18 December 2018

Controversy on the set of Manpower

In April 1941, production of Raoul Walsh's Manpower was held up by two incidents involving the film's principal actors Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. During the first incident on 18 April, Raft verbally abused Robinson following a disagreement about a line of dialogue. A week later, on 26 April, Raft again engaged in verbal abuse and also pushed Robinson around on the set, this time witnessed by a photographer from Life magazine whose photo of the incident appeared in Life's May 1941 issue. Raft's feelings of animosity towards Robinson reportedly stemmed from his being third billed Robinson received top billing and leading lady Marlene Dietrich second billing— despite having the largest role in the film. Also, Raft was infatuated with Dietrich and believed he had a rival in Robinson.

This is the picture that appeared in the Life magazine issue from 12 May 1941 under the headline Robinson & Raft Stage Impromptu Fight On Set. Alan Hale (behind Robinson) tries to break up the fight while Ward Bond (sitting left) looks on.

On 30 April 1941, Roy Obringer (head of Warner Bros.' legal department) wrote the following letter to the Screen Actors Guild, giving a detailed description of the two incidents as mentioned above. The dispute between Robinson and Raft was eventually settled by SAG, after which the film was completed. While the two men buried the hatchet years later they would star in one more film together, A Bullet For Joey (1955)— in his 1973 autobiography All My Yesterdays Robinson maintained that Raft was "touchy, difficult and thoroughly impossible to play with."
Screen Actors Guild
care, Kenneth Thomson, Executive Secretary,
1823 Courtney Avenue
Los Angeles, California 
April 30, 1941
On or about March 24, 1941, the undersigned corporation commenced photography on its motion picture entitled Manpower, with Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, and George Raft, as principal players... As production on this motion picture progressed it became apparent to a number of persons engaged in and about the production that a feeling of hostility was being evidenced by Mr. Raft against Mr. Edward G. Robinson... The situation culminated in an unusually heated and disagreeable verbal attack by Mr. George Raft upon Mr. Edward G. Robinson on 18 April, 1941, on the premises of the undersigned Company at Burbank, California, and immediately outside Stage No. 11, on which the production was then being photographed... The controversy at that time appeared to arise over the inclusion or deletion of a certain line of dialogue in the final script covering said photoplay. Apparently, Mr. Raft was of the opinion that the line should not be spoken, although assigned to Mr. Robinson, whereas Mr. Robinson took the view that the line was in the script and was satisfactory to him, and that inasmuch as he considered the line an important one, he preferred to speak the line. Mr. Robinson then said, in substance, to Mr. Raft, "Look, George, you may think the line does not make any sense, but I have to speak it and it is all right with me." Thereupon, in the presence of the persons above named, and perhaps in the presence of other persons engaged on said production, Mr. George Raft directed toward Mr. Robinson a volley of profanity and obscene language with the express purpose and intent of embarrassing and humiliating Mr. Robinson and lowering his professional dignity and standing in the eyes of all those persons with whom he was obliged to work and come in contact in connection with the production of said photoplay.
In the opinion of those persons to whom representatives of the undersigned corporation have talked, the attack on Mr. Raft's part was wholly uncalled for and actually brought about a very serious disturbance in the production of said photoplay. The interruption and disturbance of production of the picture became so serious because of the situation that Mr. Hal B. Wallis, Executive Producer of the undersigned corporation, was called into the controversy, Mr. Edward G. Robinson left the set and went to his dressing room, and the entire production was stopped for several hours, resulting in a great and substantial loss to the undersigned. Several hours after the controversy had been temporarily quieted, production was proceeded with and approximately a week passed and, except as called for by the script and by the Director, Messrs. Robinson and Raft did not speak to one another, although the script proceeded upon the theory that the characters portrayed by Messrs. Robinson and Raft were close friends.
Just prior to twelve o'clock noon on Saturday, April 26th, while the cast in said production was engaged on said Stage 11, Mr. Robinson was rehearsing a scene wherein the script called for him  to be provoked by one of the other characters. The script called for Mr. Robinson to attack this character and during the attack the script required that Mr. Raft, playing the part of "Johnnie" in the production, make his entrance and seek to quiet the disturbance. Instead of conducting himself as called for by the script, Mr. Raft immediately undertook to and did violently rough-house and push the said Edward G. Robinson around the set in an unusually vigorous and forceful manner, with the showing of a great deal of personal feeling and temper on Mr. Raft's part, causing Mr. Robinson to wheel around and say to Mr. Raft, "What the hell is all this?" In reply to Mr. Robinson's question to Mr. Raft, Mr. Raft thereupon told Mr. Robinson to "shut up", and in the immediate presence of the persons hereinafter mentioned, directed toward him a volley of personal abuse and profanity, and threatened the said Edward G. Robinson with bodily harm, and in the course of his remarks directed and applied to Mr. Robinson in a loud and boisterous tone of voice, numerous filthy, obscene and profane expressions. Thereupon, Mr. Robinson walked into his dressing room on the set. A minute or so later Mr. Robinson returned to the set and addressed himself to Mr. Raft, substantially as follows: "George, what a fool you are for carrying on in such an unprofessional manner. What's the use of going on? I have come here to do my work and not to indulge in anything of this nature. It seems impossible for me to continue." Following such remarks Mr Raft directed another volley of profanity and obscene language toward Mr. Robinson, whereupon Director Raoul Walsh, Assistant Director Russell Saunders, and others, fearing further personal violence on the set between the two men, jumped in and separated them, and Mr. Edward G. Robinson left for his dressing room off the set and the entire production was stopped...
As a result of the controversy between the two Principals on Stage 11, all further work involving the two principals was suspended from just prior to noon on Saturday, April 26, 1941, until Monday morning, April 28, 1941, and the general confusion, etc., on the set was such that the undersigned corporation lost an entire day in production, resulting in a large financial loss to the undersigned corporation. The effect of the disturbance was such that Mr. Robinson became highly nervous and such nervous condition affected his voice and made the same husky so that he was unable to properly and clearly speak his lines and otherwise give the artistic and creative performance of which he is capable. The said Edward G. Robinson, by reason of the above-mentioned occurrences, has demanded of the undersigned corporation that it give him full protection on the set from bodily harm and insulting demeanor from Mr. George Raft, making the position of the Company an extremely difficult one in its effort to produce a photoplay of artistic merit under the circumstances shown...
The undersigned feels that the above occurrences are of such serious import that they should be officially called to the attention of the Screen Actors Guild...
Yours very truly, 
By: Roy Obringer 
Above and below: two scenes from Manpower with its three leading actors Robinson, Dietrich and Raft. The film became a solid box-office success despite the problems on the set. 

Source of the letter: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected, edited and annotated by Rudy Behlmer.

4 December 2018

Groucho & Chaplin

Around 1912, Groucho Marx saw Charlie Chaplin for the first time in Winnipeg (Canada), then an important city on the Vaudeville circuit. Groucho happened to be passing by the Empress Theatre where Chaplin was playing and hearing roars of laughter he decided to go in. In his autobiography Groucho and Me (1959), Groucho recalled telling his brothers about seeing Chaplin for the first time: "I told them I had just seen a great comic. I described him . . . a slight man with a tiny moustache, a cane, a derby and a large pair of shoes. I then penguin-walked around the depot, imitating him as best I could. By the time I finished raving about his antics my brothers could hardly wait to see him.

Doing a vaudeville tour themselves, Groucho and his brothers caught up with Chaplin in Vancouver a month later and met him backstage. In his autobiography, Groucho said that they became "real chummy" with Chaplin in the weeks that followed and even went to a "sporting house" together (according to Groucho, Chaplin was "terribly shy" back then). It wasn't until years later that Groucho ran into Chaplin again in Los Angeles, but by then Chaplin was already a star, having become the world's most famous comedian.

Above: July 1937- to celebrate the re-opening of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, tennis players and new owners Fred Perry (far left) and Ellsworth Vines organised a match- a battle between Britain and the U.S- with Chaplin teaming up with Perry and Groucho with Vines.// Below: April 1972- Chaplin, who lived in Switzerland after being labelled a communist in the 1950's, was invited back to the U.S. to accept his honorary Academy Award. Here he is pictured with Groucho and Danny Kaye looking on (photo by Candice Bergen).
Groucho greatly admired Chaplin. While he was not in the habit of complimenting other comedians, Groucho said about Chaplin in the May 1936 issue of Motion Picture magazine: "I know now there will never be anyone like him. He's in a class by himself, just as he has always been", and again in his 1959 autobiography: "He's still the greatest comic figure that the movies, or any other medium, ever spawned". Chaplin also admired Groucho, wishing he could talk on screen like Groucho did.

During the 65 years of their acquaintanceship, Groucho and Chaplin saw each other perhaps a dozen or so times (according to Hector Arce, author of Groucho (1979))One of the occasions where they had met was at dinner at the famous Chasen's restaurant in Hollywood on 4 September 1940. Groucho wrote a letter to his good friend Arthur Sheekman the next day, talking about his conversation with Chaplin. An excerpt from the letter is seen below (only the part that deals with Chaplin) with interesting remarks from Groucho such as "He's very odd. In some ways, he has no sense of humor at all [..]". Also, Groucho mentioned in his letter what I already mentioned above, i.e. that Chaplin envied him for talking so "swiftly" on the screen. Groucho later said it was the greatest compliment anyone had ever given him.

September 5, 1940
Dear Sheek,
I'm working terribly hard and I don't like it. I really don't mind the work; it's just that when I work, I sleep badly; and it's insomnia rather than labor that makes me feel lousy.
Last night I had dinner with Chaplin at Dave Chasen's and he was in high humor- unusual for him. He told me, among other things, that he's not Jewish but wishes he were. He said he was part Scotch, English and Gypsy, but I think that he isn't quite sure what he is. He's very happy about his movie [The Great Dictator]. He ran it yesterday for the Breen Office - it runs over 13,000 feet and there wasn't a foot cut out of it. He thinks it will be a big hit. He's very odd. In some ways, he has no sense of humor at all and then again it's wonderful. He told me he hated the English but that he hoped they would win the war. He also hates Noel Coward and even refuses to see his playlets, which are now running at El Capitan.
At the finish of the meal, the most astonishing thing happened: he grabbed the check (for six; it came around $30*) and refused to let me have it. I was quite relieved, but luckily I'm sunburned and I don't think the white or my nervousness was discernible through the tan. He has a reputation for stinginess but I have always found him generous- not only with his money but with his praise. He thinks I'm wonderful and said that he envies my glibness and wishes he could talk as swiftly on the screen as I do. Well, enough of Chaplin and me!

[*According to the inflation calculator $30 in 1940 would now be $541.90]

28 November 2018

My work is the only trustworthy hope I have

In late 1954, Marilyn Monroe broke her contract with 20th Century-Fox and left Hollywood for New York. Wishing to be taken seriously as an actress, Marilyn soon started attending classes at the prestigious Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg. Strasberg became Marilyn's acting coach and mentor --due to her shyness Marilyn was also privately tutored at his home-- and was ultimately one of the most important influences in Marilyn's life. When it came to her acting, Marilyn completely trusted Strasberg and at his suggestion even underwent psychotherapy to become a better actress. Marilyn's third husband Arthur Miller disapproved of the strong hold Strasberg had on Marilyn and called Marilyn's dependency on him "nearly religious". 

Above: Marilyn attending classes at the Actors Studio in New York, photographed by Roy Schatt. Below: Marilyn and Lee Strasberg photographed by Elliott Erwitt in 1960 while watching the rushes of The Misfits (1961).

1961 was a very difficult year for Marilyn, having to deal with her divorce from Arthur Miller in January, her admission to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in February as well as several health issues. During the last months of the year, Marilyn tried to take control of her life again and in December wrote to Lee Strasberg about wanting to make a new start ("I have hopes of finally establishing a piece of ground for myself to stand on, instead of the quicksand I have always been in"). Marilyn wanted to set up a new independent production unit* and needed Strasberg to join her in California, feeling that without him she could not succeed. She had also contacted Marlon Brando to help her set up this new ventureWritten eight months before her death, Marilyn's letter to Strasberg is quite interesting but also sad, as it clearly shows Marilyn's desperation to get her life back on track-- something which, as we know, never happened.

Apart from the letter to Strasberg, also shown below are a scribbled note from Marilyn to Marlon Brando (which was later sent as a telegram) and Brando's reply to her via telegramboth messages from January 1962. Marilyn wanted Brando's opinion about her plan to make Lee Strasberg settle in California, her message undoubtedly related to her letter to Strasberg a month earlier. Apparently Brando tried to phone Marilyn after receiving her message, but as he couldn't reach her he sent her a telegram instead.

Marilyn photographed by George Barris in 1962


December 19, 1961
Mr. Lee Strasberg
135 Central Park West
New York 23, New York
Dear Lee: 
This is an important personal letter and please don’t start to read it until you have the time to give it your careful thought. This letter concerns my future plans and therefore concerns yours as well since my future development as an artist is based on our working together. All this is an introduction; let me outline the recent events, my ideas and my suggestions. 
As you know, for years I have been struggling to find some emotional security with little success, for many different reasons. Only in the last several months, as you detected, do I seem to have made a modest beginning. It is true that my treatment with Dr. Greenson has had its ups and downs, as you know. However, my overall progress is such that I have hopes of finally establishing a piece of ground for myself to stand on, instead of the quicksand I have always been in. But Dr. Greenson agrees with you, that for me to live decently and productively, I must work! And work means not merely performing professionally, but to study and truly devote myself. My work is the only trustworthy hope I have. And here, Lee, is where you come in. To me, work and Lee Strasberg are synonymous. I do not want to be presumptuous in expecting you to come out here for me alone. I have contacted Marlon on this subject and he seems to be quite interested, despite the fact that he is in the process of finishing a movie. I shall talk with him more thoroughly in a day or two. 
Furthermore, and this must be kept confidential for the time being, my attorneys and I are planning to set up and [sic] independent production unit, in which we have envisaged an important position for you. This is still in the formative phase, but I am thinking of you in some consultative position or in whatever way you might see fit. I know you will want enough freedom to pursue your teaching and any other private interests you might want to follow. 
Though I am committed to my analysis, as painful as it is, I cannot definitively decide, until I hear from you, because without working with you only half of me is functioning. Therefore, I must know under what conditions you might consider coming out here and even settling here. 
I know this might sound quite fantastic, but if you add up all the possible advantages it should be a quite rewarding venture. I mean not only for Marlon and me-- but for others. This independent production unit will also be making pictures without me-- this is even required for legal reasons. This will offer an opportunity for Susan if she should be interested and perhaps even for Johnny. And Paulawould have a great many opportunities for coaching. As for you, Lee, I still have the dream of you some day directing me in a film! I know this is a big step to take, but I have the wish that you might realize out here some of the incomplete hopes that were perhaps not fulfilled for you, like Lincoln Center, etc. 
So I don’t know how else to persuade you. I need you to study with and I am not alone in this. I want to do everything in my power to get you to come out --within reason-- as long as it is to your advantage as well as mine. So, Lee, please think this over carefully; this is an awfully important time of my life and since you mentioned on the phone that you too felt things were unsettled, I have dared to hope. 
I have meetings set up with Marlon and also with my attorneys and will phone you if there are any important new developments. Otherwise, please get in touch with me. 
My love to all of you,

Sources: RR Auction and The Marilyn Monroe Collection (for the original image of the letter). 

Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando were both students of Lee Strasberg and had met at a party for the Actors Studio in the 1950s. They had a brief affair and afterwards remained friends until Marilyn's death in 1962.

Source: Bonhams


CR 12151 Western Union 

Dear Marlon 

I need your opinion about a plan for getting Lee out here on more than a temporary basis. Please phone me as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.


Source: Bonhams (image via CNN International)


1962 JAN 13 PM 1 06


* Notes:
-Marilyn Monroe had her own production company, being the third woman in Hollywood after Lois Weber and Mary Pickford. Tired of the dumb-blonde roles 20th Century-Fox kept offering her and of being underpaid at $1,500 per week, Marilyn founded 'Marilyn Monroe Productions Inc.' with friend and photographer Milton Greene in New York late 1954. As Marilyn was still under contract to Fox, a legal battle between her and the studio followed. By the end of 1955, following the immense success of The Seven Year Itch (1955), Fox (not wanting to lose its biggest star) had signed Marilyn to a new contract on hér terms, agreeing to give her more money, the right to pick her own projects, directors and cinematographers, and for each finished film with Fox Marilyn was free to make one film with her own company. In the end, Marilyn Monroe Productions produced only two pictures, i.e. Bus Stop (1956) which was co-produced with Fox and The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), MMP's only independent production. In 1957, Marilyn and Greene parted ways due to disagreements, after which Marilyn bought Greene's share of the company. MMP was to co-produce Something's Got To Give with Fox in 1962but Marilyn died before the film was finished.

-Lee's wife Paula also taught Marilyn and was her personal on-the-set acting coach and confidante during the production of several films; like her husband, Paula was a major influence in Marilyn's life. 
Susan and John were the Strasberg children (both actors), Susan being a good friend of Marilyn's.

19 November 2018

The Gunfighter and Gregory Peck's moustache

Henry King's The Gunfighter (1950) is a terrific Western about an ageing outlaw who tries to escape his past and comes back to town to see his wife and son. The film, which stars a wonderful Gregory Peck in the title role, was an atypical western for its time as it is, for the most part, devoid of any action and concentrates on the gunfighter's character. Today The Gunfighter is considered one of the finest psychological westerns ever made, a forerunner to classics such as High Noon (1952).

Upon release The Gunfighter received much critical acclaim, but it was not a commercial success making only a slight profit. Often cited as one of the main reasons for the film's mediocre performance at the box-office is Gregory Peck's moustache. Peck's unfamiliar look reportedly kept away audiences, especially female fans who wanted to see their idol clean-shaven, not sport a thick moustache while wearing grungy clothes.

The decision to give Peck a moustache came from director Henry King who aimed to give his film a historically accurate look. In the fall of 1949, King started filming without informing 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl Zanuck (in Europe at the time) or the studio's president Spyros Skouras about the period moustache. Both Zanuck and Skouras hated it when they finally saw the rushes, but by then it was too late to have Peck shave it off and have the production start over. Zanuck said that he would give $25,000 of his own money to get the moustache off Peck. Skouras claimed that the moustache eventually cost the studio a million dollars at the box-office.

A moustached Peck in a publicity shot for The Gunfighter and clean-shaven in Twelve O'Clock High.

On 13 July 1950, a month after the film had been released to the public, Zanuck wrote to producer Nunally Johnson about the film's disappointing box-office results. He mentioned two major complaints people were having about the film, among them Peck's "walrus" moustache. Concluding his memo, Zanuck pondered the unpredictability of the film business, wondering why certain films become box-office hits while others "that belong in the same category do not do fifty percent of the business".

NB! If you haven't seen The Gunfighter, Zanuck's memo contains a MAJOR SPOILER!

July 13, 1950
Mr. Nunally Johnson
20th Century-Fox Productions, Ltd.
Shepperton, Middlesex

Dear Nunnally:
Here is the story to date on The Gunfighter. It did miserable business at the Roxy Theatre in New York where, with the exception of Yellow Sky, no Western has done well in New York. It did ordinary business here in Los Angeles. It has done much better however in most places in the rest of the country.
It will be a profit-making picture, but in spite of its sensational reviews it receives everywhere, and the unstinted praise, we will be lucky if we do seventy or seventy-five percent of the business we did on Yellow Sky. Perhaps, in the outlying districts and western areas it will eventually come up to anticipation. As I said, in any event, it will be a profit-making picture but certainly nothing like we had every right to anticipate.
It is unquestionably a minor classic, but I really believe that it violates so many true Western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize Westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated.
By way of passing, [Fox executive] Al Lichtman showed me a report from the ushers at the Roxy Theatre [in New York City].  As you know, they have more than 100 ushers and floor employees and they are trained to talk to patrons whenever there is a gracious opportunity. What do you think the complaint is on the picture? I will list them separately:
a.) Why do they cast Gregory Peck in this kind of role and then put a walrus moustache on him and hide his face? If they wanted an ugly man, why didn't they take an ugly actor? Why waste Peck? This comment occurred hundreds of times, particularly from women and young girls.
b.) Why didn't they let him live at the finish? After all, he had been reformed. He could have been wounded, if they wanted to shoot him. But he should have been allowed to live.
The only thing I can say is that we live and learn. Sometimes, you wonder why classic pictures like The Snake Pit, Twelve O'Clock High and Pinky* are enormous box-office hits and other pictures that belong in the same category do not do fifty percent of the business. Yellow Sky, in my opinion, is not half the picture The Gunfighter is. Yet it went into a more formula mold and obviously had broader popular appeal. But, on the other hand, there was certainly no formula mold about The Snake Pit and look what it did....
Best always,
*NoteThe Snake Pit (1948) and Pinky (1949) are two Fox movies that deal with issues that were controversial at the time, resp. mental illness and racism. The western Yellow Sky (1948) and war film Twelve O'Clock High (1949) are two other films that starred Gregory Peck
Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years At Twentieth Century-Fox (1993); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.
Above: Producer/screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (left) and 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl Zanuck (r.) / Below: Millard Mitchell and Gregory Peck in a scene from The Gunfighter --who has the biggest moustache?-- with Helen Westcott in the middle.
This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall Blogathon OUTLAWS. Click here for links to all the other entries.

12 November 2018

The old Hopkins-Davis feud has flared up again

Long before Bette Davis had her infamous feud with Joan Crawford, she had a feud with Miriam Hopkins which was almost as legendary. Bette and Miriam met in 1928 when they worked together on stage in Excess Baggage directed by George Cukor. Bette said that back then Miriam was already trying to upstage her fellow actors, her scene-stealing clearly a compulsion.

Years later, Bette was chosen to play the lead in Jezebel (1938), a role Miriam had played on Broadway and had wanted to reprise in the film. Miriam was furious that Bette had stolen Jezebel, even more so when it earned Bette her second Oscar. Miriam also suspected Bette of having had a fling with her third husband (i.e. director Anatole Litvak) which made her hate Bette even more.

So by the time Bette and Miriam began work on their first film together The Old Maid (1939), the tone had already been set. Things didn't exactly improve when on the first day of filming Miriam showed up in a complete replica of one of Bette's Jezebel costumes. In her autobiography The Lonely Life (1962), Bette recalled: "Miriam used and, I must give her credit, knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one. A good actress, perfectly suited to the role; it all was a mystery to me. Keeping my temper took its toll. I went home every night and screamed at everybody."

During production of their second film Old Acquaintance (1943), the Davis-Hopkins feud continued. Things were no better than during The Old Maid and the clashes between the two divas slowed down production considerably, with filming ultimately lasting almost twice as long. Steve Trilling, executive assistant to Jack Warner, kept his boss in the loop about the goings-on on the set and about a month into production sent Warner the following memo.

DATE: December 19, 1942
SUBJECT: "Old Acquaintance"
TO: Col. J.L. Warner
FROM: Steve Trilling
...Bette Davis was out today partially illness and in my estimation partially a little temperament. The old Hopkins-Davis feud has flared up again but was very quickly stamped out by our immediately calling the turn on both of them. With Blanke and Sherman* I had a good long talk with Davis last night from 6 PM to 8 PM and this morning with Hopkins from 9 AM to 10:30. There were a lot of tears and a lot of denials of any differences but there has been constant tension on the set and all the old tricks of The Old Maid episode renewed. I told Hopkins that any continuance of tactics would result in my turning the entire matter over to the [Screen Actors] Guild and she would just be banned from pictures. Davis is no white lily either, and I warned her and she agreed to lean over a little backwards and cooperate to get this picture over with and get performances exactly as directed with no nonsense— and less takes. It all ended amicably with both parties vowing there would be no re-occurence. Davis' voice, however, was completely gone and as we had nothing else to go to we were forced to close down for the day....
As ever, 
[* Henry Blanke was the film's producer and Vincent Sherman the director ]


Source: Inside Warner Bros.(1935-1951) (1985), selected, edited and annotated by Rudy Behlmer.
Above: Warners' publicity department took advantage of the feud between the two stars and had them pose with boxing gloves with director Edmund Goulding looking on. Below: Gif from a scene of Old Acquaintance where Bette Davis' character has had enough of her old friend Miriam Hopkins and shakes her violently before throwing her into a chair. Bette reportedly loved doing the scene.

2 November 2018

Robert Mitchum's favourite role

I think it's quite interesting to know which role actors regard as their personal favourite. In an earlier post, James Stewart talked about his favourite role and why he liked it best (here). This post deals with Robert Mitchum's favourite role.  

The role Mitchum has always cited as his favourite and as his best performance is the role of the murderous preacher Harry Powell in Charles Laughton's only directorial effort The Night of the Hunter (1955). In a note to a fan (as seen below) Mitchum said there were more reasons than he could enumerate for liking this job better than others. While I don't know Mitchum's reasons, one of them must have been Charles Laughton. Mitchum was in awe of Laughton and has said on more than one occasion that Laughton was the best director he ever worked with. Laughton, in turn, also admired Mitchum and considered him one of the best actors in the world. The two worked very well together, even though Mitchum's heavy drinking during the last week of shooting led to problems on the set (at times Laughton couldn't get him in front of the camera). 

The Night of the Hunter is the only collaboration between Mitchum and Laughton. Disillusioned by the film's commercial and critical failure, Laughton never directed again.

Charles Laughton once said about Robert Mitchum in Esquire Magazine: "All this tough talk is a blind, you know. He's a literate, gracious, kind man, with wonderful manners, and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He's a tender man and a very great gentleman. You know, he's really terribly shy." 
Source: ebay



My favorite among the jobs I have had is The Night of the Hunter for more reasons than I can enumerate. What do you think?
Robert Mitchum

21 October 2018

A new low in the treatment of directors

In June 1944, Jack Conway was hired to direct The Clock (1945), Judy Garland's first dramatic film since joining MGM ten years earlier. Due to illness Conway worked on the film for only one week and was then replaced by relative newcomer Fred Zinnemann. Garland and Zinnemann didn't get along and Garland complained to producer Arthur Freed about their incompatibility ("I don't know he must be a good director, but I just get nothing. We have no compatibility", she reportedly said). After three weeks of shooting, Garland asked Freed to remove Zinnemann from the picture. Freed complied with the wishes of his star and at Garland's request hired Vincente Minnelli to continue the film. (Garland and Minnelli, who had dated during production of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), would rekindle their romance during the filming of The Clock and got married a year later.)

On the set of The Clock-- pictured above: producer Arthur Freed and leading lady Judy Garland looking over the script/ below: Judy Garland and co-star Robert Walker listening to director Vincente Minnelli .
Unhappy with being removed from the film, Fred Zinnemann wrote the following letter to Vincente Minnelli on 28 August 1944. While Zinnemann harboured no ill feelings against Minnelli, he did think Garland "behaved pretty badly" and also had "great contempt for the conduct of Arthur Freed". In the end, The Clock became a success under Minnelli's direction (although not a huge box-office hit) and was also well received by the critics. Most of Zinnemann's disappointing footage was not used.

Via: icollector


August 28, 1944

Dear Vince

Thanks very much for your very nice note. I was glad to have it and I would like to assure you that I have no hard feelings against you. In fact I do not see what else you could have done under the circumstances, but to accept the assignment.

I wish I could look upon the whole thing as a joke, but somehow it doesn't strike me very funny. I think this incident marks a new low in the treatment of directors, in professional ethics, tact and consideration which a director has a right to expect.

I think that Judy has behaved pretty badly in this whole setup and I have great contempt for the conduct of Arthur Freed- both as a producer and as a man.

However, for your sake and for the sake of Bob Walker and Bob Nathan*, I hope this turns out to be a very fine and very successful film. Please believe me when I say that I hold nothing but good thoughts and the best wishes for you. 

Once again, thanks for the note - and the very best of luck.

Fred Zinnemann

[* Robert Walker was the film's male lead and Robert Nathan the screenwriter.]

Fred Zinnemann would enjoy his greatest successes a decade later with such classics as High Noon (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953) and Oklahoma! (1955).

14 October 2018

To memo or not to memo

Mega-producer David O. Selznick first started to dictate memos when he was a teenager working as an apprentice for his father, silent film producer and distributor Lewis J. Selznick. "I was self-conscious about my youth and in giving orders and expressing myself verbally, but dictating permitted me to hide behind the front of what I liked to think were impressive memos", he later recalled. Selznick got into the habit of writing memos early on and it became his way of communicating with everyone. He liked memos because they were written proof of what had been said and agreed upon and could be referred to if necessary. Also, like his father, he had no patience for small talk, so communicating via memos served him well. But while Selznick was an avid memo writer --the memos collected in Rudy Behlmer's wonderful Memo from David O. Selznick (1972) are only a fraction of what he actually wrote-- every once in a while he did try to cut down on them.

During the filming of his production of Rebecca (1940), Selznick decided to abandon his usual communication via memo by giving verbal instructions regarding the 'look' he wanted for the second Mrs de Winter, played by Joan Fontaine. However, as Selznick would later discover, his instructions were communicated wrong, leading to confusion on the set. Apparently someone had said that Selznick wanted Fontaine to look 'glamorous' while in fact he wanted the exact opposite. Appalled that people were given the wrong message, Selznick wrote to production manager Ray Klune (via memo of course), complaining about the situation and also wishing to know who the culprit was.


October 6, 1939
To: Mr Klune
Every time I try to cut down on my memos by giving verbal instructions, something happens which discourages me.
For months now I have been trying to tell everybody connected with Rebecca that what I wanted in the girl, especially in the first part, was an unglamorous creature, but one sufficiently pretty and appealing, in a simple girlish way, for it to be understandable why Maxim would marry her. But I was apparently unsuccessful with everybody for a long period of time.
The other day I sent verbal word to the set to be sure there was no misunderstanding that I wanted the girl to look as pretty and appealing as she could as long as she was not glamorous. The message was delivered to Miss Fontaine, to the cameraman, hairdresser, and everybody else that I wanted her to look "glamorous... more than at Manderley." This naturally threw everybody into confusion and obviously must have made everybody think I had suddenly gone mad. For the sake of whatever is left of my reputation for sanity, I should appreciate it if you would trace this error and explain what happened to those who received the message. And I should like to know, for my own sake, just who, stupidly or mischievously, delivered the message wrong.
Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer 

Above: David Selznick with two of his secretaries Virginia Olds (back to camera) and Frances Inglis while dictating a memo in 1941. Below: Joan Fontaine as the unglamorous second Mrs de Winter in Alfred Hitchock's Rebecca (1940).

30 September 2018

My contract is ridiculous

During Hollywood's studio system, Bette Davis was one of the first actors to openly challenge her contract. After winning the Oscar for her performance in Dangerous (1935), Bette felt entitled to better pay, better roles and more vacation time (among others). Her studio Warner Bros., however, refused to give her what she wanted. When Bette in turn refused to play in a film that Warners offered her (i.e. God's Country and the Woman (1937)) she was suspended without pay. 

Defying her contract with Warners, Bette took off for England to make two films with an independent production company. In September 1936, she was sued by Warners for breach of contract. Warners won the case and Bette, in debt with no income, had to return to Hollywood to work. Despite losing the lawsuit, Bette did get better roles starting with Marked Woman (1937). The most successful period of her career soon followed with the lead in Jezebel (1938) for which she won her second Oscar. After that she starred in Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex all released in 1939 and all box-office hits. Bette had now become the studio's most profitable star and was even dubbed "The Fifth Warner Brother".

Bette Davis and her boss Jack L. Warner-- pictured above at the Academy Awards Ceremony held on 5 March 1936 where Bette received the Oscar for Best Actress for Dangerous, and below at a studio party ca. 1945.
During her employment with Warner Bros. (1932-1949), Bette wrote several letters to her boss Jack Warner showing her dissatisfaction with her contract two of these letters are seen below. 

First up is a letter from June 1936.  Bette had received her Oscar for Dangerous earlier that year on 5 March and wrote to Warner asking for several privileges concerning her contract. As said before, Bette did not get what she wanted and subsequently left for England.

June 21, 1936 
Dear Mr. [Jack] Warner:
In reference to our talk todayit seemed to me our main problem is getting together on the money. You as Head of your firm, naturally know what your concern can afford and what they can't.  
I have no desire to be "off your list" and I feel sureyou do not wish it either. I agree lots of harm can be done thru publicity. Believe me when I tell you I have thought and prepared for every angle of this for a long time now. I also know you have the right to keep me from workinga great unhappiness to me because I enjoy workingespecially after my long vacation. I am so rested it hurts! However, there comes a time in everyone's career when certain things make working worth-while. I am now referring to the very few rights I have asked forwhen I saw you in your office the other day you assured me you would do all the things I wanted anyway with the exception of the loan-out [to other studios], so it is hard for me to understand why you object to putting it in writing. Five years is a long timeanything can happenso you must see my side of itprotection. You can't blame anyone for protecting themselves. If I am worth anything to you at allyou can't mind letting me know it in writingif I'm not this letter is in vain. 
As to the "loan-out clause", I am the kind of a person who thrives under change. I have never wanted this clause because I wanted to feel I was my own bosshave authority of my ownquite the contrary. I like a bosssomeone to look up to whose opinion I respect as I do yours. Mentallya change does me goodmakes me do better work, I like working with new directors, new casts, etc. I also am ambitious to become known as a great actressI might, who can tell. Every once in a while a part comes along peculiarly suited to me. I want to feel, should a role come my way, I am at liberty to take advantage of it. If no such part ever appears in five years, then I will not take advantage of my right. In that case I am very anxious to travel, thus the request for three consecutive months vacation. Travel is also changegood publicity for you and me both and particularly important to me during the next five years as I have never been out of this countryit is broadening to one's intellect and will help me I'm sure in my work and thus help you. I am an essentially high-strung personfor that reasonchange means rest and I must have rest. 
To get back to our call and the purpose of this letter, I would be willing to take less money, if in consideration of this, you would give me my "rights." You have asked me to be level headed in this matter. I feel I am extremely and I hope you can agree that I am. I am more than anxious to work for you again, but not as things stand. I really would be unable to do justice to my work at allas I would feel I was coming backnot entitled to the things I sincerely believe I deserve. 
As a happy person, I can work like Hellas an unhappy one, I make myself and everyone around me unhappy. Also I know and you do tooin a business where you have a fickle public to depend on, the money should be made when you mean something, not when the public has had time to tell you to "go to hell"... 

Bette's wish to be loaned out to other studios, during her time at Warners she was loaned out only twice, i.e. to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934) and to Samuel Goldwyn for The Little Foxes (1941).]

Bette Davis photographed in 1939 in her beloved home Butternut cottage in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire-- her escape from her busy life in Hollywood.

The second letter is from September 1939. Having made five films in twelve months, Bette was exhausted and demanded a new contract limiting her pictures to two per year "with a possible third if all conditions [were] favorable". She refused to do the film 'Til We Meet Again (1940) that was offered to her nextthe part went to Merle Oberon and took an extended vacation in her native New England. Bette wouldn't return to work until January 1940, her next film being All This, and Heaven Too (1940). 

The five films that had left Bette Davis exhausted and made Warners a lot of money-- clockwise from top left: Dark Victory, Jezebel, The Old Maid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Juarez.


September 1, 1939
Franconia, N.H.
Dear J.L.,
Have just finished talking to Hal [Wallis, head of production at Warners]. I must explain one thingfor the first time in my life I don't care whether I ever make another picture or not. I am that overworked. I have given you a lot of honest effort in the past eight years. The time has come when I feel I have earned some privileges in writing. These I must have.
My contract is ridiculous. I have no protection whatsoever. I must have limited pictures I must have time off between. I think two [per year] is all I should make with a possible third if all conditions are favorable. The Wood Bros. [managers] know all the conditions— and were given to understand some weeks ago that you were willing to write a contract for me that would not be very far from what I wanted.
It is up to you. I am very serious about all this because I must be for my own good. If necessary I am even willing to stand the gaff of unemployment. Health is one thing that can't be manufactured. I am very serious about mine— and willing to go to any length to protect it. And staying in Hollywood working almost forty weeks of the year does not make sensefrom your standpointbox office can be ruined by too many picturesas you well know.
Would appreciate your not communicating with meit upsets me very much. I must be allowed to completely forget business...
Also arguing with me is no usenor do I want to come back until it is settled.
(signed) Bette Davis 

Source: Inside Warner Bros.(1935-1951) (1985), selected, edited and annotated by Rudy Behlmer.