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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: TV Movie [Stars] - Part 2

The beautiful Ava Gardner shows her versatility as a special celebrity
guest on the quiz show "What's My Line?"

I Have to Be Home by 8:00, Because...!

There were definitely some major successes in the Movie to TV migration. Whether certain personalities were simply better suited for the small screen or were likewise more seemingly approachable and likable, there are a handful of Lords and Ladies who amplified their power simply by taking their comfy place in people's living rooms. One such person was comedian extraordinaire Groucho Marx (left), whose grease-painted mustache had long been replaced by the real thing. Always a popular guest and the hit of every party he attended, it only make sense that he be the favorite part of any piece of television he poked his ever-rolling eyes into. Not only was he regularly offered guest host spots on the likes of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" or "Tonight with Jack Paar," he also participated on "What's My Line?" and even an episode of "Hollywood Squares."

Clearly, America was still Coconuts for him. Thus, after an improvised radio broadcast with Bob Hope sparked the idea, he became the host of his own game show on NBC: "You Bet Your Life." If you've ever noticed that a duck is often associated with Groucho, look to this show for the reason-- in addition to Duck Soup, of course. The format was simple. Average, American guests would be invited on the show where Grouch' would improvise, make conversation with them, and poke fun (right). In essence, he used his wit to draw out many a laugh from the viewing audience as the embarrassed participants turned beet-faced at his shenanigans. Finally, the guest duo would be asked a series of questions from a category of their choosing. In addition to this, there was a "secret word" that Groucho would try to get the players to innocently say in the midst of conversation. If they accidentally uttered it, the infamous duck would descend from the ceiling with a $100 bill in his bill. The show was such a success that the metaphorical ball was later passed to Bill Cosby as host in 1992, but Groucho-- as usual-- was the instigator!

Women in particular seemed to have luck with television, as in the following two examples. Perhaps this is because actual housewives and stay-at-home moms were able to use TV as a daily gateway to the outside world, which their husbands so often took for granted. Having classy, strong, and relatable women telling their stories for them seemed to be a gift from heaven for den mothers, but the fellas enjoyed these shows too. The case of Donna Reed is particularly fascinating. In a little over a decade, Donna had worked her way up from supporting roles in Shadow of the Thin Man and The Courtship of Andy Hardy to an Oscar win for From Here to Eternity. A shrewd business woman, she experimented with television cautiously as it slowly gained its dominion, and in 1958 she signed on for her own series, appropriately titled "The Donna Reed Show" (left). 

Very similar to the recent hit "Leave It to Beaver, " the show was a tribute to the all American family-- or at least the all American family dream-- where misunderstandings and common family problems are humorously and touchingly dealt with. The moral of the show hit home for most viewers with its uplifting storylines, which boosted morale on the home front, and promised not so much that good will come if you do the right thing, but that doing the right thing is just the right thing to do. It was a huge hit that earned Donna a Golden Globe and ran successfully for 8 seasons. Finally, after preaching that a family that sticks together stays together, Donna was burnt out by the weekly demands of the show, and the series came to an end. Donna worked intermittently on other series-- "The Love Boat," "Dallas"-- but with the unprecedented success of the show behind her, she soon put TV behind her too.

Doris Day was always a fan favorite. With her cheery onscreen persona, bright and crystalline singing voice, and average American gal disposition, she became a huge movie star and an obvious candidate for television success. Yet, with a surprisingly complicated and sometimes devastating personal life contrasting her public identity, Doris's entertainment career was both an emotional saving grace and a hefty burden that added to the intensifying pressure cooker of her sanity. But, a girl's gotta eat. Thus, when her contribution to cinema came to a halt in 1968-- after television had more than injected its influence over the American way of life-- she made the jump to CBS to star in her own series: "The Doris Day Show." Despite the show's title, Doris's character was not named Doris Day on the show but Doris Martin-- just as Jean Arthur was Patricia Marshall on "The Jean Arthur Show" and Donna Reed played Donna Stone on "The Donna Reed Show." The lack of creativity in the show's title was simply a marketing ploy by the network to benefit from the celebrity's star power and get viewers to tune in. (Doris in the Season 2 Christmas Special, right).

With Doris, CBS knew they were getting plenty of bank for their buck. Doris's program ran for five seasons but progressed in a very peculiar fashion. The fish out of water plot line essentially followed Doris's widowed character and her two sons as they moved to the country from their posh city lives and bunked up at her family's farm. The usual chaos and hijinks ensued. Strangely, every season altered after the first, with Doris and her sons changing locales, she changing careers, and eventually the sons disappearing from the story completely. Still, the awkward nature of the storyline did not stop viewers from watching one of their favorite celebs every week. It did surprisingly well, and due to its lengthy run (in a world where most series were lucky to make it one season if any), it can be reasonably considered a bona fide success. 

After "The Doris Day Show" came to an end in 1973, Doris basically retired from acting, though she did have another series as a talk show hostess on a program entitled "Doris Day's Best Friends." On the show, she would reminisce with old showbiz pals about the good ol' days on the silver screen and, once again, allow the production company to capitalize off aging nostalgia for Hollywood gone bye-bye. Her first guest on the show was none other than Rock Hudson, her three time collaborator and good friend (left in Lover Come Back). This was, of course, a remarkable moment for viewers and Doris herself, who hadn't seen her former co-star in years. Unbeknownst to her, Rock was already deep in the throes of his battle with AIDs. He had been aware of his illness for a year, having been diagnosed in 1984. When he made his appearance on the show in 1985, his shocking weight loss and sickly disposition had a shattering effect on Doris. Rock would announce his disease mere days after the broadcast and would pass away in less than three months. Thus, what was meant to be a beautiful reunion was practically the bittersweet final note to her pitch-perfect career. "Doris Day's Best Friends" would continue for one season and 26 episodes. Aside from occasional personal appearances, Doris would bid Hollywood farewell, and much like her earlier Doris Martin character, return to a simpler and more private life away from chaos in Carmel, CA.

It's Show Time!

The business of Television is hard. No matter the talent behind the show's writing, nor the creativity of the storyline, nor the appeal of the performers, the comprised efforts don't always result in a hit. Nothing is surefire. All sorts of factors can effect a show's reception-- a competitive time slot, varying audience tastes, a poor chemistry amongst the cast, etc. What seems a possible runaway hit on paper can often tank on the air. Famous or not, TV is a gamble for anyone. A bunch of unknown, struggling actors shot to fame on "Friends" in 1994, and the show ran for 10 seasons; acclaimed actor Dustin Hoffman took at stab at "Luck" in 2011 on HBO only to receive poor ratings, and now the show's tenuous second season hangs by a thread. To even produce a pilot is a success. To be picked up by a network is a glory rarely received. To make it through an entire first season is astounding. Those few programs that run for years and really grip the public are pure miracles. There aren't many, and there are even fewer that will be remembered as classics after the series finale, but some of our superstar wonders were actually able to dine on an exclusive slice of TV heaven instead of sulking over a plate of humble pie.

Loretta Young was a lovely and vulnerable looking young girl when she landed her first major role in the Lon Chaney film Laugh, Clown, Laugh in 1928. Over the next 25 years, she would develop into a powerhouse female lead in numerous major motion pictures. Known as the "Iron Butterfly" for her killer combo of delicate, pre-Raphaelite beauty (left) and a tough and ambitious business savvy, Loretta boasts one of the most impressive resumes in cinematic history. Realizing quickly that television was the wave of the future, she wasted no time in jumping head first into the new medium. Her series, "The Loretta Young Show," was another anthology series that produced a fresh drama every week. She was the first woman to host her own show, and her grand entrance at the beginning of every episode in a new, drop-dead-gorgeous gown was the perhaps the most eagerly anticipated moment of the program.

Like Errol Flynn, Loretta would do an introduction at the episode's opening, and the story would commence with a different plot each week-- akin to the TV movie-- with varying actors. She sometimes would appear in an episode herself. The glamour plus the salivating drama made Loretta's show a huge success that ran for 8 seasons on NBC from 1953-1961. In 1963, she switched networks to CBS to appear in another series, "The New Loretta Young Show," this time strictly acting as a widow who supported herself as a freelance writer. Yet again, though the title bore her name, Loretta played character Christine Massey. The tone of the show bore touches of both drama and comedy, but it only lasted one season. Audiences apparently wanted Loretta to appear only as her glamorous self. Fifty-years-old by the time filming ended, Loretta enjoyed working on a few TV movies and settled into retirement a very wealthy woman-- not to mention a big and small screen legend.

The award for consistency and duration goes to one of the great funnymen of history-- and good pal of Groucho Marx-- Jack Benny (right). From vaudeville, to radio, to film, Benny seamlessly translated his humor to any given outlet. With his always immaculate comedic timing, hilariously underplayed facial expressions, and somehow likable buffoon characterizations-- imagine an uptight Steve Carell in "The Office"-- there was no one immune to his jocular abilities. Unafraid of being the butt of his own jokes, Benny's most infamous persona was that of the irritable miser who both refused to admit he was older than 39 and played the violin abominably (although he was a great proficient in reality). His great gag was the hold-up sketch. The mugger would point his gun and yell, "Your money or your life!" to which, after a breadth of silence and more prodding, Benny would reply, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!" His great success, specifically on the radio on "The Jack Benny Program," was quickly transferred to television in 1950 on CBS where it ran for fifteen straight years.

Previous to this and during the show's run, he would make appearances on other programs, including the "GE True Theatre" and "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," but with  his own primetime spot, he blew all other competition out of the water. His was the show everyone wanted to watch and no one wanted to miss, including everyone from the town butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker to JFK himself. As was the general standard of the time, at each show's beginning, Benny would come out to greet the viewers with an opening monologue and likewise finish the show with a closer. In between, anything was possible in the life of Jack Benny. So closely was he identified with his TV character, that a cab driver, for example, was shocked to receive such a large tip from him in real life! In the end, counting its radio days, "The Jack Benny Program" ran for three decades, finally coming to a conclusion in 1965, the last year of which was filmed at NBC. Benny would bow out while still on top and his presence in the homes of many was deeply missed. Luckily, he would still pop up from time to time on "The Bob Hope Show"or "Kraft Music Hall" before his death in 1974.

Of course, despite Jack Benny's long term hold on the public, there is but one person who is forever identified as the all-time favorite TV personality: Lucille Ball. After struggling vainly for years in her attempts to become a film actress, Lucy could never seem to achieve success at the B-level of filmmaking. Despite her great beauty, there was an earthy, unfinished quality that kept her from being a glamour queen of the silver screen like Carole Lombard. Despite her talent in acting, audiences had trouble relating to her intensity or emotion the same way they could with Katharine Hepburn. It was her union with the ambitious Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz and her coincidental gig on the radio program "My Favorite Husband" in 1948 that brought her the opportunity of a lifetime. When a deal was struck to take the show from the airwaves to the TV set, Lucy brought her husband and collaborator with her, and the rest is history for eternity. The over-the-top comedy of the Ricardos was hilarious, decent, and relatable. Through "I Love Lucy" (left), the lady herself proved that a woman could be both attractive and a total ham-- and even a basket case. Despite her frustrating antics and the unbelievable amount of trouble she caused each week, she also made a bold feminist statement that a woman need not be perfect to be loved. It was all the varying shades of both devotion and insanity that drew Ricky Ricardo to his red-headed, adorably vexatious bride. Through Ricky's performing career, the trials of parenthood, and from New York to Hollywood to Europe and back, the Ricardo family endured both despite and because of their mix of irritation and passion.

Unfortunately, the real life marriage of Lucy and Desi would not fare so well. Their turbulent and stormy union, which had made such beautiful music publicly, was a private Hell. The "I Love Lucy" show enjoyed six seasons of phenomenal success despite the increasingly venomous relationship the couple shared behind the scenes. Agreeing that the show was worth saving even if the marriage wasn't, "I Love Lucy" changed in format for its 7-9th seasons, becoming hour long episodes that roughly added up to four per year. The guest stars continued, with everyone from John Wayne to Milton Berle making an appearance at some point during the 9 years of "I Love Lucy" and  "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour." Yet, it finally became clear that the temperaments of the two stars could not bear much more. The program came to a close in 1960 and Lucy left Desi and co-star William Frawley behind to start her own series with Vivan Vance, otherwise known as Ethel, who reluctantly agreed to continue the next chapter of the characters' friendship on "The Lucy Show" (right). This storyline involved the new lives of the widowed Lucy and the divorced Viv, which was clearly a popular plot instigator for a lot of aging female actresses on TV at the time. While Jack Benny-- who shot his own program at the Desilu Studios-- made a few appearances on this series, and several other guest stars popped in, the show's success would not match the brilliance of the original. Still, it lasted six more seasons and was later followed by "Here's Lucy!" which followed a new Lucy Carter as a widowed mother of teenagers again making it on her own. This made it for 6 more surprising seasons, mostly due to Lucy's power than to the show's material. Her final stab at TV came in the brief, single season series "Life with Lucy," now portraying Lucy Barker and her adventures as a grandmother. 

From 1950 10 1986, Lucille Ball made a huge impact on the world of Television, giving it an integrity born of her humanity, drive, and humor that made it more welcoming to those still-questioning film celebrities who feared this mysterious new vehicle for their talents. Clearly, not everyone would enjoy Lucy's success, and in truth, with her personal anxiety, she never really did either, but "I Love Lucy" in particular remains the show that took the little engine that could and made it an uncompromising force of overwhelming power. Today, because of the foundation that people like Ball, Benny, Young, and numerous other personalities of boob tube fame made, the world of television continues to grow exponentially. From "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (1962-1992), to "Bewitched" with Elizabeth Montgomery (1964-1972), to "The Cosby Show" with Bill Cosby (1984-1992), to "30 Rock" with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin (2006-2013), the medium continues to expand. NBC, HBO, FX, sitcoms, soaps, dramas, live, recorded on DVRs, and available post-season on DVD, we continue to expand the possibilities of entertainment, which may not be as focused nor as controlled as it once was but is certainly more varied. Though the presence of thousands of channels can be overwhelming, there is literally something for everyone. Thus, single-theater towns temporarily inhabited by rotating cast of players merely passing through on their vaudeville circuit has become a chosen program on demand starring your favorite actors at the touch of your fingertips. 

Don Adams would portray the incompetent secret agent Maxwell Smart on "Get Smart" 
in the late 1960s on television and, in a role reversal, Steve Carell would bring
the same character to life in the movies in 2008.

While one may often question the integrity of "What Would Ryan Lochte Do?" one can be reminded of the great creativity and bold behind-the-scenes choices of programmers, producers, writers, and actors by seeing glimpses of past brilliance in today's more intriguing, provocative, and evocative series. Lucy can be found in Amy Poehler, the dramatic Loretta Young style may be glimpsed through series like "The Good Wife," and Jack Benny's unconventional family humor has been updated and modernized via "Louie." The couch has provided a more comfortable place for us to participate in and observe our ever-changing society as it grows, changes, and stays the same. And so, as Sonny and Cher said, "The beat goes on..."

Friday, May 24, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: TV Movie [Stars] - Part 1

Olivia De Havilland contributed to Bette Davis's surprise when the latter lady
 was a special guest on the popular television program "This Is Your Life." 
Laurel and Hardy, Johnny Cash, and Jayne Mansfield were 
also participants, although not always gladly!

The transition of dull civilian life to devoted cinema spectatorship was not an overnight process. It started as a tingle and grew into an earthquake that left many a movie theater but nary a vaudeville circuit in its wake. In 40 years, we went from ogling the naughty motion photography of hopping, bathing, and leapfrogging male and female nudes (oh, Eadweard Muybridge, you rapscallion you!) to staring in thunderstruck admiration at the Oberammergau Passion Play of 1898, which was the first commercially produced motion picture, (thank you German Cinema professor of 2003), to being hysterically enraptured by the intricate comic wizardry of Charlie Chaplin in The Circus. The year 1928 would be another big one in film, for this year proved that our artistic and technological innovation was growing at just as rapid a speed as our increasing appetite for entertainment. Fittingly, sound brought the boom that turned the industry on its head. Talkies made Silents a thing of the past in less than two years. As in the first "box office" crash with the advent of film-- does Digby Bell ring any bells today?-- it was only the members of the entertainment community that suffered. Some evolved and some didn't, wouldn't, or couldn't. 

Eadweard Muybridge's studies in motion photography did much to further the process of
 turning still photographs to motion pictures. He later used his expertise to do popular
"motion studies" regarding the naked form. There doesn't seem to be any record
of male audiences reacting negatively to bounding breasts in motion. 
To be fair, Eadweard featured  men too, including himself-- 
naked as a jay bird.

Following Hollywood's golden age, history would repeat itself yet again with the next great innovation, the birth of the television set, which-- like film itself-- started slowly in the late forties and found itself in half of all households by the mid-fifties. The celebrity reaction was the same as ever. Some denied; some jumped on the gravy train. Some bowed out of the biz gracefully; others fell on their faces. Some disappeared; others found a new generation of viewers and a second run at fame. We are arguably going through another cycle of media reconstruction as the computer increasingly takes the place of both film and television by offering a new medium for both options-- often for free. As per usual, the stars are suffering, in that there aren't really any left-- at least none who rule with as much magnitude as their predecessors (see old article here). When a God becomes too accessible, He transforms from a golden idol into last year's fad-- what once was as exciting as the invention of the light bulb thus becomes as ridiculous in retrospect as the slap bracelet.

In any case, the following Movie Gods and Goddesses were able to make the transition from big-screen to small-screen-- some with dignity, others with... humdingery, but fortunately for all, their great cinematic reputations were big enough to maintain their lost luster, and history has mostly forgotten their fruitless televised efforts. Gable perhaps remains untouched, if only because he never sold in his "King" stature to become a Prince of Pabst Blue Ribbon or the Baron of Brylcreem, but as you will see, the following pack of experimental pals did all right for themselves too, even if the big gamble of the small screen wasn't always worth it.

Son, switch the dial!

Sadly, of the many who made the jump to Television, the majority were duds. Character actors often had a better shot of maintaining their careers as their sinister, comical, or otherwise malleable characterizations could easily be plugged into various series, occasional episodes, or even a permanent supporting role on TV. In some cases, smaller names were able to transcend their former B-status to become huge stars of the boob tube, some playing the lead in their own series, as in Clayton Moore aka "The Lone Ranger" (left) and George Reeves aka "Superman." Conversely, some film stars who had enjoyed a glorious hey day in the cinematic stratosphere found themselves floating into oblivion after their attempts at broadcast success. Some dipped in a toe only to gracefully retire from show-business; others made a bold attempt to board the gravy train only to be left behind. There too was a stigma attached to some stars who wandered over to TV town, for just as Television became both a welcoming place of refuge for aging movie icons-- where studios would gladly profit off their notoriety-- TV debuts could also be seen as their fall from grace: "This guy, he used to be big! Now look at him..."

One of the biggest celebs to give television a go was Judy Garland. Judy, whom Fred Astaire once dubbed "the greatest entertainer who ever lived," endured a very public series of ups and downs in her career. Overworked and doped at MGM, everyone's favorite little girl matured into a very nervous and high-strung woman. Her addictions to drugs and alcohol would remain a constant throughout her life, and it was only her love of singing that could at times propel her through her personal haze of confusion, lethargy, and man-handling, to the place where she truly shined brightest--the stage! While her (occasionally canceled) live performances kept her busy for the majority of her adulthood, she also was an always welcome surprise as a guest on various television programs. With her witty humor and hammy storytelling, Judy's reminiscences on her many interviews with TV personalities like Jack Paar (right) were consistently and thoroughly entertaining, especially to nostalgic viewers who still remembered her trip down the yellow brick road. Judy was also a notorious bull-sh*tter, and one could never be certain whether she was being honest, embellishing, or completely fabricating a grand story on the spot, but that was part of her charm-- as was her sharp but slightly naughty repartee.

Soon enough, CBS offered Judy her own show, during which she would, of course, perform songs and chat it up, as only she could, with random guests. This could have been a huge turning point in Judy's life. Looking for a chance to rebuild herself, she was ecstatic at the opportunity and, after getting healthy, was looking better than ever by the time shooting began. Fueled by optimism, she was also more cooperative than she had been in years and collaborated well with the entire production team. Fittingly, her first guest was Mickey Rooney (left)! Unfortunately, the show bit the dust when the network changed management, and suddenly Judy's natural style was not considered "suitable." To her dismay, her team was dissembled, the format was altered, and instead of being devious, genius, glamorous Judy, she was supposed to play the fallen idol who was the butt of America's joke. Her stalled career, her weight fluctuation, and her failed marriages, were regularly used to mock her on the air, to which she always brilliantly played along, but the ploy didn't work. Judy was expected to be Judy, and audiences didn't like her being brought down to earth with the mortals. As such, they stopped tuning in. As for Judy, she became severely depressed and fell back on her old patterns. It was a huge opportunity lost purely from bad business.

The good news, at least in Judy's case, though she certainly had trouble seeing it at the time, was that it wasn't her that was rejected by viewers but the show's style. A few other sufferers fell into this category, including Robert Mitchum. Bob had performed on television in various miniseries, such as "North and South," as well as in a fairly successful 1990 TV movie called "A Family for Joe" (right). The latter plot involved the coalition of four orphans who, in fear of being separated, elected a crotchety homeless man to pose as their "grandfather." Chaos, as expected, ensued. The network decided to adapt the film into a show, but as it turned out, people weren't interested in seeing Bob every week, particularly when playing an old buffoon with a heart of gold. Audiences liked his edgy versatility and reacted negatively and confusedly to his turn as a diluted, family-friendly archetype. As such, "Joe" was again rendered homeless after nine episodes. However, the show did spark the career of one Juliette Lewis. Bob and Juliette would re-team in a mere year for the Cape Fear re-make.

Errol Flynn (right) enjoyed a little more success in 1956 when he started "The Errol Flynn Theatre" anthology series-- a popular format of the time that produced weekly, unrelated stories and rotating performers. Filmed in London but aired in the United States, Errol hosted the series casually with the same, utter lack of pretension that made his small screen personality as charming as his big screen characters. He would perform in several of the episodes himself, which he also produced, and various other stars made appearances, including Christopher Lee, Paulette Goddard, Mrs. Flynn- Patrice Wymore- and even Errol's son, Sean. Always uncertain of his talents but eager to explore his range, the diverse plotlines and character roles allowed Errol to do some of his most interesting acting, which was more fitting to his years. However, Flynn was getting older, and it was perhaps for this reason that audiences didn't respond to the series. They preferred him in tights, forever young, and swashbuckling to victory. The show only lasted one season.

Jean Arthur, the Class Frown, also took a stab at the tube. After retiring from film and spending the majority of her later life on the stage-- that is, when she could muster up the courage and keep it together enough to perform-- Jean had only performed on one episode of "Gunsmoke" when she decided to go for it with her own series in 1966: "The Jean Arthur Show" (left). Always an intensely anxious and temperamental woman, Jean's inferiority complex caused problems from the very beginning. However, working against her even more was the show itself. The plot revolved around a female lawyer and her battle with a weekly case. She would always win the verdict, of course, but the style was that of heavy-handed comedy, and a little too much so. Jean's true brand of humor never derived from slap-stick nor from her being the butt of the joke. In her classic films, the laughs were much more situational wherein her wide-eyed reactions, dry humor, and iconic voice filled in the charm. As such, the context of the show and its jokes, which were far too on the nose and ridiculous, didn't work. (I said class frown, not clown, remember)? After the apparently always dependable Mickey Rooney made an appearance and upstaged Jean, she totally lost confidence, and a slew of other guest stars couldn't save her nor her show. She abandoned ship and left TV for good!

Hey, look who it is!

Changing stations, the next crew of TV trespassers were actually able to find mild success. More career-conscious entertainers and business-minded actors/actresses saw television as an opportunity as opposed to a death knell. As such, a lot of former and current stars broadened their fan base and bulked up their resumes by making the lucrative decision to join the realm of the telly. The reasons for this were both tactical and professional, examples of which can be seen in the cases of divas Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan. Neither woman opted to insult the "idiot box" with diversion, as clearly said 'box' was smart enough to get people across the nation to stare at it transfixed for hours on end. Babs was drawn to the TV-experiment more for her passionate need to work-- the all consuming drive in her life-- while Ann was just a practical and easy-going lady who was up for anything. Both of their gambles were relatively successful. Ann participated quite a bit in various shows, like "Wagon Train," or "The Lux (as in Soap) Theatre," which showcased abbreviated movies with guest stars and introduced such up and comers as Grace Kelly and James Dean to the world. An open fan of television, Ann also proudly proclaimed her love of soap operas, which she found absolutely addictive. This eventually led to her one season participation on "Another World." Her greatest success was appearing on her own series, "Pistols 'n' Petticoats" (right), though cancer would sadly claim her before the first season finished. Reviews weren't particularly friendly, unfortunately, so it is questionable whether it would have continued had she survived.

For her part, Babs-- as per usual-- hit one out of the park when she appeared on the hit television show "The Big Valley" (left) in the latter part of the sixties. Lasting four years, this show gave her a comfortable income, provided her with her favorite brand of storytelling-- the Western-- and earned her a place in broadcast history. While the show wasn't a huge sensation, it had a good run, and generations not familiar with her film work got to know her through this program. Babs continued seeking out opportunities, taking jobs here and there in the rare TV movie, but she hit her stride again with some coups in the '80s, including a guest spot on "Charlie's Angels." There was even talk of doing a male version of "Angels" with Barbara taking the role of their female Bosley! No dice (fortunately), but Babs had success with her powerful performance in the controversial mini-series "The Thorn Birds" and her participation in everyone's favorite guilty pleasure: "Dynasty." In fact, Aaron Spelling gave her her own spin-off, "The Colbys," but pro though she was, Babs found the material so ridiculous that she bailed out early. As she was aging and in poor health, she sadly would not make any more contributions. This was a painful thing for the always feisty Barbara, who became quite despondent in her last years. Her need to build and craft was denied her by her frail condition. She would confide to a friend that she had always hoped to "go out" in some wild or heroic fashion. Thus, ending her days helpless in bed was, to her, the ultimate of life's cruelties.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013


"Two of these girl are not like the others": This picture depicts 6 starlets
labeled as Paramount's upcoming ingenues. Four of them got
to Hollywood with a publicity lift. (Clockwise from top left:
Grace Bradley, Ann Sheridan, Katherine DeMille,
Wendy Barrie, Gertrude Michael, & Gail Patrick).

Ann Sheridan (left) had a little unexpected help getting to Hollywood-- unexpected because it was totally indirect. You see, the genesis of the "Contest to Fame" ploy goes back much further than today's "So You Think You Can Dance" and "The Voice" competitions, (give me a high-five if you think my pal Jessica Childress was totally robbed on the latter. For example, long before Clara Lou Sheridan's "Search for Beauty" win, another Paramount leading lady used a similar contest to get her ticket West: Clara Bow. Movie lover Clara won the Movie Picture Classics "Fame and Fortune Contest" of 1921, and many others would follow in her "Well, it's worth a shot" wake (see here). More importantly, it was because of the later, highly publicized contest for the casting of the "Panther Woman" in Island of Lost Souls that Paramount almost immediately instigated the next year's "Search for Beauty" contest. The amount of lovely talent that the studio was able to pick up from the "Panther Woman of America" hopefuls turned out to be a real coup!

Though only one woman could win, of course, the Lost Souls gag introduced Paramount to Grace Bradley, Gertrude Michael, and perhaps the most familiar, Gail Patrick-- known for her cleverly bitchy love-to-hate-her roles in My Man Godfrey and My Favorite Wife. All of the gals earned contracts due to their entries. Yet, the woman now forever known as the Panther Woman was Kathleen Burke (right), who would enjoy a fairly brief but memorable career-- in addition to her initial prize of a free five-week stay at the Ambassador Hotel-- because of her fortunate feline fame. Her sleek figure and large eyes definitely fit the bill for her first film role in Lost Souls. Another of her memorable works was the bizarre and iconic early horror film Murders at the Zoo. As a direct result of this pulchritudinous recruitment, Paramount stable initiatied the "Search for Beauty" contest, Ann's sister-- Kitty-- entered her photo into the mix, and Ann was chosen as a finalist and eventually became the only member of her pack of winners to obtain not only moderately successful but full-blown, movie star career. But, the joke was on Paramount, because it was Warner Brothers that would give that to her. Of course, Gail, Kathleen, and the girls had actually helped a bit too.

Discoveries are strange things. Some actors work for years or even decades before they attain a sliver of notoriety (or money) for their "cinespian" efforts. Then, there are those regular, every day people who are just minding their own business when show-business taps them on the shoulder-- see Lana Turner. Carole Lombard (left) was something in-between. She was "discovered" early, forgotten for some years, and finally able to force her way back into the industry. The almighty finger of fate that chose her future for her was attached to none other than director Allan Dwan, one of the biggest silent filmmakers in history. He just so happened to spot the 12-year-old Carole in her usual, tomboyish get-up playing pick-up baseball with her brother Stuart and some of the other neighborhood boys. It was serendipitous, because Allan was struggling to find a character just like Carole-- then called Jean Peters-- to play the role Monte Blue's kid sister in The Perfect Crime. As Allan watched Carole "knocking the Hell out of the other kids," he knew that he had found his girl. Carole was cast, much to her surprise and enjoyment, and though she only worked two days on the film, she considered the experience a blast. In fact, she decided then and there that an actress was just what she wanted to be! She had taken acting classes before, but it had only been in fun. Now, it was serious. After three years of nothin', Carole would re-enter the film biz-- first as Jane, then as Carol, then as Carole-- and after a lot of extra work and due paying, she got what she wanted: superstardom. Had Allan picked another girl that day, Carole might not have known that she was born to crack us up!

Joel McCrea (right) was one guy who got around. In addition to being William S. Hart's paper boy and good friend of fellow rodeo rider and future actor/governor Rex Bell (otherwise known as Mr. Bow), he also rubbed elbows with one of the most famous women in the history of film: Greta Garbo. It seems an unlikely pairing, if only because Garbo rarely rubbed anything with anyone, so much did she value her space and privacy. Joel's luck was catching an up-close glimpse of the Swedish Sphinx before she had become an American sensation and forever turned inward. In other words, he found her pre-jaded. At the age of fourteen, Joel was working as an extra and stunt double at MGM, and it just so happened that he was able to get a gig on the film that would be Greta's first American release-- Torrent. Interestingly enough, Joel was getting paid to be Greta's double on the film, which at the time,  he probably didn't see as too monumental, since no one really knew who Garbo was yet. If anything, it probably hurt his pride that he was playing a girl!

In any event, Jeol put his equal love of horses to work on the job, which was to "ride a horse onto the seen and pull him up so sharply that he would slide through the mud on his hind legs." This, Joel dutifully performed twice, but then, the surprisingly maternal and youthful Greta (left) insisted that she replace him. The stunt was too dangerous; he might be hurt! Joel was touched by her concern and dashing heroics, but he and the rest of the cast and crew were nonplussed with her resulting stunt work. It was Joel's performance in that sequence that made the final cut. Though Greta had tried to come to his aid, I guess you could say that it was actually Joel who helped her get her start in the American movie industry.

Myrna Loy also had some unexpected help from a Knight in Shining Armor-- or should I say, "Amour?" Myrna's dreams had not always been geared specifically toward film. In truth, she longed to be a dancer and had filled her childhood days by designing elaborate costumes and performing shows in her yard. Yet, by the time she was in her late teens, her dreams and her fate were starting to merge. She was working then as a dancer at the Egyptian Theatre when it hosted big premieres with live pre-shows and scenes. Then, in 1925, her grace and unusual features, which made the intelligent and well-bred girl from Montana look quite exotic (right), earned her a sitting with photographer Henry Waxmen, leading to her alluring figure and visage being on two-dimensional display on the Egyptian walls. 

Henry also kept these shots at his studio, of course, which is where heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (left) saw them. He knew in his heart that he had spotted a star! Myrna's misleading, vixen looks made Rudy think that she was perfect for the role of "Mary Drake" in his upcoming project, Cobra with Nita Naldi. He got her a screen test, which the untrained novice unfortunately bombed, and the role went to Gertrude Olmstead instead. Yet, Myrna had obviously made enough of an impression on both Rudy and his wife, Natacha Rambova, to earn herself a small role in the latter's pet project What Price Beauty?-- a satire on the cosmetics industry. Unfortunately, Rudy didn't turn out to be much of a Pygmalion, due to his shocking and early death the following year, but his small invitation to another world opened a door to the career Myrna was born for, and she did all right by herself-- from extra girl, to bit player, to supporting lead, to leading lady extraordinaire. (Interestingly, Myrna would remember Rudy as a happy-go-lucky, friendly guy while  she though Natacha seemed a bit of a slave-driver. Their marriage seemed more child-parent than husband-wife).

Ginger Rogers (right) was also the kind of person to help someone out, particularly family. This explains the brief cinematic career of her maternal cousin Helen Brown Nichols of Kansas City. Almost as soon as Ginger starting working steadily in feature films, she called on Helen and suggested that she try her hat at the acting biz too. Ginger offered more than entre, for she was the one who also suggested Helen's stage name, which was to be Phyllis Fraser. Phyllis didn't tarry in the biz too long, but the experience was certainly a stepping stone to other things, including her literary aspirations. However, there is another pseudo-relative of Ginger's in the famous Hollywood pool. 

You see, Ginger's aunt Jean Owens  was married to actor Vinton Hayworth. Vinton began working in films in the mid '30s and his impressive career extended to the end of his life in 1970. His most memorable work was on television, which included appearances on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Green Acres," and "I Dream of Jeannie." Coincidentally, his natural niece was Rita Hayworth, his sister Volga's daughter! When Margarita Cansino made it big (see left), she took her mother's last name as part of her stage name, and Vinton, who up to this point had been performing as "Jack Arnold," made a lucrative decision and followed suit. While this doesn't make Rita and Ginger blood relatives, the matrimony of Vinton and Jean did unite these two ladies as cousins-in-law. Makes you wonder if they ever chit-chatted at family reunions...

Speaking of relations, Anne Baxter (right) sort of had art in her blood. The maternal granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright, the legendary architect, little Anne grew up with expectations for greatness and the notion that utilizing and sharing one's talents was a necessity. Anne saw her way to contribute to the family glory when she attended a play starring the always remarkable Helen Hayes. That was that. Acting was the thing. Of course, those acting classes with Maria Ouspenskaya also helped her along past the point of sheer willpower.  By the age of thirteen, the ambitious youth had appeared on Broadway! By the age of fifteen, she was auditioning for the role of "Becky Thatcher" in a cinematic adaptation of Tom Sawyer. Making this moment even more exciting to the wannabe ingenue was her scene partner in the screen test-- the eighteen-year-old Montgomery Clift! 

While Anne would recall that his perfect beauty was marked with a few pimples, she would admit that the blemishes did not detract from his already breath-taking handsomeness. Of course, Monty (left) was not to be outdone by Anne's resume. He had performed very successfully onstage, including his recent praised-- albeit brief-- performance in "Yr. Obedient Husband" as 'Lord Finch.' Coincidentally, the leading man in this play was Fredric March, who reflected years later that he knew right away that the hypnotic Monty was "going places." But, back to Anne... The duo got along swimmingly during the audition process, but unfortunately were not cast as Tom and Becky. Who was??? Exactly. Big mistake, casting directors. BIG. Anywho, Monty-- whom Anne recalled as being both "hyperactive" and "hypersincere"-- very courteously invited her to a show at Carnegie Hall to take the burn off the harsh slap in the face that they had both received. No matter, they would team up later with none other than Alfred Hitchcock in I Confess! Some years had passed, but both got where they were going, separately but together.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Ann Sheridan, sporting her popular horned hair-do.
It was fitting, as Ann was a bit of a Devil!

The most lasting impression Ann Sheridan left on Hollywood was her congenial sense of humor. An unaffected girl-next-door with chutzpah, she enjoyed a laugh or clever quip, and she was always a good sport when she was teased or pranked. This turned out to be a good thing, for she was certainly the butt of the joke on more than one occasion. The most notorious example occurred very much in the public eye. Ann's career was beginning to gain real momentum by 1940. She had made some noteworthy appearances in major motion pictures, she had been dubbed the "Oomph Girl," and she was a bona fide movie star enjoying her moment in the sun. Proof of her public power was displayed when she attended the preview of her latest film, It All Came True, in April. Enduring the usual press junket and ballyhoo, Ann was suddenly surprised by the appearance of a 19-year-old UCLA student-- Dick Brunnenkamp-- at her side. Before she could blink, the kid had handcuffed himself to her! Not only that, but he had swallowed the key!!! Chaos and flashing cameras ensued. Dick's excuse was that he was fulfilling a bet he had made with his fraternity. Though the cuff on her wrist was probably a bit uncomfortable, Ann was pretty laid-back about the whole thing, aside from being confused and very inconvenienced by the scam. While the boy was probably really just looking to gain attention for himself and enjoy his own fifteen minutes of fame-- literally fifteen minutes, as that was how long it took to get a locksmith-- it was Ann who walked away the true winner, with even more frantic publicity and fan devotion.

The hijinks often did not involve Ann's fan base, however. Most of the time, the gags came from within studio walls, generally with her adoring pack of male friends. The major player on this list was Humphrey Bogart. Considering Bogie's unsavory and somewhat embarrassing history with women-- including the battered husband situation-- it is somewhat surprising that this ultimate guy's guy and future leader of the Rat Pack was best buds with a girl. But then, Ann wasn't just any girl. The two worked together many times-- San Quentin, They Drive by Night, etc-- but they never played love interests. This fit well with their private relationship, which was very brother-sister. Bogie loved to poke fun at Ann, whom he referred to as "Miss Pushface of 1893" after her "Oomph" title, which she hated, was bestowed. They played practical jokes on each other from pretty much the moment they met, and they enjoyed an ongoing competition of "who can get whose goat!" (Together in It All Came True, left).

For example: Ann bought Bogie a  very special gift: a genuine Gene Autry toy gun, which mocked his pistol-toting, tough guy roles. He got his revenge by telling Ann about a plum upcoming part that would really give her a chance to show her acting chops. So eager was Ann to prove her talents beyond her physical attributes that she was soon ignorantly campaigning all over Warner Brothers for the important period role of Fanny Hill-- the heroine of England's earliest pornographic novel. Whoops! Ann was back for round three when she, with John Huston's help, staged a cameo as a prostitute in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Expecting an unknown, featured actress to turn the corner in the brief street scene, Bogie spun to offer his character's scripted dismissal of the harlot only to find his gal pal lifting her skirt to reveal a tattoo that said, "Annie!" It is doubtful that Ann made it into the final cut of the film-- it's definitely not her in the close-up, but she may be  the black-wigged woman seen in a long shot. At the very least, Bogie got a good laugh out of it. As Ann herself said, "He was a dirty rat, but I loved that man" (see right).

Another stud in Ann's bro barn was the handsome Errol Flynn. It is occasionally rumored that the duo enjoyed a brief affair, though Ann always maintained that they were no more than chums. This seems to be the case, as they certainly remained pals for the extent of Errol's short life. They worked together for the first time in Dodge City, and while most of Errol's attentions were then devoted to his other female co-star, Olivia de Havilland, with whom he professed to be occasionally in love, Ann also charmed him with her usual, easy-going, down-to-earth personality. By the time they began filming Silver River (left), Errol had labeled Ann as his favorite comedy guinea piglet, perhaps because she had so kindly taught him the nifty trick of injecting oranges with liquor so they could enjoy a "healthy" snack while shooting. (Actually sounds pretty good...). Ann cracked one day that the uncomfortable wire bustle she wore as part of her wardrobe for the film looked like a bird cage. The next day, she entered her dressing room to find two finicky parrots, while Errol, director Raoul Walsh, and the rest of the crew, laughed hysterically outside! But Ann gave as good as she got. When she stumbled upon the boys sharing some celebratory cigars-- one of the crew members had just become a proud Papa-- Ann acted hurt that she hadn't been included. Errol naturally chided her and egged her on. Thus, while shooting their next scene, Errol was surprised to find Ann before him with his own cigar planted firmly in her pout. Walsh said she always kept things lively on the set.

Despite his stern and overly dramatic demeanor, William S. Hart (right) was a Boy at Heart. While he wasn't usually the instigator of dramatic gags-- he wasn't enough of a conniving scoundrel-- he certainly enjoyed partaking when a prank seemed worthy. One of the fellas that could recruit Bill in a joke was the one and only theatre impresario Sid Grauman. Hence the following situation: Paramount big-wigs Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky were aboard a train en route to San Francisco, assumedly to enjoy the usual mix of travel and business associated with running such a huge studio. Yet, the peaceful ride from Pasadena Station turned out to be more than the suits had bargained for. After about an hour on the tracks, the train suddenly came to a screeching halt.  The confused passengers started craning their necks out the windows to figure just what had happened, then word starting spreading like wildfire that they were being held up! 

Now a bit nervous, Zukor and Lasky peeked outside to see a very imposing line of men in western garb surrounding their car with guns at the ready. Before their wide eyes had even adjusted to this imagery, two train robbers hopped aboard and stood before them: one was short with a large sombrero and mask, and the other was very tall, wearing a cowboy hat (culprit left) with a kerchief covering his lower face. While the held-up studio reps mentally started counting the golden doubloons in their pockets, the reality of the situation began to register. Zukor took a closer look. After squinting his eyes, he realized that the renegades looked familiar... When he knew that he had been fooled, Hart and Grauman revealed themselves. It took a bit of explaining to calm the rest of the passengers down, but eventually, the plot-- which the train's crew had helped conspire-- was revealed and the initial, fearful shivering turned into guffaws of laughter. It would take a showman (and money man) like Sid to orchestrate such a fiasco, but naturally, the acting talents of Hart helped.

Not everyone was so light-hearted when it came to tomfoolery. Clark Gable, for example, was actually a rather serious guy, and it took the feisty humor of his short-lived soul mate Carole Lombard to loosen him up a bit. Of course, when he lost her, Clark turned grave again and disappeared into a guilt-ridden spiral of self-loathing and alcoholism. Ironically, he would take a shine to Miss Congeniality, Ann Sheridan, and it is rumored that the two had a little liaison themselves. Perhaps this is true, and it would make sense, given that Ann's spirit of fun was very much in keeping with Carole's own delinquent deviance. Still, when he was on the set, unless surrounded by close and trusted friends, Clark always arrived on time, stuck to the script, hit his marks, and kept to business. He would struggle with this pattern throughout his final picture, The Misfits, when he was teamed with the temperamental and often inebriated duo of Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. Clark had a soft spot for both (see with MM, right), but was irritated by their occasional unstable behavior, which he deemed unprofessional. To boot, he was annoyed by the odd Method approach that both actors seemed to use, which he felt wasted far too much time and unnecessary discussion. Clark was a "just do it" kind of guy. 

So, the secretly self-conscious actor was not exactly on cloud nine when photographer Ernst Haas arrived on assignment to capture the cast, crew, and horses in action. It was one more annoyance that Clark couldn't bare, but he appreciated that Ernst at least kept out of the way and wasn't invasive. One day, Ernst was given the opportunity to watch some rushes. Not knowing that Mr. Gable was behind him, he was asked by a baiting grip what he thought of Clark's performance. Fortunately, Ernst had been very impressed with the touching and gutsy portrayal he had witnessed from the legend, who did some of his most compelling work in the film. Thus, his answer in reference to the previously viewed scene was: "It knocked me on my ass!" With that, a hefty bellow of laughter issued from behind him, and he felt the firm grip of a large hand on his shoulder. Initially embarrassed at his foul-mouthed response, Ernst quickly realized that his down and dirty, no-nonsense answer had won him the respect and friendship of the unknowable Clark Gable. Clark lightened up after that and even offered to help in getting some prize photo-ops for the young picture-taker. What a difference a laugh makes! (A hint of a smile, right).

Cary Grant was yet another co-star that Ann Sheridan had fun working with. While the two enjoyed each other's company tremendously, they would be considered more friendly acquaintances than "thick thieves." The reason was perhaps a matter of humor. Ann was much more bawdy, earthy, and sharp in her wisecracking. Cary, on the other hand, came from the old school of vaudeville slap-stick, punchline, and drummed buh-dum chink quips. He also, like Gable, was privately a much more serious man than many ever realized. Part of his protection from some of his personal pains was his projected image of perfection. Style certainly gave him a sense of control (left), which is why he gelled better with more polite and refined women like BFF Grace Kelly and, upon their teaming in Charade, Audrey Hepburn. Their female sensitivity also offered safe harbor to the little boy in him who was searching for the nurturing and comfort that was denied him as a child. 

"All man" but not what one would consider a "man's man," Cary opted for elegance and conversation over rough-housing and high-school hijinks, which made him contrast sharply with his other Charade co-star, Walter Matthau. Matthau (right) was the physical opposite of Cary, being a bit oafish and not exactly conventionally attractive. His uniquely unrefined voice has become as equally identifiable as the cockney Cary's, yet for very different reasons. Cary was aristocratic; Walter was a crotchety wisecracker from Nowhereville. Cary would get a very surprising introduction to Walter's "sufferin' succotash" repartee and unexpected, off-the-cuff sense of humor very early during production. James Coburn would bear witness to this while meeting Cary for the first time himself. Chatting with the eternal, cinematic leading man in his dressing room, the duo would be interrupted when Walter poked his infamous nose in: "Hey Jim, how are you?" he asked. "Did you ever see anybody do a better impression of Cary Grant than this guy?" With that, Walter shuffled away, leaving 'this guy' with an indescribable look on his face. It is perhaps the only time in history that anyone flustered Cary Grant. 

Cary in his most ridiculous and clowning role, Arsenic and Old Lace,
which (not surprisingly) he considered his worst performance.
I still love it!