Happy 101st Birthday, Toby Wing!

Actress Toby Wing was born Martha Virginia Wing in Amelia Court House, Virginia, 101 years ago today. She was never a star, but she’s remembered fondly by old-movie buffs for her many memorable small parts and cameos. Here are 10 TW Did-You-Knows:

  • She took her screen name Toby after the nickname her father had given a horse.
  • After serving in World War I, Wing’s father moved to Hollywood to serve an assistant director and mid-level executive at Paramount Studios. He also served in World War II and was for a time was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines; he survived the infamous Bataan Death March.
  • Her sister Madison was also a film actress, under the name Pat Wing. Madison appeared in 32 pictures between 1923 and 1937, though she generally went uncredited.
  • As a child, Wing took a few small parts in silent pictures before refocusing on her studies at her parents’ insistence.
  • She was romantically paired with an impressive roster of prominent men—Maurice Chevalier, Alfred Vanderbilt, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., Jackie Coogan (Wing and Coogan were engaged for a time) and Pinky Tomlin among them.
  • Wing’s best-remembered role was in the 1933 Warner Brothers musical 42nd Street, where she was the “Young and Healthy” girl opposite crooner Dick Powell.
  • Wing’s career alternated between sizable roles and cameos (with the latter being prevalent). Mostly, she served (and ably so) as eye candy, though she occasionally scored more prominent roles when she appeared in Poverty Row pictures.
  • After being engaged—but not wed—to a long string of men, Wing married prominent aviator Dick Merrill, who was 22 years her senior. Many were skeptical of the union, but the pair enjoyed wedded bliss until Merrill’s death in 1982.
  • Wing appeared on Broadway in Cole Porter‘s You Never Know, a troubled production that lasted just 73 performances; Wing appeared in the production alongside Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Lupe Velez.
  • Wing and Merrill settled in Miami Beach, Florida, where she dabbled in real estate and taught Sunday School at All Souls’ Episcopal Church into her 80s.

Happy birthday, Toby Wing, wherever you may be!

Toby Wing

Hollywood Shorts: An Actress and How

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.
*    *    *
An Actress and How
Back in Indianapolis, Grace Nome made the mistake of stating that she wanted to be an actress the worst way. The remark caused so much kidding that it ultimately drove her to Hollywood.
Three days in the film city brought discouragement. She emerged from a studio casting office with a weaker desire to show the folks back home.
“It’s tough that there isn’t any work,” a youth whispered while making an exit from the same building. “Well, don’t let it get you down,” he concluded with a weak smile.
“Oh, I’ll be all right,” Grace brightened confidently. “I’m predestined, if you know what I mean.”
Lifting his eyebrows, the boy grimaced and mumbled: “Yes, I’ve heard the expression before.”
The strident noise of bad brakes impinged on their ears, and a dilapidated Ford vibrated inelegantly to the curb before them.
“Hi, Harry!” the occupant shouted. “Here comes Personality Jimmie!” Bounding from the car, a boy thumbed six tickets, then kidded brazenly: “Oh, oh, didn’t mean to muscle in. Why, Harry, were you with this young lady?”
His friend turned to the strange girl.
“Guess you’ll have to help me out, Miss—Miss—“
“Grace Nome is my name.”
“Mine is Harry Wyatt, and this would-be comic intruder is Jimmie Hagel. Don’t mind him. He’s a nut, a goof, and a swell guy all rolled into one. He swears he’s funny—you know, funny like a comedian.”
Jimmie guffawed. “Why, I’m a comic, and you know it.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. You haven’t even got a one-day job.”
“Yeah, but I’m on my way to Paramount with hope and—“
“Oh,” Grace broke in, “will you tell me the location of Paramount Studios?”
“Hop in, Miss Nome. If you can stand this rattletrap fliv of mine, be there in three or four minutes. The ol’ buggy’s perky, has the shakes, but it’s sure.”
“I don’t want to intrude.”
“No trouble. Just look at that Class car, rarin’ to go! No foolin’, it has Class A inscribed on the motor. Just let me introduce you to the Baron. Hi Baron, this is Miss Nome. Miss Nome—the Baron. Barren of polish, barren of paint, barren of—“
“I can’t take it,” Harry groaned. “Jimmie, not in my financial mood. I’ll ride with you, if you’ll promise not to pun.”
“Not a pun in a carload. Hop in. I promise to keep the trap closed until I get a refusal from Paramount.”
In a few moments the three were crammed into the almost unupholstered seat, jogging zigzag and bouncy along Hollywood Boulevard. Eying the blonde beside him, Jimmie voiced his thoughts.
“You’re new, aren’t you, Miss Nome? Haven’t you seen around on the daily hunt. Bucking this extra list is tough sleddin’. What luck do you expect to have in the big bad film city?”
“Don’t answer him, Miss Nome. He’s crazy. Now, Jimmy, tell me why you rushed up with all that enthusiasm about tickets? What were they for?”
“The gamblin’ joint that’s openin’ tonight. I got six. Everybody’ll be there, ’cause they know the police won’t let it stay open long. I’m makin’ up a party. Wanna go?”

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Just mad about Alice

We’ll likely get around to catching Tim Burton’s new take on Alice in Wonderland eventually, but what we’re really excited about is the new DVD release of the 1933 version of Lewis Carroll’s classic work.

Directed by Norman McLeod with the invaluable creative input of art director, William Cameron Menzies, this Paramount release boasted a impressive roster of 1930s stars, among them Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Mae Marsh, W.C. Fields, Edna May Oliver, Richard Arlen, May Robson, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Polly Moran, Charles Ruggles, and Ned Sparks.

Dave Kehr of The New York Times wrote of the Paramount Alice, “Seen today, it’s still a profoundly creepy experience. This Wonderland is not the proto-psychedelic playground of the 1951 Disney animated version, but a distorted, claustrophobic environment populated by menacing, bizarre figures.”

Kehr goes on to say, regarding the movie’s special effects, “As dazzling as today’s digital effects can be (and Mr. Burton’s Cheshire Cat is sure to be memorable), we remain all too aware of how they are accomplished (computers!) for them to possess the seductive sense of mystification that Menzies and McLeod achieve here, using practical techniques derived from Victorian stage magic.”

We couldn’t agree more. We have just about had our fill of today’s CGI effects — give us some old-fashioned, hand-crafted movie magic.

The 1933 Alice also has the exclusive distinction of having garnered an enthusiastic thumb’s-up from the very woman who, as a young girl, inspired Carroll’s stories.

As Kehr writes…

In a Jan. 7, 1934, article in the Times, Alice Liddell, quoted under her married name, Mrs. Reginald Hargreaves, expressed admiration for the film that Hollywood had wrought from the story Carroll had invented for her some seven decades before.

“I am delighted with the film and am now convinced that only through the medium of the talking picture art could this delicious fantasy be faithfully interpreted,” she declared, her words possibly burnished by a Paramount publicist. “‘Alice’ is a picture which represents a revolution in cinema history!”

That’s good enough for us! Our copy of the dvd is already on order and will soon be winging its way to us.

Mr. Burton’s picture may just have to wait a while for our patronage, while we savor a 1930s classic.