Tag Archives: Hollywood

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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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.

Photographer To The Stars

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Bozzacchi’s iconic photo, signed by Elizabeth Taylor

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

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

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

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!

Conversations_With_Classic_Film_Stars_CoverAfterword

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.

Sixty Years of ‘High Society’

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High Society promotional poster (1956). Source: Wikipedia.

On July 17, 1956, the musical comedy High Society premiered, featuring a “power house” cast of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Grace Kelly. The film was based on The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, and was directed and choreographed by Charles Walters who staged the iconic musical sequences of Hollywood’s golden age.

 

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the film’s release, here are excerpts from Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance. Author Brent Phillips chronicles the artist’s successful film career, how he navigated the movie industry as an openly gay man, and the revealing backstory about his work on one of his most beloved musicals, High Society:


 

[. . .] In [Grace] Kelly, Walters had an undeniably lovely leading lady, but her gracious appeal was entirely dissimilar to the individuality of Katharine Hepburn. He spent considerable time helping Grace tap into the defenseless interior of Barry’s icy socialite. The actress acknowledged, “I tried to find the point where [Tracy’s] haughtiness was a cover for insecurity, and for the pain she felt over her father’s thoughtless behavior.” [. . .] As Alain Masson would later articulate, the key difference between Hepburn  and Kelly “lies in the fact that Hepburn— though she may lose her composed image— always seems to master the game, at least   intellectually, [whereas] Kelly sometimes is really at a loss.”

Her male co-stars, nonetheless, didn’t bother to analyze; they patently adored her. A doting Sinatra called her “Gracie” and poured on the charm, leading Chuck to privately refer to them as “Beauty and the Beast.” Crosby, victorious beau in the High Society love triangle, called Grace “kind, considerate, and friendly with everyone.”

[. . .]

 

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Walters demonstrates playful posturing for an amused Grace Kelly, High Society (1956). Photograph in author’s collection.

High Society’s biggest hit, however, came in the Crosby-Kelly ballad “True Love.” Practically a lullaby, the song required simple direction, and critic Douglas McVay later praised Walters’s “talent for musical naturalism,” adding, “This sequence (significantly not present in The Philadelphia Story), in which the newly-married couple quietly and blissfully duet . . . on board their yacht of that name, invests the love between Tracy and her former husband with a sense of physical truth, and thus makes their movements towards reconciliation in the rest of the film equally credible. . . . [The duet] emerges as one of the most persuasive illustrations of the power of song (or dance) to convey sexual passion and affection more intensely than any exchange of spoken words or fervent embraces can do.”

 

Holm recalled: “[Grace] had a very dear contralto— lovely and totally appropriate. She

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Sinatra and Grace Kelly are guided through a High Society dance rehearsal (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

made no effort to sound like a professional singer.  On the day she was to [record] with Bing, we all hung about to hear them.” After receiving his disc from the session, Porter wrote to Metro conductor Johnny Green, “I can’t tell you how surprised I am at the singing of Miss Grace Kelly.” The public was in agreement, and sales of the “True Love” single earned Kelly her first and only gold record. “My brother,” she later said, “once made a very unbrotherly remark by saying that he thought my voice on a golden record was one of the ‘modern miracles.’ But I was very delighted about it.”  “True Love” later won a Best Song Oscar nomination, and MGM joined with Porter’s press agent to lobby hard for a win. When Doris Day’s chart-topping “Que Sera, Sera” took home the prize, the agent received a succinct cable of defeat from Porter that read: “Whatever will be, will be.”

 

Dreaming up staging possibilities for “Jazz,” “Millionaire,” and “True Love” proved unproblematic, yet Chuck ran adrift with “You’re Sensational,” a seduction song for Sinatra to woo Kelly. “I couldn’t think what to do,” he admitted. “[Then] I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘Just a minute. [Frank and Grace are] getting an awful lot of money, individually and collectively. I’m going to make them do the work.’ ” The next day he showed up for rehearsal with a simple directive: “Go with it, dears.” When his stars became too artificial in their actions, he offered one final piece of advice: “Play it like a scene.” With that, the performers acted— and aced— the Porter lyric, with Sinatra, lustful and lost, melded to Kelly’s mute response. Her radiant mix of yearning and uncertainty enchanted Walters, who said, “I thought she was marvelous.”

[. . .]

“[Grace] invited me to lunch,” she begins, along with the royals [Prince Rainier III and his father, the Duke of Valentinois], Schary, and Chuck, “who had a tendency to be enchantingly obscene.” The luncheon was given in the paneled executive dining room, which at MGM was considered a bit of a joke; it only seated eight. “So we were all sitting at the table, and I can’t imagine who would have been dumb enough to have said, ‘How big is Monaco?’ But somebody did. Well, there was a pause, and I think the Prince gave him the area in feet. Dore laughed and said, ‘Why, that’s not even as big as our back lot.’ Now that was just bad manners!” An awkward, uncomfortable silence came over the luncheon, until Holm smartly stuck a fork in her steak and propelled it across the table. “While everybody was busy getting straightened out over that,” she concludes, “I changed the subject. Nobody knew that I’d done that on purpose.”

[. . .]

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Chatting with Louis Armstrong, High Society (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

[High Society would be Kelly’s last film performance before she became Princess consort of Monaco.]

Kelly became Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco on April 19, impeccably gowned by High Society designer Helen Rose. The press dubbed the event “The Wedding of the Century.” Even MGM couldn’t buy such publicity, although the August 1 world premiere at the RKO Pantages Theater in Los Angeles was carefully orchestrated pandemonium. Shouting street crowds were showered by flower petals, and the floral display was a convenient distraction from the fact that none of the film’s stars were in attendance. (Crosby was relaxing at his ranch, Sinatra and Holm were in New York, and Kelly was away playing princess.) To compensate, George Murphy presented Porter with a civic citation, Bob Hope kidded Crosby’s no-show, and Walters’s former stars Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds represented the home studio. Ever recalcitrant, Chuck later admitted, “I wasn’t going to go to the premiere either, [until] my dear friend Earl Blackwell of Celebrity Service phoned Ginger Rogers and told her to call me. She told me to get my tuxedo out of mothballs, get a limousine, and come pick her up. And I enjoyed it. I was like a kid in a bathtub: it was hell to get me in, but once you did, I didn’t want to get out.”

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.