Saturday, February 25, 2006

REAL "GONE WITH THE WIND" Part I

It has been said that there are only two motion pictures in the history of Hollywood – Gone With The Wind and everything else. If that’s true, there have certainly been many valiant attempts to at least rekindle part of the magic first visited upon the world during Christmas 1939 since. Yet, Gone With The Wind remains grand, vibrant and thrilling entertainment regardless of decade it is screened. It operates on the American psyche (and arguably, the world’s) as that most rarified and cherished part of our collective tapestry of life and with a stylistic approach to one of the most turbulent periods in recent history. Eschewing the war – except in limited glimpses that are complimentary to the film’s functioning as ‘the ultimate women’s picture’, Gone With The Wind endures primarily on fondness for a time remembered only through the majesty and opulence of Technicolor rose-tinted glasses.

But there was hell to pay on the road to Tara in the summer of 1938. As the saying goes, producer David O. Selznick had indeed bitten off more than he could chew. Only a year earlier, at the behest of New York literary agent, Katharine ‘Kay’ Brown, Selznick had reluctantly agreed to transform Margaret Mitchell’s lengthy work of fiction, Gone With The Wind into a motion picture. One problem: he had not read the book before hand. The novel’s respectable breeze in sales and sparked publishing phenomenon that followed “frankly, my dear” left the quiet introspective Mitchell agog and besought by reporters. But Selznick had no real interest in the property himself…at least, not yet.

‘PEGGY’ MITCHELL’S LITTLE HOBBY

Born November 8 1900, like her fictional heroin, Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was a rebel. Weaned on stories of the old south’s gallantry, she grew up with memories of sitting on bony-kneed confederates who had managed to survive the deluge of the civil war. Her naturalized aversion to formal education was sufficiently quelled by her mother’s inspirational edict; “All that would be left after a world ended would be what you could do with your hands and what you had in your head.”

Although she had been a cub reporter for the Atlanta Journal, a free-spirited flapper and a keen horse woman in her time – Mitchell had retired from the fray of public life after marrying Rhett – a handsome young athlete. Rhett, however, turned out to be an abusive alcoholic and Margaret eventually divorced him to marry his best man – John Marsh – instead. By 1926 Margaret (Peggy to her friends) and John were living in a small dark apartment they had affectionately nicknamed ‘the dump.’ If it were not for a riding accident that left her invalided and bored, there is little to suggest that Mitchell would have undertaken to write Gone With The Wind at all. Laid up, she began the arduous task in long hand to keep her mind active.

Eventually the stacks of paper strewn about the apartment became a topic of interest with visitors to her home. When close friend, Lois Cole suggested that Peggy show her efforts to an agent friend, Harold Latham from Macmillan & Company, Mitchell reluctantly agreed. Astonished when word came back that the book was worthy for publication, Mitchell mused, “my idea was that at least I could brag that I had been refused by the very best publisher.” With Latham’s help, Mitchell began revising and consolidating the text into a manageable manuscript. Latham was not particularly thrilled with the original name for her heroine; Pansy O’Hara – so, after some minor deliberations ‘Scarlett’ was mutually decided upon instead.

Upon publication of the novel Margaret Mitchell became an overnight sensation. Frequently she was asked to divulge if her characters were in fact ‘real’ – an inquiry Mitchell responded to by explaining that ‘only as types’ had she drawn her characterizations from life. Rhett was not the embodiment of any one acquaintance or lover. There was no actual Tara or Twelve Oaks. Assuming that her stay as a best-selling author would be brief – Mitchell continued to reply to each and every request from both the press and her fan base. Then the unthinkable happened – Hollywood came to call.

OVER THE RAINBOW and IN TECHNICOLOR

From the start, David O. Selznick had not wanted to make Gone With The Wind, even after the novel proved a runaway best seller. His apprehensions were justified by a recent slew of films about the south that had failed to find their audience, branding the sub-genre ‘box office poison.’ But feisty Kay Brown, literary property manager to Selznick International, was not about to let that snap assessment stop the studio from making the film.

In a cable to Selznick, Brown wrote; “I beg, urge, coax and plead with you to read it at once…I know that after you do you will drop everything and buy it.”

Still, Selznick remained unconvinced. After Brown proposed to Selznick’s partner and financial backer, Jock Whitney, that their rival company – Pioneer Pictures - buy the property, Selznick purchased the rights to the book for a then unheard of sum of $50,000. So was Brown crazy? “No” Brown assured Selznick, “He was the crazy one.”

Selznick desired to secure Margaret Mitchell’s ongoing participation on the project. But his hopes were quickly dashed. “My connection with the motion picture industry ended when I sold you the rights,” Mitchell wrote in frustration, “From that moment on they it has been yours to do as you please.” Prior to this short reply, Mitchell had done everything in her power to dissuade Selznick from his moderate interest in her ‘little’ story – even going so far as to declare it ‘un-filmable.’

Given Mitchell’s aversion to notoriety, her curt reply to Selznick is understandable. By 1937, the press coverage generated from sales of Gone With The Wind had made Margaret Mitchell a minor celebrity around the world and a virtual prisoner in her own home. Whenever and wherever she ventured beyond her beloved Peach Tree Street, she was besought by requests for interviews – a rage in popularity that the author found quite idiotic, though rarely did she refuse any fan’s polite request for an autograph. In fact, throughout the swirling fanaticism that accompanied ever-escalating sales of the novel, Mitchell continued to pen lengthy and cordial salutations to any and all of her loyalists.

As for Selznick - his headaches had just begun. After launching a country-wide search for Scarlett O’Hara, and finding only inferior debutantes and young mothers turning out in droves for consideration, Selznick turned his attentions to testing already established actresses back in Hollywood. However, if unanimous public opinion precluded anyone but Clark Gable from acting Rhett Butler, it seems that everyone had different ideas about who should play Scarlett O’Hara. Every actress in Hollywood; including Katharine Hepburn, Edith Mariner (nee Susan Hayward), Lana Turner, Zazu Pitts and Bette Davis tested for the role. Scores more allowed vanity and ego to presuppose their rightful casting in the part. Bette Davis, who had previously appeared in Jezebel (1938) an Oscar-winning turn as a spoiled southern belle not unlike Mitchell’s heroin, desperately craved the part of Scarlett. But the answer from Selznick from the start was an emphatic, “No!” When asked why, Selznick angrily replied, “…because I cannot imagine any man chasing after a woman for several hours and ending up with you!”

For a while, Jack Warner got into the act – courting Selznick with an offer to put up half the monies required for the shoot and the loan out of both Davis, and, then resident Warner heartthrob, Errol Flynn. Selznick however, was unimpressed. The public demanded Gable. As a result, MGM (the studio Selznick had left on shaky terms to venture out on his own) needed to be approached.

At one point during preproduction, it seemed as though Paulette Goddard (then lover of Charlie Chaplin and sometimes favorite to both David Selznick and Jock Whitney) would assume the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Ah, but then came Vivien Leigh – like a backward breath of fresh air, so vitally engaging, even if she lacked a southern drawl at first.

Debuted on the set of the burning of Atlanta by David’s brother, agent Myron Selznick (Selznick had opted to shoot the burning long before principle photography commenced to clear the backlot of old sets, and, with stunt men subbing in for the long shots of Rhett and Scarlett), all other’s in the running, including Goddard, seemed to pale to Leigh by comparison.

Not everyone outside of Selznick’s entourage was convinced. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was particularly displeased by Leigh’s signing and attempted to craft a counter-campaign against both the actress and the film, marking both as an obvious slight on every girl born in the United States who had not qualified during the cross country search. Known for her slippery way around a good piece of scandal – and for her ability in helping handcraft a few of her own – Hopper was thwarted by public opinion on this occasion. In the North, the signing of Vivien Leigh seemed to generate interest for both the unknown actress and the film while in the south the general consensus was ‘better a Brit than a Yankee!’

If Selznick could breathe a momentary sigh of relief in having found his heroine, the rest of the casting choices were a mess. Gable was under contract to MGM and not wanting to do the role at any price. He had made only one costume picture prior to Gone With The Wind, Parnell (1937), and it had been a qualified disaster in his otherwise sterling tenure as the undisputed ‘king’ of the movies. Eventually, Gable was persuaded into accepting the part – his consolation being a weekend’s furlough to marry sweetheart (and third wife) Carol Lombard.

Selznick also encountered resistance from British matinee idol Leslie Howard, who thought colonial costumes made him look like the doorman at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Selznick prodded and pursued Howard, but only after he agreed to give the actor an associate producer’s credit on Intermezzo (1936, sublime love story that introduced American audiences to Ingrid Bergman), did Howard agree to the role of Ashley Wilkes.

As for the part of Melanie Hamilton, Selznick hit yet another snafu with actress Olivia de Havilland. After having snubbed Jack Warner’s generous loan out deal for Davis and Flynn, Warner was playing hardball with de Havilland’s contractual obligations. In the middle of a dispute at Warner Brother, de Havilland sneaked over to Selznick International for a screen and later costume tests. She narrowly escaped Jack Warner’s wrath by appealing to Warner’s wife on a personal level and begging for a brief hiatus from her schedule to play Melanie. The ploy worked, though upon completion of Gone With The Wind, de Havilland suffered in substandard roles at Warner as recompense for her clever insubordination.

By this time, it had begun to dawn on Selznick that what he had become embroiled in was not the creation of one motion picture, but two titanic ventures squeezed into one colossal super production. As Gone With The Wind began to take on a physical presence on the studio’s backlots, Selznick began having second thoughts about the hiring of veteran and personal friend, George Cukor to direct the film. Cukor was known around Hollywood as a woman’s director – a moniker that had placed him in great demand throughout the industry.

Clark Gable, however, was a man’s man and increasingly skeptical over Cukor’s handling of the subject matter. In point of fact, Gable had recognized early on that Gone With The Wind was a melodrama in which the leading lady was neither enamored with or drawn to his character of Rhett Butler from the word go. Fearing that his reputation as a ladies man might suffer from this antiseptic rejection, Gable refused to adopt a southern accent for the part. He would play Rhett Butler as rough and tumble Clark Gable or not at all.

Meanwhile, the black coalition of America had begun to express their concerns over the novel’s depiction of the slave or ‘darkie’ and frequent use of the ‘n’ word and references to the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout preproduction, Selznick made it clear to screen dramatist Sidney Howard that both ‘that word’ and any references to the Klan were to be entirely omitted from his final draft.

In tune with his own despair over the plight of Jews in Europe, Selznick’s sensitivity to the coalition’s concerns, by removing these negative references from his shooting script, have ironically worked against the film during more contemporary times, with the excisions misperceived as Selznick being ‘soft’ on racism. Even so, the black actors (Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, and others) accepted their roles with considerable trepidation.


By Christmas of 1937, Sidney Howard had drafted a treatment that would have made for a very interesting five and a half hour movie. Bowing to Howard for trims, Selznick quietly hired John Van Druten and Joe Swerling at varying stages in the rewriting process. Neither could maintain Howard’s sense of brilliant story construction. With a starting date fast approaching, Selznick undertook to pen a draft himself – 11 pages longer than Howard’s original. Impatient and running out of time, Selznick implored the reclusive Howard to leave his farm in Connecticut and attend to the final draft in Hollywood. Reluctantly, Howard agreed. However, upon arriving at Selznick International, Howard quickly found himself pulling double duty on both the script and Selznick’s current film in production: The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

As filming on Gone With The Wind commenced, the atmosphere at the studio quickly degenerated from congenial and adventuresome to odious and temperamental. Heated confrontations between Selznick and George Cukor became an almost daily occurrence. After nearly three months of shooting, Selznick fired Cukor and fell on the mercy of MGM to supply him with a replacement. The studio offered up Victor Fleming – who was then shooting scenes for MGM’s own super production, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

From that moment on, Vivien Leigh, who had adored Cukor’s gentle allowances in the shaping of her performance, came under the constant scrutiny and criticism of the irascible Fleming. Marcella Rabwin, Selznick’s secretary, mirrored Leigh’s dislike of Fleming years later by summing up that he “demanded that she (Leigh) be the bitch (Scarlett) had been described as.” As for Clark Gable – he could not have been more pleased by this sudden turn of events. Fleming was a kindred spirit and the director of two of his biggest successes; Red Dust (1932) and Test Pilot (1938).

The chief problem facing Selznick now was how to bring swift cohesion to a schedule and shoot spiraling out of control; the last straw for a studio that had no cash flow left in its meager coffers. After claiming to have suffered a nervous breakdown, Victor Fleming walked off the set. MGM however, was quick to offer Selznick another replacement with director Sam Wood. MGM also invigorated the cash flow to get Selznick through the rest of Gone With The Wind and his pending project; Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).

But MGM was savvy about their deal. For one and a half million they secured the rights to redistribute Gone With The Wind and reap fifty percent of the profits on all reissues – a lucrative coup made complete acquisition in 1951 when poor management and even worse judgment forced Selznick to sell off his controlling interests in the film to MGM entirely. These were bitter pills for the old mogul/producer to swallow in the autumn of his life.

But in the autumn of 1939, Selznick was far too busy, and chronically bent on Benzedrine to notice his shortsightedness. He was also handcrafting a marketing campaign for Gone With The Wind that would eventually prove to be the blueprint for all subsequent roadshow engagements. Meanwhile, Victor Fleming, aware that Sam Woods’ competence had generated a fresh start on the film, sheepishly returned to the director’s chair with his health and nerves miraculously restored. Selznick splintered the directorial responsibilities into three production units. It is an interesting aside to note that although some of Cukor’s and a lot of Wood’s footage appear in the final cut, only Fleming is accredited with directing the project – and only Fleming took home the Oscar for that honor.

Undoubtedly, Gone With The Wind proved to be much more Scarlett’s picture than Rhett’s, a point of distinction made clear by reviewing the production schedule. Vivien Leigh worked a total of 125 days; Gable, a mere 71; de Havilland – 59 and Howard – 32.

The final day of principle photography was dedicated to the penultimate moment in the film; Rhett abandoning Scarlett in their ornate Atlanta mansion. Sidney Howard’s draft of the scene provided no hint that Scarlett might find some way of getting back the only man who ever truly loved her. After much consternation, Selznick added his own touch to the scene. In the novel, when asked by Scarlett “…if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” Mitchell’s original comeback for Rhett was “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Selznick added the word “frankly” to imbue the line with a final sense of rhythmic indifference. But he still felt that the scene concluded the story on a decidedly depressing note.

If the Hays Office concurred with this assessment of the final scene, it was only because Selznick had left the word ‘damn’ in it. The motion picture production code absolutely forbad the use of slang and/or blasphemy in any film. Determined to have ‘damn’ stay in, Selznick nevertheless filmed a version of the final confrontation with the line revised to “Frankly my dear, I just don’t care” – a moot and bland finale that Selznick absolutely hated and thought a complete bastardization of Mitchell’s work.

If Gone With The Wind’s greatest moment remains in the embodiment of this one line, then Selznick’s finest hour as a producer was in his defense of the original rebuke in front of the Hays tribunal where he emphatically suggested that the word ‘damn’ is neither an oath or a curse, but a defiant conclusion that forever summates the stalemate reached between Rhett and Scarlett. Though perhaps unconvinced, the Hays Office quietly acquiesced to Selznick’s bombastic defense…then fined the producer $5,000 for allowing ‘that word’ to remain in the final cut.

REAL "GONE WITH THE WIND" Part II

HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN…

“I have covered many a spectacle in many a country – the Olympic Games in Berlin, The Grand Prix in Paris…but I have never seen a city give itself so completely to one thing as Atlanta has to the movie premiere of Gone With The Wind.”
- Henry McLemore of United Press


The Atlanta premiere for Gone With The Wind was among the most gloriously manic and resplendent events of 1939. After a strenuous shoot and even more frenzied editing process to get the film ready on time, Selznick had the Lowe’s Grand downtown theatre façade in Atlanta Georgia altered to resemble the front of Tara. Margaret Mitchell – who had remained conspicuously absent from any and all public events associated with the film – arrived to see the spectacle that Hollywood had made of her work. She was not to be disappointed with the final results.

Gable arrived on the arm of Carol Lombard, and after dedicating the evening to Margaret Mitchell and the people of Atlanta, was given the key to the city. Though it remains impossible to extract an exact total in the number of people who lined the sidewalks leading from the airport to the theater – Selznick’s estimation of ten million seems, at least in viewing the newsreels of the hour, not too far off.

When the house lights came up on Friday December 15, 1939 Gone With The Wind effectively ended its tenure as the most popular novel of all time and forever entered the echelons of screen immortality. Afterward, Margaret Mitchell had nothing but praise for Selznick and the film; “It was a tremendously emotional experience for me. It’s not up to me to speak of the grand things these actors have done…I want to commend Mr. Selznick’s courage and his obstinacy and his determination in just keeping his mouth shut until he got exactly the cast he wanted.”

George Cukor – who had considered his removal from the project months earlier a fatal rupture in both his private and professional relationship, wired Selznick that evening with “I don’t know whether to be common, course or humble…but I wish you all my love.” Following its New York premiere – yet another lavishly mounted engagement that had theater patrons and highbrow critics alike extolling the film’s praises, Gone With The Wind began its final ascent to the Oscars.

In all the film earned a staggering nine statuettes – a then record sum. Today, it is the anomalies that stand out more than the list of merits for achievement. Clark Gable did NOT win for Rhett Butler. That honor went to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr. Chips. Hattie McDaniel beat out Olivia de Havilland in the Best Supporting Actress category to become the first black actress thusly honored.

Delivering one of two of the best speeches ever given at an awards ceremony, McDaniel concluded her oration with “I sincerely hope that I will always be a credit to my race and will always hold this as a beacon for whatever else I may achieve.” Vivien Leigh delivered the more dispassionate acceptance of the evening with, “I should like to dedicate this award, if I may, to that figure in whom all points of Gone With The Wind meet…David Selznick.”

TRAGEDIES BEHIND THE CURTAIN

In May of 1943, as Gone With The Wind was accumulating a stunning array of accolades that seemed both infinite and indeed well-deserved, an aircraft carrying film alumni Leslie Howard en route to England from Gibraltar was shot down by the Germans. Speculations over the cause of the tragedy have veered wildly between Axis misinformation - that quietly assumed Winston Churchill was aboard the plane, to leaked knowledge about the actor having been on a secret intelligence mission for the British government. One point on which all could agree – one of Britian’s finest actors had died needlessly. He was the film’s second casualty.

Even before principle photography had wrapped up, screenwriter Sidney Howard had been killed in a tractor accident on his farm; his posthumous Oscar was a bitter epitaph to one of the finest scenarists and most intelligently written screenplays of his generation.

But perhaps most tragic of these was the loss of Margaret Mitchell, run down by a drunk driver on a warm August evening in 1949. Mitchell, who emphatically refused to even entertain the idea of writing a sequel to Gone With The Wind, had decided to go to the movies with her husband, John. Parking across the street from the theater, they had barely made it half way across the tarmac when a man with twenty-three prior drunk driving convictions lost control of his vehicle and struck the author head on. She died six days later.

During the latter years of change and decline in the film industry, Gone With The Wind has remained a vital cornerstone – both artistically and financially – though by the late 1940s only MGM was reaping its profits. In dollars adjusted for inflation, Gone With The Wind remains the most financially successful motion picture of all time.

David Selznick – whose personal and professional failures had cost him his studio by the mid-1950’s died of a heart attack on June 22, 1965.

On October 26, 1952, the film’s alumni lost gifted character actress, Hattie McDaniel to breast cancer.

Clark Gable would die of a heart attack in 1960, some would say, over stress brought on by costar Marilyn Monroe while shooting The Misfits. Gable’s death came with the added tragedy that his wife was pregnant with their first child – a son, named John Clark Gable, born March 20, 1961.

At the end of the decade, on July 7, 1967 Vivien Leigh succumbed to tuberculosis while preparing a comeback on the London stage. She was by that time long divorced from the man that had brought her to America in the first place - Lawrence Olivier, and rather a reclusive and troubled figure, prone to breakdowns and mental illnesses in the years leading up to her death.

On December 22, 1995 Butterfly McQueen became the latest casualty, burned to death in a house fire.

But the list of regretful loses in this artistic community that so idyllically came together for the creation of an enduring masterpiece does at least end on a high note – decidedly, on a living one. Olivia de Havilland remains the only living person associated with the film. The sister of actress Joan Fontaine, born July 1, 1916 in Tokyo Japan, de Havilland currently resides in Paris and is as spirited as ever. Her unerring zeal for talking about classic Hollywood and her participation in Gone With The Wind in particular has made her a true treasure of Hollywood’s glory days.

She is, to put it mildly – a grand lady of the old school and one of the last great vestiges directly linked to the golden age of Hollywood. While the currency of life dictates that we shall indeed have to say farewell to her too one day, Gone With The Wind has assured us of her formidable craftsmanship unto the ages and a presence preserved on celluloid for as long the preservation of great art and artists persists.

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Friday, February 24, 2006

THE BLONDE THAT GENTLEMEN PREFERRED...

by Nick Zegarac

“I want to be a big star more than anything,” an early press junket quotes Marilyn Monroe, “It's something precious.” Perhaps, but the most ethereal and mythologized creature in all of filmdom tragically proved too fragile and human once the flood lamps and press agents took over.

A decade later, a more seasoned Monroe would revise her initial dream with “A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night.” It was that sad little epitaph that book-ended her meteoric rise from obscurity to one of the most celebrated and instantly recognizable women in films during the 1950s. But what is it about Marilyn Monroe that keeps us enthralled forty plus years after her untimely death?

True, she parlayed stunning good looks into a career that saw her through everything from Royal Triton commercials and the dubious distinction of being Playboy’s first centerfold. She starred opposite some of Tinsel Town’s most popular leading men and had a galvanic reputation as everyone’s favorite dippy blonde. But others in her stock and trade have trod that same familiar ground, only to have the curtain of time come down prematurely on their legacy.

Yet Monroe, if not during her lifetime, then since, has proven to be a cultural sphinx. Like Garbo, she exudes haunted mystery. Few, even amongst her closest friends, can agree on who Marilyn Monroe really was. Like Harlow, the original platinum sensation, Monroe leans toward a parody of the erotic. But she despised the crass rubber stamping of her personality as a ‘sex symbol.’

“To put it bluntly, I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I'm working on the foundation.”

These shimmers of light and movement on camera were sandwiched between darker, more private times. She was almost smothered at age two, almost raped at age sixteen. And if her fame proved the aphrodisiac that brought her in contact with some of the most engaging male icons of her generation (Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller), that same maelstrom of success quickly washed them aside. At the other end of the spectrum was her frustrated romance with Jack Kennedy and untimely overdose (some say murder) that claimed her life.


Yet, Marilyn Monroe continues to haunt and taunt us from beyond the grave with her sugary sweet kisses, a rumpled set of flaxen curls and a “bo-bo-tee-boo” that no spectator sitting in the darkened recesses has ever been able to refuse. To men who would have desired to know her, she is the physical embodiment of a holiday in the sun; warm, sincere, yet intangible. For women, she remains the girl most envied and copied, yet strangely sympathized with; an innocent in an industry that never quite understood her.

But in the end, Marilyn Monroe represents that supple shadow or mirror on which is cast the assumptions of the ages; goddess, icon, and a good deal more than any woman should outwardly be, decidedly more than any man should ever have the right to possess. Time has been powerless to dull those reflections. And as the years pass, Marilyn Monroe becomes much more ours to extol than she ever was her own to treasure; the price of her fame undoubtedly her soul.

WHAT GIVES?

The Sad Unromantic Last Days of America’s Sex Goddess


“Bear in mind that the myth of Hollywood is far less than the reality!” – David Brown

It was a project begun in earnest, arguably in haste and with high expectations that ended in the tragic death of one of America’s best known and most beloved stars – Marilyn Monroe. By 1962, Monroe was 20th Century-Fox’s most bankable commodity since Shirley Temple; a troubled (some might say, troublesome) woman who’s familial past was littered in untidy demons that plagued the actress throughout her life.

George Cukor’s Something’s Gotta Give (1962) was to have been Marilyn Monroe’s 30th film – a landmark by anniversary standards. It was a remake of My Favorite Wife – a quaint Cary Grant/Irene Dunne screwball comedy from the 1940s about a woman who returns to her husband and children after missing, and presumed dead for almost five years. Monroe - who would turn 36 during the shoot; a prelude of the waning years in which that sex goddess persona she had so carefully crafted and maintained would undoubtedly have to yield to the aging process – perceived her role as a departure from the typical resident ditzy blondes she had played in the past.

To say that the final days of Marilyn Monroe were isolated and tragic is a foregone conclusion in retrospect – though few apart from director, George Cukor recognized the extent to which Monroe’s insular cocoon had damaged her own reputation, fragile ego and her ability to relate to anyone outside of a select fair-weather flock that included acting coach Paula Strasberg and publicist Pat Newcomb. “I don’t think they helped her at all” producer Henry Weinstein offered in a retrospective interview, “I think they just pumped her up so that they could use her.”

Monroe, who by this time had spent seven years under the tutelage of ‘method’ coaches Lee and Paula Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New York and, in that same interim had developed the dangerous habit of combining champagne with sleeping pills, had cultivated a legendary reputation for tardiness and costly delays. In an attempt to expand her range of authority and creative control, the actress had also founded Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1955: the result - Something’s Gotta Give would be co-produced by Marilyn and 20th Century-Fox. The joint venture also gave Marilyn director and script approval.

George Cukor, who had previously worked with Marilyn on the bombastic but abysmal Let’s Make Love (1960) reluctantly agreed to reunite with her on this project, but he quickly regretted his decision. Executive David Brown had initially proposed the project before being unceremoniously deposed in a backstage coup and replaced by producer, Henry Weinstein. The turn of events that removed Brown from the project had begun with the installation of Marilyn’s psychoanalyst Dr. Ralph Greenson and his friendship with Weinstein. Greenson convinced Fox studio brass that to surround Marilyn with close ‘friends’ could only help to bolster her spirits and contain her insecurities. Undoubtedly, the top brass agreed, though Cukor was forever bitter over Brown’s replacement – a friction that Weinstein seemed to deliberately exacerbate by leaving the director out of script supervision meetings.

For his part, Cukor’s initial attempts to maintain peace and order on the set, while at the same time coddling Monroe’s ego, was genuine. On this latter score he was greatly and inadvertently aided by Weinstein’s patience with Monroe – serving as the thankless go between Cukor and Paula Strasberg, whom Cukor absolutely despised. After Let’s Make Love, Cukor was well acquainted with Marilyn’s chronic illnesses and inability to work under any sort of schedule.

However, Weinstein was shocked and appalled when, after having screened Monroe’s luminous costume tests, he arrived at her Brentwood home for a consultation to find her sprawled out on her bed, nude and unconscious from an apparent overdoes of sleeping pills. Imploring the studio to suspend the project for at least one month, Weinstein’s pleas were rejected on the basis that the studio could not afford any more costly delays (Fox was, at this time, hemorrhaging money on the far off Italian shoot of Cleopatra, a film with its own litany of difficulties).

Instead, Cukor moved ahead with preproduction on the project. An exact replica of the director’s Brentwood Hills home was built by designer Gene Allen on a Fox sound stage and served as the film’s primary location for principle photography. The set also became a point of interest for the Shah and Empress of Iran while on their goodwill tour. Although most of Hollywood turned out – understandably agog – to meet royalty, Marilyn remained conspicuously absent from the fray. Her official excuse given to Weinstein was that she did not approve of the Shah’s anti-Israel policies. However, at the time of the Shah’s visit, Monroe had already been absent from the project for nearly a week, with varying claims to ill health brought on by acute sinusitis, the flu and a respiratory infection.

Monroe’s tardiness was only one reason why the project had fallen behind. Even before a single strip of film had been shot, Something’s Gotta Give veered $300,000 over budget on script rewrites alone. Beginning with a draft by Arnold Schulman (that Cukor found unsatisfactory), then another by Nunnally Johnson (who had crafted the Monroe mega hit, How To Marry A Millionaire 1953), and finally with writing credit exclusively assigned to Walter Bernstein, the project seemed plagued by setbacks from the start.

Eventually, a quiet rift developed on the set with loyalties divided between Cukor and those backing Henry Weinstein. Though Cukor tried his best to keep some semblance of a united front, his faith in the project and attempts at harmony were increasingly being thwarted by Monroe’s failure to show up on the set. Working around Marilyn’s absences, Cukor eventually reached a stalemate in which shooting could no longer progress without the actress’ involvement.

Though Dr. Greenson and Marilyn’s regular physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg attempted to ply the actress with various medications and almost daily psychiatric counseling, her work ethic worsened. On April 23rd, 1962 Marilyn was granted a one week retreat at the Actor’s Studio – a move that invigorated her resolve for the project, but infuriated Cukor when she arrived at Fox with Paula Strasberg in tow.

Strasberg’s reputation for undercutting directorial authority was well entrenched in Cukor’s recent memory. Her involvement with Marilyn on the set of Something’s Gotta Give proved no exception. Originally, Monroe had sought out the Strasbergs to gain respect and credibility for her craft, releasing a statement to the press, that her greatest goal was to become “a good actress” – rather than a joke, which she believed was Hollywood’s current impression of her acting prowess. Yet, if the actress was dedicated to improving her thespian talents, her personal life was exemplified by manic bouts of desperation that made her emotions spin out of control.

Haunted by childhood memories of her biological father’s rejection and a mother whose revolving door inside various mental institutions had begun to mirror her own instabilities, Monroe’s private life traveled the dark roads paved with failed marriages, botched abortions and rumors of torrid liaisons between the President of the United States and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. All of these personal failures and anxieties were undoubtedly exacerbated by Henry Weinstein’s sudden revocation of Marilyn’s pre-arranged time off to attend the Kennedy inaugural in New York. Defiant, and perhaps self-assured that her place at Fox was secure, Monroe renounced both her producer’s wishes, and the studio’s edict to perform the now legendary, Happy Birthday Mr. President.

The pall cast by this gesture was sufficient enough to turn the tide of concern for Marilyn’s health against her. Interoffice memos that had once stated cancellations due to “ill health” were revised to read “due to Miss Monroe’s failure to show up” on any delay incurred afterward. Perhaps more than anyone else on the set, George Cukor regarded this latest episode as a personal betrayal. Until then, he had been Marilyn’s greatest champion on the set – bolstering the morale and ever-convincing cast and crew that the final on camera results would counterbalance whatever animosity had been incurred.

But even Cukor was ready to forgive his star when on May 23rd she appeared healthy and happy to shoot her nude scene in the swimming pool – the first ever attempted by a major Hollywood star. Taking advantage of the paparazzi, Monroe discarded her flesh-colored body suit midway through the shoot in a bit of playful exposition that quickly turned into a public relations feeding frenzy. She appeared as the top story on all the national and international film magazines.

After viewing select footage of the sequence, Fox executives were equally ecstatic. Their euphoria however was short lived. On Friday, May 25th Marilyn unexpectedly left Fox and for all intensive purposes disappeared for the weekend, emerging from her private escapade on the following Monday as an emotional wreck, and with yet another health excuse not to show up for work. Her stalemate lasted three days.

In the final few days that remained between the time Marilyn returned to the set on June 1st to celebrate her birthday and June 4th, the day both Cukor and costar Dean Martin had decided they had had enough of being manipulated, Marilyn’s psychiatrist, Dr. Greenson begged the front offices not to fire Monroe from the project. However, on June 6th, in a rare outburst for which he had not been known, Cukor openly expressed his frustrations to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, even going so far as to renounce his star and make the assessment that her career in Hollywood was officially over. On June 8th 1962, Fox concurred with Cukor’s spur of the moment. They fired Marilyn from Something’s Gotta Give.

However, when Fox announced that other stars were being considered from the project, including Kim Novak and Lee Remick (who had actually been fitted in Marilyn’s costumes), Dean Martin effectively pulled the plug on the project by pointing out that contractually he had costar approval. Martin’s final edict stood – no Marilyn/no movie. On June 11th 104 contract workers were given their pink slips and the production closed down for good.

To her credit, Marilyn’s initiative and resolve were inspired. Squeezed to the point of extinction by the press coverage she had been receiving, Marilyn launched into a one woman media blitz that she hoped would resurrect not only her reputation but the film. Providing indiscriminate interviews to anyone who would listen, Marilyn also allowed photographer George Barris unprecedented access, and gave an exclusive to Life reporter Richard Meryman, whom she quietly implored “please, don’t make me look like a joke.”

The joke…it seems…was to be on the rest of the world. For on Saturday August 4th Marilyn politely turned down a dinner invitation extended by Pat and Peter Lawford in favor of a quiet evening at home with her housekeeper, Eunice Murray. What occurred at that Brentwood home thereafter remains a mystery. Though conspiracy theorists have placed everyone from the mafia to Robert and John Kennedy at the scene during those final fateful hours – one certainty is indisputable: Marilyn Monroe was dead. An autopsy revealed large quantities of Seconol and Chloral Hydrate in her system – neither prescribed by either Greenson or Engelberg. A distraught Joe DiMaggio arranged for her Forrest Lawn burial – a quiet gathering that excluded all of Marilyn’s Hollywood entourage. For decades thereafter, the former baseball great would replenish Marilyn’s vault marker with fresh flowers.

In the interim, Marilyn Monroe, the actress, has transcended mere stardom. Her iconography is more galvanic and resilient today than at the time of her death. She is arguably the most glamorous star to emerge from post-war American films, and the patron saint for all the scarred and tragic Hollywood horror stories that had gone before her and have come to light since.

In 1995, 20th Century-Fox finally edited the 500 minutes of raw Cinemascope footage that Cukor shot into a reconstruction of Something’s Gotta Give. Although incomplete, the film as it is remains a final glimpse into the psyche of Marilyn Monroe – unfortunate star and mischievous woman who so readily found her self-worth miscast in the persona she had helped to create; one that ultimately consumed her in the end.

What is past is prologue. The legacy of Marilyn Monroe lives on.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Thursday, February 23, 2006

INCOMPARABLE FRED...

The Astaire Style Debunked

by Nick Zegarac

“I don’t think about art…I just dance.”

The more one attempts to critique ‘the Astaire style’ the more a quiet discovery is made in the need to tread lightly on the degree of truth in that statement. Explications merely generate praise. But Fred Astaire’s dancing is all about passion; a brooding intangible made obvious only in hushed observance of the man in motion. No snapshot from our collective memory will suffice. Instead we are drawn into a false acceptance that a lack of rehearsing has made such liquid perfection not merely effortless, but possible.

In only ten films with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire patented a trademark of refined elegance that was a far cry from his initial assessment made at RKO Studios of “can’t act, can’t sing...can dance a little.” Although Fred was concerned that his partnership with Ginger - like the one before it with his sister, Adele – might brand him as merely half of a dancing act, he was also quite often the first to acknowledge that his terpsichorean skills were merely a serviceable means to an end.

It seems ironic then, and just a tad frightening, to consider how close we came to losing the better half of Fred Astaire’s prowess to his own persistent desire for retirement. Had rival dancer Gene Kelly not broken an ankle during rehearsals on Easter Parade Fred might never have returned to films. Despite the fact that many of his subsequent roles made sardonic jabs at the top hat and tails as passé, there is no denying that each time Fred Astaire suited up and took to tripping the light fantastic it became both lighter and even more fantastic than anyone expected.

Yet the juxtaposition of Fred’s 1951 tributary Oscar for “artistry” in raising “the standard of all musical pictures” is strangely at odds with the fact that, as an artist, Astaire was hotter than he had ever been in his career. Even when the movie musical waned in popularity Astaire’s appeal with audiences did not. He made the successful segue from film to television, continued his film career in comedic and dramatic roles on the big screen, and, was even nominated as Best Supporting Actor for 1974’s The Towering Inferno.

Yet despite these later accolades, his worldly reputation has remained as that of ‘Mr. Astaire;’ “the grand old man of the dance”. His place with top hat, white tie and tails is a shimmering legacy firmly secured in the cinema firmament at least as long as spats are considered stylish and chic hoofing remains impartial to horses. Perhaps then, no greater assessment of ‘the Astaire style’ exists than the one offered by friend and lyricist, Jerome Kern. “Astaire can’t do anything bad.”

The realization comes much later – that he never did.


@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

WHERE IS EGYPT?

The Debacle that remains Cleopatra (1963)


At least in conception, Cleopatra was meant to be a resplendent groundbreaking epic, with lavish sets by John DeCuir, and, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz. That the film quickly degenerated into glaring example of colossal micro mismanagement speaks more to the fate of bad-timing and sad demise of the studio system. Even before cameras rolled on a single strip of useable footage in June of 1962, Cleopatra was already three times more expensive than the titanic Ben-Hur (1959). Rounded up in today’s dollars, Cleopatra is a $440 million dollar epic that, at the time of its release barely recouped half its initial cost. Yet, if the final results veered more accurately toward Newsweek’s review as “a series of coming attractions for something that will never come” the initial giddy anxiety that fueled excitement in the corporate boardrooms at 20th Century Fox at the start of the project easily rivaled its catastrophic box office returns.

Urged on by nervous Fox President, Spyros P. Skouras, executive David Brown explored the Fox script archives for a project that could be quickly and easily remade. The studio’s recent insidious run of back luck and anemic receipts on such misguided ventures as The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) and Satan Never Sleeps (1962) needed to be offset. In actuality, Fox was no more or less well off in their feature ventures than most of its competition.

The success of television had uniformly cut theater attendance by nearly forty percent. With the added stress of being forced to divest the studio of its theater chain, Fox began to pillage its history to survive. Skouras sold the backlots to high rise development. But the financial reprieve from that sale was a temporary solution at best.

In his archival research, David Brown rediscovered Cleopatra – the 1917 Theda Bara star-maker that had yielded phenomenal profits for Fox during the silent era. At one point the project seemed destined as a modestly budgeted (under two million) sword and sandal quickie starring Joan Collins. Yet, two overriding factors prevented the project from proceeding as planned; gross naiveté on the part of Fox management and their acceptance of Walter Wanger to produce the film.

Wanger – once a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood - had been relegated to making B-movies after a crime of passion sent him to prison for four months. That crime involved an extramarital infidelity between Wanger’s wife (actress Joan Bennett) and her agent. Whereupon discovering the two, Wanger attempted to remedy their infidelity by shooting his wife’s lover in an area vital to the consummation of their affair. Although his marriage to Bennett did not survive this assault and incarceration, Wanger’s career thankfully did, and with the surprise1958 Oscar-winning hit, I Want To Live.

Given a mere sixty days to shoot Cleopatra with free reign over Fox’s list of contract players, Wanger instead spent pocket change to hire set designer, John DeCuir. Nicknamed “the city planner,” DeCuir’s pitch in inner-corporate salesmanship (including many paintings and models) easily convinced Fox executives that their initial haste in launching Cleopatra was indeed entitled more circumspection. With the film’s budget raised to $5 million the studio began courting such high hat talent as Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn.

Wanger, however, had already decided upon his lead: Elizabeth Taylor. Although the top brass at Fox quietly urged for further reconsideration, Wanger persisted in wooing the actress. Taylor had been viable box office in the past. However, by the rigid standards of 1950s propriety and decorum, Taylor’s string of nonchalant marriages (to hotel tycoon Nicky Hilton, actor Michael Wilding and producer Mike Todd) had dimmed her allure considerably. If Todd’s death in a plane crash temporarily bolstered public sympathy for Elizabeth Taylor – the widow – Taylor’s overnight liaisons with Eddie Fisher (then married to actress, Debbie Reynolds) proved cutthroat to her own popularity.

For her part, Taylor found Wanger’s offer absurdly amusing until he acquiesced to her off the cuff demand for a million dollar salary. Two other demands made by Taylor sealed the film’s costly fate: having it shot abroad, and, in Todd A-O; the superior but expensive widescreen process patented by her late husband.

The facilities eventually chosen were England’s Pinewood Studios – primarily due to the fact that the British government’s tax plan allowed Fox a considerable subsidy, provided that the project employ a certain percentage of British cast and crew. To this end, Peter Finch, Steven Boyd and Keith Baxter were cast opposite Taylor (as Caesar, Marc Anthony and Octavian respectively). $600,000 was spent transforming the backlot into the port city of Alexandria – an undertaking so vast in its scope and detail that Pinewood ran ads in cinemas to recruit its craftsman and construction personnel.

At the behest of Spyros Skouras, Hollywood veteran Rouben Mamoulian was assigned to direct. Although Mamoulian’s forte had always been the coaching of stellar performances from temperamental beauties, on Cleopatra, the director had decidedly met his match in Elizabeth Taylor. The two were chronically embroiled in heated debates over the script which Mamoulian preferred but the actress felt was clumsy and awkward. In between debating the point, Taylor’s health deteriorated. Carried to and from the set for screen tests only – Taylor eventually abstained from the shoot entirely, while Mamoulian attempted to photograph any and all sequences that did not involve her participation.

The production also ran into a union snafu over the presence of Hollywood hairstylist, Sidney Guilleroff – whom Taylor had insisted upon, but who was in direct violation of the agreement affording the production its British tax breaks. Costly delays, Taylor’s chronic absences, and, the erosion of exterior sets due to bad weather, eventually put a strain on all concerned. Assured of his own importance to the project, Mamoulian put forth an ultimatum to Fox that Taylor counterbalanced with one of her own; the result – on January 18th, 1961, the director was fired and replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Indulging on a restful retreat at actor Hume Cronyn’s island home, Mankiewicz at first refused the project – then reluctantly accepted when Skouras finagled a deal worth several million dollars. To say that Mankiewicz’s involvement elevated the project to A-list status is an understatement. With his signing, rumors abounded that Cleopatra would be the greatest film of all time. After all, Mankiewicz had been the golden boy with back to back writing/directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). On February 1, 1961, Mankiewicz arrived in London. He was appalled by both the script and the condition of the sets at Pinewood. But an even greater concern lay ahead.

Brought on by England’s frigid damp conditions, on March 4, Elizabeth Taylor quietly slipped into a coma with a virulent strain of pneumonia at the Dorchester Hotel. An emergency tracheotomy barely saved her life. Her pending convalescence convinced Mankiewicz of two decisions; first – that he now had a film without a star, and second – that Taylor’s lengthy recovery had afforded him enough time to rewrite the script from scratch.

The English set was closed and dismantled. The production moved to Italy’s Cinecitta Studios in Rome where Mankiewicz personally supervised John DeCuir’s lavish reconstructions of Cleopatra’s palace and the Roman forum – the latter, built to three times its original’s scale, because DeCuir felt that the real forum was simply not impressive enough. With $12 million dollars already invested, Mankiewicz began his script rewrites based on Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Forced to recast the film – Rex Harrison, Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell assumed the roles of Caesar, Marc Anthony and Octavian. Burton’s involvement in particular, proved costly – with Fox buying out his Broadway contract in the musical Camelot for a whopping $250,000.

What began as a ten week production schedule quickly escalated into a ten month ordeal buffered by more bad timing and ill-planning. At one point, it was estimated that Cleopatra’s shoot was costing Fox $70,000 per day. After perusing the budgetary concerns and realizing that he could not go back to Fox shareholders with the bottom line, Spyros Skouras quietly fired Cleopatra’s accountant – installing one of his own to draft a faux budget that appeared more manageable on paper. In the mean time, money hemorrhaged from every facet of the production. Over 20,000 costumes were redesigned – only a fraction of which survived in their relocation from Pinewood to Cinecitta. On November 17, Elizabeth Taylor went into overtime at a cost of $50,000 per week.

Mankiewicz, a skilled, though a slow, writer, had penned only one third of the first draft of the script in long hand before being forced to begin shooting on September 29, 1961. Understandably, Skouras needed footage to justify the growing expenditures, but the net result of his haste was that Cleopatra commenced in sequential order rather than in a manner that maximized the efficiency of both its cast and crew. Assigned the thankless duty of discovering financial corruption on the set (and there was much to uncover), production manager Johnny Johnston suffered a fatal heart attack. His position remained unfilled for months, even as the set became a party Mecca for visiting dignitaries and the press corps.

Meanwhile, the cast once again grew restless. Extras complained to the union over their skimpy costumes; Rex Harrison threatened not to show up for work if his car and chauffeur were taken away to curb expenses, and, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began what would eventually be labeled a legendary liaison in the annals of film history.

From his dressing room, Roddy McDowell telephoned Darryl F. Zanuck (the former President of Fox – currently making films independently in France) for any work to fill his hours. Zanuck obliged both McDowell and Richard Burton with cameos in The Longest Day, a WWII depiction of the allied invasion of Normandy. However, when Zanuck’s request for two million dollars to complete his own film was denied by the front offices in Los Angeles, the old mogul’s concerns turned on the mismanagement of the company.

As the Burton/Taylor romance sizzled both on and off camera, Burton’s wife of thirteen years, Sybil eventually discovered the truth and departed Rome in a huff to pursue divorce proceedings. She was merely hurt. But Eddie Fisher was humiliated by the affair and visibly distraught. With matters thoroughly exposed, the paparazzi laid siege on every movement the couple made, transforming the already elephantine side show into a three ring circus in unbridled excess and debauchery. The Vatican went so far as to demand that someone remove Elizabeth’s children from her custody. On the floor of Congress, senators bandied about the prospect of revoking her U.S. citizenship. In the meantime, Eddie Fisher was mobbed by the press in New York, to whom he was only too willing to provide the full story and regain – at least, in part – some of the empathy for his own damaged person and career.

While Fox executives relished the spectacular obsession from abroad (the film was almost a daily gossip item in the news), their worst fears had begun to be realized at home. After spending three million on Marilyn Monroe’s Something’s Got To Give – something indeed did. Monroe was fired from that film and the production permanently shelved. The loss meant that Fox had no new projects either in preproduction or ready for general release. From that moment on, except for a skeleton crew, 20th Century-Fox effectively closed its operations.

Zanuck had had enough. When asked to quickly rush The Longest Day into theaters for some much needed quick cash, the producer instead flew to Los Angeles, attacked the board of directors on their excessive spending, and effectively reclaimed control as head of the studio. Walter Wanger was stripped of his command on the set – a moot distinction since his health had forced him to relinquish almost all his duties to Mankiewicz months earlier. Mankiewicz was given three months to wrap production on Cleopatra – a daunting task even as Elizabeth Taylor finished her participation with a hefty $7 million dollar pay check. Moving his shoot to Egypt, Mankiewicz toiled relentlessly to finish the film’s battle sequences. Yet, even in his final flourish of creative genius, Mankiewicz was inexcusably hampered by Fox’s sudden penny pinching, and instinctively concluded that Cleopatra would never be a great film. He was, however, committed to making it a good one.

To this end, Mankiewicz envisioned two separate, three hour general releases; Caesar and Cleopatra, and, Anthony and Cleopatra. After prescreening his five hour rough assembly for Zanuck, a rupture in this artistic license occurred. Unimpressed by what he deemed as wanton wasteful extravagance with no melodramatic spark infused, Zanuck fired Mankiewicz on the spot, and began to hack into the raw footage himself.

Although a skilled editor, Zanuck was hampered in his frustrations by the fact that no final shooting script had ever been approved – hence, it was impossible for anyone other than Mankiewicz to know for sure where all the pieces fit. Rehired, Mankiewicz spent twenty hours a day re-cutting his opus magnum into one, four hour and thirteen minute epic. But Zanuck was still unimpressed by what he saw. Reluctantly, he reordered director and cast to El Maria, Spain to reshoot the film’s opening sequence in February of 1963.

Meanwhile, Fox’s publicity department crafted a national ad campaign with bizarre tie-ins in everything from geometric haircuts to Revlon eye make-up. Even Playboy Magazine got involved with an exposé on “The Chicks of Cleopatra.” Believing all this over inflated hype, New York’s famed Rivoli Theater cut a one million, two-hundred and fifty thousand dollar exhibitor’s check to Fox – the highest sum ever paid to premiere a movie anywhere in the world. Their blind faith was only superficially justified with sold out seating for the first four months of general release.

However, two books released just prior to the premiere, and chronicling the turbulent behind-the-scenes chaos; The Cleopatra Papers, and My Life with Cleopatra, did much to damage the film’s overall popularity. Yet even these literary assaults paled in comparison to Elizabeth Taylor’s outspoken public condemnation of the movie. Indeed, Taylor refused to attend the New York premiere – a glittering festivity hosted by Burt Parks and aired live as part of The Tonight Show.

She was forced by Fox into making an appearance for the British premiere in August of 1963, and afterward took her revenge by declaring outwardly that “the final humiliation was having to go and see it.” By then, Zanuck had cut the film even further to squeeze in at least two viewings per day at just over three hours in length. Any hope for the salvation of Cleopatra as one of the all time masterpieces of American cinema was henceforth dismantled – even if artist Andy Warhol did declare Cleopatra to be the most influential film of the sixties.

The irony behind this back story is that in reviewing the finished film in its longer, four hour U.S. incarnation – and forty years removed from all its backstage tabloid-fodder and international hype, there is a great deal to admire and absorb; much more than critics of its day or many since have ever given the film credit for. Wanger and Mankiewicz, whose careers never recovered from the humiliation of producing one of the costliest flops in movie history (the film took in a, then, record $24 million dollars that did not offset its $44 million dollar production costs) could be proud of the fact that what remains in tact today is arguably some of the most grandly amusing and sumptuously fulfilling spectacle ever put on the screen. To his dying day, Mankiewicz had hoped that Fox would eventually see the light and reassemble the story as two separate films – as he had originally envisioned.

It seems that perhaps at long last, that hope is on the verge of rediscovery – though it has come too late for Mankiewicz; he died on February 5, 1993. Beginning in 1995, Fox launched a world wide search for the missing footage – nearly three hours in all, and perhaps sitting somewhere in a vault or under a pile of discarded memorabilia, merely waiting for this day to arrive.


What a thrill then it would be to have the opportunity to re-judge Cleopatra as the masterpiece it might have been instead of the lavish claptrap it ultimately became. Will we ever see that day arrive? Perhaps we shall – as long as there are film scholars and historians that care, and dreamers who would like to remember something grander than what they received on June 12, 1963.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

BACKSTAGE INTRIGUES


THE PRIVATE LIVES OF BETTE & ERROL

By 1939 both Bette Davis and Errol Flynn stars had ascended the upper echelons of the cinema firmament. Where only a few short years before neither would have anticipated such heights in professional success, each was now a qualified box office draw and a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. It therefore seemed preordained that these two rising titans would be teamed in one of the most anticipated and lavish spectacles to be brought to the big screen; The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex.

Based on Maxwell Anderson’s play “Elizabeth, the Queen,” the title presented a quandary in billing in that it totally eclipsed Flynn’s character, Sir Robert Devereux. And although Davis campaigned hard to keep the title in tact, it was mutually – if reluctantly - decided upon that the working title of the film would make reference to both characters. After briefly toying with the working title of “The Knight & the Lady,” the final decision on the more lengthy The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex was approved by all and the project began in earnest.

Previously, Flynn had costarred with Davis in The Sisters (1938). It had not been a happy experience. For Davis, possessed no subterfuge when it came to expressing her likes and dislikes on the set – and she emphatically disliked Errol Flynn, whom she considered a ‘pretty boy’ with talents substandard to her own. To be certain, Flynn never took himself seriously – though he did pay – if not concerted – then at least some attention to his prowess as an actor. It is precisely this ‘devil-may-care’ quality that made his acting seem effortless.

But to Davis’s maniacal perfectionism, Flynn appeared unprofessional, aloof and quietly noncommittal. For example; in preparation as Queen Elizabeth, Davis shaved her own hairline back and donned several, decidedly unflattering, red wigs to assimilate herself into the role. A more vane actress might have merely chosen to wear a flesh-colored skull cap under the same set of circumstances.

On Elizabeth & Essex’ Davis repeatedly urged Jack Warner to cast her idol, Laurence Olivier instead. Warner, whom both Davis and Flynn were under contract to, was accustomed to having in his own way in most things. But Warner’s iron-fisted approach to making movies had already been tested in 1939 with an outright rejection from independent producer, David O. Selznick to have both Flynn and Davis costar in Selznick’s pending production of Gone With The Wind. Although, on this project Warner would be forced, on more than one occasion, to acquiesce to the demands of his female star – he was nevertheless resilient to casting Flynn opposite Davis from the start.

To this end – and perhaps as sour grapes and sibling rivalry at having lost out on the Selznick deal - Warner mounted one of its most sumptuous and lavish spectacles with ‘Elizabeth & Essex’ – sparing no expense on costumes by Orry-Kelly and several mammoth sets. Both the sets and costumes would appear – almost verbatim (although in B&W) – in another Flynn epic, Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Hawk the following year. If not in running time, then at least in scope, ‘Elizabeth & Essex would rival the opulence of Gone With The Wind with its magnificent Technicolor photography. It was the beginning of a battle royale that would have director, Michael Curtiz ruing the day he decided to tackle the project.

The cast was rounded out by the stellar contract players – including long time Flynn costar – Olivia de Havilland (as Lady Penelope), Nannette Fabray (billed as Fabares in the credits, as Mistress Margaret), Vincent Price (Sir Walter Raleigh) and the immaculate, Donald Crisp (Francis Bacon). Of particular note is de Havilland’s bit part. It was deemed as punishment for the actress having had the impertinence to cajole Jack Warner’s wife into convincing her husband that she should play Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind. Warner had flat out refused de Havilland’s personal pleas to appear in Selznick’s film. He had even forbidden her from partaking in a screen test – which de Havilland nevertheless completed in secret at Selznick’s request.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex commenced at a gruelingly slow pace. Throughout the shoot, costars were amazed at the level of mutual disdain brewing between Davis and Flynn. Nanette Fabray recalls how, after each take, the actors would immediately turn their backs to one another and disappear quietly into their own corners of the set without so much as a word. Possibly Flynn harbored the same animosities towards Davis, though perhaps he merely desired to temper her vane dislike by simply removing himself from the equation whenever possible.

However, during one particular scene it became quite obvious to all that Flynn’s own level of tolerance had been pushed to its limit. Robert Devereux has just returned from a successful campaign in Spain that nevertheless has met with the queen’s disapproval on all fronts. Called to court to explain why no Spanish treasures were seized during his siege, Elizabeth’s humiliation of Devereux is predicated more on the fact that she is passionately in love with him but cannot outwardly show her affections by affording him the luxury of personal accolades.

After stripping Devereux of his rank, the discarded warrior turns to leave court without being dismissed. “Sir Robert,” the queen declares, enraged and approaching, “You dare turn your back on Elizabeth…you dare?!?” She slaps him in the face – more the puzzled affectation of a woman scorned than a queen.

Under normal circumstances, slaps are usually rehearsed and faked with only a light touch and sound effect added in post-sync. But Davis, perhaps out of spite for having to ‘endure’ Flynn rather than Olivier as her costar, hauled off and belted Flynn across his cheek with her hand, atop which was perched a jewel-encrusted ring. Both the ring and fist left welts across the actor’s cheek.

In the scene as it remains in the film, Flynn is understandably shaken, surprised and almost immediately angered by Davis’ assault. Yet he manages to deliver his final verbal blow to her with equal scarring aplomb, “I would not have accepted that from your father, the king. Much less will I accept it from a king in petticoats!”

Despite these mutual animosities that continued as a daily occurrence on the set, both actors were turning in the performances of their respective careers. Oddly enough, none of their spiteful backstage intrigues seemed to have found their way into the love scenes as they unfolded for all to see during daily rushes. Indeed, in viewing the film from the vantage of nearly seventy years removed, there is a longing, pining and distinct chemistry between Elizabeth and Robert that is so natural, vibrant and stimulating that it seems grossly impossible to even imagine the two actors barely able to stand one another between camera setups.

However, Davis frequently complained of Flynn throughout the shoot – both to the other actors and particularly to Jack Warner. On several occasions it is rumored that the iron mogul himself, in anticipation of being brow-beaten by Davis, took to hiding in his private Men’s room.

And although there was no love lost between Davis and Flynn for many years afterward, an interesting postscript follows. In the mid-1960s, Olivia de Havilland, who had remained Davis’ friend throughout the years, was summoned by Davis to Warner Brothers to screen one of her old films. The film Davis chose for their viewing was The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex. Upon the final fade out, Davis reportedly turned to de Havilland as said, “My God, he’s marvelous. I was wrong, so very wrong, about him all this time.” The compliment came too late. Flynn had died of a heart attack in 1959.

Flynn, as always, cut a dashing figure in tights. As Sir Robert however, his performance was enriched, perhaps by these conflicts endured backstage, or perhaps simply through a maturity in his craft – to a level that few of his subsequent endeavors would either reach or top.

When it was all said and done the film proved to be one a thrilling good show. Buttressed by a pronounced and melodic score from Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and under the masterful direction of Michael Curtis, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex was an unqualified success. That, it emerged as only a modest triumphant at the box office seems to attest more to the fact that 1939 was a zenith year for entertainment. In the shadow of Gone With The Wind all other films understandably paled by comparison.

However, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex did not cheat its audience of a good time. Rather, in its talky excess and idiosyncratic charm of watching Davis and Flynn stake one another like a pair of hungry leopards, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex delivered the sort of melodramatic spectacle that continues to find its audiences engaged, if for no other reason than to see these two titans at the top of their game, and, in blazing Technicolor.

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Friday, February 17, 2006

ERROL FLYNN


Blueprint for a Tasmanian Devil


What is it about Errol Flynn that women continue to find so attractive? True, he is the only man to ever make leotards seem the height of viral masculinity. An adventuresome rake, whose eclectic background included stints in professional athletics, government service and panning for gold, his restless wandering could not be tamed by any singular pursuit.

Eventually, Flynn found employ for his dashing good looks as a matinee idol. But the romantic swath he cut on celluloid paled by comparison to his scandalous penchant for playful after hours’ debauchery. To those who knew him best, Errol Flynn was as inwardly conflicted as he was outwardly misunderstood; an elegant troubled man who, in Flynn’s own words, “had an insatiable desire to run through the world and not be hemmed by anybody.”

He was twenty-six when relative obscurity gave way to superstardom; unable to claim youthful ignorance in his indiscretions, yet insufficiently matured to accept adult responsibility for them. His enigma as a rapscallion was well entrenched by the time rumors of Nazism and a sexual preference for underage girls became part of his swarthy tableau. Yet, neither a criminal charge of rape in 1942 nor his growing addiction to recreational morphine seemed to tarnish Flynn’s reputation as the dashing all-American ladies man.

However, his persona as a wanton reveler and astute womanizer seems to have been, at least in part and in retrospect, slightly exaggerated. Flynn was a family man in rogue’s garb and painfully self-destructive beneath his accomplished façade. Always too, there was some great sense of boredom about him – the notion that one lifetime could not contain all the living he would have desired for himself.

“The search for sensations has played a great part in my life,” Flynn explained in later years, “but there have been other quests.” Yet those ‘others’ have been eclipsed by that animal magnetism emanating off the silver screen. If Errol Flynn always returned to the faithful pure heart, often cast as Olivia de Havilland in his films, then beyond the footlights he was unwilling or, at the very least, unable to maintain fidelity in any of his relationships.

Even today, the moniker “in like Flynn” haunts his reputation with tall tales of sexual voracity. The slant of Errol Flynn’s iconography towards a beautiful and heroic paragon of manhood largely exists today thanks to his movies; and therein lays the great mystery of Errol Flynn. Was he vulnerable or insincere; genuine or just a great big tease adding new editions to his ever-expanding boudoir?

Perhaps, in the final analysis it is true what they say about the proverbial nice guy finishing last. Flynn’s bad boy image in private life became the perfect counterbalance to his on-screen nobleman. Tragically, any romantic trappings entertained by those who desired to know Errol Flynn better in real life proved all too incidental once the spotlight had been turned off.


@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

OPULENCE FOR IDIOTS


Why I Simply Adore the Hollywood Musical


It’s Thursday and I’m vacuuming. It could just as easily be any other day of the week. And for no apparent reason I suddenly find myself humming “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” – that shamelessly sexist little ditty that Irving Berlin penned for MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld back in 1936. The song has since been thoroughly exploited in umpteenth screen reincarnations – but never to more opulent effect. In my mind’s eye I recall the spiral staircase with its baroque architecture and draped silk bunting; its fifty watt candles; its dapper Dan’s playing faux Gershwin while sassy cat women prance about with sleek sophistication. The kitsch menagerie gives way to Dennis Morgan – dubbed by Allen Jones – doing a fine job of lip syncing Berlin’s lyrics as Virginia Bruce tops out in her Elizabethan collar and frills; then, that dizzying crane pull back, framing the whole excruciating spectacle in one mind-blowing master shot. It’s all there, jutting like the tower of Babylon up into the kilowatt heavens.


Sublime nirvana overtakes me right there in the living room – recalling the symmetry and incomprehensible perfection of the whole fine mess. The first time I beheld that magnificent spectacle I was a student in film discourses at Western University. I had to blink twice and pinch myself at least once as reminder; that the strange dichotomous relationship between fantasy and reality is awe-inspiring and dumb-founding at the same time. I am certain that since this spectacle had such a profound visceral effect on me it must have generated veritable goose pimples for audiences in 1936. And in a nutshell I have my answer; why I love the Hollywood musical. Because, I too believe that a relationship between suspended disbelief and reality is entirely plausible. Nothing or no one that has confronted me before or since has been able to shake that belief out of my head. And I don’t just like the idea – I love it.


If judging only by the film output of the 1930s one would never guess that the country was going through the Great Depression. The 30s were mythical in their escapist kitsch and ultra high glamour; both coping mechanisms for an impoverished age pretending that nothing was wrong. While I am constantly reminded by more refined critical and scholastic minds, that this sort of hollow sheen and prissy allure ought not inspire anything more than superficial praise, I find myself hypnotically returning to the splendor of that scene – each time falling further under its spell.


“But what does it all mean?” I am often challenged to defend my position; that there is something more than surface grace to behold. And therein I repeatedly find myself at a loss, for people and places like this do not exist in real life. So where is their social relevancy to ours? What is there that I can take from the celebratory experience and carry over into pragmatic applied living?


What I’d really like to say when challenged is something like “Don’t think. Just smile.” But instead I mutter the more congenial, “Well, nothing. You’re not supposed to glean anything but sheer enjoyment.”


This simple resolution to minds more affected and mired in complex thinking usual affords me no respect. So, I move further into musical lore in my feeble attempt to explain to those who refuse to believe as I do, in the suspended goodness of mankind as he bursts into song and dance under the most implausible circumstances.


“Well”, I continue, “if you recall, Oz’s Dorothy was quite right; those who look for their own heart’s desire beyond their backyard are sure to never find it.”


And now I have really done myself in – I’ve hit the pragmatist where it never hurts – in the heart - and proceed to get paint-balled with a litany of criticism about Dorothy, Ziegfeld and that funny little tune that continues to play like a broken music box inside my head.


“Musicals have no plot.”
“Yes they do.”
“What is it?”
“Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy sings song and gets girl.”

(slight pause and mild huff)

“Fine – then very little.”
“Agreed.”
“They’re stupid.”
“No they’re not.”
“Who just bursts into song out of the clear blue?”
“Me.”
“When?”
“Whenever – but mostly in the shower when no one’s around to hear, just in case I’m off key.”


I find that it is usually at this point in the conversation the person I am speaking to starts to get mildly agitated. Damned if I know why. I am still as cool and reserved as before.
“Answer me this,” I say, “When you’re all alone and busy at some work about the place, or driving with the radio turned off, don’t you ever suddenly think “Get Happy” and then have visions of Judy Garland dancing about your head?”


“What are you…gay?”


Decidedly not, though I am aware of Judy’s considerable influence over admirers of that persuasion.


Critic Richard Brandt has written that Hollywood was “a manufactured business, and the parts were the actors and actresses.” This is perhaps never more truthful a statement than when applied to the Hollywood musical. For in those extravaganzas one finds a devious conflict occurring between complete spontaneity and total structure. Imagine Gene Kelly suffering from the flu and squeezed into a shrinking woolen suit, yet bounding about the rain soaked pavement on the studio backlot for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as though he were made of air. Cold or no cold, the hours of rehearsal and immediate agitation from his itchy wool suit shrinking and sticking to him; these real circumstances are strangely absent from the moment at hand. Instead what is represented on screen is absolute freedom in self expression, quelled only after cynicism and plausibility – in the form of a suspicious cop – intrude.


“What about Julie Andrews?” I suggest.
“What about her?”
“Spinning on that hill top. Popping into chalk pavement pictures. Don’t you get it?”
“Get what?”


And now I calmly quote author and critic, Robert Towne, “You have to coat the pill with candy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”


I genuinely feel for this person who does not “get” my meaning behind Hollywood musicals, because there is so much there to enrich and stimulate from the mundane structure of modern life. Whenever I am down, or tired, or bereft of a single positive word left to say, I simply mutter a “Supercalafragalisticexpiala…” oh, you know the rest, and find, oddly enough, that whatever was lacking only moments before has miraculously been accounted for. I have indeed been paying attention to “that man behind the curtain” for a goodly number of years. What is behind the curtain has not stayed behind the curtain. Rather, it is just as relevant and satisfying today as it was sixty years ago.


That is why I continue to fix my star to Jiminey Cricket instead of Roger Rabbit; the former knew the power of blind wish fulfillment – the latter merely thought the whole concept a colossal joke. Times have changed, but the fundamental principles of love, peace, honor and inner tranquility – the blue prints for happy times if you like - have not, and these, in the very best vein of film tradition are amply represented in the Hollywood musical.


So, with my stored set of quotations at an end, and in quiet exhaustion, I stumble out with a belated submission to the discussion at hand.


“Fine. Ever seen The Song of Bernadette?”

It’s not a musical, but usually the answer is ‘No’. So I shrug my shoulders and paraphrase from the film’s prologue, “To those who believe, no explanation is necessary. To those who do not believe, no explanation is possible”, and then happily go on my way.


Surely I’m not a flaxen bubblehead for having gleaned and applied that positive mental outlook on life, and if musicals have helped to maintain that even keel then I will take the base, but timeless, allure of ‘shallow’ glamour over ‘stark’ realism in my cinema experience any day of the week. For as a great philosopher once said, “the road is for journeys”…or is it that Ford Envoy commercial that I’m thinking of now?

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).