Tag Archives: Classic Film

Happy 80th Birthday, Jack Nicholson!

Happy 80th birthday to Jack Nicholson! A prolific actor and filmmaker who has brought to life some of the most iconic characters in American film, Jack is also the most nominated male actor in the history of the Academy Awards.

In this special excerpt from Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder, author Robert Crane steps away from the stories surrounding his father and recounts the time he and coauthor Chris Fryer interviewed then up-and-coming actor Jack Nicholson for their film class at USC:


During the early 1970s the two of us had become great observers of the ascendant star of Jack Nicholson. Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and Carnal Knowledge were big, important films, at least to us. Jack represented an honesty, an abandon that I had seen elsewhere only in old Marlon Brando films. Nicholson crying in front of his paralyzed father in Five Easy Pieces was a landmark moment for me. It was a shocking and spellbinding scene. How could you be a man and allow yourself to show emotion like that in front of millions of people? I was stunned by it, but I felt nothing but admiration. Ultimately I wanted to be like that character. I wanted to be that honest and open with other people. That particular scene spoke to me about my relationship with my dad, because except when I was a really young kid I could never cry in front of him. I wouldn’t allow myself to be that exposed. Seeing Nicholson do that was a revelation.

The semester after the release of Five Easy Pieces Chris and I took a class at USC called The Film Heroes of the ’30s and ’60s taught by screenwriter Steven Karpf, and we had the idea of teaming up to interview Jack Nicholson as the “antihero” for the ages. It never occurred to us that a couple of tyros from Tarzana and USC film school might not be able to talk to Jack Nicholson for their class project. We just didn’t know any better. Hell, we’d been told no by curmudgeonly gift shop buyers in college bookstores all over this great land, but we still managed to sell them license frames. So even though we’d heard the word no umpteen times, it just hadn’t made that much of an impression. We weren’t deterred by the word. We weren’t put off by the word. We just stepped around it, coming at the target from a different direction.

I had seen Jack once on a film panel at USC, and at that point in his career he was a great supporter of film, foreign cinema, and up-and coming filmmakers. He’d been to the Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, but he was still accessible enough that he could be persuaded to make an appearance at a college. This was well before the curtain of opportunity closed for nobodies to get near Jack Nicholson.

Talking to Jack Nicholson was remarkably easy. Through a family connection of Chris’s we got what turned out to be Jack’s home phone number, though we didn’t know it at the time. I dialed it, and damned if the guy himself didn’t answer the phone on the second ring. I knew who it was, but I still asked for Mr. Nicholson just to be polite. He asked, “Who’s calling?” and I introduced myself and launched into my pitch for an interview. To our incredible surprise and elation, Jack Nicholson agreed to sit down with us and talk film. It was absolutely unreal. Chris and I were bouncing off the walls.

Jack invited us up to his house on Mulholland Drive. To illustrate how different the world was in 1972, there was no gate on the driveway— the same driveway Jack shared with his next-door neighbor, Marlon Brando. We rolled up to the open front door and were escorted into the two-story ranch house as Michelle Phillips, Jack’s girlfriend at the time, passed us in the foyer. Chris and I exchanged looks, trying to be cool, as we stepped down into the living room. We were in a different world. There was a large, plush, brown suede couch opposite the wall of windows that overlooked Franklin Canyon and Los Angeles. The house was comfortable, lived-in. I felt pretty much at ease even though I was about to meet one of my film heroes. Jack came down the stairs wearing a navy blue bathrobe with a bat pin on the lapel. He might have just gotten out of bed, although it was well past lunchtime. As I discovered over the next several hours spent talking about film, Jack’s upcoming projects, his past experiences, and the future of cinema, Jack wasn’t wearing anything under that robe as he inadvertently flashed me several times.

After finally switching off the tape recorder, we took a few commemorative photos—for our benefit, not Jack’s—and left the house on cloud 99. We were so juiced that Chris almost killed us, spinning out his Porsche on a Mulholland curve and doing a 360 into a cloud of dust. We came to a stop between a telephone pole and the edge of a cliff. As the dust settled we could hear our pounding hearts, and then laughed like lunatics. Needless to say, we got As in that class.

Serendipitously, after that first interview, Chris and I, separately and together, began bumping into Jack around L.A. I saw him at a Rolling Stones concert, and we exchanged pleasantries. My date, Barbara Stephens, who had been my government teacher at Taft High School, was suitably impressed. Chris ran into Jack at an antiwar/pro-McGovern rally at UCLA. Jack was always where the action was.

Because these chance meetings made us think we were becoming pals, we did the only logical thing—we decided to write a book about our new best friend. There had never been a book about Jack Nicholson, and we felt it was high time and that we were just the guys to do it. Frankly, in 1972 the name Jack Nicholson wasn’t yet on the American public’s radar screen. On more than one occasion when I mentioned the idea I was told, “Gee, Bobby, I didn’t know you were that interested in golf…”


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For more interviews and stories, check out Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder by Robert Crane, now in a new paperback edition.

In this poignant memoir, Crane discusses the terrible day that his father Bob Crane, known to Hogan’s Heroes fans as Colonel Hogan, was discovered brutally murdered and how he has lived with the unsolved murder of his father. But this storyline is just one thread in his tale of growing up in Los Angeles, his struggles to reconcile the good and sordid sides of his celebrity father, and his own fascinating life. Through disappointment, loss, and heartbreak, Crane’s humor and perseverance shine. Beyond the big stars and behind-the-scenes revelations, this riveting account of death, survival, and renewal in the shadow of the Hollywood sign makes a profound statement about the desire for love and permanence in a life where those things continually slip away. By turns shocking and uplifting, Crane is an unforgettable and deeply human story.

Robert Crane is coauthor of My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood, Jack Nicholson: The Early Years, and Bruce Dern: A Memoir, and a contributor to Hal Ashby: Interviews.

Christopher Fryer is coauthor of Jack Nicholson: The Early Years and Bruce Dern: A Memoir, and a contributor to Hal Ashby: Interviews.

5 Unforgettable Gene Kelly Dance Numbers

Suffering from the rainy day blues? We’ve got you covered!

As told by Cynthia and Sara Brideson in the new biography, He’s Got Rhythm, Gene Kelly was one of the brightest stars in the world of Hollywood dance musicals. From tap dancing on roller-skates, to creating rhythms with a squeaky floorboard, to collaborating with dance legend Fred Astaire, Gene was a creative genius and a master of his craft.

These iconic song and dance numbers are guaranteed to put a “smile on your face” and have you “laughing at the clouds”:


1. “I Like Myself” from It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

In this unforgettable number, Gene provides one of his most energetic and entertaining performances, and proves that he can hoof it even when wearing roller-skates!

2. “The Babbitt And The Bromide” from Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

Two legends of American dance go head-to-head in this Gershwin brothers number from Ziegfeld Follies. In a classic sketch of friendly one-upmanship, the technical perfection of Fred Astaire meets the easy grace of Gene Kelly. This was the only time Astaire and Kelly appeared together on film in the prime of their careers.

3. “I Got Rhythm” from An American in Paris (1951)

Gene oozes charm in this clip from the Academy Award winning An American in Paris, as he taps and sings a classic jazz tune while teaching French children a few words of English.

4. “Squeaky Floor Routine” from Summer Stock (1950)

In what Kelly himself would later call his favorite solo routine, he creates a dance inspired by the environment in which it takes place. Employing a squeaky floorboard and an old newspaper as the basis for his rhythm, Gene displays his remarkable ability to explore a space through dance.

5. “Singin’ In The Rain” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

“From where I stand the sun is shining all over the place.”

In perhaps the most iconic number in any Hollywood musical, Gene taps and splashes his way through a California downpour and right into film history.


UKY06 He's Got Rhythm Selected.inddTo read the stories behind these and many other iconic Gene Kelly films, check out the newly released He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly. In the first comprehensive biography written since the legendary star’s death, authors Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson disclose new details of Kelly’s complex life. Not only do they examine his contributions to the world of entertainment in depth, but they also consider his political activities—including his opposition to the Hollywood blacklist. Drawing on previously untapped articles and interviews with Kelly’s wives, friends, and colleagues, Brideson and Brideson illuminate new and unexpected aspects of the actor’s life and work. He’s Got Rhythm is a balanced and compelling view of one of the screen’s enduring legends.

Feud: Bette and Miriam

Bette Davis’s feud with Joan Crawford is famous and is being well-documented on FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, but Crawford was not the only actress with whom Davis established a rivalry. In this excerpt from the forthcoming Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel, Allan R. Ellenberger details the central points of the feud that erupted between Hopkins and Davis on the set of 1939’s The Old Maid, perhaps an early hint at the rivalry that would erupt between Davis and Crawford some two decades later:


Whether described as a ‘woman’s picture,’ ‘tearjerkers’ or a ‘soap opera,’ the melodrama has been a standard since the early days of the silent cinema. The maternal melodrama, a sub-genre featuring plots of self-sacrificing, mother-loving figures who suffer adversity best describes Miriam’s first film at Warner Bros. – The Old Maid. Similar films include The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Imitation of Life, and the twice-filmed Stella Dallas.

In the late 1930s and into the following decade, Bette Davis was a staple in the melodramatic maternal film. Along with The Old Maid’s director Edmund Goulding, executives paired them in 1937’s That Certain Woman, about a sacrificial mother following an annulled marriage. Then two years after The Old Maid, they made The Great Lie where newly-widowed Davis offers to bring up the child of her husband’s pregnant ex-wife (Mary Astor). The Old Maid shared a similar plot-line: Davis as a cynical ‘old maid’ spinster who gives her illegitimate child to her self-centered cousin (Hopkins) to raise.

Filming began on Wednesday, March 15, 1939, with Edmund Goulding directing. Goulding knew Davis well, directing her in two films at Warners: the above mentioned That Certain Woman and, the film Miriam hoped would be hers, Dark Victory. But he knew Miriam longer, beginning with the New York social circles in the late 1920s, and later at Astoria Studios where they both were making films.

The first day, the cast reported to the sound stage at nine o’clock, but Miriam was ten minutes late, wearing a replica of a dress Davis wore in Jezebel [a film which Davis won an Oscar for and which Miriam believed should have been her starring role]. Davis claimed that Miriam hoped she would “blow my stack at this.”

Both Miriam and Davis suggested to Goulding how they could improve their roles. At first, unit manager Al Alleborn reported that each one had “little suggestions in the working out of scenes and getting the characterizations of their parts which did cause a slight delay on the first day, but company is now going smoothly.” It was short-lived.

The first two days, Goulding filmed the original opening scene in Mr. Painter’s lingerie shop, where the cousins and their grandmother are buying Delia’s trousseau. However, Davis wanted to enhance her role at Miriam’s expense. William Wyler had taught her that an actor’s first appearance in a film established their character. When they completed the lingerie shop sequence, Davis wanted to cut the scene. Instead, the opening sequence would be Delia’s wedding day.

The following day, Friday, March 17, Miriam was on Stage 15 at nine o’clock, an hour earlier than Davis. Assuming that she had already established her character in the lingerie shop, Miriam played the scene at a lower register. She had no idea this scene would be the audience’s first glimpse of her. So when Davis entered, excited and enthusiastic, people noticed.9780813174310

A month later, when Goulding cut the lingerie shop scene, Miriam sensed what Davis had done. By then she was using “every trick in the book” to rile her co-star. Davis was fascinated, “watching them appear one by one.” Miriam’s scene-stealing stunts were endless: a button would come undone, or a hairpin would fall out. She would change her position in close-ups and then inch her way upstage so Davis would turn away from the camera, sometimes at the expense of losing her light.

Considering Miriam needed this film to salvage her career, this unprofessional—and costly—behavior could finish her. She was fighting to be popular with audiences but allowed her loathing of Bette Davis to rule her emotions.

Davis admitted Miriam was a good actress and was perfect for the role, so it baffled her why she behaved as she did. Did Davis know Miriam was seeking revenge for her aggressive acts, including stealing Jezebel, the Academy Award that went with it and the weekend fling with her husband? It’s unlikely. Instead, Davis played dumb and was the victim, claiming she controlled her temper during the day, but at night she “screamed at everybody.”

The Davis-Hopkins thespian duel threatened innocent bystanders as well. Rand Brooks, who also appeared that year in the classic Gone with the Wind, played Delia’s son, Jim Ralston, Jr. He later recalled both actresses tried directing him. “One would tell me one thing, (and) then the other would say something else. They were both so anxious to look good and be better than the other. Edmund Goulding just stood by and was amused by the whole thing.”

Goulding tried to be a mediator. He respected Davis, but he was Miriam’s friend. To his credit, he tried keeping the peace. “Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said of the two women. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”

Unit manager Al Alleborn acknowledged Goulding’s struggles. “Working with two impossible people like Davis and Hopkins, many things have to be ironed out… Goulding has a tough job on this picture with these two girls. Not that they want to cause him any trouble or worry, but each one is fighting for a scene when they go into it.”

The rumors spread about friction on the set. The Warner’s publicity department concocted a scheme that Davis and Miriam agreed to. Davis told a reporter “Hoppy [her nickname for Miriam] and I are going to get a couple of pairs of boxing gloves and pose for a picture glowering at each other like a couple of fighters in their corners. It’s the only answer we can make to all the nonsense about how we can’t get along.”

In their silk dresses and bodices and shawls, they donned boxing gloves and posed for a picture with a worried-looking Edmund Goulding between them. Hedda Hopper reported the actresses had a sense of humor. Even so, she “never knew two blondes yet who were real palsie- walsies!”

Miriam’s sense of humor was waning; the staged photograph made matters worse. “Now they call me ‘Hardboiled Hopkins. I’m not.” she insisted, “I’m not temperamental and not hard to get along with. It’s those boxing gloves that caused all the trouble. But everyone forgot it was just a gag. They took it seriously.”

Hal Wallis, who witnessed their antics, confirmed their hatred for each other was real. “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic,” Wallis claimed in an interview years later. “They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”

excerpted from Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel (Kentucky, 2017)

Read more about Hopkins and Davis in Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel, available here.

Photographer To The Stars

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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Photo by Gianni Bozzacchi, author of My Life in Focus.

Once again we find ourselves in the heart of awards season, and while much attention is given to the flood of images coming from the red carpet, little thought is given to the men and women who dedicate themselves to capturing the glitz and glamor of Hollywood’s budding starlets and leading men.

In My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, Gianni Bozzacchi gives his firsthand account of life gazing at some of Hollywood’s biggest stars through the lens of a camera. This honest and lively memoir also reveals private moments in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor—to whom Bozzacchi was personal photographer, friend, and confidant—and features dozens of photographs capturing unguarded moments between the two.9780813168746

Bozzacchi gives a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, with all of its seductive charms and quirks. He tells of racing sports cars with Steve McQueen on the set of Le Mans, of fielding marriage proposals from Coco Chanel, and of photographing a shy young actor by the name of Al Pacino. His unique ability to put his subjects at ease, and his commitment to photographing celebrities as individuals allowed Bozzacchi to capture stunning images of some of the biggest stars of the twentieth century, including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, and the royal family of Monaco.

In the the following excerpt from My Life in Focus, Bozzacchi discusses the artistry behind one of his most iconic images, which he shot with the intention to dispel rumors that Elizabeth Taylor was losing her famously beautiful looks:


Of all the photos I’d taken, how many revealed the artist in me? I was always photographing for reasons dictated to me by others. The artist always came last, if he even came into the picture at all. Above all, you had to satisfy the objectives of the photo shoot—whether it was publicity, a poster, or a piece of clothing that needed selling. Generally, the subject was a star or someone important. Then there was the context. Was it for a magazine? Or a poster? In which case, the subject had to be to one side of the  image, because there’d be words on the other. As the photographer, you came last. If you did manage to infuse a little artistry into the photo, great. But my experience had taught me that nourishing such hopes was invariably in conflict with the aim of the image.

A true artist is free to express him- or herself completely, with no conflicts or compromises. Many of my photos were not like that. I enjoyed more freedom than a set photographer, but I had limits all the same. On set, for example, I couldn’t control the lights because that was up to the director of photography. My only choice was what angle I chose to shoot from. The clothes were chosen by the director in collaboration with the costume designer. The makeup artist decided the hairstyle and makeup of whatever star I was photographing. Sure, there were a few occasions when I was able to make my own decisions and express myself. But most of the time, I had to repress myself.

But there was one shot that really did express the artist in me. I was still burned up by the fact that someone had destroyed Elizabeth’s image. As her personal photographer, it was up to me to fix the damage. The idea that Elizabeth had suddenly become fat and ugly was absurd. Just look at that photo of her running out of her dressing room […] No one could say I’d touched anything up. That photo was as true as it gets. And technically, it was almost impossible. Just before taking it, I’d seen Elizabeth go from the set to her dressing room. Once the set floodlights had been switched off, the light was very different, very soft, beautiful. I liked the way it bathed Elizabeth’s figure and wanted to be able to photograph her in that light before they put the floods back on. Using a flash was out of the question because it can destroy any atmosphere. I measured the relative aperture. The stop was on 2, so the focus would be very tight. The speed was one-fifteenth of a second, which, technically, means it should be impossible to freeze a subject in motion. But I was convinced I could pull it off.

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Bozzacchi’s iconic photo, signed by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth came out of the dressing room running, which made everything even harder. With no time to plan, I shot without thinking. As she ran toward me, I dropped to my knees and leaned backward at the same speed that she was advancing, snapping off three shots. My movement compensated hers, creating a sense of immobility, even though Elizabeth was actually still running. There was no pose, no tricks, and the way her top wrapped around her body highlighted how well proportioned she was. And how beautiful.

Many great photographers have photographed Elizabeth during her career. Why, then, does talk always turn back to me? Why not Richard Avedon or Lord Snowdon? Maybe because I never photographed only the woman, the wife, the actress or star—I also managed to photograph her as a fully authentic individual. I brought her to life. I never immortalized an immobile and inexpressive star. And I never lurked in the bushes with a zoom lens like Galella. A photographer has to be in touch with his feelings, which I believe is what made the difference between that photo and all the others. Richard [Burton] liked it so much that he wrote a prose poem to go with it:

She is like the tide, she comes and she goes, she runs to me as in this stupendous photographic image. In my poor and tormented youth, I had always dreamed of this woman. And now, when this dream occasionally returns, I extend my arm, and she is here . . . by my side. If you have not met or known her, you have lost much in life.

Summer Under the Stars: Rosalind Russell

June 4 marks the birthday of one of golden age Hollywood’s most recognizable leading ladies, Rosalind Russell. To celebrate, we’re sharing an excerpt from James Bawden’s interview with him from our recent release Conversations with Classic Film Stars. Here, the acclaimed actress shares fascinating stories from her long career:

Setting the Scene

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Rosalind Russell. James Bawden collection.

Tall, sophisticated Rosalind Russell started out in movies as a serious dramatic actress, but her gift for wisecracking comic characters soon flowered, and she is today best remembered for those roles in His Girl Friday (1940), the original My Sister Eileen (1942), Auntie Mame (1958), and the musical Gypsy (1962). Oscar nominated for dramatic roles in Sister Kenny and Mourning Becomes Electra in the 1940s, she won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1972 Oscar ceremony for her charity work.

 

The Interview

BAWDEN: What was your upbringing like?

RUSSELL: I had a mother and father who cared. I was the middle child in a big batch of seven children. I don’t think Mother wanted me to be a stay-at-home mom as she had so proudly been. My father was an affluent lawyer, but his will made news and is still listed in the law books. He wanted his children to take care of themselves, but he’d support us in any educational endeavor as long as we wanted. Then, for at least three years—nothing! We had to try to make it in the world on our own abilities. I thought I’d try acting. It had always intrigued me, which meant a lot of studying at first because that’s exactly the way Dad would have wanted it.

[ . . . ]

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Rosalind Russell (left) with Norma Shearer in The Women. Image via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: How did you snag the choice role of Sylvia in The Women [1939]?

RUSSELL: Well, nobody else wanted it. She was a real gargoyle. I barged into [director] George Cukor’s office and he said, “Roz, you are a lady!” He wanted his Broadway buddy Ilka Chase, who had done the original play. I auditioned and tested for producer Hunt Stromberg, who figured he could save money by casting an MGM contractee. Hunt produced Night Must Fall. He knew me inside out. At first I tried to inject some malice, but George said to go for the broadest comedy. I dressed Sylvia horridly for show with more than a little help from [chief fashion designer] Adrien. We first glimpse her at Mary’s house, and I wore an awful blouse with a great big bulging Picasso-like face staring back. Norma [Shearer] took one look and protested to George, “She’s not going to wear that, is she?” In my mind Sylvia was ungainly. In the department store confrontation, I fall back into a garbage bin. I also had a wonderful wrestling match with Paulette Goddard that we rehearsed a whole day. Her character stole my husband. I really got going and at the end I grab her leg and bite it. Paulette wisecracked that she was going to get hydrophobia and the line stayed in.

There was some backstage tension with Norma. She was also brawling with Joan Crawford. I was told I’d get under-the-title billing, so when enough of my part was in the can, I started phoning in sick. MGM’s Benny Thau knew exactly what I was doing and eventually phoned and said I’d get star billing under Shearer and Crawford, but in smaller letters.

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Ralph Bellamy (left), Cary Grant (center), and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Image via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: You immediately jumped into His Girl Friday, the remake of The Front Page.

RUSSELL: The Women premiered in September 1939 to huge crowds. I naturally expected MGM would now be buying properties specifically for me. Nothing happened. They did not even try promoting me for an Oscar nomination. The next month Harry Cohn, who’d seen The Women, arranged a loan-out for His Girl Friday. [Director] Howard Hawks had gone through [Irene] Dunne, [Ginger] Rogers, [Jean] Arthur—all of whom had turned down [the role of] Hildy. I went over to see him and my hair was still wet from the shower. That’s how much effort I put into that audition. Howard told me he had this idea of changing Hildy’s sex at a party and read the play with a script girl. The Front Page, he said, was, after all, a great love story. I left his office all enthusiastic and it remains one of my favorite parts.

There are all these wonderful character actors: Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen. They’d try stealing scenes like crazy. Don’t forget Cary Grant, who is a smash. He just enjoyed himself so much. Howard very correctly resisted attempts to open it up, and it plays like a photographed stage play. It’s true I hired a gag writer to give me some lines because Cary was ad-libbing like crazy. Most of it was so good Howard let him keep the lines in.

[ . . . ]

BAWDEN: You decided to change the course of your career.

RUSSELL: With Sister Kenny [1946], I took a story most studios had turned down as too depressing. I had to practically break down the door of RKO head Charlie Koerner to get it done. It took two years to get the script right and only after scriptwriter Dudley Nichols came on board. He turned our characters back into real people and got so hooked he said he had to direct it. We all knew it wasn’t going to be a huge box office hit but it was my most challenging part. It did make a moderate profit and Charlie still talked to me.

BAWDEN: Then came Mourning Becomes Electra [1947].

RUSSELL: I was stunned when Dudley offered it to me. I thought I could get by as the mother, but he said, “Oh, no. You must play the daughter, Lavinia.” Couldn’t understand her or that family. We filmed and filmed and after the third time when the carriages come up to the door, I asked Dudley if that were necessary. He snapped, “How else are people going to get to the front door?” I started hating it, although I did as told. Katina Paxinou as Christine seemed to be braying all the time. Michael Redgrave was always in a snit. Ray Massey really got it right. I think I was just awful.

I was very surprised to get an Oscar nomination. [On] Oscar night the idea that I was standing up before Loretta Young’s name was called is ridiculous. In fact my mother was sick and I was trying to get her home. That accomplished, I turned around and went to Loretta’s victory party to congratulate her.

[ . . . ]

BAWDEN: In 1955 came Picnic.

RUSSELL: I was floored when [the playwright] Bill Inge phoned me up and said, “Roz, you must be Rosemary.” I’d seen and loved the play but I was concerned she might be relegated to secondary status. Both Bill and Harry Cohn assured me there were five main characters and all would have equal treatment. But on location in Kansas it was evident director Josh Logan was giving Kim Novak special privileges. Hers was a dazzling beauty, but she couldn’t act a bit. That kind of attention tipped the balance and then Harry suggested I take a secondary [Supporting Actor] nomination. He had just cut my big scene and I was in no mood for compromises. I refused because it would have been unfair to Rosemary.

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Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958). Courtesy of Warner Bros. and PBS (from the book).

BAWDEN: There was nothing secondary about your part in Auntie Mame!

 

RUSSELL: She just flew into everybody’s hearts. It was the Eisenhower fifties. People were desperately looking for color in their lives. She was this beautiful dame overstuffed with emotions. And yes, Morton Da Costa and I did a bit of rewriting of the script. You see, it was necessary to get Mame off the stage for a large chunk of act 2 or audiences would have become exhausted with her.

I grew so fond of little Jan Handzlik, who played my nephew. When his mother was in the hospital I went to see her with him and I ordered Warners to hire him for the movie although he was growing up fast. Then he moved to Seattle and I lost touch with my dear little boy.

For the movie I worked on getting Mame’s dimensions lowered for film. I didn’t want to wind up stagy and overbearing. But I now see I should have done even more. I really like the play better than the movie. Jack Warner immediately asked me to do a sequel titled Around the World with Auntie Mame. I refused. Bad decision. I think I should have done it, but I didn’t want to repeat myself in any way.

 

Afterword

Russell battled cancer before succumbing on November 28, 1976. She was seventy-one. Her legacy as a much-respected actress seems secure, especially after Premiere magazine
named her Hildy Johnson one of the top one hundred movie portrayals of the twentieth century.

 


If you’re looking for more astounding behind-the-scenes stories from the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, look no further than Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller.

A Summer Under the Stars

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Cool summer nights, on a blanket, under the stars – there’s no better setting to watch a classic film. Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era is out now, and it is sure to help you bring these big-time silver screen stars back to life. With rare interviews from big stars like Margaret Hamilton. If ever an actor was defined by a single role—and loved for it through the ages—it was Margaret Hamilton, whose cackling voice and sharp features are vivid memories to generations of movie fans who remember her as the Wicked Witch of the 1939 movie classic, The Wizard of Oz. Hamilton was a veteran of Broadway theater, radio, and television as well as the movies, where she specialized in character roles. She might even have been remembered, if for nothing else, as Cora from the Maxwell House coffee TV ads she did in the late 1970s.

Setting the Scene

Meeting Margaret Hamilton was a real thrill for an old Wizard of Oz fan. It happened in January 1972. Hamilton was busy stealing scenes from Jean Simmons in the road company of A Little Night Music in Toronto, and I arranged an interview with her between shows. When I walked into the lobby of the King Edward Hotel for lunch with her, I suppose I was expecting someone who cackled and had a broom waiting in her parking space. Instead, I was greeted by a beautifully coiffed matron in a Chanel suit. Not once was she recognized by the other diners as one of cinema’s best-ever villainesses.

The Interview

BAWDEN: Does it bother you that everywhere you go you’re—

HAMILTON: The Wicked Witch of the West? Well, I wouldn’t get any work at my Hamilton_Wicked Witchage if I didn’t have that great movie as my signature piece. I mean nobody asks me about Mountain Justice [1937], The Gay Vagabond [1941], or Breaking the Ice [1938]. Why would they? But to have one film that’s still seen more than thirty years later? Well, it’s astounding.

BAWDEN: I keep hearing you were not first choice for the role.

HAMILTON: Mervyn LeRoy, who produced it, asked me to come in and test in full makeup. I worked with the designers on what I thought was a particularly foul-looking costume. I just thought of Halloween. I suggested the pointed hat and I found an old broomstick in a corner. Then I read in the trades a week later Gale Sondergaard had waltzed in and wowed them with a particularly glamorous interpretation. And she even announced she’d gotten it. I just shrugged and kept on working on my character studies. Then I was at a football game with my little son and Mervyn spotted me and ran over and said, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere. You got it! Report Monday for costume and makeup tests.” He offered me six weeks at $1,000 a week, which was manna for me. It eventually stretched out to twenty-three weeks. I asked him what had happened to Gale and Mervyn said, “Too pretty. We needed somebody who could scare the pants off children.”

BAWDEN: But the making of that movie wasn’t your fondest experience, was it?

HAMILTON: Working on it almost killed me. Buddy Ebsen, who was the original Tin Man, was rushed to the hospital and replaced by Jack Haley. The cause was paint poisoning and he was there for an awfully long time.

Supporting actors were not well regarded in those days. In one scene, I had to drop six feet through a trapdoor with the colored smoke all around me, and it was a close-up so there was no double. I was told to bend my knees and I’d land simply, but suddenly I was in flames. Somebody had prematurely touched the fire button. I was on fire! My broomstick went right up! My hat was on fire! I had to be hospitalized for second-degree burns for a month. MGM grudgingly paid the bills, but my face was seared, I had third-degree burns on one hand. I was in agony. My agent said if I sued I’d never work in this town again.

When I returned, I was told I’d be suspended in the air with a long pipe emitting smoke below me. I said no and they said I was a sissy and brought in the stand-in and she saddled up and the whole gadget exploded. She was badly wounded and spent months in the hospital.

BAWDEN: But surely there must be happy moments?

HAMILTON: Well, working with Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger was heavenly. They kidded Judy [Garland] like crazy to keep her perky. Those Munchkins were Margaret Hamilton-Mae Westsomething else—a bad lot, I say, but they were afraid of me and kept their distance.

Watching Judy Garland perform was lovely. She had such energy. I didn’t realize it was all the Benzedrine she was being force-fed. They worked Judy to the bone. Saturdays, too, right up to the dawn breaking on Sunday morning. You know Judy was only sixteen and she was about to graduate from Hollywood High and I helped her pick the dress, but she had to do a cross-promotional Oz tour and only got back the day before her last day at high school.

I had my lovely little son, Meserve, with me one day in the commissary and [MGM studio boss] Louis B. Mayer waddles over and offered him a kiddie contract. “Don’t you dare!” I shouted and he ran off. I’d seen, up front, the awful things Hollywood did to little children.

Take a stopwatch and you’ll see I’m only around for less than fifteen minutes. It took an awful lot of effort to get those fifteen minutes. I became the real star of it because children always love to be frightened nearly to death. And little tots still recognize me on the street today. They point at me and shiver and laugh. It’s quite a compliment to think I still look a bit like that. . . .

BAWDEN: Were there any of the big stars you truly enjoyed working with?

HAMILTON: Oh, Carole Lombard would be right at the top of any list. I have to explain the star pecking order in those days. The stars had huge dressing rooms—many were suites complete with kitchens and even bedrooms—and portable ones on location. They were insulated from the rest of us. We were ensconced in a holding pen. I’d read, study my lines. But interaction was rare. With Carole, she came over and sat with us. She would be taking the lay of the land. She’d get her makeup done right there. An all right dame. And her mastery of screwball comedy was supreme. She was so lithe with a comedy line even Freddie March had trouble keeping up. I ran the drugstore in Warsaw, Vermont, in that one.

Eddie Robinson was the same way in A Slight Case of Murder [1938]. A sheer delight, very erudite. Bespectacled between the scenes. On camera, a whirling dervish, very competitive.

The year I did Wizard of Oz I also had a part in Babes in Arms with Judy Garland. The way Busby Berkeley mistreated her was awful. And Judy’s mom let him get away with this abuse. I was the aunt of one of the kids, name of Martha Steele, whom I loved. Judy asked me to sit with her in her dressing room. That way the mom couldn’t have a temper tantrum. I smuggled her in cookies because she was kept on a starvation diet. I told Busby off once about his foul language. He couldn’t really direct people. He could only devise those geometric shapes.

Years later during Judy’s Carnegie Hall triumphs I went backstage and she didn’t recognize me or Ray Bolger. He was in tears, saying she was on something. I did a Merv Griffin Show with her and her speech was slurred. I realized the sweet little teenager I’d known was long gone. . .

BAWDEN: In My Little Chickadee [1940] you had to contend with W. C. Fields and Mae West. How did that go?Margaret Hamilton

HAMILTON: Bill Fields walked in the first day, reeking of liquor. He came over and apologized to me. Understand, I was in awe of his talents. I said, “Mr. Fields, on you it smells like eau de cologne,” and he brightened up. A very sweet egomaniac. Ditto Mae West, who looked like an overstuffed mannequin. She said to me, “Margaret, can I help it if every man on this set is crazy in love with me?” Well, the love was one-sided, I can tell you. She was forty-eight and needed special lighting to wash out her creases. And Bill was constantly changing lines and she’d protest to director Eddie Cline, who told me he now knew how a wrestling referee felt.

Everyone seems to have seen this one, but it was considered a disappointment when first released. Mr. Fields never used bad language, although he was sorely tried when Miss West was in one of her moods. She kept saying, “I’m a solo performer. Please tell Bill that next time you find him awake.” Like all comics he’d try out a bit of business and then spend days refining it. He simply tried to add to his performance and she to hers. Mae would say, “Bill! Enough!” and waddle away and he’d mope for the rest of the afternoon. Thinking of that scene where he gets into bed with a billy goat still makes me laugh. But Mae wanted it out as being unrefined. . . .

What I want to explain is how grateful I’ve been. I could have spent all these years teaching kindergarten. I used to go out to junior grades to say hello, and all the kids would ask me to cackle. Which I always did at full throttle, and the little nippers would be cowering in their seats. We even had a few moist accidents. I’ve played hundreds of characters and I’m still up for more. Preston Sturges called me a “miniaturist” and that’s pretty wonderful as far as I’m concerned.

Afterword

Margaret Hamilton acted until 1982, when she played guest roles on two CBS series—Nurse and Lou Grant. She died of a heart attack, aged eighty-two, in Salisbury, Connecticut, on May 16, 1985. Predictably, the obituaries’ headlines all mentioned The Wizard of Oz.

Golden Galley Awards: Day Two

Day 2 No Rules

The Golden Galley Awards start back up again today, featuring another photo from Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller. Did you identify from where this scene took place? Featuring one of classic Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs, Cary Grant, and the iconic Katharine Hepburn in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story (image courtesy of MGM and TV station KTVU of Oakland, CA). Here’s what Grant had to say about The Philadelphia Story and working with Miss Hepburn in his interview with James Bawden:

“Grant: [Hepburn is a] real character. She’ll try anything. I taught her acrobatics and she even does a turn in Holiday. She was always standing on my shoulders and heaving into a rolling fall. In Bringing Up Baby, we had the sweetest leopard to work with, very adorable, always purring when petted. When they substituted the nasty leopard, Kate got scratched up. So in the scene when she’s dragging the leopard into the police station, they double-printed the leopard in later. Look closely and you’ll see the strands of rope don’t match.

In the final scene, we had one chance at doing it on top of the dinosaur skeleton or somebody could get hurt. I trained Kate myself. She was fearless. There was no mattress on the floor. I had her let me grab her, not by her hands because her arms would pop out of the sockets. I grabbed her by her wrists and we’re up there tossing back and forth as the skeleton crashes. Scariest thing I’d ever done, but Kate said it was wonderful and talked
about deserting acting for acrobatics!

I tried to get out of Philadelphia Story because my part was small. So in the movie version Hepburn doesn’t have a brother. I got all those lines. But it still didn’t flow. On the last day of shooting, Cukor came up with the visual gag that opens the movie: Dexter is moving out and she comes behind him and breaks all his golf clubs over her knee. Then I push her violently backwards, using her face to push her away. Of course, there was a mattress out of camera range, but most big stars would have hollered. On the second take Kate merely said, “Push harder, if you like.”

Of the four stars—Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Ruth Hussey all got Oscar nominations and Jimmy won. How do you think that made me feel?”

If you want to see more interviews like this one, be sure to sign up for our Golden Galleys Contest! All submissions are due by midnight tonight. To enter, just click here.