The Family Ties of Producer Jack Cummings
Jack Cummings, who died a few days ago at the age of 84 and whose services were Monday, spent his professional career as a producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The titles of the films he produced ring bells in any filmgoer’s or television-watcher’s memory. They run backward in time from the Elvis Presley film “Viva Las Vegas” to “Born to Dance.”
Musicals were his strong suit, as they were MGM’s, and Cummings produced, among others: “Bathing Beauty,” “Three Little Words,” “Lovely to Look At,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Can Can,” and the one he was always proudest of, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
But that was what might be called the front story. The back story was that Cummings was Louis B. Mayer’s nephew, the son of Mayer’s sister, and he was both rewarded by and rather cruelly punished by the relationship.
Many of the sardonic jokes out of early Hollywood had to do with nepotism, the hiring of innumerable and presumably incompetent relatives. Universal’s “Uncle” Carl Laemmle did more than anyone to establish the tradition, with the host of nephews and cousins he imported from Europe in the founding days of the industry.
Not all the relatives were incompetent, of course, and some were greatly creative. Among Laemmle’s imports were the fine director-to-be William Wyler, a very distant cousin on his mother’s side, and the powerful agent-to-be Paul Kohner, who was not a relative at all. Wyler was 20, Kohner 18 when Laemmle paid their passage to America.
But in the industry at large the fact of kinship and nepotism could be like a bar sinister on the escutcheon, no matter how impressive the achievements came to be.
Long into his retirement, Jack Cummings invited me to lunch one day at Hillcrest Country Club to talk about a career which, it was clear, he felt had been largely and unjustly invisible.
His films, he said with a mixture of pride and bitterness, had grossed more for the studio than those of any other producer. But who knew, outside the walls of the studio itself? It was not that he was “Jack Cummings, Producer,” it was that he was “Jack Cummings, L.B.'s Nephew, Who Produces.”
Yet, setting aside the bitterness, he knew he had been a damned good and creative producer, he said, with particular pride in all the innovations he had endorsed and encouraged in Stanley Donen’s direction of “Seven Brides.” He had also, Cummings said, encouraged the idea of Donen and Gene Kelly being co-directors on “Singin’ in the Rain,” which was a project of Arthur Freed, the best-known of MGM’s musical producers.
Cummings was well-rewarded, of course, but the coinage isn’t always quite enough. It’s been said of Hollywood that grossing well is the best revenge. Sometimes it’s the only revenge. As it was, the great studio and its collective days of glory had predeceased Cummings by a quarter of a century.
At our lunch, Cummings told me a story that has haunted me ever since, for what it says about the industry’s capricious and unexplainable ways and its capacity for unintended cruelties in those days of glory.
One day, Cummings said, before shooting was to start on another musical, he and the director and the star had driven up the coast for a long and rollicking lunch before the hard work began.
Driving back through Malibu in a convertible and singing in the sun, they realized they would be passing the home of another director, who had been imported from Europe at great cost to MGM but had received no assignments. He had married a beautiful woman and settled down to wait.
“Let’s drop in and say hello,” Cummings proposed, expansively. They did, and the director, hearing their boozy shouts, came outside. When he realized who his visitors were, the director yelled back to his wife in the house, with a catch in his voice: “I told you the studio hadn’t forgotten.”