29 January 2022

I know and appreciate your aversion to direction by a woman

Irene Mayer Selznick loved the theatre and after separating from husband-producer David Selznick in 1945, she embarked on a career as a theatrical producer. The first play she produced was Heartsong, which ended up being a big flop. Written by Arthur Laurents, the play premiered in February 1946, only to close again a month later. Heartsong was directed by Phyllis Loughton, a director Laurents had come up with after they couldn't get a "name director". Loughton proved inadequate, however, and was fired in the play's last week and replaced by Mel Ferrer.

Selznick's next production was Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. After seeing the play All My Sons which was directed by Elia Kazan, Williams wanted Kazan for Streetcar and urged his agent Audrey Wood and Selznick to do everything possible to secure him. Selznick also wanted Kazan but the director was initially uninterested. Only after being persuaded by his wife Molly, Kazan accepted the job. 

The contract negotiations between Selznick and Kazan didn't go smoothly. According to Selznick, the director demanded to "own a chunk of the show" in addition to his "usual fee and top percentage of the gross" and also wanted to be co-producer. Selznick refused and the initial negotiations fell through.

Irene Selznick, Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams pictured above, and Williams with his good friend Margo Jones below.

Williams had originally recommended three people to Selznick to direct Streetcar: Kazan (his first choice), John Huston and Margo Jones. The latter (whom I had not heard of before) was a stage director and producer, best known for starting the regional theatre movement in the US. Jones was a very close friend of Williams and had co-directed Williams' play The Glass Menagerie on Broadway and also directed/produced another play of his, Summer and Smoke

When the initial negotiations with Kazan failed, Williams felt Jones was a serious candidate to direct Streetcar and asked Selznick to consider the option. Knowing that Selznick was against hiring another female director following the failure of Heartsong, the playwright proposed to co-direct with Jones, emphasising how well they worked together. Williams even went as far as to say that this alternative would even be "preferable" to "Gadge" (Kazan) directing alone. Here is the letter in which Williams put forward his proposal, probably written on 9 May 1947.

Dear Irene:

Just had a talk over phone with Audrey. I am leaving early tomorrow morning for the Cape.

Audrey told me Gadge's terms and I must admit - though I have no idea what directors ordinarily receive -  that these seem pretty stiff.

Irene, I don't think you have yet given sufficient consideration to the idea of direction by myself and Margo Jones. I know and appreciate your aversion to direction by a woman. However this would actually be direction by the author through a woman who is the only one who has a thorough interpretative understanding of his work. Also I think you must have observed how much direction is actually incorporated in the script itself. In writing a play I see each scene, in fact every movement and inflection, as vividly as if it were occurring right in front of me. However I could not direct by myself as I am insufficiently articulate. However with Margo I could. We have a sort of mental short-hand or Morse code, we are so used to each other and each other's work, and with Margo it would be a labor of love. Love cannot be discounted, even in a hardboiled profession, as one of the magic factors in success. I have a profound conviction that the two of us, working on this script, with you and Audrey and Liebling [Wood's husband and business partner] as a supporting team - could do something a little better with the play than any other single director, including Gadge. I felt that all along but pressed for Gadge because I felt at the outset that you were irrevocably prejudiced against another woman-director. Well, there is only one woman director and that's Margo. Regardless of what anyone says, I know she has the stuff - and her shortcomings are exactly what I am able to supply. With her I could also continue to function as a writer, during the rehearsals, but with any other - perhaps even Gadge - I don't think I would be able to achieve much more. I mean we have a way of stimulating each other.

Irene, this is not to be construed as pressure. I just thought - in view of the stiff terms offered by Kazan - that you should know that there is an alternative and it is in fact an alternative which I think is even preferable. Needless to say my direction would be gratuitous and Margo's terms would be negligible compared to the others.

I hope you will think about this. See you next week.

Love, Tennessee.

[Source: The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 2: 1945-1957, edited by Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler (2004)]


I wonder whether Selznick ever seriously considered Williams' proposal. At any rate, negotiations with Kazan resumed and a deal was eventually closed. Although not willing to share authority as producer, Selznick did compromise on the billing: "Irene M. Selznick presents Elia Kazan's Production of A Streetcar Named Desire." In addition she gave twenty percent of the show to Kazan while reducing her own share.

A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway on 3 December 1947. It became a huge success and made an instant star of Marlon Brando. In 1951, Warner Bros. made a successful film adaptation of the play, again directed by Elia Kazan and with Brando, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter reprising their stage roles (Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy). Irene Selznick went on to produce several plays, including Bell, Book and Candle (1950) and The Chalk Garden (1955). I'm not sure if she ever worked with a female director again. 

Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan with Vivien Leigh during production of the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.

18 January 2022

Now the bitch has all the riches

German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, who is best known for his 1929 bestselling novel All Quiet on the Western Front, had an affair with Marlene Dietrich which started in 1937 and lasted at least three years. Dietrich was married to Rudolf ("Rudi") Sieber —their marriage lasted from 1923 until Sieber's death in 1976— and at the time Remarque was married to his first wife Ilse Jutta Zambona, whom he eventually divorced in 1957. After their affair had ended, Remarque and Dietrich remained close friends, sharing a special bond for the rest of their lives. (They kept up a correspondence and a selection of their letters was published in the 2003 Sag Mir Dass Du Mich Liebst (Tell Me That You Love Me).)

Dietrich and Remarque at a film premiere in 1939

When Dietrich first learned about Remarque being romantically involved with Paulette Goddard, she was shocked and appalled. Dietrich had felt contempt for Goddard ever since the actress had given her advice about men (which happened on a train ride to Hollywood sometime in the 1930s): "The only thing you have to always rememberNever, ever sleep with a man until he gives you a pure white stone of at least ten carats." Goddard not only loved diamonds but she also loved art and antiques, and Dietrich was convinced that when Goddard eventually married Remarque it was because of his money and his massive collection of impressionist paintings. It should be noted, incidentally, that Remarque had first proposed to Dietrich but when she refused he asked Goddard.

Remarque and Goddard tied the knot in 1958. Twelve years her senior, Remarque adored Goddard, loving her carefree attitude to life and her mind. (Writer Anita Loos, a longtime friend of the actress, said that Goddard was one of the most intelligent and most well-read people she knew.) In a marriage that lasted twelve years until Remarque's death in 1970, Goddard brought her husband emotional stability and made him feel the joy of life again. Remarque, in turn, gave his wife what she wanted, her needs mostly materialistic. "I think it was a happy marriage", said actress friend Luise Rainer who saw the couple often. "He could give her a lot of jewellery and that's what she loved. George Gershwin had once told me years before that Paulette was a little gold-digger, and I'm sure she was perfectly aware of Erich's money, his art collection, his beautiful house when she married him ... She was not very enthusiastic about his virility, but she certainly loved him."

Dietrich was certain, however, that Goddard had never loved Remarque. Four days after Remarque's death  —after many strokes he died of heart failure on 25 September 1970, aged 72— she wrote the following letter to her friend Scotty, among others talking about "that bitch Goddard". 

transcript handwritten part:
I have not heard from him but he must have picked up his ticket!! 
love kisses Marlene

Remarque and Goddard photographed in October 1958
The only picture I could find of Paulette Goddard and Marlene Dietrich together. I don't know when it was taken or what the occasion was but here they are pictured with Mischa Auer (left) and Broderick Crawford.

Following Remarque's death, Goddard gradually sold her husband's collection of impressionist paintings, feeling that "the public should have access to such great paintings" and "tired of having them stored away in crates." A large part of the collection sold for $3 million at auction at Sotheby's in 1979. Remarque's original manuscripts of his work as well as his diaries and personal library were donated by Goddard to the New York University. While the actress may have been a "gold-digger" accumulating a lot of wealth during her lifetime, she also gave back. When she passed away in 1990, Goddard left more than $20 million to the same N.Y.U. for the establishment of scholarships and the development of educational and research programmes. In accordance with Goddard's wishes, in 1995 the N.Y.U. founded The Remarque Institute, in honour of the actress' late husband. 

9 January 2022

Billing Issues on "The Women"

Norma Shearer's MGM contract stipulated that she would not share star billing with any other actress. When George Cukor's The Women went into production in the spring of 1939, Norma's co-star Joan Crawford, however, demanded to be billed above the title alongside Norma. (After being labelled box-office poison the year before, Joan had lobbied hard to be cast as the bitchy Crystal Allen and wouldn't settle for less than co-star billing.) It was MGM boss Louis B. Mayer who eventually asked Norma to chuck the clause in her contract and to give Joan what she wanted. Norma at first objected but under pressure gave in, signing the following amendment on 3 May 1939.

Source: Bonhams
Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford photographed in 1932

Rosalind Russell, whose role in The Women as the gossipy Sylvia Fowler was actually bigger than Joan's, wanted Norma to do the same thing for her but the "Queen of MGM" refused. Adamant to get above-the-title billing with her two co-stars, Rosalind thought of a plan and —encouraged by what Louis B. Mayer had said to her, "I hear you're going to steal this picture"— called in sick about a month into production. Rosalind's plan worked out when on the fourth day of her strike Norma yielded. On 13 June 1939, Norma signed another amendment:

I now agree that both Miss Joan Crawford and Miss Rosalind Russell may be given co-star credit with my name; provided, however, that in no event shall Miss Russell’s name appear in size of type larger than 50% of the size used to display my name.   
The three actresses credited on screen for The Women with Rosalind's name half the size of her co-stars.
Publicity still for The Women with Joan, Norma and Rosalind. A critical and commercial success, the film was Joan's comeback and turned Rosalind into a big star. For Norma it was one of her last films before she retired from acting in 1942.
Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer as resp. Crystal Allen and Mary Haines in the big confrontation scene from The Women. While the actresses were hardly friends, the feud between them was exaggerated for publicity purposes. To Hedda Hopper Joan reportedly said: "So many people say Norma and I dislike each other — who are we to disagree with the majority opinion?"

4 January 2022

You must reduce further ...

After being denied membership to the Los Angeles Country Club because he was believed to be Jewish, 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl Zanuck decided to purchase the rights to Laura Hobson's 1947 novel Gentleman's Agreement and adapt it for the screen. Hobson's novel tackles the subject of anti-Semitism, which was a controversial subject at the time. Urged by Samuel Goldwyn and other Jewish film executives not to make the film as it might "stir up trouble", Zanuck went ahead regardless and his decision ultimately paid off. Gentleman's Agreement (1947), starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield and Celeste Holm, became an unexpected box-office success and at the Academy Awards also took home awards for Best Picture (Darryl Zanuck), Best Director (Eliza Kazan) and Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm).

Celeste Holm started her career in the theatre and earned both critical and public praise for her role of Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Oklahoma! (1943). Signed to a contract by 20th Century-Fox in 1946, Holm made her screen debut that same year in Three Little Girls in Blue. When Gentleman's Agreement was being cast, Zanuck reportedly didn't want Holm for the part of fashion editor Anne Dettrey but hired her at the insistence of director Kazan. Holm's performance proved to be one of the finest of her career and the only one for which she earned an Oscar (although she would receive further nominations for Come to the Stable (1949) and All About Eve (1950)). Preferring the theatre over film work, Holm made relatively few films during her career. Her other pictures include Road House (1948), The Snake Pit (1948), The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956), the latter two co-starring Frank Sinatra.

Above: Celeste Holm with Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement. About Peck Holm said that he wasn't much fun. Below: At the Oscars with (from left to right) Darryl Zanuck, Edmund Gwenn, Loretta Young, Ronald Colman and Holm.

A few weeks before Gentleman's Agreement went into production, Darryl Zanuck wrote the following letter to Celeste Holm. A hands-on studio boss who involved himself in all aspects of film production, Zanuck was concerned with Holm being too heavy for her role and suggested she'd lose weight. Apart from Zanuck's letter, a draft of Holm's reply to Zanuck is also shown.


My dear Mr. Zanuck —

Nothing could make me happier than does this assignment in "G.A"!
To this end, nothing would be difficult — and I shall continue
Thank you  So I shall continue my reducing to achieve even lesser proportions [than] those I had in 3 Little G's in Blue.
Sincerely — in appreciation

Celeste Holm in a scene from Three Little Girls in Blue, while performing the song Always the Lady.