Vladimir Ivan Leventon was born in Russian in 1904, and immigrated with his mother and sister in 1909 to the United States. He was raised in Port Chester, New York. His name was naturalized to "Val Lewton" at the suggestion of his aunt, the actress Alla Nazimova, with whom Lewton and his mother and sister sometimes lived.
While in New York State, Lewton worked as a journalist, short-story writer, and novelist, producing at least eight novels. He often used a selection of pseudonyms for his credits, apparently with the idea of disguising the fact that one person was producing so much material in such a short space of time. He spent six years writing movie serializations and other film related copy as part of the M-G-M New York PR office. He sometimes averaged 50,000 words a week. In 1932 he wrote his most popular book, the "best-selling" pulp novel No Bed of Her Own. The book was later made into the film No Man of Her Own (though with a drastically altered storyline), with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
Trade advertisement announcing "No Bed of Her Own." It eventually changed to
"No Man of Her Own" and starred Gable and Carole Lombard.
Devoting himself to full-time writing in 1932, he quit M-G-M. He followed the success of No Bed of Her Own with three more novels in a year, none of which sold as well. Through connections that his mother had, an offer came in 1934 to work on a screen treatment of the Russian novel Taras Bulba, so Lewton moved to California, where he became David O. Selznick's story editor. He labored on a number of Selznick's films, contributing the Atlanta Depot scene in Gone With The Wind, producing (with second-unit director Jacques Tourneur) parts of A Tale of Two Cities, and participated in bringing Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood. Peter Viertel was his assistant while with Selznick, at nineteen an aspiring writer who Lewton encouraged to get his first novel published, The Canyon. (Viertel later wrote the novel White Hunter, Black Heart and scripted the film The African Queen, among others. Viertel's 1971 novel Bicycle on the Beach includes a minor character not unlike Lewton. A web site on Viertel is here.)
Lewton enjoyed the California climate, where he pursued boating, woodwork and writing in his journals. Scraps of letters show that he filled scrap paper with knotting diagrams for his sail boat, supply lists for trips, and notes for improvements and repairs to be made to his boat he named The Nina, after his mother. He raised his son, Val Jr., and daughter Nina, with his wife Ruth, and developed a coterie of friends, many who were writers and actors of the Hollywood community. But Lewton felt a nagging sense of duty to his conception of art, a feeling for which he often castigated himself while with Selznick:
The three years which have passed since I last wrote a book have not been particularly happy ones, nor have I added one cubit to my stature, nor to my work or success. I am in a job which fritters away my time, fills me with the most desperate loathing for my fellow men and forces upon me a critical attitude toward the work of my fellows which cannot fail to weaken the self-confidence with which I approach my own work. Time and again I have repeated to myself that my only happiness lies in work, and my only hope of escape from the despised role of story editor-censor.
(From a journal entry dated February 10, 1937. Personal papers, Library of Congress.)
Though artistically troubled, Lewton was financially comfortable working for Selznick, and it was with some difficulty that Lewton gave up that security to accept a 1942 offer to take charge of a special production unit at RKO. Created as an effort to exploit the horror film popularity created by Universal (e.g., Dracula, Frankenstein, et al) and to recover from the financial disasters brought on by Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, among others, RKO hoped for big results from horror films with small budgets.
(Below) Advertisement for Where the Cobra Sings, by Cosmo Forbes,
one of the several Lewton pseudonyms.
Lewton's first production was the taut and moody Cat People. Made for $134,000, the film went on to earn nearly $4 million (or $2 million, depending upon the source you accept), and it was easily the top moneymaker of that year for RKO. Shooting schedules at RKO were so short and rushed that Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, who had directed Cat People, were already finished with I Walked With A Zombie, and finishing a third, The Leopard Man, when they learned of Cat People's success.
RKO executives supplied the titles that Lewton and Tourneur worked with, but otherwise delivered to the duo a great deal of freedom. Initially, however, this was not so. On Cat People, Lew Ostrow, who oversaw all of RKO's small-budget productions, was displeased with Tourneur's work and insisted on replacing him. Lewton went over Ostrow's head to RKO chief Charles Koerner, who reviewed Tourneur's rushes and complied with Lewton's desire to keep Tourneur. Lewton's effort to protect the control he had over his unit productions continued throughout his career at RKO. It is from that control (and the quality of the films themselves) that has resulted in the cohesive, recognizable character of his tales, such that it is a challenge to the auteur theory of the director as the doyen of the "one man, one film" school of film credit.
Zombie was a second hit for Lewton's unit, but The Leopard Man, based upon a mystery novel, Black Alibi, by Cornell Woolrich, did not fair as well, though successfully enough to please RKO. At its completion, Tourneur was promoted to working on larger-budgeted pictures elsewhere in RKO, and Lewton was given the opportunity of a better financed film for his next project, The Seventh Victim. Mark Robson had been an editor in Hollywood for a decade, and had just previously worked under Orson Welles on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, followed by edits for Cat People, Zombie and Leopard Man. When Lewton gave Robson the directing slot on Seventh Victim, RKO disapproved. When he did not back down, the budget was reduced back to the usual B-movie size.
Often considered in Lewton literature to be his masterpiece, The Seventh Victim was first scripted by DeWitt Bodeen as a tale about an orphaned girl in Los Angeles being hunted by a murderer. This was scrapped and then revised as an existential tale of pacifist devil worshippers in New York City searching for a member (Jean Brooks) who has betrayed their confidence to a psychiatrist. Kim Hunter portrayed the younger sister of the erring devil worshipper, also searching the city for Brooks character. Filled with literary metaphors and a shadowy, darkened maze-like vision of the city, it is a transition film from the visually oriented Tourneur directed films toward the dialogue-centered films of Lewton's later RKO projects working with directors Mark Robson and Robert Wise.
Lewton's unit was next given The Ghost Ship, a tale essentially concocted by RKO to squeeze one more use from an expensive ship set leftover from another film. Lewton gave the original script job to Donald Henderson Clarke, an old friend and colleague from Lewton's New York City days as a journalist. After getting the story, Lewton revised and rewrote the tale, coming up with a ship-bound cat-and-mouse scenario about a ship's captain going slowly insane, with the only person sure of it a first mate who becomes involuntarily incarcerated onboard.
The Ghost Ship immediately ran into trouble upon its release. A lawsuit was started by a pair of writers who had tried to sell RKO a script bearing the same title, and so Lewton found himself facing plagiarism charges. The plaintiffs offered to settle out of court for $700, but Lewton, chagrined at being held liable to what he considered a preposterous swindle, refused. In court, RKO lawyers failed to prove that Lewton's unit could not have seen the script (Lewton stated he never read it, that in fact the package it came in had not even been opened), but the court decided against the defense for $25,000. The verdict stunned Lewton, who had pursued the matter against RKOs advice. Consequently, The Ghost Ship was pulled from circulation and was virtually unseen for nearly fifty years.
Charles Koerner, the head of RKO, and the man who had originally supplied the "market-tested" Cat People title to Lewton, came up with another one: The Curse of the Cat People.
Lewton's film-making method is often described as a kind of shell game played with the RKO front office. By production sleight-of-hand, or outright deception, he sought to evade the demands for conventional horror-fare put upon him by RKO, instead to seem to meet this requirement with some elements while simultaneously undermining it with an alternative literary and psychological theme. I think it is unreasonable to suspect that RKO executives did not keep an eye on Lewton, even if just a distant one, while he was spending their money, and yet there is the conundrum, for example, of Lewton trying to have the Curse of the Cat People title changed to Amy and Her Friend, which in 1944 would hardly have sounded sinister on an advertising marquee. Though a direct sequel to Cat People, Curse of the Cat People contains only a small amount of the tension and supernatural dread of the original. The central character, Amy, a young girl alienated from her emotionally cold and perfection-demanding parents (Jane Randolph and Kent Smith repeating their roles from Cat People) turns to a fantasy friend (played by Simone Simon, also playing her role from the original film) for comfort and guidance. Told essentially from the point of view of the child, the movie defies easy categorization since it shows the traditional gothic horror movie tropes of a 'haunted' mansion with a psychotic occupant, but it defuses all of this with a fairy-tale like approach that is mostly gentle and sweetly sad. I think it is more like Jean Cocteau's 1946 Beauty and the Beast, which is a fairy tale with surrealistic touches, than "Curse" is like its forebear, The Cat People.
The film did well and RKO next allowed Lewton two non-horror projects. The sensationalistic Are These Our Children? (renamed Youth Runs Wild, dealing with wartime juvenile delinquency), and Mademoiselle Fifi, a period production taking place during the Franco-Prussian war that Lewton tailored for Simone Simon. Obsessive with research, Lewton poured over reports on the first project, and researched books, decor, military fashion, and manners for the second. Lewton gave Mademoiselle Fifi to Robert Wise to direct, and Youth Runs Wild to Mark Robson. While Mademoiselle Fifi, apart from budget problems, was left entirely up to Lewton's control, Youth Runs Wild had to deal with the U.S. State Department. RKO was threatened with the loss of foreign licensing (and thus foreign market revenues) if the film was too critical of American wartime society. Youth Runs Wild was put together under Lewton's protection, and he defended the film as an "honest" effort on the subject in letters he wrote to his family. In pre-release the movie did well with preview audiences, but the pressures on RKO continued, and to cover any avenue of attack from censorship boards and Federal government interference, they had the film drastically re-cut, such that Lewton asked for his name to be taken off it, calling it a "a first-rate stinker." As the film now stands, it is a confused 67 minutes that presages the troubled "rebel" youth movies of the 1950s, but by the end it also has all the convenient, easy-answers and happy conformity of many mediocre propaganda films of that era.
Adding to Lewton's troubles trying to make mainstream fare was Sid Rogell, a longtime Hollywood producer who had been made RKO studio head under Koerner. Rogell continuously wanted additional budget cuts on Mademoiselle Fifi, which had already achieved being the lowest-costing costume drama in RKO history. Koerner's solution was to move Lewton's unit to a different RKO department, one led by Jack Gross, the man who had headed Universal's horror department before coming to RKO. This seemed to make matters worse to Lewton, as he saw Gross as having no appreciation for the kind of films he was seeking to make. Lewton found himself between what he felt were two enemies, and even more dependent upon Koerner's protection to dampen interference on his projects. Ironically, Mademoiselle Fifi contains a harsher critique about war-time society than anything within Youth Runs Wild, as it depicts wartime France as comfortably collaborating with its Prussian enemy (portrayed in nearly stereotypical nazi fashion, despite the uniform difference), with just a lone laundry-woman (played by Simone Simon) having any sense of resistance or personal integrity.
Official RKO Studio Portrait of Lewton
(Above) The Arnold Boecklin painting "Isle of the Dead."
This painting appeared in I Walked With A Zombie,
and was the thematic beginning for the film Isle of the Dead.
Just as Lewton was finishing with Mademoiselle Fifi, Boris Karloff was signing with RKO. He had put in two critically and commercially successful years on Broadway in Arsenic and Old Lace. Returning to Hollywood with the hope of making something other than horror films, he signed a thirteen week contract with Universal, only to discover that Universal was only interested in exploiting the Karloff name in more monster films. After making The Climax and House of Frankenstein, Karloff signed with RKO, where Jack Gross, the man who had worked on so many of the old Universal horrors, was urging Lewton to make more sensationalistic monster movies.
Lewton, for his part, was depressed and angry to be forced to take the Karloff contract. After being told the news, Lewton had furiously vented his frustration by telling an RKO exhibitor who had warned Lewton to not make anymore "message" pictures (like Fifi or Youth Goes Wild), that, "I'm sorry but we do have a message... our message is that death is good."
Promised that he could graduate to better budgets and more varied film subjects after one more horror film, Lewton was left to his own devices in making a movie to carry the Karloff name. Lewton began with the Arnold Boecklin painting Isle of the Dead, an artwork he had known since childhood. He set the tale during the Balken War in Greece of 1812, using Francesco Goya's etchings from the Disasters of War as source material for the visuals. The role tailored for Karloff was that of a General battling plague among his men who exiles himself to a small island with a international group of travelers when it is revealed one or more of them has become infected. Openly scoffing at the superstitions of the local people, he begins to succumb to their beliefs as the scientific explanations for what is happening to them begins to crumble. The script was written by Ardel Wray, and the final draft by Lewton.
When Boris Karloff and Val Lewton finally met, it was a surprise for each. Whatever Lewton's expectations were, he and Karloff got along well, and found they had mutual sympathies for literature and for making films with a better element than just the usual shock exploitation for which they had both been identified with. In an interview in a 1946 magazine article titled Farewell To Monsters, Karloff speaks of having a great love and respect for Lewton, that Lewton had "rescued him from the dead, had restored his soul."
But Isle of the Dead has a tortured production history. Karloff had a back ailment which made it difficult for him to work, and then impossible when the pain became excruciating, shutting the production down. The script was also troubled, such that the central character, Cathy, doesn't even appear in the finished film. During Karloff's disabling back problems, Lewton moved ahead on the next scheduled film, The Body Snatcher. Isle of the Dead would not be completed until after Body had been completed, and even then Lewton failed to get Isle's story to work the way he wanted, finally declaring it "a mess." RKO had also broken its promise on "one last horror film."
When Karloff had recovered enough to work again, they began shooting The Body Snatcher, an adaptation of the Robert Lewis Stevenson story about medical research leading to grave robbing. RKO horror and Universal horror meet in Body Snatcher, with Bela Lugosi starring with Karloff, and Universal veteran executive producer Jack Gross on hand. Showing that though the ingredients can be the same between Universal and RKO, yet yield different results, Lewton employed his usual methods, writing and rewriting the script, bringing out elements not highlighted in the original Stevenson story, and adding his own ideas, Lewton and Robert Wise devised a tale of psychological weakness and blind brutality. The resulting release was a critical and commercial success, and RKO boosted the budget on what became, unintentionally, Lewton's final film at RKO, Bedlam, another Karloff vehicle. in between, the Lewton unit finished up the remaining work needed to complete Isle of the Dead.
RKO gave Lewton $350,000 for Bedlam (compare to Cat People's $134,000, or the average $150,000 on the other RKO films) and perhaps as importantly, they allowed eight months of preparation for the project. Using Hogarth's images of 1700s British asylums as a starting point, the Lewton unit fashioned its most expansive set pieces for the tale of how Master Sims, the asylum director, uses bribery and corruption to control and abuse the inmates while trying to better his social position among aristocrats. The finished film did well and seemed to be a fitting "graduation" project from the horror-genre into mainstream pictures. But then Charles Koerner died.
The man who had sometimes given Lewton the sympathetic support he needed at crucial moments of production when RKO executives were interfering in his films was also the man that held RKO together. Thrown into disorder, executives shuffled to and from department positions and ownership changed hands. The scheduling on films that were under Koerner's control were put on hold, including several Lewton projects being prepped as Bedlam was working its way through production and theaters. These were to be the A-budget pictures Lewton had been asking for at RKO for years. A new project, Woman on the Beach, with Jean Renoir directing, got started and initial work was done, but then Lewton suffered a heart attack.
PARAMOUNT, MGM and UNIVERSAL
When he recovered his health enough to be back at RKO, Lewton found the studio in as much chaos as before. Financially, RKO was in panic, and Lewton was frustrated at being given the go ahead on a project, then having it suspended, then canceled. Paramount Pictures offered him a seven-year contract (with shorter-term options), and he took it.
Buddy DeSylva was the head executive at Paramount, and Lewton started right off on a promising project he was personally interested in, an adaptation of the Dicken's novel The Cricket on the Hearth. But DeSylva was replaced, and the Dicken's adaptation was scrapped. With six months into a canceled project, Lewton had to get another going immediately to justify his employment. He got the Yolanda Forbes novel, Make You A Fine Wife, which molted into the film titled My Own True Love, over which Lewton had little control, as the decisions on the project were divided up between the star (Phyllis Calvert) and Paramount executives. The film did have Lewton's personal friend Alan Napier in the cast, an actor who had been with Lewton since Cat People six years earlier. But when released, My Own True Love failed at the box-office.
Ardel Wray, who had scripted early Lewton RKO films like I Walked with A Zombie, was working on a biographical screenplay about Lucrezia Borgia for Paramount called A Mask for Lucrezia. When the production was canceled, Lewton asked to rework it. Given permission, he rewrote the tale so that it included the pivotal technological advance of cannonade, as a parallel to the 20th-century advance in atomic weapons. The popular actress Paulette Goddard saw the script and insisted upon doing it, but Paramount refused Lewton in the producer role. A deal was struck that guaranteed Lewton's employment until July 1948, and the script slipped out of his hands, becoming Bride of Vengeance, rewritten by Michael Hogan and released in 1949.
Lewton and a group of film veteran friends began putting together a plan for an independent film company. Meanwhile, Lewton was hired at M-G-M, where he spent much of his time without a project, waiting to see what M-G-M even wanted him to do. Eventually he worked on the script and production of Please Believe Me, a 1949 comedy with Deborah Kerr (a decade later Kerr would marry Lewton's old RKO assistant Peter Viertel). The resulting film comedy, released in 1950, was not particularly successful, but Lewton's hope for an independent company had gelled with Mark Robson and Robert Wise, both of whom had good success after working for Lewton at RKO. They titled their company Aspen Productions, and for their first project began modeling a civil rights story that Lewton felt, after much rewriting, was not good enough to commit to, and that the infant company should start fresh on something new. Wise and Robson felt the whole independent venture was jeopardized by not having something to show potential investors, and using an attorney, informed Lewton they were kicking him out of the company. The betrayal was the culminating disappointment to the series of disasters that had punctuated all of his efforts since leaving RKO, and in Lewton biographies is usually considered a major factor in speeding his decline in health.
His time at M-G-M ended after Please Believe Me, and unemployed, he worked at home on an American Revolution period story called Ticonderoga, which resulted in an offer from Universal-International. The studio hired him for the producing post on the Western-genre Stand at Spanish Boot, the Ticonderoga script pushed aside. Finally morphing into War Dance, then Apache Drums (1951), the Universal western was about the defense of a town against Apache raiders. Scripting the tale with writer David Chandler, Lewton was back into his RKO methods, since the budget, though a Technicolor film, was so small ($390,000) a number of the plot elements could only be suggested, not shown, particularly the wholesale burning of the town. Universal was pleased with the resulting film and began offering Lewton other projects.
At this same time, Stanley Kramer, who had made Champion (1949), tendered an offer for Lewton to come work for him at Columbia Studios. Kramer had a six-picture deal to deliver on in one year, and hoped that Lewton would take over three of the pictures, leaving Kramer with only executive producer responsibilities. Based upon this, Lewton resigned at Universal, only to discover in the meantime that the Kramer/Columbia offer had reduced to two pictures with only assistant-production roles. All the same, Lewton began preparing to do My Six Convicts, the tale of a prison psychologist, when after a series of gallstone problems, he suffered another heart attack. He refused to be hospitalized, and after several days returned to his new office at Columbia. Shortly thereafter he suffered another heart attack at home.
He was treated for a week at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital before dying, age forty-six, on March 14, 1951.
Though not specifically interested in making horror films, Lewton tried to use the genre to its best advantage. He imbued the films he made at RKO with as much psychological conflict as could be mustered from the scripts he commissioned (he typically rewrote these provided screenplays so heavily that the legend - - backed up by interviews with his family published in Lewton literature - - was that he wanted insufficient writing as an open door to then remake the script "his own.")
But while Lewton was concerned with reaching artistically defined high standards that reflected his years of training at the Selznick film company, the RKO management wanted cheap, quick and easy moneymakers. Seeing the eleven pictures Lewton produced during his tenure at RKO, on display is the systematic merging of the private demands of Lewton for artistic credibility while also meeting the legitimate needs of his employers. In the end it is clear that Lewton was both the artist with a sensitive nature seeking to express real human concerns and conflicts, and a showman who wanted to spook and thrill his audience and guarantee the longevity of the cycle of genre films he was hired to make.
I am and have always been a writer-producer. That does not always mean more money. The reason I do not ordinarily take credit for my considerable work on my own scripts is that I have a theory that if I take credit, whenever I rewrite another writer's work, I can properly be suspected of rewriting merely to get such credit.
From a letter to his mother and sister, as quoted in Joel Siegel's Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, The Cinema One Series, The Viking Press, 1973.
Lewton's judgments on his own books and films could be merciless, his aesthetic sense continually at odds with the showman role he found himself in as a producer. When asked about his films in the various magazine and newspaper interviews during the forties, Lewton consistently boiled them down into simplistic show business formulas. But this former novelist, who chided himself in his journals when he wasn't producing material, was proud of his movies. When trying to explain ideas for future projects, he would often use his movies as both resume and explanation for what he wanted to do.
Unusual in the factory-like setting of low-budget movie production, Lewton evaded the simple expectations heaped upon him at RKO and gave them back something more. He championed, via his personal aesthetic sense, the idea that a film can be more than a preconceived entertainment tied to formula.