It was June 1982 and I was still sleeping at 7 a.m. in my room at Los Angeles' Century Plaza hotel--the phone kept ringing until I picked it up.
"Hal Wallis here," came the booming voice. "My car will be picking you up in half an hour for our interview."
I sat upright. "I thought this was for lunch," I stammered.
"Right on!" came the booming reply. "I'm in Rancho Mirage this week. It will take my driver three hours to get you there. So get up and be ready at the entrance at 8:30!" Then Hallis rang off.
I did as I was told and at three hours later emerged from the sleek white Rolls to bang on the door of Wallis and his second wife Martha Hyer.
After pleasantries we retired to a gigantic sunken living room and later retreated to a fancy bistro for a leisurely lunch.
Here are highlights of our conversation:
MARTHA HYER:Jim, you should have been here last night as we ran Casablanca. Hal provided a running commentary for each scene including the last line which he thought of during the last night of filming at the San Diego airport.
JB: Mr. Wallis, that's an excellent way to begin the interview, your buying an un-produced Broadway play and turning it into one of the most treasured movies.
HW: The unproduced play was called Everyone Comes To Rick's. I could see it needed a whole lot of work and I had the Epstein twins work on it for a bit and later Casey Robinson rewrote some of their dialogue and then Howard Koch polished it a bit more. I needed Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa but David Selznick owned her contract and said she was set on going to Paramount to co-star with Gary Cooper in For Whom The Bell Tolls. I did a superb test with Michele Morgan but her studio RKO then asked for a double salary which made me hopping mad. Hedy Lamarr had a one picture deal with Warners but she chose The Collaborators because it had a complete script.
I sighed in relief when George Raft sent a note saying he couldn't possibly make a movie without seeing a full script. He'd already turned me down for The Maltese Falcon saying he had vowed never to do a remake. And for High Sierra he scrawled "I'm through with gangster types!" So one could say Humphrey Bogart who was my first choice became a huge star based on the scripts Grorrge Raft turned down.
JB: But Ingrid Bergman did wind up in Casablanca.
GW:Paramount decided on a contract player Vera Zorina and Selznick phoned and we got her but for a limited time meaning I had to start production sooner than I'd wanted. I paid a fortune to get Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt. Dooley Wilson couldn't sing much and he couldn't play the piano at all --MGM asked a fortune but it almost went to Lena Horne! I thought she was too beautiful so I forked up to MGM. On some days the cast would be standing around until new dialogue pages arrived.
Mike Curtiz did a terrific job but at first he said no and I had to warn Vince Sherman he might have to jumping as director. Mike came around --he had an ability to shoot fast and goad his cast into great moments even if he was a bit of a bully. Of course the Allies landing in North Africa just as we opened the picture certainly helped.
JB: Then came Oscar night.
HW: Jack Warner had nothing to do with this movie until he realized it was going to be this monster hit. He made sure Paul Lukas also got a best actor nomination (for Watch On The Rhine) and campaigned against Bogey which was very perverse. Paul won and Casablanca was named as best picture and a phalanx of Jack's relatives blocked my aisle and Jack ran up and received the award. I was stunned and then angry. I resigned the next day but stayed on to finish the editing on Saratoga Trunk which starred Bergman and Gary Cooper.
Days later the Academy sent over a second Oscar for me and the next year asked me to present the Oscar for best picture. As I trotted up to the stage I could see Jack glowering in rage. When he came to write his autobiography he never mentioned me once. Now that's carrying a real grudge.
JB: Let's get back to your roots and how you became such a powerhouse at Warners.
Hw:Well, I started at Warners in the publicity department in 1922 and worked my way through the system so that I knew everything about how movies are made and how they get targeted. It was an invaluable education, one young people simply can't get in any film school. And my mentor was always Darryl Zanuck who was one step ahead of me.
In 1928 I was made head of First National --the Burbank studio Warners had bought cheaply the year before. First National had initially been a huge, sprawling success but it had one key weakness --the studio owned no theatres whereas feisty Warners may have been smaller but it pioneered talkies and was hugely rich. As the years went by the difference between First National and Warners was mainly a bookkeeping enterprise. The U.S. anti-trust department dictated the two studios could not merge and that went on until 1951 when TV started eating up the movie business.
JB: When you took up production what were the main problems you could see.
HW: We were riding high in brutality. We had the tough guy stars Cagney, Robinson, Muni but few female stars. In 1931 we bought the contracts of Bill Powell, Ruth Chattewrton and Kay Francis after Jesse Lasky inadvertently let their contracts lapse at Paramount.
I was determined to build our own cadre of female stars. I thought Bette Davis would go far. Ann Dvorak was equally talented but her brawls with Jack Warner got so vicious she finally left in a huff. I gave Olivia deHavilland her big breaks in 1935 when she was 19 in Captain Blood and A Mid Summer Night's Dream. I thought Jane Bryan had the looks and talent to go to the top but she married industrialist Justin Dart and retired from the business.
In 1938 I signed Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon to short term deals because we had such a need for leading ladies. But neither of those ladies exactly fitted in. In 1939 I brought Geraldine Fitzgerald to the studio --on her first day Jack loaned her out as Estella in Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights for which she was Oscar nominated and then she co-starred with Bette Davis in Dark Victorty Bette gave her bad advice --to fight against any casting and she was on suspension when I was casting The Maltese Falcon and I was unable to use her.
JB: I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) was a huge success but also a big gamble.
HW: Yes, because the author Robert Elliot Burns was in L.A. for the filming and we had to move him from safe house to safe house because the authorities from Georgia were determined to re-arrest him. At the time I was locked in combat with Jack Warner who wanted most features to run about an hour. He was very close with the exhibitors who wanted two new hourlong features a week but I pressed for longer features to better tell a story. Jack roared because the length of Chain Gang was 87 minutes. But the cost was under $200,000 because director Mervyn LeRoy filmed so quickly and Paul Muni was brilliant in it.
JB: Your thoughts on Muni.
HW: I once assigned him to High Sierra and he said "Hal, I've played my last gangster." I said "But you've never played a gangster at WB!" Did this mean after the success with The Life Of Louis Pasteur he'd no longer play scientists. Or after The Story Of Emile Zola he was through playing writers. Those great men roles and their huge success meant he only wanted to play great men. I hated his make-up in Juarez--the face never moved but he said Indians never showed emotions. And it was a flop, he'd lost the sympathy of the audience. He came from Yiddish theatre where one hides behind false noses and bears. There was intense rivalry between him and Eddie Robinson. Once Eddie said he didn't want ro do A Despatch From Reuters and I said "OK, Muni wants that one." And he grabbed the script and ran from my office.
JB: I saw you at the table with Bette Davis at her 1978 AFI dinner and it's obvious you knew how to deal with her.
HW: She'd yell and scream at Jack Warner but never at me. She'd try to intimidate her directors. For awhile Teddy Goulding could do no harm and then she became so difficult he faked a heart attack so he wouldn't have to work with her again on Old Acquaintance. She first knew Irving Rapper when he was her dialogue director on several pictures. They were very chummy on the set of Now, Voyager which I consider one of her best. But later after I left WB she tried to have him removed as director of Deception. When she refused the female lead in Watch On The Rhine I said Irene Dunne wanted the part and Bette instantly said she'd do it. At the AFI dinner she was taken aback by how many of her co-workers simply had refused to come out and salute her.
JB: At one time William Wyler was her favourite.
HW: He got her the Oscar for Jezebel. During one scene he photographed her coming down the stairs to greet Donald Crip 13 times and the selected the second take. He could do that with Sam Goldwyn because Sam only released one or two pictures a year. On The Letter there's that marvellous opening on the Malay rubber plantation and he took a whole day and photographed it seven times. And I picked the first time and harsh words were spoken on both sides. I never borrowed him again and Davis later came in conflict with him when Goldwyn borrowed her for The Little Foxes --in return we got Gsary Cooper who we needed for Sergeant York. And the arguments between the two became so bitter Willie would never use her again. She refused to go to his AFI salute or so I'm told but he was there at hers which was a pleasant surprise.
JB:Probably your top picture of that era was The remake of the Maltese Falcon (1941).
HW: Jack Warner said "Make it or whatever --I don't care."I had to have Humphrey Bogart and was anxious that George Raft might insist but he sent me a letter explaining he'd never do a remake. Then Jack forbade me using Gerry Fitzgerald as co-star because she was already on suspension. I'd wanted Mary Astor all along --she was seven years older than Gerry and I knew she could capture two two sides of Bridget. I promised Johnny Huston he could direct if he first produced a new screenplay. He bought multiple copies of the novel so he could paste verbatim some of the choice speeches from the book. And I assigned him an ace cameraman Arthur Edenson.
It really was an easy one to direct because there are mostly dialogue scenes in hotel rooms and Sam Spade's office and apartment. I watched the rushes and suggested a few times he speed up the action. The fire on the ship is the only big outdoor scene. Total cost was under $200,000 and it made five times that in first release.
And I know your next question will be why no sequel. Nobody thought in those terms at the time. A typical Warners sequel was Brother Rat And A Baby. But we didn't have the rights to use Sam Spade in another story and we asked Dashiell Hammett to supply a new novel but he just couldn't do it, he was so alcoholic by then.
JB: Jack Warner didn't want it to be Oscar nominated at all?
HWL He said it was a remake and beside the credits say "With Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor" so they couldn't be nominated as best actor and actress. He ordered Mary be nominated instead as best supporting actress for The Great Lie and she won.
JB: But then John Huston made Action In The Pacific (1942)
HW: Garbage! We took all the actors from Bogey to Greensatreet to Astor and put them in a melodrama about the Japs blowing up the Panama Canal. Johnny was drafted and left without finishing an ending so Vince Sherman had to make something up. But it made money!
JB: Let's look at 1938 when you produced 196 major movies. In 1940 you produced 21. the 1938 pictures includedJezebel, White Banners, Brother Rat, the remake of Dawn Patrol, the Adventures of Robin Hood. In 1940 you had such hits as City For Conquest, Virginia Vity, All This And Heaven Too, the Fighting 69th. How did you do it?
HW (chuckling): I need went home. No, seriously! I'd arrive at 8 a.m. and spend hours checking the rushes from the day before. All the time I was dictating memos to the associate producers. Let's see, I had Robert Llord ever since Chain Gang, David Lewis who I got from MGM after Thalberg's death, Mark Hellinger, Henry Blanke who replaced me as production head in 1943. but no doubt about it I was seriously overworked.
JB: You put Errol Flynn and Olivia deHaviland in their first picture together. And they went on to make six more blockbusters. I'm trying too be delicate but Errol was not a nice man.Our legal department had to extricate him from many serious issues. He simply didn't care about anything but pleasuring himself/ But underneath the golden boy facade there was a seriously ill man. He'd had TB and typhus in Australia and often an irregular heartbeat. In 1942 he collapsed on the set of Gentleman Jim with his first heart attack --the reason he failed a physical to get I not the army during wartime.
B: After Jack Warner grabbed the Oscar for Casablanca you resigned.
JB: I'm a big fan of your production of Kings Row (1941) but I wonder why it was done in black and white.
HW: Wartime restrictions. If we'd made it in color it would have been as popular today as Gone With The Wind. I hired Sam Wood to direct but hewasas slow as molasses. We were going to use Jeffrey Lynn as Parris but Sam said he looked too similar to Ron Reagan. So I narrowed Bob Cummings at the last minute from Universal. I needed aCassie but Ida Lupino went on suspension rather than do it. I used Betty Field but she wasn't quite right. Bette Davis wanted it but she was a decade too old. I think Claude Rains was wonderful, so was Charles Coburn as the cruel doctor who saws off Robbie's legs. This one made Reagan into a big star.
JB: You twice won the Irving Thalberg award but did you ever met him.
HW: I'd see him at premieres. Always beautifully dressed. Very pale and thin. the big studios used to send out copies of their big hits. So he'd seen Captain Blood and said he liked it. Which was a thrill. Later, I wanted to nab Norma Shearer becauseWB needed female stars. She was very gracious but said --this was in 1942--that she considered herself totally retired.
JB: Why did you call the making of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) the happiest experience of your career?
HW: I knew this was going to be Jimmy Cagney's last WB picture. I'd starred Jim in such hits asG-Men,Boy Meets Girl, The Roaring Twenties and Strawberry Blonde. I phoned him and he immediately accepted but there were only few months before his contract expired. I hired his brother Bill as associate producer and agreed when his real sister Jeanne Cagney was hired to play his movie sister. On this one I believe Jimmy as co-director. When Curtiz had yelled at him in other films he'd roar right back. Here he set up every scene and let Curtiz concentrate on lighting and camera work. The facts were substantially altered because George M. Cohan wasn't the nicest of men. In this treatment he only has one wife and his nastiness was airbrushed out. Jimmy's dancing made the movie. That scene where Cphan visits President Roosevelt was tough to shoot--we had FDR Mostly with his back to the camera. And when Jimmy as George leaves Jimmy interpolated a little jig down the stairs. Then came the big test: Cohan had story approval and the movie was run for him in New York and he loved it. It made him a big name again and he died a happy man shortly after.
Jimmy found out how hard it was to make his own pictures. He made Johnny Come Lately and Blood On the Sun (1945) but they were inferior to his WB work.13 True Madeleine (1946) was for Fox.But his production of The Time Of Your Life bombed. So in 1949 he was back at Warners.
JB: But you are still incensed Jack Warner ran up on Oscar night and took the best picture statuete for Casablanca.
HW: Yes! His relatives blocked the aisle until he grabbed it. The audience knew what was happening. I call it the Curse of Casablanca. Because Jack did not win another Best Picture Oscar until 1964 for My Fair Lady. I'm still bitter about it. But I stayed to supervise postproduction of Saratoga Trunk which didn't have much pep as far as I was concerned. Louis Mayer wanted me to become the new Thalberg at MGM but I finally formed a production unit releasing through Paramount. I'd have my own set of stars which Paramount could use and vice versa.
The first was Lizabeth Scott who I saw on Broadway and I promptly starred her with Robert Cummings in a tearjerker It Had To Be you (1945). I fully acknowledge I made a mistake with her --she was terrific as the girl with a past in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers. She was sort of bad but really a good girl in Deserty Fury and then I loaned her to Columbia for Dead Reckopmning and she was typecast. Her rival art Warners was Lauren Bacall and Warners gave Lauren more challenges --she was excellent in Key Largo and I blame myself for not getting Liz into more sympathetic parts.
My second find was Burt Lancaster who had a circus background. He was born in 1913 and had almost no acting experience but I immediately loaned him to Mark Hellinger for the small but important part of The swede in The Killers. He looked terrific and was cast against another unknown Ava Gardner,. He got third billing on Desert Fury but attracted all the attention. He told me early on he wanted to move quickly into producing and he did so by the Fifties.
JB: You rarely used the old Warners stars.
HW: Bogey was always asking why I wasn't hiring him. But I had nothing for him and he was too expensive. I did buy Come Back Little Sheba for Bette Davis but she refused it after watchingShirley Booth on Broadway. So I had to use Shirley who had never made a picture and was10 years older than Bette. Then Burt Lancaster flopped me by saying he wanted to play Doc --he was 30 years younger than the alcoholic, elderly doctor but he was terrific. And he was terrific again with Anna Magnani in The Rose Tatoo --and she also won an Oscar. For The Rainmaker I wanted Eva Marie Saint but she refused to sign a term contract. So I used Kate Hepburn who was 20 years older and it showed and that one wasn't very successful.JB: You used Barbara Stanwyck a Lot in those days.
HW: Shared a contract for her with Paramount. She was terrific in Martha Ivers --her weakling husband was newcomer Kirk Douglas who came from the New York stage. He thought he was going to play Van Heflin's part but he was terrific as the alcoholic husband and began a career of sympathetic weaklings. Even then there was a rivalry with Burt that continues to this day.Kirk didn't get out of that typecasting until he made Champion in 1949,
And Barbara? She got an Oscar nomination for Sorry, Wrong Number (`948), Agnes Moorehead had played that part live on TV. I offered her a supporting role but she refused and good for her. Barbara was also great in The File On Thelma Jordan and The Furies, the last film of Walter Huston. But it didn't do as well. She was 43 by then and Paramount thought she could no longer appeal to younger film goers. Sot she just kept going but at other studios.
HW: You made few comedies until Martin and Lewis came along.
HW: I saw them on TV. I tested them out in a comedy My Friend Irma in 1949 which grossed five times its actual cost. Sp I followed with My Friend Irma Goes West to the same uge reception. From the beginning I knew the boys hated each other. Dean wanted to be as funny as Jerry. Jerry wanted to be as suave as Dean. They'd make a picture a year for me. They also were rotating stars on Colkgate Comedy Hour. U always paired them with veteran directors to teach them the business.For At War with the army (1950) it was Hal Walker. For Jumping Jacks (1953) it was Norman Taurog.Scared Stiff (1953) was a remake of a Bob Hope vehicle The Ghost Breakers. I'd add some pretty starlets like Polly Bergen, Mona Freeman, even Donna Reed.Each vehicle could be churned out in about four weeks and the profits were large.
Jerry was always difficult to control, always making crazy demands. Sometimes he wasn't speaking to Dean or vice versa and finally he comes and tells me" I'm splitting up the act. I still had both of them on contract so I used Jerry solo on The Sad Sack and then he went off on his own way becoming ever more obstreperous, Nobody thought Dean could succeed on his own but after he made Rio Bravo (1959) with Duke Wayne for Howard Hawks he did just fine.
JB: You have a story about making Career at Paramount in 1959.
HW: Jerry Lewis was doing something, I had Career (1959) with Shirley MacLaine and Carolyn Jones --they switched roles with my permission and that worked out just fine. Perlberg and Seaton were in pre-production for The Pleasure Of His Company and that was it. The rest of the lot was dark and a majority of the employees had been dismissed.
HW: You've described Shirley MacLaine as difficult.
HW: Yes! But also very talented. I saw her dancing in a Broadway show and she had everything. She signed with me but I had little work for her. She did my Artisys And Models with Jerry and Dean. And I loaned her to Paramount for The Trouble with Harry.Mike Todd wanted her as the Hindu princess in Around The World In 80 Days.She did Hot Spell for me and Paramountr used her in The Matchmaker. In 1958 she garnered her first Oscar nomination for Some Came Running.Then came the incredible The Apartment. Magnificent! I wanted her to end her contract with Wives And Lovers but she turned it down so I refused to loan her for The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I used Van Johnson and Janet Leigh and that one just tanked so maybe Shirley was right after all.
JB: You made buckets of dough with Elvis Presley.
GW: I saw him live on TV wigging those hips. I thought I just had to have him under contract. His agent Colonel Parkrt was a cagey old bird. He signed Elvis to contracts with me, Fox and MGM. I'm proudest of King Crerole where he really acts --I brought in Mike Curtis and they boded and Mike coaxed Elvis out of his shell. The craziest time came when I cast Angie Lansbury as his ma in Blue Hawaii --and it worked. He was petrified when put against Barbara Stanwyxk in Roustabout --she'd bark ay him when he forgot lines. Elvis always reported to work with a paunch so I had to hire all his sidekicks --yjey were to play touch doornail with him out on the Paramount lawn every day and work him up to a sweat. But did I ever know age guy? No. He told me after his ma died that he really didn't care anymore. his favourite director as the years passed was Norman Taurog who usually directed little kids. And that's what Elvis remained --a little, starstruck kid.
JB: Why move to Universal in 1969?
Because Paramountt wasn't Paramount any more.Charles Bludhorn was chairman and it was part of a conglomerate.and he said nobody was interested in Becket because "It was a "mediaeval thingy." But he was wrong. Then when I wanted to do Anne Of A Thousand Days he flew into a rage. He'd wanted Richard Burton to do narration on another picture and Richard said sure but he wanted Charles to give wife Liz Taylor a baubel or two. Chjarles went ballistic and cancelled the picture so I took it to Universal . And it was a hit and so was Mary, Queen Of Scots starring Vanessa Redgrave. Glenda Jackson refused Elizabeth I because shed already done the TV miniseries.Finally, she said she'd do everything in three and a half weeks.I think we finished with her latest night on the last day.
JB: Will Rooster Coburn (1976) be your last picture?
HW: Probably. I'd outbid Duke Wayne for the right to True Grit, then the next day I phoned him and offered him the lead and he burst into laughter. For the girl I almost used Sally Field but I was told she was TV's Flying Nun and that might distress moviegoers. So I used Kim Darby plus Glenn Campbell. Henry Hathaway directed it. Then in1976 came the sequel Rooster Cogburn. Hathaway phones me and shouts "I'm 78, Duke is 69 and has cancer, Hepburn is 70 and twitches like crazy." So include men out. So we used Stuart Millar and Kate and Duke just rode roughshod over the young guy. But it made a huge profit."
JB: Do you consider yourself retired?
HW: Not from life. I might make a few more films. Or Not. the picture business is in trouble these days. Too many sequels, special effects, murders. Whatever happened to telling a simple love story?
Hal Wallis did not make any more movies. He died at Rancho Mirage in1986, aged 88.