Happy 121st Birthday, Busby Berkeley!

The inimitable director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was born Berkeley William Enos (though some sources claim it was Busby Berkeley William Enos) 121 years ago today in Los Angeles, California. Berkeley, of course, is famous for his large-scale cinematic dance numbers that featured dozens of beautiful starlets painstakingly organized in geometric, kaleidoscopic formations that were often best viewed from above. Here are 10 BB Did-You-Knows:

  • Berkeley’s mother, Gertrude Berkeley, was an actress and his father, who died when Berkeley was just eight years old, managed a theatrical troupe.
  • As a young man, Berkeley held a number of disparate jobs, working for a shoe company, playing semi-pro baseball and leading a dance band.
  • Berkeley served in World War I, with the rank of field artillery lieutenant. Some say the drills he saw his fellow soldiers perform while in the military may later have influenced his precision choreography (we consider this a stretch, albeit a delightful one we’re willing to perpetuate).
  • During the 1920s, Berkeley choreographed more than 20 Broadway musicals, and from the beginning, he was less interested in dance steps than in the kind of complicated geographic formations for he later became famous in Hollywood.
  • Berkeley’s Hollywood debut as a choreographer and dance stager came in a 1930 Eddie Cantor picture, Whoopee!, and he would go on to work on 40 pictures in the next decade, as choreographer or director (or both).
  • In 1935, Berkeley was traveling home from the wrap party for In Caliente when the car he was driving hit a pair of autos; three people were killed and five others seriously injured (as was Berkeley). Berkeley was brought up on second degree murder charges; the first two of three trials resulted in hung juries; in the third, Berkeley was acquitted of the charges.
  • Despite his success in the field of terpsichore, Berkeley never took a dance lesson.
  • At age 74, Berkeley directed the Broadway revival of No No Nanette. In the cast was his former leading lady at Warner Brothers, Ruby Keeler. The show was a success, and both Berkeley and Keeler saw their work acclaimed.

Happy birthday, Busby Berkeley, wherever you may be!

Busby Berkeley

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 103rd Birthday, Burt Lancaster!

Burt Lancaster was born 103 years ago today in Manhattan, New York, and rarely has a movie star taken his acting more seriously. Here are 10 BL Did-You-Knows:

  • All four of Lancaster’s grandparents came to the United States from Northern Ireland. His father was a postal worker.
  • As a kid, Lancaster was interested in gymnastics and he eventually joined the circus, where he remained until he sustained an injury. He graduated in 1930 from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.
  • Lancaster was nominated four times for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar, winning once, for Elmer Gantry (1960).
  • After actor John Garfield turned down the role of Stanley Kowalski in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it was offered to Lancaster, who also passed. It’s said that Lancaster, given the acclaim that came to Marlon Brando in that role, felt competitive thereafter with Brando and was inspired to become more adventurous in his own choice of projects.
  • Lancaster, whose political views were liberal, flew back from Europe, where he was making a film, to take part in Martin Luther King‘s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 1963, where he was joined by other stars, among them Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., Charlton Heston, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman. Lancaster also contributed financially to Dr. King’s work and to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
  • Lancaster always stipulated that a high bar be made available on set while he was making a film, so that he could exercise in between scenes.
  • Lancaster’s son Bill Lancaster, screenwriter for The Bad News Bears (1976), based that script on his own Little League experiences playing for his father, who coached his team.
  • Lancaster’s first television role was a 1969 guest appearance on Sesame Street.
  • Lancaster’s was among the 575 names on Richard Nixon‘s infamous “enemies list.”
  • Among the prominent roles Lancaster turned down were Moses in the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur (he was offered $1 million for the role) and Gen. George S. Patton in Patton (1970). A role he avidly pursued but was denied was Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972).
  • Though they were closely associated in the minds of many fans, Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, who made seven films together between 1948 and 1986, did not enjoy a close relationship.

Happy birthday, Burt Lancaster, wherever you may be!

Burt Lancaster

Happy 99th Birthday, Lena Horne!

The wonderful Lena Horne was born Lena Calhoun Horne 99 years ago today in Brooklyn, New York.

    Lena Horne Did-You-Knows

  • Lena Horne was raised in large part by her grandparents while her mother pursued a career as an actress (her parents split when she was a toddler).
  • Horne quit school at age 14 and by 16, she was dancing (and later singing) at the renowned Cotton Club in Harlem.
  • MGM, worried that Horne would be perceived as white onscreen, had makeup artist Max Factor create a line of makeup for her called Dark Egyptian.
  • Horne was turned down at least twice—Pinky (1949), Show Boat (1951)—for film roles as light-skinned black women who pass for white. In both cases, white actresses were cast and had their skin darkened with makeup.
  • Horne was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
  • Horne’s favorite actor was John Garfield.
  • During World War II, Horne refused to perform before racially segregated audiences of American soldiers. This was against Army policy, but she held her ground, putting on a show for a mixed audience of African-American soldiers and German POWs.
  • Accused of having Communist sympathies because of her civil rights activities dating back to the 1940s and her enduring friendship with Paul Robeson, Horne was blacklisted from films and became a cabaret performer.
  • Horne was born on the same day and in the same city—Brooklyn, NY—as actress Susan Hayward.
  • Horne worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching laws and was a frequent guest in the Kennedy White House.

Happy birthday, Ms. Horne—wherever you may be!

Lena Horne

Cinematic slang: Charmed, I’m sure

A poster for the movie Saturday's Children, in which the line Charmed, I'm Sure is heardAnyone who’s ever watched more than a handful of classic movies has very likely heard a character, usually a female and most often one with a thick outer-borough accent, say something along the lines of, “Charmed, I’m sure” when being introduced to someone for the first time.

This usage is clearly meant as something of a gentle laugh line; it nearly always indicates a character who is unsophisticated but would have us believe otherwise.

It’s depicted as an overreach, taking polite speech and giving it an inadvertent twist toward the uncultivated.

Less often, it is used as a chilly form of greeting, the “I’m sure” giving the lie to the “Charmed,” when a character is anything but happy to be encountering in public the person in question.

But have you ever heard anyone in real life use “I’m sure” in this fashion? “Nice to meet you, I’m sure.” “It’s my pleasure, I’m sure.” These usages crop up in old movies, too, but we have to admit we have never heard them used in real life.

Was this once a common usage? Where did the “I’m sure” come from, and what was its intended meaning?

We recently watched Saturday’s Children (1940), starring John Garfield and Ann Shirley, and in it, Dennie Moore plays Gertrude “Gert” Mills, a brassy office manager who speaks her mind in slightly fractured English and with a broad Brooklyn accent. When she is introduced to Shirley’s character, Bobby Halevy, who has recently been hired to work in the ofice and is reporting for her first day on the job, Gert greets Bobby with a chirpy, “How do you do, I’m sure?”

We did a little casual Googling and found a couple of references to “I’m sure,” but nothing definitive, alas.

Urban Dictionary has one explanation that we found intriguing, though, because it’s the usage that the Brooklyn gals so often depicted in old movies seem to be trying to pull off:

A warm greeting used upon being introduced someone. It is most often used in the context of a highly formal situation.

Madame: Miss Davis, Miss Miller.

Miss Davis: How delightful to meet you, Miss Miller.

Miss Miller: Charmed, I’m sure.

Maybe “I’m sure” was, in fact, once a formal and elegant phrasing. That would explain why it was considered humorous when a gum-snapping dame like Gert Mills used it in an attempt to appear more sophisticated.

So we have characters saying “Charmed, I’m sure” when they are anything but charmed. And, more often, we have characters using the phrase in an attempt to appear more sophisticated than they are.

But where are the characters using it genuinely?

Have you ever heard someone say, “Charmed, I’m sure” in real life?

If you have, by all means, share your story in a comment!