Fame in the Family

A slightly different version of this story was first posted on August 30, 2013…

It takes something close to a village to make a movie, but it’s only the bigger names that generally get documented. We’re not inclined to ask, “How did Joan Crawford‘s life turn out?” (or Jack Webb‘s or Jimmy Stewart‘s) because, well, we already know.

But what about James Gleason (a character actor of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s) or Pamela Baird (she played Wally’s gal Mary Ellen Rogers on Leave It To Beaver) or Virginia Gregg (she appeared on seemingly every other episode of Dragnet in the ’60s, playing a different character each time)? These workaday actors come and go, and too often we know little to nothing about them.

That’s why we often find ourselves, when watching a movie from the 1930s or ’40s—or a television program from the 1950s or ’60s—turning to imdb.com to follow up on the lives and careers of those actors who made a living playing small parts.

We wondered, in a post we wrote some years back, whether the descendants of people who whose hands appear in old movies—and only their hands (someone got paid, after all, to provide the steady, well-groomed hands that are seen in so many old movies writing letters in close-up)—are as proud of their ancestors’ cinematic contributions as the sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters) of the top stars must surely be.

Similarly, we wonder about those actors who made only the tiniest mark in Hollywood: Do their children (and their children’s children) point with pride to their father’s two lines in a Bowery Boys comedy or their grandmother’s fifteen-second appearance as a diner waitress in a low-budget noir thriller from the early ’50s?

We came across just such a performance last night while watching Take Care of My Little Girl (1951), an exposé of the excesses of the sorority system on college campuses.

We looked up a number of the cute starlets (there are dozens) who play sorority girls and rushees in the picture, but one in particular caught our attention.

Her name was Virginia Hunt, and she played Lyn Hippenstahl, a sorority hopeful who is heartbroken to learn that, after she has endured the humiliations of Rush Week, not a single sorority has extended to her an invitation to join their organization.

Here’s the brief scene in which Virginia appears. In it, dozens of freshman girls wait in line, each awaiting an envelope that contains cards from the sororities that have expressed a willingness to accept her as a member:

Our Ms. Hunt is given exactly four lines in the scene, and her character is crushed with disappointment. Did she wonder at the time why she was chosen for the character who is rejected? “Am I homely?” perhaps she wondered.

We often wonder this about actors who are cast as the plain girl or the dorky guy or someone whose girth is the object of ridicule. Does the thrill of being cast in a movie or television show—and the pay that accompanies it—outweigh the pain of being considered suitable to play such a role? Surely, inside every Plain Jane or Nerdy Norville, there lurks the soul of a leading lady or man, no?

But the most striking aspect of Ms. Hunt’s imdb.com profile is its sparseness. A date of death is offered (April 26, 2007), but no date of birth. And her filmography includes just a single entry: After portraying the under-appreciated Ms. Hippenstahl, it seems our Virginia never worked in the movies again.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she didn’t go on to lead a happy life. She might well have been very successful in another field of endeavor, or perhaps she married a great guy and raised a crop of kids. Or both! Who knows?

But in the movie biz, Virginia’s moment in the sun was less than sixty seconds long. Do those family members who came after her—her children, her nieces and nephews—even know that she appeared in a movie? Have they seen it?

These are the mysteries that intrigue us.

Happy 113th Birthday, Joan Crawford!

The intrepid Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur 113 years ago (or thereabouts, there’s some debate about the correct year) today in San Antonio, Texas. Here are 10 JC Did-You-Knows:

  • Crawford’s parents separated when she was very young and by her teens, she’d had three different stepfathers.
  • After working a number of menial jobs as a young women, Crawford began to take advantage of her skills as a dancer, winning a number of dance competitions and earning a living as a hoofer first in the Midwest and later on the East Coast.
  • Crawford moved to Hollywood in her mid-twenties, making her movie debut in a bit part as a showgirl in Pretty Ladies (1925). After several minor roles in pictures, she was awarded her breakout role, the part of Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928).
  • Crawford handled with transition from silent pictures to talkies with relative ease, as her first talking picture, Untamed (1929), was a hit.
  • Soon, Crawford was one of MGM’s biggest stars, and she remained such for more than a decade. By the early ’40s, though, her standing at MGM was in decline. She decided to cut her losses and make a fresh start at Warner Brothers, where her stellar portrayal of the title character in Mildred Pierce (1945), the noirish-thriller based on the James M. Cain novel of the same same, revived her career in a big way, as well earning her the only Best Actress Oscar of her career.
  • The 1950s saw Crawford’s career on the wane. Though she made a number of pictures in that decade, they tended to have the sort of campy quality that is today associated with her, if perhaps unfairly so.
  • By the 1960s, Crawford was reduced largely to parts in low budget horror films, such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Strait-Jacket (1964), and Berserk (1967). She also appeared on various television programs, among them the soap opera The Secret Storm, The Lucy Show, and Rod Serling‘s Twilight Zone followup, Night Gallery.
  • Though she was always an imposing on-screen presence, Crawford stood just 5′ 3″.
  • Crawford was married four times; each union lasted less than five years (though, to be fair, her fourth husband passed away). Each time she remarried, she changed the name of her Brentwood estate and replaced all the toilet seats in the house.
  • Crawford made a practice of responding personally to all of her fan mail.

Happy birthday, Joan Crawford, wherever you may be!

Joan Crawford

Happy 116th Birthday, Clark Gable!

Clark Gable was born William Clark Gable 116 years ago today in Cadiz, Ohio. In his day, he was known as the King of Hollywood or, often, just as the King. Here are 10 CG Did-You-Knows:

  • Gable was named after his father, William, who was an oil well driller, but even as a child, he was referred to by his middle name or sometimes as Billy. His birth certificate mistakenly listed Gable as female.
  • Gable’s stepmother (his birth mother died when he was young) encouraged his interest in music, teaching him to play piano. He later took up brass instruments and at age 13, he was the only teen to play in the men’s town band. Gable’s father encouraged him from an early age to be well-dressed and well-groomed.
  • At 17, Gable decided he decided to pursue a career in the theatre and by 21, he was touring in stock companies, along with jobs in the oil fields and working with horses. Josephine Dillon, an acting coach and theatrical manager in Portland, Oregon, set out to remake Gable from head to toe. She paid for him to get new teeth, she built up his once-slight physique with a proper diet and strenuous exercise and helped him improve his movements and posture. She also worked at length to lower his high-pitched voice and improve his diction.
  • Dillon, who was 17 years Gable’s senior, also financed Gable’s relocation from Portland to Hollywood in 1924, where she officially became his manager and his wife. He changed his professional name from W. C. Gable to Clark Gable and began to work as an extra and a bit player in silent short and features.
  • When no leading film roles were in the offing, Gable returned to the stage, acting for a season with the Laskin Brothers Stock Company in Houston, Texas, where he played a variety of roles and gained valuable experience. Finally, with the ascent of talking pictures, Gable’s stock as an actor rose as well. He was offered a contract with MGM in 1930. His first role was as a rough-hewn villain in a William Boyd western, The Painted Desert (1930). His imposing stature and now-powerful speaking voice made a quick hit with moviegoers (especially female ones).
  • Many of Gable’s early roles were tough guys, gangsters and villains, and though no less an authority than Darryl F. Zanuck had once said of Gable, “His ears are too big and he looks like an ape,” he was finding himself cast opposite popular leading ladies of the day, including Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Shearer and even Greta Garbo (with whom he shared a mutual dislike—she thought his acting wooden; he thought her a snob).
  • Despite long being known as the King of Hollywood, Gable was never No 1 at the box office in a given year, but year after year, he ranked near the top, as the fortunes of other actors rose and fell. His breakthrough role was his Oscar-winning performance in Frank Capra‘s It Happened One Night in 1934, opposite Claudette Colbert. That classic film won the Best Picture Oscar to go along with Gable’s Best Actor nod. Capra considered the role of Peter Warne in the film the closest to Gable’s actual personality: “It Happened One Night is the real Gable,” he wrote. “He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film. They had him playing these big, huff-and-puff he-man lovers, but he was not that kind of guy. He was a down-to-earth guy, he loved everything, he got down with the common people. He didn’t want to play those big lover parts; he just wanted to play Clark Gable, the way he was in It Happened One Night, and it’s too bad they didn’t let him keep up with that.”
  • Gable is said to have been Adolph Hitler‘s favorite actor, and it’s been reported that Hitler offered a reward to anyone who could capture Gable, then flying combat missions over Germany, and bring him to Hitler unharmed. The reward went unclaimed.
  • Gable played a newspaper reporter in nine different pictures, more than any other type of role, but late in life, he expressed regret that he hadn’t appeared in more westerns, the genre he most enjoyed working in.
  • Gable was married five times, the first two times to women many years his senior, but it is generally accepted that his third Wife, actress Carole Lombard, was the great love of his life. She even got Gable, a lifelong Republican, to support Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president. It’s said that Lombard’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1942 left Gable so bereft that he immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was absent from the silver screen for three years.

Happy birthday, Clark Gable, wherever you may be!

Clark Gable

Happy 112th Birthday, Joan Crawford!

Joan Crawford, born Lucille Fay LeSueur 112 years ago today in San Antonio, Texas, had a Hollywood career like no other. Talk about your highs and lows. She was born in a family of modest means, her parents separated before she was born and she’d had three stepfathers by the time she was in her teens.

Dancing was her ticket out. She wasn’t a trained dancer or in any sense a classical one. She was vivacious and driven and did the popular dances of the day. After winning several dance contests, she was awarded a spot in a chorus line in a touring show, and two years later, she headed west to Hollywood. She quickly started snagging bit parts in pictures, but it was Our Dancing Daughters (1928) that proved to be her big break. Having become a star just at the end of the silent era, she was now faced with the challenge of proving she was able to speak well enough for talking pictures. She was, as her work in her first talkie, Untamed (1929), demonstrated, and it was onward and upward from there.

Joan Crawford

Crawford was one of MGM‘s biggest stars in the 1930s, but by the ’40s, the studio began, as studios were wont to do, awarding the prime roles to a collection of fresh faces, so Crawford for Warner Brothers, where the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), the noirish adaptation of James M. Cain‘s novel of the same name, gave her fading career new life. She won her only Oscar for her portrayal of the titular loving mother whose hard work and sacrifice goes unappreciated by her selfish, snotty daughter. Crawford rode the wave created by Mildred Pierce for a few years until, in the 1950s, her star again began to shine less brightly. She delivered some of her most over-the-top performances in that decade in pictures that she surely didn’t rate as highly as her earlier efforts, but today’s fans value her films of that decade greatly for the sheer campy fun of them.

Sadly, today Crawford’s remembered as much for her adopted daughter Christina’s unflattering (to put it mildly) portrait of her mother in the memoir Mommy Dearest, and the 1981 cinematic adaptation of that book, with Faye Dunaway as Joan. We may never know just how accurate Christina’s account is—many people who knew Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy among them, insist it’s vastly overblown and unfair—but it almost doesn’t matter at this point: Christina’s depiction of a controlling, easily angered, abusive Joan Crawford is now pop culture lore, and little can be done about it.

Joan Crawford’s final picture was a ridiculous offering called Trog (1970). One has to give her credit for hanging in there, but it’s one picture Crawford surely regretted making. After that, she largely disappeared from the public eye before passing away at age 72 on May 10, 1977.

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