Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hollywood Hiatus

After Don't Ever Leave Me failed to wow the reading public, Kay found it difficult to do much writing. A novel begun during this period wouldn't be finished until some 7 years later (and would, quite sadly, end up being her last).


But between the years 1936 and 1941, Hollywood released at leat five motion pictures based on Kay’s work.  Here’s a chronological rundown:

LADY OF SECRETS
Columbia, 1936

Ruth Chatterton starred in this adaptation of Kay’s short story Maid of Honor, originally published in Cosmopolitan in September 1932, and reprinted several times.

The New York Times called Lady of Secrets “a picture that sashays back and forth in space and time without progresing far in any direction,” one that “is scarcely worthy of its cast…[which] moves stiffly and with obvious embarrassment through these morasses of plot and of dialogue…” Kay later defended her original story as “a pretty good one,” even if the resulting picture was an admittedly pretty bad one. 

Lady of Secrets is the only picture of this bunch that I have not seen.

MANNEQUIN
MGM, 1937

Originally titled Marry for Money, the story was adapted as a vehicle for Joan Crawford, and paired her with leading man Spencer Tracy.

The New York Times said the picture

“restores Miss Crawford to the throne as queen of the woiking goils and reaffirms Katharine Brush’s faith in the capitalist system. That system…infallibly provides every poor but pure button-hole stitcher with an eventual millionaire who respects her and dangles a tempting wedding ring.

“So what we have, if you haven’t guessed already, is a sleek restatement of an old theme, graced by a superior cast and directed with general skill by Frank Borzage, who has a gift for sentiment. All that is more than the story deserves.”

Joan went on record saying that she wasn’t thrilled with Tracy, and it kind of shows in their on-screen chemistry. The two never appeared together again.




LISTEN, DARLING
MGM, 1938

Kay’s original screen story (not the screenplay) was developed from a minor background character that made a brief appearance in Don’t Ever Leave Me. The New York Times called it  “winsome,” “a natural, pleasant and sensible little film. Judy Garland (who gets to sing three numbers, including “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart”) and Freddie Bartholomew kidnap their widowed mother (Mary Astor), lock her in a trailer and start touring the countryside in search of a suitable husband.



“If this sounds too cool-blooded and unromantic,” said The Times, “be reassured Freddie Bartholomew and Judy Garland conduct their matrimonial tour with charming unworldliness, despite the surface sophistication of their enterprise.”

It’s not giving anything away to say that the husband arrives, in the form of Walter Pidgeon.


Listen, Darling is certainly the best picture of this group.



HONEYMOON IN BALI
Paramount, 1939

Though Kay gets screen credit (along with Virginia Van Upp and Grace Sartwell Mason), virtually nothing of her 1936 story Free Woman was used, beyond the fact that the heroine is a successful and single career woman. Hardly an original idea.

And if, as The New York Times asserted, “the writers have reaffirmed the male prejudice so cogently and have given their own sex such short shrift,” if parts of the picture are “inexcusably tiresome,” one can hardly blame Kay; I've read the story and seen the picture, and I say that with absolute confidence. I actually find Honeymoon quite enjoyable.

 
Very interesting is that fact that, according to a 1936 announcement in The New York Times, Paramount intended to borrow Jean Arthur from her home studio Columbia to star her in an adaptation of Free Woman. That's the picture that should have been made!

ANDY HARDY'S PRIVATE SECRETARY
MGM, 1941

The New York Times didn't much care for this one, which is obvious from the opening line of Bosley Crowther's review:

“Thank heaven that Andy Hardy has finally graduated from high school and is on his way to college—the college of hard knocks, we hope.”

Rooney is really quite unbearable, full of snobbish condescension as the BMOC of Carvel High. He patronizes two poorer classmates (a brother and sister) by very generously allowing the brother to decorate the auditorium for the graduation exercises, and hiring the sister (Kathryn Grayson making her film debut) as his “Private Secretary.” 


Because he’s spread himself so thin (because he’s such a vital force at Carvel), he flunks his English exams and nearly doesn’t graduate. But everyone rallies 'round their Andy, who, in the end, is rewarded with a shiny new roadster. “We hardly think Andy deserved it,” quipped Crowther. Of course, without access to Kay’s original story, there’s no way of knowing if the unpleasant changes noted in the Andy Hardy character can be attributed to the writing…

Kathryn Grayson, however, rated much higher in Crowther’s estimation:

“[She] makes [Andy] look like a chump by her grace and modesty.”

She sings in the picture, too. A little bit too much.  I have to confess: I have never been a fan of Grayson’s.  She’s always been a little too cute, a little too saccharin-sweet for my palette.

I absolutely HATE the ’51 remake of Showboat. Which is mostly her fault. 
Sorry.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Should've Left Well Enough Alone

First appearing in Cosmopolitan magazine, Kay’s 1935 novel Don’t Ever Leave Me did not, despite mostly favorable reviews (The New York Times was quite generous in its praise), enjoy success similar to that of its predecessors. Kay would later lay the blame on her own constant tinkering, her incessant re-writing. In fact, she told The Times in 1942 that the novel wasn't written at allit was “carved.” Kay was, however, she further explained, ultimately pleased with the result. Along with a few other writers, bless their hearts.


Sidney Cunningham dances with Don Lamont at the Labor Day dance.
Was the one wandering white strand inlaid in her otherwise black hair
grown or manufactured?  And what was the story of the little black cat
tattooed on her back? Magazine illustrati
on by McClelland Barclay.


Reading the reviews today, I am reminded of that assessment by the Times in 1944: “the interesting thing about Katharine Brush's work has always been not so much what she says as how she says it.”

Regarding the how of Leave Me, one finds little in a negative vein:

“The large audiences that were captured by Young Man of Manhattan and Red-Headed Woman will not be disappointed…” (Leane Zugsmith, NYT)

“[Brush is] very readable for the moment…devilishly adept…” (John Chamberlain, NYT; “Books of the Times”)

“[Brush] has achieved a slick-as-cream smoothness which lesser popular writers must envy desperately…On certain contemporary matters her work is definitive.” (Edith H. Walton, The Youngstown Daily Vindicator)

The what, on the other hand, left the same critics unsatisfied.



Here’s Chamberlain:

Superficially, Miss Brush is a novelist of Scott Fitzgerald’s order. But only superficially. Both of them have very retentive memories for the ephemeral that gives each year its special tone. But…Fitzgerald is interested in character, in people making moral decisions. Miss Brush tries to be. But the typical and the topical are always diverting her…[T]he world of character, of moral decision, is neglected…

And although Walton thought the novel warmer than Red-Headed Woman, and found in it “faint, undeveloped traces of social consciousness,” she predicted that the book would be “unbearably nostalgic” ten years into the future. She twists the knife a bit by concluding that Don’t Ever Leave Me “will disappoint only those naïve optimists who once supposed, on the basis of her short stories, that Katharine Brush might develop into a writer of consequence.”

Ouch.



Left: the rather drab dust jacket of the first edition; Kay's name is now larger than the title. Right: Inscription inside Swanie's copy of Leave Me

Friday, March 23, 2012

Renwood Tonight

Other Women is ultra-rare with its
jacket:
 in my 5+ years of collecting,
this is the 
only one I have found.
In 1933 Farrar & Rinehart brought out Other Women, a collection of some of Kay's previously published short works. Half of the stories are set in Renwood, Ohio, already known to Kay’s readers as the home of Lillian Andrews. One story, in fact, centers around Louise Bartlett, the Renwood socialite who so ruthlessly and methodically cuts Lillian down to size during the course of a cocktail party in Lillian's own home. Published in 1930, the story very interestingly provides the first glimpse of Lillian, unnamed, mentioned only in passing. Here is Lillian in embryonic form, one which would later grow and develop fully into that notorious Red-Headed Woman



The fictional Renwood was based on the factual East Liverpool, Ohio, where Kay 
and her husband (and shortly thereafter their son Tommy) lived  from 1920 to 1926. Although Kay later maintained that she liked life in East Liverpool just fine, the pettiness, pretentions, and hypocrisies of Renwood’s ladies who lunch are archly chronicled by Kay, with little effort at concealing the contempt in which she must have held such narrow-minded provincialism. 


East Liverpool's country club is still there today; one of
Lillian Andrews's driving ambitions was to be afforded
entrée to the upper echelons of Renwood society, 

whose center was the country club.

Kay's handwriting was quite obviously 
the basis for the book jacket type.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

All the Pretty Red-Heads

Putting us on:
Dressler, circa 1931
As with the casting of Scarlett O’Hara years later, 
it would seem that virtually every female star in Hollywood was “considered” for the part of Lillian Andrews in MGM’s screen adaptation of Red-Headed Woman. Many of the names can certainly be dismissed as just so much hype (Garbo? Give me a break!); but so tireless and extensive were the efforts of MGM's publicity machine that no less than sexagenarian 
(with perhaps an emphasis on the "sex") comedienne extraordinaire Marie Dressler was prompted to throw her own hat in the ring!



What Bow's Lil Andrews
might have looked like
"It Girl" Clara Bow was reported by Time magazine as a natural, if not necessarily first choice. But this seems to be just another rumor, originating with Louella Parsons. Parsons claimed that MGM's Irving Thalberg sought her opinion regarding who should get the part. To that end, Parsons conducted a “poll” in her column, asking her readers who they wanted to see in the part; Bow, apparently, was America's overwhelming choice. But I can find no independent evidence (other than the Time piece) that Bow was ever seriously considered for, much less offered the rôle.




The only name that appears to have been seriously in the running is Joan Crawford, whose assumption of the rôle seems to have come close to becoming reality: The New York Times went so far as to announce Crawford as MGM's likely choice in October of 1931. But  according to at least one source I have seen, Crawford was given the thumbs down by Kay herself, though Kay makes no mention of any participation on her part in the casting of the picture in This Is On Me. (Interestingly enough, Crawford would play another Brush heroine five years later in Mannequin, but more on that in a future post...)










Joan Crawford almost looks as though she's posing as the artist's rendering of Lillian Andrews!






Carole Lombard, circa 1931
Other suggestions that at least look plausible on paper are Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck.  

But by early May of 1932 the Times announced 
the final cast, shortly after declaring that

Miss Harlow has specialized on the screen in distasteful women and the fear of the average star 
that she will suffer from an unsympathetic part is 
just so much cream in Miss Harlow’s coffee.



What strikes me as funny is the fuss that was made at the time over Harlow’s 
hair-color—platinum blonde—which was hardly natural to begin with. One writer 
expressed dismay that the character would have to be turned into a blonde, and Parsons argued that the part should at least be given to a real red-head, conveniently ignoring the fact that Bow’s own red tresses came from a block of henna! And it’s odd that in the finished, black-and-white picture, Harlow’s hair (a wig, according to the Times) doesn’t even register as all that vivid. It makes me think of how Bette Davis’s “red” dress in Jezebel was actually not red at all…


I vant to be a red-head:
Garbo would eventually get her 
chance

to go "red," for 1939's Ninotchka



Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”

The opening line of MGM’s topnotch treatment of Red-Headed Woman is an inside joke: 
the line, of course, is a reference to Anita Loos’ book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, published in 1925. 
The joke is that Jean Harlow's blonde hair was already the star's trademark, and that the screenplay of Woman was written by none other than Loos herselfapparently after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s effort fizzled.


The accepted story, repeated by numerous Fitzgerald biographers, has it that the Fitzgerald script (produced with collaborator Marcel de Sano) was deemed too somber, and was tossed aside. In all fairness to Mr. Fitzgerald, it should be pointed out that Kay's original novel does not contain muchif anyof the humor to be found in MGM's realized adaptation. (By his own account, the experience left Fitzgerald more than a little disillusioned with Hollywood.) According to This is on Me, Loos was with the project from the beginning, and Fitzgerald a seemingly minor player. I'm not quite sure who to believe, but it would seem that Kay’s recollection in this instance is faulty. In any event, it’s Loos’ name in the opening credits, not Fitzgerald’s.

The picture premiered on June 25, 1932, and was an instant hit.

My favorite line in the movie? Lillian Andrews, trying on a dress in a shop (and standing in front of a sunny window), demurely asks the (off-camera) shopgirl 
“can you see through this?”  “I’m afraid you can, miss,” answers the shopgirl. 
I’ll wear it,” comes Lil’s unexpected reply. It occurs within the first 2 minutes 
of the movie, and it lets us know right from the outset just what sort of picture 
this is going to be: 
    
a quick, caustic biography of an alert, successful strumpet, according to Time.


Jean Harlow (seated) and Anita Loos cutting up for MGM's publicity department

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Young Woman with a Pulitzer

Here’s a suggestion for Christmas gift-giving from The Palm Beach Post’s “Book Nook”, December 20, 1931:



Probably too light in vein for a Pulitzer. Probably. Even that’s quite a compliment. As greatly as I admire Kay’s writing, as much as I enjoyed Red-Headed Woman, even I have to say that even “probably” was probably a bit optimistic.

The Outsider

I just finished reading Red-Headed Woman. I had left it for later, as I mentioned previously, because I felt I already knew the story well enough from the movie. 
In fact last night, with 20 or 30 pages left, I put the movie on, so that I could do a sort of side-by-side comparison. My initial assessment—that I knew it, the story—was only partially correct. The picture’s a good one, a lot of fun, but the book is, not surprisingly, much better, much fuller.

The jacket of the 
movie tie-in edition
The essentials are the same. Red-headed Lillian ("Lil") Andrews is from the "wrong side of the tracks." Lil works as a stenographer for the Legendres, who own a number of coal mines in Renwood, Ohio. Lil aspires to a more affluent, comfortable (well, pampered, really) life, and sets her sights on William ("Bill") Legendre, Jr. She uses her considerable feminine charms to seduce Bill away from his wife Irene. But even Renwood affluence isn’t enough for Lil, and, what’s worse, the social gates she thought would be flung wide to welcome her remain frustratingly, maddeningly barred. She decides it’s time to trade up, which she does by charming one C. G. Gaerste (rhymes with "thirsty"), whose wealth dwarfs that of the Legendres. ("You wouldn't call it money.")

Here’s where the stories diverge. In Kay’s original, Gaerste is, like Lil, an outsider of humble origins. Through hard work and sheer good luck he amassed his millions, which he now relishes in flaunting before all the world. Free of any “old money” snobbishness (to say nothing of restraint), he and Lil are simpatico. Gaerste sees Lil as simply another gorgeous, expensive ornament for him to dangle before envious, admiring eyes. Whether or not there’s any real affection between the two is completely beside the point.  

In the movie, Gaerste is a bit of an old coot, a wealthy friend and business associate of the Legendres. At first resistant to Lil’s wiles, Gaerste must be won over with sex.  And old coot or no, Gaerste is rich enough for Lillian to accept his proposal of marriage.
But then there’s a chauffeur (in the guise of Charles Boyer), a private investigator, a shooting, and an escape to Paris, none of which originated at the point of Kay’s pen. Oh well, both versions of the story end with Lil pretty much getting exactly what she wanted from the start.

Obviously, motion picture adaptations of literary works have to be condensed, streamlined. Characters get combined or added or eliminated altogether; events are truncated, shifted. At least this was the understood, the expected and accepted practice in 1932. Unfortunately, the central—it literally happens in the middle of the book—event in Kay’s original, the party scene, is shifted and condensed in such a manner and to such a degree that it loses most, if not all, of its impact.

The scene shows Kay at her best, I think, and can stand almost on its own as a story. It’s worth reading in its entirety, and if you’d like to do so, you can find it here

Here’s the emotional climax:

                She knew, she understood, then and thereafter. Her mind made swift and shattering translations. She could not delude herself, she could no longer, with the thin veil of Louise's subtlety, hide from herself Louise's meanings. Now she knew what all this was—deep in her mind she must have known it from the start, to know it so well now, to see it with such clarity. They were kidding her, these girls. Of course. Of course. They were giving her a ride. They were making fun of her, making a perfect fool of her—laughing at her behind the bright polite glaze of their eyes. They were collecting ludicrous quotations and descriptions, to take away with them; enough to last them for a long time. They were Irene's great friends, and this was sport and this was vengeance. So they had come. Now she knew well why they had come.

                This was what happened, then. This was what you got. You were the red-headed Andrews girl from Renwood Falls, from the railroad crossing, and you stole a rich husband and bought a big house, and a Chinese Buddha, and a naked dress, and you tried to crash Society—and this was what you got. Never mind what you expected, hoped for. This was what you got. This was what Society did to you, to make you understand. You couldn't crash it in a million years.

The scene as Kay’s written it also highlights one of the less tangible differences between novel and movie. Watching Harlow give life to Lil Andrews, we are alternately amused and scandalized (assuming we’re an audience of 1932, anyway) by her wanton brazenness. But we never feel sorry for her. Not once. And while we might cringe at the behavior, the taste and the choices of Kay’s “heroine,” she’s not one-sided; something akin to pity is often aroused in the reader. 

Pity for the outsider who so desperately wants to belong.

photo of Kay from the first edition dust jacket


Monday, March 19, 2012

Young Man of the Movies


It was inevitable that a novel as successful as Young Man of Manhattan would find its way to the silver screen: it arrived in theaters the same year the book was published. In fact, the film rights had been sold even before the Saturday Evening Post serial had concluded! It seems quite astonishing today, the rapidity with which the studios managed to turn bestsellers into movies...such was the demand for talking pictures.

It was the era of raccoon eyes--I mean COATS!
Paramount's Young Man Norman Foster starred opposite his then real-life wife Claudette Colbert in a faithful and straightforward (albeit somewhat condensed) realization of Kay's original. And although it was quite universally lauded by the critics, one reviewer said he wished Miss Colbert had worn rather less eye makeup! 


The picture also starred Charles ("Charlie") Ruggles, best remembered today as the burbling grandfather in Disney's The Parent Trap (1961), and a young Ginger Rogers in her first feature-length motion picture. 

Charlie Ruggles must have been more popular
than Claudette Colbert in Brooklyn back in 1930!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Man And A Woman


Kay's nextand most successful
two novels began as magazine serials just like their two prede-
cessors. But their appearance in The Saturday Evening Post is surely evidence of Kay's increased literary stature.  



Young Man of Manhattan debuted in October 1929 (above left), and Red-Headed Woman in the summer of 1931 (above right). Publication in hard covers (below)  followed shortly thereafter.  




















Above left: this later-printing jacket of Young Man of Manhattan boasts significantly higher sales (10 times higher!) than Kay's first novel, GlitterAbove right: the rare, first edition dust jacket of Red-Headed Woman depicts a pre-Harlow conception of Lil Andrews.



Left: Inscription inside one of my five copies of Young Man of Manhattan


"Swanie" is H. N. Swanson, Kay's long-time literary agent, whom she met during her days at College Humor. I have a number of Kay's booksall inscribedthat belonged to him.


Swanie was a pretty big deal. You can read what the Times said about him when he died in 1991.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Little Opus



Though by 1927 Kay was already an established author with two novels under her belt, it was actually a short story that put her on the literary map. Night Club caused quite a sensation when it appeared in Harper's in September of that year. Yet there's actually such an absence of action in Night Club that Kay was later prompted to call it not even a story, merely a trick. 

Mrs. Brady is the ladies' lounge attendant at the Club Français, a tony New York night club. Throughout the course of the evening, young and not-so-young-anymore ladies wander in and out, lingering just long enough for the combing of hair, buffing of fingernails, powdering of noses. The reader, observing from the vantage point of the central character, is treated to snippets of the most intimate and revealing of conversations. At one a.m., when the club's dancing act go on, Mrs. Brady finally has some time to herself. She takes out the true stories-type magazine she purchased at the beginning of the story, and is immediately absorbed, her eyes drinking up printed lines.” To Mrs. Brady the magazine stories are live, vivid threads in the dull, drab pattern of her night.  

Appearing 20 years after its
initial publication, this pulp
edition of
Night Club hints at
titillations never delivered
The irony, of course, is that the "true" stories that Mrs. Brady finds so engrossing are actually playing out right under her nose, without her ever being aware of it. The story's ending is a literary punchline: that's Kay's "trick."


Night Club, which Kay later dubbed "The Little Opus," received an honorable mention from The O. Henry Awards, and was collected, along with 10 other of Kay's more successful stories up to that time, and published in a single volume in 1929. 


That same year, Kay's "Little Opus" was transferred to the big screen, albeit in a much altered (read "unrecognizable") form.


Incidentally, 1929 was also the year that one of Kay's stories actually won an 
O. Henry Award.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Glitter and be Gay

Kay's first two novels began life as serials in College Humor magazine. Glitter was published in book form in 1926, and Little Sins followed a year later. 

There’s really little point in giving detailed synopses of the plots. Suffice it to say that the books are full of glamorous young people doing the things that glamorous young people did back then. They go to dances and drive fast sexy cars. They drink too much and smoke endless cigarettes. They stay out until the wee hours and never rise before noon. They fall in and out of love, often with each others’ spouses, and sometimes with disastrous results. They…well, you get the idea.



Of course the books are dated, frequently in funny ways that the author certainly never intended. They do not, it must be readily admitted, have the timelessness of that greatest of their comtemporaries, The Great Gatsby. But they are a lot of fun. And to be fair, 85-year-old popular novels should really be judged not by how true to life they seem to us but by how true to life they were in their own day. They measure up pretty well in that regard.

Both novels are rare 
in their dust jackets
The only review in print of Glitter that I have been able to find appeared in the April 1926 issue of the campus publication The Ohio State Engineer. 
The Engineer’s reviewer found that the novel’s characters “in every way seem to be the people that we meet every day,” and went on to predict that “this book will soon be the best seller in college circles.” I cannot confirm whether or not that prediction ever came true, but according to Kay's "autobiography" This is on Me,  the book sold about 8,000 copies, apparently quite respectable for a first novel of the time.

Little Sins seems to have attracted a little more attention. In what is the earliest review of a Brush work by a major publication that I have seen, Time magazine had this to say:

The Significance. Nowadays it takes a mental eye of high velocity detail, the myriad activities of knowing young Manhattanites. There are so many things to do and everything is done so quickly. To cover the assignment with the thoroughness and mimetic accuracy (but not the rancor) of a Sinclair Lewis, and at the same time to create four central characters of breathless reality, and a Dickensian hurly-burly of minor characters, and to keep them moving through their swift social traffic under their own power and in their right positions, requires a highly developed social instinct and something akin to literary genius. Socially and book-technically, Little Sins is a stunning performance. And to its fundamental perfections are superadded real whimsy, real pathos, an unobtrusive cleverness at small talk.

Did you catch that?  "Mimetic accuracy of a Sinclair Lewis".  "Breathless reality".  "Literary genius".  "Stunning performance".

Though Glitter is cited as source, Kay gets
no credit on this lobby card for
The Drop Kick
 


Glitter’s story was filmed--twice, apparently--as silents. (A third, talking picture was planned but never came about.) The Drop Kick from 1927 starred Richard Barthelmess, and is mostly known today for an early appearance of a 20-year-old John Wayne.  (Keen-eyed admirers of the Duke can spot him in a crowd scene.) The second, according to This is on Me, was titled Football Coach, though there is no such film listed at imdb.com. As with so many other silent movies, we must assume this one lost. And although Time thought Little Sins “looks like another sure-fire [film] scenario,” that book never did make it to the screen.


Perhaps Time was right when it called the novel “one of those rare books with more electricity in its pages than can ever be added to it in a projection room.

Pifflingly Unimportant: Kay covered the 1925 Atlantic City Beauty Pageant for the Brush-Moore Newspaper chain of Ohio (her father-in-law was an owner). The experience provided material for Little Sins.