Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The House That Ince Built by Dennis Daggett

Dennis Daggett. The House that Ince Built. USA (copyright 1980).

Thomas Harper Inca was a partner in Triangle Studios with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. Ths book focused on the history of the studio he constructed.

Ince was Director General at the New York Motion Picture Corporation. Among the films he directed were “The First Misunderstanding” with Mary Pickford in 1911. He then moved to Los Angeles to work on such films as “War on the Plains”, which is notable for hiring Native Americans to play the Indian roles. In 1915, he became Vice President of Triangle Film Corporation. As an executive, he purchased 10,000 at Pacific Coast Highway and Sunset Boulevard and named it Inceville where films could be made. There, such movies as “The Battle of Gettysburg”, using eight cameras, was filmed

Ince was known for his planning and scripting ahead of time in a time where movies were more loosely constructed. He was personally very concerned with film editing. He hired experienced directors to direct.

Ince used glass stages that used natural sunlight and which kept the same light balance for interior and exterior scenes. Others filmed with artificial lighting.

Harry Culver had Ince supervise the construction of Metropolitan Studios (later MGM). Culver then dismissed Ince for an internally employed candidate to run the studio operations. Ince then informed Culver he owned part of the property, forcing Culver to purchase Ince’s property. Ince used this money to construct his own studio in 1918. It opened in 1919.

Ince’s studio introduced new lighting techniques, introducing fill lights known as arcs, baby jrs, brutes, and quartz lighting systems that remained in use until the late 1960s.

Ince directed or supervised most of his films. He also appeared in most of his films, often in disguise and using a fake name. Ince was the first, the author believes, to develop star talent. “Anna Christie” was among the successful films that resulted.

In 1924, Ince disappeared on a yacht belonging to William Randolph Hearst. It is theorized he was shot and thrown overboard. Rumor had it an actress, Louelle Parson, may have seen the murder. She was hired by Hearst and became a famous newspaper columnist. She said nothing about the incident. Ince’s death was officially declared a suicide.

Ince Studio stopped production after Ince’s death. Cecil B. DeMille purchased the studio in 1925. In 1928, Pathe Pictures bought Ince’s former lot from DeMille. Pathe, being a smaller studio, faced greater financial problems adjusting to the higher costs of movies with sound. The Mutual Film Corporation merged with Pathe. Joseph P. Kennedy gained control of Mutual and changed it to Keith-Albee-Oprheum. Film Booking Offices merged with Pathe as they sought more physical space. Keith-Albee-Orpheum went into receivership during the stock market crash. David Sarnoff of Radio Corporation purchased Keith-Albee-Orpheum and Film Booking Office and renamed the, Radio Keith Oprheum (RKO). RKO owned both the former Ince Culver lot and a lot in Hollywood.

David Selznick, son of a failed studio owner, became the head of RKO. He previously had worked at MGM, where he was fired by Irving Thalberg. He asked his father’s former rival, Adolph Zuker, for a job. Zuker was impressed Selznick would turn to him. Zuker hired Selznick to work at Paramount.

Under Selznick, Katherine Hepburn was signed to star in several successful movies, even though Selznick was not initially impressed with her. “King Kong” was a financial success for RKO, the largest money maker than ever before. Selznick decided against dropped contract actor Fred Astaire, a decision that proved wise as Astaire filmed several successful RKO movies afterwards.

RKO used heavily lighted background with actors in the foreground successfully in “The Informer”. Orson Welles used this technique in “Citizen Kane” five years later.

Director William Dieterle was known for carefully directing every single line for maximum effect. The technique made “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
very successful.

RKO hired Orson Welles to direct movies. Welles negotiated a 60 page contract that gave him full artistic control of his movies and kept executives out of rush screenings. Welles met Herman Mankiewicz and was enthralled by Mankiewicz’s idea of a film on Mankiewicz’s former boss, William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz wrote a 200 page screenplay over three months. John Houseman edited it. Welles added material. “Citizen Kane” resulted. Cameraman Gregg Toland used a new bifocal lens he has invented which used sharp foreground and sharp background lighting creating sharp focus in the foreground and back. The only problem was side distortion. Art Director Perry Ferguson created props in both foreground and background. Welles would often use 84 to 100 takes per scene, and even 120 takes for one scene. Robert Wise edited the film with Welles over six months with many 18 hour workdays. Music composed by Bernard Herrmann was used in nontraditional means with no title music and music beginning as the estate is first shown. Herrmann had three months, rather than the usual three weeks, to compose the music. He composed as the movie was filmed, tying the music to the scene.

“Citizen Kane” took 82 days to film, using 276,505 feet of film, and with production costs of $686,000. Welles paid for $100,000 of the production costs.

The Hearst newspapers blacklisted any mention of “Citizen Kane”. William Randolph Hearst threatened to use muckraking journalism to embarrass Hollywood. The opening date was postponed as RKO let Hearst representatives view the movie. Welles threatened to sue it “Citizen Kane” was not released. It was, but the Warner theater chain, Radio City Music Hall, and many independent theaters declined to show it. It was shown in second rate theaters and was a financial flop. It would only become successful when shown later on TV.

Selznick started Pioneer Pictures with Merian. C. Cooper and Herbert T. Kalmus, the developer of Technicolor. Their focus was on color photographs. They filmed “Becky Sharp” by renting the RKO Culver City lot. The higher film cost with required higher lighting costs caused financial problems when the film flopped.

Selznick in 1935 created Selznick International Pictures and leased RKO Pathe’s Culver City studio. The agreement kept RKOs right to use the studio. The first Selznick International Picture, “Little Lord Fauntroy”, shot in black and white, was considered a good film but didn’t make much money. The second movie used a little known Marlene Dietrich, signed for a large sum of $200,000 in “The Garden of Allah”. Filming in a desert that hit 120 degrees complicated matters, including lighting problems and sunstroke to people. The movie itself flopped.

Selznick signed William Wellman to direct movies. His first, “A Star is Born”, based partially on Wellman’s life, was a success. Wellman and Selznick fought during the movie with Selznick changing the script and Wellman changing it back. This was followed by their next collaboration, “Nothing Sacred”. Ben Hecht began writing the script but quit after fighting over it with Selznick. The script was finished by Ring Lardner Jr. and Budd Shulberg. This movie was also a success. Wellman then left Selznick’s employment. Selznick faced three flops soon afterwards with one success, “The Prisoner of Zenda”.

Story Editor Kay Brown recommended Selznick produce “Gone with the Wind”. Civil War films previously were generally unsuccessful. Russell Birdwell, in the publicity office, recommended a two year publicity campaign, including publicizing a lengthy search for casting. The book the movie was based on sold almost two million copies, increasing public discussion of the movie. The little known Vivian Leigh was selected as the lead female based on her talent.

Selznick insisted on authenticity. Ann Rutherford asked why they had to wear authentic underwear, noting “nobody will know that I’m wearing this fancy underwear”. Selznick responded “but you’ll know it’s there.”

In one scene, 1500 people and 600 dummies portrayed dead and dying in a battlefield. A camera was lifted 95 feet on a crame to film the scene, topping the tallest boom reach of 25 feet. After ten weeks of rehearsal, the scene was shot in one take.

“Gone with the Wind” took five months to film, using half a million feet of film, at a cost of $3,957,000. This was over the original estimated budget of $2,500,000. The next task was editing the film. One film cutting session lasted 51 hours nonstop.

Max Steiner and Herbert Strothart scored “Gone with the Wind” in three months.

The line “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” was allowed by the censors but considered an offense that resulted in a fine of $5,000 paid to the Producers Association.

Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock to direct “Rebecca”, which started filming while “Gone with the Wind” was being produced. Selznick clashed with Hitchcock, who was used to having full control over directing. Selznick sent memos telling how to direct. Hitchcock shot only enough film as Hitchcock was guaranteed of getting his way.

“Gone with the Wind” was so successful that Selznick’s reputation seemed to require him to continue making similar hit movies. He made few movies for three years, with “Suspicion” directed by Hitchcock being sold by Selznick to RKO. Jennifer Jones and “Song of Bernadette” successfully rejuvenated Selznick’s successes. Selznick believed “Since You Went Away” was better than “Gone with the Wind”, and while most critics disagreed, the movie was a financial success.

Selznick took over sciptwriting to “Duel in the Sun” with Jennifer Jones and spent over a year and over $5,000,000 producing it. Selznick fell in love with Jennifer Jones. Selznick became so involved in the film that director King Vidor walked out. Dimitri Tiomkin spent six months composing the score, being told by Selznikc to “score an orgasm”. Selznick demanded the score be rewritten, stating “that’s not an orgasm”. Selznick declared of the revised score “I like it, but it isn’t orgasm music. It’s not the way I fuck” to which Tiomkin responded “you fuck your way, I fuck my way”. Selznick approved the score. Selznick later married Jennifer Jone but ended up overextended in $12 million of loans. He resolved his debts but left the film business.

Orson Welles directed “The Magnificent Ambersons” and insisted on using real snow, which was created in an ice plant in Los Angeles. A problem developed as the hot lights melted the snow.

Welles directed a documentary “It’s All True” at the request of RKO stockholder Nelson Rockefeller, who was then in charge of the U.S. State Department’s Inter-American Affairs. The hopes were the film would help improve diplomatic relations. A crew member died during underwater filming, causing the crew to be returned to the U.S. in fear of straining diplomatic relations. The film was never completed.

In 1942, Floyd Odlum gained control of RKO stock. Joseph Breen, David Sarnoff, and Nelson Rockefeller left RKO. In 1943, RKO had a $7 million profit. It showed profits for six years afterwards. Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan were big RKO stars. Orson Welles directed “The Stranger” for RKO and followed all RKO orders in an attempt to restore his successful image.

During the Red scare Odlum sought to sell his share of RKO for $9 million. Howard Hughes bought control of RKO. Dore Schary couldn’t get along with Hugh. Schary became in charge of MGM’s production where he made many successful movies, including many war movies which had disinterested Hughes.

Hughes gave almost complete artistic freedom to producers and directors. Unfortunately, Hughes retained final control, and Hughes often clashed with others over his ideas of artistic quality. In addition, Hughes was busy with companies in multiple industries and it could take months for Hughes to provide his input.

Robert Mitchum was arrested and convicted for marijuana possession. He served 50 days in jail. Hughes lent Mitchum $50,000 to pay for his lawyers.

Hughes hired Jane Russell to star in what was eventually called “Double Dynamite”. It began filming in 1948. Hughes’s interventions in the film delayed the film being finished until 1951. It was not very successfully. Other Jane Russell films failed to attract the audience Hughes sought.

The “Superman” TV series ran 104 shows from 1951 to 1957. The 1951 episodes were filmed on the Culver City lot. Some were filmed in two days. This was the firs episodic TV series.

RKO did not make the money Hughes expected. He decided to concentrate on his other businesses so he sold RKO. Hughes bought out some other RKO shareholders and then sold RKO for an estimated $25 million to Thomas Francis O’Neil, who owned General Teleradio as well as General Tire and Rubber. O’Neil covered his costs by selling the backlot for $15 million and future TV rights to RKO movies for $10 million. Daniel O’Shea was hired to preside over RKO. O’Shea had been one of Selznick’s studio attorneys. O’Shea moved to concentrating on producing high quality films.

Hughes retained RKO’s theater chain. All other movie companies were later required to divest any interests they had in theaters.

“Star Trek” was initially rejected by NBC for being too good for a wide audience to appreciate. Desilu spent $700,000 on the rejected pilot. NBC requested a second pilt. Since the set already existed, a second pilot cost $300,000. The lead actor, Jeff Hunter, was filming a movie in Spain, were he had an accident falling from a horse that contributed to his death later on. William Shatner was cast to take Hunter’s place. The lights attracted waps that stun actors Shatner and Sally Kellerman.

Desilum ran out of money in 1968.

The author claims the film business puts business first and “if there is room for a little art, it’ll be a coincidence, but so be it.”

Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor sued Warner Brothers over failing to publicize their independent film “Billy Jack” and for not paying the producers. They contacted theaters on their own. They then filmed the sequel “The Trial of Billy Jack” at the Culver City studios.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Stan and Ollie by Simon Louvish

Simon Louvish. Stan and Ollie: The Root of Comedy. The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2001.

The author argues that “no culture was complete without it’s clowns”. Joe Grimaldi was a famous comedic figure in early 19th century England. Many clowns subsequently were patterned after Grimaldi. Clowns understood the fears and joys of their audiences and played to those emotions. Dan Leno carried on as leading comic actor in the late 19th century until his death in 1904. Dan Leno inspired Stan Laurel, who with Oliver Hardy would become the roots of cinematic comedy.

Oliver Hardy was fat from birth and probably genetically destined to be overweight. As a 200 pound teenager he attended a military school which may explain where he learned the agility he displayed on film.

Stan Laurel’s father was an actor who died when Stan was 16. Stan acted as a solo comedian, using work inspired by Dan Leno’s partner Harry Randall and indirectly by Leno. Fred Karno, who also helped Charlie Chaplin’s career, discovered Laurel and helped his career. Karno’s performances bridget the era between Grimaldi and silent film comedies.

Karno’s act invented self-referential stage comedy, where acts were interrupted for off stage comments.

The New York Times in January 1909 reported that 45 million attended movies weekly and that $40 million had been invested into the movie industry. Movies cost 5 cents or 10 cents, which compares to the 40 cents or 50 cents charged then for a top level vaudeville show or $1 for a legitimate musical comedy.

Oliver Hardy married Madelyn Saloshin, a piano player in 1913. Oliver was a singer.

Karno spent much time training his actors to have a keen sense of the pace and timing of humor. Mack Sennett hired Charlie Chaplin at $150 per week to star in Keystone film comedies.

Jacksonville, Florida in 1914 claimed to have more movie units than did Los Angeles. Oliver Hardy joined the Lubin film company in movies there. Hardy learned his craft beginning with this film work. He made 65 Vim films in 1915 through 1917 at an average of one a week. He appeared as Babe Hardy.

Vim films failed and was taken over by Caws films. They moved the entire crew including Hardy to film seven films in Bayonne, New Jersey. Then they moved to Hollywood, where Oliver’s first Hollywood film was as the Sultan of Bacteria in “The Slave”. This also claims to be the first film to no use intertitles. Hardy also appeared in this pre-censorship film “Playmates” which dealt with characters stealing cocaine for a homosexual drug user.

Stan Laurel filmed several comedies at Universal. Early comedies then relied heavily on physical humor.

Larry Semon signed for Vitagraph in 1919 for $3,600,000 for three years. He was a master of stunt comedy that was very popular in the early 1920s. Stan Laurel appeared in several Larry Semon films. Oliver Hardy also appeared in some Larry Semon films. Both Laurel and Hardy appeared in the picture ‘The Lucky Dog”, which Laruen playing a thief whose filrst words to Hardy’s character are intertitled as “put ‘em both up, insect, before I comb your hair with lead.” After that film, Laurel and Hardy wouldn’t meet again for a few more years. Laurel wett to do films for Broncho Billy Anderson. He also appeared in several Hal Roach movies, but separately from Hardy.

Larry Semon starred in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1925. Oliver Hardy was in the film. Semon’s reliance on slapstick was met with mixed reviews. A new era of comedy was emerging with focused more on plots and characters. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd emerged as the new comedy film stars.

Hal Roach spent over $1 million to make films in 1925. Director Leo McCarey liked “slow burn” comedies where jokes were set up and provided reasons why slapstick comedy resulted.

When Laurel and Hardy were paired together, their director James Parrott helped their progress. Parrott had great faith in their abilities. He helped their successful move from silent to talking films.

Hal Roach Studios paid the following salaries: 1925, $5,695 for Laurel, $2,116.07 for Hardy.
1926, $12,050 for Laurel, $11,850 for Hardy.
1927, $20,450 for Laurel, $15,541 for Hardy.
1928, $33,150 for Laurel, $21,166,67 for Hardy.
In 1927, Laurel and Hardy were brought working together. Their first movie was “Duck Soup”.

There are numerous stories as to how Laurel and Hardy were brought together. The author believes it most likely was film supervisor Leo McCarey who decided they should be a team. The marketing for Roach Studios listed them as a team. It is also noted that McCary would reuse the title “Duck Soup” in a later and separate Marx Brothers movie.

Hal Roach saw Hardy as a tough guy character. He was not happy with him becoming a comedy partner. He later would claim credit for pairing them.

The author notes that Stan Laurel had a career that continually improved over time. Oliver Hardy’s career, until being teamed with Laurel, was one that has it progressions and regressions. The first teaming of Laurel and Hardy, as written by Hal Roach, was designed to showcase Laurel. In one of their early paired movies, “Love ‘Em and Weep”, Hardy is only in a few scenes. In “Sailor’s Beware” there first was a line that would become their trademark, “here’s another mess you’ve gotten me into”. The author believes their next film “Do Detectives Think?” was the first “proper” Laurel and Hardy film.

In 1927, Roach switched his distribution from Pathe Exchange to the large MGM. This led to lawsuits that were settled in 1932.

The first MGM Laurel and Hardy movie was “Sugar Daddies”. After that, Leo McCarey returned to direct or supervise the next 18 Laurel and Hardy movies. The author notes their comedic competition faded in comparison. The Marx Brothers became tired, W.C. Fields worked loss, Mae West lost her best looks, Buster Keaton didn’t switch as well to movies with sound, and Charlie Chaplin became more political. The author argues only Laurel and Hardy maintained a steady comedic trait.

The author attributed Laurel and Hardy’s success at being silent and talking film starts as due to “the audience, entranced, was just not willing to let them go.” The author believes audiences saw Laurel and Hardy as well matched for each other whose give and take dialogue were discussions with which people identified.

Model T Fords destroyed in their film were special made vehicles with no engines that would self-destruct when strings were pulled.

In 1928, MGM had assets of $1,856,895 and liabilities of $125,826.

The author observes that some of the humor audiences attribute to Laurel and Hardy is the unstated belief they are a gay couple. This directly related to vaudeville where effeminate and homosexual themed presentations were standard. Their films have no sexual themes, and the characters are presented with childlike innocence in situations audience laughter recognized as gay-themed.

Laurel and Hardy once filmed on a roof 150 feet high with a camera platform three stories above that and a safety platform 20 feet below that. Hardy jumped onto the safety platform to show it was safe, only it broke. Fortunately, a safety net worked.

The first talking Laurel and Hardy movie was “Unaccustomed As We Are”, released in 1929.

Laurel and Hardy dubbed their own voiced for Spanish, Italian, French, and German versions of their movies. Scenes were reshot to appeal more to these specific audiences, such as changing an American police chief with a Mexican customs officers. This was slow and difficult to shoot as Laurel and Hardy had to be helped with vocal coaches. Yet, Roach made money in many countries that adopted Laurel and Hardy as part of their own culture. They accidentally drew extra laughs when using a German saying they did not realize had a sexual connotation.

In one movie, the dialogue included Hardy’s real phone number Oxford 0164.

“The Music Box” was a Laurel and Hardy movie that resonated well with an audience during the Depression. They portrayed working class laborers who destroyed a piano, a wealthy good.

Their comedy often derived from their being people seemingly unaware of the dictates of society. They violated societal norms and were then bewildered by others’ reactions to what they perceived as being normal.

Laurel and Hardy movies began facing censorship. Pennsylvania required deleted a scene where women were hit. Quebec deleted a scene with dancing girls. A kissing scene was deleted in Japan, Norway, and Sweden. Morocco and Bohemia refused to allow showing a movie where they cross-dressed. Lithuania deleted a scene of Laurel sitting on Hardy’s lap. Even politics entered into the censorship as Nazi Germany banned “The Bohemian Girl” for being sympathetic towards Gypsies. “Pack Up Your Troubles” was banned in Germany and Spain for showing Laurel and Hardy capturing a German battalion. Their movies did not attract much dispute from the American film standard Hays Code, although there was some internal studio self-censorship over fears that Laurel shown wearing lacy underpants might violate the Code.

MGM survived the Depression with fewer monetary losses than other studios.

In 1935, Laurel refused to sign a contract with Roach. Roach announced they would be replaced with a new comedy team which included Spanky McFarland. Laurel then settled whatever “story trouble” he had with Roach and he signed a new contract.

Hal Roach made an agreement to produce Italian operas with Italian actors and American crew to be produced by Vittorio Mussolini, son of Benito. Benito’s anti-Jewish positions and his leading Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia led to much outrage in America. Vittorio Mussolini was not well received in American and he returned to Italy without making any movies.

Critics thought some of the Laurel and Hardy movies in the late 1930s and early 1940s lost some of their old edge. They made money and strengthened their star status. MGM re-released some of their old shorts to capitalize on their success. During World War II, the war effort played into themes in their movies.

Laurel and Hardy films in 1943 and 1944 faced problems with script changes, a producer quitting, and delayed studio releases. Comedies did not fare as well during the post-World War II resettlement years. Laurel and Hardy made one movie in 1951 that was only initially released in Europe and was then re-cut for American showing in 1954.

Hardy suffered a heart attack in 1954. Their last U.S. public appearance was on the TV show “This Is our Life” which surprised them on live TV. The public saw a slow moving Hardy. They appeared on a British TV program in 1955. Hardy then suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. He went on a diet that reduced his weight from 350 to 210 pounds. Hardy died in 1957.

Laurel moved into a Santa Monica apartment with a listed phone number where admirers seeking to learn from him such as Dick Van Dyke as well as many contemporaries called and were welcomed. Laurel died in 1975.