Sunday, April 24, 1994.
HOLLYWOOD'S FIRST CHOICES (OR WHY GROUCHO MARX NEVER PLAYED RHETT BUTLER): HOW THE GREATEST CASTING DECISIONS WERE MADE. By Jeff Burkhart and Bruce Stuart. Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1994. 230 pp. Illus., index. $18.50.
MARGARET MITCHELL HAD A SENSE of humour. Asked who she would choose to play Rhett Butler in the film version of her novel Gone With the Wind, the Atlanta-born author said: "Groucho Marx."
I kid you not.
Mitchell's famous remark is remembered in the title of this utterly humourless book, one that promises to tell us why the famous comic never played the role.
It kids us big time.
Although Gone With the Wind is the subject of an entire chapter, neither the Mitchell quote nor the senior Marx brother are ever mentioned. Perhaps Crown, the book's publisher, chose its title without consulting with the authors or, for that matter, checking their manuscript.
On behalf of co-writers Jeff Burkhart and Bruce Stuart, it promises "behind-the-scenes revelations." Their text is described as "exuberant (and) witty."
Crown's blurb writer is flogging a dog. Poorly researched and badly written, Hollywood's First Choices falls somewhere between gush journalism and a fan letter.
Its 14 overwritten, cliché-ridden chapters offer cut-and-paste accounts of 17 "classic" films. The oldest dispatch is about Queen Christina (1934), while the latest news concerns Apocalypse Now (1979).
Two items serve to demonstrate the authors' lack of enterprise. One is the persistent rumour that Frank Sinatra's mafia connections got him his role in 1953's From Here to Eternity.
The rumour became popular folklore when Mario Puzo recalled it in The Godfather. We all remember the horse's head scene. So, gentlemen, did the mob put the fix in for Old Blue Eyes?
"(Director Fred) Zinnemann denies this" is the sum total of their interest in the matter. For more balanced "revelations," see Kitty Kelley's exhaustively researched Sinatra biography His Way (1986).
Then, there's that old story about how Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were the stars originally chosen for 1942's Casablanca. This, we're told, "might have been the brainchild of an overzealous publicist."
This lame non-revelation suggests that our authors are wilfully ignorant of the big studio publicity system circa 1943. There's no "might have been" mystery here.
The casting item appeared in the Hollywood Reporter on January 5, 1942. Aljean Harmetz explains how and why in her richly detailed Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca (1992).
Unreliable sources, Burkhart and Stuart are inept and untrustworthy. Their book is as disappointing as it is dull.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1994. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: Before there was an Internet, movie buffs who wanted to know more about their favourite films relied on such ephemeral media as specialty magazines and the occasional book-length tome. Over the years, rather too many of these found their way on to my shelves or into files, the basement and garage. Not every one was a delight, as the above negative review of Hollywood's First Choices makes clear. To the best of my Google-abetted knowledge, it was the only book written by Jeff Burkhart and Bruce Stuart, either singly or as a team.
The Los Angeles-born screenwriter credited with the 1984 spring break comedy Where the Boys Are, Jeff Burkhart died in 2001 at the age of 52. He shouldn’t be confused with celebrity bartender and oenophile Jeff Burkhart, a wine blogger and author of the 2012 memoir Twenty Years Behind Bars. At the time of his collaboration with Burkhart, Bruce Stuart was identified as “a producer who divides his time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe.” I can find no news of him since, and he probably shouldn’t be confused with the founder of the SerialTeller.com website Bruce S. Stuart, a currently active San Francisco author whose novel The Lightening Round was published in 2015.