Memo from David O. Selznick: The Corinthian, 1943

GreatImaginaryFilm-Caine_zpsfdf9dfa1Georgette Heyer created the “Regency Romance” genre. By 1940, she had published Georgian romances and a mystery and historical novels set during the Regency period. That year, she was working on a detective novel but found herself unable to concentrate on it due to her worries about the war. Instead, she dashed off a lighthearted romance set during the Regency period. The Corinthian would set the pattern for almost two dozen subsequent Heyer works and scores of books by her imitators.

While Heyer enjoyed popular success, critics ignored her work. Despite the cinematic possibilities of her novels, which combine romance, humor, intrigue, and adventure, filmmakers ignored her as well. Only two of her works have received film treatments—The Reluctant Widow became a British film called The Inheritance (1950), and Arabella was the basis for a German film in 1959.

As soon as I read about this blogathon, I knew I wanted to give Heyer life on screen. And, since I was dreaming, I decided to dream big. Few golden-age producers were as successful at adapting books for the screen as David O. Selznick. As a child he absorbed classics like David Copperfield and Anna Karenina, which he later brought to the screen. Throughout his career, he also adapted popular contemporary works, including Portrait of Jennie, Rebecca, and—of course—Gone With the Wind.

After completing the Academy-Award-winning Rebecca, Selznick liquidated his company and took a short break from filmmaking. As Irene Mayer Selznick described in her autobiography A Private View, Selznick was battling depression and amphetamine addiction during this period and found it impossible to make a sustained effort on any picture.

In my imaginary world, however, Selznick came across Heyer’s novel and found in reading it the same diverting escape she found in writing it. Believing that the movie-going public might be ready for a similar diversion, he determined to produce it. Production took place late in 1942 for an early 1943 release.

Producing an imaginary movie has many advantages; the greatest is that you don’t have to worry about studio contracts. In casting my movie, however, I have tried to stay somewhat within the realm of possibility. I nabbed my leading man before he started military service. For my leading lady, I chose a genuine Selznick discovery, although I moved up the date of her breakthrough. For the supporting cast and production staff, I sought people with whom Selznick had previously worked.

What follows are excerpts from Selznick’s imaginary memos about this film. Selznick was a legendary memo writer. In some cases, I have re-purposed his own words from the 1972 collection Memo from David O. Selznick to serve my film’s purposes.

Note: For those unfamiliar with The Corinthian, Wikipedia provides a good plot summary and detailed list of characters.

The Property

To: Miss Katharine Brown

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I have gone over and carefully thought about The Corinthian. I do feel that it has showmanship values, though it is a very simple and slight story compared to Gone With the Wind or Rebecca. For that reason, I have hopes that it might be simpler to film and relatively inexpensive, and the public might welcome it as an escape from the world situation. Obviously, we do not want to pay a large price for a book by an obscure author, so I would only recommend purchasing it if we can get a good bargain. If your information about Miss Heyer’s finances is correct, we should be able to do so.

The Casting

To: Mr. Daniel O’Shea*

For the role of Pen Creed, I think it is essential that we use a new face. As described by the author, the character is only 17 years old, with an innocent, open demeanor and a hint of merriment. It is essential that we cast someone with a combination of exciting beauty and fresh purity. (Another advantage to a fresh actress is that she won’t object to the haircut required for a character who disguises herself as a boy throughout most of the picture.)

Rhonda Fleming Source: Wikipedia

Rhonda Fleming
Source: Wikipedia

To: Mr. Daniel O’Shea

I am seriously considering Anne Baxter for the role of Pen. She did an excellent test for Rebecca, and the main strike against her was her youth. In The Corinthian, of course, that would be an asset. I have also considered Jennifer, but I don’t think she is the right type for this role.

We have another young woman named Rhonda Fleming under contract, and we are preparing a test for her. Since the plan is to film in Technicolor, her red hair would be an advantage, especially in the scene where Cedric Brandon recognizes her from her lock of hair. Of course, we would have to engage a dialogue coach for extensive work on her accent.

To: Mr. Daniel O’Shea

With Miss Fleming in place, the choice of a leading man with box office stature becomes critical. Heyer’s hero is a world-weary man of fashion, but he has a strong masculine presence that saves him from being a “pretty boy.” The character is about 30, and I think if we cast an actor much older than that, the pairing of him with Miss Fleming will be distasteful.

Robert Taylor Source: Wikipedia

Robert Taylor
Source: Wikipedia

Of course, the great difficulty is that most men of the right age are tied up with military service. The most perfect actor I can imagine for the role is Errol Flynn, but I don’t think this is the time to cast him in a romance with a teen-aged heroine. I’ve heard that we might be able to get Robert Taylor before he starts his service.

To: Mr. Daniel O’Shea

For the supporting characters, I think things will proceed most smoothly if we choose British actors in most cases. We should look at the actors used in Rebecca and Jane Eyre as a starting point. For the character of Lydia, it is important that we choose an actress who comes across as less mature and less clever than our heroine.

The Director

To: Mr. John Hay Whitney

In a director, we need someone with a light touch for comedy and experience with Technicolor. I wish I could use George, who has a great sense of the style of a book and of a picture and who could undoubtedly draw a good performance from Rhonda. Bill Wellman has the experience with color, but I don’t think he would be right for this picture. Someone like John Cromwell might be the safest choice, if we hold Mr. Menzies responsible for the physical aspects of the production and the final word on Technicolor issues.

The Script

To: Miss Katharine Brown

The ideal script, as far as I am concerned, would be one that contained very little original dialog. Dialog is one of the novel’s strengths, so we need a writer who will adapt it as faithfully as possible. Ben Hecht is good at conveying the mood of a novel, but I question whether he’s right because of the English atmosphere. Clemence Dane is a possibility, as is Aldous Huxley.

To: Mr. Aldous Huxley

With such a short novel, I think there is very little that can be cut without hurting the story. Certainly, the opening scene with Richard and his sister and mother should be shortened so the audience can meet the heroine more quickly. I would also recommend keeping the scenes relating to the diamond heist as short as possible. Overall, the film needs to have a brisk pace. Short scenes are at the very essence of good motion-picture making, and one of the great values that we have in this medium, by comparison with the stage.

I agree that the number of characters is high, but most are essential to the story. I don’t think we need to see the father of the Brandon brothers but can imply his character through their actions. I don’t think we need to see Pen’s intended either, which spares us the difficulty of casting a man “with a face like a fish.”

To Mr. Cromwell:

I think we must be very careful in both the script and in the reading of the lines by English actors to avoid anything which might be difficult for an American to understand—as to actual phrasing and as to dialect. This issue is most acute with Jimmy Yarde and his criminal slang. I think we should commission the script girl, or some other American, to watch this point carefully throughout the making of the picture and to call to your attention anything which she thinks is dangerous from this standpoint.

The Production and Post-Production

Beau Brummel. In the novel, he is a friend of the hero.

Beau Brummel. In the novel, he is a friend of the hero.

To: Mr. Cromwell

Regarding the wardrobe, I would like to be as historically accurate in the women’s costumes as possible, avoiding the mess MGM made of Pride and Prejudice. I trust Walter Plunkett and Rene Hubert when it comes to period costumes.

It might be wise to bring in Gile Steele to give the men’s costumes extra attention. Richard’s attention to his clothing is central to his character, but we have to make sure his costumes don’t look ridiculous to modern audiences, even if it means sacrificing some historical accuracy.

To: Max Steiner

In preparing your score, spend whatever time you have free in study of the music of the period.

To: Miss Katharine Brown

I will admit that I have had some concerns about the title, as I don’t think audiences will be familiar with the term as Heyer uses it. Any synonym I can think of, such as “dandy” or “bon vivant” has effeminate connotations we want to avoid. It will probably be best to stay with Heyer’s title and make the meaning clear in the script itself. My experience has been that if a book has succeed with a title that seems a bad picture title, picture producers are foolish to worry about it.

Cast

Richard Wyndham: Robert Taylor
Penelope Creed: Rhonda Fleming
Lord George Trevor: Robert Morley
Lady Louisa Trevor: Agnes Moorehead
Lady Aurelia Wyndham: Gladys Cooper
Melissa Brandon: Valerie Hobson
Beverley Brandon: Eric Blore
Cedric Brandon: Reginald Denny
Piers Luttrell: Hugh Marlowe
Lydia Daubenay: Joan Greenwood
Jimmy Yarde: Gordon Harker
Horace Trimble: Trevor Howard

* Executive Vice President and General Manager, David O. Selznick Productions, Inc.

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Carole Lombard, October 6, 1908-January 16, 1942

Carole Lombard was born on this date in 1908. I’ve always felt that, though she certainly had Golden-Age-Hollywood glamor, she also had a strangely modern quality–I can envision her as a 21st century movie star. Dell published this special magazine in 1942 after her death.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “Real Sentiment is Good”

It took me a long time to finish watching A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this week.

The first time I sat down to watch, life interrupted after 90 minutes. In the days that followed, I found myself procrastinating about watching the rest. Having seen the film several times, I knew exactly what was waiting for me.

Both the 1945 film and the Betty Smith novel it’s based on have occasionally drawn charges of sentimentality. In 1943, Time called the book “an old-fashioned family pudding of well-baked corn.”

According to literary critics Gerald C. Cupchik and Janos Laszlo, “sentimentality often involves situations which evoke very intense feelings: love affairs, childbirth, death” but does so with “reduced intensity and duration of emotional experience…diluted to a safe strength by idealisation and simplification.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s final  45 minutes do include death and childbirth and the hint of a love affair, but I don’t believe the movie dilutes or simplifies the emotions it elicits.

As director Elia Kazan said when speaking about the film years later, “Real sentiment is good.”

Tree explores a real part of growing up—becoming aware of your parents as flawed human beings. After losing her beloved father, Francie has to learn to see both her parents in a new way—as imperfect people who have loved her as best they could.

The performers bring warmth and humanity to their roles and ground the movie in “real sentiment.”

Peggy Ann Garner as Francie and James Dunn as Johnny Nolan are excellent, especially in the pivotal scene on Christmas night. Kazan drew on issues in their personal lives—Dunn’s alcoholism and Garner’s worry about her father in the Air Force—to shape their performances:

I have a book about child actors that describes Peggy Ann Garner as “a plain but realistic looking young lady with straight blond hair and a ski-jump nose.” I don’t think that’s quite fair, but Tree accentuates her “plainness” to help make her believable as Francie.

“They were both like children. Jimmy Dunn was a beautiful child…I treated him and Peggy the same way. I also threw them together a lot. I would tell Jimmy about her father being away and how much she missed him. I got him concerned about her. And I would tell her she was important to Jimmy and got her to love Jimmy…there is a scene later where Johnny and Kathy (sic) decide he must tell Francie that she has to quit school and go to work. There is no other way to afford the baby that’s coming. Johnny goes in determined, but before he can get to it, she tells him how much she wants to be a writer and his resolve melts. I didn’t need to do a lot of schmoozing before we shot that seen, as important and emotional as it was. The values were obvious and by then Jimmy loved Peggy as his own. How could any feelingful person not want Peggy Ann Garner to be anything she wanted?”

The casting of Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan is the biggest weakness I find in the film. McGuire gives a decent performance, but her luminous movie-star looks seem out-of-place in the gritty environment Kazan creates.

The first time I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, at Francie’s age, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Only as looking backward, as an adult, could I feel the full pain of Francie’s awakening to “the way things really are.”

The older I get, I think, the harder it’s going to be to watch those final 45 minutes.

Mr. Blandings: A Lighthearted Movie for a Somber Day

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a cute movie.

The opening narration, describing New Yorkers’ “carefree, orderly existence,” over traffic-jam footage, is cute.

The montage of Blandings family members arriving at their new home, with narrator Melvyn Douglas mimicking their responses, is cute.

The self-referential ending is downright adorable.

Some people use the word “cute” dismissively. Once, when I tried to wangle my seven-year-old daughter into a Gymboree outfit, she cried, “I don’t want to be cute; I want to be cool!” Personally, I have a higher-than-average cuteness tolerance (witness my devotion to Family Affair).

On a day like today, which holds so many somber memories, it’s comforting to escape into a lighthearted movie like Mr. Blandings.

A moment from the Blandings filming. Director H.C. Potter, left, was best known for his work on comedies.

Movie Impressions: The movie’s opening scenes, which depict a typical morning in the Blandings’ Manhattan apartment, are mostly quiet. A claustrophobic feeling builds as Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) negotiates overstuffed closets and a crowded bathroom. By the time Jim finds out that his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) has been pricing renovations—and finds how just how pricy those renovations will be—he is ready to escape the city.

(Reviewing the movie, Time took issue with the unrealistically large set that represents a New York apartment: “You could encamp a platoon of homeless veterans in the parlor alone.” This seems to be a perennial complaint about Hollywood depictions of Manhattanites’ homes.)

Once Jim makes up his mind to buy a country house, he lets nothing stand in his way, including reason, caution, or good advice from his lawyer and best friend, Bill. He pays well over the going rate for run-down house and 50 acres of land, fails to notice a clause in the contract that reduces the property size to 35 acres, refuses to let his lawyer renegotiate the price, and then balks at having a structural engineer examine the house.

“Why is he acting so stupid?” my husband asked at this point.

I didn’t have an answer, but I do find it interesting that in the Blandings’ marriage, the husband is the emotional, impulsive one. Grant’s ebullient screen persona and Loy’s placid one work perfectly for this twist on traditional gender roles.

The Blandings end up tearing down the dilapidated house and building a new one (of course, Jim authorizes the demolition before considering the mortgage implications). The mishaps that ensue will resonate with any homeowner. (The guy who digs their well reminds me of every contractor I’ve ever known.) Loy’s paint scene is a highlight—she requests such colors as an apple red “somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.” To the painter, this means “red.”

Adding to Jim’s distress is his growing suspicion that Bill and Muriel have feelings for each other. Critics hated this plot element, which wasn’t present in the popular novel this movie is based on.

“Eric Hodgins’ bestselling Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was a quietly hilarious account of a man’s troubles with a new house,” Time wrote in 1951. “Though Blandings was short on sex appeal, it sold more than 300,000 copies and was bought by the movies. Then Hollywood, which thinks sex is so important that it created a Production Code to keep sex out, added a triangle to the plot. The Cary Grant-Myrna Loy movie was advertised with leering posters: ‘Does Cary suspect the wolf at the door is his best friend?’”

This part of the movie does feel unnecessary. The saving grace is that it occurs late in the movie and doesn’t amount to much—Jim quickly realizes that he’s being silly. (And the scene in which a neighbor gets the wrong idea about Muriel and Bill, who are alone at the new house on a rainy night, is somewhat amusing.)

Historical Context: In 1948, American were starting to embark for the suburbs en masse. According to David Ames, professor of urban affairs and public policy and geography at the University of Delaware, “Post-World War II suburban growth was indeed monumental. From 1918 to 1940, suburbanites grew modestly from seventeen to twenty percent of the nation’s population. By 1960, however, they had doubled to account for forty percent of the nation’s total and far more than doubled in absolute numbers.”

The Blandings’ House: The Blandings built a Colonial-style house. As Douglas Brenner wrote in the New York Times Magazine last year, “(the Blandings) relationship with early-American style personified the hopes and struggles of moviegoers from coast to coast. The Blandings’ country home became so popular that Kellogg’s cereal boxes offered a cardboard cutout model, and Manhattan charity fund-raisers oversaw the construction of a full-scale Dream House knockoff on a vacant lot in Midtown.” In fact, RKO built 73 replica houses around the country and raffled them off to promote the movie.

Jim Blandings, Ad Man: On the spectrum of fictional ad men, Jim stands closer to Darrin Stephens than Don Draper. Distracted by domestic strife, he almost loses his job, until a woman comes up with the slogan that saves his bacon (or ham, in this case).

Supporting Cast Notes: Lurene Tuttle, who plays Jim’s secretary, appeared in character roles across the TV dial from the 1950s through the 1980s. She was also a prolific and talented radio performer. Her most famous radio role was another secretary—Sam Spade’s Effie. Lex Barker, who played a small role in Mr. Blandings, would break through the next year when he made his first of five Tarzan movies. Louise Beavers plays the maid in this movie; unfortunately, she rarely got the chance to play anything else.

Final Fun Fact: Blandings author Eric Hodgins wrote a long article for Life about his experiences on the movie set. Much discussion, he notes, went into determining Jim Blanding’s salary. Hodgins advocated $25,000; producers objected that “to the average moviegoer the man earning that amount has no troubles.” They pushed for $10,000, but ultimately changed it to $15,000. (For context, the average New York City family earned $5,105 in 1950.)

Other Posts About Classic Movies:

A Love Affair with Words: His Girl Friday

A Love Affair with Words: His Girl Friday

My husband balked at re-watching my favorite movie with me this weekend.

 “How can you not love this?” I asked, a few minutes into the film.

“It’s just so much…talking!” he sputtered.

His Girl Friday is, indeed, all talk. Its characters talk so much, so quickly, that their words overlap, ringing out into a musical counterpoint.  

Words attracted me to His Girl Friday the first time I encountered the movie, during my teenage years. As I flipped channels, this exchange captured my attention:

 Walter: This other fellow–I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to see him. I’m more or less particular about whom my wife marries. Where is he?

Hildy: Oh, he”s right on the job, waiting for me out there.

Walter. Hmm…Do you mind if I meet him?

Hildy: Oh, no, Walter. It wouldn’t do any good, really.

Walter: Now, you’re not afraid are you?

Hildy: Afraid? Of course not!

Walter: Then, come on! Let’s see this paragon. Is he as good as you say?

Hildy: He’s better!

Walter: Well, then, what does he want with you?

The Front Page, a 1928 Broadway hit written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is His Girl Friday’s source. In the play, star reporter Hildy Johnson wants to escape the seedy world of journalism by marrying and finding “respectable” work. His managing editor, Walter Burns, thwarts him at every turn as the two collaborate on a bombshell story—a prison break by condemned murderer Earl Williams.

In His Girl Friday, Director Howard Hawks transforms Hildy Johnson into a woman, a change that raises the stakes considerably. Hildy’s choice between journalism and respectability is also a choice between a career and a traditional feminine role, and a choice between two very different men—her insurance-salesman fiancé Bruce Baldwin and her ex-husband, Walter Burns.

Two kinds of people populate His Girl Friday’s world. The journalists make up one group—a fast-talking, irreverent group. Walter Burns is this group’s apotheosis; nothing matters to him except the power and pleasure he derives from words. On the other hand, we have earnest people like Bruce; Earl Williams and his friend Molly Malloy; and prospective “city sealer” Joe Pettibone, who blows the lid off the mayor’s plan to execute a mentally ill man. These people speak slowly, mean what they say, and become lost in the journalists’ layered ironies and wise cracks.

Rosalind Russell’s Hildy operates well within both groups. Adopting a hushed interview style, she elicits Earl’s story. Showing sympathy that her male counterparts lack, she wins Molly’s trust. Admiring goodness and simplicity, she works to protect Bruce from Walter’s machinations.

In the end, though, Hildy can’t escape Walter and the lure of word craft. Words are weapons in their sparring, but also bind them in moments of shared delight that Bruce can’t comprehend. (Consider his delayed reaction, in the restaurant scene, when Hildy sees through Walter’s lies about another reporter. Bruce’s confusion produces contempt in Walter and embarrassment in Hildy.)

As James Walters wrote in the Journal of Film and Video:

“The film makes clear Hildy and Walter’s delight in controlling language, their near-delirium in playing together with the pace, tone, and rhythm of words. Their fluent use of language connects them with a world in which the ability to use words dictates a person’s status and in which, as in Molly’s case, an inability signals a person’s collapse…Indeed, there is a truthfulness in their shared vocal rhythms and patterns, as though their profound affinity emerges naturally and unavoidably whenever they are together.”

Choosing Walter’s world means giving up a lot, from little courtesies accorded to ladies, to society’s respect, to hopes of home and family and “a halfway-normal life.” For Hildy, however, giving up the mental exercise that Walter and writing provide would be a more bitter sacrifice.

His Girl Friday influenced my own choices, propelling me toward journalism school and a writing career. One day, in my college newspaper offices, the managing editor mentioned a Cary Grant movie she’d watched the night before.

“Have you ever seen His Girl Friday?” I asked.

 My reserved editor suddenly turned gushy: “Isn’t she great?!”

Hildy became a heroine ahead of her time when she announced, “I’m no suburban bridge player. I’m a newspaper man.”

Final Fun Facts: Hawks pioneered the overlapping dialog style that distinguishes His Girl Friday, but Grant and Russell made some delightful contributions to the script as well. Grant’s ad-libs include Walter’s description of Bruce as looking like “you know, that fellow in the movies…Ralph Bellamy.” Rosalind Russell, in her autobiography Life is a Banquet, described her secret hiring of a comedy writer to punch up the script. He added such bits as her murmured “slap happy” and her hand-signal-of-warning, both in the restaurant scene.

Note: His Girl Friday is available for streaming, free, at Hulu, and for free downloading and streaming at Internet Archive.