Vincent Sherman

Craftsman film director from Hollywood's 'golden age'
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The Independent Online

Abraham Orovitz (Vincent Sherman), actor and director: born Vienna, Georgia 16 July 1906; married 1931 Hedda Comoro (died 1984; one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 18 June 2006.

Vincent Sherman, who has died just one month short of his 100th birthday, was one of the last surviving directors of Hollywood's "golden age", and is particularly remembered for the films he made in the 1940s at Warners, where he worked with such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino.

A fine craftsman whose sure touch with glossy melodrama made him a favourite of the screen's foremost leading ladies, he elicited some of the most memorable female performances of the era. Lupino won the New York Critics Award as best actress for her performance in Sherman's The Hard Way, Davis had hits with two of his movies, Old Acquaintance and Mr Skeffington, and Sheridan was at her finest in Nora Prentiss and The Unfaithful.

Davis, Crawford and Rita Hayworth were among the stars with whom Sherman had romantic relationships, which he talks about in his candid 1996 autobiography, Studio Affairs.

He was born Abe Orovitz in Vienna, Georgia, in 1906. Two years after graduating from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, he decided to give up ambitions to be a lawyer and move to New York with a classmate, James Larwood, with whom he had written a play. Though the play was never produced, Sherman, already fascinated by the theatre, found work as an extra with the Theatre Guild in Eugene O'Neill's Marco's Millions, starring Alfred Lunt and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and at the suggestion of the guild he studied with a voice teacher to get rid of his southern accent. He also changed his name to something considered more suitable for billing, taking his inspiration from his mother's maiden name, Vinnie Scheerman.

Later, on the recommendation of Moss Hart, he was given the job of social director on the "borscht belt" - summer camps where middle-class Jewish families spent their holidays. Every summer he would stage several plays at the camps, usually playing leading roles himself, and he continued to gain experience with occasional roles on Broadway.

In 1931 he married Hedda Comoro, a theatrical secretary who later worked with the Democratic Campaign Committee to Elect Roosevelt President, and the following year he was given a major opportunity when given a role in the Chicago company of Elmer Rice's play Counsellor at Law. It was already a hit in New York, starring Paul Muni as an attorney with working-class roots who has become a highly-paid success and married a socialite.

Sherman had the small but powerful role of a youth who is beaten by police and arrested for making Communistic speeches. His mother pleads with the attorney (played in Chicago by Otto Kruger) to help him, and the two men have a strong confrontational scene in which the youth berates the lawyer for betraying his class. Sherman had been interested in left-wing politics ever since the stock market crash in 1929, and later stated, "Despite the Communist jargon, I was sympathetic with the sentiments expressed."

The play was to prompt Sherman's first trip to Hollywood when William Wyler, who was to direct the screen version, asked him to do a screen test, which he made with the film's star, John Barrymore:

I was sure it would not require more than a few hours. It took four days. Barrymore was having trouble remembering his lines, and finally they put up a blackboard for him at the side of the set with key lines on it in large letters.

Sherman won the role, and, when the film opened at New York's Radio City, the critic Regina Crewe of the New York American commented on the audience's applause at the end of Sherman's big speech. Suggesting that it might be a sign of the times politically, she added,

Or perhaps it was just a well-won tribute to the histrionics of Vincent Sherman, who makes the moment all his own, face to face and eye to eye with John Barrymore in a convincing, thrilling scene.

Signed by Columbia, Sherman appeared in six "B" movies for the studio, always as gangsters, then moved to Warners to play another gangster, one of Richard Barthelmess's henchmen, in Alan Crosland's Midnight Alibi (1934). Next he returned to New York to appear in Elmer Rice's Judgement Day (1934), an anti-Nazi play based on the Reichstag fire trial.

In 1935, the Roosevelt administration funded the Federal Theatre Project, which would put thousands of theatre people to work, and Sherman was asked to join the board of the Experimental Theatre branch. One of the plays he recommended was Battle Hymn by Michael Gold and Michael Blankfort, which told of the 1850s abolitionist John Brown, implying that his freeing of black slaves was a parallel to the Marxist desire to free the wage slaves of capitalism. The group granted Sherman's request that he direct the show, which had a fair run of 72 performances.

Sherman then directed Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1936), which imagined a Fascist dictatorship in America, after which he returned to acting to play the role of the gangster Baby Face Martin in a tour of Sidney Kingsley's Dead End. While appearing in Los Angeles, Sherman met Bryan Foy, head of Warner's "B" movie department, and told him that after the play closed he would like to concentrate on his writing, which prompted Foy to offer him a job as a scriptwriter. Sherman later discovered that studio chief Jack Warner approved his signing after learning of his varied background. Warner told Foy, "We'll sign him, and if he doesn't work out as a writer, we can always get our money's worth out of him as an actor or dialogue director."

His first film was a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, Crime School (1938), on which he was both co-writer and dialogue director. He followed this with two films for the fading star Kay Francis, My Bill (1938) and King of the Underworld (1939), both refashioned from earlier Warner movies - the latter was based on Dr Socrates (1935), which starred Paul Muni in the part played by Francis.

Sherman's first chance to direct a movie came when Foy offered him a low- budget horror yarn, The Return of Dr X (1939), which featured Humphrey Bogart (not yet a major star) as a criminal brought back to life after dying in the electric chair. Sherman recalled:

The studio felt Bogart was a good gangster or "heavy" but would never be accepted as a leading man who got the girl. If anyone had predicted at the time that he would one day play a romantic lover, as in Casablanca, and become the idol of millions, he would have been considered daft. I was not concerned with how others felt. Bogie was a good actor and I was glad to have him.

The film was a hit, and Sherman was offered his first "A" movie, Saturday's Children (1940), based on a Maxwell Anderson play and starring John Garfield and Anne Shirley. Sherman was given the film after its original director, Anatole Litvak, and stars, James Stewart and Olivia de Havilland, suddenly withdrew, but afterwards it was back to "B"s with The Man Who Talked Too Much (1940), starring George Brent, and Flight from Destiny (1941), with Thomas Mitchell.

Sherman's next film, though, was to change the course of his career. Underground (1941) was a story of the secret radio service in Germany, and a family torn apart by Nazism. Told that such films always failed at the box office, notably MGM's The Mortal Storm and Warners' own Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Sherman commented,

I know those pictures failed, but they were downbeat; they left audiences feeling depressed and helpless. Underground will give them hope.

Though it had a "B" movie cast (Philip Dorn, Jeffrey Lynn, Kaaren Verne), Underground became a superior, highly entertaining movie thanks to Sherman's astute re-writing of the script and superb handling of the melodramatic story which kept its audiences gripped and entertained throughout. "The reviews were smashing," remembered Sherman, "and it made over $2m and cost under 300,000."

The film elevated the director to the "A" movie league, and his first assignment was All Through the Night (1942) starring Humphrey Bogart (who had by now made High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon). It was another anti-Nazi movie but this time a comedy thriller populated by Runyon-like Broadway gamblers who foil a gang of Nazi saboteurs. Sherman's supporting cast was a strong one, including Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Judith Anderson and William Demarest, and the leading lady was Karen Verne, who fell in love with (and later married) Lorre. The director's main problem was dealing with the sometimes haggard appearance of Bogart, who was having a bad time with his hard-drinking wife Mayo Methot, and would sometimes appear on set after a night of drunken brawling.

Sherman next directed The Hard Way (1943), the brittle tale of a woman from a dingy mill-town who ruthlessly pushes her younger sister to the top in show business. The star was Ida Lupino, who frequently clashed with her director over the uncompromising way he wanted her to play the ambitious, frustrated and bitterly domineering woman, and she is reputed to have yelled on set, "This picture is going to stink and I am going to stink in it."

When the film opened in New York to excellent reviews, particularly for its star, Lupino became one of the director's champions and made two more films for him, the drama In Our Time (1944), set in Poland on the eve of the Nazi and Russian invasion, its title an ironic comment on Neville Chamberlain's statement that he was compromising with Hitler to buy "peace for our time", and the comedy Pillow to Post (1945), though neither was as distinguished as the team's first collaboration:

I think The Hard Way was probably the most personal expression of all the films I worked on. I said things about the human condition that are still close to me: that the drive for success in our culture causes us to do things that we might later regret - sometimes too late. I am also most proud of Ida Lupino's performance.

Sherman needed all his skill at handling his players in his next film, Old Acquaintance (1943), based on John Van Druten's play, for it starred the studio's greatest attraction, Bette Davis, with Miriam Hopkins. The couple had acted together earlier in The Old Maid (1939), and stories were rife of their feuding, their rivalry, and Hopkins's ceaseless attempts to upstage Davis. Sherman recounted how Davis told him,

You watch her, she's always pulling little tricks. And she'll do just what she did on The Old Maid; as my character gets older, hers will get younger! You'll see.

The film was about the friendship and rivalry between two women from a small college town, one unaffected, intelligent and the writer of critically praised but poor-selling novels (Davis), the other a frivolous and jealous women (Hopkins) who writes a trashy novel that heralds a string of best-sellers.

Sherman got on well with Hopkins ("an expert comedienne"), but was soon aware of her tactics. Having agreed with Hopkins that a long cigarette-holder might be a useful prop to show her character's superficiality, he realised his error when at crucial moments she would wave it about frantically, drawing attention to herself and away from Davis. The film proved a big success, and James Agee, in The Nation, after expressing reservations with the material, reported,

The odd thing is that the two ladies, and Vincent Sherman directing, make the whole business look fairly intelligent, detailed and plausible.

According to Sherman, it was during the shooting of Old Acquaintance that Davis told him she was in love with him, but they did not start an affair until they were shooting Mr Skeffington (1944) - in the meantime Davis's husband, Arthur Farnesworth, had died.

Her erratic behaviour on the set would, said Sherman, be agreeable and pleasant for a few days after they had made love, but she would become tense and difficult until they spent another evening together. Sherman was to state that he regarded their lovemaking as therapeutic:

Looking back, I think that sex had long been a complex problem for her. Coming from a puritanical background, she often relied, I noticed, on a few drinks to stop her inhibitions.

(Sherman was later to have a tempestuous affair with Joan Crawford, and a much briefer one - just an afternoon - with Rita Hayworth, when they were filming Affair in Trinidad, 1952. His wife, allegedly, knew of these affairs but accepted them as inevitable in the film-making environment.)

In Mr Skeffington, the life story of a much courted socialite obsessed with her own beauty, Sherman made a serious error when he conceded to Davis's decision that she would play the role with her voice pitched several notes higher than usual to make her character sound younger and more feminine. He rightly described the tactic later as both unnatural and unappealing.

Though Sherman was rumoured to be about to direct the next Davis vehicle, A Stolen Life, he was replaced by Curtis Bernhardt after he told Davis that he would have to do the film as he saw it - that they could not both direct. He instead made two lightweight comedies, Pillow to Post and Janie Gets Married (1946) before making two films starring Ann Sheridan that were among his most memorable.

Nora Prentiss (1947), an enormous hit in its day (with the advertising tag lines, "If you were Nora Prentiss, would you keep your mouth shut" and "She had a lot to learn - but not about men"), is the lesser of the two, a full-blooded but sometimes sluggish melodrama of a married man who takes another's identity when he falls in love with a night-club singer.

One of Hollywood's most under-rated stars ("because she came up from the ranks", said Sherman), Sheridan elevates the movie, but she has much better material with The Unfaithful (1947), possibly Sherman's masterwork. Very loosely based on Somerset Maugham's The Letter (1925), it adapts the story (of a seemingly irreproachable woman who lies about the circumstances leading to her killing a man) to a post-war setting, and has a surprisingly liberal attitude (given the censorious time in which it was made) to wartime infidelity.

Sherman uses the locations in Los Angeles and the cocktail parties of the area's gossiping smart set to excellent effect, and the fine performers include Eve Arden in one of her most felicitous characterisations - the scene in which she tells her cuckolded brother (Zachary Scott) her own views on his wife and her behaviour is beautifully staged and performed under Sherman's guidance.

In contrast, The New Adventures of Don Juan (1948) was a big-budgeted costume spectacular, starring the studio's resident (but ageing) swashbuckler, Errol Flynn. Though Sherman was sometimes taxed by Flynn's drinking, he described the actor as "more sensitive and complex than I could have imagined" and that he wanted most of all to be thought of as a good actor.

There was a lot of good acting in Sherman's next film, made in England, an adaptation of John Patrick's play set in a military hospital, The Hasty Heart (1950). Richard Todd won an Oscar nomination for his touching portrayal of a testy Scot who does not make friends easily and is unaware that he is dying, and he was ably supported by a cast headed by Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal. Sherman had known Reagan for years at Warners and found the future President pleasant and agreeable:

He was also, for years, a fellow Democrat and a strong Roosevelt supporter. Now I began to detect a shift to the right. He knew my feelings, which were left of centre, but for the moment we were tolerant of our differences.

The Hasty Heart was the last outstanding Sherman film, since Warners, like other studios, started to cut corners on budgets and rid itself of several contract players. Backfire (1950) was a reasonable mystery with a moderately starry cast but had "B" movie elements, and The Damned Don't Cry (1950), based on the life of Virginia Hill, mistress of the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel, was not comparable in budget or script with Joan Crawford's earlier films for the studio.

The star and Sherman were jointly loaned to Columbia to make a more distinguished movie, Harriet Craig (1950), based on the famous George Kelly play about an obsessive housewife. Crawford and Sherman were teamed for the final time on Goodbye, My Fancy (1951), with the star miscast as a congresswoman returning to her old college and renewing a long-ago love affair.

After making a routine western, Lone Star (1952) with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, Sherman had the unenviable task of directing Affair in Trinidad, Rita Hayworth's first film after her divorce from Aly Khan, and a pale attempt to duplicate the success of her greatest hit, Gilda (1946) - though it was a box-office hit.

The best of Sherman's later films was The Young Philadelphians (1959), high-grade soap opera with Paul Newman. After directing Debbie Reynolds in the unassuming western The Second Time Around (1961) he ceased to be active for several years, spending time quietly on his farm with Hedda (who died in 1984), before re-emerging on television, his work for the medium including Bogie: The Last Hero (1980).

Tom Vallance