By now Loretta was filming another good script, Rachel and the Stranger, on location in Oregon. Pals Robert Mitchum and William Holden co-starred.
During the filming she rented a small house in a middle class neighborhood for her quarters, and each Saturday night invited the cast over for dinner. She'd notice that on each visit Bob and Bill drank a bottle-and-a-half of whiskey between them - and would end up "roaring drunk", as she put it.
"Do you two know that you're going to rot your stomachs and die?" she asked. "And what will happen to your wonderful talents then?"
Holden was very gracious and agreed that Loretta was right, and thanked her for her concern. Mitchum had a different response. "Thin," he said, calling her by the nickname he always used, "you worry too much. I've been on my own for most of my life, and I can take care of myself." It must have been true, Loretta later surmised, because both men ended up with notorious drinking problems.
In 1949, Daryll Zanuck at 20th Century Fox offered Loretta another movie; Mother Was a Freshman. Loretta didn't have the same trepidation about working with him now — since she was freelancing. But, once she read his script she refused, saying; "It's a nothing picture." Then she told her agent, "But, Daryll has a script I would love to do."
It had been years since Loretta had read Clare Booth Luce's Come to the Stable, but she had never forgotten it.
While in New York before the war, Loretta had met Clare Luce, the wife of Henry Luce, publisher of Time Magazin. In addition to being a congresswoman and future ambassador to Italy, Clare had also written several successful Broadway plays.
Clare had once made Zanuck an offer; if his studio gave a $25,000 donation to a Catholic convent in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, she'd write a screenplay for him for free. Zanuck readily agreed.
It took her only two weeks to pen Come to the Stable, a story of two nuns from the convent who schemed to build a hospital in thanksgiving to God. When Zanuck read it, he felt the script was 'too religious' and it was shelved.
So, his first reaction to hearing Loretta's suggestion to revive Clare's script was; "Tell Loretta to stop trying to run my studio!" But then he reconsidered, offering Loretta this deal; "If you'll do Mother Was a Freshman first — and we'll do it in color — then I'll let you do Come to the Stable."
Loretta realized he was offering her two pictures instead of just one, so she signed.
Once Mother Was A Freshman, co-starring Van Johnson, was finished Loretta started work on Clare Luce's project. Loretta would portray Sister Margaret, the convent's Mother Superior, and Celeste Holm was cast as her companion.
"While preparing, I realized that I would be the only Catholic on the set, the only person who knew anything about nuns," Loretta recalled. "Celeste, I think, was a Lutheran, the directors were Jewish and our leading man was an avowed atheist. It was going to be interesting."
The first skirmish came when Loretta learned that producer Sam Engel, a good friend of hers, had hired humorist Dorothy Parker to rewrite Clare's script. "Sam, I love Dorothy Parker's work — but I don't think she knows much about nuns."
By the time filming began the studio had gone through two writers, and then returned to Clare Luce's original script - but there were more skirmishes ahead.
"In one scene, the two nuns go to the top of a hill, kneel and plant a little medal," Loretta remembered. During their first take, Loretta realized that Celeste, behind her, had been sitting back on her heels instead of kneeling upright.
"That's a beautiful composition," Director Henry Kosta boasted. "It's a perfect take."
"But, no nun in her right mind would kneel that way," Loretta pointed out. "We'll have to do it over." Kosta rolled his eyes, and called for Take Two.
At another point, Celeste was supposed to give each of the gangsters in the film a Catholic medal. The scene itself was amusing, but Celeste decided to add some extra flair by handing out each medal with a bounce and wink. After the second take, Loretta stopped the filming.
"Loretta, what now?" the long-suffering director barked. Loretta explained that a real nun would not be flirting with the gangsters.
Celeste, who was playing a French nun, was surprised. "I thought it gave Sister a little bit of 'frenchiness'." "It did," Loretta assured her. "The wrong kind!"
Loretta's famous "swear box" was invented on the set of Come to the Stable. Anyone who has ever worked in the movie industry knows that profanity on the set, especially words that blasphemed God, are part of the experience. As a novice, Loretta had had no choice but to ignore the language. As a star, she could do something about it!
The atmosphere on this set, for some reason, seemed especially offensive to Loretta. "Here we were, presenting a spiritual story, some of us playing priests or nuns, and in between rehearsals or takes, all this swearing floating around. It got so distracting that it started to show in my face and manner."
"What if I started charging a fine for each bad word?" Loretta asked her former dialog coach one day.
"I can't imagine anyone being pleased about that," Ruth Roberts mused. "But maybe if the money went to a worthy charity . . ."
The fifty or sixty crew members and actors were less than enchanted when a cardboard "swear box" was placed on the sound stage and offenders were asked to contribute a quarter for each "blasphemous" word they used.
The fines totaled hundreds of dollars. But eventually, the atmosphere on the set calmed and by the time filming ended only one man, a burly electrician, was still objecting strenuously.
The swear box was a fixture of every set Loretta would work on for the next twenty years.
Many years later, Jerry Lewis had heard about Loretta's Swear Box. Hoping to tease her, he stopped by her set one day, waving a twenty-dollar bill. He stuffed it in the box, and then sent forth with a stream of obscenities.
"Jerry, you just lost twenty dollars," Loretta smiled. "Four letter words are free, it's the blasphemous words you have to pay for!"
Mother Was a Freshman, the first movie Daryll Zanuck had wanted Loretta to do, turned out to be "a nice little picture that no one remembers." Come to the Stable, however, was a huge hit and the role of Sister Margaret brought Loretta a second Academy Award nomination, although she did not win.
"Things aren't easy when you're fighting for what you think is right," Loretta once pointed out. "You've got to persevere. This movie took six years to work out, but to me, it was well worth it."
Next: Key to the City
Excerpts © copyright 2000 Joan Wester Anderson. All rights reserved.