27 July 2019

Praising "The Killers"

For his first independent production, Mark Hellinger paid $36,750 for the movie rights to The Killers, a short story written by Ernest Hemingway in 1927. The story is about two hit men who visit a local diner one night, searching for an ex-boxer aka "the Swede" whom they've been hired to kill. Nick Adams (generally regarded as Hemingway's alter ego) is in the diner and goes to the Swede to warn him, but the latter waits passively for the hit men to come and kill him. The whole plot of Hemingway's short story takes place in the opening sequence of the film — the first 15 minutes being a fairly faithful adaptation of the Hemingway story  while the rest of the film is original, explaining in flashbacks why the Swede was killed. Hellinger hired Anthony Veiller, John Huston and Richard Brooks to write the screenplay, the latter two giving uncredited contributions. (For the full plot, go here.) 

(Left to right) Robert Siodmak, Burt Lancaster and Mark Hellinger are discussing the script of The Killers while office secretary Lois Regan is making notes on her typewriter.

To direct The Killers (1946), Mark Hellinger chose Robert Siodmak who had just scored a big hit with The Spiral Staircase (1946). Unable to get Wayne Morris for the part of the Swede (Warner Bros. refused to loan him out) Hellinger cast newcomer Burt Lancaster, while Ava Gardner was given the role of the femme fatale Kitty Collins. Other important roles went to Edmond O'Brien (insurance investigator Jim Reardon), Sam Levene (Lt. Sam Lubinsky), Albert Dekker (Big Jim Colfax) and William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the Killers. Director Siodmak got great performances from his actors, in particular from Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, the latter delivering some of her best work in that final scene. (Ava herself later said: "Siodmak helped me with my toughest scene, the one at the end.... [He] made me play that scene so many times that I truly became hysterical and gave a more convincing performance than I thought I had in me".)
The first-rate musical score of The Killers was composed by Miklós Rózsa while Elwood "Woody" Bredell was responsible for the cinematography. Bredell deserves a special mention here as his black-and-white photography is simply stunning (see images below).

Reception of The Killers was overwhelmingly positive. The film was a huge box-office hit, at its opening in New York in August 1946 even breaking previous records. Reviews in general were raving and Hemingway himself also liked the adaptation of his story. Quite unusual for a film noir, The Killers received four Oscar nominations (i.e. for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Screenplay and Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), losing in each category to that year's big winner The Best Years Of Our Lives

Seen below are two letters written to producer Mark Hellinger, praising him for The Killers. The first letter comes from Bette Davis who saw the film in a small movie theatre several months after its release. Next is a letter from Ronald Colman who was lent a print of the film for viewing, after which he wrote to Hellinger to thank and compliment him. 

Note: Mark Hellinger would make a few more films (including Brute Force (1947)) before he died of a heart attack in December 1947, only 44 years old. His last production The Naked City (1948) was released after his death.

Mark Hellinger with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner who both became overnight stars after their roles in The Killers. 

Source: Heritage Auctions


Dear Mark,

In a tiny theatre in Whitefield New Hampshire last evening I saw "The Killers" 
It is wonderful- wonderful enough to sit down today and have to tell you 
your cast- your director 
your cameraman- the whole presentation-
really enthralling and exciting-
and the kind of use the motion picture should be put to oftener 

Many congratulations!!!

Bette Davis

January 27, 1947

Ronald Colman and Bette Davis (the letter writers for this post) photographed together in the 1940s.
Source: Heritage Auctions


1003, Summit Drive,
Beverly Hills, Calif.

September 27th, 1946.

Dear Mark Hellinger:

It was very kind of you to allow us run your picture THE KILLERS the other night.

This, however, is not only to thank you, but to say it is one of the finest pictures I have seen in a very long time  superbly produced and directed. The few friends who saw it with us were equally and superlatively enthusiastic.

Many thanks again, and best wishes,


Ronald Colman 


23 July 2019

Deep feelings have never had adequate speech

I love letters that concern old Hollywood friendships. Here is a heartfelt letter from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Clifton Webb, written in September 1931. Webb had just visited Fairbanks and his wife Joan Crawford and Fairbanks eloquently thanks him, calling Webb's stay "a welcome rain after a long drought". Joan was a close friend of Webb's too and I've also included a letter from her to him written around the same year. 

Incidentally, Clifton Webb was very loved in Hollywood. He and his mother Mabelle regularly hosted parties visited by Hollywood's finest. Webb maintained close friendships with a number of Hollywood stars including Humphrey Bogart, a letter concerning theír friendship can be read here.

Source: international autograph auctions



I have done many difficult things in my life but as I sit down to write this I am only to [sic] cognizant that this letter is presenting unprecedented hurdles. Because of this do be tolerant of my writing by typewriter rather than by hand. You couldn't even read it, I am sure, the other way.

Deep feelings have never had adequate speech and this is no exception. We have thousands of words at our disposal and a comfortable assortment of adjectives but when we have something of deep import such as telling a friend how grateful one is to him for his friendship and thanking him for many things that must go throughout infinity unrepaid, they all become as useless and futile as Christ's death or a Nun's twitch to a eunuch. 

Your visit here has done much for me. Never have I had such a good time. I am indefinitely obligated to you for everything. Your stay was like a welcome rain after a long draught [sic]. Only on leaving you have left with us a memory too wonderful and too profound to be so inadequately described as that.

If brevity is the soul of wit then silence must of necessity be the soul of emotion and by that same token I am without further words.

Nominating myself as a committee of one representing the Lady and your most humble, residing at Webbfair (if you remember) I extend to you the deepest and most sincere compliment within our restricted powers in the form of two words: Come again!

We simply adore you-

Above: At Lilyan Tashman’s beach house in 1931, photo by Edward Steichen. Clockwise from bottom left: Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Lilyan Tashman, Clifton Webb, Kenneth McKenna, Edmund Lowe (Tashman’s husband), Kay Francis (McKenna’s wife), Ivor Novello and Joan Crawford. Below: Doug and Joan at their home in 1931.

Source: schulson autographs


Dear Poopsie: ---

So very sorry to hear you had to postpone your trip, it must have been a great disappointment to you.

You must think, and justly so, that I am an awful bitch, I'll admit I've neglected you dreadfully, but Clifton dearest, I was working on "Grand Hotel" and I've never been so miserable in all my life, then before I completed that I started on my last film*, which I have just finished.

So you see dear I have been awfully busy, do forgive me for not writing sooner. 

You lucky dog what a vacation you will have this summer at Grace Moore's in Cannes. Do keep us posted in case we are able to join you. 

No other news darling except we miss you, oh I do hope we can see you soon. Write anyway. 

Love from 

* the film referenced here is Letty Lynton (1932)

Clifton Webb flanked by Joan Crawford and Gene Tierney in the late 1940s.

14 July 2019

James Cagney on "Yankee Doodle Dandy"

This summer the Filmoteca in Barcelona is offering a wonderful retrospective of Hollywood musicals, giving me the opportunity to see some of my personal favourites on the big screen (like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Band Wagon and Hello Dolly) as well as a number of new-to-me films, such as Yankee Doodle Dandy which I saw last week. 

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, is a very entertaining musical biopic about American  composer/ actor/ singer/ dancer/ producer George M. Cohan who in his time was known as "The man who owned Broadway". The role of Cohan is energetically played by James Cagney (who worked hard to master Cohan's typical stiff-legged dance style), a performance which earned him an Academy Award. Cohan was still alive when Yankee Doodle Dandy was made, but due to ill health he wasn't really involved in the making of the film. Before his death in November 1942, Cohan did see the final result, approving of both the film and Cagney's portrayal. 

Seen below are two letters from James Cagney to author Patrick McGilligan, written in 1979 in connection with McGilligan's 1981 book Yankee Doodle Dandy. The letters are an interesting read, speaking (among others) of George Cohan, the twins Julius and Philip Epstein who worked on the script uncredited (Cagney thought the script by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph lacked humour so the Epstein brothers were brought in to do rewrites) and of the "truly fanatical" Michael Curtiz who would go on to make Casablanca that same year.


July 3, 1979

Dear Mr. McGilligan,

In answer to your recent letter, all the information you mention regarding the Cohan contribution to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is quite accurate.

There never was a script submitted to Mr. Cohan. He sent a friend out, who was a lawyer, to view the rough cut. My brother Bill escorted Mr. Raftery to a projection room, and sat him down in a big comfortable chair. 

Inasmuch as the script had not been submitted to Cohan, my brother was full of misgivings, feeling the lawyer friend would step all over it. My brother was wrong. About twenty minutes into the film it really got to Mr. Raftery. As he sat on the other end of the room, my brother could feel the lounge vibrating as he realized Mr. Raftery was crying. Bill knew he was home free then. 

The other obstacle was in reference to Cohan's first wife, Ethel Levy. There was to be no mention of her, so she was left out of the script to oblige Mr. Cohan. He gave his complete approval and never went to court about it. 

If there ever was a script written by Cohan I never saw it. I did see "The Phantom President", but it was a flop, and Mr. Cohan's mannered performance did not help it any. I met him once when he was casting a play. I was in and out in a great hurry, Cohan holding I was not the type  he was looking for.

That about covers my acquaintance with Mr. Cohan. He was a fine actor, and knew his business thoroughly, and used his personal mannerisms sparingly. 

George M. Cohan
An interesting light on the way the film reached the Cohan family,  and this may be apocryphal. Warner Bros. sent a print up to his home and he and his wife sat in the projection room and viewed the picture. After the lights went up, Mrs. Cohan, who had not gotten out of her wheelchair in years, got up and walked over and said to George, "George you were fine." She had accepted me as George so completely. Now that may be all fraudulent, but I thought you should know it. It is interesting if true. 

Did you ever see Cohan in "Ah Wilderness"? He was simply marvelous. It was truly a great performance. His mannerisms, which were a holdover from earlier times, were not in evidence when he was doing that job. 

If there be anything else you would like to know, please drop me another note and I shall be happy to reply.

I just thought of something else. There was a group of us who used to have dinner every Tuesday night years back. When I say "we" it was people who had worked with Cohan: Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Morgan and Pat O'Brien.

When it was announced that I was to play Cohan, I told the boys what my plans for him were. I did play him as straight as I could, in the off stage sequences, and used his mannerisms only when the opportunities presented themselves, without dragging them in unnecessarily.  Apparently that worked, because they all agreed that was the sensible approach.

I also forgot to mention that in that last viewing by Cohan and his wife, he was dying then of cancer of the bladder. He was lifted by one of his retainers and transported to the john to relieve himself, four or five times during the showing. That's what I was told. He approved of what he saw, apparently, and then it was allowed to go into distribution without any further bother from the family.

I trust this is enough for you to use on the jacket, or as much of this letter as you feel you need. 

All the best.

James Cagney


August 27, 1979

Dear Mr. McGilligan,

I can understand the mystery involved in the final script of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The Epstein boys were responsible for most of the re-write. There is no reason for you to know that, or through the shooting scripts there were interpolations by actors and directors concerned with it. Curtiz did have very little to do with that, as his knowledge of English was very spare. 

Joseph was a writer, who as I understand it, and I never met him, needed the credit, and the Epstein boys put his name in in place of their own as a favor to a friend. Buckner, who decidedly lacked any imagination,  as far as I could find out, contributed little and I withheld approval of the script until the Epstein boys were put on it. They were bright and charming young men, and very likeable.

The crying that I used in the death scene with Papa, just seemed to do the finishing off of what was in the script. 

I believe I told you in my other letter to you about Mr. Cohan sending out his lawyer friend, of 300 pounds and Boston Irish, to sit in judgment on what was in the finished product. I believe I may have mentioned that my brother took this Mr. Raftery into the production room and after 20 minutes my brother noticed the couch Mr. Raftery was on started to tremble and the lawyer man was in tears. We knew then we had his complete approval.

There were many things which I dropped into the script. But that was true of all our jobs for some of us.

Curtiz, to answer your questions about him, wore his coat of many colors rather well, and he was most unhappy when off the set. I used to say there was no such person as Curtiz, but only Curtiz the director. I understand they would actually take the camera from him to keep him from going on for 24 hours of straight shooting. He was truly fanactical [sic]. I understand he had no life off the set. George Brent, who died recently, had a fund of stories about Mike, and could get many laughs about them. I never heard any of the stories. I hope this all helps to fill the bill for you. All good wishes.


Source of both letters: iCollector.com here and here.

Above: The Epstein brothers, Julius (left) and Philip, best known for co-writing the screenplay of Casablanca with Howard Koch. Below: James Cagney with Michael Curtiz on the set of Angels with Dirty Faces (1938); they made five films together, the other three being The Mayor of Hell (1933), Jimmy the Gent (19340 and Captains of the Clouds (1942).

4 July 2019

To My Lady Of Courage

Barbara Stanwyck maintained a correspondence with Vivian Cosby while the latter was recovering from a horrible accident that happened on New Year's Day 1939. Cosby, a Broadway playwright, had just started working in Hollywood when in her new home her dress caught fire from a heater, leaving her burned so badly that doctors thought she would not survive. Luckily Cosby lived, but it took several operations and several years to recuperate.

Barbara was one of the Hollywood celebrities who stood by Cosby during her fight for survival and recovery. Apart from visiting Cosby whenever she could, Barbara also wrote to her regularly, keeping Cosby up to date about the films she was making, her daily life etcetera. Barbara's letters were published in the November 1941 issue of the fan magazine Photoplay, of which several are shown below. 

June 5th, 1940 
Dear Vivian:
What a soldier you are.  
I've been playing a lot of golf — all of it bad. I went to practice places and hit bucketfulls of balls by the hour. My enthusiasm failed to grow so I thought I should get out on a course. Bob was divinely patient— golf being his great enthusiasm at the moment (and he's not bad, not bad at all), but I'm not going to be a golfer and we both know it now. I never could get to care how seldom I hit the ball. I've convinced Mr. T. he should golf alone or with someone who can be as intent as he is on cutting down the score. My scores read like the national debt and, also like the debt, kept getting higher and higher. Maybe I should take up bowling. A high score is something to work for there. 
Do tell me about yourself. 
I'll be in to see you one of these days when you feel like seeing me. 
As always, 
Barbara Stanwyck on the golf course with her second husband Robert Taylor (l), to whom she was married from 1939 until 1952, and Clark Gable who, like Taylor, was a golf enthusiast.


August 5th, 1940

Vivian, dear: 

So you got out! But that's marvelous. How, why, when and where? I am so happy that you did have a change.

The picture [Meet John Doe] is going along just fine. Everybody is so nice and so terribly interested in his work, it's a pleasure to be there each day. And, of course, Capra is in a class by himself. There's no one really quite like him and when people ask, "What's so different about him?" you just answer, "He's Capra, that's all". You make other pictures to live, but you live to make a Capra picture.

Do tell me about yourself, Vivian  how you're getting along. 

Bob's picture "Escape" was sneaked at Long Beach Friday night. I did not see it, of course, but the reports are glowing. Let's hope so. He did work so hard on it.

My best to you, Vivian, and when you have time write me.

As always, 
Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra made a total of five films together, i.e. Ladies of Leisure (1930), Miracle Woman (1931), Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Meet John Doe (1941). 


October 14, 1940
Vivian, dear:
Well, here I am on another picture [The Lady Eve]. This time at Paramount with Preston Sturges writing and directing. It's fun and very pleasant.
Bob is taking his flying lessons seriously — books and much studying and all that. He will be a very good flyer some day and I shall be very proud and casual about it, but truthfully, right now it does scare me a little.
I'm an utter coward about flying myself. So, of course I keep on flying. Once I'm in the air I expect to relax, but I don't and I grin all the time to prove I'm not afraid at all. Flying to me is a pounding heart, an ice-encased body, and a petrified grin. Someday I'll laugh in the air as comfortably as I do at the end of every trip. I hope the next flight will be the one I fly out of my fear on.
Bob, of course, is completely at home in the air. And I've never bothered to tell him how I feel. I can't abide scared women, and I'm sure no one has any right to keep others from doing what they want to do. Particularly wives shouldn't try to have their own way all the time.
Course I've always thought it might be fun to "queen" it over the household for a day, but my family'd probably stop such goings-on by noon.
How I do run on. All I really started out to say was I hope you liked the candy. If there's any special kind you like please tell me.
As ever,
Left photo: Robert Taylor in front of his private plane named "Missy", Barbara's nickname. During WWII Taylor became a flight instructor for the US Navy. Right: While Barbara didn't share her husband's passion for golf and flying, she did share his love for horses and horse riding.


November 13, 1940

Dear Vivian:

So you've read "John Doe". Now you know why I was so excited about the whole deal. You know we never did shoot an ending on it as yet. The picture ended as Cooper carries me off the roof, and I'm just as curious as you are as to how they are going to end the whole thing.

This one, the Preston Sturges picture "Lady Eve", is going along just fine. 

We call Sturges "The Mad Genius" . 

You never know what he'll do next. Wore his hat all day the other day "so we'd recognize him". Came on the set the day we were working in my bedroom wearing a horrible looking bathrobe! Hope people will like the picture as much as we've liked making it. 

Do you want any books, Vivian? I thought maybe you would. Let me know. 

Above: Meet John Doe indeed ends where Gary Cooper carries Barbara Stanwyck off the roof. Initially, there were five different endings, including one that had John Doe leap to his death which was rejected by preview audiences. Capra was never happy about how the film eventually ended. Below: Barbara and director Preston Sturges on the set of The Lady Eve (1941).

February 22, 1941
Vivian, dear:
How about our little flood? Cute? I dare them to say it's a "California mist".
Well, I am working very hard with "The Great Man's Lady". But it's fun. Wild Bill, one of my "best beloved" people is a joy. He keeps us all on our toes and he just bubbles all day long. Joel is in my "BB" group, too. He belongs right near the top. We are all enjoying every second of it.
You know I get up to a hundred years old in this film, and Bill and I visited the Eastern Star Home and talked to several old ladies from seventy to ninety-seven years old. And the house mother told me this particular one was ninety-seven — she was spry as a colt and had a great sense of humor. We had a long talk and finally at the end she told me the house mother was wrong about her age — she was eighty-six. So you see — it's never too late to cut years! They were all pretty cute and said what a wonderful home that was and how happy they all were. They told me I'd better be a good snappy old lady and not a "picture old lady" who looked like she had one foot in the grave. They don't like that. And by golly none of them out there looks it. So I have my directions from the old gals!
And how are you, my lady of courage? I expect to give you tango lessons one of these days, so don't let me down. Not that you would.
My love, Vivian, and let me know if you want anything.
As always,
Above: On the set of The Great Man's Lady (1942) Barbara is having fun with two of her "best beloved" people, Joel McCrea and director William Wellman (r). Barbara also made five pictures with Wellman, the other four being Night Nurse (1931), So Big! (1932), The Purchase Price (1932) and Lady of Burlesque (1943). Below: Barbara young and old in The Great Man's Lady.
Source of the letters: Photoplay, November 1941.
To read more letters from Barbara to Vivian, click here and here.