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Fellows Find: How Hollywood producers used Alfred Hitchcock’s weight to their advantage

Casey McKittrick is an Associate Professor of English at Western Michigan University. He spent June and July of 2012 researching the David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick archives at the Harry Ransom Center.  His work, which was funded by the Warren Skaaren Research Fellowship Endowment, produced the first chapter, and informed several others, of his forthcoming book Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread.

 

When I learned of my Warren Skaaren fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, I had just begun work on a book-length project examining how Alfred Hitchcock’s experiences as a fat man influenced his filmmaking and the path of his career. After reading that Hitchcock had undergone a 100-pound weight loss upon moving from London to Hollywood in the 1940s, I became convinced that his relationship with David O. Selznick, the Hollywood “super-producer” who provided him with a seven-year contract, must have been partly responsible for this radical body change.  Thus, I approached the Selznick archive at the Ransom Center with the working hypothesis that Hitchcock lost weight under the auspices of Selznick (renowned for tightly controlling his employees) to conform to the rigid bodily standards that Hollywood visibility necessitated.

 

The archive told a completely different story. For five weeks, I not only revised my thinking, but through the marvelously kept records—memos, legal documents, publicity material, scripts-in-process—I developed a narrative about the Selznick-Hitchcock relationship that had never been addressed at length. To be sure, a lot of research has been done on this historically important and largely successful collaboration, but Hitchcock’s fatness had never been suggested as a meaningful factor in their negotiations or their relationship dynamics.

 

First of all, it became clear that Selznick marketed Hitchcock as Europe’s greatest export by focusing on his fatness.  Selznick capitalized on Hitch’s enormity to build a literally larger-than-life profile of the director. He was proud that he had managed to enlist the “Master of Suspense” in the face of great studio competition, and he wanted to ensure that Americans could look to Hitch as a celebrity figure—one belonging to Selznick International Pictures (SIP). The publicity photos for Hitchcock’s first American film Rebecca revealed this reliance on making Hitchcock a spectacle. For example, in one photo, Hitchcock holds a fake barbell while yawning; the photo caption reads: “Heavyweight in light mood.”  In four different pictures Hitch is captioned as either a “239-pound Englishman” or a “239 pound director,” and in yet another, the caption reads, “‘Hitch,’ who likes to talk about movies and himself, doesn’t mind allusions to his 239 pounds.” Thus, far from encouraging the director to lose weight, Selznick commodified his body and did so quite successfully. In fact, when Selznick heard of Hitchcock’s drastic weight loss, he became concerned and in a memo urged him to “Drink a Malted!”

 

Another guiding idea that I uncovered through careful examination of the archive was that Selznick and his cronies at SIP would often use Hitchcock’s size against him in a shaming capacity. For example, Dan O’ Shea, one of Selznick’s vice presidents, sent a scathing memo to Hitchcock that scolded him for his prima donna attitude, and he capped off the missive with the taunt, “How’s the metabolism?” In nearly every altercation between the director and producer, communications emerged that referred to Hitchcock’s greed, his “big appetite,” or the notion that he was getting “too big for his britches.” Even as Hitchcock complied with Selznick’s publicity strategies and realized that his popularity hinged on this kind of “body marketing,” he still retained a great deal of shame surrounding his size, and Selznick exploited this shame many times in an attempt to “manage” him—to control what cinematic projects he took on, how fast he completed them, his other collaborations, and what he said to the press.

 

My research in the Selznick archives generated the first chapter of my recently completed monograph Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread, and the data I collected there is evident throughout the book. The book truly could not have been completed without this research. I look forward to using materials from the Center on future projects.

 

Related content:

The Ransom Center is now accepting fellowship applications for the 2014-2015 academic year

 

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Art Director: Set design for boathouse in "Rebecca"

Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
The art director, in creating the environment that a character inhabits, reveals much about a character’s personality through the type of house, the style of furniture, the pictures on the walls, and even the items on the coffee table or in the kitchen sink. Furthermore, the sets designed by an art director must correspond to the geographic and historical context of the story.

Here, producer David O. Selznick writes in a memo to director Alfred Hitchcock and art director Lyle Wheeler that their movie’s title character, Rebecca, would have decorated her boathouse in a style reflecting her personality, and that the inside would look much different from the outside.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
“I have been thinking about the furnishing of the boathouse,” Selznick writes, “and I feel that we may be missing an opportunity here in not dressing the interior as incongruously with the exterior as possible. I think that it was after all Rebecca’s pet rendezvous and she would certainly have done it up beautifully. I have accordingly asked Wheeler to submit some new sketches on this.”

This is just one item from the “Art Director” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center.

Hearing Music in the David O. Selznick Collection

Occupying almost 5,000 document cases, the archive of film producer David O. Selznick is the Ransom Center’s largest archive. Nathan Platte, a Musicology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, navigated through this enormous collection last year with a dissertation fellowship jointly sponsored by the Ransom Center and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies. Platte shares his experiences conducting research at the Ransom Center for his dissertation, “Musical Collaboration, Coercion, and Resistance in the Films of David O. Selznick, 1932–1948.”

While writing a dissertation on the films of David O. Selznick, I had the fortunate opportunity to conduct extensive research in the Harry Ransom Center’s gargantuan David O. Selznick collection. When one thinks of a film producer’s archive, images of contracts, correspondences, scripts, photographs, storyboards, and costumes might come to mind. The Selznick collection contains all of these items, but my project focused on a different facet. As a musicologist, I was most interested in the musical scores of Selznick’s films—the famous “Tara” theme that plays as Scarlett and her father watch the sun set in Gone with the Wind (1939), the eerie electronic sounds that waft through spooky sequences in Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945), the brass fanfares that gild scenes of pageantry in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and even the piano piece performed by the icy murderess of The Paradine Case (1947).

What exactly is the archival footprint of film music? The list is actually quite daunting: instructions from Selznick detailing musical ideas and impressions, pencil sketches made by the composer, full orchestral scores arranged by orchestrators, orchestral parts and “short” scores rendered by copyists, recording logs that state when the score was recorded, who played in the orchestra, and how many performances it took before the conductor was satisfied… There are also standard studio documents related to music: contracts for composers, correspondences between Selznick and music directors, and occasional photographs of the musicians who worked behind the scenes. Put simply, the Selznick collection is a treasure trove for the film musicologist.

My dissertation examines the process of scoring a film. This involved documenting many steps, including the collaboration (and arguments) between Selznick and composers. I also studied the input of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Cromwell, whose ideas on music differed from Selznick’s. Music editors also influenced the musical content of Selznick’s films even though they did not compose new music. Audray Granville, for example, reshaped Miklós Rózsa’s score for Spellbound through artful cutting and pasting. Reading her correspondences with Selznick is illuminating; the producer trusted her judgment more than the composer’s!

I was always excited to find music not used in the final film. These rejected passages tell stories of their own, and the reasons for their exclusion reveal more about the musical effects intended by Selznick, his composers, and music staff. At times like these, the process of film scoring changed my understanding of music’s relationship to story and visuals. With the rich sources of the Selznick collection and the generous support of a Ransom Center dissertation fellowship, I found this research to be both exhilarating and revelatory.