18 December 2018

Controversy on the set of Manpower

In April 1941, production of Raoul Walsh's Manpower was held up by two incidents involving the film's principal actors Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. During the first incident on 18 April, Raft verbally abused Robinson following a disagreement about a line of dialogue. A week later, on 26 April, Raft again engaged in verbal abuse and also pushed Robinson around on the set, this time witnessed by a photographer from Life magazine whose photo of the incident appeared in Life's May 1941 issue. Raft's feelings of animosity towards Robinson reportedly stemmed from his being third billed Robinson received top billing and leading lady Marlene Dietrich second billing— despite having the largest role in the film. Also, Raft was infatuated with Dietrich and believed he had a rival in Robinson.

This is the picture that appeared in the Life magazine issue from 12 May 1941 under the headline Robinson & Raft Stage Impromptu Fight On Set. Alan Hale (behind Robinson) tries to break up the fight while Ward Bond (sitting left) looks on.

On 30 April 1941, Roy Obringer (head of Warner Bros.' legal department) wrote the following letter to the Screen Actors Guild, giving a detailed description of the two incidents as mentioned above. The dispute between Robinson and Raft was eventually settled by SAG, after which the film was completed. While the two men buried the hatchet years later they would star in one more film together, A Bullet For Joey (1955)— in his 1973 autobiography All My Yesterdays Robinson maintained that Raft was "touchy, difficult and thoroughly impossible to play with."
Screen Actors Guild
care, Kenneth Thomson, Executive Secretary,
1823 Courtney Avenue
Los Angeles, California 
April 30, 1941
On or about March 24, 1941, the undersigned corporation commenced photography on its motion picture entitled Manpower, with Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, and George Raft, as principal players... As production on this motion picture progressed it became apparent to a number of persons engaged in and about the production that a feeling of hostility was being evidenced by Mr. Raft against Mr. Edward G. Robinson... The situation culminated in an unusually heated and disagreeable verbal attack by Mr. George Raft upon Mr. Edward G. Robinson on 18 April, 1941, on the premises of the undersigned Company at Burbank, California, and immediately outside Stage No. 11, on which the production was then being photographed... The controversy at that time appeared to arise over the inclusion or deletion of a certain line of dialogue in the final script covering said photoplay. Apparently, Mr. Raft was of the opinion that the line should not be spoken, although assigned to Mr. Robinson, whereas Mr. Robinson took the view that the line was in the script and was satisfactory to him, and that inasmuch as he considered the line an important one, he preferred to speak the line. Mr. Robinson then said, in substance, to Mr. Raft, "Look, George, you may think the line does not make any sense, but I have to speak it and it is all right with me." Thereupon, in the presence of the persons above named, and perhaps in the presence of other persons engaged on said production, Mr. George Raft directed toward Mr. Robinson a volley of profanity and obscene language with the express purpose and intent of embarrassing and humiliating Mr. Robinson and lowering his professional dignity and standing in the eyes of all those persons with whom he was obliged to work and come in contact in connection with the production of said photoplay.
In the opinion of those persons to whom representatives of the undersigned corporation have talked, the attack on Mr. Raft's part was wholly uncalled for and actually brought about a very serious disturbance in the production of said photoplay. The interruption and disturbance of production of the picture became so serious because of the situation that Mr. Hal B. Wallis, Executive Producer of the undersigned corporation, was called into the controversy, Mr. Edward G. Robinson left the set and went to his dressing room, and the entire production was stopped for several hours, resulting in a great and substantial loss to the undersigned. Several hours after the controversy had been temporarily quieted, production was proceeded with and approximately a week passed and, except as called for by the script and by the Director, Messrs. Robinson and Raft did not speak to one another, although the script proceeded upon the theory that the characters portrayed by Messrs. Robinson and Raft were close friends.
Just prior to twelve o'clock noon on Saturday, April 26th, while the cast in said production was engaged on said Stage 11, Mr. Robinson was rehearsing a scene wherein the script called for him  to be provoked by one of the other characters. The script called for Mr. Robinson to attack this character and during the attack the script required that Mr. Raft, playing the part of "Johnnie" in the production, make his entrance and seek to quiet the disturbance. Instead of conducting himself as called for by the script, Mr. Raft immediately undertook to and did violently rough-house and push the said Edward G. Robinson around the set in an unusually vigorous and forceful manner, with the showing of a great deal of personal feeling and temper on Mr. Raft's part, causing Mr. Robinson to wheel around and say to Mr. Raft, "What the hell is all this?" In reply to Mr. Robinson's question to Mr. Raft, Mr. Raft thereupon told Mr. Robinson to "shut up", and in the immediate presence of the persons hereinafter mentioned, directed toward him a volley of personal abuse and profanity, and threatened the said Edward G. Robinson with bodily harm, and in the course of his remarks directed and applied to Mr. Robinson in a loud and boisterous tone of voice, numerous filthy, obscene and profane expressions. Thereupon, Mr. Robinson walked into his dressing room on the set. A minute or so later Mr. Robinson returned to the set and addressed himself to Mr. Raft, substantially as follows: "George, what a fool you are for carrying on in such an unprofessional manner. What's the use of going on? I have come here to do my work and not to indulge in anything of this nature. It seems impossible for me to continue." Following such remarks Mr Raft directed another volley of profanity and obscene language toward Mr. Robinson, whereupon Director Raoul Walsh, Assistant Director Russell Saunders, and others, fearing further personal violence on the set between the two men, jumped in and separated them, and Mr. Edward G. Robinson left for his dressing room off the set and the entire production was stopped...
As a result of the controversy between the two Principals on Stage 11, all further work involving the two principals was suspended from just prior to noon on Saturday, April 26, 1941, until Monday morning, April 28, 1941, and the general confusion, etc., on the set was such that the undersigned corporation lost an entire day in production, resulting in a large financial loss to the undersigned corporation. The effect of the disturbance was such that Mr. Robinson became highly nervous and such nervous condition affected his voice and made the same husky so that he was unable to properly and clearly speak his lines and otherwise give the artistic and creative performance of which he is capable. The said Edward G. Robinson, by reason of the above-mentioned occurrences, has demanded of the undersigned corporation that it give him full protection on the set from bodily harm and insulting demeanor from Mr. George Raft, making the position of the Company an extremely difficult one in its effort to produce a photoplay of artistic merit under the circumstances shown...
The undersigned feels that the above occurrences are of such serious import that they should be officially called to the attention of the Screen Actors Guild...
Yours very truly, 
By: Roy Obringer 
Above and below: two scenes from Manpower with its three leading actors Robinson, Dietrich and Raft. The film became a solid box-office success despite the problems on the set. 

Source of the letter: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected, edited and annotated by Rudy Behlmer.

4 December 2018

Groucho & Chaplin

Around 1912, Groucho Marx saw Charlie Chaplin for the first time in Winnipeg (Canada), then an important city on the Vaudeville circuit. Groucho happened to be passing by the Empress Theatre where Chaplin was playing and hearing roars of laughter he decided to go in. In his autobiography Groucho and Me (1959), Groucho recalled telling his brothers about seeing Chaplin for the first time: "I told them I had just seen a great comic. I described him . . . a slight man with a tiny moustache, a cane, a derby and a large pair of shoes. I then penguin-walked around the depot, imitating him as best I could. By the time I finished raving about his antics my brothers could hardly wait to see him.

Doing a vaudeville tour themselves, Groucho and his brothers caught up with Chaplin in Vancouver a month later and met him backstage. In his autobiography, Groucho said that they became "real chummy" with Chaplin in the weeks that followed and even went to a "sporting house" together (according to Groucho, Chaplin was "terribly shy" back then). It wasn't until years later that Groucho ran into Chaplin again in Los Angeles, but by then Chaplin was already a star, having become the world's most famous comedian.

Above: July 1937- to celebrate the re-opening of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, tennis players and new owners Fred Perry (far left) and Ellsworth Vines organised a match- a battle between Britain and the U.S- with Chaplin teaming up with Perry and Groucho with Vines.// Below: April 1972- Chaplin, who lived in Switzerland after being labelled a communist in the 1950's, was invited back to the U.S. to accept his honorary Academy Award. Here he is pictured with Groucho and Danny Kaye looking on (photo by Candice Bergen).
Groucho greatly admired Chaplin. While he was not in the habit of complimenting other comedians, Groucho said about Chaplin in the May 1936 issue of Motion Picture magazine: "I know now there will never be anyone like him. He's in a class by himself, just as he has always been", and again in his 1959 autobiography: "He's still the greatest comic figure that the movies, or any other medium, ever spawned". Chaplin also admired Groucho, wishing he could talk on screen like Groucho did.

During the 65 years of their acquaintanceship, Groucho and Chaplin saw each other perhaps a dozen or so times (according to Hector Arce, author of Groucho (1979))One of the occasions where they had met was at dinner at the famous Chasen's restaurant in Hollywood on 4 September 1940. Groucho wrote a letter to his good friend Arthur Sheekman the next day, talking about his conversation with Chaplin. An excerpt from the letter is seen below (only the part that deals with Chaplin) with interesting remarks from Groucho such as "He's very odd. In some ways, he has no sense of humor at all [..]". Also, Groucho mentioned in his letter what I already mentioned above, i.e. that Chaplin envied him for talking so "swiftly" on the screen. Groucho later said it was the greatest compliment anyone had ever given him.

September 5, 1940
Dear Sheek,
I'm working terribly hard and I don't like it. I really don't mind the work; it's just that when I work, I sleep badly; and it's insomnia rather than labor that makes me feel lousy.
Last night I had dinner with Chaplin at Dave Chasen's and he was in high humor- unusual for him. He told me, among other things, that he's not Jewish but wishes he were. He said he was part Scotch, English and Gypsy, but I think that he isn't quite sure what he is. He's very happy about his movie [The Great Dictator]. He ran it yesterday for the Breen Office - it runs over 13,000 feet and there wasn't a foot cut out of it. He thinks it will be a big hit. He's very odd. In some ways, he has no sense of humor at all and then again it's wonderful. He told me he hated the English but that he hoped they would win the war. He also hates Noel Coward and even refuses to see his playlets, which are now running at El Capitan.
At the finish of the meal, the most astonishing thing happened: he grabbed the check (for six; it came around $30*) and refused to let me have it. I was quite relieved, but luckily I'm sunburned and I don't think the white or my nervousness was discernible through the tan. He has a reputation for stinginess but I have always found him generous- not only with his money but with his praise. He thinks I'm wonderful and said that he envies my glibness and wishes he could talk as swiftly on the screen as I do. Well, enough of Chaplin and me!

[*According to the inflation calculator $30 in 1940 would now be $541.90]