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Monday, August 5, 2013

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Direct-ators Part I

Joan Crawford unleashes a little pent up frustration on Lucy Marlow
in Queen Bee. When you push an actor too far, sh*t happens.

The diva temper tantrum is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. Nay, it is generally expected. As we gawk at the super-celestial stars above, we make apologies for their erratic behavior, irrational demands, social faux pas, because we find their eccentricities just as-- if not more- entertaining than their films, albums, etc. When Prince demands that his hotel room at the Roosevelt Hotel be carpeted entirely in purple (this happened, I was an employee at the time), it is so absurdly ridiculous that we find the trivia delicious. As such, it feels like a press release present when Reese Witherspoon-- who is supposed to be the Southern debutante of moviedom-- utters the immortal words "Do you know who I AM?!" to the cop who has just pulled her and her husband over for a DUI. It's nice to know, I suppose, that while these people may be richer than we, they are also abysmally, stupidly, embarrassingly superficial. As such, it boosts the confidence when our "stars" reveal themselves for what the majority of them actually are: burning balls of gas.

However, they're not all bad eggs. In fact, a lesser discussed evil is that of the maniacal director. Safe behind the camera, where he can force the sad, dancing monkeys of the acting profession to perform his most sadistic desires, many of these filmmaking artistes get drunk with the power that comes with the director's chair/throne. The man holding the megaphone is God on the set, and those underlings who question his authority will be destroyed. Or shamed. Or whatever it takes to get his rocks off and make him feel like he is invincible (and not the little boy who used to get pushed into his locker in high school because he liked Star Trek.) Fortunately, just as the misbehaving movie stars endured humiliatingly public slaps on the wrist for their misdirected naughtiness, the Dictator-style directors of Hollywood past have also occasionally gotten their comeuppance, and often from the very object of their attempted subjugation. Here are some of my favorite stories of badass bitch slaps and hot shot throw downs:

One of cinema's all time favorite heroes and tough guys is the incomparable John Wayne (right).  The mythology of the Western seems almost to have been created for him, around him, from him, because of him... His effect on the public remains fascinating. An odd duck with a distinctive, staggered delivery and super saucy walk, "the Duke" matured through his films from a young buck, with an innocent face and a reluctant penchant for honor, to a hardened cynic, who didn't take no sh*t off nobody but whose stone heart could sometimes be melted by the "Mattie Ross" types. When this guy was in the saddle, America was the safest place on earth. Ironically, such was not the case off camera. A fairly bashful man when operating without the social lubrication and liquid courage of alcohol, John was a fairly easy guy to push around. Due to his severed relationship with his mother, he always preferred the company of men and consequently looked up to the men who directed him as father figures. He worshiped no one more than John Ford. Unfortunately, as with many directors, Ford had the habit of counteracting his incredible talent for visual storytelling with almost consistent, semi-A-hole behavior. 

John Wayne seeks shelter behind Robert Montgomery during
They Were Expendable.

While Ford and Duke would forge a strong relationship that would span several films over several years, the director often took advantage of the actor's unwavering allegiance and surprising timidity. Their first meeting set the bar for the rest of their relationship (see here), but despite the hard knocks, Duke determinedly took on the Sisyphean task of staying in Ford's favor. On one occasion, he would have a little help from Robert Montgomery (left). During the filming of They Were Expendable, Ford was being particularly nasty and critical of Duke, his chosen whipping boy on the shoot-- Ford always had one. Duke could do nothing right in the clearly frustrated and unhappy director's eyes, and Ford insulted him constantly, calling him a 'clumsy bastard' and 'big oaf,' and mocking everything from his line readings to his salutes. Finally, the uber-professional and ever-focused Montgomery, who had a very low tolerance for BS, became over-irritated by the incessant immaturity and bullying. Thus, the normally introverted and pensive actor rose to his feet, walked right up to Ford, and hovered menacingly over his Director's chair with an icy glare: "Don't ever talk like that to Duke again. You should be ashamed of yourself." You could have heard a pin drop. No one, but NO ONE, talked to Ford that way. Yet, instead of getting fired up, Ford slumped guiltily in his chair like a school child who had just been reprimanded by his favorite teacher. There were rumors that, after filming wrapped for the day, Ford actually cried. Duke, on the other hand, probably slept like a baby.

Carroll Baker (right) also had a run-in with John Ford, with whom she filmed both How the West Was Won and Cheyenne Autumn. However, perhaps due to her talent and toughness, Ford took a liking to her and never set out to undermine her confidence. In fact, he seemed impressed with her work, and she eventually forged enough of a bond with him to started calling him "Pappy." Carroll was a smart cookie who realized that if she wanted to earn a place in "the boys' club," she had to play by their rules. Observation taught her that she needed to adhere to the Fordian principles of honor, duty, and utter obedience to the task at hand if she wanted to stay on his good side. She adhered. However, life has a habit of throwing curve balls, so despite her preparation, Carroll hit a snag during Cheyenne Autumn. When driving her wagon across a river for one tough scene, the current proved to be too strong. Carroll could feel herself losing control, and as she had two small children on board (who could not swim btw), she determined to steer out of the line and proceed with the current before she and the kids were totally capsized. Unfortunately, two stuntmen dressed as Indians tried to straighten her out to save the shot-- as per Ford's instructions. Carroll, feeling the wagon about to turn over, tried to call to them and tell them to stop, but they couldn't hear her over the sound of the rushing water. So, she did what her maternal instinct told her, stood up, and started lashing them with her whip! Needless to say, it ruined the shot.

'Pappy' (left), who had been filming from atop a mountain to capture what was supposed to be the amazing, panoramic shot, drove  all the way down from Olympus with his eye patch and unlit cigar in place. He approached Carroll, clearly miffed at losing the shot-- which had taken ages to set up-- and said, "Well, that's great! So in keeping with this film. I have a marvelous shot of two Indians being horsewhipped by a Quaker girl." (Quakers, in case you don't know, are a very nonviolent sect of people). As Ford glared at Carroll, she knew that he was reading her. She also knew that if she ratted the stuntmen out, Ford would judge her for being a "bad sport." She opted to stay mum and take the blame. Judging from the penetrating but knowing look in Ford's good eye, she also determined that he understood exactly what had happened and was testing her. Her silence proved to be golden, which maintained her membership in his boys' club. After the stuntmen stepped up and admitted their error, Carroll garnered further validation. "Well, I guess we have a heroine on our hands," Ford said with a twinkle in his eye. And that was the end of that. Well played, Carroll. Well played.

Barbara Stanwyck (right) was another tough cookie when it came to her profession. The true Panther Woman of Hollywood, due to her fabulously cultivated, in-control strut, Babs played her cards close to her chest until the call to "Action" came. At that point, her co-stars were just lucky if they could keep up with the intensity levels of her acting. Nearly every director she ever worked with became a salivating puppy at her feet due to her almost masochistic dedication to her craft. Cecil B. DeMille-- not an easy man to please-- was floored by her, and Frank Capra fell head-over-heels in love with her. Babs was not just a "broad" with brawn, however. She had an incredibly loyal streak, and as a woman who had worked her way up from poverty the hard way, she always had a soft spot for underdogs and those who were not lucky enough to have landed in her fortunate position of luxury. She often stuck up for other actors on the set, particularly the unknown, struggling ones. She was equally known to throw a punch or two for the big timers. 

Robert Cummings (left) would never achieve the stature of leading men like Cary Grant or James Cagney. He was an able, attractive actor, but he lacked the edge and hint of danger that would have made him as intriguing as his peers. Sadly, he was hopelessly wholesome. His place in film history is generally thought of as a reliable supporting male lead opposite the likes of Deanna Durbin, however, his distinctive resume illustrates his impressive career. He worked with the big guns likes Alfred Hitchcock in both Saboteur and Dial M for Murder, not to mention Babs Stanwyck in The Bride Wore Boots. The latter collaboration was a definite plus, but it wasn't all gravy. Apparently, filming the dismally generic and hack-job comedy was no laughing matter, and Barbara in particular was not at all impressed with director Irving Pichel, who seemed to be purposely making a bad situation worse. Boots turned out to be one of her least pleasurable career experiences (and also her last comedy). However, as a professional, she stuck out her chin and did her job. Yet, when she saw Pichel torturing her co-star with repeated and unnecessary takes of a very dangerous stunt atop a horse-- over, and over, and over again-- she finally took the gloves off, telling the director from Hell that if he forced poor Bob to perform the potentially neck-cracking feat one more time, he wouldn't get another scene out of her. As everyone at the studio and on set was utterly loyal to Queen Stanwyck, the message was received, they moved on, and the film was quickly "in the can." 

Clara Bow (right) was hardly the testy femme fatale. She lit up life onscreen and off with her vibrant and loving personality and supercharged sex appeal. A woman insecure about her lack of education and haunted by her tragic, impoverished past, Clara preferred to "kill 'em with kindness." Sadly, the favor would rarely be returned. Despite all the odds, which predetermined her as "Least Likely to Succeed" in the graduating class of life, her genuine nature and jaw-dropping talent got her all the way to Hollywood and soon placed her atop the superstar totem. Her struggles to this position were not easy. Talked down to and brushed aside as just another pretty face, trashy dimwit, and struggling actress wannabe, it was hard for her to make her mark and even harder to make it stick. The scenes from her first film, Beyond the Rainbow, all hit the cutting room floor. 

Luck started turning her way after her work in Grit earned her a plethora of kudos, and she was immediately handed a ticket to L.A. Unfortunately, when she arrived at Preferred Pictures to sign with B.P. Schulberg, the West Coast partner of the studio and her soon-to-be biz-nemesis, he took one look a her, turned to her agent, and asked, "Is this a joke?" He decided to torture Clara and put her through her paces, essentially humiliating her by demanding that she prove herself to him before he agreed to sign her. Dressed shoddily and deemed overweight, Clara was obviously slighted by BP's rebuff, but before she could even react, he was barking out orders and playing director: "Be happy! Be angry! Now cry!!!" Clara could have caved under the emotional duress, but she played his self-masturbatory mind game and won. A born actress who knew there was no other job for her on earth, she gave the goods-- her face would light up with exuberance, her brows would furrow in fury. The ace up her sleeve was her instantaneous access to tears. She could turn them on and off at will, and her sobering emotion at BP's cry of "cry!" left him stunned. Thus, Clara put the top dog in his place with no backtalk or sass. BP nearly wet his pants, then handed her the pen.

The director Lon Chaney is most associated with is Tod Browning-- a filmmaker with a penchant toward the odd and the macabre who understood the actor's genius and used his own adept creativity to develop a story that let the ravenous Chaney animal out of its cage. Naturally, as friends and frequent collaborators, the two bull-headed men had their share of disagreements. There were countless times when they would get into arguments on the set, mostly with regard to a certain scene and how it was to be played. The third parties-- assistant directors, cinematographers, etc-- would often try to intervene just to get the camera rolling again, but such was a mistake. In the middle of their yelling matches, Tod and Lon would simply turn to the intruder and tell him to "mind his own business" or, more forcefully, "Oh, f*ck off!" At the end of the day, they respected each other and their individual visions, so after the temper tantrums had been exorcised, they got down to business and put their latest genesis of genius on the silver screen. It's hard to find a shared piece of work between the two that isn't fascinating, if not utterly compelling and wonderfully disturbing. (Tod, Marceline Day, and Lon on the set of London After Midnight).

Strangely, the film for which Lon is most often remembered is one that he did not make with Browning. His great love child was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which he made with Wallace Worsley, but it is The Phantom of the Opera that boasts the face that launched a thousand future fans for the "Man of a Thousand Faces!" A dedicated actor and true artist who molded his many movie mugs with nothing but plaster and vivid imagination, Lon needed a director who understood and trusted the gifts he brought to the table, which included his lifetime experience of both acting and directing. He was not to obtain such synchronicity from Rupert Julian, the director he had once worked with in his early, struggling years in The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. Lon found the tyrannical, self-important, trumpet-tooting actor/filmmaker had lost none of his pomposity when shooting on Phantom began. Julian had become something of a von Stroheim wannabe, wearing absurd boots and walking around the set like the Prince of Persia-- or some equally ridiculous, self-important monarch (see left). It was this pretentious indulgence in egomania that Lon the everyman found... distasteful to say the least. 

As Lon took his work seriously and was committed to embodying his characters honestly, and Julian was more interested in flash, their all-out brawls on the set could be heard from Hollywood to Holland. It grew to a point that the two wouldn't even speak to each other and would need the same third party substitutes to deliver various messages between them. Cameraman Charles van Enger was often stuck with the job. He would walk over to Lon and deliver Rupert's "direction" for the forthcoming scene; Lon would listen patiently, then deliver his response: "Tell him to go to Hell." (Ha. Hahaha). Lon won in the long run. In addition to helping direct his co-stars, who trusted him far more than Julian, he also communicated his aesthetic ideas to those on the production side, thereby secretly directing the film himself. Today, people still remember the Phantom's face and are touched by his private, internal Hell. No one, except for perhaps the most steadfast of silent film junkies, even know who the heck Rupert Julian was. (Nor do they care).

Lon makes history as Erik the Phantom. Burn Rupert!

To Be Continued...


  1. You ARE a great bog-Writer!!!!!!! Chapeau!!!!!!!

    1. As are you my friend! I always love hearing from you and your compliments touch my heart. :) <3

  2. I LOVE this. Yes, more, more! Speaking of Lon, apparently the director of his film Laugh, Clown, Laugh, Herbert Brenon, was inexcusably cruel to Chaney's 14 year-old co-star Loretta Young. He called her a lousy actress, talentless, etc. I don't remember hearing about any confrontation between Chaney and Brenon, but apparently whenever Chaney was on-set with Young, Brenon kept his mouth shut. Again, Chaney was basically the one to take over directing, at least where Young was concerned.

    Again, I'm loving all this trivia! Fabulous post!

    1. Thank you, Laura! Yes, I love that story about Lon and Loretta. It is so wonderful to hear stories about true comradeship and people sticking up for one another. It's also entertaining to know that Brenon was clearly afraid of Lon. At least he knew where his bread was buttered!!! ;)

  3. I can just hear Robert Montgomery saying that to John Ford - I mean, I can HEAR his voice clearly in my head. :) How superb!