Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Walk around the Studio Lots in 1938

In a recurring feature of Photoplay magazine, "We Cover the Studios," columnist James Reid meanders around the various studio lots seeing what film productions are in progress and keeping his ears and eyes open to anything that may be of interest to the readers of his column. In this March 1938 issue quite a bit of his news has interest for classic film fans and so his article has been reprinted here ( in part ) : 

The Baroness and the Butler is the picture that brings Annabella, the French star, to the American screen. Opposite her is William Powell. She asked for him as her costar after meeting him in Paris on his recent trip abroad. It was carefully explained to her that he was under contract to another studio. She still couldn't see why the costardom couldn't be arranged. It was arranged. Annabella is that persuasive, even in person. (P. S. She is blonde with lively brown eyes.) 

Powell looks rested after his long vacation trip. But you can't be around him without sensing that he still is low-spirited. He says, "From now on, I'm going to do only two pictures a year. That's enough, if the two are good. If I rush through five a year, only one of the five may be good. This way, people can expect more by seeing me less. Also, there is such a thing as trying to do too much. I've seen it happen: people overworking, wrecking their health, even dying." . Though he still may be playing comedy, he is not forgetting Jean Harlow. 

Again, as in My Man Godfrey, he is a butler. The setting, however, is Budapest — where the People's Party elects him to the same Parliament in which his baron-employer (Henry Stephenson) serves. We see the scene in which the baron, who doesn't know how to lace his own shoes, begs Bill to reconsider, while the baron's daughter (Annabella) upbraids Bill for being a "traitor." Bill blithely replies that he expects life to go on as before, when the parliament isn't in session. Before the scene begins, Bill, standing close to Stephenson, absent-mindedly plucks lint off Stephenson's coat. He is so used to being a butler now that he even buttles between scenes.
We look in on Stage 22, to see what Bette Davis is doing, in the curls and crinolines of nearly a century ago, in Jezebel. Bette, it seems, is coming up to a death scene. 

She and Director William Wyler are having an argument. A friendly verbal bout but — still a bout. Willie isn't satisfied with Bette's make-up for the scene. She "isn't pale enough"; she "doesn't look tired enough." Bette is arguing that she has done death scenes before, has always worn this kind of make-up, and has "always looked realistic." 

Neither can convince the other. Finally, Bette says, "Willie, don't tell me you won't listen to reason! Don't tell me I'll have to go temperamental on you!" She flounces off to her portable dressing room, as if she's going temperamental here and now. 

Wyler, with a gleam in his eye, stalks after her. He takes off her door the white board with the name "Bette Davis," turns it over, prints something on it, then hangs it back up. The sign now reads: "Simone Simon." Bette flings open the door to see what he is doing, and unwillingly laughs. But she isn't changing her make-up until make-up expert Perc Westmore (already sent for) arrives, to referee the argument. 

They still are waiting for Westmore, and the business manager is shredding his hair over the production delay, as we head for the Warner back lot and the set of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Here, another business manager is rendering himself bald over production delay. The picture is in Technicolor and, because of lighting problems, they can work only five hours a day. And today there are nine hundred people on the set, and it takes an hour to line them up for one "take." 

This is a vast set — a market square in Twelfth Century England. In the center of the square towers a primitive gallows. All about the square are extras in tatters, representing the angry populace, being held in check by other extras in the chain-mail uniforms of medieval soldiers. At one side stands a silken pavilion, housing nobles who have come to watch the sport of seeing Robin Hood hanged — Robin Hood being played by Errol Flynn, who has Olivia de Havilland for his Maid Marian. 

Two cameras are filming the scene, from different angles. Sun reflectors have to be set for each of them. Then, because of the size of the set, director Michael Curtiz has to do his directing via a loud-speaker. Between his accent and the echoing acoustics the extras have their troubles, finding out what they are supposed to do, and when, and where. 

The extras, after standing around and being pushed around for an hour, aren't up to being excited when Robin Hood is finally trundled into the square in a two-wheeled cart. Curtiz calls for a retake, meanwhile delegating an assistant director to bawl them out in plain English. The second take is better. The third is perfect. But by that time the business manager, incredulously feeling the top of his head, fails to find a single hair to tear.

To find more stories like this, check out the other posts in our series - Movie Magazine ArticlesEnjoy! 


  1. I love reading pieces like this. So interesting to think of the films we love in terms of which titles were in production at (or around) the same time!

  2. Love the photo of Errol and the pup! Fun to read about Bette's argument with "Willie." I bet it was even more lively than what was described in the article.

  3. Such a delightful post! Provides a unique perspective. I thought THE BARONESS AND THE BUTLER was a curious film. I love William Powell but this role seemed a rehash of his turn in MY MAN GODFREY, although less funny, and I didn't care for Annabella. Sad also to recall he was still dealing with the death of Harlow.