Benny the Smuggler #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Benny the Smuggler

I came across a surprising little bit in Variety dated 1/10/1939. The radio comedian/violinist Jack Benny made a court appearance in New York to answer to a charge of smuggling.

Based on the strength of his popularity over the air waves he had returned to the silver screen with a contract at Paramount (an initial contract with MGM in the late 1920s, was cancelled due to low grosses on his films for them). So, for a decade now he and his wife Sadie Marks (aka Mary Livingstone) were living in LA. These charges forced him to make repeated trips across the nation to tend to this matter. And in January 1939, as the case came to a close, he had to to leave off production on his then current Paramount film – “Man About Town.”

The article goes on to list his lawyer and his agent who were advising him. The best advice, however, came from his New York lawyer – another surprise – a man by the name of Colonel Bill Donovan.

This was a name I immediately recognized – the future founder of the OSS (the precursor of the CIA).

Of course, this immediately raised all sorts of speculation, indeed plots for screenplays percolated in my brain, involving a reluctant performer doing the bidding of a spymaster in a bumbling manner behind the lines in Fortress Europe in the coming world war.  (Not quite the plot for “To Be or Not to Be,” but what if?)

Further research revealed a more mundane course of events. Mr. Benny had been preyed upon by a conman on a trip to France where he bought over $2000 worth of jewels for his wife. The gentleman falsely claimed to hold diplomatic immunity when he offered to carry Benny’s valuables through customs, thereby avoiding duty taxes. In this the comedian foolishly acquiesced (as the judge duly noted when he passed sentence on him – a suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine).

Donovan, in his capacity as Benny’s legal advisor had wisely counseled him to plead no contest, and to take an apologetic stance before the bench. To do otherwise Wild Bill thought would threaten any good will his audience felt towards him.

His film ‘Man About Town’ premiered in Benny’s hometown of Waukegan IL on June 25th, with general release in early July 1939.

Other than this post I don’t plan to cover it any further in this series. It did smash summer business, which in itself was a minor miracle for Paramount, but it has not stood the test of time. As its contemporary critics noted, the music numbers ground the forward momentum to halt, something for which today’s audience have little patience.

Tidbits from Variety #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Tidbits from Variety

I like perusing the pages of old film related periodicals (such as Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay, Motion Picture World,  American Cinematographer), and among such titles Variety is a particular favorite. I am especially attracted to the shorter blurbs when a name or film title catches my eye.

Below I have a selection of a few from its pages for the month of January 1939. With some exceptions I will be writing about these films as I continue in #1939TheMiracleYear.

“Boris Morros, draws the musical direction on Walter Wanger’s “Stage Coach.”
It’s his first assignment since leaving Paramount, where he headed the music department. Louis Lipstone succeeded him there.”

“Desert near Yuma Ariz., is the location of main operations for Paramount’s ‘Beau Geste’ slated to roll late this month with William Wellman producing and directing.
Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston are cast as the three brothers. J. Carroll Naish and Brian Donlevy the heavies.”

“C. B. De Mille Monday (1/9) directed ‘Union Pacific’ from a stretcher.
He suffered a recurrent attack of an ailment, which forced him to undergo surgery last summer.”

“Ernst Lubitsch’s two-picture deal with Metro is due to net him more than $200,000. First job is the direction of ‘Mme Curie’ starring Greta Garbo. Second is ‘Shop around the Corner,’ which he intended to produce on his own before he made the Metro deal.”

“’Titanic’ story of the greatest modern sea disaster, gets the gun April 1 at the Selznick-International studio. Alfred Hitchcock, British director, arrives late this month with Richard Blaker, English novelist, who is doing the script.
Hitchcock was also set to direct ‘Rebecca,’ but it is not likely to be filmed this year.”

“Lee Garmes is en route from London to be chief cameraman for David O. Selznick on “Gone with the Wind.”  
Susan Myrick, Macon Ga., newspaper columnist and friend of Margaret Mitchell gets the job of head coach of Southern accents and customs on ‘Wind.’ Latest addition to the cast is Hattie McDaniel in the mammy role.”

So – as a quiz to you, dear reader, which of the titles above do you think won’t be written about as part of the 1939 the miracle year series?

The 1977 California Trip: Paramount Guns, Grease, and Little House

Paramount Guns Grease and Little House

And not necessarily in that order.

Our itinerary for this trip started with a visit to Disneyland. (I was a little nervous after locking the car and leaving it in the Donald Duck section of the parking lot, having it fresh in mind what had happened to us in San Francisco. No one bothered it. Passersby evidently had more things on their minds than our little Plymouth Arrow).

While Disneyland is always a highlight, I found my excitement building at the prospect of our pending tours of Paramount and 20th Century Fox.

Our destination the next day was Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. This was the era of Barry Diller, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg at Paramount. I was not acquainted with any of them (and they sure didn’t know me). Our entree into the studio was courtesy of Joe Vigil, recently promoted from booker to branch manager of the Seattle/Portland exchange, working out of Paramount’s San Francisco office. (I mentioned Joe in my Zefferelli post).

After passing the gate we were remanded into the care of an ancient security guard. (He reminded me of a skinny old codger from Central Casting. You know, the one you see in all those old westerns). We three made up our own little tour group.

Our route mimicked a big square, circling the inside perimeter in a clock-wise manner. First stop was a small set in its own little building. It was a western jail. And since it’s use was ubiquitous it may have been a permanent structure. The guard had us walk before him, and straight through the iron doors into the jail cell. With a chuckle he slammed the door behind us and locked it. While thus incarcerated he reminisced about other past denizens of the premises. He assured us emphatically that John Wayne himself had spent time on this set.

We journeyed over into the western end of the lot that had one time belonged to another film studio – RKO Radio Pictures. A whirl of activity had its epicenter in one of the sound stages along its main street. The stage was given over to a small film project just getting its start, Allan Carr’s production of “Grease,” being directed by Randall Kleiser. Judging by the size of the group crammed onto its floor, some kind of tryout or rehearsal was taking place.

At the end of this street an open sound stage door greeted us. Inside all was quiet and deserted. And cool, for not a single light was on. Farm tackle and wagon wheels were the order of the day. This sound stage was dedicated for interior work on the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” Filming for the fourth season was then underway, but more than likely all the action was transpiring somewhere off on one of the movie ranches for exterior work.

Our guide walked us through the “New York streets.” Nothing was shooting. So we got a good view of the various locations each street represented – SoHo, Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, Upper and lower East Sides, etc.

Next he led us through an alley alive with flying sparks and the sounds of hammers on metal. I could call it “gasoline alley,” for several cars were being restored and fitted for use in the Grease production. Tail fins flashed their stuff.

Last stop – or the last thing I remember at Paramount – was a small building stuffed to the rafters with guns. Gatling guns galore hung from the ceiling; hand guns, rifles and machineguns were arrayed about the walls, (with firing pins removed, if recollection serves). On a return trip to the lot at a later date, I learned that this armory was no longer there, but had been moved off site in 1979.

We did not run into any “stars” on our journey, but we were nonetheless satisfied at our look behind the scenes.

Our aforementioned return to the Paramount took place in the fall of 2006, and I will cover that trip at its appropriate time, sometime in the future, so stay tuned, and Watch This Space.

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

Walter Theron Coy

Union agreements required that the Fifth Avenue Theater employ a stagehand. I was not aware of this fact,  when I met Walter Theron Coy my first week on the job. I was behind the concession stand concentrating on something else completely when I looked up to see an elderly man emerge from out of the auditorium. It caught me off guard. He was rather shabbily dressed, giving him an unkept appearance. He put me at ease by explaining who he was and what he did around the theater.

His cherubic Irish face, resonant voice, infectious laugh and an enormous mass of keys jangling on his hip made for a memorable introduction. Gaelic charm oozed out of him as well as a stream of patter that he later confessed to be straight out of the days of vaudeville. (At the age of 13 or 14 [1921 or 1922] he had been a candy butcher who operated evenings among a group of three Seattle vaudeville theaters. Incoming acts came to rely on him for intelligence on what routines had been employed by the outgoing performers, so they could adjust theirs accordingly). And prior to high school he even performed on stage, singing popular songs of the day accompanied by the theater organist.

[Aside – In his autobio, Walt states that he learned a lot about show business from the consumate pipe organist Oliver Wallace at the Liberty Theater down on First and Pike. Wallace later went on to work for Walt Disney, writing music for shorts and then features, from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” up through “Lady and the Tramp”].

The more I talked with him over the weeks that followed, the more his life experiences surprised and impressed me. By the time he was in high school, he was playing drums or banjo in speakeasys around town. His love of the banjo led him to share stories about the Banjo King, Eddie Peabody, (aka the Banjo Maniac and the Rajah of Rhythm) who had headlined many of the vaudeville acts at this same Fifth Avenue Theater, from 1927 through the early 30s.

But what really raised my eyebrows was his tales about working as an extra and a cameraman in Hollywood. He had gone down to LA when he turned 20 to try to break into “pictures.” He was an extra at the Chaplin studio on one of Charlie’s films. His description of the action made me think that it was his WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms,” but upon reading his autobio almost a decade later it proved to be something else altogether (stay tuned for my Research post this Monday).  He then lined up for extra work over at the FBO Studios (owned by Joseph P. Kennedy) for director Erich von Stroheim, who was hard at work on the infamous “Queen Kelly,” starring Gloria Swanson.

Walt found getting work as an actor a tough go. So he switched to the technical side of the business. He had always been adept mechanically, having built his own radios when a youth. He joined the Naval Reserve in Seattle to learn more about radios and sound equipment. (And to fly, for he liked planes). He made a trip down to LA and called on Gordon Sawyer, the head of the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios to learn all about sound reproduction on film. He used this knowledge to build and sell bootleg sound systems to small theaters throughout the Northwest. (The systems by Western Electric were all by lease only, and unaffordable given the small amount of business these towns generated).

Sometime in the 1930s, Walt joined Local 659, the Hollywood cameraman’s union. He served on the camera crew for Paramount’s production of “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” with W. C. Fields and Zasu Pitts.

He wasn’t often down in Hollywood to my calculation, for he had many businesses in the Seattle area that he ran – a printing business in the early thirties, a film exhibition company (one theater to begin with) which he acquired in 1937, and the Seattle Motion Picture Studio, a commercial film enterprise that made sound films – advertising, novelties and gimmick offerings. During the Depression, he kept fingers in a lot of pies, for he said, you never knew what would keep you afloat.

At the time I met him (1974), his studio was closed, but he still had some of his gear. He had sound equipment, of course, but he also had a 16mm self-blimped Auricon camera, that did not need a sound recorder as it had the capacity to directly record onto the film stock. A custom built camera dolly which could be cranked up to a six foot crane rounded out his holdings.  And he allowed me and my cinema-struck friends to use them. We just needed to rent some lights. (We used the lobby of the Skinner building and the backstage area of the theater as settings).

I last heard from Walt in 1980, when he sent me a signed copy of his autobio “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me.” In telling his life story, he details his trials and tribulations with a vindictive IRS which twice sent him to prison. When people styled him as an ex-con, he disagreed, and said he was just a convicted tax evader, whose case was under appeal. The appeal he won, and the judgement was reversed.

Walter Theron Coy was a true one of a kind.

[Aside – Walt preferred to write his name as Walt T. Coy, but I spelled it out completely so as not to confuse him with an actor that came out of Seattle around the same time. That actor was Walter Darwin Coy. He was on stage and screen, and notably, played the brother of the John Wayne character in “The Searchers.”]

1928 San Francisco Research: Taxis

1928 San Francisco Research Taxis

I was at the point that I needed a character to support my protagonist, to transport him from point A to point B. Besides some unique and interesting qualities – (a) dwarf – and (b) an Italian (of which there were a large number living in sections of 1928 San Francisco, of note the North Beach section of the city, its Little Italy), I wanted him to be a cab driver.

But for what company?

Or for that matter, a more basic consideration, did cabs exist in San Francisco at that time? As it turns out, there was no problem on that score. The answer was yes. In fact, I found mention of taxis as early as 1909. (As elsewhere in the U.S., stables and horse rentals and hackney cabs gave way to garages and car rentals and taxis).

Searches within the Internet Archive turned up ads for many different cab companies:

These first six I show operating in 1928, (I’m not sure how long they’d been in business):

United Cab Company

Union Cab Company

Green Top Cab Company

Cadillac Taxi Cab Company

California Cab Company

Club Limousine Service Company

Then those whose beginnings I can document:

DeSoto Cab Company (founded 1923)

Luxor Cab Company (founded in 1928) [fielded a total of ten cabs, all ordered up from call boxes located on street corners in the city].

And of course the Yellow Cab Company which had been doing business in San Francisco since 1922. When they merged with Checker mid decade, they were the most powerful cab company in town, controlling all the best cabstands, i.e. situated where travelers came into the city – the wharf, rail stations, and the airport; and at the hotels in the city where they stayed.

[Aside – John Hertz (of Hertz-Rent-a-Car fame) was the Chicagoan behind the Yellow Cab company and its subsidiary the Yellow Cab Manufacturing company. He sold the companies in the mid twenties and put his gains to work in other firms, notably Lehman Brothers. Hertz was also a major stockholder in the Paramount-Famous Lasky Corp, and thus was the logical choice for the Lehmans to be their rep at the film company to carry out the reorganization they prescribed in 1931. Hertz was the chair to the finance committee at Paramount and did bring down costs at the studio. But evidently Hertz was better in the car business than the film business, for he was forced to resign when Paramount went into receivership in 1933].

Back to my character.

So I had all these taxi companies in San Francisco from which to choose, but couldn’t settle on one. Then I read that San Francisco had gypsy cab drivers, independents that didn’t work for a company. They were allowed to answer calls for service via the telephone, but were unlicensed to cruise the streets for hailing customers.

Perfect for my character – Donatello.