23 November 2022

Broadway Bogie

Like many Hollywood actors, Humphrey Bogart began his acting career on the stage. He appeared in 18 Broadway productions between 1922 and 1935, making his debut in the play Drifting. Bogie's early Broadway roles were mostly romantic juveniles in drawing-room comedies and he sometimes referred to them as his 'Tennis, anyone?' roles. In a 1948 interview he explained: "I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: 'Tennis anybody?' It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue."

When the Great Depression hit and theatre attendance dropped, Bogart tried his luck in Hollywood. His first feature film was Up the River (1930) co-starring Spencer Tracy, followed by Bad Sister (1931) with Bette Davis. The early 1930s saw Bogart shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and the New York stage, and during that period he was also often out of work. 1935 proved a turning point in Bogart's career when he was offered the role of the escaped murderer Duke Mantee in Robert E. Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest. The play, which starred Leslie Howard in the leading role, was a big success, running for 197 performances at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. The Petrified Forest would be Bogie's final stage appearance.

Warner Bros. bought the rights to The Petrified Forest and wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role of Duke Mantee but Leslie Howard, who held the production rights, wanted Bogie. For that purpose, Howard sent a telegram to Jack Warner which read: "Att: Jack Warner Insist Bogart Play Mantee No Bogart No Deal L.H." Bogart was cast, with the film proving his breakthrough in Hollywood. (The Petrified Forest, directed by Archie Mayo, was released in 1936, with Bette Davis co-starring with Howard and Bogart.) Having been friends with Howard ever since they played together on Broadway and grateful for everything Howard had done for him, in 1952 Bogart named his daughter Leslie Howard Bogart (Bogie's second child with wife Lauren Bacall), in honour of his friend who had died in a plane crash during WWII.

Bogie and Shirley Booth in the Broadway play Hell's Bells (1925)
Bogie and Ruth Gordon in the Broadway play Saturday's Children (1927). Apart from being an actress Gordon was also a successful screenwriter, known mostly for her screenplay of Adam's Rib (1949), co-written with husband Garson Kanin.
Bogie and Judith Anderson on Broadway in The Mask and the Face (1933). While Anderson was a leading stage actress, she is best known for her role as Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940).

On the Broadway stage in The Petrified Forest (1935), with Bogie (far left) and Leslie Howard (far right).


Humphrey Bogart wrote the following letter sometime in the late 1920s when he was still years away from becoming a famous movie star. At the time he was performing on the New York stage, although I'm not sure which play he was in. His letter is addressed to "Lyman", possibly Lyman Brown; Lyman and his brother Chamberlain were theater agents and producers of Broadway plays.


March 15

Dear Lyman:

Am enclosing the notices for Washington and Boston.  Stopped in to say "Hello" on Monday but you were, as usual, out to lunch.

As far as I know we continue playing after a lay-off Holy Week; but have received no booking as yet.

If the show is as brilliantly handled as it has been so far, will probably play the Century Theatre – Madison Square Garden not being available.

Hope your new play gets over – Ruth Gordon told me she thought it a very funny play – it appears that Gregory and Harpo were going to buy it for her at one time.

Regards and premature Easter Greetings etc.


13 November 2022

For Lord's Sake, don't let those bulbs stick out

In July 1934, Joseph Breen and his Production Code Administration (PCA) started to strictly enforce the Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood's own set of censorship rules that was adopted in 1930 (aka the Hays Code). Up till then PCA's predecessor, the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), had been tasked with implementing the Code. The SRC had no authority, however, to censor content or order studios to remove content; all they could do was advise studios on how to change the scripts in order to meet the Code's requirements. As the SRC only had an advisory capacity and no penalties were given for violating the Code, studios often ignored the SRC's suggestions. This did not mean, however, that pre-Code films (made between 1930 and mid-1934) went uncensored. City and state censorship boards could order studios to cut films or they could even ban films from playing in cinemas. With the costs for cutting films being paid by the studios, a major concern for studio executives was the fact that each censorship board had different rules, so what was allowed in one state/city could be forbidden in another. This often meant making different cuts of the same film, costing studios large amounts of money. (By giving studios advice, the SRC tried to save them from making these costly cuts and to help them get their films past the censors. Nevertheless, as said, the SRC's advice was frequently ignored.) 

Adolphe Menjou flanked by Joan Blondell (l) and Mary Astor in a publicity still for Convention City.

Of all the major studios Warner Bros. was the most recalcitrant when it came to following the Code. Joseph Breen hated the pre-Code Warner films and called them "the lowest bunch we have". Nevertheless, at times the studio had to give in to the censors, for example with Baby Face (1933), which was initially rejected by the New York State Censorship Board; only after Warners made the changes that had been demanded by the New York censors —financially NYC was too important a market to lose— the film got accepted. 

Here are two memos, showing two slightly nervous Warner Bros. executives, worrying about the censors. The first memo was sent by studio boss Jack Warner to producer Hal Wallis regarding Convention City and the second is from Wallis to director Michael Curtiz re: Mandalay, the latter film released just before the enforcement of the Code. 

DATE: October 5, 1933
SUBJECT: "Convention City"

TO: Mr. Wallis
FROM: Mr. Warner

We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord's sake, don't let those bulbs stick out. I'm referring to her gown in Convention City.

J.L. Warner

[*More about Convention City, see the note at the bottom of this post.]




DATE: October 21, 1933
SUBJECT: "Mandalay" 
TO: Curtiz
FROM: Hal Wallis

I am just looking at your dailies ...

Generally your stuff is beautiful and I don't want to start limiting you and restricting you ...

However, when you show Kay Francis in the bathtub with [Ricardo] Cortez in the shot and a close-up of Kay Francis in the tub and show her stepping out of the tub and going into Cortez's arms, then you get me to the point where I am going to have to tell you to stick to the script and not to do anything else. For God's sake, Mike, you have been making pictures long enough to know that it is impossible to show a man and a woman who are not married in a scene of this kind. The situation itself is censorable enough with Cortez and Francis living [together] ...

Hal Wallis 

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.  

Above: The scene (as described in the memo) was changed, with Cortez now leaning in through an open hatchway and kissing Francis (out of the bath and wrapped in a towel) through the hatchway, with the final shot of Francis' bare legs and the towel landed on the floor. While the scene was still risky, it got accepted.  However, when Warners applied for a certificate of approval to re-issue Mandalay in 1936, the application was denied. Below: Kay Francis fabulously dressed by Orry-Kelly in a scene from Mandalay.

Convention City
, directed by Archie Mayo and starring Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, Guy Kibbee and Adolphe Menjou, is considered a lost film. When it was released in 1933, the film was successful at the box-office but, due to its racy content, was taken out of circulation once the Code was enforced. The story of the film revolves around the convention of the Honeywell Rubber Company in Atlantic City, with the company's employees being mostly preoccupied with booze and sex. In 1936, Warner Bros. tried to re-release the film but PCA's Joseph Breen considered it beyond redemption and rejected the studio's request for a seal of approval. Subsequently, studio boss Jack Warner reportedly ordered the prints and negatives of the film to be destroyed. According to this interesting article by Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project, however, not all prints were destroyed and prints of the film were shown as late as WWII. Hutchinson seems convinced a print still exists but "we just have to find it!". At any rate, until that happens (if it ever will happen), Convention City remains one of the more coveted lost Hollywood films. Leading lady Joan Blondell once said about it: "That is the raunchiest thing there has ever been. We had so many hysterically dirty things in it ..." (Incidentally, the original screenplay of the film still exists and can be found in the Warner Bros. script archives.)

Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Guy Kibbee in Convention City

5 November 2022

Buster Keaton, whom I have selected to follow in my footsteps ...

I am not a fan of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle but I love Buster Keaton and recently watched a lot of Buster shorts, including several he made with Arbuckle (The Cook (1918) being my favourite of the Buster-Arbuckle shorts). It was through Arbuckle that Buster had his first break in Hollywood. The two met in early 1917 and Arbuckle, who was then at the height of his popularity, took Buster under his wing. Until then Buster had been performing with his parents in a vaudeville act (as The Three Keatons) and had never stood in front of a camera before. When asked by Arbuckle to do a scene for his newest two-reeler The Butcher Boy, Buster proved to be a natural and Arbuckle immediately hired him. The two men entered into a very successful working relationship, with Buster appearing in a total of 14 Arbuckle shorts. 

In 1920, after completing their final film together The Garage, Buster went on to make films on his own, starting with a series of two-reelers including One Week, Convict 13 and Neighbors. Due to his success with Arbuckle, Buster was given his own production unit by independent producer Joseph M. Schenck —Buster Keaton Productions— which first produced two-reelers and later feature films. Arbuckle, in turn, signed a very lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures in 1921 and made several full-length features for the studio before becoming involved in a huge scandal. Accused of the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe, Arbuckle faced three highly publicised trials which —despite his eventual acquittal— destroyed his career, while also leaving him bankrupt.

Apart from being colleagues, Buster and Arbuckle were close friends. Buster was one of the people, along with Charlie Chaplin, who had supported and defended Arbuckle during the scandal. After his acquittal Arbuckle tried to make films again, but he was banned from the screen and could only work behind the camera under a pseudonym. Buster attempted to help his friend by hiring him as co-director on Sherlock Jr. (1924). Arbuckle proved very difficult to work with —a nervous wreck after the trials, he lost his temper easily and screamed at actors on the set— which made Buster end their collaboration. Nevertheless, the two men remained friends and Buster financially supported Arbuckle for the remainder of Arbuckle's life. (In 1933 Arbuckle died of a heart attack, only 46 years old.)


For the letter of this post, let's go back to the period before the scandal. Having completed The Garage (his last short with Buster), Arbuckle was excited to move on and make feature films. He also wanted to give Buster a hand with his solo career, and for that purpose a printed copy of the following letter was sent to 25,000 of Arbuckle's fans. Calling Buster "a worthy successor" and "one who could make you laugh even more than [he] did", Arbuckle encouraged his own fans to go out and see Buster in the theatre.

Via: Pinterest


Dear friend:

I am sending you a photograph of "Buster" Keaton, the little sad faced fellow who used to work in my pictures and whom I have selected to follow in my footsteps and make two-reel comedies.

As you know, I am now making five-reel comedy features but I did not desert the two-reelers until I felt perfectly sure I had found a worthy successor -- one who could make you laugh even more than I did.

Up to date "Buster" has made three pictures entitled: "One Week"; "Convict 13" and "The Scarecrow". These pictures are first-class laughing successes.

If you want to see them ask the manager of your favorite moving picture theatre when he is going to play "Buster" Keaton's comedies and he will give you the exact date.

Always your friend,

(signed) Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle