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Monroe's itch, Bette's pal. That's show bids.

January 23, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

With the award season upon us, everyone is looking for that perfect "token" of appreciation. And the solution may come from 20th Century Fox. What better present for that nominee in your life than Humphrey Bogart's first studio contract? Know a star with project commitment issues? Here are the various letters and telegrams demanding that Marilyn Monroe show up for the final stills for "Seven Year Itch" and on set for "How to Be Very Very Popular." (She did neither.) For those who enjoy a good interstellar feud, a contract amendment from Joan Crawford stipulates that she will star in "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" only if it is understood she will do no publicity with costar Bette Davis. (It's followed by a letter withdrawing Ms. Crawford from the film due to "illness.")

On Thursday, these documents will be part of 154 lots drawn from Fox's legal archives and auctioned at Swann Galleries in New York as a fundraiser for the Motion Picture & Television Fund. Focusing on the Golden Age of Hollywood, the catalog is not only an autograph hound's dream -- where else could you find Laurel and Hardy, Astaire and Rogers, Faulkner and Steinbeck? -- but much of it also reads like the ultimate industry paper trail.

One group of internal memos, for example, details Marlon Brando's refusal to make "The Egyptian," including a discussion of how Brando's psychiatrist had him declared mentally unfit, predicting recovery time that lasted, conveniently enough, through principal photography. Another set of memos grants Elvis Presley permission to break the on-set grooming regulations so he can keep his hair intact for his film debut, and an internal memo objects to Monroe's plan to attend President Kennedy's ball, where she famously sang, "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."

"This is not a celebrity autograph collection," says Tom Rothman, co-chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment. "This is a historical tour."

Rothman, who collects first editions and related documents, came up with the idea while walking through the halls of the studio, which, not surprisingly, are lined with famous film stills.

"There is an incredible picture of Marilyn Monroe's first screen test," Rothman says, "and I began wondering where all the records of those things were."

Buried deep in the archives, as it turned out. But after much sifting by Bob Cohen, executive vice president of legal affairs, and then again by representatives of Swann's, the order for Norma Jean Dougherty's first full screen-test (her first screen test had no sound) emerged, as well as her first contract option -- six months, $150.

"I'm keeping my hope in check," says Ken Scherer, chief executive of the MPTF Foundation, "but I read that a Babe Ruth contract sold for more than a million -- maybe someone will find Marilyn Monroe just as interesting."

Scherer says the auction was the easiest fundraiser he didn't have to organize -- the Fox co-chairmen came to him. "Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos approached us and asked us if we were interested, and I had the difficult job of saying yes."

The auction has been advertised on the Swann website. But Scherer has also made sure folks in the industry know that with bids beginning at $4,000 to $6,000 they could own John Steinbeck's contract assigning the rights to "The Grapes of Wrath" or Cary Grant's contract for "I Was a Male War Bride" ($1,000-$1,500) or Jackie Gleason's agreement to play Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler" ($200-$300).

As the Swann autograph specialist points out during the website's behind-the-scenes mini-documentary, much of the value of the documents comes from the absolute authenticity and the pristine nature of the signatures -- these are contracts, not cocktail napkins, after all.

If none of the items carries the moral weight of, say, a letter from poet John Donne discussing the difference between romantic and spiritual love, they do offer up interesting trivia.

Monroe's was not the only name change -- in the post "Miracle on 34th Street" heat, 9-year-old Natalie Wood was still Natasha Gurdin and Margarita Cansino became Rita Casino before settling with Rita Hayworth. Will Rogers was one of the hardest-working and best-paid people in Hollywood (at one point, his 10-picture contract was worth $1 million), and William Faulkner sold the rights to "The Sound and the Fury" for $35,000.

And no analysis or editorial could capture the pathos of the industry's battle with addiction than the auction's last two documents: Judy Garland's contract to appear in "Valley of the Dolls," dated Feb. 15, 1967, and her withdrawal from the project because of her own drug and alcohol abuse, just three months later.

If the values set by Swann are met, the auction should raise close to $200,000. For Rothman, the pleasure came from simply opening the vault.

"It's like King Tut's tomb," says Rothman. "These are cultural records. It's a shame to keep them in a dark box."

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