Deep Inside the Dream Factory: Memo Wars Between Hal Wallis and Michael Curtiz

blogopenerRecently, while researching the production histories of specific Golden Age movies, I came across several dusty books from the back of my bookshelves. Evidently, I did not think they would be of much use to me. Purchased second-hand, they are a bit worse for wear. The books contain internal memos by producers and other behind-the-scenes personnel at the major Hollywood studios during the Golden Age, including Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and Selzick’s International Pictures. What a treasure! The memos offer juicy tidbits about the daily operations of the Hollywood industry during that magic time known as the Golden Age. This week, I thought I would share a few memos from Warner Bros. between executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz, because I found them enlightening.

According to Rudy Behlmer, who compiled Inside Warner Bros. 1935 – 1951, there aren’t a lot of studio papers prior to 1935. But, there are certainly a lot of memos afterward, partly because Wallis liked to flood his staff with notes and suggestions and partly because of studio policy. Printed at the bottom of the Warner Bros. interoffice stationary was the reminder: “Verbal messages cause misunderstanding and delays (please put them in writing).”

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Kid Stuff: My Little Loves (1974)

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Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls, and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahiers du Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial  city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast. My Little Loves is screening on 35mm in the Metrograph’s Jean Eustache series, one of the inaugural programs for this ambitious new theater on NYC’s Lower East Side.

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Lust for Life: “You Look Too Fast”

blogopenerEach Monday evening during the month of March, TCM celebrates “Art and Artists” by airing 18 movies about painters and sculptors. The most diverse films are those based on fictional artists or paintings, including everything from the horror classic The Mystery of the Wax Museum (March 21, 1:15am EST) to the comedy The Art of Love (March 28, 8:00pm EST). The series also spotlights dramatic biopics based on real-life artists, including tonight’s selection: Lust for Life, El Greco, Rembrandt, and Andrei Rublev.

With a background in art history, I am an unabashed fan of artist biopics, even though most of them are not really about the art. Directed by Alexander Korda in 1936, Rembrandt is an exercise in “good taste” as typified by big-budget British productions of that era. Charles Laughton as Rembrandt is given numerous opportunities to show off his gifts at dramatic recitation in a story that is mostly about enduring personal loss. El Greco, a TCM premiere, is a little-known Italian production with international star Mel Ferrer in the title role. The film posits El Greco as the outsider artist who butts heads with the closed minds of the Inquisition. The contributions of composer Ennio Morricone and set decorator Dante Ferretti, who would later team with Martin Scorsese, make this film worthwhile viewing. Of the four, Andrei Rublev by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is the most unconventional and the most cinematic. Tarkovsky eschewed a linear, cause-and-effect biographical structure in favor of experimental black-and-white imagery and a stripped down narrative in which little is explained but much is felt.

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The Winner Is. . . . The Lady Vanishes

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A few weeks ago, I solicited help from the Morlocks’ readers in deciding which early Hitchcock film to show in my advanced film history class. After weighing the suggestions and reading the comments, I chose The Lady Vanishes, the story of a British spy returning from a Balkan dictatorship with coded information important for England’s safety. Dame May Whitty stars as spry Miss Froy, who pretends to be a governess but is actually a capable secret agent. After she disappears while aboard the train bound for England, no one seems to remember her except for Iris, the young woman sharing her compartment. Was Miss Froy only a figment of her imagination?

A BEHIND THE SCENES SHOT OF ONE OF THE TRAIN CARS

A BEHIND THE SCENES SHOT OF ONE OF THE TRAIN CARS REVEALS THE CRAMPED SET.

Before asking for advice, I was leaning toward showing Sabotage because of the surprising scene in which tiny Sylvia Sidney wields a large carving knife. Also, I thought the creative use of the Disney cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin might be interesting to the animation majors. But I am glad that I changed my mind because it was clear that the class thoroughly enjoyed The Lady Vanishes. As one student noted, “This film is brilliant.”

In each of my classes, students fill out response sheets while watching the films. It’s a learning tool that forces them to be active viewers so they are better able to notice visual techniques, themes, or character types. With their permission, I thought I would share a few of their comments about The Lady Vanishes.

The limited setting received a lot of attention, particularly the idea that Hitchcock could squeeze so much action and suspense from what is essentially two main sets. The first third of The Lady Vanishes takes place in a small crowded hotel; one student remarked that the film seemed claustrophobic right from the beginning. She noted, “The environment seems just slightly too small for everything that is going on,” which intentionally enhances the claustrophobia. The characters fought over rooms, dined in tiny booths in a cramped restaurant, and hosted local dancers who clogged away in the confined space of the rooms. The train proved to be an even more limited setting, with the action intensifying into fights, chases, and kidnappings. Another student suggested that the train was like a microcosm of society, with all manner of characters interacting with each other. She felt that Iris entered this environ and experienced a life-altering adventure that was also a journey of self-discovery.

COMIC RELIEF FROM THE SOCCER-OBSESSED CALDICOTT AND CHARTERS

COMIC RELIEF FROM THE SOCCER-OBSESSED CALDICOTT AND CHARTERS

The suspense thriller is a genre that is no longer popular, so students are not always sure what constitutes suspense. I related Hitchcock’s adage about the bomb in the room. He always maintained that if he began a scene by showing the audience a bomb in the room and then clearly depicted where the bomb was in relationship to the characters, he would have the audience’s rapt attention for ten minutes. But, if he exploded the bomb as a surprise to the audience, they might be shocked out of their seats but he would have their attention for only ten seconds. Students rightly noticed examples of this technique in the scene in which we wait for Iris to notice the name “Froy” written on the window and during the scene in which Iris and Gilbert are about to ingest a spiked drink. The anticipation in both scenes created true suspense, and I think students came away with a better understanding of what that is.

The class seemed intrigued by the characters of Caldicott and Charters, the two cricket-obsessed friends who maintain their stiff upper lips no matter the situation. The students were surprised to learn that the pair proved to be so popular that they were featured in three later movies, Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour, and Millions Like Us. More than one wondered if the two were supposed to be gay, a logical assumption considering their depiction in the tiny hotel room. A perceptive student inquired if the two might be patterned after vaudeville archetypes of the day. Charters—or maybe it was Caldicott—got a big laugh from the class when he was shot in the hand but barely winced, keeping his stiff upper lip intact. We were charmed in the end when the two turn out to be courageous in the final gunfight with the pseudo-Nazis.

IRIS (CENTER) HAVING A LAST NIGHT OF FUN BEFORE RETURNING TO ENGLAND TO MARRY

IRIS (CENTER) HAS A LAST NIGHT OF FUN BEFORE RETURNING TO ENGLAND AS A SACRIFICE ON THE ALTAR OF MARRIAGE.

Several students found Iris’s ambivalence toward marriage amusing and fascinating. Iris leaves her friends to return to England to get married. She laments, “I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?” Later in the conversation, she complains about being an offering sacrificed on the altar of the church where she will be married. Some students suggested that the narrative had more to do with Iris’s internal conflict over marriage than it did with the spies’ goals; others noted a subtle condemnation of marriage as an institution that will clip the wings of those who say, “I do.”

A few students remarked about Hitchcock in general. Many were intrigued that deeper themes and meanings could be found beneath the entertaining surfaces of his films. Others revealed an appreciation for the director’s craftsmanship. For example: “It’s interesting that most films today have the shaky camera but Hitchcock’s methods work better.”

DAME MAY WHITTY AS SPRY MISS FOY, AN UNLIKELY-LOOKING SPY

DAME MAY WHITTY AS SPRY MISS FOY, AN UNLIKELY-LOOKING SPY

I had mentioned that Hitchcock was not considered an artist for most of his career; likewise, his films were not taken seriously until the members of the French New Wave sang his praises. This prompted one of my favorite observations: “It’s interesting that Hitchcock was underappreciated and that people didn’t get the meaning of his work. Usually that means that their work isn’t successful in its message, just like a painting or drawing. I think here it means that he was too good for his time and the people in that time.”

I find that those of us who love classic movies see their artistry and understand their cultural significance, but more importantly we realize that they carry an emotional impact that films from other eras simply can’t duplicate. We want younger generations to share in that experience, to understand the heart that these films can display. More often than not, conversations among film teachers do not focus on rare bits of history or esoteric discussions of subtext. Most of the time, we want to know: What did you show in class? How did it go over? There is an excitement when classic films are well received—like a victory for our common cause. I am gratified that The Lady Vanishes achieved such a victory and ever proud of my talented, perceptive students.

 

The Film of Turin

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Today’s scheduled post has been derailed by a recent conversation between Marc Maron and William Friedkin that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour long talk that made me want to revisit the films of Billy Wilder (Ninotchka), John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), as well as many of Friedkin’s films. The notable director behind The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer, to name only my three favorites of his from the seventies, was himself enthralled by the magic of movies thanks to a visit to the Surf Theatre in Chicago circa 1956. The Surf Theatre was an arthouse revival venue that screened Citizen Kane on its 15th anniversary. Friedkin watched Citizen Kane several times on that one day, and it opened the doors to him for the works of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, the French New Wave, Akira Kurosawa, and the early works of Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick, to name only a few. Flashforward less than 20 years later and that same young man would bump Kubrick as the first choice director for a hot studio property called The Exorcist[...MORE]

Happy Birthday William Wellman

blogopenerDirector William Wellman was born on this day, February 29, in 1896. That would make today his 120th birthday, or his 30th, depending on your feelings regarding leap year. Nicknamed Wild Bill because of his adventurous days as a pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI, Wellman led one of those audacious lives that makes for good storytellers. Wellman’s medium of choice for telling stories was the Hollywood film. Movie fans can celebrate Wild Bill’s birthday this week on TCM by watching three of his best-known films: Battleground (March 1, 10:00am, EST), Wild Boys of the Road (March 3, 5:00am, EST), and The Public Enemy (March 3, 8:30am, EST).

Though infamous for browbeating his actors and intimidating his actresses, Wellman is justly famous for his male-dominated action movies (The Public Enemy), adventures about men in adversity (Wings), or stories about the interaction of men within a group (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground). However, I prefer Wellman’s early melodramas featuring female protagonists who are down on their luck, down and out, or just down on love. Usually, these melodramas are not discussed as part of Wellman’s body of work; they are most often considered and assessed as pre-Code films.

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Notes on Hitchcock

blogopenerNext week, I begin a section on Hitchcock in my advanced film history course. Though I have taught Hitchcock many, many times in my career, I am challenging myself to come up with new approaches to the material, so I am re-reading existing books and reviewing new materials. Along the way, I stumbled across several interesting Hitchcock tidbits and quotes that I wanted to share.

1 Foreign Correspondent airs tonight on TCM (February 22) at midnight EST, so my first fun fact is in honor of this taut little spy thriller with a terrific cast, including Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, and Edmund Gwenn. One of the film’s most famous sequences occurs at a Dutch windmill. Mills are featured as locations in two other Hitchcock films, Young and Innocent and The Manxman, though these are grain mills with turning water-wheels rather than rotating blades. In German Expressionism, twirling, spinning, or spiraling motions have a threatening connotation, sometimes symbolizing the swirling chaos in the mind of a madman, or the destructive force of a society gone mad. Hitchcock directed his first two films in Germany and was heavily influenced by Expressionism. The spinning of the merry-go-round in Strangers on a Train also falls into this category.

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Accused: The Wrong Man (1957)

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The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.

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Knocked Up: Susan Slade (1961)

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.

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Early Hitchcock: Which Would You Select?

blogopenerOnce again, I am teaching a section on Hitchcock to my advanced film history course. I told the students that we would study one filmmaker this semester, and I let them choose a director from a short list. The students selected Hitchcock, which was also the choice last year. The Hitchcock section consists of four films, one from his early period in England and three from his Hollywood career. I am letting the students pick the director’s Hollywood-produced movies, but I will start out with a film from his early period when he was England’s best and brightest director. Ay, there’s the rub. I can’t seem to decide which early Hitchcock to show.

Last summer, I was undecided about whether to show Night Moves or The Long Goodbye in my film noir course. I put the choice to the knowledgeable Morlocks readers, and based on your helpful input, I decided on The Long Goodbye. So, I thought I would ask for your educated opinions once more.

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