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Fellows Find: How Hollywood producers used Alfred Hitchcock’s weight to their advantage

By Casey McKittrick

Casey McKittrick is an Associate Professor of English at Western Michigan University. He spent June and July of 2012 researching the David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick archives at the Harry Ransom Center.  His work, which was funded by the Warren Skaaren Research Fellowship Endowment, produced the first chapter, and informed several others, of his forthcoming book Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread.

 

When I learned of my Warren Skaaren fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, I had just begun work on a book-length project examining how Alfred Hitchcock’s experiences as a fat man influenced his filmmaking and the path of his career. After reading that Hitchcock had undergone a 100-pound weight loss upon moving from London to Hollywood in the 1940s, I became convinced that his relationship with David O. Selznick, the Hollywood “super-producer” who provided him with a seven-year contract, must have been partly responsible for this radical body change.  Thus, I approached the Selznick archive at the Ransom Center with the working hypothesis that Hitchcock lost weight under the auspices of Selznick (renowned for tightly controlling his employees) to conform to the rigid bodily standards that Hollywood visibility necessitated.

 

The archive told a completely different story. For five weeks, I not only revised my thinking, but through the marvelously kept records—memos, legal documents, publicity material, scripts-in-process—I developed a narrative about the Selznick-Hitchcock relationship that had never been addressed at length. To be sure, a lot of research has been done on this historically important and largely successful collaboration, but Hitchcock’s fatness had never been suggested as a meaningful factor in their negotiations or their relationship dynamics.

 

First of all, it became clear that Selznick marketed Hitchcock as Europe’s greatest export by focusing on his fatness.  Selznick capitalized on Hitch’s enormity to build a literally larger-than-life profile of the director. He was proud that he had managed to enlist the “Master of Suspense” in the face of great studio competition, and he wanted to ensure that Americans could look to Hitch as a celebrity figure—one belonging to Selznick International Pictures (SIP). The publicity photos for Hitchcock’s first American film Rebecca revealed this reliance on making Hitchcock a spectacle. For example, in one photo, Hitchcock holds a fake barbell while yawning; the photo caption reads: “Heavyweight in light mood.”  In four different pictures Hitch is captioned as either a “239-pound Englishman” or a “239 pound director,” and in yet another, the caption reads, “‘Hitch,’ who likes to talk about movies and himself, doesn’t mind allusions to his 239 pounds.” Thus, far from encouraging the director to lose weight, Selznick commodified his body and did so quite successfully. In fact, when Selznick heard of Hitchcock’s drastic weight loss, he became concerned and in a memo urged him to “Drink a Malted!”

 

Another guiding idea that I uncovered through careful examination of the archive was that Selznick and his cronies at SIP would often use Hitchcock’s size against him in a shaming capacity. For example, Dan O’ Shea, one of Selznick’s vice presidents, sent a scathing memo to Hitchcock that scolded him for his prima donna attitude, and he capped off the missive with the taunt, “How’s the metabolism?” In nearly every altercation between the director and producer, communications emerged that referred to Hitchcock’s greed, his “big appetite,” or the notion that he was getting “too big for his britches.” Even as Hitchcock complied with Selznick’s publicity strategies and realized that his popularity hinged on this kind of “body marketing,” he still retained a great deal of shame surrounding his size, and Selznick exploited this shame many times in an attempt to “manage” him—to control what cinematic projects he took on, how fast he completed them, his other collaborations, and what he said to the press.

 

My research in the Selznick archives generated the first chapter of my recently completed monograph Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread, and the data I collected there is evident throughout the book. The book truly could not have been completed without this research. I look forward to using materials from the Center on future projects.

 

Related content:

The Ransom Center is now accepting fellowship applications for the 2014-2015 academic year

 

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Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

By Tom Kemper

Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’
Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’

Tom Kemper, author of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (University of California Press, 2009), did research for his book in the Ransom Center’s film collection with funding from the Warren Skaaren Film Research Endowment. He shares some of the surprising information he discovered while working with the Myron Selznick papers and the David O. Selznick collection at the Center.

The announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations reminds me of the tried-and-true tradition of winners thanking their agents. It happened for the first time in 1962. And the press took notice. When Ed Begley won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), reports noted that he “surprised Hollywood by thanking his agent, George Morris, from the stage.” Another article called it a “Hollywood first.” Little did they realize it would become part of the standard Oscar script.

This “Hollywood first” coincides with a lot of standard beliefs about the emergence of Hollywood agents. In popular opinion—in journalism, fan culture, and places like classic movie channels—and even academic circles (in histories and textbooks), it has been assumed that agents first hit the scene around this time and then surged in the 1970s with Armani-clad power brokers like Mike Ovitz, the rise of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and International Creative Management (ICM), and right on up to Ari Emmanuel (aka Ari Gold). I assumed much the same when I began my project. When I dug around in various historical sources and archives to see what agents were doing in the 1930s, the classic Hollywood studio era, I thought this material might serve as the preface to the book. What I found completely surprised me: agents were there at the start of the studio system and played a crucial role to its functioning as a big business. These discoveries became the entire book.

That digging led me to the Myron Selznick papers at the Harry Ransom Center, where I discovered incredible documents on the achievements of this leading agent in the 1930s. Selznick arranged packages of clients for productions (stars like Carole Lombard and William Powell and directors like Gregory La Cava or George Cukor), earned them shares in the film’s profits, and maneuvered short-term contracts for Hollywood artists—actions we tend to associate more with modern Hollywood than the classical period. Yet all are documented in the treasure trove of the Center’s archives.

One of the best moments for me as a researcher came when I discovered the files for the opening of Selznick’s London branch. There I discovered a long document in which he outlined, as a model, the operations of his Hollywood office. It gave me an invaluable historical perspective on the files as well as a blueprint for my research. I had a wonderful time at the Ransom Center and can’t wait to return (in Hollywood fashion, I’m writing a sequel to my book!).

Hearing Music in the David O. Selznick Collection

By Elana Estrin

Occupying almost 5,000 document cases, the archive of film producer David O. Selznick is the Ransom Center’s largest archive. Nathan Platte, a Musicology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, navigated through this enormous collection last year with a dissertation fellowship jointly sponsored by the Ransom Center and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies. Platte shares his experiences conducting research at the Ransom Center for his dissertation, “Musical Collaboration, Coercion, and Resistance in the Films of David O. Selznick, 1932–1948.”

While writing a dissertation on the films of David O. Selznick, I had the fortunate opportunity to conduct extensive research in the Harry Ransom Center’s gargantuan David O. Selznick collection. When one thinks of a film producer’s archive, images of contracts, correspondences, scripts, photographs, storyboards, and costumes might come to mind. The Selznick collection contains all of these items, but my project focused on a different facet. As a musicologist, I was most interested in the musical scores of Selznick’s films—the famous “Tara” theme that plays as Scarlett and her father watch the sun set in Gone with the Wind (1939), the eerie electronic sounds that waft through spooky sequences in Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945), the brass fanfares that gild scenes of pageantry in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and even the piano piece performed by the icy murderess of The Paradine Case (1947).

What exactly is the archival footprint of film music? The list is actually quite daunting: instructions from Selznick detailing musical ideas and impressions, pencil sketches made by the composer, full orchestral scores arranged by orchestrators, orchestral parts and “short” scores rendered by copyists, recording logs that state when the score was recorded, who played in the orchestra, and how many performances it took before the conductor was satisfied… There are also standard studio documents related to music: contracts for composers, correspondences between Selznick and music directors, and occasional photographs of the musicians who worked behind the scenes. Put simply, the Selznick collection is a treasure trove for the film musicologist.

My dissertation examines the process of scoring a film. This involved documenting many steps, including the collaboration (and arguments) between Selznick and composers. I also studied the input of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Cromwell, whose ideas on music differed from Selznick’s. Music editors also influenced the musical content of Selznick’s films even though they did not compose new music. Audray Granville, for example, reshaped Miklós Rózsa’s score for Spellbound through artful cutting and pasting. Reading her correspondences with Selznick is illuminating; the producer trusted her judgment more than the composer’s!

I was always excited to find music not used in the final film. These rejected passages tell stories of their own, and the reasons for their exclusion reveal more about the musical effects intended by Selznick, his composers, and music staff. At times like these, the process of film scoring changed my understanding of music’s relationship to story and visuals. With the rich sources of the Selznick collection and the generous support of a Ransom Center dissertation fellowship, I found this research to be both exhilarating and revelatory.