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.