Happy 110th Birthday, Joan Blondell!

The wonderful Joan Blondell was born into a vaudeville family 110 years ago today in New York City. A performer from early childhood, she provided a spark to just about any picture or program she appeared in. Here are 10 JB Did-You-Knows:

  • Blondell toured with her family’s act, the Bouncing Blondells, until she was 17, at which point the family settled in Dallas, Texas.
  • In Dallas, Blondell became a beauty contest contestant under the name Rosebud Blondell. She won the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant, was a finalist in an early version of the Miss Universe pageant in May of that year, and came in fourth in that year’s Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
  • Blondell relocated to NYC around 1927 to join a stock theatrical company, and in 1930, she appeared on Broadway opposite James Cagney in a play called Penny Arcade (Cagney would soon make his film debut in the film version of the play, Sinners’ Holiday; Blondell was in that picture, too, but she already had a small handful of films to her credit at that point). Both Cagney and Blondell repeated their Broadway roles in the film version at the insistence of Al Jolson, who’d seen the play on Broadway and purchased the film rights, though the play had closed after just three weeks.
  • Blondell and Cagney made six pictures together at Warner Brothers—more than any other actress.
  • Blondell was a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1930.
  • Blondell was married three times—to cinematographer George Barnes for just under three years, to actor and crooner Dick Powell for just under eight years and to theatrical impresario Michael Todd for just under three years. She had a son with Barnes and a daughter with Powell.
  • When she signed with Warner Brothers, Jack Warner urged her to change her name—he thought Inez Holmes had a nice ring to it—but Blondell refused.
  • In 1972, Blondell published a novel, Center Door Fancy, that was said to be something of a roman à clef, with characters based on former husband Dick Powell and his third wife, June Allyson, with whom he had an affair while married to Blondell.
  • Blondell was nominated once for an Oscar, in the Best Supporting Actress category for her work in The Blue Veil (1951).
  • In a career that lasted a half-century (if you count vaudeville, her career lasted 75 years), Blondell totaled more than 150 combined credits in pictures and on television. She worked until the very end, with her two final films released after her death of leukemia in 1979.

Happy birthday, Joan Blondell, wherever you may be!

Joan Blondell

Happy 101st Birthday, Toby Wing!

Actress Toby Wing was born Martha Virginia Wing in Amelia Court House, Virginia, 101 years ago today. She was never a star, but she’s remembered fondly by old-movie buffs for her many memorable small parts and cameos. Here are 10 TW Did-You-Knows:

  • She took her screen name Toby after the nickname her father had given a horse.
  • After serving in World War I, Wing’s father moved to Hollywood to serve an assistant director and mid-level executive at Paramount Studios. He also served in World War II and was for a time was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines; he survived the infamous Bataan Death March.
  • Her sister Madison was also a film actress, under the name Pat Wing. Madison appeared in 32 pictures between 1923 and 1937, though she generally went uncredited.
  • As a child, Wing took a few small parts in silent pictures before refocusing on her studies at her parents’ insistence.
  • She was romantically paired with an impressive roster of prominent men—Maurice Chevalier, Alfred Vanderbilt, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., Jackie Coogan (Wing and Coogan were engaged for a time) and Pinky Tomlin among them.
  • Wing’s best-remembered role was in the 1933 Warner Brothers musical 42nd Street, where she was the “Young and Healthy” girl opposite crooner Dick Powell.
  • Wing’s career alternated between sizable roles and cameos (with the latter being prevalent). Mostly, she served (and ably so) as eye candy, though she occasionally scored more prominent roles when she appeared in Poverty Row pictures.
  • After being engaged—but not wed—to a long string of men, Wing married prominent aviator Dick Merrill, who was 22 years her senior. Many were skeptical of the union, but the pair enjoyed wedded bliss until Merrill’s death in 1982.
  • Wing appeared on Broadway in Cole Porter‘s You Never Know, a troubled production that lasted just 73 performances; Wing appeared in the production alongside Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Lupe Velez.
  • Wing and Merrill settled in Miami Beach, Florida, where she dabbled in real estate and taught Sunday School at All Souls’ Episcopal Church into her 80s.

Happy birthday, Toby Wing, wherever you may be!

Toby Wing

Happy 98th Birthday, Anne Shirley!

We’re tardy by a day, but it’s still worth noting that actress Anne Shirley was born Dawn Evelyeen Paris 98 years ago yesterday in Manhattan. Her father died while she was an infant, and her mother, struggling to provide for her family, turned to her photogenic child, then 16 months, to help pay the bills, making young Dawn available as a photographer’s model.

From there, it was on to motion pictures. Dawn made her feature debut at the age of four and was soon showing enough promise in her film work that she and her mother made the move from New York to Hollywood, where she eventually played female stars of the pictures as young girls, among them Janet Gaynor in 4 Devils (1928), Frances Dee in Rich Man’s Folly (1931) and Barbara Stanwyck in So Big! (1932). She also appeared in a series of short subjects for Vitaphone.

As the years passed, she grew into a lovely young teenager and her roles grew in size and importance. Eventually, she emerged from hundreds who were tested to play the role of Anne Shirley in the 1934 film adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables. In the years prior, Dawn had worked primarily under the name of Dawn O’Day, but she now adopted the name of the character that had made her a star, Anne Shirley. (We can think of just one other example of an actor adopting the name of a character he or she played: Byron Barr had been acting for some years under his own name when he was cast in the 1942 film The Gay Sisters as a character named Gig Young; he was known professionally by that name for the rest of his life.)

Anne Shirley

Anne Shirley kept busy throughout her adolescence, but wasn’t given another truly standout role until, at age 19, she was cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter in Stella Dallas (1937). Both Shirley and Stanwyck were nominated for Oscars for their work in that picture (Best Supporting Actress and Best Leading Actress, respectively), though neither would go on to win.

Shirley was now more in demand than ever, though her career has now entered a “one step forward, one step back” phase, with her films—and the roles she played in them—being of uneven quality. Her heart had never really been in her career—she had stuck with it largely to please her mother—and after appearing opposite Dick Powell in the classic film noir Murder, My Sweet (1944), she retired at age 26, never to return to the screen.

Anne Shirley remained in Hollywood for the rest of her life. She was married three times and had two children. She died on July 4, 1993, at 75.

Happy birthday, Ms. Shirley, wherever you may be!

Happy 106th Birthday, Claire Trevor!

The great Claire Trevor was born Claire Wemlinger 106 years ago today in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. She grew up in Larchmont, New York, and after graduating high school, spent six months studying at NYC’s American Academy of Dramatic Art before beginning a theatrical career, first in stock theatre and later on Broadway.

Claire Trevor

In the early 1930s, Trevor appeared in short films for the NYC-based Vitaphone studios before moving into feature films in 1933. Over the next six years, she kept very busy, averaging six pictures per annum. In 1937, she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Dead End.

Trevor appeared in a number of Westerns over the years, frequently costarring opposite John Wayne. In one of those oaters, 1954’s The High and The Mighty, she received the third of her three Best Supporting Actress nominations.

But it was in the genre of film noir that Trevor made her most indelible mark. In films such as Murder, My Sweet (1944), in which she costarred with Dick Powell; Born to Kill (1947), in which she appeared opposite Lawrence Tierney Raw Deal (1948), with Dennis O’Keefe, she played hard-boiled dames with hearts of gold, and her work in these dark and gritty pictures made her one of the queens of that genre. It was in Key Largo (1948), in which she costarred with Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart that she earned her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, playing Gaye Dawn, gangster’s moll and former nightclub singer,

Trevor also enjoyed success in radio and television in a career that spanned six decades, winning an Emmy for her work in a 1957 small-production of Dodsworth. Late in life, Trevor was generous in her support of the arts, and the University of California-Irvine named its School of Performing and Visual Arts after her. Her Oscar and Emmy statuettes are on display in the Arts Plaza there.

Claire Trevor died in 2000 in Newport Beach, California, at the age of 90.

Happy birthday, Ms. Trevor, wherever you may be.

Farewell, My Lovely: A Classic Reissued

Farewell, My Lovely posterFarewell, My Lovely (1975) is a neo-noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler‘s novel of the same name. Robert Mitchum, though a bit long in the tooth for the role, plays Philip Marlowe to a T, and the picture perfectly captures the mood of the era–and the cinematic genre–it portrays.

We were working as an usher at the North Park 4 Cinema when this movie came out, and watched it with delight in dribs and drabs—a scene here, a scene there, whenever we could elude the disapproving gaze of our manager. It was our introduction to Chandler’s work, and we could hardly have asked for a better one (except, y’know, Chandler’s work).

Part of what makes the picture work is the haunting “Marlowe’s Theme” that plays over the opening credits and reappears at various times throughout the picture. We’d like to live in the world that this music evokes.

The picture also features such stellar supporting players as Charlotte Rampling (channeling Lauren Bacall), Jack O’Halloran (as Moose Malloy), Harry Dean Stanton, Sylvia Miles (she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as an over-the-hill chorus girl), John Ireland, Sylvester Stallone (in a don’t-blink cameo as a hood) and even acclaimed noir author Jim Thompson in a small role.

Farewell, My Lovely has been unavailable on DVD in the U.S. for a good many years, but we were pleased to learn recently that Shout! Factory is releasing it again in mid-November (you can preorder it now). One might wish this beautiful picture were going to be made available in Blu-ray format (we do wish that very thing, as a matter of fact), but even a DVD reissue is cause for celebration.

There is an excellent 1944 adaptation of Chandler’s second novel—renamed Murder, My Sweet, it stars Dick Powell as Marlowe, along with noir icon Claire Trevor, Mike Mazurki, Otto Kruger, Anne Shirley, and Esther Howard—that is newly available on Blu-Ray, and it’s worth your time, too. In fact, it’s widely considered a classic. Frankly, you can’t go wrong with either of these movies; we recommend owning both.