10 February 2019

I want to do it more than any script I have ever read

Elizabeth Taylor was fed up with the roles MGM kept giving her and wanted better roles, especially after being cast against her will in the period drama Beau Brummell (1954). In 1953, while in Rome with husband actor Michael Wilding, Elizabeth met director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who had started the preparations for his next film The Barefoot Contessa (1954)Elizabeth desparately wanted to play the Maria Vargas part and asked Mankiewicz if she could read the script. Back in London, she wired MGM-executive Benny Thau, letting him know that she had met Mankiewicz in Rome and that she wanted to do The Barefoot Contessa "more than any script [she had] ever read". Much to Elizabeth's dismay, Thau wired back that the role had already been given to Ava Gardner.

Elizabeth's telegram to Thau and her subsequent telegram to Mankiewicz (sent in November 1953) are seen below. Having been denied the role in The Barefoot Contessa, Elizabeth next starred in The Last Time I saw Paris (1954), a film she liked and of which she later said: "[It] convinced me I wanted to be an actress instead of yawning my way through parts."


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DEAREST, DARLING BENNY: SAW JOE MANKIEWICZ IN ROME AND ASKED HIM TO LET ME READ BAREFOOT CONTESSA. I WANT TO DO IT MORE THAN ANY SCRIPT I HAVE EVER READ. I KNOW WHAT HAPPENED BETWEEN AVA AND SCHENCK* BUT IF METRO HAS NOTHING IMPORTANT FOR ME, PLEASE HELP ME WITH THIS BECAUSE AS YOU KNOW IT WOULD DO ME MORE GOOD PERHAPS THAN ANYTHING I HAVE EVER DONE. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE BENNY AND LET ME KNOW AS SOON AS POSSIBLE DORCHESTER. FONDEST LOVE, ELIZABETH 

[*Ava Gardner had an affair with movie mogul Joseph Schenck.] 


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JOE MANKIEWICZ
GRAND HOTEL ROME

DEAR JOE  RECEIVED A SOMEWHAT EMBARRASING [sic] ANSWER FROM BENNY SAYING I WAS MENTIONED BY NOBODY INCLUDING EVIDENTLY BERT OR YOU FOR THE PART AND INFORMING ME THAT AVA WAS ALREADY SET STOP DO WISH THAT YOU COULD HAVE LET ME KNOW STOP BUT THE BEST OF LUCK TO YOU AND THE FILM  I AM SURE IT WILL BE WONDERFUL  LOVE ELIZABETH

source: Bonhams

Above: Joseph Mankiewicz and Elizabeth Taylor during production of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). While Mankiewicz didn't think Elizabeth was right for The Barefoot Contessa, he would direct her in two films, Suddenly, Last Summer and Cleopatra (1963) // Below: Ava Gardner was chosen to play Maria Vargas in The Barefoot Contessa; here she is in a scene from the film with leading man Humphrey Bogart.

7 February 2019

We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca

In late 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was approached by producer David Selznick to direct Rebecca (1940), based on Daphne du Maurier's acclaimed novel of the same name. Making his first American picture, Hitch would soon discover that his ideas about adapting a novel for the screen were quite different from Selznick's. While Hitch used novels purely as a starting point for his films ("If I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema"), Selznick insisted on staying as true to the source material as possible. It is no surprise then that the first story treatment Hitch submitted to Selznick in June 1939 (which he had worked on with his former secretary Joan Harrison and author Philip MacDonald) was rejected. Selznick was not at all happy with the treatment, in particular with Hitch's alteration of the main characters and the comical opening of the film. (Hitch later said that he considered Rebecca "not a Hitchcock picture" due to its lack of humour.) Soon a more faithful treatment was submitted, and this time Hitch had also worked with his wife Alma Reville and screenwriter Michael Hogan. Selznick eventually brought in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood to prepare the final screenplay.

*spoiler ahead*

While Selznick got his way the final result is a fairly faithful adaptation of du Maurier's novel— there was one major concession that had to be made in order to get the film released. In the novel, Maxim kills Rebecca but is not punished for his deed. As it was impossible under the Hays Code to let a murderer go free, the murder of Rebecca became an accident in the film. Selznick hated it and said: "The whole story of Rebecca is the story of a man who has murdered his wife, and it now becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who was killed accidentally!"

Seen below are two memos from David Selznick, written respectively to Alfred Hitchcock in June 1939 and Katharine Brown (Selznick's assistant) in February 1940. First up is Selznick's fascinating, lengthy memo to Hitchcock, written after Hitch had submitted his first story treatment. Selznick told Hitch that he wanted "to produce Rebecca, and not an original scenario based on Rebecca", sending Hitch back to the drawing board. Selznick's memo to Brown is up next and was written just a month before Rebecca premiered. In it, Selznick asked Brown to let Daphne du Maurier know about the plot change that was forced upon him by the censors ("I don't want her to think we are imbeciles when she sees this change, which is that Maxim actually did not kill Rebecca.")

Alfred Hitchcock and David Selznick had a troublesome working relationship. After Rebecca, they would make two more films together, i.e. Spellbound (1945) and The Paradine Case (1947).
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June 12, 1939

To: Mr. Alfred Hitchcock

Dear Hitch:

It is my unfortunate and distressing task to tell you that I am shocked and disappointed beyond words by the treatment of Rebecca. I regard it as a distorted and vulgarized version of a provenly successful work, in which, for no reason that I can discern, old-fashioned movie scenes have been substituted for the captivatingly charming du Maurier scenes. This is particularly true in the Riviera sequence.

We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca. The few million people who have read the book and who worship it would very properly attack us violently for the desecrations which are indicated by the treatment; but quite apart from the feelings of these few million, I have never been able to understand why motion-picture people insist upon throwing away something of proven appeal to substitute things of their own creation. It is a form of ego which has very properly drawn upon Hollywood the wrath of the world for many years, and, candidly, I am surprised to discover that the disease has apparently also spread to England.
I don't hold at all with the theory that the difference in medium necessitates a difference in storytelling, or even a difference in scenes. In my opinion, the only thing that is justified by the difference in medium is a difference in the manner in which a scene is told; and the only omissions from a successful work that are justified are omissions necessitated by length, censorship, or other practical considerations. Readers of a dearly loved book will forgive omissions if there is an obvious reason for them; but very properly, they will not forgive substitutions. 
Nor do I hold with the theory that stories should be changed for motion pictures because they fall into a so-called narrative classification. I have made too many classics successfully and faithfully not to know beyond any question of a doubt that whether a film is narrative or dramatic it will succeed in the same manner as the original succeeded if only the same elements are captured and if only as much as possible is retained of the original— including alleged faults of dramatic construction. No one, not even the author of an original work, can say with any degree of accuracy why a book has caught the fancy of the public; if it were this easy, the author of the original could duplicate these elements and duplicate the success, which we know very few authors of successful works are able to do. The only sure and safe way of aiming at a successful transcription of the original into the motion-picture form is to try as far as possible to retain the original, and the degree of success in transcribing an original has always been proportionate to the success of the transcribers in their editing process and the qualities that are gotten into the casting, performances, direction, settings, etc.— as well, of course, as in the proper assembly for motion-picture purposes of the original elements. 
This is not theory. I have too long and too successfully resisted attempts to movie-ize successful works not to be sure that my process of adaptation is sound. While others monkeyed around distorting original works, I insisted upon faithfulness in a long list of transcriptions...

This is the process that I had hoped was being engaged in on Rebecca. This is why I have kept warning you to be faithful. I have my own ego and I don't mind letting my own creative instincts run wild either on an original, as in the case of A Star Is Born, or in the adaptation of an unsuccessful work, as in Made for Each Other. But my ego is not so great that it cannot be held in check on the adaptation of a successful work. I don't think I can create in two months or in two years anything as good with the characters and situations of Rebecca as du Maurier created; and frankly, I don't think you can either. I want this company to produce Rebecca, and not an original scenario based upon Rebecca
The medium of the radio is certainly no closer to the novel form than is the motion picture. And yet Orson Welles, throwing together a radio script on Rebecca in less than a week's time, had one of the greatest dramatic successes the radio has ever known by simply assembling ten or fifteen scenes from the book word for word— thereby proving that du Maurier's Rebecca in any form has the identical appeal that it had in book form. A clever showman, he didn't waste time and effort creating anything new but simply gave them the original. I hope we will be equally astute. If we do in motion pictures as faithful a job as Welles did on the radio, we are likely to have the same success the book had and the same success that Welles had. If we create an original script, we can only pray that we'll get something that is as good and as appealing as what we had and threw away. 
Now the lecture having ended, let's get down to individual instances some very minor, some very important— of what I am talking about. I will make these comments, trivial or important, in the order of the scenes to which they apply in the treatment. 
I hope that it is not our intention to use the name Daphne or any other name for the girl. Next to the fact that the title character Rebecca never appeared, one of the most talked-about things in connection with the book was that the principal character had no name. Again, Welles shrewdly capitalized on this point, and the ten or fifteen million people who were fascinated by the story on the air also know that the leading character never appeared by name. We certainly would be silly to give her a name in our picture. This is not a point of storytelling but simply of showmanship.  
I think the scenes of seasickness are cheap beyond words, and old-fashioned in the bargain. If there is any humor left on the screen in seasickness, let's for God's sake leave it to the two-reel comedies and not get our picture off on a low note by indulging in such scenes. And the first portrait of Max smoking a cigar that makes the other passengers ill is not my idea of an introduction for a romantic and mysterious figure. On the contrary, it would be a good introduction for a boor.
And quite apart from this, I don't know what we gain with our principals on their way to the Riviera, and I know a great deal that we lose: in the first place, we lose the idea of the brooding, introspective man who has for some time been away from England, trying to forget and wipe out the past. In the treatment he has apparently only just left England. In the second place, we lose the idea of the girl who has been living on the Riviera for some time with her vulgar employer, apparently having led a miserable existence for at least months. In the treatment, she has no background of existence at all with her vulgar employer because she meets de Winter the very night she leaves England. 
The opening of the book is excellent, and why it requires any change for motion pictures or any other medium I am sure I don't know— with its picture of snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper and her unhappy companion, and the ever-so-slight and romantic first hint of de Winter in the distance...
And Max in a speedboat, driving out to his friends on an anchored yacht— what in God's name does this do to the portrait of the man who is wandering alone, trying to get away from everything? (The repeat on the seasickness isn't even worthy of comment.) Whatever happened to the construction that we discussed and agreed upon— that we were going to follow his moods and his being difficult and distant exactly as in the book until the honeymoon, when for the first time we saw a gay man, snatched out of his depression and his bitterness and his sour humor at long last by his new young wife, and returning to his old mood as Manderley obtrudes into his life on their return?... 
Even such wonderful little things as the girl tearing out the page of the book, trying this early and in this futile fashion to erase Rebecca; and the little scene in which Mrs. Van Hopper predicts doom to the girl— at the end of Chapter Six: these are wantonly thrown away too, for what reason I don't know. 
So much for the Riviera sequences. As for Manderley, every little thing that the girl does in the book, her reactions of running away from the guests, and the tiny things that indicate her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucherie are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind. We have removed all the subtleties and substituted big broad strokes which in outline form betray just how ordinary the actual plot is and just how bad a picture it would make without the little feminine things which are so recognizable and which make every woman say, "I know just how she feels... I know just what she's going through..."etc. 
It would take too long to go into the details of my resentment toward the other changes. Obviously there are sections of the book which are repetitious, and which need to be telescoped. But this is no excuse for making Max' sister into another Mrs. Van Hopper; for throwing away the wonderfully etched and extremely entertaining portraits of his sister and her husband; for substituting some slapstick comedy about her hole-in-one on a golf course for the mood of the walk through the estate, with a very human little argument about the dog running over the rocks, and Max' curious subsequent behavior. 
The steps by which the readers of the book are intrigued by the mysterious behavior of Mrs. Danvers, and by Max' curious reactions to little things— all these have been distorted in a lesser or a greater manner, and it would take days to comb through them and see just where point after point has been lost, just as they have in the Riviera sequence. I would rather say very flatly that I think the treatment is pretty bad, and that it is easier to do a new one than to repair this one. Apparently the original had very little charm for the people who worked on this treatment, because if they felt about it as I do, and as all the other readers of the book that I have ever spoken to do, all their efforts would have been toward seeing exactly how much of the original they could preserve as to incident, reactions, characterizations, and all the other things that have made the book the most successful love story next to Gone With the Wind that has appeared in the last five years....
I can't think why you avoid showing the interior of the cottage on the beach. 
Nor can I understand particularly why you want the grandmother in the tower of Manderley. If for no other reason, she and her own home have value as something to break the monotony of always being in the Manderley settings. However, this value may not be important, since we have plenty of sets within Manderley, its grounds, etc., and there may, on the contrary, be a value in staying entirely within Manderley. In this case, I am not sure that grandmother serves any purpose at all, and perhaps she ought to be eliminated from the story.
Other little things that I miss are the many comparisons between the girl and Rebecca which the girl observes and which make her feel her own gaucherie. I refer to such things as the comparison of handwriting between her own and Rebecca's... 
Also, in the book more than in the treatment, I understand why Max puts up with Mrs. Danvers, and this is weak even in the book...
I don't know why you have changed the converted boathouse into a small stone cottage. This, to me, is just a gratuitous change which is for no reason unless it is to annoy the readers of the book...
I don't think the breaking of the china cupid in violence is as good as its being broken through awkwardness. In the one case it is fortuitous, and in the other case it is in character. 
Max's scolding of the girl in front of Mrs. Danvers, while it may be a little ill-bred, is much more heartbreaking than after Mrs. Danvers leaves. 
I don't know what Max is doing in Rebecca's room when the girl visits these rooms. I think this is cheating the audience. Du Maurier accomplishes the result of having her readers and the girl think that Max is still in love with Rebecca without such cheating. 
Also, Mrs. Danvers's appearance in this room turns the readers' blood cold, and I don't think the substitution of Max is comparably good. In fact, I don't think Mrs. Danvers comes through in the treatment half as well as she does in the book...
I personally don't think you could get Olivier or any other good actor to play this role as indicated in the treatment. The character has no charm, no mystery, and no romance.
It is my regretful conclusion that we should immediately start on a new treatment, probably with a new writing set up. 
DOS 
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Above: Hitchcock on the set of Rebecca with his two principal ladies, Judith Anderson (Mrs Danvers) and Joan Fontaine (the second Mrs de Winter)// below: Hitch with David Selznick and Joan Fontaine at the 13th Academy Award Ceremony held in February 1941 (photo by Peter Stackpole). Rebecca was nominated for 11 Oscars but won only two: Best Picture (Selznick) and Best Cinematography (George Barnes). 

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February 27, 1940 
To: Miss Katharine Brown

Dear Kay:
I suggest you drop a note to Daphne du Maurier telling her I have tried to do the most faithful job possible on Rebecca; that early reports are enthusiastic; that I hope she will like the picture and will be eager for a reaction; that the press reviews here were very successful, particularly in the great number of people who commented on its extreme faithfulness; that Van Schmus of the Music Hall was not simply enthusiastic, but particularly commented on what he termed an even more faithful transcription than Gone With the Windand that you will be glad to arrange for her to see it as soon as a print gets to England. Also, please make such arrangements. 
But the principal point that I would like you to make in the letter is that there is one drastic change that was forced on us by the Hays Office and that almost caused us to abandon the picture. I don't want her to think we are imbeciles when she see this change, which is that Maxim actually did not kill Rebecca. Tell her that you are writing to forewarn her, but to please withhold any comment on this point until she sees the film, as even the readers of the book apparently are not aware of the change from the way in which we have handled it. Say that if she says anything publicly or privately about this it is going to hurt the picture, and we hope she will extend us the courtesy, in view of the courtesies we have extended her, of not mentioning this, especially as it would get us in wrong at the Hays office, etc. that we simply wanted her to be forewarned and to know it was something forced upon us, and that I was heartbroken because of my desire for complete faithfulness. You might explain that Hays did what the censors would have done anyway— and that is, reject a story in which a murderer goes free.
You might say further that in spite of this change, the confession scene seems to be word for word her scene, and is not simply one of the best scenes in the film, but in my opinion one of the best and most unique scenes in any film.
DOS  
Source of both memos: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer 

This post is my contribution to THE THIRD ANNUAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK BLOGATHON, hosted by MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS. Click here for a list of all the other entries.

2 February 2019

An Errol Flynn-Ava Gardner project that never was

With filming on Henry King's The Sun Also Rises (1957) hardly wrapped, Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner, two of the film's principal actors, were already talking about doing another film together. According to a letter from Errol Flynn to Benny Thau dated 10 July 1957 (as seen below), the film he and Ava were planning to make was The White Witch of the Indies with a screenplay by James Edward Grant. Searching for more information about the project, the only thing I found was a newspaper clipping from The Daily Gleaner from April 1957 (see image) which talks about an Errol Flynn project called The White Witch of Jamaica. I can only assume that it's the same project but Errol decided to change the setting/title from Jamaica to 'The Indies'. Well, whatever the title, the film was ultimately never made and The Sun Also Rises remained Errol and Ava's only film together.

Benny Thau (often spelled Thaw) was studio head of MGM between 1956 and 1958. As said, Errol Flynn wrote to him in July 1957 regarding the film he and Ava wanted to make. Ava had a long-running contract with MGM and had told Errol that her contract would end in 1958. Errol wanted to make sure that Ava would indeed be free from MGM to make said picture with him, hence his letter to Thau. 

Source: ebay

Transcript:

Yacht Zaca
Club Nautico
Palma de Mallorca.
SPAIN

July 10th 1957

Mr. Benny Thaw
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios,
Culver City, Calif.,

Dear Mr. Thaw:

James Edward Grant has been over here, writing a script for me, THE WHITE WITCH OF THE INDIES, (presume you know Grant-  Johnny Egar, many of John Wayne pictures, etc., etc.,)

We are nearly half-way through our shooting script. In my opinion is [sic] is going to be first class.

I went with Grant to Madrid a few days ago to see Ava Gardner, who told me that her contract with M.G.M. would finish in a little over a year, and Ava appeared extremely interested in this property, and doing it with me, with a Grant script. As a personal favour, I would like to ask you personally, without, of course, any kind of reflection on Ava, if it is true that she will be free to make any deals outside of Metro in one year's time? THE WHITE WITCH is perfect for her as a vehicle- so you can tell me if Metro is of her opinion, i:e: that she will be free to contract for her services in about a year and two months from now?

I shall certainly appreciate a personal word from you, Benny.

I hope Life is as pleasant for you as it is for me here. Why don't you come take a look? Great Spot!

Sincerely,

E.F (signed)
Errol Flynn.


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Notes
After having been under contract to MGM for seventeen years, Ava would indeed make her last film for the studio in 1958 (The Naked Maja). But instead of doing a film with Errol next, she subsequently did On the Beach (1959) for United Artists, co-starring with Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire.

- Flynn wrote his letter to Thau from his yacht Zaca in Palma de Mallorca (Spain) having just visited Ava Gardner in Madrid. Both Errol and Ava loved Spain. Errol fell in love with Mallorca after he and his third wife Patricia Wymore had spent their honeymoon there in 1950; his yacht was moored at Club Nautico in Mallorca from 1955 until 1959 (the year he died). Ava had moved to Madrid in 1955, where she lived until she permanently moved to London in 1968.

Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn with The Sun Also Rises co-stars Eddie Albert and Tyrone Power. Ava once said about Errol: "Of all the actors who worked with me on that film, I got along best with Errol Flynn. I adored him, but although I dated him a couple of times when I first arrived in Hollywood, we were never physically involved. Errol was probably the most beautiful man I ever saw, his perfect body equally at home in a swimsuit or astride a horse. And he was fun, gallant, and well mannered with a great sense of humor. When he walked into a room, it was as if a light had been turned on. As he grew older, he drank too much and was chased around by scandal and gossip. But Errol Flynn always had style, honey. Real style."