Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Billy Wilder, Michael Todd, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, David O. Selznick

Who was born on this date:

Writer, director Billy Wilder was born on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Austria-Hungry (now Poland). His first foray into show business came at the end of a pen as a screen writer for UFA studios, one of Germany’s top movie producers of the 1920’s. He remained in high demand as a writer in Germany, but eventually fled the country in 1933, when Adolf Hitler took power. Sensing that dangerous times were ahead, he first moved to Vienna, then Paris. It was while in France that Wilder wrote a screen play for Columbia Pictures and his American film career was launched. Arriving in Hollywood in 1934, he was unable to speak English and soon found himself out of work and money. Sharing a room with actor Peter Lorre, Wilder taught himself English by watching baseball games and movies. In 1936, he landed a job as a writer for Paramount Studios and was paired with fellow writer Charles Brackett. The pair of Wilder and Brackett would produce 14 consecutive hit movies.

In a film career that would span four decades (1936-1981), Wilder would write over seventy screen plays, direct twenty-seven feature motion pictures, and produce dozens of other films. His directorial career highlights include; Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Ball of Fury (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), The Emperor Waltz (1948), A Foreign Affair (1948), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974).

One of the most successful film writer/ directors in Hollywood history, Wilder was nominated for twelve best writing and eight best directing Oscars. He won both awards in 1946 for The Lost Weekend (1945) and repeated the double victory again in 1961 for The Apartment (1960). Wilder also won for best writing in 1951 for Sunset Blvd. (1950). The acclaimed director died on March 27, 2002 from pneumonia at his Beverly Hills home. He had been in failing health for a few years prior to his death. Wilder is buried at Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles in the chapel estates section near actors Caroll O’Conner and Walter Mathau. His tombstone epitaph reads; “I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.”

Producer Michael Todd was born on June 22, 1909 Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is best best known for his 1956 production of Around the World in Eighty Days, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture. He is also well-known as the third of Elizabeth Taylor's seven husbands and he was also married to actress Joan Blondell. His first success in show business began on with a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado with an all African-American cast. The Hot Mikado, starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, opened on Broadway March 23, 1939. Todd went on to produce thirty Broadway shows during his career. Todd's business career was volatile, and failed ventures left him bankrupt many times.

In 1952, Todd made a production of the Johann Strauss II operetta A Night in Venice, complete with floating gondolas at the then-newly constructed Jones Beach Theatre in Long Island, New York. It ran for two seasons. In 1950, Mike Todd formed Cinerama with the broadcaster Lowell Thomas and the inventor Fred Waller. The company was created to exploit Cinerama, a widescreen film process created by Waller that used three film projectors to create a giant composite image on a curved screen. The first Cinerama feature, This is Cinerama, was released in September 1952. Before its release, Todd left the Cinerama Company to develop a widescreen process which would eliminate some of Cinerama's flaws. The result was the Todd-AO process, designed by the American Optical Company. The process was first used commercially for the successful 1955 film adaptation of Oklahoma!. Todd later produced the film for which he is best remembered, Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days, which debuted in cinemas on October 17, 1956. Costing $6 million to produce, the movie earned $16 million at the box office. In 1957, Around the World in 80 Days won the Best Picture Academy Award.

Todd's third marriage was to the actress Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he had a tempestuous relationship. The couple was married on February 2, 1957. On March 22, 1958, Todd's private plane Lucky Liz crashed near Grants, New Mexico. The plane, a twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar, suffered engine failure while being flown, grossly overloaded, in icing conditions at an altitude which was too high to sustain flight with only one working engine under those conditions. The plane went out of control and crashed, killing all four on board. His son, Mike Jr., wanted his father's body to be cremated after it was identified through dental records and brought to Albuquerque, New Mexico, but Taylor refused, saying he would not want cremation. Todd was buried at Waldheim Jewish Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.

Post script, years later Todd’s remains were desecrated by robbers, who broke into Todd's coffin looking for a $100,000 diamond ring, which, according to rumor, Taylor had placed on her husband's finger prior to his burial. The bag containing Todd's remains was found under a tree near his burial plot. His remains were once more identified through dental records and were reburied in a secret location.

Who died on this date:

Judy Garland's biography was previously discussed on the June 10, 2011 blog - she was born on June 10, 1922 and died on June 22, 1969.

On June 22, 1987, actor Fred Astaire died. He was born on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. His stage and subsequent film career spanned a total of 76 years, during which he made 31 musical films. He is particularly associated with Ginger Rogers, with whom he made ten films. According to Hollywood folklore, a screen test report on Astaire for RKO Pictures, now lost along with the test, is reported to have read: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." The producer of the Astaire-Rogers pictures, Pandro S. Berman, claimed he had never heard the story in the 1930s and that it only emerged years later. Astaire later insisted that the report had actually read: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” In any case, the test was clearly disappointing, and David O. Selznick, who had signed Astaire to RKO and commissioned the test, stated in a memo, "I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test." However, this did not affect RKO's plans for Astaire, first lending him for a few days to MGM in 1933 for his Hollywood debut, where he appeared as himself dancing with Joan Crawford in the successful musical film Dancing Lady.

Astaire with Ginger Rogers

Astaire and Rogers made ten films together, including The Gay Divorcee, Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). Six out of the nine Astaire-Rogers musicals became the biggest moneymakers for RKO; all of the films brought a certain prestige and artistry that all studios coveted at the time. Their partnership elevated them both to stardom. Astaire received a percentage of the films' profits, something extremely rare in actors' contracts at that time; and complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented, allowing him to revolutionize dance on film. Astaire died from pneumonia on June 22, 1987 and is buried at Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.

On June 22, 1965, producer/ director David O. Selznick died. He was born on May 10, 1902 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is best known for producing Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), both of which earned him an Oscar for Best Picture. He studied at Columbia University and worked as an apprentice for his father until the elder's bankruptcy in 1923. In 1926, Selznick moved to Hollywood, and with the help of his father's connections, got a job as an assistant story editor at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He left MGM for Paramount Pictures in 1928, where he worked until 1931, when he joined RKO as Head of Production. His years at RKO were fruitful, and he worked on many films, including A Bill of Divorcement (1932), What Price Hollywood? (1932), Rockabye (1932), Our Betters (1933), and King Kong (1933). While at RKO, he also gave George Cukor his directing break. In 1933 he returned to MGM to establish a second prestige production unit, parallel to that of Irving Thalberg, who was in poor health. His unit's output included Dinner at Eight (1933), David Copperfield (1935), Anna Karenina (1935) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935).

Despite his successes at MGM, Paramount Pictures, and RKO Pictures, Selznick longed to be an independent producer with his own studio. In 1935 he realized that goal by forming Selznick International Pictures and distributing his films through United Artists. His successes continued with classics such as The Garden of Allah (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), A Star Is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), The Young in Heart (1938), Made for Each Other (1939), Intermezzo (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939), which remains one of the all-time highest grossing films (adjusted for inflation). It also won seven additional Oscars and two special awards. Selznick also won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that same year.

In 1940, he produced his second Best Picture Oscar winner in a row, Rebecca, the first Hollywood production for British director Alfred Hitchcock. Selznick had brought Hitchcock over from England, launching the director's American career. Rebecca was Hitchcock's only film to win Best Picture. After Rebecca, Selznick closed Selznick International Pictures and took some time off. His business activities included the loan of his contracted artists to other studios, including Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh and Joan Fontaine. He also developed film projects and sold the packages to other producers. Among the movies that he developed but then sold were almost all of Hitchcock's films through to 1947, except for two that he released through Selznick International Pictures or Selznick Releasing Organization, Spellbound and The Paradine Case. In 1944 he returned to producing pictures with the huge success Since You Went Away, which he wrote. He followed that with Spellbound (1945), as well as Portrait of Jennie (1948), a vehicle for Jennifer Jones. In 1949, he co-produced the Carol Reed picture The Third Man with Alexander Korda.

Selznick with his 2nd wife, actress Jennifer Jones

Gone with the Wind overshadowed the rest of Selznick's career. The closest he came to matching it was with Duel in the Sun (1946) featuring future wife Jennifer Jones in the role of the primary character Pearl. With a huge budget, the film is known for causing moral upheaval because of the then risqué script written by Selznick. And though it was a troublesome shoot with a number of directors, the film would turn out to be a major success. Selznick spent most of the 1950’s nurturing the career of his second wife, Jennifer Jones. His last film, the big budget production A Farewell to Arms (1957) starring Jones and Rock Hudson, was ill received. But in 1954, he ventured into television, producing a two hour extravaganza called Light's Diamond Jubilee, which, in true Selznick fashion, made TV history by being telecast simultaneously on all four TV networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, and DuMont. Selznick was married Irene Gladys Mayer, daughter of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, in 1930. They separated in 1945 and divorced in 1948. In 1949 he married actress Jennifer Jones and they had one daughter, Mary Jennifer Selznick. Selznick died in 1965 following several heart attacks, and is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California., author of "Fade to Black: Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950"

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