The Books: Garson Kanin’s Hollywood, by Garson Kanin

Next book on the Hollywood shelf:

Garson Kanin’s Hollywood, by Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin wrote. Boy, he wrote. He wrote screenplays, and plays, and books. He wrote gossipy books about his famous friends (some of whom never forgave him for what he revealed). He was (if you believe him) responsible for Judy Holliday becoming a star. He and Katharine Hepburn were the only guests present at the marriage of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. His list of credits would run from my apartment to the Catskills. He knew everyone, worked with everyone, and was married for many many years to Ruth Gordon (they were also collaborators). He was born in 1912 and died in 1999. That’s a helluva lifespan.

Garson Kanin, Ruth Gordon

If you ever told him a secret, it would not be safe. Just know that going in.

I am thankful he is such a gossip, though, because I do love his books. Reading his “bio” of Tracy and Hepburn gives me a bit of a queasy feeling, however – even though it is entertaining. He gave away all their secrets, and they were (by necessity and choice) a very private couple. He divulged it all. Great stories, yes, but quite a betrayal! Reading it, you just know that they would not have wanted all of this revealed, even though it is quite a benign and positive book. He was not a mean gossip. He wasn’t, say, Red and Sonny West. His desire was not to pull down all the stars he knew. His desire was to tell funny stories, and to put himself at the center of many funny conversations between giants of the entertainment field. Harmless, I suppose. And I love his books.

He was also a film director, a theatre director, and everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. His play Born Yesterday (a vehicle for Judy Holliday) ran for almost 1700 performances. Think of that. Unbelievable. He wrote Adam’s Rib (so I suppose I need to forgive him for the viciously homophobic portrayal of that appalling neighbor?) as well as Pat and Mike – two Tracy-Hepburn vehicles. He was trusted with material because of the successes he (and Ruth Gordon) had racked up. A wonderful writer. To quote my friend Kent (although he was talking about Elvis), Garson Kanin had funny bones. You can feel it in his scripts, you can feel the comedy, irrepressible, bubbling up in every moment. The same is true with his books. Every moment has the perfect ba-dum-ching ending. Sometimes real life is funnier and greater than fiction, and it takes someone with funny bones to express that.

His “Hollywood” book runs the gamut. Every chapter focuses on a different personality although the same people and colleagues make appearances all the way through (like Sam Goldwyn, who, in Kanin’a hands, becomes one of the funniest characters in the book). Kanin was good friends with Carole Lombard, so there’s a great Lombard chapter. He devotes a chapter to Chaplin, to Cary Grant, you know, all his BFFs. Conversations, long conversations, are reported as though they are verbatim, and although that’s a bit sketchy (I could imagine one of the people he wrote about giving Kanin a call after reading the book and saying, “You know, Garson, that’s not exactly how that conversation went down ….”) it sure is entertaining. And I trust it, to some extent, because Kanin’s motives are positive. He doesn’t have an ax to grind, not one that I can see. He was agog at his own good fortune, he was so excited about his own life and the people he knew, and he wrote from that enthusiastic place.

The book made me laugh out loud.

The chapter on Charles Laughton made me want to cry. His devotion to his work, and his devastation as he got older and felt he was losing his touch.

John Barrymore

The chapter on the great John Barrymore is not only hilarious, but touching, interesting, and exciting. What a character. What an actor. I’ll excerpt today from that chapter. Garson Kanin was directing a film called The Great Man Votes in 1939 and Barrymore was the lead. What I love about this chapter is how it illuminates Barrymore’s process. And he was not one to go on and on about process. This is kind of a famous story: John Barrymore and his blackboards. Love every second of it.

Excerpt from Garson Kanin’s Hollywood, by Garson Kanin

Throughout the twenty-four days of shooting, no one called him or referred to him as anything but “Mr. Barrymore”. In a matter of days, I believe he began to think of himself as Mr. Barrymore.

Never before had I worked with a more thorough professional. He was never late, never objected to overtime, gave everything on every take, and was totally prepared, although he insisted upon using his notorious blackboards.

This was one thing about his work I could not understand. I am sure he knew his part perfectly, yet he insisted upon having his man somewhere in the line of sight, holding up that blackboard.

There were, in fact, many blackboards, in varying sizes and shapes. Large ones for the long speeches, small ones for the shorter speeches; oblong ones to fit between the lights if necessary; tiny ones for single lines.

In these days of Teleprompters and cue cards, the blackboards would not seem unusual, but I had never seen them used.

Barrymore’s technique for using the blackboards was ingenious. He would position himself for reading the board. Often, this occasioned spectacular turns and twists and bends; a favorite trick was to turn his head sharply as though to scratch the back of his head, thus turning his eyes to the blackboard.

I discussed the matter with him.

“It seems to me, Mr. Barrymore, that what you do to get the words off those boards is a hell of a lot harder than learning them.”

He looked at me balefully and said, “I’ve learned enough words in my time. Let somebody else do it now.”

“Shall I tell you what I think, Mr. Barrymore?” I pressed on. “I think you really know your lines perfectly, and that this is just a habit you’ve fallen into.”

He fixed me with his hard look again, and said, “Of course I know my lines. I always do.”

“Then why the –?”

“Because,” he interrupted. “Have you ever been to a circus? Seen the blokes on the high wire? Even doing back flips? On the tight rope. Have you ever seen one of them fall?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why do you suppose they always have a net underneath them? Those blackboards are my net, that’s all.”

One morning, as we were about to begin, my cutter came onto the set and asked if, for his convenience, I would make one small additional shot. It was simply an entrance to tie in two scenes. The whole shot would consist of a medium angle on an empty door. A woman comes in and knocks. The door is opened by Barrymore. She asks, “Are you Gregory Vance?” He replies, “Yes.” Whereupon she enters. That would be all.

We set up the scene and I went off to get a cup of coffee. All at once I heard a furious row from the vicinity of the camera. As a rule, these flare-ups died out as swiftly as they began but this one continued. I went over to see what the trouble was.

Henry, Barrymore’s blackboard man, was engaged in a violent shoving match with the principal gaffer. The assistant director was attempting to intercede, but was being threatened by the gaffer’s assistant. A free-for-all was imminent. It was only a question of who was going to throw the first punch. I heard myself yelling.

“All right! That’s enough! Hold it! Shut up everybody! Now cut it out!”

I succeeded in bringing about a temporary abatement.

“What is all this?” I asked.

The gaffer spoke. “Listen. I’ve put up with this goddamn pest every day since we started, but enough is enough. He doesn’t have to be in here with that goddamn sliver. I need this spot for my key light and I want him the hell out of here.”

Henry, a dignified old gentleman, said, “I know my job and I’m going to do it and no one’s going to prevent me from doing it. My job.”

I was confused. “What job? What do you mean ‘sliver’?”

Henry held up a blackboard the size of a child’s slate. On it was written the word “Yes”.

“All right, Henry,” I said. “Just relax.”

I went over to Barrymore, who sat in his chair smoking and smiling.

“Could I have you in the scene, Mr. Barrymore, for just a moment?”

“Of course. Of course,” he said, and joined me near the camera.

“We have a little problem,” I explained. “You know the scene. We’re outside here with the camera. Miss Alexander knocks on the door. You open it. She says, ‘Are you Gregory Vance?’ You say, ‘Yes’. She walks in and that’s it.”

“Fine,” said Barrymore. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well,” I explained, “Henry here seems to feel that he has to be standing here with this little slate that says ‘Yes’.”

“Oh, by all means!” said Barrymore.

I did not grasp his meaning at once. “You mean it’s all right for him not to be here. Is that it?”

“No, no,” said Barrymore. “I’d like to have him there. With his slate.”

I was losing patience, struggling for control. “But let’s be reasonable, Mr. Barrymore. All she asks is ‘Are you Gregory Vance?’ And you are, so what else could you possibly say?”

Barrymore thought for a long moment, then looked at me and said, “Well, I could say ‘No’ and then where would you be?”

We found a spot for Henry and his slate.

Moviemaking is full of long, dull waiting time. But on this picture, the waits were never dull. John Barrymore talked. He tried to interest me in a theatre production of Macbeth.

“I’ve got it all worked out,” he said. “I designed it with Willie Pogany – a genius. Do you know his work?”

“Yes, I do. Some of it.”

Macbeth always fails. We’ll do the first successful Macbeth. How would that be? We’ll make history. It’s going to be Scottish. The whole damned thing. Kilts, by God, and tam-o’shanters and scarves.”

His gestures accompanying these words made one see him in the costume.

He continued, “All through it, bagpipes, by God!”

He began to play an imaginary bagpipe. His elbow flailing, his fingers dancing, and out of his nose or mouth or ears was a perfect reproduction of the sound of bagpipes – not a bagpipe – but bagpipes.

“The trick here,” he went on, “is the sex thing. Why is Shakespeare the greatest dramatist who ever lived? Because he wrote the greatest characters. And how was he able to write the greatest characters? Because he understood the human race. He understood that every human being, male or female, is a combination of both sexes. And that sometimes the weak ones or the sick ones allow the opposite sex in them to take charge. That’s why he made his most powerful men as tender, and sometimes soft as women. Othello, Antony, Richard III. And why he gave some of his most marvelous women certain masculine aspects. Portia. Rosalind. And, of course, Lady Macbeth. Now the Macbeth trick is that she’s the man and he’s the woman. Do you see it? She’s the husband and he’s the wife. God damn it! If you had any real guts, you know what you’d do? You’d let Katherine Cornell or Judith Anderson or one of those play Macbeth, and let me play Lady Macbeth. That would really be the way to do it.”

Whereupon he suddenly began to move in the most graceful, feminine way. His voice became another voice as he said:

“‘ … I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.’ “

The effect was electrifying.

And this I thought, is the man who insists upon having the word “Yes” written on a little slate.

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11 Responses to The Books: Garson Kanin’s Hollywood, by Garson Kanin

  1. Kent says:

    Tall Boy. Above all, Kanin was a wonderful storyteller. His Hollywood material had the ring of being refined at 1,000 dinner parties before being published. This is a wonderful excerpt, Sheila! I also love his descriptions of Samuel Goldwyn – the best ever written. In a few anecdotes Kanin conveys a character that eluded authors of very thick books.

  2. sheila says:

    Kent – yes, his storytelling is beyond excellent, and Goldwyn!! Loved the glimpses of Goldwyn.

    I also loved this bit from Harry Cohn – whom Kanin got along with, despite all the rumors of how awful he was – Cohn was reading some script that took place in Biblical times, and he was spluttering with rage afterwards. He said, “I may not be a college man, I may not be one of them intellectuals, but there’s one thing I do know and that’s that people in Biblical times did not say ‘Yes, siree’!!!”


    • Kent says:

      HAHAHA… Cohn was great… very unfairly maligned creatively, though by all accounts a sadist, and very rough on our beloved Jean Arthur. I remember reading that Harry Cohn preferred dealing with Ruth Gordon to Garson Kanin, because she “knew the score” and Kanin was a dreamer.

  3. “Well, I could say ‘No’ and then where would you be?”


    This makes about the 20th book you’ve recommended that I have to read immediately…Only I actually have this one on my shelf! So I’m gonna read it….soon at least!

  4. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Dear Sheila: Soooooo many memories. Worked for both of them from January 1974 till January 1979. Good times, not so good times. Kent is right about Harry Cohn wanting to deal with Ruth. She was way tougher than Gar. He was a dreamer, but given his background, which he never really escaped, he also had his feet firmly planted. I really believe that his last few years with Marian Seldes were happier than any time before. He was funny, demanding, quiet then off the wall, generous, smart. He was much more complex than he appeared at first sight. I don’t really miss those years but I think of him with great affection. Thanks for bringing some of it back. Another life, really.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – woah!! fascinating! what did you do for them, if you don’t mind my asking? Love to hear your thoughts!

      • Melissa Sutherland says:

        Sheila: Thank you for asking. They had offices on 57th Street where he wrote every single day. She almost never came in. I researched, typed (yes, several over-395 page books on a Selectric!). These include: Smash, Moviola, One Hell of an Actor, Together Again, It Takes a Long Time to Become Young, Hollywood. Ruth’s: My Side and An Open Book.

        But the part that I enjoyed most was working with him when he directed Dreyfus in Rehearsal, at the Ethel Barrymore. It didn’t run very long, but I loved the experience. Was also his assistant on Ruth’s play HO! HO! HO! which we took to Stockbridge and played on the Cape.

        I admit it was an interesting job, but as happens so often, I stayed too long at the fair. Got burned out. It was really a full-time job. As I wrote above, he was complicated but worth getting to know. I knew her less well. I think I would have known her better if I’d met her earlier, but she really needed to harness her energy, so kept very much to herself. But she was very, very funny.

        There are hundreds of stories like mine, but at least I know I was more trustworthy and nicer than “Ellis”! Why do we all hate him?

  5. nightfly says:

    Maybe Barrymore wanted that “Yes” on a slate because he was secretly a Joyce fan.

    Great excerpt, as always. Thanks!

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