the former SS. Normandie on her side in New York
When the French luxury liner Normandie burned and rolled on her side in New York harbour in 1942, Alfred Hitchcock sent a film crew to take some shots of her and used them in the movie he was then making called Saboteur (1942). He used the photographs, interspersed with close-ups of a smirking saboteur in a taxi, viewing his handiwork. In reality, the vessel’s sinking was an accident. A cutting torch had accidentally set fire to some kapok life vests and the conflagration spread from there. Normandie was arguably the greatest passenger liner ever built and her loss was the result of gross stupidity, not anything under-handed or devious. An enormous amount of water was poured onto the flames by fire-fighters, but New York City was in the middle of a February cold snap, so most of it settled in the bowels of the ship – and became ice! The man who designed the vessel could see the danger of the stricken ship capsizing and attempted to advise the people in charge of the firefighting to open the sea-cocks and allow her to settle on the bottom of the harbour stably. He was not even allowed near the wharf. Eventually, Normandie rolled on her side and ice soon froze all around her. For the next 18 months she lay there between Piers 88 and 90, a total write-off.
By the age of ten a Californian girl named Maria Flynn could speak several languages, sing and play the piano. She had also appeared in the Ballet Russe in Shanghai and was actually performing during the bombing of the city by the Japanese Air Force in 1937. In 1943 she was cast as Priscilla in Lassie Come Home, but was replaced for one of three reasons – possibly because she outgrew the male lead Roddy McDowall; perhaps because the Technicolor lighting made her eyes water; or most likely because she was afraid of the dog playing Lassie. Whatever the reason, the producer went looking for a replacement. He knew that a fellow air raid warden had a daughter who wanted to get into pictures, so he asked him to send the girl along to the set. He did just that and little Elizabeth Taylor landed the first of her many film roles.
Kate Hepburn & Turhan Bey in Dragon Seed (1944) Lana & Turhan Bey on the town
Dragon Seed (1944) would have to be one of the most miscast films in history. Almost every speaking role went to a Caucasian playing a Chinese, and that included Kate Hepburn with her high cheekbones and New England accent! Lana Turner visited the set one day after hearing there was a hot new man in the cast. She often did this. If she liked what she saw, she would invite the lucky player out on a date. On this occasion her interest was drawn to Austrian actor Turhan Bey. A few years later Hepburn asked her how it panned out with him. ‘I got the God damn clap!’ was Lana’s response. In fairness to the Austrian Lana was a notorious man-eater, so the chances of him being the one who infected were probably only 50-50 at best.
Irene Dunne, Spencer Tracy & Van Johnson
It sounds ludicrous today, but back in 1943 the Production Code Administration (PCA) objected to the original ending to A Guy Named Joe, in which Dorinda (a qualified pilot played by Irene Dunne) flies her plane into an ammunition dump and is thus reunited in heaven with her dead lover. The PCA would not condone the ending because it sounded too much like suicide, so a poor alternative was reluctantly agreed upon which most critics felt damaged the story. Early in the movie Spencer Tracy’s character sinks a Nazi aircraft carrier, a pretty neat trick given the Germans had only one carrier, the Graf Zeppelin, and it never became operational during the war.
Irene was anything but impressed by her co-star Tracy. He needled her, abused her, propositioned her and suggested she was surely incapable of satisfying a man in bed. She threatened to walk off the picture unless he curbed his ways. Miss Dunne was also well aware that Spencer had the hots for their young supporting player Van Johnson, feelings that were not reciprocated at the time. By 1943, Tracy was considered by all the young, gay hunks to be a ‘John’, in other words a ‘paying customer’. In short, he was too old to be seriously considered as a lover. Even so, when Johnson was badly injured in a car crash half-way through filming, it was Tracy who insisted the studio hold off until he could return. Irene agreed to support him if he eased up on her. Filming shut down until Van was well enough to return three months later.
Evie Wynn, Van Johnson & Keenan Wynn
LB Mayer tried everything to get Johnson to fall in love with one of his female stars. Dates were arranged with Gloria DeHaven, June Allyson and even Sonja Henie, but to no avail. By 1947, Van’s close ‘friendship’ with Keenan Wynn and Peter Lawford, coupled with his disinterest in girls, had tongues wagging and the tabloids wondering, forcing Mayer to move on the issue. The marriage of Evie and Keenan Wynn was in name only, so he ‘arranged’ their divorce by offering Keenan a much improved contractual deal. He then had Van and Evie marry each other just four hours after the divorce came through. The couple were close friends anyway. Evie revealed all the details of the arrangement years later after their marriage collapsed. By then Van had left her after he became involved with her male tennis instructor.
Handsome New Yorker Hurd Hatfield impressed everyone with his performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), none more so than Spencer Tracy who desperately wanted to date him. ‘I respected him greatly as an actor’, said Hatfield years afterwards, ‘but not as a potential bed partner. He was too old and not handsome enough for me. Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power could make my heart flutter in those days, but certainly not those two pals, George Cukor and Spencer Tracy.’ Hurd never married. He kept pretty much to himself all his life, became a good friend of Angela Lansbury late in life and was writing his autobiography when a heart attack took him in 1998 at the age of 81.