Walter Reisch (1903–1983)
Ein Walzer von Strauss [A Waltz by Strauss ] (Max Neufeld). Original story, scenario.
Die Pratermizzi [Girl of the Prater ] (Gustav Ucicky). Script.
Tingeltangel [Cabaret ] (Gustav Ucicky). Script.
Das Heiratsnest [The Marriage Bed ] (Rudolf Walther Fein). Script.
Ein Mädel aus dem Volke [A Girl of the People ] (I. Fleck). Script.
Der Faschingsprinz [The Carnival Prince ] (Rudolf Walther Fein). Script.
Dich hab' ich geliebt [Because I Loved You ] (Rudolf Walther Fein). Script.
Die Nacht gehört uns [The Night Belongs to Us ] (Carl Froelich). Script.
Brand in der Oper [Conflagration at the Opera ] (Carl Froelich). Script.)
Das Flötenkonzert von Sans Souci [The Flute Concert of Sanssouci ] (Gustav Ucicky). Script.
Der Herr auf Bestellung [The Manservant ] (Geza von Bolvary). Script.
Ein Tango für dich [A Tango for You ] (Geza von Bolvary). Script.
Hokuspokus [Hocus Pocus ] (Gustav Ucicky). Script.
Wie werde ich reich und glücklick? [How Do I Become Rich and Happy? ] (Max Reichmann). Script.
Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt [Two Hearts in Three-Quarter Time ] (Geza von Bolvary). Co-story, lyrics.
Das Lied ist aus [The Song Is Ended ] (Geza von Bolvary). Script, lyrics.
Der Raub der Mona Lisa [The Theft of the Mona Lisa ] (Geza von Bolvary). Script.
Die lustigen Weiber von Wien [The Merry Wives of Vienna ] (Geza von Bolvary). Script.
Im Geheimdienst [Inside the Secret Service ] (Gustav Ucicky). Script.
Der Prinz von Arkadien [The Prince of Arcady ] (Karl Hartl). Script.
Die Gräfin von Monte Christo [The Countess of Monte Cristo ] (Karl Hartl). Script.
Ein blonder Traum [A Blond Dream ] (Paul Martin). Co-script.
F.P.l. antwortet nicht [F.P.l. Does Not Answer ] (Karl Hartl). Co-script.
Floating Platform No. 1 (English-language version of F.P.l. ). Co-script.
Ich und die Kaiserin [The Empress and I ] (Friedrich Holländer). Co-story.
Heart Song (U.S. version of Die Kaiserin ). Co-story, co-script.
Saison in Kairo [Season in Cairo ] (Reinhold Schänzel). Script.
Leise fliehen meine Lieder [My Songs Run Softly ] (Willi Forst). Original story, script.
Unfinished Symphony (English-language version of Meine Lieder ).
Original story, script.
Two Hearts in Waltz Time (English-language version of Dreivierteltakt ). Co-story.
Maskerade [Masquerade in Vienna ] (Willi Forst). Story, co-script.
Casta Diva [Divine Spark ] (Carmine Gallone). Story, scenario.
Episode [Episode ] (Walter Reisch). Director, producer, co-script.
Escapade (Robert Z. Leonard). Story based on Maskerade .
Silhouetten [Silhouettes ] (Walter Reisch). Director, story, scenario.
Men Are Not Gods (Walter Reisch). Director, story.
The Great Waltz (Julien Duvivier). Co-script.
Gateway (Alfred Werker). Story.
Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch). Co-script.
Comrade X (King Vidor). Screen story.
My Love Came Back (Kurt Bernhardt). Based on Episode .
Lady Hamilton [That Hamilton Woman ] (Alexander Korda). Co-screen story, co-script.
That Uncertain Feeling (Ernst Lubitsch). Adaptation.
Somewhere I'll Find You (Wesley Ruggles). Adaptation.
Seven Sweethearts (Frank Borzage). Co-screen story, co-script.
The Heavenly Body (Alexander Hall). Co-script.
Gaslight (George Cukor). Co-script.
Song of Scheherazade (Walter Reisch). Director, script, screen story.
The Countess of Monte Cristo (Frederick De Cordova). Screen story.
The Fan (Otto Preminger). Co-script.
The Mating Season (Mitchell Leisen). Co-script.
The Model and the Marriage Broker (George Cukor). Co-screen story, co-script.
Niagara (Henry Hathaway). Co-screen story, co-script.
Titanic (Jean Negulesco). Co-screen story, co-script.
Die Mücke [Madame Mosquito ] (Walter Reisch). Director, script, story.
Der Cornet (Walter Reisch). Director, script.
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (Richard Fleischer). Co-screen story, co-script.
Teenage Rebel (Edmund Goulding). Co-script.
Stopover Tokyo (Richard L. Breen). Producer, co-script.
Fraulein (Henry Koster). Producer.
The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (Henry Levin). Script.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (Henry Levin). Co-script.
Academy Awards include a nomination for co-writing Ninotchka in 1939; an original-story nomination for Comrade X in 1940; and a shared best-story and best-screenplay Oscar for Titanic in 1953.
Walter Reisch died on March 28, 1983, in Los Angeles. According to Variety, "He had just completed a rewrite on the upcoming Volker Schlöndorff comedy, Hotel de la Paix, and had only recently returned from the Berlin Film Festival, where he had been an invited guest."
Can you tell us something about your early childhood and upbringing?
I was born in Vienna, which, as you know, is the capital of Austria. Vienna was the birthplace of great music in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Actually it was the cultural center and heart of the music world. To name a few names: Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, the Strausses. Even people who were not born in Vienna—like Beethoven, who was born in Bonn—made their headquarters in Vienna and regarded Austria as their real home country.
By a strange coincidence, this town, after the First World War, also happened to be the birthplace of many, many outstanding personalities of the motion picture industry who later on, in Germany, in France, in London, and
certainly in the United States of America, had enormous successes, became Academy Award winners, became pioneers in the field of motion pictures. So, in a way, without appearing to be immodest, I feel I belong to that generation.
The key year, in terms of my beginnings, was the end of the First World War, November 1918. The war on the German and Austrian side was lost, Germany was totally destroyed, and so was Austria—if not physically, from bombing, as in the Second World War, then culturally. At this time there were enormous losses among men. Millions of soldiers had been killed, and the theaters—in Vienna, especially—which traditionally played great Shakespearean tragedies, Goethe, Schiller, and Molière—needed (and this is somehow very entertaining) extras for their productions. There were simply no men. Those that were not dead, who came back from the war, immediately went into business and into some revival of their previous occupations.
Therefore the students of the first semester of the university—regardless of whether they were studying medicine, jurisprudence, philosophy, theology, or literature—were permitted by the government at that time to proceed with their university studies for free. But—and this was the happiest and most advantageous condition they made—we also had to go in the evening to the State theater and be extras. We had to play in the scene where Mark Antony makes his speech at Caesar's funeral: "Friends, Romans, countrymen," etc. We had to be the Romans! What a punishment!
The same thing happened with Hamlet, King Lear, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and all the other plays. They had everything—the sets, the protagonists, the theaters—which were not bombed, naturally—but they didn't have the hundred or two hundred extras they needed to yell at Caesar and Mark Antony and Brutus. So at 7:30 P.M. we young men had to go and put makeup on and play as extras.
Therefore today I still know—certainly in my own language, not in the original language—practically the whole of Hamlet, the whole of Caesar, and all the great plays in which we, night after night for years, were forced to play. As I said—what a punishment!
Now at the same time there began the film industry. They too needed extras. They didn't make any Shakespearean plays into motion pictures; they made love stories and other such things, but they didn't have any extras. And they did not need hundreds of extras for a big scene—they needed thousands of extras! During our vacation months, and even during our semesters, they sought out the very extras of the State theaters and said, "How about it?" And they really paid money, the equivalent of two dollars a day, regardless of whether the day started at five o'clock in the morning—which it did—or whether it ended at midnight. The equivalent of two dollars for a young man in those days was an unheard-of fortune. So certainly we said yes.
Many of us—I among them—gave up our studies. I didn't continue study-
ing literature. I became a fully fledged extra and "extra leader." Not only was I an extra myself, but I became responsible for bringing along ten of my friends, then twenty, then one hundred. . . .
Now we were connected with the theater, we were connected with films, we were connected with a lot of money and beautiful girls. At that time the Darryl Zanuck/Louis B. Mayer of the Austrian film world was a man by the name of Count Alexander Kolowrat. He was a Czechoslovakian who lived in Austria, one of a family who had come to prominence in the Turkish wars of five hundred years ago. He was the first man in Vienna to own a car and to have a telephone in his car, and he, with his enormous wealth, founded a motion picture industry.
This Count Kolowrat went to Hungary, and there were two young journalists there who had already started to work in that new medium, who had made a certain career for themselves, and who were so-called directors. Count Kolowrat told them, "Forget Budapest, which is a tank town compared to Vienna, and come to Vienna." The two men came. The name of one was Alexander Korda, and the name of the other was Michael Curtiz. Both of them hardly spoke the German language, and had no idea of German theater or actors; but they had a very good idea of how to photograph a scene so that it was alive, not stagey, not theatrical.
Therefore—and this is how I lead in to my own position—they hired for themselves people who were born in Vienna, who knew the theater, who would not interfere with their jobs as directors, but who would provide them with everything they needed to make a scene a going concern the next morning. At that moment the position of "assistant director" was born.
The assistant director in those days was everything. I had to help those Hungarian directors with the script. I had to translate—by guesswork, since I didn't speak their language—what they really meant when they said what they said in their own language. Then I had to get the actors and introduce them to the directors. Then I had to get the man who was supposed to build the sets and see to it that he did build the sets. The assistant director was also the auditor. I got the money to pay the actors. Everything was in the hands of the assistant director: the management, the girls' virtue, the budget—whether the money was available or not—everything .
Now, you understand, this was a school of fire. It was the most wonderful, elaborate, and thorough schooling anybody possibly could have had to become a motion picture maker. It was the university of life, per se. It was something that will never exist again because we really learned it from the ground up.
Alexander Korda was very different from Michael Curtiz .
Yes, Alex was a very cultured man, in contrast to Mike Curtiz, who was a man of the earth, of the soil. Alex was a man of the world, a gentleman, a grand seigneur . Alex Korda came to Vienna not only with his brother Vin-
cent, who became one of the great art directors of the British film industry, and his brother Zoltan, who became a very famous director of films made in India, but he also had the great idea of making his wife of that time, Maria Corda, a world-star. This was entirely a different thing from a motion picture actress. People went to see her beauty, her gestures, her glamor, her personality.
The production executive Count Kolowrat caught on that Alex Korda had a great idea, and Curtiz too took his own wife, who later on became a very important star by the name of Lucy Dorraine, and made many pictures with her. So they, in conjunction with their husbands, created the [Central European] star system.
Around that time we decided to make the most of the idea that Vienna is a world-famous city of music. Since everybody knew that Mozart and the Strausses were part of our tradition, I went to Count Kolowrat and said to him, "I've done a few semesters of literature, and I know how to write. Why can't we make a picture with, say, the background of a Mozart biography?"
At that time there was an inventor in Vienna who took recordings of famous music pieces—waltzes by Strauss, symphonies and sonatas by Mozart—and with a certain mechanical knack he synchronized these records with scenes being played on the screen. So, in a way, ten years before the actual invention of sound pictures, we made sound pictures of our own. Even if people did not buy a record, everybody had a copy of "The Blue Danube" in their own collection, and as they ran our picture they could also play the record—not always in synch, but almost in synch.
I wrote a story called Ein Walzer von Strauss [A Waltz by Strauss, 1925], which was really not about Johann Strauss but about the waltz itself. "The Blue Danube" played an integral part in the happenings and continuity of the screenplay. It was about two people in love—I've forgotten the details—who meet during the waltz, dance it together, then are separated. Years later, in totally different circumstances, they are reunited with the waltz. The film was a smashing success.
Fascinating, particularly since later in America you wrote The Great Waltz  . . .
Right. At that time we really succeeded in establishing the Austrian film industry, which [before then had] meant nothing to the international market. The use of the words "Strauss" and "waltz" proved an "open sesame." It really opened everything up as if by magic. Vienna flourished as a motion picture center, and all of a sudden the whole thing collapsed because of the inflation which took place in 1922.
In those days what form did your scripts take? Were they shooting scripts, did they contain within themselves subtitles, or were they scenarios . . . ?
Well, to begin with, you knew a guy who had the money to make a picture.
That was the most inspiring germ of an idea for any young writer at that time, to know someone who would ultimately pay for what you wrote. Then you had to have an inkling of what his tastes were: Did he want to make mysteries, love stories, comedies, or, as in the case of Korda and Mike Curtiz, did he want to make big historic spectacles?
You met such a person in a sidewalk cafe, which was the great meeting-place and rendezvous of all European motion picture makers, and still is in Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Berlin—not in London and not in America. Then, over a cup of coffee and an aperitif, you told him the basic story, and if he liked it he paid for your coffee and sandwich. After which you saw no more money for a long time. Then you came to him with about ten to fifteen pages, just like today's very primitive outline. If he liked the outline, you got a little more money and an assignment to write the script.
Every week you came to him with twenty more pages and read it to him. Then, when it came to forty pages, and he could show it already to his executives and to his distribution outfit, or even sometimes to an actor, you got a little more money. You knew at the same time that, whatever payment you received, you would also be the assistant director if the picture was made. The two things went together; it was understood.
I wrote my scripts for a particular man. I knew how much money he had; I knew how many shooting days he could afford; I knew who it would be within his reach to cast; and finally, I knew who would sell the picture.
My forte was stories with a beginning, a climax, and an ending, with no holes, without too many murders, without chases, but with really sincere love—sometimes sentimental (although nobody died of TB in them), but never in bad taste. The stories never featured bedroom scenes. They were mostly love stories.
When you wrote a love story in those days, you had to think of two young people to begin with, and go from there. Making movies in this fashion we eventually found our bridge to Berlin, where an entirely new chapter opened up, bigger, more important, and altogether more workmanlike.
Berlin was considered superior to Vienna in status, wasn't it?
In Berlin everything Viennese was very much liked. We were received with wide-open arms. It was the most hospitable town on earth. Every Viennese was considered a genius—and in many cases, he was a genius. Out of Vienna at that time came Max Reinhardt, Elisabeth Bergner, Willi Forst, Rudolf Forster, Alexander Korda, Mike Curtiz, Fritz Lang, Joe May, Mia May—all these names of the past were Viennese, and they went to Berlin for one reason: It was enormously generous, the most hospitable town on earth, which sounds very strange because ten years later it was also very hospitable to one particular Austrian named Adolf Hitler, who destroyed a whole country, a whole civilization, and became a curse of mankind. Hitler was received
with open arms in Germany, just as we were ten years before, and he became a great, great protagonist, maker and destroyer of world history.
Our first years in Berlin were pure paradise. We made silent pictures there with many actors who later became famous; with writers like Carl Mayer (another Austrian, who wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other profound message pictures for his Austrian fellow countryman Robert Wiene); with directors like Carl Froelich, Gustav Ucicky, and Rudolf Walther Fein.
It was the beginning of UFA. Lubitsch had already gone to America, and the Viennese very successfully took over, until three or four years later, when Berlin suffered a complete crack-up also: inflation. This happened simultaneously with the beginning of talkies, so we hardly noticed the great tragedy which the inflation in Germany brought about for many other people. Motion picture workers were unaffected because—and this was a great piquancy of the history of motion pictures (I hate to say it, but that's the way it was)—the worse the economy became, the better it was for motion picture people. Those without jobs hated staying home and listening to their wives complaining, so they went to motion pictures. The programs were very inexpensive and lasted a long time (each one two or three hours); sometimes they played a big feature, a comedy, a newsreel, a documentary, and trick films.
How did the transition from silent films to sound films affect you personally? Did you have to start again . . . ?
In all honesty, I had absolutely no feelings about it one way or the other. I always wrote my own title cards—which had to be very funny, to make people laugh as they read them, which is a different thing from laughing when you hear a joke. . . .
In other words, you wrote the captions as well as the scenario . . . ?
Right. I made no change in my system. Instead of writing captions, we wrote dialogue. I have absolutely no memory of any change. The only difference was that the pictures became a little smarter; we were a little bit more sophisticated, and not necessarily restricted to happy endings.
Tell me about your association with the great German star Hans Albers .
Hans Albers was to Germany in the years between about 1927 and 1929 what Clark Gable was to Hollywood. Not only did he physically resemble Gable, but his whole personality resembled Gable's, too: that of the athletic man who could conquer any woman without really fighting for her, and who deep down in his heart is a Rhett Butler, a born adventurer, a very warm-hearted son of a gun, hard-hitting, with a great sense of humor, and with total integrity within the realm of his adventurous spirit. When I describe him it's as if I were describing one of his roles, but in fact that's what he was, and the best example of that was his behavior in the first days of Hitler's regime.
For many, many years Albers had had a "free" marriage, a free liaison, with a Jewish girl by the name of Hansi Burg. When Hitler came, it was understood that such "marriages," even if they were legitimate, should be
dissolved, and could not be tolerated. And Hans Albers did not only not leave Hansi Burg at that time, he married her, at the very moment of Hitler's assumption of power, as a demonstration of his independence. It was absolutely impossible for the Nazis, who were omnipotent at that time, to touch him. He defied them totally. He defied Goebbels himself, whom Hitler sent personally to Albers to persuade him to give that woman anything she wanted to go abroad. He was untouchable. He laughed about them. There was no political issue as far as he was concerned. He stayed with that girl, who suffered enormously throughout all this, although she loved him. He went to premieres with her, he walked down the Kurfurstendamm with her, he went to receptions with her. He became a doubly important star in the Nazi era, despite many offers to go abroad.
Die Nacht gehört uns —this was his first talkie and you wrote it .
Right. Die Nacht gehört uns translates as The Night Belongs to Us . It was the first picture in which Albers played exactly what I just described to you. He was a racing driver who took part in Colpa Siciliana. We shot the picture in Sicily. But he simply couldn't remember the lines as written. He got the gist of the lines and dialogue and rehearsed it beautifully. But when he saw the microphone descending on him for the first time in his long career—he had been a theater man—he forgot every word, every comma, every cue, and instead translated it into his own vernacular in such a wonderful way that even a crying author like me, who saw his beautiful lines going to pot, had to acknowledge that in the last analysis Albers' lines proved to be much better, not only in the way he said them but in the way he invented them, because it all came out of his own personality. The result was an incredible success.
We made two versions at that time, a French version and a German version. Albers' part in the French version was played by a wonderful young actor, Jean Murat, who at one time was married to Annabella, who at one time was married to Tyrone Power and at one time was Oskar Werner's mother-in-law . . . small world, isn't it?
Carl Froelich, who directed Die Nacht—you wrote more than one picture for him. Can you tell me something about him?
Carl Froelich was yet another of these wonderful German personalities (and I hope it doesn't sound as if I were only praising them, but since you just happen to be asking me about guys like him . . .), a cameraman to begin with and a disciple of the famous camera pioneer Oskar Messter. I wrote many silent stories for Froelich as a director—Henny Porten played some of the leads, and several were played by Willi Forst. Froelich and I got along wonderfully, although we were of two worlds. He was very gregarious, a man who loved wine and women, and I was only a man of the typewriter. I never went out; I only worked. But that nevertheless resulted in a very good "marriage."
Tell me about Geza von Bolvary, another director you worked with, frequently, in the transition from the silent era to sound pictures .
Geza von Bolvary was the director of my first musical in Germany, called Two Hearts in Three-Quarter Time , whose theme song became a very famous waltz. In Australia at one time it superseded even "The Blue Danube" waltz in popularity. Geza von Bolvary was actually Hungarian by birth. He was in the Hungarian army, an officer of the Hundred Hussars, the most fearless and daring riders. After the war he became a motion picture director. I don't know how he landed a deal in pictures, but he was a very reliable man, and in his case the writer had a wonderful position: Since Geza von Bolvary was not too familiar with the language, with the vernacular, he relied totally on his authors. Whatever the author said was law.
We turned out a lot of pictures together. Three-Quarter Time was shot in only one version but outdid all other pictures that I ever wrote, commercially, without my having any [financial] participation in it, apart [from the royalties I received] from writing my own lyrics. I could have lived until today from [those] royalties if I'd remained a bachelor and alone.
Perhaps your most famous song is "Frag' nicht warum" from Das Lied ist aus. . . .
Yes. After Two Hearts came Das Lied ist aus , one of the most important pictures ever made in Germany, what we called an intimate Kammerspiel . There is no translation for it, but it was just like a Noel Coward play, very elegant, three or four characters, drawing-room comedy, with sentimental or sad overtones; a few songs, no spectacle whatsoever, and practically no location work. In it Willi Forst played his first serious part, and his leading lady was Liane Haid. Von Bolvary directed, and the music was by Robert Stolz. It contained two numbers which have remained evergreens till this day: One is "Frag' nicht warum" ("Don't Ask Me Why"), and the other "Adieu, mein kleiner Garde Offizier" ("Goodbye, My Little Grenadier").
Did the composition of the lyrics of such a popular song just pop into your head?
Well, I always wrote my own lyrics for every song. The songs were integral parts of the continuity of the shooting script. My songs were always so built-in that you couldn't take them out. They were simply a link in the story, just as a love scene or a chase or a killing or a trial scene might be in another picture. Because it was my specialty, I would write a love scene up to a certain point and then segue into a song. They didn't suddenly burst into song as in The King and I, without any rhyme or reason—though The King and I was very good; I'm not criticizing it.
Instead of action or dialogue I wrote lyrics, and then other men—composers like Robert Soltz, Willy Schmidt-Gentner, Werner Heymann, and Friedrich Holländer—took over and wrote the music to the lyrics. Now I never
wrote the full lyrics [right away]. In German you need only write the first line. If the first line was sufficient inspiration for the composer to find the right melody, he then refused to accept ready-made rhymes, because his hits—the so-called Schlager, or evergreens—had to have thirty-two bars or sixty-four bars. He could not be fenced in by my rhymes, which might make the song too long, or out of symmetry, out of harmony, out of his counterpoint. He would only accept the first line for his own inspiration; then he sat down to make his music. Then I got the music and finished the lyrics. . . .
During this era you were associated with UFA on more than one picture. What was your relationship with UFA head Erich Pommer?
Well, that is not so easy to answer. Erich Pommer was already the undisputed czar of the German industry when I was a beginner. I had absolutely no chance whatsoever of working with Pommer, nor did I work with him until I had become a prominent writer myself. I wasn't in the same league as Erich Pommer or UFA. The pictures I have mentioned—the silent pictures with Henny Porten or with Forst—these had nothing to do with UFA. Only after I had attained a certain position, a certain standing, was I introduced to Pommer—by Billy Wilder, of all people, who was Pommer's favorite writer.
I don't know whether Pommer really needed Billy so much as a writer at that time, but Billy Was the life of the party. Pommer adored him, always had him around, always listened to him. Billy brought me to Pommer and recommended me, since Pommer was about to make musicals with Lillian Harvey, who was an important star at that time. Billy and I were teamed as writers, and our first picture for Erich Pommer was one called Ein blonder Traum [A Blond Dream, 1932], with Lillian Harvey in all three versions. She was an English girl by birth, and spoke English, French, and German fluently, and she always played her own part in each version. But the male lead changed in each version: English, French, German.
To work for Pommer was the crown of anybody's career in Germany, except that every story conference with Pommer started at nine o'clock in the evening. He spent all day in the studio without talking to writers. At 7:30 P.M. you had to report to him. You ate in his house—a beautiful dinner—and at nine o'clock, when everybody was ready to relax and go to bed, story conferences with Pommer began. They were murderous, because he already had the Hollywood knack, unknown in Europe up to that time, of making the producer the last court of appeal. There was nothing the director could say, nothing the author could do but fight, fight, fight. The last decision was Pommer's, and those nights, as you can imagine, were endless.
When you filmed more than one language version, were you involved in all the different versions yourself, personally, or only in the first German version?
We wrote the basic German version, and for economy reasons Pommer brought in English and French writers who simply translated our versions.
Every setup—close-up, long shot—was simply duplicated. There were no physical changes whatsoever. We used the same setups, the same directors: a young director who was also in Hollywood, Paul Martin; Wilhelm Thiele; and Curt Siodmak's brother, Robert Siodmak.
With Pommer also we made the top picture to top all top pictures, called F.P.1. antwortet nicht [F.P.1. Does Not Answer, 1932]. Curt Siodmak had the basic germ of that story. [See Curt Siodmak interview, p. 246.] He always wrote—and still does—stories with a kind of utopian slant. Many years ago he had the idea that floating platforms would be built in the middle of the ocean, islands for the refueling of planes. These islands would form a bridge over the Pacific and the Atlantic on which planes could land every three or four hours. The story I wrote was almost a Beau Geste situation—all communication with the platform has been severed, and when two fliers arrive to check up on the situation, they find clues to a tragedy that has taken place on the platform. Hans Albers starred in the German version, Peter Lorre in both German and English versions, and Charles Boyer in the French version.
Before we move on, I want to ask you about the German director Gustav Ucicky. He turned out to be a Nazi, yet I know that you wrote a lot of films for him. Can you tell us something about his background and your relationship with him?
He was an old-timer, a friend of mine. Ucicky was the illegitimate son of one of the great painters of all time, Gustav Klimt, and was an enormously gifted cameraman for Count Kolowrat. He had a burning ambition to become a director, but he had absolutely no artistic talent like that of, say, Fritz Lang—though he was a great technician and a great creator of pictorial scenes as a cameraman, a talent he inherited from his father, whom he strongly resembled. He took me on his staff and I became practically his leading writer until his Nazi days.
At that time we were united by a kind of friendship that doesn't exist anymore between director and writer. Anything I said was gospel, and anything he did was the greatest. We complemented each other completely. What I wrote he could translate into motion pictures as a director and cameraman, and he did it magnificently. This partnership lasted till the day Hitler came, when Ucicky changed 100 percent and became an out-and-out Nazi.
In Ucicky's case I was not shocked; I was not in any way disappointed. We [Viennese] were strangers in Berlin, and I, although I knew a lot about politics—I had studied politics and history—I behaved like the other Viennese, as a guest. I felt it my duty as a gentleman and as a citizen, and as an Austrian, to be in no way connected with the politics in Germany, which, as you know, were very, very hot, explosive. Everybody knew more or less what was coming, except me. I had no idea that Hitler was ante portas, was before the gates of Berlin, and I had no idea that Ucicky would switch. I had written his very first silent picture and a whole series of pictures after that.
It was rather odd for you to be writing a picture like Das Flötenkonzert , for it was regarded at the time as German nationalist propaganda .
Right. I was politically a total idiot. I only worked. I don't want to apologize, but that's the way I was. I had no idea that Ucicky had been for years a secret member of the Nazi organization. When he said he'd been assigned to UFA to make a picture about Frederick the Great, the inventor of Prussian militarism, I said, "Here I am!" I brought him a story of my own. I took the famous painting by Adolf von Menzel of Frederick the Great playing the flute concert at Sans Souci Castle, the painting which is still in Potsdam castle, and that painting supplied the background for the picture I wrote. Later I was told it was a "Nazi" picture, and nobody could believe that I, who was anything but a Nazi, who was an Austrian, had written that picture. As a result I was the target for mockery from many of my friends.
Billy Wilder, for instance, never forgave me for ever having worked with Ucicky. Whenever he's in a bad mood—and I think he will acknowledge that we are very good friends, eternally good friends—he says, "How could you ever have worked with Ucicky?" And my answer to this is the same answer which I give you now: "I didn't know . . ."
When did you leave Berlin, and what did you do next?
We left Berlin after 1933, and for a very brief time I went to France, where Pommer had become the head of French Twentieth Century-Fox production. I had absolutely no money whatsoever. We had to leave Germany without a nickel. Pommer was very anxious to keep us in France, but we'd heard rumors that Fritz Lang's version of Liliom  with Charles Boyer would be Pommer's last European adventure, which it actually was, and that Pommer would go to America; we knew he wouldn't take us all with him. Besides, I was in the middle of divorce proceedings with a Swiss wife who lived in Germany, involving endless litigation.
So I decided to return to Vienna, and in Vienna I met Willi Forst, who knew people capable of financing a picture and who wanted to direct. So I sat down in a hotel room and in six weeks I knocked out the story of Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony." I combed letters upon letters, and diaries of countless people in Budapest and Vienna, everywhere Franz Schubert had visited, until I found the exact week in which he started to work on his symphony. The Countess Esterhazy, in whose household he was teaching at that time, was then a very young girl, and the great first and last love of his life. I found enough clues and indications to prove that because of her he never finished the symphony.
Marta Eggerth, at that time a great European singing star, came to Vienna, and we gave her the part of the Esterhazy girl. We took Hans Jaray for the lead because he bore a certain resemblance to the young Schubert. And we
made the picture without salary, because nobody at that time could afford any salary. The producers paid just for our hotel [expenses]. Thinking themselves ingenious, the producers proposed that we receive one sixth of every dollar of profit—I, one sixth; Willi, one sixth; the company, one sixth; the laboratory, one sixth. . . . They thought we just had an ordinary picture. Little did they know it would be the most incredible success and that we would all make a lot of money from it. The picture (in the German language) went to Paris and played in a house called L'Etoile, near the Arch of Triumph, for three continuous years. We were lucky because [Jean] Cocteau, a member of the French Academy, wrote a magnificent review in Le Figaro, and that of course made all the other papers follow suit.
All of a sudden, living in Vienna, we had a windfall success with the Schubert picture. Now we resolved to make a picture set only in Vienna, not in Hungary or anywhere else. And in Vienna at that time the great actress was a girl by the name of Paula Wessely, not the most beautiful woman on earth: but a totally new and explosive talent. So we both decided to take a gamble and dare everything for her. I wrote a part [in Silhouetten, 1936] exactly tailor-made for her, and at the Venice Biennale she received the Best Actress prize, which at that time was the equivalent of the Academy Award. After that she became a great motion picture star.
Next we come to Episode , the first picture you directed .
Produced, wrote, and directed—again for Paula Wessely.
Was your directorial debut congenial? Did it come easily to you?
As I told you, I came up from being an actor, an extra. And I was always present when my pictures were shot anyway, even if I had only written them. So one day I started directing. I don't even remember how it came about, or whether I was nervous. All these people were my friends and collaborators, except that the cameraman who shot it was an American, not one of our team. He became one of America's great outstanding cameramen—Harry Stradling. Harry, who was based in Paris at that time, fell in love with Vienna and approached me saying that he would like to spend three months in Vienna and asked if he could do anything for me. That's how it came about.
That film's script won first prize in the Venice Biennale, and Paula Wessely won the Best Actress prize for the second time. Episode was bought by Warner Brothers and Olivia De Havilland played in the remake, which was her first starring vehicle and was called My Love Came Back . She never forgot that. Whenever I would see her, she would say, "I'd like to have a part like that again. . . ."
From here, what was the process of your transition to England?
Well, Korda saw Episode and Silhouetten, and after all those years in which I had not worked for him, he took me to London where he was by then a big shot. He had Miriam Hopkins and Gertie Lawrence under contract, and
he wanted me to write for them exactly the same kind of story which I had written so successfully in Vienna, a Kammerspiel, an intimate drawing-room comedy.
I got a labor permit for ten months, which was an unheard-of accomplishment of Korda Productions, and on the strength of the quotation from Othello, "Men are not gods . . . ," I sat down and wrote a story about an actor who played Othello and wanted to kill Desdemona during the performance, and actually succeeded.[*] That was my first picture in London, and in the English language. I loved London. I married the girl who played the lead in Silhouetten —in London.
Unfortunately, right after this, Korda switched to color, and Korda began to lose all interest in intimate stories. He concentrated exclusively from then on on Four Feathers , The Thief of Bagdad , all the big color productions. He regarded me as a man who could only shoot intimate love stories. At that time, Ad Schulberg, the ex-wife of B. P. Schulberg and the mother of Budd Schulberg, was an agent in London. She had fallen in love with these pictures of mine, and she recommended me to Louis B. Mayer.
I'm surprised to hear that Louis B. Mayer was personally recruiting writers .
In 1937, during what could be called more or less the "Golden Age" of Hollywood—"golden" because there was no shortage of extras, no shortage of directors, no shortage of money—there was definitely a shortage of stories as far as Hollywood was concerned. Of course, every best-seller and every stage hit was immediately purchased by the studios, but there was still an extensive program on the major studios' schedules. There was no television, no Disneyland either in California or in Florida, and people didn't travel as extensively as they do now. Motion pictures were a weekly family entertainment, and many went twice a week. So the studios ran out of original stories, especially MGM studios, under the guidance of their wonderful and great leader, Louis B. Mayer.
Therefore L. B. went to Europe for two reasons. One was to go to Carlsbad, a very famous spa in Czechoslovakia, to get some rest and take the water cure. [The second was that], at the same time, he traveled through the cities of Europe—Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Rome, and London—to find writers who (in contrast to the American writers of that time, who concentrated practically exclusively, once their talent had been established, on adapting magazine articles as well as novels and stage hits) could write original stories for certain personalities once the studio assigned them to write for these characters.
L. B. Mayer, who had acquired the most famous picture I ever wrote, Maskerade, and made it into an MGM picture, Escapade , with Luise Rainer and William Powell, called me and offered to have me come to Hollywood for six months. I arranged to go to Hollywood, combining the trip with my honeymoon. We were L. B. Mayer's guests on the maiden voyage of the Normandie, and this was the famous trip on which the Normandie, at that time the largest and most powerful boat afloat, lost a propeller between Le Havre and Southampton. We had to return to Le Havre for three days' repair, and all this time we were the guests of L. B. Mayer.
With us on the boat was a girl who blushed when you said hello to her—a Swedish skating champion by the name of Sonja Henie, who was going to America for the first time also.[*] She had a kind of agreement with Twentieth Century-Fox, but was also the guest of MGM—that is to say, of Louis B. Mayer and of his whole entourage. This happened because (and I think this is very interesting) the presidents of MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox were brothers: MGM was headed by its president Nicholas Schenck, and Twentieth Century-Fox was guided by Joseph Schenck. So it was really one big family.
Also on the boat itself, in the most luxurious circumstances, were Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Gertie Lawrence—going to New York for the first time for the Noel Coward [trio of] one-act plays, Tonight at 8:30 —Greer Garson and her mother (the former hired by Louis B. Mayer in London after he had seen her in Old Music ), and an array of other writers and actors. Mayer's entourage also included his first lieutenant Benny Thau and his great press representative Howard Strickling.
During the voyage, which was a terrible trip, I was called into Mayer's cabin at the height of a tempestuous sea storm, which made the Normandie sway to left and right like a nutshell, and he said, "Tell me a few stories which you think would work out in Hollywood." Well, I then had only one wish, either to die or to somehow walk back home. But still I pulled myself together and in desperation gave him one or two ideas. He, totally unconcerned by the weather conditions, listened, made notes, said "I like it!" and gave me the names of two or three producers to whom I would actually be assigned in Hollywood. As he told me later, he thought that my nervousness and excitement arose from my having to tell him those stories: Little did he know that I was seasick! It was my first great ocean trip.
At the same time the boat carried—and this will interest you—a young Viennese girl. I don't think I exaggerate when I say she was the most beautiful girl God ever sent down to earth. She had just run away from her husband, who was the most powerful ammunitions tycoon in Europe; his name was Fritz Mandl. He had bullied and terrorized her with his jealousy. That girl had had an incredible success in a picture called Ecstasy , in which I
think she was the first actress to appear in her birthday outfit. Imagine what that must have been like at the time of which we're speaking, September 1937. The picture, which was forbidden in every country, still found access to movie houses and was a big success. This girl was called Hedy Mandl, and had been born Hedy Kiesler [Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler]. I was born on the same street of the same city as she.
L. B. Mayer talked to her, immediately realized that here was a potential motion picture star, and offered her a lush contract. Everything changed rapidly for her. In the lower decks of the Normandie was a kind of mall, with the most expensive shops on earth—Dior and Poiret and Chanel. They had their little boutiques there, with clothes, with jewelry, with lingerie, shoes, hats, what have you. Hedy Mandl had fled on to the Normandie with only her grey tailor-made suit, one pair of gloves, no suitcase, a handbag, and not one dollar! By the time she left the boat in New York, she had a contract for a few thousand dollars a week, guaranteed for five years, and the most incredible array of suitcases filled with dresses.
Within those three or four days, Mayer gave her a buildup just like a motion picture production—except that she didn't have a name he liked. He didn't like Kiesler, because that sounded too German to him, and Germany at that time had fallen into deep discredit all over the world; and he couldn't use Mandl because the husband would create difficulties. So they tried to figure out what to do about her name: Every afternoon they held story conferences around the Ping-Pong table on the "A" deck of the Normandie with Strickling, Thau, and all the others, trying to decide how to go about introducing the young beauty to the members of the New York press who would infallibly arrive on the boat.
Now earlier, one of Hollywood's most famous motion picture stars, one of the most beautiful girls in Hollywood—well under thirty—had died. Her name was Barbara La Marr.[*] Somehow that name was the property of MGM. Louis B. Mayer, not superstitious at all, picked that name and said, "We are going to replace death with life." And he coined the name Hedy Lamarr. She had no idea that she was getting the name of a dead motion-picture star. When we arrived at Ellis Island, a girl more beautiful than any ever seen in America, by the name of Hedy Lamarr, came down the gangplank: not anybody's daughter, not anybody's sister or relative . . . a star was born.
What happened to you personally when you came to Hollywood?
After twelve hours in Hollywood I had an assignment, the typewriters were humming, I had two secretaries. At that time Irving Thalberg had just passed away, and the man who took over his job was a man by the name of Bernie
Hyman, who had made a very successful picture named San Francisco .[*] When Bernie Hyman heard that a Viennese-born writer, an author of many original stories, was in town, he immediately called me in. They had a very grave problem with a property called The Great Waltz . It had been a Broadway-manufactured operetta about the life of Johann Strauss the younger, but they knew they couldn't make it [as a film] with the kind of sentimental, schmaltzy patina which the story had in the form in which they received it. The major problem was to give it a real Austrian flavor, so they decided to have a part written for Luise Rainer, whom they had under contract at that time.
So I got a guy who helped me with the American dialogue, with which I was not too familiar at that time, and we started revamping the whole script. I was teamed with a wonderful man, a great American poet, totally underrated—Samuel Hoffenstein. We had a great time together. He had absolutely no concept of story or construction, but he could write golden dialogue and beautiful popular aphorisms. His poetry, as you know, occupies four pages in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations . We made a wonderful team up to the moment when we wrote the last scene. Then he fell sick, and a few weeks or months later he was tragically dead.[**]
That became the story of my Hollywood career: Whenever they needed construction—a beginning, a new middle, and, more than anything else, a new ending, a finale (which they never had, as you know)—I was called in, fortunately; and I was always teamed with a very important dialogue writer. This was their great forte in Hollywood and in New York: these people could write magnificent words, beautiful lines, but somehow they always lacked—in contrast to British writers—a sense of story construction.
And this was your specialty?
My specialty, not being British—the British could write construction and good dialogue, like Noel Coward and many other writers—was to be called in to write a story, to invent characters, to give the outline scene by scene as in a shooting script.
But in dialogue they were very, very picky and choosy. They did not trust my dialogue, and I don't blame them, because, as you know, the American audience is very sensitive towards dialogue: They laugh only when it is written in their own vernacular, when it sounds colloquial to their ears; they will not respond if there is a "foreignism" in it. It has to touch exactly what they know about language.
It's entirely different in Europe. The English are far more broad-minded about this; they take French writers like [Jean] Anouilh and German writers like [Bertolt] Brecht in their stride. Not so the Americans, who were very spoiled at that time because of men like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who could write gorgeous dialogue. The talkies were in full swing, nothing was without dialogue, and dialogue was a major contribution to every picture.
Although at first I was rather touchy about it—I thought it was kind of degrading that I should write the story, not being used to that American "team" way of working—I was fortunate to be teamed with men like S. N. Behrman, a great Broadway playwright, Johnny Van Druten, who was British, R. C. Sherriff, Sam Hoffenstein, Michael Arlen, John Balderston, and Charles Brackett. I learned in America what I did not have to learn in Europe. Everything here was teamwork.
What were your first impressions of MGM?
Well, I can only say it was an age like that of Athens in Greece under Pericles. On the second floor were doors carrying names like Anita Loos, Michael Arlen, Donald Ogden Stewart, Charles MacArthur, Ludwig Bemelmans, the Spewacks [Bella and Samuel], the Hacketts, Paul Osborn, Claudine West, Alice Duer Miller (who wrote The White Cliffs of Dover ), anybody who had a name—and myself.[*] I am very proud to have been one of them. It was an endless procession of great names, and, really and truly, with the exception of James Hilton, 'who at that time also had an office there, they did not know how to write an original story for a motion picture star. Either it was beneath their dignity, or they didn't have the time, or they didn't have the knack to do it.
So, after a few weeks spent getting my bearings, I caught on and made myself an integral part of the whole machinery. I too laughed about the New York reviews which referred to us as a "factory" because two or three writers' names always appeared on the script. I knew that the men who at that time dominated and ruled Hollywood did the right thing in not leaving it all up to one man alone as they do today. The results of that are very sad, as you know: When the so-called auteur directors write everything, direct everything, cut and edit everything themselves, the end results turn out to be lopsided, cockeyed. There is no control, no supervision. Those pictures [we made at MGM] conquered the earth for one reason: Whether right or wrong, the attitude of those dialogue writers towards the original stories was clear, was unmolested by their own vanity; they had an open mind towards them and kept a critical distance. It wasn't their own stories which they had to defend, to improve upon, or to polish. They had detachment. It just worked like a beautiful Swiss clock, the whole MGM machinery.
You never felt they were in the habit of calling in too many writers on a project?
No—those things happened. But I must explain it to you, as a professional. It may have looked strange for credit cards to have carried three names, but in many cases this was a contractual requirement. For instance, I worked with a producer—I won't mention his name, he was a wonderful friend of mine—whose contract stipulated that each picture he produced should also carry his name as a writer. So things like that happened. But basically at that time—and this is the great difference between today and then—when we worked at Culver City we made MGM pictures, and we were all soldiers of the great army of MGM, whose general was Nicholas Schenck and whose first field marshal was L. B. Mayer. We made MGM pictures: We were wonderfully treated, we were never pushed aside, we had our say, we had our credits, we got our weekly check, we were happy, and the pictures were successful.
Shortly after your arrival at MGM, you began to write one of the most famous pictures you've ever been associated with, Ninotchka. How did this come about?
In 1934, Ernst Lubitsch had come to Vienna. He arrived on his way from America via London to Moscow. It was just like the king of England visiting Vienna: Lubitsch was very famous, enormously respected. And I'd just then happened to have directed my own picture, Episode . He, funny as this may sound, called my assistant director to ask whether he might have permission to enter the studio. So we all ran and put on our blue suits with new shirts and new ties and had a shave and a haircut. We picked the picture's best scenes in order to impress him. After looking at the rushes and the dailies, he said he adored the picture which I'd made, although I don't think he was as pleased about the picture as about the fact that he hadn't seen a German talking picture in years. It was the first time that he'd heard Paula Wessely's [screen] voice, and [seen] old friends from his former stage years with Max Reinhardt. So it was a kind of nostalgia trip.
At the studio he told me that, after his Moscow trip, he would be taking over as head of production at Paramount, and he would love me to come over and write for him. I told him that I had contractual obligations in Vienna and that I was not in command of the English language. However, he was very amiable about it, and we started a certain friendship.
When I finally came to Hollywood, my wife and I stayed the very first day, like everyone else, at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. That evening Billy Wilder arrived, bringing Lubitsch as a guest, and we had a happy reunion in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. From then on it was a purely social relationship. That lasted until the day when, to everybody's surprise, Lubitsch made a clean break with Paramount and joined MGM for two pictures. One was supposed to be a Garbo picture. In that picture, based on a treatment by Melchior Lengyel, Garbo was supposed to play a Russian.
I never read the original treatment, but I don't think there was much more to it than that—a Russian coming into [contact with] the civilized Western world.
Lubitsch was very unhappy with the treatment, and one day in the commissary he told me about it. I replied that as I was on another picture, there was no point in discussing it. So he said, "Why don't you come over to my house on Sunday? We'll walk around the pool, sit down and have lunch together—and maybe you can give me a few pointers?" Accordingly, that Sunday, I went to his house on Bel Air Road, and we sat by the pool, where he told me his ideas. He told me that the picture had a beginning, but there was no middle and there certainly was no ending. At that time, the well-made play was everything. Lubitsch would never touch a story unless it had a [proper] beginning, middle, and end, and unless it offered enormous possibilities for the insertion of his own Lubitsch "touches."
As we talked—and this was my forte, my métier, my job—I gave him a few pointers, saying, "Why don't you start with this and that . . . ?" and so on. Before I'd even finished he was on the phone to Eddie Mannix, the guy at the time responsible for assignments at MGM, insisting that I be assigned to him. At 9:30 A.M. on Monday when I came to the studio I was told to report to Lubitsch. The other picture was forgotten or laid aside, and Lubitsch and I constructed Ninotchka, from beginning to end, from the ground up, within the next five weeks.
Then he wanted to have Samson Raphaelson for his dialogue, but Raphaelson was not available, being busy with a play in New York.[*] So I said to Lubitsch, "Why don't you take Billy [Wilder] and Brackett?" They were at Paramount, but I suggested them because I thought the whole thing would be better if it were done by friends. Lubitsch at that time only had to pick up the receiver and he got Brackett and Wilder. They came and joined us, Billy with his enormous ability to handle detail and with his superb gags, and Brackett, whose command of language was equaled by very few people in this town. So the whole picture was created within ten or twelve weeks without one line being changed, without any scene being revised or lost in the cutting room or redone.
The script was shot . . .
. . . shot as written. Lubitsch adored it, the three authors were very dear to his heart, and he made Garbo laugh for the first time.
This was your first collaboration with Charles Brackett. Tell us a little bit about him .
Charles Brackett belonged more to the membership of the social set than to that of the motion picture set. He was a well-known patrician, born in Saratoga, the son of a state senator from Rhode Island. He was one of this town's ten great hosts, and his social activities were proverbial. His wife, Elizabeth Brackett, had been born a Fletcher, with her own set of social acquaintances. He was, in short, an aristocrat, and made a charming and well-balanced team with Billy Wilder, who was aggressive, anything but a socialite, a rebel from Austria whose whole personality was that of a fighter and who dealt in snide remarks. They complemented each other very well.
Now at that time, as I said before, Brackett and Wilder were a contractual team. I don't know whether Brackett contributed all that much to the story [of Ninotchka ], but their names—Brackett's and Wilder's—were linked anyhow. Brackett's private personality within the room—and we always worked every morning in Lubitsch's office, the four of us, Brackett, Wilder, Lubitsch, and I; no producer was present, he didn't come in until the script was finished—acted as a soothing influence. If I may use a cliché, his class, his good taste, ensured that his name on the picture was well earned, so I have no beef about it.
It became a terrific hit and led rather naturally to Comrade X.
Right. Although directly after this I went on loan-out to Korda, who by
that time claimed the last seven months of his contract with me from L. B. Mayer. I had to go to London and write That Hamilton Woman for Vivien Leigh and [Laurence] Olivier, and I was very happy to go, although we wrote it under great difficulties inasmuch as bombs were falling right and left. Indeed we shot a few scenes in Italy, where the picture was set, and some soundstage scenes in America.
When I returned from London—and it was, of course, incredible to come out of that chaos and nightmare to California, with all the food on earth and no bombs, only sunshine and warmth—I was called in to Eddie Mannix. MGM needed a Gable picture very definitely, no strings, attached. By that time Hedy had had a big success with Algiers , and they wanted to team Gable with Hedy Lamarr.
So I came up with the idea of making Gable a reporter in Moscow who, in his own way, with his own tricks and his own magic, gets the news out of Moscow via a radio and a camera. His byline is "Comrade X." Hedy Lamarr was to be a streetcar conductor in Moscow. I wrote the story in about eight weeks. The nephew of Marion Davies [Charles Lederer] was called in, and [Ben] Hecht wrote the script with him for [director] King Vidor.[*] I was taken off the script because I had another assignment.
What assignment was that?
It was at that time, funnily enough, that [producer] Joe Pasternak switched from Universal, where he had made countless pictures with Deanna Durbin. When he came to MGM—he was a very old friend of mine from European days, although I had never worked for him—he said he was going to make a musical with their new singing star [Kathryn Grayson] and he wanted me to write the script [for Seven Sweethearts, 1942]. That is why I never really finished the job on the screenplay of Comrade X; I only wrote the original story. That was fortunate because as an original story it got an Academy Award rating [nomination], whereas as a screenplay it was not significant enough. But it was a very funny story, and [director] King Vidor did a wonderful tank battle in it . . .
What was your contribution to That Uncertain Feeling , the next Lubitsch picture among your credits?
I wrote the original story, from an idea of his, I think. At that time he
wanted to make another picture with Melvyn Douglas, and with Merle Oberon and Burgess Meredith. I went on loan-out from MGM to Lubitsch. We worked on the whole thing around the pool again. But for the first time in his career he was running into enormous censorship problems. It was a marital triangle story with very suggestive scenes—such as, We didn't make any bones about the fact that the Merle Oberon character had a liaison with Burgess Meredith while being married to Melvyn Douglas, and that he [Douglas] was not a great lover. Lubitsch said, "Oh, I'll get away with that. . . ."
But just then a brand-new man took over the Production Code office, Joseph Breen, along with his assistant Geoffrey Shurlock. They were very strict, to Lubitsch's dismay. Walter Wanger, who was the producer of this picture—I don't know if he even signed it later—sided with the [Production Code] office and defeated Lubitsch for the first time.[*] So the picture really never came out the way Lubitsch had wanted it.
Your next picture, then, was The Heavenly Body , again, with Hedy Lamarr—is this right?
Right. By that time, of course, they always teamed us up, us Europeans—the Viennese with the Viennese, etcetera. A producer by the name of Arthur Hornblow, Jr., had quit Paramount when Brackett took over production reins there, and had come to MGM. I had known Hornblow for many years, and he called me in, and since my line was the William Powell-type of funny light comedy, with [this time] Hedy Lamarr, I was assigned to write a picture for those two—again a marital comedy, not too heavy, not too profound, just to entertain the audience. I think Billy Wilder had a little bit to do with The Heavenly Body, too, indirectly: He [Hornblow] at one time hoped to get Billy away from Paramount to direct the picture, and Wilder was in on story conferences. It was all one of those great "family" pictures.
Then Billy and Brackett became totally independent, so Arthur and I went to New York, where we met with Michael Arlen, who was a great socialite who didn't care much about writing anymore. We convinced Arlen that this might be a good way for him to return to Hollywood, where he had been many years before. So he came, and was a great social figure here, but also very conscientious, every day at the studio. He had a great wealth of funny lines and crafty lines, well-balanced and civilized. It turned out to be a picture which didn't effect any great revolution, but it entertained a lot of people and had a good title.
A man by the name of Alexander Hall directed it, but he never finished the picture because he had to go back to his home lot, Columbia. So a young man by the name of [Vincente] Minnelli took over, after having just come to Hollywood from New York, where he had made stage settings, actually. Then
Minnelli took over another picture for [producer] Arthur Freed, and Bob Leonard, who had made The Great Ziegfield , took over the picture and finished it. As I say, it didn't set the world on fire.
Now we come to a picture which I admire intensely. I think it's one of the best ever done by its director (George Cukor), and its writers, and this is Gaslight  .
Well, as you know, an English stage thriller had started running in Hollywood, with Vincent Price and a girl named Judith Evelyn. MGM wanted to film it, until they discovered that a minor company had already made it in England with Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard.[*] They ran the picture and it turned out to be exactly like the stage play, not bad at all. There was nothing that L. B. Mayer abhorred more than just taking a play and making it into a picture. So we were given the job of revamping it completely.
I was immediately assigned to Arthur Hornblow, Jr., and to a collaboration with Johnny Van Druten. Hornblow knew we would come up with a shooting script within ten weeks, that we would be easy to handle, that there would be no writers disappearing for weeks on drinking sprees. We were writing it for a girl like Luise Rainer, fragile and delicate like a toy, when suddenly, in the middle of the work, David Selznick, who was omnipotent at that time, persuaded L. B. Mayer to take Ingrid Bergman for a part. He had her under contract, had no picture for her, didn't want to pay her her salary, and Louis B. Mayer was very happy to take Ingrid Bergman for a picture.
Now Ingrid Bergman is a powerful woman with enormous shoulders, strong, healthy, and no man on earth can talk her into being silly or insane. It was absolutely insane casting! John Van Druten, who was a wonderful man, very sensitive and tender, was just out of his mind at the prospect. "What's the difference?" I said. This was a challenge! Van Druten went for a whole week to his ranch—his "runch" as he called it—at Indio, south of Palm Springs, and sulked and sulked. But he came back and we took the bull by the horns.
Then David Selznick not only sold Ingrid Bergman to MGM. He had another actor under contract for whom he had no part, Joseph Cotten—a very great "Britisher," as you know—a total Yankee! It just didn't add up. Now came the topper: The most romantic man of the screen, who'd played in love stories with Irene Dunne and in the remake of Pépé le Moko [Algiers, 1937], Charles Boyer, was also sold by David Selznick to L. B. Mayer. So we were stuck with a cast that didn't add up to anything!
Except that everybody connected with this picture had an enormous sense of humor, we all had our salaries, and it turned out to be a real challenge. Minnelli had been first choice as director, but then Homblow was wise enough
to yield to the consideration that only George Cukor, with his wisdom and experience, could make this picture a going concern with so many practically miscast roles. George Cukor, who is a magician with any actor, with any actress, said, "What's the difference? What if we do have a powerful woman? It will be twice as interesting to see whether she will be able to fight back, whether he will be able to really ruin her, or break her. . . ."
At what stage did John Balderston pitch in on the script?
John Balderston's was one of those cases where a guy had a contract and had to get his name on a picture. I never had any contact with him, he was never on the set, he never had anything to do with the script . . . maybe he polished a few lines.[*]
So it was yours and Van Druten's work exclusively?
But of course! Although Patrick Hamilton's original play was magnificent. You simply couldn't ruin it, whereas we had the chance of adapting it to the personalities who would be playing it: That was our real contribution. That and the whole beginning—and certainly the idea—we built the whole house from that idea—of where the jewels were hidden. These were not in the play.
My only justification for being on the script was that I could empathize myself into the life of a woman and write it so that the woman's character became plausible. All those scenes of Ingrid as a little girl, down-to-earth and happy and wealthy, were my contribution.
And that final great scene where she confronts him [when he's] tied up in the chair—was that in the play?
Yes, that was very much in the play. But it was really a contribution of Cukor's, too, in making her a goddess of vengeance. Well, Cukor's contribution is recognized, and deservedly so.
Were you present throughout shooting, on hand . . . ?
Every day! Cukor would never shoot a scene without the author being present, and Van Druten was already in New York. I had to be on the set every day. Cukor always compared notes, asking me, "How did you like it?" When he wanted a word changed for Ingrid, you had to change it right there on the set.
What were the circumstances of your leaving MGM when you were so apparently happy there?
Total stupidity. I left six months before my pension came up, before my ten years were over. But I had written a story for myself—and now I come to a chapter in my life which is not the happiest—called Song of Scheherazade . Pasternak wanted to buy it, but I knew that MGM would not let me direct it.
Why wouldn't they let you direct it? You had proven yourself as a director in Europe .
Because they did not think that they could spare me as a writer. They didn't need directors. They had wonderful directors under contract on the lot, directors who were lazy or free or without assignments. They didn't care to create new directors when their roster already held twenty who could make pictures.
But I was ambitious, and my agent, Charlie Feldman, had discovered a girl, Yvonne De Carlo, at Universal, whom I met. She was a [Paul] Kohner client, and I didn't dislike her. She was a dancer. All, including Billy Wilder, recommended her, except one man who warned me, "Don't make a picture with this girl, because, while she may be a star, she's not your type. She's much too—let's say plebeian—in her bearing." That was [producer] Sam Spiegel, strangely enough.
So I wrote and directed this picture. The company had an enormous success with it because I succeeded in making the picture very inexpensively. But I got catastrophic reviews, and I suffered very much under the effects of it for years and years. If you make a picture called Song of Scheherazade, with "Song of India" in it, and the "Caprice Espagnole," and "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," all by Rimsky-Korsakov, and if Yvonne De Carlo is the inspiration for all of this, you are leaving yourself wide open for criticism. Today I accept it with a certain sense of humor. But the studio people just didn't believe in my direction [as a consequence], and I never got a picture to direct in Hollywood again.
Shortly after this, you went to work at Fox?
No, I went to Paramount to work for Charles Brackett on The Mating Season .
How did this come about exactly?
Charles Brackett had a falling-out with Billy Wilder, and they separated as a pretty famous Academy Award-winning team.Now, Brackett and Wilder had always used me as a story consultant in previous years—
Although you received no credit on their pictures?
Well, I was under contract to another studio, and I helped them as a friend, just as they helped me . . .
. . . Informally. Brackett had a great appreciation of my sense of construction and my flair for original stories. When he became an independent producer, he had one dream: He wanted to make a picture with a New York actress, Thelma Ritter, who was from an altogether different world. Whereas he was an aristocrat, an American patrician, she was a totally down-to-earth personality. He couldn't find a studio that was interested in a story about a middle-aged woman. The last such star had been Marie Dressler. Otherwise, actresses of that age played character parts. . . .
Now he had the position and the strength to see it through, so the very first day after he and Billy separated, he called me in and gave me the following assignment: "I want to make a picture with Thelma Ritter in the central part. I have John Lund, who is under contract to Paramount, whom I can only see as her son, and we have a very good chance of getting Gene Tierney on loan-out from Twentieth Century-Fox. Try to find a story for that." Then he added, "Of course, you realize that Gene Tierney can always be a very high-class girl, and Thelma Ritter a girl from the other side of the tracks. Therefore you have a ready-made conflict in that."
So we invented a story in which John Lund falls in love with Gene Tierney and marries her. Although he is not ashamed of his mother, she is the one who thinks she might upset the marriage by turning up as what she is. Miriam Hopkins had just returned to Hollywood after a long sojourn in London and New York on the stage, and cleverly and with great generosity she said she was through playing leading ladies and femmes fatales . So I suggested her for the part of an ambassador's wife, the mother of Gene Tierney, and she made a very funny comeback.
Out of that came The Mating Season, which was of course a great success for all of us, particularly for Charlie Brackett, who got a terrific contract as a producer from Darryl Zanuck, and for Thelma Ritter, who before the end of her life made at least half a dozen pictures in which she had a central part.
Now, coming over to Fox: How did you find conditions there as contrasted with other studios, particularly MGM?
I loved MGM, and I adored every day I spent there, but I changed completely to suit the climate of Fox. That is my only talent, that I can adjust myself, at will.
Fox was totally different from MGM. At Fox it was like being in a big newspaper office. Everything went according to Zanuck's taste, Zanuck's speed, Zanuck's way of making pictures—that is, fast, topical, very little conversation, very few arguments. I personally just loved it. Zanuck would call you in to announce that he needed a picture in ten weeks' time and not a day later. And you didn't have one day more. I worked to a deadline, and I simply loved that way of working. It is very productive, you cannot stall, and if you are under pressure you always come up with something topical because you just don't have time to do a lot of research. I personally, in contrast to many other people, loved to work at Twentieth Century-Fox.
Did you have much personal contact with Darryl Zanuck yourself?
Nobody had much personal contact with Zanuck, then or ever, which was again one of the advantages in that outfit. When the day came that he needed you, you got an appointment via Esther, his secretary. She'd say, "Tuesday, 4 P.M. , half an hour," and on Tuesday at four in the afternoon you got your half hour. You walked in, and he told you exactly what you needed to know. There he sat with his cigar. He didn't even know your second name; ad-
dressed you only by your first name. He'd say, "I have to start a Clifton Webb picture on December 1st, and today is June 15th. I need the script within eight weeks because Webb has to read it, and as a perfectionist he takes a long time to learn his lines." He told you what he wanted, whether he wanted a comedy or a mystery story, whether in black and white or in color, the whole production setup . . .
Including the budget?
Of course. He'd say, "I don't want to make a picture that will cost more than $1,200,000 or $1,500,000, or even less. I have three directors lined up. Let's see which one of them likes it well enough to do it." He wouldn't argue with a director. He'd give the script to Henry King, to Jean Negulesco, to Henry Hathaway, or to George Cukor, whoever came in first, and say, "I want you to do it," and [that man] got the picture. I adored the system.
Then you didn't see him for ten weeks, and he didn't ask you to see him. You'd get another call from Esther saying, "You're supposed to see Mr. Zanuck and tell him the story on Wednesday at three o'clock in the afternoon. You have forty minutes—use your time well." You walked in; he didn't want to read what you had written. No director was present, only a secretary, no witnesses. The secretary always took minutes of the conversation during which you told him the story. Either he hated it and you walked out—and there was no argument, you couldn't convince him that you could do better—or he loved it and you had the assignment before you returned to your office. After that he read the finished script, took it home on a Friday at noon, came back on Monday at eleven in the morning with his marginal notes, and those notes had to be observed.
What was the next step?
Well, I don't think he ever read it the second time around, because he knew that his amendments would be followed.
He delegated power: If the picture was good, it was your success; if the picture was bad, he took all the blame and said, "I never should have let it go into production." He never interfered on the set with a director or an actor. He saw the rushes, he wrote notes about them, and these notes had to be observed, too. Then came the great moment when he took over everything, and for many, many productions that was very dangerous. Once a picture had been shot, and the director had, according to his contract, submitted the first cut to Zanuck's office containing everything that had been shot, regardless of whether it was long enough or too long, Zanuck took over and edited the picture every day from after dinner till long after midnight.
But he didn't edit it the way you would think pictures should be edited, with subtlety, with patience, a little frame from here and a little frame added there; he took out whole sequences. Sometimes that worked like magic, and it gave the picture speed and tempo, dynamism, and something which every really good newspaper has, topicality. It gave it . . .
Punch . . .?
. . . a "headline." You didn't have to read long unreadable editorials or long leading articles; you read the essence, the gist of it, and that was a Zanuck picture. Many times a picture simply got buried that way because people couldn't follow it anymore, when like a vandal he'd thrown out whole sequences. But it was his studio, his money—his family were majority stock-holders—and the failures were his, not the successes. The successes were yours. He never said, "I told them to make the sequence that way." He'd say, "My boys did it!"
A very fair man, was he?
Very fair. Many directors suffered very much under his arbitrary way of cutting a picture, but I never suffered because I adapted myself to his way of thinking. I wrote it to be played fast; I didn't write long, dragged-out sequences or conversation pieces, as was the case at MGM. At MGM every picture was talked either to death or to life. They would talk, talk, talk—endless sessions with producers, story editors, directors, writers, actors, other executives, distributors, agents. Everybody had something to say. It never ended. Whenever a picture got made, it was a miracle. At Fox there was only a script and Darryl Zanuck. He okayed it or he threw it out.
The first picture you were involved with at the studio was Otto Preminger's The Fan , wasn't it?
That was precisely a non-Zanuck picture. Nothing could be further removed from his way of thinking than Oscar Wilde, or Lady Windemere, or Mrs. Erlynne. It was just too Victorian, too elegant, and too slow. Everyone spoke like everyone else, very stilted and mechanical dialogue—brilliant, the most wonderful dialogue on earth, but totally inhuman. Zanuck just didn't care for it, so Otto was left alone and it was dragged out.
But I was only a consultant on this picture. I don't know how my name got on it. The basic story was, of course, Oscar Wilde's, adapted by Dorothy Parker and an Englishman [Ross Evans]. I think Otto brought me in hoping I might be able to give it some cinematographic values, some movement, but it just wasn't in the cards. Nobody was hurt by the picture, and nobody was elated either.
The Model and the Marriage Broker  was another picture which you conceived as a vehicle for Thelma Ritter .
That was exactly Zanuck's cup of tea. Thelma Ritter spoke his language, and although we had the same girl as in The Fan, Jeanne Crain, it worked like a million dollars. Zanuck loved the picture so much that I don't think he eliminated one frame. I don't remember one marginal note in a script of 140 pages. We came in on budget, and Cukor's work was lovely, sensitive.
We had a big success, and the reason The Model and the Marriage Broker didn't score an even bigger success was because it came just at the start of the age of CinemaScope and color, and that story certainly did not lend itself to
CinemaScope and color. It was very intimate. The "big" office of the marriage broker was no bigger than a couch. The whole idea was small. Five years before, it would have been a Frank Capra success. But when it was finished—which was a year later, of course, after its inception—Zanuck was so involved in CinemaScope and had put so much money and publicity into CinemaScope that he simply treated this picture as a stepchild.
He let it go . . .?
He let it go. He didn't really hurt it, but he didn't help it, and every picture needed promotion at Fox.
There's a fascinating story behind Niagara, isn't there? How it got off the ground?
Brackett was the producer. He'd been born very close to Niagara Falls and had lived [around] there all his life. In contrast to other cases where we had to focus all our attention on an actress, this time he said, "Let's get the whole spectacle in as beautifully as possible." And since he was not a man to make pictures about the Riviera or about Paris, he said, "Let's make a picture about Niagara."
As [Richard] Breen was not yet on the lot, I was the one who had to invent a story.[*] I had only one argument with Brackett. I said, "Anybody hearing the name Niagara thinks of honeymoon couples and of some sentimental story of a girl walking out on her husband on their wedding night and their getting together again. It would be foolish to start up with Sonja Henie tricks here or Esther Williams-type swimming extravaganzas. I would like to make it a mystery story, with a real murder in it. . . ."
Brackett was not sufficiently convinced to take on the responsibility for that decision, alone, so he went down to Zanuck's office. Half a minute later he walked out elated, because that was exactly what Zanuck wanted. Then Zanuck left us completely alone.
He sent you to Niagara, though, didn't he?
Yes. By that time the original story had been invented and covered some twenty or thirty pages. That original story was mine from beginning to end. All those original stories were mine. I was present throughout the writing of the dialogue until the very end, but I would usually subordinate my thinking there to Richard Breen's taste, which enabled him to invent very funny lines.
Brackett and Breen and I went to Niagara Falls, lived for a while on both the Canadian and American side of the falls, and we . . .
. . .blocked out the script there?
Yes. Then Zanuck wired or phoned us that he wanted to put Marilyn Monroe into the picture. We thought that was a nice idea, until there came a second telephone call that he wanted her to be the villainess, not the girl . . .
Not the Jean Peters part, eventually . . .?
. . . in the honeymoon sequences. My God! Here was the prettiest girl in the whole United States of America! But he insisted it was a great idea, so we finally did it. We didn't know whether she would like it, but she had no objection, whatsoever—on the contrary. I think it came out pretty well, although that was a picture on which Zanuck really used the scissors in a very, very—how shall I say?—arbitrary way. There were sequences—not with Marilyn Monroe or with Jean Peters—but sequences with the police which he simply cut out.
There is one major scene that is missing, isn't there?
I think there are six major sequences missing. After he'd seen it, Zanuck simply couldn't accept the fact that the police at Niagara Falls were of Canadian extraction. We had British actors playing Canadian police commissioners and detectives and various cops, and he just abhorred it. He wouldn't let us go back to the stages to finish it or to repair it—no, he just took it out! The American audience, he said, does not know, does not understand, that the Niagara Falls are bisected by the border . . . and we should have used Americans. And [director Henry] Hathaway, who didn't like the idea either, sided with him. So there are big holes in the story.
But how can I argue with that decision today? There are five or six sequences [in Niagara ] which many people call memorable. . . .
Your next picture, Titanic , presented you with quite a tall job of research. How did the inception of this production come about?
It actually started at a moment in Twentieth Century-Fox's business when CinemaScope was completely established, except that—and this is very funny to talk about today—the cameras were not always available. Therefore a production sometimes had to take a back seat, or be canceled, or Zanuck might suddenly decide to reshoot it in black and white. Bell and Howell, or whoever produced those CinemaScope cameras, couldn't keep up with the demand; they were not made on an assembly line like a Toyota. They were custom-made and tested, because, after all, millions went into a film once it was shot. They had many [initial] setbacks, and therefore when Titanic was supposed to start shooting, there were no cameras! The cast was assembled, the director was assigned, the sets were standing, but you couldn't get a camera. They were stuck with a picture somewhere, maybe with Lew Milestone in Australia for Kangaroo , or maybe in Rome—I've forgotten which. All of a sudden they told us it would be in black and white.
It wasn't conceived that way. When Brackett and I were first called in, Zanuck, in the prescribed manner, said, "I have Clifton Webb under contract, and we have CinemaScope, and I now want to do something big [and in
color]. You'd better come up with something good. Don't make Clifton a clown. I want him to start a new career as a character actor. Use all the young people we have on the lot, like Audrey Dalton and Robert Wagner . . ."
Well, I was delighted. We left the office, I locked myself in my own office for a couple of days and came back with the Titanic idea, and shortly we had Zanuck 100 percent in our camp.
My idea—and I knew this would get Zanuck—was for me to go to London and New York and study the old newspapers, and I could come up with 60 percent truth, completely documentary. Clifton Webb would play one of twenty-five multimillionaires who went down on the Titanic —only a multimillionaire could afford to go on that maiden voyage from Southampton. The dialogue of the people was to be drawn almost exactly from life: We took it out of the newspapers. The famous line coined that night—"No cause for alarm"—drew big applause at the [film's] preview at the Academy Theatre because people recognized it [from newspaper accounts].
Breen and I wrote the screenplay. Brackett always got [screenplay] credit, too; that was his contractual commitment. We put in a beautiful part for Thelma Ritter, that of the "Unsinkable Molly Brown," which was later made into an
MGM musical with Debbie Reynolds. [Director Jean] Negulesco and Barbara Stanwyck were also assigned.
Breen contributed one very interesting touch. I was violently against it, because I just didn't know enough about it. Breen, himself a militant Catholic, said, "We're going to have an alcoholic priest . . ." I just fainted. I come from a totally Catholic country and the fact that a priest can drink is hushed up, if it ever happens. But Breen made a big point of it, and at that time a young man named Richard Basehart made a kind of a career as a villain in many pictures, so we put him into the part, and it all worked out pretty well.
This leads us, by a natural progression, into your returning to Germany for the purpose of resuming your directorial career with German-language pictures. How did this come about?
My standing as a director in Germany was not in any way endangered by the failure with Scheherazade . An old friend of mine had become a great star over there. Her name is Hilde Krahl, a very good actress. I had guided her through her very first picture, Silhouetten, directed by me in Vienna. She called me one day wanting me to come and make a picture for her. Nothing
could have pleased me more. I had about four months' leave of absence from Fox, and gave up a lot of money just to make a picture with her.
I wrote and directed a picture for her called Die Mücke [Madame Mosquito, 1954]—that's an insect, you know—the story of an aging spy à la Mademoiselle Docteur [Edmond T. Greville, 1937] who in today's age of computers and electronic devices, when her beauty and her feminine charms can no longer beguile and deceive officers of the enemy's army, has lost her job. A very good picture. It was released in all six countries in which they could release German-speaking pictures. Then the company which made the picture in Europe litigated with its financial backers. The picture was lost in the shuffle and went into a vault, and it can't be seen today. There are lawsuits against it, the negative is frozen with the lawyers, and the American deal to sell it as a story for Shirley MacLaine never came about. . . .
But as a result of its success, you got financing for Der Cornet , another picture which you directed in Germany. What was the background of this story, which was based on Cornets Christoph Rilke by Rilke?
It's not "based on it." It's the story. By contract, I had no right to change a single line. Rilke, and especially this story, is sacrosanct. Almost every German of some literacy or education knows it by heart. It starts with "Riding, riding, riding . . ."—I've known it by heart all my life long.
It was a very good picture, in color, with a lovely Swedish actress, Anita Björk. And it was completely paid for by the government. That picture wasn't made to make a profit. It is still running in universities. The German government, which is enormously culturally minded, subsidized such pictures at that time. I didn't have much work to do; I didn't have to invent anything. I couldn't change a single line of the book.
Having used up your leave of absence from Fox, then you came back and became involved with a very underrated and very fine picture called The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing  .
Again, I can only credit Darryl Zanuck. Fox had just signed up a beautiful British girl by the name of Joan Collins, and it was the usual procedure: Zanuck called me in for 4:30 P.M. on a Tuesday afternoon, instructed me to look at the tests of that girl, have lunch with her, and then tell him a story for her. I went in with the Thaw-White murder case. There was a very good headline story involved here, so when I suggested it to Zanuck—backstage background, murder in high-class society, beautiful girl surviving everybody—he went for it. There was a go-between in Charles Brackett, whose family had been very friendly with the architect Stanford White, who was killed by Evelyn Nesbit's husband [Harry Thaw]; as a little boy Brackett had known White. I wrote the whole script in about ten weeks.
The script was 70 percent fact, and only 30 percent was fictionalized. The courtroom sequences came from the transcripts, as much as possible, and the
settings were copied from original drawings, mostly by Gibson, the great magazine illustrator and cartoonist of that time, and from contemporary photographs. Brackett had a private archive of photographs, and from his other home in Rhode Island, which is now a museum piece, he had props brought to California such as spittoons, chairs, bookshelves, chimneys, and all kinds of bric-a-brac from his personal collection. They were almost identical with those in the Stanford White mansion.
But there was a difficulty: everybody knew the woman, Evelyn Nesbit, was still alive. I had written the script, we were very close to shooting, and we still hadn't found that woman. Zanuck never would have started the picture without her permission: Imagine the consequences if she had seen the picture without our having made a contract with her!
She'd have slapped a lawsuit on you!
My God, she could have ruined the company! Now, the legal department failed to locate her, the agents failed, everybody else failed, and finally I took hold of the situation. I wrote countless letters. Our difficulty was that this gift wasn't called Nesbit anymore, of course; that was her maiden name. She had remarried two or three times, always changing her name because for many years hers was a household name. I made it my business to find her. One of the letters I wrote was to an actress who knew she had married a man with a certain name, and I followed that up. You know where we found her? Fifteen minutes from the studio down Pico Boulevard, near the Music Center, in an art school where she taught drawing and painting.
I went in and she was sitting there: that girl, the most beautiful gift of her day, painted by none other than Gibson—the original Gibson girl.[*] She had a painter's smock on, full of paint. Her face was just as beautiful as then, except her figure was like this couch. She was enormous, with blond, whitish hair. But beautiful! Her eyes! When she opened her eyes it was like two simultaneous sunrises! And her hair! Her chin was completely part of her body by then, a triple chin, but her face and that aquiline nose and those eyes—beautiful! Anyway, I explained to her what we were doing, and when she heard "money"—oh, boy!—all the other students were sent away. She said, "Well, this has to be discussed . . ."
A few days later the studio sent a limousine out to get her, and Brackett and I had lunch with her at Romanoff's. She was given a box of her own because she couldn't fit in one seat. Mike Romanoff himself sat with us. He, of course, was a real contemporary of hers, even older than she, and knew everybody of that era. She had about three or four margaritas, and then Mike himself treated us to a champagne which really only Princess Alexandra could have gotten from him. We explained the story to her, and she said she was
only interested in who would be playing the girl. When we told her it would be a British girl, she was very pleased—although she spoke with a terrible American accent—that a "refined" girl would play her (Joan Collins, very "refined"!).
Then she made a deal with us: She never wanted to see the script, she never wanted to see the picture, she never wanted to come to the set, she didn't want to see any lawyers or pressmen—shall I tell you why?
No, no, no. She'd had a lot of trouble with many of her husbands who were still alive—and Harry K. Thaw's son was still alive—and she was scared that someone would come and take the money away from her . . . as common property. Why else would she have been reluctant to come to the studio for publicity? It would have made a wonderful photograph—Evelyn Nesbit and Joan Collins! But she wouldn't do it for anything.
She's dead now, poor creature, but she was so amusing, and all you could do was look into her eyes! From Romanoff she demanded another bottle of champagne, and another bottle of champagne . . . She told us, "I'm not going to let you show any whipping, because it's all a lie. I was never whipped by him." It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and she was still telling stories, always about Mr. Harry K. Thaw.
I liked the picture very much. I'm not familiar with the details of the case, so I can't distinguish fiction from fact in the script .
Well, I can only tell you that today that woman's life and her marriage could be shown in an entirely different way.[*] That man did use the whip. We even had to camouflage the adultery. There was a man at the Breen Office who later wrote a book about the office, Jack Vizzard, who saw the picture.[**] In it, that girl on the swing in Stanford White's home swung . . . swung . . . swung . . . higher and higher till she was able to touch a balloon near the ceiling with her slipper. That man wouldn't permit us to do the scene that way because he said it symbolized the penetration of her virginity.
This is nonsense . . .
Everything in the film was completely true, except that we had to be very subtle . . .
Charles Brackett was co-scripter, besides producer, wasn't he?
Yes, in a way. He always influenced the script and had his name on it.
Also he is credited on your next assignment, which was Teenage Rebel  .
Teenage Rebel was one of our favorite pictures, and totally underrated. It was a beautiful story. It began as a New York play called A Roomful of Roses, written by a woman [Edith Somers] and starring Patricia Neal. I was in New York at that time on my way back from Europe when Charlie Brackett called me and said, "Go and see that show. We have a commitment with Ginger Rogers. Maybe we can change the whole thing to suit her." It was a beautiful idea: a girl, the daughter of a woman who had meanwhile remarried, comes to the house to meet her new family. [Edmund] Goulding directed it. We only used the nucleus, the germ of the play, and made a lovely picture, a big success. But it was in black-and-white CinemaScope; again we couldn't get the color camera.
What was your contribution to The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker , again with Clifton Webb? As a play, the comedy revolved around bigamy, didn't it?
Yes. On the stage it was funny, but on the screen it didn't come off at all. Neither Clifton nor Brackett, the producer, nor Henry Levin, the director, really believed that Clifton would have a family in Philadelphia and another whole family in Harrisburg. I was only a kibbitzer on that, helping them to break up a few sequences. I really did it in order to get the assignment to Journey to the Center of the Earth . That turned out to be my biggest critical triumph in America.
The only other science fiction picture of yours that I can recall among your credits is F.P.1. antwortet nicht.
Yes, but science fiction was my forte. I had written a lot of science fiction for magazines, and Charles Brackett knew about that. They also knew that I had written magazine articles on Jules Verne. I had studied Jules Verne, and always wanted to write his biography, but I never got around to doing it. When they bought the Jules Verne novel from his estate and assigned me, I was delighted.
The master's work, though a beautiful basic idea, went in a thousand directions and never achieved a real constructive "roundness." With the exception of the basic idea, there is very little of the novel left in the film. I invented a lot of new characters—the Pat Boone part, the part of the professor's wife played by Arlene Dahl, the [part of the] villain—and the fact that it all played in Scotland.
Zanuck called us in and said, "At least include a gigantic part for Clifton Webb . . ." That was absolutely the most beautiful idea, because Clifton Webb had a certain tongue-in-cheek style, suited to playing a professor with crazy notions, which could be paired with Pat Boone as his favorite disciple. Every week Clifton visited Brackett's office, where we described scenes to him and he became very excited at the prospect of playing that kind of part.
Maybe two or three weeks before we actually began to shoot, Clifton Webb went to the hospital for a checkup, and they never let him out. He had to
undergo major surgery. Unless my memory fails me completely, it was a double hernia, and he was, as you can imagine, a very sensitive man, very touchy about sickness. He called Zanuck himself on his private line, and said he could not play the part because it was such a physical part.
At the last moment I think it was [longtime head of Twentieth Century-Fox casting] Billy Gordon or Lew Schreiber [Twentieth Century-Fox production executive] who suggested James Mason. James Mason was, of course, British, with a beautiful voice, and he liked the idea [of the part]. He felt it was his duty as Clifton's colleague to take over. From there on it was clear sailing, except that Pat Boone had about three or four songs, if not more, and I think all of them died in the end, with the exception of one or two. The moment that Zanuck saw [their effect on] the action, those songs just fell by the wayside.
How do you set about writing a screenplay? Do you block it out first?
The spark of inspiration is if a producer calls you in and says he has a certain actor and wants you to write for this actor. I am a tailor; I can make tailor-made "clothes," and this is my preference. A producer calls me in and says, "I have Paula Wessely, or Lillian Harvey, or Clifton Webb, or Joan Collins, or Greta Garbo . . ," and my mind immediately functions in that direction. Half the battle is won. It is all geared towards a personality.
What's the next step?
The next step is if somebody says, "I have money to make a film—have you got an idea?" Nothing is more inspiring than to hear a man say, "Here's a down payment!"
You believe in the well-made film, of course .
I believe in the well-made film, but not necessarily.
Deep down in my heart I'm an original writer. From my earliest beginnings I've been a motion picture man who can write original stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end; and I know how to write a good part, a brilliant stellar role—these are my advantages. But I can write anything as long as somebody wants it.
I've always been a motion picture maker who made clean pictures. My films have never had suggestive scenes, and my ultimate reputation has been as a maker of family entertainment. I never really wrote a profound picture, either. My pictures didn't have any messages like those of, say, Dalton Trumbo. I've never made a picture which was intended to better the world, or better mankind. I don't pretend to try to improve the world, and I don't think I can improve the world.
To return to your actual working methods: Do you just put a piece of paper in the typewriter and start writing away, or do you do a rough draft in longhand, or what? How does it work?
I have a lot of little papers in my pocket all the time, and I make notes
wherever I go. I throw them into a box, and when the box is full, I take them all out and dictate it or I write it by hand. I've no real method. I can write in an airplane, in a train, in a hotel room deluxe, in a motel, anywhere where a down payment may be expected.
You use dictation a great deal?
That also . . . I don't care. I can adapt myself to any possibility.
I can work with any collaborator, man or woman, famous or not famous. Again I can say this without any false modesty: The reason why I have a record of at least eighty or ninety pictures, silent and talkie, is that I can adapt myself to any personality.
I wrote for a Charles Brackett production, adapting myself cleverly, I must say, to the tastes of that man, not only because I liked him but because it was easier to convince him if I worked towards his style. If you had come to Lubitsch with a Hitchcock setup, he wouldn't have made it. You had to come to him with a Lubitsch idea, and the scenes had to be Lubitsch-wise, and so forth.
That is why, for instance, I've never worked for my oldest friend, Billy Wilder, who in the meantime has became a very famous director in his own right. For twenty-five years he never asked me, never let me write a screenplay for him. Why? Because the things I know he knows too: He wouldn't get anything new out of the collaboration. He knows how to write a well-made screenplay, he does not believe in dirt, he does not send out messages, he's not as profound as, let's say, [Peter] Bogdanovich today or one of the Russians. In short, he makes total entertainment, and for that, unfortunately, he doesn't need me.