31 March 2023

There is something I would like to straighten out with you ...

Olivia de Havilland was still working on Gone with the Wind (1939) when she started filming The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). She had a minor role in the latter film as the queen's lady-in-waiting, playing third fiddle to Bette Davis and Errol Flynn and being billed below the title. It is said that casting Olivia in such an inferior role was Jack Warner's way of punishing her for doing David Selznick's GWTW. Warner, head of Warner Brothers and Olivia's boss, was at first unwilling to loan her out to Selznick, but Olivia was adamant about playing Melanie. In violation of her contract with Warners, the actress had secretly screentested for GWTW, and next secretly contacted Warner's wife Ann, pleading with her to make Warner change his mind. Persuaded by his wife, Warner eventually agreed to the loan-out but ordered producer Hal Wallis to cast Olivia in a secondary role on her return to Warners.

In early May 1939 —while still having to shoot retakes for GWTW— Olivia reported for work at Warners and later recalled that it was "torture for [her], leaving this wonderful atmosphere at Selznick for a very different atmosphere at Warner Brothers". A month later, on 10 June, an incident occurred on the set of Elizabeth and Essex, where Olivia had to do a scene but lost her usual calm in front of the cast and crew. The incident involved Warners' contract director Michael Curtiz, whom Olivia disliked working with (read more here). In a memo to production manager T.C. Wright, unit manager Frank Mattison described what had happened:


I had [a] display of temperament late SATURDAY afternoon from Miss DeHAVILLAND; to wit— at 5:15 PM when we started to rehearse a scene between her and Miss FABERES [Nanette Fabray], she informed Mr. Curtiz that she positively was going to stop at 6:00 PM, but Mr. Curtiz told her that unless she stayed and finished the sequence he positively would cut it out of the picture. Miss DeHAVILLAND expressed herself before the company and Mr. Curtiz came right back, with the result that it became necessary for me to dismiss the company at 6:15 without shooting this sequence. 

Inasmuch as this sequence of 2 pages was inserted at Miss DeHAVILLAND's request, I believe that we definitely should not shoot it and uphold Mr. Curtiz in the matter. I think this will put Miss DeHAVILLAND in a proper frame of mind so that she will take direction and instruction hereafter.  

[The scene was later shot and included in the film.]

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

Olivia de Havilland as Penelope Gray in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

In order to defend herself and to explain the situation to her boss Jack Warner, Olivia wrote him the following letter on 18 July 1939. Long afterwards, Olivia said about the incident: "I lost my cool, which was not like me, and which is unforgivable." 

Incidentally, with "a certain man who means well" Olivia unmistakably refers to Michael Curtiz and the "famous blond actress" is Bette Davis. The Lady & the Knight was one of the film's working titles.


July 18, 1939

Dear Mr. Warner —

It is a shame that you are so busy this week that it is impossible to arrange a luncheon engagement. I should have enjoyed the experience so much.

There is something I would like to straighten out with you, something that is, I feel very important to both of us. I have not been at all happy about the situation that existed during The Lady & the Knight. I feel that a misunderstanding was created between us that had no business to be there. As you know, when you called me on the phone, full of indignation, I wanted to talk to you in person, rather than discuss so vital a matter through such an unsatisfactory medium, but you were busy or preferred not to do so ....

The first time you called, the conversation concerned my starting date on The Lady & the Knight. As I explained to you, I had, four weeks before, forseen the problems that would arise between the schedules of G.W.T.W. and The Lady & the Knight and had discussed the matter with Mr. Wallis, [co-producer] Mr. [Robert] Lord and Mr. Curtiz and come to a conclusion satisfactory to all of us. My principle in being concerned was simply this: I wanted to do a good job in G.W.T.W.  for it was a solemn responsiblity, & I wanted to do my best in The Lady & the Knight, for it is one of your big pictures for the year, & a bad performance on my part could weaken the film perceptibly. As you know it is impossible to perform two decided and different characters at the same time, so our problem was to work out the schedules so that they would not conflict ...

When I started my first important day's work on The Lady & the Knight, not having had a vacation since September, I was quite nervous, and as one always is on the first day of a picture, somewhat apprehensive of my first consequential scene. And that scene was a charming, well-written one, & I wanted to do it well.

I arrived at the studio at 6:45 A.M., shot a number of reaction shots beginning at 9. The morning passed, the afternoon passed, & finally at 5:30 P.M. with my nose shiny, my makeup worn off, my vitality gone, & my tummy doing nip-ups, we prepared to line up the charming scene. I mentioned that it was nearing six, that everyone was tired, and I hoped that we could shoot the scene another day since it required virtually no set. However, when the lights were arranged, at 6:15, with everything against me technically, I limped on the set prepared to go through with this thing. Unfortunately, to make matters much worse, I found that a certain man who means well wanted to get this charming scene over in a hurry — and then, bang! he said something very tactless, and to my horror I found myself shaking from head to foot with nerves, & unable to open my mouth for fear of crying— which would never do in front of so many people. The man, who meant well, realized he had gone too far, apologized, & dismissed the company assuring me that he could quite well shoot the scene another day for it required no set & could be done in a short time. He had said the same kind of thing a few days before to a famous blond actress who had gone home with the tears streaming down her face.

And someone went to you about all this! I know that if you had been present on that set, and had realized my problem, you would have dismissed the company rather than shoot that scene so late in the day. I know, too, that you understand that an actress, no matter how talented she is, is dependent very seriously upon her appearance & her vitality for the quality of her performance. When those two things leave her, whether it is after five years work or at the end of a day, she has nothing to rely on. And when I make suggestions to anyone at the studio, it is for the good of the whole ...

You have a tremendous business to conduct, one that you have built to astounding success & complexity, & your time is not to be wasted with trivialities. 

My very best wishes to you,

Olivia de Havilland 

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

Above: Olivia de Havilland and the "famous blond actress" in a scene from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Below: Olivia and Mike Curtiz on the set of Captain Blood (1935), the first of nine films they did together. 

19 March 2023

If you are convinced, that is quite enough for me

Enticed by today's letter, I recently watched David Lean's Summertime (1955), a film I liked much more than anticipated. Based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents, Summertime is the story of a lonely, middle-aged American woman who takes a holiday to Venice, where she falls in love with an Italian antiques dealer. The film was entirely shot on location in Venice during the peak tourist season in the summer of 1954, containing beautiful images of the city (shot in glorious Technicolor).

The lovely images of Venice aside, the main draw of the film is its leading lady, the inimitable Katharine Hepburn, who gives one of her finest performances as the insecure and vulnerable Jane Hudson. Following the completion of her MGM contract in 1952, Hepburn had spent two years relaxing and travelling before accepting the role in David Lean's film (being free now to choose her own projects). In the letter below to Lean, written on 11 January 1954, Katharine shows her excitement about the film and especially her excitement about working with Lean, of whom she was "a wild fan". Hepburn's sensitive performance eventually earned her an Oscar nomination but she lost to Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo. 

While David Lean directed such well-known classics as Brief Encounter (1945), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), of all the films he had made Summertime was his personal favourite. Katharine Hepburn was Lean's favourite actor to work with, and he once said about her: "She’s a joy. She’s a wonderful technician and she has I think a great, great gift. On top of that, I happen to like her very much personally. She’s a great human being." 

Above: A scene from Summertime with Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson and Rossano Brazzi as Renato de Rossi, the man she falls in love with. Below: Hepburn is dripping wet after doing the scene where she falls into the canal; here she is pictured with director David Lean. Hepburn performed her own stunt and ended up with a chronic eye infection.

Source: liveauctioneers


 I - 11 - 54

Dear David Lean - 

I finally got your letter a week ago - It all sounds thrilling + I'm certain that it will be wonderful - If you are convinced - that is quite enough for me - I am a wild fan of yours - I think that you are absolutely great - I told your wife [Ann Todd] this once when I went backstage to see her after Seventh Veil - You have never disillusioned me - In fact Sound Barrier was to me the most shattering of all - You are a sensitive intelligent + imaginative creature - + if you are enthusiastic about me - I am thrilled - wasn't mad about the play but certainly see what you intend - + see it all now in a lovely rosy glow - am intoxicated at the prospect - have read since I heard how you felt - I hope it pleases you to hear all these nice things - for it is so lovely to feel them - 

Kate Hepburn

Seriously or with all effort at constructive thought - I believe showing what she comes from is very important - + please know that when I talked to [art director Vincent] Korda + [producer Ilya] Lopert - I had only seen the play - + should have kept my mouth shut - I thought I was to see [playwright] Arthur L[aurents]- before he left - Give him our best + you both have my enthusiastic thoughts.

David Lean and Katharine Hepburn on the set of Summertime. Like Hepburn, Lean had received an Oscar nomination for Summertime but he lost to Delbert Mann for Marty.

15 March 2023

My dear Elvis

On this day —exactly 56 years ago— Joan Crawford wrote the following letter to Elvis Presley. While spending a few days on the MGM lot for the television series The Man from UNCLE (in which she had a guest role), Joan had met with Elvis' manager Colonel Parker while Elvis himself was out of town. In her letter, Joan thanks Elvis for his and Colonel Parker's kindness towards her, including being allowed the use of Elvis' golf cart. Incidentally, knowing they never made a film together, I searched for a connection between Joan and Elvis but found none (perhaps Joan was just a fan?). There was a link, however, between Elvis and Joan's daughter Christina. Christina had a small role in one of Elvis' films, Wild in the Country (1961), and off the set an incident between her and Elvis occurred, which you can read about here.

Source: The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia

7 March 2023

If you don't win the Academy Award, I'll drown my children

In Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) James Cagney played a gangster for the last time in his career. Directed by Charles Vidor, the film is based on the life story of singer Ruth Etting, focusing on her tempestuous relationship with mobster Martin "The Gimp" Snyder, who was her manager and helped her reach stardom. As "The Gimp", Cagney gave a powerful and nuanced performance, one that was praised by many, including fellow actor Dick Powell in the letter below. Cagney's performance garnered him an Oscar nomination, but he eventually lost to Ernest Borgnine for Marty

James Cagney and Doris Day in a scene from Love Me or Leave Me. While Doris shines as Ruth Etting in what was probably the best dramatic performance of her career, she was (shamefully) overlooked by the Academy, not even being nominated.

Source: Heritage Auctions
James Cagney with Dick Powell and Powell's then-wife June Allyson during the Academy Awards ceremony, Los Angeles, 1950. Cagney and Powell made one film together, Footlight Parade (1933).

4 March 2023

He is gradually losing his identity ...

In the early 1930s, Ann Harding was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood. After several Broadway successes, Ann had made her film debut in 1929 with Paris Bound, followed by films such as Holiday (1930), The Animal Kingdom (1932), When Ladies Meet (1933) and Double Harness (1933). In 1926, Ann had married actor Harry Bannister, with whom she'd performed on the stage and subsequently played in two films, Her Private Affair (1929) and The Girl of the Golden West (1930). While Ann became a major star, husband Bannister never made it as an actor. It was Ann's success and Bannister's lack thereof that eventually led to their divorce.

In March 1932 Harding and Bannister, whose marriage was looked upon as one of the happiest in Hollywood, announced their divorce to the press. The couple felt a divorce was the only solution to the "untenable" situation they found themselves in. In the following letter to Brian Bell from the Associated Press, Ann gives her explanation for the divorce, saying how her husband was "gradually losing his identity, becoming a background for [her] activities, and looked upon as "Ann Harding's husband"". Bannister added in a separate statement: "During the five and a half years I have been married to Ann Harding, I have had the love and respect and devotion of the very great and lovely person who is my wife. Therefore, in order to preserve this in its entirety, we find the apparently drastic course of divorce the quickest and best solution to our eventual complete happiness." 

Source: Ebay

Following the divorce, however, the relationship between Ann and Bannister took a turn for the worse. Bannister's career wouldn't take off —despite the couple's initial hopes and expectations— and for years the two would be entangled in a bitter custody battle over their daughter Jane. The divorce also caused Ann to be hounded by the press, which made her stop speaking to the press altogether. (About Ann's unwillingness to talk to journalists, you can read more here.)

Above: Ann Harding with Harry Bannister and their daughter Jane. Below: Harding and Bannister in  Her Private Affair.