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An Interview with Lewis Allen

The following is excerpted from an interview that was conducted in 1997 and included in Tom Weaver’s 2004 book Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks.

This interview may be about ghosts—in fact, about one of the earliest and best ghost movies ever made—but rest assured that it’s not an interview with a ghost. According to many movie reference books, Lewis Allen died in 1986—a fact well known to the English-born director, still sharp and affable in his tenth decade on this earth. His filmography leans heavily toward “tough guy” movies of the Alan Ladd–George Raft–Edward G. Robinson school, but his very first directorial credit remains his most famous: 1944’s The Uninvited, a high-class, “adult” ghost tale set on the Cornish coast, with Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and screen newcomer Gail Russell.

Born in Shropshire, England, on Christmas Day 1905, Allen first burst onto the scene when he was appointed executive in charge of West End and Broadway stage productions for famed impresario Gilbert Miller. Allen also codirected some of the productions (including the celebrated Victoria Regina, with Helen Hayes and Vincent Price), before he was lured to Hollywood by Paramount studio head Buddy DeSylva. The Uninvited, based on Dorothy Macardle’s best-selling novel, made for an auspicious film-directing debut; its success prompted an immediate follow-up, the suspense thriller The Unseen (1945), with Joel McCrea and Gail Russell (and a script by Raymond Chandler). Now retired, this veteran of nearly twenty features and scores of TV credits (Perry Mason, The Big Valley, Mission: Impossible, Little House on the Prairie, and many more) goes back, in this exclusive interview, to his Hollywood beginnings—and what many consider the finest haunted-house picture ever made.

At what point did you decide to leave New York and come to Hollywood?

I was working for Gilbert Miller in New York as a stage director. One day, on Sixth Avenue, I ran into a well-known agent named Louis Shurr, who asked, “How are things with Gilbert?” I said, “Well, since the war started, we’ve closed down the theater in London. My job’s getting very insecure.” So he said, “Look, tomorrow Buddy DeSylva is coming into my office to negotiate Bob Hope’s contract. Why don’t you come in and meet him?” So I went in and met Buddy DeSylva, who had seen a couple of plays I’d directed—one was Pride and Prejudice in London. I chatted with him for ten minutes, and as I was leaving the office he said, “When can you start at Paramount?” So [laughs], I went back to my office, and I said to Gilbert Miller, “I’m going to Hollywood.” “Well,” he said, “everybody leaves this office. George Cukor had your job before, then Irving Rapper. I figured you’d go eventually.” So that’s how I got to Hollywood.

When you arrived at Paramount, were you chomping at the bit to direct a picture right away?

Oh, no, no, no. I figured that I’d have to hang around and learn the ropes. I did all kinds of jobs, including as dialogue director on a Bob Hope musical.

Are the books right in saying that you had two years of apprentice­ship there?

No, I was there about six months. I followed Preston Sturges around and sort of learned a lot from him. Also from Mark Sandrich; we had offices on the same floor in the Directors Building. When my option came up, I said to Buddy DeSylva, “Look, Bob Sherwood has offered me a job with the Playwrights, to direct for them. I’m going back to New York.” But DeSylva wouldn’t let me go. He said, “No, you’re not. We’re picking up your option, and as of today, you’re my assistant.” And he moved me down next to his office, and for the next year, I was Buddy DeSylva’s assistant. So that two years of apprenticeship is mythical.

How did The Uninvited come to you?

During this period, I became friendly with Charles Brackett, who was Billy Wilder’s partner. Charlie was a wonderful man—one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known. Charlie said to me one day, “Lew, I’ve bought a book called The Uninvited, and we’re developing a script. I think you’d be just the right director for it.” So he talked to Buddy DeSylva about me, and Buddy said, “Delighted. You can have Lew to direct it.” That’s how I got to direct The Uninvited.

How much say did you have in the casting?

Oh, a lot. See, Charlie had only produced one picture before this, and he was sort of feeling his way along.

Were Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell your first choices for the three leading roles?

Sort of. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about taking Gail Russell, because she’d only done one small part in a picture before this. And when she read for me, it was pretty bad [laughs]. She was under contract to the studio. Interesting how she got to the studio: William Meiklejohn, the head of casting, was driving along Melrose Avenue one day, and he picked up some high school kids. He said to one young gal, “You know, you’re very attractive. Why don’t you come into the studio, and we’ll make a test of you?” And one of the boys said, “Oh, she’s nothing. We’ve got a girl called Gail Russell who is a great beauty.” Meiklejohn said, “Have her come in.” Gail Russell came in and met Meiklejohn, and he signed her on the spot. She did a tiny bit for Billy Wilder in a picture ahead of this, and Billy Wilder said, “You’re welcome to her, I had a terrible time with her!” [Laughs] [. . .]

You also had stage actress Cornelia Otis Skinner in a “heavy” role.

She was at Paramount at the time, working on the screenplay of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, which was based on the famous book she wrote with Emily Kimbrough. She was around Paramount, and I said to Charlie one day, “You know, she’d be very good for this particular part”—you know, the woman who runs the insane asylum. That’s how she got into the picture.

I thought she was very effective as that sinister, Gale Sondergaard–type character.

Well, she was a very good actress.

In preparing the picture, did you work much with the screenwriters, Frank Partos and Dodie Smith?

I worked with them an awful lot. Frank Partos wrote a lot of scripts, and Dodie Smith was a famous English playwright. You look up her credits and you’ll see that she’s quite famous—she wrote two or three very successful plays.

Did Dorothy Macardle, who wrote the novel, have any input at any point?

I never saw her.

Since The Uninvited was your first film-directing job, I was wondering if you’d be able to remember, fifty-plus years later, what scene you shot the first day.

Yes, I can—it was the scene in the house with the dog and the squirrel. It took a whole day to get that squirrel to run up the chimney! The man who owned the dog was a fellow called [Rudd] Weatherwax—he owned a Lassie. He had the dog, and he also had the squirrel! We spent the whole day, with just the camera crew and the squirrel and the dog, getting the squirrel to go up the chimney. That was my first day as a director [laughs].

Where were some of your locations?

We shot some of it up in Northern California, around Fort Bragg, around the Russian River. After we shot the locations, Paramount took some of the footage of the bluff there and the special effects department painted the house in—superimposed the house over the Northern California coast.

The village exteriors, with the sailing ships in the background, where were those filmed?

On the back lot at Metro. And, you know, it’s interesting: There’s a scene in that part of the movie where Milland goes into a tobac­conist’s shop and buys a package of cigarettes. Do you know who the lady in the shop is? Moyna Macgill, the mother of Angela Lansbury. Moyna was a very famous English actress, and when the war came along, she came out to Hollywood with her two sons and her daughter, Angela. I later gave Angela a part in a picture because Moyna said, “Oh, I wish you’d give her a job.” I was doing Our Hearts Were Young and Gay [1944], and so I said, “Send her in,” and I hired Angela to play in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. About three days later, before the picture started, George Cukor called me, and he said, “Have you just hired a girl called Angela Lansbury?” I said, “We haven’t started yet, but she’s going to be working for me, yes, George.” He said, “Well, we’re making tests for Gaslight, and I’m testing her. If she’s any good, will you let her go?” The following day, he called me and said, “I’ve just looked at the test, and it’s very good. We want to hire her, but you’ve got to let her go.” So I let her go, and you know the rest—she got an Oscar nomination for that, and that was the beginning of her career.

Being that The Uninvited was your first picture, did you find any of the actors in it going out of their way to be supportive of you?

Oh, Milland was very supportive—I finally made three pictures with him. He used to ask for me to direct his pictures. He was extremely good on The Uninvited, very professional.

And helpful in getting a performance out of Gail Russell.

Right. Between takes, he’d take her aside and rehearse her and rehearse her and rehearse her. He was excellent with her; in fact, thanks to Ray Milland, Gail Russell became a star. The only person who was unkind to her was Donald Crisp, who played her [grand­father]. He thought it was sort of “amateur night,” working with this unknown actress. You see, Donald Crisp was very much a profes­sional, and he didn’t agree with all this motion picture business of bringing young people in and giving them a break. He thought they should only employ “pros.” He was just brusque with her, that’s all.

Your cinematographer, Charles Lang Jr., was Oscar-nominated for The Uninvited.

He got an Academy Award for one picture [1932’s A Farewell to Arms] and a whole lot of nominations for various pictures. A wonderful guy, extremely helpful.

In the novel, Roderick Fitzgerald is a playwright, and in your movie he’s a musician.

That’s right. And of course the music he played in the movie, “Stella by Starlight,” became a very famous song. That was written as a piano concerto, and then Victor Young turned it into a popular song. I was very friendly with Victor.

Do you recall the budget and shooting schedule?

I think it was forty days or forty-eight days. We made it for about a million and a half—that’s what Paramount was spending on its A pic­tures in those days. Buddy DeSylva, the boss at Paramount, was very pleased with The Uninvited. He was a wonderful guy, by the way. I did a picture called Those Endearing Young Charms [1945] for RKO—I was on loan-out from Paramount. At that time, I was earning fifteen hundred dollars a week or something. RKO borrowed me and paid Paramount fifty thousand dollars for me. Buddy DeSylva sent for me one day, and he said, “Henry Ginsberg [vice president and general manager in charge of studio operations] is gonna give you a check.” I said, “What for?” He said, “For ten thousand dollars, ’cause we’ve been cheating on you!” [Laughs] “We’re paying you fifteen hundred, and we loaned you out for fifty thousand. You’re entitled to a piece of it.” Wonderful guy, Buddy DeSylva. But he lived a fast life. He smoked like a chimney—in fact, I think he smoked four or five packs of cigarettes a day—and drank heavily. He died a few years later.

One funny thing about The Uninvited’s “happy ending” is that Gail Russell turns out to be an illegitimate child. Did anybody worry that the censors might frown on that?

No, I don’t think so.

Would you agree that the plot of The Uninvited tends to get a little crowded, that it should have been a little easier to follow?

Probably, yes. You know, I saw The Uninvited about two years ago, and what amazed me about the picture was the fact that it was almost fifty years old and it wasn’t very dated. I must be congratulated, because most movies of that era look stagy. I must have done a very good job! [. . .]

After the terrific job you did on The Uninvited, I think it’s too bad that, movie-wise at least, you later became a bit typecast as a director of action and tough-guy movies.

That was the way of the studios. You took whatever they gave you.

What are you doing today?

Sitting in my armchair in my living room, talking to you! Look, I’m losing my eyesight . . . and I had a fall and I broke my back. So [laughs], I’m in very bad shape. Mentally, I’m all right, but I’m not a young man anymore—I’m ninety. I don’t feel ill, I just have difficulty walking and difficulty seeing. And as a person who read three books a week, this has been a terrible blow. I can see to get about, but I can’t see to read.

Are you happy with the long career you had in movies and television?

Well, I started directing when I was thirty-two, and I directed till I was eighty. I did an awful lot of television; I worked with Dick Powell at Four Star, I did thirty Bonanzas, I did Perry Mason and Mission: Impossible—quite a few Mission: Impossibles. From the time I came to Hollywood, I was never out of a job. The William Morris office treated me as one of their pet directors, and there was always a job for me. When they couldn’t get a movie for me, they got TV.

The Uninvited is widely regarded as one of the top ghost movies; a lot of people say it’s the best ghost movie. What is the key to making a successful ghost movie like The Uninvited?

Well, I think the whole point when you’re making a scary movie is to try and be honest and as straightforward as you can. And not be a phony. I treated The Uninvited as though I believed in it. That’s my whole explanation for that.

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