Friday, January 27, 2017

The Late Great Barbara Hale

For many of us Barbara Hale will always be Della Street, Perry Mason's beautiful, intelligent, and resourceful legal secretary on the TV show Perry Mason. Perry Mason is one of my all time favourite shows and, I must admit, when I picture Barbara Hale in my head it is always in the role of Della. And while Della Street will probably always be Barbara Hale's most famous role, it must be remembered that she had a highly successful film career prior to starting her long run on Perry Mason. She played opposite some of Hollywood's most popular leading men, including Robert Mitchum in West of the Pecos (1945 film), Jimmy Stewart in  The Jackpot (1951), James Cagney in  A Lion Is in the Streets (1953), and Rock Hudson in  Seminole.(1953). She even received top billing in two films: The Window (1949) and Lorna Doone (1951). While many of us loved her as Della Street, she played so many more roles during her career.

Sadly Barabra Hale died yesterday, January 26 2017, at the age of 94. The cause was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Barbara Hale was born on April 18 1922 in DeKalb, Illinois. She grew up in Rockford. While attending Rockford High School she won a beauty contest. She attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Art with the intention of becoming an artist and began modelling to help pay for her education.

Miss Hale proved very successful as a model, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would come calling. She signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. She made her film debut in 1943 in an uncredited, bit part in Gildersleeve's Bad Day (1943). She appeared in uncredited roles in such films as Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and Government Girl (1943). It was with Higher and Higher (1943) that she received her first substantial role. In the film she got to sing opposite Frank Sinatra. In The Falcon Out West (1944) she played the secondary female lead. With Goin' to Town (1944) she played her first female lead role.

Barbara Hale's film career flourished in the late Forties. She appeared in such films as West of the Pecos (1945), Lady Luck (1946), The Boy with Green Hair (1948), The Clay Pigeon (1949), Jolson Sings Again (1949), And Baby Makes Three (1949), and The Jackpot (1950). She played her first lead role in The Window in 1949.

Barbara Hale's film career continued to do well in the Fifties. She starred in the title role in Lorna Doone. She appeared in such films as The First Time (1952), Last of the Comanches (1953), Seminole (1953),  A Lion Is in the Streets (1953), Unchained (1955), The Far Horizons (1955), 7th Cavalry (1956), The Oklahoman (1957), and Desert Hell (1958). She made her television debut in 1953 in an episode of Schlitz Playhouse. She guest starred on such shows as Studio 57, Screen Directors Playhouse, Science Fiction Theatre, Climax!, The Loretta Young Show, The Ford Television Theatre, The Millionaire, Playhouse 90, and G.E. Theatre. It was in 1957 that she began a nine year run as Della Street on the hit show Perry Mason.

In the Sixties Barbara Hale continued to star as Della Street on Perry Mason. She appeared in the films Buckskin (1968), Airport (1970), and The Red, White, and Black (1970). She guest starred on the shows Custer, Insight, Lassie, and The Most Deadly Game.

In the Seventies Miss Hale guest starred on Ironside; Adam-12; The Doris Day Show; Marcus Welby, M.D.; and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour. She appeared in the films The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and Big Wednesday (1978).

In the Eighties she guest starred on The Greatest American Hero, on which her son William Katt starred. In 1986 she reprised her role as Della Street in the television reunion movie Perry Mason Returns alongside Raymond Burr in the title role. The TV movie proved so successful that there would be 26 more Perry Mason TV movies starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale. After Raymond Burr died there would be four more movies aired under the title A Perry Mason Mystery. The first stared Paul Sorvino, while the others starred Hal Holbrook. Barbara Hale played Della Street in all of them.

In the Seventies Barbara Hale was a spokeswoman in commercials for Amana appliances.

Barbara Hale will probably always be best remembered as Della Street. And there is good reason for that. She was remarkable in the role. In fact, she won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series in 1959 and was nominated for the same award in 1961. What is more, Della Street was an absolutely revolutionary character on television at the time. She was a working woman at a time when nearly every other female character on television was a housewife. And Della showed no interest in settling down or having children either. Her boss, Perry Mason, and the detective often utilised by Perry, Paul Drake, both treated her as an equal. They respected her opinions and often looked to her for help. Before Emma Peel, Honey West, or Mary Richards, Della Street was an intelligent, independent woman who was very good at what she did.

Of course, Barbara Hale played many more roles than Della Street. After all, before joining the cast of Perry Mason she had a thriving film career. In the film noir The Window she played the mother of a boy who has witnessed his neighbours kill a man. In West of the Pecos she plays a woman who persuades her father to quit his meat packing business in Chicago for a ranch in Texas. In The Houston Story she played a blonde femme fatale. Not only was Barbara Hale capable of playing a wide variety of roles, but she was also adept at playing in a number of different genres. She was paired twice with Robert Young in comedies: Lady Luck and And Baby Makes Three. She appeared in numerous Westerns, including The Lone Hand, The Far Horizons, and The Oklahoman. She starred in adventure films, films noirs, and even a science fiction film (The Giant Spider Invasion). As an actress Barbara Hale could play nearly anything she set her mind to.

I must confess I have always had a bit of a crush on Barbara Hale. It is not simply that she was drop dead gorgeous. It is that she brought to her roles, particularly that of Della Street, intelligence and charm. She was known for playing nice girls, but it must be pointed out that she also played bright, competent women throughout her career, of which Della Street may have been the best known.  Ultimately she was more than simply the actress who played Della Street. There are movie stars and there are TV stars. Barbara Hale happened to be both.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

Barbara's beauty was not only physical, but seemed to come from a deep glow of kindness. Both her comedic flare and dramatic ability had a subtlety that is wonderful to see. She never lost her art. Some of those 80s Perry Mason movies feature truly moving moments from Barbara and between her and Raymond.