Friday, July 6, 2012

Another "Word"

Last December, I chimed in with some comments and pictures regarding my very favorite extra feature on TCM, their Word of Mouth interview segments. In them, old stars (and sometimes crew members) recollect the details of a particular film or film personality. It’s such a great chance to see more recent glimpses of the actors and actresses who worked during the glory days of movie-making. All of the pictures here may be enlarged by clicking on them (or right-clicking and opening them in a new tab or window.) You can see my initial installment here. Now, on to a few more!

Sometimes, we do tend to mentally embalm a celebrity if it’s been a while since we’ve seen him or her. Such was the case when Robert Stack was interviewed for Word of Mouth. True, I didn’t expect him to look like the co-pilot in The High and the Mighty (1954) or the handsome drunk of Written on the Wind (1956) or even the stern Rex Kramer of Airplane! (1980), but I think of him more as the slightly foreboding host of Unsolved Mysteries (1987 - 2002.) Perhaps I quit watching that show after the first few years because he died in 2003 at age eighty-four of a heart attack and I have no memory of him looking this gaunt. In his segment, he recalls playing a young Nazi in The Mortal Storm (1940.) It was only his second movie and the Second World War had only begun, with the U.S still not involved. Some visitors came to the set who had recently escaped the oppression of Hitler’s Germany and when they saw him and his costars in their uniforms, complete with swastikas, they screamed and promptly fainted dead away.
Few Hollywood producers were able to create and sustain the sort of legacy that MGM’s Irving Thalberg did (especially when one considers the fact that he died at only age thirty-seven and surely had many more great films to come!) In this Word of Mouth, composer (and one-time husband of Mia Farrow) Andre Previn recalls a sign that hung in one of the recording studios of MGM. It expressly forbids the use of a certain type of music, allegedly relayed to Thalberg by one of his lackeys when he determined he couldn’t stand the sound of some music in one of his films.

The sign read: “No music in an MGM film is to contain a minor chord,” a situation that could only bring bemusement and confusion to anyone with a strong musical background who happened to be working there. Thalberg may not have been an expert on music, but he was an expert at making high-quality movies. For his own part, Previn won four Oscars for his scoring (Gigi, Porgy and Bess, Irma la Douce and Jesus Christ Superstar) and earned many other nominations. Now seventy-three, he’s been busier lately with contemporary classical compositions.

When Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde (as the crooks’ hysterical cohort), she’d only appeared in one prior movie. In her Word of Mouth clip, she reflects on winning the Oscar and how, despite feeling honored, she was a little sad because she knew that she was, at heart, a stage actress and had no intention of pursuing a conventional movie career. While she was put to reasonable use in the late-’60s and early-’70s, she did continue to work on Broadway in at least twenty more productions after her Academy Award (and, in fact, is working there as I type in Nice Work If You Can Get It.) She is currently seventy-four years of age.
Having begun acting in films in 1938, perennially happy June Lockhart (recently featured in our tribute to famous Junes) has attained the remarkable distinction of having performed as a film (and later TV) actress for more than seventy years! In her Word of Mouth segment, she discusses the challenges of movement in period clothing (having worked in 1940’s All This, and Heaven Too, 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis and 1946’s The Yearling, to name just a few.) She recalls having worn petticoats or skirts in rehearsal in order to get used to the feeling and practicing her posture. Miss Lockhart is seventy-seven as of this writing and worked this year on an independent film.
Another actress whose career spanned a lengthy period was Ann Doran. Beginning at the age of four in scores of silent films, she went on to act as a young lady (using an assumed name to keep the profession a secret from her family) and eventually settled in as a reliable supporting player from the 1930s through the '80s. By 1955, she had established herself as a maternal screen presence and won the role of James Dean's mother in Rebel Without a Cause.  In her Word interview, she describes the intensity and spontaneity of the young actor and how he pushed her without warning in a scene. (In a contradictory moment, she claims it was only done once, in one take, but then the scene was shown afterwards with clear cutting from two angles!) Raymond Massey was driven to distraction and anger by Dean's methods during that same year's East of Eden, but Doran was seemingly more tolerant and appreciative of them.  Miss Doran died in 2000 of natural causes at the age of eighty-nine. She never married in real life.

Still another performer with a very long career span was Sir John Mills. He'd made his film debut in 1932 and proceeded to a busy, varied and well-received run as an actor.  Great Expectations (1945), Tunes of Glory, Swiss Family Robinson (both 1960) and Ryan's Daughter (1970), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, are only a few of his notable films. An early break for him was getting to play opposite Oscar-winner Robert Donat in 1939's Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which he recounts with gratitude in his interview here.

Mills was married the first time from 1927 to 1941 and the second time from directly after that until his death sixty-four years later!  That union brought the world Juliet Mills and Hayley Mills, actresses in their own right (along with a son.) When he died of a chest infection in 2005, he was ninety-seven years old and had worked on films as recently as the year before.

Egyptian actor Omar Sharif was a white-hot leading man of the cinema in the 1960s, thanks in no small part to his films for David Lean. True, he’d been a star in his home country since the mid-’50s, but it was 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia that shot him to international fame and 1965’s Doctor Zhivago which cemented it. In his Word of Mouth installment, he relays the fact that even though Lean worked no less than six times with Alec Guinness and considered him something of a good luck charm, the two men really didn’t get along all that well. Their personalities and styles of working weren’t particularly compatible. Mr. Sharif is eighty at present and hasn’t worked since 2009.
If Guinness was David Lean's good luck charm, then Virginia Grey was producer Ross Hunter's. Beginning in 1927 with Uncle Tom's Cabin (in which she, at age ten, portrayed Little Eva), Grey worked steadily as either a supporting player in A pictures or an occasional lead in B movies. When Carole Lombard died in 1942, Grey helped to salve the broken heart of her widower Clark Gable and it was believed that he would marry her, but it was not to be. He married another woman suddenly and Grey was crestfallen (and affected by it for years afterward.) From 1955 to 1976 (the year of her final performance), she worked in films and TV-movies produced by Ross Hunter eleven times.  A notable exception was 1973's Lost Horizon, which was a huge flop.  She died of heart failure in 2004 at the age of eighty-seven, having never wed.
One of the Broadway stage's treasured jewels (as well as television's and the movies' as well, though she doesn't feel that the film business ever gave her its best shot) is Miss Angela Lansbury. She certainly had an auspicious start in the movies, holding the record still as the only actress under twenty to land two Oscar nominations at that age. With Gaslight (1944), she lost to Ethel Barrymore in None But the Lonely Heart and with The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) the award went to Anne Revere in National Velvet (whose daughter Lansbury had played in that very film!) Before long, she was typecast as either shrewy wives or overbearing moms, often against performers who weren't that much younger than she was. 

It was in this capacity that she scored a third (and to date final) Oscar nomination.  She played Laurence Harvey's evil mother in 1962's The Manchurian Candidate. That year, Patty Duke took home the prize for The Miracle Worker. Lansbury has also been a perennial Emmy bridesmaid, scoring FIFTEEN nominations (mostly for Murder, She Wrote) and no win, but at least she has five Tony Awards with which to decorate her mantel. Married briefly to repressed homosexual actor Richard Cromwell from 1945 to 1946, her second marriage in 1949 was more successful, resulting in two children and lasting until his death in 2003. Still at it at age eighty-six, she is currently part of the cast of Broadway's The Best Man.

Another Broadway performer (and onetime costar of Lansbury in Hotel Paradiso) who make the move to films was Carleton Carpenter. After working in the 1949 film Lost Boundaries (in which Mel Ferrer played a light-skinned black man passing for white!), Carpenter appeared in Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy. His Word of Mouth interview relates the way Tracy gave him a nod of approval as to the simple, direct way he approached his work as an actor. During the early-1950s, Carpenter worked alongside major stars such as Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds, Burt Lancaster and Janet Leigh, but enduring fame as a movie actor was not to be his. Still, he worked steadily in TV and eventually became a rather successful author of mystery novels and stories and also composed quite a few songs over the course of his career. Carpenter is still alive today at age eighty-six, having never married.

Even the aforementioned Angela Lansbury couldn't top the auspicious start this next performer achieved in films. Having worked in a long-running stage production of Life With Father, she was spotted by producer Samuel Goldwyn and signed to a film contract. Her debut in 1941's The Little Foxes (as Bette Davis' daughter) netted an Oscar nomination, the winner being Mary Astor in The Great Lie (another Davis costar.) Then her next two films, Mrs. Miniver and Pride of the Yankees (both 1942), landed her an Oscar nomination for each one, giving her a three out of three record right out of the gate! In the leading category for Yankees, she lost to her Miniver costar Greer Garson, but in the supporting category she won.

This remarkable beginning was followed by terrific parts in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but, though she worked until the mid 1990s, there was no place to go but down. (Not that she went "down." She just could scarcely go "up" much further than that!) She was married twice, both times to writers, from 1942-1952 which gave her two children and again from 1959-1978. A sensitive, deliberately unglamorous actress with her sites set on acting versus stardom, she died in 2005 at the age of eighty-six.

On the flip side is the tall, nearly always glamorous and elegant Cyd Charisse, the dancing star of many MGM musicals. Though she'd been dancing in movies since 1941, her acting career took longer to emerge.  One early role as such was in The Harvey Girls (1946), which costarred Angela Lansbury (Kevin Bacon? How about Six Degrees of Angela Lansbury??) Her featured moves in 1952's Singin' in the Rain led to a costarring roles in The Band Wagon the following year. The year after that came Brigadoon, costarring Gene Kelly and directed by Vincente Minnelli who, as she reveals in her Word of Mouth interview, had load of real heather brought in to the studio in order to properly decorate and colorize the set. When the big musicals fell out of fashion, Charisse acted glitzy parts in several movies, but ultimately slowed down considerably. Her first marriage lasted from 1939 to 1947 and resulted in one son. Her second marriage to singer Tony Martin also produced a son and lasted sixty years (!) until her death in 2008 of a heart attack.  She was eighty-seven.

Eli Wallach has acted in feature films for over fifty years. Starting in 1956 with the controversial Baby Doll, he continued on (while also appearing on Broadway and on television) to craft many diverse, richly textured characters. One of his more indelible roles was as the villain Calvera in 1960's The Magnificent Seven, followed by his appearance in 1961's The Misfits with Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. In 1962, was asked to join the mammoth cast of the gargantuan film How the West Was Won, taking pleasure in once again playing a villain.

He also costarred with Clint Eastwood as a captivating baddie in the rousing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966 among many other movie projects big and small.  Though he won a Tony in 1951 for The Rose Tattoo (the later film version going to Burt Lancaster) and an Emmy in 1967 (for the truly pedestrian Poppies Are Also Flowers), he'd never once been nominated for an Oscar.  In 2010, he was granted an Honorary Academy Award.  Still alive at ninety-six and married to his wife since 1948, Ann Jackson, his most recent role was in 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

What wasn't to love about sour-faced, hilarious comedienne Kathleen Freeman? Born to a pair of Vaudeville performers, she was onstage by the tender age of two! Having toyed with the idea of becoming a piano instructor, she attended UCLA, but during a performance in a bit part of one of the school's plays, she got a laugh and the acting bug bit.  She would glean many more laughs during her long, busy career. Her roles weren't always big, but they were nearly always amusing. In 1952, she was cast as a dialect coach hired to cure Jean Hagen of her high-pitched, nasal voice in Singin' in the Rain.  For Word of Mouth, she described how Hagen was so much more well-rounded an actress than she was given credit for, adept at both comedy and drama. 

The words could easily have described Freeman, too, though unlike many comic performers, she was perfectly at home as a clown and enjoyed making people laugh, even considering it more a challenge than drama (and she was not alone in that assessment.) One of her big fans was Jerry Lewis, who utilized her about a dozen times over his career. She died in 2001 during the run of Broadway's The Full Monty (fittingly playing a sardonic pianist), for which she was Tony Award nominated, of lung cancer at the age of eighty-two.  Miss Freeman never married.

Claire Trevor practically disappeared from view in the mid-1960s, but beforehand had costarred in some of Hollywood's most beloved movies. After entering films in the early 1930s, she nominated for an Oscar for 1937's Dead End (losing to Alice Brady for In Old Chicago.) Then, she was the female lead in John Ford's legendary Stagecoach (1939) and stayed active thereafter. In 1948's Key Largo, she played the put-upon, alcoholic girlfriend of gangster Edward G. Robinson who, along with several others, is holed-up in a hotel during a hurricane. In one key scene, she is forced to sing a number against her will and Trevor was quite nervous about it, with plans to take voice lessons. Director John Huston stunned her by filming the scene without her having had a chance to prepare, which lent a tense, unsure, demeaning air to it.  The result was a Best Supporting Actress nomination and eventual award!

She was nominated once again for 1954's The High and the Mighty, but that year the statuette went to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront. Miss Trevor made a surprise comeback in 1982's Kiss Me Goodbye as Sally Field's abrasive mother and worked on TV a few times thereafter before retiring for good. She was married three times, twice for four years apiece (with a son born during the second one) and the third to producer Milton Bren lasting thirty-one years until his death.  They had a son together, too, who was later killed in a plane crash, followed by Bren's death about a year after that in 1979. Thus, things weren't always rosy for this stalwart performer, but doesn't she look great here? She and her husband's extraordinary generosity to the University of California, Irvine drama department resulted in the renaming of the school in her honor following her death in 2000 of respiratory ailments.  She was ninety-one.

Jane Greer had quite an eventful start in life, winning baby contests before singing with a big band as a teen. At age fifteen, she suffered facial paralysis and it was through the muscle-manipulating recovery process from that that she considered the craft of acting. First she did some modeling work, however. An appearance on the cover of Life magazine brought the controlling hand of billionaire Howard Hughes, who signed her to a movie contract, yet scarcely used her at first, attempting to hold her like a possession. She tried to break away with a quickie marriage to Rudy Vallee, but Hughes managed to break it up within seven months.

Eventually, she emerged as the potentially dangerous heroine of several film noir classics. On one of them, Out of the Past (1947), director Jacques Tournier wanted her to give away practically nothing in the face, something she found interesting and different, having worked so hard on her expressions following the teenage paralysis. She married again in 1947 and had three sons, all the while maintaining a career. The marriage ended in 1963 and she proceeded to spend nearly forty years with fellow actor Frank London. Her appearances were quite scarce past the early-'60s, lending a measure of class to the squalid Where Love Has Gone in 1964, but she did work off and on until the early-to-mid-'90s.  She died of cancer in 2001 at age seventy-six.

In The Underworld, we love Peter Graves, the star of Mission: Impossible and Airplane! among other projects.  Something about that tan skin, blue eyes and prematurely-silver hair that he sported in his prime is mighty appealing. Graves began to work in films back in 1951, often in bit parts. By the mid-'50s, he'd graduated to more featured roles and landed one as the ne'er do well father of two children in Night of the Hunter in 1955. Directed by Charles Laughton in his only film behind the camera, he, like many of us still are, was in awe of the masterful way that Laughton composed the movie.

Graves worked steadily, but it was his 1967 addition to the cast of Mission: Impossible that made him a household name. That series ended in 1973 and he continued to stay busy until 1980's Airplane! helped introduce him to a whole new slate of fans. He spent seven years hosting the once-great A&E's Biography and, in fact, continued working practically up till his death in 2010 of a heart attack.  Eighty-three when he died, he'd been married for sixty years to the same woman and raised three daughters.

One actress who had a rather charmed beginning in the movies was Janet Leigh. As a young girl who was so intelligent that she skipped grades and wound up in college before she was sixteen, her photo was seen by retired actress Norma Shearer who gave it to one of her connections at MGM. Leigh was then tested and given a starring role in 1947's The Romance of Rosy Ridge opposite Van Johnson. Plenty of memorable films, many with high profile costars, followed that over the next twenty years, including Little Women (1949), The Naked Spur (1953), Touch of Evil (1958) and, most notably, 1960's Psycho. Married briefly at fifteen (wait a minute... I thought she was intelligent?!) and again seventeen (ditto!), she was twice-divorced by age twenty-two.  In 1951, she married Tony Curtis and had two daughters with him, one of them Jamie Lee Curtis, of course. He left her for another young actress in 1962, but she married a fourth time that same year.  This marriage lasted forty-two years until her death in 2004 of vasculitis. She was seventy-seven.
Leigh was one of the most overly-expressive people ever to land on Word of Mouth and some of her facial contortions while chatting away are downright amusing. A stringent dieter and heavy smoker, she grew quite gaunt in her later years. An Oscar nominee for Psycho, she lost the award to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry (though she did take home the Golden Globe that year.) Her final film role came in a low-budget, teen-oriented comedy released the year after her death.

Edward Faulkner is not a name that trips off of most peoples' tongues, but he was one of the stable of actors who worked frequently with John Wayne (in six films between 1963 and 1970), who he admired personally very much. Primarily a TV actor and movie bit player until 1963's McClintock!, his work with The Duke (and even more so with frequent Wayne director Andrew McLaglen) helped to establish his screen career. He left the business in the mid-'70s to pursue a career in marine cargo, but made a return in 2003 to work with Burt Reynolds and Bruce Dern in the obscure film Hard Ground.  Since that, he's begun to do voice work in a couple of TV-movies and is presently eighty years of age.

Most of us know Jack Klugman from his work the sitcom The Odd Couple (1970-1975) or from the medical examiner mystery Quincy M.E. (1976-1983), but he'd been working on TV and in films since 1950.  One of his most notable films was the socially-conscious 12 Angry Men in 1957 and he also acted in 1962's Days of Wine and Roses with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. In his Word of Mouth interview, he expressed his grateful feelings at getting to work with Judy Garland in what would turn out to be her final film, 1963's I Could Go on Singing.

His acting career was understandably affected by his bout with throat cancer in the mid-1990s, though he has continued to work in character parts as recently as 2010. Married to Brett Somers (of Match Game fame) in 1953, they had two sons and remained wed until her death in 2007, though they'd long been separated. The next year he wed longtime girlfriend Peggy Crosby, who is eighteen years his junior. He is currently ninety.

We end where, for me, it all began, with my favorite interview subject on Word of Mouth, Miss Maureen O'Hara. It was her tale about driving a tipsy John Wayne home from his club in the wee hours of the night that first led me to love and really pay attention to these clips long ago. Of the many stars who've been interviewed for this feature, I feel like she has looked the best and seemed among the sharpest in her comments.

This particular set of photos is from one in which she praised the talent of costar John Garfield, who she worked with in The Fallen Sparrow (1943.) Now ninety-one, I am still scratching my head as to how the stunningly beautiful and vivacious Maureen O'Hara, star of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952) and so many others, was never nominated for an Oscar, nor was deemed worthy of an honorary one.  I enjoy watching her do practically anything!

I hope you liked this little gallery of oldsters being reached for comment in their twilight years.  As these stars die off, I'm afraid there are few who can take their place (including ones who have taken home Oscars of their own!)


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