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]

How steve mcqueen blew it on a movie that almost had stampeding elephants, and other stories behind CALIFORNIA SPLIT

CALIFORNIA SPLIT poster

I spent the Labor Day weekend at the 41st Telluride Film Festival. There were many highlights, but at the top of my list was a 35mm print screening of California Split (Robert Altman, 1974), which was presented by TCM. And, no, I’m not just sucking up to the folks who sign my paycheck on this one, because if you search “California Split” on the Morlock site you’ll see that I refer to it in a 12.30.12 post as a title I’ve been wanting to watch for quite a while. Since writing that post I did purchase an out-of-print DVD that then proceeded to collect dust along about 100 other “must-watch” titles that currently sit on a bookshelf near my entertainment system. In retrospect, I’m glad it got lost in the shuffle. Why? Because thanks to Kim Morgan and Guy Maddin (this year’s Guest Directors at Telluride), I got to see a nice, uncut, Panavision print of California Split that was followed by a very entertaining Q&A with actors George Segal and  Joseph Walsh (who was also its producer and wrote the script based on many autobiographical elements). Frosting on the cake? The film print is three minutes longer than the DVD, due to legal issues involving musical clearances (strange how the ubiquitous “happy birthday” song can cause so many problems). I want to give an additional shout-out to both Morgan and Maddin for the excellent lineup of other selected films, which included A Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933), Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957), The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936), and Wicked Woman (Russell Rouse, 1953). The fact that all of these titles were screened on 35mm film and are each rare and off-the-beaten-path works worthy of a future lengthy post is testimony to both a great film festival and inspired curators. But, for now, let’s get back to California Split, and the story behind how it was almost appropriated by Steven Spielberg, Dean Martin, and a pack of rampaging elephants.  [...MORE]

What I Didn’t Know About Harry Cohn

harryyoungI recently picked up a used audiotape of the biography of Harry Cohn by Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn. First published in 1967, the book was revised in 1990 with additional interviews and material; in 2000, it was republished, including an audiotape edition with a forward by Peter Bart. King Cohn is not groundbreaking in structure or shocking in content, but I did learn a great deal about the meanest movie mogul in Hollywood as well as the love of his life, Columbia Pictures.

Most of the Golden Age movie moguls started at the bottom in the movie business and worked their way up to head of production at their studios. While Cohn was no exception, I discovered that his entrance into the film industry was quite unique. He was working as a song plugger for sheet-music publishers when he had a brilliant idea to increase sales. The latest songs were routinely plugged at movie theaters between films by the house orchestras who played them while slides of pretty pictures were shown to the audience. Cohn believed that audiences would respond better to movie footage than slides, so he began to produce footage for theaters to project during the songs.  To maximize the effect, Cohn learned to match the content of the images to the songs’ lyrics. Jack Cohn, Harry’s brother, worked for Universal Pictures at the time, and he showed Cohn’s innovation to studio owner Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was impressed enough to give Harry a job.  Eventually, Harry and Jack left Universal to form their own production company.

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A Forgotten Star to Remember: Kay Francis

francisopenerDepression-era star Kay Francis is on my radar these days. Recently, I had occasion to research one of her films, The White Angel; also, I inherited many of her movies from my movie-collecting friend who passed away earlier this year. While the name Kay Francis is probably familiar to movie buffs and avid TCM viewers, I am sure the average movie-goer is thinking, “Kay who?”

In the mid-1930s, Kay Francis was Warner Bros.’s highest paid actor. Signed to WB in 1932 after making 17 films for Paramount, she peaked in the early Depression era playing sharply dressed, sophisticated women who excelled in the game of romance. Sometimes her character suffered for love; sometimes, she caused the suffering of others. A typical storyline might find Francis straying in her marriage because her husband neglected her, as in Transgression. Or, any romance for her was simply doomed because she had a terminal illness, as in One Way Passage. Francis was renowned for her fashion sense, and part of her star image mandated that her characters wear the latest gowns, suits, and accessories. Her tall, sleek, model-like figure was tailor made for the long lines and dropped waists of 1930s clothing.

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Edward Dmytryk vs. the Blacklist

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Before you answer, please understand: this is not a Yes or No question.

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THE END

In case you haven’t heard; 2012 will be known as the official date when most celluloid projection will be tossed into a fiery and remote pit.  Film, “reel” film, the stuff made of organic emulsion that unspools through a projector at 24-frames-a-second, is going the way of the dodo bird. Roger Ebert wrote a eulogy on November 2nd (Chicago Sun Times; The sudden death of film). A.O. Scott followed his lead a couple weeks later on Nov 18th (N.Y. Times; Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?). Leo Enticknap, a cinema director at the University of Leeds in the U.K., went even further on Nov. 20th (INDIEwire; The 35mm Battle Continues) when he facetiously ridiculed a recent petition to save 35mm film with this opening salvo: “OK, and let’s petition Ford to reopen the Model T production line, and ban all performances of Mozart’s piano concertos on anything other than an eighteenth century fortepiano while we’re at it.” (Links to all three essays are provided at the bottom of my post.)

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Knit Flicks


Happy New Year!

You may wish to begin the year by vowing to lose weight, (how original!…and welcome to the club), mastering the arcane intricacies of Farmville, (is it a game or a cult?), spending more quality time with your pet iguana, or finishing War and Peace–or at least cracking open the first, mischievous volume of The Autobiography of Mark Twain that Santa left behind for you. My personal mountain to climb in 2011 will be the nagging desire to finally conquer my mental block when it comes to knitting. Yes, “knit one, purl two” is a phrase that conjures up feelings of frustration, self-contempt and the urge to fling the needles and gnarled yarn across the room. Persistence, of course usually pays off. Unfortunately, for this chronically challenged crafter, the glamorous world of interweaving lamb’s wool into something useful and colorful has been a bust…so far.

My decision to follow the stony, humbling path of learning to knit began again at a recent trip to the movies when I spied a fellow theater goer knitting merrily away–in the dark! Impressive, especially since the movie was the rather loud (at times) and visually amusing Gulliver’s Travels (2010), though the intricate work of this knitting fiend in the next row never seemed to falter. After this, I decided to make a greater effort to psyche myself up, gird my loins and bite the bullet while admitting my many shortcomings face-to-face with the accomplished instructors at a local yarn shop. I’ve also begun to notice that some of the glamourpusses of the silver screen were demon knitters, and they don’t get more dazzling than Cary Grant in Mr. Lucky , do they?
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Hattie McDaniel’s Path to Her Oscar

Last year, in part because of the celebrations surrounding the films of 1939, I had a chance to introduce Gone With the Wind to younger viewers in my family who had never seen the film. It’s not a favorite movie of mine, so I could understand their appalled reactions to the innate racism of the story that implied that a slave’s first loyalty was to the families that owned them, (even after the Civil War and emancipation). Seen at a glance in GWTW, maybe the antebellum South’s biggest problems may only seem to be uppity white trash like Victor Jory’s oily Jonas Wilkerson, or the need for rebellious girls like Scarlett to maintain their hypocritical poses in a rigid social structure, while secretly acting on their own half-understood impulses, and the upheaval caused by those damn Yankees. But look a bit closer and you can see the story of changing attitudes and a brave woman struggling to make her mark in a world that both rejected and accepted her.  I don’t mean Scarlett Katie O’Hara, either.

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