The Star Creators of Hollywood — Frank Lloyd (1936) 🇺🇸

Frank Lloyd (1930) |

January 17, 2022

The second in a series of revealing articles on the masterminds behind pictures and personalities— the directors. This month, the man who has every player scheming to work with him.

by Howard Sharpe

Last month a certain genial Irishman sat in the artificial fog and gloom of a set pub and analyzed, for your better understanding, the special methods whereby he had turned out such immortal little film masterpieces as “The Informer” and “Lost Patrol.” His opinions, the description of his various techniques and professional secrets, were given as the beginning of this series, dedicated to your appreciation of motion picture directors and their work.

John Ford is an idealist. His art is the beautiful product of a great sincerity, a definite belief in the value of celluloid as a medium for expression, and his incredible understanding of humanity.

He is, amazingly, Frank Lloyd’s best friend. Amazingly, because of any two directors, in this astonishing town, Ford and Lloyd are at the furthest odds, so far as their particular approaches and attitudes are concerned. As men they sit together over a glass of beer and, one with the brogue of Erin on his tongue and the other with no hint of his Scottish tradition discernible, speak casually of inconsequential things. But when their profession becomes the issue of conversation, Ford lapses into clear Gaelic and Lloyd is hardly understandable. The battle is on.

I couldn’t resist, under the circumstances, using Frank Lloyd as the second subject for this series.

You must remember his pictures. “The Sin Flood,” “Oliver Twist” with Jackie Coogan; “Adoration” and “Dark Streets;” Divine Lady with Corinne Griffith, and “Weary River” and “Drag” with Richard Barthelmess. The latter three were Academy winners. He made “Young Nowheres,” Son of the Gods, “The Lash” and “Age for Love.” He directed Conrad Nagel and Ann Harding in East Lynne, which permanently unleashed the tear ducts of every woman in the country, and brought him a contract with Fox. He made the elusive “Berkeley Square” and the momentous pageant called Cavalcade.

It was The Sea Hawk that finally and completely demonstrated, to an already interested public, his certain knowledge of sea and ships and sailors. Mutiny on the Bounty was inevitably great.

He is — and mark this statement because it is the basic premise on which your knowledge of the man must be built — primarily a producer. With every movie he makes, and they’re all of the epic variety, it is his personal bank account that pays out the millions and accepts eventually the profits. Wherefore his approach to any picture is of necessity from the production standpoint.

John Ford is simply a director, with an ideal about movies in his heart and a deep well of artistry in his brain.

Frank Lloyd is, first and foremost, a shrewd business man whose primary motive is to create a piece of merchandise which the public will buy from him.

But this much is true — that regardless of their several formulas — one subjective, the other detached, objective — in the end both turn out masterpieces on film. Both offer to the world the greatest motion pictures that come out of Hollywood. Both are supreme artists. I discovered Lloyd last week on location at Santa Cruz, California, where, under the clear sky, he has built the village of Salem, Massachusetts. It’s indicative of his greatest passion — that of authenticity — that for only a few sequences he has built a complete town, with every house entire and with every small detail superbly real and superbly in place.

He was standing near the cameras on a high platform built to overlook the village green, where technicians and prop boys and hundreds of extras were preparing a mob shot. I gestured inclusively at the magnificent set.

“How do you reconcile a palpable extravagance like this,” I said, “with the fact that you want to make a lot of money out of ‘The Maid of Salem?’ You could have done the whole thing on a sound-stage at one third the expense.”

“Answer’s simply that the public is no fool,” he told me. “To get them into the theater I have to offer them great pictures. If they detect any artificiality in the product they won’t think it’s any good. So they won’t go to see it. So it won’t make any money. So I go in for authenticity. You understand?”

Through a microphone he directed the scene, his eyes critical, his voice unexcited and faintly detached. He made no great to-do, there was no temperament. And after three takes he said, “Print ‘em,” and grinned at me. “That wasn’t so bad, d’you think?”

“Looked pretty good.” We climbed down from the platform, found chairs in the shade and sprawled in them.

“Did I ever tell you about the break I had on one shot like that?” He laughed, remembering. “It was during the making of Cavalcade, and I had to have an Armistice Day celebration sequence. We scheduled all the scenes in advance and sheerly by accident that particular shot was scheduled on the real holiday. Then something happened, and we had to revise the schedule, and again by accident that scene again turned up on that day. So we held our own services in the morning, and then gave everyone an hour for lunch — and when the extras came back they were still so inspired that the feeling injected itself into the film. Got one of the best bits of celluloid I’ve ever seen, as a result.” “The effects you get aren’t all lucky accidents,” I told him. “I want to know what you do when you aren’t blessed by Fate and you have to direct a sequence all by rote. As a matter of fact I’d like to know just how you do an entire picture.”

With the aid of two packages of cigarettes, his voice consistently polite, his unemotional mind assertive and introspective, he told me.

Frank Lloyd creates his pictures almost entirely before the cameras ever start grinding. And lest this confuse you, I must hastily explain that to him the greatest task of movie making is in preparation, not in the actual shooting.

“A good picture,” he told me, “and what’s more important, a best-selling picture, must have three basic qualities for success — entertainment value, an important idea or thought, and good characters.

“I consider entertainment the most important because that’s the American audience’s first interest in going to the theater at all. They want to laugh, they want thrills, vicarious but exciting, and they want to cry a little. If that’s all they get they’re usually satisfied. But beyond that, I feel I owe it to the integrity of the theater (art rearing its head again) to have some sort of an idea there, too. An elevating one, if possible; so that after the curtain, people will go home and do a little thinking.”

Berkeley Square,” I interpolated. “That was very thought-making.”

He nodded. “My favorite picture... And then the characters. I cast each one in my mind as I go along. They have to be real, with very human qualities and with a capacity for joy and sorrow. You get all three of those requisites in any book and you not only have a good story but a good picture.”

He made even his smoke rings with methodical precision. “When I’d finished reading Mutiny on the Bounty,” he said, “I felt a definite excitement running through me. I knew I’d followed the simple history of a little ship — a character in itself — on a long journey. That aboard it was a small group of men, courageous, sometimes sullen, always genuine. That the ship and the men reached Paradise and saw its beauty, were forced to leave that Paradise, and mutinied. I knew that there was thrilling adventure, a great and simple theme, the qualities of laughter and grief, and superb characters. And I knew I could sell a combination like that to any audience.”

The greatest thrill he knows — or asks — is the surging that fills him when at last he stamps his official okay on any particular story and says to his bankers, “Give these people a million or so and let them start their work. We will make this good book into a better picture.”

He must, first, translate the printed story he has read and liked into terms of shots and scenes and sequences. At the same time characters must be cast, sets designed and built, costumes made — so that on the first day of actual production everything will be ready simultaneously.

Lloyd superintends it all.

He locks himself into a room with script men and adaptors, orders food and beer and cartons of cigarettes, rolls up his sleeves and sets to work. When the door opens a few days later he emerges dishevelled and triumphant in a cloud of stale smoke, clutching a battered script complete with dialogue and scenes. A good third of them, in most cases, he has written himself.

By that time, the set and wardrobe departments are ready, awaiting nervously the inevitable appearance of this polite onlooker; and invariably he appears, and looks. And says, “Those Puritan dresses for ‘The Maid’ are entirely wrong, I think. Oh, I admit they’re in the tradition — that’s just the trouble. The Pilgrims may have worn their prim little Mother Hubbards and their buckles and shawls at meeting time, but can you imagine them crashing through underbrush or fighting Indians or pumping at the well dressed like that? Suppose we make them a little more practical?”

Later, over the telephone: “Very nice except for the parlor of this New England house. It’s too comfortable and the things in it are too valuable. Those people used their stuffy little reception rooms only on great occasions, and very few of them were wealthy enough to afford Adam tables.” Or, “The sketch for the beach at Tahiti has enough palms on it, but they’re the wrong kind. Make them cocoanut, please.”

You see he knows. He’s been there. Before he starts any picture he makes a great pilgrimage in person, distrusting the perception of scouts for detail. And besides it gives him the feel of the place and its people and its tradition. When he made Berkeley Square, he went to London and browsed through Berkeley Square. He sailed for Tahiti as soon as he knew he would make “ Mutiny.” He has just returned from Salem.

When he turns to casting, finally, his shrewd businessman’s mind reviews thoughtfully the very tangible (to him) balance between investment in too high salaries for somebody’s name’s sake and probable box-office returns. He chooses stars by precedence, by the result of previous performances. “I usually make very big, very important and exceptionally expensive productions,” Lloyd explained, “and I can’t afford to take any chances. It isn’t so much the question of an actor’s ability, because that’s taken for granted if we even consider him, but of his rating with the public. If we put box-office names into a picture, we automatically assure ourselves a good box-office receipt. Naturally, once I’ve settled the worth of a player from that standpoint, I try to get the best work out of him. On the other hand I don’t cast people just because their names are good; I have to consider the personal aura they’ve built around themselves.

“What about bit people, extras?” I said. “Some directors think they’re just as important as the leads.”

“Not that important,” Lloyd said hastily. “They’ve got to be well cast, though. I usually try to think of all the people in Hollywood who would fit the part, and then I call them in and dress them and test them in an actual scene from the picture.”

Then, while sets are still in model form and costumes are still only brush strokes on paper, he dives into the most important part of his entire program — the cut-and-dried, ubiquitous budget. To that smug little collection of numerals and decimal points there can be no recourse, no quarter. It puts ink stained fingers to its paper nose and snorts disdainfully at every department on the studio lot.

It’s ally is Lloyd

“When you’ve got your cast and have agreed on what you’ll pay them, then you know what you’re in for.” he told me. “Given the probable cost of sets, make-up, costuming, and having estimated the amount of extras, you hold a budget meeting. You figure all the things that are absolutely necessary, and add it all up, and then you find that many of the necessities are too expensive so they aren’t necessary any more. There are always other, and less costly, ways of doing things.

“‘Maid of Salem,’ for instance, opened at $1,000,000, but after a week of thought we got it down to $900,000 without losing any quality at all. Of course you have to allow for weather, when a location is concerned. ‘ Mutiny’ had an allowance of $1,200,000 at the budget meeting and cost $1,800,000. But it’s already out of the red and in the biggest grosses of motion picture history.” He grimaced. “And I turned over my interest in it to the studio. Well, you can’t always foresee that sort of thing.”

“Have much trouble writing out that $100,000 for the ‘Maid’?” I wanted to know.

“Not much. We saved on little things, not big ones. About this location here at Santa Cruz. We found out it would cost just a thousand dollars more to put up in a deluxe camp than in hotels, but I’d rather be near the set and we can always save that money some other way. Shoot ahead of schedule or something.”

“And after you’ve won your little game with Mr. Budget?”

“Then you just start in and make the picture.”

I spent the next hour remembering, with nostalgia because it had been a good afternoon, the way he had “just started and made a picture” over at Catalina the day I was there.

The scene was one of casual comedy between Clark Gable and Franchot Tone and two other people in an officer’s cabin. Lloyd, in his white ducks and his none-too-clean tennis shoes, and with a sweat shirt on, sat in the cabin with the men, laughing and discussing the situation. “I don’t know why somebody getting seasick is funny, but it is,” he told Franchot. “Let’s see you get sick now.”

“Like this,” Franchot said, and his face turned pale and his eyes shone with the terror of someone who is about to be actively nauseated and his mouth wore illness like a garment.

“Can you do that burping act Barrymore does?” Lloyd asked.

Franchot tried. “That’s pretty good,” said the director. He made a little motion to cameramen, lightmen, soundmen. “We’ll try it,” he said.

Overhead, in the little room, a lamp swung back and forth. One after another the men got up and excused themselves suddenly. Finally Franchot had watched the lamp too long.

“Sounded like a hiccup,” Lloyd murmured. “Listen.” Very sweetly, with clearly enunciated syllables, he began describing what happens to a rabbit when it’s dead and has been left in the hot sun for a day or two. Tone’s head began to turn vaguely.

“We’ll do it again,” the director snapped. Cameras turned, the boom moved overhead. And Franchot was too good to be true. But when the scene was finished he left the stage and didn’t come back for a long time.

“I try to inspire my players to better performances.” Lloyd said to me, lighting a new cigarette.

“You inspired poor Franchot,” I said laughing. “ But I suppose that’s why you’re good. You’ve made plenty of Academy winners anyway.”

“That’s only partly my fault. An actor is just as good as the part he plays, and naturally if he’s got a swell role, and is a good player at the same time, an exceptional performance is the result. You remember Laughton won the award for ‘Mutiny’? Well, he came to me on his first day of shooting and said, ‘I’ve just seen the rushes of that little ship sailing along through the water. My God, I can’t equal that. I can’t do anything nearly as good as that.’

“‘Mimic the Bounty, then,’ I told him...” Watching him, listening to his exact, precise voice, I was more than ever aware that here was one of the most astute men in Hollywood, with a will unelastic as wood and a determination that was almost ruthless. I remembered one or two examples of that determination, which are now history among the studio extra groups. Lloyd will tell you the anecdotes himself, if you ask him.

During the filming of The Sea Hawk, there was one scene in which two ships were lashed together at the height of a battle, while furious warfare raged above decks. Any other director would have staged the whole thing in a safe Hollywood back lot. Lloyd took two boats and sailed out to sea for the shot.

It was getting dark, and the sky muttered solemnly of approaching storms. In the lean bowels of the galleys, several hundred prop slaves moved restlessly at the oars. Perfectly aware that at the moment of impact they might go into a panic and ruin his scene, Lloyd — with characteristic shrewdness — chained them all to their seats. And locked the chains.

With the camera whirring from every angle, the two ships moved swiftly toward each other through the murk. They struck, swerved, came to rest. Somehow the oars had caught together, tangled inextricably.

Lloyd, speechless with forebodings, came tumbling down the companion way. In the dimness hundreds of naked bodies lay writhing in one tortuous mass — each one still inextricably chained to its respective seat.

“Fortunately,” remarks Lloyd calmly, “I had a camera turning in the hold at the time.”

In “Divine Lady,” he went far out from shore and lashed two ships together for a particular sequence. They were big ships and he had almost a thousand extras aboard the two of them, including a large number of women and children. They’d been shooting all morning, when the skipper of Lloyd’s boat came to him and drew him aside. “How much longer do we have to stay out?” the captain wanted to know.

“Hours yet,” Lloyd told him. “Why?”

The man was apologetic but firm. “Only that for the last twenty minutes I’ve had everyone below decks at the pumps. We’ve developed a leak and — I’m very sorry but I’m afraid — that we’re going to sink any minute.”

“Oh nuts,” Lloyd said. Then, “Don’t be too obvious about it but get the women and all those kids off. Hurry.”

The children and the unexcited women went overboard in boats. “Nothing,” the director answered those of the curious. “Nothing at all. We’ll do that scene over,” he instructed the cameramen.

They stayed two hours, until every scheduled shot was finished.

“I looked then,” Lloyd told me. “And the water was exactly three feet from the railing. I ordered everybody into the remaining boats — called in a waiting tug and had the wallowing ship towed to some mudflats.

“We would have sunk in another five minutes.”

You get that sort of thing when you work with this director. Paradoxically almost every actor in Hollywood schemes and wrangles to be in his pictures.

“It’s dangerous, being authentic,” he admitted. “But the public will pay for it. And I have never lost a man.”

By the Grace of God, I thought, as he crossed his fingers in silent propitiation of The Deity.

When his work on the set is finished, finally, and everyone has gone home with his neck intact, Lloyd’s last job is in the cutting rooms. Sleepless, incredibly tired, voice still polite and eyes still grinning, he works side by side with the scissors girls; snipping film, pasting scenes together, dubbing in sound.

“Sound!” I said suddenly “That reminds me. Not all of you veteran directors survived the Great Change from silence to noise — that must have been a worrying time.”

“It was pretty bad — but then I was happy about it. You see we’d done just about all we could do with silent pictures. There weren’t any more new paths to trod and it was getting just a little boresome. Then when sound came in, I realized at once we couldn’t handle it as they do on the stage. It had to be a merger between the old technique and the new.

“So I dug up the two best sound engineers in Hollywood, and for weeks I sat with them night and day, looking into the future, planning what courses to take. But only theoretically. I didn’t want to learn too much about it.”

“What?” I tossed him a puzzled look.

“Well, I wanted the road I set for myself to be fairly wide, fairly clear. And anyway my job is directing — if I learn too much about how to record, and so forth, then I’ll go sticking my nose into the soundman’s affairs, which would be a hindrance to him and a waste of time for me.

“This business is a specialist’s Paradise.

“I never studied camera, either. Oh, I know the rudiments of photography. But that’s a big job in itself and I don’t want to confuse it with my interference. I get the best cameramen, the best soundmen, and allow them full expression under certain control, of course. I tell the photographer what mood I want and let him find it; I tell the mixers what quality is needed and warn them about the spaces to leave for dubbing later. That’s all. They do the rest, and I criticize when everything is finished. Usually the shots are perfect, the range for background music (I work with that department too) is just exactly right. And everybody is happier.”

We sat silent for a moment, watching the sun slide along the edge of the sky. “It’s a pretty good game, altogether,” he said finally. “New things are happening all the time — television is an entity we can’t ignore, and then there’s color. Color! I hold no brief for it, you know.

“Life itself is in black and white — shades and hues are a detriment to a good portrayal. The public wants color with a mood, not a visual illusion done by a mechanical contrivance. The audience colors a scene for itself — the way it wants it. Of course, if the trend turns that way irrevocably then I’ll have to follow along. But when I come to a scene where color would intrude, then I’ll do it in dull gray shades.

“Anyway we haven’t even started to do the things we can do in this business. So long as America will support big productions we’ll turn them out and spend the money for them.

“The perfect picture will never be made, probably. But we’re going to try to make it, notwithstanding.”

A hint of idealism after all, maybe? But it doesn’t matter. Embodied in this particular tanned, dark-haired, good-looking gentleman is such strength as is written about but seldom seen. His is the tremendous power of detached intelligence, unemotional observation, unbreakable determination.

Frank Lloyd, and the work he does, are both on a grand scale. Than which sentence I can offer no greater evidence of my personal admiration.

Lloyd’s greatest passion is authenticity — perhaps it’s the secret of his success.

On the opposite page, he holds the gold Academy Award for Cavalcade (1932).

Top, he is outstanding in his direction of sea sagas. One of his most thrilling scenes was the fight between the galleon and the pirate ship in The Sea Hawk (1924).

He refuses to fool the public and is fussy about details — witness the care being given Clark Gable’s make-up in Mutiny on the Bounty (2nd from top).

Left, Frank Lawton, Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook in a scene from Cavalcade, the picture which set all England weeping.

Bottom, he is especially sympathetic to British themes, and his favorite picture was Berkeley Square in 1933, with Irene Browne, Valerie Taylor, Leslie Howard, Colin Keith-Johnston and Heather Angel. Lloyd stands immediately behind Howard with his watch in his hand, impatient to get to work. He is a good businessman as well as an artist.

Is Mary Pickford really going to marry Buddy Rogers at last? She looked so happy (at the right) about something the night she attended the premiere of “Everyman” at the Hollywood Bowl with Buddy and those love birds, Gene Raymond and Jeanette MacDonald.

Source: Photoplay, November 1936

The Star Creators of Hollywood: John Ford Frank Lloyd W. S. Van Dyke

Source: Motion Picture News Blue Book (1930)