Hucksters, The (1947): Deborah Kerr’s First American Film, Co-Starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner

Jack Conway’s screen version of Frederick Wakeman’s novel The Hucksters was MGM’s effort to make a timely film about the increasing importance of the advertising industry–Madison Avenue.

This was the penultimate film of Conway, an MGM veteran who had begun his career in the silent era. But the film is significant now for representing the much anticipated Hollywood debut of Deborah Kerr, who had established a name for herself in the U.K. during the War years in such high-profile films as Black Narcissus.

Producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. assembled an exceptional supporting cast, including veteran character actors Sidney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou, Edward Arnold, up-and-comer Keenan Wynn, and the up and coming star Ava Gardner.

Clark Gable plays Victor (Vic) Albee Norman, a radio advertising executive who had just returned from WWII.  His wartime experiences have made Vic both more critical and cynical of his profession, especially after he takes a job with the biggest agency in town, headed by Kimberly (Adolphe Menjou).

At Kimberly’s recommendation, Vic takes over the Beautee Soap account, which forces him to interact with the headman Evans (Sidney Greenstreet).  At their first meeting, Evans unexpectedly spits on his highly polished conference table. He then sums up his philosophy: “You have just seen me do a disgusting thing. But you will always remember it!”  Evans’ character is based on George Washington Hill, the crude president of the American Tobacco Company.

Vic’s first assignment is to gather high-society women for testimonials for Beautee Soap. The least cooperative of the group is a young and elegant widow, Mrs. Dorrance (Deborah Kerr). Attracted to Vic, Mrs. Dorrance signs the agreement, but breaks off her personal relationship with him, when he hits on her.

Evans insists that Vic sign up two-bit comedian Buddy Hare (Keenan Wynn) for a radio program. Getting more corrupt, Vic obtains Hare’s service at a low price by blackmailing the comedian’s agent (Edward Arnold), Vic’s onetime close friend. A record is made of Hare and of nightclub singer Jean Ogilvie (Ava Gardner), who is in love.

Returning to the Beautee Soap headquarters, Vic watches Evans smashes the demo record–then laughs uproariously, telling Vic that the contract is his, along with a $25,000 bonus.

Appalled by Evans’ tactics, Vic tells off the soap mogul, ending his tirade by dousing Evans with a pitcher of water.

Vic, having regained his moral and professional integrity, still loves Mrs. Dorrance, who forgives his misdeeds.

The movie gets preachy and moralistic, when at the end, Mrs. Dorrance encourages Vic to use his talents and skills for “something clean and honest.”

Screenwriter Davis toned down the satire and attack on advertisers to a single radio sponsor. Mrs. Dorrance’s status was changed from a married woman to a widow, while Vic is transformed from a “huckster” to an idealist.

MGM paid $200,000 for the motion rights even before the novel was even published. Wakeman’s 1946 novel The Hucksters was for 35 weeks on the bestseller list, a popular status aided by its raunchy tone and racy controversy. Life magazine called the book “last year’s best-selling travesty,” and even Gable considered it to be “filthy, and not much of entertainment.”

Screenwriter Luther Davis and the novel’s adapters Edward Choderov and George Wells did an extensive “laundering job” in order to satisfy studio head Mayer and the Hays Office.  They eliminated the graphic sexual scenes, and changed the book’s Mrs. Dorrance from a married woman into a war widow—so that she and Vic “could live happily ever after.”

More problematic, though, was the portrayal of talent agent David Lash, a character based on real-life agent Jules Stein, the founder of powerhouse talent agency MCA, and Lash’s Hucksters protégé Freddie Callahan, who bore physical resemblance to Lew Wasserman, Stein’s protégé who would become the powerful head of MCA. There were fears about reprisals from MCA over the portrayals of Stein and Wasserman.

Moreover, in the novel, Vic tells Lash that people will call his honesty into question because he is Jewish. Thus, Davis removed references to Lash’s ethnicity and made him a once troubled kid who had “gone straight.”

One of Gable’s most popular post-WWII films, The Hucksters grossed over $4 million at the box-office, ranking ninth in the year’s top-grosser.

Credits

Running Time: 115 Minutes.

Directed by Jack Conway

Released: July 18, 1947

Cast
Clark Gable as Victor Albee Norman
Deborah Kerr as Kay Dorrance
Sydney Greenstreet as Evan Llewellyn Evans
Adolphe Menjou as Mr. Kimberly
Ava Gardner as Jean Ogilvie
Keenan Wynn as Buddy Hare
Edward Arnold as David Lash
Aubrey Mather as Mr. Glass
Richard Gaines as Cooke
Frank Albertson as Max Herman
Douglas Fowley as Georgie Gaver
Clinton Sundberg as Michael Michaelson
Gloria Holden as Mrs. Kimberly
Connie Gilchrist as Betty
Kathryn Card as Regina Kennedy
Lillian Bronson as Miss Hammer

 

 

Production also was rushed by Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to release it quickly, in order to revive Gable’s reputation, after the flop of Adventure, his last film.