(Courtesy of Larry Imber)
|Nat Levine (left) and Larry Imber at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California.|
Larry Imber remembers Nat Levine
In the mid 1980s, I started visiting the Actor's Home in Woodland Hills, California. The Golden Boot dinner was an off shoot of the home. It recognized stars and the money helped the home. In 1935, Jean Hersholt developed the idea of a retirement home, hospital, and general service center for the aged and infirmed. It was, and still is, supported by payroll deductions, similar to an insurance and medical plan. Hersholt's motto was 'We take care of our own'.
I enjoyed visiting when in California, and getting the opportunity to talk to Regis Toomey, who was upset because there were no residuals before 1950, which were his productive years. Dick Alexander had suffered several strokes and could not talk. When he saw you with a camera, he took out a new hat and posed, and then gave you a box of pictures to look at showing his family. Norma Shearer was in a wheel chair, rather reclusive, and not friendly. Director Charles Lamont wore a beret like the old days and was a delight. At 91, Jimmy Aubrey was spry even with a walker. He had come to the U.S. with Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin, all traveling with the Karno circus. Admitting that he never made it as big as they did, he could boast that he was still alive. He started in westerns accidentally in 1928, never been on a horse, but continued for many years as a 'cowboy'. With his cockney accent, he wasn't very good as a sidekick as can be seen in the 'classic' Ted Wells film PHANTOM COWBOY. (By classic, I mean bad!) Mae Clarke was a friend of Nat's, a sweet lady 'til she used influence to get one of the new bungalows. Nat felt that was in bad taste.
I began a close relationship with Nat Levine around 1981. We enjoyed talking about Las Vegas, Wall Street, and sports. He preferred not to bring up the old days. He had been an accountant with MGM in New York City, and decided to go out to California in the 1920s. With know how and some friends, he decided to produce serials. States rights distributors he knew, guaranteed to distribute anything he did. He sought out technicians and actors, had a few stories in mind, and went into production. Oliver Drake, another close friend, told me he worked seven days a week writing scripts. Nat was a tough taskmaster. He worked long hours, mostly getting distribution commitments and expected everyone else to do the same. Years later, when I took Oliver to visit Nat, he greeted him with 'Sorry, it's not ready yet'. Nat laughed out loud and the two old friends embraced. It was a touching scene. Through Nat, Oliver worked at Republic and had a long career freelancing, writing and directing.
Nat's first sound film was KING OF THE KONGO (Mascot, 1929), a part talkie. He vividly remembers flying to New York, holding the 16 inch sound discs on his lap, so they would not break. He had many good years, using Harry Carey, George Brent, Rin Tin Tin Jr., and other silent has beens. His ultimate achievement was getting Tom Mix to star in THE MIRACLE RIDER (Mascot, 1935). This was Nat's first and only serial that ran 15 episodes and was done to cover his costs and make a bit more profit from the rentals. Mix received $40,000 ($10,000 a week for four weeks work), and Cliff Lyons, a silent heavy, doubled Mix. The resemblance was barely noticeable, but Cliff did all the riding and fighting while Tom did the close ups. With two separate crews shooting, it was completed in four weeks. Nat said he made a million dollars from it, and it was his biggest success.
Tom went back to the circus route and never did another film. At 55, he was tired and had enough of films. Nat said he was a real showman, and had a lot of respect for him. He met Gene Autry in Chicago, where he was singing. Brought him out to Hollywood, had Yakima Canutt teach him to ride and walk like a cowboy, and the rest is history. Nat had vision and was not afraid to take a chance. He bought the Mack Sennett studio, which he had been renting, so he could expand, and met Herbert Yates who did his lab work with the films. Yates had money and Nat wanted to expand. So they formed Republic Pictures in 1935, added Monogram and started to develop into a major contributor in the action market. W. Ray Johnston and Trem Carr did not like working with Yates, feeling they would be squeezed out, and so they voluntarily made a break. Nat was treated better, as he supplied the studio, stars, technicians. But before long, Yates bought him out for a million dollars.
They were both very domineering men, so I doubt that they would have stayed together long. Once Yates learned what he needed in the film business he bought Levine out, and rather cheap, considering how well he did with Nat's original setup.
This was the beginning of the end for Nat. Flushed with money, and with no studio responsibilities, he turned to his first love, betting on the horses. In six weeks, he lost it all. As he said, the horses were smarter than he. Nat had met Louis B. Mayer at the track and sat in his box. Mayer found a place for him at MGM as an associate producer, and he was assigned to lesser films. But Nat could not adjust to being an employee instead of an employer. Quietly he was let out. His wife left him, and he had no work ... a far cry from a studio head, now an unemployed nobody. He never really recovered from this. He was always embarrased by his actions, and never would talk about it. Most of my info came from other sources.
Eventually, he landed a job managing a movie theatre In Redondo Beach. He had a room and an office, and spent over twenty years in relative obscurity there. He enjoyed running the theatre, and the years went by with few problems. Obviously he gave up the horses, had no real responsibilities, and kept busy ... a far cry from his executive days, but felt he was lucky to have anything. In the late 1960s, he started having kidney problems, and eventually was admitted to the Actor's Home.
He had his own unit, with a desk and file cabinet, made friends with other veterans of the film business, and stayed there till he passed away in 1989. He had strict rules if you came to visit: call first for an appointment and do not socialize with other residents (if you did, he felt you were using him to meet them). He always invited you to lunch, and was a charming host. We talked about some of the actors he knew, about short trips he made from the home, but he would never go to Las Vegas, as the gambling bug never left him.
An unusual man, but deep down very warm. He used to ask for advice on everything from what to eat and where to go. He loved cigars and chocolate. The doctors told him to stop. At his age, he had little other joys. I told him to ignore them. He said he had planned to, but wanted my confirmation. I had gotten quite fond of this man, and when he had a prostate operation and suddenly went downhill, I couldn't bare to see him lying there slowly fading away. I can remember when he could outwalk me around the place ... such tireless energy ... such a sweet man.
He used to make bets on the stock market, mind bets only. Who knows how far he would have gone if he stayed with Yates and Republic.