31 January 2015

Blaming Billy Wilder

On 5 November 1954, Billy Wilder concluded filming of The Seven Year Itch. Production had taken two weeks longer than originally scheduled, which was in large part due to leading lady Marilyn Monroe. Not only was Marilyn always late on the set but she also needed numerous takes to get a scene right (Wilder once said that directing Marilyn was like pulling teeth). Because of the delay, production costs exceeded the original budget and amounted to a total of $1.8 million. 

A week after filming had ended, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, wrote a confidential letter to Charles Feldman, co-executive producer of The Seven Year Itch. The two men had been having issues on the film before, and this letter shows how Zanuck disagreed with Feldman about whom to blame for the delay (in his opinion it was Wilder's fault, not Marilyn's). Incidentally, Zanuck couldn't have known then that The Seven Year Itch would be one of Twentieth Century-Fox's biggest successes of 1955, eventually earning the studio millions of dollars. 

Marilyn Monroe dancing with Charles Feldman 
Left: Darryl Zanuck. Right: Marilyn and Billy Wilder on the set of "The Seven Year Itch"; Wilder would have even more problems with Marilyn four years later during the shooting of "Some Like it Hot" (read more here and here). 
Image courtesy of profiles in history


November 12, 1954


Dear Charlie: 

I do not want to bring up an argument again as there is no use crying over spilled milk. For your own information, SEVEN YEAR ITCH was scheduled for 35 days but it took 48 days to make it.

This is only 9 days less than it took us to photograph THE ROBE. I know you will say that we did not have Marilyn Monroe in THE ROBE.

Let me combat this argument by telling you that we made HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE in 34 days and this was at a time that we were experimenting with CinemaScope and the cast included Monroe.

These are accurate figures and I am only reciting them to you for the purpose of trying to set you straight. Wilder did a sensational job from the standpoint of quality. He certainly did not do a sensational job from the standpoint of shooting time and schedule.

Darryl (signed)

Mr. Charles Feldman
9441 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, Calif.

27 January 2015

You could even beat the atomic bomb

Ava Gardner starred in only one musical, George Sidney's lavish remake of the tearjerker Show Boat (1951). She was cast as the mulatto Julie LaVerne after MGM had ruled out Judy Garland, Dinah Shore and Ava's good friend Lena Horne. Ava had agreed to play the part but only if she could do her own singing. For several weeks she was coached by a vocal teacher, after which she recorded her two songs Can't help lovin' dat man and Bill. In her autobiography Ava: My Story (1990), Ava remembered giving her test record to producer Arthur Freed: "I don't think the son of a bitch ever even listened to it. He just put it on a shelf and delivered the usual studio ultimatum: "Now, listen, Ava, you can't sing and you're among professional singers." So Freed had professional singer Annette Warren record the songs as well and chose her vocals over Ava's. Ava was quite upset with MGM, and I think rightfully so since she did a wonderful job singing those songs (I actually prefer her renditions over Annette Warren's).

Ava Gardner with co-star Kathryn Grayson on the set of "Show Boat" (above) and with Howard Keel and Marge Champion (below). Ava said in her autobiography that she got on "extremely well" with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel: "After each day's shooting we would meet in one of the dressing rooms and, ignoring one of Metro's cardinal rules, smuggle in enough tequila to send us back home in the best of humor".
But despite being upset with MGM, Ava liked playing the role of Julie LaVerne-- in fact, it was one of the few roles she liked. Her performance was well received, not just by critics but also by people in the industry. Jerry Wald, producer of such classics as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Key Largo (1948), saw Ava in Show Boat two months before the film opened and was very impressed. He wanted to let her know how much he liked her performance, so he wrote her the following letter on 18 July 1951 (at the time Ava was married to Frank Sinatra, hence Wald's opening line).

Source: heritage auctions/ reproduced with permission


July 18, 1951

Dear Ava:

Saw SHOWBOAT last night. I hate Sinatra.

Nothing could have pleased me more than the warm, brilliant performance you turned in. I think the last fan letter I wrote you was on "One Touch of Venus". Please add this to that one. There is nothing to stop you from becoming one of the top dramatic actresses in our Industry- nothing except the atomic bomb. And, if it came to a tie, you could even beat the atomic bomb.

These few lines are merely to express my deep admiration for the superb job you did in SHOWBOAT. 

Warmest personal regards.

Jerry (signed)

Miss Ava Gardner
15000 Altata
Pacific Palisades, Calif.

The heartbreaking finale of "Show Boat": Ava Gardner looks on while the show boat is leaving and William Warfield is giving his goose-bump rendition of "Ol' Man River".
Writer/producer Jerry Wald and Ava Gardner in the scene where she sings "Bill".

24 January 2015

Professionally, we were brothers long before you were

In 1945, Warner Brothers heard about the Marx Brothers' plans to make a film called A Night in Casablanca which was to be a parody of their classic Casablanca (1942). To make sure that this parody (complete with a lead character named 'Humphrey Bogus') was not violating Warners' rights, the studio's legal department got in touch with the Marx Brothers asking for information on their upcoming film. The inquiry from Warners set Groucho Marx thinking, and he soon came up with a clever plan for a publicity stunt. While Warners had simply inquired about the film's storyline, Groucho claimed that the studio had threatened to sue the Marx Brothers for using the word 'Casablanca' in their film title. The correspondence that ensued between Groucho and the studio is now legendary (I must say I'd never heard of it before) and gave Groucho the free publicity he wanted.

Groucho's first letter to Warner Brothers, which was his response to a "long, ominous legal document" the studio had never written, is shown below (or rather an early draft). The letter is simply hilarious and without a doubt the funniest I have posted so far. Also shown below are excerpts from Groucho's two subsequent letters (in transcript only) which he had sent after the studio kept insisting on knowing the details of the story. As Groucho's answers were getting more bizarre, Warners finally gave up and Groucho never heard from their legal department again. In the end, director Archie Mayo decided not to turn A Night in Casablanca (1946) into a parody of Casablanca, but rather into a parody of the genre.

Images via: letters of note
(original source: library of congress; the letter was donated to the library by Groucho Marx himself)


Dear Warner Brothers:

Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making a picture, I had no idea that the City of Casablanca belonged to Warner Brothers.

However, it was only a few days after our announcement appeared that we received a long, ominous legal document, warning us not to use the name "Casablanca".

It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, the great-great grandfather of Harry and Jack, while looking for a short cut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock, which he later turned in for a hundred shares of the common, he named it Casablanca.

I just can't understand your attitude. Even if they plan on re-releasing the picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don't know if I could, but I certainly would like to try.

You claim you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without their permission. What about Warner Brothers-- do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. When Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor's eye, we were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers and even before us, there had been other brothers-- the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazoff; Dan Brouthers, an outfielder with Detroit, and "Brother, can you spare a dime? " This was originally "Brothers, can you spare a dime?" but this was spreading a dime pretty thin so they threw out one brother, gave all the money to the other brother and whittled it down to "Brother, can you spare a dime?"

The younger Warner Brother calls himself Jack. Does he claim that, too? It's not an original name-- it was used long before he was born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacks-- there was Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" , and Jack, the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day. As for Harry, the older brother, he probably signs his checks, sure in the belief that he is the first Harry of all time and that all other Harrys are impostors. Offhand, I can think of two Harrys that preceded him. There was Lighthorse Harry of Revolutionary fame and a Harry Applebaum who lived on the corner of Ninety-third street and Lexington Avenue. Applebaum wasn't very well known-- I've almost forgotten what he looked like-- the last I heard of him, he was selling neckties at Weber and Heilbroner; but I'll never forget his mother, she made the best apple strudle in Yorkville.

We now come to the Burbank studio. This is what the Warner Brothers call their place. Old man Burbank is gone. Perhaps you remember him-- he was a great man in a garden, he was the wizard who crossed all those fruits and vegetables until he had the poor plants in such a confused and nervous state, that they never were sure whether they were supposed to come in on a meat platter or the dessert dish.

This is just conjecture, of course, but, who knows-- perhaps Burbank survivors aren't too happy over the fact that a plant that grinds out pictures settled in their town, appropriated Burbank's name and uses it as a front for their films.

It is even possible that the Burbank family is prouder of the potato produced by the old man than they are of the fact that from this town emerged "Casablanca" or even "Gold Diggers of 1931". 

This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade but I don't mean it to. I love Warners-- some of my best friends are Warner Brothers. It is even possible that I am doing them an injustice and that they themselves know nothing at all about this dog-in-the-Wanger attitude. It wouldn't surprise me at all to discover that the heads of Warners' legal department know nothing about this dispute for I am acquainted with many of them and they are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits and a love of their fellow man that out-Saroyans "Dr. Gillespie". I have a hunch that this attempt to prevent us from using the title is the scheme of some ferret-faced shyster serving an apprenticeship in their legal department. I know the type-- hot out of law school, hungry for success and too ambitious to follow the natural laws of promotion, this bar sinister probably needled Warners' attorneys, most of whom are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits, etc., in attempting to enjoin us.

Well, he won't get away with it! We'll fight him to the highest court! No pasty-faced legal adventurer is going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes. We are all brothers under the skin and we'll remain friends till the last reel of "A Night in Casablanca" goes tumbling over the spool.

Jack Warner (left) and Harry Warner, the oldest of the four Warner Brothers

Below you'll find part of Groucho's second and third letter to Warner Brothers, who were still anxious to know what the film was really about.

Dear Warners:
There isn’t much I can tell you about the story. In it I play a Doctor of Divinity who ministers to the natives and, as a sideline, hawks can openers and pea jackets to the savages along the gold Coast of Africa.
When I first meet Chico, he is working in a saloon, selling sponges to barflies who are unable to carry their liquor. Harpo is an Arabian caddie who lives in a small Grecian urn on the outskirts of the city.


Dear Brothers:
Since I last wrote you, I regret to say there have been some changes in the plot of our new picture, “A Night in Casablanca.” In the new version I play Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart. Harpo and Chico are itinerant rug peddlers who are weary of laying rugs and enter a monastery just for a lark. This is a good joke on them, as there hasn’t been a lark in the place for fifteen years.
[via: all movie talk

20 January 2015

Remember me in your own way

Exactly 25 years ago today, on 20 January 1990, Barbara Stanwyck passed away. She was 82 years old. Years before her death, Barbara had indicated that she wanted no funeral or service of any kind. According to her good friend and publicist Larry Kleno "she had seen too many of what she termed Hollywood funerals, and she didn't want one. No elaborate eulogy." So five days after her death, Barbara was cremated and her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California, where she had made a few of her western films.

Barbara had made her last wishes known in a letter to her nephew Gene and his wife Barbara. She didn't have many relatives left and clearly wanted her remaining family to carry out her last wish. On 4 April 1977 (13 years prior to her death), this is what she wrote.

Image courtesy of profiles in history

Mr + Mrs Gene Vaslett. April 4/77

Dear Gene + Barbara-

These are my final instructions in the event of my death.
I do not want services of any kind. Cremation and ashes to be scattered over the mountains.
I would like you Gene to do this service for me. In the event you are unable to carry out my wishes, perhaps your daughter, my niece Kathleen would.
If neither of you can perform this favor for me I have asked my dear friend Larry Kleno to do so; he said he would and he also said he would assist Kathleen.
I would not like a stranger to do this- as for the rest---
"for those who care, remember me in your own way."

Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck in some of her greatest roles (clockwise from top left): "Stella Dallas" (1937), "Baby Face" (1933), "The Lady Eve" (1941), "Double Indemnity" (1944), "Meet John Doe"(1941) and "Ball of Fire" (1941). And in the centre: Barbara holding her 1966 Emmy Award for her role in the television series "The Big Valley".

17 January 2015

There is one thing I am a bit worried about...

When Elizabeth Taylor was thirteen years old, she maintained a correspondence with a fan named Jean Grey. I have already posted a letter from Liz to Jean (here) in which she advised Jean to write a story in order to deal with the death of her pet bird. Here are two more letters from Liz: the first one is really sweet and concerns a friendship ring; the second one tells us that Jean had followed Liz's advice and taken up writing. Incidentally, Nibbles and Me (mentioned by Liz in her letters) was a book written and illustrated by Liz about her real life adventures with her pet chipmunk Nibbles. The publisher paid her $1,000 for the story which was originally a school assignment.

Elizabeth Taylor sorting her fan mail
Image: heritage auctions/ reproduced with permission.


February 20th, 1946

Dear Jean,

I must thank you for your two letters, and your cute birthday card and the valentine, which was one of the most beautiful I had, I hope you had lots of valentines too.

There is one thing I am a bit worried about and that is that dear little friendship ring, you see your daddy sent it especially to you from the Pacific, and I'm not sure he would be very happy about you giving it away to anyone, I didn't like to send it right back as it might look as though I didn't want it, but I really think you should take it back, let me know what you think about it, and anyhow I do appreciate the nice thought very much.

So glad you had such a nice birthday. "Nibbles and Me" will be published in April I hope.

All best wishes.


Elizabeth Taylor (signed)

Image: heritage auctions/ reproduced with permission.


March 26th, 1946

Dear Jean,

Yes of course I'll keep the ring, now I know you are sure your father wouldn't mind.

I think your little story about the colt was beautifully written, and I think you should go on writing, there may be a future for you in it, and if not it will always be a tremendous interest, thank you so much for sending me the story. 

My book "Nibbles and Me" is coming out in May, if you read it tell me what you think about it. 

All best wishes.


Elizabeth Taylor (signed)

I liked the little snap you sent me.    

14 January 2015

Missy darling

It is often rumoured that, apart from having been good friends, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford were once lovers. In Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography (written by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell (2002)) Crawford's press agent and confidant Jerry Asher is quoted as saying: "Missy [Stanwyck] and Joan were very alike, interested in men and women alike. They had adjoining properties in Brentwood. When Barbara was mistreated, beaten by her first husband, Frank Fay, Barbara would escape from his drunken rantings by fleeing to Joan's house, where Joan would console her. Eventually one thing led to another". And Helen Ferguson, Barbara's press agent for many years, stated: "There is no doubt in my mind that Barbara and Joan were intimate on more than one occasion" [source]. Well, friends or lovers-- Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford had a special bond that was formed in the 1930s and lasted well into the 1970s (until Joan's death). The two women kept up a correspondence with each other over the years, and on 7 March 1974 --Ella Smith's biography on Barbara (Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck) had just been published-- Joan wrote Barbara this affectionate letter.


March 7, 1974

Missy darling,

I have been waiting to write to you when I could do a longhand letter, but there just never comes that time. Your Santa Claus card this past Christmas was just adorable, and you were sweet to think of me.

Your book is here and your autograph is so warm and loving. I am deeply grateful for Nolan for getting it for me, and to you for autographing it so sweetly. I must say, darling, when people come to see me, the book is picked up by them and I never see their faces the rest of the evening, they are buried in the book! It is magnificently done and you must be very happy with it!

I received your note today too about the wire that I sent you.

God bless- and my dearest love to you. 

Joan (signed)

Barbara and Joan in the early 1930s

11 January 2015

Clark Gable's letter to his Dad

When Clark Gable was seventeen years old, he knew he wanted to be an actor. His father William, an oil driller and farmer, didn't approve of his career choice at all, feeling that acting was for "sissies". But Clark Gable was determined to pursue his dream, and after several jobs (selling neckties, working in stock companies and oil fields) he had his first big success in 1928 with the lead role in Machinal on Broadway. The role had been secured for him by his acting coach and first wife Josephine Dillon. (Their marriage was one of convenience with Dillon teaching Gable the tricks of the trade and grooming him for his film career.) In 1930, Gable was finally noticed in Hollywood (by MGM), and within a few years his Hollywood career took off. But even after he had become a big star, his father would maintain that acting was for "sissies".

Shortly after arriving in New York and just before getting the part in Machinal, Clark Gable wrote to his father from whom he had just received a letter and whom he had not seen in years. Gable was quite desperate to restore their relationship and clearly wanted his father to be proud of him. Written in the fall of 1928 on hotel stationery ("The Shelton New York"), this is a heartwarming letter that gives us a glimpse into the life of 27-year-old Clark Gable.

Images courtesy of profiles in history.


Sunday Morn

Dear Dad:

Well at last I have heard from the Senior member of the family! There is so much to tell you that I hardly know where to start. I have been married since I last heard from you, but it didn't hold so we're separated. When I look at it now I am surprised it lasted the two years it did, she was twelve years my senior and why I did it is more than I will ever be able to explain. I am telling you this so you will understand what is to follow. We separated just a year ago this month when I was in Houston, Texas, working there in a Stock Company. In fact I was in Houston all last winter and nearly all of this summer. If I could have been in touch with you, then we could very easily have seen each other. Well to get on with the story, when we separated she came on here to N.Y. and was here last winter and this summer.

The letter you wrote on May 26th was delivered to me when I arrived in N.Y. Aug 1st, she had opened it, read it, and didn't have the decency to forward it to me. They gave it to her at the Actors Equity Ass'n on June 2nd. The only thing that interested her in the least was the inheritance you spoke of, and she immediately wrote Uncle Tom regarding it. He never answered so she dropped the whole thing until I arrived here in August and then she quite casually announced that she had a letter from you to me. I sent two letters Air Mail to San Angelo but they were both returned and that is the whole story. I too have been wanting to get in touch with you for a long time but not even Uncle Frank could give me your address, now that we are in touch with each other again I want it to continue, you must write me every week now so we won't lose each other again. Because you are my Dad and I love you.

I have taken up the stage as a means of making a living, and have been successful to a certain extent, although it is a very uncertain game in many ways, the compensation is high if you can hit. This is my first year in N.Y and naturally it is a hard one but I have a wonderful outlook here and I may be able to do something really big. If I should make a hit here in my next show it means that I will be practically independent of anyone. Now Dad, since you are going to California I have a little plan which may be good for both of us, it all depends on how things go here this winter. You take whatever you can get there this winter and I will try and get some money together here. If I have any luck at all this winter I should have three or four thousand dollars by next May. I will then come out to California next summer and see if we can't start some sort of a little business together, and I will help you during the summer and then get back into N.Y. for the fall season. That would give us both something to rely on in case of a slip up in the show business.

Of course that is only a rough outline of my idea but you can see that it is plausible and practical. It may be that things will be hard here this winter and I won't have the money next summer, but it is at least worth trying for. I know Southern California pretty well and I think you will like it very much. If I should make a hit here this winter will try the pictures again next summer and that game is unlimited if you can click. I will send you a set of pictures tomorrow so you can see what kind of a looking son you have. Nothing to brag about, but at least I am a man like my Dad. Now remember, write to me every week, and I will keep you informed how things are going here. Of course, my plan may be only dreams but there's nothing like trying. Lots of love Dad and don't forget to write every week.

Clark Gable and his father William: circa 1919 (left) and in later years.
Josephine Dillon (to whom Clark Gable was married from 1924 to 1930) was very important to Gable's career. Not only did she teach him how to act, but she also taught him how to move, trained his voice and had his teeth repaired.

7 January 2015

In my very rare homosexual moments...

Alfred Hitchcock was leafing through the November 1965 issue of Vogue Magazine when a picture of Joan Crawford caught his eye (see above). The picture accompanied an article that was dedicated to Joan's passion for cooking and was written by Ninette Lyon. Lyon had visited Joan in her stylish New York apartment and wrote in part: "Joan Crawford brought a tray with a bottle of Dom Pérignon, poured it into icy metal goblets. "I drink a little champagne every night while I watch television," she said. "It makes me sleepy. I never go anywhere without these tumblers." With the champagne she brought the most delicate truite en gelée I had ever tasted, served with a sauce of sour cream, fresh horseradish, and lemon. "So simple," she said. "The trout comes from Wynne & Treanor. They have the greatest fish and caviar and cheese in town. I put the smoked trout in a dish, pour a can of gelée de viande au Madère over the fish. Into the refrigerator for forty-five minutes. That's it.... I adore fish. Very often I serve poached salmon, cold, in the same jelly, with a mustard mayonnaise"". 

Intrigued by what he had read, Hitch took out his typewriter and wrote Joan this great letter.

Source: heritage auctions/ image reproduced with permission (this is the only image available, apologies for the poor quality).

November 1, 1965

Miss Joan Crawford
2 East 70 Street
New York, New York 10001

My dear Joan,

In my very rare homosexual moments I often glance through the pages of Vogue, where the other day I saw a magnificent picture of you.

Along-side the picture was a mention of a 'gelée de viande au Madère'. Does not the word viande connotate meat? If so, what is a meat [...] doing on top of a smoked trout? And, with Madeire added, too? Where can one buy such a concoction, or do you make it yourself?

I presume that after the plug you gave to Wynne and Treanor, with whom we have ourselves dealt, you will get fish for free in perpetuity.

Hitch (signed)

Note: A lot of Joan Crawford's recipes have been collected into a book by Jenny Hammerton, author of the website Silver Screen Suppers (a wonderful site that collects recipes from classic Hollywood stars). To read about Hammerton's book Cooking with Joan Crawford and Joan's recipes, click here.

5 January 2015

Dear Grace-Grace

I live in Amsterdam and, apart from the occasional screening of a classic film at a film theatre, there's not much happening here in terms of classic Hollywood films (we don't have a TCM festival, unfortunately). So a few days ago I was quite excited to go to Apeldoorn (East Netherlands) to see the exhibition Grace Kelly, Princess and Style Icon. The exhibition had been travelling the world since 2007 and the beautiful Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn was its final stop. Displayed at the exhibit were quite a few dresses worn by Grace Kelly as well as accessories (like the famous Hermès bag), photographs, film clips, the actual Oscar Grace had won for Country Girl and some of her personal correspondence. It was really great to see the original dresses she had worn in films like To Catch a Thief and High Society (although the blue dress from High Society had faded significantly, see image below), and to see an original Oscar up close was pretty cool too. 

The focus of the exhibition was Grace Kelly's wardrobe. One of the dresses on show was her famous wedding dress (unfortunately not the original one but a replica). All photos by Menno Mulder Photography/ Het Loo Palace.

Naturally, I was quite anxious to check out Grace's personal correspondence, and to see if there was anything I might be able to use for this blog. There were several letters on show, amongst them love letters from prince Rainier, correspondence from royals like our former queen Beatrix and princess Diana, and a great letter from director Jean Negulesco regarding rules and dress code for the 1955 Oscar Ceremony. I would have liked to use Negulesco's letter for this post, but photography was not allowed (there was a permanent guard near the display case keeping me from sneakily taking photos). But, of course I wouldn't be writing this post if I didn't have a letter to show you. Searching the net I found a wonderful letter that was not on display in Apeldoorn, but had been on show at the McCord Museum in Montreal in 2013. The letter was presumably written by John Springer (Grace Kelly's press agent) warning Grace about Jack Nicholson who wanted to have "a closer-than-fan relationship" with her. 

Via: cityowls


May 23

Dear Grace-Grace,

As your Defender here in America, I must warn you that you are about to hear from Jack Nicholson. Nicholson insists on having a closer-than-fan relationship with you and hopes that you have seen some of his pictures.. which might give him an opportunity to write this personal note he has in mind.

Rest assured I have monitored the contents of the note, and have forbidden him to say anything fresh. If he needs to be chastized when you get the note, let me know and I'll give him sharp cracks across the knuckles.

I experience some twinge of jealousy in this whole affair, but at least he is sincere. 

Much love

John (signed) 

Note: Earlier I posted one of the love letters from Rainier that was displayed at the exhibit in Apeldoorn (read here).