Friday, December 25, 2009

The "Miracle" Worker

With Christmas comes the remembrance of holiday movies and, with the recollection of those, comes one of the most enduring, Miracle on 34th Street. Miracle contains one of the most famous and memorable performances by a child actor, Miss Natalie Wood as Susan Walker.

Wood was born to parents of Russian descent as Natalia Zakharenko, which later evolved into Natasha Gurdin, Natasha being a nickname and Gurdin a new last name taken by her father for their family, presumably to have one more pronounceable to their American acquaintances. Later, she would be given the name Natalie Wood as her career in films took on life.

Director Irving Pichel stumbled upon Natalie while filming a movie called Happy Land in her hometown of Santa Rosa, California. Natalie’s mother (a “stage mother” in every possible negative way) had striven to get her into the film as an extra, along with herself. Though the mother Maria (who nearly everyone close to her referred to with the nickname “Mud”) drove Pichel and others crazy, causing only her legs to be shown in the scene, Wood impressed him enough for him to promise to help her if she ever came to Hollywood to pursue a career.

With that, Mrs. Gurdin moved her daughter to the film capital, where it was harder to break into films than she had imagined. Still, Pichel stood by his word and cast Natalie in her first four films (including the initial Happy Land.)

The one in which she really got a big build-up and made an unforgettable impression was the tear-jerker Tomorrow is Forever, starring Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles. Look at her cute little picture and blurb to the side of the primary stars' looming visages! The story (a rather far-fetched and unabashedly sentimental one, which, of course, I adore!) concerned young marrieds Colbert and Welles who are separated when he goes off to fight in WWI. He never comes home and is declared dead and Colbert eventually marries George Brent and has a son, Richard Long (actually Welles'.) When Brent’s work involves a scientist colleague from Europe, Colbert senses something very familiar about him as well she should. It’s Welles! There's the added pressure that Colbert's son Long is eager to run off to fight in WWII.

Welles is now older and semi-disfigured from injuries during the war and he has in tow a little refugee girl whose parents where killed by the Nazis. This is where Wood comes into the picture. At seven years of age, she steals scenes from all the principle actors and gives a magnificently touching performance.

Granted, it’s made more touching knowing that Wood’s own life would end in an ugly tragedy, but she’s perfectly adorable and delicate. Her scenes with the comparatively mammoth Welles surely gave her the experience and confidence to make the later Miracle scenes with Edmund Gwenn more effortless.

A year later, Wood found herself working on Miracle on 34th Street with Gwenn and the leads John Payne and Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara was reluctant to make the film because she’d recently returned to her native Ireland and wished to stay longer, but fell in love with the script when she read it and changed her mind.
It took a special, pragmatic and frank type of little girl to portray Susan, a child who has been brought up skeptically and who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Wood came through with a performance that was the first of several of hers that would be considered touchstones in her varied career. The child worked on every role with a dedication and diligence that was rare, even in adults, so eager to please was she. By now, she was supporting her entire family.

Natalie was an obedient child who did what she was told (often ordered!) to do, but she was also a shy and frequently frightened young girl. Her mother had been told early on by a fortune teller that Natalie must always avoid dark water and Mrs. Gurdin, always with a tendency toward the dramatic anyway, made this known to her daughter.

Nonetheless, when a scene in 1949’s The Green Promise called for Natalie to cross a rickety bridge in a storm and fall into the water, she was pushed into doing it. Money and the appearance of cooperation (in order to secure future jobs) were points of interest for her mother. The bridge was destroyed too early, before she was all the way across it and she was injured. For the remainder of her life, Natalie Wood would have a continued fear of water and would also wear a thick bracelet of some kind on her left wrist to cover a “disfigurement” caused by the accident.

It is believed that the protruding bone in her wrist was a somewhat minor thing, but Wood was a perfectionist about her appearance. It is exceedingly rare to find a photo of her in which she is not made up and dressed in an attractive manner. It’s fascinating to watch her in movies or photos from 1949 on and take note of which piece of jewelry has been chosen to mask this “flaw.”

Jill Whelan who was teenage Vicki on The Love Boat has remarked about the humiliation of having to age from 12 to 20 on national television, each awkward period documented on film for all to see. So it is that many child stars enter that same phase and VERY few come out on the other side.

Natalie was consistently busy and played the child of some very famous actors, however, even she went through a gangly period. In 1950, she was daughter to Margaret Sullavan, whose character was terminally ill with cancer, in the movie No Sad Songs for Me. Wood was uncharacteristically grating and pesky and more than a little awkward. Two years later, she was an onscreen daughter to Bette Davis in The Star. She was still in that uncomfortable in-between stage, but struck up a good relationship with Davis. Davis reportedly went to bat for Wood when the director wanted her to jump into the ocean in one scene. The two would remain friendly for the rest of Wood’s life.

After working on a brief TV series called The Pride of the Family (which she loathed) and a movie called The Silver Chalice (a Biblical epic starring Paul Newman that was bad enough that he later apologized for it when it aired on television!), she realized that if her career was going to go the direction she wanted it to, she was going to have to win stronger roles and get herself out of pigtails and pinafores. This new attitude permeated her personal life as well and she began acting out sexually with men, often ones older than her, and her mother usually turned a blind eye. Wood briefly dated a prominent actor/producer while still underage and was brutally raped, but never pressed any charges in order to avoid scandal. The name of the actor has never officially been revealed, but will likely be in a few years.

It was round this time that she campaigned for the role of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause, going far enough (at 16!) to bed down the director Nicholas Ray who was in his early 40s. That affair did not lead to her getting the role. It was only after she was involved in a car accident with Dennis Hopper and a hospital staff member referred to her as a juvenile delinquent that Ray rethought the situation and granted her the role. She earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her work. For me, one of the more affecting scenes was when she attempted to kiss her own father and was slapped in the face for her trouble.

Her next film role was a small, but pivotal, one. She played the object of The Searchers, a key western starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. Wood portrays the niece of Wayne, who has been captured by a savage Indian chief called Scar. It is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the very best, examples of the genre ever to come out of Hollywood. She isn’t seen until the final sequences of the movie, but when she appears, she gives the film an assured presence and an appealing persona.

Unfortunately for her, she was then utilized in lesser projects that paired her with Tab Hunter. A big publicity campaign attempted to make them into a star duo and, though they liked each other very much as friends, the films didn’t ignite the box office. The first one was a western called The Burning Hills while the second was about a boys entrance into the service called The Girl He Left Behind (which they couple laughingly referred to as "The Girl with the Left Behind!")

Wood attempted varied roles including that of a biracial girl in Kings Go Forth, but it wasn’t until the one-two punch of Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story in 1961 that her success as a major Hollywood leading lady was truly assured.

From there a number of successes and failures were in store, just as they are for anyone who tries to navigate a long-term career in the fickle world of entertainment. Her personal life eventually led her to temporarily back away from her career as well. Married to Robert Wagner in 1957, a man she had idolized since running into him when she was 10, they were considered the dream Hollywood couple until they divorced in 1962. She had many, many splashy relationships before marrying British producer Richard Gregson in 1969. Longing to be a wife and mother, she scaled back her workload in the 1970s, doing only two feature films that decade along with several TV appearances.

When Gregson cheated on her with her own secretary, she divorced him and almost simultaneously reconnected with Wagner, who she had never stopped loving despite some significant problems within their first marriage. However, they remarried in 1972 and enjoyed what appeared to be a decade of true bliss with each other. Something had happened along the way that allowed her to accept Wagner, warts and all, and vice-versa.

Her controversial and mysterious drowning death in 1981 shook the world. She remains a figure of worship to many people still, either for her splendid work as a child actress or for her later, more dramatic work or for both. Today on December 25th, however, the Underworld tips its hat to the precious little girl who delivered touching and knowing performances in her films, including, of course, Miracle on 34th Street.


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