Tag Archives: Film

New Releases In Film History

In recognition of the 89th Academy Awards, we’re featuring our favorite new releases in the fields of film history. Which ones will you read?


UKY05 Showman of the Screen Selected.inddShowman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolution In Film Promotion

Short, immaculately dressed, and shockingly foul-mouthed, Joseph E. Levine (1905–1987) was larger than life. He rose from poverty in Boston’s West End to become one of postwar Hollywood’s most prolific independent promoters, distributors, and producers. Alternately respected and reviled, this master of movie promotion was responsible for bringing films as varied as Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956), Hercules (1958), The Graduate (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and A Bridge Too Far (1977) to American audiences.

In Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolution In Film Promotion, the first biography of this controversial pioneer, A. T. McKenna traces Levine’s rise as an influential packager of popular culture. Despite his significant accomplishments and prominent role in shaping film distribution and promotion in the post-studio era, Levine is largely overlooked today. McKenna’s in-depth biography corrects misunderstandings and misinformation about this colorful figure, and offers a sober assessment of his contributions to world cinema. It also illuminates Levine’s peculiar talent for movie- and self-promotion, as well as his extraordinary career in the motion picture business.

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Hollywood Divided

On October 22, 1950, the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) gathered for a meeting at the opulent Beverly Hills Hotel. Among the group’s leaders were some of the most powerful men in Hollywood—John Ford, Cecil B. DeMille, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler, and Rouben Mamoulian—and the issue on the table was nothing less than a vote to dismiss Mankiewicz as the guild’s president after he opposed an anticommunist loyalty oath that could have expanded the blacklist. The dramatic events of that evening have become mythic, and the legend has overshadowed the more complex realities of this crucial moment in Hollywood history.brianton_cover

In Hollywood Divided, Kevin Brianton explores the myths associated with the famous meeting and the real events that they often obscure. He analyzes the lead-up to that fateful summit, examining the pressure exerted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Brianton reveals the internal politics of the SDG, its initial hostile response to the HUAC investigations, the conservative reprisal, and the influence of the oath on the guild and the film industry as a whole. Hollywood Divided also assesses the impact of the historical coverage of the meeting on the reputation of the three key players in the drama.

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Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story

They’ve traded punches in knockdown brawls, crashed biplanes through barns, and raced to the rescue in fast cars. They add suspense and drama to the story, portraying the swimmer stalked by the menacing shark, the heroine dangling twenty feet below a soaring hot air balloon, or the woman leaping nine feet over a wall to escape a dog attack. Only an expert can make such feats of daring look easy, and stuntwomen with the skills to perform—and survive—great moments of action in movies have been hitting their mark in Hollywood since the beginning of film.

Here, Mollie Gregory presents the first history of stuntwomen in the film industry from the silent era to the twenty-first century. For decades, stuntwomen have faced institutional discrimination, unequal pay, and sexual harassment even as they jumped from speeding trains and raced horse-drawn carriages away from burning buildings. Featuring sixty-five interviews, Stuntwomen showcases the absorbing stories and uncommon courage of women who make their living planning and performing action-packed sequences that keep viewers’ hearts racing.

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Harry Langdon: King Of Silent Comedy

Among silent film comedians, three names stand out—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd—but Harry Langdon indisputably deserves to sit among them as the fourth “king.” In films such as The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Langdon parlayed his pantomime talents, expressive eyes, and childlike innocence into silent-era stardom. This in-depth biography, which features behind-the-scenes accounts and personal recollections compiled by Langdon’s late wife, provides a full and thoughtful picture of this multifaceted entertainer and his meteoric rise and fall.Harry Langdon.final.indd

In Harry Langdon: King Of Silent Comedy, authors Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon explore how the actor developed and honed his comedic skills in amateur shows, medicine shows, and vaudeville. Together they survey his early work on the stage at the turn of the twentieth century as well as his iconic routines and characters. They also evaluate his failures from the early sound period, including his decision to part ways with director Frank Capra. Despite his dwindling popularity following the introduction of talkies, Langdon persevered and continued to perform in theater, radio, and film—literally until his dying day—leaving behind a unique and brilliant body of work.

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UKY06 He's Got Rhythm Selected.inddHe’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly

He sang and danced in the rain, proclaimed New York to be a wonderful town, and convinced a group of Parisian children that they had rhythm. One of the most influential and respected entertainers of Hollywood’s golden age, Gene Kelly revolutionized film musicals with his innovative and timeless choreography. A would-be baseball player and one-time law student, Kelly captured the nation’s imagination in films such as Anchors Aweigh (1945), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris(1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

In He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kellythe 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. The authors even confront Kelly’s darker side and explore his notorious competitive streak, his tendency to be a taskmaster on set, and his multiple marriages. 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.

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My Life in Focus

When Gianni Bozzacchi accepted an assignment as a photographer on the set of The Comedians (1967), he didn’t know that his life was about to change forever. His ability to capture the beauty of candid moments drew the attention of the film’s star, Elizabeth Taylor, and prompted her to hire him as her personal photographer. Not only did he go on to enjoy a jet-set life as her friend and confidant—preserving unguarded moments between the violet-eyed beauty and Richard Burton as they traveled the world—but Bozzacchi also became an internationally renowned photographer and shot some of the biggest celebrities of the 1960s and 1970s.9780813168746

In My Life in Focus, Bozzacchi traces his journey from humble beginnings to the sphere of the rich and famous. Beautifully illustrated with many of the photographer’s most iconic images, this lively memoir reveals private moments in the Taylor-Burton love story and provides an invaluable behind-the-scenes look at the business of filmmaking and the perils of celebrity.

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Harry Langdon and Frank Capra: A Directorial Dispute

The dichotomy between actor and director has long been a fascinating one. Who has the ultimate say in what goes into the film? Conventional wisdom places the director at the forefront, but the recent rise of actor-directors (think James Franco) would seem to provide a counterargument. This rise, however, is not as recent as it may seem. In 1927, Harry Langdon, already a famous silent film comedian, decided to part ways with his director Frank Capra over just such issues of authorial control.

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In Harry Langdon: King Of Silent Comedy, authors Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon
provide a new biography of one of silent film’s less well-known but most enduring comedians. In films such as The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Langdon parlayed his pantomime talents, expressive eyes, and childlike innocence into silent-era stardom. Together, Oldham and Langdon survey his early work on the stage at the turn of the twentieth century as well as his iconic routines and characters. They also evaluate his failures from the early sound period, including his decision to part ways with director Frank Capra.

Langdon had worked with Capra on The Strong Man, and besides being Capra’s feature-length debut, it catapulted Langdon into a stardom he had not yet experienced. This stardom, it would seem, got to Langdon’s head – he was besieged by adulating fans and he began to believe that the reason for the film’s success rested solely on his shoulders. Beliefs such as these led him to a climactic confrontation with Capra that would permanently severe the relationship between the two men. The following excerpt tells the full story:


In February 1927, while finalizing [Long Pants], Capra needed to shoot some close-up inserts of Harry’s hand removing a book from a shelf so the audience could focus on the title. Any hand would have sufficed, as long as it matched Harry’s look and sleeve. But Capra wanted to use Harry’s hand, believing that the audience should be given the real deal, even for such a trivial shot. He issued a call for Langdon to come from his dressing room for the close-up and expected no opposition, as Langdon was a professional and seldom objected to retakes. But when Langdon emerged, he scolded Capra for bothering him and refused to do it. According to Capra, the incident became explosive before anyone realized what was happening:

I had sent for him several times. Finally Harry arrived, wearing a gaudy dressing gown and a gaudier scarf, followed by a newly acquired retinue of leeches.

“Why in hell do you keep sending for me? Don’t you know I’m through in the picture?” He was as arrogant as Napoleon chewing up a menial officer.

“Sorry, Harry. I need an insert of your hand reaching for this—”

“Insert of my hand? You ain’t learned nothing, have you? Directors don’t use stars for stupid inserts. They use doubles.”

“Harry, there isn’t another pair of hands like—”

Shouting an expletive, Langdon ranted about being interrupted during an interview with two important New York critics. As he stormed away, he muttered, “That’s what I get for trying to make directors out of two-bit gag men.”

Capra reflected on how to handle the situation: should he kowtow as Langdon’s “yes man,” or should he assert himself as the film’s director and as someone who had been instrumental in creating Langdon’s persona? Capra assumed that Langdon’s arrogance was really a reaction to his sudden popularity—a sort of culture shock—and decided to confront him. He found Langdon lounging on a couch in his dressing room, staring at the ceiling. “Harry,” he said, “I came to tell you what many of us have wanted to say to you for some time, to wit: that you’ve turned into an impossible, opinionated, conceited, strutting little jerk. The happy little guy we once knew and loved has become an ungrateful heel. . . . Comedians must be loved to get laughs—and right now the only one who loves you around here is you.”57 Capra felt relieved when he left , even though Langdon had offered him neither a word nor a glance. The young director felt he was being a professional as well as a friend, showing Langdon tough love. Unfortunately, soon after, Langdon’s business manager arrived at Capra’s home and handed him his last paycheck with the message that Langdon never wanted to see him again.

Thee stunning news leaked out, and it was soon followed by another story that echoed the Sennett split and its question of egos: Langdon would be assuming the director’s chair from now on. Variety stated on March 2, 1927: “Harry Langdon has decided that he no longer needs a director to lead him through his paces. . . . The comedian feels no one can interpret his thoughts as well as himself, so he is going to hold the megaphone instead. Langdon is also said to feel that nobody can title his pictures like he can, so he is also going to title same. In the past, all ideas and gags used in the Langdon pictures were credited with having been conceived by the comedian, with the gagmen simply helping out in the construction.”

Moving Picture World also reported that Langdon was planning to cut his “corps of gag men or comedy constructionists, as they have been called of late, down to one man.” Studio executives hurriedly rebutted these stories, noting that Langdon was not a “high hat” and that these rumors were an “injustice” to him. It was more that Langdon’s technique was so unique that it was impossible to find a “kindred mind” to direct him. They also erroneously pointed out that Langdon had been his own director since the Sennett days but was too modest to take directorial credit on his films; instead, he “selected one of his gag men to sit on the set during each picture and watch the action for ocular errors.” There was also talk that if anyone were to assume the directorial chair, it would probably be Arthur Ripley.

Before this ultimate assault, Capra had already been badly burned by Langdon’s executive control on Long Pants. The star had altered Capra’s “vision,” deleting a prologue because Ripley had opposed it, and reducing a ten-minute, two-strip Technicolor fantasy sequence with gorgeous costumes, a knightly duel, and a fairy princess to a mere fragment. The experience made Capra feel like he no longer existed in Langdon’s world. It must have been devastating to lose the support of a friendly team, and it shook his confidence as a director. However, Capra was determined to find his directorial niche and learn how to control a film. In the meantime, the focus on Long Pants had shifted from director to star on all levels: even a large ad in Variety screamed Langdon’s name three times in type that was three times larger than that of the film’s title. Capra’s name was not included.

At one point, Capra wanted to attend a preview of Long Pants, and he asked his wife Helen, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, to accompany him. She agreed, but when the time came, he found her unhappily drunk—a recurring pattern in their lives—and he apparently hit her so hard that she crumpled into a heap and lost some teeth. All Capra could remember afterward was feeling that she was lucky he had not killed her—a bitterly ironic statement, given [a] disturbing sequence in Long Pants in which Harry attempts to kill Priscilla.

Capra moved on as a director—and temporarily away from Hollywood—when he accepted Hell’s Kitchen (released as For the Love of Mike), which starred Ben Lyon, debuted Claudette Colbert, and was filmed in New York. Unfortunately, Capra had been persuaded to defer his salary until the end of production and was never paid. Despite many strong aspects, the film was considered a commercial failure (after generally bland reviews, Colbert vowed never to make another film, but clearly she changed her mind when she contracted with Paramount two years later). Capra persevered as well, but he had been scarred by so many experiences that, according to his biographer, he turned into “a gut-punching little man in order to survive.”

For many reasons, Capra believed Langdon would fail if he attempted to do everything himself. But Langdon now embraced the idea of taking full charge of the business: directing, acting, writing, and editing. If he was to be another Chaplin, this was Langdon’s destiny. But life imitated art, and like his character in Long Pants, Langdon tried to wear a pair of trousers before he had matured enough to do so. He was drawn to the wrong fantasies, forgetting the simplicity in his own backyard.

Behind the Screen

Film has become an integral part of American life.brianton_cover
Though the face of the film industry continues to change, it is undeniable that films and television continue to impact lives and culture. With the approach of the 69th Annual DGA awards, it is a time to celebrate some of the best among this year’s productions and, more importantly, the directors behind them. This year’s list of directors includes many first-time nominees, making it clear that the stage has been set for the recognition of new talent.

In addition to celebrating directorial achievements, the DGA (Directors Guild of America) helps to protect the rights of directors and to promote diversity within the film industry. However, in the earlier days of Hollywood, the film industry wasn’t always so welcoming.

One of the most famous (or, more appropriately, infamous) incidents in American film history is the Hollywood blacklist. In this time of directing giants, the looming reality of the Cold War led to an era of paranoia and tension within the film industry as actors and directors alike faced accusations about their connections to communism and communist sympathies. Countless actors and directors lost their careers due to the blacklist, but within the American tradition, there is one incident that stands out among the rest: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting.

In Hollywood Divided: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist, Kevin Brianton dives into the facts and myths surrounding that famous meeting which would go on to obtain something of a mythic status in the American memory. A large part of its fame, unfortunately, comes from the misinformation surrounding it, but how exactly did this information come to be? And what is the truth of this historical moment which would prove to have a lasting impact on the film industry? Part of this uncertainty can be attributed to ways in which time often obscures memory, but it might also be connected to Mankiewicz’s directing career, which was beginning to decline. As Brianton mentions in his book, in reference to a speech that Mankiewicz gave recounting the events of the SDG meeting, “When Mankiewicz had finished, the Master of Ceremonies, Carl Reiner, joked that Mankiewicz’s speech had the same problem as Cleopatra–it went on for too long. Makiewicz would be sure to enliven his future accounts of the meeting.”

In the following excerpt, Brianton draws on SDG minute records to provide an inside look at one of the many tense (and true) moments of the 1950 meeting:


Daves began, “I did not sign the petition. I wish I had. I am a Republican too, Mr DeMille … I resent beyond belief the things that you said as you summarized the twenty-five men.” Daves said he agreed with Wellman about the basic unfairness of the campaign. When he had received a phone call about recalling Mankiewicz, he told the caller he wanted to hear Mankiewicz’s side of the story. Looking up at the board members sitting on the dais, Daves said,

“All of us here look before us and see seated at this Board of Directors table dear friends, and the men who signed this telegram are some of my very dearest friends in this town. Mabel [Walker Willebrandt] is a very dear friend of mine. I can go right down the list … their kids play with my kids. We are as close as people can be, and I love a lot of people sitting at the table. This has nothing to do with personal acrimony at all, nor toward the men who signed the recall. It merely has to do with the faction and the attack that was made … [in] what I consider a completely undemocratic manner, and one which was so secretive by nature that I was shocked.” Daves said, “The next thing I knew I received a ballot, and it said, ‘This is a ballot to recall Joe Mankiewicz. Sign here – yes.’ There was nothing more. It was not yes and no. I was more deeply shocked.”

Perhaps drawing on his distant legal training at Standford, where he graduated as a lawyer but never had the opportunity to use the degree, Daves then presented damning evidence against DeMille. He said the recall committee deliberately misled the membership by pretending to be acting on behalf of the entire SDG board rather than a committee attempting to recall Mankiewicz. He said, “[Mankiewicz] is not a personal friend of mine. I am fighting for him here, because I feel our rights and our freedom have been violently hit by what has happened.” He discussed the telegram that appeared to be mailed from the board of directors in support of the recall: “It said twelve times, ‘The Board of Directors this,’ and ‘The Board of Directors that.’” Daves called the exercise “an abuse of privilege.”

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  Before the storm, Cecil B. DeMille, Gloria Swanson, and Billy Wilder enjoyed working together on Sunset Boulevard (1950), which was released just before the October 22 SDG meeting. Wilder would become a strident opponent of DeMille over his treatment of Mankiewicz. (Photofest)

Mankiewicz was passed a note saying that some directors were leaving the room to provide updates to the journalists milling around outside the room. Mankiewicz was furious: “Now, good God, gentlemen, can’t we act like adult men? When you go home … tomorrow, remember that America is created on the system of sitting around an old stove in the grocery store and talking things over, and then going in a booth and voting the way you feel. Now we are here to talk. Let’s talk and let’s mind our own business.” Mankiewicz then called on another one of the anti-recall signatories H. C. Potter to speak. Henry Codman Potter was known for films such as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Second Chorus (1940) and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). He had studied drama at Yale University, before carving out his career in the cinema. Describing himself as an SDG member older than Mr DeMille and also “an American, as good as Mr DeMille,” Potter demanded an inquiry into the “shameful thing of the recall.” It was another short speech, but it was the first such demand for an investigation of the recall faction, which would grow louder as the meeting progressed.

Happy 100th Birthday to Kirk Douglas!

One of the original leading men, Kirk Douglas came along in the final days of the major studio system, and he was one of the first box office stars to take charge of his own destiny by  becoming involved in the production and marketing of the films in which he appeared.

He was a vital force in such classics as Out of the Past (1947), Champion (1949), Detective Story (1951), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Lust for Life (1956). He formed his own company, Bryna, and made such major films as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964).

Along the way, he distinguished himself in a number of westerns, including The Big Sky (1952), Man without a Star (1955), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and The War Wagon (1967), while also tackling several action roles in historical period pictures like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Ulysses (1955), and The Vikings (1958).

conversations_with_classic_film_stars_coverRenowned for his support of liberal causes, Douglas is often credited with helping break down the dreaded Hollywood anti-Communist “blacklist” by hiring blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (who also celebrates a birthday today!) to write the screenplay for Spartacus.
In a conversation with Douglas in conjunction with Draw!, a 1984 HBO TV western, Ronald Miller asked the iconic actor about his work with other leading actors and actresses, antiheroes, and working within the studio system. You can find a full transcript of their conversation in Conversations with Classic Film Stars—a perfect gift for the film buff this holiday season.

In the excerpt below, Miller and Douglas discuss the unique art of filmmaking, and its pitfalls, as well as Douglas’s involvement in the Oscar-winning, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Excerpted from Conversations with Classic Film Stars:

Miller: You’ve worked with every kind of movie director and you don’t have a reputation for getting into disputes with them, but you are known for demanding a collaborative atmosphere on the set. Explain that.

Douglas: I’ve worked with [Joseph] Mankiewicz, [Howard] Hawks, [Elia] Kazan, [William] Wyler, [Billy] Wilder. I’ve been very fortunate. All of them work differently. I’ve even directed a couple of pictures, so I have respect for the work. But no matter what anyone says, it’s a collaborative art form. No matter how much one person is a binding force, it’s still a collaboration.

I think the problem today is that we’ve been contaminated by the European concept of the auteur system. I’ve had movies where I bought the book, developed the script, and cast the whole picture, but then the director walks in and says, “It must be a John Smith film!” I think sometimes we emphasize that too much.

Miller: Though you’ve avoided big hassles with your directors, you’ve had a few disputes with studio managements, haven’t you?

Douglas: Let me give you an example of that: Lonely Are the Brave. You need the proper selling of a picture like that. I thought Universal just threw it away. They didn’t give it a chance. They took it out of circulation. Then there were all those great reviews and people said, “Where’s the picture?” Their ego prevented them from making a different campaign for the picture. The longer I’m in this business, the more amazed I am that a movie can be made, good or bad.

Miller: You’ve taken lots of chances in your career, but I imagine one of your greatest frustrations was not being able to play McMurphy on the big screen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after acquiring the rights to the book from Ken Kesey and playing the part on the stage in New York.

douglas-kirk_03Douglas: It was way ahead of its time. When I took it to Broadway, the critics didn’t know what to make of it. The audience loved it, but it didn’t do very well. I tried for nearly twelve years to make it as a movie. I took it to every studio. But they wouldn’t do it, even with a limited budget. Finally, I went into partnership with my son, Michael, and we were able to find somebody outside of the industry to put up the money and we made a little picture that I never predicted would be a hit. So it did over $200 million! Nobody knows what will really be successful.

Miller: What do you think of Michael as a producer?

Douglas: I told him, “Michael, you’re the kind of producer I’d like to work with because you give everything to the other person even when you’re in the movie.” He did that in Romancing the Stone [1984]. He focused all the attention on the girl [Kathleen Turner]. I haven’t been that generous. I’ve been a producer, but I find a product like Spartacus or The Vikings or Seven Days in May or Paths of Glory and somehow there always seems to be a good part for me.

In Memory of Screen Legend Dorothy McGuire

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Dorothy McGuire, circa 1945. James Bawden collection.

Stage-trained actress Dorothy McGuire, whose credits include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Old Yeller (1957), and A Summer Place (1959), was one of the most interesting leading ladies of the 1940s and 1950s. She was extremely versatile, always bringing style and grace to every performance. But she didn’t build a large cult following of fans despite a solid legacy of truly memorable screen performances. Perhaps that’s due to her general aversion to publicity and a life lived without a breath of scandal or notoriety.

In honor of this talented stage actress, who passed away 15 years ago today at the age of 85, we’re sharing an excerpt from Ron Miller’s interview from the release Conversations with Classic Film Stars.


Setting the Scene

Dorothy McGuire’s disdain for publicity always brings a smile to my face because I remember how severely I was warned about that subject when she agreed to do an interview with me in 1983 in connection with the ABC TV movie Ghost Dancing. The publicist insisted, “Don’t ask her about anything except the new movie. She hates talking about the past. If you try asking her about the ‘good old days,’ she may get up and walk out on you!”

Well, I certainly didn’t want that to happen, yet…how could I ignore those “good old days” that included so many movie classics? So, here’s what I resolved to do: Concentrate hard on getting the bare essentials about Ghost Dancing, then damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead into all the really good stuff. If she bolted on me, then I’d still have enough for a story on the current project, even if she dumped her soup over my head when I asked about her earlier work.

It turned out to be a pretty decent plan. McGuire issued no new rules when she arrived for our luncheon date at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, so I hot-footed it through the Ghost Dancing questions, then waltzed her right down memory lane without giving her a chance to catch her breath.

If she knew she’d been scammed, she didn’t let on. McGuire turned out to be a relaxed and friendly lunch companion, still a handsome woman with genuine class. My guess is she did like to talk about the earlier stuff–as long as the questions were fair ones. She also seemed to appreciate the fact that I actually knew what she’d accomplished before meeting her.

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Dorothy McGuire with Gregory Peck in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1947. Courtesy of 20th Century-Fox.

The Interview

MILLER: From what I’ve read about the beginnings of your acting career, I’d say there was a blessing on you from the start.

McGUIRE: Maybe so. I had such extraordinary breaks–from the moment I entered the theater. I made my stage debut at age 13 at the Omaha Community Playhouse in James Barrie’s A Kiss of Cinderella. My leading man was the young Henry Fonda!

MILLER: I’m guessing the breaks continued when you finally headed for New York and the Broadway stage.

McGUIRE: I arrived on Broadway in 1938 and began as the understudy to Martha Scott for the role of Emily in the original production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  When Martha was signed to star in the movie version, I took over for her.

MILLER: Getting to play the leading female role in a play destined to become an American drama classic was certainly a big career plus for a young actress. So, that made you a pretty hot property in theater?

McGUIRE: It certainly led to my getting the title role in Claudia, the play based on Rose Franken’s novel and stories about a young woman who marries and starts learning about adult life in the 1940s. That was in 1941. The producers had rejected 208 other actresses before picking me.

MILLER: I guess their faith in you was justified when you won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for your performance.

McGUIRE: I think it also justified Leland Hayward’s faith in me. (Hayward, her agent, was the most influential Broadway agent at the time.)

MILLER: With Leland Hayward going to bat for you, you were in good shape for theater work–and you had a pretty good spokesman for your movie career, too, didn’t you?

McGUIRE: If you mean David O. Selznick, you’re right. He signed me to a movie contract after Claudia became a Broadway hit and he was then the most successful producer in Hollywood after Gone With the Wind and Rebecca had won back to back Best Picture Oscars.

MILLER: What did he have in mind for your movie debut?

McGUIRE: He really didn’t have anything for me and, as it turned out, I never made a movie with him!  But he decided to make some money off me by loaning me out to other studios, who did have things they wanted me to do. I think he needed to pay off some of the enormous sums he spent on Gone With the Wind and that was one way to do it.

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Dorothy McGuire in her most famous “mom” role, with Tommy Kirk i Disney’s 1957 Old Yeller. Courtesy of the Walt Disney Corp. and NBC.

MILLER: Did you resent that?

McGUIRE: No. That turned out to be perfectly OK. David watched over what scripts were sent to me and things like that. He was a man of great integrity.

MILLER: Where did he send you first?

McGUIRE: Fox and RKO.  They both were making good pictures in those days. Twentieth Century-Fox had the movie rights to Claudia, so they had me reprise my stage role, playing opposite Robert Young as my husband, David.

MILLER: Claudia (1943) turned out to be a big hit for Fox, especially among women who identified with the young wife as she learns how to grow up at the same time she’s learning how to be a wife. It was such a hit that they immediately decided to continue the story in a sequel, Claudia and David. That was a phenomenal start for a young actress with no film experience.

McGUIRE: I took it all for granted, I’m sorry to say. I thought it was just the way it is.

MILLER: While the sequel was being written, Fox put you into another prestige picture, the film version of Betty Smith’s best-seller A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Your reaction?

McGUIURE: I was terrified. I didn‘t think I‘d be convincing in the challenging role of teenage star  Peggy Ann Garner’s pregnant mother.

At that exact moment in my life, I’d never had a child. I wasn’t quite sure about the whole mechanism, about what really happened to you. Being a very serious-type actress, I was very upset by this.

MILLER: Your director was Elia Kazan, who was making his debut as a movie director after years on the stage as an actor and director. Did you get much help from him?

McGUIRE: I went to him and told him I had no such experiences in life and didn’t know where to get the emotions I’d need. He was very patient with me and let me ramble on about my misgivings and anxieties. What he did, in a sense, was lock up all this intensity inside me so it wouldn’t be dissipated. He was marvelous. There are intangible things about actors like that which he just instinctively knew.

MILLER: The film was a big success and put both you and Kazan on the map as the hot new prospects in Hollywood. James Dunn, who played your alcoholic husband, won the supporting actor Oscar and Peggy Ann Garner won a special Oscar as best child actress of 1945. That’s when RKO stepped up with another wonderful role for you.

McGUIRE: They gave me the part of the mute servant girl who’s menaced by a serial killer in The Spiral Staircase.

MILLER: That was a real acting challenge because you had to play virtually the entire film in pantomime. How did that go?

McGUIRE: Robert Siodmak was a brilliant director and he lifted the film out of the ordinary. You know those creepy close-ups where we just see the eye of the strangler, watching me? That was Robert’s eye! He was that vain!

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Our interview finally ended when the waiter brought our lunches. “Turn off your recorder,” she told me. “Now we’re going to eat.”

Which is what we did, all right, just chatting about nothing in particular from then on. With the recorder off, Dorothy McGuire was just a handsome middle-aged lady having lunch with a friend in Beverly Hills. And, unless I put one of her films on the TV for a reminder of how good she was on screen, that’s the way I’ll always remember her, too.

McGuire was married for 35 years to Life magazine photographer John Swope and had two children with him. Her last film role was in a 1990 TV movie (The Last Best Year) and she spent the last decade of her life in retirement. She died of cardiac arrest in 2001, just a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, so there was little news space devoted to her death. She was eighty-five.

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 Conversation with Robert S. Birchard (1950–2016)

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via Cinecon.org

We were saddened to learn that historian, preservationist, writer, and film/television editor Robert S. Birchard passed away this past weekend in Burbank, California. Many remember Birchard as the president of Cinecon and editor of the American Film Institute’s Feature Film Catalog, as well as for his work as a film editor in the 1980s and 90s, where he edited animated television shows like  Ducktales and Rainbow Brite, and movies such as The Return of Jafar. We remember him as the author of the seminal history, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. In honor of his life and work, we’d like to share a conversation with Birchard prior to the publication of Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood:9780813123240

“Far and away the best film book published so far this year.”—National Board of Review, 2004

Q: To What do you attribute Cecil B. DeMille’s enduring popularity, both among film enthusiasts and the general public?

A: Cecil B. DeMille produced a number of films that have had enduring audience appeal: The Ten Commandments (1956), The King of Kings (1927), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Cleopatra (1934), and Samson and Delilah (1949). These films were major box office hits on their original release and they remain popular through repeated screenings on TV, and availability in home video formats. But, in many ways, Cecil B. DeMille’s personality has proven to be his most enduring creation. The strutting director in Jodhpurs and leather puttees, commanding great armies of extras and demanding perfection, was a creation just as much as any of his films. He worked at creating and sustaining that image throughout his career. The persona made DeMille a well-known figure, but it many ways it obscured his real accomplishments as a director. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood is an effort to go beyond anecdote and reminiscence to create a portrait of DeMille the filmmaker. It is based in large part on original documents that erase the blur of nostalgia and preserve the immediacy of a time when Cecil B. DeMille helped create the art of motion pictures.

Q: You discuss your first encounters with DeMille’s body of work in the introduction. After writing program notes for a retrospective Of DeMille’s films, what inspired you to continue your engagement with DeMille and his art?

A: DeMille never threw anything away. Letters, telegrams, contracts, memos—even requests from actors looking for work—he kept it all, from the beginning of his career to the end. Although several biographers had gone through the DeMille archives, no one had really made a comprehensive effort to document the making of DeMille’s films and his relationship with the rest of the motion picture industry. DeMille’s story, I felt, would answer many questions about how and why Hollywood developed the way it did and offer a vivid look at how movies were really made in Hollywood’s golden age.

Q: How do you see DeMille fitting into the film industry in today’s Hollywood? If the DeMille that you have studied were a young filmmaker in 2004, would you speculate that he would have more or less difficulty reaching the heights that he achieved?

A:. DeMille brought great energy, enthusiasm, and determination to his work as a filmmaker—but, contrary to his popular image, he also had a realistic sense of the studio system and was willing to blend his vision with the demands of the marketplace. He was an independent producer working within the studio system long before this became common, and in this sense he would feel right at home in the Hollywood of today.

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via rsbirchard.com

Q: What are DeMille’s lasting legacies, either from creative or from business/industry standpoints?

A: To a large extent it was Cecil B. DeMille who set the working model for Hollywood movie making, and that legacy survives to this day. Early filmmakers often went out and shot “off the cuff” with the barest of outlines. DeMille always worked from a detailed script with meticulous pre-planning, and he pioneered the use of production sketches and story boards to determine the look of his films.

Q: Can you elaborate on DeMille’s strengths as a man and/or as a filmmaker? His weaknesses?

The most surprising thing is that for all of DeMile’s reputation as a stern, demanding director on the set, he had a real love for the people who helped bring his vision to the screen, and he went out of his way to offer work to many actors who were having trouble finding work in their later years.

If he had a weakness it was in his adherence tothe Victorian idea that art must be instructive and uplifting—a notion that is out of favor today, and in some ways this makes his work “old fashioned.” But he also had a bold sense of movie storytelling,creating compelling images that remain in one’s memory long after the light of the projector has faded from the screen—and for this reason his films retain their power to entertain.