Even though the Academy Award-winning Grand Hotel (1932), the Bette Davis weepie Dark Victory (1939), and the Academy Award-nominated The Razor’s Edge (1946) are still well remembered, the man who directed them has generally been ignored by film historians – and is all but forgotten by both film audiences and film critics.
The two chief problems with the English-born Edmund Goulding (1891–1959) – those that make him “irrelevant” to most film historians (and therefore to film audiences and critics) – are the following:
- Much like Jack Conway, W.S. Van Dyke, Michael Curtiz, Henry Hathaway, William Wyler, and Clarence Brown, Goulding was comfortable directing just about everything, from light comedies to heavy dramas, from female-centric melodramas to all-male actioners. In other words, unlike the revered Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Anthony Mann, or even Ed Wood, Goulding didn’t have an immediately identifiable directorial touch. As a consequence, he can’t be considered an auteur. And as a consequence of that, he can’t be considered as anything more than a studio hired hand – a capable craftsman, perhaps, but a craftsman nevertheless, not an artist.
- Goulding directed numerous movies focused on women – and we all know that “women’s pictures” are an inferior film genre to which only lesser (male) talent devoted themselves. Think of George Cukor, for instance, or Mitchell Leisen. Compounding matters, in real life both Cukor and Leisen were into men. And, for that matter, so was Goulding.
So, really, who in their right mind would take this man’s work seriously?
Well, how about anyone with a even modicum of intelligence?
Edmund Goulding’s career as a film director comprised of 37 films made during the course of more than three decades, beginning with Sun-Up and Sally, Irene and Mary at MGM in 1925 and ending with Mardi Gras at 20th Century Fox in 1958. Considering the variety of genres in which Goulding worked, I’d say one would be hard pressed not to find something to like in his oeuvre.
In addition to the aforementioned Grand Hotel, which was one of the biggest box office hits of the early 1930s, Dark Victory, and The Razor’s Edge, Goulding was the director of a series of polished star vehicles, among them Love (1927), a highly successful adaptation of Anna Karenina, with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert; The Trespasser (1929), Gloria Swanson’s first talkie; The Devil’s Holiday (1930), which earned popular Paramount star Nancy Carroll a best actress Oscar nomination; the aviation drama The Dawn Patrol (1938), starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone; and The Old Maid (1939), starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins (right) in one of the best melodramas of the studios’ golden era.
Also, the first-rate melo The Great Lie (1941), with Academy Award-winner Mary Astor stealing the show from Bette Davis; the romantic The Constant Nymph (1943), with Joan Fontaine pining for Charles Boyer; the well-received Claudia (1943), starring Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young as a young married couple; Nightmare Alley (1947), a heavy drama that brought Tyrone Power some of the best notices of his career; and the multi-part comedy We’re Not Married! (1952), in which a handful of couples – including the likes of Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Douglas, Eve Arden, David Wayne, and Zsa Zsa Gabor – discover that their respective marriages are not legal.
The director himself was never nominated for an Oscar, but no less than 9 of his performers received Academy Award nominations/wins: Nancy Carroll for The Devil’s Holiday (1929-30); Gloria Swanson for The Trespasser(1929-30); Fay Bainter for White Banners (1938); Bette Davis for Dark Victory (1939); Mary Astor, supporting, won for The Great Lie (1941); Joan Fontaine for The Constant Nymph (1943); Clifton Webb and Anne Baxter, both supporting, for The Razor’s Edge (1946) – Baxter won; and Edmund Gwenn, supporting, for Mister 880 (1950).
Additionally, Goulding wrote screenplays for dozens of films, mostly during the silent and early-talkie years, including the well-regarded Tol’able David (1921), Dante’s Inferno (1924), the Best Picture Academy Award winner The Broadway Melody (1929), and several that he also directed, among them The Trespasser, The Devil’s Holiday, Riptide (1934), and The Flame Within (1935).
Now, did Goulding display an easily discernible “touch” in his films?
Apart from a certain gentility in his handling of the material, I’d have to say No.
Does that matter?
Though hardly flawless, most of Goulding’s films that I’ve seen offer – at the very least – outstanding production values (courtesy of the studio system) and capable-to-great performances (courtesy of the director’s often masterful handling of his actors).
Miriam Hopkins (in The Old Maid), Mary Astor (in The Great Lie), Joan Crawford (in Grand Hotel) – to name only three – did some of their most effective work for Goulding.
Author Matt Kennedy, who’s already taken part in two previous q&a’s for Alt Film Guide – Marie Dressler and Joan Blondell – has agreed to answer several questions (via e-mail) about Edmund Goulding, the subject of his 2004 biography, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press).
Edmund Goulding directs Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel. William H. Daniels is at the camera. Photo: Matthew Kennedy Collection.
Why Edmund Goulding?
He wasn’t my idea! It was 2000, and I had just published my first book, a biography of Marie Dressler, and had the “what’ll I do next?” anxiety familiar to most (or all?) writers.
I was talking with colleague Mark Vieira, and mentioned to him my creative void. He piped in with “what about Edmund Goulding?” At that point, I knew he was a director, and I think I knew he did Grand Hotel, but that was about it. When I checked his resume, I was very impressed…The Dawn Patrol…Dark Victory…The Old Maid…The Constant Nymph…The Razor’s Edge…Nightmare Alley.
At the very beginning, I had no knowledge of his provocative reputation. When that was revealed, it was like adding bonus points.
Who was Edmund Goulding?
Edmund Goulding was a preternaturally creative man, blessed and cursed with a rare mix of humor, warmth, compassion, and exceptional talent. But he was equally cruel, depressive, distractible, and insecure. These qualities of his run throughout the book, and it was a challenge to capture his elusive soul. He seems to be equal parts saint and sinner.
As for his early years, he was born in London’s East End in 1891. His father was a butcher with a mean temper, and the Goulding family moved through the working class neighborhoods of London fairly often. Eddie was smitten with the stage at an early age – late Victorian and Edwardian theater was dominated by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who specialized in ambitious productions of Shakespeare and popular theatrical pageants of English coronations.
Eddie was an adolescent when he started acting on stage, in Tree productions as well as Alice in Wonderland, musical revues, and a fascinating production of The Picture of Dorian Gray produced by Oscar Wilde sympathizers at the time he was disgraced and ruined.
Eddie won notice even in tiny roles, but he fought with his father, who wanted him in the butcher shop. (By the way, researching and writing about Eddie’s early years was very fun. Nothing like a having an excuse to visit London to enliven a Yank’s spirit.) Eddie didn’t find freedom from a stifling home life until World War I, which afforded him the opportunity to enlist, then emigrate permanently to America.
From there, he began writing for silent films. He could crank out scenarios in his sleep – the early film industry was voraciously looking for stories, so Eddie became a prolific, successful silent-screen writer. His most well-regarded scenario for silent movies is Tol’able David, a lovely piece of Americana.
Edmund Goulding directed and wrote several of his films – The Trespasser, The Devil’s Holiday, Riptide. Would you say he was an “auteur,” with a cinematic touch all his own? Or did he do what he was told to do by the studio chiefs for whom he worked?
Certainly, he was an auteur in temperament, but his heyday precedes the use of that word by François Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma. Perhaps he was a “proto auteur.” He was like a pinball machine, constantly lighting up with ideas, and he would seem to be someone who would thrive with a minimum of interference. But since the bulk of his career occurred during the classic studio era, he didn’t have much say in what he directed.
Some of the studio chiefs were fairly sensitive in assigning him projects that were consistent with his strengths, but some weren’t. He had terrible altercations with Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and Darryl F. Zanuck. The cliché of the temperamental artist bristling under the watchful eye of businessmen is not without some accuracy here, but Eddie had a self-destructive streak in him as well. He was an alcoholic, and while he was largely successful at separating his work commitments from his benders, he could not always contain his contempt for what he was expected to direct.
His film career divides neatly into thirds – first at MGM, then Warner Bros., then Fox. Despite writing and directing the movies you mentioned, he was only once given near-free reign over a movie. That was The Flame Within, a 1935 romance at MGM with Ann Harding and Herbert Marshall. Head of production Irving G. Thalberg greatly respected Eddie’s creative talent, and let him produce, write, and direct the movie. But it was not a resounding success.
Executives generally controlled Eddie more than he appreciated. By the time the studio system was crumbling, and more directors went independent, Eddie was older and had waning energy. So perhaps he was born too soon. He may have been happier developing projects on his own, but his career peak happened when that was not realistic, [independent producer] David O. Selznick notwithstanding.
This is an extension of the previous question. Was Edmund Goulding a jack-of-all-trades? He directed dramas, comedies, melodramas, action films, romantic stories. Was he comfortable no matter the theme? Or did he have a favorite genre – or perhaps a favorite film?
The subtitle of the book, “Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy,” is in reference to Eddie’s versatility. He not only directed many types of films, but he took on multiple functions on each set. Though he didn’t usually take credit, he co-wrote many scripts, composed incidental music, produced, even consulted on make-up, costumes, and hair styling.
Interestingly, his one blind spot in production seems to be the camera. According to cinematographer Lee Garmes, Eddie wasn’t good at imagining what the camera was recording. And he didn’t seem particularly interested, either. When shooting a scene, Eddie was intent on capturing performers at their best and most truthful, but he left the mechanics of filming to his cameramen.
Yes, it’s true that he seemed adept at just about everything – comedy (Everybody Does It, We’re Not Married), ensemble dramas (Grand Hotel), family relations (White Banners, Claudia), war (The Dawn Patrol [above, right], We Are Not Alone), psychiatry (The Flame Within), show business (Blondie of the Follies), male-female relationships (The Devil’s Holiday, Riptide), and even existentialism (The Razor’s Edge) and the dark arts of spiritism (Nightmare Alley).
Judging from his legacy, I’d say melodrama was Eddie’s favorite genre, or at least the one that gave him his greatest successes. He was especially proud of Dark Victory, and toward the end of his life, I think he realized that that movie and Grand Hotel are the ones people will most remember.
Edmund Goulding has a reputation as a “woman’s director.” Some people claim that a male director’s homosexuality (or homosexual tendencies) makes him more capable of handling female performers. Do you believe that?
It’s an interesting topic, André. I used to buy it wholeheartedly. Just look at the great performances that the homosexual George Cukor, often cited as the ultimate woman’s director, got from his actresses. Now I’m much more skeptical. It rather negates sheer artistry, as though talent is a byproduct of sexual orientation. (And I suppose by that logic, the greatest directors of men ought to be lesbians.)
Ultimately, the formula of “good director of women = gay” is just too facile. I don’t believe anyone ever called William Wyler a woman’s director, even though he guided some of the best work ever from Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Merle Oberon, Audrey Hepburn, Miriam Hopkins, Eleanor Parker, Myrna Loy, Olivia de Havilland, Shirley MacLaine, and Barbra Streisand.
Now, Edmund Goulding also elicited well-received performances from a number of actors – most notably Tyrone Power [above, with Coleen Gray] in Nightmare Alley and Edmund Gwenn in Mister 880. Among other actors he directed are John Gilbert, Charles Boyer, Herbert Marshall, Robert Montgomery, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Robert Young, Burt Lancaster, and Errol Flynn (in the very macho The Dawn Patrol). And Henry Fonda, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Fredric March, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, David Niven, Paul Muni, and George Brent. So, why the “woman’s director” label?
André, I think what you’ve brought up affirms a problem with joining sexual orientation to directing. What does a director actually do? There is marketing to consider, and of balancing creativity with the expectations of producers and financiers. Then there’s the psychology of interaction, the ability to integrate story with acting, place, lighting, motivation, pacing, and movement, and to articulate that to designers, cast, and crew. Come to think of it, the “woman’s director” label might be nothing more than sexism and homophobia repackaged as a backhanded compliment.
How did Edmund Goulding get along with his actors? Say, Gloria Swanson (right, in The Trespasser), Greta Garbo & John Gilbert, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Tyrone Power? Was there anyone he particularly liked working with? Anyone he particularly disliked working with?
He and Swanson had a wonderful time putting together The Trespasser under pressure, while [Erich von Stroheim’s] infamous Queen Kelly was running her and producer Joseph Kennedy into the poor house. They remained close for years. Many actors went on record as loving Eddie, since he gave priority to them on the set and wanted above all else to make them look good.
At various times, some have even intimated that he was their favorite director. Garbo visited him off hours, which is evidence enough of her fondness. Nancy Carroll gushed about him over an entire article in a movie magazine. Joan Crawford loved him, and gave him credit for turning her into an actress rather than a mere personality. David Niven was a very good friend.
There are three stars that stand out as being less than smitten with him. One was Ronald Reagan, who gives a rather unconvincing performance as a drunk in Dark Victory. In his memoirs, he all but gay bashes Eddie in print. Paul Henreid didn’t like him, either. Eddie was a fan of long takes, and Henreid would flub his lines in the remake of Of Human Bondage to prevent the camera running longer than he believed it should. He writes of this without shame in his autobiography. Is that cheeky or what?
Then there’s Bette Davis. Eddie directed her four times (That Certain Woman, Dark Victory, The Old Maid, The Great Lie), and their relationship seems to have devolved. She glowed with appreciation after That Certain Woman [a remake of The Trespasser] in 1937, not because it’s a good movie – it’s not – but because he highlighted her star qualities and unique beauty so flatteringly. By the time of The Great Lie in 1941, she was complaining that his habit of acting the scenes himself in rehearsal was counterproductive. They maintained some kind of respect for each other, but there was no love lost there.
Edmund Goulding’s orgies. Truth or myth – or exaggeration? How did the stories begin about Goulding’s wild parties?
If I wanted to be salacious, I’d say that my book attempts, among other things, to get to the heart of these rumors. And I can say with some confidence that they are true. Word that Eddie was hosting orgies began way back in the 1920s, and they were on record by the 1930s.
Though he never directed her, Louise Brooks was a huge admirer of Eddie’s, and she wrote that his wanton ways accounted for his problems with studio bosses. But she did not use that to moralize, as did others, including screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas – in her autobiography, she accused Eddie of sexually exploiting young men and women by the worst methods of the casting couch.
Art director George James Hopkins wrote of Eddie’s very exclusive gatherings, in which attractive young men and women would be hired to have sex, with Eddie directing them as he would actors on a film set. In 1932, one of Eddie’s parties went catastrophically wrong, with two women going to the hospital. Eddie was told to get out of the country until Mayer could cover up the scandal with the help of his lawyers and the LAPD.
A certain paradox emerges. Eddie purveyed tasteful entertainment, and in that way he was at home in a Hollywood controlled by the Production Code. When the ’50s rolled around, he felt out of place, and decried the vulgarity he saw in popular culture in the form of Elvis Presley and Jayne Mansfield. I’m not sure the apparent contradiction even occurred to Eddie. For him, the public and private remained absolutely distinct. But the connections are there, since a film director is by definition both promiscuous and voyeuristic.
Did Edmund Goulding have any long-term relationships?
Not really, at least none that were sexually intimate over a good stretch of time. Combining this with his sex parties reveals quite a lot about him, I think. He supposedly had brief romances with several younger men. There was actor Michael Brooke and columnist Marquis Busby, and a possible brief affair with actor Ross Alexander. I spoke to film historian Lawrence J. Quirk, who was Eddie’s lover for a brief while in the 1940s. But I also spoke to a woman who said Eddie made gross advances toward her.
Quirk said that Eddie “thrived on novelty,” and bored quickly. I believe Eddie was genuinely bisexual, with his erotic desires favoring men, and his emotional needs favoring women. The most devoted relationships in his life were with women – with his mother, sister, lawyer-confidant Fanny Holtzmann, and dancer Marjorie Moss.
Moss and Eddie were actually married in 1931, but she was chronically ill and would die barely three years later. Using coded language, the gossip columns suggested this was a marriage of convenience, but Eddie was a loving husband, and by all accounts, he and Moss were very close.
One of Edmund Goulding’s films won a best picture Oscar: Grand Hotel [above] in the period 1931-32. Dark Victory was nominated in 1939, and so was The Razor’s Edge in 1946. Why do you think Goulding never received an Academy Award nomination?
His lack of Oscar recognition probably comes down to a combination of personality and timing. There were a fair number of powerful men in Hollywood who didn’t like or trust Eddie, Mayer top among them. Eddie’s lack of a screenwriting nomination for The Broadway Melody is hard to explain – though as important as that movie was, its script was not the selling point.
Eddie’s exile in 1932 came simultaneous to the awards cycle that might have earned him a directing nod for Grand Hotel. Dark Victory, well, that was the year of Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, etc., so it’s no surprise that there wasn’t room for Eddie on the director’s roster.
His other best picture nominee, The Razor’s Edge, was a box office hit, but received mixed reviews. Nightmare Alley is a remarkable movie and has a passionate following today. It certainly looks like Oscar material, but it was a flop in 1947, largely dismissed by critics and audiences.
Were there any Edmund Goulding projects that never got off the ground? Any major disappointments for him?
He returned to the theater in 1947, writing and directing The Ryan Girl on Broadway. It was a dud, and I think that was fairly demoralizing for him.
There were films he almost directed, but a last-minute studio shuffle changed the course of his career. He was considered for directing Jezebel and Old Acquaintance. [The former went to William Wyler; the latter, co-written by an uncredited Goulding, to Vincent Sherman.] He began the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musical Maytime, but was fired when Thalberg died during production and Eddie was without his number one protector at MGM. [Robert Z. Leonard finished the film.]
Many projects never got off the ground, particularly when he was older and was perceived as somewhat passé. He was on the short list for Madame Bovary, but that went to Vincente Minnelli. His pet project in the 1950s was “Nellie,” a musical based on the life of King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynne. How he convinced himself that this idea had any marketability I cannot say, but “Nellie” was never made.
His judgment came under further doubt when he refused to make The House on Telegraph Hill, which went to Robert Wise and turned out to be a decent noir from Fox, the same studio that produced Nightmare Alley.
Why is the 1943 romantic drama The Constant Nymph, starring Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer, unavailable? After all, it’s a Warner Bros. film, currently owned by Time Warner.
Apparently the will of Margaret Kennedy, the source novelist for The Constant Nymph, states that the film is only to be shown at universities and museums following its original theatrical run. Here is another one of those misfortunes in the legal history of Hollywood. I saw the movie thanks to a collector who shall remain nameless, and bootleg copies are available out there. But until the issue is resolved, The Constant Nymph will remain out of circulation.
It’s quite silly. This movie has limited commercial value, and is doing no one any good by sitting in an archive. Classic movie buffs would be overjoyed at its reissue. It’s a beautiful movie, over-the-top romantic, a product of the collaborative studio process at its most assured, full of aching passions, soaring music, love expressed, and love denied.
I interviewed Joan Fontaine, and she spoke rapturously of The Constant Nymph, and Eddie’s direction. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar for it, and it remains a personal favorite of hers.
Edmund Goulding reportedly killed himself in 1959. He was only 68. Could you give us a general view as to why Goulding would want to end his life?
Well, actually, I’m not so sure he killed himself. And I’m not so sure he didn’t. How’s that for being coy? He was in declining health for several years, suffering from a weak heart. His career was sputtering, he had long bouts of unemployment, and at the end he was directing schlock like Down Among the Sheltering Palms and the Pat Boone musical Mardi Gras.
Given his reduced capacities and loneliness, he might have been depressed enough to take his own life. But the death certificate states he died during heart surgery. So while there is context for suicide, no source confirms it, so I’m left with taking the death certificate at face value.
How would you sum up Edmund Goulding’s career? Should he be better remembered today? Why?
I would describe Eddie’s career as “protean.” I’m certainly biased, so I do believe he should be better remembered today. At a quick glance, it looks like much of what he made is now terribly corny. After all, he worked with outlandish plots in overwrought dramas. But his movies show a respect for human interaction that hardly exists anymore, focusing on such forgotten themes as gentility, implicitness, and even chivalry. We’ve traded good taste for hyper-realism, which becomes its own kind of fantasy. (I’m talking about today’s hand-held vomit-on-cue school of filmmaking.)
But Eddie is peculiarly and ironically modern. He excelled in fantasy storytelling of real emotions, and fantasy hasn’t so much disappeared as morphed into something else. Today’s marketplace is dominated by computer-generated blockbuster wannabes, but are we talking movies now or Disneyland at the cineplex? I’d rather watch the far-fetched and stylistically dated Dark Victory, with its core of truth about life and death, than some cold, software driven “Robot Wars IV: Hell on Earth” any day.
Based on who I suspect is reading this, that last comment preaches to the choir. And I’ll bet Eddie would be the first to agree as he pours himself a scotch and settles in for a nostalgic reunion with Bette Davis at her noblest.