Legendary movie stars up close on the job


The legendary movie stars of Hollywood’s golden era (1930-60) are now so shrouded in glamorized nostalgia that it might be hard to remember they once were just actors who went to work every day in a factory-like setting with a host of other workers helping them create the images they left behind.

So compelling are some of those images that we might be excused for believing they reflect what those magical stars were really like in real life.

Was Marilyn Monroe really an irresistible sex goddess? Was Tyrone Power the dashing hero of “The Mark of Zorro?” Was Boris Karloff the frightening creep you wouldn’t want to meet after dark? Was Spencer Tracy the master actor revered by his colleagues? 

Well, maybe much of that has ripened into Hollywood folklore. But it might be revealing to learn what the people they worked with every day really thought of them.

In our careers covering the movie and television worlds, former Toronto Star TV columnist James Bawden and I often talked with producers who hired those glorious stars and directors who handled them on camera. Their candid reflections are contained in our latest book, “They Made the Movies: Conversations with Great Filmmakers” published by University Press of Kentucky.

Here are two highlights from some of the 31 interviews included in the book:

Marilyn Monroe

In 1949, David Miller directed a young, unknown Marilyn Monroe in “Love Happy,” starring the Marx Brothers. Miller recalled: “Marilyn walked in for an interview and Groucho shouted, ‘You’re hired!’ He was mightily smitten with her. She was twenty-three, had dirty fingernails and never washed, so her neck was dirty. She looked bewildered and that stuck. She just oozed sex appeal.”

A few years later, Henry Hathaway directed her in the tense thriller Niagara. Hathaway was surprised to find how popular she had become.

“Crowds gathered everywhere, really large crowds,” Hathaway said. “Marilyn was gorgeous and she was aware she was gorgeous. But, alone with her, I found a scared little girl. She said, ‘Henry, I’m twenty-seven; ten years from now I’ll be forgotten.’ But ten years later, she was dead.”

Billy Wilder directed Monroe in two of her biggest hits: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) and “Some Like It Hot” (1959). He said, “She was a troublesome young woman who was always worth the trouble. Marilyn had tremendous troubles with herself. She was on-edge all day and that’s very nerve-wracking. But if I just wanted somebody to be on time and know their lines, I have an old aunt who could have been there at 5 in the morning.”  

At the end of her career, Monroe was a superstar, being directed in a musical comedy romp called “Let’s Make Love” (1960) by George Cukor. Her costar was French actor-singer Yves Montand.

“She was difficult, but not impossible,” Cukor recalled. “The movie was a trifle and she was pudgy. Predictably, they [Montand and Monroe] really were making love in her dressing room all afternoon. But we did get it finished and it did make money.”

Cukor also directed Monroe in what would have been her final movie, the unfinished “Something’s Got to Give” (1962). Cukor said “It was quickly apparent life had become a blur to her. She had slimmed down and was quite lovely. But days would pass without her appearing. I’d shot all the scenes without her when Fox pulled the plug. But six weeks later, she was about to return when she died.”

Boris Karloff

Edward Dmytrk apprenticed in B movies and in 1941 found himself directing Boris Karloff in a “mad doctor” movie at Columbia called “The Devil Commands.” Dmytrk recalled that icon of horror movies: as “the most wonderful, gentle man” and said, “I never really had to direct Karloff. He always underplayed, worked long hours without any muttering.”   

A few years later, Robert Wise directed Karloff in “The Body Snatcher” (1945). The studio insisted Karloff’s old horror rival, Bela Lugosi, also be assigned a role, which would turn out to be the final screen appearance together for the “titans of terror.”

Wise recalled, “Karloff was a lovely fellow. Very well-educated, articulate – just the opposite of what he was on screen. Lugosi had a very small part and was having trouble with it, couldn’t seem to remember his lines. Karloff was very patient with him. I thought it was just Lugosi’s age or illness, but later I found out he was on drugs. They didn’t fight or anything, but they had as little to do with each other as possible.”

Mae West

In 1936, Henry Hathaway had fading Paramount bombshell Mae West to deal with. The new Production Code was forcing the studio to trim lots of West’s sexually candid remarks from the script of “Go West, Young Man.” The actress also was worried her sex appeal was fading. 

“She called me into her dressing room after a few days,” said Hathaway, “and said, ‘I’ve been working very hard and Randy (Randolph) Scott has yet to make a pass at me. What gives?’ I noticed her pot belly and told her to put on a girdle. She took my hand and carried it to her belly and said, ‘This love muscle made me a star, honey’ So how could I argue against such logic?”

Tyrone Power

Rouben Mamoulian went to work at Fox in 1940 and his first task was to turn Tyrone Power into an action hero in a pair of swashbuckling films: “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) and “Blood and Sand” (1941). Unfortunately, Power wasn’t suited for action.

“Ty was a beautiful young man, but not that athletic,” Mamoulian recalled. “We had to bulk him up and get him up to speed in his sword fighting.”

Power’s leading lady in “Blood and Sand,” a bullfighting saga, was glamorous Rita Hayworth and Mamoulian had trouble stoking up enough passion between the two actors.

“Ty was rather a listless person at that stage,” said Mamoulian. “And he was embarrassed by the scene where he’s bare-chested, about to be dressed for the ring. He simply didn’t want to be laughed at. And, yes, we had to do some doubling in the bullfight scenes and it does show.”

Late in her career, Crawford, then approaching age 50, wound up in a melodrama called “Female on the Beach” (1955) at Universal, being directed by veteran Joseph Pevney.

“She’d arrive in a limousine every morning, still every inch a star,” Pevney said. “She’d argue with the lighting director and he admitted she probably knew more about the subject than he did.”

Pevney felt Crawford still saw herself as irresistible and turned her attention to leading man, Jeff Chandler, who came to Pevney and complained, “I’m scared of that old woman. Every time I do a scene in my swimming trunks, she’s right there, salivating.”’

Crawford had a friendly relationship with director Vincent Sherman that frequently turned romantic. After she collapsed on the set of 1964’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” when she was costarring again with hated rival Bette Davis, Sherman rushed to the hospital to be by her side.

Sherman was shocked when she told him, “I’m not really sick, sweetie. I faked it to get away from that damned bitch!” Sherman said Crawford jumped out of the hospital bed naked and they made “furious love” on the divan.

Bette Davis and Susan Hayward

Bette Davis had several memorable feuds with rival actresses, but one of the nastiest was with Susan Hayward, who played her daughter in “Where Love Has Gone” (1964). Edward Dmytrk was hired to referee the pair.

“These two hated each other from first sight,” Dmytrk said. “They’re so different in their approaches to moviemaking. Bette is highly disciplined. She sits on set, absorbing the atmosphere. She keeps the door to her dressing room open at all times so she can listen in. Susan is tightly controlled. She does a scene, then retreats to her room and shuts the door. Tension built week after week.”

When filming ended, Davis took off her wig and threw it at Susan, saying, “Thank God I don’t have to act with you anymore!” At which point, Hayward took off her own wig, threw it at Davis and shouted, “You disgusting old bitch!”       

Kirk Douglas

In his early days as a director, Richard Fleischer landed a genuine prize: The chance to direct Walt Disney’s multi-million dollar epic adventure story, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954). The film had already been cast – and one of the stars was the promising young Kirk Douglas.

“Kirk was an eager contract player and offered few difficult moments,” Fleischer recalled.

Douglas zoomed to super-stardom on the huge success of that movie and when Fleischer directed him again four years later in another action spectacle, “The Vikings” (1958), he found the difficult moments had multiplied considerably.

“His company made it,” Fleischer reported. “There I was trying to direct the guy who owned the film. It all got very pricey and Kirk started ripping at me in front of the crew.”

Fleischer held his temper as Douglas continued to criticize him about rising costs of production, but when the actor finally saw the edited version of the film, he was so impressed that he presented the director with several bouquets of roses.

“Any director who survives two films with Kirk Douglas deserves this,” Douglas told Fleischer.

“But I made sure I’d never again work with him,” Fleischer said.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

Producer Hal B. Wallis brought the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to the movie screen in the late 1940s and they became a national rage. He went on to produce most of their subsequent films as they rose to the top of the comedy hill.

“From the beginning I knew the boys hated each other,” Wallis recalled. “Dean wanted to be as funny as Jerry and Jerry wanted to be as suave as Dean. Jerry was always difficult to control, always making crazy demands. Sometimes he wasn’t speaking to Dean or vice versa. Finally he came to me and says, ‘I’m breaking up the act.’ Then he went off on his own way, becoming even more obstreperous.”

Spencer Tracy 

Robert Wise was directing a western called “Tribute to a Bad Man” (1956) on high mountain locations in Colorado with Spencer Tracy as the star. Tracy wanted to do the film right on the MGM lot.

But MGM was under new management and the studio wasn’t in the mood to coddle even a veteran star like Tracy. They insisted he go on location.

“When he finally showed weeks late, I shot only a few hours a day so he could get acclimatized (to the high altitude),” Wise said. 

But Tracy argued he couldn’t work at high altitude and they’d have to move the location lower. Abruptly, the studio decided they were through with Tracy and ordered him replaced by James Cagney.

“They called his bluff,” Wise said. “I went to his dressing room and he was sobbing about being finished, he’d never work again, he’d die bankrupt. He cried for a straight hour and I was astounded this master actor was so insecure.”

Bawden and I enjoyed our time with these great filmmakers who helped forge those enduring movie star legends and always wondered how much of those legends were rooted in some vein of truth.

Blaine resident Ron Miller was a nationally syndicated entertainment columnist from 1977 to 1999. The University of Kentucky Press recently published the book he co-authored, “They Made the Movies: Conversations with Great Filmmakers.” Miller will discuss his latest book 6 p.m. Friday, February 9 at Village Books in Bellingham.  

This article was updated to include the date of Miller's event after the original date in January was rescheduled due to inclement weather. 


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