Pichel in the 1940s
June 24, 1891|
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||July 13, 1954
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Irving Pichel (June 24, 1891 – July 13, 1954) was an American actor and film director, who won acclaim both as an actor and director in his Hollywood career.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pichel graduated from Harvard University in 1914 and went immediately into the theater. Pichel's first work in musical theatre was as a technical director for the theater of the San Francisco Bohemian Club; he also helped with the annual summer pageant, held at the elite Bohemian Grove, in which up to 300 of its wealthy, influential members from finance and government participate. With this expertise, he was also hired by Wallace Rice as the main narrator in Rice's ambitious pageant play, Primavera, the Masque of Santa Barbara in 1920. He founded the Berkeley Playhouse in 1923 and served as its director until 1926.
Pichel moved to Los Angeles where he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. It was there that Pichel achieved considerable acclaim as the title character in the landmark Pasadena Playhouse production of Eugene O'Neill's play Lazarus Laughed in 1927. Two years later, when the terrified studios were hiring any theater-trained actors they could find to cast in their talkies, he was signed to a Paramount contract.
Pichel worked steadily as a character actor throughout the 1930s, including the early version of the Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy (1931), Madame Butterfly (1932), as the adult lead Fagin in Oliver Twist (1933), in Cleopatra (1934), alongside Leslie Howard in Michael Curtiz's British Agent (1934), as the servant Sandor in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), in Bette Davis's Oscar-winning turn in Jezebel (1938), as the proprietor of the seedy roadhouse in the notorious The Story of Temple Drake and as a Mexican general in the epic, Juarez (1939).
Pichel also performed on radio, played small parts in several of the films that he later directed, often without credit, and was the narrator in the John Ford films How Green Was My Valley(1941) and the great Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949. His last voice-over was as the voice of Jesus in the film The Great Commandment.
He became fast friends with the screenwriter George S. Kaufman and Kaufmann's witty and iconoclastic friends who had abandoned the Algonquin Round Table in New York to make small fortunes in the talkies. Pichel was soon drawn to directing and his character acting dropped off after 1939. He co-directed several B-movies until he signed with Twentieth-Century Fox in 1939 and began directing their established stars.
Much of his directing work was in anti-Nazi and pro-British-themed films in the years before the United States entered the war; this doubtless led to his attack by HUAC and subsequent blacklisting in the industry. The Man I Married (1940), for example, starring Joan Bennett, Francis Lederer, and Otto Kruger, centered on an American wife slowly discovering her German husband is a Nazi, and incorporated 1938 newsreel footage of the rise of Nazism. Hudson’s Bay (1941) was a highly pro-British, much-fictionalized historical adventure of the British founding of Canada with Paul Muni and Gene Tierney.
The Pied Piper, released in the summer of 1942, told the story of an aged Englishman trying to get five children out of Nazi-occupied France. Monty Woolley's performance as the Piper was nominated for an Academy Award, and Otto Preminger, a refugee from Hitler's Austria himself, plays one of his many scary Nazi commandants. The film, with a Nunnally Johnson screenplay, was highly praised and also nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and for best black-and-white cinematography by Edward Crongjager. "For the most part," wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, "Irving Pichel, the director, has muted the frightfulness of war and shown it through suggestion instead of displaying it realistically in all its horror...Few films have come out of this war that are as bright, touching and suspensive as "The Pied Piper.""
The Moon Is Down (1943) was an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel. The novel was based on the Nazi invasion of neutral Norway in 1940, published in English in March, 1942 and subsequently translated into French and distributed all over Europe as an inspiration for local resistance to Nazi occupation. In both film and novel, a small Norwegian village gradually discovers how to organize resistance to Nazi invaders; the film stars Lee J. Cobb and also marked Natalie Wood’s debut as a child actress (though she was uncredited), whom Pichel had discovered. With a screenplay by future blacklisted writer, Nunnally Johnson, this was named as one of the top ten films of the year by the National Board of Review. It played in Sweden in November of 1944.
Pichel also directed Alan Ladd in O.S.S. (1944), written and produced by the future screenwriter of 12 James Bond films, Richard Maibaum, and featuring an introduction by no less than O.S.S. founder, Wild Bill Donovan himself. The film showed Film Noir hero Ladd finding love in occupied France under the auspices of the nascent Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the C.I.A. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times termed it "tense, tightly written and swiftly paced," and credited the film as the very first on the O.S.S. - almost as if he knew the C.I.A. would be a font of action pictures from that point on.
Several more war-themed films followed, including the sentimental A Medal for Benny (1945)) which garnered J. Carrol Naish a Best Supporting Actor nomination. "Tomorrow Is Forever," (1946) starred Orson Welles as an American soldier who is presumed killed in WW1 only to return to America and Claudette Colbert as his wife who remarries; Natalie Wood is in her first credited role as a little Austrian girl with a very convincing German accent. Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), another Nunnally Johnson-scripted story, pre-figured the hit 80s comedy Splash, when a married man, played by William Powell, accidentally catches a mermaid on his fishing line. Also in 1948, a big budget comedy about an impoverished coal town, The Miracle of the Bells, tanked expensively at the box office, with no one believing Frank Sinatra as a priest. "St. Michael ought to sue," wrote Time Magazine caustically.
Despite his patriotic war oeuvre- or perhaps because of it - Pichel was soon under scrutiny by the rabidly anti-Semitic House Committee on un-American Activities (HUAC)- run by pro-Fascist isolationist Mississippi Congressman John R. Rankin who routinely and specifically attacked Jews in the Congressional Record and had bitterly resisted America's move into World War Two in the first place. Like many of the talented men under such assault by the late 1940s, Pichel moved into Film Noir, in They Won’t Believe Me (1947) "a superior entry into the genre that made many wish that Pichel had worked in film noir more often," writes IMDB. Here, Pichel had the benefit of longtime Hitchcock collaborator and screenwriter, Joan Harrison, as his producer, who would go on to produce the prestigious television series (and secret haven for many blacklisted writers and directors, which is why it was created) "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."  Susan Hayward, Jane Greer, and Robert Young starred, with the added skills of cinematographer Harry J. Wild, maestro of such key films of the Film Noir canon as Murder My Sweet (1944) and Johnny Angel(1945).
The low-budget, black-and-white Quicksand (1950) has also become a classic of the Film Noir canon, with one of Mickey Rooney's finest performances as a desperate good kid going bad, and Nazi emigre Peter Lorre as an unforgiving carni operator. Its distinctive score was by future blacklisted composer, Louis Gruenberg, a brilliant champion of another Nazi refugee, Arnold Schoenberg. Mickey Rooney apparently delighted in destroying his "Andy Hardy" image with this film; he and Peter Lorre put their own money together to finance it, and thus gave Pichel, the blacklist already looming over him, one of his last Hollywood films.
Striking out in another nascent genre, Pichel pioneered scientific authenticity in an early Technicolor scifi film "Destination Moon"(1950), produced by George Pal. It won the Oscar for Special Visual Effects, for effects director, Lee Zavitz. The film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction, for Ernst Fegte and George Sawley. At the 1st Berlin International Film Festival it won the Bronze Berlin Bear Award, for "Thrillers and Adventure Films."  Pichel chose as excellent collaborators: Robert A. Heinlein, whose uncredited work on the script and its similarity to other Heinlein works are well known in the science fiction community, as well as astronomical illustrator, Chesley Bonestell, whose painted lunar backdrops obviously contributed to the Oscar.
Pichel's last Hollywood film was for enduring box office star, Randolph Scott, in an unexceptional though profitable Columbia western, Santa Fe (1951) but his Hollywood career ground to a halt in the face of the Blacklist (see below). His last films as a director were independent European productions: Martin Luther in 1953, funded by the Lutheran Church, in one of its rare forays into film production, and Day of Triumph, a story on the life of Christ, in 1954. These had only limited release at the time but have since become almost as beloved of Protestant church audiences as Destination Moon is to serious fans of scifi film. Shot on location in Weisbaden, Germany, "Martin Luther" was nominated for Oscars for both its black-and-white cinematography by Joseph C. Brun, and its art direction and set design recreating the early 1500s by Fritz Maurischat and Paul Markwitz. It was named as fourth in the top ten films of the year by the National Board of Review.
And Day of Triumph, though much neglected and difficult to find, is highly valued by Christian audiences even today. Pichel, a lifelong Christian Socialist, died one week after the film was finished and did not live to see the premiere.
In 1947, Pichel was one of 19 members of the Hollywood community who were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the United States' second Red Scare. This group became known as the "Hollywood Nineteen" and the "Unfriendly Nineteen" because of their refusal to name suspected Communist agents to the Committee. All subsequently suffered professionally for their stand. While Pichel was ultimately not called to testify, he was blacklisted, forcing him eventually to leave the United States in order to direct his last pictures.
A special 1951 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation was retroactively awarded by the 59th World Science Fiction Convention 50 years later, in 2001, to Destination Moon for being one of the science fiction films eligible during calendar year 1950. (50 years, 75 years, or 100 years prior is the eligibility requirement governing the awarding of Retro Hugos.)
The film was also nominated for AFI's Top 10 Science Fiction Films list.
Martin Luther was given a special 50th anniversary re-release on DVD by Gateway Films, including a book that is a biography of the film itself.
Pichel married Violette Wilson, daughter of Jackson Stitt Wilson, a Methodist minister and Socialist mayor of Berkeley, California. Her sister was actress Viola Barry. The couple had three sons.
- Starr, Kevin. Material Dreams, Oxford University Press US, 1990, p. 276. ISBN 0-19-504487-8
- "Berkeley Daily Planet". October 22, 1929. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
- New York Times, August 13, 1942 http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B0CE1DA1239E33BBC4B52DFBE668389659EDE
- "Film Noir - An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style" p. 285, Alain SIlver and Elizabeth Ward, editors
- "Destination-Moon - Cast, Crew, Director and Awards." The New York Times. Retrieved: January 12, 2015.
- Spudis, Paul D. "Chesley Bonestell and the Landscape of the Moon." Airspacemag.com, June 14, 2012. Retrieved: January 12, 2015.
- McBride, p. 462
- Pells, p. 302
- Buhle, et al., p. 184
- Buhle, Paul and Dave Wagner (2002). A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23672-6.
- McBride, Joseph (2003). Searching for John Ford: A Life. Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-31011-0.
- Pells, Richard H. (1989). The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6225-4.
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