Producer Paul Gregory on His Career & Night of the Hunter
Posted: August 23rd, 2012, 8:21 pm
93 year old producer Paul Gregory tells it like it is, from his POV, in an article in today's The Desert Sun Newspaper on Aug. 22, 2012, brought to my attention by Alan K. Rode. Enjoy...:
Bruce Fessier: Producer Paul Gregory finds happiness in Desert Hot Springs
Paul Gregory lives in a middle-class neighborhood in Desert Hot Springs, belying his elite position in show business history.
He's responsible for bringing George Bernard Shaw's “Don Juan in Hell,” Norman Mailer's “The Naked and the Dead” and Herman Wouk's “The Caine Mutiny” to the stage, screen and television.
He convinced the master British thespian Charles Laughton to direct iconic American tough guy Robert Mitchum in the 1955 film, “The Night of the Hunter,” which became one of the most acclaimed films of all time. The American Film Institute ranked it in two of its “100 Best” categories — for best thrills and villains.
Gregory, who turns 93 on Aug. 27, also was married to America's first “sweetheart” of sound and silent films, Janet Gaynor, until her death two years after a 1982 San Francisco car accident. As such, he played host at their former 100-acre ranch in Desert Hot Springs to a span of cinematic heroes Walter and Leonore Annenberg would have envied — legends ranging from Greta Garbo to John Travolta and, he said, Marilyn Monroe.
But Gregory, who walks with a cane but can clearly recall casting calls from 60 years ago, never really enjoyed working with actors. Ask him his favorite stars from such colleagues as Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Tallulah Bankhead and Ed Harris, and he can't pick one. Laughton was his most talented actor, he said, and Mitchum, well, Gregory says he was overrated.
“He never acted a day in his life,” he said during an interview at the Miracle Springs Resort. “He played himself always. He was to me the coarsest man. I didn't understand him.”
Miracle Springs is sort of a home away from home for Gregory. He has his own table at its restaurant and is on a first-name basis with the wait staff.
He gave a talk there in March, sponsored by the DHS Historical Society, and told a story illustrating Mitchum's “coarseness.” It's such a famous tale that film historian Alan K. Rode added its punch line in a telephone chat this week.
“Mitchum got drunk and got into a snit about something,” said Rode, director of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, “and he urinated on Gregory's car. Laughton said, ‘You know, Bob, we all have our skeletons in our closet, but, Bob, you must not brandish your skeletons publicly.”
Artistry in acting
Mitchum and Laughton were both known for being difficult, so Rode gives Gregory the utmost respect for their collaboration.
“Anyone that can bring Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum together to work harmoniously on a project in the order and magnitude of ‘The Night of the Hunter' deserves everyone's unvarnished respect,” he said. “‘The Night of the Hunter,' I don't think there's ever been another movie quite like that. Certainly it's noir, or noir-stained, but it's really almost lyrical — a phenomenal achievement as far as movie-making goes.”
How Gregory wound up pairing the distinctively different actors is the stuff of legends.
Gregory, a successful theater producer, was sent an adapted screenplay of Davis Grubb's novel about a conning, Bible-pumping sexual predator. The character reminded Gregory of his father, who deserted his family in Des Moines, Iowa, and ran off with his wife's $240,0000 Indian allotment, forcing Gregory to live with his aunt and uncle in England through his teens.
Gregory gained a cultural education in England that proved propitious upon his return to America. He recognized Ruth St. Denis while working in a Hollywood drug store, which led to him promoting a show by the modern dance progenitor. More promoting opportunities arose, and Gregory was soon hired by MCA to book “class acts.”
Gregory wanted Laurence Olivier to play the lead in “The Night of the Hunter” and Laughton to make his film directorial debut. But Olivier was tied up in other projects, and Laughton liked Mitchum for the role.
“So, I'm stuck with him,” Gregory said. “I had taken out a loan for $700,000 to make the picture. I had a starting date to start using that money.”
Laughton elicited remarkable performances. He shot the behind-the-scenes action on 16mm film that was recently restored and released on Blu-ray as a special feature of the “Night of the Hunter” DVD.
“Watching Charles Laughton direct children, direct Bob Mitchum, direct the great Lillian Gish to craft this movie, I've never seen anything like it,” Rode said. “He was such a perfectionist, but he directed it by reaching in, (with) the actors giving to him rather than him extracting some sort of performance or intimidating or blustering.”
Show biz team
Gregory and Laughton had formed a partnership years earlier after Gregory saw Laughton recite from the Book of Daniel on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Gregory went to the New York theater where Laughton was appearing and told him he'd be “throwing away a million dollars” if he didn't talk to him about doing a series of readings. Laughton listened, Gregory quit MCA and, a year later they had $200,000 worth of bookings for Laughton's readings.
Their most notable reading was taken from Shaw's 1903 play, “Man and Superman.” Gregory got the idea after walking past a Tiffany's window and seeing four sparkling diamonds on black velvet. He decided to book four stage stars — Laughton, Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead — to read just the third act of the play, featuring a philosophical dialogue between Don Juan and the devil.
Shaw, at 93, didn't want to let Gregory do it, especially with Boyer, who he thought was too French to play the smooth-talking Don Juan, and Laughton, whom he resented for not fighting in World War II, playing the devil. But a promise of 5 percent of the gross got “Don Juan in Hell” a premiere in Santa Barbara and six months on Broadway. It toured the U.S. three times and ran six months in Europe. It's still frequently presented with other stars.
But Gregory's “six fantastic years working with Charles Laughton” weren't without challenges.
“Handling Charles Laughton was like handling a one-ton elephant with a glass of gin in his hand,” Gregory said. “You had to watch him like an eight-layered bear.”
The next chapter
Gregory said a chapter in his life closed when Laughton died in 1962. He had been fired by Joseph E. Levine of Paramount after an obscenity-laced criticism of a screenplay of “Harlow” that Paramount had sent him, and he had moved to Gaynor's Desert Hot Springs ranch before marrying Gaynor in 1964.
Gaynor painted and Gregory raised cows, hogs and pigeons imported from Marseilles, France. Within five years, he was making $1,000 a week from their working ranch.
“It was the most fun in my life,” he said, “dealing with things that were grateful to get something to eat.”
He and Gaynor also enjoyed Desert Hot Springs for its privacy. Gaynor was widowed from MGM costume designer Adrian, who told Gaynor he had had a gay fling in the 1930s. Gaynor had been linked with her cinematic leading man, Charlie Farrell, before that, and Farrell also had been rumored to be gay. So Gaynor also fended off rumors that she was gay.
“She was severely hurt by the viciousness of wagging tongues,” Gregory said. “She was afraid it would hurt her son. Her son said to me, ‘I heard she was a lesbian. Was she?' I said, ‘It wouldn't make any difference if she were. You're born, and you're here, and you've got a life, and you've got control. The ball is in your court.”
Rumors of Gregory's sexual orientation followed his association with Laughton, who had a long marriage of convenience with actress Elsa Lanchester. Gregory had two more marriages after Gaynor's death, including one to the late Rancho Mirage art dealer Kay Obergfel. He also had a son out of wedlock who died as a young adult. But it was sometimes assumed Gregory's marriage to Gaynor was one of convenience.
“I was very bitter about the whole damn thing,” Gregory said.
“My ire can be raised very quickly if someone looks at me wrong. Thanks to that dear sweet woman, I got over a lot of it.”