Somewhere Between Hack and Auteur
Dependable Journeyman. That’s damning with something short of faint praise, being a label applied to directors whose work we’ve enjoyed even if we don’t recognize names credited. I’ve tried championing a few. Norman Taurog and George Marshall come to mind. Neither left memoirs or tooted own horns despite living past our initial discovery of auteurists among their profession. Frank Tuttle was retired as other veterans continued work where they could find it and died (January 1963) before historians dug ways down to him, but as a book recently out from Bear Manor reveals, he’d quietly written a career overview during 1960-62 that no one save family members knew about. Editor and author of They Started Talking’s introduction John Franceschina collaborated with Tuttle’s daughter in bringing the manuscript to light. It’s a Dead Sea scroll of picture history that might have remained attic buried but for efforts these two made. Frank Tuttle had a solid run from silents into the late fifties. Some of his better pics are This Is The Night, The Big Broadcast, Roman Scandals, and This Gun For Hire. Too many of his pre-talkers are lost, and that’s where I suspect best efforts were spent. It’s an event discovering a Golden Age director’s book-length memoir we never knew existed. Made me want to harvest up whatever Tuttle titles I could and start watching. So far it’s been Love Among The Millionaires and several other Clara Bow talkies he helmed. They’re all Paramounts off the gray market. What a shame I have to look at such dilapidated copies of the man’s work. Still, it’s preferable to days when we couldn’t see them at all.
Frank Tuttle had the look and carriage of an Ivy Leaguer. Always a suit and tie to work. Note the tiepin here during Millionaires shooting with Clara Bow. You could have turned cameras around in those days and captured as much style behind them. Tuttle exuded breeding and education. He was like friend Walter Wanger in that respect. They’d both moved up with help from contacts made in school. Wanger gave Tuttle a boost after getting charge of Paramount’s east-coast operation. For having written and staged plays at Yale, Tuttle could knock off screen treatments literally overnight, and did. His book tells of round-the-clock doing of the seeming impossible to meet frenzied production schedules. Paramount ladders reached to star directing and solid grasp of formulas that kept three and four yearly helpings of favorites from getting stale. For a while it worked, but Paramount raked through talent and took not the time to develop staying blueprints for them. Simple formats were devised and pounded into hash. Names including Richard Dix, Bebe Daniels, and Raymond Griffith were overtaxed and toiling on slopes tilted downward. Staff directors like Frank Tuttle could inject but so much individuality into vehicles rushing toward pre-determined release dates. Still, he described himself as a lucky guy who loves what he’s doing, and by all accounts, coworkers liked him for it. Louise Brooks called Tuttle a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy, and hers was not easy approval earned. The director writes glowingly of association with Raymond Griffith and a brace of comedies they did together, but most of these are lost, as is a Brooks called The American Venus for which only a trailer survives. What a bummer to read accounts of 20's era Hollywood with so little extant film to give it life. Is this why some otherwise classic fans ignore silents altogether?
Frank Tuttle directed four of Clara Bow’s talkies. None had much chance amounting to anything. They are precode by definition, but flaccid by result. Paramount sensed Bow slipping and no one was throwing lifelines. David O. Selznick worked there from 1928 and recognized same. He described the place as one big assembly line for program pictures geared to audiences who’d watch anything. An early talkie boom suggested DOS was right. Clara Bow became a problem from the moment she spoke, but who cared about fixing that with ticket dollars rewarding novelty value of hearing her for the first time? Microphones bound Bow to fixed positions. Sets closed in and outdoor shooting was curtailed. Her talking output looked drab after brightness of silents like It where cameras could be as energetic as their subject. Love Among The Millionaires focuses more on working class Bow’s suffocated environs than mansions her character aspires to. MGM invested more to contrast Joan Crawford’s humble shopgirls with deco paradises they repaired to with co-stars Robert Montgomery or Franchot Tone. Metro’s banquet table for Crawford was always fuller than Paramount’s for Bow, and a paying public noted the difference. Our Blushing Brides, for instance, is a far more satisfying meal than Love Among The Millionaires. Release of both close together made comparison cruel and inevitable. Bow was stuck in a talkie poorhouse and had no champions. Selznick suggested a bigger push to rescue her from doldrums. He referred to Bow being on her way out, adding by February 1931 … only a great picture would save her. That Selznick was concerned at all put him in a minority among Paramount executives.
It was some of the final Bows that Frank Tuttle directed. He speaks positively of her in They Started Talking. This was not a scorched earth account of on-set traumas making movies. Maybe if it were, they’d have published years before now. Tuttle was likelier penning a book his grandkids might one day enjoy, and besides, many colleagues of his were still alive in the mid-sixties. Why risk alienating them? The director mostly cited problems Bow had that he caused, reflecting modesty that may explain why Tuttle was so popular around the Paramount lot and lasted so long there. The downfall for Clara Bow lay mostly with inability to protect herself, being no judge or architect of material even as she played it brilliantly. Stars like Mae West and W.C. Fields held artistic reins tighter and preserved long-term careers against Paramount’s natural drift toward mediocrity. Clara Bow’s vehicles became dumping ground for inadequate leading men and comics playing better off each other than with her. Love Among The Millionaires even let Bow tender child support to Mitzi Green, a grizzled nine-year old with talent to suggest she’d trod vaudeville boards a lifetime beyond such tender age. Tuttle says Mitzi even proposed dialogue changes he accepted. Paramount talkies of that jangled period were asylum for every sort of curious act, and most turned up propping Clara Bow. Did she need Harry Green, Skeets Gallagher, and Mitzi Green? Probably not, but she got them all the same, in spades. Variety referred to Millionaire’s comedy as laid out with a trowel for the simple folks, suggesting it would play best for split-weeks with live acts in support. Such remarks among the trade were as helpful as a shiv in the back. By June 1931, Selznick was figuring ways of extracting the last value out of Bow before letting her go (callous is sure a word for this business). Breakdowns she’d have on Kick-In hastend that. It would be Clara Bow's last for Paramount.