2004 autobiography 'Tis Herself, O'Hara described the moment when the letters, apart from confusing her, also started to worry her: "I hadn't been overly concerned about these letters up to this point, but now I was. Over the next several weeks, more letters arrived for Herself. By the end of February [1951], I had received a stack of them. I couldn't keep dismissing them as John Ford eccentricities or as harmless whims during a drunken stupor. I could no longer deny that, for whatever reason, John Ford was sending me love letters."

John Ford and Maureen O'Hara in Ireland-- above they are pictured with Ford's secretary and script supervisor Meta Sterne and below with John "Duke " Wayne. 

6 April 2019

The on-screen ageing of Bette Davis

During her impressive career, Bette Davis starred in a number of films in which she played characters older than her actual age. In 1939, Bette (aged 31) played spinster Charlotte Lovell in The Old Maid, her character ageing some 20 years to 40 at the end of the film, the look of 'middle-age' created by makeup artist Perc Westmore with pale makeup. The same year Bette portrayed 60-year-old Queen Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, shaving her hairline and eyebrows to resemble the older queen. To play 40-year-old Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1941)Bette had Westmore give her a mask of white powder in order to look her character's age (much to the dismay of director William Wyler who felt she looked like a Kabuki player). Then in 1944, Bette played Fanny Skeffington in Vincent Sherman's Mr. Skeffington, being mid-20s at the beginning of the film while ageing to 50, with her looks not only affected by age but also by diphtheria (Bette wore a rubber mask to get the look she wanted). And in 1945, 37-year-old Bette was a schoolteacher in her fifties in The Corn is Green, wearing a grey wig and padding under her clothes to look the part.

Above (clockwise): Bette Davis playing older than her age in The Old Maid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Corn is Green and The Little Foxes. Below: Bette as the younger and older Fanny in Mr. Skeffington.

3 April 2019

Doris & Lucy

In 1968, Doris Day started her own television show The Doris Day Show which would run successfully for five seasons until 1973 (at its peak watched by some 13 million households!). During the show's run, Doris was also offered to do a television special with a main focus on her songs. The Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff Special was recorded in the summer of 1970 and aired by CBS on 14 March 1971. Following the show's broadcast, Doris received lots of praise, also from fellow actress Lucille Ball whom Doris sent a sweet thank-you note five days after the show (as seen below)

Doris Day and Lucille Ball, two of the greatest comediennes ever. Unfortunately they never got to work together.

30 March 2019

Dear Mr. Kubrick

A few days ago, my sister and I went to see the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition here in our hometown Barcelona. The exhibition has visited several cities worldwide since 2004 (including Los Angeles, Mexico City, Seoul and Paris) before coming to Barcelona with some added material. (I saw that the exhibition was also held in Amsterdam in 2012 when I still lived there, but I somehow missed it then.) While I am not a Kubrick fan --I do like his earlier work though, e.g. The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957)-- I enjoyed the exhibition a lot. It was very well laid out, each of Kubrick's films having its own dedicated space, with on display original props, costumes, storyboards, photos and lots of documents, including production documents, screenplays and correspondence. Attention was also paid to Kubrick's early days when he worked as a photographer and also his unrealised projects were presented in detail.

(Photo by me)
Of course I was glad to see a number of letters displayed at the exhibition. For this post I chose one letter concerning Kubrick's unrealised film about Napoleon Bonaparte. Kubrick was fascinated by Napoleon and had researched his subject meticulously, putting together a massive archive of research material. In 1969, Kubrick completed his script and also drew up a detailed shooting plan. In the end, the film was never made since no studio was willing to take on the exorbitant production costs. (More about Kubrick's Napoleon can be found in the 2009 voluminous book by Alison Castle Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made.)

24 March 2019

We really did not like Bob Montgomery

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Laurence Olivier became best friends in the early 1930s and remained so for the rest of their lives. Someone they used to hang out with was fellow actor Robert Montgomery, with whom they went fishing and yachting. The following letter from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Betty Barker (known for being Joan Crawford's long-time secretary) shows that Fairbanks and Olivier put up with Montgomery but that they didn't really like him, feeling Montgomery was "pompous". Fairbanks wrote to Barker as he wanted to play a practical joke on his buddy Larry (the joke having to do with Montgomery) for which he needed her help. The letter is from 1987 when Fairbanks was 77 years old, but apparently not too old to play pranks.  

(left to right) Douglas Fairbank Jr., Laurence Olivier and Robert Montgomery in their younger days.