Thursday, March 17, 2011

For your consideration — "Postage due" edition

When I go to the site Letters of Note ("a blog-based archive of fascinating correspondence, complete with scans and transcripts of the original missives") and plug in various movies-related search terms (e.g., "movie"), what pops up are all sorts of interesting billets-doux from cinema history. The oldest I've found dates to 1916, written by Charlie Chaplin to a young admirer.

The site provides history and context for the letters. For instance, for a 1939 letter from David O. Selznick, the site preambles its contents thus:
As U.S. audiences continued to be wowed by Hedy Lamarr's glamorous turn in Algiers, Oscar-winning movie producer David O. Selznick was both blatant and determined in his efforts to capitalise on the natural beauty of Ingrid Bergman whilst filming her Hollywood debut - Intermezzo - in 1938; so much so that he wrote the following memo to the movie's director, editor and production manager towards the end of shooting and, whilst pointing out that 'every beautiful shot we get of her is a great deal of money added to the returns on the picture', demanded more close-ups of the Swedish actress.
And sure enough, there's a photo of the memo plus a transcription, with Selznick offering an accurate forecast of "increasing the possibility of our having a new star" as well as a more withering appraisal of Hedy's (not Hedley's) position in the stellar firmament.

Other pages I find there include:

Two letters from Groucho Marx, one being his famous expression of mock outrage addressed in 1945 to "Dear Warner Bros." stating "I had no idea that the City of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Bros." (My own appraisal of the forthcoming Marx Brothers' sibling swansong, A Night in Casablanca, is here.) The second, from December 1957, comes titled A drunken evening with Grouch Marx. Audrey Hepburn, a fine lobster dinner, and "Jayne Mansfield's knockers" are no longer available for comment.

1957 was a good year for Hollywood mailrooms. To wit:
  • The birth of Roger Thornhill — Theater critic and arts editor Otis L. Guernsey hands Alfred Hitchcock the rights to a "fake masterspy" story idea, a plot we now recognize as North by Northwest. (When I was a very young and precocious theater jock, I would ride my bike to my hometown's sole library to check out Guernsey's long annual series of "Best Plays" compilations, two or more at a time. I had no idea until now that he also planted the seed for my favorite Hitchcock film.)

"Respectfully yours, Clint Eastwood" — October 26, 1954: He was just 24-year-old Universal contract player when Clint Eastwood wrote this humble, gracious letter to director Billy Wilder. Its subject: Eastwood's possible casting in the role of aviator Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis. The role ultimately went to James Stewart, so Eastwood went on to become ... Clint Eastwood.

"Men are climbing to the moon but they don't seem interested in the beating human heart" — March 1, 1961: Recently divorced, mentally exhausted Marilyn Monroe's six-page letter to her psychiatrist. A touching, unveiled peek into MM a year before she died.

"I expect to make the best movie ever made" — Stanley Kubrick's vast unfilmed bio-epic Napoleon is one of my alternate-universe Dream's Library movies. Audrey Hepburn, in a hand-written letter, gracefully turns down Kubrick's offer of playing Joséphine. (Wouldn't that have been interesting?) Next up is Kubrick's unfinished draft of a 1971 letter in which, undeterred by MGM pulling out in 1969 due to soaring costs, he lays out a revised proposal and states, "I expect to make the best movie ever made."

"Forget the impeachment of President Nixon" — Hollywood director King Vidor's 1974 letter to L.A. Times sportswriter Jim Murray about Dodger Stadium's "disgraceful" and "unbelievable" public toilets. Never mind his directorial prowess — when you can rank Dodger Stadium's facilities against those in "Moscow, Madrid, Zagreb Yugoslavia, Rome and Paris," that's one specialized area of international expertise.

"We will never get past Viet Nam if we sweep it under the carpet" — It's 1976 and Francis Ford Coppola apologizes to Marlon Brando for being "so elusive" during Apocalypse Now's notoriously troubled production. The Letters of Note site points out that this is "a truly insightful letter," one that shows Coppola's frustrations "as he first details the reasoning behind the evolution of Leighley/Kurtz; then speaks of the public's need to face the horror of Vietnam 'head on' ... so as to 'move people, and to help put this war in perspective'."

Salinger reviews Raiders of the Lost Ark — The reclusive author's 1981 letter to his friend and lover Janet Eagleson. He wasn't a fan. However, he and I are in accord when it comes to The Last Metro and Catherine Deneuve.

"I'll be waiting to see your names someday on the big screen" — Steven Spielberg congratulates the three young friends who remade their favorite movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, shot-for-shot. What a mensch.

"It was a busy year and then it wasn't" — Christopher Walken writes to his online fan club. "I was supposed to portray Batman, but when Tim Burton learned of my hot dog cravings, he asked Michael Keaton to wear the cape. To this day, I am peeved about this." The man really, really likes his hot dogs. And yes, read this one out loud while doing a Christopher Walken impression.

At least three letters (here, here, and here) testify to the Pixar honchos being just darn nice folks.

The Birth of Steampunk — Only tangentially movie-related (the term is most often applied retroactively), this one I add largely because of a personal connection with the letter's author. Elizabeth and I became friends with science fiction author K.W. Jeter and his wife Geri when we all lived near each other in Portland, Oregon. We have since moved in opposite directions (we to Seattle, they to San Francisco), though the last time Elizabeth and I visited San Francisco we went out to dinner and drinks with K.W. and Geri, enjoying the chance to get caught up. Anyway, K.W. is well known as "the father of steampunk," and here's the April 1987 letter to Locus magazine wherein the label "steampunk" enters canonical writ. Steampunk's recent surge as its own pop subgenre ("the next big thing") owes a tip of the brass goggles to K.W.

I've just begun poring though the Letters of Note site. Feel welcome to let me know of others you find there.