The Year Was 1938 – May 20th

Cecilia Parker in 1937
  • Just finishing ‘Love Finds Andy Hardy,’ a  long term contract at MGM is awarded to Cecilia Parker for her work in the family series. She began the role of Mickey Rooney older sister in 1937. [She has one more ahead for 1938, then three more Hardy features and one short for 1939].
  • A meeting was held at the home of Sam Goldwyn to discuss the deal they will receive for releasing via United Artists for the 1938-39 season (the distributor will sell only on percentage, not flat). Also present were David O Selznick, Dr A H Gianninni, Walter Wanger, Edward Small, Hal Roach.
  • Shake up at Universal, with VP in charge of production, Charles R Rogers, on the way out, Cliff Work will take his place under President Nat Blumberg and VP Matthew Fox. [Active since the silent days, Rogers had been head of production at RKO in 1931, switching to Universal in 1935. He had some notable successes with them – ‘My Man Godfrey’ for instance, and for signing the teen singing sensation Deanna Durbin. He would wind up at Paramount in 1939, and produce The Star Maker with Bing Crosby, a fictionalized version of the life of Gus Edwards].
  • At WB, ‘For Lovers Only’ begins filming, with Dick Powell in the lead and with Olivia DeHavilland playing opposite him. [The romantic comedy is released under the title – ‘Hard to Get’].
  • Margaret Sullivan is discussed as the lead for Hal Roach’s new romantic comedy ‘There Goes My Heart.’ The part had been turned down by Irene Dunne. [Sullivan must have turned it down too, as Virginia Bruce is credited in the part].
  • Ed Sullivan points out that Gene Reynolds is playing a lot of roles when the lead character needs to be shown as a child – for James Stewart in ‘Of Human Hearts’; for Tyrone Power in ‘In Old Chicago’; for Ricardo Cortez in ‘The Californian’; and for John Beal in ‘Madame X.’ [Gene Reynolds has four films for 1939. He had a long career in entertainment, and later was a TV producer for MASH and Lou Grant].
  • Jackie Coogan is in San Francisco working on a personal stage appearance, making jokes about his impoverished situation. And hoping to earn enough until August when the suit with his parents will be tried. Bob Hope has written his routine, between takes on his current film ‘Give Me a Sailor.’ Hope and Coogan will have a vaudeville tour together in the East beginning in June. (See May 13th)

ON THE MOVE

  • Pat O’Brien will be taking off for a three week vacation, and will start ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ upon his return. [Per Ed Sullivan he plans to take in the War Admiral – Seabiscuit match race. The race scheduled for May at Belmont did not come off with Seabiscuit. The race finally took place on November 1st].
  • Joel McCrea heads off to Montana for a fishing trip, accompanied by his stand in, Carl Andre. His station wagon is fully equipped for the expedition. Upon their return they will report to Universal along with other Goldwyn contracted people – Andrea Leeds and director Archie Mayo. Some think it strange that so many from the Goldwyn stable would be going to a rival studio. Shooting to begin June 4.
  • The 20th Century Fox film ‘Five of a Kind’ with the Dionne quintuplets will see its company leave for Canada tonight, but without Joan Davis. She is now home from the hospital after her back injury, sustained will rehearsing with Buddy Ebsen. She plans to join them next week. [Davis must not have made it, for she is not listed in the credits]. (See May 9th).

OPENED IN THEATERS THAT DAY

  • Swiss Miss with Laurel & Hardy (directed by John Blystone) from MGM.
  • Mystery House with Humphrey Bogart from WB.

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 16th

Fay Bainter
  • Critics and patrons at the Pantages theater to see ‘Holiday’ like the George Cukor directed film – with Grant and Hepburn. [Are the theater owners wrong about ‘poison’ Hepburn?] (See May 12th)
  • Fay Bainter’s stock in Hollywood rose with her performance in Warner Brothers’ film ‘Jezebel’ which not only garnered her an Oscar but also earned her a contract to star in two future features at that studio. The stories are not yet chosen. [Not only was she nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1938 (for ‘Jezebel,’ which she won); she was also nominated for Best Actress (for ‘White Banners,’ which she lost to Bette Davis. Due to confusion about the double nomination, the rules of the Academy were changed].
  • W H Moran, the head of the US Secret Service, has been landed by WB to supply stories from his experiences for a new series about the Service to feature Ronald Reagan. [This led to a three picture series for 1939 – ‘Secret Service of the Air,’ ‘Code of the Secret Service’ and ‘Smashing the Money Ring.’ One of the films inspired a young boy to join the Secret Service, and is credited for saving President Reagan after he was shot by Hinckley in 1981].
  • Regarding Spencer Tracy’s trip to Honolulu, news was added that it was also to recover from his recent surgery. Upon his return two films we be waiting for his participation – both at MGM, ‘Northwest Passage’ and ‘Boys Town.’
  • Norman Taurog, known for his work with child performers, has been assigned to direct ‘Boys Town.’ Not for Spencer Tracy’s sake but for his supporting cast – Mickey Rooney and Spanky McFarland.
  • Universal will start shooting ‘Danger in the Air,’ their next installment in the Crime Club series. Louis Hayward and Nan Gray will top the cast. [Louis did not make the cut].
  • Per Ed Sullivan – Susan Hayward (no relation to Louis) has appeared in 1,373 publicity photos for WB, yet has never appeared on the screen. [Actually she appeared in the background in a few titles, uncredited. And for one film her scene was left on the cutting room floor. She had a small part in ‘Comet Over Broadway,’ the film that Bette Davis refused to do. Hayward would take the femme lead in the 1939 film – ‘Beau Geste’ for Paramount]. (See May 3rd)
  • Producer Walter Wanger has sent a communication to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Word is out that strongman Franco of Spain is unhappy about his current production ‘Blockade’ with Henry Fonda and Madeleine Carroll. Wanger says people had been caught and thrown off of his sets which depict the devasting effects of the civil war in Spain. Purportedly they were spies. He goes on to say that he has put $900,000 into this film and he will release it as is, and if it is banned in Europe, he’ll take the loss. [Wanger had an even bigger picture (in my estimation) for 1939 – Stagecoach].

ON THE MOVE

  • In New York, John Hay “Jock” Whitney returns from Europe to confer with Selznick Int’l head Henry Ginsberg (over from Hollywood) about 1938-39 season. Gone with the Wind is in a testing phase. UA a possibility to release it (they have a bonus system for rentals that look promising).
  • Claudette Colbert leaves for the Coast (from NY) after 4 months abroad to discuss her next project at Paramount. They have three possibilities for her.

The Year Was 1938 – May 5th

A few items of interest, datelined on May 3rd:

  • The Jackie Coogan case is in the news. At question was how did the fortune he earned as a child actor (e.g. Chaplin’s The Kid) pegged at 4 million, dwindle down to $535,932. The judge has granted him permission to examine the books, kept by his mother and stepfather. [Rough times ahead for the actor now 24, and for his marriage to Betty Grable. And on another aside, I may be related to him].
  • Betty Grable’s contract taken up by 20th Century Fox.
  • Paramount has plans for the 1938-39 production schedule. To pay for improvements to the studio laboratory, $20,000 was appropriated. Fifty-eight features are planned and 102 shorts. Zukor and DeMille from earlier in the year were getting themselves into hot water with the exhibitors, claiming that the theater owners were responsible for the poor product, because they were not paying enough in film rental. [Film rental always the bone of contention between the two, I should know].
  • Bette Davis is returning to work at WB. She had been under suspension since April 1st for refusing to take a part in ‘Comet over Broadway.’ [Kay Francis starred in it instead – a story in which a girl has a struggle making it in the legit theater].
  • The National Confectioners Association files suit against 20th Century Fox for dialogue that desparaged candy in their film ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.’ When her aunt asks Shirley Temple’s character if she had had anything to eat, Shirley replied, “Oh, yes. A candy bar.” To which the aunt handed her over to her servant with the command – “Take the child to the kitchen and get her something decent to eat.” Besides damages they were requesting that the offensive part be removed from the film. [And after all the good she did for them with her song ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ from the 1934 film ‘Bright Eyes’].
  • Carole Lombard has been tapped to play her first role in two years for Selznick-International – ‘Made for Each Other.’ She has a deal with Selznick for one film yearly. [This film opened in Feb 1939, the month before her marriage to Clark Gable].
  • Merchants in Lone Pine CA looking to stimulate for film business coming to their area plan on spending $20,000 for a western street set. They had recently lost a Hopalong Cassidy film, when its Paramount producer took them to Kernville instead. [Lone Pine was very busy, especially for the 1939 film ‘Gunga Din’].
  • Jack Carson’s player contract renewed by RKO. [He arrived in Hollywood just the year before; for 1939 he made one film for RKO (Fifth Avenue Girl with Ginger Rogers), and was loaned out to four other studios including to Universal for ‘Destry Rides Again’].
  • Robert Montgomery announced he was not running for re-election of SAG president (Screen Actor’s Guild). Edward Arnold may run. Vote postponed til September.

Boo Jr #1939The MiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Boo Jr

You got to hand it to Variety for their eye-catching and funny headlines, titles, and phrasing. They christened ‘The Son of Frankenstein” with the moniker – BOO, JR which at once encapsulated and entertained.

In its January 4 edition, it announced:

“Boo, Jr.
Hollywood Jan 1 [1939]

‘Son of Frankenstein’ completed Saturday (31) at Universal, goes into national release Jan
13 with heavier advance bookings than any other U feature.
Cutters kept pace with the shooting schedule to speed up the distribution.”

There is an excellent reason that Universal garnered “heavier advance bookings” than usual. Back in the spring and summer of 1938, when a dearth of product hit the theaters, an enterprising theater manager (Emil Uman at the Regina Theater in Beverly Hills) put together a triple bill of older films for his venue.

The unspooling of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “Son of Kong” caused the cops to be called out to control the crowds. Word spread and soon other theaters were looking to book the reissues. Universal gladly offered their titles “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” as a stand alone double bill (Kong, both original and Son were RKO properties – I’m sure Universal did not want to share the film rentals). And the crowds – and the cops – were repeated – from San Francisco to Boston. Initial short bookings were held over, in some instances, multiple weeks (Philadelphia ran seven).  St Louis packed in over 34,000 people in the first three days.

Such business was a bellwether indication that the horror genre was ready for a new installment. Thus, Universal decided to take the money coming in from the revivals and make a sequel. By October 1938 they were negotiating for talent. Boris Karloff took another turn in the monster role; and Bela Lugosi lurked menacingly as the murderous deranged cripple. Willis Cooper, a writer for radio horror programs and three Mr Moto films at Fox, was tapped for the scripting chores. By the 18th the cameras were turning, but not without a few hiccups. No director was listed for the first day of shooting (a role filled soon after by Rowland V Lee), and a principal actor (Peter Lorre) announced for the title roll dropped out. He was replaced on the 24th by Basil Rathbone.

It was given an ‘A’ picture status – better production values, sets, costumes etc., and shoehorned into the few available soundstages at Universal. (Their ‘B’ lineup, judged to be ahead of schedule for upcoming release, caused others of the same designation to be put on hold, freeing up stage space for the ‘A’s). Another ‘A’ production at Universal at the same time was the W. C. Fields vehicle, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”

I recently watched the film online and enjoyed it despite its predictability and formulaic writing. The atmosphere was fittingly dark and foreboding. And it wasn’t too far along when I realized that Mel Brooks must have used the plot as a template for his “Young Frankenstein.” Here too the son of the monster creator was returning to the scene of his father’s ‘crime.’ The clincher was the local police inspector, played by Lionel Atwill. The character sports an artificial arm, which Kenneth Mars spoofs in Brooks’ version.  The only thing is, Mars wasn’t all that far off of what Atwill had done in his characterization, even down to using the wooden arm when striking a light and while using darts.

A viewing is worthwhile just for the comparison.

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.