Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
A respected Hollywood producer for over 40 years, our 24th Cecil B. deMille honoree Hal B. Wallis was more bridesmaid than the bride when it came to winning awards, although he might argue that the Oscar Casablanca won was rightfully his. After his boss Jack L. Warner claimed the Oscar, he left the studio. Years later Wallis recalled. "I couldn't believe it was happening. Casablanca had been my creation; Jack had absolutely nothing to do with it. As the audience gasped, I tried to get out of the row of seats and into the aisle, but the entire Warner family sat blocking me. I had no alternative but to sit down again, humiliated and furious. I still haven't recovered from the shock." Soon after, he became an independent producer at Paramount where he remained for most of his career.
On the Melrose lot, he produced prestige pictures that competed for Oscars and Golden Globes, but he also made big bucks for Paramount, signing among others Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis to long term contracts. He also had an eye for new talent. Among those he signed were Lizabeth Scott, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Shirley MacLaine, and Kirk Douglas.
He learned the business at Warner Bros first in their publicity department eventually becoming head of production after Zanuck left the studio, even though Jack coveted the title “Executive in Charge of Production.” At Warners he produced over a hundred pictures uncredited, among them the great Warner films of the ‘30s, finally taking screen credit in 1939 for Juarez. From that point on, he executive-produced over fifty movies. In 1940, for example, he was credited as an associate producer for Dark Victory, The Old Maid, Each Dawn I Die, Dust Be My Destiny, The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex, and The Roaring Twenties. Was it possible for one man to have done all that single-handedly (on top of the forty other films he supervised that year)?
He repeated that feat the next year executive producing High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde, The Great Lie, Sergeant York, One Foot in Heaven, The Maltese Falcon, and They Died with Their Boots On, each and everyone a TCM favorite.
Then again in 1941, he executive produced Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, Virginia City, All This and Heaven Too, They Drive by Night, The Sea Hawk, City for Conquest, Knute Rockne, All American, A Dispatch from Reuters, and The Letter. 1942, of course, was his last year at the studio, and again he executive produced The Man Who Came to Dinner, Kings Row, The Male Animal, In This Our Life, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Now Voyager, and of course Casablanca, which ironically, after winning the Oscar, was promoted as a Hal B. Wallis Production. Was that Jack’s idea?
Although he left the studio after the Casablanca debacle, his name continued on the credits, as co-producer with Jack L. Warner of This Is the Army, the year’s biggest moneymaker, and as assistant producer of Rhapsody in Blue, also a big hit. His first film for Paramount two years later was inauspicious. Affairs of Susan with Joan Fontaine was a disappointment, but he was still finding his feet there. He was more successful in building a stable of new talent and introducing them in starring roles in films he produced, starting with Lizabeth Scott in You Came Along, but still intent on producing one film each year that would gain Golden Globe and Academy attention.
So, he borrowed both Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten from Selznick for Love Letters, and it was a hit that earned four Oscar nominations. The following year, 1946, his award contender was The Searching Wind, which despite a Lillian Hellman script, was his only misstep and a box-office dud. He survived it by utilizing his new contract actors Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey, and Lizabeth Scott in smoldering dramas, Desert Fury and I Walk Alone, which both did well at the box office, but had to wait two years before he had his first serious Oscar contender Sorry Wrong Number, which earned his favorite actress Barbara Stanwyck an Oscar nomination. Was it their mutual contempt for Jack Warner that brought them together?
Now it was time for him to make some money for Paramount, and he hit a jackpot by signing Martin and Lewis to a seven-year contract. For most of the decade, their movies were box office gold. But he always had one eye on winning awards, and a year later he finally had a winner when he signed Broadway actress Shirley Booth to recreate her role in Come Back Little Sheba, which won her the Oscar that year. It was his first major win since his departure from Warner Bros., and three years later he repeated that feat when he chose Italian actress Anna Magnani to star in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. She was a shoo-in to win, and finally, the Hollywood Foreign Press chimed in, awarding Globes to Magnani and Marisa Pavan, as Best Actress and Supporting Actress.
He should have done the same with The Rainmaker but instead of Geraldine Page who had created the role on Broadway, he went with Katharine Hepburn. The only actor to win an award that year was Earl Holliman, who won the Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.
The next year, 1957, was a good year for him. He signed Elvis, and he produced one of his best-remembered movies Gunfight at the O.K. Corral; however, his Oscar entry Wild is the Wind, again with Magnani, like The Searching Wind, turned out to be an ill wind.
Concentrating on Martin and Lewis, he didn’t have a serious award contender until Summer and Smoke in 1961, when having learned his lesson, he allowed Page to recreate her stage role, and she went on to capture the Golden Globe as Best Actress. Now, no longer tethered to his contract players (Shirley MacLaine for one complained that he never knew how to use her), he devoted his time to one prestige property a year, starting with Beckett in 1964 and ending with Rooster Cogburn in l969, both Oscar contenders.
Then it was time to move on, and he set up shop at Universal where his final shot at winning an Oscar eluded him, although he did have a contender with Anne of a Thousand Days. His final film Rooster Cogburn, a sequel to True Grit, won John Wayne his only Oscar and Golden Globe.
No one can say he wasn’t a workaholic. In his lifetime he oversaw almost 400 movies, surely a record, for which he was honored by the Academy with two Thalberg awards. He spent his last years successfully investing in real estate.