29 July 2020

R.I.P. Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020)

I must have mentioned once or twice before that Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn were more or less responsible for my becoming a classic Hollywood fan. At a young age (I think I was around ten years old), seeing them together in Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Dodge City (1939), I fell in love with them, Errol becoming my hero and Olivia my heroine. When I grew older I had other heroes, but Olivia (and Errol too, of course) always held a special place in my cinematic heart. It is therefore with great sadness that I heard of Olivia's passing last Sunday. She died peacefully in her sleep at her Paris home at the incredible age of 104.

The films of Olivia that I saw as a child and loved (and still do!) were not the films she herself was most proud of. Olivia was very unhappy with her career by the time she made Dodge City ("I was in such a depressed state that I could hardly remember the lines") and was quite eager to take on more challenging roles. She would soon get her wish when David Selznick cast her in the role of Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she received her first Oscar nomination. There were more challenging, dramatic roles still to come with films like Hold Back The Dawn (1941), To Each His Own (1946), The Snake Pit (1948) and The Heiress (1949), earning her a further four Oscar nominations. Olivia eventually won the statuette twice, for her performances in To Each His Own and The Heiress.

Among Olivia's dramatic roles, probably the most demanding was that of schizophrenic Virginia Cunningham in Anatole Litvak's The Snake Pit — the role often cited as one of her personal favourites. To prepare for her role, Olivia did extensive research, visiting mental hospitals and observing treatments, such as hydrotherapy and electric shock. Furthermore, she attended therapy sessions and also spent time with patients at social functions. Olivia's hard work eventually paid off, earning her good reviews, an Oscar nomination ánd praise from people in the psychiatric field.

One of the professionals who was very impressed with The Snake Pit and Olivia's portrayal of Virginia was Dr. William Menninger, a renowned psychiatrist and after WWII a leader in reforming state mental hospitals. Here is a correspondence between him and Olivia from March 1949, several months after the release of the film. As one can imagine, Olivia was "tremendously thrilled" to receive Dr. Menninger's praise and approval.


436 N. Rockingham Road
Brentwood Park, California

March 5, 1949

Dear Dr. Menninger,

Your kind letter, written in November, arrived while my husband and I were visiting out of the state, so that it was not until our return that I received it. The holidays, a New York trip, and a recent illness have kept me until now from telling you how tremendously thrilled I was by your approval and praise of "The Snake Pit" and "Virginia". As you have no doubt learned from Mr. Litvak, all of us associated with the film earnestly hoped to create both a work of art and one of service. Therefore to have won your commendation of it as "a perfectly wonderful service to psychiatry and the public" is, indeed, a great satisfaction.

With warm good wishes,


Olivia de Havilland Goodrich
[Marcus Goodrich was Olivia's first husband to whom she was married from 1946 until 1953]


March 10, 1949

Mrs. Olivia de Havilland Goodrich
436 North Rockingham Road
Brentwood Park, California 

Dear Mrs. Goodrich:

Your note of March 5 was indeed a very gracious and warm note and I appreciated it deeply.

It is possible that you may have had an inquiry, through Mr. Spyros Skouras [President of 20th Century Fox], from me recently.  I don't need to tell you how backward our state hospitals are and we in this organized group, The American Psychiatric Association, plan to have a mental hospital institute in Philadelphia for the entire week of April 11 to 15. We have written to the Governors of the various states and to the mental health authorities and urged them to send representatives and I am hopeful that most of our states and territories will send men to this institute. It was planned that we would have a mass meeting in Philadelphia on Monday evening the 11th to open the program and I contacted Mr. Skouras as to the possibility of whether we might be able to persuade you to attend this opening meeting. Mr. Skouras confidentially reported back to me of your great expectations for this summer and that it was extremely unlikely that you would feel that such an expenditure of effort was practical. I am certainly in full agreement with such a point of view and do hope that all things go happily and well for you. 

Charles Schlaifer sent me the brochure of many, many reviews and editorial comments about THE SNAKE PIT. He also told me of the enormous box-office returns, all of which made me very happy and I am sure it must make you happy too. To have the satisfaction of making a remarkable piece of art and at the same time doing such a phenomenal public service I think must be a source of great satisfaction to yourself. Again I say that all of us in psychiatry are deeply in your debt.

Sincerely yours, 

William C. Menninger, M.D.  

Source of both letters: Kansas Historical Society

21 July 2020

Audrey, call us!

Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins starred together in Stanley Kramer's On The Beach (1959) and during production of the film they realised they had all been leading men to Audrey Hepburn. Peck was Audrey's romantic lead in Roman Holiday (1953), Astaire in Funny Face (1957) and Perkins in Green Mansions (1959). While filming on location in Australia, the men decided to send Audrey a message ("Dear Audrey. If you need any help call us!") via this fun picture, autographed by the three of them. I'm sure Audrey must have been thrilled to receive this.

Source: Christie's

13 July 2020

You are the best musical composer in the industry

Austrian-born music composer Max Steiner moved to Hollywood in 1929 and was one of the first composers to write music scores for films. According to Steiner, filmmakers at the time generally regarded film music as a "necessary evil" but this would all change in the early 1930's. Put under contract at RKO, Steiner composed his first film score for Cimarron (1931) and after several films was asked by David Selznick (the studio's new head of production) to write the score for Symphony of Six Million (1932). The score for Symphony was groundbreaking. It was the first time underscoring (music played under dialogue or a scene) was used throughout an entire picture. Steiner later said that Symphony was "the most important picture [he] did as far as trendsetting". But while the film was a turning point for both Steiner's career and the film industry, it wasn't until a year later with King Kong (1933) that Steiner had his big breakthrough. Many people believe it's this score which marks the true beginning of the Hollywood film score.

In 1936, due to salary issues with RKO, Steiner went to work for David Selznick at his new studio Selznick International Pictures. A year later, following a professional disagreement with Selznick over A Star is Born (1937), Steiner left Selznick and signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. under the condition that he was still allowed to work for Selznick if needed. Steiner desperately wanted the assignment to write the score for Gone with the Wind (1939), the rights to the novel having been purchased by Selznick in 1936.

In April 1939, Warners agreed to lend Steiner to Selznick who had never considered any other composer for GWTW than Steiner. Steiner had only three months to write the score and worked around the clock to meet the deadline (meanwhile also composing scores for Warners, 1939 being his busiest year with thirteen (!) films). Worried that Steiner wouldn't make it in time, Selznick asked Franz Waxman to write an additional score. In the end, Steiner came through and delivered a great score, which at nearly three hours is still one of the longest scores ever composed.

Max Steiner credited on screen for Gone With The Wind (above) and for Now, Voyager, My Reputation, Since You Went Away and Mildred Pierce (below, clockwise), which are some of my favourite Steiner scores.
As said, Steiner had been quite eager to work on GWTW and to make sure his boss Jack Warner would lend him to Selznick, he wrote Warner a letter in the spring of 1939. Warner wrote back immediately, giving Steiner the go-ahead while emphasising the composer's importance to the studio and calling him "the best musical composer in the industry". Steiner's letter (shown in part and only in transcript) as well as Warner's reply can be read below. 

Incidentally, the film score for GWTW (with its famous Tara's Theme) remains one of Steiner's most famous and best loved scores. Steiner was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz. (That same year, Steiner was also nominated for another film, Dark Victory.) In all, Steiner composed more than 300 film scores and was nominated for an Oscar 24 times, ultimately winning three, i.e. for The Informer (1935), Now, Voyager (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944).

My dear Mr Warner: 
Charlie Feldman told me ... that it would be all right for me to do the music for Gone with the Wind .... When I came over to work at Warners, I had an understanding with Leo [Forbstein, responsible for Warners' contracts] that whatever happened I was to do Gone with the Wind .... In fact, the only way I could get my release from Mr. Selznick was with that promise .... It is absolutely necessary that I do a top picture of the type of ... Gone with the Wind with their vast opportunity for music .... One cannot win Academy Awards with ... Oklahoma Kid, etc.... Please do not misunderstand me .... I haven't slept for days, and it is all can [do to] try and get [Confessions of a] Nazi Spy finished in time. Really, Mr. Warner, I'm counting on you .... Will you please give your consent and tell ... Mr. Selznick ... should he find it necessary to get someone else, I would never get over it ...  
Source: Max Steiner: Composing, Casablanca, and the Golden Age of Film Music

Source: AuctionZip


April 6, 1939

Dear Max:

Received your circular letter about doing GONE WITH THE WIND, and first I want to say that irrespective of what pictures you score, you are the best musical composer in the industry. If this is not true, I am sufficiently a music critic to prove it.

Therefore, I come to the point of replying to your letter reference your doing GONE WITH THE WIND. I have told Leo and Hal Wallis that this is satisfactory and that you can do it, and Mr. Forbstein and Mr. Obringer will handle the business of loaning you over there.

Just want to add that while I realize we have brought another composer in to do certain pictures from time to time, it is with great pride that we can point to the important music in pictures such as ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, DODGE CITY, OKLAHOMA KID, FOUR DAUGHTERS, CRIME SCHOOL and JEZEBEL and I am sure that the important music you have placed in these and many other films, have contributed much to their success, and I assure you it isn't the bigness of the picture that counts.... for you won an Academy Award for doing a picture no one ever heard of, THE INFORMER.

However, I do hope that with GONE WITH THE WIND you will not only win the Academy Award, but the plaudits of the public, who are after all, our most important judges.

Yours for more work and longer hours,

Jack Warner

P.S. Keep away from the Hollywood Turf Club .... because I am going to be there every Saturday.

Mr. Max Steiner

2 July 2020

What's in a name?

MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer once said that the idea of a star being born was "bushwah". During Hollywood's studio era, stars were not born but created. The studios signed actors and actresses who looked good and then they would work from there. "All I ever looked for was a face", said Mayer. "If someone looked good to me, I'd have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest."

The first step to creating a star often was changing the actor's name. Sometimes actors got to keep their name, provided they were born with a catchy name like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable or Ava Gardner. In some cases, actors already had a new name before coming to Hollywood for instance, Ruby Stevens chose the more sophisticated name Barbara Stanwyck while she was still performing on Broadway, and Issur Danielovitch changed his name to Kirk Douglas, feeling his real name was too Jewish for Hollywood. Quite often, however, it was the studios that gave the potential stars new names, and not always with the actor's input or consent. Names that didn't fit the physical image of the actor had to be changed, thus elegant men like Spangler Arlington Brugh and Archibald Leach were given more elegant (and easier to remember) names, resp. Robert Taylor and Cary Grant, and a big guy like Marion Morrison got the sturdier name John Wayne. Also, foreign names were often replaced with American names  e.g. Lucile Vasconsellos Langhanke and Margarita Carmen Cansino became resp. Mary Astor and Rita Hayworth. 

A special story is that of Lucille Fay Le Sueur, in the 1920s one of MGM's potential new stars. In the spring of 1925, feeling her last name was too hard to remember and sounded too much like "sewer", MGM decided to hold a contest to pick a new name for Lucille. In the fan magazine Movie Weekly, people were asked to come up with suitable screen names and the person to submit the winning name would be awarded $500 (and the next ten best names $50 each). "Joan Arden" came out the winner, but since there was somebody working at MGM with the same name*, Lucille had to settle for the runner-up, "Joan Crawford". Initially, Lucille hated her new name. She wanted her first name to be prounounced "Jo-Anne" and her last name reminded her of "crawfish". In time, the name grew on her and she later said she liked the security that came with it.

*This was MGM's version of the story. Another version is that there was nobody named "Joan Arden" but that the winning name had been submitted by two or three people. This meant that MGM had to pay the prize multiple times and they didn't think the young starlet was worth it.

Above and below: articles that appeared in Movies Weekly in April 1925 [source]. In September of that year, the magazine would announce that "Joan Crawford" was the winning name. 

Someone who also underwent the name-change was Phylis Walker, which brings me to today's correspondenceIn 1941, producer David Selznick was casting his upcoming film Claudia (1943) and Phylis, having just signed a seven-year contract with Selznick, was one of the candidates to audition for the female lead (which eventually went to Dorothy McGuire). Finding Phylis Walker "a particularly undistiguished name"  born Phylis Lee Isley, the young actress was then married to actor Robert Walker  Selznick wrote to Whitney Bolton, his Director of Advertising and Publicity, asking him to come up with a new name. Selznick's two memos to Bolton are seen below, the second also addressed to Selznick's assistant Kay Brown. In January 1942, Phylis Walker was renamed Jennifer Jones and Selznick would subsequently groom her to stardom (ánd also marry her in 1949).

September 10, 1941
To: Mr. Bolton
I would like to get a new name for Phylis Walker. I had a talk with her and she is not averse to a change. Normally I don't think names very important, but I do think Phylis Walker a particularly undistinguished name, and it has the additional drawback of being awfully similar to Phyllis Thaxter, which is doubly bad because of Thaxter being in Claudia [on the stage], which Walker may do, and because of the fact that Thaxter may soon be in pictures.
I don't want anything too fancy, and I would like to get at least a first name that isn't also carried by a dozen other girls in Hollywood. I would appreciate suggestions.

January 8, 1942
To: Miss Brown, Mr. Bolton
Where the hell is that new name for Phylis Walker?
Personally, I would like to decide on Jennifer and get a one-syllable last name that has some rhythm to it and that is easy to remember. I think the best synthetic name in pictures that has been recently created is Veronica Lake.

Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

Jennifer Jones flanked by then-husband Robert Walker (left) and David Selznick on the set of Since You Went Away (1944).