by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today’s “That’s a Wrap” entry features, from the Homestead’s collection, just a few of a few dozen “director’s proof” photographs taken on location for the filming of “The Understanding Heart,” a Cosmopolitan Productions film distributed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and released in February 1927.
Cosmopolitan was the brainchild of media mogul William Randolph Hearst after his attempt at buying a major studio was blocked and he formed a partnership with Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures. Many of the films, which were made in New York until a studio fire led to a move to California, were based on stories published in Hearst-owned magazines like Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan.
After a dispute with Zukor, Hearst realigned the studio with MGM in 1923 and began using the studio as a vehicle to promote the career of his mistress, Marion Davies, who made nearly fifty films with Cosmopolitan. In the mid-1930s, Warner Brothers became the distributing entity for the studio’s films before it was shut down by the end of the decade.
The film was directed by veteran Jack Conway (1887-1952), who started his career by treading the boards in the theater and moved into film under the legendary D.W. Griffith. He began directing by the mid-1910s and worked extensively with the new Universal Pictures over much of the next decade. By 1925, he was one of the stable of directors at MGM and stayed with the studio for almost a quarter-century, including being at the helm of the first talkie released by MGM, Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928).
While not known as one of the more creative members of his profession, Conway was considered very competent and shot his films on time and on budget. He worked several times with Clark Gable and his best-regarded picture was 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities, taking on the Charles Dickens classic. Conway, who was nominated for Oscars a few times for his work, does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Among the lead male actors was Francis X. Bushman, Jr., born Ralph Bushman, who happened to be Conway’s brother-in-law, and Rockliffe Fellows. Bushman’s namesake father was considered the “King of Movies” during his peak years in the mid-1910s and had a major role in 1925’s classic Ben-Hur. The younger Bushman had a short career ending by the mid-1930s. Fellows began in the theater before transitioning to film by the mid-1910s and was quite busy through 1927, though he made a few talkies, including the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) before retiring in 1934.
There were two female leads. Carmel Myers got her start as a teenager in D.W. Griffith’s famed Intolerance (1916) and then went to the theater for a couple of years. Returning to film with Universal, she played “vamp” characters, comprising young women who were a bit wild. One of her films paired her with a largely unknown Rudolph Valentino before she switched to working with MGM in 1924. She made a big impression in Ben-Hur with Francis X. Bushman, Sr. and worked steadily over the next several years including in talkies before devoting herself to family life after 1932. She appeared in a few films during the World War II period and on television in the following decade before retiring.
While Myers was a bankable star by the time filming began on “The Understanding Heart,” the other female lead was just starting her career. Born as Lucille Le Sueur in San Antonio, Texas, she was first known as a chorus line dancer and was signed to MGM by 1925, when she made her first appearances in movies. In 1926, she was considered an up-and-coming star, but her fame skyrocketed with her flapper flick Our Dancing Daughters (1928).
Crawford moved effortlessly into talking pictures and became a huge star in the early 1930s, though she went through a dry spell for a period until a move to Warner Brothers led to her performance in 1945’s Mildred Pearce, even though she was the third choice for the film after Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actress and rode another wave of success for several years, including another Oscar nomination in 1947, followed by a third five years later.
Crawford continuing acting during the 1950s, but her star waned considerably. Then came another brief rebirth with 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, co-starring Crawford’s longtime nemesis Davis and the latter was nominated for an Oscar, while the success of the film helped both actresses. Crawford acted intermittently through the decade, making her last movie in 1970. She died seven years later, considered one of the great screen actresses of all time.
The plot of “The Understanding Heart” is based on a novel by the best-selling writer Peter B. Kyne, whose stories were frequently rendered into films. Crawford’s character, Monica Dale is a forest fire lookout who is in love with a ranger, Tony Garland, played by Bushman. Meanwhile, an escaped prisoner convicted wrongly of murder and played by Fellows arrives in the forest to hide out in Crawford’s observation station and falls for her. While this triangle plays out, a blaze breaks out and threatens the trio and Crawford’s character’s sister, played by Myers. A providential rain puts on the conflagration, Fellowes’ character yields Monica to Tony and is cleared of the crime.
Thin and tenuous as the plot was, the film was not considered much of a critical or commercial success, though there are some gorgeous scenes shot at Yosemite National Park and the “director’s proof” photographs in the museum’s collection were taken at the park. A number of them feature Crawford and other actors as well as director Conway and are fascinating documents of the early film industry.