30 January 2016

Make no cracks about my behind!

Here's a light-hearted, funny exchange of memos between producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor. While their most-talked-about collaboration (the 1939 Gone with the Wind) had ended in Selznick firing Cukor, they had worked together successfully on several projects before. Their most successful pre-GWTW film was David Copperfield (1935), and the following memos were written while Selznick and Cukor were putting together the cast of that film. The two men had become friends years earlier, apparently in Rochester, N.Y, as Cukor mentions in his memo. (In the 1920s, Cukor worked there as a director of summer stock shows). After Cukor was fired from GWTW, the two remained friends although Cukor never really forgave Selznick .



To  Mr. Selznick
From  George Cukor
Date  Feb. 9, 1934

Dear Sir:

It was a consideration, and a very important one in my contract, that I was to have free access to your CAN on the first floor.

You have in direct violation of this- locked the door on your side. Unless this is rectified immediately, I will notify my agent, Myron Selznick, of Joyce, Ltd., who will then arrange for the abrogation of my contract.

This is not sent to you in any unfriendly spirit, but I am sure you will see my side of the question.



To  Mr. Cukor
From  D.O.S. 
Date  2/14/34

Well, so what about Bob Montgomery and that test?

If you think you are just going to stall this along until we leave for the East, you're crazy.....I'll leave you behind!




To  Mr. David Selznick
Subject  David Copperfield
From  George Cukor
Date  Feb.15, 1934

Dear Mr. Selznick:
Robert Montgomery

I'll thank you to make no cracks about my behind. I am dying to make the test of Mr. Montgomery. I think he will make an ideal David Copperfield.

I am also looking forward to renewing again the delightful friendship we started in Rochester. 

Incidentally, when the hell do we leave for New York?

Your ardent admirer,
George Cukor

Robert Montgomery didn't get the role of the adult David Copperfield; it ultimately went to Frank Lawton.

Images of the memos courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

25 January 2016

Casting Oklahoma!

On 21 September 1953, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote a letter to director Fred Zinnemann, expressing his concern over the slow casting process of Oklahoma!. Zinnemann had been hired to direct the film adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein's successful Broadway show, and Hammerstein he and Rogers were the film's (uncredited) executive producers was eager to get the ball rolling. Interested to know how things stood with Paul Newman who was considered for the role of the male protagonist Curly, Hammerstein wrote: "I spoke to Dick Rogers on the 'phone yesterday and I was disappointed to hear that so little had been done since I left, he had no report on the young man in whom we were so interested (was his name Newman?) I hope you, Dick and Arthur will follow this up right away." [read the full letter here]. 

Shortly after receiving Hammerstein's letter, Zinnemann held two days of auditions with Paul Newman and several other actors. One of them was James Dean who, like Newman, was trying to land his first film role as cowboy Curly (admittedly, Dean had appeared in films before but these roles were uncredited). Also tested were Joanne Woodward for the female lead role of Laurey, Rod Steiger for the role of Jud, and a few others. On 30 September 1953, Zinnemann reported back to Hammerstein, informing him about the recently held screen tests. Zinnemann's letter is shown below and is especially noteworthy for his remarks on Newman and Dean. 

James Dean, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Rod Steiger all auditioned for roles in "Oklahoma!", but only the latter was eventually cast.
Oscar Hammerstein II (left) and Fred Zinnemann on the set of "Oklahoma!".
Images letter via: Playbill Vault

Original source: Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences



Dear Oscar:

We had two full days of tests- Monday and Tuesday. I think that this is as good a time as any to report on my impressions. Arthur and I will not see the rushes until tomorrow, but I feel confident that seeing the rushes will not influence my present reactions. Also, tomorrow will be a very mixed-up day because I will be leaving for the coast and I am afraid that it would be impossible for me to write at that time.

Of the people tested, I was very much impressed with Eli Wallach, Rod Steiger, Joanne Woodward and James Dean (Curly). Wallach, I thought, was exceedingly original and yet he maintained the traditional feeling of "Oklahoma!". He was quite far away from any conventional acting and he got a great many laughs from the crew. I believe he could do extremely well as the Peddler, and I think it will be very difficult to improve on him.

Joanne has a lovely quality. It may be that she is a bit too wistful for the part, and perhaps she doesn't have quite the kind of radiance and vitality required for Laury. However, I was amazed at her ability to play the part believably- as though she were a very young and naive teenager.

Paul Newman is a handsome boy but quite stiff, to my disappointment. He lacks experience and would need a great deal of work. Still, in the long run he may be the right boy for us. He certainly has a most winning personality although I wish he had a little more cockiness and bravado. We were unable to shoot his love scene with Laury because we ran out of time and the kids had to get back to the show. They were not sufficiently up on it anyhow, and the scene would have been quite mediocre and would not have done them justice.

Rod Steiger, I feel, could make an excellent Jud. He has a real grasp of the character. He managed to make Jud an understandable human being. I believe he sets a standard of performance which will not be easy to improve upon.

Barbara Cook and Betty Garde both did quite well. Barbara Cook came off much better than I expected. Betty Garde is OK but does not have that extra quality of warmth and love which Marie Dressler could have given the part. Somehow I feel that we must find that kind of woman to play Aunt Eller. At any rate, we should test quite a few more Ado Annies, Aunt Ellers, Will Parkers and Laurys, not to mention Curlys.

We tested James Dean as Curly with Rufus Smith playing Jud. Dean seems to me to be an extraordinarily brilliant talent. I am not sure that he has the necessary romantic quality. Just the same I shot his scenes with great detail because I felt that with an actor of his calibre a standard of performance would be set up which would later on become very helpful as a reference and comparison. Also, in this scene I tried to work out a film approach to the characterizations of Jud and Curly. I would be very much interested to know what you think of the three characterizations as demonstrated by Wallach, Dean and Steiger after you have seen the rushes.

Before leaving I will see a number of actors Johnny has rounded up for Arthur and me. I understand that Johnny is not too sanguine about any of them, but on the other hand, he has not had a chance to work with them because of the tremendous demands on his time which Arthur and I have made.

I will be in California Friday night (October 2nd). I expect to return east around the 10th, on my way to the Caribbean. I will let you know the details just as soon as I know them.

Very best regards,


Fred Zinnemann


Mr. Oscar Hammerstein II
The Berkeley Hotel,
London, England


-The role of Curly finally went to Gordon MacRae in March 1954. Just before MacRae was chosen, Frank Sinatra was considered a serious contender. On 12 March, Zinneman wrote to producer Arthur Hornblow Jr.: "Oscar shares my feeling that Sinatra would be the ideal casting. He would like to bend every effort to see that we can get him". I'm not sure what happened with Sinatra, but by the end of the month it was MacRae who got the part. Zinnemann himself initially wasn't too happy with MacRae, as he wrote to casting director Barbara Wolferman on 24 March: "In regard to MacRae, you and I are in the minority and actually I am sure that he will do well and that the material will carry him along. It would have been wonderful to get an electric performance from somebody but I am afraid it is just not in the cards and at this late date we will just have to buckle down and do the best we can." [Zinnemann's full letter can be read here

-Despite Eli Wallach's impressive screen test, he did not get the part of Ali the Peddler; it was Eddie Albert who was eventually cast. The roles of Ado Annie and Aunt Eller, which Barbara Cook and Betty Garde auditioned for, respectively went to Gloria Grahame and Charlotte Greenwood. Rod Steiger did get the role of Jud, and it was 20-year-old Shirley Jones who was finally cast as Laurey.

I think that Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones were good choices for the roles of Curly and Laurey. And nobody could have sung those songs better!

19 January 2016

Barbara Stanwyck: The Ultimate Pro

The incomparable Barbara Stanwyck was an actress everybody loved to work with. She was a favourite with directors, fellow actors, and even crews and extras. Frank Capra, who had directed her in five films, once stated that "in a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down". 

Barbara was the consummate professional-- always on time and fully prepared, never complaining, and always ready to support her colleagues (for example, during the filming of Golden Boy (1939) she defended a young, insecure William Holden to studio boss Harry Cohn, who was about to fire him). Cecil B. DeMille once said that he had never worked with an actress who was "more co-operative, less temperamental and a better workman"; Lewis Milestone was impressed with her technical savvy and said that "she astonished everybody with her knowledge of lighting"; and Mitchell Leisen called her "the greatest" and said that "everybody worked harder, trying to outdo her."

And there were many others who respected and admired her. The four letters for this post show that also John Sturges, Fredric March, Gilbert Roland and Fletcher Markle, who had all worked with Barbara, commended her for her professionalism. Their letters, written in 1972, were addressed to Ella Smith, who was then preparing her biography about Barbara. Entitled Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, Smith's wonderful book was published in 1973.

The first letter shown below was written by director John Sturges who had worked with "Missy" (as he and other colleagues lovingly called her) on Jeopardy (1953). I love the last paragraph in which he explains how Barbara had learned to move the way she did.

A scene from "Jeopardy" with Ralph Meeker and Barbara (left photo); director John Sturges (right).
Via: icollector


June 13, 1972

Dear Miss Smith,

Please add me to what I am sure is the huge list of Missy's admirers. Making a picture with her is such a stimulating and productive experience, it's hard to think how it could be better.

Energy, optimism, an aggressive will to make things work, talent, total professionalism and with it all a disarmingly friendly and un-self important quality. In the relationship between actress and director, what else could you ask?

I recall one aspect of her approach to her work that struck me as meaningful. I commented one day on how purposefully and yet gracefully she moved, the marvelous sense of contained power in the way she walked, stood, sat down, or whatever.

She told me years ago in New York that she had the standard heel hitting clack-clack jolting walk of a chorus girl, which she was then. What to do? She went to the zoo, and for days and weeks studied the tigers, and made herself move like they did. That straight-on attack to become what she wanted to be seems to me a strong indicator of the kind of makeup she has as a person.


John Sturges (signed)


Ella Smith

The University of Connecticut
Dept. of Dramatic Arts
Storrs, Connecticut 06268

The second letter is from Fredric March who worked with Barbara on the 1954 Executive Suite.

Via: icollector



Dear Ella Smith,

As you say, I only did one film with Barbara S*. She was a joy to work with, a complete "pro", and more than knowledgeable about her craft.
As I recall she bruised her leg badly during the film + had a black n blue spot of sizeable dimension for days, which must have hurt badly. Never a whimper. She was a wonderfully good sport.
Sorry I'm not of more help, but I wish you great good luck with your venture.

Fredric March

Barbara Stanwyck and Fredric March in a scene from "Executive Suite" (above), and Barbara attending the Golden Globe Awards with Gilbert Roland in the early 1950s (below).
The following letter is from Gilbert Roland who worked with Barbara on two films, The Other Love (1947) and The Furies (1950).

Via: icollector


September 6, 1972
Beverly Hills, 

Dear Miss Smith;

Barbara Stanwyck is a most sincere woman in the world of make-believe: the film world.

She is a professional, considerate woman, and a joy to work with. 
No prima-donna attitudes with Barbara Stanwyck.
She is realistic with a tremendous sense of pride in her work. She is artistic, honest, real. 

I made love to Barbara Stanwyck in a scene from the film The Other Love, and dear Miss Smith, it was real.

She is devoid of temperament- because temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. 
She is not conceited-
because everyone has a right to be conceited until he is successful.

That is all, Miss Smith. No more. Nada mas. 
As Voltaire said: 
"The secret of being a bore is to tell everything."

Gilbert Roland (signed)

And finally, this is the part of Fletcher Markle's letter where he writes about his collaboration with Barbara; Markle had directed her in The Man with a Cloak (1951).

Via: icollector


Unfortunately I don't have your original letter immediately available-- but I do recall that you asked for an informal assessment of Miss Stanwyck as a performer and that you asked, particularly, why we did not employ her own voice in the recording of the song her character delivered in the picture.

The reason for not making use of Miss Stanwyck's own voice in the recording of the song elude me entirely. David Raksin composed the sore for THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (which, incidentally, introduced the 12-tone scale to film scoring) and it is my assumption that the range of the song was not a comfortable one for Miss Stanwyck.

Nevertheless, like every other aspect of her skills and talents, Miss Stanwyck gave us a superb example of what is known in the trade as "lip-syncing" when it came time to do the actual photography of the song. Which leads me to those other aspects of "Missy" Stanwyck's work: I have never had the privilege of collaborating with such a totally professional actress in the star category-- always first on the set in the morning, with any make-up and wardrobe problems behind her, all lines and movements perfectly memorized (not only her own but those of all others in a given scene) and, through the long hours of many a rough day, the essence of good cheer with an unselfish concern for the welfare of her colleagues. (How glad I am that you are not writing a book about Leslie Caron who cried, with monotonous regularity, at 10:15 every morning!)

I am aware that I used a term of endearment for Miss Stanwyck in the previous paragraph-- "Missy"-- and I hasten to say that it was always employed by members of the cast and crew as an indication of their admiration and respect for a lady of quality.

With warmest best wishes for every success with your book, I am,

Cordially yours,
Fletcher Markle,
Head of TV Drama

Barbara Stanwyck in a publicity still for "The Man with a Cloak" flanked by co-stars Leslie Caron, Louis Calhern and Joseph Cotton (left photo); Fletcher Markle (right).

This post is my contribution to the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a list of all the other entries, click here.