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 24th

Alice Faye with Buster Keaton in 20th Century Fox’s Hollywood Cavalcade from 1939.
  • Buster Keaton was brought in to work with Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice on their MGM film ‘Fast Company.’ He instructs them “how to take painless comedy falls.” [The silent comedian was an expert. Though I would be concerned because he once broke his neck on a stunt in one of his films and did not know it until years later].
  • French actors (like Danielle Darrieux and Annabella) are demanding dialog coaches on their films so that their accents won’t make them unintelligible to US audiences.  Charles Boyer has done so.
  • Midgets in Hollywood have formed their own guild the Tiny Town club. [Just in time for The Wizard of Oz].
  • More than 5000 extras were employed at Paramount last week due to a heavy run of mob scenes. ‘If I Were King’ led the list with 1600.
  • Fanny Brice takes the top comedienne spot in the upcoming film from MGM, ‘Honolulu.’ Eleanor Powell and Allan Jones are the stars. [The film was released in 1939, but without Fanny Brice or Allan Jones aboard. I believe the columnist (or whomever they were talking with at the studio) confused this production with ‘Everybody Sing’ since “Funny Girl” Brice and Jones starred in this film with Judy Garland, released in 1938].
  • Rumors are circulating that Walt Disney is looking for a new mouse house [er, studio] for his cartoon characters. Studio officials state that the idea is too nebulous to even be considered as a plan.
  • Mark Sandrich ends a 9 year director hitch at RKO in August, currently directing his 6th Astaire-Rogers musical. He intends to freelance next. [The film is ‘Carefree,’ see next item].
  • Franklin Pangborn was signed today by RKO for a role in the currently shooting Astaire-Rogers film. [The fussy Pangborn had a total of thirteen films for 1938, but only two for 1939. Perhaps there was little call for Maitre’Ds and put-upon hotel managers that year].
  • Bob Burns, film and radio comic salary increases. In 1934 $1500; in 1935 $9000; in 1936 $100,000; in 1937 $400,000. [And he had invented his own musical instrument that he used in his vaudeville act and on the radio – he called it the Bazooka. The anti-tank weapon in World War Two was named after it, due to their resemblance. He had three film credits in 1938; followed by two in 1939].
  • An assistant director at Selznick-International Eric Stacey solves a problem of what to do with an old car – (a British model) – rent it to a film studio – he got more in rental for it last week than he paid for it 10 years ago. [Stacey was busy in 1939, filling in as assistant director on ‘Made for Each Other’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’].

ON THE MOVE

  • Left LA for NY – Billy Halop, Larry Fine, Moe Howard, Curley Howard, Dashiell Hammett, Al Jolson, Pat O’Brien, Joe Louis.
  • Left NY for LA – Roy Disney, Leland Hayward, Henry Travers.

The Year Was 1938 – May 23rd

Roy Disney in 1938
  • Roy Disney returned to NY from a 2 month trip to Europe where he set distribution for ‘Snow White.’ While in England he acquired the Tenniel illustrations on Cinderella which Walt will use for his next animated film. [It would take awhile for Walt to get around to this feature].
  • Former US Secret Service head William H Moran to begin work today with writer Albert De Mond on a series to be based on his stories. [De Mond may have been reassigned for he does not show in the credits for the three Secret Service films in 1939]. (See May 16th).
  • Warner Brothers announces a sequel to the highly successful ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.’ And they are targeting next spring for its release. They even have a script, an original by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I Miller, entitled ‘Sir Robin of Locksley.’ Flynn and DeHavilland are tapped to repeat their roles. [Another idea that did not see the light of an arc light, despite this being a natural, and sure bet. Raine and Miller were behind the original. Raine kept busy in 1939 with four titles, including ‘The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.’ Miller met disappointment when a script he’d completed was given to someone else to do over. He left WB].
  • The casting of Jane Clayton (Jan) in the latest Hopalong Cassidy film (‘The Return of the Fox’) at Paramount has been announced. The Miss Southwest from Tularosa, New Mexico already knows how to ride. Her father owns a 100,000 acre ranch there. She and Hoppy’s sidekick Lucky, Russell Hayden, plan to marry soon. [Come time to release the film, its title changed to ‘In Old Mexico.’ You might recognize her as Tommy Rettig’s mother from the early episodes of the TV series Lassie].
  • Per Ed Sullivan, Katharine Hepburn is headed for New York, and opines that it is probably on Howard Hughes’ plane. (See May 11th and May 18th).
  • Director Mervyn LeRoy in talking about his future film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ promises to have “cartoon tricks” in it, like trees talking to one another. [One of the biggies for 1939].

STARTING PRODUCTION

  • ‘Paris Honeymoon,’ starts shooting at Paramount – director Frank Tuttle, starring Bing Crosby, Franciska Gaal, Shirley Ross and Akim Tamiroff.
  • Arthur Lubin starts production at Universal today on ‘State Prison,’ starring Barton MacLane and Glenda Farrell.  [The title was changed upon release to the more actionable ‘Prison Break.’] This same day MacLane and Farrell struck a deal with WB to reclaim the roles they played prior in the Torchy Blane series. [Paul Kelly and Lola Lane took the roles in the fifth installment, but were not well received by the fans, hence the return of the original pair to the cop and reporter duo].

What Tech Had to Do with It #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What Tech Had to Do with It

By 1939 the technology behind filmmaking had attained a comfortable maturity. It was a decade after the innovation of sound so that element of the process had been integrated into the studio factory system  (Inroads also were being made for the standardization of sound systems in the field for better quality – for the equipment in theaters tended to be a hodgepodge mix).

Sound was now a reliable instrument in the tool-belt of the artistic minds charged with creating the projects. In fact coming to grips with the disciplines that good sound recording called for, led to other time and money saving innovations. For instance advances in process backgrounds like rear-projection and matte shots (originally developed to get around noisy environments), were now saving money.

Add to this the special effects and miniature departments (the film King King, for instance) which opened the imagination to become filmed ‘reality.’ If someone could think it, they could figure a way to capture it on film.

Improvements also came to the very basics – the film stock – faster and finer grain panchromatic films made for crisper black and white pictures – first introduced by Agfa-Ansco – and then right behind them, Eastman Kodak. One could almost “see” color in black and white for the range of gradations was expanded. As for color film, though fifteen different companies claimed to have their own version in the works, only Technicolor was then in use. And it was glorious and gorgeous.

Advances in cameras did their part. The Mitchell swaddled in its hood (aka ‘the blimp’) kept the noise of the camera machinery from intruding upon the soundtrack. And Walt Disney’s multi-plane camera would lead to more and better advances in the field of animation.

It was indeed a good time to have a studio in Hollywood.

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.

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.”]