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! 

4 October 2019

The hottest tip I've got is a damn cold one

When filming on location, weather conditions are not always favourable. Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961) -- an epic film about the Spanish hero Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, aka El Cid, who freed Spain from the Moors in the 11th Century -- was almost entirely filmed on location in Spain. Charlton Heston, who played the titular role, found the weather in the Spanish mountains unbearably cold and complained about it in a letter to Mike Connolly, journalist for the Hollywood Reporter (seen below). Heston said he was not the only one suffering from the cold; his leading lady Sophia Loren suffered as well as did the horses and two extras even passed out due to the cold. Fortunately for Heston and the others, their next shooting location would be the Comunidad Valenciana where the weather was considerably warmer.

Incidentally, the mountain scenes were shot in the Guadarrama Mountains in the autonomous region of Castilla y León, which borders Extremadura where the ice cold weather supposedly came from. Several other locations in Castilla y León were also used, as well as locations in other regions such as Comunidad Valenciana, Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid. Studio scenes were filmed in the city of Madrid and Rome.

Above and below: Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren and director Anthony Mann on the set of El Cid.

Source: Icollector


January 9, 1961

Mr. Mike Connolly
Hollywood Reporter
6715 Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood 28, Calif.

Dear Mike:

It was  nice to hear from you, and don't worry about a correction. It's just that we all get paid more than we deserve in this end of the acting profession anyway; I hate to see it even further exaggerated. Probably my guilt-ridden conscience at work.

As for a scoop: the hottest tip I've got is a damn cold one: the weather. I now realize the rains in Spain stay mainly in that plain because they'd be solid ice in the mountains, where we've been shooting. The last time Sophia worked on location (she has very little to do there, fortunately) was one of the coldest days I've ever seen, and I come from Michigan! Especially at seven in the morning, when we lined up the dawn shot that started the day's work. A wind sharper than a Toledo blade knifed across the snow fields from Extremadura and really liked to kill us all; it's the first time I've ever seen horses buck in protest against working in the cold. My white stud, Babieca, was in a terrible temper, and Sophia was honestly unable to finish the day. Two extras, not quite so well-blanketed between takes as my horse and my leading lady, actually passed out from exposure, toppling off their horses with a tinkle of icy chain mail. The province where that weather came from was well named.. "Extremely tough" is right! No wonder all the conquistadores came from there; they just wanted to get away from home!! After Extremadura, the Peruvian Andes, the Panamanian jungle, and the Arizona desert must have seemed like so many summer resorts.

Otherwise, we progress. At the end of the month we go to the east coast south (ahhh, south!) of Barcelona, to finish off Sophia and then beseige [sic] Valencia. Wanna come kill a Moor or two? I can get you at least a  esquire's commission.

Is there any truth to the announcement that Hal [Wallis] is starring Elvis Presley in an all-colour, all-talkie remake of BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936??

As ever,

Signed "Chuck"
Charlton Heston