25 December 2021

Your Christmas card was the most wonderful that I have ever received!

Director George Cukor usually began planning his Christmas cards in the fall. His good friend and fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene (who worked as a colour consultant on some of Cukor's films, e.g. the 1954 A Star is Born) would next design the cards, a tradition which lasted until Huene's death in 1968. One of Cukor's most elaborate cards was the 1959 Christmas card, which was a collage of his three dogs, several film projects and events (see here). The 1961 card was much smaller and came in the form of a bookmark, with Cukor's Christmas greeting on one side and facsimile photos of his beloved dogs on the other. (Marilyn Monroe was one of the recipients of the 1961 card (see here).

What Christmas cards Ingrid Bergman and Joan Crawford received from Cukor in resp. 1953 and 1966 I don't know, but judging from their reaction in the following letters the cards must have been special. Bergman, who had worked with Cukor on Gaslight (1944), thanks the director via a letter sent from Rome, Italy. (The opera she refers to in her letter is Joan of Arc at the Stake.) Crawford and Cukor were good friends —they had worked together several times, among others on The Women (1939) and A Woman's Face (1941)— and Joan not only thanks her friend for the card but also for the box of soaps he sent her.

Source: icollector.com

Source: icollector.com

20 December 2021

Bette and Joan's Financial Rivalry

By the early 1960s, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were no longer the big box-office stars they once were. Both in their fifties, the actresses desperately needed a project to revive their declining careers. It was director/producer Robert Aldrich who came to the rescue when he sent Joan a copy of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a 1960 novel by Henry Farrell. For years Joan had asked Aldrich, with whom she had worked on Autumn Leaves (1956)to find a suitable project for her and Bette Davis (Bette and Katharine Hepburn being the actresses she admired most). Joan was very enthusiastic after reading Farrell's story and next asked Bette to co-star with her in the film.

In order to get financing for his project, Aldrich approached every studio in Hollywood but the studio moguls had little faith in the box-office appeal of the two older stars. In the end, independent production company Seven Arts agreed to finance the film and Warner Bros, after being initially reluctant, decided to distribute it. Baby Jane was made on a very modest budget —with production completed in a mere six weeks— and Bette and Joan received salaries that were much lower than their standard fees. Aldrich later recalled: "I offered each actress a percentage of the picture plus some salary. Joan accepted, but Bette's agents held out for more than I could pay". Eventually Joan was paid a salary of $30,000 plus 15% of the net profits while Bette received $60,000 (double of Joan's salary!) and 10% of the profits. Being paid in net profits, Bette compared it to gambling and, as it turned out, Joan proved to be the better gambler. Unexpectedly, Baby Jane became a massive box-office hit and, with her percentage of the profits being higher than Bette's, Joan ultimately earned much more than Bette. (According to Donald Spoto's Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford (2010), Joan's earnings on Baby Jane amounted to $1,400,000.)

Above: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a publicity still for Baby Jane as resp. Baby Jane Hudson and her sister Blanche. From the start Joan had wanted to play the role of the wheelchair-bound sister while she felt Bette would be perfect as the insane Baby Jane. Below: Joan and Bette laughing on the set of Baby Jane. While the women were by no means friends, they reportedly got along during filming despite all gossip to the contrary. It was, however, when Bette received an Oscar nomination for her performance and Joan didn't that things turned unfriendly between them (read more in this post).
Below is the first page of Bette and Joan's contracts for Baby Jane. Under paragraph 3 their salaries are indicated. Joan's contract clearly shows that she was paid $30,000 and not $40,000, as I've seen mentioned in several sources. The film of writer/producer Luther Davis referenced in the second paragraph of Joan's contract was Lady in a Cage (1964); at the time Joan was being considered for the lead role, which eventually went to Olivia de Havilland. 

Source: Heritage Auctions
Above: Bette made sure that in the opening credits of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? her name came before Joan's.
Source: Heritage Auctions

Concluding this post, here is a fun anecdote. In November 1962 Bette Davis appeared on The Jack Paar Program to promote Baby Jane. Bette told Paar that when she and Joan were first suggested for the leads, the studio moguls said they wouldn't give a dime for "those two old broads" (watch Bette with Jack Paar here). A few days later, Bette received a note from Joan saying: "Please do not continue to refer to me as an old broad. Sincerely, Joan Crawford." 

"Those two old broads"

13 December 2021

It is a tremendous thrill for me to make this offer

In 1989, director Steven Spielberg made the romantic fantasy drama Always, a film that is generally considered a lesser entry in his filmography. Like Spielberg's recently released West Side Story, Always is a remake of a classic Hollywood film, i.e. Victor Fleming's A Guy Named Joe (1943), which was one of Spielberg's childhood favourites and one of the films that had inspired him to become a film director. A Guy Named Joe is about an airforce pilot (Spencer Tracy) who is killed in combat during World War II and is sent back to earth by a Heavenly "General" (Lionel Barrymore) on a new mission. For his remake Spielberg changed the setting of World War II to a modern setting of aerial firefighting. Richard Dreyfuss was cast in Tracy's role and in Barrymore's role Spielberg wanted Sean O'Connory but he was unavailable. The director then decided to replace the "General" with a female angel ("Hap") and approached Audrey Hepburn to play her.

Seen below is the letter Spielberg wrote to Audrey on 14 July 1989, offering her the part of "Hap". In his book Audrey at Home (2015)Luca Dotti recalled his mother's reaction after receiving the letter: "Years before, watching E.T. at a movie theater in Rome, my mother, extremely moved and squeezing my hand, whispered to me, "Luca, this man is a genius." Now that genius was offering her a role. When I asked her what the part was, she replied, "But it doesn't matter! Do you realize he actually wants me?" (Audrey was given a small role, making a cameo appearance.)

Probably best remembered for being Audrey's last film, Always was neither a critical nor commercial success. Still, it was a film both Spielberg and Audrey had enjoyed making. Spielberg said that one of the greatest thrills of his life was working with Audrey, while Audrey commented in an interview with Larry King: "I loved it, and I wouldn’t mind if he asked me again, like next summer. I’d be right back. I had really one of the best times of my life.

At the time Audrey was quite busy with her work as Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef and her $1 million salary for the film she donated to the organisation.

Source: Christie's

9 December 2021

Was John Steinbeck's letter to Marilyn Monroe real or fake?

A John Steinbeck letter to Marilyn Monroe (sold for $3,520 at Julien’s Auctions in 2016) has been widely circulating the internet since 2019. In this great letter Steinbeck asked Marilyn for a signed photograph, not for himself but for his then 17-year-old nephew-in-law Jon Atkinson. For those who haven't read it yet, here is the famous letter:

Source: Julien's Auctions

It wasn't until this year that someone actually tracked down Jon Atkinson to see whether he had received Marilyn's photograph, as requested for him by Steinbeck. Michael Alberty was the investigative journalist and wrote about his findings in The Oregonian on 21 June: 

I’m happy to report that Atkinson is alive and well, living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with Joan, his wife of 57 years. He’s a retired minister, and this commotion about his teenage preoccupation with Marilyn Monroe comes as a bit of a surprise.

Atkinson vaguely remembers hearing about his famous in-law’s letter, but he’s not sure when. Amazingly, my phone call was the first time a newspaper or magazine has reached out to ask him if he received the Monroe photograph.

Joan Atkinson says she first found out about the Steinbeck letter a few weeks ago. That’s when a former student from her days teaching in the library school at the University of Alabama called to ask, “Have you seen this letter?”

As you may have guessed by now, Atkinson never received a photograph or anything else from Marilyn Monroe.

After the call from the former student, Jon Atkinson asked his wife if she thought the letter was a fake.

“It was a good question because it’s definitely not his signature. It even has the typist’s little initials, ‘mf’ underneath the signature,” Joan Atkinson said. This is where the mystery deepens.

Joan Atkinson points out that Steinbeck almost exclusively wrote his letters in longhand with a pencil. “I could not imagine that John Steinbeck would have had a typist or secretary from the office sign a letter like that for him. As personal as this subject was, it seems strange,” she said.

Did Steinbeck write the letter for an assistant to type? All we can say with any degree of confidence is the letter was in Marilyn Monroe’s possession. Unless the typist “mf” can be located, this piece of the mystery may never be solved.

We do know young Jon Atkinson never received a photograph inscribed with a personal message from Marilyn Monroe. “That sure would have been nice, right?” Atkinson said.

Whether the letter was indeed written by Steinbeck or if it came from someone else we may never know for sure. As Alberty mentioned, the only thing we can be certain of is that the letter was owned by Marilyn, having been auctioned as part of The Estate of Lee Strasberg in 2016 (Strasberg being Marilyn's acting coach and mentor to whom she left most of her possessions). While I'd like to believe the letter was Steinbeck's, it seems odd indeed why the author had a secretary sign it for him, considering its contents and Marilyn being the addressee. (To compare signatures, check out Steinbeck's signature here.) But then again, Steinbeck had written thousands of letters in his lifetime and perhaps his letter to Marilyn just wasn't a priority, seeing that he didn't know her well. At any rate, I tried to find answers online —looking for the mysterious secretary "mf"— but, not surprisingly, I found nothing. 

Incidentally, I don't know if Marilyn was a Steinbeck fan but three of his books could be found in her personal library, i.e. The Short Reign of Pippin IV, Once There Was a War, and Tortilla Flat (source).

29 November 2021

Essanay: A nearly forgotten film studio

Founded in 1907 and based in Chicago, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was one of America's earliest film studios. During its ten-year existence, the studio made some 2,000 films of which only 200 survived. With a specialty in Westerns, Essanay also produced the first American film version of A Christmas Carol (1908) and the first American film featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes (1916). Stars of the studio included Gloria Swanson, matinee idol Francis X. Bushman, the first western star Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson (co-founder of Essanay) and Wallace Beery. The studio's biggest star was Charlie Chaplin. 
In December 1914, Chaplin left Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios and joined Essanay at a much higher salary than he had been receiving at Keystone ($1,250 a week instead of $150). During his short time with Essanay the comedian made a total of 14 shorts, among them The Tramp (1915) in which the iconic Tramp character was introduced. Chaplin left the studio in December 1915 —having become hugely popular— and next signed with the Mutual Film Corporation at a salary of $10,000 (!) a week.

It is believed that Chaplin's departure ultimately brought about Essanay's decline. In 1917, the studio ceased production and was eventually absorbed by Warner Brothers. If it hadn't been for Chaplin, Essanay Studios would possibly be forgotten today.

Above: 1915, Essanay stars (from left to right) Francis X. Bushman, Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson. Below: Gloria Swanson began her career as an extra for Essanay and became one of the studio's stars. Here she is photographed with (among others) George Spoor (without hat, on the right) who co-founded Essanay with Anderson.

Being a popular studio in its day, Essanay received many manuscripts from hopeful screenwriters for review. When the submitted material was deemed inadequate, instead of sending out individual rejection letters, the studio sent the following form letter. 

Source: slate.com

19 November 2021

Your obedient servant, Alfred Hitchcock

During his career Alfred Hitchcock made only one film for Twentieth Century-Fox. In late 1942, while under contract to David Selznick, Hitchcock was loaned out to Fox for a two-picture deal, the deal having been closed with Selznick by Fox executive William Goetz. (Goetz was Selznick's brother-in-law and temporarily replaced studio boss Darryl Zanuck who served in the Army Signal Corps.) The picture Hitchcock made for Fox was Lifeboat (1944) —the second Fox picture was never made— based on a story by John Steinbeck and starring Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak and John Hodiak. (For the plot of the film, go here.) 

In the summer of 1943, with pre-production of Lifeboat in full swing, Darryl Zanuck returned from military service. While he was usually involved in the scripting of Fox's A-films, in his absence Lifeboat was written by Jo Swerling (the only one eventually credited), John Steinbeck, Alma Reville (Hitchcock's wife) and Hitchcock himself. Upon his return Zanuck found Hitch firmly in charge, with producer Kenneth Macgowan more or less acting as the director's assistant. In August 1943, filming on Lifeboat finally began. Zanuck was not happy, however, feeling the pace was too slow and the screenplay too long. 

On 19 August, Zanuck wrote a joint memo to Hitchcock, Macgowan and Swerling, saying that he had the script timed with a stopwatch and that, according to his calculations, the finished film would last almost three hours. "Drastic eliminations are necessary", he said, and they had to be prepared "to drop some element in its entirety". Annoyed by Zanuck's missive, Hitchcock replied the next day, his memo to Zanuck seen below ("I have never encountered such stupid information as has been given you by some menial who apparently has no knowledge of the timing of a script..."). Zanuck answered Hitch the same day (on 20 August), his memo to be read below as well. (Zanuck's first memo from 19 August is not shown.)

The finished film eventually ran 97 minutes and cost a little over 1.5 million dollars. Despite Zanuck's complaints, Hitch was able to complete Lifeboat with little interference from the studio boss. In September 1943 when Zanuck saw the first reel of the film he was enthusiastic and later called Lifeboat "an outstanding film with awards potential". The picture would receive three Academy Award nominations, i.e. for Hitchcock (Best Direction), Steinbeck (Best Story) and Glen MacWilliams (Best Cinematography) but no one won. Although Lifeboat was a box-office flop, it is now considered an underrated entry in Hitchcock's impressive oeuvre.

Above: Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Lifeboat. Below: Part of the Lifeboat cast with (from left to right) Mary Anderson, Hume Cronyn, John Hodiak, Tallulah Bankhead, Henry Hull and Canada Lee.
Dear Mr. Zanuck:

I have just received your note regarding the length of LIFEBOAT. I don't know who you employ to time your scripts, but whoever did it is misleading you horribly. I will even go so far as to say disgracefully. In all my experience in this business, I have never encountered such stupid information as has been given you by some menial who apparently has no knowledge of the timing of a script or the playing of dialogue.

According to the note, in paragraph two you express your opinion, based upon this ridiculous information, that the picture will be 15,000 feet in length. I can only think that the person who did this for you is trying to sabotage the picture. Maybe it is a spy belonging to some disgruntled ex-employee.

Now let us get down to facts, and let us base our calculations on facts that come from persons of long experience and also the fact of actual shooting time. Through Page 28 of the script, which includes a fair amount of silent action, the shot footage is actually timed at 15 minutes. This, on the basis of a 147-page script, works out to actually 79 minutes. Add to this a maximum of 5 minutes, (which is generous for the storm sequence), we arrive at an extremely generous estimate of 84 minutes. Films run through at 90 feet a minute. Therefore, we arrive at a length of 7560 feet, which, in my opinion, is considerably inadequate for a picture of this calibre and importance.

I am gravely concerned at the suggestion of cutting the story for fear that after the shooting is completed we will find that the picture is so short that we will have to commence writing added sequences to make the picture sufficiently long for an important release.

In view of our previous discussions regarding the shooting time, I would like to repeat that we are all considerably misled by the cumbersome methods of shooting on an exterior stage which could never be repeated under normal conditions in the studio. As I pointed out to you in our previous conversation, I am at present shooting a sequence of 9 pages which will take approximately 2 days - which is exactly one day under the allotted time in the production schedule.

Dear Mr. Zanuck, please take good note of these above facts before we commit ourselves to any acts which in the ultimate may make us all look extremely ridiculous by giving insufficient care and notice to these considerations.

Your obedient servant,



My dear Hitchcock:
The timing of the script was not done by an expert, nor by anyone who was deliberately attempting to mislead us. One person merely read the dialogue aloud, while the other person took down the timing with a stop-watch. Now, of course, they did not overlap any dialogue, and they might have read slowly, or they might have paused too long between speeches, and, of course, they are not aware of any of the cuts in dialogue or script pages that we have recently eliminated.
According to your calculation, the script will run to 7,500 feet. I will bet you $1,000, the winner to donate the amount to charity, that you are wrong by 2,000 feet. I am now speaking about the script as it stands, and I believe I am allowing myself plenty of footage for protection. 
A picture of this scope, in my opinion, should hold up very well at 9,000 feet, and perhaps even longer, but if we actually are over 10,000 feet, then I know that you agree the matter is serious, not only from the standpoint of economy.
You are making excellent progress, and certainly no one could complain about the amount of film you have exposed in the last few days.
It still remains my opinion, however, that our story is repetitious in places, and monotonous. I am certain that the cuts we have made in the last few days have not harmed the quality of the production one iota. As a matter of fact, I feel that they have been helpful [...]
I do not make a habit of interfering with productions placed in such capable hands as yours. Any interference in this case comes from an emergency problem, which I inherited. On all sides, I have been advised to call off the production. The picture was devised originally, so I understand, to be a million dollar cost project. Suddenly its cost has doubled, and no one could possibly dislike the idea of butting in any more than I do. I have plenty of worries on my own personal productions, and nothing would give me greater joy than to forget all about LIFEBOAT until the night I go to the preview. 
You felt you could make the picture in eight or nine weeks. You told me so. Lefty Hough [Fox's production manager] thought that you could. He told me so, and so did Macgowan. We took into consideration this fact, and arrived at a fair budget. We were all wrong. It would be folly now, in my opinion, to butcher the story in an effort to save a penny here and there, but it is also folly to fail to study each scene, each line and each episode, and see if we cannot find ways and means to eliminate non-essentials.

Source of both memos: Hitchcock's Notebooks: An Authorized And Illustrated Look Inside The Creative Mind Of Alfred Hitchcock (1999) by Dan Auiler.

Darryl F. Zanuck in his military outfit

7 November 2021

Jane Bryan - The Almost Star

Jane Bryan had a very short Hollywood career which lasted only four years. Initially wishing to be a stage actress, Bryan followed a dramatic training in Jean Muir's theatre workshop where Bette Davis discovered her. After being offered a contract at Warner Bros. she made her film debut in The Case of the Black Cat (1936) and other roles in memorable Warner films followed— e.g. Marked Woman (1937) co-starring Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart; Kid Galahad (1937) with Edward G. Robinson, Bette and Bogart; A Slight Case of Murder (1938) with Robinson; Each Dawn I Die (1939) with James Cagney and George Raft; and probably her best remembered role as Bette's daughter in The Old Maid (1939), co-starring Miriam Hopkins. Bryan's biggest and most critically acclaimed role came with We Are Not Alone (1939) opposite Paul Muni. In 1940, at age 22, Bryan retired from acting after she married wealthy businessman Justin Dart. She and Dart had three children and remained married until Dart's death in 1984. 

Above: Jane Bryan and Bette Davis in Marked Woman. The actresses played in four films together; apart from the three films already mentioned they also co-starred in The Sisters (1938).
Above: Bette and Jane in a scene from The Old Maid. Bette later said about Jane's performance: "I had to hide her face in a pillow to stop her stealing my scenes."  Below: Jane and Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone.
At the time of her retirement Bryan was a very promising young actress. Apart from Bette Davis who had discovered her and would praise her at every opportunity, there were many others who lauded Bryan. For example, her performance as Edward G. Robinson's daughter in A Slight Case of Murder led Variety to comment: "Robinson is at his peak as a comical gangster who goes straight when Prohibition ends, but it's Jane Bryan who steals the picture." And her first (and only) leading role in We Are Not Alone (as a troubled Austrian dancer who becomes governess to Paul Muni's son) earned her positive reviews and the National Board of Review acting award. Playwright Noël Coward even called her "the best young movie actress working today" while film critic Robbin Coons said: "It is a heart-touching performance in which sincerity and truth are radiant factors ... the picture should mean virtually immediate stardom for her.

But while stardom seemed to be in the offing, Bryan soon left Hollywood and never looked back. (She was very shy and in later years refused to give interviews, in particular about her "long ago" film career.) In 1974 Davis, who remained friends with her protégée long after the latter quit acting, said about Bryan's decision: "Jane Bryan, in her short career, gave many fine performances. When she confided that she was in love and was going to give up her career, as the man she loved did not want her to continue if she married him, I was sorry, as I thought she had a great future in films. She has, however, never regretted her decision in all these many years."

Apart from being a devoted mother, Bryan was a philanthropist and a well-known patron of the arts. From 1971 to 1976, she served on the United States Commission of Fine Arts in Washington DC. Furthermore, she enjoyed participating in archaeological expeditions and at one time was governor of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. 


The following postscript from Bette Davis to columnist Allan Smith led me to write this post about Jane Bryan, initially knowing nothing about her although I had seen several of her films (most notably The Old Maid). The P.S. is from a letter dated 30 April 1938, in which Bette first talked about her own fan club and then added this comment on Bryan. 

Source: icollector.com (click on the link if you want to read Bette's full letter)

P.S. I wish some intelligent person would start a Club for Jane Bryan — I am so interested in her — she is a grand actress and has a wonderful future in pictures. Is under contract to Warner Bros. and played with me in 'Marked Woman' and 'Kid Galahad'. My reason for mentioning this to you is because I too, as you know, am a Massachusetts-ite!!
Bette D.

Jane Bryan with Justin Dart, the man for whom she gave up her Hollywood career. The two were staunch Republicans and lifelong friends of the Reagans (first when Ronald Reagan was married to Jane Wyman and later to Nancy Davis). The Darts influenced Reagan (one of Bryan's former co-stars ar Warners) to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party and were among the first to encourage him to run for Governor of California and later for President.

1 November 2021

Paulette Goddard and her relationship with Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo

In May 1940, Paulette Goddard travelled to Mexico for a publicity shoot for Look magazine and also hoped to get her portrait painted by renowned painter Diego Rivera. She had heard about Rivera from her good friend George Gershwin, a fan of the painter, and had become intrigued by him. In Mexico Rivera not only agreed to paint Goddard, but soon the two also began an affair. (At the time Goddard was still married to Charlie Chaplin, while Rivera had just divorced Frida Kahlo.)

Rivera was working on Goddard's painting when someone tried to kill Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary who was a friend of Rivera and Kahlo (Trotsky had also been Kahlo's lover). Rivera was a suspect in the case and Goddard helped him hide out, providing him with food and drink, before eventually leaving the country together. Upon arrival in the U.S. in early June 1940, Rivera had to pay a $500 bond —"to guarantee that I wouldn't overthrow the government of the United States"— and reportedly sold a number of watercolours to Goddard in order to pay for the bond. (Rivera would later state to the American press that Goddard had saved his life.) In San Francisco the painter began work on a mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition, a project he would work on for many months and which he ultimately called Pan-American Unity. His painting Portrait of Paulette Goddard was finished at a later date and eventually found its way to Goddard's home.

Above: Paulette Goddard photographed in her home with the Rivera paintingAfter Goddard's death in 1990, the painting was donated to an educational institution and in 1999 it was sold at auction at Christie's for $552,500
Above: Detail of the huge mural Pan-American Unity by Diego Rivera. (For images of the full mural, click here.) Rivera painted himself holding Goddard's hands, while sharing La Ceiba, the Sacred Tree Of Life; Kahlo stands behind them. Asked why he held hands with Goddard, Rivera answered: "It means closer Pan-Americanism". Incidentally, the mural also contains two scenes from Rivera's favourite films, The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin (whom he greatly admired) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy with Edward G. Robinson. Below: Goddard and Rivera photographed in June 1940.
Frida Kahlo didn't arrive in the United States until early September 1940. Several weeks before, another attempt on Trotsky's life had proven successful and Kahlo was questioned by the police and even put in prison for two days (having previously been in contact with Trotsky's assassin Ramón Mercader). In San Francisco, Kahlo reunited with Rivera and the two eventually remarried in December of that same year.

It is unclear when Goddard and Kahlo met for the first time. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote in The San Francisco Examiner that Kahlo and Rivera were weekend guests at the home of Goddard in December 1940, while a letter from Rivera suggests the two women didn't meet until a year later. On 6 December 1941, Rivera wrote to his assistant Emmy Lou Packard: "Paulette ... came here to dinner and she and Frida liked each other", implying they had not met before. 

Goddard and Kahlo reportedly became friends, something which often happened to Kahlo, i.e. befriending the mistresses of her husband. (She had befriended Dolores del Rio too, another actress who had an affair with Rivera and whose portrait he had also painted.) It is said that Kahlo painted the still life The Flower Basket as a gift to Goddard and that her motivation for creating the painting was to forgive Goddard for her love affair with Rivera. In addition, it has been rumoured that the two women were not just friends —a similar rumour had been circulating about Kahlo and Del Rio— and that the painting may also have been a lover's gift.

Frida Kahlo's The Flower Basket

That Kahlo painted The Flower Basket for Goddard is contradicted by art historian Luis-Martín Lozano who said the work was part of a presidential commission. According to Lozano, in June 1941 Kahlo was commissioned by the President of Mexico to paint a few still lifes as decoration for the new dining room of the Palacio Nacional. In the end, the project was cancelled and the paintings, including The Flower Basket (originally entitled Still Life), were returned to the artist. As the following document shows, Kahlo eventually sold —not gave— the painting to Goddard who paid $300 for it. (In 2019, the painting would sell for $3.1 million at Christie's.)

Source: Heritage Auctions

Not only Kahlo sold her work to Goddard but also Rivera sold the actress (at least) one of his paintings. While his portrait of Goddard was likely a gift, the painting Calla Lilies was sold to her for $1000. Documents below are proof of the sale and also shown is Goddard's letter to get the painting cleared through customs. 

Source: Heritage Auctions
Source: Heritage Auctions
Above: Rivera made a number of paintings with calla lilies but I could find no painting entitled Calla Lilies. Perhaps it was this painting, known as Calla Lily Seller from 1942, that he sold to GoddardBelow: Kahlo and Rivera, who were married for the first time from 1929 until 1939 and remarried in December 1940. Kahlo agreed to the second marriage under the condition that she would be financially independent from Rivera and that their relationship would be celibate. The couple remained married until Kahlo's death in 1954.

23 October 2021

Peter O'Toole is it!

In February 1962, for a then record amount of $5.5 million, Warner Bros. obtained the rights to produce the film version of the successful stage musical My Fair Lady (1956). For the role of Professor Henry Higgins, studio boss Jack Warner initially didn't want to hire Rex Harrison, although the actor had successfully played Higgins on Broadway. Warner not only considered Harrison too old for the part but also felt he lacked drawing power at the box-office.

An actor who was in demand at the time was Peter O'Toole. He was much younger than Harrison and had just played the titular role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean's epic film which would become a huge critical and financial hit. Both Warner and director George Cukor thought O'Toole was the right man to play Higgins and next tried to hire him. In Europe Cukor even met with the actor who (according to Cukor) was "crazy" about the part. In the end, however, O'Toole proved too expensive for Warners. His agent demanded a salary of $400,000 which Warners wasn't willing to pay and negotiations ultimately fell through. 

Cary Grant (believe it or not) was also offered the part but he declined, convinced that Rex Harrison should be cast. And indeed, Harrison was cast and eventually delivered an Oscar-winning performance. (Harrison was paid $200,000, half of O'Toole's asking price.)

Here is part of a letter which George Cukor wrote to his secretary and friend Irene Burns on 11 September 1962. The fragment deals with Peter O'Toole and shows how excited Cukor was for the actor to play Henry Higgins. While O'Toole didn't get to play Higgins in the film musical, later in his career he would star as the professor twice, i.e. in the 1983 television movie Pygmalion with Margot Kidder as Eliza Doolittle; and in 1987 in a new Broadway production of Pygmalion with Amanda Plummer starring as Eliza. (As you undoubtedly know, My Fair Lady book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe is based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion.) For those interested, click here for the full 1983 television film with O'Toole as Higgins and Margot Kidder as Eliza.


I had supper with Peter O'Toole last night, his wife, his agent. He is it, Henry Higgins — or I miss my guess. He's handsome, alive, romantic and as I'm told a great — I don't use the word lightly, great actor. He says he's the best Shaw actor in the world — no idle boast — others agree. He sings, he is musical — What are we waiting for? They left me at three A.M. — 3 hours sleep — oy!! I'll crawl into bed before I start my duties today.

I saw "My Fair Lady" last night — Disgraceful — I'm not sure which one was worse — here or New York — no resemblance to the original production but the audience swooned.

That's all for now except my love  to one and all and that includes you 

Thomas A Edison
who only slept 3 hours a night

Above: Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and George Cukor on the set of My Fair Lady (1964). While Peter O'Toole would not play opposite Audrey in MFL, he would get his chance a few years later in the great How To Steal a Million (1966). Below: O'Toole and Amanda Plummer as Eliza in the 1987 Broadway production of Pygmalion.

17 October 2021

I can't wait to work with you again

Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis made three films together, i.e. the WWII drama Kings Go Forth (1958) and the two comedies Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and The Great Race (1965). Curtis later said that he and Wood became great friends and claimed in his autobiography American Prince (2008) that they were also romantically involved during production of The Great Race*. In her book Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, published several years prior to Curtis' book (in 2001), Suzanne Finstad said that the two actors were not on the best of terms while shooting their last film. According to Finstad's sources, Curtis' ex-wife Janet Leigh and producer Martin Jurow, Curtis and Wood had become "estranged" some time between the end of Sex and the Single Girl and the start of The Great Race. Jurow said that during the shoot of The Great Race Curtis' behaviour towards Wood was "very juvenile" ("like little boys in the playground pick on certain little girls ...") and at one point they even stopped speaking to each other. Wood biographer Gavin Lambert (Natalie Wood: A Life, 2004) never mentioned a friendship or estrangement between the two but stated that from their first film on Wood had found Curtis "agressively self-important".

*While Curtis liked to boast about his affairs with famous actresses, I'm always inclined to take his stories with a pinch of salt, especially when the women involved were no longer alive to confirm or deny his claims, like Natalie Wood or Marilyn Monroe.

Well, whatever the relationship between them, Wood wrote Curtis this sweet (undated) note after her first day at work on either Sex and the Single Girl or The Great Race. She thanked Curtis for his flowers and also told him that she was looking forward to working with him again. (Obviously I don't know whether she was being truthful or not.)


Dear Tony — 

Just wanted to thank you again for the marvelous flowers that greeted me on my first day. It was most thoughtful + made me feel so good most of the butterflies went away. Well almost. Anyway I can't wait to work with you again. You're terrific!


Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis in The Great Race, a Warner Bros. film directed by Blake EdwardsWood was emotionally fragile at the time, following her divorce from Robert Wagner and also because she was unhappy with her career. She hated her role in The Great Race and didn't want to do it. Studio boss Jack Warner asked Curtis if he would give a percentage of his film earnings to Wood to make her accept but Curtis refused ("I couldn't give her anything to make her want to do the movie"). Only after Warner had promised to cast Wood in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), a film she really wanted to do, she accepted the role

9 October 2021

Send this minor masterpiece whizzing through the film exchanges of America

In December 1948, production wrapped on Irving Cummings' It's Only Money, a RKO comedy starring Jane Russell, Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra. The film was not released right away, despite positive preview screenings and a fair amount of publicity in the film magazines. RKO boss Howard Hughes decided to put the film on the shelf, where it subsequently sat for three years. (Why Hughes chose not to release it remains unclear; it has been said that his intense dislike of Frank Sinatra —the men had a shared interest in Ava Gardner— may have been a motive.)

Someone who didn't like the picture being shelved was Groucho Marx. After performing with his brothers for decades, Groucho was working on his solo career and therefore eager to have It's Only Money released. In January 1951, two years after filming had ended, Groucho wrote to Howard Hughes and asked him to finally get "this minor masterpiece" off the shelf and into film theatres. It's not clear if Groucho's letter had anything to do with it but eleven months later the film was released. Hughes had given the picture a different title, though, i.e. Double Dynamite, apparently a reference to Russell's breasts. Due to Hughes' resentment towards Sinatra, Sinatra received third billing and his face didn't even appear on the film poster.

Double Dynamite was released in December 1951, receiving negative reviews and bad box-office results. Years later, Groucho said that with the film "[his] acting career almost went down the drain" while co-star Jane Russell dryly commented: "He [Sinatra] was playing a dumb little guy and I was playing a dumber little girl and it was a stupid picture, but we sang in it." (To watch and listen to the songs, click here for It's Only Money, sung by Sinatra and Groucho, and here for Kisses and Tears by Sinatra and Russell.)

In January 1951, Groucho wrote the following letter to Howard Hughes, perhaps later wishing he had never sent it.

January 23, 1951

Dear Mr. Hughes:

Between retooling for the war effort and dueling with Wald and Krasna, I presume you are a fairly busy man. However, I wonder if you could spare a few moments to release a picture that was made some years ago involving Jane Russell, Frank Sinatra and your correspondent. The name of the picture, if memory serves, is "It's Only Money". I never did see it but I have been told that at its various previews it was received with considerable enthusiasm.

I am not a young man any more, Mr. Hughes, and before I shuffle off this mortal coil if you could see your way clear to pry open your strong box and send this minor masterpiece whizzing through the film exchanges of America, you would not only have earned my undying gratitude but that of the United Nations, the popcorn dealers of America and three RKO stockholders who at the moment are trying to escape from the Mellon bank of Pittsburgh.

Groucho Marx 
Source: The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx (1967)