Una Merkel—Picture Saver

This interview with Una Merkel originally appeared in the May 1935 edition of Movie Classic magazine.

Talent, combined with a marvelous
disposition, keeps this charming
young player the busiest actress
in Hollywood

By ROBERT FENDER

Una MerkelTHERE’S a girl in Hollywood known to directors and writers as “the pulmotor girl.” Does that mean anything to you? It didn’t to me, either, until I started thinking of those things used by firemen, lifeguards and physicians known as pulmotors. They’re the emergency machines employed to bring nearly dead people back to life.

Just so, when writers have a nearly dead story on their hands, they write in a part for this girl. And when directors see their pictures expiring dead away, they broadcast a frantic call for this very same girl. She’ll save it if it can be saved, they cry. Get her. And get her right now!

The “her” in this case, as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, is a charming little person with blonde ringlets in her hair, a twinkle in her eyes and a great heart tucked away inside her. Her name is Una Merkel. And she’s perhaps the most universally loved girl in town. Certainly she’s the busiest.

If you saw Una in a Hollywood crowd (say at a preview), you couldn’t pick her out if your life depended upon it. But ten to one she would be the young lady on your left who, on very tip-toe was jockeying for a better position to see the movie stars pass by. For Una is the most confirmed and ardent movie fan in town. She is, to my knowledge, the only one who saves all the programs of all the shows she attends—yes, and makes tiny penciled notes on the margins about players she likes best and why.

Una is so necessary to directors and ailing pictures, I suppose, because she is the only one of her kind in town. She is no more “movie actress” than you. Her unaffected laugh, tinkly and delightful to hear, differs from the average star’s studied “abandon” as a child’s laughter differs from the wearied old man’s croak. She is youth itself, mighty good for the soul, and she’ll continue to be young no matter how many years pile up on her.

“There’s so much,” she told me in her tiny feminine dressing room at M-G-M, “to be happy for. There’s so much to laugh about. Do you see that big building next door? Well, next week I’m going to have a grand big new dressing room.”

“Moving you over there, Una?”

Una laughed. “Oh, Heavens no,” she cried. “That’s going to be for the big stars. But they’ll leave their dressing rooms here and they’re going to give me a bigger one in this building. And they’re going to let me furnish it. Just as I like!” she finished, evidently carried away in high glee.

“Don’t you want to be a big star, Una?”

Una burst out laughing. “Me a star? Do you know any more funny ones?” Then she wrinkled her cute little brow and indulged in some thinking. “But,” she began, “but—even if I could, I don’t think I would. The other night I was trying to think what I’d rather be than myself and I couldn’t think of anything. Not,” she hurried, “that I think I’m pretty good but simply that I’m—I’m so darned happy!

“I love my husband, Ronnie Burla, and he loves me. I get more pleasure out of my work than anyone in Hollywood. There’s just one thing that worries me and that is that there are so many people who don’t share my good luck. I feel so sorry for people who don’t seem to have anything. I wish there was some better way of distributing money and happiness.

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More Morgan for Your Money

We were watching an old movie the other night. Y’know, like we do. And in a small role as a kindly judge was an actor who reminded us of Frank Morgan, he of The Wizard of Oz (and dozens of other 1930s movies) fame. Only this guy didn’t have the gregarious yet halting manner of speech that Morgan had (or that he affected, in any case). He was much lower key in his approach.

“He was probably up for many of the same roles as Morgan,” we found ourselves thinking as we continued watching. Finally, we turned to our research library (IMDb.com, don’t you know) and learned that the actor in question, whom we were sure we’d seen before but who wasn’t terribly familiar to us, was named Ralph Morgan and was, in fact, Frank Morgan’s older brother.

Boy, was our face red!

The pair were two of eleven siblings born to a well-to-do New York family; their father, George Diogracia Wuppermann, who was born in Venezuela of German and Spanish descent, made his fortune as the co-founder of the firm that distributed Angostura Aromatic Bitters in the United States.

Ralph launched his acting career first, having graduated from Columbia University with a law degree (Frank attended Cornell) before quickly abandoning the law for the theatre. With Ralph having found success in stock theatre and on Broadway, younger brother Frank was encouraged to follow the same path, and as we now know, his success would eventually overshadow Ralph’s.

Frank Morgan Ralph Morgan

Ralph made a few silent pictures in the 1910s, when the film industry was still active on the East Coast, but he eventually moved west, working in motion pictures, radio and television. He was one of the founders and charter members of the Screen Actor’s Guild, serving as the organization’s first president beginning in 1933. Even today, the Ralph Morgan Award is given annually to a SAG member who has provided distinguished service to his fellow actors.

Frank was more active in silent pictures than was Ralph, but it was in the 1930s that he really found his niche, playing blustery, often befuddled middle-aged characters. W. C. Fields was originally slated to play the wizard role for which Morgan is best remembered today, but contractual issues kept the deal from being finalized, so MGM instead turned to Morgan.

Frank was said to be something of a heavy tippler, which may have accounted for his relatively early passing in 1949 at 59. Ralph, born seven years before his younger sibling, also outlived him by nearly seven years, passing away in 1956 at the age of 72.

The Morgans were born with the family name Wupperman, and we wonder at Frank’s decision to also use Morgan as his stage name. It’s likely he did so in an attempt to ride Ralph’s professional coattails to a certain degree, and perhaps he did so with Ralph’s blessing, but we can’t help but wonder if Ralph ever resented Frank’s higher degree of success. We hope not.

A tip of the ol’ Cladrite fedora goes out to both these talented brothers, and while we’re a bit mortified that we weren’t previously aware Frank had an older sibling who was also an actor (we can’t really imagine how that info eluded us all these years), we’re glad to give Ralph his due credit now.

Happy Birthday, Dan Duryea!

Given his screen persona, Dan Duryea, born 109 years ago today in White Plains, New York, might not strike the average movie buff as an Ivy Leaguer, but he was, in fact, a member of Cornell University’s class of 1928. He majored in English, but was interested in theatre, too. In his senior year, he even succeeded Franchot Tone as president of the college drama society.

Duryea went on to work in advertising for a bit until the stress got to be too much. A mild heart attack in his twenties convinced him to pursue an acting career instead, a move that paid off nicely. He appeared on Broadway in Dead End and The Little Foxes, and it was the latter play that provided his ticket to Hollywood. Though Bette Davis was named to replace his Broadway co-star, Tallulah Bankhead, in the role of Regina Giddens when Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to produce the cinema adaptation of the hit play, Duryea was retained to play her nephew Leo Hubbard, his cinematic bad guy (or, at the very least, his first weasel).

Dan Duryea

In an early 1950s interview with Hedda Hopper, Duryea claimed that his focus on playing bad guys was intentional, even planned:

“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. And I sure had to be courageous, 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. Inasmuch, as I admired fine actors like Richard Widmark, Victor Mature, Robert Mitchum, and others who had made their early marks in the dark, sordid, and guilt-ridden world of film noir; here, indeed, was a market for my talents. I thought the meaner I presented myself, the tougher I was with women, slapping them around in well-produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in every nightmare alley and behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment, I could find a market for my screen characters.”

We’re not necessarily convinced that Duryea entered the movie business with that much foresight and wisdom, but it sounded good after the fact, and in any case, it’s certainly true that he came to be closely identified with the film noir genre and known for his memorable portrayals of sketchy (at best) characters, in classics such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945),Criss Cross (1949), and Too Late for Tears (1949).

For our money, Dan Duryea was a sort of poor man’s Widmark, but as we see it, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.

A nice guy and dedicated family man in real life, Dan Duryea was married to his wife, Helen, for 35 years until her death and was an attentive parent, serving as a scout master and PTA papa to his two sons.

But on screen, he was the sniveling creep you hoped would get his. And while he usually did, he gave as good as he got.

Happy birthday, Mr. Duryea, wherever you may be—you heel, you.

Fred MacMurray, Man of Many Talents

Fred MacMurray is Turner Classic Movies‘ Star of the Month, and that suits us fine. A total of 32 movies will be shown on Wednesday nights in January, beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

We can’t think of another actor as underestimated as MacMurray. He is widely remembered today for the latter phase of his career—his Disney movies and his television work—but in the 1930s, ’40s and even into the ’50s, he exhibited a wider range than any My Three Sons fan might ever imagine.

After all, can you imagine Steve Douglas, widower and pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing father of three boys, teaming up with Barbara Stanwyck in a blond wig to kill her husband for an insurance payout?

Fred MacMurray

MacMurray pulled off just such a role in the classic film noir Double Indemnity (he starred opposite Ms. Stanwyck four times altogether, the lucky stiff, beginning with the oft-praised-in-this-space 1940 romantic dramady-slash-Christmas movie, Remember the Night).

Fred MacMurray also was adept at romantic and screwball comedies, appearing opposite Carole Lombard (with whom he also worked four times) in such pictures as Hands Across the Table and True Confession.

When you consider that MacMurray also played a mutinous Navy lieutenant in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and a lecherous advertising executive in The Apartment (released, ironically enough, the same year My Three Sons debuted), you start to get the picture.

To top it all off, MacMurray began his career as a saxophonist and singer with such outfits as the Gus Arnheim Orchestra and George Olsen and His Music. MacMurray also appeared on Broadway in Three’s A Crowd (1930–31). He even appeared in a good number of westerns!

So you see, respect must be paid to Mr. MacMurray, who passed in 1991 at age 83. He really could do it all and is well deserving of his Star of the Month designation.

Happy 112th Birthday, Una Merkel!

In Herman Raucher‘s coming-of-age novel Summer of ’42, his teenaged protagonist (perhaps not coincidentally named … Hermie) has a big crush not on Lana Turner, Betty Grable, or Rita Hayworth, but on Penny Singleton, best known for portraying Blondie, wife to Arthur Lake‘s Dagwood in a long series of comic B-pictures.

Hermie was a little bit embarrassed by his preference in movie stars, but he figured there was not as much competition that way.

We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 112th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing wise (and sometimes wisecracking), loyal second bananas to the leading ladies in films of the Pre-Code Era, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl.

Una Merkel

Ironically enough, it was Una who was first slated to play Blondie in that popular series of films before the role was finally awarded to Singleton.

Merkel was born Una Kohnfelder in Covington, Kentucky (we’ve long wondered at the choice of Merkel to replace Kohnfelder. It doesn’t seem the typical choice for a studio-concocted screen name) and began her career in silent movies. She’s listed in some sources as having appear in a 1924 short called Love’s Old Sweet Song and a feature film produced in Texas that same year called The Fifth Horseman. This now-lost (and good riddance) picture was an entry in the then-active genre of pro-Ku Klux Klan films, so perhaps the less said about it, the better. (We hope and trust our Una was just in it for the money.)

Merkel is said to have resembled Lillian Gish during the early years of her career, and she served as her stand-in for a while (on the 1928 classic The Wind, among others). After some time on Broadway, she was back before the cameras, portraying Anne Rutledge in D. W. Griffith‘s 1930 biopic, Abraham Lincoln.

As the years passed, Merkel got to stretch out a bit and her career showed staying power (her final role final role was in 1968, on the popular television program I Spy). Along the way, she appeared in Jean Harlow‘s final picture, Saratoga (1937), indulged in a hair-pulling catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), and even appeared in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap as the Evers’ family’s housekeeper.

But our crush stems from her work in the 1930s, when she was every glamour gal’s best pal in movies such as Red-Headed Woman, 42nd Street, and Bombshell.

Here’s a scene from the latter picture, featuring our Una opposite Harlow and Louise Beavers.

This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on Dec 10, 2013.