Tag Archives: Hollywood History

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.

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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.

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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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.

Summer under the Stars: Joan Fontaine

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Olivia de Havilland publicity photo, circa 1940. Photo via Wikipedia

Today is the 100th birthday of Olivia de Haviland, the last surviving star of Gone with the Wind. Her younger sister was Joan Fontaine, one of the great Hollywood leading ladies of the 1940s. Only 15 months apart, they were the only pair of siblings to win lead acting Oscars.

 

Fontaine’s performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the Oscar-winning 1940 film, lifted her into the top ranks of dramatic actresses. She followed up that success in 1941 with Hitchcock’s Suspicion, for which she won the Best Actress Academy Award.

In Conversations with Classic Film Stars, James Bawden’s interview with Fontaine demonstrates that despite being one of the brightest stars in the film industry at the time, a life in Hollywood wasn’t always sensational and glamorous. Fontaine also elaborates on her long-standing feud with her sister Olivia.

Setting the Scene

I first met Joan Fontaine at a Toronto hotel where she was peddling her tell-all 1979 autobiography No Bed of Roses. There was a second interview in 1987 in an L.A. screening room when Fontaine was promoting her appearance in the TV documentary The RKO Story. And a few years later she appeared on a panel with Tommy Tune and Stanley Kramer for The Movie Channel and we lunched afterward.

The Interview

BAWDEN: Why did you decide to become an actress?

FONTAINE: I needed a job. My sister (Olivia De Havilland) was doing nicely at Warners, so I became Joan Burfield for RKO and had a bit part in Katharine Hepburn’s movie Quality Street (1937).

BAWDEN: What happened?

FONTAINE: I bombed at RKO. They made me Fred Astaire’s leading lady in Damsel in Distress (1937) only because first choice Jessie Matthews had to bow out due to schedule changes. I remember walking along a path and Fred dancing around me. I was truly awful!

BAWDEN: But you managed to get into some big pictures.

FONTAINE: In bit roles. George Cukor hired me as the insignificant ninny who is part of The Women (1939). I really only had a telephone scene to strut my stuff and George lit it as carefully as Norma Shearer’s close ups. And I met Joan Crawford on that set and I continued to get Xmas cards from her until she passed. Both Paulette Goddard and I had tiny parts. When MGM re-released it in 1946, we were elevated to top star billing! And I had a bit as Doug Fairbanks, Jr.’s sweetheart in Gunga Din (1939). I remember, after a day of shooting, I looked out the window and saw Doug and his current flame, Marlene Dietrich, off to some grand soiree all dressed up and I sighed. Because that kind of glamour always eluded me.

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Joan Fontaine (right) shies away from Judith Anderson in Rebecca, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1940. Courtesy of Selznick International and United Artists.

BAWDEN: What do you remember of the making of Rebecca?

 

FONTAINE: How miserable I was. Larry Olivier had tested with his wife, Viv Leigh, but (producer) David Selznick said it was too early after (his) Gone With the Wind. In fact scenes from Gone With the Wind were being done at the same time as we started. I also know Loretta Young and Maggie Sullavan had tested, but both were considered too American. Finally David said, “I guess it will have to be you,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement.
The best thing is that David was so busy with the last minute details of Gone with the Wind that he stayed away for long periods of time, which was unusual for him. Hitch (director Alfred Hitchcock) simply refused to discuss characterization. Occasionally they’d met for a great blow up. One of the scenes had the young lovers meeting in the hotel lift. David came on set and told Hitch to do it again because he’d paid for the construction of a great breakfast room and he wanted to show it off. Hitch did as told–this was his first movie (in America) and he had no clout.

Larry and Judith Anderson were very mean to me, but I now see this only increased my performance because I had nothing else to fall back on, no technique. Oscar night I was in a hissy fit. I didn’t want to win, I was only 23. David insisted I would, but he was wrong. Ginger Rogers walked away with it that year. And as it turned out, Rebecca was the only David Selznick movie I would ever star in.

BAWDEN: But he promptly loaned you and Hitch out to RKO for Suspicion and you won the Oscar.

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Joan Fontaine suspects husband Cary Grant is trying to kill her in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. She won the 1941 Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Courtesy of RKO and United Artists Television.

FONTAINE: Hitch was angry David demanded so much off the top for us that there wasn’t an adequate budget for production.  At the time I was very contemptuous of Cary Grant. I thought he was only interested in himself. Re-watching the film, I see how he threw whole scenes to me. He seemed aloof at the time, but he never was the gregarious sort. I loved knowing Nigel Bruce — so warm, so winning. Hitch kept mumbling all the time it didn’t look at all like England. But neither did Rebecca, really! This time I got the Oscar. It changed my life. It changed my relationship with David, too.

 

BAWDEN: Explain.

FONTAINE: After Rebecca, he went out of production for three whole years. He started a lavish remake of Jane Eyre. I’d be Jane. Another Selznick director, Bob Stevenson, would direct it. Orson Welles was signed. David did all sorts of market tests and finally concluded the public would confuse it with Rebecca, so he sold the whole thing, sets, scripts, cast, crew to Darryl Zanuck who had a huge success. People always ask me did Orson interfere? Well, he certainly tried to! But Bob was a guy who knew movies inside out. And there was our cinematographer George Barnes, who had trained Greg Toland.

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Joan Fontaine with Orson Welles in Jane Eyre (1944). Courtesy of 20th Century-Fox.

BAWDEN: But you are too pretty to play Jane!

 

FONTAINE: Kind sir! This was Hollywood after all. I first met little Elizabeth Taylor on that set, all about 10 years old, Dresden china features. It’s one of my faves to this day.

BAWDEN: how did your relationship with Selznick evolve?

FONTAINE: He sold my services to the biggest bidder and pocketed the profits.  I wanted to only do a picture a year. David needed money to pay for all his failed ventures. I think he’d pay me $2,000 weekly for 10 weeks and get up to $150,000 for my services. You do the math. I didn’t much want to do This Above All (1942), but it was with Ty Power, who was the biggest leading man around at the time and it was a good picture to make for wartime audiences.

BAWDEN: Then you played a 12-year old in The Constant Nymph (1943).

FONTAINE: A few years back, Turner Classic Movies arranged a screening for me. I watched in awe. I was really good and then I staggered into the sunlight in desperate search of a gin and tonic. This was the movie that really started the Joan-Olivia feud. I was at Olivie’s home studio. I’d gotten the assignment after director Teddy Goulding had turned her down as too mature. I did not know that at the time. Teddy was a magician. He drew from me emotions I never knew I had and also from Alexis Smith, who was only 24 at the time and playing a frosty beauty of 35.

BAWDEN: You brought it up so I have to ask about your famous feud with your sister.

FONTAINE: It takes two to feud. I know how Livvie was shocked the night in 1942 I won an Oscar over her. But I’ve always tried to make amends. She was shocked when our mother (Lillian Fontaine) started acting–she played Ray Milland’s landlady in The Lost Weekend (1945). I’m always shocking her, but she doesn’t ever shock me. We’re so close in birth terms, we’re more like twins and twins do quarrel on occasion, right?

[. . .]

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Fontaine publicity photo, circa 1943. Photo via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: You once said Ivy (1947) was your favorite film.

 

FONTAINE: Why not! I Get to poison the cast, which is an actress’ s dream. Bill Cameron Menzies, who designed Gone With the Wind, designed it and the sets are fantastic. And we later did a sort of modern day version called Born To Be Bad (1950), which is another favorite.

[. . .]

BAWDEN: At MGM you were the loveliest Rowena in Ivanhoe (1952).

FONTAINE: That got me going at MGM and I later made Until They Sail (1957)  I was 40 by then, playing the frumpy sister who never married. Paul Newman told me he’d grown up on my movies, but Paul was only eight years younger! And I had a 20th Century-Fox period with Island in the Sun, Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea and Tender is the Night.

BAWDEN: I remember Island in the Sun (1957 ) was considered highly controversial.

FONTAINE: I played Harry Belafonte’s lover but we were not allowed to touch hands, let alone kiss. One day I casually brushed against his arm and alarm bells went off with the censor, who considered it racial and we had to re-shoot the scene. But I much preferred Voyage because I fell into the fish tank and got eaten by Peter Lorre’s shark. I was the older wife in A Certain Smile (1958) and everybody at 20th said how big a star Christine Carere was going to be. Nobody ever heard from her again!

[. . .]

 

AFTERWORD

Joan Fontaine’s final screen appearance was in a made-for-TV movie, Good King Wenceslas (1994) for cable’s The Family Channel. She died in her sleep in her home in Carmel, CA, on December 15, 2013. She was ninety-six.

Happy Birthday, Keye Luke!

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Keye Luke in TV’s Anna and the King (1972). Courtesy of CBS.

Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was never a very hospitable time for Asian American actors, who were seldom called upon to play the lead in any movie—not even those featuring Asian characters.

But Keye Luke, born on June 18, 1904 in China, came to America as a child and went on to have a long run of success in film and TV. Best known as detective Charlie Chan’s “No. 1 son” in the popular Chan series of the 1930s, Luke also had a running role as the assistant to Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) in the follow-up to the Dr. Kildare series of movies at MGM. Then, in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-75), Luke was the memorable Master Po, mentor to David Carradine’s Kwai Chong Caine.

To celebrate Luke’s long, influential career, we’re sharing excerpts from his interviews with James Bawden and Ron Miller from their recent release Conversations with Classic Film Stars: 

The Interview

BAWDEN: How did you get to Hollywood?

LUKE: I was born in 1904 in Guangzhou, China, near Canton and my dad owned an art shop. Growing up I was always painting away, but we moved to Seattle when I was very young. I started out as a local Seattle artist, specializing in murals. I helped on some of the original murals in Grauman’s Chinese theater, working on faux Chinese murals. And I had a gig drawing the art for the King Kong press book in 1933.

MILLER: While you were working in the publicity department at RKO in the early 1930s, I understand you almost had a chance to play a romantic lead in a big new musical. True or false?

LUKE: True. The producers of Flying Down to Rio (1933) wanted to follow it up with a new musical teaming Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to be set in Shanghai. Anna May Wong was set as the second female lead, but they couldn’t find a Chinese leading man for her. Then they remembered this guy who was working in the publicity department: Me. They called me to their office and told me I would be co-starring with Anna May Wong. It was like a bolt out of the blue. I was planning to go to New York to study at the Art Students League, then go to Paris and complete my art education. I knew nothing about being an actor.

MILLER: So what happened?

LUKE: The film was cancelled when the producer was fired. But I was given a consolation prize: I made my “acting” debut in a Leon Errol comedy short subject. I played his Japanese gardener in a scene where I mowed his rug with a lawn mower. I considered it a silly whim and returned to my art work without any regrets.

MILLER: Why did you move from RKO to MGM right after that?

LUKE: Frank Whitbeck, my former boss at Fox, had moved to MGM as advertising director and he asked me to come in for a job interview. That’s when I learned MGM wasn’t interested in my portfolio. They had heard about my near miss at RKO and asked me to test for a role at MGM.  Fortunately, it turned out all right. I got the part — and I started right out at the top.

BAWDEN: So you wound up making your feature film debut in The Painted Veil with the legendary Greta Garbo in 1934.

LUKE: I had the small part of Shay Key Fong (a young Chinese doctor who assisted Herbert Marshall, playing a doctor battling a cholera epidemic.) But I didn’t get billing.

MILLER: Was your test so good that you beat out the real professional actors who were trying for the part?

LUKE: There were very few Chinese actors in Hollywood in those days, so I was practically a pioneer. I don’t think I had any competition for the part.

BAWDEN: What was Garbo like?

LUKE: As if I really met her! She was a true beauty from the neck up. But her body was stocky, her feet long. We rehearsed our dialogue scene (together). She was very kind to me and just moved on. The camera was her best friend. In close ups, she was exquisite. George Brent (one of the two male leads) was after her from the beginning.

BAWDEN: Describe L.A. in 1934.

LUKE: I never went into the big department stores. L.A. was segregated, but not formally. One never saw blacks on Wilshire Boulevard. Parts of the city I avoided–all white areas like Beverly Hills. Even after working with somebody like a big Caucasian actor, I’d be ignored if we met on the street. Asians were invisible, you see. We knew our place: One step back. That’s why the Charlie Chan films were so important. They deflated a lot of the current racial myths. But even the Chan films had rules. Charlie never touched a white woman except as a handshake. I’d never have a white girl friend, not that I wanted one in pictures. Whenever a young, personable “Chinaman” was needed, I’d get the job. But in films like The Casino Murder Case (1935), Oil For the Lamps of China (1935), King of Burlesque (1935), I’m very much in the background and often not listed in credits.

BAWDEN: How did you get into the Charlie Chan movies?

LUKE: The Fox casting director saw my work in The Painted Veil and was looking for a non-threatening Asian actor. At first they wanted to hire a Caucasian, but nobody knew how to act the part, which was of a callow teenager trying to learn the detective business from his dad. I did a test with Warner Oland (who had acted with Luke in The Painted Veil) and he said “hire the kid” and I eventually did a slew of them. In 1935, I did Charlie Chan in Paris and Charlie Chan in Shanghai. In 1936 I was in Charlie Chan At The Circus, Charlie Chan At the Race Track and Charlie Chan at The Opera. which I think the best one of them all. In 1937, I did Charlie Chan at The Olympics, Charlie Chan On Broadway and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo.

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Keye Luke (left) with Warner Oland in Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936). Courtesy of 20th Century-Fox.

[. . .]

BAWDEN: You also played Kato in two Green Hornet serials?

LUKE: I was the chauffeur and they asked me to adopt a Filipino accent, which I obliged, but it was awful. The (first) serial was made super quickly and Universal decided on a second, which was equally popular. But they only had rights to these two stories. Gordon Jones had the lead, a nice guy who wound up in Abbott and Costello stuff.

BAWDEN: In 1940’s Phantom Of Chinatown, you were the first Asian actor to play an Asian detective in a Hollywood film.

LUKE: Boris Karloff’s career really took off and he didn’t want to do any more Monogram Wongs. So they called me in, not as a replacement, but as a bustling new character, Jimmy Lee Wong, a generation younger than Boris’s character. Grant Withers was still the detective and he was mad as a hornet that they didn’t make his character the new lead. The girl was the wonderfully named Lotus Long, who acted under several names. She played Tokyo Rose in that Bogey movie (Tokyo Joe) and suffered from that. She was part Hawaiian and Chinese. The story we had was written by George Waggner, who later directed the first Wolf Man film, but the production values were lower than low and the series was discontinued.

[. . .]

MILLER: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember you and some other Chinese-American actors playing Japanese characters during World War II.

LUKE: That’s true. The best for me was the part of a Japanese spy in Across the Pacific with Humphrey Bogart. Of course, he found me out, we had a fight and he threw me overboard!

BAWDEN: But after the war, I guess parts were scarce and you did what you had to do to survive.

LUKE: That meant TV. I was in multiple episodes of Terry and the Pirates (1953) and The New Adventures of China Smith (1953), not as a regular, but different characters. I even played a Japanese in South Sea Woman (1953)—had to, needed that paycheck, which was $100. I’m uncredited. I was uncredited in Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955). The Chinese acting community in L.A. was still tiny. I’m also unbilled in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). I’m an older man at the Yokohama Travel Office. I was a waiter on December Bride (1954) and a professor on Meet Mr. McNutley (1954). Gale Storm remembered me from a day job on My Little Margie and got me on The Gale Storm Show (1957) several times. I was on several times as a suspect on Perry Mason and several times as the same character on Kentucky Jones (1964). With a little help from my friends, I kept going.

[. . .]

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Keye Luke as Master Po in Kung Fu. Photo via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: You finally hit Broadway with Flower Drum Song. which you played for almost two years in New York and two years on the road.

LUKE: I remember being in Toronto in the road show of that one. Oscar Hammerstein, who was very nice, auditioned and picked me. Dick Rodgers was not quite so nice. I didn’t get the role in the movie. [Producer] Ross Hunter picked Benson Fong! In a way I felt relieved. There was now a growing community of Chinese actors. We started competing with each other. Previously Philip Ahn and I had divided up the work.

BAWDEN: How do you do it? You’re in Anna and the King and also doing two other series: Kung Fu and the cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Chan-Klan.

LUKE: Well, I finally got to play Charlie, so how could I turn that down? I’m only voicing the cartoon, so I do that on weekends. Then I split my time between Anna and Kung Fu. I don’t have big parts. On Anna, I’m Siamese, but what the heck! It’s a good paying job. My only concern is we have no music rights so Yul Brynner will not burst into song. The first day he bellowed, “That’s not my throne!” And he was right. They sold his golden throne during the great movie auction. They really had to rummage and they discovered Rex Harrison’s throne from the 1946 movie and Yul has to do with that.

On Kung Fu, I’m in scenes with David Carradine. Knew his dad (John Carradine) at Fox. I think the son eccentric, but has great possibilities as an actor. So I think I’ll continue a little longer at the game.

MILLER: (Years later) You’ve had some juicy roles lately, like the old shopkeeper who sells
the “mogwai” in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and a Chinese crime boss on TV’s Miami Vice. And I’m happy to discover you still have one of the most imposing voices in Hollywood. How do you maintain that quality?

LUKE: I practice opera to keep my voice in shape—and I’m currently memorizing all the great Shakespearean roles as a mental exercise.

MILLER: You have such a rich history in Hollywood, do you often look back on those years as almost a fantasy life?

LUKE: I don’t live in the past, but I glory in the past. I think it’s beautiful and the memories are golden and fragrant. But I’m more interested in life today. I find it’s still miraculous and full of wonders.

Afterword

Keye Luke continued to work busily in both television and films until the end of his life. Among the TV shows: Quincy, Hunter, Vega$, How the West Was Won and such flicks as Won Ton Ton, Just You and Me, Kid and his final, Woody Allen’s Alice (1990). He died January 12, 1991, aged eighty-six, at his daughter’s home in Whittier, CA.


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.