Book Review: ‘Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars’

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Legendary film producer Hal B. Wallis had quite a run in Hollywood’s salad days.

The former publicist and onetime protege of Jack Warner worked with some of the biggest names in the business, and his name was associated with some first-class films, not the least of them “Casablanca.” He talked Edward G. Robinson into leaving the stage for film, yielding the magnificent “Little Caesar.” He discovered Burt Lancaster and Shirley MacLaine. He put Elvis in pictures.

Yet, for all his accomplishments, Wallis was never quite able to secure the respect he doubtless felt he deserved. Professional honors eluded him for most of his career. He was an also-ran in other regards, forever associated with B films even as he aspired to make art that could double as commerce. The self-styled “starmaker” — such was the title of his autobiography — might have discovered a few artists, but most, for many reasons, left him as soon as they could.

Indeed, if there is news in film scholar Bernard Dick’s sometimes earnest, sometimes plodding, but always illuminating life of Wallis, it is that most of the starmaker’s discoveries did only passing work for him, flourishing in the hands of other directors and producers once outside of Wallis’ orbit. A constant refrain throughout “Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars” is that such Wallis-nurtured actors as Charlton Heston (news), Lancaster and even Presley “went on to do their best work elsewhere,” leaving it to Wallis to market their lesser efforts.

Part of the problem, Dick suggests, is that Wallis too often hitched his wagon to fading stars — Loretta Young, for instance, and Shirley Booth, both of whom would do good work on TV. A case in point was Wallis’ pairing of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn in “Rooster Cogburn,” a sequel to the worthier Wallis-Wayne vehicle “True Grit.” It would be Wallis’ last film, and it would do no one associated with it especially proud. Wayne and Hepburn, of course, would resurface separately to do much better in other people’s films, such as “The Shootist” and “On Golden Pond.”

Part of the problem, too, was that Wallis did much of his producing for Paramount, which was well known for tightness with a dollar and a certain tastelessness. The man who had worked with Michael Curtiz and Darryl Zanuck also spent many of his best years working on movies that, when they’re shown at all, figure on the late, late show. Even so, those Jerry Lewis movies aside, under Paramount’s aegis Wallis produced some memorable films, including the prestigious “Becket,” pairing Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.

It took Wallis 25 years to extricate himself from Paramount, and when he decamped for Universal Pictures he didn’t have many pictures left in him. Would it have made much difference if he had? Yes, Dick suggests: left to his own devices, the “gentleman producer” showed fine taste, made exceptionally smart casting decisions, fought battles that needed to be fought, spent money that needed to be spent. Even Charlton Heston, with whom he clashed, remembered him as a master of all aspects of film. “There aren’t really a lot of guys who are good at all this,” Heston remarked. “Hal was very good. Surely one of the two or three best of them all.”

“Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars” offers plenty of reasons to take that assessment seriously, and it gives a great filmmaker his due.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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