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.