19 December 2019

Am all excited by the idea of "Oliver"

At one time Audrey Hepburn considered playing the role of Nancy in Oliver!, the film version of Lionel Bart's stage musical of the same name. Having enjoyed working with director George Cukor on My Fair Lady (1964), Audrey very much wanted to make another film with him. The project she had in mind for the two of them was Oliver! which enjoyed a successful run on Broadway from January 1963 until November 1964. Audrey went to see the show and wrote Cukor a letter on 6 January 1964, telling him what she thought of it.

Audrey Hepburn and George Cukor photographed on the set of My Fair Lady, 1963.

Transcribed below is part of Audrey's letter to Cukor, i.e. the part that deals with Oliver!. It's interesting that Audrey was even considering the role of Nancy, seeing that the part was not a leading role but a relatively small one. (Apparently Audrey's wish to do another film with Cukor was so strong that she was willing to settle for a supporting role.) In her letter Audrey makes a few suggestions on how to improve the role by making Nancy "more human" with "more spirit and much more humor". She also suggests that the film version should not be a musical but a story "where the music and songs are incidental". Having just finished My Fair Lady with her voice not deemed good enough (her songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon) Audrey understandably wasn't eager to do another full-blown musical. In the end, Audrey never played Nancy and never worked with Cukor again. The film version of Oliver! (a British production) was eventually released in 1968 with Shari Wallis in the role of Nancy. Directed by Carol Reed, the film became a big hit, winning six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.
Source: icollector.com


Dear dear George


Am all excited by the idea of ‘Oliver’ if you were to do it. As you know Harold asked me to see it explaining that the girl was no great shakes as a part but that it could be rewritten. I went to it to enjoy the show but with a skeptical view of doing it—as usually a part ‘isn't there’ for a good reason, there is none. Watching the show I found the performance in general stale, they all seemed to have done it too often, with the exception of ‘Fagan’ [sic] played by Clive Revill whom I thought was brilliant and highly entertaining. In all I felt much much more can be made of the piece. The girl I find could be more human, have far more warmth for and relationship with the Boys—and be more one of them, the ‘pickpocket with heart of gold’ so to speak. I think she could have more spirit and much more humor, the girl ‘yammered’ a bit too much for my liking. The Bumbles and Bill Sykes [sic] are badly cast—the first could be jollier less sinister and Sykes [sic] should be a brute but physically more attractive. You may wonder why I want to play the girl as the boy and Fagan [sic] are the whole cheese. But she could be fascinating if you see it too, if you and Mel [Ferrer] don’t then I am wrong about the possibilities. The movie should be Hogarthian, Dickensian, sepia, moody and real. The score is not superb … it should be a story, where the music and songs are incidental, not a MUSICAL as such… I know how frantically busy you are and I may kill myself if I have wasted your time. The prospect of doing another with you is what may have persuaded and coloured my reaction! We’ll see!


Above: Shari Wallis in Carol Reed's Oliver! was the perfect Nancy. Here she is pictured with Ron Moody (Fagin) and Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes) in a scene from the film.

12 December 2019

Judy Garland's love letter to Frank Sinatra

Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra were not only lifelong friends but they were also romantically involved - twice. The first time was in 1949 after Garland had been fired from the film Annie Get Your Gun (she was replaced by Betty Hutton) and was next admitted to a hospital suffering a nervous breakdown. Following her recovery, Garland (still married to director Vincente Minnelli) went on a secret, romantic rendezvous with Sinatra in the Hamptons. The second time was in 1955 when Garland was separated from her third husband, producer and tour manager Sidney Luft. She briefly resumed her romance with Sinatra, who at the time was also separated from his then-wife Ava Gardner.

Garland remained close friends with Sinatra until her untimely death in 1969. She was $4 million in debt when she died and it was Sinatra who reportedly paid for her funeral. 

The following (undated) letter from Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra was presumably written in 1949, after their romantic rendezvous in the Hamptons.

Source: icollector.com



My sudden departure is a complete surprise to me. And I’m deeply dissapointed [sic] to have to miss our Monday & Tuesday date. However its [sic] imperative that [I] reach Boston by Sunday. I shall be at the Ritz-Carlton either under Mrs. Vicente Minnelli or in care of Carlton Alsop. 

You said today that you’d been neglegent [sic]. But darling—that’s so unimportant compared to the great amount of happiness you’ve given me. I shant [sic] forget the hours weve [sic] spent together—ever! 

I’ll let you know how everything goes on this trip. In the meantime—

Take good care of yourself—be happy and have lots of fun and laughs. 

And for Gods [sic] sake—keep those wheels in your lil ole head down to the minimum. 

Drop me a line if you can because it will cheer me up a great deal. 

I hope to talk to you tommorow [sic] —but I wanted to write this in case we miss connections. Even if we do reach one another—I’ll send it anyway. Its [sic] getting late—so I’m gonna wash up, get my money, etc. 

Goodbye my darling—I hope we see each other soon. Please dont [sic] forget about me. Think about me because I shall be thinking of you.


29 November 2019

Ingrid Bergman's Fall from Grace

By the late 1940s, Swedish-born Ingrid Bergman had become one of Hollywood's biggest and most beloved stars. Brought to the United States by producer David Selznick, Bergman made her first American film Intermezzo in 1939later followed by such classics as Casablanca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944) and Notorious (1946). America adored Bergman, but this abruptly changed in 1949 when she went to Italy and fell in love with Italian director Roberto Rossellini.

Bergman had gone to Italy to make Stromboli (1950) with Rossellini and during production they began an affair which would lead to a scandal of immense proportions. At the time Bergman was married to Swedish brain surgeon Petter Lindström with whom she had a 10-year-old daughter Pia. Rossellini was also married, having recently had a public affair with actress Anna Magnani. The press was having a field day covering the Bergman-Rossellini affair, especially when word got out that Bergman was also pregnant with Rossellini's child. In February 1950 baby Robertino was born out of wedlock and the next month Bergman was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate, with senator Johnson saying that she had perpetrated "an assault on the institution of marriage" and even calling her "a powerful influence for evil". 

The scandal forced Bergman to live in exile in Italy, leaving her daughter Pia and husband in the U.S.. In May 1950, after a highly publicised divorce, Bergman married Rossellini and they had two more children (twin daughters, one of them actress Isabella Rossellini). It wasn't until January 1957 that Bergman returned to the U.S., receiving the New York Film Critics' Best Actress Award for her American comeback role in Anastasia (1956) - the role that would also earn her her second Oscar. The American people had at last forgiven her and welcomed her back, of which Bergman later said: "I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, all in one lifetime".

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini whose marriage ended in divorce in 1957.

The Bergman-Rossellini affair was a major concern to Hollywood. Once the press started to report about the affair, Joseph Breen (head of the Production Code Administration) became very worried, writing to a Jesuit friend that the affair was possibly the most shocking scandal Hollywood had had to face in years, especially since "Miss Bergman, from the first day of her arrival here, [had] always conducted herself in a most commendable manner. There [had] never been even the slightest breath of scandal about her. She was regarded as a fine lady of unimpeachable character, a good wife and a good mother".

On 22 April 1949, Breen wrote a letter to Bergman herself and pleaded with her to deny the accusations made against her. Breen's urgent plea can be read below, as well as a telegram from Walter Wanger who also wanted Bergman to contradict the rumours. Wanger was producer of Bergman's latest film Joan of Arc (1948), playing in the theatres when the affair came out, and he was very concerned about his investment. Bergman refused their requests to deny the rumours and issued a press release several months later (in August) saying that she was divorcing her husband. The scandal undoubtedly contributed to Joan of Arc and Bergman's next film Under Capricorn (released in September 1949) becoming box-office failures. Stromboli was also a box-office bomb in the U.S. but was received better overseas.

Ingrid Bergman on the set of Joan of Arc (1948) with director Victor Fleming (who died shortly after the film was released): "People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint. I'm not. I'm just a woman, another human being". 
Joseph I. Breen (left) and Walter Wanger
Dear Miss Bergman, 
In recent days, the American newspapers have carried, rather widely, a story to the effect that you are about to divorce your husband, forsake your child, and marry Roberto Rossellini.  
It goes without saying that these reports are the cause of great consternation among large numbers of our people who have come to look upon you as the first lady of the screen -- both individually and artistically. On all hands, I hear nothing but expressions of profound shock that you have any such plans.  
My purpose in presuming to write to you in the matter is to call your attention to the situation. I feel that these reports are untrue and that they are, possibly, the result of some overzealousness on the part of a press-agent, who mistakenly believes to be helpful from a publicity standpoint.   
Anyone who has such thoughts is, of course, tragically in error. Such stories will not only not react favourably to your picture, but may very well destroy your career as a motion picture artist. They may result in the American public becoming so thoroughly enraged that your pictures will be ignored, and your box-office value ruined. 
This condition has become so serious that I am constrained to suggest that you find occasion, at the earliest possible moment, to issue a denial of these rumours -- to state, quite frankly, that they are not true, that you have no intention to desert your child or to divorce your husband, and that you have no plans to marry anyone. 
I make this suggestion to you in the utmost sincerity and solely with a view to stamping out these reports that constitute a major scandal and may well result in complete disaster personally.   
I hope you won't mind my writing to you so frankly. This is all so important, however, that I cannot resist conveying to you my considered thought in the matter. 
With assurances of my esteem, I am, 
Very cordially, Joseph I. Breen 




Dear Ingrid,   
The malicious stories about your behaviour need immediate contradiction from you. If you are not concerned about yourself and your family you should realize that because I believed in you and your honesty, I have made a huge investment endangering my future and that of my family which you are jeopardizing if you do not behave in a way which will disprove these ugly rumours broadcast over radio and press throughout the world.  
We both have a responsibility to Victor Fleming's memory and to all the people that believe in us. Assume you are unaware, or not being informed of, the magnitude of the newspaper stories, and their consequences, and that you are being completely misled. Do not fool yourself by thinking that what you are doing is of such courageous proportions or so artistic to excuse what ordinary people believe.   
Cable me on receipt of this wire. 

Source: Ingrid Bergman: My Story (1980) by Ingrid Bergman and Alan Burgess

22 November 2019

Do I hear you muttering obscenities?

In the fall of 1936, Tallulah Bankhead began to prepare herself for landing the role of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's production of Gone With the Wind (1939), being the first established actress to do so. A star on Broadway, Bankhead had made few films thus far (all of them unsuccessful) and was very eager to play Scarlett. Bankhead was originally from Alabama and while her Southern background was an advantage, her age was not. At 34 she was too old for the role, even though she did her best to appear younger in Scarlett's early scenes (i.e. she followed a diet, had some dental work done, underwent facial treatments and even stopped drinking). 

Tallulah Bankhead in her screentest for Gone With the Wind, late 1936.

Preparing for her screen tests, Bankhead worked closely with David Selznick's associate Katharine "Kay" Brown for three months. The screen tests were directed by 
Gone With the Wind's first director George Cukor who was Bankhead's friend and had directed her in the film Tarnished Lady (1931). Selznick was pleased with the actress playing the more mature Scarlett but thought her younger Scarlett unconvincing. On 24 December 1936 he sent her a telegram saying: "The tests are very promising indeed. Am still worried about the first part of the story, and frankly if I had to give you an answer now it would be no, but if we can leave it open I can say to you very honestly that I think there is a strong possibility." Bankhead answered the following day: "As I see it, your wire to me means one thing- that if no one better comes along, I'll do. Well, that would be all well and good if I were a beginner at my job. It would be a wonderful thing to hope and wait for, but as this is not the case, I cannot see it that way, and I feel it only fair to tell you that I will not make any more tests, either silent or dialogue, for Scarlett O'Hara, on probation."

Not willing to be second fiddle, Tallulah Bankhead withdrew from the race and the search for Scarlett continued. Then two years later, with the casting of Gone With the Wind still not completed, Selznick got the idea to ask Bankhead for a different role in the film, i.e. the role of Belle Watling, brothel owner and friend of Rhett Butler's. But instead of approaching Bankhead himself Selznick asked Kay Brown to do it for him (".. for God' s sake, don't mention my name in connection with it, simply saying that it is an idea of your own that you haven't yet taken up with me"). In the end, neither Brown nor Selznick made the offer to Bankhead, afraid that it would offend and infuriate her. The role of Belle Watling eventually went to Ona Munson.

Katharine "Kay" Brown and David Selznick

December 6, 1938  
To: Miss Katharine Brown  
Would you care to brave the lioness's den and inquire from Miss Tallulah Bankhead whether she would like to play Belle Watling? As a disappointed Scarlett she's likely to bite your head off - and for God's sake, don't mention my name in connection with it, simply saying that it is an idea of your own that you haven't yet taken up with me.  
My own feeling is that she would do wonders with this bit, making it stand out, and that she would be a perfect illicit mate for Rhett Butler. However, if she betrays any interest you had better explain that it is an extremely small part, having only about three of four appearances.  
The reason I think she might go for it is simply as a stunt, just as it has been suggested that Mae West (who is out of the question, of course) might be glad to do it as a stunt.   
Do I hear you muttering obscenities?  
Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Ona Munson as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind.

14 November 2019

The Oscar thing has deteriorated into a sickening mess

This summer I saw My Fair Lady (1964) on the big screen for the first time which was an absolute joy. Rewatching the film, however, I still found it hard to believe that Audrey Hepburn wasn't even nominated for an Oscar for her delightful portrayal of Eliza Doolittle. The snub is one of the biggest nomination snubs of all time and I can imagine how devastated Audrey must have been.

Someone who was outraged by the Academy's failure to nominate Audrey was Deborah Kerr. Deborah was a friend of Audrey's and, according to Audrey biographer Barry Paris, one of the very few friends Audrey had in the film industry. Both women lived in Switzerland, not very far from each other. About her friendship with Audrey, Deborah said in later years: "To the world it may not have seemed that constant or deep an association, but we became very close even though we didn't see each other much. I couldn't say, 'She was my best friend in my whole life'. Yet in a way, perhaps she was.

When Deborah learned about Audrey not being nominated for My Fair Lady, she wrote Audrey the following letter expressing her shock and anger at the injustice of the Oscar snub. Calling the Oscars a "sham", "hypocritical" and a "sickening mess", I'm sure Deborah conveyed the feelings of many of Audrey's colleagues and friends. In her letter Deborah also mentions Patricia Neal who had just suffered three strokes while pregnant; Audrey would replace Patricia as one of the presenters at the Oscar ceremony to be held a month later (read more about that here). 

Source: Christie's


Friday March 5th [1965]

My darling Aud-

Our life was such a hectic and horrible rush before leaving Klosters a week ago, that I did not have time to write and tell you how positively stunned amazed and shocked and disgusted and 'you name it', we* both were at your not being nominated. If I started to go into all that I feel - all the resentment and boiling anger I entertain for the whole sham - hypocritical - sickening mess the Oscar thing has deteriorated into in these last years, I would take pages, and bore the hell out of you as well!! It is enough to say darling that we feel for you so very much, because however philosophical one is, however one says one doesn't really care, ONE DOES!! And it hurts. But then one starts to think of that tragic Pat Neal, and all her children + her poor husband [Roald Dahl], and one knows that the Oscar is an eye-drop in this world of pain and madness.

Darling one - we send very very much love, and Pedro Amarillo Sucio is no longer Amarillo but still Sucio!

Fondly + affectionately

* "We" undoubtedly refers to writer Peter Viertel whom Deborah married in July 1960 and with whom she lived in Klosters, Switzerland.

Above: Audrey and Deborah with Deborah's husband Peter Viertel, ca. 1965. Below: Audrey and Deborah were jointly voted "Best Actress of the Broadway Season 1953-1954" in a poll of the New York Drama Critics, i.e. Audrey for her role in Ondine and Deborah for Tea and Sympathy; here Deborah visits Audrey backstage during the run of Ondine.

7 November 2019

Censoring "The Great Gatsby" (1926)

In 1922, following the public outcry against immorality in Hollywood films and the scandals involving some of Hollywood's biggest stars, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was founded. The main goal of this new trade organisation, with former Postmaster General Will Hays at the helm, was to clean up the film industry's bad image. Also, the industry was worried about the increase of city and state censorship boards, fearing that federal censorship was not far away. In order to avoid outside meddling, the MPPDA eventually set up its own censorship guidelines in 1929 -- i.e. the Motion Picture Production Code, to be rigidly enforced from mid-1934 on.

Before Hollywood started censoring its own films, state and local censorship boards decided whether films were fit for screening or not. In 1907, the city of Chicago created the first censorship board in the U.S. and other city boards soon followed. State governments also began to follow suit, with the state of Virginia being the last of seven U.S. states to create its own censorship board in 1922. Because of their different censorship rules, these boards were a major headache to Hollywood -- what was acceptable in one city/state could be unacceptable in another, meaning that studios often had to issue multiple versions of the same film (costs being paid by the studios)

The man responsible for collecting the complaints of the various censorship boards was Will Hays. It was Hays' task to contact the producers of the films involved and to inform them of the changes that needed to be made. On 15 November 1926, Hays wrote to Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later Paramount), communicating the views of the Virginia Censor Board regarding Herbert Brenon's The Great Gatsby, the only silent film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. The Virginia Board demanded several cuts, including the elimination of certain subtitles, e.g. the suggestive "There are things between Daisy and me which you will never know".

Incidentally, it is known that Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda went to see the film but, being New Yorkers, the version they saw may have been different from the one released in Virginia. In any case, the film was not to their liking and they reportedly walked out on it, with Zelda later describing it as "rotten", "awful" and "terrible". 

The 1926 The Great Gatsby is considered a lost film, only the trailer still exists.


November 15, 1926

Mr. Jesse L. Lasky
Famous Players-Lasky Corpn.,
485 Fifth Avenue
New York City, N.Y. 

Dear Mr. Lasky:

The word from the Virginia censor board as to cuts in "The Great Gatsby" follows: 

"Eliminate close-up view of girls' legs, grouped around small table set for cocktails; eliminate close-up view of man and woman in bathing suits in suggestive postures on raft; eliminate the two close-up scenes where Jerry and Daisy are shown with skirts so blown by the wind as unduly to expose their legs. Of the several successive scenes showing man lying with his head in lap of Myrtle's sister, eliminate all but one - a four foot flash to carry the sub-title; eliminate that scene in which Myrtle's sister in quickly rising from the couch makes suggestive exposure of underwear. Eliminate scene at close of lovemaking between Myrtle and Tom Buchanan showing him lying on sofa by her. Eliminate sub-title 'There are things between Daisy and me which you will never know'; also sub-title 'Things neither of us can ever forget.' (These sub-titles are suggestive of connubial relations)" 

With kindest personal regards, I am

Sincerely yours,

signed" Will H Hays" 

Above: l-r: Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan, Warner Baxter as Jay Gatsby, Hale Hamilton as Tom Buchanan and Neil Hamilton as Nick Carraway in the 1926 silent The Great Gatsby. Below: First chairman of the MPPDA, Will Hays.

31 October 2019

You are one of the truly great young actors

In 1940, Laird Cregar portrayed Oscar Wilde on the stage to great acclaim, attracting the attention of 20th Century-Fox who signed him to a contract. Someone who was also enthusiastic about Cregar's stage performance was John Barrymore, an actor who had been Cregar's idol since childhood. In the fall of 1941, Cregar starred in another play, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and again Barrymore was excited about his performance. Barrymore was so impressed with the acting abilities of the young actor that he wrote Cregar a fan letter, calling him one of the most talented actors the stage had produced in years.

When Cregar received Barrymore's letter, he was over the moon to get such praise from the actor he had always admired and idolised. Cregar treasured the letter and even had the studio photograph it and add it to his portfolio. Proud and thankful for Barrymore's praise, Cregar decided to host a dinner party in honour of his idol. According to Gregory William Mank's biography Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy (2017), what should have been a joyous occasion turned into a nightmare. The guest of honour showed up very late and very drunk, insulting both Cregar and his mother. Cregar was devastated and the next day at the studio, still upset, he was heard sobbing in his dressing room. (Of course I was curious to know what had happened next -- did they meet again, did Barrymore apologise? -- but searching the web, alas I found nothing.)

Seen below is the letter Barrymore wrote to Cregar, lauding him as one of the greatest upcoming new actors. Sadly, Cregar would have a short career, starring in a few plays and 16 films (among them I Wake Up Screaming (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945)). In order to lose weight for what was to be his last role in Hangover Square (the only time he had first billing), Cregar had followed a crash diet which caused serious abdominal problems. He underwent surgery but then suffered a massive heart attack a few days later. Cregar died on 9 December 1944, only 31 years old. 

Source: Greenbriar Picture Shows


Laird- my Boy-

I've said it to the Masquers, and there is no possible reason why I shouldn't repeat it to you. I may jest about the absurdities of life, but Acting is a sacred subject to me and I say this in deadly earnestness:

You are one of the truly great young actors our stage has produced in the last ten years.

I have watched with vast enjoyment your work in "Oscar Wilde" and "The Man who came to Dinner" and saw with delight and humility - the quality that makes great actors. 

Believe me
most sincerely 
John Barrymore

Above: Laird Cregar in (from left to right) I Wake Up Screaming, This Gun for Hire and The Lodger. Below: Cregar in his final film Hangover Square with Linda Darnell; the film was released in February 1945, two months after Cregar's death.

15 October 2019

80 Years of "Dark Victory": Spencer Tracy was born to play this part

Edmund Goulding's successful weepie Dark Victory is one of the many great films from 1939 celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. In a nutshell, the film is about a young, spoiled socialite who is terminally ill and falls in love with her doctor. Bette Davis stars as the socialite Judith Traherne, a role originally played by Tallulah Bankhead on the stage. (The original play Dark Victorywritten by George Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch, only had a short run on Broadway in 1934.)

Before Bette's studio Warner Bros. purchased the movie rights, the rights were owned by producer David O. Selznick who had bought Dark Victory as a vehicle for Greta Garbo in 1935. Garbo, however, chose to do Anna Karenina (1935) instead and the next few years Selznick tried unsuccessfully to cast his picture while also facing problems with the script. Warners eventually bought the property from Selznick in the spring of 1938. Studio boss Jack Warner was at first uninterested in the story -- a film about a heroine dying of brain cancer surely couldn't be good for business -- but he was eventually persuaded by associate producer David Lewis and screenwriter Casey Robinson to take the film off Selznick's hands. 

Dark Victory was initially acquired by Warner Bros. as a vehicle for Kay Francis. Due to her row with the studio, however, Francis was demoted to doing Comet over Broadway (1938), which Bette had rejected, and Bette got to play the coveted role of Judith Traherne, a role she would later call her personal favourite among the many roles she had played.

As her leading man, Bette wanted her former co-star Spencer Tracy with whom she had played in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932). She had enjoyed their collaboration immensely and longed to work with Tracy again, hoping that Dark Victory would be their next film together. Not only Bette but also screenwriter Casey Robinson wanted Tracy who was under contract to MGM. Robinson thought the success of the film depended on the proper casting of Dr. Frederick Steele, feeling that Tracy was the perfect man to play him. In a letter to producer Hal Wallis dated August 1938 (as seen below) Robinson urged Wallis to do everything he could to land Tracy for the role. In the end, however, Tracy was loaned to 20th Century-Fox to do Stanley and Livingstone (1940) and was thus unavailable. Bette never made a film with Tracy again. She did say in later years that he was the finest actor she had ever worked with. 

The man who was eventually cast as Dr. Steele was George Brent, with whom Bette had played many times before. Dark Victory was their eighth film together and during production the two began an affair which lasted well after shooting had finished. In the end, the two made a total of 11 films together. Bette reportedly said that of all her leading men Brent was her favourite.

While Bette didn't get to play with Spencer Tracy in the film version of Dark Victory, they did perform together in an adaptation of the film for the Lux Radio Theatre, which aired in August 1940 before a live audience. It's really great to hear this version with Tracy in Brent's role and to imagine how he would have played it on screen. I'm sure that Tracy would have handled some of the dramatic material better than Brent. Still, I love Brent and while he has his usual wooden moments, his overall performance in Dark Victory is fine. What I especially love is his natural and playful chemistry with Bette, in particular during their Vermont scenes (that they were real life lovers probably helped). In case you're interested in how Tracy handled the role on the radio, just go here.

TO: Hal Wallis 
FROM: Casey Robinson 
DATE: August 19, 1938 
SUBJECT: "Dark Victory" 
Dear Hal:
I note that at M.G.M. they have postponed Northwest Passage, leaving Spencer Tracy without an assignment. They are trying to put him into the Joan Crawford picture, but he is refusing the part [The Shining Hour]. That seems to leave him open for borrowing, and I plead with you to make every possible effort to land him. 
Please forgive my pushing my nose into casting which, strictly speaking, is not my concern, but you know that you and I have nurtured Dark Victory along for three years and I am concerned about it as I have never been concerned about any other picture. It is, above all things, a tender love story between a Long Island glamor girl and a simple, idealistic, more-or-less inarticulate New England doctor. If we don't capture this feeling in the proper casting of Doctor Steele, I know we will wind up with a tragic flop instead of a truly great picture. 
I don't know if you've found time yet to read the entire script, but if you have I'm sure you will agree with me that Tracy was born to play this part -- and of course I don't need to tell you what the combination of the names of Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy on the marquee would do to the box-office. 

Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

In April 1938, well before Bette Davis and George Brent played Judith Traherne and Dr. Steele, Barbara Stanwyck and Melvyn Douglas performed the roles on the radio, also for the Lux Radio Theatre. It's quite interesting to listen to this version as well, not only for Douglas in the role of the doctor (and to compare him with Brent and Tracy), but especially to get a sense of what Barbara would have done with the role had she been allowed to play it on screen. Barbara really wanted to star in the movie and was furious when Warner Bros. gave the role to Bette, one of Warners' own contract players. (Incidentally, this radio version is an adaptation of the play while the second radio version is an adaptation of the film.)

The Classic Movie Blog Association is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. To celebrate this milestone, the CMBA is holding The Anniversary Blogathon and this post is my contribution to it. For all the entries of my fellow CMBA-ers, just click here.

11 October 2019

Book Review: Letters from Hollywood

Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking is a gem of a book. Compiled and edited by author/producer Rocky Lang and film historian/archivist Barbara Hall, this beautiful-looking hardcover volume contains 137 pieces of classic Hollywood correspondence (letters, notes and telegrams), spanning five decades from the early 1920s through the 1970s. The correspondence not only comes from famous Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo or Joan Crawford, but also from people less known to the general public yet important to Hollywood history, e.g. Irving Thalberg, Will Hays and Joseph Breen. (And there are also letter writers and recipients I had never heard of, among them screenwriters and agents.) Introducing the letters, authors Lang and Hall provide ample background information so the reader understands the context in which they were written.

Below: Rocky Lang grew up in the film business having agent-turned-producer Jennings Lang and singer/actress Monica Lewis as parents (here they are photographed in 1968). When a letter from his father to agent H.N. Swanson was discovered, Rocky got the idea for Letters from Hollywood and also included his father's letter in the book.
For three years, Lang and Hall worked on the project, first searching archives and libraries for interesting correspondence and then trying to track down the copyright owners, which proved to be more difficult than they thought. Their hard work eventually resulted in a book that is beautifully designed (lovely book cover, great lay-out and beautiful hi-res images of the original correspondence), with the letters providing chronological snippets of Hollywood history as well as fascinating peeks into the private thoughts of some of Hollywood's biggest stars, directors, producers etc.. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am very excited about this book -- it's basically what I do on the web, but then presented in glorious book form -- feeling it's a must-have for classic Hollywood fans and a great addition to any film book collection.

Some of the letters in the book I was already familiar with, having posted them earlier on this blog. However, most of the correspondence was unknown to me as it was obtained from archives, libraries and private collections and thus hidden from the general public - until now. Not all the letters are equally interesting of course, but there are a lot of gems and to give you an idea, below are excerpts from some of my personal faves.


Ronald Colman to studio executive Abe Lehr about the transition to the talkies (August 1928):
With reference to the additional clause to the contract, - I would rather not sign this, at any rate just at present. Except as a scientific achievement, I am not sympathetic to this "sound" business. I feel, as so many do, that it is a mechanical resource, that it is a retrogressive and temporary digression in so far as it affects the art of motion picture acting, - in short that it does not properly belong to my particular work (of which naturally I must be the best judge).

Tallulah Bankhead to David Selznick about the Scarlett O'Hara role in Gone with the Wind (December 1936):
I want you to believe me when I say this letter is not written in any spirit of hurt, arrogance, or bad temper, and if these elements should creep in, it is only because I haven't a sufficient gift of words to express myself clearly. [...] As I see it, your wire to me means one thing- that if no one better comes along, I'll do. Well, that would be all well and good if I were a beginner at my job. It would be a wonderful thing to hope and wait for, but as this is not the case, I cannot see it that way, and I feel it only fair to tell you that I will not make any more tests, either silent or dialogue, for Scarlett O'Hara, on probation.
Hedda Hopper to friend Aileen Pringle about Citizen Kane (January 1941):
I've seen the picture, and it's foul. It doesn't leave Mr. Hearst with one redeeming feature. Nobody but Orson would have dared do a thing like that, and I personally hope it will never be shown on the screen, although they're going right ahead making plans for its release in February. 
Robert Sherwood to Samuel Goldwyn about writing the script for Glory for Me, later renamed The Best Years of Our Lives (August 1945):
I have been thinking a great deal about "Glory for Me" and have come to the conclusion that, in all fairness, I should recommend to you that we drop it. This is entirely due to the conviction that, by next Spring or next Fall, this subject will be terribly out of date. [...] I do not believe that more than a small minority of these men will still be afflicted with the war neuroses which are essential parts of all of the three characters in "Glory for Me", and I, therefore, think that this picture would arouse considerable resentment by suggesting that these three characters are designed to be typical of all returned servicemen.
Gilbert Roland to Clara Bow to whom he was once engaged (December 1949):
How is your Dad? I would like to see him. I always had a warm spot in my heart for him, even though many years ago he refused to let me marry you because I was making seventy-five dollars a week, and you three hundred -- and when I made three hundred, you made a Thousand, and when I made a thousand you made more. ad finitum, and so it goes, and that's the way it is...

Joan Crawford to friend Jane Kesner Ardmore about her meeting Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in the company of Marilyn Monroe and Anita Ekberg (October 1956):
It was one of the most exciting moments I have ever had. Of course, I was not too happy about being presented with that group of people representing the Motion Picture Industry, such as Marilyn you-know-who, and Anita Ekberg. Incidentally, Marilyn and Anita were howled at because of their tight dresses - they could not walk off the stage. It was most embarrassing.

Paul Newman to William Wyler & Ray Stark after having been offered the male lead in Funny Girl (May 1967):
I am grateful for the offer and the interest, and I hope it doesn't seem like an act of arrogance to turn all that affection down, but the truth of the matter is that I can't sing a note, and as for that monster, the dance, suffice it to say that I have no flexibility below the ass at all -- I even have difficulty proving the paternity of my six children.

If you would like to read the entire letters and many more (in their original form) -- you can order a copy of Letters from Hollywood here or here.

Rocky Lang contacted me in January 2018, asking if I knew of any letters that he and Barbara Hall might be able to use for their project. I made several suggestions and some of it ended up in the book. While my input is quite small, I am proud to have contributed to this great, unique book -- and seeing my name in the Acknowledgment section is pretty cool!