Joan Crawford circa 1945
Joan Crawford worked full-time at being a movie star. Very little was left to chance, especially when she got older and her star had started to wane. For example, she always made a point of timing her arrival at a theatre seconds before the curtain went up, thus ensuring her entrance was seen by everyone including the performers on the stage. Whenever she visited a city, she would learn the whereabouts of her fan club and send the president a complete, detailed schedule of her day’s itinerary. Crowds, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, would then magically materialise and escort her around. Her luggage would always include at least two dozen gowns and a dozen hats no matter how short her visit. A jewellery box containing over half a million dollars’ worth of diamonds and other stones accompanied her wherever she went. ‘I like to look at them’, she explained. Invariably, she would have the local mayor organise guards to watch over her valuables night and day.
Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939)
Hattie McDaniel picked up a much-deserved Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone with the Wind (1939), becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award, and beating out her fellow cast member Olivia De Havilland along the way. By all accounts Olivia did not take the defeat well. Hattie would later will her statuette to Howard University, the historically black university in Washington DC. It was stolen during the 1961 riots and has never been returned. It is sad to relate that this wonderful character actress died penniless in 1952 at the age of 57 at the Motion Picture Relief Home. As of November 2018, Olivia has thus far outlived her by a staggering 66 years!
Adrian & Garbo going over costume ideas
According to Hedda Hopper’s autobiography, Greta Garbo was not overly sexy or desirable until the Metro costume genius Adrian took her in hand. ‘She moved like a man and had a man’s shoulders’, wrote Hedda. ‘She had muscular arms and her bosom was meagre.’ Indeed, when she first arrived at Metro, she was only there under sufferance. The studio initially wooed Swedish director Maurice Stiller, but he would not come to California unless Greta came with him. In time, studio 2IC Irving Thalberg built up Garbo and sent Stiller back to Stockholm. Greta was heartbroken. Enter the brilliant Adrian who quickly turned her into a fashion icon of the thirties. She already possessed a certain luminous screen beauty and presence; he merely camouflaged her flaws. Unlike Lana Turner and Dietrich, however, Greta never got to keep the gowns he created for her. They all belonged to Metro and became one of the sources of her life-long bitterness towards MGM.
Patricia Ryan (Nixon)
Director Lowell Sherman commenced shooting Becky Sharp (1935) with Miriam Hopkins in the title role, but he contracted pneumonia and died three weeks into the production. His replacement, Rouben Mamoulian, scrapped all the existing footage and started from scratch at considerable expense to the studio. This was to be the very first movie using three-strip Technicolor film and would give Miriam her only Oscar-nominated role. If you take a close look at the ballroom scene you might spot an uncredited Patricia Ryan making an appearance. She would one day wed Richard Nixon and become the nation’s First Lady from 1969 to 1974.
Mike Todd & Marlene Dietrich at the theatre
Producer Mike Todd’s marriage to Liz Taylor, and his tragic death in a plane crash thirteen months later, tended to push his relationship with Marlene Dietrich (prior to meeting Liz) into the background. He saw Marlene on stage in New York and instantly offered her a cameo in his upcoming blockbuster Around the World in 80 Days (1956). She accepted and for a while they were intimately involved, although she hated the way he dressed and promptly went about jazzing up his image. She bought him expensive suits and luggage, forever telling him, ‘You are a great man, Mike. You must look and act like one.’ He bought her nothing in return. Then he met Liz and Marlene saw very little of him after that. Nevertheless, she wept unashamedly on learning of his death in March 1958.
Jessica Rabbit – ‘I’m just drawn bad!’
Between 1946 and 1958 the United States detonated 23 nuclear devices at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The 167 Micronesian inhabitants were promised they could return after the tests. Of course, that was a lie. The fourth of these atomic bombs bore an image of Rita Hayworth, a photograph cut from the June 1946 issue of Esquire magazine. Above it was stencilled the name ‘Gilda’ in two-inch black letters, a reference to her most famous role. It was all supposed to be a compliment but she was deeply offended. Decades later her ‘Gilda’ image would inspire the cartoon depiction of Jessica Rabbit in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Jessica’s speaking voice would be supplied by Kathleen Turner, her singing by Amy Irving, Steven Spielberg’s first wife.
June Lang in Ali Baba Goes To Town (1937)
June & husband Johnny Roselli
The female lead in the 1937 comedy Ali Baba Goes to Town was the lovely, 20 year-old actress June Lang. She featured opposite child star Shirley Temple in two of her successes, Captain January (1936) and Wee Willie Winkie (1937), and was seemingly bound for a bright screen future until she made a fatal career error. She married the wrong guy. June believed her second husband, Johnny Roselli, was a movie producer when, in fact, he was a major Mafia mob boss. She naively asked him to go straight for the sake of their marriage! He refused to do so and their two-year marriage ended in 1942. Once his mob connections became public knowledge, June’s film career virtually dried up overnight. In 1976, Johnny’s dismembered remains were found in a drum, floating off the Californian coast. Back in 1936 tragedy also struck the set of Ali Baba Goes to Town. Two technicians were killed after a 1,500 lb contraption, used to make a ‘flying carpet’ appear to be flying, jumped off its tracks and fell on them.
Edmund Gwenn with Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Of all the Christmas movies made down the decades, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street must surely rank as one of the most cherished by movie-goers. While Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and 8 year-old Natalie Wood are good in their roles, it was the performance from Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus that will be most fondly remembered. Without exception, the cast and crew described him as a delightfully kind and charming man who embodied the spirit of Santa Claus effortlessly. No wonder he won an Oscar for his work. As is often the case, however, he only got the role because his real life cousin Cecil Kellaway turned it down. It almost defies belief that the Catholic Legion of Decency (CLOD) could possibly find fault with this wholesome fare – but it did. The Legion gave it a ‘B’ rating (morally objectionable in part). Why? Because Maureen O’Hara was playing a divorcee.