Him: Penny for your thoughts. Her: I hate you.
I know the examples are legion, but tell me some of the instances where an actor or actress was miscast for a picture. Then I’ll play my hand: the time the pint-sized Lubitsch veteran was cast as a dance hall girl in an Errol Flynn western.
In his recent book Miriam Hopkins: Life and Times of a Hollywood Rebel, Allan R. Ellenberger claims that Jack Warner blackmailed the blond-haired, going-on-40 Hopkins into making Virginia City—if she didn’t do it, Warner would reveal she was having an affair with writer Carl Zuckmayer and ruin her already fragile career. That’s exactly what her performance in this picture reflects—an actress performing under threat of blackmail.
For historical perspective, Virginia City is a splashy Warner Bros. production from 1940 that was made in the wake of Aussie-accented Flynn’s giant success in the previous year’s Dodge City. Flynn had been big box office from the start, but after The Adventures of Robin Hood, ka-boom! Huge. He justified ever-bigger budgets for his pictures, and for Virginia City, which was shot at the end of 1939, the Warners signed checks with reckless abandon. Jack Warner and right-hand-man Hal Wallis followed the lead of cash cow Gone With the Wind, then smashing records in theaters. The American Civil War was all the rage in 1940 and Virginia City drips with Suthun drawwwwwls and talk of the noble lossst cawwwws.
The catch was, Flynn thought it ludicrous that with his accent and South Seas background, WB would put him in westerns. He didn’t believe he belonged there.
I’m going to figure, judging by the description of shooting Virginia City in Alan K. Rode’s definitive 2017 bio Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, that the renowned director would go on to erase this credit from his resume because the location work in Arizona was long and chaotic, punctuated by sniping and factionalism among cast and crew. Then I checked Rudy Behlmer’s Inside Warner Bros. and revisited one of my favorite studio memos ever, to associate producer Mark Hellinger from producer Robert Lord: “Dear Mark: Your basic story line is about as good (perhaps a little better) than the basic story line of Dodge City and Union Pacific. That is to say: ‘It stinks and they stank.’” Under that memo in Behlmer’s book is another, this one to Hal Wallis from screenwriter Robert Bruckner begging him not to extensively rewrite the script and giving the reasons why. Bruckner lost and in fact the script was rewritten day by day just ahead of the shooting schedule to the extent that nobody knew their lines. When a final screenplay features more blue pages (denoting rewrites) than white pages (originals), you’re in trouble.
Then there was the ad-libbing, which the Marx Bros. could pull off but not so much the Warner Bros. (who didn’t have a funny bone in their bodies). In his Curtiz bio, Rode describes a long bit of comedic improvisation by Flynn and idiot co-stars Alan Hale and Big Boy Williams that made it into the final cut—and a more uncomfortable, unprofessional couple minutes of film you’ll be hard-pressed to find, except in the productions of Edward D. Wood Jr. Everything that worked between the three actors in Dodge City grew embarrassing, even offensive this time out. And damned if they didn’t get together and do it again for Curtiz in Santa Fe Trail later that year!
The notorious ad-libbed scene. With friends like Moose and Marblehead (I’m not kidding–those are their names in the picture), who needs rebels or Mexican bandits? And Flynn does himself no favors by trying to improvise comedy before loaded cameras.
Anybody call for me? I’ve already got the costume.
Plot in 30 seconds: Flynn and his Yankee bumpkin friends are confined in a southern prison run by Randolph Scott, but they escape and it turns out they are intelligence men (full disclosure: I didn’t see any intelligence among the three of them) who have uncovered a southern plot to sneak $5M in gold from Virginia City, Nevada, into the Confederacy to keep the war going. By sheer coincidence the man in charge of the rebel plot is Randolph Scott who gives up his job running the prison and goes to Nevada to supervise the gold-sneak. Meanwhile Flynn and bumpkins take the stage from (apparently) Virginia to Nevada, and during what must have been a long and painful ride he falls in love with southerner Miriam Hopkins. Then—
Oh hell, why bother because there’s a whole lot more plot but suffice to say, a little boy dies in reel 2 as per all Warner Bros. western scripts of the time, and there’s a wagon train (also mandatory) that ends up under attack not by Injuns but by Mexican bandits led by Humphrey Bogart. Can someone please explain to me why Indians in old-time movies (or Mexicans in this case) ride around and around the circled wagons when all that happens is they get picked off one by one or two by two or five at a time and never, ever accomplish anything except to lose? Was life really that cheap in the real Old West? Not to mention that, inevitably, the cavalry is going to arrive, and they do here of course, just in the nick of time. Douglas Dumbrille, yet another character actor, is leading them and in such a sour mood that it seems like he’s sorry he saved the day.
Blah blah blah more plot. Whatever. This exercise in shark-jumping begins with Miriam Hopkins as a Scarlett O’Hara wannabe in the office of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and ends with Hopkins pleading for Flynn’s life in the office of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln—on the morning of his assassination yet! Even in 1940 I can’t imagine buying this crap.
Say, wasn’t there supposed to be a girl in this scene? Whoa! I didn’t see you down there, little lady!
I found Flynn horrible in Virginia City. He’s uncomfortable and disinterested and doesn’t bother to learn his lines except in the instances where he knows he’ll get close-ups. In the scene where he learns his lady-love is really a dance-hall girl, he doesn’t know his motivation and instinct tells him to turn nasty. This ain’t the Flynn we’re used to. I think he was shell-shocked after completion of the marathon Elizabeth and Essex. That production, also for Curtiz, co-starring Bette Davis, and documented in Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, left our boy scarred, unsure, and angry at his treatment by the front office. And here again he was saddled with a sour-puss co-star, this time Miriam Hopkins, a fine actress in pictures like The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, and Design for Living, all for Ernst Lubitsch. Supposedly, she was a flaming boil to work with (arrived late, offered suggestions on how co-stars could play a scene, demanded dialogue rewrites, etc.), and we know Flynn could be an infected hair follicle himself. What a pair! Here Hopkins is lost in a dusty western and ill-suited to costumes meant for a Vegas showgirl and not a woman who was so diminutive that she looked like a sapling among tall pines Flynn and Scott. The part cried out for Warner contract player Ann Sheridan who had already played it in Dodge City—I swear Bruckner wrote it with Sheridan in mind—but Hopkins was also under WB contract and at a far higher rate, so she got the nod.
You feex me up, eh, doc? Why of course I will, Mr. Bogart, because I’m reliable character actor Moroni Olsen. (Observe Randolph Scott as he looks on with unwavering solemnity.)
Some of the veteran character actors come off well by comparison to Flynn, Hopkins, and inscrutable Randy Scott, whose monotone delivery and solemnity are unwavering. If you want reliable, call John Litel, Moroni Olson, and Russell Hicks. The actor who surprised me pleasantly on this recent viewing was Bogart, who has been called “miscast” by every Hollywood historian who ever addressed this picture. To me, that’s rear-view-mirror stuff because in 1940, Bogart was not a lead but rather a character man and this was a character part. And his accent sounds exactly like that of Jesús, our favorite server at El Paso Mexican Restaurant, so who’s to say it’s not authentic? Bogart owns the scenes he shares with Flynn. They try to out-smug each other but Bogart’s got the chops and Flynn doesn’t, so Bogie wins. We know Errol was capable of good performances because he gave them in The Dawn Patrol and Essex, but here he just seems to be pissed off and when Flynn’s pissed, he shuts down.
Errol sets his co-star in a tree. A real, exterior, in-the-middle-of-a-river tree. Of course you can’t see the river because Curtiz has filled his foreground with junk.
There’s a scene I always thought odd and uncomfortable: The stagecoach gets stuck in a river and Flynn, knee-deep in water, carries Hopkins to an overhanging tree limb and sets her there like a high-wire-act sack of potatoes. Then later he fetches her off the branch and carries her to dry land. For decades this scene has raised my hackles and I don’t know why. I think it’s because you can feel the contempt between the players at somewhere around 120 Hz—too high a frequency to actually see but there nonetheless. “All day long I have been afraid that Errol would drop me in the water,” she said that evening on location. “Perhaps it would have been better if he had.” Yes, Miss Hopkins, drowning was one quick way out of this mess.
Flynn liked younger women (the younger the better), and Hopkins at eight years his senior did not ring the bell. “They simply couldn’t stand each other and were at swords point all the time,” said screenwriter Bruckner. And it shows; does it ever.
Then there’s the aforementioned dance-hall sequence, which was the last thing to be shot, back in Burbank after contentious weeks on location in Arizona. Hopkins had started out dancing on Broadway in the 1920s, but as was common in those days, spent no time in the gym since hitting Hollywood in 1930. As a result, she faced these days on the barroom set at the studio like her own execution. She dislocated her hip rehearsing two days before Christmas—perhaps one of those self-inflicted wounds you hear about in extreme combat—which delayed the shoot until January 11, 1940. “That morning, she arrived late and hid in her portable dressing room,” wrote Ellenberger in his biography. “After two hours, Curtiz remarked, ‘Now, either she dances or else,’ lightly tapping on her dressing room door. Miriam stepped out wearing a black, laced bodice and a ruffled skirt. ‘Let’s get this over,’ she said, smiling.”
Now, I’ll tell you, dear reader, that I couldn’t get up on a stage and sing and dance in a chorus line any better than Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City. But I don’t think I could do a lot worse, either. I can safely say from the distance of going on a century, as a dance hall girl, Miriam Hopkins is no Ann Sheridan. And I like Miriam Hopkins. She’s a terrific actress, but so so so miscast in Virginia City.
It’s obvious I’ve seen this turkey several times in the distant past because I knew the lines before they were delivered, but my sensibilities must have changed in the past two score plus 10. This time, I sat horrified. With a painful run time of 121 minutes, everything got tossed in during all those rewrites, including the kitchen sink. I will credit Curtiz for some nice scenics and action shots and dollies over and cranes up and cranes down, and of course there’s foreground junk cluttering up the frame. But even Curtiz couldn’t junk up spectacular Arizona Painted Desert vistas. And when Max Steiner’s hired for the musical score, all is not lost. According to Curtiz biographer Rode, the picture did boffo business, proving that at least in this case, more was deemed to be better. You know what Virginia City would be perfect for? A Friday night send-up like Rocky Horror, complete with people dressed as Mexican bandits and showgirls and Abe Lincoln and sing-alongs of “The Union Forever” with Miriam Hopkins. That would finally do justice to this, one of the more incredible motion picture releases of the golden era.
In their only big sequence together, Bogart and Flynn smug it out trying to out-suave each other. My verdict: Bogart wins. Is Errol actually looking at his fingernails? I thought they only did that in the movies. Oh, right.