Some Hollywood Dreams are Almost Forgotten – “A Farewell To Arms”
So, I’m watching some classic movies on TCM, Turner Classic Movies and an announcement comes on about an upcoming movie memorabilia auction at Bonhams in New York in November. TCM has been co-sponsoring these movie auctions for a couple of years now, alternating between the East Coast and Hollywood. The last one was about movie posters, this one is called “Treasures From The Dream Factory” and features the highlight items of a costume dress Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz, some gowns worn by Marilyn Monroe, items from the estate of Natalie Wood, and a “Rosebud” Sled from Citizen Kane that was given to the writer, Herman Mankiewicz, and handed down through the family of TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.
The announcement was for people who might have entertainment memorabilia items to consign for sale to participate by contacting Bonham’s Auction House. So, I thought I’d see if I won the jackpot for one of my modest little collection (mostly from my own career). Some time ago I had come into possession of a screenplay copy for the David O. Selznick production of “A Farewell To Arms” from 1956. The script was in pristine condition, which may not have been a positive. I called the auction house to enquire about it, and they said that title doesn’t seem to do so well. They’d sold some items in a previous auction and didn’t think my script would come up to the $700 minimum. Not exactly a jackpot.
A Farewell to Arms
It’s curious about this movie, with what should be a huge pedigree: novel by Ernest Hemingway, screenplay by screenwriting legend Ben Hecht, produced by David Selznick, directed by Charles Vidor (who took over when John Huston left the project), starring Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones and Vittorio De Sica, with Oskar Homolka, Mercedes McCambridge and Elaine Stritch, produced in glorious Technicolor CinemaScope on beautiful locations in the Italian Alps. Why wouldn’t this do better at an auction, it would seem there should be a matrix of fans? Well, even though the movie when it came out was nominated for at least one Oscar (for De Seca’s supporting role), was pretty much a box office failure, and even Selznick admitted wasn’t his proudest effort. It was the last movie produced by the Selznick Studio, which should make it even more historic, but instead seems to place upon it the stamp of the unwanted child.
Maybe if my script copy was dog-eared and had been signed by Jennifer Jones, it would have been pricier. Instead, it is apparently an un-distributed casting copy, numbered 18 of what must have been over a hundred. Its main distinction was having the name of Ruth Burch written in pencil (how I know it’s a casting copy). Ruth Burch was at first David O’ Selznick’s secretary, then his casting director and right hand assistant. She began her career in Hollywood as secretary for Hal Roach, having a hand at casting the “Our Gang” comedies, then working for Selznick. She is not credited on the film of “A Farewell To Arms”, or other Selznick films, except “Portrait of Jennie” from 1948, also with Jennifer Jones, but she worked for Selznick for almost 15 years and was instrumental in his projects.
Ruth Burch went on to be the casting director at Desilu Studios, when they moved into the Culver City RKO lot after Selznick closed down, where she had an even greater imprint on Hollywood, launching careers of TV stars. She was casting director on a long list of seminal TV hits, casting guest roles who went on to bigger things on “I Love Lucy”, “Make Room For Daddy” “The Andy Griffith Show”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Gomer Pyle”, “That Girl” and “I Spy” among others. She also cast plays for a theater company formed by movie stars Gregory Peck, Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire, “The Actors Company at the La Jolla Playhouse”. I’ve had difficulty finding a photograph of Ruth Burch, except from a grainy image in a newspaper article, as she seems nearly forgotten, one of the many unsung heroes of a town where you’re only as popular as your last hit. She died at the age of 100 at the Motion Picture Home. She had no children, just nieces and nephews, but left a legacy you’d think was worth something at an auction of Hollywood dreams.
Desilu & RKO at Paramount
Desilu, the studio started by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz expanded their television production into the former RKO stages at Paramount with the original Star Trek, where Mankiewicz and Orson Wells begot “Citizen Kane” with the infamous sled reputedly named after William Randolph Hearst’s secret nickname for Marion Davies’ fun bit (this salacious nugget launched into legend by Gore Vidal), is now part of the Paramount Studios lot. The studio can be seen on the TCM Hollywood Location Tours, with the unmistakable plaster RKO globe on the roof (minus the radio antenna). So, Ruth Burch and TCM come full circle, as so many bits of Hollywood history are connected by a degree of separation. If you want to read the Ben Hecht script for “A Farewell To Arms”, a copy I donated is available at the Writer’s Guild Foundation Library at 3rd and Fairfax. If you want to buy mine…well, what am I bid?