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Warner Brothers Directors


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I have often wondered about the relationship between Warner Brothers and First National studios. A little researching on wiki explains that in the early twenties First National was a major player in the film industry while Warners was just a small studio. Sometime in that period the Warners brothers bought interests in the bigger studio and as Warners grew in size and wealth they increased their holdings in First National. By 1928 Warners was set to merge outright with First National but to appease any anti trust violations they kept the First National company structure intact. So we see films by Warner Brothers and films by First National. People under contract would work for either or both studios. By 1936 the merger was consummated but for years after new films carried the title of Warner Brothers - First National.

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I assume Hawks wasn't under a fixed termed contract with WB.


I wonder what the main reasons were for WB (or any studio really), to go out and hire an independent director for a project. Does the book have any info related to that?


Take Sergeant York; WB already hired non contract player Cooper for the role. Did he request Hawks? I could see a non WB contract player wanting to work with a director they had worked with before and that might prompt the studio to hire a director not under contract.

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I did some follow up on Howard Hawks. His first sound picture was the original *The Dawn Patrol* from 1930. Hawks and producer Hal Wallis didn't get along very well so Hawks was lent out to other studios almost immediately. Soon after Hawks got out of that Warners contract.

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James, in the late thirties it doesn't appear that Hawks was under any major contract with a studio, maybe just a deal to do 2 or 3 films tops. Just before Sergeant York he directed 2 pictures for Columbia , ( Only Angels Have Wings, and His Girl Friday) and I don't believe Harry Cohn was making any long term commitments. Then Hawks started working on *The Outlaw* but Howard Hughes soon took over that project. So it was on to Warners for Sergeant York. Why that happened, the book doesn't say. The studio really wanted Cooper so maybe Hawks was brought in specifically to appease Cooper. Those two did work together earlier on a film *Today We Live* which also starred Joan Crawford. Maybe Hawks and Cooper got along really well on that film.


Edited by: mrroberts on Mar 7, 2014 4:19 PM

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Howard Hawks left a very impressive resume of films, a number of his films have become "classics" that have remained high on the level of public recognition. *Bringing Up Baby* is a very popular film today, more so than when first made. Hawks did two of the four Bogart/Bacall films. Hawks did several films with John Wayne, some are among Wayne's most popular westerns. *Gentlemen Prefer Blondes* is one of the most popular Marilyn Monroe films. So yes, Hawks is a more recognizable name today than most of his contemporaries. Names like Curtiz, Walsh, LeRoy, and Wellman might need a little memory jogging and the others are becoming rather obscure as time passes. They all had their moments of accomplishment though.

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As far as Sergeant York is concerned, Howard Hawks wanted to do the project, primarly as a way to help out Jesse Lasky, who had the rights to York's story, and who was, by 1940, acting as an independent producer. Hawks claimed that he got Gary Cooper to agree to the project, as well, by reminding the actor that Lasky, who was then having a hard time financially, had originally been instrumental in getting Coop work in the movies.


According to Jeffrey Meyers' Gary Cooper American Hero, there was more to it than that, though. To try to get Cooper's interest in the role, Lasky sent the actor a telegram, claiming it to be from York, telling the actor how he was the only one that he wanted to play the role. Likewise, Lasky also sent York a reply "from Coop" telling the Tennesse war hero how pleased he would be to play him on screen. This artificial admiration got the ball rolling.


Even then, though, it wasn't until Cooper, initially reluctant to play a contemporary hero, spent some time with York at his Tennesse home, that he felt the two men had much in common, giving the actor greater confidence that he could play the role.




Gary Cooper and Howard Hawks (seated on right) taking a break from the Sergeant York set to visit a knitting Bette Davis filming The Bride Came C.O.D. That's assistant director Jack Sullivan standing.

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In answer to your question, mrroberts, Jesse Lasky. He had been Hollywood's first mogul, producer of the first feature film made in Hollywood (DeMille's The Squaw Man) and instrumental in the foundation of Paramount, the most successful studio of the silent era.


He lost his fortune, however, in the 1929 stock market crash and by 1932 had apparently been back stabbed out of Paramount. He then turned independent producer and by 1940 was at Warner Brothers. (He would later be involved with Adventures of Mark Twain and Rhapsody in Blue for the studio).


Lasky had been pursuing Alvin York for the film rights to his life story as far back as 1919 but the modest Tennessan had no interest in self promotion. It was only with the approaching advent of WWII that York finally agreed to give Lasky the film rights to his story (even then, that involved a face-to-face meeting in which Lasky had to WALK 13 miles following a train ride to get to York's home).


However, York placed three conditions on the agreement: 1) his share of the profits would go to the construction of a Bible school, 2) no cigarette smoking actress would play the role of his girlfriend in the film, 3) Gary Cooper had to play the part.


According to TCM's version of events, it was Cooper, once aboard, who pulled Howard Hawks into the production. That's not the version of events, however, quite the opposite, in Hawks' own take on the production, saying that he made a personal appeal to Coop to come aboard for Lasky's sake.


Said Hawks, after he said Coop had agreed: "Okay, let's go and talk to Warner Brothers. We'll do it if they won't bother us." And they offered us 80 percent of the picture, I think it was. And we said, "No, we want your usual thing." We wanted Lasky to have it and he made about $250,000 and Coop got an Academy Award, everything worked out. So the good guys won."


Hawks' casual account, however, doesn't quite jive with the fact that Lasky could not NOT be involved since he had the rights (Hawks' "we wanted Lasky to have it" reference I have to question). Still, Lasky wouldn't have rights worth anything, however, if he didn't get Cooper. Hawks makes himself the hero in his account, by saying that he talked Coop into it.(That, however, does not reflect those fake telegrams sent out by Lasky, to which I referred in my previous posting).


Hawks, by the way, had originally pushed for Jane Russell to play a Daisy Mae-type as York's girlfriend. Hal Wallis turned his suggestion down, knowing that York would object to that kind of interpretation of the Gracie Williams role, eventually cast with Joan Leslie.


Leslie later spoke of how awkward she felt meeting Cooper for the first time on the Sergeant York set, not quite knowing how to address him, a star she had seen countless times and of whom she was in awe. She said that Coop picked up on this and, upon introducing himself, simply said, "Howdy, Miss Gracie." It was a reference to her film character, and he immediately put her at ease. They got along great.


Both Lasky and Wallis are listed as producers on the film's opening credits. The credits also call the film A Howard Hawks Production which, I must admit, adds a bit of confusion for me.


Both Joan Leslie and June Lockhart, in discussing the Sergeant York shoot, said that Hawks helped to make it a very relaxed set. As a director, he was a soft spoken man who allowed as many retakes as an actor might want, made soft spoken suggestions and, as Leslie said, was almost a ghost on the set who would disappear. Looking at the marvelous array of performances in this film, above all Cooper's, it really paid off.


In any event, Sergeant York would be the biggest money making film of 1941, as well as a source of controversy for America's isolationists. Many people today tend to forget just how very big the public, film critic and political reaction was to this film with its July, 1941 release. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards (including best picture and one for Hawks as best director), it would win two, Best Actor (Cooper) and Film Editing (William Holmes).


Interesting, isn't it, how the only film of Howard Hawks' career to bring him an Oscar nomination is discussed so little by Hawks enthusiasts. Sergeant York, in my opinion, is one of the truly great films this director made, yet Hawks buffs NEVER list it among his major accomplishments, while endlessly extolling the virtues of an Only Angels Have Wings or Rio Bravo, for example.


Cooper and York became friends, a friendship that would last twenty years. After it became apparent to the world that Cooper was seriously ill, York sent the following telegram three weeks prior to the actor's death:





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Yes, great info Tom. Thanks for taking the time to post it. It does answer some of the questions I had. After reading all of this my view is that with York, this is a case where the Hollywood studio system did NOT step on itself. By that I mean, often since directors and actors were already being paid under studio contracts, studio producers would try to remain within the confines of the studio system.


I can't see any of WB's male stars pulling of York like Copper did. As for directors; well WB had some very fine directors so it wouldn't be fair to say none of them could of done as well as Hawks, but Hawks was first rate. So using these two outside major talents along with the WB studio machine produced a great movie as well as major profits for WB.

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>I can't see any of WB's male stars pulling of York like Copper did.


I'll say. Apparently at one point, though, when Cooper's participation in the film was looking a little dicey, Ronald Reagan was tested for the part, believe it or not.


That, of course, flies in the face of York's stipulation that Coop and only Coop play him but perhaps the studio thought they could talk him into it, if necessary, or they could just plough ahead with it anyway, whether he liked it or not.


Thank goodness Gary Cooper did finally agree to play York, a perfect illustration of an actor finding a role he seems born to have played.

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I've always assumed that when one of the actors in the 1951 sci fi classic, The Thing, makes a passing reference to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, it was, in fact, an inside joke since Hawks worked uncredited as director on that film.

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Wow! Seems WB were realky pushing Reagan at.that time, to lift.him from second featurres and second.leads. Shortly after his (thankfully) non casting as York, he did get.an important role in KINGS ROW, which really moved his career forward. However, his incipient stardom at this point wws.sidetracked by his being drafted. Would SERGEANT YORK made him a top star? We'll never know, thanfully,.as.Cooper is perfect.

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>I've always assumed that when one of the actors in the 1951 sci fi classic, The Thing, makes a passing reference to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, it was, in fact, an inside joke since Hawks worked uncredited as director on that film.



In BALL OF FIRE, Dan Duryea, holding the profs as hostages, announces "I saw a movie last week" and proceeds to wet down his gun sight with saliva, just as Cooper did in SERGEANT YORK.


Within that same scene, Duryea also yells in regard to his weapon "Watch out, it's gonna spit" which is a nod to Paul Muni in SCARFACE.

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Good inside references in a Hawks film to previous Hawks movies, clore.


That business of York wetting his gunsight before shooting the Germans (just as he had previously done in the film with turkeys) is the only moment in the film that makes me cringe a little. Yes, it successfully dehumanizes the enemy for its audience, even making the killing slightly comical in doing so. For my modern sensibilities, though, I find it more than a bit tasteless.


The Germans all die, rather conveniently, without a sound, unlike the real York's war experiences in which he recorded in his diary that they "screamed like pigs" when he shot them. Cooper as York in the battle scenes is deliberate and methodical as he shoots the Germans while the real York was recorded as blood thirsty in action.


It's best, of course, for obvious reasons, when a studio is producing a film like Sergeant York that is designed as a rallying cry to action to a largely isolationist America to conveniently overlook some truths and avoid telling part of the documented story.


For those interested, there's a great documentary that's part of the two disc Warners DVD release of Sergeant York about the making of that film. If you like this film, it really is a gem. Much of my information related on this thread comes from it.


The documentary says that the real York was always bothered by the fact that his fame was based upon his having taken lives. It was a conflict that forever stayed with him. His son said that on his death bed in 1964 York wondered if the Lord would forgive him for what he did.


One stunning statement that the documentary claims, though, is that the movie was withdrawn from general release on August 1, 1941, ONE MONTH after its initial release because of the cries of protest from some isolationist parts of Congress.


This is what the documentary claims:


Senator Nye, who claimed the Roosevelt administration was forcing Hollywood studios to make anti-Hitler movies, publicly attacked Alvin York for visiting President Roosevelt at the White House in late July.


On August 1, 1941 Nye charged that the major studios were gigantic engines of propaganda. That same day, a mere month after its premiere, Sergeant York was withdrawn from general release, and postponed until July 4, 1942.


I have a real problem with this statement since the film is listed as 1941's biggest money maker. It makes no sense. If anyone can explain this contradiction to me I would much appreciate it. Is it possible that I am confused by the term "general release?" Could a film still be in circulation and making money anyway?


The documentary implies that the film only won two Oscars out of its 11 nominations because it was stigmatized as a "propaganda film." If that was the case for the awards ceremony in the spring of '42, things sure would change and soon. Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca, both clearly progaganda films, would be the next two to win the best picture award at the Oscar ceremonies.

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Yeah, mrroberts, that weasley Dan Duryea seems to be able to crawl into the most unexpected places, even a thread on Warners directors.


It's interesting, though, as clore pointed out, that Duryea's character can be seen making a coded reference to a Warner Brothers film within a Goldwyn production. Certainly Hawks (and, presumably, Cooper) would have known what the inside joke was about but I wonder if Goldwyn head brass at the time was aware of it, as well. After all, for those who caught the reference, the joke was a subtle promotion of another studio's product.


P.S.: Now that I think about it, quite probably the Goldwyn studio was aware of it. After all, Goldwyn and Warners had had a star exchange involved, of Cooper and Bette Davis, for their simultaneous services on Sergeant York and The Little Foxes.

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The Warner Brothers Directors book has a chapter on John Huston. He got his start at directing at Warners on a film called *The Maltese Falcon* (in case anyone didn't know that). His next few films were also at Warners but after *Key Largo* (1948) Huston worked for a number of different studios. In comparison to some of the other directors on this thread, Huston didn't direct a lot of films in his career but what he lacked in quantity he made up for in quality. Its well known that Huston collaborated with actor Humphrey Bogart on several films that rank amongst the finest for both men. John Huston's background is quite interesting. His parents divorced when he was young. His father's (Walter) acting career didn't mesh well with his mother's career in journalism. Young John was rather wild in his youth, unable to settle on a purpose for his own life. He dabbled in acting and journalism with little success. He had a brief fling as a prize fighter (rather successful at that), traveled the world ,and even did a stint in the Mexican cavalry. In the 30's Huston worked on and off in Hollywood mainly as a script writer. Warner Brothers producer Henry Blanke referred to Huston as " very talented but without an ounce of discipline". Blanke supported Huston when Jack Warner was about to fire him. Finally Huston got the chance to work on some meaningful projects as a script writer and prove his worth. His ultimate goal now was be a director and after impressing Mr Warner with some fine script writing on *High Sierra* the boss allowed Huston to direct *The Maltese Falcon* , and the rest as they say is history.

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John Huston was one of those mercurial personalities that it is difficult for me (and, I suspect, most others) to quite fathom. One of those inspired film geniuses who also made his share of film bombs, he could be very cruel at times in his personal relations.


Evelyn Keyes once said that the best thing about being married to John Huston was in having Walter Huston as her father-in-law. The eternal restlessness and eccentricity of John does not, as far as I can tell, appear to have been inherited from his father. Walter's early vaudevillian days would, by economic necessity, have involved a lot of travelling (and John as a young boy shared that vaudeville lifestyle with him to a limited degree). But John had an internal restlessness that I don't believe existed in his father.


John had a very famous fist fight with Errol Flynn ( quite probably over Olivia de Havilland, with whom the director had a relationship), but he afterwards called Flynn very sporting during the contest and years later directed the actor when few others would in the last major production of the actor's career.


Huston's directorial film career is very uneven, but he did enjoy some triumphs in the later years, among them The Man Who Would Be King and Prizzi's Honor. I haven't seen Huston's last film, The Undead, but some have ranked it among his best.


As for myself, I will always primarily hold Huston in high esteem for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, an adventure morality tale largely filmed on location in Mexico. The rugged terrain of its shooting invigorated and excited Huston, as it, at the same time, only caused star Bogart grumbling grief (this would, of course, be even moreso the case when they made African Queen together under similar circumstances four years later).


Bogart and Huston owe much to one another as far as their film legacies are concerned. Huston once said that half the trick to great directing is to cast the right actors. For a man known for his massive ego, it almost sounds like a self deprecating statement. There is, without doubt, a lot of truth to it, though.






A couple of shots of Huston in conference with Bogie and his Dad during Treasure of the Sierra Madre, truly one of the screen's great enduring classics. Even though he made some changes to the story of B. Traven's novel, Huston (as he did with Hammett's Maltese Falcon) had the intelligence to primarily stick to re-telling a good novel's tale. Some of the dialogue spoken by Treasure's cast is very close, in many instances, to the dialogue that Traven wrote for his characters in his novel. As screenwriter on the project, Huston recognized good stuff when he read it and simply transferred it to the screen.


By the way, the character of Dobbs in the novel is named just that, Dobbs. The "Fred C." was added in for the movie.

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