The Year Was 1938 – May 18th

Zanuck’s strategy for 20th Century Fox
  • Darryl F Zanuck expounds on the biz – some are saying that negative costs must come down to meet a lesser box office take, but he points out that quality films never are made with short budgets. And that is why they are spending more on their films than ever before. He agrees with exhibitors when they say that double billing is a mistake. Little pictures are a good training ground for up and coming actors. He would rather go with his solution – cast the younger players in big pictures (and cites the example of Tyrone Power in ‘Lloyd’s of London’). He intends to gamble on Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Richard Greene and Arlene Whelan. He goes on to give credit to their writers – touting originals, written in “the technique of pictures.” The future of films counts on writers.
  • Twentieth Century Fox cut the vacation allotment for Tyrone Power down to 10 days this summer in order to ease his schedule once ‘Jesse James’ starts shooting.
  • Scat singer, Johnnie Davis is the latest added to the cast of ‘Brother Rat,’ being made for WB. Eddie Albert who had the lead in the NY play takes the lead here too. The leading lady is yet to be selected, between Priscilla Lane and Olivia DeHavilland. Camera crews are now at work shooting exteriors in Virginia at VMI, the film’s setting. [The decision was for Priscilla Lane (or did Olivia say no?). Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were also added to the cast. Johnnie Davis appeared in four films in 1939, 2 features and 2 shorts].
  • Carole Lombard is building a home for her mom in Brentwood.
  • Edward Small rests at home under a doctor’s care. [The powerhouse independent producer had ‘The Duke of West Point’ for this year, and two for 1939, one of which was ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’].
  • Leon Schlesinger is welcomed by an office party after a long hospital seige. [I can only imagine what that would have been like. Schelsinger was head of the animation unit at WB, so the likes of Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, and voice talent Mel Blanc would have been on hand].
  • Gene Autry starts work back at Republic today after nearly a half year absence.
  • According to Ed Sullivan, “most wigs for the movies are made from human hair from the Balkan and Scandinavian countries.”

SOME SIDE NOTES

  • Howard Hughes planning an around the world flight to promote the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. He will bear invitations to the European nations.
  • According to a reporter taking in the shooting of the latest Sonja Henie film at 20th Century Fox, she had to be provided with special socks, costing $35 a pair. Even then she puts runs in them when strained by the leaps she does, running through five pairs a day. The makeup department in preparing her for the day, sprays a glue in her hair to keep her tresses from flying every which way.

ON THE MOVE

  • Hal B Wallis, associate in charge of production at WB, in NY today for business & pleasure, to look over the current stage plays. [Given his position at the company his name is on linked to 47 film for 1939 – 16 credited (including The Old Maid, in which his wife, Louise Fazenda, played a maid), and 31 uncredited].
  • Departing for London from NY on the Normandie – Danielle Darrieux with her husband Henri de Coin, writer-director (though she would like to stay in US, she needed to return to France for her mandatory one film per year, according to French regulations), Brian Aherne, David Niven, Diana Barrymore
  • NY to LA – Billy Halop, Fredric March, Luise Rainer.
  • Arrivals in LA – Olivia DeHavilland, Mr & Mrs Paul Lukas, Lily Pons, Claudette Colbert, John Hay Whitney.

The Year Was 1938 – May 12th

  • Exhibitors who recently complained about producers paying huge salaries to stars who are Box Office poison, are now complaining about double bills as the root of all evil in the film industry.
  • Strained relations between the producers and directors continues. Frank Capra accuses Zanuck of trying to split the Directors’ Guild and that Zanuck and the pesident of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Joseph Schenck, have acted for the producers without authority. [I’m not sure how Capra could make that last statement, given that Schenck was the president of the producer organization. Unless perhaps by inference he was trying to divide the two from the other producers, by making it known what they were doing or not doing in the negotiations]. (See May 9th).
  • Stan Laurel as producer releases his western feature ‘Songs and Bullets,’ – director Sam Newfield with Fred Scott, Al St John, and Alice Ardell. Variety pans it. [Laurel has another film (Swiss Miss) with his partner Oliver Hardy coming out this month from Hal Roach. Laurel’s foray into production petered out after his 1939 offering ‘Two Gun Troubador,’ another western with Fred Scott. For the most part here on out, he stays in front of the camera].
  • Shirley Temple is appointed sponsor of National Airmail Week. She is visited on the set of ‘Little Miss Broadway’ for the presentation by acting Postmistress of Los Angeles, Mary D Briggs.
  • Nancy Kelly, a 17 year old actress, is just in from New York and her role in the play ‘Susan and God.’ Feeling very much the new face and lonely her first day on the 20th Century Fox lot, she spotted two actors that she had worked with as a child in films made in New York – Warner Baxter and Jean Hersholt – and felt more at home. [Fox had three films for her in 1939 – Jesse James, Tail Spin, and Stanley and Livingstone].
  • In an article about Clark Gable, it is noted that his girl friend Carole Lombard has a nickname for him – “Moose.” [Once married they began calling each other ‘Pa’ or ‘Ma’].

The Year Was 1938 – May 11th

Kate Hepburn
  • Katherine Hepburn refuses to play in ’Mother Carey’s Chickens’ at RKO. She entered into negotiations to cancel out of her contract (she’d been with them since 1932); they dropped the balance of her commitment to them (six months) and the two films she owed them. The cost to her was the $200,000 in salary she would have gotten for those films (plus an additional $75,000 that she personally coughed up). [Fay Bainter, Anne Shirley and Ruby Keeler anchor the film instead – a family comedy based on a novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the writer of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm].
  • Columbia began a billboard campaign all around Los Angeles – “Is it true what they say about Katherine Hepburn?” This was in reference to the complaint theater owners were making to the film producers – that Hepburn was Box Office poison. And was a backhanded way to produce curiosity in their new release of “Holiday” with Hepburn and Cary Grant. [Holiday was not a financial success, and Hepburn retreated to New York and the stage where she landed a success with The Philadelphia Story, and later brought it to Hollywood].
  • Darryl Zanuck came up with an original idea (perhaps in response to the above). For his forthcoming production of The Rains Came (based on the novel by Louis Bromfield). Aside from his main choice for the lead (Ronald Colman), he offered the opportunity for the exhibitors to send in their choices of actors to play the other characters from the best-selling novel. [By the time it went into production Colman was out and George Brent was in for this 1939 film].
  • United Artists has 24 features planned for the 1938-39 season. Hal Roach, currently producing for MGM, is looking to join the UA studio and contribute nine films in the next three years. [Actually his poor choice of partnering in a business with Mussolini in Italy, and Mussolini’s subsequent decision to join in with Hitler and his ant-semitism, led to the decision of those at the top in MGM to cancel Roach’s contract. Roach was just switching from short films, such as The Our Gang series (which he sold to MGM) to feature films and hit a gold mine with Topper (1937). Roach had some big films coming in 1939 – Captain Fury, A Chump at Oxford, and the prestigious ‘Of Mice and Men’].

ITEMS THAT PIQUED MY INTEREST

  • Story out of Hartford CT – where Snow White had opened – patrons complained afterwards to be victims of pickpockets. The investigating detectives reported that grifters were now following hit shows from town to town, like they used to follow the carnival. 
  • Laurence Olivier now being talked about for the part of Lawrence of Arabia, replacing Robert Donat who was originally to be the lead. [See May 6th]
  • Plagiarism damages for “Letty Lynton” may cost MGM one million dollars.  [This was a film made by MGM in 1932, starring Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery. It was pulled from release in 1936, when they lost a suit brought by the authors of the play Dishonored Lady, who claimed that MGM had used it without their permission. Except for ‘bootleg’ copies the film is still not available].

ON THE MOVE

  • Claudette Colbert sailing on the Normandie from London to New York. [Zaza, Midnight, Drums Along the Mohawk in her future for 1939].
  • David Niven and Brian Aherne sailing on the Queen Mary from New York to London.
  • Donald Crisp yacht vacationing.
  • Walter Pidgeon on a motor trip to New Brunswick.
  • Dalton Trumbo writing weekends on his new ranch at Lebec. [Six films will be made from his scripts in 1939].
  • Cecil B DeMille back at Paramount after an operation. [And at work on his film for 1939 – Union Pacific].
  • Clark Gable, John Boles and Lanny Ross on a 110-mile horseback ride. [A big year ahead for Gable; not so for Boles; and Ross’s voice was used for the lead in the Fleischer animated film ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ for 1939].
  • Olivia DeHavilland vacationing in Europe. [She would return bouyed with the news of a major success in WB’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. And  she would be in good position to go after a major role in Selznick’s production of ‘Gone with the Wind’ – not the Scarlett part that every actress in Hollywood was vying for, but the Melanie Hamilton part].

The Year Was 1938 – May 9th

  • Comedienne Joan Davis was taken to the hospital after a fall when doing a knockabout dance number with Buddy Ebsen in “My Lucky Star” at 20th Century Fox. At the top of the bill was Sonja Henie and Richard Greene. [Don’t worry Joan made it back to complete this film and was around for “Tail Spin “with Alice Faye in 1939].
  • By mutual agreement W. C. Fields and Paramount have called off making “Mr Bumpus Goes to Town.” Fields had been writing the script, but the studio was unhappy over story content. [The film was never made, under that title at least. He and Paramount also parted ways and the comedian ended up at Universal for the 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”].
  • According to Ed Sullivan – Clark Gable and Carole Lombard claim they will be married by the end of the year. [But first Clark needs to obtain a divorce from his second wife. He and Lombard would marry in 1939].
  • Also according to Ed Sullivan – Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures was casting about for actors to play in a film based on the play by Clifford Odets. He had acquired Odets’ “The Golden Boy,” a drama about boxing. He wanted Tyrone Power, but he was not available. Instead he decided to look for an unknown to act opposite Jean Arthur. [The unknown would be William Holden in his first starring role. Barbara Stanwyck took the place of Arthur in this 1939 film].
  • Actress Billie Seward, asks in court for a divorce from her husband William R Wilkerson, testifying that he was always sullen and morose and told her that he did not love her. In the two years they were together he was so immersed in his businesses that he was never home. [Two of his enterprises were the trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter and the cafe the Trocadero (see May 7 1938), which he had just sold. I guess she had not heard. She wound up back in front of the camera in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island for 1939].
  • Zanuck writes Frank Capra a letter chastising him for airing their controversies publicly and reiterates the position of the producers – separate negotiations with the three branches within the Directors Guild – directors, assistant directors and unit managers.

The Year was 1938 – May 8th

Alice Faye in the film “In Old Chicago

Singer and actress Alice Faye turned 23 today, and though a singer, could not read a note of music. (The greats of that time – Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter held her talent in high esteem). At fourteen, she ran off to try out as a chorus girl, but was turned away as too young. She eventually got on as a dancer, and through a fluke her singing came to the attention of Rudy Vallee, and wound up on the radio. Through her connection to him she landed at Fox and continued there through the Zanuck regime. She married another singer and actor, Tony Martin, in 1937. They eloped to Yuma Arizona so it was a small wedding. But they made up for it in the film Sally, Irene and Mary, (which opened in March 1938), when their characters wed on screen. Her brother Bill Faye (who took her stage name too) acted as her business manager, before then he was an investment banker in NY. Her triumphs in two other 1938 films – “In Old Chicago” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made her Queen of the Fox lot. Ahead in 1939, she would appear in Tail Spin, Rose of Washington Square, Hollywood Cavalcade, and Barricade.

The Year Was 1938 – May 7th

  • John Ford returns from Hawaii after a five weeks there, and meets with Zanuck about his next film for 20th Century Fox. An action film about midget subs in the last war. Two million for production has been set aside for it. But it is put off ’til August when Ford will return from vacation. [‘Pappy’ Ford sure goes on a lot of vacations].
  • Greta Garbo on vacation in her native Sweden is down with a cold at her estate in Haarby. Her companion on her European tour the conductor Leopold Stokowski, may conduct a concert in Stockholm.
  • Reports are in that Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has grossed $3,000,000 by this date.
Adriana Caselotti – the Voice of Snow White
  • Rumors are making the rounds about what is happening in the studios. Fears are rampant that things will be shaken up in the executive offices with new people to be brought in. Selznick who is always dickering with distributors could consider merging with RKO instead. Selznick currently leases the RKO lot in Culver City, and if Paramount were to move to a bigger lot that is not hemmed in like their Hollywood location, RKO – which makes up a tiny corner of the Paramount Studio there, could just expand in place.
  • The parents of child actor Bobby Breen have placed his earnings (so far $100,000) in a bank to be held in trust for him. [This has been in response to legislation that is being talked about since revelations about other child actors – Jackie Coogan, in particular, who have been deprived of the bulk of their earnings].
  • The Association of Motion Picture Producers is at loggerheads with the Directors’ Guild. Producers don’t think that assistant directors and unit managers should be in the same union as directors. Negotiating on behalf of the directors – Frank Capra and fellow director A Edward Sutherland. On the other side are AMPP president Joseph Schenck and Daryl Zanuck (both part of 20th Century Fox).
  • It was announced today that Nola Hahn, owner of night clubs around the Los Angeles area has bought the Trocadero from Hollywood Reporter owner William R Wilkerson. [The buy was bad timing for Hahn as the corrupt mayor Frank Shaw was recalled in September and reformer Judge Fletcher Bowron put in – Bowron sent the clean cops in to root out the vice. So, the gamblers and gangsters turned to Vegas as the place to set up shop. Thus, Hahn was one of the founding fathers of Las Vegas].
  • Currently at an art gallery on Hollywood Blvd are works of art by amateur artists from the films – Jean Hersholt, Anthony Quinn, and child actor Jane Withers.
Pretty fine for the “Tomboy Rascal.”

The Mighty B’s – Charlie Chan – Changing of the Guard Pt 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 2

The Oakland Tribune [12/11/38] put it succinctly in their headline for their story about the replacement for Warner Oland:

Missouri Man Follows Swede in Chan Role

The article ran two months after the decision that Sidney Toler would be the new Charlie Chan. Having pointed out the disparity of their origins, their story went on to compare the two actors and introduce to their readers (or recall to their memory) just who the new Chan was.

The successful candidate – Sidney Toler – had many similarities to Oland. Both men were tall [6 foot] and heavyset. Both came from the stage, Oland’s first stage appearance in the early 1900s was in a Sarah Bernhardt production. He put a total of fourteen years in on the boards, and along with his wife translated the works of August Strindberg. Toler, being older by five years, started in the theater right out of college in 1892 (the same year a thirteen year old Oland emigrated from Sweden with his family), and wrote many plays as well.

Oland, however, was first off the mark when it came to film roles – he appeared with Theda Bara in Jewels of Madonna in 1909 for William Fox. Toler did not appear before the camera until 20 years later – in Madame X, (under the direction of fellow actor Lionel Barrymore).

And both Toler and Oland had played villains, and both had played Orientals.

When Oland died, he left behind some pretty big shoes. No one else in film history to that date had appeared in such a long lived series of feature films portraying the same character. His fans were legion. And the exhibitors were keen for a Chan to light up their screens and box office coffers.

And it had seemed it would come to pass.

Fox had announced a starting date (first week in August 1938) for the next production – Charlie Chan in Honolulu, but they weren’t getting any responses from Oland to their summons for his sooner return. They did not know that he was on his death bed. The exhibitors mourned at the news of his passing, and the week after rejoiced to hear that a search was underway for a new Chan, and already rumors were circulating that a contract player on the Fox lot, J Edward Bromberg, held the inside track.

However, screen tests for the part were still ongoing in October with Charles Coburn and Sidney Toler the most recent candidates. The field topped out at 35 before the final decision was made (Oland had been the chosen one from a field of 19). Fox must have been getting nervous about going forward, for they hedged their bets by canvassing the exhibitors as to their continued support for the series, arguing that they did have the Mr Moto series to fall back on. Their poll must have been reassuring.

So far 1938 was a busy year for Toler. He split himself between two studios and five projects in supporting roles.  Though his main studio had been principally Paramount, he appeared in two of Fox’s B unit films – ‘The Wild Night’ and ‘Up the River,’ both comedies about criminals. After Toler was tapped for the Chan part on October 18, the film columnists posited afterwards that Toler had angled to become Chan.  Toler confirmed it in a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 1939 (before his third Chan film was released). He confessed that he won the part on the strength of his “performance as a con man in Up the River.” And then columnist Robbin Coons got more specific – in essence Toler played the part of the con man as if he were Chan (just without the accent) by making the case to the director beforehand that his character should be “quiet, subtle and restrained.”And it was reported that the rushes from Up the River and Toler’s character in particular wowed Sol Wurtzel. Such was his contribution and because of how well the film came together that Darryl Zanuck (Wurtzel’s boss) bumped Up the River to an ‘A’ picture status. Toler was rewarded with a screen test for the Chan part and walked away with the role.

The advance reviews for ‘Charlie Chan in Honolulu’ confirmed their choice.

The Variety review 12/21/38

“Adventures of Charlie Chan get off to a fresh start with Sidney Toler handling the title role in most capable fashion. His Chan has poise and lightness, and is less theatric than previously. Followers of the series should quickly accept him as Chan, and if comparisons with the late Warner Oland’s conception are made they will generally be in his favor.”

The Film Bulletin review (an Exhibitor publication) 12/31/38

“a lighter, more affable and less formal Charlie Chan. .. reviewer found himself more concerned with the story than comparisons between Oland and Toler.”

And gave the following promo tip: “Call him the greatest character in mystery fiction – a character that will never die!”

And soon like Oland, Toler was receiving adulatory fan mail – by the bucket loads – addressed merely to his character’s name – Charlie Chan. It led Toler to muse about his getting the role in the first place. In that article from the Philadelphia Inquirer he remarked that before Chan he was a ‘triple threat actor’ – comedian, villain or any other role. (He must have been feeling what George Reeves felt later after playing the Superman role on TV, and was no longer offered other parts). For Toler ends his comments, in a comic fashion, but with the sting of truth, relating a dream “in which he was playing Shylock in Merchant of Venice, when someone in the audience jumped to his feet and yelled – ‘You can’t fool me – That’s Charlie Chan.’”

Stayed tuned for a rundown on the four Chan films released in 1939 starring Sidney Toler.