Happy 125th Birthday, William Demarest!

The gruff but lovable William Demarest was born 125 years ago today in St. Paul, Minnesota. Here are 10 WD Did-You-Knows:

  • If Demarest doesn’t strike one as the typical Minnesotan, that’s probably because his family moved to New Jersey when he was a baby, a state that better gibes with his irascible persona. His father was a second-hand furniture dealer.
  • Demarest was a veteran of World War I, serving as a sergeant in the United States Army.
  • Demarest’s performing career began when he was a very young; he played cello in an act with his two older brothers that played resort hotels in New Jersey. He then work as a dancer and comedian in cabarets and worked two seasons with the Alcazar Theatre Stock Company in Stockton, California.
  • Demarest had a brief boxing career, fighting under the name “Battling McGovern,” but he preferred not to discuss that period in his life in his later years.
  • Demarest later played vaudeville, first as a solo act and later teaming with his first wife, Estelle Collette (her real name was Esther Zychlin).
  • Demarest received his first screen test for Warner Brothers in 1926. “We filmed in L.A.,” he later said, “and you could have smelled it in New York. It was just awful.” Nonetheless, he signed a five-year contract with Warners the next year, appearing in a dozen silent pictures.
  • Though he went uncredited, Demarest can be spotted in the role of Buster Billings opposite Al Jolson in the first talking feature, The Jazz Singer.
  • Demarest was a member of Preston Sturges‘ stock company. His facility with physical comedy suited the director’s style particularly well.
  • Demarest made over 100 pictures and received one Oscar nomination, for his supporting role in the 1946 biopic The Jolson Story.
  • Demarest is best remembered today for his work on television, particularly for the role of Uncle Charley O’Casey on My Three Sons. He replaced William Frawley, who was in frail health, on tha popular sitcom. Demarest received one Emmy nomination for his work on the show, on which he appeared from 1965 to 1972.

Happy birthday, William Demarest, wherever you may be!

William Demarest

Happy 118th Birthday, Preston Sturges!

The great Preston Sturges was born Edmund Preston Biden 118 years ago today in Chicago, Illinois. We consider him one of the true giants of American comedy filmmaking. Among the pictures he wrote or directed are The Good Fairy, Easy Living, Remember the Night, The Great McGinty, Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, and The Palm Beach Story—classics, every last one of them. Here are 10 PS Did-You-Knows:

  • His mother, Mary Estelle Dempsey (though she would be known by many names), an eccentric character worthy of inclusion in one of Sturges’ films, was close friends with dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan; in fact, it was a scarf Dempsey gave to Duncan that led to the dancer’s infamous death.
  • Sturges’ mother was married several times, but it was her third husband, a wealthy Chicago stockbroker named Solomon Sturges, who was a true father to Preston. He adopted him when Sturges was 4 years old and provided guidance and support to him throughout his life.
  • Prior to launching his writing career, Sturges was employed as a runner on Wall Street and worked for his mother’s cosmetics company, even inventing a kiss-proof lipstick.
  • In 1917, Sturges enlisted in the Army Air Service, serving at Camp Dick in Texas without ever seeing action. Three Hundred Words of Humor, a humorous essay he wrote for the camp newspaper, was his first published work.
  • Sturges claimed to have introduced the club sandwich to Germany.
  • His first success came on Broadway with a play he wrote called Strictly Dishonorable. He wrote the play in just six days, it ran for 16 months (a very lengthy run in 1929), and he was working for Paramount Pictures soon thereafter.
  • He worked for a decade as a studio screenwriter, and though he wrote some terrific movies during that time, he was often frustated by the final product.
  • So eager was Sturges to direct his own scripts that he sold the rights to The Great McGinty to Paramount for just one dollar (some reports say the fee was $10), with the stipulation that he would be allowed to direct it. He would go on to win the very first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for that script.
  • Sturges amassed a troupe of actors that he used repeatedly in his films, and when the studio objected, fearing the actors’ faces would become too familiar to the audience, Sturges responded, “These little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures.”
  • In the 1940s and ’50s, he owned and operated a nightclub called The Players on the Sunset Strip.

Happy birthday, Preston Sturges, wherever you may be, and thanks for the laughs!

Preston Sturges

Happy 115th Birthday, Rudy Vallée!

Rudy Vallée was born Hubert Prior Vallée 115 years ago today in Island Pond, Vermont. He was a huge star as a young man, a true teen idol singing in a brand new style—the Elvis Presley (or perhaps the Justin Bieber) of his day, if you will. Here are 10 RV Did-You-Knows:

  • In addition to his vocal talents, Vallée played drums, clarinet and saxophone.
  • Vallée’s popular radio program of the 1920s and early ’30s was sponsored by Fleishmann’s Yeast (funny, but you just don’t see or hear that many yeast advertisements anymore).
  • Vallée, for all his popularity with the public, was said to be difficult to work with early in his career. He was short-tempered and ever spoiling for a fight, it is said.
  • As an orchestra leader, Vallée gave many popular singers their start, among them Alice Faye and Frances Langford.
  • Vallée wrote his first memoir in 1930, when he was all of 29.
  • His catch-phrase was, “Heigh-ho, everybody!”
  • The crooners of the 1920s and ’30s, of whom Vallée was among the most popular, were singing in a new, more intimate, even sexy style that simply wasn’t possible prior to the rise of the microphone. Rudy’s vocalizing may not strike the average listener today as especially sexy, but at the time, it was. If you don’t believe us, just ask him: He insisted on more than one occasion that “People called me the guy with the cock in his voice.” (No, we don’t really understand that, either.)
  • He played the romantic lead in several movies at the height of his popularity, but he later switched to more comedic roles, playing stuffy, pompous and sometimes oddball characters. (He’s very funny in Preston SturgesThe Palm Beach Story (1942), for example, but one almost wonders if he’s in on the joke.)
  • Vallée had a hit in the 1920s with The Maine Stein Song, the fight song for his alma mater, the University of Maine.
  • Vallée died in 1986 while watching the Statue of Liberty Centennial ceremonies on television.

Happy birthday, Rudy Vallée, wherever you may be!

Rudy Vallée

Happy 141st Birthday, J. Farrell MacDonald!

If you’re an old-movie aficionado, you’re familiar with the face of J. Farrell MacDonald, born 141 years ago today in Waterbury, Connecticut (at least one source says MacDonald was born June 6, 1875, and we honestly don’t have a clue which is correct, but we’re going with today). Even if you only occasionally tune to Turner Classic Movies when nothing else is on, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered MacDonald’s mug in a motion picture or two.

MacDonald is one of those actors who turns up in seemingly every third film of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and though his range may have been limited (at least, the range he was allowed by those in charge of casting), he was always memorable. J. Farrell MacDonald played tough guys—sometimes amiable, some times grumpy, sometimes they were good guys, sometimes not—who were frequently, like MacDonald himself, of Irish descent.

Lest you think we’re exaggerating MacDonald’s ubiquity, consider this: Over the course of his 41-year career, he appeared in more than 325 motion pictures (he also directed 44 flms from 1912 to 1917—in fact, he was the principal director for L. Frank Baum‘s Oz Film Manufacturing Company, a short-lived studio that aimed to make family-friendly pictures in an era when children were seeing mostly shoot ’em-up westerns.

J. Farrell MacDonald

MacDonald attended Yale University, where he played football and graduated with a B.A. in 1903. He then continued on to study law and geology at Stewarttown University in Ottawa. His first job after graduation found him taking part in a government geological survey through Mexico, Colorado and into the Rockies.

Farrell began his acting career as a minstrel performer before touring in legitimate theatrical productions for two years. He made his first appearance in a motion picture in 1911 and didn’t stop until shortly before his death in 1952. He frequently played cops, but he appeared in a good number of westerns too. He was seen frequently in the films of Frank Capra (for whom he appeared in four pictures), Preston Sturges (eight pictures) and John Ford, for whom MacDonald appeared in more than twenty pictures from 1919 through 1946.

As one might expect of someone who worked so frequently, not all of MacDonald’s pictures are well-remembered today, but he appeared in a number of films that are considered classics, among them Topper, It’s a Wonderful Life, My Darling Clementine, Sullivan’s Travels and even Superman and the Mole Men. His film appearances were frequently (though not always) brief, but nearly always memorable.

Happy birthday, Mr. MacDonald, wherever you may be!

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!