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Friday, November 13, 2009

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. Better work includes This Is The Night, The Big Broadcast, Roman Scandals, and This Gun For Hire. Most of his pre-talkers are lost, and that is where I suspect best effort were spent. Quite an event discovering a Classic Era 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. These were all Paramounts off the gray market. What a shame we must look at such dilapidated copies of the man’s work. Still they are preferable to days of not seeing 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 both moved up with help from contacts made at 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 impossible to meet 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, her approval never easily earned. The director writes glowingly of association with Raymond Griffith and a brace of comedies they did together, but most of are missing, as is a Brooks called The American Venus for which only a trailer survives. What a downer 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 chance of amounting to much. They are precode by definition, but flaccid in result. Paramount sensed Bow slipping and no one was throwing lifelines. David Selznick worked there from 1928 and recognized the blight. He described the studio 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 boxoffice rewarding novelty of hearing Bow? Microphones bound her to fixed positions. Sets closed in and outdoor shooting was curtailed. Bow's talking output looked drab beside 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. Close-together release of the two 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.


Blogger Jay Watson said...

This is the kind of post that makes GREENBRIAR PICTURE SHOWS the ultimate "Must Read" blog for all things related to cinema; outstanding information.

10:12 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Richard e-mailed the following on Frank Tuttle ...


Another great Greenbriar article on Frank Tuttle. I have always wanted to write a book about the directors that couldn't be fit into the Auteurist's nonsense but who managed to direct all these great films we like watching: George Marshall, Frank Tuttle, Erle C. Kenton, Roy Del Ruth, and a number more. Frank Tuttle brings real quality and bright ideas to films like THE BIG BROADCAST (one of the most fun, cartoony pre-code musicals with some truly bizarre things in it) and THIS IS THE NIGHT(perhaps the best Lubitsch imitation ever perpetrated)as well as being able to handle noir subjects like THE GLASS KEY(1935) and THIS GUN FOR HIRE(1941). He even makes a precarious concept like Ice-Skating musical/film noir work in Monogram's first million-dollar movie SUSPENSE (1946), a movie that should not be as good as it turns out to be.

Directors like Tuttle and the others I mentioned were really the backbones of the industry, capable of handling whatever was thrown at them, keeping their egos in check and working within the system making their work the true collaborations that filmmaking is with no need to make everyone believe they did it all themselves. That the perpetually clueless in film history ignore their names is sad, but so many of us still enjoy watching their work, and a lot of it still looks fresher than this weeks Genius du Jour.


6:30 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That last comment was from Richard M. Roberts, by the way, whose site, "The Silent Comedy Mafia", is one I visit every day for its plethora of insight and info regarding comedy immortals:

Thanks Richard!

4:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. The journeyman director is something to be treasured and not to be confused with hack. Don Chaffey's stuff in the late 1950s and through the 1960s shows the difference between a journeyman director and a hack. His films were good to pretty darned good. Any film by David Hewitt (THE MIGHTY GORGA) shows that hack ain't the lowest rung on the ladder since hack would've been a major improvement over David Hewitt.

Back on topic … it's interesting the picture of Paramount that emerges from articles like this. They make Universal seem like an artistic paradise in comparison. It also explains why when oddballs (ranging from Preston Sturges to George Pal) stumble Paramount kicks them to the curb immediately.

I am disappointed by the number of silent’s that went poof. An MGM programmer such as the Zazu Pitts vehicle PRETTY LADIES (1925) which is a decent picture with ton’s of traveling matte work and an appearance by Joan Crawford in her Lucille Le Sueur days is as worth watching as some classics.

Spencer Gill (

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, John:

Was Selznick in charge of Clara Bow's output at Paramount toward the end? I haven't seen "Love among the Millionaires," but the soundtrack recording of Bow's rendition of "Rarin' to Go!", as well as Mademoiselle Green's version, is up on the 9 June, 2007 Vitaphone Varieties entry. It can't have done much good for Bow's status and image to have her song parodied by a nine-year-old, trying to steal the scene. Going by the soundtrack clip, at least, Green's voice is much better mic'ed than Bow's is, adding injury to insult.

I wonder if Selznick is the reason that Green is in "Girl Crazy," a truly jumbled production that was probably better before Selznick's retakes and interference. Green's presence there struck me as an afterthought. According to Ed Walz's monograph, Selznick first greeted Radio Pictures' top grossers with "Which one's Wheeler? Which one's Woolsey?" Just from that, it's no wonder that "Girl Crazy" was doomed.

Thanks again for your must-read blog! Best, Mark Hendrix

10:27 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Spencer, it strikes me that a lot of auteurists fail to appreciate journeymen directors because they've never bothered to watch these director's films. The most knowledgeable of Fuller, Ray, and Hitchcock experts may never have seen a film by David Butler or Norman Taurog, and are much the poorer for it.

Mark, I don't know that Selznick was in charge of the Paramount Bows, but he was an executive there at the time and would have had at least some input into her vehicles, though perhaps not time or inclination to personally try and rescue Bow's career.

6:41 AM  

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