Coming up in April

Selznick’s memos about Ingrid & Maria…How producer David O. Selznick arranged for Ingrid Bergman to be cast in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.

WACky movies…Saluting the Women’s Army Corps on screen.

Memorable character actresses…in March, character actors were discussed; now it’s time to mention some of the memorable women.

More movie salaries…the highest paid in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.

Who loves ya, Telly?…Some of us are suckers for Telly Savalas as Lieutenant Kojak.

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Join me in April!

 

A year in Hollywood: 1951

Since the end of World War II, European cinema had undergone a renaissance period. This led to the start of ‘art house’ movie theaters in the United States, which catered to a growing interest in foreign films from Italy, France and other countries. One picture that did well on the art house circuit was a neo-realist fable by Vittorio de Sica.

In addition to television, as well as recent economic setbacks caused by the beginning of the Korean conflict, Hollywood had to contend with strong competition from overseas production companies. These issues were only compounded by the change in film exhibition, since the U.S. government had effectively put an end to studios owning theater chains. The entire business model was overhauled. And nobody understood it better than producer Dore Schary.

Schary had left RKO after Howard Hughes’ takeover and returned to MGM, where he previously worked under Louis B. Mayer. But this time, Schary had considerably more power, which Mayer deeply resented. The two men were frequently at an impasse over the direction of the studio and the types of pictures that would best serve the needs of audiences in these changing times. A huge fight erupted between the two men in 1949 over Schary’s decision to make the war film BATTLEGROUND, which Mayer vehemently opposed. When BATTLEGROUND proved a hit with critics and audiences, Mayer lost a key battle in the war with Schary. Stockholders now believed Schary had the vision to lead them into the new decade.

By 1951, Mayer’s power had decreased even more, and Schary was essentially running the studio at this point. Mayer, knowing he was being pushed out, abruptly resigned and cashed in. He was paid almost $3 million for stories and other MGM properties in which he still held a major interest. But Mayer wasn’t done in Hollywood. After he left MGM, he financed the TV version of Jack Webb’s crime drama Dragnet, and he invested a substantial amount of his MGM payoff in Cinerama, which turned out to be a good decision.

Meanwhile, Hollywood was beginning to realize that an important new demographic was developing in the post-war era. There were now a substantial number of affluent teens in these years of prosperity, and they would become an even wealthier group when they reached their twenties. As a result, studios and independent production companies were turning out motion pictures geared towards them. This generational shift was reflected in the proliferation of drive-in movie theaters; there were now over 2,000 of them across North America.

As the industry changed, some movie stars were finding their standing in jeopardy at their home studios. At 20th Century Fox, Tyrone Power and Betty Grable were both placed on suspension when the new president of the studio found them unreasonable in their demands. At Universal, Shelley Winters was also suspended without pay when she fought with her bosses over costume fittings. And Kirk Douglas was having such conflict with Jack Warner that he shelled out $100,000 to break his contract with Warner Brothers.

Same characters in different movies

Some characters are so popular with viewers they are brought back in new movies. In 1940, writer-director Preston Sturges introduced two memorable creations in his political satire THE GREAT MCGINTY. One was the title character, played by Brian Donlevy; and the other was The Boss in the story, which Akim Tamiroff brought to life.

Four years later, Sturges included the two in short scenes for his comedy THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. Donlevy and Tamiroff reprised their earlier roles; this time Donlevy was the recently elected Governor McGinty. However, William Demarest who had played The Politician in THE GREAT MCGINTY, and would go on to appear in many of Sturges’ productions in the 1940s, played a different character in MORGAN’S CREEK.

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In a different sort of way, two characters were recycled from a silent film that director King Vidor had made. They reappeared in one of his later productions during the mid-1930s. Eleanor Boardman (Vidor’s wife) and James Murray had portrayed Mary and John Sims in MGM’s classic THE CROWD in 1928. The characters had been so popular with audiences and so meaningful to the director that he reused them in OUR DAILY BREAD six years later, with different performers. Karen Morley took the role of Mary, and Tom Keene played John.

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Occasionally we have performers who recreate the same historical characters in different movies. For instance, Bette Davis portrayed Queen Elizabeth I in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX for Warner Brothers in 1939; and she repeated the part in 1955 for 20th Century Fox’s THE VIRGIN QUEEN.

Meanwhile, Peter O’Toole earned praise as King Henry II in BECKET, where he played the monarch as a young man. Four years later he was again cast as Henry II, this time portraying a much older more mature version of the king. He received Oscar nominations both times.

A year in Hollywood: 1950

The Hollywood motion picture industry was now in a fight for survival. Almost twenty percent of American homes already had television, and this number was growing rapidly. As more people stayed at home to watch entertainment programs on TV, they went to the cinema less frequently. As a result, weekly admissions fell to 60 million.

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Studios responded by trying to soak up the new medium in strategic ways. Large screen TV sets were installed in theaters to show live news and sporting events between movies. And some experimental markets were offering stay-at-home viewers the chance to see recent movies on the tube for a small fee. It was the beginning of Pay TV.

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Among the first feature films to be shown on Pay TV in 1950 were Paramount’s WELCOME STRANGER; MGM’s HOMECOMING; and Warner Brothers’ APRIL SHOWERS. Zenith was the company that partnered with studios to provide the unique service to customers. The first group to use Pay TV included three hundred subscribers in the Chicago area.

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Meanwhile, the Technicolor Corporation faced sudden legal reversals and began to lose its monopoly on color stock and color processing. A court ruling forced Technicolor to relinquish 92 of its patents to producers. As for the remaining 12 patents that were still allowed, Technicolor was ordered to share those technologies at a more reasonable rate. Because of these decisions, Technicolor’s considerable power diminished.

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The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was now dealing with the personal lives of stars. References to actors’ real-life love affairs could no longer be made in the advertising of films. The situation that brought this to a head was one involving Ingrid Bergman. She had recently left her husband for director Roberto Rossellini. The MPAA forbade RKO from mentioning the Bergman scandal in ads for her latest film, STROMBOLI, in which she had been directed by Rossellini.

The write stuff

Several notable copyright lawsuits have occurred in Hollywood:

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LETTY LYNTON is one of the more famous examples. In 1936, MGM lost a court case in which its screenwriter Wanda Tuchock was found to have based her adaptation of the story too closely on an earlier play called Dishonored Lady (which was later filmed by another company with Hedy Lamarr). MGM appealed the decision in 1939 and lost again. The film has been released on home video overseas but never in North America.

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In the late 1970s, George Lucas and 20th Century Fox sued Universal, because they believed Universal had stolen ideas from STAR WARS for its television series Battlestar Galactica. Universal countersued, saying that Fox and Lucas had actually stolen ideas for STAR WARS from one of their older properties, Buck Rogers.  Universal’s strategy of ‘sue us and we’ll sue you’ worked; Lucas and Fox backed down and the matter was settled out of court.

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In 1990, writer Art Buchwald took Paramount to court. He said the studio used ideas contained in an earlier script he had written– ideas that became the basis for the Eddie Murphy hit COMING TO AMERICA. Buchwald prevailed, and the studio settled with him for $900,000.

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The Wachowski Brothers, who wrote and directed THE MATRIX, were sued by a black writer named Sophia Stewart in the early 2000s. She calls herself ‘The Mother of The Matrix.’ She did not win since her lawyers failed to prove her ideas were plagiarized. But she insists she’s a victim of racism and that the Wachowskis did steal from her.

Another writer-director was charged with taking someone else’s story material. When THE TERMINATOR hit screens, James Cameron and Orion Pictures were successfully sued by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison for using ideas from two of Ellison’s scripts for the original Outer Limits television series. Cameron was recently accused by another author of plagiarizing material for AVATAR.

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Copyright suits continue. In September 2015, a Russian screenwriter named Mikhail Raskhodnikov filed a motion against Fox, claiming his ideas were used for THE MARTIAN. In January 2016, those claims were thrown out but an appeal has been filed, so the parties remain in litigation. Raskhodnikov is seeking over $650,000 in damages.

Recommended films vol. 8

ROSIE THE RIVETER (1944)

Why you should watch it: Republic Pictures didn’t turn out a lot of musicals, but the ones the studio produced usually had something extra special. Here they hired one of the best female singers during the war years, Jane Frazee. The script is well written– a hilarious romantic comedy set-up with Jane and her girlfriend Vera Vague sharing a room in a boarding house with two single men. The way the writers get around the production code is quite clever!

More reasons: Vera’s deadpan deliveries are wonderful; there’s a lot of witty dialogue from beginning to end; and a marvelous supporting cast that includes Maude Eburne and Carl (Alfalfa) Switzer as a teenager. Plus, there’s a fun scene where the gals have no clothes on and are locked out of the boarding house in the rain. Naturally, they get picked up by the police (you have to see it!). And don’t miss the rousing finale filmed at an aviation factory. There’s a restored print at the Paramount Vault page on YouTube.

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MR. MUSIC (1950)

Why you should watch it: Every so often a charming musical comes along that starts slow and builds into something wonderful. This is just such a picture. When Paramount released it in 1950, Bing Crosby was at the peak of his stardom, and his ability as a vocalist is very much in evidence.  Plus it helps that he has been paired with Nancy Olson who always makes a fine leading lady.

More reasons: The rest of the cast is quite dandy. There’s Charles Coburn in a supporting role, and Robert Stack, too. Character actress Ida Moore, who plays Aunt Amy, is so cute she nearly walks off with the entire show. And don’t forget appearances by Dorothy Kirsten, Peggy Lee and Groucho Marx. It’s a winner all around. According to Variety, this film was one of the top box office hits the year it was released.

*****

RICH, YOUNG AND PRETTY (1951)

Why you should watch it: The arrangements in this MGM Technicolor musical are nicely done. Plus the pairing of studio songbird Jane Powell with young Vic Damone is inspired, since their voices work together so well.

More reasons: On a serious note, the film has a point to make about xenophobia (the fear of foreign cultures). The father, played by Wendell Corey, believes his marriage to the mother, Danielle Darrieux, was a mistake. As a result, he has transferred his feelings on to their daughter (Powell), not to marry outside one’s own culture. So she is persuaded to break things off with Damone’s character, until at the end she discovers Darrieux is her mother and that she is half-French. It’s a cathartic moment for her.

 

Classic economics

When one looks at John Ford’s stunning motion picture THE GRAPES OF WRATH, it is nearly impossible to separate all the dramatic events unfolding on screen from the very real poverty that many Americans had experienced during the Great Depression.  Of course, this was Ford’s presentation of life in the 1930s based on a story by writer John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s views of extreme financial and social conditions drive a story about a family nearly wiped out in the Dust Bowl. As we watch the film, seeing how the Joads travel west in search of better opportunities, their situation still resonates with us. Perhaps because many Americans still live at or below the poverty level.

Other classic Hollywood films tell related stories. In IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, we see what happens when there is a run on the local bank. Director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin have rendered a view of life in idyllic Bedford Falls that begins rosy but turns quite bleak. The anxieties that are depicted in the film indicate the blind faith Americans have in some of their financial institutions. Capra is revisiting a topic he covered more than a decade earlier in AMERICAN MADNESS. In these productions, men with money are usually the bad guys, and they’re shown to be greedy.

Another director who tells iconic Depression era stories is King Vidor. One example is 1934’s OUR DAILY BREAD, about people working together on a farm without corporate interference. Despite a series of setbacks, their efforts are rewarded at the end. OUR DAILY BREAD is not unique subject matter for Vidor; he examines labor issues in other movies such as AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, about an immigrant who becomes an industrialist; and in an adapted story from a bestselling novel by Ayn Rand. In THE FOUNTAINHEAD, Vidor presents a man struggling to maintain strong work ethic and integrity in a financially-motivated world. In some measure, it is autobiographical, because Vidor himself sees Hollywood as a commercial environment that tends to devalue the spirit of more progressive efforts.

There are other brave filmmakers who work in the same vein. Some of them blacklisted in the late 1940s and early 1950s, seem determined to expose the unfairnesses of a capitalist system. In SALT OF THE EARTH, director Herbert J. Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten, showed how miners from a rural community in New Mexico go on strike in order to gain more economic advantages. Here, the elusive American dream hovers over a landscape of multi-generational poverty.  The mining company owners are portrayed as the villains. And it is only the workers with their sense of fairness and strong community spirit that can rise up against corruption.

 

A year in Hollywood: 1949

A few things that began in 1948 carried over into 1949. Perhaps most critically to the motion picture industry was the fact that the recent presidential election had been telecast, for the first time in history. This meant television was no fad; its immediacy and direct impact on audiences could not be ignored and as more broadcast stations sprang up around the country, TV would undoubtedly cut into the movie business.

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Ticket sales had been averaging around 90 million per week, but in the new year, movie attendance dropped down to 62 million. Eventually, it climbed back up to around 70 million where it stayed. The studio bosses knew they were facing an uncertain time. Some like Hal Roach decided the future was in television, and they quickly began to transition over to television production.

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Meanwhile, Floyd Odlum of RKO decided it was time to get out of the picture business altogether. He put the studio up for sale, with the most serious offer coming from independent producer Howard Hughes. For the past several years, Hughes had experienced great difficulty getting his condemned western THE OUTLAW distributed, and he felt that if he bought RKO he could ensure that his movies would be played. But when Hughes assumed control of RKO, he had very little regard for its history or its film library. He quickly alienated producer Dore Schary who soon left for MGM. And more than half the executive staff had exited by 1949, in what amounted to a huge shake-up. The studio would never be the same again; Hughes’ purchase signaled the beginning of a long death for RKO.

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Across town, United Artists was going through its own upheaval. UA was dealing with a severe budget crisis, and many of their more prestigious independent producers were bailing. Roach was heading into television, while others like John Ford and James Cagney were going back to work for major studios. Another problem was that some of the product UA turned out in the late 40s began to seem outdated, since the postwar trend had been towards social realism. The conservative escapist entertainment that UA produced wasn’t selling.

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At this time, David Loew had set up a company with John Garfield called Enterprise Studios, which leaned toward producing more socially conscious films. The venture attracted people like Robert Rossen, Robert Aldrich and Abraham Polonsky. Of course, many of these people would soon be blacklisted, but for a time in the late 40s, this group prospered and turned out some of the best progressive cinema Hollywood ever made– films like BODY AND SOUL and FORCE OF EVIL, both with Garfield in starring roles.

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While this was going on, there was a changing of the guard at some of the major studios. Longtime stars were finding that their contracts were not being renewed. And some, such as Bette Davis, left their home studios after arguments over the scripts being offered. Davis had been with Warner Brothers for 18 years. Meanwhile, producer Henry Blanke refused to leave Warners, because he had a 25 year contract at $5000 per week. But with television cutting into the movie business, Jack Warner was eager to save money and get rid of Blanke, who was very expensive at this point. During the standoff with Warner, Blanke would only visit the studio with his lawyers.

Along came Polly

Polly Benedict that is. In a series of gentle family comedies at MGM, lovestruck Andy Hardy had many memorable girlfriends. But perhaps the most important one was his childhood sweetheart Polly, played by Ann Rutherford. There was something charming (and annoying) about Rutherford’s portrayal of a gal who seemed to run hot and cold.

But she and Andy always seemed to find their way back to one another. So it was assumed they would probably marry and have a family of their own. Unfortunately, that did not happen. In 1942, after five years at MGM, Rutherford’s contract was dropped (or mutually terminated, depending on the source). She then moved over to 20th Century Fox, where she appeared in B films. A short time later, her old studio needed her again for the last Whistler film, so she was borrowed back from Fox. When she completed that role, MGM did not request Ann Rutherford again.

In the later installments of the Hardy pictures, Polly is no longer mentioned. With Andy having gone off to college, we are led to believe he moved on to bigger and better things. But how could he ever forget his true love, Polly, especially when he returned home..?

In fact, it’s a question Mickey Rooney must have asked, too. When a follow-up series was planned by MGM in the late 1950s, Rooney felt Rutherford should reappear as Polly. However, the actress was pretty much retired from motion pictures at that point, though she did occasional television roles. To the chagrin of audiences, she declined the chance to reprise her role of Polly Benedict in ANDY HARDY COMES HOME.

She didn’t feel Andy and Poly would have wound up together as a blissfully married couple (hard to believe, but maybe she was right). So the part of Andy’s wife in the later film is given over to a new female character, presumably Andy’s last and most enduring love interest. Still, we can’t help but wonder about Polly Benedict and whatever became of her. Maybe in an alternate cinematic universe she did become Polly Hardy. At least that is how some fans might wish to believe. Especially the ones who were still asking Ann Rutherford and Mickey Rooney to autograph old scripts in 2009.

A year in Hollywood: 1948

As expected, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) continued to hold hearings that put various Hollywood figures in the hot seat. At issue was whether they had ever been affiliated with the Communist party. Most of the ‘friendly’ witnesses were given little opportunity to prepare or fully state their views. Prepared statements were deemed inadmissible by the committee. Also, the ones that were targeted directly usually had no chance to cross-examine their accusers. When ten prominent liberals had been identified at the end of 1947, the hearings were for a time suspended.

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But there would be more troubles for studios in the new year with regards to this matter. The American Legion and other patriotic groups across the country believed the charges of the committee. They threatened to boycott movies that were directed by or written by the Hollywood Ten. In 1948, producers like Darryl Zanuck and Dore Schary were pressured by their stockholders to go along with the blacklist. As a result, all ten were fired by the studios that had employed them before the committee hearings began. More importantly, all ten had been fined by the committee for being in contempt and given one-year jail sentences. Nine of them served their full sentences: Adrian Scott; Ring Lardner Jr.; Alvah Bessie; Dalton Trumbo; Herbert Biberman; John Howard Lawson; Sam Ornitz; Albert Maltz; and Lester Cole.

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One of them, director Edward Dmytryk, only served two months, then decided to cooperate with the committee and was released. By the time all was said and done, the careers of the nine who did not cooperate were seriously destroyed. Plus there were about 300 more– actors like Jeff Corey and various directors and writers– that were also blacklisted when they invoked the Fifth Amendment during the hearings. For many, their careers would stall indefinitely. A select few continued to work, either by joining foreign film companies; or by using fronts. Most had no choice but to wait out the storm which lasted at least ten to fifteen years.

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But let’s get back to the nine who served a year in prison and had their contracts invalidated by the studios that had employed them. Several of them sued the studios. Adrian Scott, Ring Lardner and Lester Cole each brought a civil suit against their former studios and won. However, the rulings were reversed on appeal in the upper courts. Later, the suits were re-won and then re-reversed. Ultimately, the cases wound up being settled out of court but probably not to the satisfaction of the plaintiffs.

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With the turmoil that was going on because of HUAC, it is amazing studios were able to turn out noteworthy product for audiences. But that is exactly what they did. Columbia produced THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, a drama built around its major star, Rita Hayworth. This time, she was paired with her real-life husband Orson Welles, who directed and costarred. Studio boss Harry Cohn, who perhaps sensed that the crippled attorney character played by Everett Sloane was modeled after Cohn himself, disliked the end result. He claimed the cynical thriller made Hayworth look so conniving and deceptive that it damaged her box office appeal as a sex symbol. The stars probably didn’t have much time to worry about Cohn’s comments, because by the time the picture wrapped they were not on speaking terms and headed for divorce.

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Across town, RKO had a modest hit with John Ford’s FORT APACHE. Though Ford had been a much-lauded director in the late 1930s and early 1940s, his career had been affected by the war, and his reputation was now not what it once was. Some critics were quick to find faults with FORT APACHE. But the film still holds up today as a testament of Ford’s Catholic faith and his belief in strict military discipline.  The symbolic ending of the movie bears that out.