Movies postsSaturday July 02, 2016
The Story of 'The Story of Louis Pasteur'
I love this story I read this morning in “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan. It's about the making of “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), which I've never seen, but which always seemed like an odd movie to come out of gangster-crazy Warner Bros. studio. I assumed it was a stab at respectability, since studios, then and now, don't exactly beat down doors to portray historical scientists. According to IMDb, Pasteur has been portrayed on screen only 19 times, and most of those are European productions—French, German, British—and many of those on the small screen (“Dr. Who,” etc.).
The interview is with Sheridan Gibney, who wrote “Pasteur”'s screenplay as well as “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” became twice president of the Screen Writers Guild, and whose last credit is an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” in 1975. Asked why Paul Muni, a big star in the 1930s, who got the kind of roles that Humphrey Bogart always wanted, wanted to play Louis Pasteur, he shrugs and says with a laugh. “His wife told me that he had always wanted to play someone with a beard, and that is what intrigued him.”
(Sidenote: What is it with actors and beards anyway?)
Muni told Gibney he wanted the movie to be almost documentary-like, so Gibney did weeks and weeks of research, visited hospitals, spent time with doctors, then sat down and wrote the screenplay in four weeks. Muni got a copy at the same time Jack Warner did. Their reactions differed.
Jack was horrified. He called up Hal Wallis, who was, I believe, at Lake Arrowhead or Tahoe, and sent the script up by special messenger. Monday morning, when I got to the studio, I had a three-page telegram from Hal Wallis, saying that I was to be taken off the script immediately and Laird Doyle was to put on the project. And there was to be no mention in the script of any disease that would frighten women, no experimentation with dogs, because of the Cruelty to Animals Society, no mention of Russian scientists, because that would offend Mr. Hearst, who was anti-Russian, and Mr. Muni could not wear a beard, and the whole story should take place while Pasteur is in college.
Of course Muni loves the script; and when Gibney shows him Wallis' telegram, he's furious—“I'd never seen him so mad,” Gibney says—and Muni has final approval. Now Warner bawls out Gibney for insurbordination, for showing a script to an actor before the producer, but his hands are tied. They have to make the movie to placate Muni.
They gave it the lowest possible budget an A star like Muni could work with, which was $330,000, and they cast it all with company people under contract. They gave it to an unknown director brought over by Reinhardt, who could barely speak English at this time—Bill Dieterle. He could read, but his vocabulary was limited, and he had to have the script translated to him by his wife, who spoke excellent English. And Bill Dieterle hated the script. This is the way we went into the picture. ...
When it was done, my contract was up and Leland was told I'd never be back at Warner Brothers and I left for London to work on a play. I was gone about six months, and I got a cable from [my agent] Leland saying I should come right home. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award! When I got home I was met at the dock, to my amazement, by the top New York executive of Warner Brothers, who had a limousine waiting to take me to my hotel. Sure enough, I won the Academy Award. But winning the Academy Award meant my salary automatically tripled, and even if they had wanted me back now I was beyond the range of Warner Brothers. So I signed with Zanuck, who was over at 20th Century Fox by now and wanted me to come to work for him.
The movie was also nominated for best picture, while Muni won the Oscar for lead actor. It was a huge success. Muni would go on to play similarly prestigious parts: Chinese in “The Good Earth”; Emile Zola in “The Life of Emile Zola.” But my favorite part of the story is the coda:
Two years later, Jack Warner was invited to Paris by the president of France and given the highest arts decoration and kissed on both cheeks by the president himself for this wonderful monument to French science. And for years afterward, Warner wouldn't let Muni appear in anything without a beard.
Way of the world.
René Clair's Hooray for Hollywood
From “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan:
McGilligan: You have always been a severe critic of Hollywood, even though you spent your wartime years in America, working in Hollywood. How did you adjust to the Hollywood method of filmmaking?
René Clair: After the success of my first film, I was asked to come to Hollywood many times, but I always turned the offers down because I knew that their system of production was completely opposed to my individualism. In France I could do practically anything I wanted to. But in 1940, I had my choice between Hitler and Hollywood and I preferred Hollywood. [laughing] Just a little.
Message-Movie Shell Game
Homophobia, exit through the gift shop.
I'm reading the Hollywood/Broadway memoir “Original Story By Arthur Laurents” right now, to calm myself between maddening excursions into Jane Mayer's expose of the Koch brothers (a.ka. why you no longer live in a democracy), and came across this interesting Hollywood “message movie” shell game.
Laurents' first theatrical play, “Home of the Brave,” was made into a movie in 1949. The play was about anti-Semitism but Hollywood made it about racism: a black soldier rather than a Jewish soldier was attacked. Why the switch? Because both “Gentleman's Agreement” and “Crossfire” had been released in 1947, so it was felt that anti-Semitism “had been done.”
Interestingly, “Crossfire” had originally been about homophobia but of course that wasn't commercial in 1947. So...
- homophobia --> anti-Semitism
- anti-Semitism --> racism
No surprise, I'm sure, to Laurents, who is both gay and Jewish, and who had written the following earlier in the memoir, which was published in 2000:
I believed most Americans were prejudiced against homosexuals, Negroes and Jews, in that order. I still do. It's somewhat less overt now because it's somewhat less sanctioned, but bigotry is still alive and killing in the U.S.A.
And here's his take on the switch, not to mention “Gentleman's Agreement”:
In the screen adaptation produced by Stanley Kramer, the Jew was changed to a Negro. When I asked why, Stanley replied: “Jews have been done.” He was referring to the movie Gentleman's Agreement, in which Gregory Peck played a gentile (no stretch) pretending to be a Jew (only in the movies). The picture's moral was Be nice to a Jew because he might turn out to be a gentile. The film version of Home of the Brave was highly acclaimed and was a commercial hit. Not a critic, not a vocal soul was bothered that there were no racially integrated units in the Army like the one in the picture. It was a movie.
It's a good memoir. So far a swirl of wit and drink and sex in New York in the 1940s. Haven't gotten to the blacklist yet.
That Idiotic 'Hail, Caesar!" Race-Based Protest
On the town.
Thursday was an annoying online day for me. First that idiotic Frank Underwood meme, then this. Clowns to the right of me, jokers to the left.
On the Daily Beast site, frequent contributor Jen Yamato interviewed the Coen Brothers about their movie, “Hail, Caesar!” and asked them about #OscarSoWhite. They weren't really hip to the protest. Or they thought everyone cares too much about the Oscars. Which is true. Here, too. Although, in my defense, I don't really care so much as I'm intrigued by what the Academy decides to honor each year; what the conversation is. Really, the point of the Oscars is to disappoint, and everyone has their breaking point when they stop caring too much. Mine happened in March 2006.
Anyway, Ms. Yamato brought up why the cast for “Hail, Caesar!” was in fact so white: all of these white 2010s Hollywood stars playing 1950s Hollywood stars. The answer, of course, is obvious, but in the piece she only brings it up to bypass it:
Such overwhelming whiteness could conceivably be explained away by pointing to the milieu of Tinseltown circa the 1950s, when the industry's racial demographic was far less diverse than it is today. I asked the Coens to respond to criticisms that there aren't more minority characters in the film. In other words, why is #HailCaesarSoWhite?
Then the Coens responded. And they weren't exactly Minnesota Nice about it.
“It's important to tell the story you're telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not.”
“You don't sit down and write a story and say, 'I'm going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,'—right? That's not how stories get written. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything about how stories get written and you don't realize that the question you're asking is idiotic.”
“It's not an illegitimate thing to say there should be more diversity in an industry. But that's not what that question is about. That question is about something else.”
In a way, Yamato was brave to include all of this in her piece. She allowed herself to be an idiot in print to make a larger point.
Except she, and a lot of other people, think her smaller point is the legitimate one. Some of these people are friends of mine who are friends of hers, and who defended her on the usual social media outlets. I went the opposite route. I pointed out that all of these hashtag protests actually cancel each other out:
- #OscarSoWhite only because...
- #MovieIndustrySoWhite, and...
- It was incredibly so in the early 1950s, when “Hail, Caesar!” is set, which means ...
- #HailCaesarSoWhite as a protest makes no fucking sense.
So Thursday was a long day.
I'm Not Saying HUAC was Fascist, But...
From “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War” by John Sbardellati (recommended):
In one sense HUAC wished to restore the entertainment function of Hollywood. According to Jack Moffitt, Communist propagandists had been waging a battle to make the cinema a “forum for reform” by favoring social problem films “attacking American institutions, showing up the worst side of it.” Committee member John McDowell agreed and repeatedly advised “that pictures ought to stay in the pure field of entertainment.”
And from “Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present” by James Chapman (also recommended):
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.