Tuesday, May 24

The Directors: Vincent Sherman

He fought the designation woman's director but as I see it that's exactly what he was.  Why the resistance?  What's wrong with being a rather acclaimed director of movies featuring top actresses especially when most everything turned out so well? The 40s was famously a decade for women's films and there was Vincent Sherman right at the center of things, particularly at
his home studio, Warner Bros.

He was one of Jack Warner's go-to boys, particularly if Warner had some screenplay he was iffy about.  He would summon Sherman, ask him to read it and see if there was anything that could be fashioned into a worthy studio property. Warner was no fool... he already knew Sherman could display some handy wizardry and turn a profit for the studio. 

Sherman worked at the studio throughout the 40s, making some 18, mostly profitable movies. If he was not the most famous director of his time, that was alright with him. He wasn't as flashy or perhaps as driven as some of his contemporaries, and it is true that his films were less stellar in each succeeding decade until he turned completely to television and then stopped working altogether in 1983. So, if you've not heard of him, you're certainly not going to be alone.  He quietly made his films.  He kept his private life private and that was that.  

Well, maybe not quite.  He was known around town as a "woman's director" after hours, too.  He enjoyed affairs with a number of his leading ladies.  At the end of the 40s and into the early 50s he was embroiled in a mess that would more or less derail his career, at least as he'd known it. Nonetheless, he did prefer to live under the radar. 

He was born in 1906 in one of only two Jewish families in tiny Vienna, Georgia. Having to toughen up and defend himself likely later put him on equal ground with his tyrant boss.  After graduating from Ogelthorpe University, he high-tailed it to New York.  He wanted to be an actor but managed some writing and got his first taste of directing via some productions at summer camps in upstate New York.

Back in the city he got involved in several leftist causes and became involved with the prestigious but controversial Group Theater... an alliance that would one day be a subject of public scrutiny.  He also decided he might have more of a career if he adopted a less ethnic name so Vincent Sherman said goodbye to Abraham Orovitz.

In 1931 he married his only wife, Hedda. They would remain married until her death in 1984  The marriage endured a number of changes through all those years. They apparently agreed it would be an open marriage, at least for him, because his sometimes lengthy romances with actresses never produced his divorce.  There were some lengthy absences especially during his final nine years when he lived with another woman.

Eager and persistent, the young Sherman obtained work as an actor in a number of Broadway plays and then made a name for himself as a writer.  In 1937 Warners grabbed him, seeing his versatility and likeable manner.  It was during this early period that the studio saw his ability with a script. He knew his way around a pair of scissors and a typewriter.  He re-shaped so many scripts that some were calling him Mr. Rewrite.

He was working in the studio's B-unit when he was tapped to direct the prestigious The Hard Way (1943).  It was a helluva good film starring Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie as sisters, one wily and superior maneuvering the younger into a singing career she only half-heartedly wants.  However, being pretty wily yourself, you know I did a whole piece on the film a short time back so we won't go into overdrive here.

His other 1943 feature was Old Acquaintance, starring two-first class hellions, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. The hellion moniker goes for onscreen as well as off screen.  In fact, they loathed one another.  The notion that Sherman could survive such an experience points up his ability with women's pictures.  When a director is known for women's pictures, it's not just that the story is about a woman or women but that the director has a knack for handling powerful women.  I think we can assume that at least part of the problem on this film was that Sherman was sleeping with Davis and not with Hopkins. That just has ouch written all over it. The film wasn't bad at all... perhaps a little corny by today's standards or if one is really fond of it, then it's camp. It concerns the long lives of two friends and their sometimes loving, sometimes tempestuous friendship.`

He was reteamed with Lupino for In Our Time (1944), a romance-drama set in Poland and trying desperately to imitate Casablanca. Even with Paul Henreid along, they couldn't make us forget Bogart and Bergman. 

With their affair still on fire, Sherman and Davis took on Mr. Skeffington (1944).  It was a troubled production with Davis at her most imperious.  The story has Davis and Claude Rains draining all the life out of a marriage in much the same way that George and Martha did in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  It was a fun, trashy story that allowed Davis to indulge in some of her most excessive acting.  I've always said... few could act as well as Bette Davis and few could overact as well as Bette Davis. 

Sherman decided to try it one more time with Lupino.  Pillow to Post (1945) was not only a cute comedy but it makes my temples pulsate to contemplate Lupino in a comedy. But here she is and she's good. It has a The More the Merrier feel, but that's not a bad thing. Describing it could get hairy so we'll settle for calling it a traveling saleslady story. It didn't hurt at all that the old curmudgeon himself, Sydney Greenstreet, was along.  

By 1947 Ann Sheridan came along.  Well, really, she'd been there all along, a staple at WB just as Sherman was.  They were buddies who liked to kid each other, some of it bordering on the amorous. All men loved Annie.  This year they made two films together and embarked on a work affair as they did so.  Both films, while Bs, were fine film noirs and two of my favorite Sheridan movies.

The first was Nora Prentiss, a nightclub singer who becomes a patient of a quiet, family-man doctor and they begin an affair that spins wildly out of control.  I thought Kent Smith was an odd choice for the doctor but Sheridan was so good as the naughty girl. The second film, The Unfaithful, a loose remake of another Davis film, The Letter, had Sheridan caught between Lew Ayres and Zachary Scott in an engrossing murder mystery.

While making The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), Sherman befriended its star, Errol Flynn.  That was never a good thing for the wives of Flynn's male friends.  I've always thought the randy actor's buddies never shied away from the sexual turnstyle that was often overloaded at the Flynn mansion. It's only reasonable to assume that Sherman would be invited to attend and that he accepted. 

The film was not a great success.  For the romances in Flynn's movies to really work, one has to believe Flynn has either bedded his leading lady or is working on it.  He would not have had Viveca Lindfors, a fine actress, in his sights.  When Sherman was accused of only being able to successfully handle actresses, he liked to remind folks that he worked with Flynn, Bogart, Richard Burton and Paul Newman, not always the easiest actors to get on with and yet he managed it.

The Hasty Heart (1949) has gotten its due acclaim over the years... some would say in spite of Ronald Reagan's frequent presence in it. Though I never joined Reagan's fan club, I did find Heart to highlight one of his best performances.  The same could be said for a young Patricia Neal and a handsome, young, earnest Irishman, Richard Todd, being introduced to American audiences.  In 1945 Burma an embittered soldier is holed up in a M.A.S.H. unit watching others being released and going home.  The soldier is told that he is there for observation but the truth is much more grim. Super acting all around. Sherman loved stories of chaos in a ordinary person's life and this is one of his best.

In 1950 he made another tight little film noir, Backfire, a murder mystery with betrayal as its centerpiece.  Lindfors, Virginia Mayo, Dane Clarke and Edmond O'Brien were all well-cast but the surprise for me was musical star Gordon MacRae in a rare dramatic role. I don't think Warner did much to push it and that may be due to his starting to have an uneasy feelings about one of his most trustworthy directors.

If one believes in good fortune, then it came in the form of Joan Crawford.  She insisted that he direct her next film and then, as it turned out, there would be two more immediately following. They were all lesser efforts for the actress and director but they pleased most Crawford fans. The two began a three-year affair.

He always said lovely things about all the actresses he knew so well but it just may be that his most tender were reserved for Crawford.  He found her a consummate professional, an excellent partner, in and out of the bedroom, and kind. See, there really is another point of view.

Crawford with Cochran, Egan and Brian

Their first film, 1950s The Damned Don't Cry, is my favorite of the bunch... and that says a lot.  With Crawford as an ordinary person who aspires to be a gangster's moll, it is mind-bogglingly silly at times.  I hear a line and I can just imagine Crawford saying at a script conference... I want to say that line more butch.  She had sexual romps with two of her three costars, Steve Cochran and David Brian.  Richard Egan may have made it unanimous but no one ever told me.  How could Sherman have not known?  Ah, Hollywood.

Playing a mean-spirited wife in Harriet Craig, also 1950, or a congresswoman returning to her alma mater in Goodbye, My Fancy (1951) didn't fare as well with me.  She often had such bland leading men, in this case Wendell Corey and Robert Young, respectively.

It is at this point that Warner unceremoniously dumped him.  The studio provided no reason but it was known it was because of the Red Scare that was encircling Hollywood and New York especially. Because of Sherman's earlier relationship with the leftist Group Theater, he came under fire with the House Un-American Activities Committee.  He was considered a gray menace rather than a red one... obviously a lesser offense but one still worth keeping an eye on.  Sherman didn't suffer as much as some others because, if for no other reason, he continued to work.

With Rita Hayworth on the set of Affair in Trinidad

His films from here on out were not as valued as his earlier work. He went to MGM to put Clark Gable and Ava Gardner through their paces in the occasionally enjoyable Lone Star (1951).  Then he headed over to Columbia.  Rita Hayworth had ditched her life as a princess and was returning to Hollywood.  Her first film in several years would be Affair in Trinidad (1952), a ripoff of her former Gilda, but it held my interest throughout.  The actress and the director took to one another and had a lovely, leisurely affair. He thought the world of her.

In 1959 Sherman helmed an early Paul Newman flick, the soap opera, The Young Philadelphians... all about the trials and tribulations of an ambitious, sometimes brash young attorney.  Ice Palace (1960) was also ambitious... maybe a little too much so. Edna Ferber gave her usual multi-generational touch, this time to the cannery business in WWI Alaska.  Two growling heavyweights, Richard Burton and Robert Ryan, play partners who segue into enmity while having children who marry one another.  

A Fever in the Blood (1961) took the director back to Warner Bros, surprisingly to film a story about the murder of a socialite.  I liked it but I think its run was a short one.  Efrem Zimbalist, Angie Dickinson and Don Ameche headed the cast.  That same year Sherman was back at MGM for one of those inane comedies that Debbie Reynolds made around that time.  In The Second Time Around she was a young widow who left New York for the west and becomes a sheriff.  Uh-huh, see what I mean?

For Sherman, the film could have been called The Last Time Around.  It became his last American film.  In 1967, he went to Italy to make Cervantes (or Young Rebel as its sometimes known). Starring Horst Buchholz, Gina Lollobrigida, Jose Ferrer and Louis Jourdan, that is a lot of temperament for one little film, and it turned out to be Sherman's swan song to the movies.

He continued to work, mainly directing series television.  He directed multiple episodes of such shows as The Waltons, Medical Center, The Long Hot Summer and Baretta.

Little was heard of him after 1983 until he died in 2006 at the Woodland Hills (California) Motion Picture Country Hospital of old age.  He was one month shy of his 100th birthday.

He and I certainly had one thing in common... a love of actresses. He got some very fine work out of a number of the top ladies of the day and I've enjoyed most everything he did.

Next posting:
Movie Review

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