2/23/21: The Best Actor You’ve Never Heard of

By Fred Muenz

Born in Brooklyn on August 10, 1914, Arthur Zwerling, (aka Jeff Corey) was the son of European-Jewish immigrants. In high school, he was a mediocre student, but fell in love with acting after taking a drama class. Years later, he would say that choosing acting as a career saved him from a life of selling sewing machines. The raw talent he displayed earned him a scholarship to the prestigious Feagin School of Dramatic Arts, the top acting school in New York at the time. After graduation from Feagin, he joined a Shakespearean repertory company, followed by a travelling troupe putting on children’s plays. In 1936, he joined Leslie Howard in a travelling production of Hamlet, before finally entering the government’s Federal Theater Project (FTP). His first film role came in the FTP’s only film project, ONE THIRD OF A NATION (1939). In 1940, after Congress terminated the FTC’s funding, Corey and his new wife moved to Hollywood, where he began appearing in studio productions, including THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941). During this time, he was also one of the founders of the Actors Lab, where he appeared in and produced a number of plays. In 1943, during World War II, he joined the Navy and became a motion picture combat photographer assigned to the aircraft carrier, Yorktown. He received three combat citations during the war, in particular for his footage of a Kamikaze attack on the ship. The footage is still used in World War II documentaries and was used in a number of Hollywood films after the war. After returning to civilian life, Corey resumed his acting career, only to have it cut short in 1951, when he was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, after fellow actor Marc Lawrence named him as a communist. Instead of invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, Jeff Corey simply refused to testify. The movie industry, in a supreme act of cowardice, had announced that anyone who refused to testify, or invoked their constitutional rights, would be blackballed. Jeff Corey was doomed to miss out on an entire decade of acting work. Ironically, Marc Lawrence received few acting roles during that time, and finally had to move to Italy to get work. After being blackballed, Corey enrolled at UCLA under the GI Bill, studying speech therapy, while working as a laborer to support his family. At the request of one of his fellow students, he organized a class in speech, which he taught in his garage. Before long, he expanded his classes to acting, charging his students a “tuition” of $10 a month for weekly classes. Eventually, his classes became so popular that he expanded his garage to create a small theater where his students performed scenes. Within a few years, his reputation had grown to the point where he was now considered the premier acting coach in Hollywood. While the studios still refused to hire him as an actor, they sent their contract players to study with him in what was now called the Professional Actors Workshop. Screenwriters, directors, and established actors were seeking out Jeff Corey for coaching. His students included some of the biggest names in Hollywood. James Dean, Kirk Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Perkins, Jane and Peter Fonda, Rita Moreno, Barbra Streisand andeven Pat Boone, among others, sought his help.Finally, in 1962,his name came off the Blacklist, and he was again offered acting roles. By now, in addition to his acting, he was also Professor of Theater Arts at California State University, Artist in Residence at both Ball State University and Illinois State University and Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Creative Writing at NYU and the University of Texas. He remained a busy actor in films and television well into the 1990’s.

On August 16, 2002, six days after his 88th birthday, he died of complications of a fall he had suffered a few days earlier.



2/19/21: Long Gone And Forgotten

By Fred Muenz

At a time when movie audiences believed that an actor’s screen persona was a reflection of his or her real life, the studio’s publicity department claimed that “The Vamp” was the Egyptian- born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. The story continued that having been raised in the shadow of the Sphinx, she finally moved to France to become a stage actress. In reality, Theodosia Goodman, aka Theda Bara, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in July, 1885, the daughter of a Jewish tailor and his wife. She had become interested in the theater as a teenager, and after two years of working in theater productions at the University of Cincinnati, she dyed her naturally blond hair black, and left home to follow her dream. Arriving in New York, she made her Broadway debut in 1908, in a small supporting role in The Devil. Joining a touring company, she spent the next years perfecting her craft, before returning to New York in 1914. At that time, the film industry was still centered on the East Coast, primarily in New York and New Jersey. She made her film debut as an extra in THE STAIN (1914), and by the following year was the leading lady in A FOOL THERE WAS (1915), and “The Vamp” character was born. By 1917, the film industry had begun moving to California, and she was forced to relocate to Hollywood for her most famous role, CLEOPATRA (1917). Although a quiet and reserved woman who would rather be in a bookstore than a nightclub, the studio worked hard to maintain the public’s exotic perception of her. Finally, in 1919, hoping to break out of being typecast as a sex symbol, she appeared in the leading role in KATHLEEN MAVOURNEEN (1919), a Mary Pickford type role. The film was a flop, and critics claimed that she was miscast in the role. Worse, several Irish societies were so outraged that a Jewish actress was playing an Irish heroine, that they sent members to set off stink bombs and stone theaters showing the film. Four more unremarkable films followed and, by the time of her retirement in 1926, her eyesight was so bad that she had to memorize the position of furniture and props on the set. A 1937 fire in the Fox film vault, destroyed all but three of her 40 films, and left only fragments and still photos of several others. Virtually forgotten, Theda Bara died of abdominal cancer in April, 1955. She was 69.

He was an actor, director, and screenwriter, called “The Great Lover”, and a rival in popularity to Rudolph Valentino. Born in Logan, Utah, in July, 1897, to a show-business family, John Cecil Pringle, aka John Gilbert, struggled through a childhood of abuse and neglect. His life finally became more stable when the family settled in California and he was enrolled in a Military Academy. By 1915, he was already working as a studio extra and, within two years, was writing and directing as well as playing major roles in films. Signed to a contract with Fox Films, he was quickly converted from a villain to a leading man. His popularity soared and, upon Valentino’s sudden death in 1926, he became the number one actor in Hollywood. Being cast opposite Greta Garbo in three films, created a screen chemistry between the two which led to a torrid off-screen affair. Learning of the romance, the studio publicity department worked overtime to publicize it, and the pair’s upcoming wedding. Garbo, however, got cold feet about marrying him, and he was left standing at the altar. Deeply affected by the affair and by being abandoned by Garbo, he began drinking heavily, and his performances lacked the sparkle they once had. To make matters worse, he had a nasty confrontation with MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, over comments Mayer had made regarding the affair with Garbo. At that time, the industry was converting to sound, and it was feared that his voice would not match the image he portrayed on screen. It was rumored that a vindictive Mayer ordered the sound engineer to purposely alter Gilbert’s voice to make it appear high-pitched. The result was a love scene in HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT (1929), which left the audience howling with laughter. The scene was parodied in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). Several more unremarkable films followed, but his career was virtually over. His health in decline from heavy drinking, he suffered a serious heart attack in December, 1935. Two weeks later, he suffered a second, this time fatal, heart attack. John Gilbert was just 38 years old.

In 1974, ten U.S. commemorative postage stamps, designed by caricaturist Al Hershfeld, were issued to celebrate stars of the silent screen. Included were caricatures of Theda Bara and John Gilbert.


2/11/21: Two Very Familiar Faces

By Fred Muenz

If you are a fan of movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, you will immediately recognize the two familiar character actors pictured above. Combined, they appeared in over three hundred films during their careers.

Standing only 5’6” tall, and weighing in at just 81 pounds, Donald Meek was doomed to be typecast as the mousy, browbeaten character his name implies. Born in Glasgow, Scotland in July, 1878, he dreamed, from an early age, of becoming a performer. At the age of eight, he was performing on stage with a pantomime troupe. By fourteen, he was performing with an acrobatic high-wire act. During a tour of the U.S., he sustained a serious injury in a fall, and had to quit the act. Deciding to stay in the U.S. after his six-month recovery, he devoted more time to acting, travelling with stock companies, and performing in New York. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he joined the army and was assigned to the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment. He was wounded in action in Cuba and lost his hair after contracting Yellow Fever. During his time in the hospital in Cuba, he learned to “listen to the Yanks”, imitating the American manner of speech and losing his Scottish accent. After his discharge, he returned to acting and, in 1903, made his first Broadway appearance. In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, he traveled north and joined the Canadian Army, serving as a corporal with the Canadian Highlanders. After the war, he returned to Broadway, where he spent the next decade appearing mostly in comical roles. His first movie appearance came in THE CLYDE MYSTERY (1931), the first of eleven two-reelers filmed at the Warner Brothers Eastern Vitaphone Studio in Brooklyn. In 1933, Donald and his wife moved to Hollywood. Moving from studio to studio, he quickly became one of the most sough-after character actors in Hollywood, with some parts being written for him. Donald Meek died of leukemia in November, 1946, unable to fulfill his dream of retiring to raise hybrid roses.

Born in May, 1882, James Gleason’s parents were both performers. In 1898, at the age of 16, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Spanish-American War, and spent three years in the Philippines. Although he had made stage appearances as a small child with his parents, he didn’t seriously commit to life in the theater until after his Army discharge. He joined the stock company at the Liberty Theater in Oakland, California, which his parents were managing at the time. Over the following years, he travelled and performed in road shows, perfecting his craft. At the outbreak of World War I, he re-enlisted in the Army, and served until the end of the war. After his discharge from the army, he moved to New York and began acting, writing, directing, and producing on Broadway. His first film role came in POLLY OF THE FOLLIES (1922), starring Constance Talmadge.  He later appeared in and wrote dialogue for, THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929), winner of the second Academy Award for Best Picture. James and his wife, Lucille, soon found themselves contracted to Pathe Pictures, both of them to act and he to write screenplays in addition. During the 1930’s, he appeared in a series of six Hildegarde Withers mystery films, and seven films about the fictional Higgins family, in which his wife and son, Russell, also appeared. In 1941, he played a bartender in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1941), and the Frank Capra classic, MEET JOHN DOE (1941). He and Lucille were together again, playing a married couple, in THE CLOCK (1945), in which he plays a milk wagon driver who gives a lesson in marriage to Judy Garland and Robert Walker. In December, 1945, while he was serving in the Army, his son Russell fell from a hotel window to his death. Lucille died in 1947, and James followed his wife and son in April, 1945. He was 76.


2/3/2021: Let Us Go To The Casbah

By Fred Muenz

Born on August 28, 1899, in the small French village of Figeac, Charles Boyer was the only child of merchant Louis Boyer, and his wife, Louise. Young Charles was just 10 years-old when his father died, and he found solace in the local theater. As a result, he soon developed a passion for acting and, during World War I, gained his first stage experience by performing sketches in a hospital for wounded soldiers. When a French film company arrived in Figeac, he got his first role as a bit player in a crowd scene. Deciding that he wanted to be a professional actor, he asked the film’s leading actor to talk his mother into allowing him to study acting at the Sorbonne. Despite her reservations, she relented and allowed him to go. Before long, he became a well- known figure in the Paris theatrical community. In 1920, he was recommended to a director as a replacement for a leading actor who had taken ill. He got the part after demonstrating to the director that he could commit large passages of dialogue to memory. After completing his studies at the Sorbonne, he quickly became a popular figure on the Paris stage.

In 1929, he received an offer of a Hollywood contract from MGM. What made the offer extraordinary, beside the large salary, was the fact that while he was fluent in several languages, English wasn’t one of them. Once settled in California, MGM cast him in a series of foreign-language versions of films being made expressly for the European market. He eventually became proficient enough at English to begin playing seductive continental types opposite the likes of Jean Harlow, Loretta Young and fellow expat, Claudette Colbert. Women in movie audiences fell for his deep accented voice and dark eyes, and he was soon a matinee idol. In reality, he led a quiet, refined life with his wife, former British actress, Pat Paterson. His performance in CONQUEST (1937), opposite Greta Garbo, earned him his first Oscar nomination. His second Oscar nomination came the following year with his most memorable role, that of the thief Pepe le Moko, in ALGIERS (1938). Despite the legend, Boyer never uttered the line “let me take you to the Casbah” to co-star Hedy Lamarr. The line would stick to him, however, due to generations of impressionists and animator Chuck Jones, who created the character of Pepe Le Pew, the romantic skunk of Looney Tunes cartoons. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, the now 40 year-old Boyer joined the French Army. His stint in the military was short-lived, however, when the studio intervened, and he was discharged. He continued to find great success in films of the early 1940’s, with his third Oscar nomination for GASLIGHT (1944), co-starring Ingrid Bergman. By now, however, he was beginning to show his age. His hair was beginning to thin and he was developing a paunch. Although his height was listed as 5’9”, his leading ladies were now sometimes taller than him. He realized that his days as a leading man were numbered and he began seeking supporting roles and Broadway opportunities. His fourth Oscar nomination came for his supporting role in FANNY (1961).

In 1964, he was devastated when his only son shot and killed himself after an argument with his girlfriend. Finally, on August 26, 1978, two days before his 79th birthday, and just two days after his beloved wife of 44 years died of cancer, Charles Boyer committed suicide by taking an overdose of Seconal.


1/28/21: Martin and Lewis

By Fred Muenz

In June, 1917, the wife of an Italian immigrant barber in Steubenville, Ohio gave birth to a son, Dino Paul Crocetti (aka Dean Martin). Since Italian was the only language spoken in the Crocetti home, Dino and his older brother William did not speak English until they started school at age five. Bullied for his broken English, Dino hated school and finally dropped out in the 10th grade. At age 15, he was boxing under the name of Kid Crochet. Of his 12 professional bouts, he claimed to have won “all but eleven”. During this time, he also worked for a bootlegger, was a roulette croupier in an illegal casino, dealt blackjack, worked as a laborer in a steel mill and still found time to sing with local bands under the stage name, Dino Martin. By the early 1940’s, he had developed his own singing style and was performing with some of the most popular bands in the area. He was now Dean Martin. Booked at New York’s Riobamba Nightclub in 1943, he was a flop when he followed Frank Sinatra’s act, but he had made a friend in Sinatra.

In March, 1926, Joseph Levitch (aka Jerry Lewis) was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Daniel, was a vaudeville entertainer who performed under the stage name, Danny Lewis. His mother, Rachel, was also an entertainer, and played piano for a local radio station. By age five, young Joseph would often perform onstage alongside his parents in the Catskills. By age 15, he had dropped out of the 10th grade and had developed an act in which he exaggeratedly mimed to songs being played on a phonograph. He changed his stage name to Jerry Lewis, to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and boxing champ Joe Lewis.

In 1945, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis met at the Glass Hat Club in New York, where both were performing there. They debuted as an act in July, 1946 at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. When the club’s owner threatened to fire them if they didn’t improve, they dropped the scripted jokes. Dean sang and Jerry, dressed as a busboy, dropped plates, performed slapstick, interrupted the song by heckling Martin and generally made shambles of the place as they chased each other around the stage, while the audience was convulsed with laughter. They were a hit and well-paying engagements followed, including the Copacabana in New York. In June, 1948, they appeared on the very first episode of Ed Sullivan’s new TV show, The Toast of the Town. The following year, they were signed to do their own NBC radio show. That same year, Paramount Pictures producer Hal Wallis signed the pair to provide comedy relief in the film MY FRIEND IRMA (1949). Martin was happy to leave New York, since he suffered from claustrophobia, would not use elevators, and the tall buildings forced him to climb many flights of stairs. California simply had fewer tall buildings. Their Paramount contract allowed them to make one independent film a year, which they could co-produce. Their first independent production was AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950). After five years at Paramount, Dean was tired of the scripts limiting him to romantic leads, while the films centered more and more on Jerry’s antics. The last straw came when Look Magazine used a publicity photo of the pair for it’s cover, but cropped Dean out of the picture. Dean angerly told Jerry that all he was to him was a dollar sign, and on July 26, 1956, ten years to the day that they teamed up, Dean left the act. After the split, Dean’s career reached new heights. His records were selling well, and he made a number of successful movies. He became a member of his friend Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and appeared with them in several films. This was followed by a hugely successful TV show. Meanwhile, Jerry was also making a string of commercially successful films and had become Paramount’s most popular star.

The two did not speak for 20 years, until Frank Sinatra arranged for Dean to make a surprise appearance on Jerry’s 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. When Dean’s son died in a plane crash in 1987, Jerry attended the funeral, sitting in the back of the chapel so he wouldn’t be recognized. When Dean found out that Jerry had been there, he called him, and they spoke for over an hour. In 1989, they were together for the last time when Jerry rolled a birthday cake onto the stage at Bally’s in Las Vegas and sang Happy Birthday to Dean on his 72nd birthday. They stayed in touch until Dean Martin passed away on December 25, 1995. Jerry Lewis died in August, 2017.


1/21/21 The King Of The Movies (Before Clark Gable)

By Fred Muenz

Pictured here are two statues, one of patriot Nathan Hale which stands before the Tribune Tower in Chicago, the other, of Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore stands before the courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland. Also pictured is a U.S. postage stamp featuring the face of the Nathan Hale statue. A close examination of the two statues would reveal that the faces are remarkably similar. In fact, the model for both statues was a young Francis X. Bushman, who went on to became one of the most popular movie actors of his time, appearing in nearly 200 films in a career confined mostly to the silent era.

Born in Baltimore in January, 1883, Francis Xavier Bushman’s father wanted him to be a doctor, but he was bitten by the acting bug while still a teenager and played walk-on roles with local stock companies. As a young man, he joined an athletic club and began a body building program which would give him the physique he became known for as a sculptor’s model and early film star. After college, he became a full-time professional actor, making his Broadway debut in 1908. While performing in Chicago in 1911, he was offered a film contract with the Essanay Company, one of the premier movie studios of the time. Over the next few years, he appeared as a leading man in over 100 films for the studio. Since a screen lover’s image had to be one of accessibility, the studio publicity department kept secret the fact that he had been married since 1902 and was the father of five children. To hide his past, the studio listed his birthplace as Norfolk, VA. When he moved to California and signed a contract with Metro Pictures in 1915, his marital status became known, but his popularity offset his concerns. One of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, he lived on a 280-acre estate and owned a fleet of lavender limousines. In 1916, he began a torrid affair with his co-star, Beverly Bayne, which resulted in his wife suing for divorce. It was rumored, at the time, that the ensuing scandal was fomented by his studio, which resented his huge salary demands. When he married Bayne, and the couple left Metro, their movie careers came to a virtual halt. They formed their own production company and appeared on stage together, but within a few years they were both written off as “yesterday’s stars”. Francis X. Bushman wasn’t finished, however. In 1925, he signed with MGM to appear in the role of Massala in BEN HUR (1925), co-starring Ramon Navaro. While it appeared that his career was on the rise once again, it came to a screaming halt when he was blacklisted by Louis B. Mayer. The story was told that Mayer was offended when he came to visit Bushman at his home, but was refused entry by a valet, who told Mayer that he couldn’t enter because he wasn’t expected. Bushman appeared in a few more films at minor studios, but the silent film era was ending. Still very wealthy, Bushman donated a home and land on Hollywood Blvd. to his friend, Sid Grauman for his famous Chinese Theater. Bushman’s fortune was finally wiped out by the stock market crash of 1929, and the Great Depression which followed. He was able to make a modest living taking small roles in films and trying to run several small businesses on the side. He finally started new careers as a radio announcer, and actor in radio soap operas. In later years, he began making guest appearances on television, with supporting roles in some of the most popular TV shows of the 1950’s and early 60’s. Ironically, one of his last television appearances was in the role of a silent film collector menaced by the Riddler in an episode of Batman. Due to the ravages of time, and several fires in studio film vaults, most of Francis X. Bushman’s films have been lost, with only clips and still photos remaining. Bushman died of a heart attack in August, 1966, after taking a fall in his home. He was 83.


1/16/21:The King, The Pharaoh, The Cowboy And The Cossack

By Fred Muenz

While he appeared in many different roles, Yul Brynner is best remembered for his role as the King of Siam in THE KING AND I (1956). Winning an Academy Award for his performance in the film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Brynner also received two Tony Awards for playing the King. During his lifetime, Yul Brynner appeared, on stage, as King Mongkut of Siam a total of 4,625 times.

Born in Vladivostok, Russia in July, 1920, Yuliy Borisovich Briner (aka Yul Brynner) was the son of a mining engineer father and a mother who hailed from the Russian intelligentsia and had studied to be an actress and singer. His father, Boris, traveled extensively for his work and, in 1923, abandoned his family after meeting an actress at the Moscow Art Theater. Yul’s mother, Marousia Dimitrievna then took him and his older sister, Vera, to Manchuria, where they attended a school run by the YMCA. In 1932, fearing a war between China and Japan, his mother moved the family again, this time to Paris. Once in Paris, Yul spent his time playing guitar and accompanying Vera singing gypsy songs in Russian nightclubs, as well as training as a trapeze acrobat. He next spent three years performing in a French circus, before suffering a career ending injury to his back. In 1940, with Europe erupting in war, Yul and his mother emigrated to New York, joining Vera, who had come several years earlier, and was singing with the Metropolitan Opera. When America entered the war, Yul took a job as a French speaking radio commentator for the U.S. Office of War Information, broadcasting to occupied France. At the same time, he was studying acting with the legendary teacher, Michael Chekhov. In 1944, he was hired as a director at the new CBS television studio. In 1950, although he was doing well as a television director, he auditioned for a part in Rogers and Hammerstein’s new musical, The King and I, at the urging of his friend, Mary Martin. The producers originally wanted Rex Harrison for the role of the King but, when he wasn’t available, hired Yul Brynner for the role for which he would be forever associated. At the time, he flatly refused to shave off his curly black hair, until he was ordered to do so, or lose the role. His shaved head soon became his trademark. Unusual at the time, the shaved head look became popular among his fans and some even shaved their heads to imitate him. Following the huge success of the Broadway production and the subsequent 1956 film version, Brynner quickly gained superstar status. He appeared 40 films over the next two decades, including such classics as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), ANASTASIA (1956) and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). He played every role from King to Pharaoh to Cowboy to Cossack, with his signature shaved head and indefinable accent. When he was cast for the role of Rameses II in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and learned that he was going to be shirtless for most of the film, he was afraid that he would be overshadowed by the physically larger Charlton Heston, so he began a weightlifting program which he would follow for the rest of his life. While touring with stage productions, Brynner had developed a reputation for being difficult. He insisted that his hotel suites be painted in a particular shade of tan and that the hotel kitchen be stocked in advance with “one dozen brown eggs, under no circumstances white ones”. In fairness to Brynner, he always paid for these requests. A dual U.S./Swiss citizen, Brynner renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1956 to avoid being bankrupted, after having lost his tax deduction as an American working abroad. A smoker since the age of 12, he quit in 1971, but was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1983. He died in October, 1985, at age 65, after recording several anti-smoking public service announcements. In 2012, an 8-foot-tall statue of him, in his familiar hand’s on hip pose as the King of Siam, was dedicated in the Yul Brynner park in Vladivostok, Russia.


01/8/21: The Tragic Underside Of Hollywood

By Fred Muenz

Frances Lillian Mary Ridste (aka Carole Landis) was born on New Years Day, 1919. She was the youngest of five children born to the daughter of a Wisconsin farmer and a drifting railroad mechanic, who left the family shortly after Frances was born. Her mother, Clara, later married a man with whom she had been having an affair, who began to sexually abuse young Frances. At age 15, Frances secretly married her 19-year-old neighbor. While the marriage was quickly annulled, her family relented, and she was allowed to remarry him several months later. The same year, she quit school and the couple moved to California to start a new life together. She started working as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub, who’s boss described her as a “nervous blonde doing a pathetic hula”. He hired her because he felt sorry for her. She later changed her name to Carole Landis after her favorite movie actress, Carole Lombard, and sang with a dance band. As soon as she managed to save $100, she headed for Hollywood. Managing to win a studio contract with Warner Brothers, she made her first film appearance in a bit part in A STAR IS BORN (1937). More bit parts followed and finally, in 1939, she started getting small speaking roles. That same year, her husband filed for divorce, naming director Busby Berkeley in an alienation of affection lawsuit. Finally, in 1940, she was cast in the leading role in the Hal Roach production of ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), and she started getting bigger parts in “B” films. The big roles in the bigger “A” films, however, continued to go to the established stars of the day. Two more marriages followed, as well as affairs with Darryl Zanuck, Franchot Tone and George Montgomery. With the start of World War II, she joined the USO tour and wrote of her experiences in a book which later became the movie FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1943). In 1948,her career in decline, plagued by depression and yet another failed marriage, she began an affair with Rex Harrison. When he refused to leave his wife for her, she packed all of the photos and mementos of their relationship in a suitcase, wrote two suicide notes, one to her mother and the other to Harrison, and took an overdose of Seconal. Carole Landis was 29.

Elizabeth L. “Gail” Russell was born in Chicago in September, 1924 and moved to Los Angeles with her family at age 14. A beautiful young woman, she was “discovered” by an agent and signed to a Paramount Studios contract upon her high school graduation. Although she was painfully shy, had no acting experience and had been dreaming of becoming a commercial artist since she was five, she accepted the Paramount offer to help her struggling family. Her mother, upon hearing that Paramount had offered her daughter their minimum salary of $50 per week, told her to “take it, we need the money”. After months of training with the studio acting coach, she was cast in a small role in HENRY ALDRICH GETS GLAMOUR (1943). Her next screen appearance came in THE UNINVITED (1944), which marked the first time Gail was given alcohol to calm her nerves (a habit which would come back to haunt her). A series of successful films followed, with her still consuming vodka to deal with her stage fright. In 1949, she married Guy Madison, one of the up-and-coming young actors in Hollywood. In 1950, with her drinking problem becoming worse, Paramount decided to not renew her contract. She’d been arrested and convicted of a DUI, and the studio didn’t want to be associated with someone who couldn’t control her drinking. She was still able to get a role in an independent film, AIR CADET (1951), after which she disappeared from films in an attempt to get control of her drinking. Her life in shambles, Madison divorced her in 1954. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films produced by her friend, John Wayne, in an attempt to help her, but she was unable to control her drinking and was arrested numerous times for drunk driving. Finally, in August, 1961, suffering from malnutrition and severe liver damage attributed to alcohol, she died alone, surrounded by her paintings and empty vodka bottles. Gail Russell was 36.


1/2/21: Two Very Funny Ladies

By Fred Muenz

Madonna Josephine Davis, (aka Joan Davis), was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June, 1907. Her father was a railroad dispatcher. While she began her show business career in vaudeville while still a child, little is known of her life before her 1931 marriage to fellow performer Si Wills. She and Wills continued to perform as a comedy act until 1933, when her daughter, Beverly Wills, was born.

In 1935, Davis and Wills left for Hollywood with dreams of breaking into movies. She found early success in a Mack Sennett short WAY UP THAR (1935), co-starring a then unknown Roy Rogers. The film was successful, and she was signed to a contract with RKO. She soon became unhappy with the way the studio was handling her career and, in 1937, when her contract expired, signed with 20th Century Fox. She soon became known as one of the few female physical comic performers in Hollywood. Over the next few years, she demonstrated her flawless physical comedy by co-starring with Abbott and Costello and Eddie Cantor in four films. She continued to make occasional film appearances until 1952, when she left movies behind for a career in television.

In 1941, Davis had made her first radio appearance on The Rudy Vallee Show, and soon became a regular on the show. When Vallee left for Coast Guard service in 1943, Davis and Jack Haley became co-hosts of the show. With a title and format change, The Sealtest Village Store remained on the air until June, 1945, when Davis left to do a similar type of show on CBS.

In 1950, Joan created and starred in a pilot for a new TV sit-com called Let’s Join Joanie, but the show didn’t sell. A year later, when I Love Lucy became the year’s top rated TV show, sponsors and the networks clamored for more of the same. They needed an actress experienced in physical comedy and found Joan Davis. I Married Joan premiered on NBC in 1952, casting Davis as the wife of a mild-mannered judge, played by Jim Backus, who continually got her husband into jams, usually with the help of her younger sister, player by her real-life daughter, Beverly Wills. The show was moderately successful but did not receive the ratings achieved by I Love Lucy. By the start of the show’s third year in 1955, ratings were beginning to slip, and Davis was beginning to experience heart problems. As a result, the series was cancelled, and she retired from show business. I Married Joan then became one of the first shows to go into syndication. In May, 1961, Joan Davis died of a massive heart attack. She was 53.

In October, 1963, Joan’s mother, Nina Mae Davis, aged 70, her daughter, Beverly Wills, aged 33, and her grandsons, Guy Grossman, aged 7, and Larry Grossman, aged 4, all died in a fire at their Palm Springs home. It was later determined that Beverly had fallen asleep while smoking in bed.

Margaret Teresa Yvonne Reed aka Martha Raye, daughter of vaudeville performers, was born backstage in a theater in Butte, Montana in August, 1916. Her mother, Marybelle, was back on stage two days later. Little Martha joined the act when she was just three years old, singing with her brother, Bud. Although she attended several schools, including the Professional Children’s School in New York, Martha never got beyond the fifth grade. As a result, she was barely able to read, and scripts and documents had to be read to her for the rest of her life.

By the early 1930’s, she was in Hollywood, working as a band singer. She made her first film appearance in a band short, NITE IN THE NITE CLUB (1934). In 1936, Paramount signedher to a contractwith the intention of using her for comic roles.Her first feature film role was in RHYTHM ON THE RANGE (1936), co-starring Bing Crosby. In addition to her film work, between 1936 and 1939 she appeared as a regular cast member on Al Jolson’s weekly radio show. In addition to providing comedy for the show, she also sang solos and duets with Jolson. As her movie career progressed, she appeared in films with virtually all of the leading comics of the time, including Joe E. Brown, Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, and Jimmy Durante. Many years later, she would say that of the forty films she appeared in, she liked only one.

At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the newly created USO, and entertained American troops in bases around the world. She found the experience so rewarding that she continued performing for the troops during the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The U.S. Army Special Forces made her an honorary Green Beret with the rank of Lt. Colonel. She was affectionately known to them as “Colonel Maggie”.

Milton Berle gave Martha her first break in television and by 1954 she was starring in The Martha Raye Show, with former boxer Rocky Graziano playing her boyfriend. In 1956, with the cancellation of her TV show, the breakup of her fifth marriage and developing health problems, she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. During her recovery, well-wishers gave her a St. Christopher’s medal, a St. Genesius medal, and a Star of David, all three of which she would wear for the rest of her life.

Offstage, she led a dark personal life. Married seven times, among her husbands were makeup artist Buddy Westmore, composer David Rose, a businessman, two dancers and a police officer. Her seventh husband, Mark Harris, was a bi-sexual, 33 years her junior, whom she had known for only a month. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and heart problems, she died of pneumonia in October, 1994, at age 78, Harris inherited the bulk of her estate.

In honor of her years of working with the USO, “Colonel Maggie” was buried at Fort Bragg, N.C., with full military honors.


12/27/20: A Bomb Shelter For One, Please

By Fred Muenz

Best remembered as the portly, frog-voiced Friar Tuck in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), and a similar role as Father Felipe in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940), Eugene Pallette’s long career included roles in more than 240 films.

Eugene William Pallette was born in Winfield, Kansas in July, 1889. His parents had both been actors in their younger days but had given up the stage by the time Eugene was born. His father, William, worked as an insurance salesman. Needing discipline, young Eugene was sent to school at a military academy in Indiana. After leaving school, the slim and athletic young man worked as a jockey for a time before joining a successful horse-riding stage act and finally a stock company, where he spent the next six years learning his craft, while supporting himself as a part-time streetcar conductor. His first experience with films came as an extra and stunt man in several east coast productions in 1910. In 1913, he left for California. Unable to find stage work, he made his first credited film appearance in a one-reel western, THE FUGITIVE (1913). Quickly advancing to a featured actor, he found himself a romantic leading man, working with the likes of Dorothy and Lilian Gish, and playing dual roles in D.W. Griffith’s epic THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), and INTOLERANCE (1916). With his great range, he could play convincing cowboys, sadistic villains, dashing heroes, romantic leads, or abusive husbands. When the U.S. entered World War I, Pallette volunteered and served with the Army Flying Corp., during which time he began to gain weight. Within a few years of his return to Hollywood, he had become a compulsive eater and, despite the studio’s demands, refused to go on a diet. A new generation of leading men had arrived, and he was forced to transition to the character roles which would define the remainder of his career. After appearing in a number of major silent films, with some of the biggest stars of the day, and even as a foil for Laurel and Hardy in several films, he abruptly quit acting and moved to Texas, where he made a fortune in the oil business. Sadly, he lost it all to bad investments and soon returned to Hollywood. Throughout the remainder of the 1920’s and into the 30’s and early 40’s, Pallette continued to be a busy character actor, and compulsive gourmand. During the filming of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, he would cook lavish feasts, similar to those seen in the film, for his fellow cast members.

By the end of World War II, Pallette, who had always held right wing and somewhat racist political views, had become a survivalist who was convinced that the world was doomed to suffer atomic destruction. Intending to survive the oncoming universal catastrophe, he bought a 3,500-acre mountain fortress in Oregon, stocked enormous supplies of food and water, to await the atomic war which would end the world. After a few years, when the world didn’t end, he sold the Oregon property and returned to Hollywood. Plagued by ill health, he made only one more film appearance before succumbing to throat cancer in September, 1954, at age 65.