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