26 July 2022

I do not give permission for my life story to be made into a movie!!

In December 2021, Tom Holland announced that he would portray Fred Astaire in an upcoming Sony Pictures' biopic about the legendary actor/dancer. The announcement evoked many surprised and angry reactions since the film would go against Astaire's own wishes. Astaire, who was a shy man and very modest when it came to his past achievements, has always refused permission for a film to be made about his life. "However much they offer me —and offers come in all the time— I shall not sell", he said. Even a clause was included in Astaire's will to prevent anyone from making his biopic. "It is there because I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be." 

Apart from the biopic by Sony Pictures, in 2020 it was also announced that Jamie Bell and Margaret Qualley would star as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in a film for Amazon Studios called Fred & Ginger. I could find no recent information on either project, but presumably they are in pre-production now. (I'm not sure if Astaire's heirs can do anything to prevent these films from being made?)

c.1937, Astaire working on one of his dance routines with choreographer Hermes Pan.

In the following letter to fellow actor Lionel Jeffries, written on 22 August 1980, Fred Astaire confirms the existence of the clause in his will and also says how he hates talking about his past work. Astaire had struck up a friendship with Jeffries in the 1960s and this letter is only one of many he had written to his friend.


Aug. 22nd 

Dear Lionel:- 

Thanks for thinking of me but I must tell you that there is no way I would ever take on a project as suggested in your letter. The idea has been brought to me by all three major networks here, a number of times.

As you know I hate talking about my past work. I even have it in my will that I do not give permission for my life story to be made into a movie!!

All is well here and my love to all the family.

As ever Fred A- 

Lionel Jeffries and Fred Astaire on the set of the 1962 comedy The Notorious Landlady, also co-starring Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak.

21 July 2022

The Decline of Buster Keaton's Career

In 1928, Buster Keaton signed a contract with MGM which he later called the biggest mistake of his career. Until then he had been working as an independent filmmaker, enjoying great artistic freedom in the making of his shorts and feature films. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd had warned Keaton beforehand that he would lose his independence if he signed with MGM, and they were right. While Keaton could still film his first MGM feature The Cameraman (1928) his own way, this would all change. The actor/filmmaker, who was used to working without a proper script, soon had to deal with dozens of writers, script conferences and in the end was given merely script material he hated. Keaton did go along with the studio's wishes but by the time What! No Beer? (1933) was filmed, he had sunk into a deep depression, causing him to drink excessively. When he failed to meet his commitments, MGM fired him.

Following his dismissal by MGM, Keaton made a few films in Europe before returning to Hollywood to make a series of shorts for Educational Pictures and later for Columbia Pictures (after which Keaton vowed never to make "another crummy two-reeler" again). He was rehired by MGM in the late 1930s, this time as a gag writer, providing material for the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and Laurel & Hardy. Keaton appeared in a cameo role in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and also had small roles in In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Chaplin's Limelight (1952). He loved television and in the 1950s the medium revived his career and provided him with steady work, even with a tv show of his own (i.e. The Buster Keaton Show). Television also helped rekindle the interest of the public in Keaton's silent films. In 1959, Keaton received an Academy Honorary Award ("for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen”) and the Venice Film Festival also honoured him in 1965 for his contributions to the film industry.

Buster Keaton, "The Great Stone Face". As an independent fimmaker he made shorts like One Week (1920), The Goat (1921) and Cops (1922), and among his feature films are Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).
Buster Keaton at work as a gag writer for MGM with above The Marx Brothers (Groucho and Chico) and below Red Skelton. The collaboration between Buster and the Marx Brothers did not always go smoothly. When Groucho told him his gags were not compatible with the Marx Brothers' humour,  Buster answered, "I'm only doing what Mr. Mayer asked me to do. You guys don't need help."

Buster Keaton never again enjoyed the successes he had in the 1920s. The mid-1920s saw him at the height of his career, earning $3,500 a week while building a $300,000 house for his first wife, actress Natalie Talmadge. His descent into alcoholism and depression —after MGM had taken away his creative control— coincided with the crumbling of his marriage to Talmadge, which ended in divorce in 1932. By the mid-1930s, Keaton was broke (Talmadge having extravagantly spent his money) and filed for bankrupcy. While he would earn a decent living in the decades to come, unlike Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton didn't own the rights to his own films and never became a millionaire. Still, he was a content man —in 1940 he married his third wife, MGM dancer Eleanor Norris, to whom he remained happily married until his death in 1966— and looking back on his life said in 1960: "I think I have had the happiest and luckiest of lives. Maybe this is because I never expected as much as I got ... It would be ridiculous of me to complain. I count the years of defeat and grief and disappointment, and their percentage is so minute that it continually surprises and delights me."

Shown below is an Internal Revenue Service tax form (W-4), filled out and signed by Buster Keaton in June 1943. At the time he was working as an uncredited gag man for MGM and requested to be exempted from paying income taxes. Keaton often had tax problems and in 1933, following his bankrupcy, even owed the IRS $28,000 in back taxes (today's equivalent is about $630,000). Also shown is an agreement between MGM and Keaton, concerning Keaton's two-day leave in June 1945 for which he didn't get paid.

Source: Heritage Auctions
Source: Heritage Auctions
Above: Buster Keaton with his third wife Eleanor Norris who is credited with saving his life and career. Norris, 23 years younger than Keaton, was a contract dancer at MGM. When the two met in 1938, Keaton was working as a gag consultant and still having bouts with alcoholism. Norris helped him to get his alcohol consumption under control. During the marriage, the couple toured European circuses together doing vaudeville acts and also performed together on The Buster Keaton Show. They were happily married for 26 years until Keaton's death of lung cancer in 1966. Norris played an important role in keeping Keaton's legacy alive after his death. (And in case you're wondering who Keaton's second wife was— she was his nurse Mae Scriven, whom he married in 1933 during an alcoholic blackout; they divorced in 1936.) Below: Buster on television, early 1950s. 

16 July 2022

God’s eye may be on the sparrow but my eye will always be on you

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are known far more for their intense and turbulent relationship than for the eleven films they made together (which include Cleopatra (1963) and the 1966 acclaimed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). The couple met at a Hollywood party in 1953 and in his diary Burton recalled seeing Elizabeth, who was already a star at 21, for the first time: "... a girl sitting on the other side of the pool lowered her book, took off her sunglasses and looked at me. She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud ... she was unquestioningly gorgeous ... She was lavish. She was a dark unyielding largess. She was, in short, too bloody much, and not only that, she was totally ignoring me.” They would meet again almost ten years later on the set of Cleopatra, their first film together, and it was during the first love scene that sparks started flying, with their kiss taking a lot longer than necessary. Married to other people —Elizabeth to singer Eddie Fisher and Burton to actress Sybil Williams— the two soon embarked on a heavily publicised love affair. The affair was met with public disapproval as well as criticism from the U.S. Congress and the Vatican, the latter condemning the couple for "erotic vagrancy". 

Once divorced from their spouses, "Liz and Dick" —as they were dubbed by the tabloid press that followed them wherever they went— were married on 15 March 1964. They divorced in 1974, then remarried in 1975 and divorced again less than a year later. Their life together had been one of extreme luxury, with millions spent on diamonds, furs, art, grand hotels, a yacht and a jet, et cetera. Also a lot of heavy drinking was involved (by both Burton and Taylor) as well as vicious fighting. After their final divorce, the couple remarried other people but the bond between them would never be broken. Looking back, Elizabeth said later in life: "After Richard, the men in my life were just there to hold the coat, to open the door. All the men after Richard were really just company." And in an interview with Vogue, she admitted: "I was still madly in love with him the day he died. I think he still loved me, too." 

During their time together, Richard Burton wrote Elizabeth Taylor many letters, one of them seen below. In the letter, written in June 1973, he said goodbye to Elizabeth after she had told him their marriage was over. Burton was a womaniser and had several affairs during the marriage and Elizabeth had had enough. It would still take a year, though, before the couple had their first divorce.

Also shown is a passionate love letter from Elizabeth to Richard, written in March 1974 on the occasion of their 10-year wedding anniversary. Shortly thereafter, the couple separated and three months later they were divorced. 


June 25, 1973

So My Lumps, 

You’re off, by God! 

I can barely believe it since I am so unaccustomed to anybody leaving me. But reflectively I wonder why nobody did so before. All I care about—honest to God—is that you are happy and I don’t much care who you’ll find happiness with. I mean as long as he’s a friendly bloke and treats you nice and kind. If he doesn’t I'll come at him with a hammer and clinker. God’s eye may be on the sparrow but my eye will always be on you. Never forget your strange virtues. Never forget that underneath that veneer of raucous language is a remarkable and puritanical LADY. I am a smashing bore and why you’ve stuck by me so long is an indication of your loyalty. I shall miss you with passion and wild regret. 

You may rest assured that I will not have affairs with any other female. I shall gloom a lot and stare morosely into unimaginable distances and act a bit—probably on the stage—to keep me in booze and butter, but chiefly and above all I shall write. Not about you, I hasten to add. No Millerinski Me, with a double M. There are many other and ludicrous and human comedies to constitute my shroud. 

I’ll leave it to you to announce the parting of the ways while I shall never say or write one word except this valedictory note to you. Try and look after yourself. Much love. Don’t forget that you are probably the greatest actress in the world. I wish I could borrow a minute portion of your passion and commitment, but there you are—cold is cold as ice is ice.

Source:  Letters of Note

Source: Paul Fraser Collectibles


My darling (my still) My husband 

I wish I could tell you of my love for you, of my fear, my delight, my pure animal pleasure of you - (with you) - my jealousy, my pride, my anger at you, at times.

Most of all my love for you, and whatever love you can dole out to me - I wish I could write about it but I can't. I can only "boil and bubble" inside and hope you understand how I really feel.

Anyway, I lust thee 

Your (still) Wife 

P.S. O'Love, let us never take each other for granted again! 

P.P.S. How about that - 10 years!!

Note: On the back of Elizabeth's letter the following was written: "This letter written by Elizabeth Taylor while renting my home from Feb 15th till April 18th 1974. It was left behind - inside a book in the drawer under the masterbedroom bed." Elizabeth and Richard had rented a private home in Oroville, California, while Burton was filming The Klansman. The owner of the house Antonia Henning had found Elizabeth's letter after the Burtons had already left. Another letter from Elizabeth to her lost cat Cassius (here) was found in the same drawer.

7 July 2022

Oscar For Sale

For those artists lucky enough to win an Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has strict rules in case winners should ever wish to part with their golden prize. In 1951, the Academy included in the regulations that winners are not allowed to sell their Oscar without first offering it to the Academy for $10 (today the sum is a mere $1). This rule also applies to those who inherited or were gifted an Oscar.

A number of times the Academy has taken legal action when an Oscar was being offered for sale. For instance, in 2014 the Academy found their 1951 rule had been violated when an Oscar was sold at auction by the heirs of art director Joseph Wright, who had won the award for his work on My Gal Sal (1942). Joseph Tutalo, Wright's nephew, had consigned the statuette to Briarbrook Auctions and auction house Nate D. Sanders then bought the Oscar from Briarbrook for $79,200. The Academy subsequently went to court, arguing that although Wright had won the Oscar before 1951 he had kept his Academy membership until his death in 1985, which made the sale illegal. Eventually the judge ruled in the Academy's favour and the Academy reclaimed Wright's Oscar for $10.

Spencer Tracy with his Best Actor Oscar for Boys Town (1938) and Bette Davis with her Best Actress Oscar for Jezebel (1938), the latter Oscar sold at auction in 2001 to an anonymous bidder (who turned out to be Steven Spielberg).

Oscars have been sold succesfully in the past, though. For instance, in 1999 David Selznick's Best Picture statuette for Gone with the Wind (1939) was sold to Michael Jackson for a whopping $1.5 million, a trophy that unfortunately went missing years after Jackson's death (I couldn't find information whether it's turned up yet). Magician David Copperfield bought Michael Curtiz's 1943 Casablanca Oscar for $232,000 in 2003 and made a huge profit when he sold it at auction for more than $2 million ten years later. And director Steven Spielberg purchased several Oscars, including Clark Gable's 1934 Oscar for It Happened One Night (for $607,500 in 1996) and Bette Davis' 1938 Best Actress trophy for Jezebel (for $578,000 in 2001). However, Spielberg didn't buy these trophies for himself but, for the sake of preserving film history, returned them to the Academy instead.

Since 1951 Oscar winners are obliged to sign a document saying they won't sell their trophy without offering it to the Academy first. Here is the "Receipt for Academy Award Statuette" signed by Audrey Hepburn in May 1954, after she had won her Best Actress Oscar for Roman Holiday.

Via: Rare Audrey Hepburn (original source: The Audrey Hepburn Treasures)

Audrey Hepburn with the only Oscar of her career