Happy 111th Birthday, Joel McCrea!

Joel McCrea, who was born 111 years ago today in South Pasadena, California, is a favorite of ours. Though he eventually settled into a long run of western pictures, he had previously proven to be adept at many other types of roles, too, from screwball and romantic comedies to thrillers and dramas. Here are 10 JM Did-You-Knows:

  • McCrea’s father was an executive with the L.A. Gas & Electric Company; his mother was a Christian Science practitioner. McCrea had a paper route, delivering the Los Angeles Times to D. W. Griffith and other prominent members of the film community.
  • McCrea graduated from Hollywood High School and was a member of the class of ’28 at Pomona College. While in college, he took drama courses and appeared in school productions and also in plays at the Pasadena Playhouse.
  • While in high school, McCrea was already working in the film industry. An adept horseman, he worked as a stunt double and “reins holder” for stars such as William S. Hart and Tom Mix.
  • Just out of college, McCrea signed with MGM, appearing in The Jazz Age (1929) and earning his first lead role in The Silver Horde (1930). In 1930, he signed with RKO and began to establish his reputation as a handsome leading man.
  • McCrea was good friends with Will Rogers, and the Oklahoma cowboy did much to boost McCrea’s career. It was Rogers who encouraged McCrea to put his money into real estate, and that advice made McCrea a millionaire. In fact, he earned more money in real estate than he did as an actor over his 50-year career.
  • Katharine Hepburn, close friends with McCrea and his wife, actress Frances Dee, admired McCrea’s abilities as an actor, ranking him with Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy.
  • McCrea came by his affinity for all things western—roping, riding, ranching—naturally. His grandfather was a stagecoach driver who survived confrontations with Apache Indians.
  • McCrea turned down the lead role in The Postman Aways Rings Twice (1946) that eventually went to John Garfield.
  • McCrea got to meet Wyatt Earp in 1928 and had the chance to portray the western legend in Wichita (1955).
  • McCrea had the opportunity to reunite with his The More, The Merrier (1943) costars, Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, in The Impatient Years (1944), but declined the role, which would have found him playing a serviceman, saying, “If I’m too old to be called, I was too old for that kind of show.”

Happy birthday, Joel McCrea, wherever you may be!

Joel McCrea

Happy 116th Birthday, Jean Arthur!

The wonderful Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene 116 years ago today in Plattsburgh, New York. She was a reluctant and, some say, unlikely star, but she was one of the true greats in the genre of screwball and romantic comedies. Here are 10 JA Did-You-Knows:

  • Arthur was of Norwegian and English descent. Her father was a photographer, and her family relocated frequently as she was growing up; she would spend time in Jacksonville, Florida; Schenectady, New York; Saranac Lake, New York; and Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood (the building she lived is still there, at 573 West 159th Street).
  • In the early 1920s, Arthur worked as stenographer. She also did some commercial modeling, and it was via her modeling work that she was discovered by Fox Film Studios, who thought she could be remade into a “flapper” type. She made her debut in Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford.
  • It’s said that she took her stage name from two of her heroes: Joan of Arc and King Arthur (we are skeptical of this, to be honest, but we are merely reporting what’s long been claimed).
  • Arthur’s trademarks as an actress were her comic timing and her distinctive voice, which Frank Capra described in his autobiography as “low, husky—at times it broke pleasingly into the high octaves like a thousand tinkling bells.”
  • Arthur was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1929, along with Anita Page, Helen Twelvetrees and Loretta Young, among others.
  • Her film career floundering in the early 1930s, Arthur returned to New York City to hone her acting chops in a series of Broadway productions. Having gained confidence in her abilities, she returned to Hollywood in 1934, signing a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures that brought her financial stability. She also went blonde and would remain so throughout her career.
  • Arthur was convinced her left side was her best side, and she insisted on being filmed from that side whenever possible.
  • Arthur made three pictures with director Frank Capra, all of them very successful: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Capra once named her as his favorite actress.
  • The borderline reclusive Arthur was reluctant to participate in publicity efforts for her pictures. she was not active in the Hollywood social whirl and was hesitant to give interviews.
  • Arthur received one Academy Award nomination, in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for The More the Merrier (1943). A year earlier, she won the Sour Apple Award from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club, which was given to the year’s “Least Cooperative Actor/Actress.”

Happy birthday, Jean Arthur, wherever you may be!

Jean Arthur

Happy 95th Birthday, Judy Holliday!

The delightful Judy Holliday, born Judith Tuvim in New York City 95 years ago today, appeared in fewer than a dozen pictures and starred or was featured in fewer than that, but her impact on Hollywood was indelible. She remains one of our very favorites.

Here are 10 Judy Holliday Did-You-Knows:

  • Holliday grew up in Sunnyside, Queens and graduated from Julia Richman High School.
  • Holiday was rejected by Yale Drama School out of high school.
  • She went on to work briefly as a switchboard operator in Orson WellesMercury Theater.
  • Early in her career, Judy Holliday was a member of a cabaret group called The Revuers that was founded by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
  • She made her motion picture debut in a small role in Greenwich Village (1944). After two more bits parts that year, she returned to New York City and the theatre for five years.
  • Prior to its Broadway debut, Holliday replaced Jean Arthur as Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin‘s play Born Yesterday. Though there was talk of casting Rita Hayworth in the movie adaptation of the play, Katharine Hepburn, impressed by Holliday’s work in Adam’s Rib (1949), helped Holliday nab the screen role.
  • Though she was associated with dumb blonde roles, Judy Holliday’s IQ was said to be 172.
  • Holiday was investigated in 1950 (and eventually cleared) by the FBI due to allegations that she was a Communist. In 1952, she was called to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee regarding those same allegations. She wasn’t blacklisted as a results of the (unfounded) rumors surrounding her, but it is thought her career was negatively impacted.
  • Holliday won the 1957 Tony Award as best actress in a musical for Bells Are Ringing. She went on to play the same role in the 1960 film version opposite Dean Martin.
  • Holliday wrote a number of songs with jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan; he wrote the melodies, she wrote the lyrics. They also recorded an album, Holliday with Mulligan, together

Judy Holliday died of cancer three weeks before her 44th birthday, on June 7, 1965.

Happy birthday, Ms. Holliday, wherever you may be; you are sorely missed!

Judy Holliday

Happy 112th Birthday, George Brent!

George Brent, born George Brendan Nolan 112 years today in Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, enjoyed an odd sort of career. By any measure, he achieved great success, but outside movie-buff circles, he’s all but forgotten today. Odd, considering that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was touted as the next Clark Gable. The comparison seems almost laughable today, so low-key was Brent compared to the man once known as the King of Hollywood.

George Brent was a rebel during the Irish War of Independence, though how active he was is open to question; he acknowledged having served as a courier for IRA leader Michael Collins. In any case, the British government put a price on his head, at which point Brent (then Nolan) saw fit to hightail it to the United States.

Brent started his career in the theatre, touring in a production of Abie’s Irish Rose and acting in stock theatre around the country. In 1927, he debuted on Broadway in Love, Honor and Obey. Also in the cast? None other than Clark Gable.

Brent headed for Hollywood a couple of years later, appearing in minor roles for Universal and Fox before signing a contract with Warner Brothers in 1932. It was at Warners that Brent achieved his greatest success. Perhaps the greatest strength of his low-key (but hardly milquetoast) on-screen persona was that he was a perfect complement to strong leading women, holding his own but never overshadowing them.

George Brent

Given how little he’s remembered today, it’s remarkable to consider how often George Brent worked with some of the most iconic actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He made eleven features with Bette Davis (enjoying an offscreen romance with her as well), six with Kay Francis, five with Barbara Stanwyck, four with Ruth Chatterton (to whom he was married from 1932–1934) and two with Myrna Loy. He also played opposite Ruby Keeler, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Madeleine Carroll, Jean Arthur, Merle Oberon, Ann Sheridan (to whom he was married from 1942–1943), Joan Fontaine, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy McGuire, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball and Yvonne De Carlo. That’s a line-up of costars that any leading man might envy.

By the late 1940s, Brent was appearing in mostly B pictures, and he retired from films in 1953, though he continued to act on television for another seven years. He was married five times, and if you read some of his early interviews, it’s not hard to see why most of those marriages didn’t work out. Brent clearly had no interest in being tied down and seemed to resent the responsibilities that relationships carried with them. “No woman will ever own me,” Brent once said. “I own myself.”

But he and his fifth wife, former model and dress designer Janet Michaels, were together for 27 years until she passed away in 1974.

George Brent, who suffered in later years from emphysema, died in 1979 in Solana Beach, California.

Happy birthday, Mr. Brent, wherever you may be!