Saturday, April 25, 2015

Clark Gable Takes a Selfie

Article by Harrison Carroll, 1948

This week I walk along the row of portable dressing rooms on the "Command Decision" set. Signs upon the doors proclaim the names of famous occupants: Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, Brian Donlevy, Charles Bickford and so on.

There are few sounds of life from within the dressing rooms. Only Walter Pidgeon is standing outside. He is talking in desultory fashion to some other men.

Clark Gable's door is ajar. I peer in. Clark is sitting in a chair pointing a small German camera at a mirror. He sees me and grins. "How conceited can you get," he says, "taking your own picture?"

I come in at Clark's invitation and flop down in a red leather chair. One of the MGM photographers is giving Clark some pointers on the camera, which Gable will take along on his trip to Europe. [Clark will sail to England on July 9th aboard the Queen Mary, but his vacation will be cut short due to his father's death on August 4th].

Hanging on the wall, to Clark's right, is the best proof in the world of his lack of conceit. It is one of the most exaggerated caricatures of Gable and his ears that has ever been drawn. It's been hanging in Clark's dressing rooms since he made "Honky Tonk."

This is the first Gable picture with an all-male cast. "How does it feel?" I ask.
"Very strange," says Clark, "let's not have this happen again."
"Nobody to talk to between scenes, huh?"
Clark flashes that famous smile. "I'm not crippled, am I?" he asks. "I can visit the other stages."

An assistant pops his head in the door. "We're ready, Mr. Gable." We go out to the set, a command headquarters of an American bomber squadron in England, and I watch director Sam Wood rehearse a scene.

Almost everybody is in it except Marshall Thompson, one of the younger members of the cast. He sits beside me. On his coat is a string of ribbons. Marshall examines them curiously. "Gee," he says, "I've sure been around, haven't I?"

A scene from "Command Decision"
Out on the set, Gable and Pidgeon now are lighting up big, fat cigars. "I thought you had quit smoking," I yell to Walter. "That was cigarettes," he shouts back, "And I haven't had one in five days."

Gable is puffing gingerly. It strikes me that I have never seen him before with a cigar in his mouth. He wanders over toward us and I ask him about it. "Don't tell anybody," he says, "but I smoke a cigar about once every four years."

"Did you hear about Mickey Rooney?" I ask. "He got dizzy on [a cigar] the other day on the 'Words and Music' set."

"You're a big help," says Clark. Suddenly, he looks over my shoulder and his eyes snap with interest. I crane my neck. Four pretty visitors have come onto the set. You guessed it. That's the last I see of Gable.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Gone With the Wind Auction Highlights

In case you haven't heard, Scarlett's Shantytown dress sold at auction for $137,000 this past weekend. The price isn't too surprising if you factor in the starting price of $60,000, along with the auction house fee and the fact that the dress is a piece of cinematic history.

We first see Vivien Leigh in this dress, as Scarlett O'Hara, when she encounters Rhett, played by Clark Gable, outside her store. She drives off to take a short cut through Shantytown, where she's attacked. Unfortunately, the color of the dress has faded over the years, from the blue-gray seen in the above photo to the light gray pictured below. The dress features a zigzag applique with decorative buttons on the front. It's lined with silk and the skirt is pleated.

The auction pieces came from James Tumblin's collection of Gone With the Wind memorabilia. Other items of interest that were sold include the hat Scarlett wears to the barbecue at Twelve Oaks along with a green sash made for the barbecue dress. This hat sold for $52,500 and the sash sold for $3,250.

Another item on the auction block was the top half of one of Scarlett's calico dresses, which sold for $32,500. James Tumblin says this was originally auctioned off by Vivien's daughter, Suzanne Farrington, and subsequently purchased at Christie's. Originally, there were approximately fourteen of these calico dresses made, in various stages of disrepair, as Scarlett wore this from working in the hospital in Atlanta until her return to Tara with Melanie and baby Beau.

From Heritage Auction's website:
Cotton, mauve, purple, and white floral pattern, high collar trimmed in white lace, 16 black button front closure, puffy, gathered long sleeves, same black button adornment and white lace on cuffs, numerous hidden snaps and hook-and-eye closures.

This suit worn by Clark Gable went under the hammer and sold for $55,000. It was worn during the scene when Scarlett tells Rhett she doesn't want to have any more babies. He then proceeds to leave the room by kicking in the door and shouting no locked door would keep him out.

From the auction's website:
Two pieces; the jacket gray wool, rounded lapels, one button front closure, two front welt pockets, 'Selznick Int. Pictures Inc.' label reads "20-108M-140," costumer's stamps on both sleeve linings, 'Eddie Schmidt Inc.' [tailor to male Hollywood stars] label on lining, further 'Eddie Schmidt, Inc.' label reads in part "Clark Gable / 4-25-39 / 3718;" together with matching trousers, five button fly, same 'Eddie Schmidt, Inc.' label as jacket, another label evidently removed, numerous costumer's stamps on waistband lining.

The 'Return to Tara' hat sold for $25,000 with eleven bidders vying for it. Vivien Leigh holds this hat in the scene where she and Rhett have returned from their honeymoon.

From the auction's website: Grayish-beige silk, gathered top, ruffled brim, two trailing pieces of fabric at back, 'Selznick Int. Pictures Inc.' label reads "Scarlett / 20-108-WW-435," another label reads "SL 74.153.1...

Olivia de Havilland, as Melanie Hamilton, is pictured below wearing her black bonnet. The bonnet, made from black silk, sold for $30,000 at this past weekend's auction. Melanie wears this hat while she and Scarlett search for Ashley's name (and thankfully don't find it) on the recently deceased list handed out to the public. Then later, the bonnet is seen on Scarlett as she's fleeing a burning Atlanta with Rhett, Melanie, Beau and Prissy.

From the auction's website: Interestingly, in Margaret Mitchell's book, Scarlett takes Melanie's hat from the hall table as she and the others make their escape. David O. Selznick, being the stickler for detail he was, had the hat made and sized for De Havilland and then had Leigh use the same one for her scenes, knowing it wouldn't fit her correctly as it wasn't supposed to as it wasn't her hat!

Melanie's hand-knit sweater sold for $18,750. From the auction's website: Gray wool with maroon trim at collar, on front, and on cuffs, three-quarter length butterfly sleeves, front portion purposely longer than back of sweater, two small front pockets with maroon wool bow appliqué, two decorative maroon wool buttons on front, hidden snap and hook-and-eye closures.

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie and Leslie Howard as Ashley greet each other at the train station. Ashley's received a few days furlough for the Christmas Holidays. The sweater is seen again as Belle Watling, played by Ona Munson, meets Melanie outside the hospital.

This scarf and brooch set, also Melanie's, sold for $10,000. Another hand-knitted item, the scarf, now faded to purple, was made from navy blue wool and featured gray trim. The scarf was also used in auditions for the part of Melanie. 

Olivia de Havilland originally gifted this cameo brooch to her stand-in, Ann Robinson, from whom James Tumblin acquired it.

Ashley Wilkes' Confederate uniform, minus its gold stars, sold for $16,250. Ashley, played by Leslie Howard, wears this uniform when he returns to Tara, after the end of the war. From the auction's website: The jacket made of wool (now gray due to fading but originally blue), yellow wool collar and cuffs, decorative yellow detail on sleeves, seven button front closure (four buttons missing), blue wool patch on right elbow, purposely distressed with stitching, staining, and holes, 'Selznick Int. Pictures Inc.' label reads "20-108-M-33," inside right sleeve has a 'Western Costume Co.' stamp; together with a pair of purposely distressed uniform pants with numerous holes, patches, and stitching evident as well as a tattered hem, 'Western Costume Co.' label and stamp in waistband.

Ona Munson played Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind. One of her best known outfits is this red velvet costume she wears to visit Rhett while he's in jail, just after Scarlett has left. Only the top half was available for auction, fetching $15,000. I think Belle would be proud.

From the auction's website: Red velvet, ruffled hems, white hair trim at collar, on front hem, and on upper back, white lace trim at cuffs, four button front faux closure, hidden hook-and-eye closures, 'Western Costume Co.' label reads "#41;" together with a matching white hair muff, secret pocket inside with a zip-up closure.

Adorable Cammie King was selected to play Scarlett and Rhett's daughter, Bonnie Blue Butler. Her fatal riding habit went for $15,000. The hat and gloves are not the original ones Cammie wears in the movie, but are replacements.

From the auction's website: Teal blue velvet, long sleeves, 12 button front closure, lace collar, ruffle at front waist, peplum in back, numerous hidden hook-and-eye closures, 'Selznick Int. Pictures Inc.' label reads "Bonnie / 108 W.W.-470;" included with a reproduction hat made of similar teal blue velvet and adorned with a red feather.

Additional information on other pieces from Gone With the Wind sold during this auction can be found at Heritage Auctions. Pictures of the costumes are from Heritage Auction's website.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Broadway's Billboard Signs

Part One
"Good Signs on Broadway Soon Junked"
November, 1946
by Saul Pett

Outside they were carving up 30 feet of Jane Russell and loading it into a truck. Inside, grey-haired, practical minded Jacob Starr observed, "In my business, you can't be sentimental. When we're through with 'em, we just throw 'em away."

Starr's business is signs. He is secretary of the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., which claims to be the birthplace and graveyard for 90 percent of the spectacular outdoor display signs blinking on Broadway --the ones that make the tourists stare.

Jacob Starr with a semi-demolished billboard sign of Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, 1946

Elsewhere in the firm's plant at 57th Street, facing the Hudson river, were the grotesque remains of a 140 foot picture of Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, a yard wide head of Paul Whiteman, man-sized letters and other ghosts of the White Way's synthetic glamour, all awaiting the scrap heap.

If you've got the room, here's the place to get huge pictures of your favorite movie star for nothing. As Starr explained, it costs more to remake an old sign than to build a new one. About all that's saved is some wiring, sockets and other metal.

"Gone With The Wind" New York premiere, December 1939
Starr's firm designs, manufactures, operates, sells and rents signs that idea men think up. Rentals range from $5,000 to $15,000 per month.

The company's biggest project is 75 by 250 feet, with one letter 40 feet high.

The most complex and most expensive sign in the Strauss stable hangs over the Palace Theatre on Broadway. It's worth a quarter of a million, uses 27,000 bulbs in four colors and can be changed completely every 20 seconds. The light bill for this averages about $500 per month.

The company's biggest new project destined for Broadway is a girl made out of plexiglass. She will stand four stories high and display a leg two and a half stories long. The lady will advertise slips.

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Part Two
Excerpt from "Daddy Dearest"
Inc Magazine, January 1991
by Edward O. Welles

The genius and force behind Artkraft was Jacob Starr, known by all who did business with him simply as Jake. Jake started out as an ironworker in the Ukraine, but his talents exceeded banging hot metal. He built some of the first electric signs in his native country, and after immigrating to the United States, in 1902, he developed the first electric automobile starter, which he sold to Pierce Arrow for $500 -- a business giveaway he would not soon repeat.

In New York City, Jake landed work for a small sign company on the Lower East Side. At night he went to school, earning a degree in engineering. He saw the advantages of adapting assembly-line techniques to the sign-making trade while preserving the craft component of the business. He also understood the value in adapting new technologies to signs. One such technology was neon lighting, invented in France, and Starr acquired the North American rights to it. By 1930 Jake had risen to control his own sign company. His fortunes soared in tandem with those of the burgeoning industries of motion pictures and advertising.

To many, Jake was a quick-tempered tyrant, far tougher on his family than on his other workers. His nephew Philip Marshall, who has worked off and on for the company since 1954, recalls Jake as "a self-made man of the school that the only way to succeed is if things are not made easy for you; he went out of his way not to make things easy -- particularly for his relatives."

Jake's toughness toward his family was the flip side of the affection he showed his workers. A bare-knuckled manager and driven businessman, Jake nonetheless helped found the sheet-metal union local at Artkraft. "He felt very strongly about people who put themselves out for him," says Marshall. "Since we were so involved with the theater business, deadlines were extremely important. Many times, to meet a deadline, guys would work around the clock. It was not unheard of for them to work until 12:00 or 1:00 in the morning, then crawl up on the workbench and sleep a couple of hours before waking up and going back to work."

Jacob Starr died in 1976.

"Fire Over England" Billboard sign in Times Square, New York City