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.

Virginia Hunt, We Hardly Knew Ye

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 months 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 it’s 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.

Goodbye to another glorious gal: Barbara Billingsley

The roles with which Barbara Billingsley is most closely associated place her outside the time frame on which we usually focus here at Cladrite Radio, but she had small roles in a number of pictures in the 1940s, and that’s good enough for us.

Billingsley, who died yesterday at age 94, played June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver, and with her passing we feel almost as if we’ve lost a second mother. A good portion of our childhood was spent watching afternoon reruns of Leave It to Beaver (if we ever saw the show during its primetime run on ABC, we were awfully young and don’t recall it), and we’ve often told friends that our childhood was not unlike the Beav’s. That claim tends to inspire skepticism, but it’s true. Mom and Dad had the same calm, reasoned approach to parenting as the Cleavers did, and our little corner of suburbia really was almost as idyllic (or, in any case, so it seemed to us) as Mayfield, U.S.A.

The show stands up today. It’s often lumped with Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and other, blander shows of the era, but we’re of the opinion that it’s a much better show than any of those programs, accurately capturing a certain essence of childhood as it once was (and, to a certain degree, remains today) in a way those other shows didn’t.

Our mom didn’t wear pearls, as did Billingsley’s June (she wore them to hide a cleft or depression at her neckline with which she wasn’t pleased), and she showed a bit more spunk and verve than did June, but Karen and June would’ve gotten along just fine if they’d ever met at a PTA meeting.

To her credit, Billingsley kept working long after Leave It to Beaver ended, and she was willing to poke fun at her image with the memorable “I speak jive” scene in Airplane!. She was working as recently as 2003, at the age of 87.

We met Jerry “the Beav” Mathers a few years ago, and he spoke very highly of both Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver, saying they were, to him, like a second set of loving and supportive parents. We can imagine that he and Tony Dow, who played brother Wally on the show, feel the loss of Ms. Billingsley very strongly today.

Frankly, it feels a bit as if we’ve all lost a mom.

R.I.P., Barbara. Thanks for the memories. Please give Hugh our best.