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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.


  1. They actually didn't change Jack Haley’s make-up they just added the dust to paste instead of brushing it on like they did with Buddy Ebsen. They thought inhaling it wouldn’t be an issue but Jack Haley did have trouble with the aluminum paste; he developed an eye infection and missed a week of filming. Thankfully antibiotic eye drops helped before any permanent damage was done.

    1. Oh, wonderful! Thanks for the clarification. Who know cosmetics could be so dangerous. It makes the iconic death in Goldfinger much more authentic, hahaha. Have a happy holiday!