Here are 10 things you should know about Melvyn Douglas, born 120 years ago today. He felt typecast in frothy comedic roles in the 1930s and ‘40s, but the last three decades of his career saw the range of his roles broaden.
Tonight’s a big night for fans of classic romantic and screwball comedies: Beginning at 8 p.m. ET, TCM is airing four favorites in a row, so set those DVRs now (that’s assuming you’re not prepared to stay up until 4 a.m.):
Melvyn Douglas, born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg 115 years ago today in Macon, Georgia, was the product of an unlikely marital pairing: His father was a Latvian Jewish immigrant, a concert pianist who taught music in university conservatories, and his mother was from Tennessee (with English ancestry that extended back to the Mayflower). Douglas’s father never mentioned he was Jewish and his mother referred to him in her son’s presence as simply as “foreign.” So Douglas didn’t know of his Jewish heritage until he was 18 years old, when his aunt Cora clued him in.
Douglas dropped out of high school to pursue a career in theatre, and he found success on Broadway (in 1928, he played the same role, a gangster, in the drama A Free Soul that Clark Gable would play in the 1931 movie adaptation opposite Norma Shearer). In 1932, Douglas answered Hollywood’s call and though his ensuing screen career was a successful one, it would be some years before he found satisfaction in motion pictures.
“The Hollywood roles I did were boring,” said Douglas, perhaps best remembered today as the man who made Greta Garbo laugh in Ernst Lubitsch‘s classic comedy, Ninotchka. “I was soon fed up with them. It’s true they gave me a world-wide reputation I could trade on, but they also typed me as a one-dimensional, non-serious actor.”
In the early ’60s, his leading man days behind him (and the iron grip of the studio system loosened), Melvyn Douglas began to find work as a character actor, and it was only then that he had the free reign he sought in choosing roles. “I do a picture only because I want to do it, for my own reasons,” he said at the time. “If it’s a lemon, at least I picked it.”
Douglas achieved the rare triple threat for an actor: He won an Oscar (two, actually, for Best Supporting Actor, in Hud  and Being There , an Emmy (Best Actor-Drama for a 1967 CBS Playhouse production entitled Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night) and a Tony (Best Actor-Play, The Best Man ). Douglas died in 1981 at the age of 80.
Happy birthday, Mr. Douglas, wherever you may be! We quite liked your work in those pictures of the 1930s and ’40s, but we’re glad you got to expand your range a bit before you were through.
Last night we watched The Lady Objects (1938), a strange and kind of silly drama/musical (drusical?) that finds Gloria Stuart, adorable as ever, playing a hotshot lawyer whose husband (Lanny Ross), a former All-American halfback, a world-class tenor and a hopeful young architect (quite the trifecta, that), resents her success and the demands it places on her time.
As we said, kind of silly, but entertaining enough, since we get a special kick out of watching any picture that features Ms. Stuart. We were pleased to do a telephone interview with her some years ago when her memoir was published, and we’ll admit to being not a little proud that when we got to meet her in person a few weeks later at her book party in NYC, she flirted with us just the slightest bit. Nothing overt, nothing untoward, but in a room filled almost entirely with the young women of the publishing industry, we stood out, it seems—a young(ish—we were 41 at the time) man who was thrilled to dote on Ms. Stuart, bringing her food and drink, asking her questions about her movie career back in the 1930s and generally behaving in starstruck fashion.
So whenever we see her looking so fetching on the screen, we can’t help but think, That gorgeous movie star once flirted with us, an actress who might have once flirted with Humphrey Bogart, The Marx Brothers, James Cagney, Lee Tracy, Melvyn Douglas, Boris Karloff, Ralph Bellamy, Pat O’Brien, Eddie Cantor, John Boles, Claude Rains, Lionel Atwell, Frank Morgan, Brian Donlevy, Warner Baxter, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Don Ameche, Lyle Talbot, George Sanders, Walter Pidgeon, Jack Oakie, and Richard Dix. In any case, she appeared in pictures with each of them (except Bogart and the Marx Brothers, whom she knew socially).
Yes, our brief encounter with Ms. Stuart came more than a half-century after those hypothetical Hollywood flirtations—she was 89 at the time—but if she batted her eyelashes at even one-tenth of her aforementioned costars back in the day, we’d have to say we’re in pretty good company!
We’ve come across any number of theatre flyers over the years (including the drive-in flyers from the late 1950s featured in this post), but we’ve never encountered one quite like this one.
At first glance, it appears to be simply a promotional headshot of once-popular leading man Warner Baxter with a printed autograph (which is surprisingly convincing, by the way—we were briefly fooled into thinking we’d scored an genuine autographed photo of Baxter for a mere five smackers), but turn the photo over, and voila—it’s a programming schedule for three different New Jersey theatres. Part of the name is missing from the top theatre, but a little research has us convinced it was the Branchville Theater in Branchville, New Jersey. All I’ve been able to ascertain about the Branchville is that it was listed in the Film Daily Yearbook in 1944 and 1951, and on one weekend in 1937, they screened The Awful Truth, with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, Angel with Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and Melvyn Douglas, and Conquest, starring Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer.
How much earlier than that the theatre was in operation or when it closed, we can’t say. But we’d pay good money to see those three pictures at a small-town bijou like the Branchville, of that you can be sure.
Also featured on this promotional photo is the Colonial Theatre in Beach Haven, New Jersey. (Did you know that no fewer than ten Jersey towns had a theatre called the Colonial at one time or another? It’s true. And an eleventh burg, Hopewell, had a movie theatre called the Colonial Playhouse.)
This Colonial opened in 1922 as the New Colonial on the corner of Bay Avenue and Center Street, replacing an old wooden structure some blocks away. One source says the old Colonial was retained and used in the winter, when the crowds thinned out (Beach Haven, as you might have guessed, is on the Jersey shore, so the population no doubt used to drop precipitously each year at summer’s end. Probably still does.)
Here’s a pair of then-and-now photos of the Colonial. Word has it, it’s now a private residence and no longer the hardware store it was in 2007, but I have no proof of that.
Interesting to note they were featuring the same three movies the Branchville was showing, but each played one day later at the Colonial. (We can’t help but wonder what the Colonial was showing on Friday, Nov. 12, 1937. The flyer doesn’t say.)
The last bijou on the flyer is the Park Theatre in Barnegat, New Jersey. Both the Barnegat and the Colonial (and, we’re guessing, the Branchville) were owned and operated by one Harry Colmer, who died in 1956. His family operated the theatres until 1964, when they sold them.
The Park, which opened in the early 1900s as the Barnegat Opera House, a venue for vaudeville and minstrel shows, began also showing movies between 1915 and 1920. It later became a full-time movie house under the new name. The Park Theatre, since demolished, was located on Shore Road in Barnegat, which is presently Route 9.
The weekend of Friday and Saturday, November 12th-13th, 1937, the Park was featuring Ali Baba Goes to Town, starring Eddie Cantor, Tony Martin, and Roland Young. That one we’d have to think twice about catching. We’d likely opt to drive the twenty miles over to Beach Haven to take in The Awful Truth or Angel at the Colonial (Branchville lies 142 miles away, a bit of a trek to catch a movie).