In Memoriam: Vincent Sherman
by Alan Rode
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Vincent Sherman, perhaps the last of the contract directors from the legendary Hollywood studio system era died June 18 at the Motion Picture & Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. Sherman, who would have turned 100 years old on 16 July, had been in excellent health until several weeks before his death.
Sherman was initially labeled as a “women’s director” during the mid 1940’s, but became a well-rounded craftsman while mastering his trade at Warner Brothers studios during the first 15 years of his career.
His varied genre credits included horror, The Return of Doctor X (1939), war-themed dramas, Underground (1941) and All Through the Night (1942), costume adventure, The Adventures of Don Juan (1948) and comedy, Pillow to Post (1945).
However, it was the dark, melodramatic dramas and film noirs that Sherman is best remembered for: The Hard Way (1943), Mr. Skeffington (1944), Norma Prentiss (1947), The Unfaithful (1947), Backfire (1950), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) and Affair in Trinidad (1952). All of these pictures, produced during the classic noir period, bore the unmistakable stamp of Sherman’s deft directorial hand.
Vincent Sherman was born Abe Orovitz in Vienna, Georgia in 1906. With the South just four decades removed from the Reconstruction period, it was an incongruous location for the son of a Jewish dry-goods salesman to grow up. Sherman later described the theoretical distance between Vienna, Georgia and Hollywood, California as considerably, more than the actual two thousand miles
After graduating from Oglethorpe University, Sherman went to New York to sell a play and then hustled to become a stage actor, got married and ended up going to Hollywood in 1933 to try the movies. He made his screen debut in Counselor at Law alongside John Barrymore, but there were no follow-on roles so he returned to stage work, directing and writing as well as acting.
After touring in the stage play, Dead End, Sherman returned to Hollywood for good in 1937. This time he landed the ubiquitous seven year contract and was assigned to the Warner Brothers “B” picture unit under producer Bryan Foy.
From “Brynie” Foy, dubbed “The Keeper of the B’s,” Sherman received a brisk education on how secondary features were made at Warners. After Sherman’s initial screenplay was rejected, Foy told the neophyte writer to obtain two scripts from recent Warner’s features, The Mayor of Hell and San Quentin.
Use the first half of Mayor and the second half of San Quentin, ordered Foy. “We’re going to make a picture with the Dead End Kids and Bogart called Crime School—I’ll need a draft screenplay in a week.”
Sherman sprang into action and as he said later, the outcome of his first screenwriting assignment, “changed everything.” Crime School (1938) cost $186,000 and grossed over $2 million, the most successful Warner Bros. film of 1938 next to The Adventures of Robin Hood. Sherman quickly penned several more successful B pictures and was fast-tracked into the director’s chair.
Offered a selection for his directorial bow, Sherman was permitted to choose either a remake of Kid Galahad (1937) or an original mystery horror tale, The Return of Dr. X. Not desirous to copy a hit movie, Sherman went with the horror yarn. He received unsolicited help from Jack L. Warner who personally designated the actor that Sherman would use for the lead role of a blood drinking physician-turned-vampire.
Warner told the embryonic director: “I’m giving you this guy Bogart and for God’s sake, see if you can get him to play something besides Duke Mantee!” A Warner Brothers contract player in his fourth year at the studio, Humphrey Bogart accepted the hokey part without complaint, and the film became a profitable if improbable success.
After helming Underground (1941), a stirring drama that was the first successful anti-Nazi picture and a box office smash, Vincent Sherman was elevated to the front tier of A directors at Warner Bros.
Sherman directed All Through the Night (1942) again with Bogart, whose career was now in stratospheric ascent. The director next scored a major critical hit with The Hard Way (1943) a dark story about a manipulating sister (Ida Lupino) who successfully micromanages her younger sibling’s (Joan Leslie) show business career only to destroy her relationship with the man who loves her (Jack Carson). Lupino became extremely uncertain about her performance and grew hostile towards Sherman over her anxiety about how the role might damage her career. When Lupino won the N.Y. Film Critics Best Actress Award for her performance in The Hard Way, she answered Sherman’s congratulatory phone call with, Vincent, darling…
A pair of Vincent Sherman helmed films with three-time Best Actress winner Bette Davis soon followed. In Old Acquaintance (1943) Sherman ended up refereeing Davis and Miriam Hopkins whose visceral hatred for each other was characterized by petty scene stealing and downplaying for the camera (particularly by Hopkins). During the subsequent production of Mr. Skeffington (1944), Davis and Sherman’s working friendship evolved into a brief love affair that endured for the balance of the picture. The intimacy ended abruptly when Sherman refused a subsequent picture assignment with Davis that the star favored. Mr. Skeffington was another box office hit and Sherman’s stock as a successful director continued to rise.
Sherman’s resume at Warner’s during the 1940’s included two notable film noirs, Nora Prentiss (1947) and The Unfaithful (1947). With Nora Prentiss, the director demonstrated his overall acumen by purchasing the masculine melodrama titled The Man who Died Twice and turning it into a successful Ann Sheridan vehicle at the behest of Jack Warner.
The Unfaithful originated after the novel Serenade proved to be totally unfilmable. Sherman talked Ann Sheridan and the rest of the cast into trusting him to develop a completely different story as the film went into the production.
At this point in his career, Vincent Sherman had evolved into a supple, creative filmmaker who could bob and weave successfully with the nuances and dictates of the studio system.
The director had an intimate liaison with Joan Crawford whom he directed in the terrifically tawdry The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Harriet Craig (1950)- on loan to Columbia- and the comedic misfire Goodbye My Fancy (1951), his final picture at Warner Brothers.
The Damned Don’t Cry, based on the life of gangster moll, Virginia Hill, is one of Sherman’s best films and part of a distinguished series of hard-edged noirs produced by Jerry Wald during his tenure at Warner Brothers.
Joan Crawford, who aggressively attempted to seduce Sherman in a screening room during The Damned Don’t Cry, possessed a formidable demeanor that, according to the director, matched her hard-driving screen image:
“I realized that in many ways she was the embodiment of Harriet Craig, the character she would play in her obsessive attitude toward her home; her distrust of men, and her desire to control; her power of manipulation; and her concept of the proper way for man to behave towards his wife, including opening doors for her, pulling back a chair for her to sit, and being careful not to spill cigarette ashes on the rug.”
Vincent Sherman left Warner Brothers in 1951 and became a free lance director. He helmed a star-loaded, but dreadful Western, Lone Star at M.G.M, before signing on to direct Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford for Harry Cohn at Columbia.
With Affair in Trinidad (1952), Sherman again ended up successfully reworking a sparse script while having a rendezvous under the sheets with his leading lady. Like his other extra-curricular liaisons with Davis and Crawford, the carnal nirvana with Rita was extremely brief. Despite his dalliances, the director remained devoted to his endlessly understanding wife, Hedda, and their two children.
Affair in Trinidad restored Rita to stardom and brought Columbia’s balance sheet back into the black. As a reward, Harry Cohn gave a speechless Vincent Sherman a $10,000 bonus and 2% of the profits.
In 1953, the Blacklist reared its ugly head as Sherman was “gray listed” by some of scurrilous gossip that permeated Hollywood during the mid 1950’s. The director was alleged to have hired Communist writers; a patently absurd and false accusation. Sherman lost a directorial assignment and struggled to get work for several years until he was able to successfully clear his name of an unjust Red taint.
Harry Cohn requested Sherman take over direction of the floundering The Garment Jungle in 1956. Initially reticent at replacing the respected Robert Aldrich, the director reshot seventy percent of the picture in two weeks with the final cut, a gritty, noirish union expose starring Lee J. Cobb, holding up extremely well to the present day.
Vincent Sherman directed several more distinctive films including The Young Philadelphians (1959) with Paul Newman before transitioning to television after the final demise of the old studio system in the early 1960’s.
After his retirement in 1983, Sherman remained a relatively anonymous figure until The Hard Way was screened as a forgotten classic at the Telluride Film Festival in 1996. The Telluride screening coincided with the publishing of the director’s lively memoir, Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director, a candid recounting of his career and personal life.
Interest in the veteran director’s body of work along with his vivid recollections of legendary stars including Davis, Crawford, Bogart, and Errol Flynn was renewed. Sherman was frequently tapped for appearances at film documentaries, screening commentaries and various tributes. A distinguished “Southern Colonel” looking man with a shock of white hair and slight accent, Vincent Sherman was a charming raconteur with an enjoyable sense of humor who didn’t appear to take himself too seriously.
Sherman lived long enough to provide narration commentary on some of the recent DVD releases of his Warner Brothers films including The Damned Don’t Cry, Mr. Skeffington, and Old Acquaintance. In a career milestone that was the completion of a lengthy full circle, Vincent Sherman’s first directorial feature from 1939, The Return of Doctor X is due out in this year with the DVD highlighted by his expert commentary.
Vincent Sherman leaves his son, documentary film producer Eric Sherman, daughter Hedwin; a sister; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The actor’s wife, Hedda died in 1984. Sherman’s companion, actress Francine York also survives him.
Alan Rode is a film historian, writer, and board member of the Film Noir Foundation.
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