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Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood History’

Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Stewart O’Nan’s novel covering the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is the real deal.

This was recommended to me by the writer Timothy Schaffert, who, knowing of my own work on Fitzgerald many years ago, thought I would find it interesting. And he’s absolutely right. Most Hollywood fictionalized bios ring rather false, given the fact that the era of classic Hollywood is now so long ago and far away, and the tendency to sentimentalize, or over sensationalize Fitzgerald’s last truly harrowing years, from 1937 to 1940, when he batted around Hollywood in a number of jobs, starting at MGM but eventually sliding down the ladder to near oblivion before his premature death from a heart attack in 1940, seems almost irresistible to most writers.

But here, O’Nan brings the story of Fitzgerald’s last days to life, when he struggled to stay sober in the face of crippling alcoholism – not always with success -and managed to alienate almost everyone around him when he fell off the wagon. Agents deserted him, his powers were declining, and he never really understood the way the Hollywood game was played. O’Nan captures all of it, in a book of such page turning intensity that I sat down and read it straight through in a matter of hours. As the end of the narrative nears, the velocity picks up with truly cataclysmic intensity, and one feels that one gets a new, and appropriately sympathetic vision of Fitzgerald, an artist who waged war against his own self-destructive impulses and lost the battle.

There may be one too many star cameos here and there, and Humphrey Bogart looms larger in the book than he did in Fitzgerald’s real life, but others, such as Hunt Stromberg, Robert Benchley, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, and of course, Sheilah Graham, the great love of his later life, a gossip columnist who seemed to understand Fitzgerald better than anyone else during his tenure in Tinseltown, and in whose apartment he died on December 21, 1940, are real and tangible presences. Not for the faint of heart, this is a novel about irrecoverable loss and isolation – the promise of youth and the collapse of overnight fame – and most importantly, about the Hollywood studio system, which never understood artists – then or now. O’Nan’s book is a stunning achievement, in which Fitzgerald appears as a fully rounded person, with all of his flaws and charm intact.

All in all, an amazing accomplishment.

William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

Marilyn Monroe Day By Day by Carl Rollyson

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Want to know what Marilyn Monroe did nearly every single day of her life?

I’m not a Monroe cultist by any means, but Rollyson’s book is one of the most carefully detailed and dispassionate accounts of the actor’s life to appear in print. Rather than trying to psychoanalyze Marilyn, or judging her, or adding editorial opinion, Rollyson simply takes the reader practically day by day starting in 1950 – Monroe’s earlier years are more scantily documented, due to lack of data – and then follows her career right up to the moment of her untimely death.

Reading these flat, “just the facts” entries, one can see the enormous pressure Monroe was under to uphold her star image, fend off unwanted admirers, deal with actors and directors who were often unsympathetic, and bear the enormous weight of being an international sex symbol in an era that was both aggrandizing and unforgiving – in short, she lived most of her life in the spotlight, and it took an enormous toll on her, both personally and professionally.

As the book’s website notes, “In Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places, and Events, Carl Rollyson provides a documentary approach to the life and legend of this singular personality. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies. In addition to restoring what is left out in other narratives about Marilyn’s life, this book also illuminates the gaps and discrepancies that still exist in our knowledge of her.

Drawing on excerpts from her diaries, journals, letters, and even checks and receipts—as well as reports of others—Rollyson recreates the day-to-day world of a woman who still fascinates us more than fifty years after her death. In addition to the calendar, Rollyson also profiles important figures in Marilyn’s life and includes a brief biography of the actress, providing a context for the timeline. An annotated bibliography of books and websites highlights the most reliable sources about Marilyn.”

What results is a unique document, rich in detail, compassionate, and superbly researched.

The Most Prolific Director in American Film History

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This unassuming man made more films during the classical Hollywood era than any other director.

As I wrote about Sam Newfield a number of years ago in Senses of Cinema, “Sam Newfield is, in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history, but very little archival material survives on his career. The director of more than 250 feature films, as well as numerous shorts and television series episodes, in a career that spanned four decades, from 1923 to 1958, Newfield leaves behind him only his work on the set; next to nothing is known of his personal life. However, using conversations with Sigmund Neufeld, Jr., and Stanley Neufeld, the sons of Sam Newfield (born Neufeld)’s brother Sigmund Neufeld (all quotes from them in this essay are from these interviews), as well as materials from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the man behind such a torrential output of work.

Comedies, musicals, westerns, horror films, jungle pictures, crime dramas, espionage thrillers – Sam Newfield did them all, often on budgets of less than $20,000 per feature, and shooting schedules of as little as three days. But, as Martin Scorsese notes, watching Newfield’s work is hard, because he often seems absolutely detached from the images that appear on the screen, as if he is an observer rather than a participant. Then, too, the conditions of extreme economy that Newfield labored under created a pressure-cooker environment in which the ultimate goal of all his films was simply to get them done on time and under budget. Nevertheless, as arguably the most prolific auteur in American motion-picture history, Newfield deserves mention and brief examination as one of the key ’second-rung’ directors of 1940s Hollywood, Newfield’s most productive era.”

Since then, Neil Roughley has compiled a staggeringly complete filmography; check it out here.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

The Curious Career of David Bradley

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

David Bradley filming Charlton Heston as Antony in Julius Caesar (1950); photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

I have long been aware of the life and work of David Bradley, whose career seems to have been cut short before it really got started. A teen prodigy, Bradley first attracted attention with his 16mm independent features, including his version of Julius Caesar, starring a very young Charlton Heston. Though he was signed to MGM by studio chief Dore Schary as a result of that film’s reception, which won a tie for First Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Bradley’s first act was brighter than anything that followed.

This is not to say that his subsequent films, particularly the science fiction parable Twelve to The Moon (1959), photographed by the gifted John Alton, are not without interest, but it is safe to say that for some reason, after making so many striking films on his own, Bradley never really found his footing within the industry, and instead completed his career teaching film at UCLA and Santa Monica College.

His papers are archived at Northwestern University, and as their summary of his life notes, “David Shedd Bradley was born in Evanston, Illinois on April 6, 1920, the son of Addison Ballard and Katherine Shedd Bradley. A member of Chicago’s prominent Shedd family, Bradley earned his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. He went on to direct films for MGM as well as teach at UCLA. Bradley died in 1997.

Bradley attended the Todd School from 1935 to 1937 and Lake Forest Academy during 1937-1940. At Lake Forest Bradley made one of his earlier films, Preps in Action, an account of a day in the life of an average student. His first experience with film came through his use of his family’s Winnetka basement as a movie theatre for neighborhood friends. Bradley had turned his hand to filmmaking by the mid-1930s. Preceding Preps in Action was a 16 millimeter short of Treasure Island (1937).

Other films from the period include Doctor X (1938), Emperor Jones (1938), and an adaptation of The Christmas Carol, titled Marley’s Ghost (1939). Bradley spent a year at the Goodman Memorial Theatre Drama Department of the Art Institute of Chicago and cast actors he met there in full-length film versions of Oliver Twist (1940), Peer Gynt (1941), and the Saki story, Sredni Vashtar (1943).

In September 1941, Bradley enrolled in the School of Speech of Northwestern University where he continued to pursue his interests in film and acting. He was accepted also into the Northwestern University Radio Playshop. In 1942 military service interrupted Bradley’s formal education. Following three years in the film section of the Signal Corps, he returned to Northwestern where he completed film versions of Macbeth (1946) and Julius Caesar (1950). The latter tied for first place at the Locarno Film Festival and won much international acclaim.

One of the first 16 millimeter films to be booked into theatres on a nationwide scale, Julius Caesar attracted the attention of Dore Schary, the M.G.M. studio chief. After graduating from Northwestern in June 1950, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Speech, Bradley went to Hollywood to work for M.G.M.

Bradley’s first assignment at M.G.M. was to assist in coaching pre-production rehearsals for first-time director Robert Pirosh’s Go For Broke. After two years of interning, Bradley was allowed to direct his own film, Talk About a Stranger (1952). At the age of 32 Bradley was then the youngest director at M.G.M. In the early 1950s, with Gerry Sherman, Bradley formed Oceanic Productions Inc. Their first project was to be a filmed version of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian journal Noa-Noa. James Agee wrote the screenplay and Emile Gauguin was hired as a technical assistant. This project was not completed.

Bradley left M.G.M. in the mid-1950s and made three more films: Dragstrip Riot (1958, American International), Twelve To The Moon (1960, Columbia Pictures), and Madmen of Mandoras (1964, Crown International). Later in his life, as an adjunct to producing and directing and drawing upon his extraordinary collection of rare films and extensive knowledge of the field, Bradley taught courses in film aesthetics and history at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Santa Monica College.”

Bradley’s life is thus extremely curious, and he’s never really gotten the attention he deserves; his career, cut short by Hollywood, remains one of the most enigmatic in cinema history, and his later films have been unjustly maligned, especially Madmen of Mandoras, which was taken out of his hands and drastically recut and reshot; the original film, to the best of my knowledge, no longer survives.

I may do some writing on Bradley in the future; his work remains uneven, and deeply mysterious.

Helen Keller Meets Charles Chaplin

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Here’s another amazing artifact from the early days of cinema.

Helen Keller meets Charlie Chaplin at his studio in the 1920s; thanks to Dana Miller for sending this along, and also for the image of the MGM lion, posted on this site below. A look at a time when the world was younger, more innocent, and when people communicated directly, and not through an electronic interface.

This is an astonishing image.

90 Things You Didn’t Know About Warner Bros.

Friday, February 1st, 2013

From the latest issue of American Film, this interesting feature.

“To commemorate the 90th anniversary of Warner Bros. Pictures, we’ve compiled a list of 90 historical tidbits culled from a variety of sources, including the new documentary The Brothers Warner by Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry M. Warner. Here are the first ten tidbits:

  • At the end of the 19th century, the Warner family came to America from Krasnosielc, a town near Warsaw that Russia had annexed from Poland.
  • The family name was originally Wonskolaser.
  • The brothers Warner were named Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack. There were eight other children in the family.
  • In 1903, the three eldest Warner brothers became ‘Nickelodeon junkies,’ spending all their spare time and money on the five-cent moving picture machines.
  • To raise capital for his sons’ entry into the film business, a passion that required no university degree, Benjamin Warner sold his gold watch and ‘Bob,’ the horse that pulled his meat delivery wagon.
  • Sam procured a second-hand Edison kinetoscope projector, ‘the machine that spells certainty of success in the motion picture business,’ to launch the partnership.
  • Sister Rose Warner played the organ at her brothers’ first theater, the Cascade in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
  • Jack L. Warner was a ‘chaser,’ the theater employee charged with getting audiences to leave their seats after one screening – in his case, by singing badly. He once demonstrated his technique, bellowing ‘O sole mio!’
  • Albert, physically the largest of the brothers, specialized in distribution and acted as a go-between for Harry and Jack, who frequently disagreed.
  • Sam Warner was keenly interested in technological innovation and saved the studio in the 1920s by championing talking pictures.”
  • You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

    Hollywood Blacklisting

    Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

    Left to right: Danny Kaye, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and others protest at the HUAC Hearings.

    I have a new video out today in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, which I wrote and appear in, on the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s. About the Blacklist, the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of its most celebrated personages, had this to say in 1970, when the Blacklist had begun to wane: “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides. When you who are in your 40s or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us – right, left, or center – emerged from that long nightmare without sin.”

    You can see the entire 10 minute video by clicking here, or on the image above.

    Studio Backlots in the 1950s – 1970s

    Thursday, August 11th, 2011

    Here’s a fascinating peek at what the major Hollywood studios looked like behind the scenes in the early days of the television era. Lots of links, numerous photos, a real step back in time.

    About the Author

    Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him wdixon1@unl.edu or his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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