The Year Was 1938 – May 30th

Director Frank Lloyd circa 1940
  • Director Frank Lloyd will work the holiday (Decoration Day, i.e.  Memorial Day) in the cutting room at Paramount, going through the footage from his latest film ‘If I Were King,’ just so his star Ronald Colman can get a shave tomorrow. He needs to be certain that no retakes will be necessary before his star lops off the whiskers that have been sprouting the past eight weeks for his portrayal of Francois Villon, the 15th century French poet. [Frank Lloyd only had this one film for 1938, and would have only one for 1939 – ‘Rulers of the Sea’].
  • Frank Factor, the 34 year old son of Max Factor, legally changed his name to Max Factor jr. He, like his father, is a Hollywood makeup artist. He lists his reasons for doing so – for the sake of their business of manufacturing makeup – and for the family connection, a sentimental reason. [His father would pass away in August of 1938. Max jr would supervise the wigs for ‘The Wizard of Oz’].
  • Producer Walter Wanger has bought the movie rights to the upcoming biography of James Farley, the former Postmaster General. It will be serialized in American Magazine this fall. [Entitled ‘Behind the Ballots.’ Nothing was done with it as far as I could ascertain. Many credit Farley with the election of FDR to the presidency, and as a reward for his help was appointed the Postmaster General. He also was made the head of the DNC and held the posts concurrently. Later with his position with Coca Cola he was responsible (with government help) for its proliferation around the world].
  • Officials at the Columbia Studio speak up to squelch rumors that Lionel Barrymore, then in an important role on ‘You Can’t Take It with You,’ is down with a fatal illness. They admit that the actor had been in for a hospital stay 6 weeks prior for a mild case of arthritis, but nothing since has deterred him from his performance. [More contemporary articles about the actor state that he was in so much pain on this film that hourly shots of painkillers were administered to help him play his character’s role on crutches. Having broken his hip twice and suffering from severe arthritis, from here on out he did not stand in his films].
  • In his column Ed Sullivan points out that he has screen credit for his story that Hal Roach picked up to produce – There Goes My Heart, with Fredric March and Virginia Bruce.
  • Mervyn LeRoy was reported to be planning a film with the Marx Brothers to be called ‘Three Ring Circus.’ [To be done next after ‘Room Service.’ This eventuated in their film ‘A Day at the Circus’ for MGM].

ITEM OF INTEREST

  • Columnist Sidney Skolsky points out the irony that forest scenes for movies are usually shot in Sherwood Forest near Hollywood, but WB’s ‘Robin Hood’ which takes place in Sherwood Forest, was shot at Ridwell Park in Chico, CA

ON THE MOVE

  • Darryl F Zanuck arrives in NY from LA. [Word was making the rounds that Zanuck was being insured by his company, 20th Century Fox for $10,000,000. Agent, producer and insurance broker Artie Stebbins was seeing to the deal. Stebbins was a nephew of Joseph Schenck]. Ed Sullivan adds that he took two cutters on the train with him, and cut (or edited) two pictures along the way.

The Year was 1938 – May 26th

John Wayne in 1939
  • John Wayne was born on this day in 1907, making him 31 years old in 1938. [He toiled all of 1938 at Republic on their Three Mesquiteers series. A big year ahead for him with ‘Stagecoach’ for Walter Wanger, with John Ford directing, opening in January of 1939. Then back to Republic and the ‘B’ westerns].
  • Actress Constance Bennett was sued by portrait artist Willy Pogany, who was trying to be paid for a painting he made of her. He wants $3500, and she countered that it was only worth $500, as it was not done to her satisfaction – the shoulders were too round, and the thigh too large, and the mouth had a curlicue that she did not like. [Bennett was currently doing well in the ‘Topper’ comedies, ahead she only had one film for 1939 – ‘Tail Spin’ with Alice Faye at 20th Century Fox].
  • MGM director W S Van Dyke departed for McCall Idaho today to scout locations for Northwest Passage. Col Tim McCoy will hire 1,000 Nez Perces for work in the film. [Van Dyke is only credited for the background shots for the film].
  • George Brent and Ronald Reagan are set for the top roles at WB for ‘Wings of the Navy.’ Leading lady yet to be set. [George Brent had his lead in the film, but Reagan did not. He was replaced by John Payne. And the leading lady role was taken by Olivia DeHavilland, in this opus for 1939].
  • Director Henry King left in his private plane today for a trip east – St Louis, Miami and New York. On his return he will stop over in Kansas City MO in order to scout locations for his next film for 20th Century Fox – ‘Jesse James.’
  • Columnist Sidney Skolsky goes on about the hefty sums paid for two plays to be made into films – $200,000 for the Kaufman/Hart play “You Can’t Take it with You,” then shooting at Columbia under Frank Capra’s guidance; and $250,000 paid by RKO for “Room Service.” Both had challenges in preparing them for the screen, but probably most problematic was Morrie Ryskind’s task in converting ‘Room Service’ into a Marx Brothers’ movie, instead of a movie of the play. [Ryskind had plenty of practice, having working for the boys on ‘The Coconuts,’  ‘Animal Crackers,’ and ‘A Night at the Opera’].

Ed Sullivan’s quote on the occasion of the premiere of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ at the Carthay Circle Theater – he calls it a smash hit – but then he hears the criticisms come out, and he adds – “…this Hollywood is a strange town, bounded on the north by Malice, on the south by Envy, on the east by Exhibitionism, and on the west by old Virginia ham.”

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 17th

Samuel Briskin
  • Sam Briskin, producer, left RKO last November, being recalled to Columbia to an exec prod post. Had been there between 1926-1934. [Briskin was the real talent behind the successes at Columbia in that earlier period. Cohn lost him over a dispute about the stock options in the company. Briskin could have gone anywhere in 1935 – Fox – MGM – Universal – and wound up at RKO. Cohn got him back at Columbia with a seven year contract and stock options. He was immediately involved in the dispute between the directors and the producers].
  • As part of their economy, Paramount announces they are trimming film budgets and film schedules (cutting 8 weeks to 6). No bidding against rival studios for novels or plays. Tightening in all departments. 
  • RKO now has a writing staff with 38 writers working on 22 scripts.
  • Tailors and seamstresses are busier than they have been for several years, because of a flock of historical films upcoming – for Paramount – 6 (includes ‘Zaza’ for 1939); for WB – 6 (includes ‘Juarez’ and ‘Dodge City’ for 1939); 20th Century Fox – 1; Metro – 1 (‘Northwest Passage’ for 1939). [20th Century Fox actually had many more – ‘Jesse James,’ ‘Young Mr. Lincoln,’ ‘Drums Along the Mohawk’; and the MGM title did not make it into release until 1940. MGM did have ‘Gone with the Wind,’ but not at this point in 1938].
  • Jerry Wald, writer at WB, is going to court to untangle the problem of three agencies claiming to represent him. They are – Zeppo Marx Inc, Myron Selznick & Co and Leland Hayward, Inc. [Wald had four screenplays made into films for 1939, including the gangster film ‘The Roaring Twenties’].
  • Deal in the making between David O Selznick and W C Fields. Selznick tried to borrow him from Paramount before, but was unsuccessful. Now that Fields left Paramount, it is possible that Fields will be in their film ‘Heartbreak Town,’ about the trials of Hollywood moppets. [Sounds like they were trying to capitalize on the Jackie Coogan situation. W C Fields ended up at Universal instead]. (See May 9th)
  • Cecil B DeMille settles with the IRS on a tax bill going back to his 1934 earnings.
  • Robert Pirosh and George Seaton called in to collaborate with Irving Brecher on the script for MGM’s ‘A Day at the Circus,’ the next Marx Bros movie. Brecher started it last week. [Pirosh and Seaton had worked together on Marx Bros films before, and ended with no credit on this one, their only film for 1939 was ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and even that was uncredited; Brecher did get the credit for ‘A Day at the Circus,’ but he also was uncredited for Oz].
  • Gene Autry to draw $10,000 per picture in his new pact. It had been $5000. When he was out due to  his feud with Republic, his side kick Smiley Burnett was assigned to work as Roy Rogers’s sidekick. (Roy was filling in for the missing Autry). [Now what to do about Burnett].
  • Buck Jones sues Republic to restrain the release of their serial ‘The Lone Ranger’ – for imitating those films in which he played a Texas Ranger. On top of that the name of horse was Silver also. [His only film for 1939 had him as a boxer, not a cowboy – ‘Unmarried,’ a remake of a 1932 film – both Paramount].

ON THE MOVE

  • Wesley Ruggles dueling with Paramount on a new contract (to produce and direct) before departing on a European vacation. [He got the contract and did ‘Invitation to Happiness’ for Paramount in 1939].

The Year Was 1938 – May 15th

Publicity shot from Room Service – The Marx Brothers
  • ‘Room Service’ with the Marx Brothers to begin shooting today at RKO under director William A Seiter. [The boys would return to MGM for ‘At the Circus’ released in 1939].
  • Director Herbert Leeds leaves for Callander, Ontario, Canada where he will direct a fictional story using the talents of the Dionne quintuplets for 20th Century Fox. Jean Hersholt went with him to play the doctor; also along was Lou Breslow, the writer; and Daniel B Clark, cameraman. Film — is entitled ‘Five of a Kind,’ and would be released in Oct 1938. [A documentary short from RKO in 1939 would cover the fifth birthday for the quints].
  • Frank Capra is elected president of the Screen Director’s Guild, replacing another director at the top, King Vidor who was then in London on assignment for Metro. Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take It with You’ was then in production at Columbia.

ITEM THAT PIQUED MY INTEREST

  • BIll Robinson to be the guest of honor of the Hollywood Vaudeville Frolics at the new Las Palmas Theater. [‘Bojangles’ the tap dancing wizard of vaudeville, Broadway, and film (Shirley Temple films, of course) had four films in 1938, but none in 1939. Instead he was on Broadway in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullvan operetta].
Ann Miller in 1938 – seen in both ‘You Can’t Take It WIth You’ and ‘Room Service’

Singing in the Rain in Seattle

Singing in the Rain in Seattle

I may have been beginning my junior year in college, but I was probably at the post graduate level for viewing films, all thanks to the Harvard Exit.

Around town the latest features were:

The French Connection – still racing down the suburban screens after opening the year before

The Godfather – packing them in at the 7th Avenue

Deliverance – floating down the river at the Music Box

Superfly – jiving at the Town

Ground Star Conspiracy – at my dad’s theater the Renton Village Cinema (bet you’ve never seen nor even heard about that one)

And as I mentioned last time, I was tearing tickets at the Cinerama for Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.”

My girl friend and I did see five of the six listed above, but we were more interested in films of an older vintage. Films that were in good supply at Seattle’s premier revival house, all (or almost all) in glorious black and white.

It was at this time that we caught up with the film that beat out not only The Maltese Falcon but also Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar for 1942. That film was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. I must say that I think Kane was robbed, but I also can see why Valley won. Both had stunning cinematography and magnificent ensemble casts. (And yes, I do love Ford’s films very much). Obviously in the mind of the voters, one just razzled while the other dazzled.

We took in a comedy double bill of Duck Soup and Horsefeathers, following the serious drama of Valley. Cinematography was not the distinctive for the Marx Brothers films. The sparkle came from the antics and patter of the madcap quartet. It was a good portent, for now I was anticipating catching the brothers (pared down to a trio) in A Night at the Opera. I say that I was anticipating it, not so much Karen, whose taste in comedy runs along different lines. Hurrah for Rufus T. Firefly.

In the comedy line, we both enjoyed Buster Keaton in The General which popped up on the Exit’s schedule a few weeks later. This had been on my Must See list ever since reading about it in Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By. And it did not disappoint. One marvels at Keaton’s comic genius, a genius which can engineer comedy gold out of large inanimate objects. Every time we pass by Cottage Grove down in Oregon, I long to get off and go in search of the places where Keaton filmed what many consider his masterpiece. It was the only place in the US at the time that had the right track gauge for the trains he wanted to use.

And now, for the whole reason for this post. (It seems I have veered, -I swear it was unplanned – into the comedy genre). What I want to blog about is the best comedy film of all time, and the best musical film of all time. They are one and the same. And I will define it even further – Singing in the Rain is the most perfect movie made under the Hollywood studio system.

I can state truthfully that neither of us knew what we were in for when we took our seats at the Harvard Exit that night. Right from the opening credits through which Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor sing and dance the title tune, all the way to the HAPPY ending, we were treated to a rollicking good time. It was exhilirating, and dare I say intoxicating, in the best sense –  a joy and a delight to see Kelly dance (not only in his famous solo reprise of the title tune, but throughout), and jaw-dropping wonder at O’Connor’s solo turn that made us laugh. And sweet, winsome Debbie Reynolds won our hearts completely.

And the contrast with the black and white films we had seen could not have been greater. The colors popped off the screen. I could say that the colors “sang and danced” too. All the elements came together – cast, crew, sets, costumes, writing, songs, choreography to make a sweet cinema confection.

We were not alone. Leo the Lion roared at the beginning and the audience roared its approval at the end.

Note – we recently saw the new release The Intern, a film directed by Nancy Meyers and starring Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway. We were delighted that a clip from Singing in the Rain was used to effect as the title character is remembering a time when he and his now departed wife had watched it together. It was a poignant moment. (And it was all my wife could do, not to burst out into song along with it).

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).