Memos from Zanuck: “It All Depends on How You Tell the Story”

blogopenerA few weeks ago, I wrote about the behind-the-scenes memos between Jack Warner and his producers, directors, and stars that can be found in a book titled Inside Warner Bros. 1935 – 1951. Compiled by Rudy Behlmer, the memos are fascinating and revelatory. Not only do they offer insights into the daily operations of the major studios, they also revealed the personalities, peculiarities, and peccadillos of the moguls who ran Hollywood during the Golden Age. This week, I thought I would skim through Behlmer’s Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox to uncover forgotten details of the studio’s history that classic movie fans might find enlightening. Though his memos are not as quirky or unintentionally funny as Warner’s, they confirmed my opinion regarding his strengths as a producer.

I have always thought of Zanuck as a literate man whose early years as a scriptwriter for Warner Bros. served him well as an executive producer. Zanuck exhibited a talent for shaping scripts during preproduction and sharpening films during editing. While directors such as John Ford and Preston Sturges often bristled at his interference and disagreed with him about cutting down scenes and sequences, Zanuck was a stickler for linear narratives with sharp pacing, which he called “tempo.” Often, his judgment was correct. His cut of My Darling Clementine did tighten the narrative without losing the majesty of the visuals and gravity of the characters.

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The Memos of Jack Warner: “The Mustache Is the Thing for This Picture”

blogopenerIn last week’s post, I offered snatches of internal memos from Warner Bros. regarding their day-to-day operations during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I quoted from memos between executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz, because I detected a long-term tension between the two, especially on the part of Wallis. Based on comments I received (including on Facebook), I don’t think some readers quite believed me, claiming that Wallis was only doing Jack Warner’s bidding, and that Warner was far worse. This week I focused on the memos of Jack Warner to see if he was, indeed, “worse” than Wallis. Warner could certainly be bad-tempered, irritable, and downright crabby, but, in my opinion, he was cantankerous with everyone. In a way I can’t fully explain but certainly intuit, it didn’t seem personal. My favorite aspect of the Warner memos was something I didn’t expect—a quirky humor that made me laugh out loud. Below is the unfiltered wit and venom of Jack Warner, vice-president in charge of production, i.e. the mogul behind Warner Bros.’s movies during the Golden Age. Make of it what you will.

As mentioned last week, memos on Warners’ pre-Code movies are scarce, but Jack did weigh in on certain issues that would not be relevant after the Code was enforced in 1934—most notably the breasts of some of his stars. In a 1933 memo about the dailies for Convention City, he wrote, “We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts,. . . .for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” In a pre-production memo regarding The Case of the Howling Dog, he reminds producer Sam Bischoff, “Be sure that Bette Davis has her bulbs wrapped up.” Davis’s “bulbs” became a moot point because the actress refused to appear in the film. She was suspended for this infraction of her contract, and the role was given to Mary Astor.

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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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Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

Nosferatu to you too, and the horse you rode in on

It’s getting ever closer to Halloween, and TCM is imminently going to screen the spectacular 1922 Nosferatu.  I was asked to contribute an audio commentary on this legendary horror classic for the UK Blu-Ray edition from Masters of Cinema.  In preparing my track I took the opportunity to challenge some of the received wisdom about the authorship of this film—but one disadvantage of the audio commentary format as a vehicle for that kind of discussion is that I was limited to the visual examples presented by the film itself.  To really make my case I wanted to be able to show some other film clips or stills—which is best suited to a blog!  So here we go—into the mad world of Nosferatu’s creator, F.W. Murnau Albin Grau!

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Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!

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Mogul Mania

Tonight begins TCM’s original documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, a seven-part series that will air every Monday till December 13, with each episode repeating on the following Wednesday. An ambitious, meticulously crafted interpretation of the history of American film, Moguls & Movie Stars focuses on the famous (movie stars) and the infamous (the moguls) as the threads that tie this history together.

While I have been anxiously awaiting the series since I first heard about it months ago, I feel especially eager because I have already seen the first two episodes, and I know the quality and level of detail to expect. At the Telluride Film Festival, director John Wilkman presented Episode 1: “The Peepshow Pioneers” and Episode 2: “The Birth of Hollywood.” Another reason I am excited about Moguls & Movie Stars is because I got to contribute in a small way to the terrific-looking website that supports the series. I wrote four of the site’s biographies of the legendary moguls: Sam Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse L. Lasky, and Irving Thalberg. I urge everyone to peruse the website for the wealth of historical information it provides. However, I can’t help but wonder if the other writers experienced the same difficulty that I did in paring down the anecdotes and stories about the moguls into just a few paragraphs. Some of the information and insight I uncovered but discounted will pop up in the program’s interviews with the moguls’ relatives and offspring, including Carla Laemmle, Daniel Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. But much information I came across will be left out. I thought it might be fun and enlightening to offer a few extra facts and details on these larger-than-life moguls who, for better or worse, shaped the Hollywood industry.

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Polo, Anyone?

Quick! What could bring the talented, the powerful and the famous together in studio era Hollywood? Not a movie. Not a premiere. And not a high stakes poker game, though plenty of those went on regularly. What brought the likes of Jimmy Gleason, Walter Wanger, Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Walt DisneyPaul Kelly, Frank Borzage, Johnny Mack Brown, Hal Roach, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, George O’Brien, Darryl F. Zanuck and even Joan Crawford together in the same places week after week when their work was done?

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A Memorable Woman’s Face (1941)

“The director who, hands down, helped me the most was George Cukor. He didn’t just help me do better in the films he directed me in, but he helped me be me. His words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I did films with lesser directors, and everyone was a lesser director compared to Mr. Cukor. I heard his words in my head, even words he never said, but which I thought he would have said…He had a profound effect on me.  If I could have selected a man to be my father, he would have been George Cukor.” ~ Joan Crawford

On Saturday, April 24th at 3:30 PM at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival will have an opportunity to see director George Cukor’s effect on Joan Crawford when A Woman’s Face (1941) is introduced by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, and Casey LaLonde, the grandson of Joan Crawford. For those of us who won’t be able to make it that day, this movie may still be worth exploring on DVD and whenever it appears on the TCM schedule.

Seeing A Woman’s Face (1941) for the first time a few years ago made me realize all over again why Joan Crawford was–like her or not–more than a movie star: She could act. The actress cited this film as one of the performances that ultimately helped her to earn an Oscar as Best Actress later in this decade for Mildred Pierce (1945). A Woman’s Face may be her among her best films. It deserves a bigger audience.

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The Rising of the Moon (1957)

Tyrone Power introduces the first of three stories told in the film The Rising of the Moon (1957) with the wry comment that “This is a story about nothing, or perhaps about everything.”

For the director John Ford, this roughly 84 minute black and white movie, made in Ireland, which he did for free and “the sake of my artistic soul,” may be among his most personal films–even though today it is probably the least seen of this celebrated filmmaker’s movies from the sound era. As revealed in a piece by the New York Post’s film critic Lou Lumenick last year, even the director’s grandson, Daniel Ford, has only a videotape of this now rare movie, and the exact copyright ownership of the movie appears to be a bit mysterious. Preoccupied, as almost all of Ford’s movies were, with the inevitable dissolution of traditions, communities and ties, it was not a realistic movie, having about as much to do with “life as we knew it in the ’50s in Ireland as Prince Valiant did to life in the Middle Ages,” as one Irish-born friend pointedly told me once. The stories woven in this anthology film also feature magnificent casts, with Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Frank Lawton, Dennis O’Dea, Jack MacGowran and Eileen Crowe giving life to these off-hand tales.

The quirky The Rising of the Moon (1957) looked back nostalgically through Ford’s somewhat foggy, affectionate lens at an imagined world as it might have been or as the director wished it to be. Originally entitled The Three-Leaf Clover, (as well as Three or Four Leaves of the Shamrock, according to some sources), it tells a trio of stories, all related to the theme of personal freedom, in a loose-limbed way. Each of the segments adapted by longtime Ford screenwriter Frank S. Nugent for scale, unfolded, in their seemingly ramshackle way, and celebrate the rituals of comradeship, tradition, chaos, and wholesale blarney that underpinned Ford’s vision of Irish life. These casually told and seemingly rambling stories are all tinged with the melancholy that a child of immigrants might feel about a romanticized past he could never fully experience first-hand.

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