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The Un-Chilly Elegance of Frieda Inescort

“I’m so aristocratic on stage it’s a wonder I don’t come out blue when I take a bath.”

Probably best known as the hopelessly haughty Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice—who seemed to smell cabbage whenever Elizabeth Bennet stepped into the room—Frieda Inescort took a wry view of her typecasting. But there was so much more to her than that.

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Born with the new century in 1901, Frieda was the daughter of John “Jock” Wrightman and Elaine Inescourt, an Edinburgh journalist and actress who met when he reviewed her performance in a play. Favorably, I assume, as Elaine seemed to be a bit of a galloping narcissist: After her husband divorced her on the grounds of abandonment and adultery, she basically carted Frieda off to convent schools for most of her childhood while she pursued her social life and career—the latter, at least, to limited avail. (Later on, her deep resentment of her daughter’s success left the two permanently estranged.)

With sporadic schooling but possessed of a bearing beyond her years, Frieda was barely out of her teens when she sailed to the States as the personal secretary of Lord Waldorf Astor and his American wife, Nancy. When they headed back home, their adventurous charge stayed on in New York to seek out a stage career, working at the British consulate by day. She made her Broadway debut at just 21, opposite Leslie Howard in A.A. Milne’s comedy The Truth About Blayds. There, she was spotted by Philip Barry, who cast her as the lead in his new play, You and I.

Frieda worked steadily through the 1920s, with key roles in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever and Alfred Wing Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells, and as the headstrong Mary Howard in When Ladies Meet (later played by Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford onscreen). She also shone as Eliza Doolittle in the Theater Guild’s national tour of Pygmalion. But knowing how fragile a stage career could be, she usually kept a day job—and while working at the publishing house of George Putnam (who later married Amelia Earhart), she met her husband, Ben Ray Redman, who soon became the literary critic for the New York Herald Tribune.

She had always resisted the lure of the screen, turning down roles in silents and early talkies. But when Redman was offered a consulting job with Universal Studios, the couple went West. Picking up her stage career in Hollywood, she was quickly singled out and signed by a scout for the Goldwyn Company, and in 1935 made her film debut as Fredric March’s sympathetic secretary in The Dark Angel.

Her natural warmth, set off by her wide eyes, patrician profile, and soothing, melodic voice, should have made her a natural for leading roles. But at 34 (!), she was deemed too old, and quickly settled into secondary parts. Sometimes she supported stars, as in Mary of Scotland, but more often she lost out to romantic rivals, as in Another Dawn, Give Me Your Heart, Beauty for the AskingYou’ll Never Get Rich, and most famously, Pride and Prejudice, where the temperature dropped 30 degrees every time the icy Miss Bingley appeared onscreen.

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But every now and then, we got a tantalizing glimpse of what Frieda’s career as a leading lady might have looked like. In Archie Mayo’s Call It a Day—where she’s sixth-billed but clearly the heart of the film—she even gets to cut loose in a comedy, as the befuddled calm at the center of a spring storm that drives her whole family a bit mad. And watching her try to politely fend off Roland Young, as a thoroughly confused but violently smitten suitor, is pure joy.

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Early on in the film, they do their best to dowdy her up a bit—at 36, she’s supposed to have been married 22 years, with a grown daughter (21-year-old Olivia de Havilland)—but she’s still pretty breathtaking, especially in the last scene, when Orry-Kelly really comes through for her. She should have had bushels of roles, and scenes, like this.

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Even in as broad a film as Call It a Day, Frieda never acted “out loud,” instinctively knowing when to underplay. Utterly natural, she never gave a “look at me” performance, which, I suspect, is one reason she didn’t get the bigger roles she deserved. (That, and of course the fact that, by her mid-thirties, much-older studio bosses had deemed her one step short of decrepitude.)

Her other, rare leading roles were mostly in B-films such as Convicted Woman, Shadow on the Stairs, and Portia on Trial,  where she stars as a feminist attorney defending a woman who shot her lover—kind of a precursor to Amanda in Adam’s Rib, but with roughly twice the vitriol. (Sample: “You seem to be a frustrated, mentally snarled woman!”—and that’s from the guy who loves her.)

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Higher-profile films usually found her back in supporting roles. In The Letter, she was Bette Davis’s elegant rock, quick with a cocktail and a silk-clad shoulder. (And like Bette—who needed no double as she furiously crocheted her way through a murder trial—Frieda was one of Hollywood’s inveterate knitters, sending lovely, intricately crafted gifts to friends and colleagues.)

In the mid-1940s, when good movie roles grew inexplicably scarcer, Frieda returned to Broadway for The Soldier’s Wife, The Mermaids Singing and a hit revival of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. After touring with the Shaw play, she returned to Hollywood, often focusing on the fledgling medium of television, including a recurring role on Meet Corliss Archer and a guest turn on Perry Mason. Her last major movie role was as Ann Vickers, Elizabeth Taylor’s increasingly alarmed mother, in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun.

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In 1960, while filming a small role in her last movie, The Crowded Sky, Frieda began struggling with her balance and muscle control. Soon after, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and within a year she was walking with the aid of a cane. The following August, her husband of 35 years, overwhelmed by career and financial woes, called her into the bedroom and calmly informed her he’d just swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. He succumbed to an overdose before help could arrive.

The shock and stress of his suicide accelerated the pace of Frieda’s disease, and by the mid-1960s, she was confined to a wheelchair. Determined not to feel helpless, she threw herself into raising funds for local MS organizations. Deeming no task too humble, she’d often join other volunteers collecting donations in malls and outside supermarkets. When her condition worsened and she could no longer live on her own, Frieda reluctantly surrendered her independence and moved to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. She died in February 1976, at 74.

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This article is included in the “What a Character!” blogathon. To read the rest of the entries, just click here!  

 

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Behind the Scenes of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

Does the current crop of Christmas movies make you yearn to go back to 1947?  I mean even more than you normally do?  Then let’s journey together back to that magical time…

…when the lovely Maureen O’Hara was ready to pretty much punch someone in the face. She’d just flown home to Ireland after back-to-back shoots on The Homestretch and Sinbad the Sailor, and was all set to curl up with a cuppa and relax for a spell. So just imagine her excitement when she was suddenly summoned off the sofa and clear across the ocean to New York to star in a little confection called Miracle on 34th Street.

Luckily for 20th Century Fox, she fell in love with the script the instant she read it.

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Which is more than you can say for Darryl F. Zanuck, who didn’t want to make the “corny” film at all. Director George Seaton, who’d thrown his heart into the project, fought back hard—finally wangling a paltry $630,000 budget out of the cynical studio boss in exchange for a promise to direct The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, which Zanuck was willing to pour five times as much money into. (And which we all gather ’round the TV to watch every year! Oh wait…)

For O’Hara, a divorced working mother herself, the part of Doris Walker was an especially good fit, and also a chance to cast her glow on the kind of role rarely seen in films of the 1940s. (The powerful Legion of Decency found the portrayal of divorcées on screen to be “morally objectionable.”)

Once the perfect leading lady was on board, the search for Santa was on. The first choice was Cecil Kellaway, who turned down the part but suggested his cousin, Edmund Gwenn. “I’ve never seen an actor more naturally suited for a role,” O’Hara later recalled.

So much so that until she saw him in street clothes at the wrap party, Natalie Wood—who said she’d been “on the cusp of not believing in Santa Claus”—thought her beloved co-star was the real thing. And this was no sheltered, impressionable child: known as “One Take Natalie” for her photographic memory, Wood was whip-smart and had what Seaton called “an instinctive sense of timing and emotion.” And if she felt Gwenn was Santa Claus, who are we to argue?

Unbeknownst to the thousands of spectators lining the streets of New York, Gwenn was also Santa Claus at the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, even greeting the crowd from the store’s marquee. To make sure he got ample footage, Seaton set up 14 cameras all along the route. “It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed because we only got to do each scene once,” recalled O’Hara. “The parade couldn’t stop because we needed a second take!”

In fact, in an era when soundstages ruled the day, almost the entire film was shot on location—during a winter so bitterly cold that the chill sometimes froze the cameras.”One scene was shot in Port Washington, New York, where a woman let us warm up in her house,” O’Hara later laughed. “The crew put the cameras in front of her living room fireplace to thaw out… finally the cameras defrosted and we were able to finish the scene. Her generosity was one of the miracles in Miracle on 34th Street!”

The closeknit cast also helped to warm things up. “John Payne was a wonderful person to work with,” O’Hara remembered. “And he became one of my dearest friends.”

O’Hara was especially close to her screen daughter: “I played ‘Mom’ to more than forty children during my movie career. But Natalie always held a special place in my heart. She called me ‘Mama Maureen.'”

The scenes in Macy’s were shot after hours, which thrilled the adventurous eight-year-old: “Natalie loved to work at night because she got to say up late. With all the shoppers gone, we walked through the store and examined all the toys and girls’ dresses and shoes,” said O’Hara. “It was a special time for us.”

“Mama Maureen” was also kinder and more lenient than Wood’s own notorious stage mother: “I brought a bag of chocolates for Edmund every day. We hid the candy from Natalie because her mother didn’t want her to have any.

“One day, Edmund got some chocolate all over his white beard, and Natalie spotted it immediately. We let her sneak some, but we made sure her mother never caught us.”

Wood found a special way to thank her movie mother for her much-needed warmth. “At least once a week, she gave me a little ceramic figurine she’d made,” O’Hara remembered. “I took them all down to my home in the Virgin Islands but when Hurricane Hugo hit, they were all literally blown away. I couldn’t find a single one.”

When the movie wrapped, the cast and director were pretty confident audiences would love seeing the film as much as they loved making it. But Zanuck remained unconvinced—and in another stroke of genius, decided to release the film in June, when, he argued, movie attendance was higher. This left the studio scrambling to promote a Christmas film without ever calling it a Christmas film. Which brings us to this head-smackingly odd trailer:

In it, the studio boss, who’s something of an imbecile (did Zanuck see this?), bellows, “What do you make a trailer for? To give the public an idea of what kind of picture to expect!” Then—Irony Alert!—they completely sidestep the fact that this is a Christmas movie. The boss wanders out onto the lot, buttonholing passing stars like Rex Harrison and Anne Baxter for their opinions of the film. They all love it, for wildly different reasons (Peggy Ann Garner calls it groovy!) but no one dares utter the “C” word.

Joining the long list of films that succeeded in spite of studio bosses rather than because of them, Miracle on 34th Street ultimately found its (sandal-clad) audience, recouping its skimpy budget several times over. And along with The Bishop’s Wife, it was one of two Christmas films vying for Best Picture at the 1948 Academy Awards ceremony. Both lost to Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Gwenn fared better, taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor against a brutal field. Literally. Two of his rivals—Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death and Robert Ryan in Crossfire—played noir characters legendary for their viciousness. So the next time you see Tommy Udo push Mrs. Rizzo down that flight of stairs, just remember that ultimately, he was beaten by Santa Claus.

As you can hear in the clip below, the applause that greets his name—or as presenter Baxter would call it a few years later, “waves of love coming over the footlights”—make it clear who the winner will be. “Whew! Now I know there’s a Santa Claus,” Gwenn tells his adoring colleagues. “He’s an elusive little fellow… he turns up in all sorts of places under all sorts of names and disguises. The first time I met him, he told me his name was George Seaton…” And later, his voice breaking, “Thank you, all of you, for making the evening of my life such a happy one.”

And finally, here a few bits of Miracle on 34th Street trivia to toss around the Christmas table:

  • Remember when Kris Kringle is taking his sanity test, and to show off his memory, he proudly proclaims that the Vice President under John Quincy Adams was Daniel D. Tomkins? Um, no, he served under James Monroe. Adams’ veep was John Calhoun, whose picture is too scary to put in a Christmas story. (Google him. Yikes.) So the next time you watch the movie with friends, be sure to smugly point out this mistake! (And never be invited back!)
  • Macy’s Christmas window displays were made by Steiff, famous for their stuffed bears and other toys. After the movie wrapped, the store sold them to FAO Schwarz, which later sold them, improbably, to the Marshall & Ilsley Bank in Milwaukee, where they’re showcased every year in the main lobby.
  • Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge, was also Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. And Percy Helton, who played the drunken Santa Claus, also popped up as the train conductor in White Christmas. Oh and speaking of making a bit too merry, here’s a Gimbel’s ad from the year Miracle on 34th Street came out:

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  • The movie also gave us the gift that keeps on giving: the film debut of Thelma Ritter, who went on to win six Oscar nods while never moving out of Queens. And typically, she’s the one who sets the whole Christmas détente between Macy’s and Gimbels in motion.
  • Ever wonder what Kris Kringle and the little Dutch refugee who sits on his knee are talking about? Here’s the translation:

Kris Kringle: I’m happy you came!
Little Girl: Ooh, you are Sinterklaas!
Kris Kringle: Well yes, of course!
Little Girl: I knew it! I knew you would understand me!
Kris Kringle: Of course! Tell me what you would like to get from Sinterklaas.
Little Girl: I don’t want anything… I already have everything… I just want to stay with this lovely lady.
Kris Kringle: Do you want to sing something for me?
Little Girl (singing): Saint Nicholas, little rascal,
Put something in my little shoe!
Put something in my little boot!
Thank you, little Saint Nicholas!
Saint Nicholas little rascal,
Put something in my little shoe!
Put something in my little boot!
Thank you, little Saint Nicholas!

  • The house Natalie Wood bolts into at the end of the movie still stands, at 24 Derby Road in Port Washington. It looks almost exactly the same today, but for the addition of a window that changed the roofline.

It seems only fitting to give the final word to Maureen: “I’m so proud to have been part of Miracle on 34th Street.” And we’re so grateful you were. We still miss you, dear lady. And we’ll never forget what you told us:

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TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: The Ever-Elegant Boris Karloff—And His Secret Ingredient for Guacamole

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

Regular readers may recall just how very un-monstrous Boris Karloff was offscreen, visiting children’s hospitals to play Santa Claus and read bedtime stories—and even charming the little girl who played Maria in Frankenstein while bolted into full makeup. But can we talk for a minute about how insanely elegant he was?

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He was the kind of guy who’d put sherry in his guacamole.

No really. I have proof.

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Notice the cayenne is optional. The sherry isn’t.

And while most of us have to shlep to the grocer’s to make “avocado sauce”—and props to the reporter for describing guacamole as if it were an alien life form—Boris only had to head out to the backyard. He’d transformed his Beverly Hills estate into an earthly paradise—a sprawling, formal lawn ringed by lush flower beds and orchards dripping with oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, plums, peaches and yes, avocados. The only thing missing from his Eden were the apples and the snakes. And he tended his garden lovingly, every day, no matter what else he had going on.

“I’ll never forget, before we worked together in The Mask of Fu Manchu, during the summer we had a terrible drought,” co-star Charles Starrett once recalled. “Boris was making Frankenstein, and I lived above him in Coldwater Canyon. One evening, I was driving home when I suddenly nearly drove my car into a ditch—there in the beautiful garden was The Monster himself, tenderly watering the roses. Boris was such a dedicated gardener, he was afraid he’d lose the roses to the heat, so he rushed home without taking off his makeup to catch them at sundown, the best time for watering. It was quite a sight…”

His garden was such a heaven on earth that some of his friends longed to spend eternity there. “They loved to wander through the garden with Boris while he worked on it—they’d talk about their old times in the theatre,” remembered Karloff’s fourth wife, Dorothy. “They were very dependent on him when they were alive, and they loved the garden. That’s the way they wanted it—to be in a place they loved and to be near him… he felt it was his responsibility to do as they wished.”

Thus it came to be that the cremated remains of several of Boris’s oldest friends were buried among the roses behind his farmhouse. But Los Angeles real estate being what it is, a later owner subdivided the sacred space. Grieved Dorothy, “Pity they had to build all those ugly houses on top of them.”

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TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and usually some backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss an edition?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and… Tallulah Bankhead?

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

Ah, April—when our hearts and minds turn to baseball! Which of course brings us to Tallulah Bankhead.

Wait, what?

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Oh yes, people! We all know Tallulah was a colorful character (to put it mildly, which she never would) and one-woman pithy-quote machine. (“I’m as pure as the driven slush.”) And also a brilliant actress, which, sadly, her offstage antics often obscured. But did you know about her other favorite pastime—the one she pursued passionately, with all her clothes on and even a modest little woolen hat?

Baseball.

And she wasn’t just a casual fan, like the celebs you see nowadays who show up for playoff games to get some national exposure. (“Oh, look who’s in the stands, Buck! It’s Suzi Silicone, from the new Fox series Stripper Cops!”) Nope—our Tallu followed baseball, and her beloved Giants, religiously.

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She agonized when they were losing…

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…and whooped it up when they won!

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Oh, and not for nothing, but see the letters on her cap? She was a fan way back when they were the real Giants, playing their home games at the Polo Grounds in Harlem.

Of her favorite player, she once said, “There have been only two geniuses in the world. Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But, dahling, I think you’d better put Shakespeare first.” Oh sure. But guess which one she wrote an article for Look magazine about?

“Even when he strikes out, he can put on a show,” she wrote, sounding every inch the smitten fan. “In the terms of my trade, Willie lifts the mortgage five minutes before the curtain falls.  He rescues the heroine from the railroad tracks just as she’s about to be sliced up by the midnight express.  He routs the villain when all seems lost.”

Years later, she happily hollered out his name, “Willieee! Willieeee!” when introducing him on The Merv Griffin Show:

Tallulah once even slipped into a Giants uniform herself—but with bedazzled letters and a jauntily tilted cap, of course.

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So this spring, as you settle in on the sofa to root for your favorite team, raise a glass—or even a fabulous pump—to Miss Bankhead. Or do it her way, with a shoe in one hand and a goblet in the other. Cheers, Tallu!

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TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and usually some backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Classic Film Stars Let Their Freckles Fly Free!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

In April 1976, George Hurrell wrote to Joan Crawford, his friend of almost half a century, asking her to say a few words for a book about his work. With it, he sent a 1930 photograph, his favorite of the thousands they’d shot in 33 sessions together.

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“I’ve always thought the soulful, tender beauty in the attached print was among our best efforts,” he said. “The depth of feeling and emotion you expressed in this pose has a dramatic quality that only a great actress could reveal.”

Also revealed in the photo were Joan’s fabulous freckles. And while the studios insisted they be airbrushed away, no less a light than George Hurrell was just fine with them. And so was Joan, when she wasn’t filming.

But when she was working, out they went. Here’s a studio before-and-after shot:

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Of course, these little flecks of “imperfection” were but one casualty of retouching. Sometimes, entire personalities were erased. Here’s Bette Davis being turned into Betty Boop:

But now that the studio bosses aren’t looking, let’s give these glorious freckles the space they deserve, shall we?

Just to be fair, we’ll close things out with a couple of guys—who were pretty much the gold standard for freckled men everywhere. And on the set of The Strawberry Blonde, you can see how delighted Cagney was to have his Irish beauty marks covered up with greasepaint.

Happy Spring, my fabulous friends! Be sure to protect your skin from the sun… but let your freckle flag fly!

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TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and usually some backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Dan Duryea — Gardener and Cub Scout Leader!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

A few years ago, between films of a double feature at the Film Forum in New York (Black Angel and Criss Cross), this old guy sitting next to me muttered, to no one in particular, “I wonder if that was really Dan Duryea playing the piano.”

And I jumped in with something like, “Oh yes, it was! And you can tell by his hands—those long, tapering fingers—that he’d be a good at it. You know, he grew up not far from here, in White Plains! And then went to Cornell, where he was head of the drama society, right after Franchot Tone. But then he went into advertising, which he thought was more stable, but it was so stressful he had a heart attack! Can you imagine! And he didn’t get into movies until he was in his thirties and…”

When I finally paused to breathe, I realized I wasn’t the only one who needed a little air. The guy I was talking to—okay, yammering to—looked a little scared. He jumped up and said, “I’m just gonna go get a soda…” Then he scurried up the aisle, his white hair flying over the back of his shirt collar. He never came back.

Yes, I gushed so hard over Dan Duryea that I frightened an old man. Usually when I go to a revival theater on the odd Wednesday afternoon, I run into a troubled loner or two. That day, apparently, it was me.

I never even got to tell the guy that Dan was a homebody at heart…

…and that any resemblance between him and his characters was purely coincidental—though his choice of roles was intentional.

“I looked in the mirror and knew with my ‘puss’ and 155-pound-weakling body, I couldn’t pass for a leading man, and I had to be different,” Duryea once said in an interview with Hedda Hopper. “So I chose to be the meanest S.O.B. in the movies. Strictly against my mild nature, as I’m an ordinary peace-loving husband and father.” (Okay I’m just gonna interrupt him here to say is there anything more fabulous than a great-looking guy who has no idea how attractive he is?)

When the conversation turned to co-stars, Duryea admitted to a favorite: “Joan Bennett… a true professional and so easy to work with in the two films we made with Eddie Robinson, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street… I found her very attractive.” But the guy couldn’t even talk about her without bringing up his wife: “Before you ask, Hedda, no, I did not have an affair with her or any other of my co-stars for one very good reason: I was very happily married and never broke my vows.”

Dan and Helen Duryea and their sons, Peter and Richard, lived in a sprawling, Mediterranean-style house on Mulholland Drive, on a hilltop overlooking Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Soon after he bought the house, he began planting roses, lilacs and peonies, which thrived in the SoCal sun but still required lots of attention. Eventually, Dan was tenderly caring for about 175 rose bushes. (Always, it seems, while wearing that one hat.)

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Dan was even more devoted to dogs. First came a cocker spaniel named Jerry and then a mutt named—aw, go ahead, take a guess—Blackie.

He even had a favorite comfy chair—the only thing he brought with him from his days in New York—where he’d read scripts and make notes. Most of the books on the shelves were about photography, gardening and boating; he never read murder mysteries, as they kept him up nights.

And while in the pix below, he might seem to be saying, “Here’s where I shove Joan onto the bed!” he was scrupulous about protecting his kids from his seamier screen side. “We weren’t allowed to go to his movies, because he didn’t think it was a good thing for us to see him slapping women,” Richard recalled at a 2013 film festival.

Home movies, though, were an altogether different affair, often featuring the kids’ Cub and Boy Scout outings (Dan was a troop leader, and also active in the PTA).

But sometimes his movie roles spilled over, at least a little bit, into his serene family life. For instance, if you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when a notorious outlaw takes his kids to the amusement park, here’s your chance. (The sideburns were for the title role in Black Bart.)

P.S.: If you’d like to see Black Angel, the movie I was gushing over in the theater the day I sent the old man screaming for the lobby, the whole film is right here; I featured it in one of my Streaming Saturdays.

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Judy Garland Is Trapped in a “Summer Stocky” Wardrobe

Welcome to a special venting edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY! I just need to get something off my chest, okay? Or rather, something off Judy Garland’s…

I watched Summer Stock again last night—so much fun, so underrated, and one of Judy’s most difficult films to complete, though, as usual, you’d never know it from her performance.

And let’s throw some extra love to Gene Kelly, who was uber-patient and fiercely loyal. Normally a bit of a perfectionist, he remembered how Judy had helped him when they worked together eight years earlier on his film debut, For Me and My Gal, and he helped carry his co-star—sometimes literally—through the long, demanding workdays. Once when Judy wasn’t up to coming in, he went so far as to feign a fall to deflect the blame for the delay onto his own, far sturdier shoulders.

In Garland’s most recent effort for MGM, Louis B. Mayer had fired her from  Annie Get Your Gun. Kelly, meanwhile, was coming off back-to-back hits with Take Me Out to the Ballgame and On the Town. Judy had gained some much-needed weight during a hospital stay in Boston, but was still physically and emotionally fragile. Even more insecure than usual, she begged Mayer to let her out of Summer Stock, but he pressed her to stay on.

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Her reward—and here’s where the venting part comes in—was just about the most hideous collection of costumes ever to escape from the Closet of the Damned. To say nothing of her hair, which seems to have been set upon by millions of tiny, angry curlers with a score to settle.

I know Judy’s character, Jane, is supposed to be a hick, but look at her sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven)! She’s a bumpkin too—but an MGM bumpkin, dammit! Cute, clingy gingham, adorable eyelet tops, gay colors—she seems to have kicked the sh#t off her shoes quite nicely, thank you. But poor Judy! She’s only three years older than Gloria, but the way they’ve dowdied her down, she might as well be Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! Or perhaps she could rewrite a tune from The Sound of Music: “I am 28 going on 68…”

Take the striped shift dress. Please. It helpfully gathers all the dazzling colors from the floor of a stable into one piece of fabric. I suspect she’s praying her humongous collar will open up and swallow her, like a giant clamshell.

Next come the overalls—and not movie-musical overalls. Actual farmer-wear. Only worse: they seem to have been starched. You get the feeling if she took them off, they’d just stand there, mocking her.

Then Judy’s off to feed the animals, in a stiff, shapeless shirt, paired with stovepipe pants that stop short at the ankles—perfect for a tiny woman who barely grazes the five-foot mark and is nervous about her weight. Yes, let’s make her legs look shorter and heavier! Her thick, clunky shoes further enhance to the stumpy effect. You know you’re in trouble when you’re out-glammed by Phil Silvers. And chickens.

And then, oh, goody, we’re back to ginormous collars—now with extra bunchiness! This time set off by a sparkly cardigan—the kind your grandma hauls out of mothballs for special occasions. All she’s missing is the lint-covered hard candy at the bottom of her pocketbook.

The next sequence contains a special tip for the ladies: If you ever get the chance to dance with a man as divine as Gene Kelly, be sure to whip out your old Brownie uniform. And don’t get all self-conscious if it’s busting at the seams, allowing a bit of frumpy corset to peek through. Men love that!

Perhaps the most amazing part of this fashion hellscape is that the designer was the legendary Walter Plunkett, who did the crazy-fun costumes for movies like Flying Down to Rio as well as Katharine Hepburn’s fantastical moth dress in Christopher Strong, her slinky black evening gown in Adam’s Rib, and much of her personal wardrobe. What in the name of Heaven—or Hades—was going on here?

I mean, Good God, up until now, this was pretty much Judy’s best outfit in the whole film:

summerstock-7But there’s always hope if you hang in there long enough. And finally— finally!—Judy gets to be Judy in the legendary Get Happy! number that closes the film. (She’s also slimmer, as the routine was filmed more than a month after the rest of the movie.)

But don’t give Plunkett credit for this one: her iconic outfit was designed by then-husband Vincente Minnelli for a number in Easter Parade called Mister Monotony, which was ultimately cut. But never mind how it happened. For whatever forces of fate got her out of those damn dung-colored dresses, shout Hallelujah…

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Judy Garland Hit the Town to Do the Charleston!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

You’re Ann Miller. You’ve been hoofin’ your heart out all day long, and your dogs are barkin’ like there’s someone at the door. It’s a lovely spring night in Hollywood—perfect for parking your tired tootsies on a nice warm veranda somewhere. So what do you do?

You call up your friend Ginger and you say, “Let’s go dancing!”

Meanwhile, Lucy is phoning Judy with the same idea…

The Mocambo—once Hollywood’s most glamorous nightclub—hosted a Charleston contest every Monday night. And pity the poor, hopeful couples who strapped on their dancing shoes and showed up on May 13, 1950, only to find themselves flat up against…

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and…

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Could it get any  more fabulous than this? Actually it could. You see the band behind them—the guys in the fireman’s helmets? They’re animators, musicians and writers from Walt Disney’s studio, who used to jam along to jazz records on their lunch break. Then one fateful day, the phonograph broke, and they realized they were good enough to go it alone—and hey, kids, they started a band!

The only cheap vehicle they could find that was big enough to haul them and their instruments was an old 1914 fire truck. So bandleader/trombonist Ward Kimball (one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” his key animators) went out and found genuine helmets and uniform shirts to complete the theme, and called the band Firehouse Five Plus Two. (The “plus two” were a trumpeter and banjo player who joined shortly afterward.)

The group played together from 1949 to 1972, recording 13 albums—but they never gave up their day jobs.

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Teresa Wright, the Anti-Pin-Up Girl

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

We’ve all heard of unusual clauses in actors’ contracts. But Teresa Wright’s—written when she was just starting out at 23—takes the cake. (And that cake does not have a scantily clad starlet popping out of it):

The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts, playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while pretending to hit something with a bow and arrow.

In short, Miss Wright had already seen enough—apparently including every campy pin-up shot ever published. But she managed to be both indignant and hilarious about it. (With a wit like that, it’s no wonder writers loved her; she married Niven Busch and Robert Anderson.)

While Wright managed to escape the bunny ears and bathing suits, she was held hostage for at least a couple of semi-cheesecake sessions. And judging from the look on her face, the ransom couldn’t be paid fast enough:

Wright earned Oscar nods for her first three films—The Little Foxes,  Mrs. Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees—taking home the trophy for Mrs. Miniver. Even her Academy Award was unglamorous—made of painted plaster, as metals were set aside for the war effort. (And today, most actresses wear more makeup in the shower than she wore to the ceremony.)

Wright followed up with films like Shadow of a Doubt and The Best Years of Our Lives—confiding to friends that in William Wyler’s post-war drama, she was thrilled to finally shed her wholesome image and play an aspiring homewrecker. But even then, she led with her heart, trying to rescue the man she loved from a viper. Damning her with the kind of faint praise she didn’t deserve, Wyler called her “the best cryer in the business.” Her boss, producer Sam Goldwyn, agreed—and kept casting her as dewy, vulnerable young lovelies. (This was the same man who once barked to her, during filming on The Little Foxes, “Teresa, let your breasts flow in the breeze!”)

In 1948, Wright—now a 30-year-old mother of two—was once again cast as an innocent waif, this time complete with an evil stepsister. And while she was unhappy with Enchantment, the critics weren’t. Newsweek said she “glows as the Cinderella who captivated three men,” while The New York Times said she “plays with that breathless, bright-eyed rapture which she so remarkably commands.” Tired of glowing breathlessly, Wright declined to embark on a long publicity tour for the film—leading Goldwyn to cancel her $5,000-a-week contract and publicly criticize her as “uncooperative.”

Wright responded:

I would like to say that I never refused to perform the services required of me; I was unable to perform them because of ill health. I accept Mr. Goldwyn’s termination of my contract without protest—in fact, with relief. The types of contracts standardized in the motion picture industry between players and producers are archaic in form and absurd in concept. I am determined never to set my name to another one… I have worked for Mr. Goldwyn seven years because I consider him a great producer, and he has paid me well, but in the future I shall gladly work for less if by doing so I can retain my hold upon the common decencies without which the most glorified job becomes intolerable.

Wright went on to have a much more interesting and varied, if lesser-paying, career than Goldwyn had in mind for her—working with Matt Damon almost fifty years after she co-starred with Marlon Brando. And she never lost her sense of humor. “I was going to be Joan of Arc,” she once noted wryly, “and all I proved was that I was an actress who would work for less money.” But with much more integrity.

“I only ever wanted to be an actress, not a star,” Wright once said. But her Mrs. Miniver co-star Greer Garson saw it as inevitable, whether she sought it or not: “Very bright. Fantastically beautiful. Very much the lady. She was a great Irish wit. There are actors who work in movies. And then there are movie stars. She was a movie star.”

Here’s to Teresa Wright, who was so radiantly gifted, honest and genuine you almost forgot she was gorgeous. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Start the New Year Right with Gloria Swanson!

Happy New Year, my dear friends! And welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

Need a little help making this year a bit healthier than the last? Sure, you could turn to a personal trainer or a gym coach. But wouldn’t you rather take your inspiration from Gloria Swanson?

Here she is merrily camping it up in her Manhattan apartment when she was 73. Yes, the Glamazon makeup’s a bit much… but good heavens, look at that complexion! To quote a song from the season just passed, you could even say it glows! And she still had the perfect figure for crushed velvet gowns and gold lamé pumps. Which you get the feeling she wore even when the cameras weren’t looking.

Swanson was decades ahead of the healthy-eating curve. In 1929, after producing the financially disastrous Queen Kelly, she went to her doctor complaining of stomach pains. “I thought I had ulcers because if you are a producer, you are supposed to have ulcers,” she joked. He asked for a quick inventory of what she’d been subjecting her system to—rich, gooey foods, sugary snacks, decadent cocktails—and told her to stop treating her body “like a garbage pail.” A much more obedient patient than most, she immediately swore off meat, poultry, sugar and alcohol and adhered faithfully to a macrobiotic diet.

A true evangelist, Swanson would sometimes confront people on the streets of New York—a much more dangerous move than eating sugar—and chastise them about the junk they were scarfing down at the corner hot dog stand. She even brown-bagged it to glamorous parties, where the buffet tables were groaning with deadly delicacies.

She drank only spring water from France, made her own flour from brown rice and her own sweetener from boiled organic raisins, and frequently fasted. “After one fast I was on for 10 days I swore I’d never eat again,” she said. “I was just going to eat petals of flowers…”

Okay maybe she was a little over the top.

But Swanson was right about sugar—and campaigned against chemicals and pesticides in foods before it was popular. She also created some recipes that didn’t involve making your own flour and sweeteners or eating the daisies—and I’m sure she’d forgive you if the water you use is domestic. Here’s a recipe to get your new year off to a healthy start:

GLORIA SWANSON’S POTASSIUM BROTH

8 cups spring water, bottled water or purified water
1  cup Swiss chard or kale
1 cup zucchini
1 cup fresh string beans
1 cup celery
However much or however little garlic you like

Wash all vegetables thoroughly, preferably with a veggie brush, and then chop them well. Finely mince the garlic. Pour water into a large pot and add everything. Cover and simmer about 40 minutes, or until the celery is tender. Serve immediately, or turn off the heat and allow the broth to cool on the stove, pour into covered containers and refrigerate. Reheat to serve later.

Okay, a confession: I added the garlic to Gloria’s recipe. I am a total garlic hound. When I recently ordered pasta with garlic and oil from the local pizzeria, this was my plaintive cry: “Extra garlic, please. And then if you look at it and say, whoa, that was too much garlic, just add more garlic.” (My husband was away at the time.)

In this recipe, the garlic not only adds much-needed flavor, but tons of nutrition—and packs a wallop against winter cold and flu germs. If you’re not a garlic fan, you can add any herbs (or other vegetables) you like, or perk it up with chili powder, paprika, curry powder or other spices. Take it in any direction you choose!

This is a great way to start a meal or to serve as a little something to tide you over in middle of the afternoon. And if you close your eyes and use a little imagination, it will make you feel like a movie star prepping for a glamorous role, getting ready for your close-up…

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Wear the new year well, my dears!

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?