Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

RING-A-DING GIRL: The Deceptive Lightness of Maggie McNamara

One snowy New Year’s Day, as I slothed out on the sofa for my seventeenth-or-so Twilight Zone marathon, I noticed something funny: most of my favorite episodes were written by Earl Hamner Jr. of Waltons fame—including The Hunt (an old man refuses to enter heaven without his dog), A Piano in the House (a vicious husband is undone by a mystical player piano), Stopover in a Quiet Town (a fabulous couple is trapped in a sterile suburban hellhole after a drunken night out), The Bewitchin’ Pool (a lonely brother and sister swim free of their nightmarish parents)…

…And Ring-a-ding Girl.

When first we meet the bubbly Bunny Blake (Maggie McNamara), she’s running late as usual, feverishly prepping for a flight to Rome, where she’s starring in a new film. The last thing she slips on as she’s flying out the door is one of the rings she collects as a publicity gimmick. But this one’s close to her heart—it’s from the folks back home in Howardville, who, years earlier, had jumpstarted her dreams by taking up a collection to send her off to Hollywood. And, this being The Twilight Zone, it’s no ordinary ring: it’s more like a crystal ball. As Bunny gazes into it, her sister, Hildy (TV veteran Mary Munday, whom you may remember as the crusty City Hall clerk in The Rockford Files), comes floating into view—and she’s desperate. “We need you, Bunny,” she cries. “Please come home.”

sis-ringadinggirl-3 sis-ringadinggirl-4

Bunny is deeply shaken by the apparition—and convinced it’s much more than that. So she arranges to make a pitstop in her hometown en route to Italy—but when she arrives, everything’s as tranquil as it was the day she left home. Far from the frantic figure who appeared in the ring, Hildy is delighted by her sister’s surprise visit, and happily prepping for the annual Founder’s Day picnic. Giddy with relief, Bunny grows playful, impishly acting the star, sending up both herself and Hollywood as she sashays around the living room. “Wiggling—my one natural talent!” she laughs as she trails her fur coat casually along the floor. “Wind me and I light up! Turn me on and I give off incandescent sparkles!”

sis-ringadinggirl-15 sis-ringadinggirl-17

But when she idly glances at the ring again, her mood darkens. She sees even more urgent pleas from an unlikely source: the town elders, who’d always disapproved of her glamorous ambitions. It suddenly hits her that for some reason, she must keep everyone away from the fairgrounds—even at the risk of much harsher rebuke.

Determined to use her star power for some good, Bunny takes to the local airwaves to announce she’ll be performing her acclaimed one-woman show at the high school auditorium that very afternoon, as a way to say thank-you to her hometown. When a reporter reminds her she’ll be competing against the picnic, she summons all of her sparkle and appeals directly to the camera: “People have a choice—coming to see me at three o’clock or going to Riverside Park and getting bit by a bunch of ants!”

sis-ringadinggirl-16

Meanwhile back at the house, her sister is mortified as the phone starts ring-a-ding-ing off the hook. But when Bunny returns, she sees how much it means to her to gather the town around her, and she softens. Bunny reluctantly glances at her ring again—as if seeking a sign of approval—and sees herself on the plane she took from Hollywood, which is in desperate trouble. Realizing her fate, she mournfully turns away from the unfolding disaster and pulls Hildy tightly toward her. “Thank you,” she says. “For what?” her startled sister asks. “Just for being my sister,” she smiles. And as fire engines and ambulances start to clamor outside, Bunny slips out the door and into the mist. “Goodbye, Hildy…”

sis-ringadinggirl-5

Just then the phone rings, and Hildy learns that a plane bound for Rome has crashed right in the middle of the picnic grounds, killing all on board—including Bunny—but sparing the locals. On television, a newsman explains, or tries to: “Most of the citizens in town are safe because they were attending an announced performance by Bunny Blake… witnesses have sworn she was in town this afternoon visiting her sister…” Who then finds the mystical ring, which had winged its way to Bunny just days before, lying on the floor of the living room.

Watching Maggie McNamara literally fade away at the end of the episode is especially heartbreaking, as this was one of the last times she ever appeared on screen. After a splashy start in the early 1950s, she could never quite find her footing, and fame never sat as lightly on her as it did on Bunny Blake.

sis-ringadinggirl-7 sis-ringadinggirl-8 sis-ringadinggirl-6

McNamara started out as a model—gracing the cover of Life before she was 20—all the while studying dance and drama in her hometown of New York. Success came quickly, perhaps too much so: at 23, she was starring on Broadway, replacing Barbara Bel Geddes as “professional virgin” Patty O’Neill in F. Hugh Herbert’s The Moon is Blue. When she reprised the part for Otto Preminger in the 1953 film, her wry, witty performance in a role that frankly could have been nauseating earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. (While the film is woefully dated now, it was banned in several states and failed to secure MPAA approval for its “adult content”—meaning everyone in it behaves like a horny 14-year-old—and for the use of such words as [gasp!] “virgin,” “pregnant” and “seduction.” Somehow it seems fitting that a film whose sensibilities about sex were every bit as infantile as those of the Hays Office actually helped to smash the Production Code.)

Preminger, who threw compliments around like manhole covers, was thrilled with her work—but years later, confided that he’d eventually felt guilty about hiring her at all. “Maggie suffered greatly after becoming a star,” he recalled in his memoirs. “She suffered a nervous breakdown.”

sis-ringadinggirl-11 sis-ringadinggirl-9

After her stellar debut, McNamara was quickly cast in Jean Negulesco’s romantic drama Three Coins in the Fountain. As the girl who sets out to snare Louis Jourdan but is just too decent to see her scheme through, she’s delightful, torn between her ever-insistent conscience and her sense of triumph at winning this elusive and arrogant man—whom she’s now grown to love. The movie heightened her popularity but did nothing for her nerves. “I was terribly shy and used to work on myself to keep from showing it,” she once told a reporter. “When I was facing a camera I pretended that neither it nor the photographer were there.”

sis-ringadinggirl-14 sis-ringadinggirl-12

McNamara was also terrified of giving interviews and of moving to Hollywood, thousands of miles from her close-knit Irish family. To the studios, her fear came across as stand-offishness, and they moved on to more malleable starlets. After a few smaller roles, work sputtered to a near-halt by the mid-1950s.

Aside from a part in Preminger’s 1963 film The Cardinal, McNamara spent the rest of her scant career in television, finally retiring from acting in 1964 after a memorable turn with Lillian Gish in Body in the Barn, an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. For the last 14 years of her life, she supported herself by working as a typist in Manhattan. At the age of 48, deeply depressed and still plagued by her lifelong anxiety, she took her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills. On her piano, the last remnant of her Hollywood life, she left behind a suicide note and an unfinished screenplay she’d titled, perhaps in a moment of wishful thinking, The Mighty Dandelion. But of course, anyone who’s seen a dandelion when summer’s gone and the cold is closing in knows how fragile it is, and how the slightest breath can scatter its pale gray petals to the winds.

9 Comments

  1. It is indeed heartbreaking, and strangely beautiful, saying good-bye to Bunny.

  2. mercurie80

    I’ve always thought Mary McNamara’s career was one of the saddest in the history of Hollywood. She definitely had talent. It is only too bad, stardom didn’t sit too well with her. Anyhow, I have always loved “Ring-A-Ding Girl”. It’s one of those TZ episodes one doesn’t hear quite as much about, but at the same time is a very fine episode. I remember when I first found out Earl Hamner wrote so many episodes of The Twilight Zone. It rather surprised me–after all, one can’t get much further away from The Waltons than The Twilight Zone! Regardless, he did write some great TZ episodes!

    Thank you so much for contributing to the blogathon!

  3. Enjoyed reading this – I really need to make an effort to watch some more TZ episodes as there’s lots of gaps in my knowledge – but what a heart-breaking story. It’s so easy to think that anyone ‘in the movies’ has it made, sometimes you need a story like this to remind you that’s not the case.

  4. germiles

    one of the top 10 episoldes of the “twilight zone”. it always make me cry, especially at the end. such a beautiful woman. she was. ilove2luvthis

  5. Jim

    That was really a well written piece. And you, unlike poor Bunny and Maggie, nailed the landing/ending.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Jim. I actually misted up a bit when I read them. Maggie’s story is so close to my heart, I felt such an obligation to do her justice and tell people about her. Your words mean a lot to me. ❤

      • Jim

        What prompted my comments was the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode on MeTV early this morning (EST) “Body in the Barn.” I knew I recognized her, but couldn’t place where I had seen her before. Then I started searching her name, and then I read about her sad (his)story. Then I continued checking links, including a very detailed and good piece in the Village Voice, after her passing in 1978, until I found yours. Which was the best of all of them all.

        Mental illness is a tough thing to deal with. Chronic, lifelong mental illness, even more so.

        What limited success she had, despite this, is more a credit to her being able to “keep it together” as long, and as well (truly a solid, high level of work, if a too brief run) as she could. She fought her inner darkness and insidious demons well enough to leave us with some timeless art. That speaks well of her spirit, and the triumph of her art akin to Edmund Wilson’s essay, “The Wound and the Bow,” (i.e. your title phrase, “Deceptive Lightness”) in many ways even more than the success of the untroubled, or less troubled, souls who achieve even greater success acting.

        As I always feel, the moving (in all ways) pictures and performance recordings provide a sort of immortality to all artists whose work is captured for all time on screen or stage.

        Thank you again for your piece prompting my remarks. Keep up the fine work.

        J.

      • Thank you so much, Jim. And yes, the ones who struggle through despite their pain have a special place in my heart (and I’m guessing in heaven), as do the ones who, through some sort of alchemy, turn their pain into art that serves as a balm for other people. Like you, I seem to be especially drawn to the wounded ones who somehow fight through…

  6. Time

    Maggie. A troubled enigma. A close friend of hers—one of the few she ever had—said it best: “Most people wait by the phone, hoping it will ring. Maggie’s phone rang off the hook for years. She just didn’t want to answer.” Tragic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: