Richard Thorpe

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Richard Thorpe
Richard Thorpe in 1934
Rollo Smolt Thorpe

(1896-02-24)February 24, 1896
Hutchinson, Kansas, United States
DiedMay 1, 1991(1991-05-01) (aged 95)
Palm Springs, California, United States
Resting placeAshes scattered into the Pacific Ocean
OccupationFilm director
ChildrenJerry Thorpe

Richard Thorpe (born Rollo Smolt Thorpe; February 24, 1896 – May 1, 1991) was an American film director best known for his long career at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.[1]

His obituary called him "a capable and versatile director willing to take on any assignment the studio handed him." He said "I just take them on as they come."[2]

Thorpe also said "I'm happy to do any kind of picture. If there's a good script I think any director can make a good picture. Actually if it says in the script what you do, I don't see why anybody can't make it."[3]

One associate said "“He was a company man, a very pleasant, good-looking, nice, well-behaved guy who took pride in being efficient like some businessman would take pride in the way he ran his bank.”[4]

His two favorite films were Night Must Fall (1937) and Two Girls and a Sailor (1944). "They were new and different experiences," said Thorpe.[2]

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Thorpe has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6101 Hollywood Blvd. In 2003 a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California was dedicated to him and his son Jerry.[5]


Born Rollo Smolt Thorpe in Hutchinson, Kansas, Richard Thorpe began his entertainment career performing in vaudeville and onstage. In 1921 he began in motion pictures as an actor and directed his first silent film in 1923. He went on to direct more than one hundred and eighty films.

He worked frequently at the Poverty Row studio Chesterfield Pictures during the 1930s.


Thorpe later estimated he "did 72 Westerns, four comedies, 12 serials and 36 independent productions before coming to Metro."[3]

The first full-length motion picture he directed for MGM was Last of the Pagans (1935) starring Ray Mala. Thorpe was assigned to Tarzan Escapes which was a huge success as was Night Must Fall.

The Wizard of Oz[edit]

Thorpe is known as the original director of The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was fired after two weeks of shooting because it was felt that his scenes did not have the right air of fantasy about them. Thorpe notoriously gave Judy Garland a blonde wig and cutesy "baby-doll" makeup that made her look like a girl in her late teens rather than an innocent Kansas farm girl of about 13. Both makeup and wig were discarded at the suggestion of George Cukor, who was brought in temporarily. Stills from Thorpe's work on the film survive today. Further, it is understood that bits of his filmed footage of Toto escaping from the Wicked Witch's castle are featured in the film, albeit uncredited.

Thorpe was going to direct Kim with Mickey Rooney but the movie was cancelled.

Two Girls and a Sailor would be the first of eleven films Joe Pasternak would make with producer Joe Pasternak. The film was a big hit and helped make a star of Van Johnson.

Thorpe made a number of films with Esther Williams, starting with Thrill of a Romance. She recalled, "He was nothing if not efficient, and I soon began to wonder if he hadn’t missed his calling as an accountant. He was cranky, especially in the morning, until he’d downed a pot of coffee; it was wise to keep your distance. Dick didn’t like people who were too cheerful, which meant that he took an instant dislike to me."[6] Williams says Thorpe constantly bullied and berated her during filming although she says he stopped it after she left the set crying.[7]

Williams says that while making Fiesta Thorpe "he was in a worse mood... than he’d been before. He hated Mexico; he hated bullfighting, and above all he hated Ricardo Montalban, who was at least as cheerful as I was."[8] She did not want to make This Time for Keeps with Thorpe but the studio insisted.

Thorpe later said the only film he turned down at MGM was The Black Hand. “I didn’t think I could handle Gene Kelly because he had been a director. And after an hour and a half, Schary said, ‘Well, you go ahead and do it.’ So I went ahead and did it.”[9]


At MGM, he teamed up with producer Pandro S. Berman, with whom he made Ivanhoe (1952). This was a huge commercial success (earning a DGA nomination for Thorpe) and led to a series of experensive epics produced by Berman, including The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), Knights of the Round Table (1953), All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953) and The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955). Pandro Berman later called Thorpe "the most efficient director I ever knew in terms of things technical. The beauty of Thorpe was that if you had a script he liked, he just shot it."[10]

Joan Fontaine, who starred in Ivanhoe later wrote "I found that director Thorpe cared more about the performance of the horses than the actors."[11]

According to James Mason, when making The Prisoner of Zenda star Stewart Granger asked to do a second take. Thorpe refused, saying "You can’t improve things to an extent that represents value at the box office. In my experience I have found that if you print the first take which has a reasonable tempo and in which all the actors say their lines in a way that’s completely intelligible then there is no point in retaking it."[12] Granger confirmed " If you remembered the lines and got through the scene, Richard would print it. He didn’t believe in ten or fifteen takes in order to catch some subtle difference only appreciated by the director. I loved working like this and that’s the reason the film was made in such an incredibly short time."[13]

Thorpe was noted for working quickly and efficiently—skills he had learned in the 1930s while working for low-budget Chesterfield Pictures. Freddie Young said "Dick Thorpe was the favorite director at MGM because he always finished on schedule. He made a point of it. The studio kept giving him a shorter and shorter schedule, but he always beat it." Young described Thorpe's "special method for working fast":

On Ivanhoe he'd start with a long shot and keep filming until one of the actors fluffed. 'Cut!' Then he'd move the camera to a closer set-up. 'Come on, let's go. Action!' And shoot on until the next hold-up. 'Move in closer still. Continue!' And so on until we finished up with just two big heads filling the screen. In other words, the close-ups in the finished film were quite arbitrary, depending on the pure chance of the interruptions in shooting on that particular day. Thorpe never reshot anything. That's how he beat the schedule. For a cameraman it was boring as hell.[14]

Between the various camera angles, Thorpe shot enough footage to patch together into a completed sequence.

Thorpe also directed The Girl Who Had Everything (1951) with Elizabeth Taylor, and two musicals with Edmund Purdom, The Student Prince (1954) and Athena (1954). Student Prince had originally meant to star Mario Lanza.

Thorpe made two unsuccessful films Tip on a Dead Jockey and Ten Thousand Bedrooms, Dean Martin's first film after breaking up with Jerry Lewis. It was a flop but Jailhouse Rock, produced by Berman, with Elvis Presley was a huge hit.[10]

Later career[edit]

Warwick Films borrowed Thorpe to make Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959) filmed in Britain and Kenya. He then made The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) with Taylor in Europe.

Thorpe directed an epic in Yugoslavia with Orson Welles, The Tartars then a popular romantic comedy The Honeymoon Machine (1961). That featured the team of Jim Hutton and Paula Prentiss who were also in The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962). Prentiss was also in Follow the Boys (1963) shot in France.[15] Thorpe was reunited with Elvis Presley for Fun in Acapulco (1963) at Paramount.

Thorpe made some films in Europe including The Truth About Spring (1965) with John and Hayley Mills.[16] At Universal he directed That Funny Feeling (1965) with Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin.

After directing The Last Challenge in 1967, he retired from the film industry.

Personal life and death[edit]

He married Belva. They had a son, Jerry Thorpe (1925–2018). In 1959 a judge granted a divorce to his wife Belva on the grounds of cruelty.

Thorpe died in Palm Springs, California on May 1, 1991, at Palm Springs Health Care Nursing facility of complications of old age.[2]

Critical appraisal[edit]

According to Scott Eyman Thorpe "was hardly ever anything but a by-the-numbers director, albeit a busy one: sixty-six films for MGM in thirty years. Metro tended to use Thorpe for maintenance work on ongoing series — four Tarzan films, two Lassies, a late Thin Man, a dozen musicals for Joe Pasternak, but never one for Arthur Freed. But he lasted longer than anybody at the studio, directing his last MGM film in 1967."[17]

Another writer said "Thorpe had a reputation as an actor’s director and as a good technician who rarely wasted film, earning him the nickname “One-take Thorpe.” [18]

Christopher Challis called him "a product of the old studio system [who] had become a director by faithfully adhering to the script with which he was presented. A sad, dour man, his life was dedicated to producing, without innovation, a verbatim representation on film of the approved script, which he felt duty-bound to complete on time and, if possible, under budget."[19]

Selected filmography[edit]

Cesar Romero, Fay Wray, director Richard Thorpe and cinematographer George Robinson (in background) on the set of Cheating Cheaters (1934)

As director


  1. ^ Richard Thorpe biography at New York Times
  2. ^ a b c Oliver, Myrna (4 May 1991). "R. Thorpe Director of MGM Films". The Los Angeles Times. p. A30.
  3. ^ a b "Ezra Goodman". Los Angeles Daily News. 24 January 1951. p. 22.
  4. ^ Harmetz p 139
  5. ^ Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated Archived 2012-10-13 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Williams, Esther (2000). Million Dollar Mermaid. p. 200.
  7. ^ Williams p 201-204
  8. ^ Williams p 230
  9. ^ Harmentz p 139
  10. ^ a b Bergen, Ronald (16 May 1991). "Richard Thorpe: Helmsman of bold dreamboats". The Guardian. p. 33.
  11. ^ Fontaine, Joan (1979). No bed of roses : an autobiography. p. 222.
  12. ^ Mason, James (1989). Before I forget : autobiography and drawings. p. 309.
  13. ^ Granger, Stewart (1982). Sparks Fly Upwards. p. 263.
  14. ^ Young, Freddie (1999). Seventy light years : an autobiography as told to Peter Busby. pp. 146–148.
  15. ^ Great Sebastians' Up for Lucy, Bing: Randell, Martin on Own; Foreign-Film Fans Choosy Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 11 May 1962: C11.
  16. ^ Mills, John (1981). Up in the clouds, gentlemen please. Penguin. p. 368.
  17. ^ Eyman, Scott (2005). Lion of Hollywood. p. 225.
  18. ^ Cesari, Armando (2004). Mario Lanza : an American tragedy. p. 117.
  19. ^ Harper, Sue (2003). British cinema of the 1950s : the decline of deference. p. 119.

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