William Wyler: Constant Chameleon and The People’s Auteur

MRS. MINIVER

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In reflecting on the history of Hollywood filmmaking, William Wyler undoubtedly remains one of the greatest and most influential directors of his time. Twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Director (the record for most nominations of a director), winning three times for Mrs. Miniver (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben-Hur (1959). He directed some of Hollywood’s finest talent, including a three-film collaboration with Bette Davis, in arguably her best work, earning her Academy Award nominations each time and a win for her performance in 1938’s Jezebel. Out of her working relationship with Wyler, Davis believed that she learned to become a better actress with him behind the camera. Her thoughts on working under Wyler’s direction were not unique; most of the actors who were fortunate enough to collaborate with him, especially those who did so multiple times, recalled the director as tough and professional, drawing the absolute best performances out of his cast. To achieve his idea of perfection, Wyler demanded multiple takes, which many of the actors, at least in the moment, felt excessive and borderline obsessive. But when the final cut was on the screen, they knew exactly why their director wanted more.

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The Memos of Jack Warner: “The Mustache Is the Thing for This Picture”

blogopenerIn 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.

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Hollywood Comes to Hearst Castle: Memories & Musings

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Maybe it was the Hollywood homes featured in my last post or the ongoing worldwide celebration of Orson Welles 100th birthday? Whatever the reason, I spent a great deal of time thinking about William Randolph Hearst and his massive estate at San Simeon last week. As any classic film fan worth their salt knows, the newspaper mogul once played host to many Hollywood stars and starlets at Hearst Castle and his life was brilliantly satirized by Welles’ in CITIZEN KANE (1941). For better or worse, the film has forever colored our view of Hearst as well as his mistress, actress Marion Davies, while his home remains a mythical Xanadu currently opened to the public as a state run museum that I once had the pleasure to visit.

I was at the impressionable age of 10 or 11-years old when I got the opportunity to explore Hearst Castle and the experience left an undeniable mark on my young mind. My late grandmother, who lived a short distance away in Goleta, California, planned the trip and I knew nothing about the place until we arrived at the entrance and I was bombarded by guide books and picture postcards that featured familiar faces from the movies I’d grown up watching. Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and Clark Gable were just a few of the recognizable celebrities that had once graced these hallowed grounds while participating in private sporting events and attending extravagant parties.

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Caught on Film: Hollywood Romances That Ignited On Set

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Tomorrow is February 14th, otherwise known as Valentine’s Day. I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by taking a look at some sizzling screen romances that ignited while the cameras were rolling. Anyone who knows a thing or two about Hollywood history knows that it’s not uncommon for actors to fall head over heels for their costars. And who can blame them? When two attractive actors are asked to feign love while kissing and cuddling for our amusement I suspect that the lines between fantasy and reality can easily become blurred. These on set affairs seldom last but they can wreck marriages and leave a trail of broken hearts in their wake. But the heart wants what it wants and on some occasions these romantic rendezvous develop into long lasting loving relationships. And best of all? They often leave us with some passion filled films that make for great viewing on Valentine’s Day!

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Wanna Rumble?

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I usually go out of my way to avoid ruffling the feathers of my fellow film fanatics but there are plenty of things that get me riled up on a monthly basis. Sometimes a girl’s just got to let off a little steam so excuse me while I borrow a page from my fellow Morlock Richard H. Smith and draw your attention to a few things that have got me seeing red lately. Wanna rumble? Here’s how you can really get my goat!

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The Eternal Star, Trapped in Time

Quick, how long was Clark Gable’s movie career?  If you said  38 years, lasting from 1923, his first uncredited extra work in Fighting Blood, to the 1961 posthumuous release of The Misfits in 1961, you’d be correct, technically.  For me, his career spanned 1930 to 1939, with Gone with the Wind as his swansong.   Oh, he didn’t actually do anything of note in 1930 and he did a hell of a lot of note after 1939 but when I think of Gable, I think of the thirties.   I identify most actors with a specific decade and, as box office returns would indicate, so do a great many people as actors’ careers tend to have a five to ten year period of total dominance followed by years of ups and downs.

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Karen Black in ‘Burnt Offerings’

burntposterObituaries for actress Karen Black, who died at 74 on August 8 from a rare form of cancer, tended to sum up her contribution to American cinema by noting her Oscar-nominated role as Rayette Dipesto in Five Easy Pieces. Rayette  represented the kind of over-ripe, emotionally vulnerable woman that was Black’s forte and a character type that fit the contradictions of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Characters like Rayette may have been sexually liberated but they were still trapped by the emotional pain inflicted by their male companions—the easy riders and raging bulls who rebelled against the establishment.

And, yet, Black’s distinctive beauty and spontaneous approach to acting gave her a broader range than suggested by the obits that used Rayette Dipesto as a touchstone for her career. As much as I liked Baz Luhrmann’s recent The Great Gatsby, Black’s from-the-gut performance as earthy, desperate Myrtle Wilson in the 1974 version completely overshadows Isla Fisher’s turn in the same role.  And, Black proved to be deft at comedy playing opposite William Devane in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot. Black worked for several directors of the Film School Generation—Robert Rafelson, Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Ivan Passer, and John Schlesinger—as well as for Hollywood veterans such as Hitchcock, Ernest Lehman, and Jack Clayton.

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To Wed or Not To Wed: Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933)

Illicit00006gene_raymond-bette_davis-ex_lady1Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves.   Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class  job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.

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Does Oscar gold come with an Oscar curse?

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In the weeks leading up to the 85th Academy Awards the usual flood of articles about the so-called “Oscar Curse” or “Oscar Jinx” have started to appear. Journalists who write these superstitious stories usually play fast and loose with the facts in an effort to grab headlines and appeal to the public’s unhealthy obsession with celebrity gossip. These ongoing Oscar related fables often focus on actresses who have seen their promising careers nosedive or their marriages collapse after they take home a gold statue. I suspect these tall tales were originally encouraged by jealous costars or fellow nominees who wanted to knock the winners down a notch or two but the media continues to perpetuate them. The truth is that many actors cash-in; quite literally, after they win an Oscar and eventually end up being less discriminate about the roles they take in an effort to pay the mortgage on their million dollar mansions. And in Hollywood quality leading roles for women are particularly hard to come by so it’s not surprising that it can take an Oscar winning actress like Sally Field decades to land another part that’s noticed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As for blaming the collapse of an actor’s marriage on their Oscar win, it’s all too easy to forget about someone like Meryl Streep who has been married to the same man since 1978. Streep’s partner has been by her side throughout her record-breaking 17 Oscar nominations and 3 wins but you don’t hear much about that during award season.
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Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

The history of the movies is replete with great performances, one after another, often in the same movie.  While many movies have a clear central character with no counterpart in length or breadth within the same film (from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Stella Dallas and Citizen Kane to movies like On the Waterfront, Lawrence of ArabiaTaxi Driver and There Will Be Blood) many others have a male and female lead playing off of each other, with some famous examples from Hollywood history being Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and The Apartment.   But there are still others, the great dual performance movies, that have two parts playing against each other in a mutual conflict or war or maybe just a game, depending on how you look at it.  They’re the movies that have the two leads, usually the same gender and the characters are usually, but not always, completely at odds.  You know the ones I’m talking about, movies like All About Eve or Sleuth, in which two characters face off and do battle, one against the other, and often times their performances are also matched one against the other by the movie-going public.   When it comes to picking one over the other, I’m no exception, I do it all the time.

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