Best sellers intrigue many readers, but especially those who are going to recreate the characters on screen.
Monthly archives for March, 2016
Several years ago we wrote about character actor Jack Carson.
We asked: why isn’t he remembered more often as the superb talent that he was?
We have some theories.
– For one thing, he didn’t live long. His movie career began as an extra at RKO in 1937 when Carson was in his late Twenties. At the age of 52, some 120 mostly undistinguished movie and tv roles later, the once hard drinking, six-feet-two-inch actor died of stomach cancer.
– Carson did not present himself as strictly a dramatic actor. He was a proud song-and-dance man, who once toured the vaudeville circuit with his first wife, Betty Alice Lindy, a dancer. And much of his best movie work can be found in comedies, a genre that somehow continues to be largely ignored by oh-so-serious critics and scholars.
– Carson would do kooky things from a strictly professional standpoint. He used to disappear from Hollywood for weeks on end, with strict instructions to his wife NOT to disclose his whereabouts. Turns out he was touring incognito as a clown in a traveling circus.
– Of his many movie titles, only a few stand out. There’s Mildred Pierce, of course. He puts in a solid dramatic turn in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born with Judy Garland. Ditto in 1958′s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman. Then there is Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant. He also worked with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
(If you have a favorite Jack Carson movie, we’d love to hear about it.) Well, we finally — years later (such is the power of the internet) — heard from one reader, Jean, who said: Carson was great in ‘Red Garters’.
Red Garters is a 1954 film starring Rosemary Clooney, Carson and Guy Mitchell (pictured above). It’s a musical spoof of westerns, and it’s original and delightful. We highly recommend it. And, yes, Carson was great in it.
Above is one of the few photos of Jane Wyman projecting the sex appeal she so conspicuously lacks in most of the roles she plays at her peak as one of Hollywood’s most lauded female stars of the Forties and Fifties.
Viewing this shot, we can believe that she really did begin her movie career in the mid-Thirties play the tough-talking chorus girl “with bite and a seemingly natural hard edge,” according to the actress’ chroniclers, Edward Z. Epstein and our own Joe Morella (1985′s Jane Wyman, A Biography).
Wyman excelled in melodramas as the handsome, understanding mother; the severely put upon (notably a deaf-mute half her real age); one-of-the-boys western figures. Later she was warmly received as the suffering heroine in “womens’ pictures” and, most famously, as the stylish, take-charge woman running a California winery on tv.
And, yes, she married Ronald Reagan before Nancy Davis did. How much else did you know about Jane Wyman? Let’s take a look at the answers to our Monday Quiz to find out. As usual, to review the questions, just scroll down to the blog below. Here we go:
1) Answer: Reagan and her friends called Wyman d) “Button Nose.”
2) Answer: Ok, we admit it. This is a trick question. Wyman worked with all these directors: Frank Capra in 1951′s Here Comes The Groom; Alfred Hitchcock in 1950′s Stage Fright; Billy Wilder in 1945′s The Lost Weekend; and Michael Curtiz in 1952′s The Story of Will Rogers.
3) Answers: a) True. In 1941, Wyman engaged in a smooching match with Regis Toomey in You’re In The Army Now. The kiss lasted a record 3 minutes and five seconds.
4) Answer: Wyman earned best actress Oscar nominations for every choice except d) The Story of Will Rogers.
5) Answer: As suggested in today’s intro, Wyman was pegged as c) a blond floozy.
6) Answer: Wyman never discussed for public consumption the reasons why her marriage to Reagan fell apart. She did, however, make cryptic references to his talkativeness, saying that if you asked him the time he would reply with a full-blown explanation of how a Swiss watch worked.
7) Answer: Wyman and Reagan costarred in b) two movies: 1938′s Brother Rat and 1940′s Brother Rat and Baby.
8) Answer: c) Barbara Stanwyck, who nonetheless made her own tv impression with The Big Valley western series, which ran on ABC from 1965 to 1969. She played the widow of a wealthy rancher.
9) Answer: b) False. Wyman married a total of five times, twice to the same husband, musician-bandleader Fred Karger. Reagan was husband No. 3.
10) Answer: Wyman was the surname of the actress’ first husband, to whom she was married for two years beginning in 1933.
Many people would say Jane Wyman is famous because she was Ronald Reagan’s first wife. Wyman would have said HE was famous for being one of her husbands!
But to describe their respective career achievements in such reductive terms would seriously diminish them. Whatever your view of Reagan, Wyman was distinguished by her an unusually successful run as a durable actress who excelled on the big screen, and then drew worldwide recognition on tv.
She worked with some of Hollywood’s finest directors of the Forties and Fifties. She won multiple awards, and put in some serious work. She was by all accounts a pretty good person offscreen despite her marital vicissitudes.
Today’s quiz was put together from several sources including — Frank is happy to say — 1985′s Jane Wyman, A Biography, co-authored by Edward Z. Epstein and our own Joe Morella. Ok, on to our questions. As usual answers tomorrow.
Here we go:
1) Question: Ronald Reagan was famously known informally as “Dutch.” What was Wyman’s comparable nickname? a) Baby; 2) Sweet Ma; c) Kitten; or d) Button Nose.
2) Question: Which of these prestige movie directors did Wyman NOT work with? a) Frank Capra; b) Alfred Hitchcock; c) Billy Wilder; or d) Michael Curtiz.
3) Question: Among her cinematic accomplishments Wyman holds the record for providing the longest onscreen kiss in movie history. a) True; or b) False.
4) Question: Wyman won a best actress Oscar for playing a young deaf-mute rape victim in 1948′s Johnny Belinda. She was also nominated as best actress for which of the following pictures? a) 1946′s The Yearling; b) 1951′s The Blue Veil; c) 1954′s Magnificent Obsession; or d) 1952′s The Story of Will Rogers.
5) Question: When she first was signed by Warner Brothers in the mid-Thirties, Wyman was promoted as a) a budding musical star; b) a serious actress; c) a blond floozy; or d) a potential sexpot?
6) Question: What broke up Wyman’s marriage (January 1940 to June 1948) to Ronald Reagan? a) An illicit romance with actor Lew Ayres; b) her lack of interest in politics; c) Reagan’s loquaciousness; or d) none of the above.
7) Question: Just how many movies did Wyman actually make with Reagan? a) five; b) two; c) nine; or d) none.
8) Question: Although Wyman’s is best remembered for her principal part on the 1981 Falcon Crest tv series, she was NOT the first choice for the role of California winery proprietress Angela Channing. Who was? a) Joan Crawford; b) June Haver; c) Barbara Stanwyck; or d) Nancy Davis.
9) Question: Wyman never quite got over unhappy end of her marriage to Reagan, and never remarried. a) True; or b) False.
10) Question: How did someone born Sarah Jane Mayfield wind up as Jane Wyman?
None of them had careers with the odd trajectory that marked that of today’s June, June Haver.
Born in 1926 in Rockford, Illinois as June Stovenour (she was adopted by her stepfather, Bert Haver), she migrated to the Cincinnati area where she began her career as a child stage actress and later as a singer.
It was her singing that propelled her to Hollywood where her first screen appearance — in a 1941 short titled Skyline Serenade — featured Haver as a vocalist with the Ted Fio Rito band. Haver was still a teenager when she joined the ensemble, and she fell for trumpeter Jimmy Zito when she was barely in her Twenties. (The marriage lasted only about a year.)
Her acting career, comprising a relatively meager 19 movie and tv credits spanning the early Forties to the late Fifties, was short but powerful. At her peak, she was considered by 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck to be among the studio’s elite female talents, notably Betty Grable and Linda Darnell.
Her good looks and vocal abilities made Haver stand out in the bright-eyed and bushy -tailed musicals of the period. She lacked the meserizingly good figure that Grable displayed in those World War II pinups, but nonetheless became known as “the pocket Grable.” (Haver and Grable appear together in 1945′s The Dolly Sisters.)
Then, something happened. After making 1953′s The Girl Next Door, Haver surprised Hollywood by declaring her intention of joining a nunnery. In February of that year, she signed on as a postulant nun with the Sisters of Charity in Leavenworth, Kansas.
It didn’t take. After a few months, Haver left the Sisters supposedly because of “poor health.” One suspects that real reason could have been summarized in two words — Fred MacMurray. Haver had long been complaining of what she deemed the inferior suitors who pursued her in Hollywood, but MacMurray, then a big Hollywood star, changed all that.
Haver and MacMurray began what was extolled as one of Hollywood’s happiest marriages in 1954. It lasted until his death in 1991. Which brings us to the following e-mail we recently received from Nancy Wiman:
Thanks for your article on Fred MacMurray. (Monday Quiz – FRED MacMURRAY – Feb. 29.)
I ran into he and his wife June Haver in the parking lot of the Melia Madrid in Spain. She had been a particular favorite of mine, so I approached very slowly and politely. I had no interest in speaking with him, but every time I tried to speak with Miss Haver, he would answer for her.
I don’t know if he was being so protective of her, or simply controlling. The one thing I remember most about the encounter was the fact her face had not aged one iota. There were no wrinkles, and her warmth made me think of a blonde Madonna. I felt so special having the opportunity to speak with her.
Rare it is that opera singers making the transition to Hollywood films succeed on any level much less in the treacherous arena of comedy.
Opera stars are paid to be big, bold and broadly dramatic. It’s the voice, after all, not the acting skills.
Comedy demands subtlety, often wry understatement, especially in the movies where overstatement in any form is generally death. Mario Lanza and Ezio Pinza (who costarred with Lana Turner in the 1951 romantic drama, Mr. Imperium) certainly had their talents but they were not known as laugh-a-minute guys.
Thus, today, we salute two accomplished opera singers who very successfully graduated to mainstream Hollywood movies, providing some of the finest comic moments in memory.
Best known of the two in classic movie circles is Fortunio Bonanova (ne Josep Lluis Moll), a Spanish-born baritone (pictured above) who studied music in Madrid and Paris before making his opera debut in Europe in 1923. As the Spanish Civil War was geared up in the Thirties, Bonanova moved to the U.S. and found himself making movies in Hollywood.
Over a long career (he retired from the screen in 1964, and died five years later) Bonanova compiled an impressive record of more than 100 movies and tv credits. He was a reliable supporting actor employing his broad operatic acting skills to such officious types such head waiters, impresarios, police chiefs and nightclub owners of uncertain European origin.
His credits include 1943′s Five Graves to Cairo, 1944′s Double Indemnity and Going My Way, 1955′s Kiss Me Deadly and 1957′s An Affair To Remember. He was especially suited to a range of comedy parts on television on various shows including I Love Lucy and on Abbott and Costello. On the George Burns and Gracie Allen series in the Fifties, Bonanova played a character named “the Great Gazatti.”
We suspect you know Bonanova from what we believe to be his sharpest screen portrayal, in the 1941 Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane. The actor’s backround superbly informed his portrayal of ”Signor Matiste,” the bombastic and frustrated vocal coach to Kane’s mistress played by Dorothy Comingore.
Who can forget the Signor’s repeated “no, no, no, no” in response to his pupil’s hapless operatic attempts. In the movie Charles Foster Kane angrily reacts, but audiences today appreciate the delicious comic aspects of the character’s hopeless predicament.
In any case, Bonanova acquits himself beautifully, handing us an unforgettable supporting performance.
Our other ex-opera singer-turned-comic stylist is of more recent vintage — George Gaynes, who died last month at age 98. He’s primarily remembered for his profuse late career tv work. Remember NBC’s Punky Brewster sitcom in the 1980′s?
Gaynes, born George Jongejans in Helsinki, studied opera in Milan, and performed in Italy and France and, after World War II, at the New York City Opera. Like Bonanova, he was a big-boned baritone.
Gaynes eventually migrated from opera and operetta to the Broadway stage and then Hollywood, often in supporting tv parts in a a broad range of tv series and soap operas. Along the way he appeared in such notable films as The Way We Were and Altered States.
Gaynes amply displayed his comedy skills in 1984′s Police Academy (and its six sequels) portraying the fulsome commandant of school for inept recruits. But it was in 1982′s Tootsie that Gaynes made his mark, providing a comedy performance every bit as memorable in its way as Bonanova’s “Matiste.”
He played a soap opera leading man who lusts after his leading lady, played in drag by Dustin Hoffman, an unemployed actor masquerading as a woman. Vincent Canby, then movie critic of The New York Times, found Gaynes priceless as the seedy but tireless lecherous leading man…so memorably funny in such memorable funny circumstances.
So there it is — two ex opera singers turned superb movie comedians. Real rarities.
A personal note. Frank recalls that some 15 years ago, he visited a sleek new pharmacy in his newly adopted Arizona neighborhood, and was astonished to discover — George Kennedy in person.
Turns out that the actor, who died last month at 91, was starring in a ribbon-cutting ceremony surrounded by executives from the pharmacy chain’s owner. Seeing Kennedy made Frank’s day.
Ok, let’s find out how much you knew about Kennedy and his busy career as a screen and tv actor. Without further reminiscences, let’s get to the answers to this week’s Monday Quiz. As usual, scroll down to the blog below to review the questions. Here we go:
1) Answer: c) 1967′s Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman. Kennedy played “Dragline,” a grizzled Florida chain gang prisoner who gradually comes to admire Newman’s tormented fellow convict.
2) Answer: b) False. Whatever his private religious views, Kennedy was much married — to four different wives. He and last spouse, Joan McCarthy, adopted his granddaughter, whose mother, also adopted by Kennedy, suffered through various substance abuse problems.
3) Answer: d) Marlene Dietrich.
4) Answer: a) and c), the two Lees.
5) Answer: The tv series was titled Sarge, and it lasted for one season (1971-2) on NBC. The title character Kennedy played was a San Diego detective sergeant who enters the priesthood after the murder of his wife.
6) Answer: a) True. From detective sergeant to the first family. Backstairs at the White House was an acclaimed nine-hour NBC mini-series that ran in 1979, covering first family private lives from the Tafts to the Eisenhowers. Kennedy was part of a large cast of stage and tv luminaries.
7) Answer: The Blue Knight was aired in two formats — initially as a four-hour NBC miniseries in 1973 starring William Holden. Then, as a weekly series on CBS in 1976-77 starring Kennedy. Holden was there first.
8) Answer: b) 1963′s Charade in which Kennedy plays a super-nasty villain who scares the hell out of Audrey Hepburn by brandishing formidable steel claws extending from what was once a right arm.
9) Answer: The original disaster epic was 1970′s Airport, followed by three sequels: Airport ’75, Airport ’77 and The Concorde… Airport 79. Kennedy was the only cast member aboard all four flights.
10) Answer: It’s all a) True. Kennedy was born in New York City in 1925, and his father was a musician and bandleader. But after high school, he joined the Army and fought in the infantry in Europe during World War II. He stayed on, in all putting in a 16-year Army career before edging into show business (as an advisor to The Phil Silvers Show) in the late 1950′s.
What better way to memorialize George Kennedy than to elevate the late actor to our coveted Monday Quiz circle?
Kennedy died late last month age 91. If there were a A-minus classification of durable Hollywood stars (his career covered nearly five decades), Kennedy would have been front and center. He was much more than a supporting or strictly character actor. He commanded big billing, often above the title.
Kennedy’s range was enormous, his career comprised more than 200 movies and tv productions and he was an Oscar winner. But like many essentially working actors, he was too often taken for granted if not dismissed. As The New York Times put it, “no critic ever spoke of a George Kennedy oeuvre.”
So our question is: just how much do you know about George Kennedy? Why not take our Monday Quiz to find out? As usual, questions today and answers tomorrow. Here we go:
Question: Kennedy won a best supporting actor Oscar in the Sixties for his role in: a) The Boston Strangler; b) The Dirty Dozen; c) Cool Hand Luke; or d) The Legend of Lylah Clare?
2) Question: Kennedy had the reputation as a fastidiously religious man who married only once. A) True; or b) False.
3) Question: With which one of the following did Kennedy NOT appear onscreen? a) Bette Davis; b) James Stewart; c) Charlton Heston; or d) Marlene Dietrich.
4) Question: Kennedy is often compared with which of the following actors? a) Lee Marvin; b) Eli Wallach; c) Lee Van Cleef; or d) Charles Bronson.
5) Question: In one of Kennedy’s two starring roles on a tv series, he plays a policeman turned Catholic priest. Can you name the title of this series?
6) Question: In another of his television efforts, Kennedy costarred in a nine-hour docu-drama about the private lives of America’s first families from the Tafts to the Eisenhowers. a) True; or b) False?
7) Question: Kennedy’s other tv series, The Blue Knight, was based on a Joseph Wambaugh best seller built around a character name “Bumper Morgan.” Which big-name screen star played the same character on tv before Kennedy did?
8) Question: Kennedy plays a nasty villain with a formidable artificial limb who threatens Audrey Hepburn in which one of the following movies? a) Paris When It Sizzles; b) Charade; c) The Children’s Hour; or d) The Unforgiven.
9) Question: Kennedy was the only member of an all-star cast that appeared in the original of a Seventies disaster epic and its three sequels. Can you name the title of the original?
10) Question: Kennedy was born in New York City to a musical family but pursued a military career before becoming an actor. a) True; or b) False?
This weekend Nancy Reagan passed away at the age of 94.
Most people know that before she married she had a short film career. She always maintained she was only became an actress because she had to do something until the right man came along.
Nancy Davis, the actress, met the “right” man, Ronald Reagan, in 1951. It took her awhile to get a proposal, however. They didn’t wed until March of 1953. Their daughter Patti was born seven months later.
But today we want to talk about Nancy Davis – not Nancy Reagan, one of the most popular and controversial first ladies of the U.S..
Nancy Davis only made 10 movies in her brief career, but she was a fine actress. She came by it naturally. Her mother, Edith Luckett, was a successful stage actress who had been in silent films.
After Nancy graduated from college with the help of her mother’s friends she got jobs in stock, then a shot at Broadway and eventually a seven year contract at MGM. But she deserved it. She was good. Not traditionally beautiful, but at 27, a handsome woman and a solid performer.
At first the studio tried her in supporting roles in A films. Catch her in East Side, West Side, which stars Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Van Heflin and Ava Gardner.
MGM then starred her as the lead in several B films, the most famous, The Next Voice You Hear, in which she played a pregnant housewife who hears the voice of God from her radio.
In 1951 Davis co-starred with Ray Milland in Night Into Morning. One critic noted that Davis “does nicely as the fiancée who is widowed herself and knows the loneliness of grief.”
Joe’s favorite is a little known film, Shadow in the Sky, starring Ralph Meeker. After Davis left MGM she starred in her most famous film, the 1953 science fiction cult classic, Donovan’s Brain.
She and Ronnie finally worked together on the big screen in Hellcats of the Navy in 1957. Skip that one.
Supposedly, Albert Brooks attempted to coax her out of retirement, and offered her the title role in his 1996 film Mother. But this was probably just a publicity ploy on his part. No one expected she would ever return to the screen, especially when she was devoting herself to caring for her husband. (President Reagan died on June 4, 2004 after years suffering from Alzheimers. He was 93.)
Nancy Reagan will be remembered as a gracious hostess and an elegant first lady. But if one wants to ferret out her old films, she can also be remembered as Nancy Davis, a fine actress and a star from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Just in case you’ve come in late, and this is your first or second visit to Classic Movie Chat, we’d like to remind you that one of our treasures is The Donald Gordon Collection of Never Before Seen Photos.
You won’t see these photos anywhere else — at least not initially. We can’t control what happens after they are published. But for now, as you read this, they are unique to our site.
That Classic Movie Chat was the first to publish these pictures is just one of the reasons why we think our site is so special. The Donald Gordon Collection was a gift to us, and now it is a gift to you, fellow classic movie fans.
Today’s photos are typical. That’s Linda Darnell on top schmoozing with Donald himself. Below that, Frank’s favorite shot, shows one of Hollywood’s best character actors ever — Sydney Greenstreet – emerging from the Brown Derby Restaurant.
You might well ask, just who is Donald Gordon, and how did we come by his stash of great photos?
John Madden, our late pal and fellow classic movie-lover, bequeathed to Joe a veritable treasure trove of informal, impromptu black-and-white photographs that more than anything we can think of provide informal, personalized glimpses of Hollywood in its Golden Age. Donald Gordon and John were close friends.
Before he died Donald gave John this marvelous cache of photos. These snapshots are the kind that are often taken at parties, outings and family events of one kind or another.
But these were not the usual shots of unrecognizable or forgotten relatives at their leisure. No, the subjects in these snapshots were – and perhaps still are — some of the most recognizable faces on the planet. And in most shots there is also Donald Gordon.
Donald was a young actor who found himself under contract at Columbia Pictures during World War II. He was now in front of the camera but remained a devoted fan of the stars and photographed them whenever he could. And remember taking and developing pictures in the 1940s was not quite as easy as it is today.
Yet, as you’ll see on our blog, the amazing informality – almost intimacy – of Donald with his subjects is a pleasure to behold. No posed studio shots in full makeup, staged with the precision of a Swiss watch. These were shots of some of Hollywood’s best-known personalities in mufti, so to speak, lounging around pools, front lawns, departing restaurants or in actual costume on the set.
We are sure that you, diligent classic movie fan that you are, will instantly recognize those posing alone or with Donald. But you may not recognize all subjects. That’s where the fun part comes in.
Every now and then we like to run a snapshot taken from Donald’s collection, asking you to identify the person posing with him. In most cases that should be pretty easy. But not in all cases. Know the guy below?
We hope you enjoy the Donald Gordon Collection as much as we do. The photographs evoke a smaller, more neighborly and much different Hollywood – before television became a mass medium, decades before videos and DVDs, and an eternity away from the internet and the many digital platforms of today.
Celebrityhood hadn’t quite become the national obsession it is today. There were no paparazzi as such (by the way, which film inspired that descriptive term?) and access to the highest-level stars was made possible by being a member of a studio family, as Donald was.
His snapshots reveal a sunnier, more relaxed, more human Hollywood. It’s not too grandiose to suggest that they capture precious moments in time. Classic Movie Chat will continue sharing The Donald Gordon Collection with you in the coming days and months. So, be sure to check in with us — early and often.