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.”
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!”
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!”
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…”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
- Posted in: Mini-Portraits
- Tagged: a piano in the house, classic television, classic tv, david niven, david o. selznick, earl hamner jr., jean negulesco, lillian gish, louis jourdan, maggie mcnamara, mary munday, otto preminger, rod serling, stopover in a quiet town, the alfred hitchcock hour, the bewitchin' pool, the body in the barn, the hunt, the moon is blue, the ring-a-ding girl, the rockford files, the twilight zone, the waltons, three coins in a fountain, william holden