The Year Was 1938 – June 2nd

Mervyn LeRoy
  • George Ungurian has brought a suit against film producer Mervyn LeRoy, his former employer. (George had been his butler). He is seeking $125,000 for false imprisonment, naming LeRoy and WB studio police chief, Blayney Matthews as those responsible. [Born in Romania, this former butler had been let go, and was finding it hard to obtain employment because he had been branded as a radical. Sneaking onto the WB lot he was stopped from confronting LeRoy and held captive for a time. At the time LeRoy was preparing for a couple of changes. He switches studios from WB to MGM, and leaves behind directing to produce. There he has one film for 1938, then for 1939 – ‘Stand Up and Fight,’ ‘At the Circus’ – and the huge production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’].
  • WB plans a world premiere in Columbia City, Indiana for their new film ‘White Banners.’ The director Edmund Goulding and stars Claude Rains, Fay Bainter, and Jackie Cooper will be in attendance. The town was chosen because it is the home town of the author of the book upon which the film is based – Lloyd Douglas. Douglas, a former minister, first gained fame with his novel, The Magnificent Obsession. [Goulding will go on to direct ‘Dark Victory’ in 1939].
  • Universal has signed Jackie Cooper to a three picture contract. First will be the next Deanna Durbin picture, ’That Certain Age.’ [Cooper would star in subsequent vehicles at Universal, but did not have the same impact as Durbin’s films through 1939].
  • Joan Fontaine and Chester Morris to take the starring roles of RKO’s The Clean-Up. Lew Landers to direct. [The film was released as ‘Smashing the Rackets’, (based on articles about Thomas Dewey cleaning up NYC), and though it did have Chester Morris, he played opposite Frances Mercer instead of Joan Fontaine – the two – Morris and Fontaine were in a previous film together ’Sky Giant,’ so perhaps there was some confusion on the reporter’s part. Fontaine’s talents were most likely tied up in ‘The Duke of West Point’ to finish 1938 and the mighty ‘Gunga Din’ to kick off 1939].
  • A bunch of old timers have been rounded up to appear in a jail sequence for ‘You Can’t Take it with You’ at Columbia. They are: Pert Kelton, from vaudeville and Broadway and sporadic films; Jim Thorpe, the Indian Olympic champ of 25 years ago; Jimmy Morton, of vaudeville fame; Kit Guard, famous for musicals; and Earl Askam, a singer. [Kelton, Guard and Askam do have listings for this film, but Thorpe and Morton have none].
  • For his performance so far in ‘Having Wonderful Time,’ RKO has signed Lee Bowman to a long term contract. [Bowman appeared in three more films for 1938 and eight for 1939, including ‘Love Affair’).
  • At Columbia, Harry Cohn wants to put to rest any rumors that an of his execs will lose their positions with the return of Sam Briskin to the company.  (See May 17th).
  • Ed Sullivan talked with cameraman Bill Daniels, the only one that Greta Garbo would permit to film her. According to Daniels, she has a certain quality that she projects on the screen – “She has the wisdom of a very old lady, and with it a remarkable tolerance. She is completely unlike the impression of her that’s been broadcast. It is her wisdom and tolerance that give her a certain spiritual glow. The camera picks that up.” [Away from the camera lens since 1937, she returns in 1939 in MGM’s ‘Ninotchka.’ With the tagline – “Garbo Laughs.”

ITEM OF INTEREST

  • A filler bit. The fan mail of Anthony Quinn has grown exponentially since his appearence in DeMille’s ‘The Plainsman’ from 1936. [DeMille used him again in 1938 for ‘The Buccaneer,’ and again in 1939’s ‘Union Pacific.’

The Year Was 1938 – May 22nd

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights
  • Laurence Olivier turned 31 today. He was hard at work on the stage in England. He had made a couple of films in Hollywood, beginning at RKO in 1931, and again in 1933 for ‘Queen Christina’ opposite Greta Garbo. On that film he was replaced after two weeks when he was judged unsuitable for the role. Now, Sam Goldwyn was about to tempt him away from the stage and England with the promise of $50,000 and the role of Heathcliff in his production of ‘Wuthering Heights.’ One of the big films of 1939.
  • MGM had the Marx Brothers and 20th Century Fox the Ritz Brothers. Harry Ritz, one third of the Ritz Brothers comedy act, also turned 31 today – just two days after the release of their film ‘Kentucky Moonshine’ from 20th Century Fox. He would be in front of the cameras soon in a Damon Runyon story ‘Straight, Place, and Show.’ The year 1939 would be up and down for them – on a high, comedy relief in the Don Ameche version of  ‘The Three Musketeers’ – and a low in ‘The Gorilla’ with Bela Lugosi. [Peter Lorre refused to play the Lugosi part; and the Ritz Brothers objected also but could not refuse to play without facing a law suit].
  • Also sharing a birthday with these two was Alla Navimova (see May 19th), who was born in Yalta (Crimea, then a part of the Russian Empire). She was just turning 59. The year 1938 found her back in LA after an illness cut short her return to the stage in NY. She took up residence in Villa 24 at The Garden of Allah. Ironically she had owned this former property once called Hayvenhurst. After she acquired it in 1919 with the profits from her successful silent film career, she named it after herself, calling it the Garden of Alla. When hard times came along she built 25 villas on its 2.5 acre plot and ran it as a hotel beginning in 1927. Over the years there were many famous celebrities that called it home – F Scott Fitzgerald, Greta Garbo, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, to name a few.

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.”

Before the Wind Came

before-the-wind-came

In writing my most recent Memories post (The SoCal Trip 1975), I was curious about one of the sites we visited on that particular vacation, so I did a little research.

The site was (and is) the Selznick Studio, which is wedged away in a small enclave in Culver City, California. (It still does business but now under the name of the Culver Studios). Formed in 1919 when Thomas Ince broke away from Triangle Pictures (whose other two partners of the troika were D. W. Griffith and Hal Roach), it has changed hands a number of times over the years. After the mysterious death of Mr. Ince in 1924, Cecil B. DeMille moved into the lot. He merged the concern with the Pathe company in 1926, which in turn was acquired by RKO in 1932. Selznick leased the lot from RKO in 1936.

[Check out this history, that chronicles some of the films (and TV shows) done on the lot. Of particular note were the old sets on the lot (i.e. ones for King Kong, etc.) that were torched for the burning of Atlanta sequence for GWTW.]

When doing some research for another project, I came across this brief article in Variety for October 30, 1935 p 7.

Shearer-Garbo in with Selznick-Whitney Prods.

Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo are among those who are reported tied in financially with the new Dave Selznick producing firm in which Jock Whitney is also concerned.

I realized this article heralded the genesis of Selznick’s involvement at the Culver Studio (then RKO). Shearer and Garbo disappear from any connection to Selznick, in so far as any corporate involvement is concerned. He had been pursuing Garbo prior to this for the role that finally went to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” when the rights were sold to WB. Instead Garbo chose to do “Anna Karenina” as one of Selznick’s last projects as a producer in the employ of MGM. Garbo was close to Shearer and her husband Irving Thalberg, so this conjunction of their names is not unusual. The untimely death of Thalberg the following year and the subsequent turmoil may explain their absence from the concern going forward.

This article also set me off on another “rabbit trail,” in so far GWTW was involved.

The name in the last phrase, Jock Whitney, was completely new to me, and it proved fascinating to learn more about him.

Whitney was the young well-to-do scion of an East Coast family (who inherited 20 million from his father after 1927, and 80 million from his mother after 1944). His full name – John Hay Whitney gave the first clue to his family history. To anyone who has read about Abraham Lincoln, John Hay is a familiar name. He was one of Lincoln’s secretaries during his time in office. Later he was appointed ambassador to London, and later still served as Secretary of State under both McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. And Jock Whitney is his grandson and namesake. His other grandfather, served as Naval Secretary under Cleveland.

  Whitney graduated from Yale, and was a member of the Scroll & Key secret society while there, (his father also was an alumnus, but a member of the Skull & Crossbones secret society). He started as a clerk in a banking house. But once he came into money, he invested in personal interests. He was a major “angel” for Broadway productions during the 1930s. – “Here Goes the Bride,” “Life with Father,” and “Jumbo.” From there it was short hop to film.

He had been brought into the film business by Merian C. (“King Kong”) Cooper, then a producer and head of production at RKO. By 1933, Jock founded his own production company, Pioneer Films.  And around the same time he acquired a 15% interest in Technicolor. He used the process in making a musical short “La Cucaracha,” and later the first technicolor (three strip process) feature “Becky Sharp.” Pioneer was merged with Selznick Int’l Pictures in 1936, and Whitney ended up as chairman of the board of the new company.

Together on the Culver lot they were responsible for such films as “A Star is Born,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Rebecca,” and “Gone with the Wind.” In fact, it was through Whitney’s direct investment that Selznick acquired the rights to the Margaret Mitchell novel, which laid the foundation for what would be Selznick’s “signature” film.

In the Yale yearbook for 1926, in its write up about Whitney it noted that his future plans looked to an occupation in either the field of literature or diplomacy. Actually he “checked off both boxes.” The thirties and forties mark his time of involvement with literature as literary projects were translated to the stage and to the screen (in the 1940 census he lists himself as an executive in the Motion Picture Industry). He was an Eisenhower supporter in the fifties, and was consequently appointed the US ambassador to London, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather.

They Call It Screwball

They Call it Screwball

No. I’m not writing about the baseball pitch that behaves in an opposite manner to the curve ball.

I am referring to the meaning of the word when it is applied to a slightly (or totally) off-kilter personality. When it comes to film, the word is usually shackled hand and foot to another word – “comedy.” In this genre, these aforementioned personalities are thrown together into situations that range from the absurd to the downright silly.

And they’re a lot of fun.

My wife and I received our indoctrination into the form in Seattle in 1974. A little storefront theater had sprouted out of “nowhere” down in the Pioneer district. The young couple (the Curtises) who gave it “birth,” christened it – The Rosebud Movie Palace. It was all of 88 seats, to which you gained access by running the maze of plywood walls thrown up to enclose the auditorium area. To my notion it was a throwback to the old Nickelodeon era.

[Research aside – The whole film industry in these United States owes its existence to similar tiny beginnings. In New York City of, say, 1904 – these establishments in the statutes of the city were known as “common shows.” This term described theaters of under 299 seats, and were not subject to the fire code of the larger legit theaters. And because the admission was five cents, they gained the moniker Nickelodeon.]

I first ran across the Rosebud theater when perusing movie ads in the newspaper. A film title caught my eye – “The Philadelphia Story.” It was a film we had heard about, but never seen. So we paid them a visit on my day off from the Fifth Avenue Theater (a bus man’s holiday). And we were delighted to watch the trials and tribulations of the three main characters played by Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Want to know anything more? I don’t do spoilers. Catch it for yourself.

We kept a weather eye out for other titles in the genre and soon tracked down the likes of:

It Happened One Night

Bringing Up Baby

You Can’t Take It with You – (my personal favorite)

His Girl Friday

Will you look at that  – Capra – Hawks – Capra – Hawks. I am aware that other directors toiled in the genre, but those two are easily the best. But I am thankful to Cukor, as the director of The Philadelphia Story, the “gateway drug,” as it were, to this rather mild addiction.

I come to the end of this post and hesitate to mention that we also saw films of other genres at the Rosebud. Like “Fury” the Fritz Lang thriller with Spencer Tracy; and “Queen Christina” the historical drama with the enigmatic and beautiful Greta Garbo.

But look I’ve gone and done it anyway. I didn’t hesitate at all.

Just call me “screwball.”

1928 San Francisco Stage Screen and Radio

San Francisco 1928

1928 San Francisco Stage Screen and Radio

Sometimes when you research you come up with more than you were looking for; some little fact that is odd or interesting and usually completely off topic.

Recently I was trying to find out what film titles were gracing the marquees of the movie theaters in 1928 San Francisco. I found a San Francisco publication that covered the weekly cultural events in the city. A treasure trove.

Garbo, Jolson, and Barrymore (Lionel) were some of the big names on the marquees in that time period. Jolson was in the Jazz Singer, of course. Vitaphone is listed prominently for it, so you knew it was a sound picture (the first as you may know). Gloria Swanson was in Sadie Thompson (try saying that three times fast, and try not to say that Sadie Thompson was in Gloria Swanson). And Rin Tin Tin was starring in the film “Dog of the Regiment,” and also making a personal appearance with his trainer Lee Duncan.

And speaking of personal appearances I was blown away to see that Fanny Brice was performing on stage in San Francisco that year. (Barbra Streisand portrayed the entertainer twice, once in Funny Girl [1968] and the other time in Funny Lady [1975]). And I was amused to see that the Marx Brothers were on the boards, cutting up in their play Cocoanuts.

But there I’ve went and gone off-off topic.

What I wanted to get around to was this, the publication included schedules for the radio stations broadcasting in the area. So I have a list of these stations and their call letters [KFRC, KPO, KFWI, and KJBS] should I need them for my writing project. But what was really surprising were the two radio stations that were completely out of the area, yet received in San Francisco.

They were KJR in Seattle, Washington, and KGW in Portland, Oregon. I knew KJR as a Top 40 station from my high school and college days. Back in 1928 it carried dance orchestras and concert music. I am familiar with the KGW call letters as I live near Portland. Its call letters have disappeared from the radio scene, having morphed into KPOJ (operating now as a sports radio station, a fate that KJR has also suffered).

I am wondering if the denizens of 1928 San Francisco tuned in to KGW Portland to catch Mel Blanc on air in those days before Warner Brothers snatched him up to do voices for their Looney Tunes (Bugs, Daffy, et al).