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.

10 September 2018

Errol Flynn's letter from the set of "Virginia City"

Meant as a follow-up to the successful Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) began production late October 1939. Cast and crew members (including director Michael Curtiz, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart and Miriam Hopkins) all went to Flagstaff, Arizona for six weeks of location shooting. John Hilder, a journalist for Hollywood Magazine, accompanied the cast to the location and later reported that "tempers flared, and feuds raged. For one eventful weekend it appeared that the cast was about to choose sides—the blues and the grays—and re-fight the Civil War with bare hands, rocks or practical bullets." According to columnist Sidney Skolsky there were several feuds going on at the same time. "Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart are feuding," he said, "Flynn and Miriam Hopkins are feuding, and Mike Curtiz and Miriam Hopkins are feuding." 

In between the feuding, Errol Flynn was lucky enough to have a Sunday off while everybody else had to work. Enjoying his free time, Flynn wrote the following, interesting letter to a journalist friend (Ward Marsh at the Cleveland Plain Dealer) talking about life on the set, their daily program and the Navajo Indians on whose territory they were filming.

Source: reel art


November 19, 1939

Mr. W. Ward Marsh
The Plain Dealer
Cleveland, Ohio

Dear Mr. Marsh:

Sunday, a day of rest for most of the country, but not for the majority of us up here in Northern Arizona on location with Warner Bros.' "Virginia City" troupe. Location companies, you know, work Sundays and holidays. I'm more fortunate than Miriam Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart, Randolph Scott, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, Big Boy Williams, Moroni Olsen, John Litel, Director Mike Curtiz and the rest of the troupe, for I got the day off. They didn't.

This letter is a sort of penance for the privilege of getting a holiday.  I thought I'd make good use of the time by writing an account of what has been happening to us in this little town whose population is numerically less than one half its 6900 feet altitude.

We've been here for three weeks and it will probably be another fortnight before our work is completed. The company of two hundred undoubtedly is spread out over more landscape than any other location company ever has been. "Hoppy"-- that's our pet name for Miriam Hopkins -- Randy Scott and "Bogey" -- that's Humphrey Bogart -- are living fifty five miles from the Flagstaff headquarters, at the Indian trading post of Cameron, which hangs on the canyon wall over the Little Colorado. It's in the heart of the Navajo country and a few mud hogans, looking like huge upside-down salad bowls squad right under their windows.

When the company is at work on the reservation, the Navajos appear shortly before lunch. They arrive on horseback, in trucks and afoot, but the squaws and the children always are afoot. They come to get the leftovers of the company's lunch. On the first day in the desert only a few Indians arrived. Shy, they remained at a distance and the lunches were carried to them by members of the cast and crew. Sandwiches were eaten without removing the paper wrappings. None knew how to open the bottles of milk, until one clever buck thrust his thumb through the top and received a milk shower bath. None of the Navajos admit they understand English until a camera is pointed at them. Then they demand "twenty-five cents".

Things happen once in a while that are not on the production schedule. Like two days ago when, returning to the trading post after a hard day in the saddle in front of the cameras, Randy and I found a disabled car on Highway 89 and discovered in it, of all things, seven of Billy Rose's Aquacade nymphs on the way to the coast. The girls had a flat tire, and we took it off and put on the spare, but did the diving girls proceed to the coast? They did not. They're still here, to see how movies are made.

Miriam voiced weariness of the seclusion forced upon her in the little hotel last night, so a group of the boys took her on a tour of the Mexican settlement here. It was a strange crowd, electricians, wardrobe girls and Miss Hopkins. In a little Mexican cafe she chose to have her dinner, and while the hot food was being prepared, she dropped nickels in the music box and lent a hand in the cooking in the kitchen.

Many Flagstaff children will appear in the picture. For their protection, Warner Brothers sent Lois Horn, teacher and welfare worker, on the location expedition. To hire the children, Miss Horn first goes to the grade school principal to inquire about the most needy families of Flagstaff. He selects the children from the classrooms, but only one child from each family. The children are tested, Director Michael Curtiz selects those he wants, and then Miss Horn confers with their teachers about their studies. On location Miss Horn continues to coach the children in their lessons, a studio bus serving as the classroom.

Navajo Indians and squaws used in the picture receive $7.40 a day, the most money they have ever earned. Papooses are paid $5.20 a day. One Navajo, his squaw, two children, papoose, wagon, horses and sheep were used for one day. At the end of the day he had ninety-six dollars coming to him and he demanded it in silver dollars. The ninety-six silver dollars were given to him and he tucked them in his pockets, shirt, pants and hat and waddled toward his horse to return to his mud hogan. But he was so weighted down with silver he could not get aboard his pony. Rather than exchange the silver for paper money, he was boosted to the top of a boulder, the horse was led alongside, and he was oozed into his saddle. Silver, squaw, papooses, horses and sheep and all, he jogged into the sunset of the Painted Desert.

Locations are not always the pleasant, romantic things they sound like. If you think this one is all beer and skittles, just listen to the program we all must follow:

We are routed out of bed at 5 A.M., bolt down breakfasts at 5:30 A.M., shiver in the cold, dark morn, and roll away in the buses at 6 A.M. Rolling equipment that moves the company includes 12 limousines, 6 thirty-five passenger buses, 3 ten-ton trucks, 17 eight-ton trucks, 2 sound units, 2 station wagons, 2 camera cars and 1 larger generator truck. The cost of keeping the company on location averages $15,000.00 daily. The weekly meal ticket is $4,000.00. Location sites change daily. Within a radius of sixty miles, scenes typical of Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona have been filmed. One day we are at Schnebley [sic] Hill, looking deep down into the depths of glorious Oak Creek Canyon, resembling Colorado. The next we are ninety miles away at Round Hills, starving in a wagon train as it staggers through a Nevada sand storm (produced in Arizona by Hollywood wind machines).

Ordinarily we stay on the job until sunset, which is about 5:30 P.M. By the time we get back to our respective places of lodging it's 7 or 7:30 P.M. A shower before dinner gets us to the hotel dining room or one of the town's three cafes about 8 P.M. And most of us are ready to turn at 9 or 9:30, with that 5 o'clock call staring us in the face next morning.

To house the invasion from Hollywood, three hotels and five auto camps are filled with actors, actresses, cameramen, stunt men and women, cowboys, grips, electricians, property men, wardrobe experts, makeup artists, truck drivers and stand-ins. And fifty-five miles away, up at Cameron is an overflow of twenty-five or thirty members of the company.

Most of us are traveling between fifty and one hundred and twenty miles each day going to and from the various location sites. All in all, it's quite a grind.

But don't misunderstand me. In spite of the long hours, the hard work and the endless traveling back and forth we've all enjoyed it. The magnificent scenery - the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon -  in itself would be more than worth the trip.

So, trite though it may sound, I really mean it when I say we're having an exciting time and we wish you could be here.

Best wishes.


Errol Flynn

Some people believe that the letter was not written by Flynn himself but by Warner Bros.' Publicity Department (read here). However, Flynn biographer Thomas McNulty, author of Errol Flynn: The Life and Career (2004), didn't seem to question the letter's authenticity. He included excerpts from the letter in his book, saying it revealed Flynn's "anecdotal talent"

Above: Randolph Scott, Errol Flynn and Miriam Hopkins in a scene from Virginia City. Below: Flynn with Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Humphrey Bogart, the latter clearly miscast as a Mexican bandit.