31 March 2022

Just so you won’t forget that I love you dear

By the mid-1920s, Norma Shearer was one of MGM's biggest stars and had every intention to remain one. For that purpose she regularly visited the office of Irving Thalberg (head of production at MGM), complaining about the routine films in which she was cast and pleading to be given better roles. Thalberg listened to Norma's complaints but said that MGM knew best and that the films they had chosen for her had ultimately made her a star.

Attracted from the start by Thalberg's charm and commanding presence, Norma soon became romantically interested in her boss. While Thalberg didn't feel the same way about Norma, the two started going out together from July 1925 onwards (their first public appearance together was at the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush). At the time Thalberg was still involved with Constance Talmadge and Rosabelle Laemmle, yet on occasion asked Norma to be his date. "When Rosabelle or Constance are away, or someone stands him up, I'm always available. I'll break a date any time to be with him", Norma had said to Irene Selznick, referring to herself as "Irving's spare tire". Norma waited patiently, which eventually paid off. After dating on and off for two years, she and Irving were married on 29 September 1927 and had two children, Irving Jr. (b. 1930) and Katharine (b. 1935). The marriage lasted until 1936 when Thalberg suddenly died as a result of a congenital heart defect, aged 37.

In 2011, a group of more than 40 telegrams exchanged between Norma and Thalberg was auctioned at Bonhams, offering an intimate peek into the couple's relationship. A few of these telegrams are seen below. The messages clearly suggest that the two were in love, despite rumours that their marriage had been one of convenience. (A persistent rumour was that Norma had married her boss purely for the sake of her career.) The first telegram is from Thalberg to Norma and was sent in April 1927, five months before the couple got married. The other three messages —two of them shown only in transcript— are from 1929. 







A telegram from Irving to Norma dated 16 March 1929: 


Another telegram from Irving to Norma dated 22 December 1929: 


To this Norma responded with the following message (written on the back of the telegram):


Will be counting every minute sweetest little fella 
whats the truck for Eddie Loeb [MGM attorney]
I’ll find out how late the train is going to be honey 
+ I’ll sue the railroad for every minute 
Love from your lonesome baby little momma

Source: Bonhams

In order to marry Thalberg, Norma first converted to Judaism. The couple married at the Temple B'nai Brith in Beverly Hills. Above is their certifcate of marriage, dated 29 September 1927. Witnesses to the wedding were MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and studio attorney Edwin J. Loeb. (Source: Heritage Auctions)

22 March 2022

Postponing the Oscars

Four times in Oscar history, the awards ceremony was not held as scheduled but postponed to a later date. The first time was in 1938 due to the floods in Los Angeles; the second time in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; again in 1981 after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and finally last year due to the Covid crisis. 

Sammy Davis Jr. and Martin Luther King sharing a laugh in 1965

The 40th Academy Awards ceremony was scheduled for 8 April 1968 but eventually took place two days later. On 4 April Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and many stars wanted to attend his funeral which was held on 9 April. Among the stars were four African-Americans who were to take part in the Oscar ceremony, i.e. Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll (the first two as performers, the latter two as presenters). The four had informed the Academy that they would not appear at the Oscars if the scheduled date of 8 April was maintained. On The Tonight Show Davis stated: "I certainly think any black man should not appear. I find it morally incongruous to sing Talk To The Animals while the man who could make a better world for my children is lying in state." (Talk To The Animals was the nominated song from Doctor Dolittle which Davis would perform at the ceremony and which eventually won the Oscar for Best Song.) Faced with the possible absence of several of the ceremony's key players, Gregory Peck, then president of the Academy, held an emergency meeting with the Board of Governors who unanimously decided to postpone the Oscars by two days. With the news of the delayed ceremony, Davis, Poitier, Armstrong and Carroll all announced their return to the show. 

Someone who also wanted the Oscars to be postponed was Barbra Streisand, who was also scheduled to be a presenter at the ceremony. This is the telegram Barbra sent to Gregory Peck two days after King's assassination.

Source: oscars.org
Barbra Streisand with Gregory Peck at the 1969 Golden Globes

15 March 2022

It is no use saying one won't get typed - one always is

By the mid-1930s, Basil Rathbone was one of Hollywood's best-paid freelance actors. When Samuel Goldwyn offered him a four-year contract in 1936, the actor had serious misgivings, having worked under contract before (to MGM) and hating it. In a letter from December 1936, Rathbone voiced his objections to Goldwyn about signing with him. Apart from being very unhappy with the billing clause in the contract, Rathbone was not at all interested in playing the heavy in Goldwyn's upcoming film The Hurricane (1937). Ever since he had portrayed the evil Murdstone in David Selznick's production of David Copperfield (1935), the actor had played villains. Afraid of being typecast as a villain, Rathbone rejected The Hurricane ("my part is a cold blooded unaffectionate duty loving bastard"), the role eventually played by Raymond Massey. Incidentally, Rathbone's most famous villain role was yet to come, that of Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Here is the letter Rathbone wrote to Samuel Goldwyn on 2 December 1936, in which he complains about his billing situation, boasts about his acting achievements and —not wishing to be typed as a villain— suggests several characters he would be interested in playing.

Source: Heritage Auctions


Grand Hotel Dunapalota

Dec. 2, 1936

Dear Sam, I would not for the world have you misunderstand why I have not signed the contract with you. There is so much to talk about, which even in a letter cannot be fully covered & I want to talk to you before doing anything as drastic as signing a 4 year contract. To you Sam, it is just another contract along with other artists engaged to you. To me it is the one & only contract & it has so many “ifs” to it.

I have been very happy freelancing & to me freedom is almost irreplaceable. Five years ago I was under contract to MGM & I was miserable. I only got just what was on paper & no more. I was promised this & promised that — hope was high one day & in the dust the next. After “[The Last of Mrs.] Cheyney” I was typed & I was allowed to do nothing but “tea cup & white tie parts.” Even as late as “Romeo & Juliet” promises have meant nothing. I was to be featured after John Barrymore & Edna May Oliver in the same type. I was not. I was put down with Ralph Forbes & Andy Devine etc. I accepted Count Anteoni in “The Garden of Allah” without reading the script because David Selznick told me the story & the part as he told it was colourful & vital & important. We came to shoot it & it was nothing. In “Allah” I was promised the same billing as John Barrymore got in Romeo & Juliet. I did not get it. This was my agent’s fault. It was not in the contract & Mr. Selznick pointed out it was not in the contract & would do nothing. So I was bunched down with Tilly Losch, Aubrey Smith & [Joseph] Shildkraut [sic]. I don’t say like things would happen with you Sam, but I have been so badly bitten & I am completely lacking in confidence in anyone. I am sure you must be able to understand this.

Your billing clause for instance gives me no more than I can get freelancing & yet you star Herbert Marshall with [Merle] Oberon & [Fredric] March in “Dark Angel,” & you have just starred Brian Aherne with Oberon. My contract would enable you to have me supporting Marshall & Aherne either as stars or featured players & I won’t do it. I must either be very important to you or I will go on freelancing. I earned $120,000 last year and 140,000 this year & I am completely content with your contract in that regard but it is not money I am after (much as I appreciate it!) I have been a very important actor both in London & New York for years. I bring you a very full experience & equipment, especially after the past 2 years in pictures. You not only made [Ronald] Coleman [sic], you gave him the opportunity to learn to act. I come to you a finished product groomed in every branch of my trade. Just look at this for a few important ones.

LondonMy Parts                                             
Peter Ibbetson—Peter (co star) 
George Sand—de Musset (co star)
Henry IV—The Prince of Wales (no stars)
Othello—Iago (co star) 
The Unknown (Maugham)—the atheist soldier (no stars)
He who gets slapped—“He” (co star) 

New York & on tour all over the Country 
Czarina—Count Alexis, 1st feature
The Swan—The Tutor, equal feature LeGallienne & Merivale
The Command to Love—Attache, co-star Mary Nash
The Captive—the lead, co-star Helen Menken
Melo—the lead, co-star Edna Best

Stratford on Avon Shakespeare Festivals
47 parts in 22 plays of Shakespeare!

The pictures you know. The above is an education Sam. Only a man like Charles Boyer has anything like it & he is starred & has yet to have an outstanding American success. I am not asking for stardom. I want to win it in pictures as I won it on the stage, but I must have protection against people who were not & are not my equals now or in the past. The Garbos the Gables the Gary Coopers yes, but the Marshalls Ahernes etc. NO NO NO. And I can see no reason why you cannot do for me what you do for Marshall & Aherne. and -

as regards “Hurricane” I have read the book & can see what a fine production picture it will make. I don’t know how it is being treated but my part is a cold blooded unaffectionate duty loving bastard! He has a brief moment of humanity at the end but what of it — he’s a horrible person. I played one for Selznick 2 years ago “Murdstone” & then I played Karenin & a part for Fox but no more. I am not against heavies, but I am against men whose wives dislike them, who are unsexed, complex & inhibited. Tybalt, Pontius Pilate & Levasseur (in Capt. Blood) were all heavies but glamorous & full blooded - men, not lily-livered knaves. Such parts as this man in Hurricane & Karenin limit one too much & a career along such lines would soon end. It is no use saying one won’t get typed — one always is & the better one plays the parts the worse it gets. Hurricane as Hurricane doesn’t interest me in a contract unless the contract contains the antidote to such poison. As a freelancer to do Hurricane, yes, perhaps, but with a term contract & nothing else stipulated, NO.

People say “O look at [Charles] Laughton”! Yes look at him. He couldn’t be anything but unpleasant - it’s no argument at all because we have only one thing in common — i.e. we can both act.

And I would be no good to you at all Sam, & so no good to myself unless we were going places untravelled by your other contract players to date. There is a wealth of parts for a man like myself — Casanova, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, “The Cavalier of the Streets” (Michael Arlen), Charles I, Lafayette & a mass of modern stories I know — all good picture material. In other words anyone taking me on, on a contract must be bold & unconventional. I could be made to box office that way but never as a [Ronald] Coleman [sic] or a [Gary] Cooper or a [WalterHuston or [Clark] Gable. I know myself very well & I will wait until someone wants to be bold with me as Irving Thalberg was going to be had he lived. Ask Frances Marion — she says it is criminal that no one sees how to promote me. She wants to write Leonardo da Vinci for me. Ask John Stahl too. There is a grand story on “Casanova” (by Billy Wilder). Bill Woolfenden has it — Wilder wrote it for me. If you can think along such lines with me, we could & would “go places” together, but just to sign a contract for the same money & billing as I now get freelancing does not make sense. To someone who loves their work, that work & its quality means something more than money can buy. I love my work & am proud of the past. The future must belong to the past & be of its quality & standing. You could do it Sam if you would — will you? Kindest regards & please understand I only write because I would like to be with you — If I did not think we could be happy together I would not write.

Yours very sincerely,
Basil Rathbone

Dec 14-17 – Ritz Paris
Dec 18 Sail “Normandie”
Dec 23 to 28th New York Lombardy Hotel
Jany 1st Home — 5254 Los Feliz Blvd. (Normandie 6140)


The four-year contract with Samuel Goldwyn Productions was never signed. Rathbone kept freelancing and was just a few years away from playing the part he is best known for. Between 1939 and 1946, he would portray Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective Sherlock Holmes in 14 films and a radio series. Initially enthusiastic about Sherlock, by 1946 the actor hated the character and refused to renew his film and radio contracts. While afraid of being typed as a villain a decade earlier, he now hated being only identified with Holmes. In a 1938 interview with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, Rathbone had said that the only thing he dreaded was being typed, whether as a villain or hero. And in his 1962 autobiography In and Out of Character, he said with regards to quitting Sherlock: "I was deeply concerned with the problem of being 'typed', more completely 'typed' than any other classic actor has been or ever will be again. My fifty-two roles in twenty-three plays of Shakespeare, my years in the London and New York Theater, my score of motion pictures, including my two academy award nominations, were slowly but surely sinking into oblivion..." Rathbone left Hollywood in 1946, dedicating his later career to the stage while also doing film and television work and at times appearing in Sherlock Holmes spoofs.

Basil Rathbone as (from left to right) Sherlock Holmes, Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Murdstone in David Copperfield.