31 January 2018

Dear Miss Shearer

Canadian-born Norma Shearer arrived in New York in 1920 aged 17, hoping to become one of Florenz Ziegfeld's new 'Follies'. Ziegfeld, however, rejected her after which Shearer, determined to make it in America, sought and found work as an extra in several films. A year later, Shearer got a bigger break, landing a minor role in a B-film called The Stealers. Irving Thalberg, vice-president of Louis B. Mayer Pictures (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), was impressed with Shearer's work and eventually signed her to a contract in November 1923. Shearer's first contract was a six-month contract with options for renewal, her first salary being $250 per week.

On 6 May 1924, Irving Thalberg wrote the following letter to Norma Shearer regarding the renewal of her contract. Thalberg informed Shearer that her contract would be extended for one year and her salary raised to $450 per week. By the end of 1925, Shearer had signed a new contract with MGM at $1,000 per week, to be increased to $5,000 over the next five years. Shearer would be at the height of her career in the 1930s when she was known as the 'Queen of MGM'. In 1937, she signed her last contract with MGM, which was a six-picture deal at $150,000 per film (the deal included Marie Antoinette (1938), The Women (1939) and Escape (1940)). 

Thalberg's letter was written 3 years before he and Shearer would be married. The couple remained married until Thalberg's untimely death in 1936. They had two children.



Miss Norma Shearer
C/o Louis B. Mayer Studios, Inc.,
43800 Mission Road,
Los Angeles, California.

Dear Miss Shearer:

Referring to your contract of employment with us, dated November 14th., 1923, and particularly to paragraph Twenty-two (b) 22 (b) thereof, you are hereby notified that the undersigned elects to and does hereby exercise the option provided for in said paragraph Twenty-two (b) 22 (b), namely, of extending the term of your employment for an additional period of twelve (12) months, commencing June 14th., 1924, upon the terms and conditions contained in said contract, and that the compensation to be paid to you for a period of not less than forty (40) weeks during said period shall be Four Hundred and Fifty Dollars ($450.00) per week. 

Yours very truly,
BY "signed Irving Thalberg"

27 January 2018

We have simply got to do something about the Cukor situation

In 1936, George Cukor was hired by producer David O. Selznick to direct his next project Gone with the Wind (1939). Principal photography on GWTW, however, would not start until years later (in January 1939), mainly because of the long search for the perfect Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. Between his GWTW pre-production duties, Cukor was involved in other projects like MGM's The Wizard of Oz (1939), where he briefly replaced Richard Thorpe after he was fired, and Selznick's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938)*. As to the latter film, Cukor had declined Selznick's directing assignment but agreed to work on a couple of scenes (uncredited).

By the fall of 1938, Cukor had declined several other directing jobs offered to him by Selznick, including Intermezzo (1939). Having paid Cukor's salary since early 1937 without getting much in return, Selznick was beginning to see Cukor as "a very expensive luxury". On 21 September 1938, Selznick wrote to Daniel O'Shea (one of his associates at Selznick International Pictures) that something should be done about "the Cukor situation". In his memo (as seen below in transcript), Selznick expresses his annoyance to O'Shea over Cukor's refusal to accept any of his assignments, stating that they could no longer be "sentimental about it" since they were "a business concern and not patrons of the arts". 

In the end, Cukor was kept on Selznick's payroll for several months longer. On 26 January 1939, he began filming GWTW, but was fired from the project within three weeks and replaced with Victor Fleming. Cited as reasons for Cukor's dismissal were (among others) his slow work pace and disagreement with Selznick about the script.

George Cukor (above) and David Selznick (below) had been friends since the early 1930s. After Selznick had fired Cukor from Gone with the Wind the men remained friends, although it is said that Cukor never forgave Selznick for being removed from the film.

September 21, 1938
To: Mr. Dan O'Shea
I have reluctantly, and at long last, come to the conclusion that we have simply got to do something, and promptly, about the Cukor situation. I have thought that George was a great asset to the company, but I am fearful that he is, on the contrary, a very expensive luxury... regardless of his great abilities...
George has been with us now for a long time and we have yet to get a picture out of him. We are in danger actually of winding up paying him about $300,000 for his services on Gone With the Wind. 
There is a large measure of justice in George's statement that this is not his fault-- and that he could have done pictures; and this is because we have not forced him to do pictures. But it is also because we have deferred to his own wishes-- and we have got to make our position clear so that the same thing does not occur in the future....
When I first tackled A Star Is Born I spoke to George about doing it and he didn't feel that he wanted to do a Hollywood picture. When we took [director H.C.] Potter off Tom Sawyer I spoke to George about doing it, and he didn't want to. When we needed him for another picture, he preferred to direct Garbo. Probably when we need him for another picture later, he will prefer to do another Garbo....
Let's take the immediate situation: We have quite a period of time before George will be requiered on Gone With the Wind-- time for any director in the business to make a picture. We have only one picture for him to direct, and that is Intermezzo. George doesn't like it....
But let's say that we are nice enough not to force him to direct it. Then we offer him an outside picture with [Claudette] Colbert: he doesn't like it. We offer to try to get him a picture at Columbia: he doesn't want to work for Columbia...
As to Gone With the Wind, I would be willing to negotiate a new deal with him for this particular picture, without, however, the obligation to make such a deal if his terms are exorbitant. We must bear in mind that we could get great benefits for the future in the way of a contract director of importance if we were able to offer Gone With the Wind-- by contrast with George, who is willing to do Gone With the Wind for us but isn't willing to take our other pictures. For instance, I am confident that we could sign Victor Fleming if we would give him Gone With the Wind as his first picture-- and if we wanted him instead of borrowing [Jack] Conway from MGM. I am sure that we could even sign Frank Capra, who is dying to do Gone With the Wind-- although offhand I don't think I would want him to do it as I don't think we need him on it, and I mention this only to show the buying power of a directorial assignment on Gone With the Wind.
In any event, I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation and we can no longer be sentimental about it.... We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts....
Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

David Selznick and George Cukor pictured above in 1934 and below in January 1939 (at the contract signing for Gone with the Wind with Leslie Howard, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland).

Note: *The Wizard of Oz was eventually directed by Victor Fleming; when Fleming replaced Cukor on Gone with the Wind, King Vidor finished the filming of The Wizard of Oz. And Norman Taurog directed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer replacing H.C. Potter who was fired; like Cukor, William Wellman also made uncredited contributions to the film.

18 January 2018

How to write a gift note- by Bette Davis

On 6 February 1950, Bette Davis wrote this very funny note to director Bretaigne Windust, with whom she had worked on June Bride (1948) and Winter Meeting (1948). Bette, known for her wicked sense of humour, wrote the note as an accompaniment to her gift to "Windy", which was a thermos-bottle case.

There are no initials on this thermos-bottle case (which can also be used as a golf-ball carrier, footstool, paperweight for blueprints, umbrella stand, something to accidentally drop on the toes of unpleasant people during arguments, something to hide behind while searching for the names of people you are about to introduce, superb storage place for scarves, tennis socks, useful rags, rain hats, gardening gloves, all kinds of mittens, potatoes, sockies, bulbs, and marshmallows) because I wasn’t certain you wanted one of these things for yourself, or for someone else, or whether or not you admired my case simply to endear yourself to me before launching into a trying afternoon’s work. I shall perfectly understand if you return it (Bon Voyage Shop, Beverly Hills). For one thing, it is apt to stretch the area above the hand you carry it with several inches, flatten your head if you like to carry things on your head, and it will certainly make your car lean slightly to the right, wearing down the tires on that side, heaven only knows what would happen if you and the case are on the same side of the car. It is not beautifully wrapped because I was afraid that if I gave it to you in the box it came in you would think that I had given you an electric quilt, or a portable television set, both of which might have had a disastrous effect upon your ulcer. 

Bette Davis with John Hoyt, Bretaigne Windust (with glasses), Jim Davis and Janis Paige discussing Winter Meeting.

11 January 2018

Steinbeck's complaints about Lifeboat

After Ernest Hemingway had turned down Alfred Hitchcock's offer to write the story for Lifeboat (1944)Hitchcock approached another novelist, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck accepted the offer and eventually gave Hitch a novella. Hitchcock then had several writers turn Steinbeck's novella into a workable screenplay, among them MacKinlay Kantor, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling and Hitchcock's own wife Alma Reville. In the end, Swerling was the only one credited for the screenplay, while Steinbeck was credited for having written the original story.

In January 1944, John Steinbeck saw Lifeboat in its finished form, and he didn't exactly like what he saw. He was especially appalled by the way one of his characters, the African American 'Joe' (played by Canada Lee), had been portrayed. In a letter to 20th Century-Fox, Steinbeck said that he had created a "Negro of dignity, purpose and personality" but that Hitchcock had turned him into a "stock comedy Negro". So appalled was Steinbeck that he wrote to his agent a month later to have 20th Century-Fox remove his name from "any connection with any showing of this film". Despite Steinbeck's protests, his name was not removed.

John Steinbeck (above), and Canada Lee and William Bendix in a scene from Lifeboat (below).
New York 
January 10, 1944 
Dear Sirs: 
I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me. 
John Steinbeck

A month later,  Steinbeck sent a telegram to his agent, Annie Laurie Williams:
FEBRUARY 19, 1944 

On 21 February 1944, Steinbeck wrote to his agent again, referring to his telegram sent two days earlier:
It does not seem right that knowing the effect of the picture on many people, the studio still lets it go. As for Hitchcock, I think his reasons were very simple. 1. He has been doing stories of international spies and master minds for so long that it has become a habit. And second, he is one of those incredible English middle class snobs who really and truly despise working people. As you know, there were other things that bothered me-- technical things. I know that one man can't row a boat of that size and in my story, no one touched an oar except to steer.

Source: Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (1975), edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten

Alfred Hitchcock and his leading lady Tallulah Bankhead on the set of Lifeboat.

3 January 2018

Projects that never happened

We all know the finished projects, the films that made it to the big screen. But of course, there were also plenty of projects that, for whatever reason, never came about. Interesting collaborations that never happened. 

Here are three letters that speak of such projects.

The first letter is dated 26 February 1963 and is from director George Cukor to Bette Davis. Cukor wrote to Bette because a friend of his, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, had plans for a film adaptation of Edith Wharton's novella My Son. Bodeen wanted Cukor to direct the film and Bette and Olivia de Havilland to star in it. The film was never made but the two actresses did eventually play together in Robert Aldrich's Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Cukor and Davis would never make a film together, although they did work together in the theatre in the 1920s. In 1926, Bette joined Cukor's stock company in Rochester, New York, and stayed with the group for only one season. Cukor later remembered: "Her talent was apparent, but she did buck at direction. She had her own ideas, and though she only did bits and ingenue roles, she didn't hesitate to express them." Bette kept insisting for years that Cukor had fired her even though Cukor kept saying that he hadn't. In the letter below, Cukor's remark about the 'Rochester Method' is an obvious reference to his theatre days with Bette. 

Via: we love bette davis (instagram)



February 26, 1963

Congratulations on your nomination- your tenth, no less*. It certainly proves that the Rochester Method pays off.

I am functioning as a Friend of Friends. One friend, DeWitt Bodeen, is a very nice man and a good screenwriter, whose last effort was "Billy Budd". He is presently negotiating for the rights of a novella by Edith Wharton called "Her Son". I must confess I'd never heard of it before. He has asked me to send it to you, which I am doing under separate cover. He thinks it would make a bangup picture for you and Olivia DeHavilland. The switch is that you would be the Good Woman and Olivia the Doxie.

I called your house yesterday and was told by your sister that you were in New York. Then I spoke to Olivia. She said that no time be wasted in getting the book to you because you were presently making Big Decisions in New York. So here the matter rests.

Every good wish and kindest regards.

signed 'George'

Note* The Oscar nomination was for Bette's role in Robert Aldrich's Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Anne Bancroft would eventually win the Oscar for her leading role in The Miracle Worker.

Written on 16 January 1957, the second letter is from Kirk Douglas to Gary Cooper. The letter shows that Douglas was quite excited about a film he was planning to make based on the television show The Silent Gun. Douglas wanted to make the film with Gary Cooper and director Charles Vidor and to produce it through his own production company Bryna Productions. Eventually, the film was never made, and Douglas and Cooper would never work together. 

Source: live auctioneers


January 16, 1957

Mr. Gary Cooper
200 Baroda Drive
Los Angeles, California

Dear Gary:

This is the television show, THE SILENT GUN, I spoke to you about on the phone. I'd like you to see it just as a basis for a discussion that we can have when I get back from New York.

We have been in touch with the Colt people, and have worked out wonderful arrangements to use all their museum pieces of guns and old machinery used in the manufacturing of guns, to make this a completely documentary background.

As I told you, Charles Vidor is awfully anxious to do it. From my point of view, I'm completely wide open. I think this film can be made on a surprisingly reasonable budget. And, by the way, I just checked the records and I don't have $30,000 in the story in rough treatment but approximately $22,000.

I think this could be a really exciting one. I hope you think so, too. I'll call you when I get back.

Best regards,
(signed 'Kirk') 
Kirk Douglas

Rare photo of Kirk Douglas and Gary Cooper together, here pictured with Patricia Neal. (Cooper and Neal had an intense love affair while Cooper was marriedDouglas had also once dated Neal.)

The third and final letter comes from Cary Grant and is addressed to 'Dick', an associate of silent comedian Harold Lloyd. Grant had just received a script, meant as a possible vehicle for him and a potential new project for Harold Lloyd's production company. After reading it, Grant was not overly enthusiastic; he couldn't picture himself in the story and besides, a similar script had been offered to him once before (which he talks about in an amusing way). 

Grant's letter was written in January 1943, at a time when Harold Lloyd's Hollywood career was practically over. Lloyd would star in only one more film, in Preston Sturges' The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), which became a big flop. As a producer, Lloyd had made two films for RKO in the early 1940s, i.e. A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob (1941) and My Favorite Spy (1942), which had proven unsuccessful too. A deal with Columbia to produce another film was signed in February 1943 but that film was never made. In the end, Lloyd would never produce again and a collaboration between him and Cary Grant never happened.

(Incidentally, while I have tried to find more information on 'Dick', unfortunately I could find nothing.)

Source: leading lights autographs


Jan. 16, 1943
1515 N. Amalfi Dr.
Pacific Palisades

Dear Dick:

Many thanks for letting me read this---- I had a most enjoyable evening. It is undoubtedly a very funny and different idea, but with the script in it's [sic] present rough form I find it difficult to visualize completely it's [sic] possibilities as a vehicle for me. Incidentally, if Harold and yourself are keen to put this type of story into production, I think I should tell you that there is a synopsis lying around town, and which was submitted to me some time ago, embodying a similar idea-- though in that story the dog was the supposed reincarnation of the first husband who came back to worry the second husband and his former spouse--- it made for fun in a bed-room on a wedding night for two people and a dog-- you get the idea. I thought you both should know of it's [sic] existence although I have forgotten whether it is owned by a studio.

Hope to see you soon, Dick, and perhaps then we can discuss this story more fully, but in any case I'd be grateful if you would let me know what happens to it and the manner in which it is to be finally developed. Too, if we cannot get together on this one, I do hope I shall have the pleasure and the good fortune to work with you in the near future. Best personal wishes, and regards to Harold.

signed 'Cary'

While Cary Grant and Harold Lloyd never worked together, Grant's comedic performance in Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) was influenced by Lloyd. When Grant didn't know how to play his character (the nerdy paleontologist David Huxley) Hawks suggested Grant look at the films of Harold Lloyd. Grant did, and in Bringing Up Baby he imitates Lloyd's acting style and even wears his trademark black horn-rimmed glasses and ill-fitting suit.