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Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Unlike most starlets, Jean Harlow liked to pal around with the
 crew in between takes. Indeed, she did them many favors...

Barbara Stanwyck (left) had a reputation around Hollywood. A good one. She was the consummate professional on the set and consistently impressed her director and co-stars. Members of the film crew were too fans and always gave her a big, warm greeting when she appeared on the sound stage every day. But, Babs went through a rough patch after her separation from Robert Taylor in 1952. She still put on a brave front, but the entire episode had been taxing to her mentally and emotionally. Her sense of self was at a low and her sexual confidence too was not what it used to be. As a result, while she was still hard-working on the set, she was also not herself. She didn't seem to trust herself as she used to. Fritz Lang, who directed her in Clash by Night, was one of many who recognized this. Her angst came to the fore when Babs uncharacteristically took umbrage with a particular scene, insisting that it was badly written and that she didn't want to do it. The plot of the film revolved around a sexually undernourished woman who cuckolds her husband. Fritz drew a connection between the plot and Babs's personal life-- in which she had been cuckolded-- and decided to use it to his advantage, and hers. While discussing the scene, Fritz asked if he could speak honestly. "Naturally," Babs replied. Fritz then stated that he felt nothing was wrong with the scene nor the writing, but that Babs-- via the material-- was being reminded of recent events in her own life. It was thus she that was "off," not the script. This information seemed to take her by surprise and knock her off balance. Babs took a long look at Fritz, drew in a  breath, and seemed to come to a realization. She finally replied: "You son of a bitch." With that, she took but a moment to get in character, hit her mark, and filmed the 2 1/2 page scene perfectly in one take. Babs was back. Good thing Fritz was a smart son of a bitch!

Clearly, Barbara's down to earth, straight-shooter demeanor was what ingratiated her to the people she worked with, and to her fans as well. However, this non-diva persona would ironically also get her into trouble. Babs was far from a glamour goddess. This may have had a lot to do with her harsh upbringing, where she simply valued the integral over the superficial. She also, like all women, was secretly self-conscious and did not have a great deal of confidence in her beauty. As a result, it would take her awhile to find her footing in terms of Hollywood fashion, though with the help of designers like Edith Head, she would eventually prove to not only wear gorgeous clothes but wear then well. Of course, this was only on the screen. In reality, she was still the same old Babs. This is what landed her in trouble. She would be riding on a high when she wrapped on Stella Dallas in 1937. Proud of her performance, she was ecstatic about seeing the finished product at its premiere. When she approached the theater, however, she was man-handled and kept at bay by one of the policeman, who was acting as a security guard. He wouldn't let her pass! In her casual garb, he mistook her for one of the screaming fans, not believing that someone so simply dressed could be a movie star, let alone the star of the film! Luckily, Babs finally got past the brute, who certainly felt like a horse's ass after he realized that he had been detaining the Barbara Stanwyck. Babs learned a valuable lesson that day: fame is the key, but fashion is the ticket. (She shows her lighter side, right).

The Kennedy family nearly established the long abiding relationship between film and politics. The tradition Joseph Kennedy started with his  formation of RKO Pictures and his affairs with Gloria Swanson and Marlene Dietrich was continued by his son John, who made no qualms about his determination to go to Hollywood and... "introduce himself" to Sonja Henie. His list of conquests would come to include a fairly public affair with Marilyn Monroe and a bromance with Frank Sinatra. Both pairings would end badly. Another lady who had temporarily fallen into his trap was Gene Tierney (left), remembered today as one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen. While separated from husband Oleg Cassini, Gene began filming on Dragonwyck and met JFK, who made an impromptu visit to the set. Now, Gene was a smart lady, but in her vulnerable state, it wasn't difficult for the charming future president to seduce her. All of his compliments and attentions worked like a tonic on her, and soon enough they were enjoying an affair. At the very least, she was able to enact a little revenge on her philandering husband, Oleg. However, the tryst only lasted a year. Gene was head over heels in love, but-- as with most politicians-- Jack's intentions weren't honorable. He had aspirations toward the White House and considered a marriage to a film star to be in conflict with these ambitions. Like his father, he considered Hollywood to be his own private brothel and little more. Gene was broken hearted and betrayed. She managed to temporarily patch things up with Oleg, though the marriage was not to last. Just as she was getting her divorce, Jack was marrying his ideal mate, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. By 1960, he was running for President. The entire country seemed to be falling under his spell... except Gene. She knew the man on intimate terms, and thus knew that what he promised and what he did were two different things. She voted for Nixon.

Jean Harlow was a sweetie-pie. If there was one thing the world at large could agree on, it was this. An inhumanly beautiful woman with an honest disposition and warm temperament, she didn't seem to have a cruel bone in her body. And what a body! Jean wasn't modest or ashamed when it came to her sexuality, as could be seen in her nude pictorial taken at the popular Griffith Park by photographer friend Edwin Bower Hesser. It was just the human body, what was the big deal? (You've seen one ass, you've seen 'em all). Of course, her controlling mother often coaxed her into displaying her more sensual side, because that was what drew attention and-- in Hollywood-- acting roles. Still, at the very least, Jean was able to maintain a sense of humor about it. If destiny decided to make her sexual joke, then by damn she was going to be the one laughing the loudest! Because she was able to make such fun of herself, she endeared herself to many of the men around her, who quickly saw the little girl beneath the erotic facade. As such, she was able to become chums with men like Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, who otherwise would have been more inclined to seduce her. Instead, she won her way into their hearts and became like a sister to them. Clark in particular was protective of her, especially while filming Red Dust, portions of which had to be done after the "suicide" of Jean's husband, Paul Bern. Clark and director Victor Fleming, along with the rest of the male-heavy crew, were very supportive of her during her grief. This was their way of saying "thank you" to the girl that had brought so much sunshine into their lives-- an example of which occurred before the Bern tragedy. Jean was filming her infamous bathing sequence in a barrel with Clark (right). As the cameras rolled, before Victor called "action," Jean stood up from the barrel, topless, and shouted out: "This is for the boys in the editing room!" She then plunged back into the barrel, laughing hysterically with the rest of the very appreciative male crew. Unfortunately, the 'boys in the editing room' never got to see Jean's present. Victor immediately removed the film from the camera and destroyed it, knowing that if it ever got out it would be a publicity nightmare for her. Well, at least she tried!

Carrol Baker's (left) relationship with producer Joe Levine was not a happy one. They had a lengthy work relationship that spanned several films and, as she was under contract to him, he acted more finitely as her agent. Levine and her husband of the time, Jack Garfein, often behaved as an offensive team in pressuring her to take jobs she wasn't interested in. As such, over time, her antipathy for Levine grew, and she came to resent his boorish manners and at times underhanded business tactics. At one point, she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the brutal work regimen and constant mental and emotional stresses the men in her life were putting her through. A tough cookie, she eventually pulled herself together, crawled out from under her husband-- whom she had been supporting nearly their entire marriage-- and exorcised herself from Levine's control. In time, she let bygones be bygones and-- having reached a much better place in her life-- decided to not look back on her relationship with Levine with bitterness. After all, she had not been the only person to suffer under his tyranny. Later, she found herself in Rome on St. Patrick's Day, celebrating at the Irish Embassy. Suddenly, she felt herself being grabbed from behind. Before she knew it, she was spun around and was being bent backward in a passionate kiss from none other than Peter O'Toole! She had never met Peter, so she was obviously flabbergasted. "I love you!" he exclaimed. "Isn't this rather sudden?" she laughed. Peter explained that he had loved her ever since he had learned that she too had "suffered under the producer of a thousand broken promises, Joseph Levine!" Peter had worked with the obviously unmannerly Levine on The Lion in Winter. While the picture was a phenomenon, Levine's less than stellar reputation had sullied at least Peter's opinion of him. For her part, Carroll was finally grateful that Levine had come into her life, if only because he had earned her a smacker from the tall Englishman with piercing blue eyes!

John Gilbert was the Lothario of the silver screen. Handsome, gentlemanly, passionate, intelligent... and humorous. He definitely hit all the marks on a lady's checklist, including that of his good friend and neighbor Colleen Moore (right). Colleen had watched John indulge in and survive several romantic relationships, including that with second wife Leatrice Joy and his lengthy, tumultuous affair with Greta Garbo. Yet, while Colleen found him charming, she had never succumbed to his charms, if only because she didn't think their friendship worth the sacrifice. It's not like she wasn't tempted, though. Colleen would recall throwing a party for some of her more elite, straight-laced Hollywood friends. It was a classy affair, and as a gracious and down-to-earth lady herself, quiet nights like this-- enjoying conversation with articulate friends-- was much more enjoyable than the rag-tag benders that some of the other stars decided to indulge in. Yet, the peaceful harmony of her modest soiree was surreptitiously interrupted. Colleen happened to notice out of the corner of her eye that her maid was making exaggerated hand motions to get her attention. Colleen politely excused herself and asked her housekeeper, "What's the haps?" Her maid then explained that there was an unexpected visitor waiting for her. Upstairs. In her bed. "What?!" Colleen quickly made her way to her bedroom only to find John Gilbert lying in wait. He sat on her bed, under the covers, with a big grin on his face: "Well, here I am, you lucky woman!" Colleen couldn't help herself. She burst out laughing! This seemed an offer too good to refuse... But what to do about her uptight guests? Colleen stumbled back downstairs, her face probably still red from cackling, and quickly ushered her friends out the door. All this time, she wasn't quite certain whether she was going to accept John's seductive offer, or merely laugh off the incident as another one of his intoxicated blunders. However, he made the decision for her. When she returned to her bedroom, he had already gone. Oh, missed opportunities... In any case, this remained one of her favorite, hysterical memories of her troubled, boyish, and always adorable friend.

John tries his moves on Lillian Gish instead, in La Boheme.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Errol Flynn as immortalized by friend John Decker.

The latest batch of trivia tid bits and humdingers. Didja know...

... that Babs wore blackface?

It was only once, and I assure you not for any sort of racist intent. While filming Ball of Fire, cinematographer Gregg Toland was hoping to punch up the style on a romantic scene between Barbara Stanwyck (left) and Gary Cooper. In the script, Coop's  "Professor Potts" comes to Barbara's "Sugarpuss O'Shea" the night before their wedding to profess his love for her. She, in the meantime, is trying to finagle a way out of the matrimonial plans and escape with her gangster boyfriend, "Joe Lilac" (Dana Andrews). However, when the poetic yet understated Potts comes to her dark room, her emotional internal battle is supposed to come to the surface, and as his words reach her, the audience is meant to realize the depths of her feelings for him. In order to pull this off, Gregg got creative. He wanted Sugarpuss's eyes to shine out of the darkness as she silently watches Potts and listens to his heartfelt plea. Babs would thus be left to show the metamorphosis of predator to pussy cat through only her oculars. A novel concept, but one not easy to film. In order to create the illusion wherein Sugarpuss's eyes would truly pop from the blackness, Gregg had her put on blackface, so her skin would blend with the shadows, leaving only the whites of her eyes to be lighted. The plot worked, but the result was a bit odd. It became one moment in a screwball comedy that was somewhat terrifying, like something out of a horror movie. Instead of seeing a woman caught up in emotional turmoil, the audience is left with the impression of a dangerous feline stalking her prey: will she pounce on her victim, or embrace him? In any case, it made the final cut, as incompatible as it was with the rest of the light-hearted film. As ever, Babs would do anything for her work.

... that in silent films, there were no blue eyes allowed?

In the early process of filmmaking, there was a strange bigotry that manifested itself in the casting process. More often than not, brown-eyed actors were preferred as performers and thus had the upper hand when it came time to choose a cast. This wasn't personal; it was purely business. Lighter colored eyes simply didn't register as well in early films, due to the novice lighting procedures and orthochromatic film stock of the still infantile artistic medium. For example, you can see in Stan Laurel's early films that his eyes appear almost translucent, which gives him an unintentionally creepy effect. Since eyes are the windows to the soul, directors wanted players whose peepers would photograph well. Blue eyes came off a bit vacant and blank, whereas darker eyes were captured in all their detail. Dark eyed Mary Pickford was thus an ideal actress, as was Lon Chaney. As times improved and technology picked up the pace, this eye issue was an issue no more, but for a time it was a hassle-- particularly for a perfectionistic director like Cecil B. DeMille. He was dying to have the great opera star Geraldine Farrar (right) in his romantic and erotic (of course) production of Carmen, but this saucy songstress had gray eyes. What was he to do? Improvise, of course. When filming Carmen's precursor with Geraldine, Maria Rosa, Cecil discovered that if her eyes were focused on a dark piece of cloth, her eyes appeared darker, (due to the expansion of the retinas). This meant that they photographed better. Thus, Cecil kept a piece of black velvet out of camera range and in her eye line, where Geri could gaze... and dilate. Voila! Her eyes were captured perfectly. Geraldine used this trick for the rest of her career.

... that Lulu wrote for Times?

Louise Brooks (left) may be remembered as one of the most beautiful silent film actresses of all time, but this woman had brains too. After she left Hollywood behind with 13 years worth of cinematic experience, she had plenty to say about Tinsel Town. What followed was a surprising career with the pen, writing film criticism and historical analyses of celebrity, which were printed in several publications, particularly in the foreign market. Of course, there is her notable biographical effort Lulu in Hollywood to take into account as well. However, those who were shocked at her brazen literary skills would perhaps be further surprised to learn that she had a 50-odd year head start in the profession of scripture. When Louise was working as a dancer in NYC, she was dating Herman Mankiewicz, then a drama critic for the "New York Times" (and today better known as being Joseph L's brother). On one of their outings, Herman took Louise to the opening performance of "No, No, Nanette." Louise played hooky from her gig at the Ziegfeld Follies to attend on her new beau's arm. Unfortunately, Herman liked liquor even more than he liked Louise, and by the time they arrived at the infamous Globe Theatre on Broadway, he was already schnockered. He promptly fell asleep, which-- apart from being rude-- was a poor career move, for he was expected to write a review of the performance. Louise, deciding to make the most of a bad situation, used this courting mishap to exercise her brain cells. She soaked in the play, took notes, and dutifully wrote Herman's review for him-- and did a bang up job of it too! She referred to it in overall positive terms, calling it "a highly meritous paradigm of its kind." Herman turned in the piece, and no one on staff at the illustrious paper ever knew that they had printed a review by an 18-year-old chorus girl!

... the skinny on Laird Cregar?

The media's influence on body perception and expectation is not a new topic. The more superficial and self-conscious society becomes, the more cases there seem to be of anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, etc. Starvation diets and intense workout regimens, cleanses and acai pills... Man, where'd the self-love go? As we continue to feed this body-conscious monster, the number of its victims continue to grow. Women are most popularly effected, but men too are being usurped by the apparent cult of "There is but One Form of Beauty" fanatics. Despite the fact that more curvaceous figures were favored in the studio era, women-- such as Rita Hayworth, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe-- were still induced to go on strict diets to maintain their trim physiques. But there would too be a very public male sufferer of this stress. Laird Cregar was growing in popularity at Twentieth-Century Fox as a character man who had delivered stellar supporting roles in films like Blood and Sand and This Gun for Hire. Yet, Laird was not satisfied with his films nor himself-- he longed to be a matinee idol like his co-star Tyrone Power. As such, he began an intense starvation diet, which quickly took him from 300lbs to 200 lbs. When filming began on Hangover Square, with him in a lead role (right) opposite Linda Darnell, he was noticeably thinner-- shockingly so. From the outside, it seemed that he was in good health and that he was doing a superb job getting himself in shape. However, he took his ambitions too far: he would die on Dec. 9, 1944 of cardiac arrest following a stomach operation-- a result of the stress he had put on his dwindling body. He was but 31-years-old. It doesn't always pay to be thin.

... that John Decker was the go-to guy for celebrity art?

John Decker was notorious in Hollywood for a number of reasons, one of which was his raucous friendships with Hollywood hellraisers like John Barrymore and W.C. Fields. He too was known for his artistic abilities and his unique gift of duplicating well known works of art. He once gave pal Thomas Mitchell a "genuine" Rembrandt of "Bust of Christ"-- Tom never knew that it was a forgery, and it was a private joke that John enjoyed until his early, alcohol fueled death in 1947. (It is now owned by Harvard). John was even more notorious around town for his portraits of stars, which in more cases than not were caricatures of sorts. While his talent for perfectly replicating faces on canvas with impeccable detail was certainly not humorous, his decision to use celebrity faces to bring to life other historical figures was creative, amusing, and at times absurd. This little twist was thoroughly enjoyed by his paying customers, who liked to see themselves both glorified and lampooned on such a grand scale. Some of his victims were Clark Gable painted as a cavalier, Katharine Hepburn as Mary of Scotland,  and W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Clark and Kate were not amused by their renditions, but the majority were. John did, of course, do the occasional straight portrait of his friends: Barrymore, Anthony Quinn, and Errol Flynn,etc. In the latter case, instead of making the obvious choice to depict Errol as a mythical knight or some other epic heroic figure, his adept skill picked up on his good friend's darker side and haunted nature. He gifted his painting to Errol, and it became one of his most prized possessions, even after his friendship with John hit the skids. It remains in the possession of Errol's last wife, Patrice Wymore. After Errol's death, his property in Jamaica-- where the painting was hanging-- was hit by a hurricane. The painting was thrown clear of the home, and while it suffered some damage, it remains in tact. Decker's art is, therefore, both priceless and indestructible. Too bad the same could not be said for John himself! (John's regal interpretation of William Powell, left).

... that studio tours are almost as old as studios themselves?

Carl Laemmle, the man responsible for Universal Studios and the first independent movie colony, Universal City (est. March 15, 1915), was clearly a business-savvy man. Just as he jumped on the movie-gravy train and made his fortune on a gimmick that so many had waved off as a passing fad, so too would he predict the audience fascination with the behind-the-scenes filmmaking process. We have him to thank for our introduction to the first, official movie star, Florence Lawrence, whom he "outed" in an astounding publicity coup in 1910, and we too have him to thank for the still running and now heavily copied studio tours, where ravenous movie fans go to watch the magic happen. At the opening ceremony of Studio City, Carl invited members of the public to attend and had actors from his stables give them tours of the grounds. There was such an enthusiastic, awe-struck response, that Carl saw dollar signs. Lots of them. He opened the studio for regular tours for a mere 25 cents a head, so every-day folk could see how movies were made (see ticket, right). It was a huge success! Too huge... The tours started interrupting filming, which became costly. Thus, the tours came to an end, not to be resumed until the 1960s, when management had a better handle on how to combine tour scheduling with film scheduling. Yet, Carl's early move had inspired many. Doug Fairbanks, another innovator who had a soft spot for his fans, too created a tour of sorts while he was filming Robin Hood, which he allowed tourists to come watch over the fifteen weeks of its production. Not only were the impromptu viewers astounded, but Doug performed even better with a live audience to impress. Nearly one-hundred years later, almost every major studio in Hollywood continues these tours, including Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Sony (formerly MGM). Who would have thought that Carl's sudden inspiration would become a foregone (and profitable) conclusion?

An eager audience watches Harry Carey on the Universal Studio Tour in 1916.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

MENTAL MONTAGE: Hands Off! The Part's Mine!

Barbara Stanwyck ponders artistic fusion as Stella Dallas.

Every actor has a dream role-- the one he or she is dying to play. When one is passionate about his craft, he will fight tooth and nail for this holy grail of career opportunities: to play the perfect part and prove his mettle as a performer. Sometimes, in reaching for this desired role, one is hoping to kick-start his career. Sometimes, a role comes along that is a departure from the actor's past track record, and he hopes in playing it to expand his horizons. Other times, there is just an inexplicable connection-- the feeling that only he could play this part; that he and the character belong together. Here are a few instances when a zesty actor or actress fought for the role of a lifetime and brought his or her cinematic soul mate to life-- making history in the process, of course.

Barbara Stanwyck never had a long term commitment with any particular studio, which gave her a lot of independence and control over her career. However, there is a downside to this renegade tactic of navigating the film business. Without studio control, she also lacked studio aid, and thus wasn't handed roles on a silver platter the way that many other actresses of the time were. She often joked that she got all the discards or rejected parts that her contemporary leading ladies didn't want. As such, she rarely had first dibs on a desired role, one exception being The Lady Eve, which Preston Sturges designed specifically with her in mind. There was another role that she desperately wanted, however, and the she-panther in her wasn't about to let anyone else get it! That role was "Stella Dallas." The provocative and controversial tale of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who unsuccessfully tries to climb the social ladder spoke to Babs on many levels. She connected well with characters who were flawed, desperate, and even depraved. The fact that Stella becomes a mother-- at times ill-equipped but always loving-- also spoke to the little girl in her who had been robbed of her own mother when she was young. When word spread around Tinsel Town that Olive Higgins Prouty's blush-worthy novel was going to be adapted into a film, Babs's mouth began to water. She knew that she could give the part all she had, making Stella authentic and real. There was just one problem: Ruth Chatterton. (Babs goes dowdy for her interpretation of "Stella Dallas" left, with Anne Shirley).

Ruth (right) and Babs went waaaaaaay back-- way back to Barbara's days as a struggling chorus girl and thespian. One of her first major screen tests was done in the presence of Ruth, by then an already accomplished actress of the stage and screen, and her presence must have unarmed Babs a bit. Babs was auditioning for the lead in the silent film Broadway Nights when Ruth stopped by the set with her maid. The cameraman was trying to get Barbara to cry for the test, but she couldn't muster the tears-- an issue she would never have later in her career. When he brought out an onion to try to provoke the tears, Ruth started howling with laughter, which was incredibly humiliating. So brutal and unnecessary was the senior lady's assault, that Babs finally howled at her to "shut up!" Needless to say, Babs lost out on the lead, but she did land a supporting role. It was cold comfort. She would never forget this run-in, and used the humiliation as one more bit of inspiration to propel herself toward her own stardom. It worked, for Babs was soon enough living and working steadily in Hollywood. By the time Stella Dallas came up as an opportunity, she had more than proved herself as a woman with star power and talent. Yet, imagine the slap in the face when she learned that Stella had been offered to her old nemesis, Ruth!

Fortunately for Babs, Ruth wasn't interested and passed on the film. There was still a chance, and actually a pretty big one! Due to the nature of the text-- which in the wrong hands could have turned into an embarrassing B-Movie-- and the unglamorous and even matronly metamorphosis that Stella goes through during the course of the story, very few actresses wanted anything to do with it. It could be said that none of them would touch it with a ten foot pole, which again makes Babs such a charming and unconventional Hollywood actress. Others saw scraps; she saw prime rib. When famed director King Vidor signed on to direct, Babs had every hope that the film would be something great. Thus, she asked Joel McCrea (left), with whom she was working on Banjo On My Knee, to lobby for her at his home studio, Goldwyn, where the film was to be produced. This was a favor he was proud to do for his gifted co-star, though he had a rough time convincing Samuel G. of her suitability for the role. Sam thought her too young, un-sexy, and an un-motherly. Joel went to bat and coaxed Sam into a screen test. It paid off. Babs made the test for an already impressed Vidor, landed the part, and certainly gave all of those other reticent leading ladies a lesson when she churned out a painful, funny, multi-faceted performance-- playing aged, sexy, and motherly with ease. At the very least, she stuck it to Ruth.

Another determined lady was Olivia DeHavilland (right). While all the rest of Hollywood was competing for the role of "Scarlett O'Hara" in Gone with the Wind, OdeH was avariciously going after the docile and saintlike role of "Melanie Hamilton." For the passionate brunette to be vying for the role of a placid angel seems a bit contradictory, but that was precisely the allure. Olivia was drawn to Melanie because she could not understand her innate, impenetrable goodness. Being a warm but admittedly flawed person herself, fleshing out this atypical woman seemed like a noble challenge. Most actresses would have looked at the role as vacant and boring, delivering a one-note performance of superficiality with artificial sweetener. Olivia was determined to give Melanie both grace and guts, believing at the time: "there is something I want to say through her that I feel is very important to say to people." Despite her stellar reputation, she had a little trouble landing her dream role.

Firstly, there was Jack Warner, top-dog at Olivia's home studio of Warner Brothers, who was not about to lend one of his leading ladies to the competing Selznick Studios. Secondly, there were other contenders, including her sister Joan Fontaine-- though her bid was an unintentional one. Joan had actually gone to see director George Cukor about playing Scarlett, and after George laughed off what a clear case of miscasting this would be, he suggested that Joan approach the Melanie role. Joan refused, burned by his insult of her non-Scarlett-ness, and haughtily recommended her sister Olivia for Melanie (the two did not get along). Ironically, she inadvertently did Olivia a favor, since the elder sister actually did want the part! George called Olivia in for an interview, and was surprised to learn that she had both David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes vouching for her. In fact, originally, Jack Warner had offered Olivia to Selznick as a package deal with Errol Flynn as "Rhett Butler" and Bette Davis as "Scarlett," but when Selznick refused the trio, he also lost Olivia. Still, she hoped that she could somehow put a bid in for herself alone. George was on board, but Jack Warner was still withholding the prize actress. This made the other prospects of Andrea Leeds, Anne Shirley, Frances Dee, and Elizabeth Allen, etc. very threatening, but Olivia was determined.

Eventually, Olivia got desperate. Being a business savvy woman, she decided to approach another shrewd lady for a hand: Mrs. Jack Warner-- Anne. Lili Damita had also used Anne's help when she was trying to get her new hubby Errol cast in Captain Blood. Clearly, this lovely woman held real sway. Thus, Olivia prevailed upon Anne-- at The Brown Derby no less-- to help her in her plight. Jack was so unrelenting in his ministrations and his relationship with the actress was such a contentious one (which would reach a fever pitch in the mid-1940s with the infamous "De Havilland Decision" court case), that Olivia felt only the intervention of a purring Anne to his delicate side would help her win the day. Anne took pity on Olivia and started setting the trap. It worked. From the outside, it looked like Jack had simply made a business move-- trading Olivia's services to Selznick to for Jimmy Stewart's in No Time for Comedy. But the truth was, Olivia had the inside track: his wife. Good riddance, for could there be another Melanie (right)???

Ernest Borgnine (left) was an unlikely candidate for a Hollywood movie star. In fact, even he couldn't see himself in that role. However, familial encouragement and the crazy and unexpected ways of life eventually put him front and center before the camera. He was excited about a great many of the parts that he would eventually play, but there was one in particular that he felt was destined to be his. He first responded to the villainous role of "Sergeant Judson" when he read the novel From Here to Eternity by James Jones. He later acknowledged the uncanny sensation he had that somehow he and Judson were connected. He started bragging to all of his pals that if the book were ever made into a film, he would play the part! He must have willed this phenomenon into existence, because in a very brief time, he was called in for an audition!! With his gruff exterior and natural penchant for playing heavies, he was quickly cast.

Once he landed the role, he was ecstatic! His dream was coming true! Yet, now finding himself in the uber-exclusive company of contemporary idols like Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, Ernest suddenly felt a little unsure of himself. He had an inkling that with his short, stocky stature, he wouldn't be accepted as the intimidating tough guy that he was supposed to play. When not in character, he was a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy. He seemed very far from threatening, and thus his casting started raising eyebrows. Even Frank, set to play his nemesis and victim in the film, was uncertain if Ernest could pull off enough menace to make their hostile relationship believable. After all, Frank had a rep to protect. Since his character is supposed to die at Judson's hand, he wanted to make sure Ernest was tough enough to pull it off without making him look like a wimp. In other words, he needed a worthy opponent. Since Frank was still in a career slump and desperate for a hit, his hesitance could be understood. But, all reluctance disappeared once the cameras started rolling. Ernest wore the role of Judson like a loaded gun. Frank was impressed: "My God! He's ten feet tall!" he declared. Ernest proved himself quickly. He would recall the shooting experience as one of the most enriching of his life, as did Frank, who won an Oscar for his performance-- thanks to scary Ernie in his fated role (see fight, right).

Looking back, it seems like the success of The Wizard of Oz was a forgone conclusion. It is so iconic, so deeply rooted in our culture, so eternal that it feels as though it has always existed. This is not so. When building an epic, you have to start from somewhere, and putting all the missing pieces together is a challenge and a headache. One wrong move, and the whole project can collapse, but with the right combination of actors, director, editor, etc-- and just blind luck-- magic can happen. The casting of Wizard is a story in itself, with several possible players uncertain that they wanted anything to do with a silly movie for children. Ray Bolger (left) had no doubts. However, when he was signed on to the project, MGM wanted to cast him as the "Tin Man." Ray had other plans.

A skilled and flexible dancer with an elastic ability of movement, Ray found the Tin Man far too constrictive. Clomping around heavily and statically was something he could achieve, sure, but his natural talent was much more fitted for the gangly, free-moving, and constantly falling character of the "Scarecrow." Ray knew in his heart that he belonged in the role of the Scarecrow, and he lobbied for it resiliently to Louis B. Mayer himself, who finally conceded. The problem was that Buddy Ebsen, an equally likable and talented dancer, had already been cast as the Scarecrow.  An easy-going guy, he had no qualms with Ray's casting coup and generously stepped out of his straw britches and into his tin boots (see right). It was a moment he would come to regret. During the make-up test, aluminum powder was applied to his skin to give him a metallic sheen. Fine. But then, the powder, after much application, got into the air and thus into his lungs. At home one night, Buddy tried to take a breath and couldn't do it! He was rushed to the hospital and was informed that he had to undergo a lengthy recuperation. MGM did not wait for him and cast Jack Haley in his place. He would recall this as the most hurtful and bitterly disappointing moment of his career. A good deed never goes unpunished...

Jack had no knowledge of Buddy's mishap when he began his performance as the Tin Man, and his cosmetics were modified into a pre-mixed solution of the hazardous dust within an aluminum paste, which dispelled the inhalation issue. He suffered no issues with his breathing, though he did get an eye infection. His dreamlike, whimsical version of the Tin Man would thus go down in popular history by happenstance. Ray's success as the Scarecrow (left), on the other hand, was absolutely purposeful, and he was always proud of his work on the film. Certainly, he must have felt guilty that his insistence on playing the Scarecrow had inadvertently sent Buddy to the hospital... but then again, maybe he was glad that fortune had been on his side. His persistence had saved him from that dangerous, silver powder! In the end, despite the disastrous outcome for Buddy, Ray's assessment had been right. He was the perfect person to play the awkward man of straw, and in choosing this role he too proved that he-- like the Scarecrow-- had brains.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

CAST AWAYS: From Stage to Screen

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan Clash by Night and use a stage play
to take Hollywood by storm.

Some of our most iconic films were adapted from theater plays. This is but one of many pieces of evidence that it is a good story above anything else that makes a good film (are you listening Hollywood?). A lot of film actors, of course, get their start as stage thespians, and many have been discovered treading the boards of Broadway, off Broadway, or even off off Broadway. Cinema constantly goes fishing and poaching in these highly respected and esteemed waters, using the talents of the theatre mixed with the punch of Tinsel Town power to create smash screen hits. In some cases, the original theatrical cast is duplicated on the screen, with the play itself edited to fit into a two hour bracket of entertainment. In most cases, however, the cast and the script itself are heavily altered to fit into the world of movieland conditions, with a leading man and lady with more star power usurping the primary roles and the story acclimating itself to time constraints, current audience tastes, and-- of course-- censorship. Thus, theatre is looked upon more often as performance art while Hollywood is viewed as its more bastardized (albeit profitable) cousin: product-- art in a can, or should I say in the can.

In any case, it is the stories more popularly seen on the silver screen that touch the most hearts and introduce superbly written and acted productions to people the world over. It is films that we will honor and pass down to our children as a shared experience, whereas theatre is a once in a lifetime shot: never duplicated and never performed the same way twice. It makes one wonder and yearn for the chance to see some of the alternate performances that, instead of being left on the cutting room floor as in film, were left merely to history, echoing against the walls of so many great theaters. While screen actors never age and never die, theatre actors and their performances become ghosts as soon as the curtain comes down after the final act. Here are a few of the lost souls whose spirits were brought to life through other vessels on the silver screen:

Tallulah Bankhead (left) was... a character. James Cagney once said that acting was a "shy man's profession," because it allowed a more introverted or bashful person to become someone more intense, emotional, and outspoken. Tallulah must be the exception that proves this rule, for no character she played was as outrageous and gutsy as she. She bragged that she only came to Hollywood to sleep with Gary Cooper, which she proudly accomplished. She too drew gasps and chuckles from the set of Lifeboat when her soggy undergarments became too daunting and she decided to continue filming sans panties: a moment Hitch must have remembered with fondness. While she made quite a few contributions to the big screen, even being an early contender for Scarlett O'Hara, this earthy lady with southern sass remains most renowned for her contributions to the stage. She brought many characters to life for the first time that would later be embodied by different actresses when adapted for the screen. One such character was Mae Wilenski of Clash by Night, written by Clifford Odets and performed for the first time in 1941. Lee Strasberg directed the vehicle through its meager 49  performances, but despite its short run, it was still made into a film a decade later.

This time, Barbara Stanwyck (right) took on the role of Mae, with her name changed to D'Amato and the play's locale moved from Staten Island to Monterey. Fritz Lang used his genius as director to add as much gravitas as he could to what turned out to be another soapy B-film, which remains most notorious now for an appearance by a young, pre-superstar Marilyn Monroe. Since Babs and Tallulah had much in common-- both assertive, sexual women with notorious, husky drawls-- it is easy to see Tallulah standing in Babs's place at the helm. The film retains more cult than classic status, but Babs brings her usual guts to the part, invigorating the tale of a sexually undernourished wife in a cataclysmic love triangle with the dignity of truth as only she could. Tallulah wasn't an option for the screen version, most likely because her career had stalled a bit. She remained fairly busy on the stage and small screen in the '50s, but a life of hard living and hard drinking mixed with her hell-raising reputation made her a much bigger gamble than the diligent and consummately professional Stanwyck. In any case, Babs was a few years younger, so that also tipped the scales in her favor.(Interestingly, there may be more to the connection between Babs and Tallulah. When Louis B. Mayer once confronted Tallulah about her over-erotic nature, she shot back with a list of stars, including some from his own stables, that she had... made friends with. Allegedly, "Barbara Stanwyck" was one of the names. It shut the red-faced Mayer up quickly).

The same year that Tallulah was first breathing life into Mae Wilenski on stage, another one of her past roles was being brought to life on the screen, which may explain was she was unavailable to take the film role. Directed by Herman Shumlin, Tallulah had portrayed the infamous Regina Giddens of The Little Foxes at the National Theater in February of 1939 and then enjoyed an extensive run and tour. The play was so successful that Lillian Hellman adapted her own script into a screenplay in '41 with William Wyler directing. But Tallulah's busy stage schedule was not the whole reason she was overlooked for the film version. Wyler had insisted on casting Bette Davis for the role of Regina (left), as he had been impressed with her vitality in their previous collaborations of Jezebel and The Letter. Jack Warner wasn't about to loan his top star to Samuel Goldwyn for the production, but Wyler stuck to his guns and eventually got his way. However, he did admit that Tallulah was an amazing talent, and prior to production, he pressured Bette to see Tallulah's interpretation on the stage-- which was still running-- if only to ensure that Bette bring something different to the table. Bette herself would admit that Tallulah was fantastic and had performed the role the only way it could be performed, which made crafting her own, unique characterization a real headache. Still, it remains one of her most iconic roles, and ironically not the only one she stole from Tallulah-- she had performed in the role of Judith Traherne in Dark Victory in 1939, which too Tallulah had immortalized on the stage. Essentially, Tallulah kept settin' 'em up, and Bette kept knockin' 'em down.

Though clearly an actress of great reputation, Tallulah was a die-hard fan herself when it came actors. One performance that left her in awe was that of Frank Fay (the ex-Mr. Stanwyck) when he starred in the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" (right). Tallulah considered his interpretation of a kind-hearted man who sees and interacts with an imaginary rabbit to be "one of the greatest performances [she'd] seen." It ran for over 1700 performances from 1945-1949 on Broadway, being a smash hit and a triumph for Fay, who was still nursing a bruised ego after his divorce from Babs and his failed film career. Despite this boost in his career, he still wasn't hailed to reclaim his role in the 1950 film version, though his co-star, Josephine Hull, thankfully was, and it earned her an Academy Award. Instead, the most lovable and likable of all film actors was cast as Elwood: only Jimmy Stewart could play a complete loon and still hold the audience's favor. Still, with Tallulah as Fay's cheerleader, it makes one wonder what exactly he brought to the table that was so astounding, and so different from Jimmy...

James Stewart goes nuts (or should I say "carrots?") in Harvey.

Barbara Stanwyck snagged another role from a hard-luck diva: Frances Farmer. Farmer (right), while in the midst of her scandalous affair with Clifford Odets (wed to Luise Rainer), was cast in the lead female role of his production of "Golden Boy" when it hit the stage in 1937. Both members of The Group Theatre-- a precursor to the Strasberg method school that churned out modern, provocative work-- their combining forces in the story of a violinist turned boxer was sure to pack a wallop. At heart, the film was personal to Odets, who wrote it about the struggle between integrity/artistry and the temptation of commercial success. Many friends would say that he lost this battle when he "went Hollywood," taking his Golden baby with him. Frances, who was much more about the craft than the dough, was not invited along for the ride, as she had walked out on the play and Cliff when the affair hit the skids. She felt her star power had been used to sell tickets to the play and was tired of being used as, what she considered to be, Cliff's whore and cash cow. Thus, in 1939, Babs stepped on board for the screen version and coached newbie William Holden in his breakthrough performance. Bill had, coincidentally, nabbed the role of Joe Bonaparte from Luther Adler but also from John Garfield, who was a member of "the Group" and had been promised the part by Odets himself. Cliffy didn't come through, and the part went to Holden-- a test of faith that made a star. (This one was a bit of review from past blogs, but with Babs as star of the month, I thought it was worth repeating).

Another star moment was made when Marlon Brando brought his interpretation of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen in 1951. One cry of "Stella!" and a few broken dishes later, and Hollywood had its newest bad boy. Marlon was not the only gem poached from the original 1947 case-- both Karl Malden and Kim Hunter would reprise their stage roles as Mitch and Stella respectively, and Elia Kazan would too transfer his directorial efforts from the stage to screen. The only member not invited along for the ride was Jessica Tandy, who invented the now iconic role of Blanche DuBois. Initially, her ostracizing seems ignorant if not plain rude. After all, she won a Tony for her efforts, which had-- along with the rest of the original cast-- created a half-hour applause after the play's debut. So, why wasn't she brought on board? (Marlon and Jessica rehearse, left).

The decision was, as always, a calculated one. The play had received such buzz that it was essential to the studio to re-create the magic for the screen and capitalize. Yet, studio heads were insecure-- they craved star power. Thus, players were essentially traded, with Marlon being a necessity to bring his violence and danger to the big screen, and Kim and Karl allowed to reprise their roles because they were secondary characters. Jessica was deemed the expendable one. Since Vivien Leigh (right) had later portrayed the role of Blanche in London under hubby Laurence Olivier's direction, she seemed a safer bet for screen viewers. In effect, the gamble worked, for this contradiction between old-Hollywood (Scarlett O'Hara herself) and new-Hollywood (holy, shirtless Marlon!) created just the juxtaposition needed for Blanche's otherworldly quality within the gritty realism of the Kowalski household. One wishes there were a piece of evidence to give all Williams devotees a glimpse into Jessica's interpretation, but-- despite this unsavory casting coup-- Vivien still managed to earn the respect of her co-stars and her second Academy Award for Best Actress.

My Fair Lady (1964) was a film adaptation of the musical adaptation (1956) of the earlier George Bernard Shaw play "Pygmalion" (1913). Clearly, the metamorphosis of the cockney Eliza Doolitle to a refined lady was reflected in the story's own journey. The musical "My Fair Lady" premiered in '56 on Broadway with one of history's favorite songstresses, Julie Andrews, in the lead role of Eliza (left) and Rex Harrison in the role of her Svengali-- the crotchety, uppity Henry Higgins. Despite the fact that Rex couldn't sing a note-- a fact that he obviously knew full well when he panicked and locked himself in his dressing room prior to curtain-- his rhythmic talking and pitch-perfect performance coupled with Julie Andrews's consistent magnificence was enough to make the show a hit. The mockery of gender roles and classes and the superb score, with such hits as "I Could Have Danced All Night" and " On the Street Where You Live" resonated with audiences, and eight years later it was time to broaden the fan base. Hollywood intervened with its usual accuracy, and cameras started rolling.

There was but one problem, Julie was nowhere to be found! Her mettle as a film actress had not yet been tested, thus Audrey Hepburn was given the role of Eliza (right). Rex, who was a much more experienced film actor, was allowed to maintain his role of Higgins. Despite the casting snafu, the film remains a classic and a delight, with Audrey bringing her own lovable, romantic nature to the role of Eliza while simultaneously pulling off a stellar, cockney ignoramus-- "Come on Dovah! Move your bloomin' ahss!" Yet, the fact that her singing was dubbed (by Marni Nixon) worked against her, and many believe this is why her performance was not recognized by the Academy. Clearly, everyone was "Team Julie" that year at the awards, for it was she who won for her breakthrough performance in Mary Poppins. Rex, however, walked home with the trophy for Best Actor. As for Audrey, she took the snub like a pro, though she was deeply hurt. She had indeed recorded all of her own vocals and was shocked when another voice came out of her mouth upon the final screening. She was deeply hurt, as she had worked diligently on all her past singing roles, including Funny Face and the iconic "Moon River" of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Yet, it couldn't be argued that Julie indeed had a stronger voice. Neither gal harbored any hard feelings about the whole debacle, and both became good friends. In the end, they had Eliza to thank for bringing them together.

The Barrymore name still holds great meaning in Hollywood. John's granddaughter Drew has been left alone to carry the torch of this illustrious family of thespians, but their reputation remains in tact. However, as Ethel was almost totally devoted to the stage and John was-- at best-- inconsistent in his dedication, it is Lionel (left) who has the most impressive cinematic track record. He got his start in film in the late 1900s, but he too maintained his dedication to the theatre. As such, in 1923 he appeared alongside his wife Irene Fenwick in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh." It premiered at the Belasco and ran for 133 performances through March of 1924. It wasn't exactly a runaway success, but its modest audience recognition and its intriguing storyline was enough to gain Hollywood's attention... albeit not immediately.

A few years later, MGM was sifting through storylines when Laugh, Clown, Laugh was brought to its attention as a vehicle for Lon Chaney. "The Man of a Thousand Faces" had portrayed a clown before in He Who Gets Slapped. The role seemed a perfect fit for America's favorite character actor, who was known for his tragic tales of unrequited love. Since Lon did a lot of his own story scavenging, it is possible that he came across the script himself, or at the very least that he was consulted on it. Sensing another suffering heart, he jumped at the chance to portray the romantically tortured Tito and handpicked Loretta Young to star as his adopted daughter/love interest (cringe), Simonetta (together, right). As Lionel was a competent film actor but not a star of Lon's latitude, he probably was not even considered for the part. The film was a runaway success and also-- reportedly-- Lon's favorite role. Since Lionel was working steadily on his own, he probably didn't hold any grudges... but if he did, he got a little revenge when he starred opposite Lon in West of Zanzibar in 1928. His character in the film steals Lon's wife!

Jean Arthur (left) stands alone in history. Not for her acting talent, off-putting behavior, or cinematic resume, but for that voice! It is hard to purr and squeak at the same time, yet that seems to be just what she did merely by talking. As such, when Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" hit the stage in 1946, he had no other actress in mind than his friend Jean for the role of the abrasive yet adorable Billie Dawn. A rough around the edges gal trying to play it classy, Jean's duck-out-of-water persona certainly would have fit the bill. There was but one minor problem when it came to Jean-- her crippling inferiority complex, which consistently manifested itself in stage fright. She started numerous plays only to drop out or cause problems once they debuted. Such was the case with "Born." No sooner was she cast in the role of Billie than her usual neurotic antics began to surface. During rehearsals, she would take issue with the script, get nervous, panic, and withdraw into her dressing room, driving Garson nearly mad. Despite this, the play opened to positive reviews in New Haven and continued to fare well in Boston. Then, Jean's internal stresses asserted themselves in physical illness, and she claimed to have a sore throat. One night, in the second act, she completely blacked out and couldn't remember her lines. She finally alerted the production that she would not be continuing on-- doctor's orders-- and an unsuspecting Mary Laslo stepped in to temporarily take her place. However, Mary had been playing the small role of the manicurist and was unprepared to be a sudden lead! 

Enter Judy Holliday (right). With the Philadelphia opening postponed, the equally gifted and much less emotionally troubled actress jumped into grueling, boot camp rehearsal sessions. Had it not been for coffee, as she admitted herself, she may not have made it. By the time the show hit New York, with a new leading lady and a new third act, it was a sensation. Judy ran away with the role, making it her own. In effect, thanks to Jean's erratic behavior, Judy became a star! Hence, when a film adaptation was made in 1950, Judy was cast in the lead role-- not the original Billie prototype, Jean. Judy had worked in film before, her most noteworthy part being  in Adam's Rib opposite Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who had both championed her, but it would be this film that would skyrocket her film career, however briefly. In this case, it was Judy alone of the main cast who duplicated her performance, for Paul Douglas lost his role of Harry Brock to Broderick Crawford and Gary Merrill passed the torch of Paul Verrall to William Holden (yet another stage nab for the Bill). In the end, no matter who it was performing beside her, Judy stole the show. It was her moment, and her take on the reinvented showgirl who finds absolution through intelligence-- and thus self-respect-- remains one of cinema's favorite comedic female characters.

Ken Kesey's book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was so unique and powerful in its human appeal that it was immediately turned into a play. In 1963, the adaptation hit Broadway with none other than multi-faceted tough guy Kirk Douglas (left) taking on the role of feigned nutcase Randle McMurphy. Gene Wilder too was cast as the sensitive but disturbed Billy Bibbit. Joan Tetzel took on the role of the unlikely villainess, Nurse Ratched. It ran for 82 performances and definitely turned some heads! Over ten years later, the film was in the can, but the cast was different. As Kirk had no longer been considered young enough to portray the devious and rebellious Murphy, Jack Nicholson swooped in and immortalized the role. Since Jack always comes off a bit "cuckoo" himself (in the best possible way), the casting decision seemed to be kismet. Gene too did not reprise his role, instead handing it to off-kilter character man Brad Dourif. Danny Devito too contributed his uncanny screen presence in a small role. Nurse Ratched would be memorably played by Louise Fletcher, who garnered an Academy Award for her muted take on evil. Jack would too win the Oscar, as would director Milos Forman. However, best of all was the fact that the "Douglas" name would still be honored when Michael Douglas, son of Kirk, would win the award for Best Picture after serving as Producer on the film. Since his father helped bring the play to life, it was perhaps in honor of him that Michael even approached the project in the first place. Innovation seems to run in that family.

Jack makes friends (with "Chief" Will Sampson) and history in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

While one can't argue the finished products of cinema nor their hold on us, the re-workings of the casts in all of these instances is something to note. A few different ingredients, and you wind up with a vastly different product, be it masterpiece or dud. Since we shall never be able to compare results-- play versus film-- we are left only with the offerings our movie stars have left us. In the end, there probably is no better or worse, merely different takes. A film adaptation of a play is akin to the effect produced in re-making a movie: you're going to get a different experience with different players-- some will like it, others not. I suppose the good news is that we are so flooded with talent that we have all these different pools to pull from. Since it could be argued that Hollywood keeps making the same old stories anyway, there is some beauty in seeing the same old plays performed again and again by different actors. It would be nice to have all of life recorded so that there was no mystery about our creative past at all, but for now, we shall have to suffice our curiosity with our own wonder. And, of course, with the movies.