While the rest of the country feasts on the remains of yesterday’s Thanksgiving bird, The Underworld offers up an entirely different type of turkey. Today we will turn the spotlight on one of my favorite books, a compendium of celebrity quotes and anecdotes about films of theirs that were regarded as flops, or “turkeys.” The 1989 book, called Hollywood Talks Turkey, was compiled by prolific Hollywood writer and celeb biographer Douglas McClelland. In my customary way, I have attempted to illustrate the blurbs with appropriate photos!
One of the first remarks in the book is by Bette Davis, who says, “Do you know what I used to do with my first picture? Whenever some young actor would ask how I got where I was, I’d show him The Bad Sister, and we’d end up on the floor with laughter. Seeing how I started out gave them such hope for themselves.” When you consider that George Clooney’s first feature films were Return to Horror High and Return of the Killer Tomatoes, there may be something to this!
Sally Kellerman relates: “I’ve had my share of turkeys, but my first film was also my worst. It was called Reform School Girl and was released back in the late 50s. My ex-boyfriend, Edd ‘Kookie’ Burns, was one of the stars. I played the school dyke and carried a tool case. When I came on the screen, everybody in the theater laughed. I didn’t work for three years after that.” (And I had no clue that Sal and Edd were ever a couple!) She may not be pictured in this still, but here is her yearbook photo to give you an idea of what she looke liked then.
On the film Frenchman’s Creek, director Mitchell Leisen had this to say: “Joan Fontaine was furious that David Selznick had sold her to Paramount for $2,500 a week and he was only paying her $1,200. She dug in her heels and said, ‘I’m going to give you $1,200 worth of work and that’s all.” He added, “Fontaine and (Arturo) de Cordova were fighting all the time. She pranced in one day and said she was sorry for being so difficult, but after all, the whole picture rested on her shoulders. The whole company of distinguished British actors was so insulted they refused to work with her and we lost a lot of time patching that one up.” Do take note, too, of the amusing get up that Cordova has on here. Something key seems to be missing... like a shirt!
Lana Turner relates: “MGM studio chief Dore Schary told the press he hoped to make The Prodigal one of ‘the really significant spectacles of all time.’ But when I read the script I wondered what he’d been drinking…to play him (the prodigal son) (they) chose Edmund Purdom, a young man with a remarkably high opinion of himself. His pomposity was hard enough to bear; worse yet was the garlic breath he brought back from lunch. My lines were so stupid I hated to go to work in the morning. Even the costumes were atrocious.” And Lana did, in fact, take scissors to her costumes to make them as daring and as skimpy as she could in order to try to at least look sexy in what she knew was a stinker in the making!
If you’ve ever seen the 1962 remake of State Fair (starring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret), you will appreciate Alice Faye’s comments: “Going back (to 20th Century Fox) crushed me. The studio was in such chaos you couldn’t even tell who was running it anymore. I think they hated me because I was too young to play Pat Boone’s mother. I had absolutely no direction from Jose Ferrer. I was lit wrong, photographed badly…and they made me play opposite Tom Ewell! Do you know Tom Ewell? The whole thing was a nightmare…I don’t know what happened to the picture business, but I’m sorry I went back to find out.” (Incidentally, Alice was nineteen years older than Pat, hardly reason for any confusion or concern about her being his mom, especially in a rural setting!)
Jane Connell offers background and insights into the spectacular failure that was Mame. She tells of having to stifle her two teenage daughters at the screening who kept saying “Ughhh!” at what was being projected before them. She had portrayed Agnes Gooch in the 1966 Broadway production, but Madeline Kahn, a hot new screen comedienne (notably for her part in What’s Up Doc?) was granted the role in the film, which, of course, starred Lucille Ball. After two weeks of rehearsal, Lucy looked at Kahn and stated, “When am I going to see Gooch?” There was a major clash of technique (and age) and finally Ball announced, “Get me Gooch!” and Connell was called in. Kahn was paid more NOT to star in Mame than Connell made doing it. By now, Connell was a tad long in the tooth to play a soon-to-be unwed mother with little life experience. Of Ball, who she adored, she says, “She had an unnecessary allegiance to her fans, always thinking that she should be the old Lucy for them. Her hair was as orange as ever…she (used) some kind of hooks under her wigs to pull up and tighten her jaw line. All this, plus the soft focus photography she insisted on hampered her portrayal. Remember, Mame was a character whose credo was ‘Live, live, live!” -- she wasn’t so concerned about her appearance or being just so. The familiar freedom seemed to disappear now that Lucy was older. She couldn’t throw her body around like she used to for fear of losing a wig or a muscle hook or getting a bad angle.” Connell talks of going to (one of the business’s wealthiest and most successful women) Ball’s house for dinner and seeing a succulent lobster emerge from the kitchen only to be placed in front of Ball’s husband Gary Morton. Ball reportedly remarked, “Oh, that’s for Gary. We’re just having leftovers.” The final insult was going to a local video store to rent Mame just to be told by the clerk that she didn’t want to see that one because “It’s lousy” and getting the recommendation to rent the earlier, non-musical Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell instead!
From Miss Susan Hayward: “I was filming something called The Lost Moment…I played a schizophrenic and the director (Martin Gabel) went around telling everybody not to talk to me. Yes, even wanted the crew not to speak to me because he said I had to maintain a mood for the part. At one point, I lost my temper and crashed a lamp over his head, and to this day I’ve never felt sorry. Well, it was a disastrous film. As miserable a failure as you’ve ever seen. Their name for it may have been The Lost Moment, but after I saw it, I called it ‘The Lost Hour and Thirty-Five Minutes.'” Costar Agnes Moorehead looks like the prototype for the Scream killer in this still!
I enjoyed this hooty recollection of Debbie Reynolds’ while filming Mr. Imperium with Marjorie Main as her aunt: “Marjorie was an older woman who had a real-life bladder problem. She’d be saying her lines on camera, and nature would call. Continuing on with her lines as if it were part of the movie, she’d walk right off the set into her dressing room. You’d hear the toilet seat go down, the flushing, and Marjorie was still saying her lines. Then she’d come right back on the set, as if we hadn’t cut, and finish the scene.” She also mentions how Ezio Pinza, the male lead, couldn’t quit pawing all over the star of the film, Lana Turner, relating that Lana once told her, “He’s a slime! I can’t stand being within 10 feet of him!”
The book includes this oft-quoted gem of Joan Crawford’s: “Reunion in France--oh God. If there is an afterlife, and I am to be punished for my sins, this is one of the pictures they’ll make me see over and over again. John Wayne and I both went down for the count, not just because of a silly script, but because we were so mismatched. Get John out of the saddle and you’ve got trouble.” Some of Joan's films from this period, including this one and Above Suspicion have her looking very pretty despite the dire scripts. She was also quoted as saying something to the effect that if anyone thought these movies were bad, they should see the ones she went on suspension to AVOID making!
Prince Valiant was a notorious blight on Robert Wagner’s resume. He states, “Dean Martin was walking around the Fox lot one day and bumped into me while I was wearing full regalia for Prince Valiant, my worst bomb. Observing the black wig and bangs, he talked to me for ten minutes before he realized I wasn’t Jane Wyman.”
Vincent Price recalled one of his least favorite films thusly: “Green Hell is one of the 50 worst pictures ever made! There are lines in it that people still come up to me and quote. Joan Bennett played my wife--and we never met! There was a scene where Alan Hale -- playing a doctor -- finds Joan on the floor of the jungle. In the story, she’s been missing three weeks and she’s wearing a beautiful gown and has two little smudges. Alan Hale leans over, listens to her breathing and announces, ‘It’s all right fellas, it’s just a coma!’ To top it all off, I get killed by being shot with 12 poisoned arrows!
One of my very favorite turkeys is the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon. Star Liv Ullmann had this telling memory of her stay in Hollywood during the filming. “They gave me a fantastic house to live in, but you couldn’t even see the toilets because they were discreetly disguised as chairs. As soon as the film was over, I went back to Sweden to make another film for Ingmar Bergman on a deserted island with no drinking water, where you had to walk almost a mile to an outside toilet. It was more fulfilling than doing Lost Horizon.”
Character actor Fritz Feld built a career for himself playing knowing maitre d’s in films and had his heart set on playing the one in Hello Dolly! for Fox, a studio he’d worked for previously. After auditioning, he was led to believe he’d won the part, but was later informed that he was “too French” and that they were looking for German to play it. Feld, who had played Frenchmen, but was born in Germany (!) was crestfallen. They finally put him in the film, at a generous salary, as the assistant maitre d’, but it was a wound he would really never get over. He tells an anecdote that reveals the level of divadom that Barbra Streisand had aspired to on only her second ever film role! “One day I happened to look into a tall, upright mirror that Streisand used. Suddenly, her maid came rushing up and screamed, ‘You can’t look in that! That mirror belongs to Barbra Streisand!’ I said, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ With that, Barbra appeared and said, ‘Of course Fritz can look in my mirror. We love him.’ In the two months I worked on Hello Dolly!, Barbara only talked to the director (Gene Kelly), the cameraman and me.” Her costar on this film, Walter Matthau, allegedly told her off during the shooting with this gem, “You haven’t got the talent of a butterfly’s fart!” It may not be an accurate assessment, but it’s funny to picture him saying it.
I hope you enjoyed this small serving of turkey! If you’re someplace that celebrates Thanksgiving, I hope you had a great time. If not, hopefully your day was terrific nonetheless.