Irving Rapper was one of the last surviving directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, passing away on Dec. 20, 1999, at the age of 101, four weeks shy of his 102nd birthday. Rapper is best remembered for the films he made with Bette Davis, including the classics Now, Voyager (1942) and The Corn is Green (1945).
Rapper also directed the first cinematic adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie (1950), and the Rapper-helmed The Brave One (1956) won screenwriter Robert Rich an Oscar. (Rich actually was blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, one of The Hollywood Ten, who did not receive his Oscar for almost 20 years). Rapper continued directing well into the 1970s.
Born in London on January 16, 1898, Irving Rapper emigrated to the United States and became an actor and stage director on Broadway while studying at New York University. In the mid-1930s he journeyed westward to Hollywood, hired by Warner Bros. as an assistant director and dialog coach at Warner Bros., where he proved invaluable translating — and mediating for — non-native-English-speaking directors, By the early 1940s he had metamorphosed into the hottest director on the Warner Bros. lot.
Hired as a “dialog director” (a position created by the film studios in the late 1920s with the advent of sound) by Warners in 1935, he practiced that craft until 1941, when he was promoted to director. While the position of dialog director no longer exists, in the first decades of the talkies, dialog directors worked with the actors on their lines readings and their interpretation of individual scenes. The position was particularly critical when the director was a foreigner who didn’t understand English very well.
Irving Rapper initially worked with Gernan émigré William Dieterle on The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939). All three movies that were hits for actor’s actor Paul Muni, who won an Oscar playing the Frenchman who first pasteurized milk, while The Life of Emile Zola was named Best Picture of 1937 at the Academy Awards.
While Dieterle was focused on the technical aspects of filmmaking such as the lighting of the sets and the camera angles, Rapper concentrated on the actors’ performances. He also served as a dialog director for Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz (a future Oscar-winner), for whom he translated (and who, according to Rapper, spoke English even more poorly the longer he was in Hollywood) and French-born Anatole Litvak. In that position Rapper forged strong bonds with certain actors, who came to depend on him.
Bette Davis and Rapper formed a bond that included the free solicitation of advice. Rapper counseled Davis to ask to have William Keighley, who was originally assigned to direct her in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), replaced by Curtiz. Davis was to be in heavy makeup, and Rapper knew that Curtiz, a perfectionist, would be the right man to capture the visuals in the costume drama. Ironically, Rapper did not get to be the dialog director on the film, as he was assigned to a troubled picture helmed by Litvak. Without him on the set of Elizabeth and Essex to run interference, Davis and Curtiz — both strong-willed perfectionists — fought furiously.
Irving Rapper resisted being assigned as a director of “B” films because once you were assigned to the B-unit, you were stuck there and would never get a chance to graduate to “A” pictures. Rapper bided his time until he was offered a “programmer,” Shining Victory (1941), by studio head Jack L. Warner. Shot without stars, the inspirational movie was a modest success, and Warners assigned him to another “inspirational” picture, a story about a a minister, One Foot in Heaven (1941). The minister was played by Oscar-winner Fredric March, then widely considered, along with Paul Muni, as the best American actor since John Barrymore, who had turned into a parody of himself.
Frederic March’s talent was matched only by Muni and The Great Profile’s brother Lionel Barrymore. March was enthusiastic about the character and has long considered it one of his favorite movie roles. The film’s success solidified Rapper’s filmmaking career, which was further bolstered by his next picture, The Gay Sisters (1942), starring the great Barbara Stanwyck, who lobbied for the role.
The next picture Irving Rapper directed was destined t become a classic. Now, Voyager (1942) was “the picture that made me,” Rapper said in a 1981 interview. Politics played a role in his nabbing the choice assignment with only three directorial credits under his belt. Hal B. Wallis, a Warners producer with his own unit, intended to cast Irene Dunne in the picture, but Rapper leaked Wallis’ plans to his close friend Bette Davis, who demanded the part from Jack L. Warner. The front office gave in to her demands, and she reciprocated Rapper’s favor by asking for him as her director.
Irving Rapper knew that casting Davis’ co-stars was important if the picture was to work. He defied Wallis’ choice of Dame May Whitty as the mother of Davis’ character, stumping for Gladys Cooper, whom Wallis claimed he had never heard of. Cooper received an Oscar nomination in the role.
Paul Henreid got his first big break from Rapper, who tested him and then got approval to cast him (although the role made Henreid’s career, he later humiliated Rapper at Davis’ gala American Film Institute tribute in 1977, where he mocked the director and took credit for the famous scene where he lights two cigarettes at once and hands one to Davis. According to Rapper, Henreid had always wanted to be a successful director, and this engendered a personal enmity in him towards the director who “discovered him”).
In addition to Davis and Henreid, Rapper attributed the film’s success to lighting cameraman Sol Polito and versatile character actor Claude Rains, who played the psychoanalyst and thus the third side of the love triangle anchored by Davis and Henreid. Rapper felt that after the picture ends, Davis’ character eventually will marry her psychoanalyst.
Irving Rapperreteamed with Davis for the highly successful The Corn is Green (1945), a story set in Wales but shot entirely — even the outdoor scenes — on Warners’ soundstages. Rapper said that for her role as the Welsh schoolteacher, Davis tried very hard to not use the mannerisms that had made her famous. Rapper believes that John Dall, who played the schoolboy and whom he discovered, did not have a major career and became typecast as a villain because he was androgynous, and the public mood and cinema censorship of the time would not allow such an actor to be a star.
Conflict with Jack Warner
Irving Rapper reportedly broke with Warner Bros. over Rhapsody in Blue (1945), a movie biography of George Gershwin. Rapper felt that the script, which was approved by the Gershwin family, who initially controlled the project, was wrong in that it made Gerswhin a character infatuated with two fictional women, while the real Gershwin was likely only really enthused about his music.
Jack Warner, whose studio had never employed Gershwin and thus was an odd choice for the Gershwin family to entrust with his life story, fought the director over his choice of John Garfield to play the composer. Rapper believed that the casting of the film was all-important and its success ultimately was compromised by the casting of the bland Robert Alda in the part at Warner’s insistence.
Warner would not cast Garfield, as he was seeking leverage in the actor’s upcoming contract negotiations. He also vetoed Rapper’s second choice of Cary Grant on the grounds that no one would accept Grant as a composer. (Warner subsequently took Rapper’s insight to heart and cast Grant as Cole Porter in the 1946 film-bio Night and Day.)
Although he looked like Gershwin, Alda “had a blah personality,” Rapper told an interviewer in 1981. The film was showcased at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, but ultimately it was a failure. Some movie historians believe that Rapper’s disenchantment over the failure of the film caused him to eventually break with Warner Bros.
Irving Rapper made Deception (1946) with Bette Davis, which reunited her with Now, Voyager co-stars Rains and Henreid. Rapper claims that the movie was compromised when Davis — who was convinced that Rains’ performance was stealing the picture from her — went behind Rapper’s back and got Jack Warner to change the script so that she could shoot Rains’ character in the finale. Rapper believed that the new ending weakened the picture.
Rapper also felt that his next picture, The Voice of the Turtle (1947), an adaptation of the huge Broadway hit, was compromised by the casting of Ronald Reagan as the leading man. Despite Reagan’s trying to beef his part up by inventing bits of business, Rapper believed that Eve Arden stole the film from him and his co-star, Eleanor Parker.
Irving Rapper claimed in 1981 that he left Warner Bros. and became a freelance due to the bad advice of his agent, who told him ” . . . the movie business was booming and I could have my pick of assignments.” Unfortunately, neither Rapper or his agent forecast the downturn in the industry caused by the advent of television and the US Justice Department’s order that the film studios divest themselves of their theater chains. The industry went into an economic tailspin, and Rapper’s career suffered.
His first post-Warners gig was at Columbia Pictures, directing Anna Lucasta (1949). Originally a story of an African-American girl looking for acceptance from society, studio boss Harry Cohn had the girl and her family’s ethnic identity changed to Polish, with narrative results that were, in Rapper’s words, “pretty bizarre.”
Rapper wanted future Oscar-winner Susan Hayward for the girl, but Columbia cast Paulette Goddard in order to fulfill a one-picture commitment she had to the studio. Goddard got the role as she had threatened to sue Columbia if the studio didn’t fulfill her contract. Rapper said that Goddard was “hopeless in drama. She couldn’t match any bits of business and her reading of lines was wooden.” Cast in the role of a teenager, Goddard “claimed she was 34 but the records showed it was more like 44.” Thus are debacles made.
Irving Rapper returned to Warner Bros. to helm the first movie adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie, because producer Charles Feldman requested him. Just off her Oscar win for Johnny Belinda (1948), during the production of which she broke up with future American President Ronald Reagan, 36-year-old Jane Wyman was cast as the 20-something Laura to boost the box-office returns.
Tallulah Bankhead, a notoriously difficult Broadway prima donna who had never made it in the movies, was hired to play Amanda Wingfield, but her drunkenness on the set on the second day of shooting led Jack Warner to fire her. Refusing to cast Miriam Hopkins “because of past differences,” Warner “positively screamed when I mentioned Bette Davis.”
Ruth Chatterton was considered, and Ethel Barrymore, who wanted the part, was rejected as being too old. Finally, said Rapper, “that left Gertrude Lawrence, who had little camera experience and was so very jittery she’d cry every time a take was spoiled.”
Commenting on the the film three decades later, Irving Rapper said, “I still like Kirk Douglas as the Gentleman Caller and Arthur Kennedy as Tom.”
The movie, considered one of the least successful adaptations of Williams’ work, is barely remembered today and suffers from a bowdlerization of the original play. Williams hated the film as, against his wishes, the script implies a totally different, more upbeat ending than his play.
Of his later films, Irving Rapper felt that they suffered as he “missed the studio set-up.” He claimed The Brave One (1956) as his best movie. Marjorie Morningstar (1958) was his last success at the box office, and his career tailed off in the 1960s, although he continued to direct until the end of the 1970s.
He attributed the failure of The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970) to “casting a beautiful boy [John Hansen] rather than a girl” to play Jorgensen, who rocketed to fame in the 1950s after a sex change. “That, after all, was Christine’s story. She always believed she was a woman trapped inside a man’s body.” Born Again (1978), based on a memoir of a convicted Watergate co-conspirator who was on President Richard Nixon’s staff, was a failure, as Rapper “was prevented from dramatizing the crimes of Charles Colson, only the redemption — and that made for boredom.”
Born Again turned out to be Irving Rapper‘s last film, as he reneged on his commitment to direct Sextette (1978), an exploitation film based on the joke of the elderly diva Mae West taking a (far younger) husband, her sixth. He backed out, as he didn’t have the heart for it: “Mae West was too frail looking. She’d put her hands on her hips but there were no hips; she had faded away. However, I helped her with her line readings. So, you see, I was back to where I started — as a dialog director!”
The film was an ignominious end for the careers of both old troupers.
Irving Rapper‘s goal late in life was to live in three separate centuries. He died on Dec. 20, 1999, aged 101, a little less than two weeks shy of fulfilling that wish.