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.