28 March 2018

You are going entirely too slow

With his first American film Swamp Water (1941), renowned French director Jean Renoir quickly discovered that Hollywood production methods were very different from his own. During the making of the film, Renoir constantly clashed with 20th Century Fox producer/studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, whose main priority was keeping the film on schedule and within budget. Renoir's time-consuming camera techniques, for instance, didn't mesh with Zanuck's ideas of efficient film making, nor did Renoir's long discussions on the set with his cast and crew. Also, Renoir was used to shooting films on location while Zanuck preferred to shoot them quickly on the studio lot. (Renoir did eventually convince Zanuck to shoot part of the film in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.) 

Annoyed with Renoir's directing methods and slow work pace, Zanuck at one point replaced cinematographer Lucien Ballard with Peverell Marley, feeling that Ballard was contributing to Renoir's slowness. Despite the measure, Renoir kept working at a slow pace and as a result was fired from the film one morning in August 1941, only to be rehired by Zanuck that same evening. Renoir finished the film, but after that he never worked for Zanuck again.

Above: Jean Renoir directs Dana Andrews and Anne Baxter in Swamp Water (1941)below: Darryl F. Zanuck.

Seen below are two very interesting memos from Zanuck to Renoir, written during production of Swamp WaterBoth memos show how Zanuck interfered with Renoir's direction, mainly because he was worried about Renoir's inability to stay on schedule and budget. In the first memo, Zanuck told Renoir to speed things up while criticising a number of his directorial traits, including Renoir's use of deep focus photography. The second memo shows Zanuck's interference with the director's handling of the actors. While Zanuck was quite satisfied with how Renoir had directed leading actors Anne Baxter and Dana Andrews, he criticised the way the minor characters had been handled. And again, Zanuck stressed the importance of not falling further behind schedule and said that, while he supported Renoir, he expected the director to play things his way.

Despite (or thanks to) Zanuck's criticism on Renoir, the film managed to stay on a reasonable budget ($602,000) and was one of the studio's biggest box-office hits of 1941.

DATE: July 30, 1941 
TO: Mr. Jean Renoir 
CC: Mr. Irving Pichel [dialogue director]
Dear Renoir: 
You are going entirely too slow. From day to day you are turning in less completed film than any other company on the lot.  We have changed cameramen and now you have a photographer  who can keep up to a fast pace, yet we are getting no more film than we did with the other cameraman. I have discussed the matter on a number of occasions and I feel that several things are causing you to fall way behind schedule, which will add almost $100,000 to the cost of the picture. We cannot afford this. You will have to speed up and make up this lost time. 
1. You are wasting entirely too much time on non-essential details in your background. 
2. You are moving your camera around too much on the dolly or on tracks.
3. You should not play scenes two different ways as you did the sequences on the porch in yesterday's rushes. You should decide upon which way you are going to play it and then follow through without compromise.
4. You are worrying too much about background, atmosphere, and elements which will not be important in the finished film. 
5. The dolly shot of the sheriff in front of the store took over two hours to get in the camera. It isn't worth it. 
6. In order to make up time and keep on schedule and budget, it is essential for you to concentrate your attention on the important scenes featuring the principal actors, and on the other scenes find ways and means of covering them as quickly and efficiently as you can. 
7. You used four different angles to get over the action with the sheriff on the porch. This could have been covered with one or two angles at the most. 
8. The rushes that I have seen in the last two days should have been shot in one day.

I regret that it is necessary for me to be stern in this matter, but after reviewing the budget it is easy to read the handwriting on the wall and see that we are headed toward a price on this picture that we will never be able to get back unless a radical change is made at once.

Above: Walter Brennan and Dana Andrews in a scene from Swamp Water, and below Andrews with character actor Russell Simpson whose name is mentioned in Zanuck' s second memo.

DATE: August 8, 1941

TO: Mr. Jean Renoir


Dear Renoir:

I have reviewed all of the scenes that you have photographed on the picture to date and here is my summary of same: 
You have done an excellent job in handling Anne Baxter. She is the most impressive of all the people. 
You have done a good job with Dana Andrews. His performance is sincere, especially in his light moments when he is allowed to smile and be relaxed... Try to keep the hat off him as much as you can from here on. 
There is too much production in this picture. By this I mean every time we come to the country store it is so crowded with horses and wagons and people that you would think it is the middle of the city. In other words, there is too much atmosphere, which gives it an impression of being artificial. 
My greatest criticism is with the manner in which you have handled the minor characters. They all seem to be trying to act. Every bit or small part is trying to be "a character". They are trying to be so typically American-- chewing tobacco, smoking corncob pipes, etc. that it becomes unreal and fakey. I don't feel they are the plain, simple backwoods types who react naturally and honestly as, for instance, the characters reacted in The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody, including Russell Simpson and the others, seem to be reaching continually. The best things you have done on the picture have been the intimate scenes-- particularly those between the boy and the girl.
There is nothing that you have done that we cannot correct with a few retakes after the picture is over. Right now the important thing is to be sure that everything is good from here on and that we do not fall any further behind schedule. If you plan your work in advance the night before you shoot and do not try to develop everything on the set, there is no reason why you cannot keep on schedule. I don't expect you to make up anything, but I don't expect you to go further behind.
You have got to realize that all of us are behind you in an effort to help you-- not hinder you or confuse you. No director on this lot has ever been given the support that you have received. Everybody wants to see you come through with a great first [American] picture. Perhaps you have had too much help-- perhaps too many cooks spoil the broth. Pichel is the only one you should listen to for directorial suggestions. The cameraman, the unit man, your secretary, the cutter and [associate producer] Len Hammond can give you what help you want, but in the final analysis-- you are directing the picture, and Pichel is your associate. The daily working report shows that a tremendous amount of time is spent each day on discussions. These are things that should be settled the night before so that when you get on the set you know what you are going to do, and go after it.
In closing, I want you to know that I am behind you and I am going to see you through on the picture-- but, by the same token, I expect you to play ball my way.

Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox (1993); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

21 March 2018

I feel Paulette is practically set for it

When natural blonde Joan Bennett became a brunette in Trade Winds (1938), her new sultry look caught the attention of producer David O. Selznick. Feeling she could be a serious contender for the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in his mega production of Gone with the Wind (1939), Selznick wanted to have her screen-tested. By late 1938, Bennett was one of the last four candidates who were in the running to play Scarlett, the other actresses being Jean Arthur, Paulette Goddard and a little-known British actress named Vivien Leigh. All four finalists were screen-tested in December 1938, with Goddard also having made a number of tests earlier that year. 

While it wasn't until 20 December 1938 that Bennett did her screen test for GWTW, she had already been approached by George Cukor (GWTW's first director) about doing a test in the fall of 1937. Bennett had decided not to take the test then, making her decision known to Cukor in a letter written on 24 September 1937 (seen below). Busy with the preparations for her Stage Door tour --she was going on a six-month tour playing Terry Randall on stage in the Kaufman/Ferber play-- Bennett felt she couldn't make a good test anyway. Besides, she also felt that Paulette Goddard was as good as set for the role. (Goddard had been actively campaigning for the role of Scarlett and was rumoured to get the part, even though she wouldn't start screen testing until February 1938.)

Incidentally, the last paragraph of Bennett's letter, in which she talks about "retakes", most likely concerns I Met My Love Again (1938), a film she had just finished. Cukor did some work on the film, uncredited.

Above: Joan Bennett doing her screen test for Gone With the Wind with Douglass Montgomery as Ashley (in one of the three scenes she would do for the test). Selznick would later call her test "magnificent". Click here for some really cool screen test footage of GWTW, also showing several other contenders, including the eventual winner Vivien Leigh. George Cukor (pictured below with Paulette Goddard) directed the screen tests and can be heard in the footage while directing Goddard during her Technicolor screen test.
Via: icollector


September 24, 1937

Dear George:

Thank you so much for your patience, and the time you gave me in preparation for the test. As I wrote David, I honestly don't feel I could make the right kind of test now, perhaps because I can not associate myself with the part ---- that I feel Paulette is practically set for it---- and that I have so much on my mind at the moment in preparation for my tour. If the test could be made at a later date, after Paulette has tested I wouldn't feel so guilty about involving your time and incurring the expense that those things entail---- but unfortunately that can't be done.

I am so happy that you are going to make the retakes, and I think that you are an angel to do it. I will probably be seeing you much too early tomorrow morning. 



13 March 2018

I hope Mr G. will give me back my old dressing room

When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, British actor David Niven left Hollywood to rejoin the British Army. (In the early 1930s, Niven had also been in the Army but quit to pursue an acting career.) Back in Britain, Niven was recommissioned as a lieutenant, then later joined the British Commandos and eventually took part in the Normandy invasion in June 1944. Despite public interest in his wartime experiences, Niven never really talked about the war. What he reportedly did say was: "I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war." 

From the following letter, written by David Niven to a friend named "Irving" several months after the end of WWII, it is quite clear that Niven wanted to forget all about the war. He was terribly excited to return "home" (i.e. Hollywood) having missed the life and his friends there. Before Niven left for Europe in 1939, he was under contract to independent producer Samuel Goldwyn and now, back from the war, was eager to pick up where he left off. 

As Goldwyn didn't have a project for him right away, Niven (while still in England) was loaned out to British producers Powell and Pressburger to star in their film A Matter of Life and Death (1946). He returned to Hollywood next, where he did a few other loan-outs, i.e. Magnificent Doll (1946), The Perfect Marriage (1946) and The Other Love (1947), before he worked for Goldwyn again. His first post-war film for Goldwyn was The Bishop's Wife (1947) co-starring Cary Grant and Loretta Young. (Production of The Bishop's Wife started in February 1947 and not in January 1946 like Niven said in his letter.) 

Niven and Goldwyn had a difficult relationship, with Niven often complaining about being loaned out to other studios while Goldwyn got the bulk of the loan-out money. In 1949, Niven was released from his Goldwyn contract and, despite the temporary career setback that followed, went on to have a successful film career, even winning the Oscar for Best Actor for Separate Tables (1958). 


c/o Boodles Club
St James's Street
London. S.W. 1

4 October

My dear Irving

I am afraid it is quite a while since I last wrote- forgive me.

Well, I am now once more a civilian and after over six years of Active Service believe me I am thoroughly satisfied with my blue suit and felt hat! 

It has been a long haul since I last saw you, and I just have to thank God for letting me come through O.K. without a scratch.

All I want to do now is to draw a heavy veil over the years since 1939 and forget I ever left Hollywood. 

I have missed the life the interest and above all my friends of the Industry so terribly during all this time and now when it seems that in a couple of months time I shall be back again-- I just can't believe it will ever come true!!

"Mr. G" 
I hope Mr. G will give me back my old dressing room-- No 5. I am terribly excited about coming "home" and will be reporting to the Studio a day or two before Xmas. I am supposed to start "Bishops Wife" on 1 Jan. At least that was the last information I had but I expect you know much more about all the arrangements than I do.

Mr Goldwyn has got me on his hands for five years "straight" so we ought to be working together a lot- - I hope so with all my heart. 

Please make certain that you are going to be on my first picture. I shall need all the help and encouragement I can get from my old friends-- I have six years to catch up! 

What is the news of Greg and Mac, Eddie and Ralph? And where is Bob Coburn? Is Bobby Webb still at the studio and will Bob Stephanoff be faced with the insurmountable task of trying to make me look good! Please give any of these old friends my best regards and of course Danny Mandel, Bob McIntyre and Al Evans, not forgetting Julie Heron, Frank Meyer, Eddie [?], Walter Mayo etc and all those great old pals in your department. Joe etc.

We'll have some great days together. Incidentally, I don't believe I was ever the temperamental type but if ever I show any signs of it please remind me of what I was doing exactly one year ago today-- I was working in Antwerp with showers of bloody V.1.s and V.2.s coming down on my head like hail, so compared with that and a lot of other things that have happened since I last saw you, I don't think anything the film industry can do to me will be anything but pure unadulterated heaven! 

While waiting for a boat and, most important, a new arrival in my family I am doing a picture here. A big Technicolor epic called "A Matter of Life and Death". Ray Massey is in it with me and we have laughed a good deal. I am due to sail for N.Y. on 10 Dec. and I am counting the days.

My very best wishes and kindest regards to all of your family. I am longing to see you again.

Yours ever
David Niven

P.S. Don't forget to find out about my dressing room!!

Images of Niven's letter courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Pictured above: David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and below: Niven with Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop's Wife (1947).

2 March 2018

It seems to knock everybody cold

One of the great things about living in Barcelona, apart from the gorgeous weather and relaxed lifestyle, is having the Filmoteca de Catalunya right on your doorstep. Located in the old Raval neighbourhood, the Filmoteca is a film archive and film house where both old and new films (although not the latest) from all over the world are shown. Luckily, films are shown in the original version with either Catalan or Spanish subtitles. An added bonus is that film tickets are quite inexpensive (4 euros per film) and an annual pass costs only 90 euros (which is about $110) giving you unlimited access to films for a whole year! (Needless to say, I have one of those.)

With regards to the film screenings, I am of course mostly interested in classic Hollywood films and they are being shown here on a regular basis. In February, the Filmoteca started an Ida Lupino retrospective (in celebration of her 100th birthday) to be continued this month, and later this year Rita Hayworth's centenary will also be spotlighted. From the Lupino programme I'm looking forward to rewatching the 1940 They Drive By Night (a film I've seen ages ago) and to see a few films unknown to me like While The City Sleeps (1956) and Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951). Other films shown this month are classics such as Shane (1953), The Asphalt Jungle (1950)Midnight (1939)Cat People (1942), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Imitation of Life (1959), Spartacus (1960) and Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)-- most of them will be rewatches although never seen by me on the big screen before.

Another film programmed at the Filmoteca this month is Funny Face (1957), starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. This film will also be a rewatch for me, and while it's not a favourite musical of mine I look forward to seeing it on the big screen. The letter accompanying this post --of course there's also a letter!-- concerns Funny Face (among others) and was written by Fred Astaire to Audrey Hepburn shortly before the film was released. In this charming letter, Astaire talks about the reviews that rave about Audrey and her dancing, and the positive reactions from people who saw the film already. In the end, despite the overall good reviews, Funny Face did not become the box-office hit everyone had hoped for; in fact, it did not even earn back its $3 million cost.

Audrey wanted to do Funny Face with her big idol Fred Astaire, and Fred apparently wanted to work with Audrey too:" I just told my agents to forget all other projects for me. I was waiting for Audrey Hepburn. She asked for me, and I was ready. This could be the last and only opportunity I'd have to work with the great and lovely Audrey and I was not missing it. Period." Funny Face would be the only time Fred and Audrey worked together.
Source: Christie's



Dear Audrey:-

I tried for several days to find out from Kurt Frings office [Audrey's agent] where I could write to you but they knew nothing. There were rumors that you were off to Jamaica.
I did not see all of "Mayerling" because as always happens with T.V.- a phone call came in that I had to take. 
I loved what I saw however and you of course were divine. You looked so wonderful. I don't know how you + Mel [Ferrer] did it- such a big show-live!
You were both great.
Getting back to that other little item, "Funny Face", I'm quite sure now about that one. It seems to knock everybody cold. They just simply say "It's The Best Musical Ever Made!" That from all the wise ones too. They rave over you and your dancing. I've heard you were pleased when you saw it. I sure do hope so. In all my experience with musical pictures I have never experienced such a reaction from people. Now, I see no reason why the public should not fall for it too. 
Have a good rest and all best to Mel.

As ever-