The Hucksters

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The Hucksters
Hucksters.jpeg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jack Conway
Produced by Arthur Hornblow
Written by Luther Davis
Edward Chodorov
George Wells
Based on The Hucksters 
by Frederic Wakeman, Sr.
Starring Clark Gable
Deborah Kerr
Sydney Greenstreet
Adolphe Menjou
Ava Gardner
Keenan Wynn
Edward Arnold
Music by Lennie Hayton
Cinematography Harold Rosson
Edited by Frank Sullivan
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • August 27, 1947 (1947-08-27)
Running time 115 mins
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,439,000[1]
Box office $4,445,000[1]

The Hucksters is a 1947 MGM film directed by Jack Conway and starring Clark Gable that marked the debut of Deborah Kerr in an American film. The supporting cast includes Sydney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou, Keenan Wynn, Edward Arnold and Ava Gardner. The movie is based on the novel The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman, Sr.

Plot[edit]

Victor Norman (Clark Gable) is a radio advertising executive just back from World War II and looking for a job in his old field. He literally throws his money out the hotel window, telling the hotel valet that being down to his last fifty dollars "will help me seem sincere about not needing a job." On his way to his interview, he stops and spends thirty-five of those dollars on a "sincere" hand-painted necktie.

Victor Norman: back from the war and looking for big money on Madison Avenue

His appointment is at the Kimberly Advertising Agency, with Mr. Kimberly himself (Adolphe Menjou). As the two size each other up, they are interrupted by a phone call from Evan Llewellyn Evans (Sydney Greenstreet), the tyrannical, high-volume chief of the Beautee Soap company, the agency's biggest account. The call throws the staff into turmoil and derails Vic's interview, so he offers to perform an unpleasant task for Kimberly: recruit Mrs. Kay Dorrance (Deborah Kerr) for a Beautee soap campaign featuring New York socialites.

At the elegant Dorrance townhouse he misrepresents himself as being from the "Charity League" and charms Kay into agreeing, but when they arrive at the photo shoot, the Beautee art director produces a layout featuring "a loose and flouncy" negligee. Vic overrules the concept and directs a dignified shoot of Kay, in an evening gown, flanked by her children.

In the next day's maelstrom, Vic and "Kim" are summoned to Beautee's offices where they are confronted by Mr. Evans, whose first action is to expectorate heartily onto his conference table. He summarizes his philosophy on advertising: "You have just seen me do a disgusting thing. But you will always remember it!" He confronts Vic about the change to his Dorrance ad, and Vic tells him that "Beautee soap is a clean product—and your advertisement is not clean." When Kim plays the radio commercial Vic produced overnight—"Love That Soap"—Evans likes it and directs Kim to hire Vic. "You have your teeth in our problems," he says, removing and brandishing his own dentures.

Kay Dorrance: Socialite who falls for the huckster and stands by him when he quits

Vic finds himself attracted to Kay. When the two double-date with Mr. and Mrs. Kimberly, a belligerently drunken Kim confesses that he started his agency by overthrowing his old mentor and snaking the Beautee soap account. Vic arranges an above-board weekend getaway for the couple at one of his old pre-war haunts in Connecticut; Kay arrives and finds that the place has slipped under its new owner and that they have been booked into adjoining rooms with a connecting door. She leaves, vowing never to see Vic again.

Evans summons Vic and Kim to a rare Sunday "chat-chat" and reveals he wants a new radio variety show built around C-list comedian Buddy Hare (Keenan Wynn). He chastises the two ad men for his having to do their work for them, informing them that Hare's agent Dave Lash (Edward Arnold) will be leaving for the coast on that evening's train. Vic will try to ink a deal on board, before word of Evans's interest leaks out and boosts Hare's price. On the way to the station, he stops at Kay's house, but she is remote: "You'll make any promise to make your point," and he says, "That's the kind of guy I am." He takes his leave for the train; it is a difficult parting for them both.

Evan Llewellyn Evans: tyrant head of Beautee Soap, the agency's biggest account

On the train, Vic bumps into an old flame, singer Jean Ogilvie (Ava Gardner). He recruits her for his plan to sign a deal for Hare: with Ogilvie as his shill, he gets agent Lash to offer Hare at a bargain basement price. They shake on the deal, and when Lash realizes he has been had, he graciously agrees to honor it.

Once in Hollywood, Vic and his writers set about creating the radio show; early on, they ban Hare from the proceedings because his contributions are such cliches. One night, Vic is surprised to find Kay in the shadows outside his bungalow, there to try to patch things up. She is successful—Vic starts talking marriage, and seeing himself as a breadwinner for Kay and her children.

Trouble intervenes, though, when a legal technicality overrides the talent contract for Buddy Hare. It was Dave Lash's honest mistake, but Vic uses cruel innuendo about Lash's childhood and implied backmail to get the agent to eat the cost difference himself. Vic immediately regrets the tactic, and Lash's wounded demeanor makes him feel even shabbier.

Back in New York with show in hand, Vic and Kim play the recording for Evans. The newly-compliant Vic—now with thoughts of a family to feed—finds himself playing the groveling role that Evans requires of his subordinates, and realizes it is not for him. Even though Evans liked the show, Vic gets up, pours water over Evans's head, tells him he's "all wet," and strides out of the room.

Outside in Kay's car, Vic tells her their marriage will have to wait until he can regain his earning power. She replies that money, at least "big money," isn't important—that he "can sell things with dignity and taste." He reaches in his pocket, fetches out the money there, and hurls it up the street. "Now we're starting with exactly nothing," he says, "it's neater that way."

A distinguished supporting cast
Mr. Kimberly: Back-slapping agency head with a dark past and ulcers in the present
Jean Ogilvie: Torch singer, Vic's old flame and his co-conspirator to trick Dave Lash
Buddy Hare: Third-rate burlesk comic who caught Mr. Evans's ear to host a radio show
Dave Lash: Talent agent whose integrity puts him at the mercy of Vic's ruthlessness

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Frederic Wakeman's 1946 novel The Hucksters spent a half year (35 weeks) in the top stratum of the bestseller list,[2] aided perhaps by its raunchy, racy controversy. Life magazine called the book "last year's best-selling travesty"[3] and even Clark Gable, who would eventually star in its film adaptation, said "It's filthy and it isn't entertainment."[4] Life's and Gable's literary sensibilities to the contrary, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid $200,000 for the motion picture rights before the novel was even published.[4]

Screenwriter Luther Davis and the novel's adapters Edward Choderov and George Wells had "an extensive laundering job" to do to bring the project into compliance with Louis B. Mayer's tastes and the Hays Office's policies.[5] They had to eliminate the graphic (for 1946) sexual scenes, and they changed the book's Mrs. Dorrance from a married woman into a war widow—so she and Vic "could live happily ever after."[4] More problematic, though, was the portrayal of the talent agent David Lash, a pivotal character in the second half of the film. Lash was based on real-life mega-agent Jules Stein, the founder of powerhouse talent agency MCA, and Lash's Hucksters protégé Freddie Callahan, who bore an undeniable physical resemblance to Lew Wasserman, Stein's protégé in 1946 who would eventually head MCA himself.[6]

Even in 1947, there were "fears about reprisals from MCA"[7] over the portrayals of Stein and Wasserman, and Vic avers on several occasions that "Dave Lash is an honest man" when the dispute arises over the Buddy Hare contract. The other problem was Lash/Stein's ethnicity: in the novel, Vic tells Lash people will call his honesty into question because he is a Jew;[8] Davis removed all references to Lash's ethnicity and made him a kid who had been in trouble but had "gone straight" and succeeded.

Once the toned-down screenplay was finished and Clark Gable's comfort with it secured, producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. made his final casting decisions and "assembled an exceptional supporting cast"[9] including veteran character actors Sidney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou and Arnold, up-and-comer Keenan Wynn and "still-unknown Ava Gardner."[10] MGM mamagers had selected The Hucksters as the debut Hollywood film for British actress Deborah Kerr, who had drawn attention in ten British films since 1941, and that caused production to be "rushed by Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to release it the following August, trying to revive Gable's name after the flop of 'Adventure, his last film and launching Deborah's in Hollywood."[9]

Hollywood-bound on the Super Chief
Laying for Lash: Jean and Vic plan in the club car to snag Hare from Dave Lash. . .
Springing the trap over cards: Lash thinks he sold Vic "a lemon", but Vic knows better

As the start of production neared, Ava Gardner got cold feet about co-starring with an actor she had idolized since childhood.[11] Hornblow asked Gable to call her, and he told her: "I'm supposed to talk you into doing this thing. But I'm not going to. I hated it when they did that to me. But I hope you change your mind, kid, I think it would be fun to work together."[12] The two remained friends for life.

Gable also sought to make a nervous Kerr feel relaxed when shooting commenced. He sent her six dozen roses on the first day, and "the two hit it off beautifully from the beginning, on and off the set."[9]

Director Jack Conway, an MGM veteran with credits stretching back to the silent era, brought this, his penultimate film, in on Mayer's August 1947 timetable. His budget was $2.3 million.[10]

Critical reception[edit]

Although Louis B. Mayer had chosen carefully—and spent lavishly—on a property to launch Deborah Kerr and re-launch Clark Gable after his wartime absence from the screen, The Hucksters was not well received by contemporary critics.

Life magazine, which had excoriated the Wakeman novel, didn't miss a beat when it said: "The movie version of the famous attack on the advertising business fails to live up to its own ads" and called it "[a] cynically exaggerated study of big business and big advertising."[13]

"Irritate, irritate, irritate:" Mr. Evans underscores his advertising philosophy with rhythmic pounding of his fist on the tabletop

Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that it was simply too much Gable. "[U]nless you like Clark Gable very much, you are going to find him monotonous in this hour-and-fifty-five-minute film... [he] is off the screen for all of five minutes—maybe eight. The rest of the time, he's on." He liked Deborah Kerr rather more: "We could do with a little more of her. Not that her rather radiant passion for this well-tailored roughneck makes much sense, but Miss Kerr is a very soothing person and she elevates the tone of the film." He saved his biggest praise for Greenstreet and Menjou, calling their contributions "entertaining and fascinating."[14]

Variety was lukewarm on both Gable and Kerr. "Somehow Clark Gable just doesn't quite take hold of the huckster part in signal manner. Same goes for Deborah Kerr who is a shade prissy for her volatile romantic role." Like the Times, they were more enthusiastic about the supporting cast: "Sydney Greenstreet's portrayal of the soap despot emerges as the performance of the picture, as does Keenan Wynn as the ham ex-burlesque candy butcher gone radio comic. Ava Gardner is thoroughly believable as the on-the-make songstress; Adolphe Menjou is the harassed head of the radio agency which caters to Evans' whilom ways because it's a $10 million account." Finally, there was an observation, politely put, that no doubt crossed the minds of many 1947 moviegoers: "Gable looks trim and fit but somehow a shade too mature for the capricious role of the huckster who talks his way into a $35,000 job [and] is a killer with the femmes...."[15]

Ava Gardner got to "sing" though her singing voice was supplied by Eileen Wilson

Indeed, Gable's interaction with the two females in the story generated commentary. When it came to the romance between Vic and Kay, Life magazine stuck to its negative guns: "The love story is stupefyingly dull. Opposite the ladylike Deborah, Clark Gable's mannered virility seems embarrassing—something that never happened to him alongside such tough Tessies as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow in his greater days."[16] But others applauded Kerr and the pairing: The Hollywood Reporter called Kerr "a charming English star... a delightful personality in her American debut."[10] The New York Herald-Tribune called the Gable-Kerr pairing "ideal", saying "she made an impressive bow on the U.S. screen."[10] Ava Gardner biographer Lee Server noted the chemistry between Vic and his old flame Jean Ogilvie: Gable and Gardner "proved to be a wonderful pairing, with an on-screen spark between them that revealed their genuine amusement and easy pleasure in each other's company."[12]

Despite the best-selling longevity of its source novel, The Hucksters finished only 12th at the box office for 1947, earning $3,635,000 in the US and Canada and $810,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $412,000.[1][17] Topping that list was another soldiers-come-home tale, The Best Years of Our Lives. Author Denise Mann suggests that Vic Norman's unsavory side might have held The Hucksters back: "Clark Gable's unheroic ad-man as post-war returning hero may have contributed to the smaller returns."[17] It also "was a total failure in the foreign market, which in those days knew nothing about American advertising or commercial broadcasting."[10]

Judgment about The Hucksters has mellowed over the years. Halliwell's Film Guide calls it "good topical entertainment which still entertains and gives a good impression of its period", also praising the performance of Greenstreet.[18] The current New York Times capsule summary calls it "one of Clark Gable's best postwar films, as well as one of the finest Hollywood satires of the rarefied world of advertising."[5]

Vic's tantalizing choice: Kay or Jean?

Home video[edit]

The VHS editions of The Hucksters are long out-of-print. Its first DVD release was finally announced in August 2011 as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  2. ^ John Bear, The #1 New York Times Best Seller: intriguing facts about the 484 books that have been #1 New York Times bestsellers since the first list, 50 years ago, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1992. pp. 21-27
  3. ^ "Greenstreet Plays the Great Huckster," Life, March 31, 1947, p. 51
  4. ^ a b c Capua, p. 41
  5. ^ a b The New York Times Movie Review Summary
  6. ^ Mann, Denise (2008). Hollywood Independents: the Postwar Talent Takeover. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-4540-4. p. 108
  7. ^ Mann, pp. 110-111
  8. ^ Mann, p. 111
  9. ^ a b c Capua, p. 42
  10. ^ a b c d e Capua, p. 43
  11. ^ Server, Lee (2006). Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-31209-1. p. 146
  12. ^ a b Server, p. 147
  13. ^ Life magazine, July 28, 1947, p. 103
  14. ^ Crowther, Bosley (1947). "The Screen: The Hucksters. The New York Times, July 18, 1947
  15. ^ Variety, December 31, 1946
  16. ^ Life, July 28, 1947, p. 103
  17. ^ a b Mann, p. 272
  18. ^ Halliwell, Leslie and John Walker, ed. (1994). Halliwell's Film Guide. New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0-06-273241-2. p. 577

External links[edit]