Today is the last day of the Dear Mr. Gable Blogathon at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. This three-day blogathon is all about “The King of Hollywood.” I am celebrating Mr. Gable’s birthday with an article about one of his post-war films, The Hucksters from 1947, in which he is joined by a glittering cast which includes Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner, Adolphe Menjou, Sydney Greenstreet, Edward Arnold, and Keenan Wynn. Read along to learn how this movie went from a novel which Mr. Gable called “filthy” and “not entertainment” to Certificate No. 12336.
Vic Norman (Clark Gable) has just gotten out of the Army after serving in World War II. He returns to his old apartment building, where he prepares for a job interview with the huge Kimberly Advertising Agency. He was in advertising before the war, but now he wants to start with a new firm. He intends to get the job by acting like he neither needs nor wants it. To be extra sincere, he spends $35 of his last $50 on a hand-painted necktie which he thinks will impress Mr. Kimberly (Adolphe Menjou). He puts on a very slick act for the smooth advertising man, but neither says anything definite about a job for Vic. During the meeting, Kimberly’s most important client, Evan Llewellyn Evans (Sydney Greenstreet) of the $10 million Beautee Soap account, calls. It is obvious to Vic and the audience that Kimberly is being brow-beaten by the unseen, domineering client. Vic hints that all the money might not be worth the fear and stress that Mr. Evans causes Kimberly, but he regards that as nonsense. They go downstairs to see Cooke (Richard Gaines), the frazzled man who is in charge of the Beautee Soap account. He is glad to see his friend Vic again, but he is so upset by Evans that he is almost stuttering. He tells Vic how unreasonable the old man is; his latest idea is to persuade a long list of socialites to endorse Beautee Soap in exchange for $5000 for their favorite charities. Cooke has no idea how to approach the first lady on the list, a British general’s daughter and a war widow named Mrs. Francis “Kay” Dorrance (Deborah Kerr). Vic volunteers to persuade her as a favor. When he arrives at the Dorrance house, he is greeted by an adorable little girl who starts hugging him when he kneels down to her. Her beautiful young mother appears and is somewhat disarmed by her daughter’s display of affection for the stranger from the “charity league.” They go into the sitting room, and Vic explains the real purpose of his visit. Mrs. Dorrance charmingly says that her favorite charity is herself, since war widows with two young children, contrary to popular opinion, are not always wealthy. She agrees to endorse the soap. However, she and Vic are horrified the next day when they see the completely transparent negligee that Mr. Evans chose for her to wear. Vic insists that she will not wear it. Despite the numerous objections from other people, Vic arranges for Kay to pose in a queenly gown in a straight-backed chair. When Mr. Evans sees the purified layout, he angrily calls a meeting between the advertising agency and his executive board. At this meeting, Vic meets the cantankerous old man for the first time. Evan Llewellyn Evans is a bombastic, mean-spirited, crude old man who is on the verge of insanity. He gets pleasure out of terrorizing his employees by intimidating them and making them say “check” and “right.” However, Vic refuses to submit to his bullying. Mr. Evans is very annoyed that Vic didn’t like the layout which he had designed, and he asks Vic to explain his actions. Vic says that there is a disturbing element in the layout of a bored, wealthy woman in a revealing nightgown in a “dubious boudoir.” He says that Beautee Soap is a clean product for the masses, not just a privileged few. His layout is not clean. Mr. Evans has to agree with him. The disagreeable old man welcomes the brave younger fellow into the company. Vic does his best for the Beautee Soap account, but he isn’t going to let it run his life. Unlike Mr. Kimberly, he still has his self-respect. As the movie progresses, Vic has several choices to make. First, he has to choose between a glamorous nightclub singer who has been in love with him for years, Jean Ogilvie (Ava Gardner), and the wholesome, lovely Mrs. Dorrance. Second, he has to decide just how much of his soul he is willing to sell to Evan Llewellyn Evans and Beautee Soap. Third, he has to decide just how important making big money is. Could there be something more important in life?
Clark Gable is really good in this movie. He plays the role of Vic with confidence and suaveness. I admire the way this character isn’t afraid to stand up to the boorish boss, unlike the rest of the employees. He is bold and brave, and Mr. Evans respects him for it. He knows that self-respect, honor, and integrity are more important than making a few bucks. Although he seems a little capricious when he first meets Mrs. Dorrance, his love for her makes him truly honorable. He has the greatest respect for her, since she demands it. He wants to marry her. You could say that she makes an honest man out of him. One of the sweetest parts, though, is his relationship with little Ellen Dorrance (Dianne Perrine), Kay’s daughter. He is so tender with the little girl. Seeing the way children respond to Clark Gable and vice versa really made me like him. I noticed the same thing in Gone with the Wind. The most endearing quality about Rhett Butler to me is his tender relationship with his daughter, Bonnie. In The Hucksters, he displays the same endearing charm.
The rest of the cast is perfectly chosen. Deborah Kerr is sweet and lovely in the role of Kay Dorrance. This was her first American film. Her delicate British accent adds to her charm as the refined widow who loves the unpredictable huckster, despite her better judgement. Adolph Menjou is excellent as the intimidated, spineless, and ultimately pathetic Kimberly, who unashamedly grovels to Mr. Evans. He allows himself to be manipulated, since he is convinced that his business would fail without the Beautee Soap Account. Despite his suave exterior, he is a traitorous cad at heart. No one else could have played Evan Llewellyn Evans as Sydney Greenstreet did. He is thoroughly convincing, bombastic, and despicable as the heartless tyrant who enjoys making his employees squirm. He insists on wearing a somewhat-smashed hat at board meetings just so that he can literally “take it off” to someone when he is right. At one point, he throws his hat out the window just to make a point! Ava Gardner adds another interesting dimension as Vic’s old flame, Jean, the nightclub singer. She is the perfect antithesis to Deborah Kerr’s refined portrayal of the sensitive widow. Although Jean enjoys singing, all she really wants is Vic. Vic is attracted to her, but she’s so available and so much like everything he’s had in his life. There’s something about Mrs. Dorrance that’s special. Maybe it’s the fact that she has class and refinement and is harder to get. Edward Arnold plays a rare likeable role as David Lash, a talent agent in Hollywood who is one of Vic’s oldest friends. He’s a good sport who is willing to admit that he’s been outsmarted. Keenan Wynn provides great comic relief as a talentless comic named Buddy Hare who Mr. Evans but no one else thinks is talented. He is brilliant at playing an untalented but oblivious buffoon. His part is brief but memorable. This truly is a star-studded cast. Everyone is brilliant in his role.
The Hucksters began as a best-selling novel by Frederic Wakeman. This controversial book was based on a four-part expose in The Saturday Evening Post entitled “The Star-Spangled Octopus.” This was all about the way the MCA, a talent and promotional agency, had monopolized all the forms of popular entertainment by the mid-1940s. MGM bought the rights to the novel for close to $200,000. Cary Grant was initially offered the lead in the film, but he recommended Clark Gable for the role. When Mr. Gable read the story, he refused to appear in the film. He said, “It’s filthy and it isn’t entertainment.” If an actor such as Clark Gable, who had appeared in racy pre-Code films like Red Dust, was offended by this story, one can only imagine what the Production Code Administration thought of a film adaptation of a book which Life Magazine called “last year’s best-selling travesty.”
The original story was full of many types of problems. It contained amorous immorality, criticism and ridicule of big American business, and racial slurs. Originally, Mrs. Dorrance was not a widow; her husband was still alive. Thus, instead of being a sweet, wholesome woman, she was an adulterous character similar to Miss Kerr’s later roles in Shurlock era movies like Tea and Sympathy and The Grass is Greener. Also, for her to end up with Vic, she would have to get divorced, and divorce and remarriage were rarely condoned under the Code.
In the movie, it is reasonable to assume that Vic has had a lot of girlfriends and that he has not had a great deal of respect for many of them. However, he doesn’t seem like a really immoral man. Furthermore, there is no implication of any improper relations between him and the two women in the movie. He does try to take Mrs. Dorrance to the Blue Penguin Inn at one point, but his original intention is for their rooms to be on opposite sides of the hotel. It doesn’t quite work out that way, due to circumstances which he didn’t plan, and Mrs. Dorrance leaves, thinking that he wanted their rooms to be adjacent. However, that was not his original intention. In the beginning of the movie, Vic returns to his hotel room after a night on the town. Once in his room, he talks to his date from the previous evening. He doesn’t say much, so the situation is largely left to the viewer’s imagination. Although the dirty-minded audience members may choose to think of the situation as an unwholesome one, I think it is quite clear that they were only dining and dancing at New York’s hotspots. In the book, the opening scene was quite different. One only has to read the first few sentences to get a rough idea of how much breening this movie required: “Victor Norman came awake quietly and looked at his watch. Twenty after nine. He glanced at the mussed but empty twin bed beside his, picked up a cigarette, then put it down. He was against smoking before breakfast, on the theory it promoted ulcers. Marguerite came out of the bathroom in her slip, looked around for her dress and began to put it on.” Need I say more?
There were more problems with this movie, however, than violations of Section II of the Code. It was also the job of the PCA to promote good public relations and help Hollywood avoid controversy through diplomatic mistakes. As a former public relations man, Joseph Breen was an expert at this, although Hollywood’s public relations was officially under the jurisdiction of Eric Johnston, the head of the MPAA. I’m sure that Mr. Breen consulted Mr. Johnston regarding the jab which The Hucksters made at the advertising business. The PCA had to ensure that the MCA wasn’t offended by this 1947 load of dynamite. One of the biggest concerns was that people would detect the similarity between David Lash (Edward Arnold) and his assistant, Freddie Callahan (George O’Hanlon), and the real founder of the MCA, Jules Stein, and his assistant, Lew Wasserman. Some even detected a physical resemblance between Mr. Wasserman and the actor cast to play him. Thus, great care was taken to tone down the similarity in the dialogue. In addition, it was ensured that Vic referred to Mr. Lash’s honesty several times. Even if people did detect a similarity, they would be unlikely to sense an attitude of resentment or criticism.
There was one more major change that was made, and it is a very interesting one. Let’s start by looking at the situation in the finished movie. Vic has gone to Hollywood at Mr. Evans’s request to secure Buddy Hare for a Beautee Soap-sponsored radio show with him. On the train to Hollywood, he buys Mr. Hare from his old friend Dave Lash. When Vic is in the middle of arranging the show, he learns that there is a problem with the contract for Buddy Hare. It seems that, through an honest mistake, Dave gave Buddy’s contract to another agency several months ago. Now, that agency claims rights to Buddy. Vic believes that Dave didn’t cause this problem intentionally, but he refuses to give up Buddy Hare, since Mr. Evans will settle for no one else. He blackmails Mr. Lash into a deal which will leave Vic with Buddy Hare, the other agency with a top-notch star, and Dave with a large expense every week for over a year. He convinces Dave to accept this deal when he reminds him that he was a juvenile delinquent who has gone straight and now sets a fine example for other poor children. He tells him that, unless he covers the error in this manner, people will assume that he was being dishonest since he came from the slums. Dave is completely crushed; he agrees to the deal, but he will hardly even look at Vic. The latter immediately regrets his harsh, cruel tactics, but Dave won’t forgive him; he only says he respects him.
The situation with Vic and Dave is very dramatic in the movie. However, Vic did not mention Dave’s seedy youth in the original story. Initially, Vic said that people would believe he was being dishonest because he is a Jew. Although such prejudice may have been true in some instances, it could easily be offensive. After all, many people don’t like to hear their whole race accused of common dishonesty. Ironically, the Jewish filmmakers rarely saw anything wrong with slurs against their own race; in fact, they often thought jokes about Jews were funny. However, the PCA had to be sure that more sensitive sons of Isaac throughout America were not offended. The situation was changed to childhood delinquency, a similar situation to that of many boys in the earlier MGM film Boys’ Town. That wasn’t the only effort made to remove the undesirable flavor of prejudice, however. The names of the original agents, Stein and Wasserman, were easily recognizable as German-Jewish. In the movie, the surnames became a rather anonymous one, Lash, and an Irish one, Callahan. Also, the actors cast were not decidedly Jewish. Thus, one would have to have read the original novel to know that David Lash was a Jew.
Let’s take a moment to consider the irony of the above situation. Louie B. Mayer, a Jew himself, was eager to make a movie out of a novel which included implications of general Jewish dishonesty. It didn’t bother Mr. Mayer, however. The person who was concerned about offending American Jews was Joseph I. Breen, an Irishman who has been accused of anti-Semitism. I discussed this in detail in my article honoring his birthday, but I would like to point out what this particular situation shows. Mr. Breen insisted that Jewish sensibilities must be considered; he was concerned that some people would take it as an actual accusation of dishonesty, so he suggested that they change it. If he really hated Jews, would he have worked so hard for so long to ensure that they were not insulted and mocked by movies? I think not. To have treated them so fairly during his twenty year tenure at the Production Code Administration while harboring hatred for them would have been an almost inhuman objectiveness. In addition, he worked very harmoniously with Jewish filmmakers for years, never showing any preference for Gentiles over them. Surely someone who hated them could not have endured working in an industry which was replete with that race. Mature consideration shows that the few letters he wrote in 1931 and 32 are not signs of anti-Semitism. They simply were outcries against the immorality of the individuals in the film industry, many of whom happened to be Jewish. When the industry reformed in 1934, Mr. Breen no longer had reason to lament the corruption of America’s morals; he was a contented man who held no definite prejudices against the Jews or any other race.
I would like to thank my hostess, Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood, for hosting this blogathon in honor of Clark Gable. His birthday is an excellent opportunity to celebrate one of the most famous actors of the Golden Era of Hollywood. By the way, one good blogathon deserves another! The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’s second blogathon, The Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, begins on February 12 and runs through Valentine’s Day! This blogathon, which is my sister’s first major contribution to the website, is all about one of the most famous screen couples of all time, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. There’s still time to join. We would love to have more participants. Please help us make this blogathon a huge success!
I would like to mention the fact that I am starting a new feature on my website, a monthly series of articles written by other bloggers. It’s called “What Does the Code Mean to You?” Every month, I am going to ask one blogger to write an article about what the Code means to him on any level. Each article in this series can be about one’s feelings regarding the Code’s relation to Hollywood on one film, in a particular genre, or basically anything that would fit in the third category of my Breening blogathon. When an author agrees to be the monthly participant, he can write and publish his article any time during the month. All he has to do is link to my website and include a little banner for the series which I will make. In turn, I will write an article about his article and link to it. Anyone who wants to participate in this may respond to this article. I would love to have the first participant sometime in February, but if not, we can start in March!
Thank you for reading my articles. I look forward to your participation in PEPS through the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon and “What Does the Code Mean to You?”
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