Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence - Mervyn LeRoy, 1957

by Philip Berk September 7, 2020
Mervyn LeRoy

John Springer Collection/Getty Images

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 DavisElizabeth 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.

For 40 years, Mervyn LeRoy and Alfred Hitchcock were the only directors, other than deMille himself,  who were awarded the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement. Even though LeRoy, who received the award in 1957, was essentially a journeyman director, he left us with a remarkable resume.

He was lucky to have found employment in the industry on his first try, learning the ropes in a processing lab and as a camera assistant, eventually becoming a gag writer and actor in deMille’s The Ten Commandments, an experience that inspired him to become a director.

Eventually hired by First National Pictures, he hit his stride when the studio merged with Warner Bros., and in short order, he directed two classics which elevated him to the top echelon of Warner directors (with Curtiz, Hawks, and Raoul Walsh). Those two movies of course were Little Caesar, which made a star of Edward G. Robinson, and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang which did the same for Paul Muni, and which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Even today it shows up on ten best lists including famed director Luis Buñuel’s. Over the years he enjoyed a unique personal relationship with many of the great stars including Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell, and Lana Turner, whom he discovered in a drug store and cast her in They Won’t Forget another of his hard-hitting social dramas for which he strangely took no screen credit.

He tried his hand at musicals, a genre dear to his heart, and had a predictable hit with Gold Diggers of 1933. He directed Anthony Adverse, an expensive costume drama, which was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture. By this time, he had actually made over 40 movies and when MGM offered him a contract he couldn’t refuse, he jumped ship, despite being married to Jack Warner’s daughter

At MGM, the studio that prided itself on nurturing producers rather than directors, he ran interference on numerous pictures, and in fact, was one of many directors uncredited on the classic Wizard of Oz. When he finally got a directing assignment, it was to helm Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge, her follow up to Gone With the Wind, which became an international hit.

His pace slowed down considerably at MGM, but the quality remained the same. Escape was an anti-Nazi film whose release coincided with America’s entry into World War II. Prior to that, the studio allowed no disparaging of the Third Reich. He had an Oscar nominee in Blossoms in the Dust his first of many films he made with the studio’s new reigning queen Greer Garson. Their next collaboration Random Harvest was the year’s biggest box office hit, and they followed it with Madame Curie, which was again a Best Picture Oscar nominee, and rewarded him his one and only Oscar nomination. But MGM was never interested in awards; they wanted box office hits, and he delivered the next year when the timely Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, became a hit and made a star of Van Johnson.

He freelanced for Claudette Colbert and John Wayne at RKO for Without Reservations and he was recruited to salvage Greer Garson’s last film at MGM, the lamentable Desire Me. The film was eventually released without a director's credit.

His stock went up when he made a new version of Little Women which turned out to be the year’s top moneymaker. But now it was 1949 and the industry was in turmoil. MGM needed to terminate contract players like Clark Gable, Lana Turner, and Ava Gardner, and he was assigned to direct them in Homecoming, Any Number Can Play, and East Side, West Side.

When John Huston, who had agreed to direct the movie they hoped would save the studio, quit midstream, LeRoy took over. After Quo Vadis became the biggest moneymaker of the decade, he was rewarded with the studio’s most coveted A-list pictures, Lovely to Look At, a remake of Jerome Kern’s Roberta. Million Dollar Mermaid, with the studio’s top money earner Esther Williams (in one of her best films), and a remake of Rose Marie, one of MGM’s first Cinemascope pictures. All made money.

Now it was time to change studios, and jumping ship again, he returned to Warner Bros where he seemed to recharge his batteries. When Henry Fonda came to blows with John Ford over Mister Roberts, the hottest property of the decade, LeRoy was asked to jump in and salvage the picture, and it was a predictable hit. His next film, possibly his most creative since I Am a Fugitive, The Bad Seed had been a hit on Broadway. He bought the screen rights and made the unprecedented decision to use the original Broadway cast in a black and white transfer. The result was sensational, and even though he was forced to compromise the ending, dictated by the MPAA, the film was a box office hit for the studio and earned numerous Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe for Eileen Heckart as Best Supporting Actress.

Flush with that success, he was once again entrusted with directing the star of the moment, William Holden, in Toward the Unknown, and an unknown cast in the studio’s juggernaut, No Time for Sergeants, which unfailingly became the year’s top moneymaker. After that, he had two big hits: Home Before Dark and The FBI Story which he made with the full cooperation of J. Edgar Hoover, and which later spawned a long-running TV series.

But his days were now numbered. The new breed of directors, the Spielbergs, and the Scorseses were taking over, still, he was able to win Golden Globes for two subsequent Broadway transfers, both starring Rosalind Russell. A Majority of One and Gypsy. Sadly, the latter met with resistance because of its casting (Merman fans felt cheated) but it holds up as a faithful adaptation of a classic Sondheim musical. And it garnered LeRoy his only Golden Globe nomination as Best Director. A third Broadway transfer Mary Mary with Debbie Reynolds was less successful.

His last credit - Moment to Moment, a Hitchcock thriller, ended his forty-year career. His classic movies: ironically his two early successes Little Caesar and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and his last ones, Golden Globe winners Gypsy and A Majority of One.