30 March 2019

Dear Mr. Kubrick

A few days ago, my sister and I went to see the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition here in our hometown Barcelona. The exhibition has visited several cities worldwide since 2004 (including Los Angeles, Mexico City, Seoul and Paris) before coming to Barcelona with some added material. (I saw that the exhibition was also held in Amsterdam in 2012 when I still lived there, but I somehow missed it then.) While I am not a Kubrick fan --I do like his earlier work though, e.g. The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957)-- I enjoyed the exhibition a lot. It was very well laid out, each of Kubrick's films having its own dedicated space, with on display original props, costumes, storyboards, photos and lots of documents, including production documents, screenplays and correspondence. Attention was also paid to Kubrick's early days when he worked as a photographer and also his unrealised projects were presented in detail.

(Photo by me)
Of course I was glad to see a number of letters displayed at the exhibition. For this post I chose one letter concerning Kubrick's unrealised film about Napoleon Bonaparte. Kubrick was fascinated by Napoleon and had researched his subject meticulously, putting together a massive archive of research material. In 1969, Kubrick completed his script and also drew up a detailed shooting plan. In the end, the film was never made since no studio was willing to take on the exorbitant production costs. (More about Kubrick's Napoleon can be found in the 2009 voluminous book by Alison Castle Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made.)

Lots of photos were on display at the exhibit, including this one of Kubrick and Kirk Douglas on the set of Paths of Glory. (Photo by me)

Kubrick's preferred choice for the role of Joséphine, Napoleon's first wife, had been Audrey Hepburn. Audrey, in semi-retirement at the time, wrote to Kubrick in November 1968, kindly declining his offer while asking him to keep her in mind for future assignments. (Whether Kubrick ever asked her again, I don't know.) The image shown below is a photo taken by me of a fascimile on display at the exhibit, the original letter being part of the Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts London.


17 Nov '68

Dear Mr. Kubrick

Thank you for the kind letter you wrote me - I am flattered and happy you would like me to work with you. 

I still don't want to work for a while so cannot commit or involve myself in any project at this time. 

I hope you understand this..... and will think of me again someday?

Thank you again

Warmest wishes

Audrey Hepburn

NOTE: The Stanley Kubrick Exhibition in Barcelona will have its final day tomorrow. From 26 April until 15 September 2019, the exhibit can be visited at the Design Museum in London (more info here).

24 March 2019

We really did not like Bob Montgomery

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Laurence Olivier became best friends in the early 1930s and remained so for the rest of their lives. Someone they used to hang out with was fellow actor Robert Montgomery, with whom they went fishing and yachting. The following letter from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Betty Barker (known for being Joan Crawford's long-time secretary) shows that Fairbanks and Olivier put up with Montgomery but that they didn't really like him, feeling Montgomery was "pompous". Fairbanks wrote to Barker as he wanted to play a practical joke on his buddy Larry (the joke having to do with Montgomery) for which he needed her help. The letter is from 1987 when Fairbanks was 77 years old, but apparently not too old to play pranks.  

(left to right) Douglas Fairbank Jr., Laurence Olivier and Robert Montgomery in their younger days.

Source: WorthPoint


16 June 1987

Betty Barker
839 North Fuller
Apartment H
West Hollywood
Los Angeles

Betty dear-

I have an inside joke with Larry Olivier, though we do not like it generally known as it is in rather gruesome bad taste. Although we were outwardly friendly and former fishing and yachting partners of the late Bob Montgomery, we really did not like him, and thought him pompous.

I want to play a joke on Larry if I can, and I am going to sign a picture of Bob to him. However, I haven't got such a picture- could you please find one somewhere of any size, kind or description and be good enough to mail it to me at White Club, St. James's Street, London SW1?

Thank you dear, love,

As ever
P.S. How and where are you?

Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Laurence Olivier and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. photographed with Lilian Gish in the 1980s.

14 March 2019

The controversy of colourising classic films

During the 1980's, a number of famous classic black-and-white films started to appear on television in a completely colourised version. As most audiences (especially younger ones) were not really interested in watching black-and-white films, studios and copyright holders had turned to colourising classics in order to still make money from them. (Television stations paid far less for black-and-white films than they would for colour films and videos of black-and-white films were rarely sold.) One of the most important proponents of film colourisation was media mogul Ted Turner, who had acquired the film libraries of MGM, RKO and early Warner Bros. and thus became copyright holder of an enormous collection of films. Realising there was money to be made from 'dusting off' the black-and-white films in his collection, Turner commissioned the colourisation of numerous classics including Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). 

Needless to say, filmmakers were not at all happy with said development. Frank Capra protested the colourisation of his It's a Wonderful Life (1946)a film that was in the public domain at the time and, like other public domain films, had become fair game for colourisers. Other opponents of film colourisation were filmmakers such as Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kubrick, Elia Kazan and Orson Welles, the latter having said weeks before his death: "Don't let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons." (While Turner did have plans to colourise Citizen Kane, in the end he left Welles' film alone.)

Above: While black-and-white photography is essential to film noir, even noirs like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) couldn't escape colourisation. In 1988, Turner Entertainment had the film colourised, much to the horror of Anjelica Huston whose father had died the previous year. Huston started a law suit in France to stop the broadcast of the colourised version on French television and the French Supreme Court eventually ruled in her favour. Below: Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre colourised in Casablanca.

Of course the main objection from filmmakers to colourisation was that it violated their artistic integrity and that people would see their films not like they had been intended. "These pictures were conceived in black-and-white, and by adding colour one betrays the intentions of the maker, which should not be done, because it damages or destroys the style of the films", said Fred Zinnemann. Proponents of colourisation didn't see the problem as the original black-and-white print would still be available alongside the colour version. Opponents disagreed saying that people watched classic films mainly on television or on video remember, we're talking the late 1980s hereso if the films were offered in colour, people wouldn't even be able to see the black-and-white version. A film would thus be seen in colour for the first time, basically ruining people's "first viewing".

The colourisation debate eventually died down in the mid-1990s, mainly because film colourisation was a very expensive process. Costs could amount to $300,000 for a feature film and since the demand for colourised films had decreased over the years, it was no longer lucrative for Ted Turner and others to continue. Nevertheless, a lot of films ended up being colourised (click here for a list), but fortunately we can still watch and enjoy them in black-and-white, just as they were intended.

Above and below: James Stewart in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a film that has been colourised three times,  i.e. in 1986, 1989 and 2007. The colour photos are from the latest Blue-Ray release from 2007.

Here is a letter from James Stewart (one of the people who fiercely opposed the colourisation of classic films and even went to Washington to testify before Congress) to a fellow opponent, written on 15 January 1987

Source: reddit


Dear Mary Phillips:

I want you to know that I'm very grateful to you for your kind and encouraging letter. I think you have expressed your disapproval of colorization of movies better than anyone I have heard so far.

I have been against it from the time I first heard about it and have been on television several times arguing with the colorization people. However, the jury is still out on who is going to win in this mishmash. The coloring process is very expensive and inasmuch as the whole idea of colorization is based on making money, a lot of us are hoping that the colorized pictures don't bring in the "dough"and this may slow the whole thing up and we can sit back and see the films that were originally made in black and white still remain in black and white.

It's wonderful that you have taken this interest and it's very encouraging to read your thoughts on it. You certainly are very articulate on the subject, which I think is of great value to us non-colorization people.

Thank you for your help and I send my best wishes to you for a Happy New Year.


James Stewart (signed)

According to Wikipedia, Frank Capra was initially not against the colourisation of It's a Wonderful Life. Following Cary Grant's enthusiastic reaction to the colourisation of Topper (1937), Capra signed an agreement with Colorization Inc. to have his film colourised, however wishing full artistic control over the colourisation. When it became clear that It's a Wonderful Life had entered the public domain and the film could also be colourised without Capra's approval, Colorization Inc. returned Capra's investment and the director subsequently joined the protest against colourisation.

6 March 2019

"The Amazing Mrs. Holliday" does not deserve the Booby Prize

Deanna Durbin was Universal's biggest star in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. In 1946, she was the second-highest paid woman in the United States (after Bette Davis) and a year later even the highest-paid woman. Among Durbin's greatest successes at Universal were her films produced by Joe Pasternak and directed by Henry Koster, such as Three Smart Girls (1936), One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), First Love (1939), Spring Parade (1940) and It Started with Eve (1941), the latter film being her last collaboration with both Pasternak and Koster.

Following the success of It Started with Eve and Joe Pasternak's move from Universal to MGM, Durbin wanted more control over her films and also the opportunity to work for other studios (most notably MGM as it had Pasternak under contract now). When Durbin refused to do the film They Lived Alone (which in the end was never made), Universal suspended her for six months. The dispute between Durbin and the studio was eventually settled by the end of January 1942 with Durbin coming out the winner: Universal agreed to give her story and director approval on all her films.

Deanna Durbin retired from making movies in 1949, only 27 years old. Joe Pasternak, who had produced some of her greatest successes, tried to persuade her not to retire but Durbin had made up her mind and reportedly said: "I can't run around being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song – the highest-paid star with the poorest material."

Ready for a fresh start after her suspension, Durbin took on a more dramatic role in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), to be directed by renowned French director Jean Renoir. Durbin had thus far only appeared in light-hearted, musical films and Holliday was meant to be the start of the new Durbin image (the film's subject being a serious one, i.e. a young woman smuggles a group of Chinese war orphans into the United States during WWII). Durbin was excited about the project and about working with Renoir, but after 47 days of shooting Renoir left the film. While Renoir himself claimed an old war injury was the cause of his abandoning the film, it is also said that he was fired due to his slow work pace. At the suggestion of Durbin, Renoir was replaced by the film's producer Bruce Manning who, with no previous directing experience, finished the job. (Two-thirds of the film had been shot by Renoir, but as he was not really interested in Durbin as a singer, the songs were added later at the insistence of the studio.)

Above: lunch break during production of The Amazing Mrs Holliday with (from left to right) screenwriter Leo Townsend, Jean Renoir, Charles David (whom Durbin would marry in 1950), Deanna Durbin and Bruce Manning.// Below: between filming with Deanna Durbin, co-star Edmond O'Brien and Bruce Manning (don't know who the other fella is) .

While I found The Amazing Mrs. Holliday to be quite enjoyable (despite the film's uneven tone), Durbin herself didn't like the film at all. In the late 1980s, Durbin told film historian and teacher William Everson that of all the films she had made, she felt that about six of them should be forgotten and that Holliday should get the Booby Prize. Later Durbin's attitude towards the film somewhat softenedas can be seen in the following letter to Everson written in April 1990 ("On second thought, you're right... "Holliday" does not deserve the Booby Prize, but as I was so enthousiastic and raring to go, the disappointment of a bad film hurt all the more and perhaps made me unfair"). Apart from Holliday, in her letter Durbin also talks about It Started with Eve in which she had co-starred with Charles Laughton. 


April 1990

Dear Mr. Everson,

You are very kind to continue being so interested in "Holliday" and to let me know that it went well at the New School. After all even if a film I made was not good, it represents a great deal of hard work and I can't help having certain fond memories and thoughts about it.

You are correct in saying it was a comedown from "Eve" but the sought after new Durbin image was not meant just to show me grown up but to have a story which featured me in special and different circumstances, directed by someone exceptional, instead of which I think you'll admit, as did most people, "Eve" was handed to Charles Laughton.

He was marvellous in the picture and the fact that we remained very close friends even though we were both aware of "Eve" being a Laughton not a Durbin film, shows how fond we were of each other.

AS YOU KNOW? I went on a six month suspension at that time and came back to what I thought would be a picture written by Bruce Manning and directed by Jean Renoir! I have already described what took place with that, but perhaps forgot also to mention that we were on the shooting stage for about six months with numerous script changes every day!

A couple of remarks about the programme:
Koster had not left for M.G.M. while I was making "Holliday" but was shooting a film with Diana Barrymore at Universal.

Manning was responsible for many of the excellent Pasternak scripts before Joe left for M.G.M.

On second thought, you're right ..."Holliday" does not deserve the Booby Prize but as I was so enthousiastic and raring to go, the disappointment of a bad film hurt all the more and perhaps made me unfair.

These may all sound like petty details but when trying to change an "image" such things are important and it shows how complicated and sometimes tortuous those sparkling careers can be.

Forgive me for bending your ear like this but it is so pleasant to have an interested, understanding and listening ear to bend!

All my best thoughts,

(signed) Deanna