The Year Was 1938 – June 2nd

Mervyn LeRoy
  • George Ungurian has brought a suit against film producer Mervyn LeRoy, his former employer. (George had been his butler). He is seeking $125,000 for false imprisonment, naming LeRoy and WB studio police chief, Blayney Matthews as those responsible. [Born in Romania, this former butler had been let go, and was finding it hard to obtain employment because he had been branded as a radical. Sneaking onto the WB lot he was stopped from confronting LeRoy and held captive for a time. At the time LeRoy was preparing for a couple of changes. He switches studios from WB to MGM, and leaves behind directing to produce. There he has one film for 1938, then for 1939 – ‘Stand Up and Fight,’ ‘At the Circus’ – and the huge production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’].
  • WB plans a world premiere in Columbia City, Indiana for their new film ‘White Banners.’ The director Edmund Goulding and stars Claude Rains, Fay Bainter, and Jackie Cooper will be in attendance. The town was chosen because it is the home town of the author of the book upon which the film is based – Lloyd Douglas. Douglas, a former minister, first gained fame with his novel, The Magnificent Obsession. [Goulding will go on to direct ‘Dark Victory’ in 1939].
  • Universal has signed Jackie Cooper to a three picture contract. First will be the next Deanna Durbin picture, ’That Certain Age.’ [Cooper would star in subsequent vehicles at Universal, but did not have the same impact as Durbin’s films through 1939].
  • Joan Fontaine and Chester Morris to take the starring roles of RKO’s The Clean-Up. Lew Landers to direct. [The film was released as ‘Smashing the Rackets’, (based on articles about Thomas Dewey cleaning up NYC), and though it did have Chester Morris, he played opposite Frances Mercer instead of Joan Fontaine – the two – Morris and Fontaine were in a previous film together ’Sky Giant,’ so perhaps there was some confusion on the reporter’s part. Fontaine’s talents were most likely tied up in ‘The Duke of West Point’ to finish 1938 and the mighty ‘Gunga Din’ to kick off 1939].
  • A bunch of old timers have been rounded up to appear in a jail sequence for ‘You Can’t Take it with You’ at Columbia. They are: Pert Kelton, from vaudeville and Broadway and sporadic films; Jim Thorpe, the Indian Olympic champ of 25 years ago; Jimmy Morton, of vaudeville fame; Kit Guard, famous for musicals; and Earl Askam, a singer. [Kelton, Guard and Askam do have listings for this film, but Thorpe and Morton have none].
  • For his performance so far in ‘Having Wonderful Time,’ RKO has signed Lee Bowman to a long term contract. [Bowman appeared in three more films for 1938 and eight for 1939, including ‘Love Affair’).
  • At Columbia, Harry Cohn wants to put to rest any rumors that an of his execs will lose their positions with the return of Sam Briskin to the company.  (See May 17th).
  • Ed Sullivan talked with cameraman Bill Daniels, the only one that Greta Garbo would permit to film her. According to Daniels, she has a certain quality that she projects on the screen – “She has the wisdom of a very old lady, and with it a remarkable tolerance. She is completely unlike the impression of her that’s been broadcast. It is her wisdom and tolerance that give her a certain spiritual glow. The camera picks that up.” [Away from the camera lens since 1937, she returns in 1939 in MGM’s ‘Ninotchka.’ With the tagline – “Garbo Laughs.”

ITEM OF INTEREST

  • A filler bit. The fan mail of Anthony Quinn has grown exponentially since his appearence in DeMille’s ‘The Plainsman’ from 1936. [DeMille used him again in 1938 for ‘The Buccaneer,’ and again in 1939’s ‘Union Pacific.’

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 21st

Robert Montgomery in ‘Yellow Jack’
  • Robert Montgomery’s 34th birthday. Until September he was the president of the Screen Actors Guild. The Oscar nominated actor, for 1937’s ‘Night Must Fall,’ has his next film coming out in six days – ‘Yellow Jack’ about the fight against yellow fever in Cuba during the Spanish American War in 1898. The following month Montgomery launched an investigation into Willie Bioff at IATSE, which revealed his criminal past and connections to the Frank Nitti gang in Chicago. [He has one credit for 1939 – a mystery comedy ‘Fast and Loose.’ This may have been due to the fact that when WW2 broke out in Europe in September of that year, he went to London and enlisted in the American Field Service and drove an ambulance in France until the defeat at Dunkirk. (His daughter, little Elizabeth “Bewitched” Montgomery, was then six)].
  • Negotiating committees between the producers and actors about an amendment to the basic minimum contract call a halt until both parties can go through the cross demands. (Producers had presented a 100 pages worth). The producer committee had conferred with the casting directors and other studio execs to look into cost estimates based on the acceptance of the actors’ demands.
  • Columbia contract player, Ann Doran was recovering from a case of kleig eyes suffered when working on Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take it with You.’ [Long exposure to the arc lights used to light the sets could result in conjunctivitis and eye watering. Twelve films lay ahead for Doran in 1939, including Capra’s ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’].
  • Lola Lane’s 32nd birthday. Busy in 1938 at WB, playing the lead in ‘Torchy Blane in Panama,’ and with her sisters, Priscilla and Rosemary in ‘Four Daughters’ (which introduced John Garfield), and in its follow up for 1939, ‘Four Wives.’

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’

They Call It Screwball

They Call it Screwball

No. I’m not writing about the baseball pitch that behaves in an opposite manner to the curve ball.

I am referring to the meaning of the word when it is applied to a slightly (or totally) off-kilter personality. When it comes to film, the word is usually shackled hand and foot to another word – “comedy.” In this genre, these aforementioned personalities are thrown together into situations that range from the absurd to the downright silly.

And they’re a lot of fun.

My wife and I received our indoctrination into the form in Seattle in 1974. A little storefront theater had sprouted out of “nowhere” down in the Pioneer district. The young couple (the Curtises) who gave it “birth,” christened it – The Rosebud Movie Palace. It was all of 88 seats, to which you gained access by running the maze of plywood walls thrown up to enclose the auditorium area. To my notion it was a throwback to the old Nickelodeon era.

[Research aside – The whole film industry in these United States owes its existence to similar tiny beginnings. In New York City of, say, 1904 – these establishments in the statutes of the city were known as “common shows.” This term described theaters of under 299 seats, and were not subject to the fire code of the larger legit theaters. And because the admission was five cents, they gained the moniker Nickelodeon.]

I first ran across the Rosebud theater when perusing movie ads in the newspaper. A film title caught my eye – “The Philadelphia Story.” It was a film we had heard about, but never seen. So we paid them a visit on my day off from the Fifth Avenue Theater (a bus man’s holiday). And we were delighted to watch the trials and tribulations of the three main characters played by Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Want to know anything more? I don’t do spoilers. Catch it for yourself.

We kept a weather eye out for other titles in the genre and soon tracked down the likes of:

It Happened One Night

Bringing Up Baby

You Can’t Take It with You – (my personal favorite)

His Girl Friday

Will you look at that  – Capra – Hawks – Capra – Hawks. I am aware that other directors toiled in the genre, but those two are easily the best. But I am thankful to Cukor, as the director of The Philadelphia Story, the “gateway drug,” as it were, to this rather mild addiction.

I come to the end of this post and hesitate to mention that we also saw films of other genres at the Rosebud. Like “Fury” the Fritz Lang thriller with Spencer Tracy; and “Queen Christina” the historical drama with the enigmatic and beautiful Greta Garbo.

But look I’ve gone and done it anyway. I didn’t hesitate at all.

Just call me “screwball.”