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Curtiz returned to Warner Bros. for The Helen Morgan Story (1957).The film, starring Paul Newman and Ann Blyth,wasa flop and turned out to be the director’s final picture for Jack Warner. He fathered a daughter with Jill Gerrard, whom he maintainedat arm’s length to prevent any interference with his film career, which was entering twilight. Sam Goldwyn Jr. hired him to film The Proud Rebel. The film was delayed because of Curtiz’s appendectomy, but it became a heartwarming success starring Alan Ladd and Olivia de Havilland.Hal Wallis tapped him to direct Elvis Presley in King Creole (1958).Taking a conciliatory approach, Curtiz coaxed a superior performance from Presley that the pop music star came to regard as his best in any film. Curtiz directed a pair of desultory pictures,The Man in the Net and A Breath of Scandal, as age and illness began to impair his ability to work effectively.A handsome but antiseptic version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Sam Goldwyn Jr. closed out Curtiz’s films during the 1950s.
In September 1956 Warner Bros. borrowed Curtiz from Paramount to direct The Helen Morgan Story. He wrote to Steve Trilling, “I have felt very sentimental, being back on the job at Warner’s again.” His compensation would total $110,000 for a maximum of twenty weeks to helm a project that had been languishing at the studio since the famed torch singer had died in 1941.
The sense of nostalgia generated by his return quickly faded as Curtiz encountered more than the usual amount of difficulty in casting the title role. Most of the bankable Hollywood stars were selecting their own material or committed to other pictures. Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and June Allyson were not lining up for what was alternately titled Why I Was Born and The Jazz Age. (It simply wouldn’t be a Warner Bros. picture without multiple title changes before Jack Warner made the final selection.) Curtiz had lunch with Jane Russell, who told him she was committed to The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957). A draft script reportedly delighted Kim Novak, but a deal with Harry Cohn at Columbia couldn’t be worked out.
Love Me or Leave Me and I’ll Cry Tomorrow (both 1955) detailed the respective travails of Ruth Etting and Lillian Roth and popularized the theme of torch chanteuses–as–tragedians. The stars of both films were approached by Curtiz, but neither wanted anything to do with Helen Morgan. Doris Day, who had won critical acclaim for Love Me or Leave Me, was wary about what the darker aspects of Morgan’s life story might do to her image. Also declining was Susan Hayward, who believed the role was too similar to the one she’d played in I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Curtiz had a conference with David Selznick and Jennifer Jones “until one o’clock in the morning.” He wrote to Trilling afterward: “They both like the story idea very much, but they won’t commit themselves. … I think we should (p.511) protect ourselves and look farther for ‘Helen’ in case this Jones deal falls through.” The notion of Jennifer Jones as Helen Morgan never got off the ground. Jack Warner had no intention of enduring Selznick as an ipso facto producer. Curtiz next tried out a series of singer-actresses including Patti Page, Keely Smith, and Peggy Lee, but none of them could pass muster. Curtiz decided to fall back on his starmaking reputation, saying, “If you have a good script it doesn’t make any difference whether the star is known or unknown.” Harking back to his recent experience on The Scarlet Hour, he added, “You are in trouble when you try to put an unknown in a bad script. I got too egotistical once and tried that, but I learned my lesson.” He then considered and rejected Julie London and Anne Bancroft, along with just about every other up-and-coming actress in town. Curtiz’s hunt for Helen Morgan was eventually dubbed Hollywood’s “biggest casting search since Scarlett O’Hara.” This merry-go-round began spinning around concurrently with the Confidential magazine piece detailing his previous year’s arrest. According to the columnist James Bacon, Curtiz invited him to the Mocambo to watch “a great Irish singer” who might be “our Helen Morgan.” Bacon disabused him of that notion by advising him that Ella Fitzgerald was currently headlining at the Mocambo. Curtiz was grateful for the heads-up and replied to Bacon: “Thank God you told me, Jeem. If I hired a black girl, people might get the wrong idea from that god-damn magazine.”
What is revealing about his eventual decision to cast Ann Blyth is a pair of memos that Curtiz sent to Steve Trilling. On November 1, 1956, he wrote, “Three people are after me to make tests which I am trying to avoid—Linda Darnell, Jane Powell and Ann Blyth.” Eleven days later he sent another note to Trilling: “Just finished the test with Ann Blyth. She is excellent.” Curtiz evidently had several people pushing him to test Blyth. One of them was Hedda Hopper, who immediately assumed public credit for recommending Blyth for the part. Concerning her selection for the role, Blyth told me: “After looking back on it years later, I thought, isn’t that strange. Here’s Mike who did the first test [Mildred Pierce] all those years before and I still have to test. Not necessarily because he wanted me to test, but obviously the higher-ups, I’m sure, insisted on it.” As he was when she tested for Mildred, Curtiz was an immediate convert. She added: “I remember after the test, his exact words to me: ‘Don’t worry, Annie, you’ve got the part.’” Blyth won the role after a six-month search that included thirty-two contenders.
For the actor to portray Larry Maddux—an amalgam of the different (p.512) men with whom Morgan was involved—Curtiz sought Paul Newman, who impressed him as prizefighter Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Newman eventually agreed to The Helen Morgan Story after the script was rewritten to his satisfaction. “Rewritten” is an inexact description for a screenplay that reflected the efforts of twenty different writers dating back over a decade.
Even though censorship had loosened up a bit, it remained impossible to accurately portray Morgan’s dissolute life onscreen. Labeling his version of Helen Morgan “glorified,” Curtiz observed that the censor’s office “wouldn’t have allowed” the unvarnished Morgan biography to be produced because “she always selected the wrong man—and she selected many.” Although Morgan was married three times, the script portrays her as a single woman. There was also no mention of a baby girl that she gave up for adoption in 1926. This omission was a condition of the studio’s agreement with Morgan’s mother, Lulu, to whom Warner Bros. paid five thousand dollars to borrow her daughter’s scrapbooks and other career memorabilia. Curtiz definitely captured the spirit of the singer’s downfall, even though he had to omit Morgan’s untimely death as a penniless alcoholic. Instead, there would be a typical cornball finale. Freshly dried out and released from the alky ward, Blyth’s Morgan is escorted by Maddux to her shuttered nightclub for a surprise tribute from a sold-out crowd of show-biz swells. Walter Winchell offers a staccato summation of the Roaring Twenties as an era of mistakes, adding that Morgan “made some of the biggest.” He escorts her to the stage, where Morgan hops onto a Steinway to lip-synch the movie’s final number.
There was murkiness over the decision to use Gogi Grant (who also received screen credit) as Helen Morgan’s unique voice instead of Blyth, who was an accomplished singer. Although neither could exactly replicate Morgan’s high-pitched technique, which Curtiz thought was “outmoded” for contemporary audiences, the rationale for using Grant remains curious. A philosophical Blyth accepted the decision gracefully, but the disappointment of playing such a potent role with another singer dubbing her voice was evident:
If you know the voice of Helen Morgan was certainly more like mine or mine would be more like hers. … Gogi was very popular at the time. I believe they [the studio higher-ups] felt it might be a good boost for the movie. … I couldn’t understand it, but at the same time, I thought the meat [the part of Helen Morgan] (p.513) still was there. And I thought, “Well, I guess I will have to compromise.” But I was taken aback by it for a long time, as they had me trying to be a bit more of a blues singer, and I would go into the studio and I guess, as I say, behind closed doors they were thinking of something quite different. But that is still Hollywood.
Replete with guest stars, jazz age nostalgia, and period musical standards, the picture was shot in black and white by Ted McCord in a style reminiscent of Curtiz’s earlier work. Providing a stark contrast to the era of wonderful nonsense was the grim dramatic content. To accentuate the story of her downward spiral, Morgan was volleyed between the fast-talking hustler, Maddux, and rich, married attorney Russell Wade (Richard Carlson). The suicide of a friend, Sue (Virginia Vincent), was thrown in for good measure. Blyth brings it off credibly, particularly after hitting bottom and suffering the DTs. It is a film thematically reminiscent of an earlier era. One cannot help thinking that Warner erred by not having Curtiz make this film in 1943 with Ida Lupino and Jack Carson.
Warner Bros. was now an altogether different studio. Jack had finally pushed Harry Warner out in a duplicitous stock-purchase deal that left him in sole control. The two brothers never spoke to one another again. Curtiz would be a pallbearer at Harry’s funeral in 1958. Jack Warner remained at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo and didn’t bother to attend his older brother’s services.
Curtiz’s return reunited him with some of the holdovers from his glory days who still remained on the Warner lot. In addition to a final collaboration with LeRoy Prinz, who staged the Helen Morgan musical numbers, he got to butt heads once more with Tenny Wright, who would retire at the end of the year. Wright couldn’t resist a final attempt to preempt what he viewed as Curtiz’s budgetary excesses. The veteran production manager wrote to Trilling and Warner: “There are lot of moves in this script which cost time and money. Some of the scenes are underwritten. If some cuts could be made, I think it would be better and not hurt the story. It is very interesting and should be a moneymaker, but you know Mike, he likes to enlarge scenes.”
Blyth thought Curtiz hadn’t changed appreciatively since Mildred Pierce: “I think he had a formula and he knew that it worked.” Richard Whorf was originally assigned as the producer, but he was working on three other projects and couldn’t do much to assist Curtiz. The director (p.514) asked Trilling for Martin Rackin, a rising Warner screenwriter. Rackin was duly assigned as producer, but Paul Helmick, the assistant director, claimed that Curtiz developed an inexplicable dislike for Rackin and practically had him barred from the set. Helmick also observed Curtiz browbeating Ted McCord to such an extent that he was startled to learn they had worked on many pictures together (and there were more to come). Paul Newman later told the film critic Leonard Maltin that his relationship with the director was “a long rocky road.”
“Curtiz had a lot of definition,” remembered Newman. “He knew pretty much what he wanted, I don’t always think it was the right thing, but he was very, very determined. And of course, I kidded him unmercifully, which he couldn’t handle.” Virginia Vincent remembered shooting a scene one freezing night on the back lot: “It was so cold our teeth were chattering.” Someone in the crew slipped her and the others some brandy to keep warm. “We got too warm!” laughed Vincent. “We started to blow our lines and began giggling. Curtiz got angry with us!” During a visit to the Helen Morgan set, Rudy Behlmer observed Curtiz in action. A functionary was speaking with the director and remarked, “When we cut the picture …” Curtiz fixed the miscreant with a baleful stare. “I will cut the picture!” thundered the director as the offender slunk away.
Jack Warner wrote Curtiz a note after principal photography finished three days ahead of schedule on March 22, 1957: “Just returned from New York and was very happy to find the Helen Morgan Story completed. Cannot tell you how delighted I was to have you back here to do this picture. I feel you will be here again and again.” Curtiz responded with a “Dear Jack” note that included his intent to “supervise the editing … and to do anything either of you [Warner and Trilling] feels is necessary—retakes or added scenes—on my own time.” The Helen Morgan Story was critically panned as a slushy musical soap opera; the New York Times dismissed it as “heartwarming as an electric pad.” Produced for slightly over $2 million, the picture lost at least half a million dollars. Blyth quit making pictures to devote herself to raising a family while continuing her singing career and occasional television appearances.
Trilling and Warner attempted to lure Curtiz back again for a biopic of Diana Barrymore based on her memoir, Too Much, Too Soon. After reading the book, he questioned Trilling about the rationale for making a film about “an ordinary tramp—sleeping with every man who comes her way … becoming an alcoholic. Why? How can I explain to an audience why she [Barrymore] drank and became a tramp and still get their sympathy? (p.515) If we can answer this question we can have a dramatically interesting story.” After reading a draft screenplay in July 1957, he concluded that Diana Barrymore led “an entire life that was distasteful,” and he turned the project down. He was proved correct when the end product was a sordid picture starring a visibly ill Errol Flynn playing Flynn’s former idol and fellow dissipate, John Barrymore.
After The Vagabond King, The Scarlet Hour, and now The Helen Morgan Story, Curtiz couldn’t afford another disappointment. He shared his feelings with Trilling, which were accompanied by his usual self-absolution of any responsibility for movies gone wrong: “You are probably aware of the state of my career since I left Warner. I tried to cooperate with Paramount and did whatever bad stories they asked me to take on. The resulting weak pictures reflected only on me. My future pictures have to be important and successful. I can’t run the risk of an ‘interesting’ failure.” Curtiz nonetheless hoped that Warner would “not hold it [his refusal] against me in the future.” But another picture for Jack L. was not in the cards. The Helen Morgan Story would be the last movie that Curtiz directed at Warner Bros. The rejection of the Barrymore picture and the commercial failure of Helen Morgan apparently convinced his old boss that Curtiz’s magic touch was gone forever.
Curtiz returned to Paramount, but the studio had nothing for him. The prospect of unemployment triggered the frantic anxiety that engulfed him when he couldn’t work. He also needed the money. The maintenance of his lifestyle, including the upkeep of the Encino ranch, was a big monthly nut. Bess continued to spend, and there were new expenses. Jill Gerrard had become pregnant and he had to whisk her out of Hollywood. According to Gerrard, Curtiz rented her a house on Mesquite Avenue in Palm Springs. After Curtiz’s daughter Debra Candace Curtiz was born, Gerrard and the baby relocated to Apple Valley. She would periodically visit Curtiz and stay at the Ambassador Hotel, and the director footed the bills. Curtiz was proud of his new daughter. When he spent time with Gerrard and the baby, he was tender and gentle. He reacted to his final experience with fatherhood, however, much as he had to his earlier ones.
Curtiz’s seeming indifference toward his own kids while spending his life bringing fictional characters to life onscreen was paradoxically consistent. Even late in life, he viewed children as things to be managed at a distance with money so that they would not interfere with his life of filmmaking. There is little doubt that a large measure of his ambivalence can be ascribed to the scandal that he believed public acknowledgment of out-of-wedlock (p.516) progeny would cause. Two of Curtiz’s children remained in Europe to be raised by their mothers, so there was also an “out of sight, out of mind” perspective that combined with his renowned ability to compartmentalize. This rationalization doesn’t fully explain the fobbing off of his daughter Kitty to a succession of nannies and boarding schools and his treatment of Mathilde Foerster and his first son, Michael.
It was another aspect of the enigmatic director who instilled genuine empathy for the underdog in so many of his films while simultaneously venting his spleen on sound mixers and other low-level functionaries who didn’t have the power to fight back. Curtiz genuinely loved Bess Meredyth and consistently acknowledged how much she contributed to his success. He could genuinely feel this way and then ignore her has he had his children, accelerating her decline into a bedridden, depressed woman whom he cheated on continually. Although paying the bills doubtlessly helped him assuage his guilt, the addition of another child at this point in his career made him much more anxious about his finances. Gerrard and her daughter eventually relocated to Arizona. “I would not raise Candy in Hollywood,” she told me.
Curtiz remained dependent on an offer from the studios in part because he couldn’t get his own projects off the ground. He optioned the Stephen Longstreet novel The Promoters before it was published in January 1957, but he couldn’t obtain financing. Hedda Hopper reported he would be adapting the life of Jimmy Durante for the screen from Gene Fowler’s biography Schnozzola. The project, ostensibly starring Danny Thomas and Ann Blyth, went nowhere. Curtiz had previously attempted to break into television back in 1952 when he reportedly approached Lee Duncan, the owner of the original Rin Tin Tin, with a treatment he had developed for a television pilot starring the heroic hound that rescued Warner Bros. in the early 1920s. Either Curtiz didn’t have the money or Duncan rejected the idea. Other suitors more flush quickly lined up. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin debuted on ABC in 1954 and remained on the air for five years. Curtiz eventually abandoned any notion of directing television, as John Frankenheimer remembered when he was helming a production of The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1960:
This was the time that the CBS executives brought in Michael Curtiz, whom they were trying to get to be a television director. Michael Curtiz, of course, had won the Academy Award for Casablanca, he’d done all my favorite movies, he’d done these (p.517) great Errol Flynn movies, and the whole thing. And he came in, and they introduced him to me just as I was blocking this show. And he was very gracious, he was beautifully dressed and so forth and so on, he had a very thick Hungarian accent. And he said, “Ah yes, good.” He said, “I’m going into the, what do you call it, ‘control room.’” He says, “I’m going to look.” So he went in the control room. And the madness in trying to block this thing, I mean, I cannot describe it to you. Because we had cameras coming from here, and I was on the floor with a monitor, you know, so that I could see what was happening. And it’s, cameras would come crashing through and just missing people, and so forth and so on, and booms coming and going through the paper, and we’d knock them down and put ’em up again. And we went in and we did kind of a stagger-through of this, I mean, you couldn’t call it a run-through, because it was just, it was insane. And everybody was kind of going about their business. And suddenly I looked at Michael Curtiz, who had come in, you know, impeccably dressed. His tie was askew, and he was sweating. And he walked up to me, he said, “You are crazy!” And he walked out, and we never saw him again! Never saw him again!
Pushing seventy and older than nearly all his directorial contemporaries, including Ford, Hawks, Stevens, and Wyler, Curtiz found his career was in twilight.
Sam Goldwyn Jr. provided temporary respite with a property that he had purchased for his recently founded Formosa Productions. The son of the legendary producer met Curtiz while vacationing: “Actually, he was my next-door neighbor down in Malibu. My wife and I had just been married and we rented a house for the summer and Mike had one next door. We got to know each other and I became very fond of him, and then I had this picture I was going to make called The Proud Rebel. I gave him the script to read. He liked it and had some very good suggestions about the casting.”
Goldwyn’s property was a short story titled “Journal of Linett Moore,” written by James Edward Grant, John Wayne’s favorite scenarist. The story concerned John Chandler, a former Confederate officer who takes his ten-year-old son to an Illinois town to consult a doctor. The boy was traumatized into muteness after he saw his mother burned to death in the family home during Sherman’s march through Georgia. The youth’s only friend is his loyal border collie, a natural sheepdog. Chandler and his (p.518) son become allied with a woman rancher against a ruthless sheepherder and his two sons. The dog becomes a possible cure for the boy and forces a dramatic showdown in what becomes a small-scale range war.
Goldwyn’s famous father had never worked with Curtiz, but he was familiar with his reputation. “My father said to me, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’” remembered Sam Jr. ‘Do you really think he [Curtiz] is okay? You know he’s a handful.’” Goldwyn Jr. was comfortable. “I had the feeling I could get along with him, and I learned a lot from him. There were so many things he would do. And he would say and do incredible, wonderful things.”
Despite his admiration, Sam Jr. knew he had to establish his control over the director. He had hired a young Joseph Petracca to write the screenplay. During an initial story meeting, Curtiz flung the script on the floor, yelling at the screenwriter, “Why you give him shit, shit, shit?” Goldwyn remembered, “I knew my moment had come. I looked at Mike and said, ‘Mike, pick up the script.’ I said, ‘You’re twice my age, you cannot act this way.’ He picked up the script, handed it back to the writer, and said, ‘I am very emotional man, I love script. Last little detail. But I shoot script. I shoot every word.” According to Goldwyn, his authority was established. “I never, probably only one other time, had another problem. I’d just be very firm with him.” The producer laughed: “And he didn’t mind if there was a public confrontation.”
Curtiz was stricken with appendicitis during the wee hours of August 26, 1957, just before the start of production. He was taken from the Encino ranch to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, where his gangrenous appendix was removed. According to John Meredyth Lucas, Curtiz had been suffering for days but concealed his condition because he was worried about delaying the picture. “He adamantly refused to go to the hospital until I had called Sam Goldwyn, Jr., my friend and producer of the picture, in the middle of the night and got his dazed assurance that the production would be pushed back. Only then did Mike allow the waiting ambulance to take him.” While Curtiz was undergoing his appendectomy, he was discovered to have a nodule on his prostate gland. According to Lucas, it was biopsied, and Curtiz was informed by his doctor and Bess that the growth was benign. Although Curtiz quickly rebounded from his abdominal surgery and was back at work within a week, his rocklike constitution had developed definite cracks. According to Goldwyn, “He had a tiny stroke on the picture and he would get very tired in the late afternoon.”
(p.519) The Proud Rebel centered on the father and son characters, John and David Chandler. Although there was a rumor that Goldwyn was considering Dean Martin as the father, he declared that he never thought of anyone other than Alan Ladd and his son David. The elder Ladd remained a major movie star although he had begun to slip after a succession of indifferent films. Goldwyn had to convince Ladd’s wife and agent, Sue Carol, “who ran the show, the Ladd show, that is.” Carol expressed misgivings about Curtiz, saying, “I had only one dealing with the man and he yelled all the time.” Goldwyn assured her that Curtiz was “a very sensitive guy.” Ladd was enthusiastic. The star had overcome an impoverished background, and, at one point during the Depression, he had worked as a grip at Warner Bros. “Alan was delighted because he had begun as a grip on Captain Blood, which was one of Mike’s pictures,” remembered Goldwyn. “And he watched Errol Flynn and Mike go at it, and he said, ‘Gee, I’d like to be in that guy’s [Flynn’s] shoes.’ Alan told me all this.” Because each man needed the other at this juncture in their careers, Curtiz and Ladd bonded.
Familial concern about how Curtiz would interact with David Ladd evaporated. The director exerted himself to develop a rapport with the younger Ladd by radiating his considerable charm. “He couldn’t have been sweeter and lovelier to me,” recalled David Ladd. “Our relationship basically started with him going to school with me. And then we went to UCLA to learn sign language. And Mike attended all those lessons and I also kind of remember going out to his house to rehearse sign language with him. But he was very fastidious about it. He was so kind and sweet to me throughout. And he was very kind and sweet with my father as well.”
It had been seventeen years since Curtiz had worked with Olivia de Havilland. Despite their differences during nine movies together, he believed she was the optimal choice to play Linett Moore, the farmer who becomes emotionally involved with the former Confederate officer and his son. Times had changed since she won her lawsuit against Jack Warner and left the soundstages of Burbank. De Havilland was now a two-time Oscar winner and mother of two residing in France. She loved that her character was a strong, independent woman and was charmed by Goldwyn Jr. and both of the Ladds. She knew Alan Ladd was a proud and sensitive man. “Very sensitive.” she said. “Because Mike Curtiz could be quite harsh with people, Alan was afraid that Mike would be rough on David.” But Goldwyn Jr. termed the bond formed between Curtiz and the Ladds “a love affair.” The sole moment of tension between David and (p.520) Curtiz occurred in a scene in which a barn caught fire. “And to burn a barn, especially in those days, you burned the barn,” remembered David. “He had given me direction to get the hell out of the frame, and because he was maybe speaking in that language that I couldn’t understand, I didn’t. And behind the scenes, he was yelling and screaming, ‘Get out! Get out of the shot!’ I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so I just stayed there. But, that is the one day of conflict that I can remember where you saw the legendary Curtiz.” There was another episode that was reminiscent of Curtiz’s tenure at Warner Bros. Instead of using a stunt double, Curtiz insisted de Havilland drive a horse-drawn wagon that had to stop short in front of David. No one checked to see if the star was wearing a safety belt. She fell forward when the wagon stopped and landed between the horses. Bruised, but unbowed, she brushed herself off and continued working.
The relationship between Curtiz and de Havilland remained tense. “They had absolutely nothing in common,” observed Sam Goldwyn Jr. “There was volatility between him and Olivia, and it would flare up sometimes,” said David Ladd, remembering the anxiety between star and director; he added, “And she’s a very gentle woman.” Goldwyn recalled when they were shooting the interior scenes in Hollywood: “Olivia de Havilland called me up one night and said ‘I have got to see you.’ And I go over to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where she was staying, and she’s sitting in a booth crying, and she said, ‘He’s still very cruel to me. … Why did you get involved with this very cruel man?’ And then when she saw the picture, she said, ‘Well, you know, I always knew he was the right director.’” In another story that Goldwyn Jr. related to Aljean Harmetz, an infuriated de Havilland phoned him in the middle of the night about Curtiz: “He was a son of a bitch when I was seventeen and he’s still a son of a bitch.”
Shortly after the company arrived on location in Cedar City, Utah, Curtiz’s irascibility was more noticeable than any signs of fatigue from his recent surgery. Although he had Ted McCord behind the camera and Paul Helmick as his assistant director, he was working with a new crew that was not used to his explosive temperament. In his usual manner, Curtiz began excoriating members of the company when things didn’t go right. A major confrontation occurred after he berated the Technicolor representative, who became fed up and called Curtiz a has-been in front of the crew. According to Helmick, an overall mutiny was brewing, and he had to remind the director that times had changed: “Mike, you just (p.521) can’t treat these people like they were morons! When you blow up and yell at them, they don’t like it or you. Right now, they’re lined up at the only available telephone, looking for another job, and we can’t afford to lose any of them.”
Curtiz reacted with shock, genuinely oblivious to the consequences of his outbursts. The next morning he apologized to the crew: “My assistant tells me I have been son of a bitch to some of you and I should be better to you; so I want to tell you that if I haven’t been so good to you, I will be better and I’m sorry. That’s all, thank you.”
The director’s truce lasted several hours before he blew up again over something trivial. Helmick remembered, “We all started to laugh at him and he realized what an ass he was making of himself.” Bill Hamilton, a soundman, shared his perceptions about the picture in a series of letters to his wartime comrade the director George Stevens: “Mike started out trying to create a mood and Alan Ladd hasn’t been giving out anything. He deadpans everything and acts like everything is a tremendous effort. Olivia is very good as an unmarried woman of 35. But when she has a scene with Alan, she tries to make it play and Alan deadpans and gives nothing in return, hence a bad scene.” Hamilton also claimed that Goldwyn Jr. was unhappy with Curtiz, who was “going in four directions and getting no place.”
The ship was righted as Goldwyn reasserted himself and Curtiz calmed down. By the second week, Hamilton reported, “Mike Curtiz and the producer have ironed out their difficulties, and so the picture is coming along fine now.”
Curtiz incorporated the sweeping panoramas of the Utah locations into a story that gave audiences, as the director would put it, “a tear in the eye.” In addition to Alan Ladd and de Havilland effectively playing off one another, there was a peerless supporting cast. Dean Jagger was the villainous, one-armed rancher with a pair of noxious sons (a young Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Pittman). Curtiz stocked the film with veteran character actors: Cecil Kellaway, Henry Hull, James Westerfield, John Carradine, Percy Helton, and Mary Wickes. David Ladd’s superb performance elevates the picture into something truly memorable. His four-legged costar was equally credible. “Actually, it was two dogs,” remembered David. “One was named King, the wonder dog [an actual champion border collie], who was the dog who did all of the action, the great maneuvering with the sheep. There was another dog, named Sam [for close-ups and interactive people scenes], and he had freckles on his snout. I remember they had to white out all the freckles on his snout.” Curtiz artfully deploys (p.522) the maudlin themes of a boy and his dog, a father’s love for his son, and their mutual bonding with the farmwoman in a straightforward style that avoids syrupy sentiment.
The reviews were excellent. The New York Times hailed the film as an “honestly heartwarming drama.” Alan Ladd’s performance was “exceptionally expressive,” and de Havilland was a “the picture of hardy womanhood.” Highest praise went to David Ladd for “an astonishingly professional and sympathetic stint” alongside King, the wonder dog. Ladd won a special Golden Globe award that helped jump-start his career. Budgeted at around $1,600,000 and released by Walt Disney’s Buena Vista distribution company, The Proud Rebel was, according to Goldwyn, “highly successful.” Its box-office potential was partially diluted by the ceaseless promotion of Old Yeller (1957), which had been released five months earlier. What became personally enriching for Sam Goldwyn Jr. was the establishment of a close friendship with Olivia de Havilland and David Ladd that endured until his death in January 2015. There was also his relationship with Curtiz, which would be sustained through another movie. Asked for his recollections about Curtiz as a director, Goldwyn retained several impressions:
He was very fast, very budget-conscious, not so much because he wanted to save money, because the picture was a job of work. It was his job was to see that [the actors and the crew] got to work and got it done. I’ll never forget this: He’d get fanatical on the subject of getting that first shot by nine a.m. And he had a very clear idea about what he wanted the picture to look like. And he didn’t play a game like it was a secret. He’d be very clear with the actors about what he wanted them to do. Mike was in complete charge and he knew everything about the picture. He remembered every take and every shot he made. We had a very good editor [Aaron Stell], and while we were cutting the film, there was a scene that didn’t quite work. Mike said, “Good scene, but something missing here, I shot take such and such.” The editor said, “Mike, that doesn’t exist.” He said, “It exists,” and it turned out to be something that he shot on the third day. He had such a sense of confidence. Now that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be difficult.
The man who gave Curtiz his habit of completing that initial morning shot at Warner Bros. now summoned him to direct a film starring the (p.523) country’s newest singing sensation. Hal Wallis had prospered since leaving Warners in 1945. After producing a series of successful melodramas while amassing a stable of actors, including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, and Wendell Corey, he hit the jackpot in 1949 by signing the riotous nightclub duo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The success of the Martin and Lewis comedies allowed him to produce prestige pictures like Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), The Rose Tattoo (1955), and The Rainmaker (1956).
Wallis’s gravy train was halted when the comedy team split up after sixteen films in July 1956. But he had already hooked show biz’s next big fish after he spotted Elvis Presley on the Dorsey Brothers CBS television show earlier that same year. “Elvis was an original,” recalled Wallis. “When he started to sing, twisting his legs, bumping and grinding, shaking his shoulders, he was electrifying.” The following day, when he phoned Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, to discuss a movie contract, Wallis discovered he was matched against a worthy adversary. Parker, born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in Breda, Netherlands, in 1909, was a tough customer. He reportedly fled Holland ahead of a murder investigation and entered the United States as a twenty-year-old merchant sailor by jumping ship. After being drummed out of the army for desertion plus a stay in a psychiatric hospital, he worked as a carnival tout and dog catcher. He then became a music promoter and positioned himself first as Elvis’s adviser and then as his manager. Wallis finally came to terms with Parker—“one of the toughest bargaining sessions of my career”—and inked Elvis to a nonexclusive three-picture deal. After 60 million Americans watched Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, Wallis’s coup became the envy of every production executive in Hollywood.
Wallis lent Elvis to Fox for his screen debut. Love Me Tender (1956) was a Civil War story notable for Elvis’s title song, which went platinum. Next was Wallis’s Loving You (1957). Elvis portrays a Texas-based deliveryman discovered by a publicist (Lizabeth Scott) and her bandleader beau (Wendell Corey). Neither picture was extraordinary, but it didn’t matter. Elvis was a sensation and people queued up to watch him onscreen. Wallis and Colonel Parker didn’t dawdle. Elvis was lent out again, this time to MGM for Jailhouse Rock (1957), in which he becomes a rock star after doing a stretch for manslaughter. The picture grossed ten times its cost.
Presley yearned for something more than superfluous roles that kept the money rolling in. He asked Wallis about the possibility of attending (p.524) the Actors Studio. Dolores Hart, his costar in Loving You, told me that Elvis “wanted to be the next Jimmy Dean.” Wallis had a more serious property in mind for Presley, one that he had been nurturing with Curtiz for over a year. In 1955 he had sent Curtiz a copy of the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins, to which Wallis had purchased the rights for $25,000. It had been adapted into an off-Broadway play directed by Luther Adler and starring Philip Pine; it opened on October 21, 1954, and had a brief run. Curtiz was enthusiastic about the potential of the book, but he was disappointed in the subsequent draft script written by Michael V. Gazzo. He believed the screenplay should mirror the novel, which depicted the economically crushing effects of the Depression on a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. Instead of Robbins’s conflicted Danny Fisher, who turns to boxing to support himself and his family, Gazzo created “a conventional, unreal, dead-end kid hero.” He elaborated: “I much prefer the characters and situations of the novel—the realistic, poignant relationship of the father, a small professional man who has done everything possible for his son and has big plans for him, but who is trapped in an economic upheaval; and a son who is so eager for a place in the world and so bewildered and desperate at ill fortune that he blames his father in haste.”
Curtiz urged Wallis to adapt the use of voice-over narration to compress the story rather than wholesale character alterations and concluded, “If you agree with me generally on these points, I believe we can straighten out the story with Gazzo. If he doesn’t see it our way, I would suggest you get another writer. But I believe this story can be put in good shape in reasonable time under your guidance.”
Wallis agreed with most of Curtiz’s recommendations. Five months later, Curtiz read the revised script and wrote to the producer, “I appreciate the efforts of Mr. Gazzo to cooperate with our views.” But he still didn’t like how the screenplay deviated from the book.
To play Danny Fisher, Wallis initially considered Paul Newman (he declined, not wanting to play a boxer again after recently starring in Somebody Up There Likes Me), Ben Gazzara, and Tony Curtis. The signing of Presley changed everything. Casting Elvis as a Jewish kid from Brooklyn was clearly a nonstarter. This was when Wallis demonstrated his filmmaking acumen. He took an Oscar Saul and Herbert Baker treatment called Sing You Sinners about the troubled son of a New Orleans minister and had the premise melded into Gazzo’s Danny Fisher script. Fisher became a troubled youth living in the French Quarter who ditches (p.525) high school to sing in the King Creole bar. His father is a beaten-down pharmacist who lost his business and has to kowtow to land a menial job in a drugstore. Danny vows never to grovel and becomes involved with a group of hoodlums who work for Maxie, a local gangster. After Danny becomes a singing sensation, he also becomes involved with Maxie’s mistress while courting a wholesome teenage girl who works the lunch counter at the local five and dime. The scenario was perfectly suited for Elvis, giving him the opportunity to play a viable dramatic role while headlining his musical numbers.
Authentic drama was included with the depiction of Danny Fisher’s relationships with two different women. Fisher’s sexual attraction to the gangster’s hard-luck mistress was contrasted to his more conventional relationship with a virginal hash slinger who, despite being in love, wouldn’t sleep with him after accompanying him to a cheap hotel. As staged by Curtiz, this scene between Elvis and his costar Dolores Hart was one of the most sensitive portions of the film.
Curtiz sent a memorandum to Wallis’s assistant Paul Nathan after reviewing the final script with the working title Sing You Sinners (that would be changed to the more commercial King Creole). He recommended a different opening, which was adapted into the shooting script: “I would prefer to open the picture with Scene Three with the Crawfish woman yelling. I think it is a more picturesque opening—it takes us right into our story and it is better than opening with scenes in the Blue Shade nightclub where we meet all of our characters and know nothing about them.”
He also convinced Wallis to omit the unnecessary plot segue in which Danny buys the drugstore for his father, clarified the final confrontation between Danny and Maxie, and repurposed the ending so that it did not conclude with Danny in a clinch with the good girl, thereby avoiding the sort of canned finale that Jack Warner used to force on him. He outlined ten additional story aspects and character delineations that he believed needed to be changed. Wallis agreed to incorporate roughly half of Curtiz’s recommendations.
Having gotten his way in large measure on the script, Curtiz sought to impose his will on the rest of the production. He didn’t care for Dolores Hart as the smitten waitress, Nellie, or Jan Shepard, who played Danny’s sister, Mimi. Wallis stopped him dead in his tracks, particularly on Hart. In addition to being Wallis’s contract player who debuted with Elvis in Loving You, Hart enjoyed what can be termed a father-daughter (p.526) relationship with the producer. She remembered a different Hal Wallis from the hard-driving, impersonal executive that many respected but few liked: “Hal was a very loving, gracious, and very sensitive friend to me. He respected my life and my wishes in ways that I never would have expected from a man in his position. He never pushed himself on me. He never demanded that I be someone I couldn’t be for him. I was going to be the kind of personality and the kind of actress that I was. I didn’t have to do a makeover.”
Wallis let Curtiz know in no uncertain terms that his usual steamroller approach was out. Presley would be handled with kid gloves. After watching Jailhouse Rock, Curtiz girded himself to endure a rock ’n’ roll version of Errol Flynn at his worst. Instead, he encountered a polite young man who was the first one on the set at 7:30 a.m. with all his lines memorized. When Curtiz told him he would sing three ballads in the film without his usual twists and turns, Elvis simply nodded and said, “You’re the boss, Mr. Curtiz.” He also asked Presley to trim his sideburns and drop some fifteen pounds; the singer eagerly complied with both requests. Curtiz was impressed by the neophyte’s initial tests on a closed set: “Instead of a gyrating rock and roller, I was watching a natural, un-actory actor, underplaying his role because he knew none of the tricks of the trade.” Curtiz was exceedingly gentle with Elvis, still a shy country boy who would make occasional Bible references. He provided the twenty-one-year-old with a minimum amount of direction and allowed him to exercise his own initiative. Elvis responded enthusiastically to Curtiz: “For the first time, I know what a director is.” Dolores Hart believed that after three pictures Presley wanted a director who would give him the opportunity to use his own instinct as an actor. “He would go into the hotel room and try out the different possibilities,” she remembered. “He was very creative. Elvis was really a very interesting young actor. I don’t think that anybody ever gave him the credit for that part of himself. I think they just wanted to get that over with so they could get to the ‘rah-rah-rah’ song.”
The “they” Hart referred to was the redoubtable Colonel Parker, who exercised a Svengali-like control over Elvis. “I had no use for Colonel Parker,” admitted Hart. “The minute that man walked on the set, Elvis’s eyes never went anywhere but absolutely to the Colonel. And whatever he said, it was the colonel’s call. It was almost sickening to me.” If not for Parker, Elvis believed he would still be sitting on the porch with his parents in Tupelo, Mississippi. He never considered his career without the colonel. (p.527)
Aside from badgering Wallis for minor perks, Parker didn’t interfere with the filming of King Creole. The collective focus was on completing the production before Elvis’s pending induction into the army. Cameras began rolling on January 20, 1958. A five-day location shoot in New Orleans turned into a logistical nightmare because of the huge crowds that turned up wherever Elvis was. The New Orleans police had to have a bridge built from the roof of the hotel to the roof of an adjoining building so that Elvis could come and go unmolested. After scouting locations together, Wallis and Curtiz agreed that the film should be shot in black and white. The director of photography Russell Harlan provided a noir motif that was accentuated by the Crescent City’s rain-soaked streets.
A formidable supporting cast further bolstered the young star. There was Dean Jagger as Elvis’s beleaguered father; Paul Stewart was the owner of the King Creole nightclub; and Walter Matthau played the gangster Maxie Fields. Carolyn Jones was Maxie’s kept girlfriend, Ronnie, who falls for Danny. She had recently scored an Oscar nomination for a ten-minute (p.528) part in The Bachelor Party (1957) and exuded a damaged sexual vulnerability that played extremely well. Curtiz wanted to dumb-down her characterization to elicit greater audience sympathy. He told Wallis she should be more like Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954). In this instance, his advice was wisely ignored. Dolores Hart’s memoir (cowritten by Richard DeNeut) states that Hart and Jan Shepard found Curtiz to be “a vulgar man and a bully on the set.” Although that assessment is hardly surprising, the view of Curtiz that Hart expressed to me was considerably milder: “On King Creole, I took [Curtiz] more or less for granted, in a way, because I was young in the industry. I wasn’t thinking about a director. I was starstruck and so I wasn’t trying to pin down my directors’ personalities, they were gods.” Her opinion of Curtiz would accrue more specificity after she worked with him again in Francis of Assisi (1961).
Walter Matthau was inclined to overact. “Curtiz was funny,” Matthau told Leonard Maltin. “He called me ‘Valty.’ He called Elvis Presley ‘Elvy.’ Mostly he said to me, ‘Valty, this is not Academy Award scene. Don’t act so much.’ ‘I know you from stage. I was stage actor in Hungary. It’s too big. When you do movie, you do slow, small. Cameras very big—you very big on screen.’”
“He taught,” said Matthau. “He was a good teacher. But he never told you how to act, he just said, ‘You’re too loud, you’re too big.’” Ever since Cagney had embarrassed him decades earlier for acting out a scene, Curtiz’s guidance to actors was usually confined to asking for more or less. His advice to Carolyn Jones after a rehearsal of a scene in which she was supposed to be intoxicated: “Dollink, act more drunkey.”
With Curtiz preparing the following day’s scenes at the end of each day and Wallis managing every detail, King Creole closed production on March 10, 1958, four days ahead of schedule. Exactly two weeks later, Elvis was inducted into the U.S. Army. After several successful King Creole sneak previews, Wallis and his assistant Paul Nathan wired congratulations to Private Presley at Fort Hood, Texas: “[The film] proved you are accepted as a great dramatic star as well as singer.” After the premiere in early July, the New York Times tacitly agreed, declaring, “Elvis Presley can act.” The review also gave a tip of the hat to Curtiz as “a shrewd director.” Other reviews were similarly complimentary. King Creole was a box-office success, and Elvis’s song “Hard-Headed Woman” went gold. It was, however, less profitable than his first three pictures. The adult themes diluted some of the wild enthusiasm of his core fan base. Teenage girls didn’t care for his relationship with the older Ronnie or the final (p.529) scene, in which he advises Nellie to wait for him to get over the other woman, even though he sings “As Long as I Have You” while she raptly watches from the nightclub audience.
Curtiz had elicited Elvis’s best screen performance. Presley knew it too. King Creole’s Danny remained the rock icon’s favorite movie role. The nuanced sensitivity he brought to Danny Fisher would not be replicated in any of his remaining twenty-six films. Colonel Parker used the lesson of the reduced box-office receipts to guide his future selection of Elvis’s movie roles.
King Creole would be a high-water mark when compared to Curtiz’s subsequent films. The independent filmmaker Walter Mirisch and his brothers Marvin and Harold produced his next picture. Their company had taken wing with a United Artists distribution deal in August 1957. Walter established his reputation as a savvy head of production at Allied Artists whose successes included Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Friendly Persuasion (both 1956). When he discovered that his brother Harold’s Palm Springs neighbors were Alan Ladd and Sue Carol, he became friendly with the couple and pitched a novel, The Man in the Net by Hugh Wheeler (using the pseudonym Patrick Quentin), as a vehicle for Ladd. It was a mystery about a small-town artist, framed for the murder of his dissolute wife (Carolyn Jones), who takes it on the lam. The fugitive is sheltered and ultimately exonerated by a group of local children. Ladd recommended Curtiz as the director in the hope of recapturing the magic of The Proud Rebel. The relationship between the director and actor had remained close amid discussions with Paramount about reuniting them on a western titled The Covered Wagon.
The Man in the Net (1959), filmed on location in Thompson, Connecticut, and Worcester, Massachusetts, and at the Goldwyn studios in Hollywood, was a bore. Reginald Rose’s uncharacteristically weak screenplay was compounded by Ladd’s indifferent performance. Laconic under the best of circumstances, the star was reportedly suffering from shingles and drinking heavily. Michael McGreevey, who played one of the children, remembered, “It was my first film and I was terrified of Curtiz. Alan Ladd was a sweet guy, but gave nothing to the kids; he was distant.”
Walter Mirisch recalled Ladd’s deportment during the production: “I’ve never witnessed such self-destructive behavior.” He vainly attempted to get Curtiz to intercede: “[Mike] wasn’t inclined to address this issue with Alan. I talked to Mike several times about what he could do about Alan’s drinking and how it was affecting his performance.” The production (p.530) was snake-bit by bad luck. Mirisch came down with hepatitis and a member of the film crew was charged with murder after a man’s death in a saloon brawl. Curtiz’s temperament gave the child actors a severe case of nerves (ten-year-old McGreevey vomited before one scene). He also humiliated Charles McGraw by making him repeat upward of forty-five takes of a scene before publicly dressing him down after the tough-guy actor kept blowing his lines. Mirisch summarized the situation in his memoir: “He [Curtiz] was hardly at the height of his career and, frankly, was not very inspired.”
There is film footage of Curtiz directing the movie on location in Connecticut. In one reel, he is seen striding across a suburban street laden with film equipment and vigorously gesturing while discussing matters with several assistants. He might have been unimaginative, particularly when saddled with a mediocre script, but he remained energetic. Despite all the problems, it is difficult to understand how a movie directed by Curtiz with Carolyn Jones as a nymphomaniac having an affair with Charles McGraw could be so tedious.
Curtiz returned to Paramount to helm The Hangman (1959), a Dudley Nichols–scribed oater that emphasized characterization over action. Mackenzie Bovard (Robert Taylor) locates a wanted robber, Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord), and discovers he is a community pillar; everyone insists he couldn’t be the bad guy. The determination of Bishop’s identity hinges on a curvaceous witness, Selah (Tina Louise), who arrives in town via stagecoach. The Hangman is an offbeat Western that concludes without a dramatic payoff. Also along for the ride is Fess Parker without his Davy Crockett coonskin cap and Lorne Greene in a brief dress rehearsal for Bonanza, which made its NBC debut later that same year. Tina Louise recalled: “I was just a kid who had finished my first movie [God’s Little Acre (1958)] that I liked very much. My agent had quit and I was kind of thrown to the wolves. Curtiz was a very focused, intense director. … I did what I was told, but felt out of place with all of these older men. Robert Taylor was nice, but he was so much older and tired. I was a teenager, really. [She was twenty-four.] I enjoyed working with Jack Lord and previously with Aldo Ray, who I felt were my contemporaries.” Curtiz emphasized her physical charms with a couple of bathing scenes that were innocuous by today’s standards but were criticized in the trade papers as being licentious.
Louise, whose beauty obscured her acting talent (particularly after a three-year run on TV’s Gilligan’s Island), aptly summed up The Hangman as a film that was “good for what it was.”
(p.531) What it also meant was another payday for Curtiz, although he received less than what he was accustomed to. Of greater concern was the deterioration of his professional reputation. His on-set demeanor was no longer perceived as the eccentric behavior of a filmmaking legend. A newer generation in Hollywood increasingly viewed Curtiz as an archaic figure whose time had passed. His next picture became a debacle that called into question his continued viability as a director.
Paramount engaged him to go to Europe in June 1959 to direct a screen version of Olympia, a play written by his late colleague Ferenc Molnár. Olympia was a lesser Molnár creation. The story of a romance between an Austrian princess and a Hungarian hussar captain (changed to an American) during the pre–World War I Habsburg Empire evoked little interest in anyone living outside Hungary. Nevertheless, Molnár’s name was a magical lure, and an international production was put together.
The producer Carlo Ponti sought the property as the bookend of a three-picture Paramount deal for Sophia Loren, whom he had married in 1957. Maurice Chevalier was cast as her father, and John Gavin was borrowed from Universal as the Pittsburgh mining engineer who becomes involved with Loren’s princess. Angela Lansbury was added as a devious countess. Ponti’s production company made numerous side distribution deals with various countries in an attempt to maximize the profits.
The interiors were filmed in Vienna and Rome. The lush Austrian locations included Schönbrunn Palace, which Curtiz had used for Sodom und Gomorrha and Young Medardus. On the basis of the material and historical setting, he seemed to be the perfect director for this project. The reality proved to be quite the opposite.
Curtiz was seventy-two and hadn’t worked in Europe for decades. Directing a complex production in multiple countries with an unfamiliar foreign crew would have been a difficult assignment for a director half his age. He also had to cope with Ponti, who had his own agenda in Sophia Loren. Instead of being motivated by these challenges as he usually was, Curtiz was disengaged. According to one of the screenwriters, Walter Bernstein (who took his name off the script), he was more interested in inspecting medieval castles than in communicating in any discernable manner about the making of the picture. “I thought Mike Curtiz was senile,” said Bernstein. Curtiz also didn’t bother to establish any relationship with Loren or the other actors. John Gavin realized early on they were in trouble. “I said to Sophia, ‘We’re in a terrible picture. He [Curtiz] may have been a great director once but he doesn’t know what he is (p.532) doing.’” Without informing Curtiz, Ponti brought in Vittorio De Sica to work with Loren and reshoot certain scenes. De Sica worked during the wee hours, when Curtiz was off the set—as early as two o’clock in the morning, according to Gavin. Bernstein recalled that De Sica was paid each day in cash “so he could go to the casino.” Curtiz was apparently oblivious to what was occurring. Gavin asked De Sica for assistance and was told, “Don’t change a thing. Everything you do is so American.” Curtiz still knew how to stage beautiful compositions: Sophia Loren looks ravishing in a series of sumptuous costumes, and the photography is sparkling. But there was zero chemistry between Loren and Gavin in an expensive production that was meaningless flotsam. A Breath of Scandal, as it ended up being titled, was accurately assessed as “flimsy, witless and tedious.” Around this time, Richard Erdman encountered Curtiz while crossing Melrose Avenue outside Paramount. After greeting each other warmly, Erdman asked how things were going and gestured toward the studio. Curtiz shook his head sadly and said, “They don’t understand.”
Although it appeared that Curtiz’s career had suffered a grievous body blow, it was just another setback to be shrugged off; Sam Goldwyn Jr. then tapped him to direct The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960). Mark Twain’s classic was originally adapted in 1920, and this was followed by a 1939 MGM release with Mickey Rooney in the title role. In 1953 Metro planned a musical remake with Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye, which never came to fruition. Four songs were repurposed for the new adaptation, which MGM coproduced with Goldwyn. The production values were relatively lavish, and the Sacramento River doubled as the Mississippi river delta. An impressive cast included Tony Randall, Patty McCormack, a dastardly Neville Brand as Pap Finn, Mickey Shaughnessy, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Judy Canova, and Sherry Jackson. An additional flourish was Buster Keaton as a lion tamer.
Signing the light-heavyweight boxing champion Archie Moore to play the key role of Jim, the runaway slave who befriends Huck Finn, was an astute bit of casting. Goldwyn sent a script to Moore, who was in Montreal, training for a rematch with the Canadian boxer Yvon Durelle. Nicknamed “The Mongoose” for his ring sagacity, Moore was an intelligent man who bore no resemblance to a Joe Palooka–like pug. His brother-in-law at the time was Sidney Poitier. He conferred with Poitier about the part and told Ebony magazine, “Sidney told me that I could play this role very easily and even offered to give me some pointers on how to handle some of the more delicate lines.” Moore and his wife reviewed the draft script and objected (p.533)
to the repetitive appearance of the n-word. “It was a common word in those days, too common,” said Moore. Moore made his feelings known to Goldwyn Jr., who had the script revised to greatly reduce the redundant use of the epithet. His test of a particularly sensitive scene blew everyone away. Curtiz was observed wiping away tears, and “the professionals on the set— (p.534) electricians, stage hands, and the like—broke into spontaneous applause.” Curtiz told Goldwyn, “There is no need for any further testing. This is the man to do the part.” Archie Moore’s ability to imbue realistic dignity in a stereotypical role spoke more about his innate acting skill than any direction he received from Curtiz. Jack Murphy, a noted San Diego sportswriter and Moore intimate, commented, “As an actor, Moore is a natural. He’s been playing one role or another all his life, and boxing has never known a man who could match his flair for theatrics.”
Despite Moore‘s stellar turn and other worthy performances, the script turned Twain’s edgy adventure tale into a Disneylike family movie. Although it was well directed and handsomely produced, critics mostly damned it with faint praise. According to Goldwyn, the chief reason was the miscasting of the title role: “We made one mistake with that picture, which was that Eddie Hodges had kind of come into his own in a picture with Frank Sinatra [A Hole in the Head (1959)], and the studio very much wanted to use him. And I couldn’t come up with a decent alternative. Eddie Hodges was really more Tom Sawyer, not Huckleberry Finn. Mike knew it too, but by that time we were into production and it was too late.”
The film nearly broke even with a net loss of $99,000. Curtiz’s deal with Formosa Productions included another profit-sharing agreement that would amount to nothing.
During preproduction on Huckleberry Finn, Curtiz experienced a poignant reminder of his past days of glory. Errol Flynn paid him a visit in an attempt to land the part of the Duke of Bilgewater, which eventually went to Mickey Shaughnessy. The former swashbuckler was broke and dying. Sam Goldwyn Jr. remembered Flynn gesturing at Curtiz saying, “This man is my career.” The great star was so dissipated that he was barely recognizable. Curtiz was extremely sentimental about his old adversary and handled him with kindness before sending him on his way. At the end of the day, Goldwyn gave Curtiz a ride home from the studio. The director, always voluble about the progress of the film, remained silent for most of the journey. Suddenly he blurted out, “Strasberg and Actors Studio can make actor, but only God can make star!” Curtiz understood and was nurtured by the star system that had held sway during his time in Hollywood. He had fought with Flynn over the actor’s lack of discipline, but he deeply admired and appreciated the singular talent that was so instrumental to his own success. On October 14, 1959, shortly after Curtiz began shooting Huckleberry Finn, Errol Flynn died in Vancouver, Canada, at the age of fifty.