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 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 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 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 Set Up – What the Studios Did #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What the Studios Did

Expansion was the word. In fact one could say that the year 1938 was one of expansion throughout Hollywood. When you total up all they spent on their facilities it was a respectable figure – 112 million.

Fox held an enviable position. They had already spread their productions across their two lots. The original on Western Avenue, and their brand new plant in Westwood.

Paramount, on the other hand, pinched by the confines of its lot on Marathon Street, was looking for other properties on which to expand, either, like Fox, up in Westwood or some place farther up in the Valley. In the meantime they were forced to build outdoor sets on their ranch property forty miles away in Malibu.

Columbia had a similar problem – and solution, utilizing their nearby ranch to ease the crush at their original lot on Gower Street. In addition they took a lease on another studio, the old B P Schulberg lot on Bronson Avenue.

Universal did not have the same problem – with 365 acres it had ample room. But what it did not have was enough sound stages for their productions. Two brand new ones were under construction and a new 6 story admin building. A recent turnover at the top (their principal founder- Carl Laemmle had been deposed) saw plans for major changes around the lot. Work was underway to modernize and soundproof three of the oldest stages on their lot – (one of which was nicknamed the “Phantom” after the Lon Chaney silent, The Phantom of the Opera, filmed there).

In 1938 MGM in Culver City, completed their Thalberg Memorial building at the cost of 2 million dollars. This administration office building was so named as a tribute to their recently deceased ‘wunderkind’ head of production, Irving J. Thalberg, the man singularly responsible for setting the precedent that the studio held the reins over the talent it employed.

Even smaller companies were feeling the need to expand. Monogram had maxed out all the space at the Talisman studios. Hal Roach, who recently switched from MGM to UA to release his comedies, was thinking about pulling down the admin building and replacing it with one larger that would house three stages and business offices. Republic was hampered in their expansion efforts by their relations with their landlord. They either wanted to buy it outright if they could negotiate a good price, or hammer out a longer lease for the property.

Only two film outfits had more pressing needs. Walt Disney, though riding the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was busy reorganizing his three companies (one of which was a realty firm) down into one unit. And RKO, which by the way had released Snow White, was in the midst of a financial reorganization, having just emerged from a 77b receivership (the prior bankruptcy instrument to the present-day Chapter 11).

So the stage was set, and the studios were humming.