Archive for the ‘USA MOVIE PRODUCTIONS’ Category


Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on December 31, 2008

9:29 AM on 31st December 2008

by Daily Mail Reporter





WINE, WOMEN AND ROSES by Billy Rose – Illustrations by Salvador Dali

Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 25, 2008




First published in 1946

Chapter 11

Iron Butterflies

Mr. Louis B. Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Culver City, California.

Dear L. B., The last time I saw you in New York, you offered me a job. I explained that I was working on a big popcorn deal and asked for a raincheck. You told me that if I ever hit on a good movie idea to get in touch with you. Hence this letter.

I have a notion which ought to keep the M-G-M lion in tender-loins for a long time to come. It’s a plan for a cycle of movies called “Iron Butterflies.”

I don’t have to tell you, L. B., that cycles make plenty of shekels. When the Brothers Warner were producing biographies of doctors and inventors, they had money in all six shoes. And when the same brothers arranged for Alexis Smith to marry every composer from Gershwin to Gounod, they needed hip boots to hold the dough. But before I blueprint the “Iron Butterflies” cycle, I think it only fair to say that it’s going to cost you a pretty penny—or rather, a pretty painting.

Some years ago, I saw a picture by Rembrandt at the Knoedler Galleries on 57th Street. It was called “Aristotle,” and the catalogue said it was owned by a Mrs. Erickson. Since that time I haven’t been able to get the painting out of my head. I want it like Caesar wanted Gaul, like Stalin wants Oak Ridge, like boy wants girl.

So here’s my proposition: Get me the picture that doesn’t move and I’ll present you with four pictures that will.

The flickers I have in mind are made to order for your dream factory. They’re full of maids, music, madness and malarkey— the four M’s that Hollywood would do well to rediscover. I think you’ll agree, L. B., that it’s about time your writers stopped looking into the crystal hail and shifted their gaze to the navel. An occasional political picture is fine, but it will never replace the fluttering eyelash and the half-minute clinch.

The cycle I have in mind concerns itself with the lives of four talented, tough, and tetched babes who did all right for themselves in the four big branches of show business—opera, circus, theatre, and dance. The opera singer was as dizzy as the heights she scaled. The circus performer was a mixture of sugar and dynamite. The actress—the only member of the quartet still functioning—can do more with an audience than Georgie Jessel can with a date. And as for the dancer, the lady may have said “yes” too often, but she never took “no” for an answer.

I call this cycle “Iron Butterflies” because the gossamer wings of these ladies are made of spun steel and the ends of their feelers are tipped with molybdenum. (Incidentally, the phrase “Iron Butterflies” isn’t mine. Some syllable-happy guy once bestowed it on your old artiste of the aria-ways, Jeanette MacDonald.)

Getting these four scripts in shape shouldn’t be much of a problem. You have a building full of writers who are kept in sterile compartments and forced-fed on the hour. Though these script- writers are shy on plots, they’re long on pencils, and when given something to write about, they turn out many a pretty participle.

In this cycle, they won’t even have to dream up those torrid touches which sell tickets. Their only problem will be to get the scripts down to shooting size. In fact, you may have to caution them not to dip into their adjective bags at all, for gilding the lives of these four dillies would be like adding salt to the Atlantic.

The heroine of the first picture is Mary Garden, the opera singer. If Lana Turner has stopped making like a B movie, she should be ideal for the role. And don’t tell me she can’t sing. They said the same thing about Larry Parks, and look how he sang in The Jolson Story.

We pick up Mary Garden in Scotland where she was born in 1877. (Business of bagpipes and heather on the hill.) When she was six, her family moved to Chicopee, Massachusetts. (Snow-storms and her first plate of baked beans.) Next Chicago, where she gave a violin concert at 12. Then Paris and the Left Bank. (Students, sidewalk cafés, and talk about an upstart named Debussy.)

The next sequence is pretty corny but surefire. The date— April 13, 1900. Scene—the Opéra Comique. Mademoiselle Rio-ton, the star, collapses during the second act of Louise. Without an orchestra rehearsal, Mary Garden is rushed onstage. Sensation! Flowers, diamonds, supper at N’Iaxirn’s. Mary continues in role for a record two hundred performances.

Our heroine becomes “The Toast of the Continent.” She is tall, bosomy, and beautiful. Kings sit in boxes and applaud, and queens give them a good talking-to when they get home. (Fadeout on this sequence with King George of Greece giving Mary a necklace worth $100,000.)

1907. (Establish by fluttering pages of calendar.) Oscar Hammerstein’s grandpappy engages Mary for season of opera in New York at $1,800 a night. Mary opens in Thais. Critics not overly kind, but audiences go mad about opera singer with only one derriere. (Better check on this with Eric Johnston office.)

Miss Garden’s antics in the next couple of reels will have to be played down to make them believable. Especially her flair for publicity. In Louise she introduces the twenty-five-second kiss. When a steampipe bursts backstage of the Manhattan Opera House, she continues singing and averts a panic. In Boston, she announces she will appear in Salome without benefit of veils. Beantown bans the show, but it sells out in sixty-one other cities. The following year, she climbs Mont Blanc, and on her first day back in New York, poses with Andrew Carnegie.

That evening she meets the press and says, “American women don’t worship their men. They merely skin them.”

For the next twenty years, our heroine is seldom off the front page. (Suggest you let Vorkapich montage this.) Show Mary Garden giving out statements about caring more for art than men. Then letting it leak out that she’s going to get married. Then announcing she’s going to become a nun. Show her introducing the hobble skirt, kissing seventy Shriners at a banquet, carrying a cane full of liquid dog food for her pooch, paying $7,600 for eight hats, and telling reporters she yearns to meet a cold-blooded murderer.

During World War I, there’s another socko sequence. When the shooting starts, Mary disguises herself in Zouave garb and tries to enlist in the French Army as a boy. When her curves give her away, she turns her Versailles home into a hospital for wounded soldiers. And now for the wow finish, which is worth a million domestic, L. B., because it’s got a moral.

When Mary gets into the big dough, her father insists on his share of the loot. Says it’s coming to him for the piano lessons he once staked her to. Mary is a good girl, and rather than bite the hand which once walloped her with a hairbrush, she kicks in regularly. At one time she’s making as much as $200,000 a year. But the more she makes, the more her old man demands as his cut. (If Bela Lugosi will work without makeup, he’d be dandy for the father.)

Whatever money Mary Garden manages to hold out, she invests in the stock market. Then comes the crash of ‘29. She’s wiped out. And by this time, her voice has developed some rough edges and good paying jobs are none and far between.

Mary writes her father and asks him to come to see her. She’s almost glad of the chance to tell the old buzzard the well has dried up. But before the postman can deliver the letter, her father ups and dies. A few days later, his lawyers notify Mary she is his only heir and he has left her well over a million dollars!

It’s the same money, of course, that her father had whined and wheedled out of her over the years. The old man had always been haunted by the story of the star who ends up broke.

Mary Garden is still living. In 1942, the papers said something about her writing an autobiography. Your Paris office can check on where to contact her. You might open the picture with a shot of the Mediterranean, the sun sinking in the sea, and the old opera singer signing a contract to let M-G-M make a picture of her life.

The second picture in our cycle is about a queen—the only one I ever knew. Her name was Josie De Mott Robinson and she was the greatest equestrian star in the history of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. I think Judy Garland could play Josie beautifully. You can use a double for the bareback riding and get around the thrill sequences with long shots. (There are quite a few horses in this movie, L. B., and what you haven’t got in your stable you can always borrow from Harry Warner.)

I first met Josie in 1934 when I was lining up a cast for Jumbo. The Hecht-MacArthur script called for some old-time circus stars, and Nagafy the Fire-eater suggested I look up Josie De Mott.

“She’s past seventy,” said the diavolo, “but don’t let that throw you. She can still do more tricks on a horse than I can on a sidewalk.”

I dropped Josie a note and she showed up a few days later at the Hippodrome—a gray-haired kewpie doll about five feet tall.

“Can you still ride?” I asked.

Josie smiled a sweet-old-lady smile. “Try me,” she said.

We went down to the basement where the horses were stabled and she selected a dappled percheron. Rehearsals stopped in the arena as the old girl went into her auditic-n. I looked and blinked. The three- score-and-tenner was performing with the same limp, kittenish speed that had been hers as a girl. I got the feeling she was doing more than ride the horse—she seemed to inhale the darned thing through the soles of her feet.

When Josie dismounted, the performers and roustabouts addressed her the way I imagine Elizabeth’s husband addresses the Queen Mother. I got an even better idea of what Josie meant to circus tradition when Dick Maney, my press agent, brought me the Jumbo program copy to okay. This flinty Broadway broadsider had devoted as much space to the has-been as he had to Durante and Whiteman, and he had written about her with a degree of feeling and respect I never knew was in his typewriter.

Josie De Mott was born a sawdust princess, and no Bourbon or Hapsburg had a better background. Her ancestors were doing horseback high-jinks when the center box was reserved for Napoleon I.

Josie made her debut at three in her father’s horse-drawn caravan. According to the yellowed clips on my desk, the audience at first thought the tot was a mechanical doll. By the time she had galloped into her teens, she was a headliner with Barnum & Bailey. Swedes toasted her in glogg, and Mexicans in tequila. She was as well-known in Paris as she was in Paterson.

In 1890, Josie fell in love with Charles Robinson, part owner of the Robinson Brothers’ Circus. Everyone thought it was a fine match—the impresario and the star. But it didn’t turn out that way. The impresario got interested in politics and became a gillie (a gilhie is a person who thinks there is something in the world more important than the circus). For fifteen years, Josie did her best to be a gillie too, but she never quite made it.

One day she got stuck on a cream-colored gelding pulling a milk- wagon, bought him, and went back into training. Robinson divorced her. Nobody had ever come back to bareback riding after a fifteen- year lay-off, but Bailey, who owned 90 percent of the Barnum Circus, gave her a contract.

A month before the circus was to open at the old Garden, Josie missed a somersault and broke two ribs. The doctors taped her up, and the morning after opening night she was again the biggest five feet in Circusdom.

That is the saga of the sawdust sweetie who performed for me at the Hippodrome and went along with the troupe to Fort Worth when I presented Jumbo at the Centennial. And now, L. B., for one of those vignettes which explains why we’re both in show business.

One spring evening a few years back, I went to the opening of the circus at Madison Square Garden. As Merle Evans picked up his baton for the preliminary fanfare, he turned, faced a center box and bowed. Then, as the performers trotted out for the opening spec, I noticed their eyes were on the same box.

The riders saluted with whips as they pranced by. The aerialists signaled a jaunty two-fingered hello, and the clowns did an extra flip. Prodded by their trainers, even the elephants waved their trunks. “What gives?” I asked myself. “Is the President in the house?”

I followed a Crackerjack salesman down the aisle to the box. Seated in it was you-know-who. Her white hair had been primped and curled until it looked like a platinum tiara.

After the finale, I went backstage and looked up Pat Valdo, who has been major-domoing the Greatest Show on Earth for a quarter of a century. “Who arranged the big fuss for Josie?” I asked him.

“Nobody arranged it,” said Valdo. “It’s been happening like this for years.

“You mean Josie attends every circus opening?”

“Yes,” said Pat, “and all the other performances too. You see, the old lady lives in a hotel down on 23rd Street. Not much of a place—one of those bed, dresser and chair jobs. The walls are covered with her old circus posters, and on the mantel are the decorations she won—the medal from the President of Mexico, the miniature horse presented by Edward of England.

“Every year when the Big Show plays New York, Josie puts on her best dress and hires a limousine. She doesn’t have any trouble getting into the Garden—she still has the gold lifetime pass that Barnum himself gave her. The management reserves the center box for her, and every afternoon and night for six weeks, Josie is in that box. And if she wasn’t, I guess the performers would get worried and figure something was wrong . . . .”

When the Barnum show opened at the Garden this year, L. B., I was there as usual with peanuts, popcorn, and pennant. But Josie De Mott Robinson wasn’t. She had died a few weeks before.

And what happened at the Garden that night would make a fine closing sequence for your movie. Throughout the show, the performers played to the center box as usual, and at the finish, nodded their heads in memory of a lady whose life was a little sad, a little gallant and a little remarkable.

You won’t have to go off the lot, L. B., to cast the heroine of the third picture in our cycle. Greer Garson should be able to do a fine job as Gertrude Lawrence. And if you don’t think Greer can handle the songs, you can always use Gertie’s voice on a sound track—that is, if you want to get documentary all of a sudden.

Gertie was born on July 4, 189— none of your business. Before the braces were off her teeth, she was doing pirouettes on the sidewalks of Clapham (wherever that is) and turning a pretty ha’penny at it. Between semesters at the Convent of the Sacré Coeur, she was a child dancer in a pantomime called Babes in the Wood.

But this babe didn’t stay in the woods long. At the age of 15, she played a white-robed, gilt-winged angel in a Gerhart Hauptmann opus. The angel next to her was a lisping adolescent named Noel Coward. A few years later she was featured in Max Reinhardt’s London production of The Miracle.

New York fell in love with her in 1924 when she sang “Limehouse Blues” in Chariot’s Revue. In 1926, she played Kay in Gershwin’s Oh Kay. Two years later she was the star of Icebound, which won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1931 she played opposite Noel Coward in Private Lives and teamed up with him again five years later in To-Night at Eight-Thirty.

Some of her other successes include Susan and God, Liza Elliott in Lady in the Dark, and the street girl in Pygmalion. She’s been married twice and, according to her autobiography, has had several stylish sweeties.

Recently I caught Gertie in a revival of To-Night at Eight-Thirty. As I watched her take charge of the audience, I asked myself:

“What makes this babe worth five thousand a week? Is she funny? Yes, quite funny, but Nancy Walker is funnier. Can she act? Sure, but not any better than a little gal named Barbara Bel Geddes. Is she a great singer? Well, it’s a matter of taste, but personally I prefer Pearl Bailey. Is she an outstanding hoofer? Heck, no. Any of my chorus kids dance better.”

What, then, makes Gertie Lawrence? What kind of light and heat does this star give out that makes her a bigger draw at the box office than all the other girls I’ve mentioned put together?

Well, that’s a question more easily faced than fathomed. Ask any five producers why one person is a wow and another a walk-on, and you’re a cinch to get five different answers. Ask me and I’ll mumble about some mysterious quantity I call “X”—the ability to turn it on when you need it.

Remember that World Series game in Chicago when Babe Ruth turned to the booing fans, pointed to a spot in the bleachers and smacked the next pitch right where he had pointed? That was “X.” Remember that day at Forest Hills when a fairish tennis player named Jones banged four successive aces past Fred Perry? The fabulous Fred was never noted for his serve, but he saluted Jones and then aced him right back with four of the fastest serves of his life. Another example of X-appeal.

Let me tell you, L. B., about one of the times Gertie Lawrence turned it on. In Lady in the Dark, she played the boss lady of a slick fashion magazine. The plot of this musical concerned itself with her neuroses which were sprouting neuroses. Moss Hart fashioned the libretto with the English star in mind, and the sainted Sam Harris, who produced the show, had to guarantee Gertie $5,000 a week against a double helping of the gross. Like Cornell and Hayes, she was the show, and was in a position to call all the shots. And from what I heard around Broadway, Gertie frequently called them at the top of her voice.

During the last week of rehearsals, Moss got worried. Gertie had some cute ditties, but no slam-bang comic song had been written for her. On the other hand, a kid out of the Borscht Circuit named Danny Kaye had been handed a clever lyric called “Tschaikowsky.”

The script called for Danny to sing this song in Act Two while Gertie relaxed in a swing upstage. Well, Moss knew his show business well enough to know that the star wasn’t going to sit by happily while a newcomer took the theatre over. “Tschaikowsky” was a cinch to be yanked after the opening performance out of town.

The worried Moss cornered composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Ira Gershwin, locked them in a room, and stood guard. At 6:30 next morning, the boys emerged with a little number called “Jennie.” Hart didn’t think much of it, and neither did Gertie. The star pointed out that it was only moderately funny and not her style. It might do for a shouting songstress like Sophie Tucker, but after all, Gertie was a lady.

“Look, my pet,” Moss pleaded, “we’re going to Boston to try things out. Learn the song and see how it goes. If it doesn’t click, Kurt and Ira will write another for you.”

“Okay,” agreed the star, “but it’s a waste of time.”

Miss Lawrence memorized the lyric, but during the dress rehearsal in Boston made no secret of her belief that “Jennie” would be jettisoned before the New York premiere.

And then came opening night at the Colonial Theatre. In Act One, Danny Kaye gave a good account of himself, but Gertie was the star and the audience was given no chance to forget it. But down in Act Two, Danny stepped to the footlights and let go with “Tschaikowsky.” As Moss Hart tells it, Danny was scared—scared he was going to stop the show with this murderously good piece of lyric writing. And then have it cut out by order of the star.

But the lyrics of “Tschaikowsky” were too hot to be cooled down, and Kaye had too much of what it takes not to give. When he finished the funny tongue-twister, the crowd applauded for two solid minutes—practically a lifetime in the theatre. The distressed Danny tried to shush the audience, but this was mistaken by the customers for modesty and they clapped all the louder.

In the back of the house, Hart, Weill, and Gershwin gave each other the old “that-does-it” look. Moss was already speculating on what he could substitute for Danny’s show-stopping specialty. And then “X” took over.

When the applause finally tapered off, Miss Lawrence slipped off the swing, saluted Danny with a deft gesture, took stage center and went into “Jennie.”

Now remember, L. B., she was singing a song that wasn’t her style and which she didn’t especially like. But the crowd had cheered somebody else—some smart Alec had whipped four.r service aces past the champ.

Suddenly Gertie stopped being Miss Lawrence and became Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee. As she reached the end of the first couplet of “Jennie,” Gertie let go with a Beale Street bump. During stanzas two and three, she did things with her aristocratic Sitzfleisch that had the audience in a wall-eyed trance. And down near the end of the song, the star went into the most magnificent mock strip-tease ever seen inside a theatre or out.

When Gertie finished, they had to do everything but turn on the sprinkler system to quiet the crowd. And “Jennie,” the song nobody liked, went skyrocketing into theatrical history.

Miss Lawrence cashes a pretty big check on payday, but as far as I’m concerned, she doesn’t have to blush when she hands it to the bank teller. If I were the teller, L. B., she wouldn’t even have to sign her name. Her “X” would be sufficient.

The last picture in our cycle is based on the career of the hottest hunk of woman who ever stepped out of a slip-on—Lola Montez. When I say that a movie about her might outgross Gone with the Wind, I’m not kidding.

Lola should be played by Joan Crawford, and, even if the Warner Brothers want Clark Gable in return, I think the swap will pay off. Hecht and MacArthur would be my choices to put this one on paper. As you’ll see in a minute, getting Lola ready for Technicolor is not a job for kids.

Hold on to your seat, L. B., here we go!

Lola Montez was born in Ireland in 1818. Her square moniker was Marie Gilbert. When she was two, her father took her to India, and I guess the curry powder got in her blood. When she was seventeen, her mother arranged for her to marry a rich man. But Lola decided to do her own arranging, and eloped with a subaltern named James. I don’t know what happened to James, but a year later she turned up in England with a six-footer named Lennox.

In London, she bought a mantilla and a pair of castanets in a pawnshop and changed her name to Lola Montez. Then she sweet- talked the manager of His Majesty’s Theatre into giving her a job. Halfway through her Spanish dance on opening night, a young nobleman she had cold-shouldered got up and hollered, “Swindle! She’s from Ireland!” The British audience hooted the hockshop señorita out of the theatre.

Lola went to Brussels and sang in the streets for pennies. A young student sold his books to pay her fare to Warsaw. There she wangled an engagement at the Opera House. Prince Paskievich, a sixty-year- old dwarf who had conquered Poland, saw her dance and offered her a palace. She told him to go take a flying jump in the Baltic.

Next night the Prince sent a claque to hiss her off the stage. Lola stopped the music, stepped to the footlights and told the audience the story. The Poles pitched the hecklers into the alley and carried her on their shoulders through the streets, singing songs of independence.

Paskievich ordered her arrest. Lola barricaded her door and threatened to shoot the first soldier who entered. They were about to burn down her house when the French Consul came along, claimed her as a French subject, and whisked her out of Warsaw.

We next meet up with her in St. Petersburg. The fellow who kept her in caviar that season was the Czar of All the Russias.

In Dresden, Franz Liszt walked out on his wife and children for Lola. In Paris, she bewitched Alexandre Dumas. Then for the first time, Lola fell in love. Her boy friend was a radical journalist named Dujaurier. Her story might have ended here, but the young radical talked out of turn and was killed in a duel.

Henry, Prince of Reuss, offered to make her a Princess, but she patted him on the cheek and kept moving.

Lola was twenty-seven when she turned up in Munich. They told her she wasn’t important enough to dance at King Ludwig’s favorite theatre. She scratched her way past the palace guards to the King’s room and—get this, L. B.—without music, went into her dance. Ludwig of Bavaria was enchanted. She took over his heart and, with it, his kingdom.

Under her influence, Ludwig liberalized schools, canceled censorship, and kicked out his reactionary cabinet. When his sister, the Empress of Austria, tried to bribe Lola to leave him, she showed Ludwig the letter and tossed it in the fire. He made her a Baroness.

An organized mob appeared under her window, jeered and threw stones. Lola stepped out on the balcony and poured champagne on their heads. Finally, the generals told Ludwig to choose between Lola and his kingdom. The old King reluctantly ordered her arrest.

When a mob came to get her, she put on her jewels and walked proudly through her enemies to a waiting barouche. No one could bring himself to molest her. When she had driven off, the hooligans made a shambles of her boudoir. Ludwig, watching, was knocked over and trampled.

In Switzerland, she married an Army officer and was arrested for bigamy. She jumped bail and came to America. Here she danced and married her way right across the continent. During the Gold Rush, Lola was the Texas Guinan of the Barbary Coast. On a sidetrip to Australia, she horsewhipped an editor and clawed a prima donna who had snubbed her.

In 1861, she returned to New York, got religion, and died. She did all this living in forty-three years. And unless I’m daft, hers was the wildest ride on the romantic merry-go-round in the history of this planet Earth.

That’s the package, L. B. And if your hirelings use the sense that God gave geese, they can’t go wrong when they make these pictures. It’s my hunch that there’s nothing but gold in these Iron Butterflies, and that their shenanigans on celluloid should have the movie houses using ice packs on their cash registers.

Of course I know I’m offering you a lot for one little Rembrandt. But if this cycle grosses more than two hundred million, I know you’ll do the decent thing and throw in a frame.

Cordially, Billy Rose