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 got 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