James Curtis: L.A. Voices — David Lewis, Part 1

David Lewis

David Lewis, courtesy of James Curtis.

creative_producerEditor’s note: The Daily Mirror is pleased to present an excerpt from James Curtis’ 1993 book “The Creative Producer,” a fascinating memoir by David Lewis, edited by Curtis.  It seemed timely to run the excerpt this week because TCM is airing “All This, and Heaven Too,” which Lewis considered one of his best films, on Feb. 21.

James says: I was struck by Walter Winchell’s item about Rachel Field in his column of Feb. 7 because I have an inscribed copy of her book All This, and Heaven Too on my shelf. It’s not inscribed to me, of course, but rather to a man who became a close friend and mentor to me, producer David Lewis (1903-1987). I met David in 1975 when I first became interested in the work of director James Whale, and I think he came to regard me as a project. He encouraged me to write about Whale — I had never written anything for publication in my life — and I, in turn, urged him to write a memoir of his work in the film industry.

David, I found, had a reputation for working with writers, and a remarkable sense of story and structure. But he could never get very far in putting his story down on paper. “I need someone to pull it out of me,” he said. Eventually, we embarked on a series of recordings, during which I would ask him questions. Then I would leave the tapes with him, and he would type them up, slowly but doggedly, a few pages a day, expanding and embellishing as he went.

When he was finished, I had hundreds of sheets of draft text but no idea of how to stitch them together. Regrettably, it was only after his death that I was able to edit that material into the 1993 book The Creative Producer: A Memoir of the Studio System.

David Lewis produced nearly 40 films, including Four’s a Crowd, The Sisters, and Raintree County, but he once told me he was only proud of four of them: Camille, Dark Victory, Kings Row, and All This, and Heaven Too. “And given the nature of the business,” he added, “that’s a pretty good average.”

A lot of space was devoted to those four renowned titles, with the most going to All This, which was probably David’s favorite. So with Winchell’s item in mind, I asked Larry if he’d like to post what David had to say about the film and its making, and about Rachel Field herself.

Previously by James Curtis:

James Curtis’ interview with Dick Lane Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

James Curtis’ interview with Jules White, Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

All This and Heaven Too
“All This, and Heaven Too” with Bette Davis on the cover, courtesy of James Curtis.  

When a studio made 52 pictures a year, there wasn’t time to try to make every one a gem. Most of the staff writers at Warners took the easy way out; their value was in the fact that they could face a blank piece of paper and get going. As long as they delivered their weekly quota of pages, [Hal] Wallis was happy. But he knew the difference…

Rosalie Stewart had long been a friend of mine. She was a prestigious and very bright literary agent who had, in past years, been important in New York play production. Her contempt for M-G-M producer Benny Thau, who had once been her office boy, equaled mine and at that time it was a humorous matter between us. She handled the work of Rachel Field, who had had a couple of near best-sellers and was considered a fine novelist. One day she appeared my office with Harold Latham, the famous Macmillan editor who had discovered and brought to publication Gone With the Wind.

Inscription from Rachel Field

Rachel Field’s inscription to David Lewis in “All This, and Heaven Too,” courtesy of James Curtis.

Rosalie brought with her the galleys of a new book by Rachel Field called All This, and Heaven Too. She knew that I read everything l could lay my hands on and decided quickly on what I found interesting. Latham and I got along well, and they both gave me a first look at the galleys before submitting them elsewhere.

l started the galleys immediately and couldn’t put them down. I was not at the time a fan of women writers, but Rachel Field quickly changed my mind.

I knew from other books the basic story of Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, the Duc de Praslin, and his Duchesse. It was a long book–the story of the murder of the Duchesse de Praslin by the Duc. He had fallen in love with Henriette Deluzy, the rather plain governess of his children. The Duchesse was a selfish, passionate Sicilian woman and, although she knew that their love was completely unfulfilled, she did everything she could to destroy Henriette. The marriage had been made for money and the Duc, at the end of his wits and prodded by her jealousy and hatred, beat her to death.

Although the murder, which took place in 1847, remained rather mysterious, there was little doubt as to what had happened. Having occurred in the highest French society, the killing of the Duchesse de Praslin and the subsequent suicide of the Duc did much to bring down the government.

It was truly a cause celebre. Henriette had always been presented as a villainess–a debaucher of children and the woman who brought on a terrible murder. But Rachel’s book was very different. It did not defend Henriette, it simply presented her beautifully and eloquently. It was the story of a very deep love, never openly discussed, never consummated, but fulfilled within the minds and the hearts of the two principals with full understanding of its consequences. The period was exquisitely lavish, the writing passionate but restrained. The book held me like a vise; I even had the galleys propped up on my steering wheel while driving home. l found myself reading them at every possible opportunity.

The next morning I caught Wallis in the barbershop and told him about it. As usual, studio protocol was observed and it went to the reading department for a synopsis. In due time Wallis agreed it was good film material and purchased it, I think for $50,000 which was the same price Selznick had paid for Gone With the Wind.

Casey Robinson
Casey Robinson, courtesy of James Curtis.

Casey Robinson was my only choice to write the script. Casey was taken with it, but he didn’t have quite my enthusiasm for it. What appealed to me strongly about All This, and Heaven Too was that it was the story of a great and totally unconsummated love affair. Usually, l believe that a love story should be consummated early and then go on from there. In fact, in All This, and Heaven Too the tease was almost unbearable. It portrayed two vital human beings desperately in love with each other and never even touching. It was set in great elegance and, apart from the Duchesse, the characters behaved admirably. She was madly, passionately in love with her husband, jealous to a totally unreasonable degree, beautiful (and beautifully dressed) but with a kind of monstrous personality. She neglected her children, using them only as a hold on the Duc, who adored them.

I talked about the story with Bette Davis. Whether she read the book I am not sure, but she was not enthusiastic about playing Henriette. She felt her passive, and a good deal of Bette’s strength lay in her positiveness and vitality. She was intrigued with the part of the Duchesse, however, a relatively small part but vital and outgoing. She suggested getting Greta Garbo to play Henriette and she herself would play the Duchesse. Although an interesting idea, I knew it would never happen. I recalled for Bette that Garbo had once complained to me about working with Freddie Bartholomew, whom she referred to as ”a monster” in Anna Karenina. She swore she would never play against another child again, which would of course preclude her portraying a governess to four children. I also knew the superstitious Garbo wouldn’t touch any picture not made on the M-G-M lot, which ultimately enforced her early retirement. I did, however, tell Bette l was determined to get Charles Boyer to play the Duc, as he was on the verge of being released–he was overage–from the French army. Bette liked that idea, but still left it up in the air.

The Field novel told not only the story of Henriette, the Duc, and the Duchesse, but went on into the story of Henriette’s marriage to Henry Field, a Massachusetts preacher who figured vaguely in the first part. That, of course, we would not cover, only sketching in their friendship.

Henry Field was an early forebear of Rachel Field, and it was her visits to the old graveyard and the sight of Henriette’s grave that had been the inspiration of the novel. Rachel understood our neglect of this part of the story. No more cooperative, enthusiastic, or appreciative author ever lived. She saw that the book had lit a fire under me, and she reveled in it. She became a dear friend.

To be continued.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood, James Curtis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to James Curtis: L.A. Voices — David Lewis, Part 1

  1. moviepas says:

    Benny Than. That was Benny THAU.


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