, ,

Artwork by Eric Woodard

David Brown, one of Hollywood’s most enduringly successful producers, has died at his Manhattan home aged 93, after a long illness. A native New Yorker, he trained as a journalist and wrote short stories, edited numerous publications, and served as a first lieutenant with US Army Military Intelligence during World War II.

In 1951, Brown was hired by Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, to run the studio’s story department. He would stay at Fox for two decades, rising in the executive ranks and surviving two firings during a tumultuous period which changed Hollywood’s ‘star system’ irrevocably. He oversaw Elvis Presley’s screen debut, Love Me Tender (1956), and Steven Spielberg’s earliest theatrical release, Sugarland Express (1974.)

Brown befriended Richard Zanuck (Darryl’s son), and they formed an independent production company in 1972.Together they produced a string of hit movies, including The Sting (1974) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), which paved the way for Hollywood’s trend of releasing ‘summer blockbusters’, which has continued ever since.

In 1988, Brown founded his own company, The Manhattan Project Ltd, producing Oscar-worthy films like Driving Miss Daisy (1989), A Few Good Men (1992), Angela’s Ashes (1999) and Road To Perdition (2001). In later life he also produced plays and wrote books, including a memoir, Let Me Entertain You (1990.) Brown was married to Helen Gurley Brown, herself famous as the author of Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.

David and Helen Gurley Brown, 1970 - photo by Librado Romero, New York Times

Something’s Got To Give

Documentary on the unfinished 'Something's Got To Give'

During his long tenure at 20th Century Fox, David Brown also observed the rise and fall of one of Hollywood’s greatest female stars, Marilyn Monroe. She had first signed to Fox in 1946, and had worked there for most of her career. However, three of her last four films had been made at other studios.

Monroe owed Fox two more films under her old contract, and in 1961 she agreed to star in a remake of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant’s 1940 hit comedy, My Favorite Wife. The story concerned a woman presumed dead after a yachting accident, but found after living for five years on a desert island. She returns to her family home, only to find her husband is about to remarry.

Something’s Got To Give, as the remake was entitled, was troubled from the outset. Fox was on the brink of collapse after its latest epic, Cleopatra, ran wildly over-budget. It was hoped that a new Marilyn Monroe film, with a modest budget and a fixed salary for its star, would help to recoup the studio’s financial losses.

However, Monroe was ambivalent about the project, telling her masseur, Ralph Roberts, that she had only agreed to do it because ‘Dr Greenson (her psychiatrist) said it would be good for me’. After divorcing Arthur Miller in 1960, the actress had suffered from persistent ill-health.

Her most recent, and harrowing role, in The Misfits, had opened to mixed reviews. By contrast, Something’s Got To Give was the kind of light comedy that Monroe had made her own, and though formulaic, at least offered her a chance to play a mature woman, marking a departure from the showgirl roles she was usually assigned.

David Brown was hired as producer, while George Cukor was to direct. He had worked with Monroe two years before, on Let’s Make Love, and was well aware of her personal difficulties. Dean Martin, a friend of Marilyn’s, was picked as her leading man.

However, the script was still unfinished. In the 2001 documentary, Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days, Brown recalled staff writer Arnold Schulman with dry humour. ‘He was a great writer, but I was somewhat alarmed when I passed his office and saw that he had removed his desk, and was writing in a yoga position. Bear in mind that the myth of Hollywood is much less than the reality.’

By late 1961, it was apparent that the production was in trouble. Brown recalled meeting a younger producer, Henry Weinstein, in an elevator. Weinstein was carrying a copy of the current script. Brown’s friend, Richard Zanuck, warned him to ‘watch your back’. ‘I did,’ Brown recalled, ‘and there was an arrow in it.’

That November, Brown was replaced by Weinstein, a 37 year-old whose prior experience consisted of a few television show episodes and just one feature film, Tender Is The Night. Ted Strauss, story editor on Something’s Got To Give, told author Donald Wolfe, ‘Cukor was furious that Brown was fired. He needed the most experienced, most talented producer for that film, and Brown was a good choice.’

After further investigation, Brown learned that his dismissal had been engineered by Monroe’s psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, who was a friend of Weinstein. Greenson allegedly told executives of his star patient, ‘Don’t worry, I can get her to do anything I want.’

Preparations continued, and Nunnally Johnson, writer of Marilyn’s 1953 hit movie, How To Marry A Millionaire, drafted a rewrite of Something’s Got To Give that met with her approval. But in April 1962, just as filming was due to begin, Henry Weinstein hired another friend, Walter Bernstein, to rework the script yet again. Monroe, always a shrewd judge of her material, annotated her own copy with criticisms of dialogue and further suggestions of her own.

After filming for just a few days, Marilyn was diagnosed with chronic sinusitis. Her doctors confined her to bed, but many at the studio, including Cukor, thought she was malingering. Monroe later told journalist Richard Meryman,  ‘Executives can get colds and stay home forever and phone it in, but how dare you, the actor, get a cold or a virus. You know, no one feels worse than the one who’s sick. I sometimes wish, gee, I wish they had to act a comedy with a temperature and a virus infection. ‘

Monroe’s illness led to prolonged absences from the set, and she defied executives by flying to New York in May, to perform in a birthday gala for President Kennedy.

By early July, Something’s Got To Give was behind schedule and, incredibly, it was decided that Marilyn should be replaced. Though Monroe had been Hollywood’s most bankable star for over a decade, Fox filed a lawsuit against her, vilifying her in the media as a spoiled, delusional has-been.

David Brown, however, thought differently. Marilyn Monroe was ‘an artist who knew exactly what she needed and what was good for her career’, Brown told author Donald Spoto in 1992. ‘She knew very well that if she were the cause of the picture’s collapse, it would have been the very worst thing for her career. She knew she would have to do the picture once she had signed for it. She was a thorough professional, despite her personal problems. She hadn’t become Marilyn Monroe without serious ambition, after all, and it didn’t desert her in 1962.’

‘They just didn’t understand,’ Brown told Spoto of the studio’s campaign against Monroe, ‘and they decided to play hardball like businessmen: “We’ll sue you…We’ll hold you to every last clause…You’ll never work in this town again,” and so forth and so on. These executives were storm troopers delivering messages. It was all so unnecessary.’

If Fox’s executives had hoped to rid themselves of a difficult star and a flop movie, their plan backfired. Monroe fought back with a series of press interviews and magazine shoots, showcasing her still radiant beauty and charisma. Far from ruining Monroe’s reputation, her sacking only increased the public’s interest.

By late July, Marilyn was negotiating with Peter Levathes of Twentieth Century Fox to draft a new, improved contract and resume filming Something’s Got To Give that autumn.

Tragically, it was not to be. On August 4th, Marilyn was found dead at her home after apparently overdosing on prescribed medication.

In 1963, Something’s Got To Give was remade from scratch with Doris Day and James Garner, and retitled as Move Over Darling. Monroe and Brown’s earlier production became a poignant footnote to movie history. During the 1990s, Fox uncovered lost footage from Something’s Got To Give, showing that Marilyn was at her most delicately lovely, and still performing well under extreme pressure.