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.