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Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Rita Hayworth throws herself into the bullring and takes
down Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand.

Blood and Quicksand

In the Golden Era, the battle of Stars vs. the Studios was a constantly waged and painstakingly contained one. A star could use his or her box-office power to get away with a lot of things that the top dogs would otherwise refer to as "deviant behavior," but the moguls too had ways of getting their performers to toe the line. One method was "career threat." When a celebrity got too pushy or started to go too far, another, younger actor would be presented-- one who was almost a double of the alleged offender. This was the studio's way of saying: "Go ahead. Misbehave. There are plenty of people waiting to take your place." This ominous warning would often cause whatever diva was having a tantrum to back down. It was but one of many games in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood, where biting the hand that feeds was the appetizer de rigueur. Victims and villains were hard to tell apart: moguls thought that they were betrayed by the childish, narcissistic stars they had helped to create, and stars thought that they were abused, overworked, and under-appreciated by the greedy men behind the metaphorical curtain. In such an environment, if you weren't a business mastermind, it was often hard to keep your head above water. Suffice it to say, there were rarely winners, and mostly losers.

Carole Landis (left) was one of the many who played the game and lost, though her complete victimization by the system is not up for debate. An actress who was very far from the accepted cinematic Drama Queen, Carole was selfless, friendly, and hard-working. This did not, however, leave her free from punishment. Just being a woman in Hollywood was burden enough on its own. When Carole was signed at Twentieth-Century Fox, she quickly became accustomed to this fact. Early in her career, her beauty, singing talent, and natural charisma in front of the camera made her a prime pawn of actress intimidation. Low on the totem pole, Carole wasn't immediately given leading roles, for her box-office power hadn't been tested. Thus, her presence was used to intimidate other actresses-- whom she resembled in some respect-- and keep them in line. Alice Faye and Betty Grable were two unenthusiastic recipients of this maneuver. Her presence reminded them of their own career vulnerability. Carole, of course, was innocent of these studio machinations, and merely used whatever opportunity she had to better her standing and hone her acting skills. Slowly, with the help of the publicity machine and the public's growing attentions, Carole found her popularity rising. She gained a little position and started using it. Thus, she in turn found herself being equally intimidated by other actresses, some of whom snagged plum roles right out from under her.

A favorite beauty that Zanuck loved to use against Carole was Rita Hayworth (right), who was signed at rival studio Columbia Pictures. Zanuck's disdain for Carole had nothing to do with her professionalism and everything to do with her refusal to go to bed with him. After an initial affair, Carole put her foot down and claimed her independence, refusing to be further manipulated or taken advantage of. Zanuck thereafter went about trying to destroy her career, finding that nursing a bruised ego was more important than cashing in on a viable, talented asset. When a remake of Blood and Sand was presented to Fox for production, Carole was a front-runner for the role of Dona Sol, and she wanted it badly. But, instead of giving Carole a rich part that she could really sink her teeth into, not to mention one that could help to further her career, Zanuck paid Harry Cohn five times Rita Hayworth's salary to borrow her on loan-out for the role. He would commit the exact same crime when My Gal Sal was filmed, though Carole was allowed to remain in this picture. However, that time around she was forced to play a minor role beneath her stature, still under the starring Rita Hayworth. Rita, like Carole, was not guilty of any malevolence. In fact, the two had a lot in common, and were simply sweet women stuck in a rotten game. Today, it is hard to imagine anyone else beside Rita playing the seductive and heartless Dona Sol opposite Tyrone Power's toreador, but with Carole's equal talent and sex appeal, it makes one yearn for what could have been had she landed the part. The reason for the final outcome had less to do with perfect casting, and more to do with the fact that-- between the two of them-- the sensitive Rita was more apt to do as she was told. Carole??? She had less of a problem speaking her mind.

Love Me or Leave Me? Given the option...

Speaking of feisty women and toreadors, Hollywood's favorite She-Wolf, Ava Gardner, didn't take too kindly to orders. She too had had her fill of harsh studio treatment, and after playing nice for many years, she was no longer in the mood to sit back and do as she was told. After an arduous shoot on The Barefoot Contessa and an enduring, tumultuous marriage to Frank Sinatra, Ava now found herself in the hospital suffering severe pangs from kidney stones. MGM ordered her back to work starting on Love Me or Leave Me, but Ava was having none of it. For starters, they were ignoring her illness, claiming that she was "faking it," which ticked her off. Then, they offered her a part in a biopic musical (about the life of Ruth Etting) in which her voice would certainly be dubbed, which ticked her off more. After the humiliation of singing her heart out in Show Boat (left) only to have her voice replaced by Annette Warren, Ava was not about to go through an embarrassing repetition. She refused, mostly because she didn't like lip-syncing and looking like "a goddamn goldfish." At her wit's end emotionally and physically, she said "hell no" and headed for Europe, leaving the way free and clear for Doris Day, for whom co-star James Cagney had been enthusiastically rallying. Doris was known up to now as a pretty, ever-smiling songstress, but this role allowed her to indulge in her underutilized talents. The depth and pain she gave to her interpretation opened a lot of eyes, though she would rarely get this serious again. She soon after hit her stride in romantic comedies opposite the likes of Rock Hudson. As for Ava, she preferred Spain... and its bullfighters.

James Cagney fought to have Doris Day star opposite him in 
Love Me or Leave Me. He chose a perfect sparring partner, and the duo
 produced some poignant and painful scenes together.

Opportunity Always Rings Twice

The hot and heavy film noir masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice, whose success depended very much upon the chemistry of its leading characters, could have been a very different film. Originally, Joel McCrea was offered the role of Frank Chambers. However, Joel was always very astute about his career and his star persona, and he turned the role down, not thinking himself right for it. So, the offer was given to the darker, more rugged John Garfield, who was ecstatic at the opportunity. Unfortunately, just as filming was about to begin, WWII came roaring onto the scene, and John backed out of the film to fight overseas. Then, John was refused entree into the service because of his heart condition. Deeply upset, he felt that he had missed out on two golden opportunities: the role of a lifetime and the chance of a lifetime to serve his country. Luckily, MGM offered him the role again, and this time Chambers was his. This was a fortunate result. The steamy connection between John and Lana Turner (together, right) remains one of the most romantic and dangerous cinematic couplings of all time. Becoming thick thieves and pals behind the scenes helped them to create a trusting and relaxed environment, which left them free to explode on the screen. Joel McCrea could certainly hold his own with the ladies, but his boy-next-door, "aw' shucks" persona did not have the same edge nor sexual dynamism of Garfield. John would recall this film as one of his favorites, and his partnership with Lana did not end when the filming stopped: they remained lifelong friends.

Queen Kong???

When Merian C. Cooper embarked on his now iconic adventure film, King Kong, he had a clear vision. From the outlandish story to the bold and fascinating new special effects that he intended to use, he was determined to create an incredible new world for his viewers. However, he was also aware that making a film that starred a huge, stop-motion monkey was going to be a hard one for audiences to buy. He needed to give viewers an emotional connection, one which would allow them to suspend their disbelief and get swept up into the unimaginable universe which he had invited them. The key was in casting the right girl to play Kong's captive/daughter/love interest, Ann Darrow. The actress would need to be able to relay sincere reactions and emotions, ranging from feminine sensitivity to abject fear. Merian needed an unparalleled beauty, both inside and out, to kill his beast. He found it in Fay Wray, (left) who seemed born for the role by name alone, as her horrified shrieks provided a vast amount of the film's resulting soundtrack. When Merian first offered her the part, he told her very little other than that she would be starring opposite the "tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." Fay's heart, which was all aflutter at the prospect of working with Cary Grant, was quickly palpitating for other reasons when she learned the truth! Her part in King Kong remains her most famous performance, which has kept her very much alive in the public consciousness. This is fortunate for her, since the role almost when to Dorothy Jordan...or Jean Harlow! Jean's version certainly would have been interesting and perhaps a bit more provocative, though it would be hard to imagine a sweet and sexy Jean screaming at an ape for an hour. With her demeanor, they probably would have hunkered down and played a hand of cards after the first 5 minutes... All the better for Merian's decision: he needed a girl who could scream, not seduce!

A match made in Movie heaven. Fay's probably missing Cary about now...


  1. well done Mer. I didn't know that production on Postman was begun before the war. I think many actresses were used over at Fox by Zanuck. Makes me wish they could all have been as tough as Ava. Thanks

  2. Hey Billy! Yeah, I know, right? The more I learn, the scarier this city and its history becomes! Good thing it has enough bright spots to balance it out. :)