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.