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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hal Wallis and Martha Ivers --- Part Two

Not a lot of termite art got burrowed on Wallis sets. He memo'ed directors into submission after Zanuck/Selznick fashion and won all arguments being boss and signatory for paychecks. Lewis Milestone was credited for The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, but really it might have been anybody for difference (little) from other Wallis noirs. Milestone called his producer a nuisance and was miffed over close-ups HW added of Lizabeth Scott. That device made sense inasmuch as star building took priority at this company within a company --- Wallis would manufacture his own or spend himself broke borrowing them, Scott his post-war hard-luck model voiced like honey mustard with a line in wounded sincerity and always there for guys what got beat up and tossed in alleys. Not a lot to differ her from Warners' Lauren Bacall, but these weren't first personalities to overlap in a crowded market. So long as Wallis brought Scott to parity with competing ingénues, profit from loaning her out would reward his efforts. For a newly arrived Kirk Douglas, there was expectation of the Heflin lead dashed and revelation he'd have to test along with newcomers Richard Widmark and Montgomery Clift for the weakling support part he ultimately got.

There was a strike during Martha Ivers' production. Milestone sympathized with workers and quit for a time. Wallis quickly put one cog in (Byron Haskin) to replace his other. Whoever directed would supply miles of coverage or else, as Wallis liked plenty of choice when editing. Martha Ivers traded on buzz Mildred Pierce and Stanwyck's previous Double Indemnity had generated. Whisper Her Name! was the catch phrase ads put beneath the title, a spin on Please Don't Tell Anyone What Mildred Pierce Did, trouble this time was comedians, Jimmy Durante most determined, putting Martha's up for general ridicule to seep air out of promotion's tire. Miklos Rosza scored to further remind patrons of Indemnity's kick, this time his main theme took wings of song as Strange Love, covered by Tex Benecke and The Glenn Miller Orchestra, among others. I wonder if 1946 seventh-graders did like me and took up Van Heflin's trick of rolling the quarter across his knuckles, a trick not so easy as he made it look, but one I got pretty good at (just tried again --- no luck). Martha Ivers was in and out of theatres before a public got tired of dark thrillers, its mid-1946 release date an ideal one for cashing in on an industry's all-time biggest year. Television wouldn't get The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers until April 1968, unusually late for a 40's pic, though not surprising as Wallis dealt his inventory cagily for maximum return, which brings me now to historic summer of 1975 when I sat before the Great Man in his office sanctorum ...

We were trucked to Universal three or so days a week as means of learning first-hand how movies got made. The course was USC sponsored and few doors were closed to our roving class. There were visits to Marcus Welby's set, The Hindenburg's scoring session ... much of doings around the lot for those six weeks we were present. What impressed me most was how many veteran filmmakers still had offices on the lot: Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Webb, Don Siegel ... and Hal Wallis. We were introduced to a lot of names, but not these. There was a foreboding black tower where some kept headquarters, others occupied bungalow space across the lot. I'd snuck in the Black Tower during lunch one day and got Don Siegel's secretary to pass me through (Clint Eastwood was just leaving!). Siegel was great and we spent thirty minutes talking. Later in the week's objective was Wallis. His secretary was perhaps as amused by my southern accent as Siegel's --- by time realizing what doors it opened, I'd begun talking like Jethro Bodine. Hal Wallis was more imposing than Don Siegel. Biographers and stars who worked for him have said the man was cold. I didn't find him so. Maybe it was fact I was just a twenty-one year-old kid (who doubtless seemed half that). They probably knew I'd snuck in the building --- we certainly weren't supposed to wander off scheduled stops.

Mr. Wallis was cordial and answered all of what must have seemed odd if not insipid questions. Were there prints at home of films he'd produced? Yes, Saratoga Trunk was one. We talked about collecting, him amused over fact I had a bootleg Casablanca and Robin Hood and was showing them at college. Did he really order reshooting of a first few weeks of Captain Blood for Errol Flynn having become so much better an actor? Definitely not ... it would have cost far too much. We talked about Paramount releases like I Walk Alone and Dark City. The windup came when HW let me hold one of his Academy Awards (unexpectedly heavy). I look back from today and realize what a waste I made of such incredible opportunity, but maybe he wouldn't have been responsive had I probed so obnoxiously as doubtless I would now. The AFI interview booklet (above) signed by Wallis was something I brought to the visit, along with a mini-Casablanca poster I'd got at Larry Edmund's in anticipation of having it inscribed as well. Later that week, our group was eating at the commissary when Mr. Wallis walked by and spoke to me by name. That got noticed and reported back to one Bernard Kantor, big chief of USC's film school, who dragged me out of class the next day and threatened to put me on a plane back for home if ever I violated rules again. The next day, I went by Alfred Hitchcock's bungalow for hopefully a sit-down with the Master Of Suspense ... suspense deriving primarily from whether or not someone would rat me out again. They didn't, thanks mainly to fact that Hitchcock's Deceit (later Family Plot) had run over-schedule and he wouldn't be able to see me. Of course, it would have worth getting thrown out of USC if he had.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Those Oscars are unexpectedly heavy, aren't they, John? The only one I've ever held was the best picture award for Gone With the Wind, which toured (at least to Sacramento) with the 1989 spruced-up release, commemorating the picture's golden anniversary. I knew the manager at the Crest Theatre and he let me fondle it (after donning the thin cotton gloves mandated by the Selznick family), and it was not only that heavy, but I simply could not resist the urge to brandish it over my head. Did you? And what was "your" Oscar for?

4:37 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Great story about Universal, you little truant, you.

I will always associate THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS with a word-association typographical error. In a film catalog of the 1970s, some noir-happy copywriter listed this title as THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA VICKERS.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

..neat little story about Wallis and the studio...Few things are achieved behind studio walls without breaking a few rules ;o)

11:13 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I never thought of Wallis as a hand-on producer, maybe as a result of seeing his name on all those Elvis movies (my northern film school attitude being that anyone putting those out can't care that much about making great film.) Same thought popped int my head watching Dark City and I Walk Alone recently. Enjoyed both very much.

Never held an Oscar, but back when I was doing some work for Kodak I got off the elevator on one of the top floors to see a showcase with about six of them. (There was also one in a little wall cubby in the theater lobby area of Eastman House. Disappeared one day, to be replaced with an 8 x 10 of Louise Brooks.)

12:43 PM  

Great movie noir.

5:58 PM  

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