26 April 2021

The Failed Screenwriting Career of F. Scott Fitzgerald

The popularity of novelist and short story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who achieved fame in the 1920s, began to wane considerably once the Great Depression hit. With the public no longer interested in reading about the extravagant lifestyles of the American elite, Fitzgerald was facing serious financial problems by the mid-1930s. Convinced that he could become a successful screenwriter, the author returned to Hollywood where he had briefly worked in 1927 and 1931.

In 1937, Fitzgerald was hired by MGM where he would earn $1000 a week (raised to $1250 after six months), his highest salary up till then. While under contract to the studio Fitzgerald was given three major script assignments: Three Comrades (1938), the only film for which he received screen credit; Infidelity, a Joan Crawford vehicle, which was abandoned after he had worked on it for several months; and The Women (1939), on which he and Donald Ogden Stewart collaborated but were eventually replaced by Jane Murfin and Anita Loos. In addition, Fitzgerald also worked (uncredited) on screenplays for A Yank at Oxford (1938), Marie Antoinette (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939) and Madame Curie (the project was shelved and not released until 1943).

F. Scott Fitzgerald (above) enjoyed great successes in the 1920s with his first two novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) as well as his short stories for popular magazines. While his novel The Great Gatsby (1925) was not a success at the time, it is now regarded as one of the greatest American novels ever written. The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald's unfinished novel about Hollywood, was published after the author's death. 

After eighteen months MGM decided not to renew Fitzgerald's contract. Much to the studio's annoyance, the writer often disregarded the rules of screenwriting, providing stylised dialogue and long descriptions that would be right for a novel but wrong for a script. Director Billy Wilder once said about Fitzgerald's screenwriting efforts that he was like "a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job”. Still, Fitzgerald was determined to succeed in Hollywood and not only because of the money he could make. He was passionate about films and at one point even dreamed about being both screenwriter and director. (In a September 1940 letter to his wife Zelda, Fitzgerald wrote: "They've let a certain writer here [probably Preston Sturges] direct his own pictures and he has made such a go of it that there may be a different feeling about that soon. If I had that chance, I would attain my real goal in coming here in the first place.")

In the end, Fitzgerald's Hollywood career ended in failure. After leaving MGM in 1939, the author went freelance, taking on assignments like Winter Carnival (1939), with his contributions again uncredited. A few other projects he had high hopes for were eventually shelved, most notably Cosmopolitan, a film that was to star Shirley Temple. Fitzgerald's screenwriting career just wouldn't take off and this prompted him to start drinking excessively again. On 21 December 1940, after years of severe and chronic alcohol abuse, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, only 44 years old.


As mentioned, the only film for which Fitzgerald had received screen credit was Frank Borzage's Three Comrades, produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Fitzgerald didn't even receive sole billing, being later paired with screenwriter Edward Paramore. Mankiewicz was not at all happy with the script, saying about it years later: "The actors, among them Margaret Sullavan, absolutely could not read the lines. It was very literary dialogue, novelistic dialogue that lacked all the qualities required for screen dialogue. The latter must be 'spoken'. Scott Fitzgerald really wrote very bad spoken dialogue." The producer, who had started his career as a screenwriter, made many changes to the script, and not just to the dialogue. Outraged by what was done to his work, Fitzgerald wrote to Mankiewicz on 20 January 1938, excerpts of his letter seen below. (His impassioned plea to undo the changes was ignored.)

Dear Joe: 

Well, I read the last part and I feel like a good many writers must have felt in the past. I gave you a drawing and you simply took a box of chalk and touched it up. Pat [played by Margaret Sullavan] has now become a sentimental girl from Brooklyn, and I guess all these years I've been kidding myself about being a good writer. 
To say I'm disillusioned is putting it mildly. For nineteen years, with two years out for sickness, I've written best-selling entertainment, and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top. But I learn from the script that you've suddenly decided that it isn't good dialogue and you can take a few hours off and do much better. 

I think you now have a flop on your hands— as thoroughly naive as The Bride Wore Red [another Mankiewizc production] but utterly inexcusable because this time you had something and you have arbitrarily and carelessly torn it to pieces. [...]

You are simply tired of the best scenes because you've read them too much and, having dropped the pilot, you're having the aforesaid pleasure of a child with a box of chalk. You are or have been a good writer, but this is a job you will be ashamed of before it's over. The little fluttering of life of what's left of my lines and situations won't save the picture. 

My only hope is that you will have a moment of clear thinking. That you'll ask some intelligent and disinterested person to look at the two scripts. Some honest thinking would be much more valuable to the enterprise right now than an effort to convince people you've improved it. I am utterly miserable at seeing months of work and thought negated in one hasty week. I hope you're big enough to take this letter as it's meant — a desperate plea to restore the dialogue to its former quality — to put back the flower cart, the piano-moving, the balcony, the manicure girl— all those touches that were both natural and new. Oh, Joe, can't producers ever be wrong? I'm a good writer — honest. I thought you were going to play fair. Joan Crawford may as well play the part now, for the thing is as groggy with sentimentality as The Bride Wore Red, but the true emotion is gone. 

Source:  The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1963) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Andrew Turnbull. 

Note: As the letter indicates, Fitzgerald was not at all impressed with Joan Crawford. In a 1938 letter to a friend, he wrote while working on the script for Infidelity: "Writing for her is difficult. She can't change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so that when one wants to indicate that she is going from joy to sorrow, one must cut away and then cut back. Also, you can never give her such a stage direction as "telling a lie", because if you did, she would practically give a representation of Benedict Arnold selling West Point to the British." (Infidelity was eventually abandoned due to the film's taboo subject of adultery.)

Joseph Mankiewicz (above) was a successful screenwriter, producer and director. His films include box-office hits like The Philadelphia Story (1940; as producer), Woman of the Year (1942; producer), All About Eve (1950; screenwriter, director) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959; director). On most of his films as producer, Mankiewicz also made uncredited contributions to the screenplay.


One of Fitzgerald's freelance assignments was Cosmopolitan, based on his own short story Babylon Revisited. In March 1940, having bought the rights to the story, independent film producer Lester Cowan approached Fitzgerald and asked him if he would write the script himself. The author accepted, but after finishing the script he disagreed with Cowan about the casting of the lead, the youngster Honoria. Cowan wanted Shirley Temple in the role and it was only after Fitzgerald had met Shirley in July 1940 that he approved of Cowan's choice. Fitzgerald was optimistic about the project and wrote to his wife Zelda on 21 September 1940: "... the Shirley Temple script is looking up again and is my great hope for attaining some real status out here as a movie man and not a novelist." Despite Fitzgerald's high hopes, however, Shirley's mother objected to the film and the project was abandoned.

Below is a letter from Fitzgerald to his secretary Isabel Owens, dated 16 August 1940. A month earlier Fitzgerald had met Shirley Temple and the second paragraph of his letter refers to that meeting. 

Source: icollector.com

18 April 2021

Paul Newman's first family

Paul Newman's marriage to Joanne Woodward was one of Hollywood's most successful and enduring marriages. The couple tied the knot in 1958 and remained married until Newman's death in 2008. Once asked about his fidelity to his wife, Newman famously answered: "Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?" 

The couple's 50-year happy marriage almost makes one forget that Woodward wasn't Newman's first wife. In 1949, at the age of 24, Newman married 19-year-old Jackie Witte, a fellow aspiring actor whom he had met while doing summer stage work. A year later they had their first child Scott, followed by daughters Susan in 1953 and Stephanie in 1954. Witte gave up acting and devoted herself to raising their three children. Newman, in turn, pursued his acting career and spent increasingly less time at home, which caused them to eventually grow apart.  

Newman met Woodward in 1953 while he was still married to Witte. He made his Broadway debut in Picnic where Woodward was an understudy. It wasn't until four years later, when they starred together in Martin Ritt's The Long Hot Summer, that they fell in love and reportedly started an affair. Newman divorced Witte and married Woodward in January 1958. With Woodward he eventually had three more children — Nell (1959), Lissy (1961) and Clea (1965). 

Paul, Jackie and son Scott

Shown below is a letter from Paul Newman to Barbara Rushmore (president of his fan club), written in April 1955 when Newman was at the start of his career*. In his letter he introduces the members of his (first) family. Newman's only son Scott, who became a stuntman and an actor, would tragically die of a drug overdose in 1978, only 28 years old.  

*At the time Newman was in the midst of his second Broadway production The Desperate Hours (which ran until August 1955)playing the role that Humphrey Bogart would later play in the film. The actor had thus far appeared in only one film, The Silver Chalice (1954), which he later called "the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s". 

Source: rr auction


April 21, 1955

Dear Barbara -

Family consists of wife Jackie, actress, Scott, age 4 1/2 who is a monster and All American menace, Susan, age 2, who promises to be something of a Jean Harlowe [sic] and Stephanie age 7 weeks who just sneezes. We live in a small apartment in Long Island with a sort of patio on which there is a charcoal grill on which I cook hamburgers 5 nights a week. That’s just about all I do. All the children look like my mother-in-law. We have no dogs but recently acquired two goldfish. It is Scott’s duty to change the water, so the fish usually swim around in a complete fog. 

That’s the family.


Above: Paul Newman and his son Scott, photographed in 1972. In memory of his son Newman founded the Scott Newman Center for the prevention of drug abuse. Below: 1973, Newman and Woodward with their daughters (clockwise from left) Clea, Nell, Lissy, and Stephanie (from Newman's marriage to Witte). Photo by Milton Greene.

13 April 2021

Barbara Stanwyck dressed by Edith Head

For more than five decades famed costume designer Edith Head had dressed Hollywood's biggest stars. One of the stars whom Head most enjoyed working with was Barbara Stanwyck, who also became a good friend. "She possessed what some designers considered to be a figure "problem" – a long waist and a comparatively low rear end", said Head. "By widening the waistbands on the front in her gowns and narrowing them slightly in the back, I could still put her in straight skirts, something other designers were afraid to do, because they thought she might look too heavy in the seat. Since she wasn’t the least bit heavy, I just took advantage of her long waist to create an optical illusion."

Head's costume designs for Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941) proved career changing for Barbara. Playing two very different types —con artist Jean Harrington and British aristocrat Lady Eve Sidwich— Barbara had twenty-five costume changes, which made The Lady Eve her first "fashion picture" and also changed her image from "plain Jane" to sexy. From then on, regardless of what studio she was working for, Barbara included in all her contracts that only Head was to design her clothes. This meant that in most cases Head had to be borrowed from Paramount Pictures, her studio for 44 years. (Barbara never had a long-term contract with one studio and worked mostly freelance.)

Barbara in her dual role in The Lady Eve dressed in Edith Head's fabulous gowns: above as the posh Lady Eve and below as the con woman Jean Harrington.

In the early 1940s, Barbara signed a non-exclusive contract with Warner Bros. and Head made the costume designs for such films as The Gay Sisters (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), My Reputation (1946) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). Below is an agreement between Barbara and Warners regarding the costs of Head's services in connection with My Reputation. Apparently Barbara first had to pay the costs herself —after the bills had been sent to her by Paramount— and would then later be reimbursed by Warners. Incidentally, the agreement is dated 26 October 1943; while My Reputation was filmed from November 1943 to January 1944, it wasn't released until 1946.

Source: icollector.com

8 April 2021

Feel sure you will have a quick recovery

Italian-born Rudolph Valentino was one of the most popular Hollywood stars of the 1920s, starring in successful films like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Sheik (1921), Blood and Sand (1922) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). When Valentino suddenly died on 23 August 1926 at the young age of 31, it provoked hysteria among his numerous fans. A day after his death some 100,000 people gathered outside Frank Campbell Funeral Home in New York, where the actor's body lay in state. Frantic fans tried to enter the funeral home, determined to get a last glimpse of their idol and even smashing windows to get inside. A lot of people got injured being trampled underfoot or cut by broken glass. Eventually, after bringing in extra officers, the police managed to put an end to the disturbances. Valentino's death was the first celebrity death that had inspired such mass hysteria, with several fans even committing suicide.

Following a funeral mass in New York on 30 August 1926 (attended by a number of Hollywood stars including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson), Valentino's remains were transported to Hollywood where a second funeral was held. He was eventually buried at the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, now known as the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A memorial service honouring Valentino still takes place at the cemetery every year.

The cause of Valentino's sudden and premature death was attributed to peritonitis, an infection of the inner lining of the abdomen. Eight days before he passed away, Valentino had collapsed at a hotel in New York City and was rushed to the Polyclinic Hospital where he had immediate surgery. Initially diagnosed with appendicitis, the actor turned out to have a perforated ulcer mimicking appendicitis (a rare condition now known as Valentino's Syndrome). At first doctors were optimistic that Valentino was going to recover but then he developed peritonitis and his condition rapidly worsened. On 23 August 1926, he fell into a coma and died a few hours later. (It is said that Valentino believed that he would recover and that on the morning of his death he had chatted with his doctors about his future.)

While in the hospital, Valentino had received get-well telegrams from several of his colleagues, including the following two from United Artists founders Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks. At the time Valentino was under contract to United Artists after having been approached by Chaplin and Fairbanks to join their studio in 1925. Valentino eventually made only two films for UA, i.e. The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926), the latter film released after his death. Sent on 17 August 1926, two days after Valentino had surgery, the telegrams below show that Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks were still hopeful of his recovery.

Source: Bonhams

Source: Bonhams

Here is some  interesting footage of the crowds outside Frank Campbell Funeral Home and Valentino's funeral in New York.


I came across this telegram sent by Charles Chaplin to George Ullman, Valentino's manager, on the day of Valentino's death.

Via: Facebook

4 April 2021

The Birds Is Coming!

Film Bulletin, 4 March 1963 (via)
In February 1963, six weeks before The Birds was due to open in New York, Alfred Hitchcock met with the publicity executives of Universal Pictures to announce the advertising slogan for his film. While The Birds was an independent Hitchcock production, it was distributed by Universal and also financially backed by the studio. In The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds (by Tony Lee Moral, 2013) Evan Hunter, who wrote the screenplay for the film, recalled the moment when Hitch made his announcement. After the director had revealed his catchy slogan —"The Birds is coming!"— a young Universal executive, puzzled by what he had heard, asked: "Excuse me, Mr Hitchcock, sir? Don't you mean "The Birds are coming", sir?" 

No, Hitch had really meant "The Birds is coming". Technically, a grammatically correct phrase, The Birds being the title of the film, thus a singular subject taking a singular verb. However, like the Universal executive, a lot of people didn't see it that way. With billboards everywhere advertising "The Birds is coming", language lovers were appalled by what they considered a grave grammatical error and even sent letters to newspapers to express their indignation. In the end, Hitch's slogan and the commotion it caused gave the director exactly what he wanted — more publicity for his film with the interest of the general public piqued. (As Evan Hunter said: "It was pure genius, a seemingly ungrammatical catchphrase that combined humour and suspense.")

Apparently the slogan not only caught the attention of adults but also of children, including a group of school children in New York. On 5 March 1963, a Manhattan school class wrote a letter to Hitchcock (seen below), asking him to correct his error so children wouldn't learn incorrect English. 

Source: oscars.org


P.S.170 Manhattan
Class 3-4

New York 26 N.Y.
March 5, 1963

Mr Alfred Hitchcock
Hollywood, California

Dear Mr. Hitchcock

We saw an advertisement on the bus for your new movie. It said "The Birds is coming".

We are in the third grade and we have learned when to use is and when to use are. We learned that is is for one thing and are is for more than one thing. 

We think you made a mistake in your advertisement. We think you should change your sign to the "Birds are coming" if you mean many birds are coming, or "The Bird is coming" if you mean one bird is coming.

We hope you will change your advertisement because people or children will learn incorrect English. Please don't think English is strictly for the birds.

Class 3-4