Paul Gregory's life could have made a wonderful Frank Capra movie. A poor boy from Iowa, he became a successful Broadway and Hollywood producer through hard work and a little old fashioned luck.   

     Born in 1920, he was the son of a part-Cherokee mother and a ne'er-do-well father. Gregory's father "disappeared after he had spent my mother's Indian money," Gregory recently recalled, and then "showed up along the Mississippi towns as a roving preacher" going from one small Lutheran colony to another. Years later, when Gregory was looking for his first film property, he read a book in galleys about an itinerant preacher who preyed on the innocent--and "it touched me." He immediately bought the rights to Davis Grubb's first novel, The Night of the Hunter.  

"It touched me"

     Iowa was a hard place during the Depression, and the family had five children, so Gregory's mother sent him to England to live with relatives. His uncle was a London solicitor, and the youth attended a school with embassy children. In true Hollywood fashion, Gregory underwent a sudden reversal of fortune. There were concerts, matinees, the ballet-- all the cultural riches London had to offer.

     Gregory returned home to finish high school.  He picked up a newspaper route, and came to the attention of the boss, Mike Cowles, who hired him to read the Sunday funnies on the family's radio station, impressed with the youngster's polished accent. After graduation, Gregory headed west to seek his fortune. 

     The future producer arrived in Los Angeles with fifteen dollars in his pocket and landed a job in a drugstore on Hollywood Boulevard working behind the soda fountain. His good looks soon drew the attention of  movie scouts who renamed him Paul Gregory--Lenhart had been his birth name--after actor Gregory Peck whom he resembled. 

     Gregory landed small parts in two movies but decided being an actor wasn't for him. He "couldn't stand being around them," Gregory states, and preferred working behind the soda fountain to waiting around the set for the cameras to roll.

     As a boy, Gregory's Cherokee aunt told him "always put away half of what you make," and back at the soda fountain, he took her advice. It was not long before the money proved handy. One day, a dancer, Ruth St. Denis, whom he had seen perform in London, wandered into the drugstore with her manager. Miss St. Denis  was one of the pioneers of modern dance but was then out of the limelight. One thing led to another and Gregory and the manager went halves renting a Wilshire theater to put on a local performance. The two day show sold out, and the young impresario had found his calling. 

"fun fun fun"

     Gregory stayed at the drugstore but kept his eyes open for another opportunity. A customer to whom he showed the Denis program turned out to be the Hollywood Choir's director, and Gregory was soon booking the group which featured MGM actor, Dennis Morgan. 

     Gregory's activities came to the attention of Lew Wasserman, the mighty head of MCA. "Who's this guy handling our clients?" the chairman asked a deputy. "Get a hold of him." The emissary located Gregory at the drugstore. Instead of taking legal action, the company hired Gregory and placed him in its New York office. 

      The young agent was put in charge of handling personal appearances for clients like bandleader, Horace Heidt and pianist Carmen Cavallaro. They  were then big names, but Gregory found the work unsatisfying. The bandleader who was unhappy at MCA, was "a pain in the ass," and the pianist, though affable, seemed a "frustrated Paderewski." There had to be something more than this, Gregory felt, and, as it turned out, there was.

     One snowy night, as Gregory was about to leave a Third Avenue restaurant, "a big fat man came on the Ed Sullivan Show" and began reading from the fiery Book of Daniel. It was Charles Laughton, the famous British born actor who had been in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mutiny on the Bounty.

     Gregory was mesmerized by the performance. "Oh, my God," he remembers thinking. "I can sell this all over the country." 

     The young agent "dashed over to the Mansfield Theater," and arrived as Laughton was leaving with a female companion.

      "I would like to speak to you," Gregory told the distinguished actor.

     "What about, old boy?" Laughton replied.

     "I would like to speak to you about booking you."
     "Speak to my agent," the actor responded, nodding to his companion.
     "I said I want to speak to you, sir," Gregory persisted.
     Laughton appeared uninterested, but the young agent was undeterred. "I knew this was my crown," Gregory notes, "and I was going to put stars in it."
     He told Laughton: "You are throwing away a million dollars."

The novice director

     Intrigued by the young man's boldness, the actor invited him to tag along to the Algonquin Hotel where he was staying.
     The three talked for hours and when Gregory left at 3:00 a.m., he had a contract with Laughton written on the hotel stationery.
     "It sounds brash," Gregory remembers today, "but that's how it happened." 

     MCA was then exclusively in music and passed on  handling Laughton. Gregory returned to Los Angeles and opened his own shop. It was 1950. Within a year, he and Laughton had almost $200,000 in bookings. 

     Gregory moved into television, the live dramas that were filling the airways; then it was New York again, this time Broadway. Eventually, Gregory produced seventeen Broadway shows, five of which Laughton directed. The latter included John Brown's Body with Tyrone Power and Judith Anderson and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial with Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan. 

     Gregory wanted to produce a film which Laughton would direct. The producer asked agent Harold Matson to keep an eye out for the right property--a Song of America, as Gregory put it. 

     When Matson sent him The Night of the Hunter galleys, Gregory found his project. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, the story is one of murder and betrayal, but also--of hope--and good versus evil. 

     In addition to Laughton, who died in 1962, Gregory chose Robert Mitchum to play the larcenous Preacher.  Shelley Winters was cast as the hapless wife, and Lillian Gish, the former silent screen actress, was the good-hearted spinster who faces down the Preacher.  Character actor James Gleason played Uncle Birdie, another of the Preacher's victims. 

     Robert Golden edited the film which was released in 1955. Stanley Cortez was cinematographer. 

     To write the script, Gregory picked James Agee (1909-1955), the former film critic for The Nation, whose knowledge of movies was matched only by his love of the medium.  Unfortunately, this bold gambit proved disappointing. Agee refused to show his manuscript to anyone until it was finished, then gave to Gregory a visual poem on the hardships of the Depression. The producer found the treatment unshootable. The versatile Mr. Laughton hastily  rewrote the script with the assistance of two brothers, Terry Sanders and Denis Sanders, who were recent graduates of UCLA. 

     Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends, conducted over the telephone from his home near Palm Springs, Paul Gregory, now 87, recalls the filming of The Night of the Hunter.

AL: The Night of the Hunter was financed by United Artists. How did that arrangement work out?


PG: Max Youngstein helped promote my deal with United Artists. He was a wonderful man. Through him I met the president of the company, Arthur Krim. They had me go to Chicago to talk to their money man. They were all so pleased when the film paid off for them. It never paid off for me. Charles Laughton and I never saw any of our profit. We didn't get anything, other than our initial little fee.



How did your profits disappear?



We kept losing points because I would not pressure Charles when he was going over schedule. He was very nervous shooting the picture since it was his first time directing. Ruby Rosenberg, the production manager, would come to me and say, "You know, you are six days behind." I would say, "Leave Charles alone, I'll take care of it." Charles and I would have our discussions. I knew exactly what he was trying to do. I was with him every single day of the shooting, though I purposely wasn't on the set because he would think I was watching, or he would take it as pressure. But I would be at his house in the evening or in the cutting room. I worked closely with Hilyard Brown, the art director, and Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer. I had my panic talks with Stanley cause he could nudge  Charles along faster by making him feel comfortable that Charles had gotten the shot he wanted. It was a matter of coddling, but it was worth it.


AL: Was Laughton economical as a director, or did he require a lot of retakes?

PG: Charles rehearsed until he thought the summation of a scene was there. Then he shot it. I saw the dailies every night, and it didn't seem to me that it was shot after shot. By the time we viewed the dailies, the editor Golden had put a lot of the film together. They say they have a lot of outtakes but that's because Charles kept the cameras going to get the expressions on the kids' faces that he wanted. [Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce played the Preacher's stepchildren.] In the outtakes, you can hear Charles talking to the kids in the background. His voice was edited out after he got the effect he wanted.



James Agee's film criticism had a gentleness and a kind of generosity of spirit. What was he like as a person?



He was very sweet, gentle, kind of like someone who was hiding. He had that quality about him. He was very nice to meet, the first time. When he came to Hollywood, he stayed at the Chateau Marmont. By then, he was drinking. One time I saw him, and, my God, he was high as a kite. He was rambling on and on. He was talking about Bette Davis and something to do with some poet. I thought to myself: I wonder if he even knows he's talking to me. I don't know what motivated Agee. He loved to write, but he reminded me of a musician, a beatnik kind of person.



In his book on filming The Night of the Hunter, Preston Neal Jones writes of the problems with Agee's script. (Heaven & Hell to Play With, New York, Limelight Editions, 2002)



Agee wouldn't show anyone the script till it was finished. One day this great big thing like the Los Angeles telephone book arrived in my office. I thought immediately, United Artists better not see this or they will cancel the deal. So I sent it up to Laughton. Agee and Charles had a couple of meetings. Laughton was not happy with the script. One time when Agee was drinking, he and Laughton had quite a session. In those days, a film cost two or three million to make. There was no way the script could possibly be made for that amount. There was genius in Agee's work and indeed there was scope. You felt that Agee had a grasp of the tapestry of the place, the time and the people. But he had enlarged it so that it became a major novel. It became a three part movie.


AL: Robert Mitchum was cast as Preacher Harry Powell--the itinerant minister who had "Love" tattooed on one hand and "Hate" on the other.


At one time, Laurence Olivier was mad for the part. I wanted him to do it. The whole performance would have taken on a different sound and form. I couldn't wait two years for Larry to complete other projects. We were paying interest on the bloody money. On one side of the business, it's an absolute hierarchy of bookkeeping, and on the other, it is a bunch of children playing around in the mud building mudcastles. It's ridiculous.


AL: Mitchum was one of the first Hollywood nonconformists, before Marlon Brando or James Dean. In the late 1940s Mitchum did two months in county jail for possession of marijuana.



You know, all these people today want to know Mitchum was a wonderful guy. Bob was awful. He'd be drunk. He'd urinate on the set. I had to hire a policeman to go by his house in the morning to make sure he was up and ready to go to work. I was from another mold. You pay people a lot of money and you have a right to get back what you paid them for. Mitchum didn't behave that way. It was all a lark all the fun fun. I don't know what Mitchum's range was as an actor. I consider him a lucky man. He played himself and was very effective in the part.



How did Mitchum interact with Charles Laughton?



Mitchum worried Charles to death. I think he tired Laughton who went into a long lapse after the film. He didn't even want to read a book. He started going to a doctor and got shots. It took a lot out of Charles. He used to say to me: "That goddamn Mitchum: he's got so much stuff." And: "That son of a bitch. Why is he the way he is?" Laughton had to pull to get out of Mitchum what he got out of him.


AL: James Gleason, a veteran character actor, played Uncle Birdie; the late Shelley Winters was the widow Harper. How did they fit in with the rest of the cast?



Mr. Gleason was an old pro. The difference between Gleason and Mitchum was night and day. Lillian Gish was wonderful. Shelley was filled with all that Strasberg baloney. I call it the armpit school of acting. Hilyard Brown said Shelley would hold up in the bathroom, preparing for her role. Charles would say, "Come on, Shelley. You're in the mood. Let's shoot it."


AL: The Night of the Hunter is still shown at film schools and universities. Why has the movie lasted?


PG: Its appeal is in its honesty, its truth. The film ensconced all of the natural fears we have as people. I don't like to use the word symphonic, but it all seemed harmonized. It had a flow of the innocence of the time--the barren innocence.


AL: After The Night of the Hunter, you produced only one other movie, The Naked and the Dead, based upon Norman Mailer's war novel. Why did you leave movie making?



 I didn't like movies. There's so much compromise. Today, people have gotten used to it which is why there are so many so-so movies. And I didn't like the cutthroat people who make the movies. I had a man who built a house out of the budget for The Night of the Hunter. In the theater, I dealt with more literate people, Mr. Lee Shubert. I had a wonderful group of backers. I was anxious to get out of movies and come back to my natural self. Let me say this: I went to Hollywood a gentleman and didn't want to wind up like the rest of them.



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