Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Glimpses Behind the Silver Screen: "Some Like It Hot"

   In the spring of 1958, Billy Wilder (Samuel Wilder, aka “The Viennese Pixie”) ran into Jack Lemmon at Dominick’s, a restaurant at
8715 Beverly Blvd, West Hollywood which,  by the way, was the place where lots of people went for “Sunday night suppers. “I have an idea for a picture I would like you to play in,” Wilder said to Lemmon. “Sit down,” said Lemmon.  “I haven’t got time now,” Wilder responded, “but I will tell you what it is about.  It’s about two men on the lam from gangsters, running for their lives, and they dress up in girls’ clothes and join an all-girl orchestra.”

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“If anybody else had said that,” Lemmon said after the picture was released to tepid reviews but great, great box office, “I would have run like a jackrabbit.  Go in drag?  Since it was Billy Wilder, I said, ‘Fine, I’ll do it if I’m free to do it, and if I’m not free, I’ll get free.”

Wilder and his writing partner, Iz Diamond (Itek Domnici), had been meeting every day in Billy’s office on the Sam Goldwyn lot since at least the beginning of the year, trying to work out the plot of the farce they wanted to make for their producers, the Mirisch brothers.  It would be based on a 1951 German film, Fanfaren der Liebe (“Fanfares of Love”), a film that neither Wilder nor Diamond liked all that much.  What they didn’t like was the film’s execution. What attracted them, however, was the film’s basic premise: two hungry musicians resort to a series of disguises in order to find work: first they dress as gypsies and join a gypsy band; then they put on blackface for a jazz ensemble; finally, they don dresses, wigs, and makeup and join an all-female orchestra.  As Izzy Diamond later recalled, Fanfaren der Liebe was “heavy-handed and Germanic.  There was a lot of shaving of chests and trying on of wigs.  When one of the musicians is seen sneaking into his room in men’s clothes, the other girls beat up his roommate because ‘she’ has disgraced the honor of the band.”

After ditching two or three incidents from Fanferen der Liebe, Wilder and Diamond had to decide what kind of tone their comedy would take. It wouldn’t be some sort of Teutonic “men in drag,” but rather a lighthearted farce with sexual tension and a lot of dirty jokes – in short, sublime but filthy.  They were concerned about motivation in Fanfaren der Liebe: the two musicians were spurred by hunger, but Wilder and Diamond realized that if poverty were their own characters’ sole incentive, they could just take off the dresses once they had enough to eat and move on in men’s clothes to another gig.  Diamond and Wilder understood precisely what it would take to force American men even to play at being a woman in the 1950s: the threat of death. Diamond killed the second bird with the same stone by suggesting that they make the comedy a period piece; his theory being that “when everybody’s dress looks eccentric, somebody in drag looks no more peculiar than anyone else.” Thus Americans of the repressed 1950s were disguised in Roaring Twenties, Jazz Age clothing.

“The next morning,” Diamond recalled, “Billy came into the office and said, ‘I was driving home last night thinking about what you said, and I think I have the solution: 1929, Chicago, the St Valentine’s Day massacre.’ That was the breakthrough, and suddenly we had a wealth of material to work with – speakeasies, bootleggers, Florida millionaires.  We started writing.”

Some Like it Hot’s casting is the Rashomon of drag comedy.  Everybody has a slightly different tale to tell about who’d be wearing skirts for Billy Wilder.  According to Tony Curtis, United Artists (which distributed the film for the Mirsch Company) originally pushed the idea of casting Bob Hope and Danny Kaye as the two musicians, with Mitzi Gaynor (Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber, who at age 89, is still performing) in the role of Sugar Kane.  Wilder is said to have rejected all three suggestions, choosing instead to sign Curtis (Bernie Schwartz) right off the bat, believing that the dazzlingly handsome actor could play either male role.  Wilder first knew Curtis when he was starring in Houdini for Paramount in 1953.

Tony Curtis was fine as far as UA and Walter Mirisch were concerned, but they still felt strongly that there had to be at least one very big star in this film. Their suggestion: Frank Sinatra.  As I.A.L. (which stands for “International Algebra League”) Diamond recalled, Billy Wilder made a lunch date with Sinatra, but Sinatra didn’t bother to show up, and that was the end of the matter. According to Diamond, too, there was no need for a big star on the order of Sinatra once Marilyn Monroe signed on and filled the bill herself.

Sinatra was more central at the time. And Monroe’s appearance didn’t obviate the need for “Ol’ Blue Eyes” – at least not in the beadier eyes of either Walter Mirisch or United Artists.  In late March, UA’s Arthur Krim was told that the film (still referred to as Fanfares of Love) would start shooting in July and would probably star Sinatra, Curtis, and Monroe. The Mirisches were budgeting Sinatra and Monroe at $200,000 each, plus a quarter of the film’s profits.  (Monroe ultimately got 10% of the gross, which turned out to be slightly over $4 million.) Curtis would get $100,000 against 5% of the gross - over $2 million.  As for Billy Wilder, he’d be getting $300,000 plus 17.5% of the gross, above two times the cost of the negative.  If the film grossed $1 million after the break-even point, Billy’s take went up to 20%. It was a very sweet deal, to say the least.

 Another young actor was also approached, and he remembered Sinatra’s importance as well.  According to Anthony  Perkins, “Billy Wilder stopped by my dressing room [in New York where Perkins was appearing in Look Homeward, Angel] and asked if I’d star in a movie with Frank Sinatra.  I told Billy I’d committed myself to Mel Ferrer for Green Mansions, and couldn’t go back on my word.”  Sinatra was apparently going to play Joe, while Perkins would have been given the Jerry role.  Tony Curtis had similar memories: “It’s you, Marilyn, Sinatra, and Edward G. Robinson and George Raft as the gangsters,” Curtis remembers Wilder telling him.

Wilder and Sinatra were buddies, though the friendship was strained.  For instance, Sinatra supposedly screamed at Wilder over Love in the Afternoon.“He was quite adamant about it,” Wilder remembered – “so vehement that he made my wife cry.  He said he didn’t like the picture because he thought it was immoral for an elderly man to make love in the afternoon to a young girl.” This must have struck Wilder as peculiar, given Sinatra’s own notorious womanizing. Indeed, in 1966, the then 51-year old Sinatra would marry twenty-one-year-old Mia Farrow. Wilder also reported, years after Sinatra stood him up for lunch, that he never cast Sinatra precisely because of the performer’s unreliability: “I’m afraid he would run after the first take – ‘Bye-bye kid, that’s it.  I’m going. I’ve got to see a chick!’  That would drive me crazy.”

Still, Wilder loved the way Sinatra looked and acted on-screen.  In any event, Jack Lemmon landed what started out as the Tony Curtis role, and Curtis took over Sinatra’s.  As for Monroe, Diamond remembered that while he and Billy were still writing their first draft, Billy got a letter from Monroe telling him how fondly she recalled their work together on The Seven Year Itch, (1955) and hoping they’d be able to work together again. This was amusing, given the tsouris he’d endured with her. But as trying as that film had been for Wilder, he’d always loved her performance.  Besides, as Wilder himself put it in 1959, Sugar was “the weakest part, so the trick was to give it the strongest casting.” When Wilder read her a few passages of the script, she agreed to appear in Some Like it Hot. She liked Wilder well enough, and she liked Curtis, too, having been friendly with him when they were both aspiring actors.  Curtis even claimed to have had an affair with her in the early 1950s.

Wilder and Monroe

Wilder and Monroe

The relaxed bonhomie between the stars and director dissipated all too quickly. At a 7:00 p.m. dinner party Harold Mirisch threw to welcome Marilyn Monroe back to Hollywood after an absence of two years, Monroe didn’t show up until nearly 11:30. Then her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, put his arms around both Wilder’s and Diamond’s shoulders and patronizingly began to lecture the two literate screenwriters on the essential differences between comedy and tragedy. They rolled their eyes in irritation. Monroe, watching the interaction, became tense.

Jack Lemmon, who claims to have literally fallen off a couch laughing when he first read the script, didn’t yet realize that he’d been cast in the role of a lifetime by a director who would become one of his closest friends and most devoted employers. Wilder knew what Lemmon didn’t: “Within three to four weeks after the start of production,” Wilder reported, “Diamond and I had decided that this was not to be a one shot thing with Jack. We wanted to work with him again.”  Lemmon himself didn’t quite see it.  As he later noted, his girlfriend, Felicia Farr (whom he’d just begun dating and would be married to for nearly 40 years), “kept asking me what I thought of Wilder and I told her, ‘I guess he’s okay’ she’s never let me forget that one.” Wilder described his friend with genuine affection – which is to say with a put-down: “Lemmon had to be an actor.  I doubt he could have done anything else, except play piano in a whorehouse.”

Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis

Wilder understood quickly, and Lemmon eventually, that the two men could forge a rare kind of bond between director and actor.  Tony Curtis, meanwhile, was able to lend glamour to the character Wilder and Diamond wrote for him, but his persona was essentially foreign to Billy.  He was a pretty boy. Curtis was known for wearing exceptionally tight clothes, some of which he designed himself, all the better to show off his pinup, classic 1950s “veal cake” physique.  As Wilder once said, “Tony’s pants look as though someone dipped him in India ink up to his waist.” One day on the set of Some Like It Hot, Curtis raised a fuss over whether or not his name would or would not appear in the large-size type his contract specified.  He approached Wilder and launched into a lengthy remonstration.  Wilder listened patiently and then slid the knife in: “The trouble with you, Tony, is that you’re only interested in little pants and big billing.”

 With his pants off and his flapper skirts and wig on, Curtis was ill at ease when filming began he walked onto the set markedly discomposed.  Lemmon, however, clomped on to the set waving happily to the crew and introducing himself with “Hi, I’m Daphne!”  “You create a shell and you crawl into it,” is the way he later described it.

 The shells he and Curtis created in Some Like It Hot were designed in part by one of the twentieth-century’s preeminent drag artists, Barbette, whom Billy fondly remembered from his own days in Berlin and Paris, and was lured out of semi-retirement (at Wilder’s behest) to teach Lemmon and Curtis how to effectively transform themselves - not into women, but into drag queens. Wilder flew Barbette in from Texas to train Lemmon and Curtis in the art of female impersonation.  It wasn’t just a matter of seeing to it that their chests were properly shaved, their eyebrows plucked to the correct degree, their hips padded just so.  Barbette’s lessons were those of a performance artist, not a costumer.  She taught them, tried to teach them, how to walk: about how you cross your legs in front of each other slightly, which forces your hips to swing out, subtly but noticeably, with each step.  Tony Curtis was a perfect student as far as Barbette was concerned.  Under her tutelage, Curtis’s Josephine was a model of classic, discreet femininity.  Lemmon, however, couldn’t be taught.  Daphne was a disaster. Lemmon wouldn’t follow Barbette’s rules. 

Throughout the first half of 1958, Wilder and Diamond wrote together on their usual schedule – from 9:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening, Wilder having been up for three hours already at the start of his weekday.  When filming began in early September, they continued the same schedule and added evening rewrite sessions as well from 8:30 to 11:00 P.M.  More than any other film to date, this was a Wilder movie that demanded to be written concurrently with its filming.  Drag comedy was dicey, he knew, so he and Diamond saw what worked and what didn’t and developed the screenplay organically on that basis.  David O. Selznick told Billy it was impossible from the start: “You want machine guns and dead bodies and gags in the same picture? Forget about it, Billy.  You’ll never make it work.”  But by growing it slowly and essentially by constructing each piece on its own, he did precisely that.

Along with the sexual drive of this comedy, a certain Judaism emerges in this, the second script Wilder wrote with Diamond; the writers are having fun being themselves.  Listen to the booking agent Sig Poliakoff (played by Billy Grey, born Bill Giventer) on the phone trying to round up some “girl musicians”: “Gladys! Are ya there?  Gladys!” (He hangs up.) Meshuggeneh!  Played a hundred and twelve hours in a marathon dance, how she’s in bed with a nervous collapse!”  When Poliakoff tells Joe and Jerry about a gig, he inflects his declarative statement with the eastern European lilt of a question: “At the University of Illinois they’re having (you should pardon the expression) a St. Valentine’s dance?”  even Geraldine’s line “We spent three years at the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music” sounds like a Catskills routine (or a Columbia Varsity Show written by a Jewish boy from Brooklyn.)

   The final preliminary budget called for a total cost of $2,373,490.  When filming began, Monroe was up to $300,000; Curtis and Lemmon each got $100,000.  Diamond got $60,000, and Wilder $200,000.  Filming began in September 1958 at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood – off the corner of Formosa and Melrose, where the Mirisches rented space, and on location at the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego. United Artists’ Arthur Krim gave the go-ahead but was nonetheless a little worried. This was going to be an expensive picture, and he wanted to protect his company against the big loss he thought Some Like It Hot might incur simply because of its high salaries.  Early on, there was also the problem of the film’s title.  If they wanted to call it Some Like It Hot, they’d need to get a waiver from MCA – the Music Corporation of America – which owned the rights to a 1939 Paramount film of the same title starring Bob Hope.  This turned out to be fairly easy: Wilder was represented by Lou Wasserman, who happened to own MCA.

The script called for a Miami resort Hotel, the Seminole-Ritz, but by the late 1950s, very little was left of the Roaring Twenties Florida, the magnificent old resorts having been pulled down to make room for the rococo gloss of postwar beach development.  Instead, they decided to shoot at the Hotel Del Coronado.  It was perfect: a grand 1887 hotel with turrets, a big veranda, and a wide white beachfront.

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(On a personal note: It so happens that the four Stones - Mom, Dad, my “slightly older sister” Erica and yours truly - were in residence at the Hotel Del Coronado during filming. At that time, it was a purely wooden hotel and had a double-Olympic-size swimming pool filled with saltwater. As I recall, it also had a pinball machine or two in the basement.

As fairly typical “Hollywood Brats,” neither Erica nor myself were all that overwhelmed by the stars who were - at least for the nonce - our neighbors. I do recall walking up to actor Joe E. Brown [who played millionaire playboy Osgood Fielding III] and saying to him “I know who you are . . . you’re the man with the big mouth!” He smiled. but, much to my regret did not open his mouth. I became far more impressed with him after my father informed me that Mr. Brown, in addition to being a longtime actor who specialized in comedic baseball films back in the early to mid-thirties, was also general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. To my 10-year old way of looking at the world, THAT made him royalty! I followed him around like a puppy dog, wondering if perhaps he had an autograph of Roberto Clemente or Bill Mazeroski in his pocket. I never found the nerve to ask . . .)

At the Goldwyn studio, filming continued in fits and starts.  Wilder and Diamond were piecing the film together as they went along.  Monroe was characteristically late to arrive in the morning, and when she did show up, she had a tendency to mess up even the simplest of lines. Then a minor catastrophe occurred.  In the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre scene, in which Spats Columbo (George Raft) rubs out the diminutive Toothpick Charlie (George E. Stone - born Gershon Lichtenstein) and his gang before Joe’s and  Jerry’s horrified eyes, Wilder insisted that Raft perform a final indignity upon the bullet-riddled corpse of Toothpick Charlie – namely to kick the toothpick out of Charlie’s mouth.  Raft couldn’t bring himself to kick him so close to his jaw.  Two takes, three takes, five, ten. .  .Wilder was getting frustrated.  It was bad enough that Monroe was constantly requiring multiple takes to speak the simplest of lines.  Now George Raft was using up film stock as well, and Wilder couldn’t take it any longer. Finally, after all his pleading and cajoling failed, Wilder marched over and demonstrated it himself, missed, and kicked Stone right in the head.  The actor had to be rushed to the nearest hospital. 

 Marilyn Monroe was, of course, a bigger problem than any character actor’s broken jaw could possibly have been.  She cost more.  Things didn’t start off badly.  “I want the world to know that Marilyn’s not only on time, she is three hours early,” Wilder told the press when Some Like It Hot went into production in August.  By September, some tension surfaced when Monroe declared that Wilder wanted her to lose weight – eight pounds, to be exact. She refused. “Don’t you want your audience to be able to distinguish me from Tony and Jack?” she claimed to have asked Wilder.  “Besides,” she supposedly said, “my husband likes me plump.”

There are many tales about the number of takes it took for Monroe to get a scene – sometimes consisting of no more than three words – to get it right.

Iz Diamond recalled, “One morning a couple of hundred extras waited on the set while reports kept filtering in on Marilyn’s progress – she was in makeup; now she was in hairdressing; finally, at eleven o’clock, she walked on the stage carrying a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man under her arm.  Without a word of greeting or apology, she crossed to her dressing room and locked herself in.  Billy waited another fifteen minutes, then sent the assistant director to fetch her.  The A.D. knocked on her door and called, ‘We’re ready for you, Miss Monroe.’  From inside came the answer: ‘Drop dead.’”

After each scene, Monroe would call out to her secretary, ‘May! Coffee.’  And May Reis would bring her a thermos bottle.”  It contained not coffee, but vermouth.”

  Every day, Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, would seat herself in a place where Monroe could easily see her.  Strasberg earned $1,500 a week to flutter around her neurotic boss, whispering suggestions in her ear and holding a big black umbrella over her head, always urging Monroe to “relax, relax!” 

In the early days of doping out the script, Wilder decided he wanted to have lots of old-time actors who had either played famous gangsters costarred in classic gangster films: Pat O’Brien and James Cagney, Paul Muni and George Raft, as well as Edward G. Robinson. Cagney wasn’t available, although he would star in a Wilder film – (One, Two Three) - in 1961.  Muni, who had just finished filming The Last Angry Man decided to retire.  O’Brien and Raft signed on, and Robinson took home a copy of the script. Wilder wanted him to play “Little Bonaparte. ”It looked like he was set. Then he pulled the rug out from Wilder; he sent Wilder a note saying that under no circumstances would he do the picture. Little Bonaparte would be played instead by Nehemiah Persoff.

Although Robinson didn’t say why, everyone knew what the problem was. It went back seventeen years: a 1941 Warner Bros. picture they’d made together called Manpower, directed by Raoul Walsh.  Turns out that while Raft and Robinson were making Manpower, they both got an itch for the film’s leading lady, Marlene Dietrich.  Raft and Robinson became rivals. There was tension on the set. One day it blew up, and they came to blows. Unfortunately, it was the same day that the publicist had a Life magazine photographer there.  He caught the fistfight.  Life ran the picture.  There wasn’t a thing that Warners could do about it. Robinson vowed he’d never work with Raft again.

In 1958, Wilder either didn’t know about Robinson’s attitude toward Raft or thought he’d get over it. In order to curry favor, Wilder had even hired Edward G. Robinson, Jr. for the tiny part of gangster Johnny Paradise.  When Robinson sr. pulled out, Wilder was furious – and stuck with Robinson, Jr.

Made for $2.9 million, Some Like it Hot earned an amazing $40 million in its first run. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it came away with but one: Best Costume Design - Black and White. Today, it is considered to be one of the greatest comedies of all time. In a poll conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2017, Some Like It Hot was selected as the best comedy of all time in a poll of 253 film critics from 52 countries.

So who remembers Fanfaren der Liebe?

 

 

Behind the Silver Screen: The Making of Chaplin's "The Great Dictator"

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Quite apart from any particular merits of the film, The Great Dictator remains an unparalleled phenomenon, an epic incident in the history of mankind.  The greatest clown and best-loved personality of his age directly challenged the man who had instigated more evil and human misery than any other in modern – if not all of human – history.

 There was, to begin with, something uncanny in the resemblance between Chaplin and Hitler, representing opposite poles of humanity. And of course the fact that they had been born but 5 days apart in April, 1889. On April 21, 1939, a year and a half before the release of The Great Dictator, an unsigned article in the Spectator noted:

 Providence was in an ironical mood when, fifty years ago, this week, it was ordained that Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler should make their entry into the world within four days of each other . . . Each in his own way has expressed the ideas, sentiments, aspirations of the millions of struggling citizens ground between the upper and the lower millstone of society; the date of their birth and the identical little moustache (grotesque intentionally in Mr. Chaplin) they well might have been fixed by nature to betray the common origin of their genius.  For genius each of them undeniably possesses.  Each has mirrored the same reality – the predicament of the ‘little man’ in modern society.  Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil.  In Chaplin the little man is a clown, timid, incompetent, infinitely resourceful yet bewildered by a world that has no place for him.  The apple he bites has a worm in it; his trousers, remnants of gentility, trip him up; his cane pretends to a dignity his position is far from justifying; when he pulls a lever it is the wrong one and disaster follows.  He is a heroic figure, but heroic only in the patience and resource with which he receives the blows that fall upon his bowler.  In his actions and loves he emulates the angels.  But in Herr Hitler the angel has become a devil.  The soleless boots have become; the shapeless trousers, riding breeches, the cane, a riding crop; the bowler, a forage Reitstieffeln cap.  The Tramp has become a storm trooper; only the moustache is the same.

 There were even those who believed that Hitler had at first adopted the moustache in a deliberate attempt to suggest a resemblance to the man who had attracted so much love and loyalty in the world.

The famous Jewish short story writer Konrad Bercovici a close friend of Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, brought a plagiarism suit against Chaplin, claiming that he had first proposed that Chaplin should play Hitler in the mid-1930s.  The case was settled, with Chaplin paying Konrad Bercovici $95,000 in 1947. In his autobiography, Chaplin insisted that he had been the sole writer of the movie's script. He came to a settlement, though, because of his "unpopularity in the States at that moment and being under such court pressure, [he] was terrified, not knowing what to expect next."

Bercovici was represented in his plagiarism suit by attorney Louis Nizer . In his book, "My Life in Court," Nizer goes into detail about Bercovici v. Chaplin: "The claim was that Chaplin had approached Bercovici to produce one of his gypsy stories as a motion picture and in the course of those friendly negotiations Bercovici gave him an outline of "The Great Dictator" story about a barber who looks like Hitler and is confused with him. Chaplin denied ever having negotiated for the gypsy story and also denied the rest of the claim...One day, upon my continuous inquiry, Bercovici suddenly had a flash of memory. He recalled that he had met Chaplin in a theater in Hollywood and that Chaplin had pointed out a Russian baritone in the audience whom he thought might play the leading role in the gypsy story. Bercovici believed that they spoke to the singer that evening and that he might possibly be a witness." Nizer tracked down Kushnevitz, the Russian baritone at issue: "He [Kushnevitz] recalled the incident vividly, for this, as he put it, was one of the great moments in his life - the possibility that he would star in a Chaplin picture. Chaplin had called him down the aisle of the theater and had given him his private telephone number. He pulled out a little black book from his back pocket and he still had the number written in it. He was a perfect witness in view of Chaplin's denial of any interest in Bercovici's gypsy story."

 A good many newspaper cartoonists, notably David Low, might equally have claimed the idea as their own; after all, it was inevitable.  Much later Chaplin admitted, ‘Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis. Hitler, true, turned out to be no laughing matter; but there was nothing light-hearted in Chaplin’s deeper intentions in making the film.  He suffered very real and acute pain and revulsion at the horrors and omens of world politics in the 1930s.  In a 1931 diatribe against the myth of patriotism, he foresaw with dread another war. A Far East tour he undertook in the mid-1930s had made him more alert than most to the perils of the so-called “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” of July 1937 and the escalation of the Sino-Japanese conflict.  Also known as the “Lugou Bridge Incident,” or the “July 7 Incident,” it was a battle between the Republic of China’s National Revolutionary Army and the Imperial Japanese Army, often used as the marker for the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred between 1937 and 1945.

Chaplin was no less disturbed by events in Spain.  In April 1938 the French film magazine Cinémonde published a translation of a remarkable short story by Chaplin himself, entitled “Rhythme.” It describes the execution of a Spanish loyalist, a popular humorous writer.  The officer in charge of the firing squad was formerly a friend of the condemned man; ‘their divergent views were then friendly, but they had finally provoked the unhappiness and disruption of the whole of Spain.’ Both the officer and the six men of the firing squad privately hope that a reprieve may still come.  Finally, though, the officer must give the rhythmic orders: ‘Attention! . . . Shoulder arms! . . . Present arms! . . . Fire!’ the officer gives the first three orders.  Hurried footsteps are heard: all realize that it is the reprieve.  The officer calls out ‘Stop!’ to his firing squad, but,

   Six men each held a gun.  Six men had been trained through rhythm.  Six men, hearing the shout ‘Stop!’ fired.

   The story at once embodies those fears of seeing men turned into machines which Chaplin had expressed in Modern Times (8), and looks forward to some grim, ironic gags in The Great Dictator.

 There is more evidence of Chaplin’s feelings about Spain in a poem which he scribbled in a folio notebook among some memos on the development of Regency, presumably in the winter of 1936-37.  The poem was quite clearly never meant for publication, or even for other eyes.  It was a private attempt to express his sentiments.

To a dead Loyalist soldier

On the battlefields of Spain

Prone, mangled form,

Your silence speaks your deathless cause,

Of freedom’s dauntless march.

Though treachery befell you on this day

And built its barricades of fear and hate

Triumphant death has cleared the way

Beyond the scrambling of human life

Beyond the pale of imprisoning spears

To let you pass.

There was, he said euphemistically, ‘a good deal of bad behavior in the world’. Feeling as deeply as he did, he felt impelled to do whatever he could to correct it, or at least to focus attention upon it. His only weapon, as he knew, was comedy.  Of course, he had attacked war with comedy in 1918, with his scathing satire Shoulder Arms (that’s Charlie and brother Syd on his right below), in which he had also played a soldier who is mistaken for leader of the Huns . . . except that in this case it was all a dream.

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   In the latter part of the 1930s Chaplin was very friendly with the director King Vidor and his family, and it was through the Vidors, sometime in 1938, that he met Tim Durant.  Like Harry Crocker who, for many years, was Chaplin’s personal assistant, Durant was a tall, good-looking patrician, university-educated young man: Chaplin seemed to have a penchant for this type among his friends and assistants.  Durant had the added merits of being sympathetic, amusing, discreet, and very good at tennis.  Through Durant he was introduced into the society of Pebble Beach and Carmel, one hundred miles south of San Francisco.  Chaplin called Pebble Beach ‘the abode of lost souls.’  He was fascinated, charmed and attracted by the collection of California millionaires who still made their homes there, and no less by the abandoned mansions that now lay in decay.  The more Bohemian colony at nearby Carmel, a section of coast much favored by artists and writers, had a different but potent attraction.  He was especially pleased by his meetings there with the famous California poet Robinson Jeffers, who coined the term “inhumanism,” the belief that mankind is too self-centered and too indifferent to the "astonishing beauty of things."

 Tim Durant remembered that at first Chaplin was reluctant to become involved with the Pebble Beach set:

I knew a girl who was married to one of the Crockers in San Francisco, and she heard I was there and called me up and asked me to come over for dinner and bring Charlie.  But Charlie said to me, ‘Listen, Tim, I don’t want to get into this group at all . . .’  I said, ‘Look, Charlie, will you do this just as a personal favour – I don’t ask you to do anything.  Will you just go over and have dinner with them, and we can say honestly that we have to get back and do some work, and you can leave immediately.’

 He said, ‘All right, Tim; but get me out of there, remember; don’t let me spend the evening there.’

 So we went over there.  We walked in and everybody congregated around him, you know, and he was a hero.  He had an audience, and he couldn’t leave – wanted to stay until three o’clock in the morning.  After that he wanted to go out every night, because they accepted him and he entertained them, and we went out all the time.  He wrote many stories – I took notes of stories about the characters there.  He had an idea of making a story about the people there.’

 One of his hosts was D. L. James, who lived in a Spanish-style mansion perched on the cliff-edge in Carmel, one of northern California’s architectural monuments.  (James’ parents actually had him baptized ‘D.L.’ with the idea that he could choose names to suit the initials when he grew up.  In fact, he remained simply ‘D.L.’ though occasionally he intimated that he might consider ‘Dan’ as a first name.) At the James house Chaplin met D.L.’s son Dan, who was then twenty-six, an aspiring writer and ardent Marxist, who was at the time rather unsettled; “My writing was getting nowhere; I was separating from my wife; and I was just then thinking of going to New York.’  They met on several occasions and Dan would hold forth on films and about the war against Fascism.  Chaplin in turn outlined his ideas for a Hitler film.

   When Chaplin returned from Pebble Beach to  Hollywood at the end of the summer, Dan James took a chance and wrote to him saying that he was enthusiastic about the idea of the Hitler film, and would be very happy to be able to work on it in any capacity.  ‘I went on packing my bags for the East, though.’  Somewhat to his surprise a telephone call came from the Chaplin studio a few days later, and he was invited to call and see Alf Reeves, Chaplin’s longtime studio manager.  Reeves warned him that Chaplin was very ‘changeable,’ but that he liked him and was prepared to employ him at a salary of $80 a week, and to put him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel until he could find somewhere to live.  ‘My first evening he took me to  Ciro’s Trocadero Oyster bar; then we dined and he told me the outline of the story.  The next day I went up and started to make notes . . . I think Charlie took me on because of my height, because my family had a castle out here, and because he knew pretty quickly I was a declared Communist, so that my background and political preoccupations would keep me from selling him out for money.’

 For three months James reported daily to Chaplin’s Beverly Hills mansion – known as “Breakaway House” – where he would make notes as Chaplin discussed ideas for the plot and gags.  From time to time James would go to the studio to dictate the notes to Kathleen Prior: the first of these dictation sessions seems to have taken place on October 26, 1938.  During these three months James was able to assess Chaplin’s own political thinking:

 He did not read deeply, but he felt deeply everything that happened.  The end of Modern Times, for instance, reflected perfectly the optimism of the New Deal period; already by 1934 and 1935 he had a sense of that.  He had probably never read Marx, but his conception of the millionaire in City Lights is an exact image for Marx’s conception of the business cycle.  Marx wrote of the madness of the business cycle once it began to roll, the veering from one extreme to another.  Chaplin presents a magnificent metaphor.  Whether he was aware of the social meaning of this I do not know, but he got it.

He had a sixth sense about a lot of things.  In 1927 and 1928, for instance, he began to feel that the stock market was going mad, and he took everything he had and put it into Canadian gold.

Charlie called himself an anarchist.  He was always fascinated with people of the left.  One of the people he wanted to meet was Harry Bridges of the Longshoremen’s Union.  I fixed up a meeting, and they took to each other immediately. 

 Whatever his exact politics, Charlie had a position of revolt against wealth and stuffiness. He had a real feeling for the underdog.  He was certainly a libertarian.  He saw Stalin as a dangerous dictator very early, and I had great difficulty getting him to leave Stalin out of the last speech in The Great Dictator.  He was horrified by the Soviet-German Pact.

 When it came to Hitler it is easy to say, with hindsight, that Chaplin made too light of him.  You have to remember that the film was conceived before Munich, and that Chaplin had undoubtedly had it in his head a couple of years before that.  And the thought then was that this monster was not so awe-inspiring as he appeared.  He was a big phony, and had to be shown up as such.  Of course, by the time the film appeared, France had fallen and we knew much more, so that a lot of the comedy had lost its point.

   The Great Dictator marked an inevitable revolution in Chaplin’s working methods.  This was to be his first dialogue film, and for the first time he was to begin a picture with a complete script.  The old method had been to work out each sequence in turn, alternating periods of story preparation with shooting – changing, selecting and discarding ideas as the work proceeded.  Now these processes had to be transferred to the preparatory period, the work of a definitive script.

   The original and basic premise was the physical resemblance of the Dictator and the little Jew. All the early treatments of the story begin with the return of Jewish soldiers, many maimed, from the war to the ghetto. They are all welcomed back by wives and families, except ‘the little Jew.’  He ‘is alone walking down the ghetto street.  In his hunger for companionship he embraces a lamppost.’

   One early idea was for a flophouse sequence which can be used for the setting of our inflation material. (This may have been suggested by D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful) The little Jew will return to pay a bill.  The sign will read, ‘Beds, $1,000,000 a night – baths $500,000 extra.’  Someone will send out for a package of cigarettes: ‘You’ll have to carry the money yourself,’ or perhaps the little Jew goes out balancing a huge basket of currency on his head. $10,000,000 for cigars.  The tobacco dealer insists that the money be counted.  It is all in $1.00 bills. 

Never willing to waste a good comedy idea, Chaplin planned to use a flea circus routine . . . something he had been toying with for more than a quarter century. It stayed in through several successive treatments, but was finally abandoned.  Having been frustrated in his efforts to introduce the business into his 1928 picture The Circus, and The Great Dictator, Chaplin would eventually manage to squeeze it into Limelight in 1952.

Chaplin early conceived the idea of two rival dictators competing to upstage one another.  He was to abandon an idea for the Great Dictator’s wife, a role intended for the famous Jewish comedian Fanny Brice.  A scene was sketched out, with a lot of revision in Dan James’ handwriting, indicating the kind of relationship Chaplin had in mind, and suggests that it might have encountered serious problems with the Breen Office and other censorship groups:

SCENE: Mrs. Hinkle alone – boredom and sex starvation with Freudian fruit symbols.  Enter Hinkle from speech.  She’s mad at him – orders him about.  He’s preoccupied about matters of State.

 Mrs:   I’m a woman.  I need affection, and all you think about is the State! THE STATE! What kind of state do you think I’m in?

Hinkle:     You’ve made me come to myself. I’m not getting any younger. Sometimes I wonder . . .

Mrs:     Life is so short and these moments are so rare . . . Remember, Hinkle, I did everything for you.  I even had an operation . . . on my nose.  If you don’t pay more attention to me I’ll tell the whole world I’m Jewish!

Hinkle:       Shhh!

Fanny:        And I’m not so sure you aren’t Jewish too.  We’re having gefilte fish for dinner.

Hinkle:       Quiet! Quiet!

Fanny:        Last night I dreamt about blimps . . .

Hinkle:       Blimps?

Fanny:       Yes, I dreamt we captured Paris in a big blimp and we went right through the Arc de Triomphe. And then I dreamed about a city full of Washington monuments.

                    (She presses grapes in his mouth, plays with a banana.

  By December 13, 1938, Chaplin had decided on much of the story, including the idea of the ending. Charlie and the father of the Girl from the ghetto with whom he has fallen in love are put in a concentration camp.  They escape, and on the road run into Hinkle’s troops, preparing to invade the neighboring country of Ostrich (which would, in the final cut, become Osterlich, the real last name [although spelled differently] of Fred Astaire). The general in command mistakes Charlie for Hinkle.  Hinkle himself, out shooting ducks while trying to make up his mind about the invasion, is meanwhile mistaken for Charlie and thrown into prison.

Charlie and the Girl’s father are carried along on the invasion of Ostrich and finally find themselves in the palace square of Vanilla, the capital.

Hinkle’s soldiers are drawn up before the platform from which the conqueror is about to speak.  Charlie walks out on it.  He can’t say a word.  The Girl’s father is at his shoulder. ‘You’ve got to talk now! It’s our only chance! For G-d’s sake, say something.’ Herring (Hinkle’s P.M.) first addresses the crown – and through microphones the whole world, which is listening in, he calls for an end to democracies. He introduces Hinkle, the new conqueror, who must be obeyed or else. In the crowd we show dozens of Ostrich patriots ready to kill Hinkle.  Charlie steps forward. He begins – slowly – scared to death.  But his words give him power. As he goes on, the clown turns into the prophet. [The following video capture - long known as the “Look Up Hannah speech” - is, in my humble opinion, great bit of writing and acting in the history of motion pictures.)


By the middle of January 1939 Chaplin clearly felt confident with his story, though it was to undergo much subsequent revision.  Dan James was set to adapt it into a dramatic composition in five acts and an epilogue, in order to register it for copyright.  Copyright was also sought in the title The Dictator, but it was discovered that Paramount Pictures and the estate of Richard Harding Davies already owned the title and were unwilling to relinquish it. In June, therefore, the title The Great Dictator was registered, but Chaplin was not entirely convinced that it was right; having already registered Ptomania, he subsequently registered as alternatives The Two Dictators, Dictamania and Dictator of Ptomania.

The Chaplin Studio c. 1917

The Chaplin Studio c. 1917

 After January 16, Dan James no longer went to the Beverly Hills house, since Chaplin now worked at the studio, where he could supervise preparations for shooting. The stage was being soundproofed; there were contracts to be negotiated with outside organizations like RCA who were to be responsible for the sound; and work was already in hand on miniatures for special effects.  Now the daily script conferences took place in Chaplin’s bungalow on the lot.  On January 21, Charlie’s brother Sidney returned to work at the studio for the first time in almost 20 years; with conditions in Europe as they were, he and his new French wife, Gypsy, had decided that they were likely to be safer in America. The daily script conferences were now augmented, as Sydney and Henry Bergman (who had been with Charlie ever since the beginning of his film career at the Sennett Studios) joined Chaplin and Dan James.

By the late summer of 1939 when the script was finished and Chaplin was ready to start shooting, he was able to reassure Sydney: “This time, Syd, I have the script totally visualized.  I know where every close-up comes.”  Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way.  It rarely ever does . . . especially with a filmmaker like Chaplin.

During the weeks of preparation, Chaplin ran films for his staff in the studio projection room, among them Shoulder Arms and the mysterious The Professor - a likely unfinished and definitely unreleased Chaplin film from c. 1919). He also screened all the newsreels of Hitler on which he could lay hands.  He later returned often to a particular sequence showing Hitler at the signing of the French surrender. As Hitler left the railway carriage, he seemed to do a little dance.  Chaplin would watch the scene with fascination, exclaiming, “Oh, you bastard, you son-of-a-bitch swine.  I know what’s in your mind.”  According to Tim Durant, “He said, ‘this guy is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever seen’ . . . Charlie admired his acting.  He really did.” Dan James commented nearly a half-century later, “Of course he had in himself some of the qualities that Hitler had.  He dominated his world.  He created his world.  And Chaplin’s world was not a democracy either.  Charlie was the dictator of all those things.”

The script, which was completed by September 1, 1939, remains one of the most elaborate ever made for a Hollywood film.  It runs to the extraordinary length of almost 300 pages (the average feature film script varies from 100 to 150 pages).  It was divided into twenty-five sections, each designated by a letter of the alphabet and separately paginated; through shooting every take was identified by the letter and number of the relevant script page.  Despite the doubt Dan James cast on Chaplin’s assertion that everything was visualized, the system seems, to judge from the shooting records, to have served pretty well in the 168 days of a very complicated production.

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1939 Chaplin was collecting his crew around him. Henry Bergman was nominated “co-ordinator.” Dan James was joined by two more assistant directors. One was Chaplin’s half-brother Wheeler Dryden, who arrived at the La Brea Blvd. studio in March, overjoyed to be given a job on Chaplin’s permanent studio staff.  Wheeler had continued to pick up a living as an actor and in 1923 had had a play, Suspicion, produced at the Egan Theatre in Los Angeles.  He was to remain at the studio until Chaplin’s departure from the United States in 1952.  A slight man, Wheeler retained the air and diction of an old-style stage actor.  Though he adored Charlie, Wheeler could sometimes madden him as well as the rest of the studio staff with his finicky attention to detail.

The amusing and devil-may-care Robert Meltzer, another assistant director, like James an avowed Communist, was in striking contrast to the solemn and nervy Wheeler.  He had also been recruited in Pebble Beach.  During the summer there the gossip writers had linked Chaplain’s name with several women, notably the sugar heiress Geraldine Spreckels and a striking young red-headed actress named Dorothy Comingore, whom Chaplin saw on stage in Carmel. Comingore was then living with Bob Meltzer, and when Chaplin convinced her that she should try her luck in Los Angles, Meltzer came too.  In the end it was Meltzer who worked for Chaplin and not Miss Comingore, who joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and made her most striking impact as Susan Alexander – the role transparently based on Marion Davies – in Citizen Kane.  After The Great Dictator Meltzer himself was to work briefly with Welles. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1941 he volunteered for service with the paratroops and died in the Battle of Normandy at age 31.

Chaplin’s staff was astonished when Chaplin engaged Karl Struss as director of photography.  After 23 years as Chaplin’s senior cameraman this was a cruel blow to Rollie Totheroh, who could never afterwards completely forgive his beloved boss.  Chaplin had grown dissatisfied with Rollie’s camerawork for reasons which were never quite clear.

Part of the problem for a director making only one film every four or five years was that in the interval conditions in Hollywood had changed.  Each time Chaplin made a film he found himself bedeviled by new technical people whom he neither understood nor needed.  He had a running feud with the script girl – a personage hitherto unknown on a Chaplin film.

   The role of Hannah was all along intended for Paulette Goddard, who reported for work at the studio on July 29.  She and Chaplin had spent a good deal of the previous year apart.  While he went to Pebble Beach in the early half of 1938, she flew to Florida, and during most of the rest of the year she was at work in Hollywood, while he stayed away from the studio. Already in March, while hardly finished with marriage rumours, the newspapers talked of impending divorce.  Paulette’s contract with the studio expired on March 31, 1938, and she had sought an earlier release to sign with the Myron Selznick agency.  She was hired for The Great Dictator at $2,500 a week; Chaplin was furious when she brought her agent (probably Selznick himself) to demand bigger billing.

She and Chaplin continued to live together in the Summit Drive mansion throughout the production of the film.  As Chaplin nicely expressed it, ‘Although we were somewhat estranged we were friends and still married.’ To the Chaplin sons, now mischievous early teenagers, and to casual acquaintances, their relationship seemed much as before. At the studio, the staff were however aware of the change.  You either belonged to the Paulette faction or to the Charlie faction.  You couldn’t be both.  Chaplin would work very hard with her; sometimes he would make twenty-five or thirty takes.  He would stand in her place on the set and try and give her the tone and the gestures.  It was a method he had been able to use in silent films; it could not work so well, of course, in a talking picture.

The final stenciled copies of the script were completed on Sunday September 3, 1939 – the day that Britain declared war on Germany.  Three days later Chaplin began to rehearse and on September 9 shooting began on the first ghetto sequence.  Filming was to continue with hardly a day’s break apart from (most weeks) Sundays until the end of March 1940.  By that time Chaplin would have shot most of the 477,440 feet of film which were eventually to be exposed. The length of the finished picture was 11,625 feet.

 It is interesting, but perhaps not too surprising, to discover that Chaplin kept the shooting of his two roles quite distinct.  First, until the end of October, he worked on the scenes of the ghetto, in the character of the barber. With the bulk of those completed, November was spent on the more complicated action and location scenes, like the war scenes, particularly those involving Reginald Gardiner and the crashed plane.  Chaplin had devised some very funny business with the airplane.  Taking over the controls, Chaplin manages to turn it upside down without either himself or his companion (Gardiner) being aware of it. They only notice with some concern that the sun is shining up from below them, that a watch released from a pocket leaps (apparently) into the air and sways there on its taut chain, and that they are passed by flocks of upside-down seagulls.  Reginald Gardiner suffered much more than Chaplin from the experience of being strapped upside down, and only managed his lines and air of insouciance with great difficulty.

There were interludes and distractions in the work at the studio that November.  Not all were welcome: a plagiarism suit brought by writer Michael Kustoff on account of Modern Times came to trial in federal court and kept both Chaplin and studio manager Alf Reeves busy. Chaplin himself was in court on November 18 when the case was decided in his favor.

On November 15, 1939 Douglas Fairbanks and his new wife, Sylvia, the former lady Ashley, visited the location in Laurel Canyon where Chaplin was filming.  Chaplin thought he looked older and stouter, though he was still as full of enthusiasm. He had always been Chaplin’s favorite audience, and as so many times before, Chaplin showed Fairbanks his sets and expounded his plans.  Although he was filming in the Barber’s concentration camp costume, Chaplin put on his Hynkel uniform to show his visitors, and wearing it, was photographed with them.  They all lunched together.

Chaplin & Fairbanks: the final photo

Chaplin & Fairbanks: the final photo

It was the last time he saw the man whom he later said had been his only close friend.  At four o’clock in the morning of December 12, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. telephoned Chaplin to tell him that his father had died just over three hours earlier, in his sleep.  There was no shooting at the Chaplin studio on the day of his funeral, December 15.  “It was a terrible shock,” Chaplin later wrote, “for he belonged so much to life . . . I have missed his delightful friendship.”

   As December came, Chaplin began his Hynkel scenes.  The supreme actor, Chaplin always became totally subsumed into the role he was playing, as colleagues throughout his career have testified. When, for the first time, he adopted the uniform and role of an autocratic and villainous character, even he was momentarily disconcerted by the effect.  Reginald Gardiner remembered that when Chaplin first appeared on the set ready to shoot in his Hynkel uniform, he was noticeably more cool and abrupt than when he had been playing the Jewish barber.  Gardiner recalled further that when he was driving with Chaplin – already in uniform – to a new location, Chaplin suddenly became uncharacteristically abusive towards the driver of a car that was obstructing them.  He quickly recovered himself, and recalled with laughter an earlier discussion about the false sense of superiority a uniform can produce.  ‘Just because I’m dressed up in this darned thing I go and do a thing like that.’

 Although work on The Great Dictator proceeded on a much tighter schedule and pre-set plan than any previous Chaplin film, there was no fixed daily routine in the studio. Much, of course, depended upon Chaplin’s own somewhat unpredictable time of arrival, although for the first time he appears to have delegated considerable responsibility for preparation and in some cases shooting to his assistants.

 Just before Christmas, Chaplin shot the scene which remains the most haunting and the most inspired of the film: Hynkel’s ballet with the terrestrial globe.  The first hint of a symbolic scene of this sort is a random story note dating from February 15, 1939:

SCENE WITH MAP: Cutting it up to suit himself, cutting off bits of countries with a pair of scissors.

The dance with the globe was to go far beyond this elementary notion.  While the gibberish speech appears so precise and planned that it is surprising to discover that it was improvised, the dance with the globe seems to soar so freely in its inspiration that it is hard to imagine that it could be written down.  Yet it was.  In the complete version of the script, the description of Chaplin pas seul occupies four pages, opening,

 HYNKEL GOES TO THE GLOBE – and caresses it – trance-like.  Soft strains of Peer Gynt (in the outcome the Prelude to Lohengrin proved more appropriate) waft into the room.  Hynkel picks up the globe, bumps it into the air with his left wrist.  It floats like a balloon and drops back into his hands. He bumps it with his right wrist and catches it. He dominates the world – kicks it viciously away.  Sees himself in the mirror – plays God! Beckons, the world float into his hand.  Then he bumps it high in the air with his right wrist.  He leaps up (on wire), catches the globe and brings it down. 

The particular attention that Chaplin was to give to the balloon dance indicates that he was well aware that it would remain one of his great virtuoso scenes.  He spent three days on the main shooting in the days just before Christmas, and then made some retakes in early January. The first three days in February seem to have been entirely taken up with running and rerunning the material, and on February 6 and again of the 15th Chaplin did further retakes.

Carter De Haven, who plays the Bacterian Ambassador in the film, was later to attempt to get into the plagiarism game by claiming the ballet with the globe was his idea.  Any doubt, however, was finally put to rest when Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, preparing their Unknown Chaplin film series, unearthed some forgotten home movies (39) of a party at Pickfair in the early 1920s. Chaplin, in classical Grecian costume and crowned with a laurel wreath, performs a dance with a balloon which is the unmistakable prototype for The Great Dictator. No doubt Chaplin was remembering his party trick of nearly twenty years ago when he noted in the script description of the globe ballet, ‘Then he slides to the table top to perform a series of Greek postures’ and ‘Gracefully he leans back over the desk and gets very Greek about the whole thing.’

In January 1940 Jack Oakie joined the cast to play Benzino Napaloni, the Dictator of Bacteria. When Chaplin first proposed the role to him, Oakie questioned the suitability of casting an Irish-Scottish American in a caricature of Mussolini.  What, asked Chaplin, would be funny about an Italian playing Mussolini? Chaplin did perceive a problem however when he discovered that Oakie was at the time dieting to lose weight. According to Charles Chaplin Jr., his father brought his own cook, George, to the studio and had him tempt Oakie with the richest and most fattening dishes he could devise.  When he found his strategy was succeeding, and that Oakie was increasingly growing to resemble Mussolini in stature, he cheerfully nicknamed him ‘Muscles.’

Charles Junior considered that ‘one of the pleasantest things about the new film was the affable relationship between Dad and Jack Oakie.  Jack had a tough hide and was able to take Dad’s drive in stride.  Dad, on his part, has always had great admiration for Jack.’  Others on the set observed that working in his scenes with Oakie brought out a certain competitive spirit in Chaplin  It was not jealousy: rationally, Chaplin knew that his supremacy was unassailable.  Rather it was Chaplin’s legacy from his early training with Karno and Keystone: the essential and driving motive for a comedian must always be to outdo the rest.  Chaplin’s own script for The Great Dictator often gave the better comedy business to Oakie.  Chaplain’s professional instinct still drove him to top it with his own comedy. He would sense the reaction of the unit, and he played the comic game with the same intensity as he played tennis.  As with tennis, he did not like to lose: finishing a scene in which he felt that Oakie had scored the biggest laughs from the bystanders, he could hardly conceal his irritation. Charles Junior, a very reliable witness, despite his youth at the time, recalled one day when Oakie had tried every trick he knew to do the impossible and steal a scene from Chaplin.  In the middle of the scene, Chaplin grinned and offered advice: “If you really want to steal a scene from me, you son-of-a-bitch, just look straight into the camera.  That’ll do it every time.”

Chaplin undoubtedly found these duels of comedy nostalgic and stimulating.  He was less happy with some of his actors from the legitimate theatre.  In particular he found it very hard to work against Henry Daniell’s measured timing. “He developed a hatred for Daniell,” recalled Dan James. “He really thought Daniell was trying to sabotage him.  The trouble was that he had a respect for Daniell because he was a real stage actor, and couldn’t bring himself to explain what was wrong.  Poor Daniell knew that Chaplin was not pleased with him, but he never understood why.  On the other hand he was crazy about Reggie Gardiner, though once he had got him, he never really gave Reggie any funny stuff.

By the middle of February practically all the studio scenes had been shot. Chaplin moved out onto location to shoot the First World War scenes for the opening of the film and the scene of Hynkel being arrested while out duck shooting, filmed at Malibu Lake. The war scenes involved a series of gags with Chaplin and the enormous Big Bertha gun, and for one day’s shooting the Chaplin children were taken to watch.  Fourteen-year-old Sydney was so overcome with mirth at his father’s antics following the explosion of the gun that he laughed out loud.  When he discovered who had wrecked the sound take, Chaplin flew at him in fury, saying ‘Do you know your laugh just cost me fifteen thousand dollars?’

‘In a twinkling, from being the funniest man alive, Dad had become the most furious.’ The two boys feared some awful retribution; but then Chaplin began to laugh, and proudly called out to the crew, ‘Even my own son thinks I’m funny.’ To Sydney he added, ‘Well, it was fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of laugh, but if you appreciated it that much, it’s all right . . . Just don’t let it happen again, son.”

One series of scenes shot during this period was destined never to be seen.  Chaplin’s first idea for the final scene of the speech, in which (in the words of the early treatment) ‘the clown turns into a prophet’ was extremely ambitious.  He intended the speech to be laid over scenes supposed to take place in Spain, China, a German street and a Jewish ghetto in Germany.  As Chaplin’s speech came into heir consciousness, a Spanish firing squad would throw down their arms; a Japanese bomber pilot would be overcome by wonder, and instead of bombs, toys on parachutes would rain down on the Chinese children below; a parade of goose-stepping German soldiers would break into waltz-time; and a Nazi storm-trooper would risk his life to save a little Jewish girl from an oncoming car. A couple of days were actually spent shooting material for the sequence, but it was discarded.

 By the end of March 1940, the main shooting was all finished, the laborers were already beginning to clear the studio, and Chaplin had a rough-cut of the film ready to show to a few friends such as Constance Collier in early April. The climactic scene, the final speech made by the little barber who has been mistaken for the Great Dictator, remained to be shot.  Moreover Chaplin was to polish and tinker with the film more than with any other that he had ever made. During the next six months he would suddenly decide to put up a set again; and he was still doing retakes of the ghetto scenes in late September, after he had already previewed the film.  Redubbing of the sound went on practically until the premiere on October 15, 1940.

From April to June Chaplin labored over the text of his big speech, between working on the editing of the film.  His two young Marxist assistants were of no help to him.  The Utopian idealism and unashamed emotionalism of the speech evidently offended their Communist orthodoxy.  Others were anxious about the speech on more pragmatic grounds. When told by his film salesmen that the speech might lose him a million dollars in sales, Chaplin reportedly said, “I don’t care if it loses me $5 million . . . it’s my money, and it’s worth it.

That final speech, which the political right felt smacked of Communism and the left suspected of sentimentality, seemed not to embarrass the larger audience.  It was widely quoted and reprinted.  Chaplin’s old friend Rob Wagner devoted a page to it in the November 16 issue of his magazine Rob Wagner’s Script; Archie Mayo, mainly remembered as the director of The Petrified Forest, used it as his Christmas card for 1940, comparing it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; and in England, the Communist Party put it out as a special pamphlet.

The Great Dictator was nominated for 5 Oscars, including best actor, best supporting actor, best screenplay and best original music for Meredith Wilson. Although it did win the New York Film Critics Award for Picture of the Year, Chaplin refused to accept it.  It wound up being his most profitable picture, earning him slightly more than $5 million.  It is also one of the first films named to the National Film Registry.  

Throughout his career, people assumed that Chaplin was Jewish. After all, he was probably a Communist (so they believed) and weren’t a majority of Hollywood Reds Jewish? Throughout most of his life, Chaplin did not address the issue. Towards the end, however, a writer posed the question for perhaps the thousandth time. Chaplin’s response?

“I’ve never had that honor.”

Enjoy the film . . .


 

Behind the Screen: "The Sting"

Newman REdford Shaw.jpg

Back in 1969, Paul Newman and Robert Redford teamed together in the much-beloved Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  It was a huge hit; Butch and Sundance made an ideal team, and of course, Redford latched on to the whole “Sundance” thing; for more than 40 years, the “Sundance Film Festival” has been nearly as prestigious as Cannes.  And today, there is also the “Sundance Institute” as well as the The Sundance Channel and the Sundance Catalog, which features clothing, furniture and housewares.

Despite the incredible chemistry between Newman and Redford, they only made one more movie together: The Sting. It turned out to be a much bigger hit than Butch Cassidy: it won an incredible 7 Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture of 1973. For fans of old-timey con men and even older-timey music, clothing and automobiles, nothing beats The Sting.  It has a look, a sound and a plot-line which has rarely been used to such great affect in all Hollywood history.  And yet, as with most truly great Hollywood films, its success owes nearly as much to what did not happen as to what did. . .

 Screenwriter David Ward (also known for Sleepless in Seattle, King Ralph and Major League ) got the idea for The Sting when he was working on his first screenplay, Steelyard Blues (1973), which includes a pickpocketing scene. Researching this, Ward found himself reading everything he could find about con artists. Ward had originally shown the screenplay which would become Steelyard Blues to producer/actor/director Tony Bill and now gave him an outline of his new story. Bill liked it immediately and brought in partners Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; the three then produced both films.

  At the time the trio first optioned Ward’s screenplay—before it was finished, based only on his telling them the story—the deal had been for him to also direct.. That was nixed when Redford, sniffing around the project, said he wouldn’t do such a complicated movie with a first-timer at the helm, no offense. Once Ward saw the caliber of talent his screenplay was attracting, he came to agree with the producers that it deserved a more experienced director. Ward did eventually direct a few of his own screenplays, including Major League, King Ralph, and The Program.

George Roy Hill, who had already directed Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy, saw the screenplay by accident and asked for the director's job.  The screenplay that Hill read was quite a bit different from Ward’s earliest versions. Originally, Paul Newman’s character (Henry Gondorff) was only in about half of Ward’s original screenplay, and was intended to be an older, paunchier fellow—a sort of gruff mentor to Johnny Hooker (who was written as an eager, raw-boned 19-year-old). At this stage of development, the producers were thinking of someone like Peter Boyle to play the role, but Newman loved the screenplay and wanted to play Gondorff no matter what. So Ward slimmed down the character and beefed up the role to fit Newman. (It turned out that Peter Boyle would appear in no less than 6 films in 1973, including major parts in Steelyard Blues and The Friends of Eddie Coyle.)

Despite the fact, as just noted, that the original Johnny Hooker was supposed to be a callow 19-year old, Ward later claimed he wrote the script with the then 37-year old Redford in mind. Redford initially turned down the part; there was simply no way he could pay a 19-year old. At this point, Ward approached Jack Nicholson who was a year younger than Redford; he turned them down as well.  When George Roy Hill – who, as previously mentioned, had directed Butch Cassidy - signed on for The Sting, Redford changed his mind and got on board.  He and Newman would be reunited for a second film to be directed by George Roy Hill.  Great!  But there were still qualms . . .

 Separately, Robert Redford and Paul Newman were two of the biggest movie stars in the world in the early 1970s. As a duo, they were perhaps even more popular because Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was still fresh in people’s memories. But while a Butch and Sundance reunion sounded tempting (and lucrative), the studio had a concern: In the movie, the two con men’s partnership hinges on the possibility that one (or both) will try to double-cross the other. With Redford and Newman so famously chummy, the producers were concerned that audiences wouldn’t believe such a betrayal was possible, and the film would thus lose some of its suspense. Hill convinced them he could make it work. 

Even after changing his mind, Redford didn't expect the movie to be a hit. In matter of fact, he wouldn’t even see the film until 2004.

The part of merciless gangster Doyle Lonnegan was originally supposed to be played by Richard Boone, who had starred in TV’s Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-1963) and a handful of movies, including several Westerns. Boone signed on for The Sting but dropped out without explanation, refusing to even return producers’ and agents’ phone calls. After actor Sterling Hayden turned down the role because he didn’t want to shave off his beard, the role was offered to British actor Robert ShawShaw hurt his ankle playing racquetball two days before shooting began; director Hill decided to work with it and had Shaw turn his injury into a character trait.

George Roy Hill is an interesting anomaly in Hollywood history.  Butch Cassidy made $102 million in 1969, or about $715 millio at today’s ticket prices. When Hill reunited Newman and Redford for The Sting, the result took in $156 million ($901 million adjusted for inflation). The Sting was the fourth highest-grossing film in history at the time, behind The Exorcist (which was released the same week), Gone with the Wind, and The Sound of Music, and ahead of The Godfather. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was number eight, making Hill the only director to have two movies in the top 10. Hill was reclusive compared to most Hollywood directors, disliking publicity tours and talk show interviews. As a result, despite his incredible success (he also made Slap Shot and The World According to Garp), he never quite became a household name.

Viewed retrospectively, The Sting, like all truly great films, stars the only actors in the world who could have played the parts they played.  That is in retrospect.  As we have learned, casting a film is never as smooth or seamless as the finished product would suggest.

 

   George Roy Hill and the production team were able to assemble first-rate cast of players, including:

 

·       Harold Gould as “Kid Twist”

·       Ray Walston as “J.J. Singleton”

·       Eileen Brennan as “Billie,”

·       Dana Elcar as “FBI Agent Polk”

·       Charles Durning as Lt. Snyder

·       Charles Dierkop as “Floyd,” the bodyguard

·       Robert Earl Jones as “Luther Coleman,”

·       Dimitra Arliss as “Loretta”

·       Jack Kehoe as “The Erie Kid,” and

·       James Sloyan as “Mottola”

 

Production began in January of 1973. The filming was split between location shooting in Chicago, where the story was set, and on the back lot  of Universal Studio in Hollywood (actually “Universal City”) California.  Production got off to a rocky start. Screenwriter Ward said the only time he felt any doubt about the film’s potential was when shooting began. He said director George Roy Hill “didn’t like what he did the first week of shooting, and thought it could be better, so he reshot it.” (It was the first sequence in the movie, the one where Hooker and Luther Coleman fleece a mobster in the alley.) Things went smoothly after that, and people praised Hill for running an efficient, happy, and well-organized set.

Hill wanted The Sting to be a stylish film that accurately reflecting not only the feel of 1930s Chicago but also  that of old Hollywood films from that era. Hill, along with Art Director Henry Bumstead and Cinematographer Robert Surteesdevised a color scheme of muted browns and maroons for the film and a lighting design that combined old-fashioned 1930’s-style lighting with some modern tricks of the trade to get the visual look he wanted. Edith Head designed a wardrobe of snappy period costumes for the cast, and artist Jaroslav Gebr created inter-title cards to be used between each section of the film that were reminiscent of the golden glow of old Saturday Evening Post illustrations - a popular publication in the 1930’s.


Hill tried to find locations in Chicago and Los Angeles that had not been touched by modern times to use for many of the scenes. In Los Angeles, locations such as The Green Hotel, the Santa Monica Carousel and The Biltmore Hotel were all used. Chicago's Union Station was also used along with LaSalle Street Station. Producer Tony Bill also contributed to the film's authentic look by helping to round up a number of period automobiles  in the Southern California area.


As he researched old Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s for inspiration, Hill noticed that most of them didn't use a lot of extras in the scenes. "For instance," said Hill as quoted in Andrew Horton's 1984 book The Films of George Roy Hill, "... no extras would be used in street scenes in those films: Jimmy Cagney would be shot down and die in an empty street. So I deliberately avoided using extras."

To complete the effect, Hill made choices for The Sting that would utilize certain stylistic techniques of the 1930’s. For instance, he decided to use an old-fashioned Universal logo from the period at the beginning of the film, immediately evoking a nostalgic tone for The Sting. Hill also employed devices such as editing wipes - a type of film transition where one shot replaces another by travelling from one side of the frame to another.

  

As he researched old Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s for inspiration, George Roy Hill noticed that most of them didn't use a lot of extras in the scenes. "For instance," said Hill as quoted in Andrew Horton's 1984 book The Films of George Roy Hill, "...no extras would be used in street scenes in those films: Jimmy Cagney would be shot down and die in an empty street. So I deliberately avoided using extras."

 

Having to shoot location scenes with Paul Newman and Robert Redford - Hollywood's reigning movie stars and sex symbols of the day - proved challenging at times. Crowds would inevitably gather and reactions would be akin to the arrival of The Beatles in 1964. "I used to go see Sinatra at the Paramount in New York when I was a kid," said one observer as the cast and crew shot a scene at Chicago's Union Station, "and, my God, I never saw anything like that. I bet the temperature in here went up 22 degrees when Newman walked in." Added another onlooker at the time, "I never saw anything like it, either. Myself, I think we ought to rope off that center aisle and never let anybody use it again."

 

The pandemonium seemed to reach a particularly feverish pitch for Paul Newman, often to the amusement of co-star Robert Shaw. "... I did notice that it was Newman everywhere we passed through," said Shaw in a 1973 Rolling Stone interview. "I mean, I picked up about two fans on the way, and those two ladies guided me back to the station, and with great joy they introduced me to people along the way...and none of these absolute layers of girls knew who the hell I was. But they all recognized Newman, to be sure. I mean, everybody would come up and kind of swoon over him, but they didn't in Redford's case, not at all."


Newman made a point along with Robert Redford to never take such attention too seriously and instead focused on the work at hand. To keep each other grounded, Redford and Newman took turns playing practical jokes on each other. There was a good camaraderie between them, which inevitably registered on screen. "What puts Newman and Redford over so well together is as much chemistry as acting," said George Roy Hill according to the 1996 book Paul Newman by Lawrence Quirk. "When they're in the same frame something exciting happens even when they're not talking or even moving."


The movie was filmed on the backlot of Universal studios and the diner in which Hooker meets Lonnegan is the same diner  interior used in Back to the Future (1985) in which Marty McFly first meets his father and calls Doc Brown. Movie magic made it possible for 1930’s Chicago, shot in 1970’s Hollywood, to appear as real as can be.

John Scarne, a one-time magician known as an authority on card games and tricks, was used as a technical consultant and poker game hand double on The Sting.  It simply would have taken far too long to teach Paul Newman how to perform the card magic.

Without a doubt one of the most memorable aspects of The Sting is the ragtime music.  The story is set in 1936, by which time the Scott Joplin piano tunes that serve as its soundtrack—all written between 1902 and 1908—were no longer popular. But there was revived interest in Joplin’s work in the early ’70s, including a new recording of his catalog by pianist Joshua Rifkin that became a million-seller (quite rare for an album of “classical” music). A high-profile analysis of Joplin’s work in The New York Times soon followed, and in 1976 the composer was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his “contributions to American music.” Meanwhile, in the midst of this Joplin-mania, George Roy Hill heard his son playing a Joplin rag on the piano (or, according to other sources, heard Rifkin’s Joplin album) and thought the happy-go-lucky attitude of ragtime would set the perfect tone for The Sting

When Hill first approached composer Marvin Hamlisch to adapt Scott Joplin's music for the score of The Sting, Hamlisch was reluctant. He was a composer of original music, after all, and not in the habit of adapting other musicians' work. "I agreed to see a first cut in the screening room," said Hamlisch in his 1992 autobiography The Way I Was. "I quickly realized that this was one of the best pictures I had seen in years...David Ward had written a witty, stylish script, George Roy Hill had directed it faultlessly, and Newman and Redford were the best screen couple in years...One of the things that drew me to The Sting was that George had been shrewd enough to leave little oases without dialogue for the music. He built montages and sequences into the picture for this purpose. Whenever I see patches in a film that are talkless, I'm in heaven." Hamlisch agreed to take on the job.

   Although Hamlisch wasn't a Scott Joplin aficionado, he quickly found several pieces of his that he liked and set about adapting them to suit the film. It took him a mere five days. "Writing an original theme for a film takes time, but that was not the job here," said Hamlisch. "Instead, I chose from preexisting material, and that was much easier. I quickly figured out what went where, adapted the music, timed it, cut it up, and the rest was history." He told his agent he was done, and the agent replied, "Whatever you do, don't tell them you've finished in five days. Call them in three weeks and tell them it's coming along nicely." That is exactly what Hamlisch did.

Hamlisch had nothing but praise for director Hill. "George Roy Hill was what every director should be for a composer. If I told him I had a problem and needed a little more time in a scene to accommodate the music - or a little less - he would try to make the adjustment. He also would ask my opinion about certain scenes in the movie and how they played. That's a rare collaborator."

In addition to winning an Academy Award for his adaptation of the musical score of The Sting, Marvin Hamlisch also won two additional Oscars the same night for his work on The Way We Were.

 The Sting won 6 additional Oscars, including best picture.

 Producer Michael Phillips, later told an interviewer, “Believe it or not, I rehearsed my Oscar speech before we rolled our first shot. It was naive, even though it worked out that I won.” Of course, none of what he had rehearsed made it into his Oscar acceptance speech: “When I got up there, I just babbled.” The screenplay that had given him such confidence won an Oscar, too. 

 Elizabeth Taylor presented the Award for Best Picture. It was the first Universal Pictures film to win the award since 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front In her brief acceptance speech, the then 30-year old Julia Phillips – the first woman to ever win a best picture Oscar - said: "You can imagine what a trip this is for a Jewish girl from Great Neck - I get to win an Academy Award and meet Elizabeth Taylor at the same time."

 Edith Head won her record 8th (and final) Academy Award for best costume design.

Ever since the first foot of film was exposed for what originally were referred to as “chasers,” people have sued producers, writers and directors for plagiarism.  True to form, The Sting prompted at least four separate lawsuits. David W. Maurer sued for plagiarism, claiming the screenplay was based too heavily on his 1940 book The Big Con, about real-life tricksters Fred and Charley Gondorff (note the Newman character’s last name). Universal quickly settled out of court for $300,000, irking screenwriter David S. Ward, who had used many nonfiction books as research material and hadn’t really plagiarized any of them. (It didn’t help that Universal had quoted excerpts from Maurer’s book—properly attributed, of course—in the souvenir booklet they produced as part of the film’s publicity materials.) 

Another lawsuit followed when a company called Followay Productions claimed that since they’d bought exclusive adaptation rights to The Big Con back in 1952, any movie ripped off of that book was ripped off from them, too. (The case was thrown out because Followay failed to get the author to join it.) Paul Newman sued for a refund on California state income taxes that he paid on the money he earned on The Sting, saying he should have been charged the out-of-state rate, not the resident’s rate. (He won.) And Newman and director Hill later sued Universal for lost revenue from VHS sales on The Sting and Slap Shot. How fitting that a movie about money should have inspired so much real-life bickering about it. 

A decade after The Sting, screenwriter David Ward wrote The Sting II for Redford and Newman again, and says George Roy Hill wanted to come back as director. Redford was willing to consider the project, but Newman wanted to leave well enough alone. Universal made the sequel anyway, with Mac Davis and Jackie Gleason in the Redford and Newman roles, respectively (more or less: the characters’ names were altered, and some story details were retroactively changed). Ward wanted to take his name off as writer (or says he did), to no avail. The Sting II was released in 1983, made $6 million, and was never heard from again. 

   As with many great films, The Sting contained lots of memorable lines:

·       "Luther said I could learn from you. I already know how to drink." -  Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) to Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman)

·       "Glad to meet you, kid. You're a real horse's ass." - Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford)

·       "Not only are you a cheat. You're a gutless cheat as well." - Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) to Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman)’

·       "Sit down and shut up, will you? Try not to live up to all my expectations." -  Phony FBI Agent Polk (Dana Elcar) to Snyder (Charles Durning)

·       "Sorry I'm late. I was taking a crap." -  Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), pretending to be drunk as he arrives at a poker game.

·       "I don't even know you.’  "You know me. I'm the same as you. It's two in the morning and I don't know nobody." -- Loretta (Dimitra Arliss) and Johnny (Robert Redford)

  •  "Doyle, I KNOW I gave him four THREES. He had to make a SWITCH. We can't let him get away with that."
    "What was I supposed to do -- call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?"  Floyd (Charles Dierkop) to Doyle (Robert Shaw)

    "Who told you this guy was in here?"
    "Nobody. I just know what kind of woman he likes. Going to check all the joy houses till I find him."
    "Oh, well maybe I could help you, if you tell me his name."
    "I doubt it. Which way are the rooms?"
    "Right through there. But I wouldn't go in there if I were you."
    Billie (Eileen Brennan) to Lt. William Snyder (Charles Durning)

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


The Making of "Sunset Blvd."

“Alright Mr. DeMille: I’m ready for my close-up!

“Alright Mr. DeMille: I’m ready for my close-up!

On December 21, 1948, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder turned in the first sixty-one pages of their new screenplay to their bosses as Paramount. The screenplay began with a curt notation: This is the first act of Sunset Blvd Due to the peculiar nature of the project, we ask all our co-workers to regard it as top secret. What was peculiar about the film was its central female character, a batty silent screen star who’d passed her prime. Its narrative structure was also strange. Sunset Blvd. began in a morgue. Its leading man, the film’s narrator, was a cadaver:

An attendant wheels the dead Gillis into the huge, bare, windowless room. Along the walls are twenty or so sheet-covered corpses lying in orderly rows of wheeled slabs with large numbers painted on the walls above each slab. The attendant pushes Gillis into a vacant space. Beyond him, the feet of other corpses stretch from under their sheets: men’s feet, women’s feet, children’s, two or three Negroes - with a linen tag dangling from each left big toe. The attendant exits, switching off the light. For a moment the room is semi-dark, and then as the music takes on a more astral phase, a curious glow emanates from the sheeted corpses.

A MAN’S VOICE: Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here. It’s all right.

GILLIS: I’m not scared.

His head doesn’t move, but his eyes slowly wanted to the slab next to him. There, under a partially transparent sheet, lies a fat man aged 60 or so. His eyes are open, too, and directed at Gillis.

FAT MAN: How did you happen to die?

GILLIS: What difference does it make? It’ll be a good joke, lying here like a jigsaw puzzle all scrambled up, with the cops and the Hollywood columnists trying to fit in the wrong pieces.

FAT MAN: Hollywood? You in the movies?

GILLIS: Yeah. Came out in forty-five, to catch me a swimming pool. And by gosh, in the end I got myself one. Only there turned out to be blood in it.

FAT MAN: Were you an actor?

GILLIS: No, a writer. Never had my name on anything big, though. Just a couple of B pictures. One sinker, and the other one - well, that wasn’t so hot either. I was having a tough time making a living.

FAT MAN: It’s your dying I was asking about.

(Gillis chuckles)

GILLIS: Well, I drove down Sunset Boulevard one afternoon. That was my mistake. Maybe I’d better start off with the morning of that day. I’d been out of work for six months. I had a couple of stories out that wouldn’t sell, and an apartment right above Hollywood and Vine that wasn’t paid for . . .

Brackett and Wilder listed their cast of characters along with “the actors we hope to get” to play the roles. For Dan Gillis, they wanted a bright young star - Montgomery Clift. Gloria Swanson, herself a silent star who hadn’t made any movies in a while, would be the demented Norma Desmond. Erich Von Stroheim would appear as her butler Max. The character of Betty, a Paramount script reader, would be played by “a new face,” and Brackett and Wilder hoped that the r ole of Kaufman, a Paramount producer, would be taken by Joseph Calleia. There would also be a number of smaller roles - “movie people, cops, and corpses.”

Magnificently handsome and charismatic, Montgomery Clift had appeared in only two films - Howard Hawks’ Red River and Fred Zinnemann’s The Search when Wilder approached him for the lead in Sunset Boulevard. His third picture, Paramount’s The Heiress (costarring Olivia de Havilland) hadn’t finished filming yet, but the buzz surrounding him was extraordinary. He was a studied, upper-crust 28 year old who assiduously played the r ole of a relaxed bohemian in his public life. The combination was dazzling. Wilder gave him the first section of the screenplay, Clift loved what he read, and agreed to play the role. Paramount’s contract with Clift for The Heiress included options on future films, so all Paramount had to do was exercise the first of these options for Sunset Boulevard and Monty was ready to go. He’d get $5,000 per week for a guaranteed twelve weeks on the film. Clift agreed to report to work in early April, about six weeks after he officially signed on. In the meantime, Billy and Charlie wanted him to stay in Hollywood for story conferences as did Clift’s protective agent, Herman Citron. But Clift, having finished work on The Heiress, was in the mood for a nice vacation, so he flew to Switzerland and went skiing.

Swanson and the Marquis de la Falaise

Swanson and the Marquis de la Falaise

Clift was a fine match for Gloria Swanson. Hollywood’s hottest young man would play beautifully opposite the Jazz Age’s flashiest, most glamorous woman. Swanson had been a genuine sensation in the 1920s. “You must remember,” said Wilder, “that this was a star who at one time was carried in a sedan from her dressed room to the soundstage. When she married the Marquis de la Falaise and came by boat from Europe to New York and by train from there to Hollywood, people were strewing rose petals on the railroad tracks in her direction. She’d been one of the all-time stars, but when she returned to the screen in “Sunset,” she worked like a dog.” In the film, Wilder gives Norma’s butler a punch line that plays on Swanson’s own erotic allure: She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know; you’re too young. In one week she received seventeen thousand fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser for a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it . . .”

When he described Swanson’s dedicated to her performance, Wilder makes an important point: she was not the crazy diva she played on-screen, but a tough and hard-working actress. But then nobody had ever called Gloria Swanson either lazy or dizzy. Swanson’s movie career appeared to be over, but she had never stopped working. Ironically, one of her last movies had been 1934’s Music in the Air, a Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical adapted for the screen by the then-unknown Billy Wilder, who at the time knew so little English that he wrote the screenplay in German and then had it translated.

By the late 1940’s, Swanson was acting in summer stock productions, doing radio shows, and trying to keep her company, Multiprises, from going bankrupt. Still, Swanson continued to consider herself one of the greatest film stars in the world; she’d earned the title in the 1920s, and in the late 1940’s saw no need to give it up. As one contemporary account explained, Gloria was “keeping up appearances by spending $7,000 a year on clothes, which, in her special instance, she regarded as more of a professional expense than an extravagance.”

In June 1948, Swanson began earning $350.00 a week on WPIX radio in New York City. (In the latter 1920s, she was earning $20,000 a week, 52 weeks a year.) When Paramount called her in September to see if she was interested in returning to motion pictures, Swanson naturally assumed it was a bit part and said that she might be able to leave her radio show for two weeks. No, the studio told her, it was for the lead in the picture, and she’d get somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 for a ten- to twelve-week shoot. Swanson said she could be in Hollywood by the first of the year (though Sunset Boulevard didn’t start to roll until April.) She promptly divorced her fifth husband, to whom she had been married less than twelve months, and - according to Swanson, anyway - flew to Hollywood and arrived on the set having no idea of the plot of the picture or the role she was to play.

On the day Swanson return to Paramount Pictures, the studio she had indeed helped build, she found a huge likeness of herself on a billboard near the gate. Paramount’s publicity department was working on a self-promotional campaign to tie the studio in, decidedly obscurely, with the centennial celebration of the 1849 gold rush. The billboard featured a huge comet blazing through the sky leaving pictures of past and present Paramount stars behind it. The size of the picture and its position relative to the comet’s tail was determined by the star’s perceived importance to the studio. At the head of the tail was Gloria Swanson. According to her, the chief casting director explained why: “Baby, am I glad to see you. You took me off a helluva spot! If Id put Crosby’s picture on the front end of the comet, Hope would have blown his top, and Crosby would have had a fit if Hope was up there. Stanwyck or Hutton would’ve scratched my eyes out if one got top billing over the other. You turned out to be a real lifesaver.” “That’s when I knew I was home,” Swanson told the press. “Right back in the jungle up to my ears in a rat race.” A more likely rationale is that the studio had already begun its publicity campaign for Sunset Boulevard. They also wanted Swanson to feel the way Norma Desmond feels when she returns to Paramount in the film, except of course, that Normal Desmond is delusional.

Pola Negri

Pola Negri

Brackett reported that he and Billy had never considered anybody else for the part. To the extent that the extended comedy routine that served as Billy’s memory can be trusted, however, Brackett and Wilder originally wanted another old-time star. “For a long time I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood,” Wilder claimed. “God forgive me, I wanted to have Mae West and Marlon Brando.” He also said they tried Pola Negri: “We called her on the phone, and there was too much Polish accent.” Then they went to Pickfair, Mary Pickford’s immense estate high in the hills. “Brackett began to tell her the story, because he was the more serious one. I stopped him. ‘No, don’t do it,’ I waved him off. She was going to be insulted if we told her she was to play a woman who begins a love affair with a man half her age. I said to her, ‘We’re sorry, but it’s no use. The story gets very vulgar.’”

Frustrated at his lack of success in casting this most particular, most peculiar role, Wilder turned to his colleague and friend, director George Cukor for help. They were sitting in Cukor’s expansive garden drinking tea when Cukor mentioned Swanson. Wilder probably hadn’t thought very much about her since Music in the Air. He’d predicted in the pages of Der Querscnitt (a German literary magazine) that Queen Kelly, the film Swanson made for Erich von Stroheim, would be a huge hit. Little did he know at the time that Swanson, on the other side of the world, was becoming increasingly horrified at such Stoheimian touches as her costar, Tully Marshall, drooling brown tobacco juice on her delicate hand while slipping a wedding ring on her finger. Queen Kelly died before completion; Swanson’s producer/lover, Joseph P. Kennedy (who was, without her knowledge, using Swanson’s money to finance the film) pulled the plug, and Swanson’s fame began a protracted collapse as well.

One of these reasons served doubly as the solution to another problem - the casting of Max, the servile butler who used to be a famous film director. Erich von Stroheim came naturally to mind. von Stroheim did not become a butler; he became an actor and, at times at least, a very good one. Before playing Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo, von Stroheim played the gentleman soldier von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir’s La Grand Illusion. von Stroheim was living in France at the time. Wilder approached him through Paul Kohner, von Stroheim’s agent. von Stroheim responded in a letter to Kohner: “I don’t have to tell you that I would not mind at all working against with ‘witty-Billy.” His last endeavor with me had a tremendous success here in France, or was it my extraordinary popularity here that made his picture go over so big? Ask him.”

Montgomery Clift abruptly decided he didn’t want to do the picture after all. He’d just gotten through with The Heiress and didn’t want to play any more love scenes with yet another older woman. What Clift specifically said was that he didn’t think he could be convincing.

Sunset Blvd. was getting ready to roll, and Clift’s sudden departure caused a crisis. Wilder and Brackett (who was also producing) had to debate the merits of various available Paramount stars, someone who could step into a difficult, high-profile part quickly. The most promising was William Holden, who had been kicking around the studio for years. Holden had been great in Golden Boy, but that film was already ten years old. On the other hand, the fact that he’d never really delivered on his Gold Boy promise actually worked to his advantage, for Sunset Blvd. even though he been in pictures of over a decade, audiences still didn’t know William Holden. Paramount paid Brackett handsomely for producing Sunset Blvd - about $130,000 - but only for producing it; Wilder earned all the money for writing the film.

Since this was a film about an industry they knew and loved, they wanted to suffuse it with familiar people and spaces. In this spirit, Brackett and Wilder hired the nudgy Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skulsky to appear in a sequence set at Schwab’s Drugstore in the heart of downtown Hollywood. Enticing Skilsky to lay himself wasn’t difficult; as Brackett told him, “It won’t be Schwab’s without Skolsksy.”

Hedda and Louella

Hedda and Louella

Sunset Blvd’s script also contained lots of references to real people, each of whom had to agree to the use of their names. The writers wanted Norma to recognize one of the juicers (industry slang for an electrician) and greet him like a long-lost friend. “Hog-Eye!” Norma cries looking up to where the lights are. In fact, “Hog-Eye” was real - it was the nickname of a former Paramount electricians named John Hetman, who didn’t mind the reference. Billy and Charlie also tried to get two criers for the film’s operatic final scenes, not just one - Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons - each on the phone, one upstairs, one down, neither of them giving up the phone and saying ‘Get off the line, you bitch! I was here first!’ “Hedda I got easily, but Louella knew quite well she would lose that duel because Hedda was a former actress and she would wipe the floor with her.”

(Fun Fact: the magnificent limousine Norma’s butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) drove on to the Paramount lot was a 1929 Isotta-Fraschini 8A which Norma tells Gillis “cost me $28,000.” Turns out von Stroheim did not know how to drive, so the car scenes had to be filmed with the Isotta-Fraschini being towed or by using process shots. Perhaps that’s the reason for William Holden's acute embarrassment in those scenes; it was more than just acting--imagine being towed up and down Sunset Boulevard in that car with Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim in costume!)

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The Alto-Nido Apartments at 1851 North Ivar at the top of the hill at Franklin would work well for the drab barracks of an unemployed screenwriter. For Norma Desmond’s mansion, they had to look farther afield than the 10,000 block of Sunset Blvd.,, on which the fictitious house is situated in the script. They found it, about six miles away, at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Irving Blvds. The immense heap of a house, built in 1924 for the then-astronomical sum of $225,000 ($3.7 million in current dollars), at that time belonged to one of J. Paul Getty’s ex-wives, who hadn’t lived there for several years. There was no pool, so Paramount built one. (The ex-Mrs. Getty was said to be thrilled to get a free swimming pool, but the pool the studio built had next to no plumbing and was never used for swimming once filming was completed.)

Costuming Gloria Swanson for the role of Norma Desmond presented designer Edith Head (Edith Posener) with a tricky set of problems. Norma had to remain blissfully unaware that she was a throwback. Thus her clothes had to be both in style and out-of-date all at once. Head’s ingenious solution was to combine Jazz Age materials with so-called New-Look styling.

Billy Haines & Jimmy Shields

Billy Haines & Jimmy Shields

The script was still incomplete when the production of Sunset Blvd. officially opened on April 18. First came sequences at the Desmond mansion. On may 3, the scene in which Norma invites a few old friends to her house to play a rubber or two of bridge was filmed. Holden’s character nicknames them “the waxworks,” and they look and act accordingly. In one of the film’s crueler touches, the “waxworks” are played by three old, washed-up movie stars: H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nillson, and the perhaps the greatest silent comedian of them all, Buster Keaton. Keaton was actually one of Hollywood’s best bridge players. He was also a severe alcoholic whose once-handsome face had turned puffy and sagging. Brackett and Wilder had approached another former star, William Haines, but Haines turned them down; he was content with his second career as one of Hollywood’s most successful interior designers. (Billy Haines was an immense silent star in the later 1920s. Louis B. Mayer signed him to a million dollar contract . . . with a single stipulation: that he get rid of his “husband,” Jimmy Shields. By then, the two had been together for about a decade. Billy said no, and was quickly fired. Thanks to the assistance of John Crawford, who asked Billy and Jimmy to do all the interior design on her new mansion, the two became well known. The peak of their career was when Ambassador Walter Annenberg has them to do over the Court of Saint James in England. Billy died at age 73; within two months, Jimmy committed suicide. In his note, he stated, simply, that he could not live without the love of his life. The two were together for more than a half century, and were generally known as “Hollywood’s happiest couple.”)

The 3 silent stars who did agree to caricature themselves in Sunset Blvd. worked for precisely one day. Nillson was called at 7:00 AM; the others at 9:00 AM. they performed diligently like the professionals they had once been, needing two or three takes per setup. By 5:25,Wilder was done with them and they were has-beens once again.

It was von Stroheim’s idea to have Max write all of Norma’s fan letters. After filming DeMille’s scenes, Wild is said to have patted C.B. on the band said “Very good, my boy. Leave your name with my secretary. I may have a small part for you in my next picture.”

Sunset Blvd. wrapped in late in late July. August, September, and October were taken up by editing. By October, Sidney Skolsky was on the cutting room floor. Viewing the film with several preview audiences, Wilder concluded that other scenes weren’t quite right either, and the production was forced to reopen yet again on October 20 for location shooting. Brackett and Wilder had decided to preview the film somewhere other than Los Angeles. It was a matter of self-protection. “““We didn’t want Hollywood people to see the picture because it was about Hollywood,” Wilder explained. So they took it to Evanston, Illinois. It didn’t turn out too well. They tried another preview - this time in Poughkeepsie. The Great Neck, Long Island preview began badly as well. Wilder began to see what it was that the audience particularly didn’t like; the film’s opening, which takes place in a morgue.

Joe  Gillis in Pool.jpg

Wilder was forced to agree. He cut the whole morgue scene out of the picture and filmed a new traveling camera shot of the Sunset Blvd. pavement (and a tilt up to the police cars) and a shot of the cops arriving at the Sunset driveway. Finally, he added a new voice-over narration by Joe Gillis. Then we see Joe, in the pool, obviously drowned.

Louis B. Mayer, who saw the film before its premiere, stormed out of the screening room in a rage. The other movie people may have loved watching Hollywood shoot itself in the back on-screen, but MGM’s in-house emperor apparently took it personally. Storming out of the theater, Mayer is said to have shrieked at Wilder, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”
When Mayer attacked the creators of Sunset Blvd., he did appear to be taking his ire out on the immigrant, not the native-born Republican. Charlie Brackett, still president of the Academy, appears to have escaped the incident unscathed.(Unlike the Jewish Billy Wilder, who  had immigrated to America from Austria-Hungary-via Paris in 1934 at age 28, Charlie Brackett’s ultra blue-blood family had arrived in America in 1629.  Charlie had degrees from both Williams and Harvard.)

The studio sent Swanson on a national promotional tour. Paramount paid her $1,000 per week. When the Oscar nominations were announced in February 1951, Sunset Blvd. was named in eleven separate categories, including Best Picture, and Best Director. Erich von Stroheim was nominated as Best Supporting Actor and responded angrily. The reason? He told the press that he was simply“too big for that category,” and even threatened a lawsuit.

For Wilder and Brackett, the problem was much more clearly defined. Its name was All About Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz’s highly polished back-stage drama, starring Bette Davis. When the Best Picture award was announced, it was Mankiewicz, not Wilder who got up to accept the Oscar trophy.

And yet, Sunset Blvd. is still considered one of the best - if not the best - films Hollywood ever made about itself . . . and all the “lovely people in the dark.”

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

Louis Wolheim: The Ugliest Character Actor in Hollywood History

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In one of her earliest short stories - The Man Who Came Home - Edna Ferber described a character named Birdie as having “. . . a face that looked like a huge mistake.” She could easily have been referring to actor the great Louis Wolheim, who was, hands down, the ugliest character actor in Hollywood history. Universally respected as an actor’s actor, and widely known as an erudite “doll of a man” Wolheim was invariably cast as a brute because of his “huge mistake of a face.” Born into an Orthodox family in Russia in 1880, Wolheim, arrived in New York in 1888 with his parents Elias & Lena Wolheim, where they would eventually be blessed with nine more children.

A brilliant student who spoke fluent French, German, Spanish and Yiddish (his mother- tongue), Louis enrolled at the City College of New York; after 2 years, he transferred to Cornell University, where he earned a degree in engineering – and played varsity football. That’s how he originally injured his nose. However, according to a contemporary issue of Photoplay magazine, Louis had his nose restored to its original glory surgically, and celebrated the occasion with a party at an Ithaca bar. After a bit of drinking, he and one of his guests got into a fight, during which he broke his nose a second time. (Wolheim told the fan magazine that he won the fight.)

Following graduation, Wolheim remained in Ithaca where he became a highly popular and successful math tutor. One of his pupils was future movie star Alolphe Menjou, who later described Wolheim as having “a mind like a calculating machine and a face that looked as though it had been run over by a truck." (Ironically, it was the handsome, debonair Menjou who, in 1931, replaced Wolheim in his starring role in the original version of “The Front Page,” when Wolheim unexpectedly died.) Wolheim spent a couple of years in Mexcio working as a mining engineer and then returned to Ithaca, where he sold cigars at a local hotel. One day in mid-1914, Wolheim was spotted by actor Lionel Barrymore, who was in town shooting a two-reel picture for D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio. (n.b.: in 1914, Barrymore starred or appeared in 14 silent films). Barrymore, according to the legend, advised Louis that “with that face, you could make a fortune in the theater.” Shortly thereafter, Wolheim began his acting career, first as an uncredited extra in dozens of shorts and serials.

With the help of Lionel and his younger brother John, Wolheim eventually transferred his face and untrained theatrical talent on the stage, where from 1919 to 1925, he appeared in 10 Broadway plays. Keeping a finger in film, he also landed a reasonably meaty role in John’s 1922 film Sherlock Holmes, costarring Roland Young, William Powell, Hedda Hopper and, as Professor Moriarty, Gustav von Seyffertitz. (A trivial note: Von Seyffertitz, who by the outbreak of WWI was already a star of note in Hollywood, took the advice of his producer, Jesse Lasky, who thought it wise to change his name to something far, far less Teutonic. In 1915 and beyond, Americans were anti everything “Hunnish.” Thus, “sauerkraut” became “liberty cabbage,” the teaching of German in public school legally banned, and Gustav von Seyffertitz was renamed “C. Butler Clonblough.” He wouldn’t go back to using his birth name until 1919.)

Shortly after completing his brief role in Sherlock Holmes, Wolheim met playwright Eugene O'Neill by chance at a Barrymore thrown party to celebrate the opening of The Claw which starred Lionel and opened in October 1921. (The Claw was written by the French playwright Henri Bernstein, and was translated into English by none other than Louis Wolheim). O’Neil was immediately taken with Wolheim, and cast him as the lead in his newest play, an expressionist one act, eight scene piece called The Hairy Ape. The play, which confused most theatre-goers, was most notable for the newcomer playing the lead role of “Yank,” a barrel-chested trouble-maker who works on board a trans-Atlantic ship. It had a successful run on Broadway in 1921-1922;  O’Neil and Wolheim would would remain lifelong friends. Wolheim, with his “face that was a mistake” soon became familiar to Broadway audiences; in 1925, he costarred as Captain Flagg to William Boyd’s Sgt. Quirt in the fabulously successful What Price Glory? From there, it was a quick leap to Hollywood where the roles were bigger, the work quite steady and the paychecks far larger.

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In 1927, Wolheim costarred in Two Arabian Knights, alongside his What Price Glory? costar William Boyd (the future “Hopalong Cassidy), and Mary Astor. The film, which won the first - and only - Academy Award for “Best Direction of a Comedy Picture” (Lewis Milestone, nee Lev Milstein) was produced by the then 22-year old Howard Hughes. (Trivia Break: Two Arabian Knights is the only film in Academy history to win a Best Director Prize [it wasn’t yet called an “Oscar”] without being nominated in any other category. Milestone would go on to win a second best director’s awards [1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front] - costarring Louis Wolheim - and be nominated for a third - 1931’s The Front Page - which, as mentioned above, originally starred Wolheim who, following his unexpected death, was replaced by his old Cornell student, Alophe Menjou.)

 From 1914-1931, Louis Wolheim appeared played in 49 silent and 8 talking motion pictures. Throughout his relatively short career, he made films for everyone from Wharton, Rolfe Photoplays to Biograph, Goldwyn, RKO, D.W. Griffith Productions and Universal. Wolheim’s best-known, most beloved performance was that of the German sergeant Kaczkinsky (Kat) in Universal’s all-time great anti-war film “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in which he costarred with the then 22-year old Lew Ayres. The film had a lasting effect on both Ayres and Wolheim: it turned the young Ayres into a lifelong pacifist, which all but ruined his career when he declared himself a conscientious objector in WWII - theatres refused to screen his films. For Wolheim, it put a dramatic bee in his bonnet. Seeking to expand his cinematic range by improving his looks, he began making arrangements for having his nose fixed by a prominent Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. However, his studio at the time, United Artists, went to court for a restraining order to stop him.

Typecast throughout his career as a gangster, bully or prisoner, off-screen Wolheim was known for his modesty and for always being ready to help friends in need. After his death, Photoplay Editor James R. Quirk wrote, “His hard-boiled face was a mask; he was a child who never quite knew what it was all about. I think he felt he would live to help a great world-change for the better. He had a passion to make the world better. He believed no one should get more from life than than he gave to it.”

Louis Wolheim died from stomach cancer on February 18, 1931, just six weeks shy of his 51st birthday. He is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, right next to the unmarked grave of Frank Zappa.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

What's In a Name?

Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

In the heyday of the Hollywood studio system (c. 1915-1957), each studio was a self-contained universe. Within its walls one could find carpentry shops and costumers; hairdressers, wigmakers and dance studios, commissaries, set building shops, sound stages and recording facilities, furniture and antique warehouses, writers, producers and directors wings One could build - and then tear down - complete mock-ups of Manhattan and London, Paris and a North African Casbah, Kansas, Casablanca and Constantinople. Most studios owned their own ranches out in the San Fernando Valley where Westerns and wars, rural dramas and jungle pictures could be shot. For actors under contract, the studio was a stern family at which you would be taught how to dress, ride a horse, sing, dance, and speak with a French, British or Mexican accent. The studio would also teach you the rudiments of fencing, create your (mostly false) biography, and keep you out of trouble. Each studio had its own police department that - along with your personal press agent - would work with the municipal cops and local papers to keep your name off the front page if you got into trouble.

The studios even renamed you if the name you were born with were either too ethnic or too long to fit on a marquee. I have written elsewhere about my family getting “legally Stoned” back when Erica and I were 7 or 8.

For those of us who grew up in that world, we were well aware of what people’s real names were. We also knew many of them without their wigs and toupees, false teeth makeup . . . just plain people who happened to photograph well.

Let’s see how many you can figure out. First, a list of real names; then a second list of their Hollywood names. Have a blast! (BTW: this list is by no means exhaustive, so don’t write in and ask “Why didn’t you include . . .?)

First, some actors:

  1. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

  2. Bernice Frankel

  3. Naftaly Birnbaum

  4. Spangler Arlington Brugh

  5. Bernard Zanville

  6. Lucille Fay Lesueur

  7. Leo Jacob

  8. Howard Silverblatt

  9. Leonard Franklin Slye & Frances Octavia Smith

  10. Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman

  11. Jacob Lincoln Freund

  12. Jacob Julius Garfinkle

  13. Lyova Haskell Rosenthal

  14. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. & Virginia Katherine McMath

  15. Zvi Mosheh Skikne

  16. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler

  17. Jerome Lester Horwitz

  18. Samuel Horwitz

  19. Madeline Gail Wolfson

  20. David Daniel Kaminksy

  21. László Lowenstein

  22. Natalie Hershslag

  23. Paul Sternberg

  24. Arthur Leonard Rosenberg

  25. Winona Laura Horowitz

  26. Emanuel Goldenberg

  27. Sophia Kosow

  28. Simone Henriette Charlotte Kaminker

  29. Jill Arlyn Oppenheim

  30. Gerschon Lichtenstein

  31. Harold Hochstein

  32. Shirley Schrift

  33. Isaiah Edwin Leopold

  34. Dino Crocetti & Joseph Levitch

  35. Ruby Stevens

  36. Liliy Chauchoin

  37. Harlean Carpantier

    Next, some directors:

  38. Reuben Sax

  39. Leib Milstein

  40. Michael Igor Peschkowsky

  41. Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz

  42. Wilhelm Weiller

  43. Allen Konigsberg

    Lastly, some producers and screenwriters:

  44. Abraham Goodman

  45. Clifford Gorodetsky

  46. Dorothy Rothschild

  47. Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum

  48. Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff

  49. Salomea Steuermann

  50. Nathan Weinstein

  51. Robert Shapera

  52. Eliezer “Laiser” Zeleznik

  53. Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen

  54. Harold Brent Walinsky

  55. Walter Feuchtwanger

  56. Shmuel Gelbfisch

    OK: Let’s see how you did . .

    1. Mary Astor

    2. Bea Arthur

    3. George Burns

    4. Robert Taylor

    5. Dane Clark

    6. Joan Crawford

    7. Lee J. Cobb

    8. Howard Da Silva

    9. Roy Rogers & Dale Evans

    10. Douglas Fairbanks

    11. John Forsythe

    12. John Garfield

    13. Lee Grant

    14. Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

    15. Laurence Harvey

    16. Hedy Lamarr

    17. “Curly Joe”Howard

    18. Shemp Howard

    19. Madeline Kahn

    20. Danny Kaye

    21. Peter Lorre

    22. Natalie Portman

    23. Paul Stewart

    24. Tony Randall

    25. Winona Rider

    26. Edward G. Robinson

    27. Sylvia Sidney

    28. Simone Signoret

    29. Jill St. John

    30. George E. Stone

    31. Harold Stone

    32. Shelly Winters

    33. Ed Wynn

    34. Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis

    35. Barbara Stanwyck

    36. Claudette Colbert

    37. Jean Harlow

    38. Richard Brooks

    39. Lewis Milestone

    40. Mike Nichols

    41. Jerome Robbins

    42. William Wyler

    43. Woody Allen

    44. Abby Mann

    45. Clifford Odets

    46. Dorothy Parker

    47. Ayn Rand

    48. Irwin Shaw

    49. Salka Viertel

    50. Nathaniel West

    51. Robert Evans

    52. Lewis Selznick

    53. Michael Todd

    54. Hal Wallace

    55. Walter Wanger

    56. Samuel Goldwyn

One of these days, we’ll produce another list. Until then, meet you on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Do be sure to stop in at Musso & Frank Grill (now celebrating its 100th birthday) for lunch. Yum . . .

Copyright©2019 K.F. Stone (née Kurt Franklin Schimberg)

A Horse Is a Horse (Of Course Of Course)

Tom Mix and Tony

Tom Mix and Tony

I gotta admit that movie Westerns are still one of my guilty pleasures. As a kid I was fan of both Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger, delivered newspapers to both Milburn Stone (old “Doc Adams” of Gunsmoke fame) and perennial bad guy Jack Elam, was mesmerized by our down-the-street neighbor John Anderson (who played Abraham Lincoln on at least three occasions), and was family friends with Bill Williams (Kit Carson), his wife Barbara Hale (Della Street) and son William Katt (The Greatest American Hero). As kids, we spent quite a bit of time hanging out at “Corriganville,” a wonderful Western town in nearby Simi Valley where dozens upon dozens of Cowboy movies were filmed in the 40s and 50s, and the Iverson Movie Ranch (situated in the Santa Susana Pass just above Chatsworth, where everyone from Buster Keaton and Hopalong Cassidy to Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and John Wayne shot movies. (Particularly well-known is a section of the Iverson Ranch known as the “Garden of the Gods"“; even though you’ve likely never heard of it, you’ve seen it a million times . . . everyone shot Westerns there.

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Ever since the first cowboy star, “Broncho Billy” Anderson (Max Aronson) rode onto the silver screen in 1903, their horses played an integral role; they became teams to such an extent that saying “Tom Mix” without adding . . . and Tony” was as unthinkable as uttering the name “Romeo” and forgetting to add “. . . and Juliette.”) Of all the horses of my childhood, none could hold a candle to Roy Rogers’ magnificent Palomino, “Trigger.” Hollywood Brats of the post-War era will well remember “Uncle Ben’s Kiddie Park,” way out Van Nuys Blvd. in the Panorama City section of the San Fernando Valley. “Uncle Ben” had a pretty good collection of tame equines of all colors and sizes. Everyone’s favorite was, of course, a magnificent Palomino who could easily have passed for “Trigger’s” twin. We were so young and naive that we didn’t even know if this “Trigger” was a girl or a boy; we never thought to check under or behind its tail. We would wait in line for up to two hours just for the chance to spend ten or fifteen minutes riding this wondrous creature . . . wearing our Roy Rogers hat and spurs and imagining Dale Evans and “Buttermilk” riding alongside. Ah, those were the days.  We were so young, so innocent and naive; we had no idea that kids around the world didn’t live in such proximity to our heroes.

As already mentioned, the horses these cinematic cowboys rode became stars in their own right.  Despite the fact that at first, the Arkansas-born Broncho Billy didn’t know whether to mount a horse from the right or left, (it’s the left), “Ranger” became his costar in more than 350 one- and two-reel films.  As time progressed, the horses became more and more famous:  For more than twenty-five years,  the most famous horses in Hollywood were Tom Mix’s “Tony” (pictured above), William S. Hart’s “Fritz,” (shown below on left) Hoot Gibson’s variously named “Goldie,” “Midnight,” “Starlight,” “Mutt,” and “Pal” (not to mention “Silver”); Ken Maynard’s “Tarzan,” Richard Dix’s “Dice,” Hopalong Cassidy’s “Topper,” Gene Autry’s “Champion” and Audie Murphy’s “Rebel”. Without question “Silver” was the most popular of all equine names. For in addition to the Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore’s horse), Sunset Carson, Whip Wilson, and the aforementioned Hoot Gibson all had horses bearing the same name. 

In some cases, the actors actually owned the horses they rode on screen.  Most notable were Roy Rogers and Trigger, Dale Evans and “Buttermilk.” and John Wayne and “Dollar.”  But John Wayne did not have the financial wherewithal to purchase or care for a horse until later on in his career.  And here hangs a tale . . .

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John Wayne (Marion Michael Morrison) and his football team buddy Ward Bond  played for the University of Southern California in the late 1920s.  They were spotted by director John Ford who liked them, and hired the two to move furniture from one scene to another.  Eventually, Ford started using the pair as extras in crowd scenes.  After appearing in 20 unaccredited  bits at various studios between 1926 and 1930, Morrison (by now renamed “John Wayne”) was hired for the lead in Howard Hawks’  1930 film ”The Big  Trail,” which was an absolute bomb.  Ford, who was furious with Wayne, let his protege  suffer through more than 60 third—rate roles for minor-league producers until,  to  Ford’s way of thinking, Wayne was ready for stardom.  That would not come until 1939, when Ford  cast   Wayne as “The Ringo Kid,” in Stagecoach, which would make  eventually make Wayne a star.  During his cinematic apprenticeship, Wayne appeared in dozens of westerns, some even  “starring” him as a character  called “Singing Sandy.”  At the time of his cinematic apprenticeship,  he rode a horse called “Duke.”  Eventually, when he became a star, his nickname would also be “Duke.”  Within the Hollywood  community, this nickname was a bit of a insult.  In referring to him as “Duke” Wayne, it was a way of  proclaiming that he was  no more an actor than his horse.  To this day, it is likely that few understand its genesis.

It helps to be a “Hollywood  Brat.”

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


Hollywood Hates Hollywood

Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht

Shortly after arriving out west, the witty, brilliantly prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Scarface, Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred) began referring to Hollywood as “The land of mink-lined swimming pools and plastic palm tree,” and defining “starlet” as the name for any woman under thirty who is not actively employed in a brothel. Not to be outdone, the equally witty Dorothy Parker (A Star is Born, Saboteur, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman) noted that the only ‘ism’ Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.   The two were by no means alone in their lowly, utterly sarcastic assessment of the world’s film capitol.  William Faulkner called Hollywood A place where a man can get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder.  And then there was Fred Allen, who claimed You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer's heart.

When it comes to having a jaundiced view of the movie industry, nothing and no one is more jaded – or funnier – than Hollywood itself.  And when Hollywood makes films about Hollywood . . . watch out! 

What follows are a handful of Golden Age films which, in my humble opinion, are among the greatest (though not necessarily best-known) exemplars of classic Hollywood’s disdain for the very industry which, in the words of Marilyn Monroe will pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and a nickle fore your soul . . .

On September 24, 1930, a new play, the first collaboration of two young writers named George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, opened on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, which was co-owned by Sam Harris and Irving Berlin. It was called Once in a Lifetime, and went on to have a run of 406 performances, which in the early 1930’s was tremendous. This was a farce based on what took place in Hollywood just after the introduction of sound. For many great stars, sound meant the end of their Hollywood careers. Many did not speak English; many had voices and/or accents which simply didn’t go with their onscreen images. Hollywood’s response was to import as many Broadway actors - masters of proper diction - as possible along with a strange crowd who called themselves “elocutionists.” It was their job to teach the formerly silent how to speak. The play was an absolute hoot. And because it savagely prodded both Hollywood moguls - many of whom could barely speak English themselves - and director, it was widely assumed that no studio would ever dare turn it into a motion picture.

They were wrong. Universal’s diminutive “Uncle”Carl Laemlle not only bought the rights from Kaufman and Hart; he turned it into a howl of a movie which began with a self-serving crawler which proclaimed:

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When I bought the moving picture rights to “Once in a Lifetime,” the stage play which so mercilessly and hilariously poked fun at Hollywood and its motion picture people, the critics said I would not dare make use of its best material on the screen.  It was too funny, they said, and it would make the world laugh at us!  I pity the man who cannot enjoy a laugh at his own expense. So I decided that if I could make the world in times like these, it would be a great thing to do.  I now leave it to you to judge whether I have spared the movies in translating the great stage success to the screen.  Carl Laemmle, President Universal Pictures.

Laemmle’s picture, which starred Jack Oakie, Sidney Fox, Aileen McMahon and Gregory Ratoff as the Goldwynesque producer Herman Glogauer, (What did they have to go and make pictures talk for? Things were going along fine. You couldn't stop making money - even if you turned out a good picture you made money!), the film brought in a fortune at the box office. Almost unknown today, it is worth a look. Its satiric look at a Hollywood in transition from silence to caterwauling is more than worth the price of admission. (You can watch the movie on YouTube below)

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One of the most oft-filmed yarns about Hollywood is once again up for an Academy Award: A Star is Born, this time starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott. And while most film buffs consider the 1937 version starring Janet Gaynor, Frederic March, Adolphe Menjou and Andy Devine to be the original (followed by the 1954 reprise and 1976 musical starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, what they likely do not know is the true original was 1932’s What Price Hollywood? produced by 30-year old David O. Selznick, directed by the 33-year old George Cukor and starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman. The Oscar nominated screenplay by Jane Murfin and Adela Rogers St. Johns (it lost to Frances Marion’s The Champ), tells the story of waitress Mary Evans (Bennett) who is discovered by - and turned into a top-flight star - by the dipsomaniacal director Max Carey (Sherman), only to see her career soar as his hits rock bottom.

Originally meant to star “The It Girl,” Clara Bow, by 1932, she was going through too many psychological traumas to handle the role, thus it went to Constance Bennett. Originally based on the relationship between twenties’ megastar Colleen Moore and her then husband, director John McCormick, the film did not make back its investment. Nonetheless, it did manage to portray Hollywood’s seedy underbelly in a way almost never before seen or screened. The only real difference between this film and the various A Star is Born repeats is that here, the young, up-and-coming star does never marries the drunk, who, rather than being a star losing his career to alcohol, is rather her director. Regardless, it portrays Hollywood cupidity - success at any price - as hauntingly as any film ever made.

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In 1936, Paramount producer Adolph Zukor and director Robert Florey came out with Hollywood Boulevard, which dealt with the extraordinarily destructive power of Hollywood gossip magazines.  Starring John Halliday, Marsha Hunt (our longtime neighbor who is still alive and now going on 102 years old), Robert Cummings and more than a dozen down-on-their-luck former silent screen stars, Hollywood Boulevard is an expose of scandal-and-gossip magazines of the era, in which has-been actor John Blakeford (John Halliday) agrees to write his memoirs for a magazine-publisher. One review of the film was entitled The Dirt Brigade,  which just about says it all.  Hollywood Boulevard, which also contains a murder mystery sub-plot, is mostly an attack on the cruelties of Hollywood in the manner in which the town turns its back on former stars.  Many of the film’s supernumerary and bit actors (e.g. Frances X. BushmanCharles Ray, Maurice Costello, Betty Compson, Mae Marsh, William Farnum) were, at one time, among the most popular and highest paid “superstars” of the silent era . . . many earning in excess of $10,000 a week (at a time when a decent annual income was $1,250.00).  For this film, few of them were listed in the credits, and were paid no more than $5.00.  That’s Hollywood; that’s Hollywood Boulevard.

Then there is the best, most spot-on Hollywood novel ever written: Bud Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? The novel, first published in 1941, tells the rags-to-riches story of Sammy Glick, the conquistador of the gutter, who steps on and over any- and everyone in his path in order to make it to the pinnacle of Hollywood success. Inspired partly on the life of his father, early Hollywood mogul B.P. Schulberg (1892-1957) and partly on the thousand octane writer/producer Jerry Wald (1911-1962) this ultimate Hollywood novel follows Sammy from the Brooklyn to Beverly Hills. Sammy is an amoral narcissist who is quick to pilfer and plagiarize the work of others, adapt novels he’s never read, and rip the heart and guts out of anyone who gets in his way. Most every character in the novel - writers Al Manheim and Julian Blumberg, producer Sidney Fineman, Sammy’s brother Israel - are Jewish.  Nonetheless, at the time the novel was in its final stage of rewrites, so the story goes, producer Samuel Goldwyn offered Schulberg a lot of money to not have it published because Goldwyn felt that the author was "doublecrossing the Jews" and perpetuating anti-Antisemitism by making Sammy Glick so venal.   

Sammy.jpg

Despite the fact that What Makes Sammy Run? is a seminal Hollywood novel which was turned into a smash Broadway musical (starring Steve Lawrence as Sammy, Robert Alda as Al Manheim and Sally Ann Howes as Al’s girlfriend Kit, it has yet to be made into a theatrical film.  There have been two television presentations: in 1949, there was a live version (the Philco Television Theatre) starring Jose Ferrer, and a two-part 1959 television treatment starring Larry Blyden, John Forsythe Barbara Rush and Dina Merrill.  

According to a 2001 article in VarietyDreamWorks paid US$2.6 million to acquire the rights to the novel from Warner Brothers for a proposed movie version starring and/or directed by Ben Stiller, although production was never begun. Budd Schulberg, who died in 2009 at age 95, told The Jewish Daily Forward in 2006 that he doubted a film would ever be made, saying "I still think there's a sense that it's too anti-industry." In a 2009 newspaper interview, Schulberg quoted Steven Spielberg as saying that the book was "anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed."  

The quintessence of Hollywood’s historic hate for itself can be summed up in two marvelous quotes, plus a final thought from Sammy Glick:

From Walter WinchellHollywood is a place where they place you under contract instead of under observation.

From Johnny Carson: In Hollywood, if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.

Sammy Glick: Going through life with a conscience is like driving your car with the brakes on.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


Cinematic Chemistry: That Certain Something . . . Part 1

Ever since the days when most of films were shot in New York, the vast majority of Westerns in Ft. Lee New Jersey and “movies” was the term used for the people on the screen or sheet (for after all, they moved) producers have been on the lookout for cinematic couples who possessed that indescribable something called chemistry. It has never mattered whether the chemistry was comedic or romantic, musical or slapstick; urban or western. All producers knew is that couples possessed of cinematic chemistry frequently caused cash registers to overflow.

John Bunny & Flora Finch

John Bunny & Flora Finch

Without question, the movies’ first “chemical success” was a pair of physically mismatched actors (like Laurel and Hardy and briefly, Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton) who thoroughly hated one another - both on screen and in real life. They were the short, morbidly obese John Bunny (1863-1915) and the tall cadaverous Flora Finch (1867-1940). Between 1909 and 1915. the two appeared in an incredible 160 one- and two-reel films together. Their films were all made by the long-forgotten Vitagraph Company. And because these flicks were silent, their popularity was literally global. Costarring in films with titles like The New Stenographer (1910), The Subsiding of Mrs. Nag (1911) and A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), these fan favorites quickly became known as Bunnyfinches. He was jolly and enjoyed a good time; she was prudish and taciturn. The secret of their success was likely that the hatred they had for one another in “real” life carried over into “reel” life as well. By 1912, they were the most popular and highest-paid players in the world. When Bunny succumbed to Bright’s Disease at age 52, he was mourned by tens of millions of fans the world over. Ironically, Flora Finch, did not mourn his passing, didn’t even show up at his funeral . . .

Harold Lockwood & May Allison

Harold Lockwood & May Allison

During “The Great War” (WWI), the most popular romantic pairing, without question, was Harold Lockwood and May Allison. The chemistry between these two had much of the world believing they had to be married in real life - which definitely was not the case; Harold was married to Alma Jones, and May did not marry until several years after Harold had died. And when she did marry, it was to James Quirk, the editor and publisher of one of the earliest film fan magazines, Photoplay. Between 1916 and 1918, when Lockwood died of the Spanish Flu, the two made 22 feature-length films together, the most famous being David Harum Never mind that the plots of their films were all but indistinguishable; the public saw them as the ideal of romantic love. He was a boy scout - loyal and true - while she was as pure as the driven snow. After Lockwood’s death (he died at age 31), Allison’s career was all but over. Although she lived until 1989 (dying at age 99), she had not been on screen for more than 60 years. At yet, to serious movie buffs until this very day, the names Lockwood and Allison are fondly remembered for having possessed that “certain something.”

From time to time, studios attempted to make ‘teams” out of actors who turned out to have less than a gram of chemistry. Mack Sennett tried to pair a novice Charlie Chaplin with first, veteran Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and then top-flight comedienne Mabel Normand (whom film historians would eventually tab ‘the female Chaplin’). And when he moved on from Sennett’s “Keystone Comedies” to Bronco Billy’s “Essanay Pictures,” the company attempted to team him with the cross-eyed Ben Turpin in two two reelers made two weeks apart in February 1915: His New Job and A Night Out. None caught on; from virtually the first moment he stood before a camera, Chaplin had an instinctive knowledge of what he could accomplish on his own. His best chemistry came when he called all the shots . . .

Charles Farrell & Janet Gaynor

Charles Farrell & Janet Gaynor

The reigning “chemical” stars of the late 1920s and early 1930s were sweet, wholesome yet gritty Janet Gaynor (who won the first Academy Award for Best Actress) and big, brawny Charles Farrell. After taking the world by storm in their first film, 1927’s Seventh Heaven, the pair made another 11 romantic films together over the next 7 years - the last being Change of Heart (1934). Today, Janet Gaynor is best known for playing Esther Victoria Blodgett (aka “Vicki Lester”) in the second of 5 versions of A Star is Born (most film historians hold that the 1932 RKO-Pathé production of What Price Hollywood? starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman was actually the first.) Today, Charlie Farrell is best-known - if remembered at all - for the mid 1950’s television show My Little Margie, in which he played Vern Albright, the father of Margie, played by Gale Storm. Gaynor and Farrell’s chemistry was that of young, first-time love . . . which people of any age can and do easily identify with. That they could maintain this chemistry into their early ‘30s was remarkable. Also, their films kept Fox from going bankrupt . . .

As the major studios got larger and more powerful, they had the ability to stockpile tens of dozens of actors and actresses and spend the time and money required to create cinematic identities and occasionally, teams abounding in chemistry. Among the most successful such pairings were William Powell and Myrna Loy who, between 1934 and 1947, costarred in 14 films - including 6 in the fabled “Thin Man” series. Prior to getting together (1934’s Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable), Hollywood had typecast Powell as either a bad guy or a suave swindler and Loy, unbelievably, as an Asian exotic. Immediately after costarring in the Gable film, MGM put the two together in The Thin Man. Their scenes together fairly sparkled; between the mystery, the Manhattans and the endless banter, they lit up the screen.

Rogers & Astaire

Rogers & Astaire

Then there was RKO’s pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - first as featured players in a minor 1933 Delores Del Rio - Gene Raymond fluffball called Flying Down to Rio. This totally forgettable film was saved when Fred and Ginger spent a little over 2 minutes dancing the Carioca . . . and thus was a new type of cinematic chemistry born. Ironically, Astaire wasn’t all that interested in dancing with Rogers again. As he wrote his agent, "I don't mind making another picture with her, but as for this team idea, it's out! I've just managed to live down one partnership (his sister Adele) and I don't want to be bothered with any more." But Fred was under long term contract to RKO, which meant he had to do what they told him. The next year these two received top billing in The Gay Divorcee, which would turn out to be the 2nd of their eventual 10 pictures together. And their chemistry? It was best explained by Katherine Hepburn (who knew a thing or two about onscreen chemistry . . . just ask Spencer Tracy) when she said “Fred gave Ginger class, while Ginger gave Fred sex . . .”

The Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers

Comedy teams have long been a fertile source of cinematic chemistry. Think Laurel and Hardy (107 films together) Abbott and Costello (36 films), Martin and Lewis (17 films), The Marx Brothers (17 films) The Three Stooges (nearly 200 shorts) and of course Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (and let’s not forget Dorothy Lamour) who made 7 “Road to . . .” pictures. What made most of these teams work so well was either the attraction of physical opposites (Laurel and Hardy), Abbott and Costello), bipolar personalities (the suave Dean Martin and frenetic Jerry Lewis) and the complex relations between members of the same family (the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges).

From the perspective of younger generations of film fans, it would seem that what cinematic chemistry is in short supply. In part 2 of this essay (which will be posted when it’s finished) we’ll explore whether this is true - and if so, why so . . .

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone











Hedy Lamarr: Brains, Beauty and a Whole Lot More

Hedy.jpg

Of all the scores of stars who graced the silver screen during Hollywood’s “Golden Era,” it is likely that the most beautiful and alluring of all was Hedy Lamarr . . . who was named for the silent star Barbara Lamar, who, in her day was known “the girl who is too beautiful” But unlike Barbara La Mar who died in 1926 from tuberculosis and nephritis at age 31. died at age 29, this Lamarr lived to the ripe old age of 86, and was far, far more than just another pretty face. Indeed as early as 1931, her first director, the great Max Reinhardt (Max Goldmann) referred to her as “the most beautiful women in the world” Andf for my money, he was absolutely correct.

Ricardo Cortez: The First Sam Spade




“Ricardo Cortez” as the first Sam Spade

“Ricardo Cortez” as the first Sam Spade

There likely isn’t a film buff on the planet who doesn’t know - and love - the 1941 classic detective drama The Maltese Falcon starring, among others, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. It is the living, breathing definition of a film classic. It is also one of the very first movies both written and directed by the same person - in this case, the then 35-year old Huston who made a deal with studio owner Jack Warner that he would only charge his boss a measly ten bucks for the screenplay if only he were permitted to also direct as well. What a lot of film buffs do not know is that Jack Warner actually produced two other films based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel prior to the Huston classic:

  • 1931’s The Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez as detective Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly,

  • The 1936 tongue-in-check send up entitled Satan Met a Lady, starring Warren William as Sam Spade (here called “Ted Shane”) and Bette Davis as Ruth, here called “Valerie Purvis.” Unlike the 1931 version, which was a box-office hit, Satan Met a Lady was so bad that Bette Davis spent a lifetime trying to get it expunged from her official filmography!

For decades, film historians believed that original version of The Maltese Falcon starring Cortez, Daniels, (as well as Una Merkel, Thelma Todd *(about whom we’;ll devote a blog piece in the near future and Dudley Diggs) was either destroyed or missing. Actually, it was neither; Warner Brothers buried the 1931 version on a back shelf for fear that moviegoers would mistake it for the 1941 Bogart/Astor/Greenstreet classic. What a pity! For although not quite as true-to-form as the Bogart/Astor version, Ricardo Cortez does make a compelling - though less nuanced version - of the iconic, hard-boiled Sam Spade. Unlike Bogie’s Spade, Cortez’s wears a perpetual smile and is far more sexually aggressive. Then too, Cortez was not nearly as good an actor as the stage-trained Bogart. Unlike Bogart, Cortez was first, last and always a movie star . . . not an actor. And believe me, there is a world of difference between the two.

Nonetheless, unlike Humphrey Bogart, Ricardo Cortez is little remembered. In his day, Cortez was a first-rate “Latin Lover” and great fan favorite. He was the only actor to ever receive top billing over Greta Garbo (1926’s Torrent, her first American film); during his heyday in the late silent and early sound era, he played opposite a majority of the greatest actresses of the silver screen (Mary Astor, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, to name but a few) with many of the most acclaimed directors and filmmakers in cinematic history. And yet, precious little is known about him.

Why?

Cortez and Garbo in  Torrent  (1926)

Cortez and Garbo in Torrent (1926)

For two reasons: first, in the words of his biographer Dan Van Neste, “Cortez was an excessively private person.  He didn’t leave diaries, didn’t trust the press, granted very few interviews, and when he did, they were rarely substantive. Second, there never was a “Ricardo Cortez”; he, his life, background and family history were all the product of a slick Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) publicity campaign. When, in the early 1920s, Paramount inexplicably lost the screen’s greatest “Latin Lover” Rudolf Valentino (Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla) to Metro (soon to become Metro-Goldwyn and eventually Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Paramount realized they needed a new, flashier, more sexually charged Latin. And so, they went to work and turned a Jewish kid from New York’s Lower East Side (Hester Street to be precise) born Jacob Krantz, the son of Morris and Sarah (Lefkowitz) Krantz, immigrants from Galacia, into Ricardo Cortez, whose original tagline was “The Man with the Bedroom Eyes.”

From the very beginning of his film career in 1917, when he started doing extra work in films shot in Ft. Lee, New Jersey at $2.00 a day, Krantz (who would legally change his name to “Ricardo Cortez” after becoming a major star and making in excess of $3,000.00 a week) was typecast as a either a Latin lover or exotic villain. Because of his dark olive complexion and heavy-lidded dark eyes, the deception was an easy one to pull off. Back in the 20’s and 30s, moviegoers were far more willing to believe what the fan magazines (fed largely by the various studios’ p.r. teams) told them about their favorite stars. Morever because movies were silent, there was no problem with the fact that stars like Ricardo Cortez didn’t sound anything like cultured, aristocratic Spaniards . . . or Mexicans or Italians; rather he spoke English like a Jewish kid from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Interestingly, where many silent stars decided to retire with the coming of sound rather than have their loyal fans discover that they weren’t who they were supposed to be, “Ric” Cortez, decided to keep on chugging along . . . and if for other reason than he loved the money they paid him.

The Cortez/Daniels Falcon was made by Warner Brother Broptherss in 1931 - several years before the Movie Production Cod, which mandated a stiff jolt of morality - into the industry. As such, the Cortez Falcon had Spade obviously sleeping with Miss Wonderly. In one scene, Miss Wondely (payed by Bebe Daniels) Additionally, takes a bath in the nude and Spade forces her to get out of all her clothes in order to determine if she has taken a thousand dollar bill.” There are numerous references to the homosexual relationship between Gutman (the “Fat Man”) and Wilmer (here referred to as his “boyfriend,” and in the 1941 version as a “gunsel,” which is an inside term for gay lover); moreover, in the Cortez/Daniels version, Miss WonderlyIn 1931, this as all OK. By 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, such scenes or suggestions were absolutely verboten. By comparison, the 1941 Bogart incarnation of Sam Spade was a growling Boy Scout.

As a Hollywood Brat, I can attest to the fact that the “six degrees of separation” are always at work. Consider the following:

  • Brown Holmes, the screenwriter for Cortez’ Maltese Falcon, served in the same capacity for the 1941 Bogart version.

  • Both the 1931 and 1941 version had the same cinematographer, Robert Edeson.

  • Warren William, who plays the Sam Spade character (Ted Shane) in 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, also played Perry Mason in a series of films beginning in 1934, but was replaced in 1936 by none other than . . . you guessed it, Ricardo Cortez.

  • Speaking of Perry Mason, Bette Davis (who costarred in Satan Met a Lady, filled in for Raymond Burr when he had to have surgery in Perry Mason: The Case of Constant Doyle (1963).

symphony-of-six-million-movie-poster-1932-1020455901.jpg

Getting back to The Maltese Falcon, Ricardo was signed to play Sam Spade mainly because Jack Warner’s first choice, the legendary actor - and world-class drunk - John Barrymore, was unavailable, having been already signed to star in another Warner’s film, Svengali (based on George Du Maurier’s Trilby. To a great degree, The Maltese Falcon revived Cortez’s cinematic career. and caused his loyal fans to forgive and forget that he in no way sounded the way they assumed a Latin Lover might. Over the next decade, Ricardo made several dozen motion pictures, including 1932’s Symphony For Six Million, one of classic Hollywood’s most Jewishly significant films. Based on a Fanny Hurst short story, Symphony stars Ricardo Cortez as Dr. Felix “Felixer” Klauber, a brilliant young doctor who grows away from his Jewish family and community when his older brother convinces him to make his fortune as a Park Avenue doctor.  When tragedy strikes, he sees where his obligations lie, but will it be too late? This particular film hit home with Ricardo Cortez, who had long felt that he, Jacob Krantz, had abandoned not only his family, but his cultural and religious heritage heritage in exchange for the extraordinary riches which only Hollywood could afford a junior high school dropout. Interestingly, Symphony for Six Million costarred Jewish actors Anna Appel and Gregory Ratoff, who, prior to their Hollywood years had starred with, respectively, Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre, and Chekhov’’s Moscow Art Theatre..

Cortez, realizing that he was losing his hold on the public, decided to start directing pictures. Between 1930 and 1940, he directed 7 films for Warner Brothers, all of them "program pictures made on a shoestring for the express purpose of filling the bottom half of the mandatory double bill ..." Between 1940 and 1958, he appeared in a mere 15 films and 1 television show (Bonanza). Forsaking Beverly Hills and returning to New York City, Cortez went back into the world of Wall Street, where he had begun his working life as a runner in the nineteen-teens. He succeeded admirably as a broker and continued selling stocks and bond - and doing an occasional commercial, until his death in 1977 at age 76/ The thrice married Cortez died childless. Over the course of a 43-year career, Ricardo Cortez made his way into 103 films, for which he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If you’re ever out in Hollywood, you can find it at 1500 Vine Street.

For those of you who live in South Florida, I will be showing the 1931 Maltese Falcon at Florida International University on Wednesday, October 3rd at 3:00. If you;’re interested in attending class, please contact me through this website and we’ll see what we can do.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

I

Goldwyn's 'Last Sten'

                Theda Bara (Theodosia Goodman)

                Theda Bara (Theodosia Goodman)

Over many decades, Hollywood moguls have, from time to time, attempted to create stars from scratch. That is to say, taking a nobody, changing their name, creating a back-story and building them up so that they are already "legendary" even before the first foot of film has been exposed. Sometimes it works; sometimes it fails.  The first such manufactured star was Theda Bara, a dark-eyed rather zaftig young Jewish lady from the Avondale section of Cincinnati whose real name was Theodosia Goodman.  Early film mogul William Fox (Vilmos Fried - 1879-1952), a furrier from Tolscva, Hungary turned owner of the unheralded Fox Film Corporation in New York, found himself in desperate financial straits in 1914.  What to do? 

Fox and his publicity staff started looking around for an actress who could take direction, then go to work creating an identity and unique look, an unforgettable name and a biography (the crazier the better) to sell to a gullible public that would be thirsting to see her on the silver screen.  And so, assembling members of the press in a smoky, dimly lit hotel room in Chicago, the then 30-year old Miss Goodman (who though a natural blond now sported jet black curls) was introduced to the world as Theda Bara (an anagram for "Arab Death"), who, the assembled journalists were told, was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French actress. (During the 6-month long publicity campaign, Miss Bara, the ultimate vamp, was also billed as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor.)  She finally hit the screen in a film based on a ridiculous stage 1909 Porter Emerson Browne play called A Fool There Was, and by the next year, was almost as popular as Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin.  Her weekly salary quickly skyrocketed from $50.00 to $4,000.00. Her vogue, which lasted barely 4 years, had her playing a succession of vamps, seductresses and wicked women in such films as Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Camille, Salomé and Madame Du Berry.  Miss Bara, who would be a doyen of Beverly Hills society for more than 30 years (dying there in 1955), not only saved Mr. Fox; she insured that his name and an offshoot of the company he created would still be in the headlines more than a hundred years later (think "Fox News").  Needless to say, this first "creating a star out of whole cloth" was a rousing success.

                            Jane Russell - Cleavage and All

                            Jane Russell - Cleavage and All

In early 1940, RKO boss Howard Hughes - the Donald Trump of his era - decided that he too wanted to create a star.  And so, after looking around for a while, his search netted him a 19-year old graduate of Van Nuys High School (the same high school that Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford and Dodger pitching great Don Drysdale attended) named Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell (1921-2001) He quickly signed her to a standard 7 year contract. Jane Russell had a couple of things going for her: she had actually studied drama and acting at Max Reinhardt's Acting Workshop, had been coached by Maria Ouspenskaya,  had a decent singing voice, and measured a colossal  38D-24-36.  After a year of publicizing his upcoming star (during which time she did not appear on screen), Miss Russell  got top billing in a film called The Outlaw, costarring the equally unknown Jack Buetel and featuring Oscar-winning actors Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell.  Due to problems with the censorship board, the film (which was made in 1941) did not go into general release until 1946.  But Hughes continued publicizing Miss Russell. Thousands upon thousands of photos of the voluptuous star-in-the-making ran in magazines throughout the country.  By the time the film went into general circulation, she had the best known cleavage on the planet.  Hollywood writer and Algonquin Roundtable wit Dorothy Parker referred to Hughes' campaign as "The sale of two titties."  Critics hated the film; the public couldn't get enough of Jane Russell and her amazing cleavage.

Miss Russell would go on to star in more than 30 films, including The Paleface (1946), His Kind of Woman (1951), Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953), and The Tall Men (1955).  Despite her seductively loose, lusty-busty image, Miss Russell was, in her own words, ". . . a mean-spirited, narrow-minded, right-wing, conservative Christian. I start out with that, and if you don't like it, you can lump it." By any stretch of the imagination, Howard Hughes' - like William Fox's experiment in star creation - was a great success. 

Sorry to report, such was not the case for one of the greatest of all movie moguls: Samuel Goldwyn. When he tried to create a star, he fell on his face, landing with a thud which resonates to this very day.  Her name?  Anna Sten . . .

                       Anna Sten in a Typical Garbo Pose

                       Anna Sten in a Typical Garbo Pose

Born in Kiev (then Russia, now the Ukraine) in 1908, Annel Stenskaya Sudakevich  got her start in acting with the Moscow Art Theater. After playing small roles in a couple of Soviet films, she moved on to Germany, where scored rave reviews playing Grushenka in the 1931 masterpiece Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff ("The Murderer Dimitri Karamasoff") based on Dostoevsky's classic novel "The Brothers Karamazov."  One night, Goldwyn saw this film, and even before its conclusion gave orders to one of his assistants to contact Sten's people and sign her to a 7 year Hollywood contract.  He had dreams of making her his Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich - so much so that he arranged to have her photographed with some of the same poses Garbo used.  (See pictures to above of Anna Sten, and below of Greta Garbo, using the same pose)

When Sten arrived in the United States, so the story goes, she had put on considerable weight and, to Goldwyn's amazement, found her English to be impenetrable . . . which, considering the state of his English must have been truly depressing.  And so, Goldwyn put his staff to work slimming her down, working on her English and looking for the ideal picture in which she could make her American debut.  Of course, all the while, her picture and stories about her were running in fan magazines across the country.  Finally, Goldwyn decided on starring her in Nana, based on the classic novel by French author Emile Zola.  Unfortunately, a faithful treatment of this notorious literary whore and the men she ruins was impossible in an industry newly saddled with the restrictions of Will Hays and his Production Code.  Despite all her English lessons, Sten wound up learning her dialogue by rote; there was none of the vital thespic spontaneity that had so captivated Goldwyn or his staff.  Predictably, the film bombed . . .

                                           Greta Garbo: The Original Pose

                                           Greta Garbo: The Original Pose

Undeterred and possessing an ego approximately the size of California, Goldwyn persisted. Sten's next two films - We Live Again  (1934) costarring Frederic March and The Wedding Night (1935) which costarred Gary Cooper and won King Vidor a best director Oscar - were better, but the public wasn't buying. As Goldwyn biographer Scott Berg noted, "When the public failed to embrace her a third time, Goldwyn decided he could not afford to give her another chance." When it became known around Hollywood that Goldwyn, at Sten's request, cancelled the final year-and-a-half of her contract (which paid her $2,500.00 per week), The Wedding Night started being referred to as "Goldwyn's last Sten." The debacle wound up costing Goldwyn in excess of $2 million. 

Anna Sten would go on to make a handful of increasingly cheaper movies for increasingly minor studios.  She even guest starred in a handful of television shows.  She and her husband, the Russian-born producer Eugene Frenke (who were married for 52 years) moved to Manhatten, where he died in 1984 and Miss Sten about 10 years later, shortly before her 85th birthday.  Today, three things remain of the Sten legacy: Her nickname, "Goldwyn's Folly," the expression "Goldwyn's Last Sten," and a line written by Cole Porter for his 1934 show Anything Goes:

When Samuel Goldwyn can with great conviction
Can instruct Anna Sten in diction
Then Anna knows,
Anything goes.

 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

  

The Most Iconic Sign on the Planet

                                   The Most Iconic Sign on the Planet

                                   The Most Iconic Sign on the Planet

There likely isn't a soul on the planet cannot identify the gigantic HOLLYWOOD sign sitting atop a minuscule mountain few people know the name of.  For a couple of generations, that sign has best symbolized the flash and allure, the glitter and glamour of both a small town and a ginormous industry. Its history is fairly well known to those of us who are "Hollywood Brats." To those outside the brat brigade, that story might seem as improbable as any film the MGM or the Warner Brothers ever produced.  And, in matter of fact, that sign - whose history goes back 95 years, originally had next to nothing to do with the then nascent movie industry.  

Way back in 1923, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and a couple of developers named Woodruff and Schults  came up with he idea of erecting a larger-than-life advertisement for a new upscale housing development they were planning to build in the hills above Hollywood. Their development would be called "Hollywoodland." Their original intent was to erect a 43-foot high sign built of telephone poles, thin metal, wood, wire, and pipes and lit with 4,000 20-watt bulbs spaced 8 inches apart.  Chandler and his investors thought the sign would stand for no longer than 18 months. - at which time, they assumed,  construction would be complete and a score of well-heeled movie stars and executives would have begun moving into their new residential palaces. The sign wound up costing $21,000.00 (about $290,000.00 in today's dollars). Of course, in order to put up the sign they first had to build a pathway to the top of what would officially be named "Mt. Lee."  Chandler et al never got further than building a primitive road.  In 1926, the land with the enormous sign - which was already showing a bit of wear and tear - came into the hands of Mack Sennett, the enormously successful movie producer and owner of the Keystone studios. 

                        Beaachwood Canyon in the mid-1920's. 

                        Beaachwood Canyon in the mid-1920's. 

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         Peg's Suicide Makes Page 1 of the  New York Times

         Peg's Suicide Makes Page 1 of the New York Times

The actual "Hollywoodland" sign made its way back into the news in a big way on September 16, 1932, when a distraught 23-year old Welsh-born stage actress named Peg Entwistle committed suicide by climbing up to the top of the "H" and then leaping to her death.  Entwistle, who had appeared on Broadway in the late 1920's was known both for her talent and her good flapper-esque looks.  Film immortal Bette Davis often proclaimed that Peg was the reason she decided to be an actress after witnessing one of her stage performances. “I had to be an actress, exactly like Peg Entwistle,” explained Davis. Peg was often cast in comedies as an attractive, good hearted  ingénue, but her desire was to play more challenging roles.  Arriving in Hollywood in early 1931, Entwistle made the rounds of studios with little success.  It is a tale that thousands of wannnabe film stars can tell.  Indeed, there is an old Hollywood saying that "The first requirement for becoming a star isn't talent, good looks or great luck; it's the ability to withstand repeated rejection." Apparently, Peg lacked that ability.  Just about the time Peg had hit rock bottom, she scored a feature part in an RKO picture called Thirteen Women, starring Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez (Jacob Stein) Myrna Loy, Florence Eldridge (the wife of actor Frederic March) and Jill Esmond (who had recently married Laurence Olivier). Peg was dismayed to learn that her 12 of her 16 minutes of screen time had been left on the cutting-room floor.  And so, she committed suicide by jumping from atop the sign.  Hikers found her body at the base of the sign along with a note which read "I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Thirteen Women opened the day after her body was discovered.  Today, 86 years later, all Peg is remembered for is her death, not her talent.

One direct result of Peg's suicide was that the ladder which long stood on the sign's backside (permitting workers to ascend in order to effect repairs) was taken away.  But for years thereafter, picnickers would go to the base of the sign, spread out their blankets and dine . . . while waiting to see if perhaps the ghost of Peg Entwistle would be joining them for a nosh.

Maintenance of the iconic sign fell by the wayside during the Great Depression, and by the mid-1940s, the sign was looking pretty sad. The “H” fell down—legend has it the sign's caretaker drunkenly plowed into it with his car—and the other letters were deteriorating. Though the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission wanted it completely torn down, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had different ideas. They offered to remove the “LAND,” then restore the remaining nine letters to promote the town.  This they did in 1949 . . . the year of my birth.  In the mid 1970s I lived within hiking distance of the sign on Argyle, several blocks above Hollywood Blvd.  By that time the Hollywood sign was looking every inch of its 50-plus years. An “O” had toppled down the hill, an “L” had been set on fire, and the other letters were falling apart. Hugh Hefner came to the rescue, holding a benefit gala where celebrities were able to “purchase” the new letters. Hefner himself bought the “Y,” Alice Cooper bought an “O” in honor of Groucho Marx, and Andy Williams sponsored the “W.” Other donors included Gene Autry, Warner Bros. Records, and Les Kelley of Kelley Blue Book. 

In the 1940s, Howard Hughes bought 138 acres of land surrounding the sign, intending to build a compound for himself and then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers. Plans fell through after Rogers broke up with him, and the Hughes estate did nothing with the property for decades. When they finally sold it for $1.7 million in 2002, developers announced a plan to divide the estate into five luxury home sites. The Trust for Public Land raised money to purchase it from the developers for $12.5 million in 2010. The sign’s previous rescuer, Hugh Hefner, chipped in $900,000.  The sign's letters have been altered a couple of times over the years:

  • In 1976, it was changed to “Hollyweed” to celebrate changes to marijuana laws. 
  • It read "Holywood" when the Pope visited in 1987.
  • It was briefly Ollywood during the Oliver North Iran-Contra hearings. 
  • It’s been used to root for football teams, including “Go Navy” in 1983 and “GO UCLA” for the 1993 UCLA-USC game. 
  • It even helped market a movie when animated character Holli Would was perched on top of the "D" to promote the film Cool World (1992). 

5 years ago, Sherwin-Williams freshened up each letter by removing all of the previous paint, then applying 105 gallons of primer and 255 gallons of exterior acrylic latex paint in the color “High Reflective White.”  

Throughout its 90-year history, the Hollywood(land) sign has been a symbol not only of a town which makes magic come true; it has served as an iconic totem for dreams and nightmares, music and mystery, dreams and delights.

May Harry Chandler's 18-month wonder stand watch over the movie capital for another 90 years . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

Buster Keaton and the Sound of Silents

    Keaton & Arbuckle in "The Butcher Boy" 

    Keaton & Arbuckle in "The Butcher Boy" 

Legend has it that when Joseph Francis Keaton IV was about 18 months old, he tumbled down a flight of stairs at home his parents were renting. Upon landing at the bottom of the stairs, magician Harry Houdini - a friend of the tykes parents - scooped up the tyke in his arms and said "That was a real buster!"  Thus was born a nickname which within less than two decades would be known all over the world.  Fast forward to 1917.  Walking down a street in Manhattan, the now 22-year old Buster Keaton - already a veteran star of vaudeville - ran into an old acquaintance, the 30-year old former vaudevillian and current slapstick comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  At the time of their chance meeting, Arbuckle was as popular a star as Charlie Chaplin - with whom he had costarred in several films for Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies.  Arbuckle, so the story goes, urged Keaton to come and check out his newly-created film company, "The Comique Film Corporation," and perhaps become a movie actor.  ("Comique" was owned by Joseph Schenck - pronounced Skenk - who would, within a half-dozen years,  become both Keaton's producer and  brother-in-law.)

The next day, so the story goes, Keaton went over to the Comique studio, which was located in a warehouse at 318-320 East 48th Street in a tough section of Manhattan. After walking around Arbuckle's 3rd floor space (the 1st floor being occupied by Schenk's wife, actress Norma Talmadge) Fatty asked Buster what else he'd like to see.  Quick as a flash, Keaton answered "THE CAMERA!"  Over the next 24 hours, Keaton, a born mechanic,  literally took a camera apart and put it back together not once but twice . . . in order to figure out how it worked and what it could do and could not do.  By the beginning of the third day, Keaton was ready to costar with Arbuckle in The Butcher Boy (photo above).  And thus, a star was born.

Keaton would go on to become a complete filmmaker. Like Chaplin, he was both a director and a first-rate editor.  He was also an ingenious cinematic engineer, whose films contained construction pieces which were actual costars.  The scene below, from Keaton's 1928 feature film Steamboat Bill, Jr., is arguably the most dangerous stunt ever put on film; that building facade falling on Buster actually weighed more than 2 tons. The entire company - save the cinematographer,  who had to stick around to hand crank the camera - hit in a trailer just off the set's sight-line.  They were afraid to watch, fearful that their boss was about to be crushed.

                                                   Buster Keaton's Italian Villa c. 1927

                                                   Buster Keaton's Italian Villa c. 1927

By 1925, Keaton was one of the world's best-paid and most popular film stars.  In 1926 Keaton purchased a 3 1/2 acre lot just behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and built a lavish - and I do mean lavish - 10,000 square foot home known forever more as "The Italian Villa."  (It's original address was 1004 Hartford Way; today it's called Pamela Drive.) Among his closest neighbors were Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino and Harold Lloyd.  The Keatons - Buster and his wife Natalie (Talmadge) were known for their Sunday bashes, in which food was plentiful and liquor flowed like Niagara.  Alas, Buster's Edenic existence wouldn't last for long.  Following what was arguably his greatest picture, The General, Keaton made what he later called "the greatest mistake of my life": he permitted his brother-in-law (and producer) Joseph Schenck to sell his contract to MGM. Suddenly, Keaton was an employee without his own studio and shorn of the right to use his own crew.  Then, Natalie filed for divorce, took their two boys and changed their names from Keaton to Talmadge.  Then, MGM started pairing him up with Jimmy Durante; an obvious attempt to elevate the old Schnozzola at Buster's expense.  As a result of all this Buster started drinking heavily; by 1932 was virtually unemployable and had to file for bankruptcy.  Natalie sold the Villa to cover her debts.  At one point it was the home of Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant and his wife, heiress Barbara Hutton. Actor James Mason and his wife Pamela (for whom the street was renamed) purchased the Villa for $84,000.00 in 1952.  (BTW, it's back on the market now and will only set the purchaser back $16.2 million . . . )

The 30's were pretty much a inebriated blur to Buster.  By the end of the decade he was back making one- and two-reelers for lesser studios and working as a 'comedy doctor' for the bigger ones.  Then he married his third wife, Eleanor Norris, an MGM dancer who was nearly a quarter century younger than "The Old Stone Face."  Things began looking up, for in addition to being his loving wife, Eleanor turned out to be Buster's biggest fan, his nurse and closest adviser.

And then there was actor James Mason . . . who we will get to in another couple of paragraphs.

The percentage of silent and early talking motion pictures which were destroyed, burnt or simply disappeared is appalling.  Virtually none of vamp Theda Bara's 44 feature films are known to exist as are the overwhelming majority of films produced/directed by D.W. Griffith. Researchers at the Library of Congress suggest that more than 75% of all films made between 1910 and 1930 no longer exist. In part this is because most - if not all - of the early movie moguls considered films to be commerce, not art.  Once they got past their first - and only - run studio heads burnt films, figuring that a) no one would want to view them a second time and b) film contained silver which could be extracted and then sold.  Then too, those films which were saved in metal cans were improperly stored and disintegrated.  A handful of stars - notably Charlie Chaplin and his best friend Douglas Fairbanks - considered their work to be art, and paid scientists a small fortune to come up with what would become known as 'Safety Film' celluloid which would not disintegrate if stored under optimal conditions.  As a result, virtually their entire oeuvre is, to this day, available.  

Where Chaplin and Fairbanks were both deliberate and driven to preserve their films, Buster just lucked into the immortality of his cinematic canon.  Like his stone-faced persona, Buster had a ministering angel looking out for him, ready to provide a miracle.  That miracle was performed by the British actor James Mason (1909-1984) and an American-born film collector named Raymond Rohauer (1924-1987).  As mentioned above,  Mason and wife Pamela purchased Keaton's Italian Villa in 1952. By then the Villa had been renovated, re-landscaped and subdivided to make way for three more mansions.  When the Masons first purchased the estate in 1952, they weren't aware that Buster had built a small workshop on the property where he spent a lot of his downtime tinkering around with various mechanical projects.  One day, Mason was out in the workshop and realized that the structure contained a false wall.  When a worker he had hired broke through that wall, they discovered a rather large safe.  Inside that safe they discovered . . . can after can after can containing canister after canister after canister of nitrate films . . . all made by Buster Keaton! 

What happened next is the stuff of legend.  

The way I heard it, not knowing precisely what to do with this cinematic cache, Mason drove over to the Silent Movie Theatre located at 611 Fairfax Avenue and offered the lot to the theater's founder John Hampton.  (Hampton and his wife Dorothy opened his silent theatre in 1942 - a time when silent movies had ceased to exist.  With the exception of a brief closure in 2017, the Silent Movie Theatre is still running nothing but silent pictures.  Hampton soon got hold of Ray Rohauer, who had befriended Buster at that very theater when he was a 20-year old film enthusiast.  Rohauer proceeded to raise sufficient funds to repair and restore Buster's films, and then begin showing them around the country.  He also decided to restore Keaton's legal rights to these films and provide him with the lion's share of all ticket sales.  Soon, Buster was on the way back up.  The next year, Buster was paid $50,000 for rights to his life story, which were turned into a (not very good) film starring Donald O'Conner, Ann Blyth and Rhonda Flemming.  This fee permitted Buster and Eleanor to purchase a ranch out in Woodland Hills (in the San Fernando Valley) at 22612 Sylvan Street  where Buster and Eleanor spent the rest of his life living among his St. Bernards,  his chickens and the miniature railroad which encircled his property.  By the time of his death on February 1, 1966, he had been back on top for more than a decade thanks mostly to Eleanor, but also to his gritty determination, his innate talent and an outright miracle coauthored by James Mason and Raymond Rohauer.

So what is the sound of silents? 

Applause, of course . . . 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

Make Me a Star!

Most die-hard classic movie fans know that John Garfield was born Julius Garfinkle, Edward G. Robinson Emmanuel Goldenberg, Cary Grant Archibald Alexander Leach and Joan Crawford Lucille Fay LeSueur.  It takes a world-class flicker freak to identify the following (the answers will be found at the end of this piece):

                  February 1910: The P.R. Stunt Supreme

                  February 1910: The P.R. Stunt Supreme

  1. Spangler Arlington Brugh
  2. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke
  3. Jane Alice Peters
  4. Clara Viola Cronk
  5. Ruby Stevens
  6. William Henry Pratt
  7. Alphonso d’Abruzzo
  8. Maurice Micklewhite
  9. Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko
  10. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. & Virginia McMath
  11. Dino Paul Crocetti & Jerome Joseph Levitch
  12. Melvin Kaminsky & Jerome Silberman

What few fans know is that  during the silver screen's first fifteen years,  the movie-going public had no idea what their favorite stars names were - let alone directors, producers or screenwriters; they were either completely anonymous, known by their character names (such as "Broncho Billy," whom we met in our last posting), or identified by some physical characteristic. As an example, years before the public knew the name Mary Pickford (Gladys Marie Smith), they were head-over-heels in love with a virginal young actress known simply as "The Girl With the Curls." Similarly, the silver screen's first matinee idol, Maurice Costello, (who would one day become John Barrymore's drinking buddy . . . not to mention father-in-law) was known as  either "The Dimpled Darling," or simply, "Dimples." 

There were two reasons why early movie stars had no names:

  1. Early studio owners and producers kept their actors (largely amateurs) anonymous, figuring that if the public knew their names, these nameless amateurs would demand higher salaries. (For the most part they earned $2.50 and $5.00 a day.)
  2. Those actors who did come from the legitimate stage didn't want theatre-goers or the fellow thespians to know that they were "slumming."  Most stage actors coming from the thee-ah-ter considered motion pictures decidedly déclassé. They managed to justify their "walk on the wild side" by convincing themselves (and their Broadway colleagues) they were only in it for the money . . . hence the anonymity.

That all changed in February, 1910. 

                      Carl Laemmle ((1867-1939) in 1910

                      Carl Laemmle ((1867-1939) in 1910

The two people most directly responsible for this revolution were an elfin mogul named Carl Laemmle and a Canadian-born actress known to the public as "The Biograph Girl."  Laemlle, originally from Laupheim, Germany emigrated to the United States as a young man with $50.00 in his pockets and an itch to make something of himself. By the age of 17 he was bookkeeper for the Continental Clothing Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Armed with an innate genius for self-promotion and a love of spectacle, he wandered into the nascent movie industry and in 1909, on a shoestring, created a production/distribution company with the pixiesque name "I.M.P.," which stood for "Independent Moving Pictures."  Its logo featured a suitably impish logo of a grinning devil wielding a pitchfork. It took guts to create IMP; in so doing, Laemmle would be forced to take on Thomas Alva Edison's "Motion Pictures Patents Trust," which ordained that any company wishing to use an Edison-made camera had to pay his trust a royalty for every foot of film exposed.  Against tremendous odds, Laemlle successfully took on Edison and proved  in court that the Trust was in violation of the Sherman Anti Trust Act.

Step one.

Next, Laemmle decided to enhance both his image and that of his company by stealing away and signing the most popular movie star of the day: the Canadian-born Florence Lawrence, who had been a stage actress since age 6.  Moving over to moving pictures in about 1906, Florence worked first for the Vitagraph Company and then for Biograph, whose director was the great D.W. Griffith.  So taken was the public with this incredibly photogenic young woman with the most expressive face on celuloid, that they flooded the studio, (located at 11 East 14th St. near Union Square) demanding to know her name.  When the studio refused to reveal her name, her hundreds of thousands of fans took to calling her, simply "The Biograph Girl."  Making upwards of three one-reel films a week, Florence made a fortune for Biograph, which paid her a mere $25.00 (about $655.00 in today's money) a week.  Needless to say, Florence was dissatisfied, and surreptitiously, began contacting other studios to find out if anyone might be willing to pay her more.  When Biograph found out about what she was doing, they fired her.  But Florence wasn't out of work for long.

Enter Carl Laemmle.

Laemmle, who as mentioned above, had a flair for self-promotion and publicity stunts, came up with a doozy which he shared with the Biograph Girl.  She agreed to go ahead with it . . . especially since Laemmle agreed to pay her an astounding $125.00 a week (about $3.200.00 in today's dollars. What Laemmle did was to stage a ruse to publicize his new leading lady.  

Laemmle planted a newspaper story in February 1910 that the “Biograph Girl” had been struck and killed by a streetcar, and then took out an advertisement in an industry newspaper to debunk the story. “We Nail a Lie” (see facimile above) declared the IMP advertisement, which blamed rival studios for the deception of its own creation and announced that not only was Lawrence alive, but that she would star in its next film.

 

              The Story That Gave Birth to Stardom

              The Story That Gave Birth to Stardom

A star was born.  Shortly thereafter, Laemmle revealed to the public the name of one of the heretofore leading male heartthrobs: King Baggot, the first "King of the Movies."  Before too long, an ever-increasing number of photo-players were known by name and, as the early producers feared, were paid more and more money.  Within four years, a Jewish girl from the North Avondale section of Cincinnati named Theodosia Goodman, would be renamed "Theda Bara" (supposedly an anagram for "Arab Death," turned into a vamp and paid $4,000.00 a week by William Fox (Fuchs), the eponymous founder of everything Fox. (BTW, Theda's $4,000.00 is the equivalent of nearly $95,000.00 per week . . . and at a time when there was no such thing as an income tax.)

Lawrence and Laemmle's fortunes would go in opposite directions.  Florence Lawrence would make some 55 pictures for Carl Laemlle's IMP Company over the next year, then move on to the Lubin Company for which she would make another 75 pictures.  By 1916, her career was on a downward spiral; over the next 20 years she would appear on screen (frequently as an uncredited extra) in but 20 pictures for such "Poverty Row" studios as Nestor, Supreme, M.H. Hoffman and Ben Wilson Productions.  By the end of 1938, Florence Lawrence, the "Biograph Girl" and world's first motion picture star with a name was dead . . . the victim of suicide.  It was depressing when an adoring public did not know her name back before 1910; it became lethally so when the public had totally forgotten her . . . 

For Carl Laemmle, things went in the precise opposite direction . . . up, up, up.  In 1915, "IMP" became "Universal Studios," with a 237-acre facility located in an area just outside Hollywood proper forever known as "Universal City."  At the studio's two-day grand opening (March 15 and 16, 1915) which was attended by the crème de la crème, including Henry Ford and literally thousands of locals, the young John Ford, then an assistant director, occasional actor and all-round roustabout, managed to burn down an entire Western set which quickly spread to the rest of the studio, nearly burning it to the ground. The quick-on-his-feet, nearly fired Ford claimed that he had done it on purpose in order to get spectacular footage for an upcoming Western film!  He was subsequently hired to direct cowboy pictures . . . and the rest is history.  Within 3 years, Laemlle's Universal Studios had more than 6,000 employees, a vast number of whom were relatives including future director William Wyler and his 18-year old secretary Irving Thalberg, who would eventually become the legendary production manager at MGM.  Indeed, Laemmle had so many cousins, nieces, nephews and children working for him that all Hollywood grew to know the line "Carl Laemmle (pronounced lem-lee) has a big femiy . . ."  And of course today, Universal is as big as ever.

But for all his accomplishments, Laemmle's most important  - and certainly most enduring - may well have been giving stars the right to have names . . .  either the ones they were born with or the ones they were assigned by their studios, agents or publicists.

And speaking of names, here are the Hollywood names of the people listed at the beginning of this piece:

  1. Spangler Arlington Brugh: Robert Taylor
  2. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke: Mary Astor
  3. Jane Alice Peters: Carole Lombard
  4. Clara Viola Cronk: Clair Windsor
  5. Ruby Stevens: Barbara Stanwyck
  6. William Henry Pratt: Boris Karloff
  7. Alphonso d’Abruzzo: Alan Alda
  8. Maurice Micklewhite: Michael Caine
  9. Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko: Natalie Wood
  10. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. & Virginia McMath: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  11. Dino Paul Crocetti & Jerome Joseph Levitch: Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis
  12. Melvin Kaminsky & Jerome Silberman: Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder

That's pretty much how a Hollywood brat born with the last name "Schimberg," got lawfully "Stoned" when he was 7 . . . 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

"Broncho Billy" - Filmdom's 1st Cowboy Star

         "Broncho Billy" Anderson (Max Aronson)

         "Broncho Billy" Anderson (Max Aronson)

For more than a century, one of Hollywood’s perennial character-types has been the cowboy.  Indeed, much of the world “knows and understands” the American West through our cowboy stars. From  the flash, white-hatted Tom Mix, the "good bad man" William S. Hart, daffy Hoot Gibson and the gentlemanly Fred Thomson in the silent era; to square-jawed Richard Dix, the prototypical John Wayne (born Marion Michael Morrison)  the singing  Oron Grover "Gene" Autry, drunken Ken Maynard and all-American Roy Rogers (Leonard Slye) in the era of talkies; and James Arness ("Matt Dillon"), Clayton Moore ("The Lone Ranger)", Clint Eastwood ("Rowdy Yates"and James Garner ("Bret Maverick") in the television era, cowboys rode and roped, saved towns and strummed guitars (at one point during his interminable apprenticeship even John Wayne played a singing cowboy called “Singing Sandy”), saved maidens and embodied all that which was best, bravest and most heroic about the American West. And we got to know their horses as well:

 

·      

  • “Tony” (Tom Mix),
  • “Pinto Ben” (William S Hart)
  • “Midnight” (Hoot Gibson)
  • “Silver King” (Fred Thomson)
  •  “Dice” (Richard Dix)
  •  “Duke” (John Wayne - who gave him his nickname.  It's an inside Hollywood joke: "even, Duke, his horse, was a better actor . . .")
  •  “Champion: (Gene Autry)
  •  “Tarzan” (Ken Maynard)
  • “Trigger” (Roy Rogers)
  • “Buck”  “Marshall Dillon")
  •  “Silver” (“The Lone Ranger”)
  • “Jouster” ("Rowdy Yates")
  • “El Loaner” (“Bret Maverick”)

 

They were all – with the possible exception of William S. Hart, filmdom’s first and greatest “good bad man”- the epitome of courage, morality and erect, ramrod righteousness.  Collectively, they portrayed a type of American icon known from Tirana to Turkmenistan and from Christchurch to Cairo.

 

Of course, few were real westerners; they were actors portraying cowboys:

  • Tom Mix was from Pennsylvania and fought in the Spanish-American war;
  • William. S. Hart came from Upstate New York, and before entering movies was a renowned stage actor who starred in the original 1899 production of Ben Hur;
  • Fred Thomson (the husband of Mary Pickford’s favorite screenwriter) was a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary;
  • John Wayne played football at USC (along with future Western perennial Ward Bond)'
  • Gary Cooper, the son of a Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court, was educated in England and worked as a cartoonist;
  • James Stewart was a graduate of Princeton;
  • Richard Dix (Ernest Brimmer) studied to be a surgeon at the University of Minnesota.

Then there were the classic movie stars (both male and female) who - unbelievably - did make at least one western:

  • James Cagney ("The Oklahoma Kid," 1939)
  • Edward G. Robinson ("The Violent Men," 1954)
  • Humphry Boart ("Virginia City," (1940)
  • Barbara Stanwyck ("Annie Oakley," 1935)
  • Jack Benny ("Buck Benny Rides Again," 1940)
  • Rita Hayworth ("Trouble in Texas," 1937)
  • Carole Lombard ("The Arizona Kid." 1930)
  • Spencer Tracy ("Broken Lance," 1954)
  • Fred MacMurray ("Day of the Bad Man," 1954)

 

Broncho Billy.jpg

Unquestionably, the least prepossessing of all cowboy stars was the very first: “Broncho Billy” Anderson (that’s him in the photo at the beginning of this essay). Known to the public as “Gilbert M. Anderson,” this pot-bellied six-footer knew next to nothing about guns and when it came to horses, knew less than nothing. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, the movie world’s first cowboy star (and first Jewish star of any kind) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1880. His real name was Maxwell Henry Aronson. At the turn of the century, the 20-year old , Max moved to New York, where he became a photographer’s model and did a bit of acting in little theaters. Adopting the distinctly non-Jewish name “Gilbert Anderson,” Max started hanging around companies which made “flickers” – two, three and four-minute moving photos which “real” (viz. stage) actors considered totally déclassé. Finally, in 1903, Max played at least three separate roles in the seminal Western, The Great Train Robbery (believed by virtually every film historian to be the first narrative movie). If you ever get the chance to see The Great Train Robbery (follow this link to the YouTube video), you will note that Broncho Billy was such an inept horseman that he actually tried to get on his mount from the right side . . . a major no-no.  (That’s Billy playing the dancing tenderfoot in the hand-tinted photo on the right.) (That’s Billy playing the dancing tenderfoot in the hand-tinted photo on the right.) Max would go on to write, produce, direct and star in nearly 1,000 films between 1903 and 1965. 

                                            The Essanay Studio

                                            The Essanay Studio

In 1905, Aronson (Anderson) along with a partner by the name of George K. Spoor,  created his own studio.  Putting the first letter of their last names together, Spoor and Anderson became “Essanay.” Originally making films in Chicago with the likes of the teenage Gloria Swanson and cross-eyed Ben Turpin (who received filmdom’s first pie in the face in a 1909, half-reel film called Mr. Flip, directed by Max Aronson), they were able to turn out 3 or 4 short films a week.  After a couple of years in the Windy City, they went out west, building a major studio in Niles, California (that’s it on the left), which today is a touristy district within the city of Fremont. In 1915, Anderson stole Charlie Chaplin away from Mac Sennett’s Keystone Studio, where in 1914 Sennett produced 34 one- and two-reel Chaplin shorts. Sennett paid Chaplin the then-majestic sum of $150.00 a week.  In 1915, Essanay lured Chaplin away from Keystone by offering him a nearly 850% increase in salary for directing and starring in a dozen two-reel films. His first film for Aronson/Anderson was the aptly titled His New Job. One of these shorts – the twenty-nine minute “The Tramp” – gave Chaplin’s immortal character its nickname. For starring in these 10 two-reel shorts, Anderson (Aaronson) paid Chaplin the unprecedented sum of $1,250.00 a week plus a $10,000.00 signing bonus. (In 1915, a decent income was $500.00 a year.) Chaplin’s time with Essanay would be brief; in 1916, the then 27-year old cinematic genius left Essanay and signed with the Mutual Film Corporation, which agreed to pay him the toothsome salary of $10,000.00 per week plus a $150,000.00 signing bonus for making precisely 12 films..  In 1917, Chaplin would build his own studio at the corner of La Brea and Sunset; today, this property, which still looks like an English village, is the home of  the Jim Henson Studios. In  and agreed to pay him the toothsome salary of $10,000.00 per week plus a $150,000.00 signing bonus for making precisely 12 films.

 

                       Maxwell Henry Aronson in Real (as Opposed to "Reel") Life

                       Maxwell Henry Aronson in Real (as Opposed to "Reel") Life

What Anderson and Spoor may have lacked in cinematic panache, they more than made up in p.r. brilliance.  Case in point: in 1908, they announced a contest to find a one-word equivalent to “moving picture show,” “five-cent theatre” or "nickelodeon," all of which were deemed inadequate. The contest was Essanay’s attempt to uplift the movie industry.  Over 2,500 suggestions were received by the closing day, September 1st, and a $100 prize was awarded to Edgar Strakosch, owner of three theaters in Sacramento. Strakosch's winning entry had the term “photoplay.” The name was appropriated for Photoplay, the best of the silent-era fan magazines, and used frequently in those days. It was a combination of p.r. stunts like this and an enormous output of one- and half-reel “photoplays” (costing, on average no more than $800.00 apiece), which made Essanay the most successful of the early film companies.  By 1910, Broncho Billy was making $50,000.00 a year. By 1912, he was pulling in three times that amount.  And, he continued riding the range, keeping the peace and rescuing the damsels as Broncho Billy in dozens upon dozens of short films with titles like “Broncho Billy’s Marriage,” “Broncho Billy and the Card Sharp,” and” Broncho Billy’s Word of Honor.” Indeed, Anderson was a one-man show. Throughout his career, he directed 469 films (a hefty percentage of which he starred in), acted in 349, non Broncho Billys,  and produced another 246.  (If you’d like to see an example of a Broncho Billy flick, click here) He could complete a typical one-reel film (about 11 minutes worth of screen time) in two days, and then get it out to theatres across the country within 48 hours.  Essanay even had its own train, complete with a car set up as an editing laboratory, which would permit them to travel and do location shooting.

 

In early 1914, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed Gilbert M. Anderson “The King of the Movies.”  In an article saluting him as the shining star of the Bay Area film community, he was compared to the British Empire (upon which the sun never set) saying: “At any time, some place on this earth, Bill is spurring his mustang across the screen.  He never quits.”  The newspaper estimated 11,000,000 people watched Broncho Billy perform on-screen every day of the year.  But alas, Anderson’s success was not to last; unlike up-and-coming independent producers, he and his partner Spoor refused to make full-length motion pictures.  By the beginning of “The Great War,” Essanay was beginning to creak along.  By the early 1920s, they were out of business. But before Essanay fully collapsed, Broncho Billy managed to get Spoor to buy him out.  At the time, estimates of Broncho Billy Anderson’s payday ranged from $500,000.00 to a million dollars. 

 

Anderson took some of this money and bought an ownership stake in the then world champion Boston Red Sox.  When Anderson’s Red Sox partner Harry Frazee wanted to raise capital to finance a Broadway play (some say it was No, No, Nanette  . . . but that’s an urban legend) he sold, against Broncho Billy’s advice, Babe Ruth, his best pitcher, to the New York Yankees.  Shortly thereafter, Broncho Billy left the Red Sox, and the team, suffering from what would become known as “The Curse of the Bambino,” wouldn’t win another World Series for nearly a century. Bill went on to produce Broadway shows himself – none of which earned a penny.

 

Max Aronson, who, despite being the world’s first great movie star was a fairly solitary man, would spend the remaining 50+ years of his life living in relative obscurity. In the early 1920s he produced a couple of one- and two-reel comedies starring Charlie Chaplin’s former understudy, Stan Laurel.  In one of these films, A Lucky Dog, Anderson teamed Laurel with a "heavy" named Oliver Hardy.  Though they would not become the revered team of “Laurel and Hardy” for nearly another 10 years, Broncho Billy can claim credit for having first brought them together.

 

                   "Broncho Billy" at Age 78

                   "Broncho Billy" at Age 78

In 1958 the Movie Picture Academy gave him an honorary Academy Award as a “motion picture pioneer” for his “contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.  In 1965, Broncho Billy came out of retirement to go before the cameras one last time: a cameo role as an old man in the Dan Duryea western “The Bounty Hunter.

 

Anderson was married to Mollie Schabbleman from 1910 until his death in 1971. They had one daughter, a Stanford graduate named Maxine, who would eventually become a highly successful Hollywood talent agent. The motion picture industry honored “Broncho Billy Anderson” with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine St. About three months ago – March 21, 2018 to be precise – a historical roadside marker was dedicated to Max Aronson, aka Gilbert M. Anderson, aka Broncho Billy, in Little Rock, Arkansas, across the street from his birthplace, 713 Center Street.  The marker was donated by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. 

 

At the time of the dedication ceremony, few people had any idea of who Broncho Billy was, let alone the fact that the first western star was a Jewish kid named Maxwell Henry Aronson . . .

 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

 

A Note of Welcome to "Tales From Hollywood & Vine"

 

Malvin Wald (1917-2008), was a truly gifted screenwriter. He was also the father of one of my oldest friends, Alan, whom I've mentioned in The K.F. Stone Weekly over the years. Mal was also part of a screen dynasty: his older brother Jerry (1911-1962) was both a screen writer ("Brother Rat," "They Drive By Night," "Peyton Place") and producer ("The Man Who Came to Dinner," "Key Largo," "Johnny Belinda," "Mildred Pierce.") Jerry has long been cited as the real-life inspiration for the character "Sammy Glick" in the 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? written by Bud Schulberg. (Schulberg's novel, by the way, is generally considered to be the  greatest Hollywood novel of all time, bar none. 

        Alan and Kurt  in Clint Eastwood's "Coogan's Bluff"

        Alan and Kurt  in Clint Eastwood's "Coogan's Bluff"

Alan and I spent a lifetime sitting next to one another in school (we sat in alphabetic order), were lab partners in chem class, and had the pleasure of playing hippy extras in Clint Eastwood's 1967 film Coogan's Bluff. (In the photo to the left, Alan's the bearded fellow just under the upraised arm; I'm the black-headed kid in the serape with his back to the camera. In another scene, I was dressed as Sgt. Pepper.) A half-century later, Alan is still making a living as an extra. Although few people outside of Hollywood can identify his father, Malvin, just about everyone knows the most famous line of his most famous screenplay (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award): "There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them."  This new blog, Tales From Hollywood & Vine, is, in a way, an homage to Malvin . . . for indeed, there are "Eight million stories  coming from Hollywood & Vine, the crossroads of the film world."  For those of us who are collectively known as "Hollywood Brats," a lot of these stories are well known; we heard them at breakfast, lunch and dinner; many of them dealt with our neighbors, our friends' parents, our own parents . . . with people whom we went to school, shul, swimming lessons, or the barber shop . . .

For as long as I can remember, Hollywood - both the real town and the generic term - have been a focal part of my life.  Dad,  a Baltimore native who studied business at the University of Richmond, first hit Hollywood not too long after movies began to talk, intent on becoming the next Cary Grant or William Powell. (Ironically, in their latter years, Dad and Mr. Grant could easily have passed for white-haired identical twins!) Back in the '30s,  Dad had several things going for him: he was head-turningly handsome, well-spoken and was a tailor's delight. The one thing he lacked was acting talent. As the old Hollywood saw goes "He couldn't act, but he sure knew how to behave."  Despite never becoming an actor, the movie industry did eventually provide him with a good living; he wound up working for more than a half-century as a stock broker/investment advisor to a lot of Hollywood folks who otherwise would have spent every dime (and then some) they ever made.  Without him and the men and women of his brokerage firm, they probably would have spent their latter years living on scraps.

                                Mom and Lilian Gish in 1941

                                Mom and Lilian Gish in 1941

Mom, on the other hand, came out to Hollywood having already spent a few years on stage in her native Chicago.  She had  - and still has - a sort of Roselyn Russell "Auntie Mame" personality. (That's mom in the mirror, with the legendary actress Lillian Gish looking over her shoulder at the left.)  At the time the picture was taken - early 1941 - mom was appearing in the then-popular musical "Knickerbocker Holiday" at the Goodman Theatre, while Miss Gish, who learned the art of film from the legendary D.W. Griffith, was in the midst of a record-breaking 66-week run of "Life With Father" at the Blackstone.  Shortly after her play closed, Mom left for Hollywood, where she met Dad at a party thrown by her cousin Mitzie in Beverly Hills. They married in 1943 and would remain married until dad's passing in 2002.  Throughout their nearly 60-year marriage, Mom would occasionally return to the stage (notably in a revival of Arthur Laurents' "The Birdcage"), appear on radio, and keep her hand in the biz.  Today, she is as active and beautiful as ever.  (n.b.: Sorry for the bad quality of the photo of her and Miss Gish, but it is more than 75 years old.  The picture of her below, taken some 70 years later, shows her still looking like a star. 

                        Mom, more than 70 Years After Photo With Lillian Gish 

                        Mom, more than 70 Years After Photo With Lillian Gish 

Having been born in Hollywood and raised both in and around the movie industry, we (me and my "slightly-older-sister" Erica [Riki]) kind of took it for granted that being an actor, writer, director or musician was what everybody did.  Our neighborhood was filled with people in the industry. Lots of our friends' parents were in film or television, and we went to school with a lot of future actors and musicians.  As an added bonus, a lot of these folks were on my paper route.  I well remember delivering the Greet Sheet (yes, the front page was actually light green!) to the likes of Milburn Stone ("Doc" on Gunsmoke), Bill Williams and his wife Barbara Hale ("Kit Carson" and "Della Street"), Jack Elam (one of filmdom's great bad guys), and Hershel Bernardi, to name but a few.  The kids included the young Bobby Redford (who would wash his car  shirtless in the front yard), Tom Selleck (a great basketball player in high school), William Katt (the son of "Kit Carson" and "Della Street" who would go on to star as "The Greatest American Hero" and "Paul Drake"), brothers Barry and Stanley Livingston ("My Three Sons") Jo Ann Harris and legendary composer Tom Scott.  We even had a dog star in our neighborhood: "Paloma," a white standard French Poodle who was famous in the 1950s and '60s for being dyed different colors for various films. I best remember her playing Jane Mansfield's hand-dyed pooch (with whom she took a bath) in the 1957 comedy "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" In between films, when Palooma's owners, the Yortis's, let her fur grow out, Paloma would revert to being just another neighborhood dog; while in the midst of a shoot, however, she became a bit of a canine snob.  Ah, such memories!

In a life filled to overflowing with serious subjects and serious activities - medical research protocols, university lectures, political speechwriting, weekly political essays and sermons - writing about Hollywood is as pleasurable and utterly intoxicating as indulging in a carafe of vintage wine and tray of canapés at the end of a long day.  I have long been looking forward to creating this blog; my film students have long been prodding me to put the stories I tell on paper . . . or in this case into HTML.

Without question, film is the most collaborative of all art forms.  And without a doubt, it is art - although art largely in the service of profit.  (Originally, the term "movies" referred to all those nameless people who appeared on the screen, because they "moved.")  Every "flicker," "galloping ghost-type, "film" or "motion picture" relies on the skills, the expertise and quirks of hundreds of people in order to create something the public will want to see.  By and large, these creative people - actors, writers, directors, editors, composers, musicians, set-designers, make-up artists, carpenters, electricians, caterers, etc. are rarely your average drink of water; they are, generally speaking, a bit unconventional than average, to put it mildly.  Hollywood - both the place and the Platonic absolute - is akin to a steamer-trunk of tales to be told.  It is my intention to post perhaps two articles a month dealing with Hollywood trivia, a "behind-the-scenes" look at the making of well-known films, a bit of Hollywood history, a personal insight into a star who was just a neighbor, or gossip known mostly - if not exclusively - to Hollywood Brats like Alan Wald and yours truly.  I hope you will enjoy reading these bi-weekly pieces nearly as much as I will no doubt enjoy writing them.

Lights!  Camera! Action!  

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone