Summer Reading Challenge: The Mark Hellinger Story: A Biography of Broadway and Hollywood – Jim Bishop

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The Mark Hellinger Story: A Biography of Broadway and Hollywood – Jim Bishop
Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1952
Hardcover, 368 pages (no index)

Besides hardcore film noir fans, most people have probably never heard of Mark Hellinger, yet in the 1930s and 40s, Hellinger’s name was known by millions from coast to coast as the writer of a famous newspaper column covering all the news of Broadway. After reaching the top of his game in the newspaper business, Hellinger made the audacious move to Hollywood where he hoped to become not a writer, but a movie producer.

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Hellinger from the trailer of High Sierra (1941)

Like many good noir stories, Hellinger’s biography begins at the end with his death at the young age of 44. Told in flashback, we learn very early on that Hellinger was a man constantly driven, always searching for success and approval. Whether he was trying to earn the admiration and respect of his strict conservative father or simply attempting to conquer new challenges, Hellinger drove himself to obsessive lengths.

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From left, Charles McGraw, The Killers (1946) director Robert Siodmak, Hellinger, William Conrad

Yet with each hard-won victory came boredom and apathy. When Hellinger set his sights on Hollywood, it seemed almost impossible for him to succeed: he didn’t have a movie background, he was an East Coast guy who didn’t understand Hollywood culture, and he just didn’t fit in. Hellinger had to learn that despite the need for good scripts, movies are a visual medium.

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Discussing Brute Force (1947): Hellinger, Ann Blyth, Burt Lancaster

He also had to learn that few industry higher-ups were going to give him the approval he enjoyed with his newspaper fanbase. But Hellinger was determined, sometimes with recklessness (How many people could get away with telling Jack Warner what he was and wasn’t going to do?), sometimes with foolhardiness (butting heads with Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis), and sometimes both.

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Hellinger and Ernest Hemingway

Hellinger eventually learned the ropes, often the hard way, producing several good films, some great ones, and some absolute classics including They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and more. Hellinger gained respect and clout with a network so vast that at one time he had acquired the rights to all of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and had signed Humphrey Bogart to two pictures a year. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see most of those projects through, dying in 1947 of coronary thrombosis at the age of 44. But he did so much in that short amount of time. Read the book; I think you’ll be amazed.

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This review is part of my participation in the Summer Reading Challenge at Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog.

Photos: Wikipedia, The Red List, Streamline: The Official Filmstruck Blog (NOTE: Although the book contains several similar photos, none of the ones above appear there.)

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