4 April 2020

"Rebecca": The Search for the Second Mrs de Winter

First published in August 1938, Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca was an immediate success. Before publication Alfred Hitchcock had read galley proofs of the book and thought about buying the property but felt the asking price was too high. In the end, it was David Selznick who purchased the film rights for $50,000 and then hired Hitchcock to direct. 

When casting Rebecca (1940), for the male lead Selznick fairly quickly settled on Laurence Olivier to play the role of brooding Maxim de Winter. The producer had initially wanted to cast Ronald Colman but Colman declined. Other actors considered for the part were William Powell, Melvyn Douglas, Walter Pidgeon and Leslie Howard.

The casting of the female lead  to play the second Mrs de Winter, in the book described as a nail-biting girl, "insecure", "awkward" and "tortured by shyness"  was a different and longer story. In 1938, Selznick started testing 21-year-old Joan Fontaine who until then had appeared mainly in B-movies. While Selznick immediately considered Fontaine a serious candidate, no one understood what he saw in her. Fontaine's studio RKO had decided to let her go (feeling she had thus far shown little promise) and also at Selznick's studio nobody was impressed with her. In Hollywood Fontaine was even dubbed "the wooden woman" by a number of people who felt she lacked talent. With nobody else seeing Fontaine's potential, Selznick decided to forgot about her and began testing other actresses, both established and unknown ("At one point, I weakened and decided I couldn't be the only sensible person in the world, and allowed Miss Fontaine's option to drop").

31 March 2020

It is a completely enjoyable film, full of fun and YOU

While Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) is now regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made, at the time its leading lady Marilyn Monroe was less enthusiastic about the film. Marilyn had shared her disappointment over the finished film with her close friend, poet/ playwright Norman Rosten, and in response Rosten wrote her a brief letter in an attempt to cheer her up (seen below). Despite Marilyn's own feelings regarding Some Like It Hot and her role in it, the film became a huge critical and commercial success, with Marilyn's comedic performance now considered one of the best of her career (for which she even won a Golden Globe).

Incidentally, Some Like It Hot is a recommended comfort film to watch or re-watch during these difficult times. Stay safe!

24 March 2020

You are a very good friend

Just a sweet little note from a friend to a friend --  to lift your spirits in these crazy and difficult times. Ava Gardner and George Cukor were good friends -- Cukor seemed to have been friends with a lot of people in Hollywood -- and this note was written by Ava to Cukor in September 1973. The two worked together only once, on Bhowani Junction (1956) in which Ava co-starred with Stewart Granger. For years after that Cukor tried to find another project for them to do together, but no suitable project was ever found. Ava once said that it was Cukor who gave her the nicest compliment anyone had ever given her: "'Ava', he told an interviewer, 'is a gentleman'. A gentleman. I like that."

Source: icollector.com



George dear - you are a very good friend - I remember once you said - in fun - maybe not so much fun — I care for first – my dogs – then my Irene & my cook – & then my relatives — I think after that dear Mrs. Goldyn — I came somewhere near —

I love you


10 March 2020

Casting "My Cousin Rachel" (1952)

David O. Selznick made practically every decision for Jennifer Jones when it came to her film career. Having discovered Jones in 1941 -- she was still Phyllis Walker then, married to actor Robert Walker --  Selznick gave her a new name, a seven-year contract and then groomed her to stardom (and in 1949 he also married her). Selznick was responsible for getting Jones numerous parts, including her Oscar-winning role in Song of Bernadette (1943) as well as roles in his own productions such as Since You Went Away (1944) and Duel in the Sun (1946).

But as powerful as Selznick was, he didn't always get his way. In 1952, he wanted Jones to get the female lead in My Cousin Rachel, a film based upon the novel by Daphne du Maurier. However, 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck, who had purchased the rights to Du Maurier's novel, didn't consider Jones right for the role and director George Cukor and producer/screenwriter Nunnally Johnson agreed with him.

Jennifer Jones and David Selznick, who were married from 1949 until Selznick's death in 1965. 

22 February 2020

The Conqueror: I am positive this can be a very important, powerful picture

The Conqueror (1956) was John Wayne's final picture for RKO as part of a three-picture deal Wayne had signed with the studio. Directed by Dick Powell, it tells the story of Mongol leader Temujin (later known as Genghis Khan) who falls for Tartar princess Bortai and abducts her, causing a war between the Mongols and the Tartars. The film is generally regarded as one of the worst films of all time and also contains one of the worst miscastings in film history.

John Wayne stars as Genghis Khan, which is as bad and ridiculous as it sounds. Apart from looking utterly silly with his black wig and Fu Manchu moustache, Wayne plays the Asian warlord with his characteristic drawl as if Khan were an American cowboy. The stilted dialogue written by Oscar Millard doesn't help Wayne's performance (or anyone else's in the cast) either. Wayne delivers lines like "I feel this Tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her" and "I shall keep you
, Bortai. I shall keep you unresponding to my passion. Your hatred will kindle into love... ", while Susan Hayward, who is also wasted in her role as the Tartar princess, says things like: "Before that day dawns, Mongol, the vultures will feast on your heart!" It's all very laughable and makes you wonder why Wayne and Hayward, both at the height of their careers, had agreed to do the film at all.

John Wayne as Temujin "Genghis Khan" (below pictured with Susan Hayward) -- what was he thinking?!

7 February 2020

R.I.P. Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)

Two days ago, Kirk Douglas passed away at the age of 103. While he was never a personal favourite of mine, Douglas was certainly one of Hollywood's most charismatic and accomplished actors, boasting a career spanning several decades. His films include classic gems like Out of the Past (1947), Champion (1949), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960).

Like many other actors, Douglas had started his acting career on Broadway. During WWII he paused his career for three years to join the U.S. Navy and after the war returned to Broadway. At the recommendation of Lauren Bacall (a friend and former classmate of Douglas at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts) producer Hal Wallis went to see one of the plays in which Douglas was performing. Wallis immediately recognised the actor's talent, giving him his first film role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) opposite veteran Barbara Stanwyck. Wallis later said: "I knew I was taking a risk putting a newcomer against that powerhouse Stanwyck, but she was extraordinarily considerate and played unselfishly with him in every scene."

2 February 2020

Missy and The President

Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan made one film together, the (only mildly interesting) western Cattle Queen of Montana (1954). In a letter to Ella Smith dated 16 May 1972, Reagan (then governor of California) talks about the film and how it was to work with a "pro" like Barbara. (More letters to Ella Smith, author of the biography Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, regarding Barbara's consummate professionalism can be found here).

Apart from Reagan's letter to Smith, also seen below is a correspondence between Barbara and "Ronnie" from 1981 following Barbara's tribute at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, their respective letters again referring to Cattle Queen. The letter from Barbara looks like a draft, not the actual letter she sent to the President.

Incidentally, Barbara also knew Nancy Reagan (then Davis) from when the latter was still an actress; the two women played together in East Side, West Side (1949).

23 January 2020

You must destroy this Svengali before it destroys you

Starting with Clash By Night (1952) Marilyn Monroe refused to film a scene unless her acting coach Natasha Lytess was present on the set. Marilyn had met Lytess in the spring of 1948 when the latter was still head drama coach at Columbia. The two women first worked together on Ladies of the Chorus (1948) and continued their collaboration through The Seven Year Itch (1955). Extremely insecure about her acting abilities, Marilyn relied heavily upon Lytess, asking for her approval after each take. If Lytess disapproved, Marilyn would request another take and often ended up doing numerous takes. Needless to say, directors were not happy with the interference from Lytess. She was often banned from the set (for example by Otto Preminger and Roy Baker on respectively River of No Return and Don't Bother to Knock) but would always be reinstated as Marilyn wouldn't shoot without her.

Above and below: Marilyn Monroe studying with her coach Natasha Lytess. Directors and Marilyn's co-stars considered Lytess' presence on the set a major nuisance.

12 January 2020

I don't honestly like the feeling of the film

Today's letter enticed me to watch Love Among the Ruins (1975), a film made especially for television, directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier in their only film together. It's a charming film about an ageing actress who, after having been sued for breach of promise, hires a lawyer with whom she was romantically involved some 40 years ago; although she doesn't remember him, he has been in love with her ever since.

7 January 2020

Lucille Ball & Lela Rogers' Little Theatre

Lela Rogers, mother of Ginger Rogers, was not your typical stage mom. Apart from managing Ginger's career, Rogers had a successful career in her own right. She was a journalist, editor, screenwriter and producer, and from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s she worked as an assistant to Charles Koerner, Vice-President of Production at RKO. Put in charge of RKO's budding talent, Rogers ran her own workshop on the studio lot called the Little Theatre, where she trained promising young actresses like Betty Grable, Joan Fontaine, Ann Miller and Lucille Ball.

In her autobiography Love, Lucy (1996), Lucille Ball fondly remembered those early days at RKO with Lela Rogers"It was such a busy, happy time for me. Lela took the dungarees off us and put us into becoming dresses; she ripped off our hair bands and made us do our hair right. If we went to see a big producer in his office, she cautioned us to put on full makeup and look like somebody. She made us read good literature to improve our English and expand our understanding of character. She drummed into us how to treat agents and the bosses upstairs... "