The Year Was 1938 – May 31st

Bette Davis in 1938
  • Lots of news for Bette Davis. She is to begin work on ‘The Sisters’ this week. This is to be followed by ‘The Phantom Crown’ which will begin production as ‘Juarez.’ And another project calls her back to the old South – a post Civil War story called ‘Memphis Belle.’ [The Sisters which pairs her with Errol Flynn closes out 1938 for her. ‘Juarez’ did go ahead, but another project came on line before it – ‘Dark Victory’ (one of the biggies for 1939). The ‘Memphis Belle’ title remained on the shelf].
  • Sidney Franklin (director) due in tomorrow at Metro to conference about his next film – ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ – to be filmed in England with Robert Donat. 
  • Laurel and Hardy start shooting today their final Roach production for Metro. [This is the ‘Meet the Missus’ project that was released as ‘Blockheads’]. (Mentioned in prior posts – see May 28th)
  • RKO is so happy with the dailies on ‘The Affairs of Annabel’ that they are considering adding more titles and making it into a series. [There was a quick turn around on this idea for ‘Annabel Takes a Tour’ came out in the same year. Jack Oakie went directly between the two; Lucille Ball squeezed in her part in ‘Room Service’ between them].
  • Walt Disney is looking to expand to a bigger plant – his Hyperion Ave site – covering 70,000 sq ft and employing 735 workers has become too cramped, hence plans are going forward for a million dollar facility. As for this next projects, slated next is Pinocchio, then Bambi.
  • 20th Century Fox is prepping ‘The Little Princess,’ the beloved story by Frances Hodgson Burnett as a film for Shirley Temple. To start 9/1. [It would be released in 1939].

CONTRACT TIME

  • Metro signed Gabriel Dell and Huntz Hall to term pacts. [Two of the Dead End kids gang. Dell has one short and four features for 1939].
  • 20th Century Fox lifted the option on Pauline Moore. [Charlie Chan, Abe Lincoln and the Musketeers keep her busy for 1939].
  • Republic renewed director James Cruze’s contract for one year. [Former silent actor and director Cruze had one film on the screen at this moment – ‘Gangs of New York.’ He has only one more credit for the year, none in 1939. Alcoholism over-shadowed his career and life until his death in 1942].
  • Fay Bainter had her contract at WB extended for two more pictures.
  • Frank Wead inks writer contract at 20th Century Fox. [The former navy pilot had written the story upon which MGM’s ‘Test Pilot’ was based. After the freak accident in which he broke his neck in 1926, he turned his skills to a writing career. He would work on two projects for Fox in 1939, one of wich was ‘Tail Spin’].
  • John Huston signed for a writer’s contract at WB. [Huston’s contribution to the screenplay for ‘Jezebel’ no doubt raised him in the eyes of WB. His involvement with ‘Jaurez’ for 1939; and an uncredited contribution to ‘Wuthering Heights’ put him on course to reach his goal – to direct the films based on his own scripts].
  • Florence Rice’s new contract with MGM, guarantees her time off to go East to catch the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight.
  • WB lifts the ban in director Lloyd Bacon’s contract on flying, so he can fly to Florida to do his research in Pensacola before he shoots ‘Wings of the Navy.’

ITEMS OF INTEREST

  • Eight casting directors rate the top supporting actors. The top 8 were Mischa Auer, Beulah Bondi, Walter Connelly, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Hersholt, Donald Meek, Alan Mowbray, Frank Morgan. (With 7 of the 8 votes, none unanimous). Next group (with 6 votes each) – Billie Burke, Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine, Hugh Herbert, Lewis Stone, Charles Winninger. Next (with 5 votes) – Una Merkle, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Henry Stephenson, Fay Bainter, Alice Brady, Spring Byington, Walter Brennan. Next (with 4 votes) – Edward Arnold, Ralph Bellamy, Humphrey Bogart, Herman Bing, Donald Crisp, Fritz Feld, Glenda Farrell, Bonita Granville, Edna May Oliver, May Robson, C Aubrey Smith, Ned Sparks, Slim Summerville, George Sanders, Akim Tamiroff.
  • Regarding premiers in Hollywood – for “A pictures” six to eight arc lights were the norm. The prize houses were Grauman’s Chinese, the Village in Westwood, and the Paramount in downtown LA, and sometimes the Carthay Circle (seating 1600) on the edge of the Beverly Hills District. Disney’s ‘Snow White,’ garnered historic grosses there on a two-a-day run.  [Now you know why a replica of the Carthay Circle graces the main street in Disney’s California Adventure park].
  • Inside the sound stage of ‘Four Daughters’ at WB, the Lane sisters under the direction of Michael Curtiz arrive via a Pullman car at the station of a small town. The snow – cornflakes; the slush on the ground – cornflakes, gypsum, salt and water. The Pullman car was real, but there was no motive power. It was pulled into the station by a winch, which could only move the rail car 20 feet, but that was all they needed.

The Mighty B’s Charlie Chan The Changing of the Guard Pt 1

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 1

The year 1939 would be marked by a sea (or C C for Charlie Chan) change for the B unit at Twentieth Century Fox. It all began in early 1938 when the head of the unit, Sol M Wurtzel was presented with a huge headache – the star of his Charlie Chan series walked off the set in the midst of filming his seventeenth feature – ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside.’ Ostensively it was to get a drink of water, but the actor, Warner Oland, kept going and walked off the lot, too.

Oland was very troubled at the time. His wife was suing him for separate maintenance, and complaining about his alcoholism. These two factors easily explain his odd behavior the week prior to his exit.

The Ringside film was to have begun shooting on Monday, January 10th, but Oland was a no show, sending word that the scheduled sound stage was too drafty and thus a danger to his health. By that Wednesday the producers had lined up a ‘warmer’ sound stage, and filming commenced with Oland playing the Chan character, but come Saturday he walked out without a word of explanation.

Oland was back in the fold on Monday January 17th, up until the time of the ‘drink of water’ incident. Then he just disappeared. To where? Nobody knew. As to why, nothing was mentioned about it at the time, but I noticed in my research that that month marked their 30th wedding anniversary. Perhaps, he was overwhelmed on that score.

Finally he was located at home on January twentieth, but that was too late as far as the producers were concerned. In the meantime, they had suspended him for three months and had pulled the plug on the film. There was much speculation in the press as to what would happen next. Many columnists were working their contacts within the studio, and brought back the report of the confusion reigning there. Louella Parsons wrote on the 25th that Fox was narrowing their options down to two; either get a new Chan, or promote Keye Luke, Chan’s number one son to take over the series altogether. By early February, Wurtzel came up with another option. He made a decision to salvage ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside’ by converting it into a Mr Moto film, another series produced under his aegis. New scenes would be shot with Peter Lorre’s character grafted into the story, which had him interacting with Chan’s number one son Keye Luke.

About the time the newly named ‘Mr Moto’s Gamble’ was shooting, Oland took off with his chauffeur and his nurse and created more problems in Arizona. Evidently, he had not told his companions his plans until they reached Tucson. A heated argument broke out with Milton Tharp, his chauffeur, when Oland wanted him to cross into Mexico and head for Guaymas (Oland owned a substantial ranch a little further down, on an island off Mazatlan). Tharp refused. For he knew that Oland was broke and had no access to any funds as all he had, had been placed in receivership by his wife’s lawyers. Instead Tharp drove them to the police station where the argument escalated and their resultant spat drew a crowd. Bristling about the curious onlookers, Oland tried to disperse them by hurling stuff at them – his thermos, lighted cigars, then his shoes and his socks – anything that came to hand. When photographers arrived, Oland got out and chased after them, bare foot and wrapped in an Indian blanket. Tharp was able to explain the situation to Police Chief Wollard, who detailed a former deputy sheriff to accompany the troop back to LA, where Oland was admitted to a private sanitarium in Hollywood.

Two weeks later, the United Press was reporting that Oland was on the way to recovery. The studio changed his three month suspension into three month vacation, and they were hoping he could return to the role in the fall.

  Just before the release of the Mr Moto ex-Chan film in April, Oland’s divorce became final, and soon after he left for Europe. He would travel to Italy, France and England before settling in to his native Sweden to complete his rest and recovery.

Sadly though – on August 6th, Oland contracted pneumonia (per press accounts) and died in a hospital in Stockholm. (Official cause of death was listed as cirrhosis hepatitis cardiosclerosis).

Recovering from their shock, 20th Century Fox was left scrambling again. The Chan films were too lucrative to drop, for they churned out a million plus per year. Time to get serious about a replacement to play Charlie Chan.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story next time, here on Watch This Space.

The Fatal RIng - Pearl White - Oland upper rt

Aside – Oland’s death was connected to that curiosity of celebrity deaths – those that occur in threesomes. Oland (in the upper right corner of the above photo) in an even stranger coincidence was related to the two celebs whose deaths proximated his. On August 4, just two days prior to his demise, Pearl White, the heroine of highly popular serials in the silent era, passed away in Paris. Oland played the heavy who was trying to kill her at every turn. (He remembers that one episode called for him to dispatch her with a pile driver). The other – director John G Blystone died the same day as Oland. He had been his director on ‘Charlie Chan’s Chance’ back in 1932.