Thursday, March 24, 2011

Surviving Stars From the Golden Age of Hollywood

Yesterday's passing of Dame Elizabeth Taylor saw a huge number of well deserved tributes in the media. Unfortunately, many of these tributes treated Miss Taylor as if she was last, sole remaining star from the Golden Age of Hollywood (which I say was roughly from 1930 to 1960). This is hardly the case. There are several other stars from the Golden Age who are still alive and some of them even matched Dame Elizabeth Taylor in the level of their stardom.

Here, then, is a short list of surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is by no means complete, but it does demonstrate that many of our favourite actors from the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties are still alive.

Arlene Dahl (August 11, 1925): MGM contract star  who appeared in Life with Father, Reign of Terror, and other films.

Doris Day (born April 3, 1922): Still the biggest female box office star of all time. She starred in musicals such as April in Paris and Calamity Jane in the Fifties, but made her biggest impact in Sixties sex comedies such as Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back.

Olivia de Havilland (born July 1, 1916): The only surviving lead from Gone with the Wind. She co-starred with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and several other films.

Joan Fontaine (born Joan de Havilland October 22, 1917): Olivia de Havilland's younger sister and a star in her own right. She appeared in Gunga Din, Hitchcock's Suspicion, the 1944 version of Jane Eyre, and many other classic films. Sadly, it seems Olivia and Joan have maintained their well known feud to this day.

Kirk Douglas (born December 9, 1916): One of the greatest action stars of all time. He starred in such films as Champion, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, Spartacus, and many other films.

Zsa Zsa Gabor (born February 6, 1917): Never a major star, but always the archetypal celebrity, Zsa Zsa appeared in such films as Moulin Rouge (1952), Lili, Gigi, and Boys Night Out.

Angela Lansbury (born October 16, 1925):  A memorable supporting actress who appeared in such films as Gaslight, Samson and Delilah, The Long Hot Summer, and many other films. She is probably best known now as Jessica Fletcher on the show Murder, She Wrote.

Maureen O'Hara (born  August 17, 1920): Irish actress and major star, Maureen starred in everything from pirate movies (The Black Swan) to Westerns (McLintock!) to holiday classics (Miracle on 34th Street) to family comedies (The Parent Trap). She was also my mother's favourite actress of all time besides Marilyn Monroe.

Jane Powell (born April 1, 1929) : MGM contract player who appeared in such films as Royal Wedding, A Date with Judy, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Debbie Reynolds (April 1, 1932): Gene Kelly's co-star in Singin' in the Rain, as well as the star of  Tammy and the Bachelor. She appeared in such films as The Catered Affair and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She is still acting.

Mickey Rooney  (born September 23, 1920): Andy Hardy himself, as well as the star of several MGM musicals. He is still acting, making memorable appearance in Night at the Museum.

Ann Rutherford (born November 2, 1920): Scarlett O'Hara's youngest sister in Gone With the Wind and Andy Hardy's long suffering girl friend

Ester Williams (born August 8, 1921): Champion competitive swimmer and star of MGM musicals.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Godspeed Dame Elizabeth Taylor

Screen legend Dame Elizabeth Taylor passed today at the age of 79. The cause was complications from congestive heart failure. She had been in poor health for many years.

Dame Elizabeth Taylor was born in London on 27 February 1932 to American parents. Her father was an art dealer. Her mother had acted on the stage in New York. Miss Taylor spent her early childhood in England. Her family moved to Pasadena, California shortly before World War II.

Her mother loved the movies and it was Miss Taylor's mother who encouraged her to act. She made an impressive film debut at the age of 9 in the film There's One Born Every Minute (1942), playing Gloria Twine. Signed to a contract with Universal, it was cancelled less than six months later, in February 1942. In October of that year MGM signed the young actress. Her first film for MGM would be Lassie Come Home (1943). She was loaned to  20th Century Fox to play Helen Burns in the 1944 adaptation of Jane Eyre, and went to England to appear in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). Cast as Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944) at MGM, Elizabeth Taylor attained stardom at the tender age of 12. Over the next few years she would appear in such films as Courage of Lassie (1946), Life with Father (1947), A Date with Father (1948), and Little Women (1948).

Little Women would be the last film in which Dame Elizabeth Taylor played an adolescent. While The Big Hangover (1950), in which she played her first adult role, was a failure, her next film, Father of the Bride (1950), would be a huge success. The film would prove successful enough to produce a sequel, also starring Miss Taylor, Father's Little Dividend (1951). The Fifties would prove to be a good decade for Dame Elizabeth Taylor. She appeared in such films as A Place in the Sun (1951), Ivahoe (1952), Beau Brummell (1953), The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), Giant (1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Butterfield 8 (1960).

Miss Taylor's career declined slightly in the Sixties, perhaps due to the failure of the extremely expensive Cleopatra (1963). She appeared in such films as  The Sandpiper (1965), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Doctor Faustus (1967), The Comedians (1967), and The Only Game in Town (1970). In the Seventies she appeared in such films as X, Y, and Zee (1972), Ash Wednesday (1973), A Little Night Music (1977), and The Mirror Crack'd (1980). She made her television debut in the TV movie Divorce Hers-Divorce His and appeared in a presentation of The Hallmark Hall of Fame.

From the Eighties into the Nineties most of Dame Elizabeth Taylor's work was in television. She appeared in such shows as General Hospital, Hotel, All My Children, and the mini-series North and South. She also appeared in the telefilms Malice in Wonderland (as Louella Parsons) and Poker Alice. She provided the voice of Maggie in a memorable episode of The Simpsons, as was a guest voice on God, The Devil, and Bob (her last work) as well. She appeared in the film Il giovane Toscanini (1988). She also appeared on Broadway, in The Little Foxes, Private Lives, and The Corn is Green.

In 1999, Miss Taylor was knighted as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Coverage of Dame Elizabeth Taylor's passing has made much of her personal life, her marriages and her poor health. Coverage of her passing has also made much of her beauty. And while there can be no doubt that Elizabeth Taylor was indeed beautiful (she had the most remarkable, violet eyes), it seems to me that the various media outlets have overlooked what made Dame Elizabeth Taylor a star to begin with--her acting. While the movies in which Dame Elizabeth Taylor appeared were not always the best, more often than not she gave very fine performances. For myself it is her earliest performances that stand out the best. She was convincing as Velvet Brown in National Velvet (no doubt helped by the fact that she was already an experienced rider) and she was convincing as Leslie Benedict in Giant. And while I enjoyed her early performances most, Miss Taylor was still an acting talent to be reckoned with in later years. She was impressive as gossip columnist Louella Parsons in the TV movie Malice in Wonderland.

Dame Elizabeth Taylor was hardly the last of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are still alive, as are Kirk Douglas and several others. That having been said, she was perhaps one of the most recognisable names from the Golden Age where the general public was concerned. In some respects it may not be  refer to Dame Elizabeth Taylor a star or even a legend. She long ago transcended being either a star or a legend to become an icon.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When Stars Go "Bad"

One would very nearly have to be on a deserted island to avoid hearing Charlie Sheen's name mentioned several times a day on the news on TV, on talk shows, and in newspapers and magazines. Indeed, in February Sheen made derogatory comments about the producer of Two and A Half Men, Chuck Lorre, which some thought were tinged with anti-Semitism. The result of this was CBS and  Warner Brothers and CBS fired him from the hit sitcom. That having been said, given the history of actors and scandals, I rather suspect that had this taken place fifty years ago, Sheen could have already been fired.

Indeed, it was in 1921 that comedy star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of the rape and murder of starlet Virginia Rappe. While Fatty Arbuckle was eventually acquitted at the following trial, his career would never recover. Although friends such as Buster Keaton would send some directorial work his way, he was more or less blacklisted in the Hollywood community. He died in 1933 at the age of 46 a broken man. The scandal surrounding Fatty Arbuckele would also lead to the creation of the infamous "morality clause," that part of a star's contract forbidding them from doing anything immoral, even if wasn't necessarily illegal.

Fatty Arbuckle would not be the only actor whose career would suffer from scandal. In 1941 Lionel Atwill was accused of holding sex orgies at his home. In 1942 he was convicted of perjury in the trail regarding the alleged orgies. Lionel Atwill continued to act, but his career would never be the same. Perhaps no star suffered as great a fall from grace as Ingrid Bergman. One of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman had begun an affair with director Roberto Rosellini while filming Stromboli in 1950. In 1951 she was pregnant with his child. While this might seem minor today, in the Fifties it became a cause célèbre in the United States.She was even denounced on the floor of the U. S. Senate. Ed Sullivan even cancelled her appearance on his show. Effectively blacklisted by Hollywood, Miss Bergman would spend her next several years in Italy, where she continued to make movies. She would not return to Hollywood until 1956 when she appeared in Anastasia

Indeed, in past years even the movies one made could end his or her career. Michael Powell had been one of the top British directors from the Forties into the Fifties. He had directed such classic films as Thief of Baghdad (1940) and The Red Shoes (1948). It was in 1960 that his film Peeping Tom was released. Now regarded as a classic, the movie was regarded by many British critics as a base exploitation film at best and outright pornography at worst. Backlash against the film was so great that it effectively ended Mr. Powell's career in the United Kingdom.

Of course, there were stars who survived scandal. Mary Astor had just started shooting Dodsworth (1936) when her husband Dr. Franklin Thorpe threatened to reveal the contents of her diary, which allegedly told of her many affairs, as evidence in the custody battle between the two. Because of the morality clause in her contract, producer Samuel Goldwyn was urged to fire her. He stood by Miss Astor, however, as did the public. As to the diary, it was never made public. In 1942 Errol Flynn was accused of statutory rape by two under age girls. Like Fatty Arbuckle before him, Flynn was cleared of any charges. Unlike Fatty Arbuckle, Errol Flynn's career did not suffer because of the scandal. It was in 1948 that Robert Mitchum and Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana, something much more scandalous then than it is now. Mr. Mitchum served a week in the county jail, but the arrest did little to hurt his career. The studio simply warned Robert Mitchum to straighten up. It would in 1951 that the conviction would be overturned by the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.

I suppose the whole point of this is that there has been little consistency in the film industry with regards to scandal. Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted and there seems to have been no real evidence to connect him with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, but his career went down in flames. Errol Flynn was acquitted and there was no real evidence that he had committed statutory rape with the two girls, but his career continued to thrive. Mary Astor's extramarital affairs came to light with no negative impact on her career, while Ingrid Bergman's affair with Roberto Rosellini nearly ended hers. Here it must be pointed out that the popularity of these stars seems to have played no role in surviving scandals. Admittedly Errol Flynn was a huge star in 1942, but so was Fatty Arbuckle in 1920 (in fact, he made more money than Charlie Chaplin). And Ingrid Bergman was a much bigger star in 1950 than Mary Astor ever was, especially in 1936. It is difficult to say why some stars are so damaged by scandal and others are not, as there seems to be no real consistency in the matter.

As to Charlie Sheen, I rather suspect if not for the more lax morality of our times, he would have been fired long ago. My reasoning is simply that Sheen's misbehaviour has gone far beyond extramarital affairs or smoking pot. He has had problems with alcohol and drugs for some time. Even in the Golden Age of Hollywood this could have been overlooked, but it seem obvious that Sheen's problems went beyond alcohol and drugs. As far back as 1996 he was arrested for assaulting then girlfriend Brittany Ashland. In 2006 then wife Denise Richards accused him of physical and mental abuse. In 2009 he was arrested on suspicition of second degree assault in an altercation with then wife Brooke Mueller. In October 2010 he was taken into custody after causing $7000 in damage at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

That brings us to this year, when Charlie Sheen criticised the producers of Two and a Half Men and began his sometimes incoherent tirades. As if his past behaviour was not frightening enough, his tirades can be even more frightening. Indeed, they remind me of the tapes of individuals with schizophrenia and other mental disorders we listened to in my psychology class. Whether simply because of his drug use or some underlying mental condition, it seems obvious to me that Sheen is not a well man. This especially seems quite likely after the various incidents of the past many years, incidents that have gone far beyond things that have gotten actors fired in the past.

Now I will admit that I am not a big fan of morality clauses in contracts. Quite simply, I think people's views of what is moral and what is immoral vary so what one might find objectionable another might find perfectly acceptable. That having been said, I think Charlie Sheen's behaviour the past many years has gone far beyond simply being immoral to being downright dangerous, both to himself and those around him. While I do not condone adultery, the extramarital affairs actors and actresses may have had in the past are in no way comparable to what Sheen has done. I rather suspect that even if he had lived and been a huge star in, say, 1939, and behaved in the same way, he would have been out of a job long ago. Sadly, it seems there is a rumour that Warner Brothers wants to talk to Sheen about returning to his sitcom. I think this could be a big mistake, at least until he seeks some serious, professional help.