Saturday, December 13, 2008

Van Johnson Passes On

Van Johnson, movie actor and Hollywood heartthrob during the Forties, passed yesterday, December 12, at the age of 92.

Johnson was born on 25 August 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island. Following graduation from high school he moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. He toured New England with an acting troupe for a time before making his Broadway debut in New Faces of 1936. He went onto appear on Broadway in Too Many Girls and not only had a small part in Pal Joey, but was also Gene Kelly's understudy.

Johnson made his film debut in an uncredited part in Too Many Girls in 1940. Signed to a contract with Warner Brothers, he was cast in Murder in the Big House opposite Faye Emerson. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers only kept Johnson for six months. Fortunately, he was signed to MGM where his fortunes would improve. Appearing in such films as Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (part of the Dr. Kildare series) and Pilot #5, he had his first break with A Guy Named Joe, released in 1943. He was cast in his first dramatic role in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, released in 1944. Johnson also appeared in the films Week-End at the Waldorf and The White Cliffs of Dover. MGM built him up as "the boy next door" and by 1945 he was tied with Bing Crosby as the top box office star chosen by theatre owners.

Unfortunately, Johnson's career faded after World War II, as stars with bigger names returned home from the war. He appeared in such films as Three Guys Named Mike and Plymouth Adventure. Perhaps most significantly, he also appeared in Brigadoon with Gene Kelly and as Lt. Maryk in The Caine Mutiny. Regardless, he was released from his contract with MGM in 1954. Johnson continued to appear in films, but also started doing television as well. He played himself in a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy and a 1957 episode of The Jack Benny Programme, and also appeared on The Loretta Young Show and Zane Grey Theatre.

In 1962 Johnson returned to Broadway in the play Come on Strong. Later in the decade he would appear in the plays On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Mating Dance. He also continued to make guest appearances on television, on The Virginian, Ben Casey, Batman, and The Danny Thomas Hour. He appeared in the films Where Angels Go Trouble Follows, Divorce American Style, and Yours, Mine, and Ours, as well as the TV movie Doomsday Flight.

By the Seventies most of Johnson's roles were on television. He appeared in several television movies and guest starred on such shows as McCloud, One Day at a Time, Quincy M.E., Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and the 1988 version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He had a small role in Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo. He also appeared on Broadway again in the Eighties, playing Georges in La Cage aux Folles. He also spent many of his later years playing in dinner theatre and summer stock.

If Van Johnson was the boy next door for most of his early career, it was perhaps because he played the part so well. Despite a difficult childhood (his family was exceedingly poor), Johnson was able to play the happy go lucky, charming, average American boy in several roles. This is not to say Johnson could not play other roles. He shed his boy next door image for The End of the Affair, in which he played an adulterer, and Lt. Maryk, the executive officer of the Caine who finally decides he must relieve Commander Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) of duty. Johnson's versatility could also be seen in many of his television roles, in which he sometimes played characters who weren't exactly the boy next door. Although he only topped the box office for a short time, Van Johnson was indeed at talented actor.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bettie Page R.I.P.

(WARNING If you are a bit uncomfortable with content that is rated at least PG-13, you might want to pass this blog entry by....)

Bettie Page, possibly the most photographed woman of all time and the undisputed Queen of Pin-Ups, died last night at the age of 85. She had been in intensive care in hospital following a heart attack she suffered on December 2.

Bettie Mae Page was born in Nashville on April 22, 1923. She was the eldest daughter of six children. Her parents divorced in 1933, and as the eldest daughter of six children Bettie often found herself caring for her siblings. While a teenager she and her sisters experimented with different fashions and make up, often imitating their favourite actresses. Learning to sew, Bettie then made much of what she wore even after she became a professional model. She attended Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, graduating as salutatorian of her class. The following year she attended George Peadbody College for Teachers, with the intention of becoming a teacher, although she also studied acting. She received her bachelor's degree in 1944, but found she couldn't control her students. As a result she took up secretarial work. She worked in San Francisco, Haiti, and finally New York.

It was in 1950, when Bettie was on the Coney Island beach, that she was noticed by police officer and amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs. Tibbs not only put together her first modelling portfolio, but introduced her to camera clubs, clubs meant to promote photography as an art. Bettie became very popular as a model very quickly. By 1951 her picture was featured in such men's magazines as Bold, Titter, and Wink. In 1952 she would meet photographers Irving and Paula Klaw. Klaw ran Movie Star News, a mail order business which had originally specialised in pictures of movie stars. In time Irving Klaw learned that many of his clients had rather outré tastes, leading him to start creating bondage and fetish photos for sale. Despite the subject matter, Irving and Paula Klaw took measures to prevent their photos from being considered obscene. Not only did they never feature nudity, let alone explicit sexual content, but the Klaws had their models wear two pairs of underwear so that absolutely nothing would show. Furthermore, Irving Klaw never touched any of his models, Paula making any adjustments to costumes that was necessary. Irving and Paula Klaw also made 8 millimetre loops such as Striporama, Varietease, and Teaserama (all of which featured Bettie). Bettie also appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show and The U. S. Steel Hour, as well as the off-Broadway plays Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos. Her acting career never took off, however, reportedly because she refused to submit to the casting couch.

It was in 1954 that Bettie met photographer Bunny Yeager in Florida. Yeager would also take some of the most famous photographs of Bettie Page, including the famous Jungle Bettie series. Yeager sent Bettie's photograph to Hugh Hefner, and Bettie became the Playboy Playmate of the Month for the January 1955 issue of Playboy. Sadly, at the height of her career, Bettie would find herself the target of moral watchdogs. In 1955, even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation had ruled that the photographs produced by the Klaws were not pornographic, Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce investigated Irving Klaw on charges of obscenity. Kefauver and his committee would go so far as trying to convince Bettie to testify against Klaw that he was producing pornography (she refused on the grounds that he was not) and trying to link the death of a Boy Scout through autoerotic strangulation to Klaw's photos (even though there was not a shred of evidence that the boy had ever seen even one of Klaw's pictures). In the end Irving Klaw would win his case, although the publicity it engendered would make him notorious. In the end he had to stop selling cheesecake and fetish photographs, although Movie Star News survives to this day.

For reasons that are still unclear to this day, Bettie Page ended her career in 1957 at the age of 35. After another failed marriage, she converted to Christianity in 1959, eventually serving as a counsellor in the Billy Graham Crusade. Over the years Bettie would marry again (ending once more in divorce) and would spend several years in a mental institution. In the meantime, however, Bettie Page began to grow in popularity. It started in 1976 when Eros Publishing published A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page, a collection of photos from the Fifties. In the late Seventies Belier Press published Betty Page: Private Peeks, which featured photos from her camera club sessions. In the late Seventies artist Robert Blue began painting photorealistic pictures of Bettie. Around the same time Olivia De Berardinis began painting Bettie in various fantasy situations. The artist who would bring Bettie to the mainstream, however, was comic book creator Dave Stevens. It was in 1982 that his series The Rocketeer first appeared, featuring Jenny, a love interest who looked remarkably like Bettie Page. Stevens would eventually meet Bettie and the two would become so close that he would even assist her financially from time to time and drive her to cash her Social Security cheques. He even helped Bettie set up a licensing business so she could profit from her image. Eventually she would sign with the agency CMG Worldwide.

Today, over fifty years after the last professional photographs of Bettie were taken, she is perhaps the most legendary model of all time. She may well be the most photographed woman of all time (even more so that Princess Diana), with an estimated 20,000 pictures of her having been taken. Today her image graces such diverse items as comic books, magnets, playing cards, Zippo lighers, and assorted other things. Two movies based on the life of Bettie Page (The Notorious Bettie Page and Bettie Page: Dark Angel) have been made. And she has had an impact on pop culture, ranging from rock music to comic books to movies and television, that simply cannot be estimated.

If Bettie Page was and will always be the Queen of the Pin-Ups, it is perhaps because of her incredible appeal. It is true that Bettie Page helped usher in the Sexual Revolution. She brought a sexual freedom to her photographs unknown until that time, but without seeming obscene or pornographic in doing so. Bettie's image was not that of the dominitrix or bad girl, but that of an ordinary girl having fun while play acting. While Bettie once said, "I was never the girl next door," her image was certainly that of the girl next door. She displayed the innocence and integrity of the girl next door, but not the wholesomeness often wrongly attributed to the archetype (the girl next door was never Donna Reed). For many American males the ideal girl next door is a girl comfortable with her own body who enjoys having fun, but without being smutty or promiscuous in doing so--she is the sort of girl who has no problems with her sexuality, but does not sleep around. Bettie Page filled this fantasy perfectly, in a way no other woman ever has. That is the reason why her passing is more notable than that of a mere model or any other celebrity. She was truly an icon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Actress Beverly Garland Passes On

Actress Beverly Garland, who was a regular or semi-regular on shows ranging from Decoy to 7th Heaven, passed Friday at the age of 82.

Garland was born on October 17, 1926 in Santa Cruz, California as Beverly Lucy Fessenden. She was raised in Glendale, California. She studied drama under Anita Arliss, sister of movie star George Arliss. She made her acting debut in in local theatre in Glendale. After her family moved to Arizona, she also acted on stage in Phoenix.

Garland made her screen debut under the name Beverly Campbell in the film noir D.O.A.. She made her television debut that same year as a regular on the short lived series Mama Rosa (1950). After marrying actor Richard Garland in 1951, she became "Beverly Garland," the stage name she used for the rest of her career, even though she and Garland divorced in 1953. Except for a guest appearance on The Lone Ranger, Garland spent the next several years playing in B-movies and exploitation movies. She appeared in Problem Girls, The Rocket Man, Killer Leopard, and Swamp Women. With 1955 she began appearing more often on television, starting with guest shots on the series The Lone Wolf and Medic. She guested on such series as Damon Runyon Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, Studio 57, Science Fiction Theatre, Climax, and Yancy Derringer. She also starred in such films as Swamp Women, New Orleans Uncensored, Gunslinger, and the classic It Conquered the World.

In 1957 Garland debuted in her breakthrough role as a regular on the series Decoy (1957 to 1959), as female detective Casey Jones. This began her long career in television. Through the late Fifties and Sixties she guested on such shows as The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Wanted Dead or Alive, Thriller, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, The Fugitive, The Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke, and Then Came Bronson. In 1969 she was cast in the recurring role of Steve Douglas's second wife on My Three Sons. She appeared on the series until its demise in 1972.

The Seventies saw Garland continue to make appearances on television. She guested on such shows as Mannix, Cannon, Ironside, Kung Fu, and Mary Tyler Moore. She was a regular on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She also appeared in the films Where the Red Fern Grows, Airport 1975, and Sixth and Main. Garland's career on TV continued unabated in the Eighties, during which she guested on such shows as Remington Steele, Hotel, and Crazy Like a Fox. She was a regular on the series The Scarecrow and Mrs. King from 1983 to 1987. The Nineties and Naughts saw Garland appear on the shows Friends and Diagnosis Murder. She was a recurring character on both Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and 7th Heaven (her last appearance on screen).

Beverly Garland had an extraordinarily long career, working nearly until her death. She was also a fairly talented actress, playing everything from hard as nails female convicts to female sheriffs in the old West to rather strong willed mothers. She had a gift for comedy, able to deliver her lines with a timing and panache that few other TV actresses possessed. Although best perhaps best remembered for her role on My Three Sons, she did so much more.