Biography of Val Lewton, Man in the Shadows
This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen, aka Classic Movie Man & Kristina of the Speakeasy blog – see more posts at either Classic Movie Man’s Lewton page or the Speakeasy Lewton page.
When Kristina invited to me to participate in this blogathon honoring movie producer Val Lewton, my first instinct was to turn down the offer. The horror genre had never been a particular favorite of mine, and not only had I never seen a Val Lewton film, I had never even heard of him. But being someone who is always trying to expand my knowledge of film history, I decided to learn more about him and his movies before I made a decision.
The simple way I use to describe the type of movies I most like to watch would be those “about real people doing real things in normal settings,” and with names like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man, the movies produced by Val Lewton didn’t exactly sound like they’d fit that bill and sounded like they’d be too strange for my tastes.
But when I watched clips of a few of his movies, I realized that they were more like the type of movies I usually like than I ever would have guessed based on their titles alone. In fact, the one Val Lewton movie that I have watched so far, The Seventh Victim (1943), had “normal” looking scenes set in restaurants, hotels, apartments, and even a school where the main character, played by actress Kim Hunter, worked as a kindergarten teacher. Had I not known better, I never would have guessed it was considered horror at all.
When I read that the great director Martin Scorsese described his movies as “wonderfully inventive, beautifully poetic and deeply unsettling . . . some of the greatest treasures we have,” I took it as a sign that I should find out more about those movies and the people who made them, which is why I decided to do this biography of Val Lewton.
Val Lewton was an author, producer, and screenwriter who is probably best known for the nine low-budget horror movies he produced while working for RKO Pictures in the 1940’s, although as I’m sure his many fans would agree, he should be known for much more than that.
Val Lewton’s Early Years
Val Lewton was born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in 1904 in Yalta, Russia to his father Max Hofschneider and his mother, Nina Leventon, who went on to become one of the first female story editors in America and would later play a role in the development of his career.
When his parents separated two years later he moved with his mother and sister, first to Berlin and then three years later to the United States where his name was changed to Val Lewton. They settled in New York and lived with Nina’s sister Alla Nazimova, an actress and socialite known for her success on Broadway who also has an interesting story of her own.
In 1922, he began studying journalism at Columbia University and over the course of the next several years wrote various works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. In 1928, he married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Knapp, and they had two children.
From 1928 to 1932, he worked as a writer for the MGM publicity office in New York City where he turned popular movies into stories that could be used in books and magazines. In 1932, he wrote the best-selling novel No Bed of Her Own, which was later used as the basis for the film No Man of Her Own (1932), starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
Through a fortunate turn of events involving his mother, Val Lewton embarked on a new career in California in 1934. When his mother Nina, who got a job working in the story department of Metro through her sister, was asked by David O. Selznick to find a scriptwriter to work on a treatment of the Russian novel Taras Bulba, she knew just the person for the job, her son Val. Selznick approved of her suggestion and hired Lewton. Though the film was never made, Lewton continued working for Selznick as a publicist and story editor.
His first screen credit for MGM was “revolutionary sequences arranged by” in the 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities. Liking what he saw in Lewton’s work, Selznick assigned him to several big MGM projects including the movies Rebecca, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Gone with the Wind. Perhaps the best known scene that he wrote was the one in Gone With the Wind where the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers at the Atlanta depot.
In 1942 after working for Selznick for eight years, he was hired by studio head Charles Koerner to work at RKO Pictures, which had recently been left nearly bankrupt by the financial failures of two Orson Welles’ movies, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Hired in part to make movies that could compete with Universal’s monster movies such as “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and “The Wolfman,” Val Lewton had to first meet certain conditions. Lewton was promised artistic freedom as long as he agreed to produce “horror” movies with a budget of only $150,000 using pre-assigned titles for a salary of only $250 a week, all of which he accepted.
After being given a movie title, Lewton would bring together the script, the director, and the actors to produce a movie that would satisfy the studio’s demands. He also oversaw other aspects of the films such as set design, costumes, and publicity. As the one who always edited and rewrote the final draft of the script, he was often called both a producer and an auteur, which is defined as “a film director whose films are so distinctive that he or she is perceived as a film’s creator.” In other words as I heard someone describe it, all of his movies carried the “Lewtonesque stamp.”
The thing that made Val Lewton movies different from and ultimately more successful than many of the other horror movies of that time is that they never used monsters or masks, but instead left things up to the viewer’s imagination by using creative lighting, haunting music, and great character actors to set the mood and evoke terror.
As Lewton himself described it, “We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning. No grisly stuff for us. No masklike faces, hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end. No creaking physical manifestations. No horror piled upon horror.”
He believed that a movie should tell a good story even if you took all the horror out of it, and also that there should be no more than four or five well planned horror scenes in a movie. Instead of showing things directly on the screen, he used things like sudden sound, wild animals, darkness, and death because he knew those were the things that really scared people. I think these are all reasons why his movies appeal to me more than I thought they would.
Val Lewton Films at RKO Pictures
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the movies Val Lewton made while at RKO because I know you’ll be able to get some really great in-depth analysis of each movie by reading the reviews written for this blogathon. But I’ll just touch on some of the more notable details about a few of the horror movies that he made while at RKO.
Cat People (1942)
- Lewton’s first production with RKO, the film was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also directed I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man for Lewton.
- The movie was made for $134,000 and went on to earn somewhere between $2-4 million depending on the source. It was the top moneymaker for RKO in 1942 and almost single handedly saved the studio from going under.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
- Lewton initially disliked the title but learned to work with it by adapting the novel Jane Eyre to a modern setting in Haiti.
- Lewton, who was an avid researcher, read every book he could find on the subject of voodoo in order to create the overall mood and feel that he wanted for this movie.
The Seventh Victim (1943)
- Although Lewton was offered the opportunity to do A pictures, he turned it down when he was told he could not hire the director he really wanted to use for this movie, Mark Robson.
The Ghost Ship (1943)
- The movie was doing well when it was pulled from circulation after it was claimed that Lewton had plagiarized the story from an unsolicited manuscript.
- Lewton lost the suit that was brought against him, and this movie was not seen for several decades until it was released into the public domain in the 1990’s.
The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946)
- All three of these movies starred former Universal horror star Boris Karloff. When Lewton was told that he would have to work with Karloff, he was not happy about working with an actor he considered a “hammy bogeyman.”
- Lewton’s feelings changed when he realized that Boris Karloff had signed with RKO because he was fed up with the movies he was making at Universal. When the two met, they were surprised to find out that they got along well and had similar desires in terms of the kind of movies they wanted to make.
- In an interview in a 1946 magazine article titled “Farewell to Monsters,” Karloff spoke of having a great love and respect for Lewton, saying that Lewton had “rescued him from the dead, had restored his soul.”
- Lewton was given more time and a bigger budget for Bedlam, which used standing sets from The Bells of St. Mary’s. It was to be his last successful hit at RKO.
Val Lewton’s Career After RKO
When RKO head and Lewton supporter Charles Koerner died of leukemia in 1946, Lewton was left without an advocate at the studio and for the first time had to have his scripts approved. Already in ill health after suffering a heart attack, Lewton left RKO and over the next few years worked for Paramount, Metro, and Universal. He once again was asked to work with small budgets and often had to fight for what he wanted. Described as a publicly modest but privately ambitious man who was always at war with his bosses and never satisfied with his achievements, it’s easy to understand how this would take a further toll on his health.
DeWitt Bodeen, a screenwriter who worked on a few of Lewton’s movies including Cat People said, “I never knew anybody who was so desperately unhappy, who lost all faith in himself. If he had been able to hold out a bit longer, he might have benefited from the cataclysmic changes that were roiling the motion-picture industry, but he could not.”
One project that could have brought him out of this unhappy state was a proposed reunion with directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson who invited him to join their new independent production company. He finally had a source of optimism and considered the opportunity to be a potential bright spot in his career, but when a dispute arose over which project to produce first, Wise and Robson kicked him out of the group. The rejection hit him extremely hard and is considered by some to be a major factor in the rapid decline in his health.
After producer Stanley Kramer invited him to work as an assistant producing a series of films at Columbia Studios, he started work on the film My Six Convicts. But after suffering more health problems, he had two heart attacks which ultimately led to his death in 1951 at the age of forty-six.
Documentaries About Val Lewton
Because I am just in the beginning stages of learning more about Val Lewton and his movies, I know I wasn’t able to totally do him justice in this one post. There is so much more to him and his movies than what I was able to cover.
To learn more about him and hear from several others who know and love his work including his son, Val E. Lewton, I would highly encourage you to watch the two documentaries that have been made about him, Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy (2005) and Martin Scorsese Presents Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows, or any of his movies which can be purchased on DVD as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection. Of course I also recommend that you read the reviews written by the other blogathon participants.
I’d like to end this post with a reflection made by the author of the blog The Shelf, which I think perfectly sums up why Val Lewton’s work should be appreciated and considered an important part of film history, “Why is Lewton important? Beyond the immediate enjoyment of his films, Lewton’s work serves as evidence that storytelling and characters matter more than budget and even better, that creative technique in film goes a long, long way.”
I’d like to thank Kristina and Stephen for inviting me to participate in this blogathon and for introducing me to Val Lewton. I am really looking forward to watching more of his movies, especially Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, and the three movies he made with Boris Karloff.
What is your favorite Val Lewton movie?