26 March 2016

I wish I may go broke wiring you

In January 1938, Vincent Price was asked by Orson Welles to join the Mercury Theatrean independent theatre company founded by Welles and producer John Houseman. Price was thrilled to join Welles and signed a contract for five plays. At first, Price and Welles worked well together and also seemed to have a lot in common. They were both in their twenties, ambitious, had Midwestern origins, were both art lovers, and their fathers were even old college friends who once did magic shows together. But after a while, Price grew dissatisfied with Welles and his undisciplined and erratic behaviour. (Welles didn't show up for rehearsals, or he decided not to do a show at all and then not bother to tell the actors.)

In the summer of 1938, Price left the company and soon made his film debut in the screwball comedy Service de Luxe. He would never work with Welles again and later said of him: "I'm sorry I never got to know Orson Welles better, but he became a legend before his time. He could have been one of the greatest theatrical and cinema directors, but he had to act. Whether he acted or directed, a play was his show and finally, for that reason and for the fact that he ignored contracts and gave no one else any credit, the Mercury fell apart." [source]

During his days with the Mercury Theatre, Price did two plays for Welles, i.e. Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday and George Bernhard Shaw's Heartbreak House. The Shoemaker's Holiday was quite successful and ran for 69 performances with Price in a critically acclaimed role; Heartbreak House received good reviews too and ran for six weeks. 

Below you'll find a few telegrams Welles sent to Price in connection with the plays. With the first telegram dated 19 November 1937, Welles and his associate John "Jack" Houseman were trying to persuade Price to accept the role of Master Hammon in their upcoming play The Shoemaker's Holiday (at the time Price was still playing in The Lady Has a Heart on Broadway). The second telegram is undated and was sent to Price on the opening night of one of the two plays (I'm not sure which). And the last telegram is a short personal message from Welles to Price sent on 29 April 1938, just before the opening of their second play Heartbreak House.


Vincent Price
Longacre Theatre

Have you conferred with that scabrous management of yours stop
We think you are crazy if you don't play Hammon and so do you

Orson and Jack Mercury.



Vincent Price
Mercury Thea[tre]

I wish I could wire as well as you
I wish I could wire you firmly and fully all the things I mean and can't say
And I wish I may go broke wiring you on Mercury openings



Vincent Price
Mercury Theatre

Please believe everything I told you last night and thank you
All my love


Images of the telegrams courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

19 March 2016

You'd be most welcome

Katharine Hepburn and Bob Dylan were once neighbours. They both lived in New York in Manhattan's Turtle Bay neighbourhood --Hepburn at 244 East 49th Street and Dylan at 242. Hepburn had lived at the address since 1931 when she rented the townhouse with her husband Ludlow Ogden Smith. Following her divorce from "Luddy", Hepburn bought the four-story house and still owned it when she died in 2003. (She lived there until the 1990s and then retired permanently to her other home in Connecticut.) The rented house which Dylan lived in was once owned by screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. Kanin and Gordon were good friends of Hepburn's, and in 1951 when the house came up for sale, they bought it and were Hepburn's neighbours for some 40 years.

Back to neighbour Dylan. While living next door to Hepburn, at one time he invited her to join the graduation party of his daughter. By way of invitation, Dylan wrote Hepburn a brief note (as seen below) saying she'd be quite welcome to join the party. Apparently, Hepburn never showed [source]. 

Katharine Hepburn was a beloved resident of the Turtle Bay neighbourhood. She could often be seen cycling through the neighbourhood, shopping in its small stores or shovelling snow from her front entrance. After her death in 2003, the intersection of East 49th Street and 2nd Avenue was renamed "Katharine Hepburn Place".


Dear Katharine Hepburn

My daughter is having a graduating party in the rented house next door to you, (the one with the dog)
It will be from 7:30 to 10- if you could stop by, you'd be most welcome

Bob Dylan

14 March 2016

A tissue of lies and misquotations

Recently I saw Tallulah Bankhead in Royal Scandal (1945) and Devil and the Deep (1932), which are the first films I've seen her in. Knowing very little about her, I read up on her a bit and learnt that she had actually made very few films (she apparently thought cinema was very boring). Bankhead had been quite active on the stage though, her most critically acclaimed performances being in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes in the role Bette Davis would later play in William Wyler's 1941 film adaptation and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. Apart from being famous as an actress, Bankhead was also known —and perhaps more so for her flamboyant personality, her mannerisms (often the subject of parodies), her uninhibited sex life, her drug and alcohol problems, and also her outrageous remarks. (About sex she once said: "I've tried everything. Going down on a woman gives me a stiff neck. Going down on a man gives me lockjaw. Conventional sex gives me claustrophobia." (source))

Marie Bankhead Owen
Tallulah Bankhead came from a very prominent political family in Alabama, the Brockham Bankheads. Her grandfather and her uncle were both U.S. Senators, and her father was Speaker of the House of Representatives (from 1936 to 1940). In 1932, Bankhead caused quite a commotion when she gave an interview to Gladys Hall of Motion Picture Magazine, in which she ranted about the state of her life, about how she hadn't had an affair for six months and how she desperately wanted a man. Bankhead's bosses in Hollywood were very upset about the article, and so was her family back home

On 6 August 1932, Marie Bankhead Owen wrote a letter to her niece reprimanding her for her interview with Gladys Hall. Five days later, Tallulah replied by telegram (shown below) stating that the article was "a tissue of lies and misquotations". Tallulah was very concerned about what her father's reaction would be and promised to refuse all magazine interviews from then on. As you can see, the telegram was addressed to Mrs. Bankhead Owen at the Department of Archives and History of Montgomery Alabama; Tallulah's aunt Marie was head of the department and, after succeeding her husband Thomas Owen on his death in 1920, was the first woman in Alabama to hold such a position.

Transcript: (for your convenience I added some punctuation)

1932 Aug 11 AM 6 06

BMA17  172 NL Los Angeles Calif 10

Mrs. Bankhead Owen
Dept Of Archives And History Montgomery Ala[bama]

Darling Aunt Marie,

I entirely agree with every word you say. The article is a tissue of lies and misquotations from beginning to end. If you don't give interviews, they get annoyed and make up any malicious and untrue thing they can, protecting themselves from libel by prestacing every remark with an 'I hear' or 'It is rumored'. 

My only reference to love or men in the entire interview was quote I am bored when I am not in love. This sole remark is a substance of the distorted article. If daddy has read it, please send him this wire. I don't know where he is. If he has not, don't worry him about it. Hereafter I shall refuse all magazine interviewers. I am so sorry you being so upset, but please believe me, I could not and would not say or do one tenth of the things accredited to me. It is one of the many disadvantages of being in the public eye in any capacity.

Love and bless you

12 March 2016

One of the most rewarding locations

The last of five westerns director Anthony Mann and James Stewart did together was a film for Columbia Pictures, The Man from Laramie (1955). It was shot on location in New Mexico and was one of the first westerns to use CinemaScope. In a letter to Columbia boss Harry Cohn, James Stewart called the film's location "one of the toughest, and yet one of the most rewarding locations" of his career. Stewart's letter written on 6 December 1954 during the film's shooting— is shown below and accompanied a still photo made on location (shown right) which Stewart had promised to send to Cohn.

Bill Goetz, whom Stewart mentions as the guy who picked out the photo, was the film's producer. And The Man from Laramie was based on a serial of the same name by Thomas T. Flynn, which was published in The Saturday Evening Post in early 1954— hence Stewart's reference to it.


December 6, 1954
Dear Harry Cohn:
The still pictures made on location in New Mexico, where we filmed almost all of our picture, are beginning to come through the lab, and this was among the first batch.
I promised to send you a sample, so Bill Goetz picked this one out himself, insisting that this particular shot had the combined elements of tension, excitement and dramatic power of the Saturday Evening Post serial, as well as the rugged background of the Pueblo Indian country. And who am I to argue with the boss?

Fact is, we’re all quite excited — cast, crew and front office — with the results of one of the toughest, and yet one of the most rewarding, locations in my experience.
Hope the picture gives you some idea why we feel this way.
My best,
Jimmy (signed)
James Stewart
The MAN From Laramie

Source letter: Sony Pictures Entertainment Museum

James Stewart in "The Man from Laramie" and Columbia chief Harry Cohn

7 March 2016

George Bush is no Gene Kelly!

On 16 March 2008, Maureen Dowd, journalist for The New York Times, wrote a column about then-president George Bush in which she compared him to Gene Kelly: "The dollar's crumpling, the recession's thundering, the Dow's bungee-jumping and the world's disapproving, yet George Bush has turned into Gene Kelly, tap-dancing and singing in a one-man review called "The Most Happy Fella"."

While reading the column, Patricia Ward Kelly --Gene Kelly's third wife and married to Kelly from 1990 until his death in 1996-- was shocked by the comparison made by Dowd and immediately wrote a letter to the editor.

To the Editor:
Re "Soft Shoe in Hard Times" (column, March 16):
Surely it must have been a slip for Maureen Dowd to align the artistry of my late husband, Gene Kelly, with the president's clumsy performances. To suggest that ''George Bush has turned into Gene Kelly'' represents not only an implausible transformation but a considerable slight. If Gene were in a grave, he would have turned over in it.
When Gene was compared to the grace and agility of Jack Dempsey, Wayne Gretzky and Willie Mays, he was delighted. But to be linked with a clunker -- particularly one he would consider inept and demoralizing -- would have sent him reeling. 
Graduated with a degree in economics from Pitt, Gene was not only a gifted dancer, director and choreographer, he was also a most civilized man. He spoke multiple languages; wrote poetry; studied history; understood the projections of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. He did the Sunday Times crossword in ink. Exceedingly articulate, Gene often conveyed more through movement than others manage with words.
Sadly, President Bush fails to communicate meaningfully with either. For George Bush to become Gene Kelly would require impossible leaps in creativity, erudition and humility. 
Patricia Ward Kelly
Los Angeles, March 16, 2008 
Source: The New York Times

4 March 2016

What's in a title?

Before any film could be submitted to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for approval, the title of that film first had to be approved and registered with the MPPDA's Title Registration Bureau. Titles that were considered to be in violation of the Production Code were rejected and had to be changed. But prior to 1934 --the year in which the PCA was established and the Code began to be enforced-- many Pre-Code films could still get away with titles which were forbidden under the Code. 

In 1938, Universal wanted to re-issue Laughter in Hella crime film which was originally released in 1933. Studios that wanted to re-issue films had to obtain approval from the PCA. But before Universal could get PCA approval, the film's title had to be dealt with first. On 6 June 1938, Francis Harmon (in charge of the Eastern Division of the PCA) wrote to Geoffrey Shurlock (assistant to PCA chief Joseph Breen) after attending a Board meeting: "[...] I doubt whether we should approve a reissue unless and until the title has been changed. [...] There seems to be unanimity that the word "hell" in a title should not be approved unless used in connection with a geographical location." Shurlock wrote back on 10 June: "Are you referring only to possible future re-issues in which the title contains the word "hell", or is it your thought that all titles of future re-issued pictures should be cleared before we issue the certificate?" [source]

The ruling was that indeed áll titles of re-issues should be cleared through the Title Registration Bureau before PCA approval could be given, much to the dismay of Joseph Breen. On 2 August 1938, Breen wrote the following letter to Francis Harmon, clearly annoyed with the new procedure. Seeing that these changes would only add to his already heavy workload and increase PCA's "tremendous amount of red tape", Breen announced to take up the matter with their boss Will Hays and see what could be done about it.

Incidentally, I could find no information whether Laughter in Hell had indeed been re-issued under a different title.

Source: MPPDA Digital Archive


August 2, 1938

Mr. Francis S. Harmon
28 West 44th Street,
New York City

Dear Francis:

I have your telegraphic reply to my wire of last night, in which you tell me we are authorized to approve only those pictures whose titles have been cleared through the Title Bureau and that this regulation applies to the titles of all re-issues.

Joseph I. Breen
We shall, of course, be guided by this regulation, but I must say we are beginning to feel that the extraneous matters, incident to our job of the P.C.A. are beginning to become exceedingly heavy and irksome. You understand, I am sure, that we shall have an immense amount of trouble with our companies over this ruling that titles on re-issues have to be approved in New York. This will mean that the companies will have to go all through the same formula, as they did in the initial effort, and I am sure that they will find it difficult to understand why it is that they will have to have titles approved, on which they already have approval, and, of course, a legal copyright.

However, we shall do as you have suggested until such time as it will be necessary for us to augment our staff here to take care of all these increasing incidentals, which, strictly speaking, have no part in our general responsibility.

Incidentally, I am making it a matter of discussion with Mr. Hays to see if some way can be found to minimize and lessen the tremendous amount of red tape, which seem to be creeping into the P.C.A. work. For my part, I am all against it.

However, once again thanks for all your kindness--

Cordially yours,
Joseph I. Breen