Posted by Susan Doll on March 28, 2016
In last week’s post, I offered snatches of internal memos from Warner Bros. regarding their day-to-day operations during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I quoted from memos between executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz, because I detected a long-term tension between the two, especially on the part of Wallis. Based on comments I received (including on Facebook), I don’t think some readers quite believed me, claiming that Wallis was only doing Jack Warner’s bidding, and that Warner was far worse. This week I focused on the memos of Jack Warner to see if he was, indeed, “worse” than Wallis. Warner could certainly be bad-tempered, irritable, and downright crabby, but, in my opinion, he was cantankerous with everyone. In a way I can’t fully explain but certainly intuit, it didn’t seem personal. My favorite aspect of the Warner memos was something I didn’t expect—a quirky humor that made me laugh out loud. Below is the unfiltered wit and venom of Jack Warner, vice-president in charge of production, i.e. the mogul behind Warner Bros.’s movies during the Golden Age. Make of it what you will.
As mentioned last week, memos on Warners’ pre-Code movies are scarce, but Jack did weigh in on certain issues that would not be relevant after the Code was enforced in 1934—most notably the breasts of some of his stars. In a 1933 memo about the dailies for Convention City, he wrote, “We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts,. . . .for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” In a pre-production memo regarding The Case of the Howling Dog, he reminds producer Sam Bischoff, “Be sure that Bette Davis has her bulbs wrapped up.” Davis’s “bulbs” became a moot point because the actress refused to appear in the film. She was suspended for this infraction of her contract, and the role was given to Mary Astor.
Warner was partial to mustaches on men, as evidenced by his own facial hair. After catching It Happened One Night from rival studio Columbia, the mogul wrote to Wallis in regard to Clark Gable’s mustache: “. . . I think we should definitely have Lyle Talbot grow a mustache just like his. It gives him a sort of flash and good looks. . . .” In 1936, Warner was pleased when the makeup department darkened Errol Flynn’s mustache for The Charge of the Light Brigade: “I am looking at the new tests of Errol Flynn with his mustache darkened and he looks very good. . . . I am now looking at the helmet with the sash on, and Flynn looks excellent. The mustache certainly looks good; I am sure that the mustache is the thing for this picture.” After this film, the darkened mustache became a permanent feature for Flynn.
On more than one occasion, moguls from other studios complained to Warner about a WB movie that was too similar to one they were releasing. In 1938, David O. Selznick got wind of the antebellum saga Jezebel, which would be released before Gone With the Wind. On the surface of his letter, Selznick seemed to be pointing out similarities between Jezebel and GWTW as a favor to Warner: “. . . . I think it would be a very great pity from your own standpoint, for so distinguished and costly a picture as Jezebel should be damned as an imitation by the millions of readers, and lovers, of Gone With the Wind.” He then points to what he calls “a slow spot” in Jezebel in which the men discuss the fact that civil war is imminent, and he claims that it “is lifted practically bodily” out of the GWTW screenplay. He then volunteers to study Warner’s film and “give you page references from Gone With the Wind. . . .” Clearly, Selznick did not want his yet-to-be-released film to be damned as a copy of Jezebel, though he states the opposite in his letter. Warner fired back with the exact page number in the play version of Jezebel in which the scene was derived, even sending Selznick part of the play as proof. He then closed with the same mock sincerity that David O. used. “Thanking you again for your splendid interest.”
Three years later, Darryl F. Zanuck complained to Warner that WB’s Flight Patrol (released as International Squadron) was too similar to Fox’s upcoming war film A Yank in the RAF. Both were about Americans who joined Britain’s Royal Air Force. Warner shot back that their film was a remake of two or three previous WB movies, adding “I hope your story doesn’t contain the ingredients of our [old] scripts.” He went on to chide Zanuck, “You must remember, Darryl, that the second world war was not put on schedule so that you or I or anyone else could have an exclusive on the RAF or any other branch of the army, navy, Marine or Air Corps.” I agree with old Jack in regard to his defense of films with similar storylines: Repetition is the nature of popular storytelling.
Warner seemed to prefer titles for his films that were epic in scope, even if the titles were little more than cliches. For example, the mogul insisted the WB film about Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex be called The Knight and the Lady. Bette Davis, who starred as Queen Elizabeth, was appalled, noting in a memo that the original play was called Elizabeth the Queen. She felt that the new title detracted from the play’s identity “as a woman’s story.” She also wanted first billing, which would not match the order of the male and female roles suggested by the title The Knight and the Lady. Apparently, Warner was open to calling the film Elizabeth and Essex, but his general sales manager, Gradwell Sears, claimed that The Knight and the Lady had “swashbuckling appeal” for the general masses. Also, the publisher of a book called Elizabeth and Essex was asking $10,000 from Warners for the right to use the title. Warner suggested The Lady and the Knight, but Davis found that to be no better. In another memo, she wondered why Paul Muni was allowed to name his film Juarez, but she could not have the same privilege with this film. Eventually, Warner caved in, securing the rights to Elizabeth and Essex but adding “The Private Lives of” to it.
In 1940, Warner wrote Wallis a quick memo: “I have a good, hot hunch that we should change the title of The Sea Wolf to The Law of the Sea.” His reasoning was that The Law of the Sea was a “big, sweeping epic title.” Besides, WB had already made The Sea Beast and The Sea Hawk. Producer Henry Blanke thought Warner’s brainstorm was neither good nor hot. He pleaded with Wallis via memo to step in: “It would be the same had Mr. Selznick changed the name of Gone With the Wind to Molly from the South.” Apparently, Wallis convinced Warner to retain The Sea Wolf on the grounds that it was based on the famous novel by Jack London.
Warner’s notorious ego and temper were also evident in the memos. After many years of working together, Warner accused Wallis of taking too much credit for the studio’s success when the latter was interviewed by the Los Angeles Daily News. Warner whined, “I happened to be the one who saw these stories, read plays, bought and turned them over to you. You could have at least said so, and I want to be accredited accordingly.” Wallis explained that he had mentioned Warner, but the reporter failed to include that information in the article. The old mogul didn’t believe his trusted executive producer, replying in a later telegram, “This wire will serve notice on you that I will take legal action if my name has been eliminated from any article or story in any form, shape or manner as being in charge [of] production. . . It will be up to you to prove and see that my name is properly accredited in any publicity.”
The only person that Jack Warner was accountable to was older brother Harry Warner, who was president of WB. Harry seemed aware of Jack’s penchant for reprisal, which was often counter-productive. Jack was quick to suspend actors who balked at starring in certain films, including the studio’s biggest stars—Davis, Bogart, Raft, de Havilland. During the war, when studios lost actors to the armed forces and shortages affected production, Harry scolded Jack: “. . . I believe you will have to find some way of discontinuing suspending people. If they don’t want [to] work in one picture, make some other picture with them, but for goodness sake make a picture. You don’t gain anything by suspending. . . .”
The memos can be found in their entirety in Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951 by Rudy Behlmer. Devoid of the myth and legend often surrounding most Hollywood lore, the memos offer insight into the procedures, problems, and practices of the studio system.
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