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Thursday, September 04, 2014

When Chicago Had One Too Many Firemen

King vs. Humberstone --- and Zanuck's The Referee

So Henry King declared it was either him or H. Bruce Humberstone. One had to leave the lot, as in 20th Fox. Which would caught-in-middle Darryl Zanuck support? King was his "A" pic stalwart, but none were better than Humberstone at keeping B's on track, from Jane Withers to Charlie Chan and whatever stayed within six reels. Here was ego's torch lit by Chicago fire, both King and Humberstone up for direction of biggest-so-far of Fox productions, In Old Chicago, to which a record two million would be applied (negative cost ended up at $1.5 M). Humberstone was promised the plum, DFZ figuring this was time to graduate "Lucky" out of B's. King, however, caught scent and staked prior claim. If he couldn't have In Old Chicago, then maybe another studio could have him, and Zanuck couldn't abide that. What would King Solomon do? Compromise was struck thus: King would direct In Old Chicago, with Humberstone his "assistant." To this, the two were agreeable. King figured Humberstone for second-unit work and aspects of the special effects fire. What neither saw coming was blaze that would ignite when 20th divided credits, Lucky collecting kudos for the conflagration that concluded Chicago and impressed viewers most.

Where Battle Lines Were Drawn: The Main Title Credits for In Old Chicago

And why not take bows? Title credits indicated Humberstone as director of "Special Effects Scenes," which dimmest members of the audience knew was the fire. And the fire was what everyone took away from seeing In Old Chicago. After all, it comprised nearly a final third of the picture. Everything up to then was warm-up. King realized this and hit a ceiling. Insult upon injury was Humberstone running a Hollywood Reporter trade ad where he'd proudly claim the fire as his --- well, hadn't Fox said so in publicity and one after another news plants re his supervision of the spectacle? No, said Henry King, both in 1938 and decades later when he recalled the incident for interviewing Jon Tuska. Humberstone had spent time and resource doing stuff they couldn't even use in the finished picture. Zanuck would apologize to King "for putting his (Humberstone's) name on the picture in the first place," adding that Lucky's footage didn't amount to more than a minute of finished product. Reply from King was to effect that Humberstone's ad and main titles credit "has practically shut me out of the Academy nominations," and he (King) should place his own response to The Hollywood Reporter to straighten matters out. "My advise is to print nothing," said Zanuck, and so King did not, but neither was he Academy-nominated for directing In Old Chicago.

From the 2/38 Issue of International Photographer
Humberstone told Jon Tuska of King "heaping abuse" and calling him "dirty names" as they crossed the Fox lot, then laying ultimatum on Zanuck that either Humberstone was out or he'd be. Zanuck sided with his stronger director, and let Lucky go, but not for long. Maybe DFZ needed Humberstone off premises long enough for King to cool off, because it was no time before Lucky was back and directing Jane Withers in Gypsy (released 5/38 as Rascals). In Old Chicago went out in a trimmed general release version  after roadshow play, but credit to Humberstone remained in main titles. When Film Daily ran a special section of "Ten Best" films of 1938 for its 1/6/39 issue, Humberstone was duly listed for having directed the Special Effects. Whatever Zanuck's mea culpa to Henry King, the studio chief apparently made no effort to erase Lucky as chief fireman for In Old Chicago.

Fox's lavish pressbook, issued months into 1938 and well after the King/Humberstone imbroglio, had numerous mentions of Lucky as director of the fire. Irony of all this was fact that it was Fox FX wizard Fred Sersen and his team who were most deserving of hand clap for Chicago roast. They'd work wonders again and again at 20th, notably in following year's The Rains Came. Jon Tuska found Henry King "benign and relaxed" about the Chicago controversy when they discussed it in 1976 --- guess thirty-eight years is time enough to take wind out of any feud. Tuska's interviews with both King and Humberstone are included in a marvelous book, Encounters With Filmmakers, published in 1991. The Zanuck notes to King are part of Rudy Behlmer's outstanding collection, Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck (1993). In Old Chicago can be had on DVD in both the roadshow and general release versions, and Amazon streams the roadshow in HD.


Blogger b piper said...

The burning of Chicago in this movie is one of the great special effects sequences in film history. If they remade it today it would crammed with phony GI and impossible angles and would look like a video game. And people would crow about how far FX have come!

8:23 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Thanks very much for the interesting information, John. I had always thought of Chicago as a Henry King project, not cognizant of Humberstone's vital contribution to the fire sequences.

Lots of ego and prima donna behaviour on King's part. I always think of him as an easy going sort (at least, as opposed to a high strung tempermental type like a Mike Curtiz over at Warners).

I guess the perception that Fox's main director's credit for a major production like this would be tarnished brought out the old director's claws, at Humberstone's expense, even though latter retained his name in the credits.

I've always been a little confused about In Old Chicago's release date. It qualified for the 1937 Oscars (including Alice Brady's win), yet is often referred to as a 1938 film, such as your reference in your article.

I assume it was released at the tail end of '37 (in time for Academy consideration) but was primarily viewed by the public in the early months of the following year.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I come at it from the opposite side: I always associate In Old Chicago with Humberstone! I'd almost forgotten about who the "book" director was until you reminded me, John. For every "important" director ruling the roost (Henry King, Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Capra) there were equally efficient directors working twice as fast with a fraction of the prominence (H. Bruce Humberstone, William Beaudine, Joseph H. Lewis).

2:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer compares "In Old Chicago" with "San Francisco":

"In Old Chicago" was ostensibly made from "We the O'Learys," a story written by Niven Busch, but is it possible that what really happened was that a minion of Darryl F. Zanuck filched a carbon of "San Francisco" from an M-G-M waste paper basket?

The essential elements are all the same: the glamorous rogue with a heart of gold, his sterling friend, the attractive chanteuse, the rough neighborhood where the story takes place (the "Tenderloin" in the one, the "Patch" in the other), the vigorous political contest, and a multitude of period tunes, all leading to the cataclysmic disaster.

Where they differ, however, is all to the credit of M-G-M: Clark Gable, the king at his peak, opposed by a callow Tyrone Power, the superb Spencer Tracy against the inconsequential Don Ameche, Jeannette MacDonald, with her talent and class, over the appealing but limited Alice Faye, and a toss-up between two square-jawed stalwarts, Jack Holt and Brian Donlevy. The music of "San Francisco" offers not only the catchy title tune but the sublime trio from Gounod's "Faust," perhaps the most thrilling one ever composed for an opera. As for the disaster itself, what would you prefer, an earthquake and a massive fire, or a massive fire started by a cow?

And if there is any doubt as to the outcome, "San Francisco" has the topper in Ted Healey. He is not everyone's taste, to be sure, but to see him in this production, treating it as though it was his own star vehicle, is a hoot. Gable might be romancing MacDonald, but in the background we can see Healey doing some bit of business, knowing that it's his show and all eyes are upon him. At the end, he even provides a credible death scene, though some would have preferred seeing it a couple of reels earlier.

By the way, it might have been a slander to ascribe the cause of the Great Chicago Fire to the unfortunate Daisy the Cow. A survey of reports from the period indicate that there were a rash of fires throughout the Midwest at the same time, some of which were apparently caused by unusual meteorological phenomena. Had this aspect been played up rather than the legend about a cow, "In Old Chicago" might at least have shared with "San Francisco" a certain grandeur and mystery as to the cause of the disaster.

3:25 PM  

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