Starmaker – The Autobiography of Hal Wallis

Hal Wallis’ autobiography from 1980 was a quick read at only 186 pages (then 50 pages of memoirs and filmography). This was a perfect a perfect memoir for me as it combines my fascination with old Hollywood and my love for Elvis (although there was only one chapter on Elvis). Hal Wallis produced nine of Elvis’ movies, but he did so much more than that in Hollywood – I had no idea.

As Elvis fans, I always thought we didn’t care for Hal Wallis – that he wasn’t nice to Elvis, that he didn’t like Elvis. Was I wrong? It seemed everyone in Hollywood really liked Hal Wallis, and he was such a bigwig in Hollywood. I knew he had produced Casablanca, but thought that was sort of his one big hit. Boy was I wrong. Wallis did everything and knew everyone, but Katherine Hepburn was his favorite actress and his friend. She wrote the forward to his memoir and an entire chapter was dedicated to her.

Hal Wallis was born September 14, 1898 in Chicago. His family was poor especially after his father them. At 14, Hal quit high school to work and got a job as a salesman. At 18, the Wallis family moved to California for his mother’s health. Hal’s sister Minna became a secretary to a lawyer who represented the new Warner Bros. Jack Warner was so impressed with her that she became his right hand and a power at the studio. Tired of his sales job, Minna got Hal a job managing the Warner Bros owned Garrick Theater. He was 20.

Hal got involved with production at Warner Bros. He did a lot with Rin Tin Tin, which is where he met his future wife the Queen of Comedy Louise Fazenda. Warner made the first talkie The Jazz Singer. Wallis became the Production Manager of First National when Warner took them over then in 1930 became the Executive Production Manager over everything at Warner Bros. Hal’s only son Brent Wallis was born in the 1930s (which would make his Elvis’ age).

Hal and Louise started their empire by buying up lots of land and made lots of money from their investments. Sunkist harvested their orange groves and thrift stores leased their land. Hal’s sister became a big Hollywood agent and was friends with all the stars including Gretta Garbo and Clark Gable. Wallis was partly responsible for discovering a bunch of Hollywood stars including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn – hence the title of his memoir Starmaker.

Apparently Casablanca was a nightmare to make and Bogart and Bergman did not like it and were not happy while making it. At the Oscars, Jack Warner jumped up in front of Wallis to accept the award for Casablanca even though he had nothing to do with it. This was the beginning of the end for Hal Wallis and Warner Bros.

In 1945, Wallis left Warner Bros for Paramount, where he made movies for the next 25 years. There is discovered Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Shirley MacLaine (whom he did not like), Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Wallis worked with Shirley Booth (Come Back Little Sheba), John Wayne (True Grit), Richard Burton and Delores Hart whom he remained friends with even after she became a nun. Other movies Wallis made included The Rainmaker, Robinhood, Becket, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Now, Voyager, Sergeant York, The Sons of Katie Elder and Barefoot in the Park just to name a few.

Hal Wallis also made nine Elvis Presley movies. He produced Loving You, King Creole, GI Blues, Blue Hawaii, Girls Girls Girls, Fun in Acapulco, Roustabout, Paradise Hawaiian Style and Easy Come Easy Go. Although those last three did not get any mention in his memoir – just in his filmography. Surprised Wallis didn’t produce Elvis’ Kid Galahad when he made the original with Bette Davis back in 1937. Hal did devote an entire chapter to Elvis declaring “I knew him only as a happy, modest, clean-cut American boy.” There was no mention of making Elvis movies to fund his ‘real’ movies. At the writing of this book, Hal Wallis and Colonel Parker were still friends.

While in Hawaii filming Girls Girls Girls, Hal’s wife died. Four years later he met his second wife actress Martha Hyer. Hal Wallis died on October 5, 1986 at his house in California at the age of 88.

Although this was an interesting read, I would have liked more specific dates to tell when things happened – at least the year it happened. This memoir was definitely more about Wallis’ career than his personal life, which usually I don’t like but in this case that is what I wanted – to hear the stories about the movies he made.

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