Wednesday, August 28, 2013

TCM: ELMER GANTRY (1960)—The Evening Class Interview With Shirley Jones and Ben Mankiewicz

In March-April 2011, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) promoted the second edition of their Classic Film Festival by way of their "Road to Hollywood" tour, featuring free screenings of classic films in 10 cities across the States, including San Francisco, where on Wednesday, April 20, Shirley Jones and TCM's weekend daytime host Ben Mankiewicz accompanied a Castro Theatre screening of Elmer Gantry (1960), a film which earned Jones a Best Supporting Actress Oscar®.

With her recently-published and controversial memoir piquing prurient interests (Shirley Jones: A Memoir)—let alone a cease-and-desist order from former Dynasty star Joan Collins (who is demanding the book be removed from book shelves everywhere)—Jones is being fêted today on TCM as part of their annual "Summer Under the Stars." Now seemed as good a window as any to transcribe my conversation with Jones and Mankiewicz, conducted during the "Road to Hollywood" tour. My thanks to Christine Slaton, then the senior publicist for Allied, for arranging time for me to sit down with the two of them to have a conversation. This transcript is cobbled together from that conversation and the on-stage interview later that evening on the Castro stage.

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Michael Guillén: Welcome to San Francisco.

Shirley Jones: Thank you.

Guillén: I understand this isn't your first visit and that you were actually in San Francisco when Burt Lancaster phoned you up to ask if you'd read for Elmer Gantry?

Jones: That's exactly right. I was at the Fairmont Hotel with Jack Cassidy. We were touring with our nightclub act.

Guillén: Before we get into discussing Elmer Gantry, I'd like to relay a question from one of my readers in Portland, Oregon who swears she's your greatest fan. She's followed your career through stage, screen, records, nightclubs, television, etc., and was intrigued by your having worked in so many entertainment formats. She wondered if you preferred one over the other? And how that has worked for you, shifting between these different opportunities?

Jones: I feel grateful that I've been able to do that and that I've had those opportunities. I started out as a singer singing at the age of six in the church choir, so singing was a gift given to me. I thought everybody could sing! I sang at all the local Lions Club and Rotary Club events all through grammar school and all through high school. I won a beauty contest and became Miss Pittsburgh, though I'm sorry to say I didn't win Miss Pennsylvania; but, I got a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which had three little theaters, and they taught dance, ballet, acting and singing. So during the summers when I was in high school, I would go study there.

But as much as I loved what I was doing when I did it, my dream in life was to become a veterinarian. I'm a big animal person. So I enrolled in college and the July before the Fall semester, my parents took me to New York and I called up a friend who I had worked with at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and he said, "Come up, Shirley, and we'll sing a couple of tunes." I did and he said, "Listen, Rodgers and Hammerstein's casting director is having open auditions for anybody that wants to come up and sing for them." They had about three or four shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long that they had to keep replacing chorus people all the time.

I had never been to a professional audition of any kind. I was a young, naïve girl who had only done stuff at the Playhouse so I said, "Oh, I don't think I can do that." He said, "C'mon, give it a try." So he talked me into it. I stood in line around the block with all these other young girls making their way to the stage. Finally I got there and sang for the casting director and he asked, "Miss Jones, what have you done?" I said, "Nothing." Which was true. He said, "Well, could you wait a few moments? I'm going to call Mr. Richard Rodgers, who happens to be across the street rehearsing the orchestra for Oklahoma!, which is about to open, and I'd like to have him hear you in person." Well, I didn't even know who Richard Rodgers was. "Okay," I said.

A few moments later, down the aisle comes this gentleman and he says, "Miss Jones?" And I said, "What did you say your name was again?" "Richard Rodgers," he said. I'll never forget that moment. I sang for him and he said, "Miss Jones, could you wait about 20 minutes? I'd like to call Oscar Hammerstein." This was my first audition anywhere for anyone. I thought this was what happened at every audition! I said, "Well, I guess so."

Now my pianist, he said, "Shirley, I hate to do this to you"—it was some kind of holiday weekend—"But, I can't wait. I have an airplane to catch." Richard Rodgers said, "Nevermind. We'll think of something." Well, I stood there alone for about 30 minutes when all of a sudden down the aisle comes a very tall gentleman and he said, "Miss Jones? Do you know the score of Oklahoma!?" I said, "I might know some of the music, but I don't know the words." Of course, I'm talking to the lyricist. He said, "Nevermind. I happen to have the score here." I said, "But Mr. Hammerstein, I don't have anyone to play. My pianist had to leave." Richard Rodgers said, "We have the full City Center symphony across the street." I had never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sung with one. I said, "Oh, I don't know if I can do this." Well, they took me by the arm and took me across the street.

Now, I can't read music. I still can't read music. Fortunately, I have a good ear; but, I can't read. So the orchestra played "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" and "People Will Say We're In Love" and—once I'd heard the music—I stood with the score in front of my face and I sang these two songs for the two gentlemen in the audience. Well, I never got to college. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show; that was South Pacific in the last six months of the Broadway company. I was one of the nurses. It wasn't a big role. I only had one line. We were all actors. I had studied some Shakespeare at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and I figured I was ready for my acting debut.

Guillén: Apparently, Rodgers and Hammerstein had bigger plans for you?

Jones: Obviously they did have other plans that I was not aware of. After South Pacific closed, they put me in a show called Me and Juliet, one of their lesser hits on Broadway that was about to go on tour to Chicago. While I was in that show, a producer and writer from Hollywood, Fred Zinnemann and Arthur Hornblow, Jr. came to New York because they were going to be making a motion picture of Oklahoma! Richard Rodgers called me and said, "Would you come up and read and sing for these two gentlemen?" I sang for them, read for them, and they said it was a very good audition but they told Rodgers and Hammerstein that they thought I was too green to be able to handle the role of Laurey.

Guillén: They wanted a movie star?

Jones: Yeah, they wanted someone who had been in the business longer than six months, which I could certainly understand. So I thought that opportunity was over. I went to Chicago with Me and Juliet playing a featured part. In the meantime, they screen tested and read every young woman on both coasts for the role of Laurey in the motion picture of Oklahoma! All the young movie stars in Hollywood, like Debbie Reynolds, and all the young women in shows on Broadway. While I was in Chicago, Richard Rodgers called me and said, "We'd like to send you to California to screen test for the role of Laurey." I was very excited.

I went to California and I screen tested with Gordon MacRae—which was unusual because ordinarily they don't have someone like that do it—and the director Fred Zinnemann. After the test, Zinnemann said, "Miss Jones, have you ever worked in front of a camera before?" and I said, "No, never" and he said, "Well don't change a thing; you're a natural." I went back to Chicago and a week later Richard Rodgers called me and said, "Hello, Laurey."

Guillén: So what was it like working with Fred Zinnemann, who I understand had never directed a musical?

Jones: I loved him. I adored him. He was incredible. To have him as my first movie director was phenomenal. He really gave me a whole sense of what the movie industry was about. He was so helpful. Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the set the whole time. It was their baby. They were producing it. They had only done one other movie, State Fair (1945), because they were not really movie people. They didn't like Hollywood; but, they weren't about to let anyone else do Oklahoma! The casting was interesting. They had Rod Steiger as Jud. Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie.

Guillén: How did you get along with Gloria Grahame?

Jones: Not too well. She was kind of reserved and I didn't have a lot of conversations with her. She didn't want to talk to me much. I remember Oscar Hammerstein coming to me one day and telling me Grahame had said to him, "You better watch this girl. She's going to put on a bunch of pounds and you won't have a Laurey." So from then on I had to watch everything I ate. But then there was a scene in the water where I became faint and very weak and they had to carry me out of the water. Then Charlotte Greenwood, who played Aunt Eller, said, "You can eat a little more." She became my grandmother on set. I had Charlotte every morning for breakfast telling me what I could eat and what I couldn't eat.

Guillén: So your career had a robust launch with the movie musicals of Oklahoma! and Carousel, but then the industry changed?

Jones: Yes. As a singer in musicals, my career was over when they stopped making musicals because—if you were a singer—they didn't think of you as an actress. Had I not been able to go into acting via television and then, of course, Elmer Gantry—which really gave me the longevity I've had with my career—I would not have been able to do all of it. I've been very fortunate. So to answer your earlier question, I can't say that there has been a way that I've constructed my career so that I could do so many different forms of entertainment; it just happened that way for me.

Guillén: Before the late '60s-early '70s when nostalgia for classic films really kicked in, did you ever imagine or anticipate that your films would have such longevity, by way of VHS, DVD, and revival screenings?

Jones: No, I didn't. I wasn't aware that these formats would develop. I knew, though, that Rodgers and Hammerstein would always have an incredible following. They were musical geniuses. I felt their music would be here long after we were all gone.

Guillén: I understand you were one of their few contract players?

Jones: I was. The first and only person put under personal contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. I was never under contract to a studio or anything like that.

Ben Mankiewicz: I don't disagree with you about the advent of nostalgia, and how there has been a recent mass marketing of nostalgia as a business; but, even in the late '60s-early '70s there was certainly already a nostalgic look at films from the '30s, '40s and '50s. When Shirley made Elmer Gantry, it's not like there wasn't already an appreciation for the greatness of Casablanca and—I was going to say the brilliance of Buster Keaton; but, that actually wasn't there until the 1980s—but, that appreciation for Hollywood history already existed. There were film fans in the '60s-'70s who knew how great Gone With the Wind was.

Jones: I think he's mainly talking about musicals? And that's how I got into singing, because I loved Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Dan Dailey, all those people. I wanted to be a musical performer.

Guillén: And yet you won your Oscar® for your dramatic performance. Can you recreate for me that night at the Oscars®? You had tough competition. Janet Leigh had been stabbed to death in the shower, for starters. Can you recall what the buzz was like at the time?

Jones: Janet was the favorite. I wasn't expecting to win at all. She had won all the other prior awards, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild, they went to Janet. So I was thrilled just for the nomination.

Mankiewicz: You know what's crazy? Janet was nominated—"Janet", like I know her; I always do that—and Hitchcock was nominated for best director. Obviously he didn't win—he never won an Oscar®—but Psycho, the film itself, wasn't nominated for Best Picture! It's crazy! Janet Leigh was nominated, Hitchcock was nominated, and it's just strange that the film wasn't nominated.

Jones: I know! But that happens sometimes.

Guillén: Elmer Gantry, on the other hand, did well. It won three Oscars® out of five, I believe, and you ended up on that stage with Burt Lancaster, and the film also won for adapted screenplay. Speaking of Burt, what was it like working with all that teeth and hair?

Jones: He was incredible. He was my mentor for that film.

Guillén: In what respect? How do you mean that?

Jones: Well, he fought for me to play the role because Richard Brooks did not want me. Richard wanted Piper Laurie for the part and didn't think that I was right for it. But I had done a Playhouse 90 television show called "The Big Slide" with Red Skelton where I played an alcoholic sunshine girl during the Max Sennett era. At that time it was a step down to do television if you were a Hollywood actor; but, Burt saw that show and decided he wanted me to play this part. He argued I was right for it.

As I mentioned earlier, I was in San Francisco doing my nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy when Burt called me. He said, "Hello, is this Shirley Jones?" I said, "Yes." He said, "This is Burt Lancaster" and I said, "Sure it is" and I hung up. Fortunately, he called back and he said, "Shirley, this is Burt Lancaster. We're doing the film Elmer Gantry. Go get the Sinclair Lewis novel and read it. I want you for the role of Lulu Bains. I would like you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard Brooks. I'm co-producing with him and I'm playing Elmer Gantry." He said, "I think you'd be wonderful in the part." Well, I ran out and got the novel and read it that day. I couldn't believe he was thinking of me for this role. I was thrilled to pieces, you know? Because, as I said, being a singer, I was never thought of as an actress and my career was virtually over at that point.

Guillén: And the character of Lulu Bains required a different style of acting? You had always been cast in ingénue roles up until then? I was actually kind of shocked when I first saw your performance in Elmer Gantry.

Jones: I know!

Guillén: Can you talk a bit about Richard Brooks? Once he warmed up to you, what was he like to work with?

Jones: It took him quite a while to warm up to me. Fortunately for me, Burt had me come to the set every single day to watch the shoot, watch the other actors, watch the direction that Richard gave, and that prepared me. My first day of shooting was the biggest scene in the movie; the scene where I'm in the house of prostitution telling the girls how I met Elmer Gantry. It's a famous scene with that famous line ("He rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!").

Richard gave me no direction. He just sat there with his legs crossed smoking his pipe and I thought, "It's over." As I was still quite young, I was accustomed to fine directors. I worked with Fred Zinnemann on Oklahoma! who was wonderful for my first time out. He was so great with actors. I loved that. I loved working with directors, but Richard didn't give me anything. I went home in tears that night, thinking, "It's over. He's going to fire me." I didn't have to shoot the next day, but I got this phone call on the evening of the next day and Richard said, "Shirley, this is Richard Brooks. I owe you an apology. Not only are you going to be great in this film, but I predict you're going to win the Academy Award®."

Guillén: There you go.

Jones: I went on to do another film with him, The Happy Ending.

Guillén: If I remember correctly, there wasn't a rating system at this time?

Mankiewicz: In 1960? No.

Guillén: Yet, I understand there was a parental warning that there were scenes in Elmer Gantry questionable for children?

Jones: Oh yes. Big time. The churches were up in arms, particularly the Baptists. Some cities banned the film in their theaters.

Mankiewicz: Banned in Boston.

Jones: Exactly. That's right. I received terrible letters saying my career was going to be over and how dare I do this role after having done such lovely musicals, this that and the other, and now you're playing a whore. But I loved the writing, loved the direction, and knew that—if it was going to be one of the best movies ever made—it would open up a new career for me, which it was and which it did. If it hadn't have been for Elmer Gantry, my career would have been over. I went on to do 28 movies.

Guillén: As I was reviewing that night at the Oscars® and that beautiful photograph of you with Burt, and Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Ustinov, it brought to mind the sad news of her recent death. Did you know Elizabeth Taylor at all?

Jones: I met her for the first time that night. Then I got to know her when she was involved with raising awareness about AIDS and organizing all the benefits. She asked me to come and sing a couple of songs. I went to her house for dinner one night with my husband Jack Cassidy. She was married to Richard Burton at the time. My name is Jones and I'm Welsh. My grandfather came over from Wales. Richard—who was quite drunk that night—came up to me, grabbed me, and said, "I'm going to teach you how to sing in Gaelic." I said, "But I can't speak Gaelic!" "No, no," he said, "you'll learn." He took me in the other room—it was a big party of people—and started to sing in Gaelic and he wanted me to follow him in Gaelic. I said, "I can't do it, Richard." Finally, Elizabeth opened the door and said, "Will you let this poor woman out of here and leave her alone?!" I knew her to that extent. I liked her very much.

Guillén: At the time, with regard to the reception for Elmer Gantry, what were your obligations to promote the film? Did you meet the public? Did you attend gala openings?

Jones: There were openings, but I don't remember them doing a giant press campaign like I had to do, for example, with Oklahoma! Yes, we had interviews and so forth; but, I don't remember a press campaign. The movie did its own thing. It just held up so well. The fact that it had Burt, and Arthur Kennedy, and Jean Simmons, and André Previn's score....

Guillén: And John Alton's incredible cinematography.

Jones: That's right.

Guillén: Some might consider it a major slight that he wasn't nominated for his cinematography. What was Alton like?

Jones: He was lovely, just wonderful, very serious, very concerned about his work, you know?

Guillén: He made some interesting visual choices in Elmer Gantry: his subdued color palette, his framing....

Jones: The film was beautifully shot.

Guillén: You'd been in these huge movies, these massively mounted musicals, so I'm curious how an actress interacts with such a noted cinematographer. Did you bring him candy?

Jones: [Laughs.] No. I didn't think in those terms then. I trusted him implicitly. I was at an age in a time when I was simply thrilled to be in the movie. I wasn't that experienced with great cinematographers really; but, I saw what he was doing and thought it was brilliant.

Mankiewicz: Did you have a sense of the difference between shooting in the Todd-AO process and CinemaScope where you had to shoot it different ways for Oklahoma! Then with Elmer Gantry, you were back to shooting in a more regular way. Were you aware of that? Were you conscious of that difference?

Jones: Oh yes, I loved it. I loved that we didn't have to do it. You know, we lost Frank Sinatra for Carousel because of that. He walked off the set the first day of shooting because there were the two cameras. He said, "I signed to do one movie, not two." He got back in his car and we lost our leading man. The writer-producer Henry Ephron came over to me with tears literally running down his face and he said, "Shirley, where's Gordon MacRae?" I said, "I think he's in Lake Tahoe doing a night club act with his wife Sheila." He said, "Can you get him on the phone?" It was a pay phone on the dock in Ann Arbor. I said, "Well, can you give me some quarters?" He gave me some quarters and, believe it or not, I got Gordon MacRae on the telephone right there and I said, "Gordon, how would you like to play Billy Bigelow in Carousel?" He said, "Give me three days; I have to lose ten pounds."

But my first movie was Oklahoma!, which was shot in Todd-AO and regular, but we didn't have to do scenes twice, mainly only the close-ups. Anyways, I couldn't believe that was the reason Frank Sinatra left the set because everybody knew we were going to be shooting in two processes. I would run into Frank at parties and he never wanted to talk about it. Just recently, believe it or not, six or eight months ago, I was at a press conference with several old people who had been press agents for a long time and we got on the subject of Frank and this one man said to me, "Don't you know why he left Carousel?" I said, "Do you?" He said, "Oh sure, everybody knows." I said, "Well, why don't I know?" He said, "Ava Gardner was shooting a film in Africa and she said, "Unless you get down here right away, I'm going to have an affair with Clark Gable." That apparently was the real reason.

Guillén: Fascinating. I'm intrigued by how an actor's performance on film matches up to their expectations of their own performance. What was it like for you to see the film and see yourself in this role? Did it match what you felt you were presenting?

Jones: Fortunately, for me it did. At least with Elmer Gantry. There were other films I did where I didn't feel quite that way; but, with Elmer Gantry I was thrilled every moment, thrilled with the scenes that I had, thrilled that I had beautiful close-ups. I couldn't have been happier. Watching the film was a great moment for me.

Guillén: And then you ended up with that little statuette. Do you keep it polished up?

Jones: I sure do! It sits in my living room.

Guillén: Do you still sing?

Jones: All over the place.

Guillén: Will you be in Hollywood for the TCM Classic Film Festival screening of Elmer Gantry?

Jones: I'm not here for that, unfortunately. I wanted to be; but, I'm on a singing junket.

Guillén: Well, I'm delighted at least that you've been able to participate in this Road to Hollywood promotion.

Jones: Me too!

Guillén: I went last year but I won't get to go this year as I've just sold my home here in San Francisco and am relocating.

Jones: Did you?

Mankiewicz: Where are you going?

Guillén: I'm moving to Idaho.

Jones: Really?! What part?

Guillén: Boise.

Mankiewicz: Are you joining a militia?

Guillén: No, no, my family's from Idaho.

Mankiewicz: My father's from there. My grandfather lived in Boise.

Guillén: Oh?  Regarding your other roles, Shirley, can you highlight some that you're especially proud of?

Jones: I was telling Ben that before my concert I have an opportunity to show eight minutes of film clips from all the movies I've starred in and all the co-stars I've worked with. I did a movie called The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. I played a madam in that. That was a wonderful film. Gene Kelly directed it.

Guillén: A madam? So, first a fallen deacon's daughter in Elmer Gantry, and then subsequent turns in brothels; were these roles in reaction to the wholesome characters in your earlier work?

Jones: Yes.

Guillén: You were trying to break the ingénue image to prove you had range?

Jones: I had to. I had to prove that I was more than little Shirley Mae Jones from Smithton, Pennsylvania, population 800. And as I said before, I was a singer and had to prove myself as an actress.

Guillén: As someone who participated in what are now considered the classic musicals, do you ever watch contemporary musicals?

Jones: Oh yes. Every time a musical opens at the Pantages Theater, I go to the opening every time.

Guillén: I ask because I don't think that conflict between singing and acting still applies.

Jones: It's funny that you say that because I was just reading The New York Times today and the Times had a review of a new musical show that had just opened cast basically with actors. They're all good actors, good performers, but the title of the review was "Whatever happened to the musical voices of Broadway?"

Guillén: Now they want them.

Jones: Now they want them, yes. And this is a famous reviewer and the cast is made up of all good people; but, he's right basically. There are just a few true singers that are still doing Broadway now.

Guillén: Since you're here in San Francisco under the aegis of TCM's Road to Hollywood series preparing for their film festival in Hollywood, any thoughts regarding TCM?

Jones: I'm a fan! Are you kidding? I said to Ben, I'm such a giant fan of him and the channel. It's my favorite station. There are no commercials. It's so wonderful. TCM is my relaxation at the end of the day. I get my martini, I get in bed, I pull the covers up and I watch TCM all night. I love it.

Guillén: Thank you so much for your time today, Shirley.

Jones: Thank you.

Guillén: And good luck with the festival in Hollywood, Ben. Any particular screening you're looking forward to?

Mankiewicz: Peter O'Toole. They gave me that one. A 20-minute conversation before the screening of Becket. I mean, what's the big deal? He hasn't even won an Oscar®. Loser!

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