Happy 104th Birthday, Gene Kelly!

Gene Kelly was born 104 years ago today in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which seems apt, given that he was something of a blue-collar hoofer. As Kelly once put it, “Fred Astaire represented the aristocracy, I represented the proletariat.” Here are 10 GK Did-You-Knows:

  • Kelly’s father was of Irish descent, and his mother was Irish and German.
  • Kelly’s father was Al Jolson‘s road manager in the 1920s.
  • He attended Penn State University for a while before graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in economics.
  • At Pitt, Kelly was a member of the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity.
  • He and his younger brother, Fred, had a dance act in vaudeville. Fred eventually replaced Gene as Harry the Hoofer in the 1939 Broadway production of The Time of Your Life.
  • While Kelly was starring in Pal Joey on Broadway, he signed a contract with producer David O. Selznick. Selznick, after struggling to find a suitable role for Kelly, sold his contract to MGM.
  • Kelly was fighting a high fever while filming the iconic rain scene in Singin’ in the Rain.
  • The first two of Kelly’s three wives were dancers.
  • He was a dance consultant for Madonna‘s 1993 Girlie Show tour.
  • Kelly was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Happy birthday, Gene Kelly, wherever you may be!

Gene Kelly

Happy Birthday, Mary Carlisle!

There are precious few stars of the 1930s who are still with us today, but Mary Carlisle, born Gwendolyn Witter in Boston, Massachusetts, 102 years ago today, is still going strong, bless her heart.

The last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars (an annual promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers from 1922-1934 that honored 13 young actresses [the number was 15 in 1932, the year Carlisle was honored] whose careers showed great promise), Carlisle was discovered in 1928 by studio executive Carl Laemmle, Jr. while dining at the Universal Studios commissary. She was just 14.

Mary Carlisle

In 1930, Carlisle signed a one-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, appearing mostly as a dancer in musical shorts, but it was with Paramount Pictures that she would achieve her greatest success. She appeared opposite Bing Crosby in three films—College Humor (1933), Double or Nothing (1937) and Doctor Rhythm (1938)—and would go on to appear in more than sixty pictures in the course of her 14-year career, most of them “B” pictures with titles reminiscent of the early scene in Preston SturgesSullivan’s Travels, in which successful but artistically frustrated director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is reminded of some of his greatest successes: Ants in Your Plants of 1939, Hey Hey in the Hayloft, and So Long, Sarong.

Think some of Carlisle’s pictures couldn’t have been plugged right into that dialogue, titles like Hotel Haywire (1937), Ship A Hooey! (1932), and Handy Andy (1934)? But we’d pay good money and line up early to see that triple feature tonight, if only some bijou were screening it.

Carlisle was wed to actor James Edward Blakeley (he would go on to become an executive producer at 20th Century-Fox) in 1942 and retired from motion pictures soon thereafter. But more than five dozen pictures is nothing to sneeze at, nor is being vital and alert at the age of 102, which, by all reports, our Mary is.

Happy birthday, Mary! We hope you enjoy a truly grand day!

Happy Birthday, Walter Pidgeon!

We weren’t always big fans of Walter Pidgeon, who was born 118 years ago today. The imposing (he stood just over 6-foot-2) Canadian-born actor can come off at times as a bit stolid, but we eventually warmed up to him.

His movie career began in silent pictures and he was able to make the switch to talkies in large part because he could sing. In the early days of talking pictures, he was featured in a number of now largely forgotten musicals, such as Viennese Nights (1930) and Bride of the Regiment (1930), but he eventually became a reliable leading man in dramas and some comedies—stalwart, masculine, gentlemanly—who could impart a touch of wry humor to roles when called upon.

Happy birthday, Mr. Pidgeon, wherever you may be.

Walter Pidgeon quote

Hollywood Shorts: The Studio Cat

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Charles Ray was a popular juvenile star in the 1910s and ’20s, but by the ’30s, his career was on the rocks, and he turned to writing. Here’s another in a series of offerings from his book, Hollywood Shorts, a collection of short stories set in Tinseltown.
 
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The Studio Cat
 
The studio gates swung open wide to admit a stately car. Disdaining the action, the studio cat jumped into the gateman’s cushioned chair and sat like a king upon his throne. For a moment he wrestled with hate, then venom won. He lifted his percussant tail high into the air, and with a follow-through stroke to shame any golfer, gave it a quick nuts-to-you snap at the limousine housing the unpopular star.
Blackie felt better. This antipathy had continued ever since he had been borrowed from the gatekeeper to appear in the kitchen scenes of a motion picture. Later, a few fan letters arrived, addressed to Blackie, the Studio Cat. Some of the stars on the lot had laughed at the idea of a cat getting fan mail, which made existence unbearable to Blackie. He would not go on the stages any more, but he would go under them. He would never act again, but he would snap his tail at the egotistical offenders.
He was a wise cat; he had seen plenty of changes on the lot in a few short years. No one had roamed the lot as long as he. They came and they went, made their mistakes as silly humans do, and were seen no more.
Even now, he could but lift an eye to the top of the administration building and see the manifestation of human stupidity.
Someone in charge had forgotten to turn the switch that extinguished the huge electric sign. It was past 9 a.m. Stockholders’ money was being wasted as the sign blinked and flickered in the sunlight, spelling out Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with intermittent flaring initials: M-G-M.
With the utmost contempt, Blackie turned his attention to his morning titivation. First, he lifted his jet-black fur, with an eye for fleas, and then pasted it down with liquid artistry most amazing.
“Meow,” called a restaurant cat from the Greasy Spoon Hash House across the street, and included the password.
She pushed her fat hulk through the iron bars of the gate and slunk along the casting-office wall, slowly giving herself a salt rub on the rough stucco surface. Then too there was another reason for tarrying. She really could not enter the sanctum of the regal studio cat without proper welcome. The studio cat wasn’t exactly high hat, but his hauteur was occasionally cataphractic. And so the restaurant cat poised herself at a safe diplomatic distance from the gateman’s chair, repeated the password, and sat on her haunches waiting patiently, blinking both eyes for needed occupation.
Presently, after giving himself a thorough caticure, Blackie pronounced a good-morning caterwaul in pleasant enough tones as to make the coveted invitation valid.
Approaching perfunctorily, the restaurant cat moved in front of the gateman’s chair, salaamed like a courtier respecting the throne, and whispered for court information.
“How’s tricks? Any new scandal?” she gossiped.
“Nothin’ to chew on,” Blackie replied as if bored. “There hasn’t been a scandal in a hell of a while. Will Hays is very active again, you know, politics and all that. By the way, I’m going to a little cleaning up of the studio on my own, tonight. I’m giving a banquet under stage four at midnight.”
“Really? How nice.”
“Yes, if you care to join, please say so at once. It will be a sit-down supper; so naturally I don’t want an odd number. I’m not at all superstitious, but my guests, you know—I don’t want thirteen.”
“You said a mouthful!” The restaurant cat licked her chops. “Then I’ll see you after twelve?” she punned and was sorry.
The studio cat rolled his eyes immorally, forcing the restaurant cat to leave his presence.
At nine the next morning, after a night of righteous debauchery, the cats sat in the same positions by the entrance gate, discussing the night’s orgy in low-toned confidence.
The studio cat cast his good eye upward, and again noted the stupidity of human beings. The incandescent bulbs in the huge sign over the administration building were blinking uselessly in the broad daylight, spelling out Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after each flash of the initials: M-G-M.
“Well, ol’ thing,” Blackie wisecracked to the restaurant cat, “M-G-M may mean Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to humans, but to me it means Mighty-Good-Mice.”
 

A tiny icon of a 1920s flapper

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