A year in Hollywood: 1959

By the beginning of 1959, movie admissions in North America had dropped to under 40 million tickets sold per week. This was the worst year for Hollywood since 1922. Considering how many studios were still operating, the fact that only fifteen new films were in production spoke volumes. Efforts were instead being put into producing weekly television series.

Movie studios needed to do something spectacular to get audiences interested in the cinema again. MGM thought the answer was a remake of the silent classic BEN HUR. It cast Charlton Heston in the lead role and sent director William Wyler to Rome to film it. Most of the interiors were done at the Cinecitta studios. It was an expensive endeavor, but after it took home eleven Oscars including Best Picture, it eventually recouped its cost and turned a profit. Other studios would try to emulate MGM’s success.

Hollywood movies that were produced largely on location were nicknamed ‘runaways.’ Until the late 1950s, studio films were primarily shot on sound stages and backlots in the Los Angeles area. If the story’s setting occurred in a different locale, stock footage was inserted. And in rare cases, a second unit with an associate director might be sent to an actual location to film new exterior shots. But by and large, the movies were done with contract stars and studio technicians that were based in Hollywood. Now all of that was changing. A picture like Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT was made down in San Diego.

In addition to location-based films, the studios were trying riskier subject matter in order to compete with television. The Broadway hit about teenage pregnancy, BLUE DENIM, was adapted by 20th Century Fox and featured the young stars from the stage version, Brandon de Wilde and Carol Lynley. Other subject matter was just as sensational and controversial. United Artists produced ON THE BEACH, a harrowing tale about nuclear holocaust starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. It featured Fred Astaire in a dramatic role as an Australian scientist.

The industry was also making suspense thrillers and adventure yarns that emphasized glamorous locations and ultra sophisticated stars. The prime example was Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST which cast Cary Grant as an ad exec mistaken for a spy. On a train out of town, Grant’s character met a woman played by Eva Marie Saint. Of course, complications soon developed, romantic and otherwise. The action culminated in a dramatic climax that took place over the faces of Mount Rushmore.

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Lunch with Lauren Bacall

While promoting her memoir ‘Now’ in the fall of 1994, Lauren Bacall appeared at a luncheon given in her honor on the University of Southern California campus. The event was sponsored by the Friends of the USC Library and was somewhat informal. While we all ate our meal, she was asked questions by a moderator about her life and career.

She talked about her most recent film, PRET-A-PORTER, which she had done with Robert Altman. As she described the location shoot in Europe, she was a bit humorous. She said that when you made an Altman picture, you never knew how it was going to turn out. This was because he encouraged improvising, and he liked to play with his stories in the editing process. One thing she enjoyed about the movie– her youngest son (Sam Robards) was also in it.

At one point, she mentioned her political views because the moderator told her the birthplace of Adlai Stevenson was a few blocks off campus. She had been an ardent supporter of Stevenson’s presidential campaigns in the 1950s. She liked the fact his name had been brought up.

The moderator mentioned a TV movie for the BBC called A FOREIGN FIELD, which had made in France– the story was about American and British war vets who visited the beaches of Normandie on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. It was a good experience for her. She raved about costar Jeanne Moreau, indicating they had become very close personal friends during the production.

And of course, there were questions about her days with Humphrey Bogart. The moderator asked if she resented people asking about him all the time, and she said no. She claimed he was a very important part of her life. She said when they made those films together in the 1940s, nobody knew people would still be watching them 50 years later. She called that part of her life the ‘Bogie Years.’ She said it very matter of fact. I think it was her way of organizing the periods of her life. I did not hear her say his first name once, nor did she ever say ‘Bogart.’ It was always Bogie, which I found interesting.

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For the most part, she was exactly in person like you see her on screen. Very direct, nothing at all artificial about her. She knew she had led a very unique life, but the privileges that came with it were not something she seemed to dwell on or hold over others. Probably her humble origins kept her grounded. After she finished speaking and the lunch was nearly over, people stood up and went over to meet her. Most were purchasing a copy of her memoir. She included a short inscription and autograph inside the front cover of each book.

While she was signing autographs, she would look up at the crowd gathering round her. At that point, I was back in the line. When she looked over at me, I could tell she was a very astute observer of human nature. She could see who had listened to her. She knew who appreciated the way she had done her job.

A year in Hollywood: 1958

The film industry was still losing money in 1958. A slogan that had been developed to lure audiences back into theaters was ‘Get More Out of Life—Go to a Movie.’ But unfortunately, the public thought they could get more out of life staying home and watching television. As a result, several major Hollywood studios were on the verge of bankruptcy.

United Artists was in the process of restructuring its business model. The UA management team decided to buy out Mary Pickford. She was the last of the original partners, and with her exit, the company went public. It quickly diversified into television and the music field. This strategy kept UA solvent and from shutting down. But other companies were not so lucky. Herbert Yates was stepping down over at Republic, and his studio which had been in existence since 1935 was ceasing all operations.

Meanwhile, RKO Teleradio turned out some new films that were remakes of old titles. But soon the practice discontinued–the RKO lot closed, and everything was put up for sale again. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who first met at RKO in 1940 while they were making TOO MANY GIRLS, used the profits from Desilu to purchase the studio’s facilities which would now be used for television production. There were a few unreleased RKO movies that were handed over to Universal for distribution.

But Universal was having problems of its own. It was a million dollars in the hole by the end of July 1958 and facing bankruptcy. Universal would be given a reprieve; it was bailed out by the Management Corporation of America (MCA). Until now, MCA was known as an organization that brokered deals for independent producers and stars. MCA was in a financial position to take over Universal, where many of its deals had occurred in the 1950s. MCA’s increasing power proved that production was passing from old-time studio moguls into the hands of agents and individual artists who could package lucrative deals.

As for the old-time moguls, 1958 was the year Columbia’s Harry Cohn passed away. His death occurred in the middle of production on BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE. This film reunited one of the studio’s top actresses, Kim Novak, with her recent costar from VERTIGO, Jimmy Stewart. Most of Novak’s films made money at this time, but Columbia did experience a slight downturn in the wake of Cohn’s death. One thing that helped the company stay afloat was its investment in the British production THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which became one of the year’s most successful motion pictures.

Coming up in May

 

Lunch with Lauren Bacall…A day the actress visited a southern California college campus.

Mothers from hell…Some moms in the movies are less than ideal.

Stanwyck’s leading men…A two-parter about the actress’s best costars.

On screen and in real life…Film stories that seem to predict the future.

Appreciating Julie London…A look at one of the more multi-talented performers of her generation.

12 o’clock for a man of the west…Gary Cooper time.

Join me in May!

 

 

 

A year in Hollywood: 1957

More than ever television was dominating the entertainment landscape. Since 3-D turned out to be a relatively short fad, and CinemaScope’s novelty had worn off, studios were desperate for other ways to attract audiences. So strategies to revive national interest in the cinema were developed.

One organization that tried to help was the MPAA. It encouraged catchy slogans and sweepstakes that might stir up interest in new films. The sweepstakes were advertised on radio and TV. Other marketing campaigns were tied directly to the Academy Awards. There were also audience polls, where moviegoers could vote on their favorite stars and give feedback to studios about films.

Another organization that jumped on the bandwagon was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS). Its suggestions were less about advertising, and more about promoting cinema as one of the nation’s lasting arts. Film festivals were considered, educational foundations were proposed, and a Hollywood movie museum was planned.

But while the MPAA and AMPAS were trying to help studios revive public interest in filmmaking, certain industry practices were sabotaging their best attempts. The unions and guilds had aging members, and they discouraged newcomers from entering the ranks. This kept salaries up, and it also meant the protection of jobs that were no longer needed. Because it was difficult for newcomers to get hired at most studios, they often started at television production companies. Television benefited from the flow of fresh talent and skill, while movies continued to suffer.

Speaking of suffering, the most popular genre in 1957 was the melodrama. In the past, melodramas had been presented as historically-based costume dramas. But director Douglas Sirk changed all that at Universal. His tales of furious emotional impact were told as contemporary dramas that exploited the myths of modern day romance. Audiences had turned out for a remake of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION a few years earlier; and now they were anxious to see Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson in WRITTEN ON THE WIND.

Audiences were also eager to see some of their favorite new music stars on the big screen. Realizing the potential Elvis Presley had, MGM signed him to make a musical drama called JAILHOUSE ROCK. It premiered in October and did very well at the box office. The dance sequence where Presley gyrated to the title song became one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.

Who loves ya, Telly?

Recently, I began watching the first season of Kojak on Hulu. After looking at a dozen episodes, I had already given perfect scores to quite a few of them:

Siege of Terror,” the very first episode, easily earned a 10. The high speed chase at the beginning was a heart-pounding way to start the series, and the scenes with the hostages were intense. Guest Harvey Keitel was amazing as a would-be killer.

I watched “Cop in a Cage” and had to give it a 10. I loved the whole concept of a squeaky clean ex-con harassing Kojak (Telly Savalas) but not quite getting away with it. And the part at the end where Kojak does the wedding dance with his niece in the street was marvelous. An IMDb reviewer called it Kojak’s Big Fat Greek Wedding, which seemed right. Savalas often shared his Greek heritage with viewers, and the series was richer for it.

Dead on His Feet” was a 10, largely because of Harry Guardino’s guest performance. The plot, about a veteran cop trying to avenge his partner’s death, seemed a bit predictable. But Guardino and Savalas elevated the material at every turn, and I could not give it a lower score. The moment where Guardino’s beleaguered character confronts a mobster in a restaurant is not to be missed.


Last Rites for a Dead Priest,” with Jackie Cooper posing as a man of the cloth. In reality, he’s a thief masterminding a heist. It was very well written and played. The climactic finale in an abandoned building was one hundred percent “noir” and atmospheric. I loved how Cooper’s crook ironically gave last rites to a member of his gang while trying to find out where the goods had been stashed. Excellent all the way.

The one with a young John Ritter, “Deliver Us Some Evil,” was probably a 9.5 but I gave it a 10. I liked the innocence Ritter projected while his character was getting deeper into a life of crime. The scenes near the end where Kojak was in the helicopter, and they followed Ritter’s van to the warehouse were highly engaging.

A year in Hollywood: 1956

There were more shake-ups in 1956 at the major studios. Several moguls were either forced out or elected to resign and go into independent production. This included Dore Schary at MGM, who had guided the company on his own since Louis B. Mayer’s exit a few years earlier. But now Schary was gone too, and Joe Schenck was promoted to the position of chairman. At the same time Arthur Loew took full control of Loew’s Inc., while Schary returned to writing and producing his own smaller-budgeted films.

At 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck had been continuing as Vice President under Spyros Skouras. But increasing tensions between the two necessitated changes. Zanuck gave up his position and went to Paris, where he made his own films (released by Fox). He also was paid a fee as a studio consultant. Zanuck retained shares of stock in the company he helped build, but under Skouras, things were disintegrating fast. Part of the problem, which led to Zanuck’s resignation as Vice President, was that Skouras had fired many of the studio’s top writers and directors. Skouras had also dropped several stars that Zanuck built up from nothing.

Film production was down at all the major studios, and the emphasis was now on the production of episodic television series. Because most of the studios were no longer operating at full capacity, workers’ hours were scaled back. The unions had agreed to a 44-hour work week, less than it had been when the studios were doing better.

Meanwhile, the production code had to deal with challenges by director Otto Preminger. Preminger had previously made THE MOON IS BLUE, a comedy that was issued in 1954 without a seal of approval. This was because Maggie McNamara’s character described herself as a virgin. Now, the director was at it again, pushing the boundaries with a story about drug addiction. One of the main reasons Preminger was successful in circumventing the code was because independent exhibitors had become increasingly indifferent to the code. So films were being shown more often now without a seal of approval.

One of the year’s major film releases was MGM’s science fiction classic FORBIDDEN PLANET. It utilized CinemaScope and concentrated on special effects to create a utopic environment that borrowed from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest.’ Walter Pidgeon portrayed a Prospero-like scientist named Morbius whose daughter, played by Anne Francis, was based on Miranda. The omnipresent Ariel was seen in the form of a futuristic robot named Robby. And Caliban was depicted as an invisible monster that threatened to destroy their planetary paradise. The technological fantasy story did well with audiences, and MGM had a big hit on its hands.