27 December 2020

Grace Kelly's letter from the set of "Mogambo"

In November 1952, location shooting started on John Ford's Mogambo (1953). Cast and crew members flew to Africa, where in the ensuing months scenes were filmed in Tanganyika, Uganda, Belgian Congo and Kenya. The shoot was not without problems, though. With the Mau Mau Uprising taking place in Kenya, MGM had hired armed guards to protect the cast and crew in case of an attack. For extra security everyone was given a weapon, so they could also defend themselves. Apart from the tense situation with the Mau Mau, production was plagued by rain and mud and bad quality roads. As a result, three of the crew members were killed in road accidents, among them assistant director John Hancock.

There were also things happening on a more personal level. Leading lady Ava Gardner had learned that she was pregnant —at the time her marriage to Frank Sinatra was on shaky ground— and took a break from filming to return to London, reportedly to receive medical treatment for a tropical illness but in reality she had an abortion. The film's male lead Clark Gable got sick some time later, having developed a gum infection and briefly left Africa to see his own dentist in Los Angeles. And there was also a romance going on behind the scenes between Grace Kelly (Mogambo's second female lead) and Gable, which ended shortly after production had moved from Africa to the MGM studios in London. 

So it was a turbulent production, yet ultimately with positive results. Mogambo became a huge commercial hit and received generally good reviews. Both Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly were nominated for Oscars (resp. for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress), and Grace also won a Golden Globe.

Above: Grace Kelly knitting on the set of Mogambo while co-star Clark Gable looks on. After the shooting had moved from Africa to London, Grace's mother flew to London and started chaperoning the couple; the affair ended not long thereafter. Below: Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner on the set in Africa; the women became good friends and remained friends until Grace's untimely death in 1982.
Grace Kelly and her friend Prudy Wise

While in Africa on location, Grace Kelly wrote several letters to Prudence Wise, her close friend and personal secretary. Here is one of those letters, written just before Christmas in December 1952. 

Source: icollector.com


Dear Prudy, 

Ava just arrived in camp and with her came your letter- I’m sorry I haven’t written very much - but mother told me she was sending you that letter so I didn’t want to send more of the same news- The other letter I wrote - I sent to Florida - I hope your mother will forward it - Oh God! I just this very minute thought - How dumb can I be? I sent the other letter to Mallory St. - Anyway all I said in it was to tell John when you want to come back to the apt. after Christmas - 

This is the first day off we’ve had in a long time. It’s about 4 o'clock and Gable and I are sitting in front of my tent sipping warm beer - It’s a disgrace how fat I’m getting - The food is so starchy and I am always so hungry - Haven’t heard from Phillippe - but then of course I haven’t written -

Excuse the horrible writing but am leaning on my knees and the wind is blowing - 

Ava just came into my tent and she + Clark are running a scene they are going shoot tomorrow - so it’s hard to concentrate. There really isn’t too much news we’ve been working hard- It’s hot as can be during the day - I miss New York so much this time of year - I imagine the stores are so beautiful - Please give my love to everybody and apologize to them all for my not writing - My baby giraffe - the one named after me - arrives in camp tomorrow she is so sweet - I’ll send pictures as soon as I get them - 

Clark + I went shooting the other day - shot game for the natives and a guinea hen - we ate for dinner - It was simply delicious - 

Later - 

It is now 7:30 am waiting for Gable to have his bath and pick me up for dinner - he got rather high cocktailing with old Ava next door - about 6 o'clock we all went out in the wagon with Bunny Allen - a divine looking guy - who is the white-hunter in charge of the camp - We went to see the lion down the road - a lioness + her two grown sons - they were just beautiful - we were able to get quite close to them - They put out game every few days for them to feed - in order to tame them a bit - I took pictures with the movie camera - so I hope they turn out - but it was rather dark - 

Got a letter from Sherman today as well as old John Foreman - Was in the sun a lot today and my poor nose is like a red light - 

Am sitting by a kerosene lamp as I write this being eaten by mosquitos. The hippos are starting their series of evening grunts + Gable should be along any minute so I will sign off - 

with love - 

Above: Frank Sinatra had accompanied his wife Ava Gardner to the set of Mogambo in Africa, the two photographed here at Nairobi airport with Grace Kelly. Sinatra was in between acting jobs and during production flew back to Hollywood to do a screen test for the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity (1953), eventually landing the role and winning the Oscar. Below: The Christmas holidays took place during the Mogambo shoot and thanks to Sinatra the cast and crew could still enjoy Christmas. In the photo Ava Gardner is seen with some of the Christmas decorations Sinatra had brought back from Nairobi. (Watch Grace Kelly in this lovely clip tell the story of how Sinatra had saved their Christmas.)

22 December 2020

Merry Christmas!

With Christmas just a few days away, here is an assortment of Christmas related correspondence to put you in the holiday spirit. 

First up is a vintage Hallmark Christmas card entitled "Merry Christmas To Someone Nice"sent to Marilyn Monroe by Ella Fitzgerald. Marilyn had kept this (undated) card, which was found among her possessions after her death. 

Source: Julien's Auctions

On 6 December 1936, eight-year-old Shirley Temple wrote this note to Santa Claus, asking him to give all the boys and girls the best Christmas ever.

Source: The Daily Edge

Cary Grant wrote the following letter to his friend Beebe, thanking her for the gift she had given his then four-year-old daughter Jennifer for Christmas. Jennifer was Grant's only child (from his marriage to Dyan Cannon which lasted from 1965 until 1968). Grant retired from acting when Jennifer was born and devoted the next twenty years of his life to being a father.

Source: icollector.com
George Cukor gave his friend Joan Crawford a present for Christmas each year. In 1953, he also gave Joan's children baskets filled with candy. In the following letter Joan thanks Cukor for his generosity and also talks about the hectic Christmas she had.

Source: icollector.com
Above: Joan Crawford and George Cukor at the 1965 Oscars where Cukor was awarded the Best Director Oscar for My Fair Lady. Below: Joan with her adopted children Christopher, Christina (who would later write the controversial Mommie Dearest) and the twins Cathy and Cindy. 

And finally, here's a letter from Chuck Jones to Evelyn Karloff, written a few days after the death of her husband Boris Karloff in February 1969. Jones was the producer/ director of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, an animated television special, featuring Karloff as both the voice of the Grinch and the narrator. Broadcast for the first time on CBS television on 18 December 1966, the show went on to become a Christmas favourite, largely thanks to Karloff's delightful contribution. (Listen to Karloff here in the recorded version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Source: cartoon brew


Dear Mrs. Karloff,

It now seems apparent that "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" will be a Christmas feature on television for as long as anyone can envisage. In my opinion the major reason for this is that Mr Karloff gave such a thoughtful and understanding reading of the script. I think it is entirely appropriate that children for many generations will find joy and a deeper understanding of Christmas through the skill of your husband.

Thank you
-and him.
Chuck Jones
producer/ director
"The Grinch"

Boris Karloff and Chuck Jones during a recording session of How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

While it will be a different Christmas this year, I hope you can still spend and enjoy it with your loved ones. Have a safe and merry Christmas, everyone!

17 December 2020

Most of them are scared to death the public has forgotten them

When America entered World War II in December 1941, numerous Hollywood actors, directors and other film crew members joined the US Army, Navy or Air Force. After the war had ended, these men, while perhaps physically okay, came back emotionally changed. Trying to return to a life of normalcy, it wasn't always easy for them to immediately find work again. James Stewart, for instance, struggled to resume his acting career in the months following the end of the war. "I don't know if I'm an unemployed actor or an unemployed pilot", he famously said. Stewart's contract with MGM was about to expire and the lack of film offers made him wonder if he should return to the screen at all. He even considered going back home to Indiana to run the family hardware store. But then Frank Capra, who had previously directed Stewart in You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), offered him the role of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Stewart accepted and the rest, as they say, is history.

James Stewart remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve after the war. In 1959, Stewart was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the highest-ranking actor in American military history.

Stewart was certainly not the only one to feel concerned about his film career after returning from the war. In a letter to influential columnist Hedda Hopper dated 31 October 1945, Frank Capra talks about all the other ex-service men — apart from actors, there were writers, directors, cameramen etc. — who were worried about their careers after years of absence, "scared to death the public [had] forgotten them". Thanking Hopper for the "nice plug" she had given him and Jimmy Stewart, Capra asks her to think of the other men too. He emphasises how grateful they would be for "any crumbs of publicity thrown their way" and how "a word of encouragement" from her would surely boost their spirits. 

Source: oscars.org


31 October 1945

Mrs. Hedda Hopper,
6331 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood, California

Dear Hedda:

Thanks very much for the nice plug you gave me, Jimmy Stewart and "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON."

We are still hoping to get Jimmy for my first picture*, but the deal has not been closed. He is still not quite free from the MGM contract, although it looks certain he will be shortly.

However I want to repeat again how appreciative these ex-service men are and will be for any crumbs of publicity thrown their way. Most of them are scared to death the public has forgotten them, and that their future is unsafe. They are amazed at how the public has lionized the 4-Fs. A good many of them feel that the public nausea for uniforms will react against them. 

It's a pity if the careers of some of these public figures are to be jeopardized because they answered their country's call. Many of them did not have to go.

This applies not only to actors, but there are hundreds of writers, directors, cameramen and other technicians who are worried silly about their future after several years' absence. They are bewildered by the new faces, new producers, new directors, etc., some of whom have never heard of a good many who went into uniform.

A word of encouragement from you now and then would do wonders for the low spirits of many worried and confused guys.

As ever,
(signed 'Frank')

-*It's a Wonderful Life was Capra's first picture for Liberty Films, 
an independent production company which was formed by Capra and fellow directors George Stevens and William Wyler. Following It's a Wonderful Life, the company would make just one more film, State of the Union (1948), also directed by Capra.
-Frank Capra did not enlist in the army but was commissioned by the US government to make documentaries about the war. Capra's Why We Fight documentaries are war information films, explaining to soldiers "why the hell they're in uniform". The series is considered a masterpiece in its genre and won an Academy Award.

Frank Capra receives the Distinguished Service Medal from General George C. Marshall in 1945.

9 December 2020

James Dean is not an imitation of anybody

Bosley Crowther, famed film critic of The New York Times, was quite critical of James Dean after seeing him in his first big role in Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955). In his review, published on 10 March 1955, Crowther wrote: "This young actor, who is here doing his first big screen stint, is a mass of histrionic gingerbread. He scuffs his feet, he whirls, he pouts, he sputters, he leans against walls, he rolls his eyes, he swallows his words, he ambles slack-kneed — all like Marlon Brando used to do. Never have we seen a performer so clearly follow another's style. Mr. Kazan should be spanked for permitting him to do such a sophomoric thing. Whatever there might be of reasonable torment in this youngster is buried beneath the clumsy display".

Crowther was not the only one to criticise Dean's acting and Kazan's direction. There were others, among them Lee Rogow of the Saturday Review, who wrote on 19 March 1955 that "Kazan [had] apparently attempted to graft a Brando-type personality and set of mannerisms upon Dean, and the result [was] less than successful". Dean, who idolised Brando, responded to the criticism in Newsweek: "I am not disturbed by the comparison, nor am I flattered. I have my own personal rebellion and don't have to rely upon Brando." 

Elia Kazan seemed more hurt by the criticism. Kazan greatly admired Brando — they had worked together on three films, i.e. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954) — but being accused of encouraging Dean to act like Brando was "really too ridiculous", he thought. In the following letter to Helen Bower of the Detroit Free Press (one of several critics who had written quite favourably about Dean and the film), Kazan defends Dean and with it his own direction. 

[New York]

March 22, 1955

Dear Miss Bower:

Thank you for your letter. The allegation about Dean was not concerted but was made in some rather disturbing places by people whom I felt know better.

Dean actually has a talent all his own and a sizeable one. He doesn't need to imitate anyone and was not imitating anyone. He admires Brando, as do practically all young actors today. In this respect I would say that he had excellent taste. Brando has no doubt influenced Dean to some extent but he has also influenced 100 others, just as Barrymore did 30 years ago, just as Cagney and Spence Tracy did 20 years ago. The thing about my grafting a Brando-like personality and set of mannerisms on Dean is really too ridiculous to answer. I supposed it was a way of speaking rather than a remark meant literally. I actually don't think he's much like Brando. He's considerably more introverted, more drawn, more naked. Whatever he is, though, he's not an imitation of anybody. He's too proud to try to imitate anyone. He has too much difficulty as does any decent worker in our craft— thinking about anything except playing the part as written. Critics who say he's imitating Brando just reveal a naivete about acting, direction, and production.

I would love to see your review of the picture. I gather you liked it. It meant a lot to me and I was rather upset by Crowther's reaction in New York. The other critics here, however, liked it very much indeed and the picture is doing well.



Source: The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan (2014), edited by Albert J. Devlin  

East of Eden was a big commercial success. Both Kazan and Dean were nominated for an Oscar (Dean posthumously) but didn't win. Of the four Oscar nominations the film received only Jo van Fleet won. 
East of Eden also earned the award for Best Motion Picture–Drama at the Golden Globes and Best Dramatic Film at the Cannes Film Festival

Elia Kazan and James Dean behind the scenes of East of Eden, below pictured with Julie Harris and Marlon Brando during Brando's visit to the set.

5 December 2020

Wondering what I did to deserve such a handsome gift ...

When Cary Grant received a china mug with his name on it, he thanked its sender Moe Howard (leader of The Three Stooges) in his usual charming and humorous way. Browsing the web, unfortunately I could find no connection between Grant and Howard and, like Grant, I have no idea why the gift was sent. (Perhaps Howard wrote back and explained Grant the reason for his gift?) 

At any rate, here is Grant's delightful letter.

30 November 2020

Lionel Barrymore, Composer

“I doubt if there is a greater, more exhaustingly emotional experience possible than hearing your own music brilliantly performed, performed big, by a great orchestra, with those twenty violins picking up the fugues that were imaginary to you, and a renowned conductor welding the whole thing into something far better and more impressive than you had dreamed.

Lionel Barrymore first started to write classical music when he was about thirty years old. Music was his greatest passion, besides art (he initially wanted to be a painter). Barrymore had a huge record collection and an amazing musical knowledge. He was even able to recognise a composer in the first two bars. The multi-talented actor had created numerous compositions, many of which he wrote when he was already in his sixties. Studying with Hungarian composer Eugene Zador, Barrymore had tried his hand at everything —symphonies, fugues, piano suites, operas etc.. He candidly admitted that, while composing his music, he had "borrowed from everybody except the studio gateman", thereby noting that "nothing is new" and that everyone else, with the possible exception of Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy, was a borrower too. ("For the most part, every melody you hear is "Tristan-like" or taken straight from Debussy", he thought.) 

Barrymore was quite modest about his musical achievements and ultimately felt that people shouldn't take him too seriously as a composer. Nevertheless, he was immensely proud and excited —as one can imagine— when several of his compositions were performed by real conductors and orchestras, some of them even renowned. 

The first time a Barrymore composition was performed in public was in 1940. The symphonic suite Tableau Russe was played by the Los Angeles WPA Symphony Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl and was next used in the film Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941). Following the death of his brother John in 1942, Barrymore started working on a tone poem as a tribute to John, called In Memoriam. On 22 April 1944, it was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. 

Partita was, as Barrymore himself called it, "a more ambitious composition" and was one of the highlights of his musical career. The piece was first played by Fabien Sevitzky and his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on 20 March 1944. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski also performed Partita on 31 March 1946, broadcast on national radio as part of a program that included a symphony by Beethoven and an overture by Brahms. It was about the latter performance that Barrymore later said: "Listening to Partita with Rodzinski and the great New York Philharmonic was, I have to confess with no modesty and no shame, an enormous experience...  An orchestra of one hundred pieces, the best musicians in the world, performing me! I took care to be alone that Sunday when they played Partita because I did not want anybody to see me weep."

Other notable compositions by Barrymore include his piano compositions Scherzo Grotesque and Song Without Words, which were published by G. Schirmer in 1945; Opera Buffa, which was performed by the Burbank Symphony Orchestra under Leo Damiani in 1949; and the theme song of the radio program Mayor of the Town (1942-1949) of which Barrymore later said: "... this had a pleasant ring which I always liked, though I could never quite decide where I stole it."

Article from THE ABC WEEKLY, 23 September 1944

One of the conductors Barrymore had worked with was Fabien Sevitzky of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (already briefly mentioned above). Apart from Partita, Sevitzky had performed several of Barrymore's compositions, although the first piece he conducted was not an original composition but Barrymore's orchestration of Edward MacDowell's piano suite Sea Pieces. After that first collaboration the two men had stayed in touch through letters, with Barrymore from time to time submitting work for Sevitzky's consideration. Other Barrymore works that Sevitzky eventually performed include Preludium and Fugue in December 1944 and a Piano concerto in 1946.

From the Barrymore-Sevitzky correspondence which lasted several years, here are two letters written by Barrymore in 1944. The New York concert mentioned in the second letter possibly refers to the concert at Lewisohn Stadium later that summer (on 2 August), where Sevitzky would again perform Partita, this time conducting the New York Philharmonic.


February 4, 1944


My dear Mr. Sevitzky,

Yesterday I sent special delivery score and parts. Please tell me (as I know you will) whether you like it or not. If not, I will completely understand and try again.

I think Hollywood would be indeed most fortunate and grateful if you consented to conduct here again. 

For myself, (entirely off the record), Mrs. Irish has been kind enough to ask me to do the speaking in "Peter and the Wolf", and I have as cleverly as I could evaded it. But I am going to say that if they were lucky enough to get Dr. Sevitzky for some concerts I would be most happy to do it under him. In any case I will do this at once, and I feel sure you will be "encircled" and "attacked" by the Bowl immediately!

So, I am looking forward eagerly to seeing you here this summer!

With all fond wishes,

Yours very sincerely,

(signed 'Lionel Barrymore')

Lionel Barrymore


June 7, 1944

Dear Dr. Sevitzky

Thank you very much for your letter of May 25th. Concerning your questions about tempi, everything you suggest is all right. The tempo of the Fugue, however, is about 120-124. #16, 2nd bar, the 5th note is C natural as in the score. The 5th bar after 16, 5th note is F natural, as you say.

Thank you in advance for sending the recording to me. I am anxiously awaiting it. I know the performance will be marvelous in spite of the short rehearsing time. I am praying to God that the New York concert will materialize, and since you are the conductor and knowing God's wisdom in all things, I know it will happen!

Since you have done me the great honour of permitting me to submit a Prelude to you, I have thought of nothing else since I got your letter, and believe me, you will have it in ample time. I only pray that it will be worthy of your consideration.

It will be a great pleasure to see you in person on your visit to Hollywood, and I am looking forward to meeting you.

Yours very cordially, 

(signed 'Lionel Barrymore')

Source letters: Heritage Auctions
All quotes in this post taken from We Barrymores (1951), by Lionel Barrymore and Cameron Shipp.

Barrymore's tribute to his brother John In Memoriam can be listened to hereTableau Russe here (as  performed in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day). Other works by Barrymore here and here.

24 November 2020

Groucho Marx and the United Snakes of America

In 1953, the FBI was told by one of its confidential informants that Groucho Marx "contribute[d] heavily to the Communist Party". The Bureau subsequently started to investigate the comedian and during the next decade built a file on him containing numerous pages. The file included evidence of Groucho's pro-communist sympathies, e.g. a 1934 article in the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker, saying Groucho had called the communist support for the Scottsboro Boys an inspiration for "Soviet America"; Groucho's attendance at a benefit concert for Soviet war relief in the 1940s; his opposition of Franco's fascist, anti-communist government of Spain; and his membership of the Committee for the First Amendment, which protested the investigations into communism in Hollywood conducted by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). 

Despite the sizeable file, the FBI ultimately concluded that Groucho was not a member of the Communist Party. The HUAC reached the same conclusion and never even called Groucho to testify. They did, however, summon Jerry Fielding (Groucho's bandleader on the popular tv show You Bet Your Life) to testify in December 1953. Fielding later said that HUAC probably wanted him to name Groucho, but he had refused to name names and was consequently blacklisted. Pressured by his sponsors, Groucho eventually fired Fielding  a decision he would later call "one of the greatest regrets of [his] life".

Among the many documents that can be found in Groucho's FBI file are the following two letters, written by concerned US citizens to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover regarding Groucho's communist leanings. By the time the letters were written, on resp. 17 June 1960 and 23 October 1961, the FBI had already been investigating Groucho for years.


Mr. J. Edgar Hoover
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Hoover:

I suggest that the TV entertainer Groucho Marks [sic] be investigated as being a Communist.

Last night on his program both my husband and I understood him to pronounce "The United States" as "The United Snakes".

In his book "Groucho and Me" he speaks quite affectionately of Charlie Chaplin, who is a well known Communist.

By the way, your own book "Masters of Deceit" is a masterpiece. I have bought a copy for myself and four or five copies as gifts. It is simply a wonderful book. Thank you for it. 

Please, Mr. Hoover, investigate Groucho Marks [sic]. 




Oct. 23, 1961


Mr. J. Edgar Hoover
Department of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Hoover:

As a loyal citizen of the United States, I am writing to you concerning the TV program entitled "Dupont Show of the Week" which was broadcast last night over NBC.

I am outraged by this show which appeared to be full of Communist propaganda - so much of it that I cannot begin to name it all. It was NOT funny. The Red stench was unmistakable. The program went out of the way to make the automobile industry in our country appear to be silly and the American people weak, incompetent and arrogant. 

As one example among too many to even mention, Groucho Marx said, in speaking of the American people, "They drove around in their ARROGANCE."

I understand that Groucho Marx has strong Red leanings and that he was a member of the Red Front called "Committee for the First Amendment" and that he signed Cablegram of allegiance to Stalin. Please write and let me know if this is correct and what other information I am entitled as a United States citizen to know concerning his Red affiliations, so I can speak with authority when discussing him.

No doubt you have already thoroughly investigated Groucho Marx, but please also investigate the writer or writers of the TV script for the Dupont sponsored show.

Hoping to hear from you soon, I am

Sincerely and gratefully yours,


Both letters via Muckrock.

16 November 2020

My wig ... I loathe the bloody thing

One of Errol Flynn's best and most successful films is the swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which is also one of my all-time personal favourites. To look the part of the legendary hero, Flynn was given the requisite costume (tights, tunic and hat), complete with medieval hairdo. The original wig was redesigned halfway through production after Flynn had complained about it in a letter to producer Hal Wallis. Flynn hated the centre part and bangs of the hairpiece and Wallis immediately had the wig improved. The reshooting of scenes was unnecessary, as the original wig had only been filmed under Flynn's hat.

Flynn's letter to Wallis can be read below. It was written on 24 October 1937, while on location in Chico, California, where the Sherwood scenes were filmed.

Above: Errol Flynn is having his wig trimmed. Below left photo: Flynn in his first wig with the fringes and middle part he hated — here photographed with Robin Hood's first director William Keighley who was replaced with Michael Curtiz/ right photo: Flynn in his new wig which was eventually used in the film.

Richardson Springs
Chico, Cal

October 24, 1937

Dear Hal, 

First let me thank you again for fixing things re the radio deals.

Now one other minor, but to me very important, squawk. My wig .... I loathe the bloody thing. With the hat on it's fine, and the alteration I want to suggest does not affect any of the stuff we've shot so far  the part that's wrong is hidden by the hat. The centre part in the wig is my chief complaint. I would like an almost unnoticeable part on either side so that one side or the other could sweep back off the forehead. The fringes would then, when the hat is removed, not look like fringes but just a few locks of loose hair carelessly falling over the brow. My drawing of course is hopeless but I've explained to the make up here who say they will write to the studio and explain it.

The point is, I haven't had my hat off yet and when I do, the new wig would match. Would you ask them to make me one like that described and send it up so we can get it right before we come down? I'm quite certain you will think it an improvement, Hal. If you don't — nothing has been lost. I hate this present one so much I shudder every time I see the Goddam thing — and I've had nothing but comments from people, when they see it with the hat off, about the stupid looking fringe and centre part. So there must be something to it.

I feel like one of the oldest inhabitants of Chico now — we all do. And we're all very sick of it but consoling ourselves with the report or rather rumour that you like the stuff down there. Is it so?

All the best Hal and kindest personal regards.

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

9 November 2020

The critics are going to crucify her

I had never heard of the film Ash Wednesday (1973) until I came across today's letter, written by Richard Burton. The film stars Burton's then-wife Elizabeth Taylor as a middle-aged woman who, in an attempt to save her marriage (her husband is played by Henry Fonda), undergoes plastic surgery and then starts an affair with a playboy (Helmut Berger). While the film is nothing more than a soapy melodrama, the critical reception was still mildly positive, especially for Elizabeth who was also nominated for a Golden Globe. 

Richard Burton was intensely displeased with his wife's participation in Ash Wednesday. In the following letter to Gianni Bozzacchi (personal photographer to both Burton and Elizabeth) Burton rants about what he thought was a "f***ing lousy nothing bloody" film, convinced the critics would crucify Elizabeth. Her only reason for doing the film, he thought, was because she wanted to stay a famous movie star forever ("What the stupid (occasionally) maniac doesn’t realize is that she is already immortalized (as a film person) forever").  

As said, Elizabeth wasn't crucified by the press. Critics who were usually harsh were reasonably mellow in their reviews. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert said that while "the movie's story is not really very interesting, we're intrigued because the star is Taylor".

Source: icollector.com


27 April 1973


Dear Gianni

There is perhaps no way for you splendid men to understand my vile temper when I am faced with being on the edges of a film which is essentially vulgar at its base and vicious in its implications. There is not, apart from Elizabeth (possibly) if she acts it well, one single person who shall and will command our sympathy. 

I asked Fonda last night "Why in the name of your God are you doing this piece of shit?" And he replied "For the chance of working with Elizabeth, Richard, and what the hell Richard, I need the bread." "Good enough," I answered. "If you need the loot go in there and get what you can when you can!" 

Once upon a time I did a film (with E) simply for money. 

No longer do I have to do that. E's singular acceptance of this film is because she wants to remain a famous film star. What the stupid (occasionally) maniac doesn’t realize is that she is already immortalized (as a film person) forever. Because films are coming to an end. 

But, day after day, I sit here vulgarised by the idea that my wife is doing —violently against my "taste" a fucking lousy nothing bloody film. The critics are going to crucify her. C'est une huis clos. There is absolutely no way out. Don’t ever show this letter to anybody. I am very fond of you. But indeed to God! That poor child! More and more POOR!

Many Apologies,


Above: Henry Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor in Ash Wednesday, their only film together. Below: Burton and Taylor, who separated shortly after the shooting of Ash Wednesday. They would divorce in 1974, remarry in 1975 and divorce again in 1976.

1 November 2020

You have always been one of the most gracious people in the world

Norma Shearer's closest friend in Hollywood was fellow actress Merle Oberon. By the time Merle had her first substantial film role, Norma was already a big star. The two actresses were regularly seen together at social functions, around the mid-thirties often accompanied by their respective partners (Norma by husband Irving Thalberg and Merle by David Niven). Searching the web for more information about their friendship, unfortunately I found very little. There's only the occasional scrap of news— like when Merle's fiancĂ© Count Giorgio Cini tragically died in a plane crash in Cannes (France) in 1949, the only person there to comfort Merle was Norma.

But of course I wouldn't be doing this post if I hadn't found a letter too. On 30 September 1970, Norma wrote to Merle after the two had just seen each other, seemingly for the first time in several years. Norma was thrilled to meet her friend again and afterwards composed an affectionate and graceful letter (seen below), which I'm sure Merle was happy to receive.

"One of the most valuable things in Merle’s life is her friendship with Norma Shearer. Her whole face lights up when she speaks of her." Film Weekly, 6 February 1937.


Sept 30/70

My dear Merle —

It was such a joy to see you the other day and to meet your beautiful young son. The last time I saw him I think he was about four years old. Not only is he so handsome but he has such beautiful manners.

But why not, as you have always been one of the most gracious people in the world. Speaking of such things, may I thank you for your most kind and thoughtful letter when I was so sick which touched me deeply. 

Please know you will always be in our hearts - wishing you and Bruno health and happiness always.


At the time Merle Oberon was married to Italian-born industrialist Bruno Pagliai, whom she divorced in 1973. After Thalberg's untimely death in 1936, Norma married ski-instructor Martin Arrouge in 1942. They remained married until Norma's death in 1983.

Above: 1936, Merle Oberon and Norma Shearer attending The Mayfair Ball in Beverly Hills, California, with David Niven and Irving Thalberg. Below: December 1935, Merle and Norma at an event in Los Angeles with Miriam Hopkins and Dolores Del Rio. 
Above: 1938, Norma and Merle at a social event with their respective dates James Stewart and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. After the death of Irving Thalberg, Norma and Jimmy Stewart had a brief romance.
Above: Merle and Norma at a Hollywood luncheon in March 1942. Below: At Norma's Santa Monica Beach House in California in 1937.
Below: Norma doing cartwheels in her garden in 1936 with her friend Merle looking on.