Ruth Hussey & Robert Young movies

Back in May TCM aired a batch of Ruth Hussey films. There is something about her I like– can’t quite put my finger on it. She’s definitely of her era, but she possesses a timeless quality too. I had created a Performer Spotlight thread about Hussey on TCM’s message boards, making a point of recommending a film the actress made with Robert Young. But as I thought about it, she made several very good pictures with Young during her time at MGM; and they are all worth mentioning. So here goes:

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The Ruth Hussey film I most recommend is RICH MAN, POOR GIRL. She plays Lana Turner’s older sister in this one. She is planning to marry a man from the right side of the tracks (Robert Young), but family dramas nearly get in the way. It’s nicely directed, and Hussey has chemistry with Young in spades. Apparently, the bosses at Metro had come to the same conclusion and the pair would be teamed up on several more occasions.

One of those occasions was in HONOLULU. Though the movie is a showcase for the dancing talents of Eleanor Powell as well as the comic charms of Burns & Allen, the bulk of the romantic scenes fall to Hussey and Young. Though Young’s character winds up with Powell by the final fadeout, Hussey has certainly given the leading lady a run for the money.

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The formula was repeated a year later in MAISIE. This time, instead of Eleanor Powell, we have the irrepressible Ann Sothern in the lead. Young plays a Wyoming cowboy named Slim who finds himself drawn into the wacky adventures of the title character, as well as the marriage problems of his boss (Ian Hunter) and the boss’ estranged wife (Hussey).

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In the early 1940s, MGM cast the stars in two period pieces. The first was the adventure tale NORTHWEST PASSAGE, where most of the action revolves around the exploits of an explorer played by Spencer Tracy and his traveling companion (Young). Hussey turns up in a supporting role as a romantic interest. Then, in H.M. PULHAM ESQ., we have Young as a solid executive who is married to Hussey but wondering about how his life would have turned out with a former sweetheart, played by Hedy Lamarr.

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The next year, the studio paired Young & Hussey as leads in the romantic trifle MARRIED BACHELOR. In the story, Hussey portrays a dissatisfied wife who feels her husband (Young) needs to develop a greater sense of responsibility. As they both find new careers outside the home, they find their relationship enduring a series of madcap crises.

Though Robert Young would soon leave MGM and move over to RKO, he and frequent costar Ruth Hussey continued to remain friends. Years later, in a 1969 episode of Young’s long-running medical series Marcus Welby M.D., they would reunite on screen. Here is a photo from a scene in the third season episode entitled ‘The Best Is Yet to Be.’ With these two pros, the best was always in evidence.

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Films that almost weren’t made

There are several films that almost never were.

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SARATOGA (1937). This would be Jean Harlow’s last film. She collapsed on the set and died before her scenes could be completed. A double had to be used to finish the picture. Though studio chief Louis B. Mayer was reluctant to release it, the picture went over big. It was such a smash hit that Harlow’s penultimate film, PERSONAL PROPERTY, was re-released.

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Check out the production history for HOTEL IMPERIAL (1939). It was originally to be called I LOVED A SOLDIER with Marlene Dietrich, but she fought so much with Henry Hathaway the director, that the project was ultimately shelved. Then, Margaret Sullavan took over, but she broke her arm. So Isa Miranda was finally cast. Then, the leading man Ray Milland fell off a horse during filming and landed on some broken masonry and was unconscious for 24 hours. It’s lucky he survived. Eventually the film was finished, but the executives at Paramount endured a lot of headaches in the process!
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DESIRE ME (1947). Robert Montgomery clashed with director George Cukor who clashed with Louis Mayer. Montgomery walked off, and Cukor lobbied to have his name withdrawn from the project. Greer soldiered on and nearly drowned during a location sequence. When the film tested with preview audiences, it bombed, so Mayer ordered extensive retakes. But by this point, costar Robert Mitchum was over at Warners filming PURSUED, so they had to reduce his part and shoot around him. The retakes did not help. The film still performed miserably at the box office.

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BRAINSTORM (1983). Natalie Wood’s mysterious and tragic drowning temporarily suspended production of this motion picture. Like the Harlow film, this one had to be completed with a double and a reconstructed script. It lost money at the box office. Not even Wood’s death and endless tabloid articles about her last days could make the public curious enough to see it. More interestingly, it ended the director’s career on feature film projects. MGM wanted to dump the picture (and probably under-promoted it when it was released), but Douglas Trumbull’s contract gave him the last word, and he wanted to finish BRAINSTORM and dedicate it to the lead actress’ memory.

Coming back from the war

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The ads for MGM’s ADVENTURE proclaimed ‘Gable’s back and Garson’s got him.’ Of course, we’re talking about Clark Gable’s return to motion picture acting after his service during World War II.

But he wasn’t the only studio star who had returned with great fanfare after a stint with the U.S. military.

At Paramount, Alan Ladd’s first film after the war was AND NOW TOMORROW, a romance with Loretta Young. The studio’s advertising department had written across the upper portion of posters two words that were sure to bring cinemaddicts rushing to movie theatres. Those words: ‘Ladd’s Back.’

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Meanwhile, at Fox, Tyrone Power hadn’t made a new picture in three years, since CRASH DIVE. Zanuck cast him in a unique type of story– this time, it was as the post-war hero in Somerset Maugham’s THE RAZOR’S EDGE.

And then there’s James Stewart. His first post-war picture was the sentimental favorite IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

Unusual pairings

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In WHAT A WAY TO GO Shirley MacLaine has several leading men. One of them is Dick Van Dyke. It’s interesting to watch the two play romantic scenes together.

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Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster are a peculiar duo in COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA. But then, they are supposed to be different…that’s the root of the drama, their very unique way of life.

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Donald O’Connor and Francis the Talking Mule are certainly an oddball team. Also, in this category, we must add future President Ronald Reagan and Bonzo.

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Then there’s Wallace Beery who had a number of unusual screen partners…from Marie Dressler to Margaret Hamilton to Marjorie Main. But he was often cast with these women because the weird chemistry involved in these mismatches often generated some rather outrageous comedy.

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Versions of CLEOPATRA

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It is probably one of the most decadent roles an actress can play on screen, and it has been filmed numerous times. There have been short films, feature films and TV miniseries about Cleopatra. Some have been sensational, others less sensational– but they always get released with great fanfare, and people take notice.

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In 1912 American stage actress Helen Gardner appeared in the first feature length version that was produced by her own company. The budget was $45,000 which was quite a sum at the time. Gardner’s depiction was promoted as being the most beautiful motion picture ever made (up to then). It was described as the romance of a woman and a queen, and Gardner’s team of moviemakers filmed it on location in New York. A print survives, and it aired on TCM back in 2002.

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Five years later, it was Theda Bara’s turn to portray the glamorous ruler of ancient Egypt. This version was produced by the Fox Film Corporation, and Thurston Hall was cast as Marc Antony. The sets were ornate, the costumes lavish, and Bara’s acting risque. After the production code took affect in Hollywood, the 1917 production was considered too obscene and essentially banned. Only fragments of the footage exist today (with the last prints having been burned in a fire at Fox).

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In 1934, just as the production code was about to be enforced, Paramount made its own version. Claudette Colbert was cast as Cleopatra, and she was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Henry Wilcoxon played Marc Antony, and the scene where he was seduced by the queen was quite provocative for its day. DeMille used an art deco theme for sets, and the public loved it. The film was one of the biggest of Colbert’s career, and certainly the top money-maker for the studio that year.

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Perhaps the most famous production is the one that was released in 1963. Fox had decided to remake the story, originally with Joan Collins and Stephen Boyd in the leads. But their roles were eventually given to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and the rest of course, is history.

Q-and-A with ginnyfan, part 2

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TB: We’re back with ginnyfan, and I have more questions about THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. What can you tell us about the Broadway run?

GF: Barry’s play clearly instructs the producer that Tracy is twenty-four and Dinah fifteen. Since Dinah in the play is actively inviting men to lunch, this makes sense. Still when the play was cast Lenore Lonergan, a veteran Broadway juvenile, was chosen. Lenore was more than a year younger than Virginia and was playing the role when she was only ten! Lenore was, I have read, a very talented comedic actress whose trademark was a very hoarse voice. She later came to Hollywood as an adult actress and made a few films, most notably WESTWARD THE WOMEN where she played Maggie O’Malley. When the play was revived on Broadway during the winter of 1980-81, fourteen year old Cynthia Nixon played Dinah.

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TB: Yes. I wonder if Katharine Hepburn had a chance to see the revival. As most people know, she is the one who brought the property to MGM. Do you know how Metro came to assign Weidler for the movie version? Did Kate select her?

GF: I wish I knew more about the casting of Virginia for the film. Hepburn, as the owner of the film’s rights, held the right to reject a casting choice she didn’t like, although she wasn’t able to land her first choice for either Dex or Macaulay Connor. I assume that after the success of the play with the young Lonergan in the role, they wanted to go in a similar direction for the film. Virginia was just that particular girl at MGM at the time. It probably didn’t hurt that Virginia had already worked for George Cukor in THE WOMEN the prior year.

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TB: That’s right. Cukor had directed her as Norma Shearer’s daughter.

GF: And while I can’t imagine anyone else on the lot as Virginia’s Dinah, I wonder if someone like Ann Rutherford could have played a teenage Dinah, as the original script called for. I don’t know how Virginia got there for sure, I do know that Hepburn was always generous with praise for Virginia’s contributions.

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TB: Anything else you care to add about Dinah and how she rates with the other characters Weidler played?

GF: Dinah is by far the best remembered of Virginia’s roles. I’m glad for that, because without it she might have faced the fate of several of her contemporaries who were box office then and are completely forgotten today. People don’t always know Virginia’s name, but they remember Dinah!

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TB: Oh boy, do they ever!

GF: On the other hand, the success of the role changed how MGM viewed its “property.” Prior to THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Virginia was getting a variety of roles, sometimes a one-note comedic character like in OUT WEST WITH THE HARDYS, but often far more nuanced roles like the resourceful orphan Patsy in BAD LITTLE ANGEL. After she hit it big in PHILADELPHIA, the studio tried to make her a Dinah clone over and over again. Then, MGM began to lose interest when Virginia began to age out, and wanted to get out, of such roles. They forgot how versatile the actress had been before she came to MGM and in her early years there as well.

TB: I agree. MGM started to typecast her.

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GF: All the roles that followed were mere carbons of the first. On the other hand, some of those copies are actually a little more fleshed out simply because the roles were larger and Virginia’s screen time is greater than it was in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Virginia’s mother took a lot of time with Virginia actually discussing why her character would do the things she did so that, even at a very young age, Virginia understood motivation. As a result, Virginia probably knew every thought these brat characters had since she had played so many of them.

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TB: Interesting observation. She not only had an understanding of these roles, but she also had gained valuable experience playing variations in earlier pictures.

GF: So while I’d rate Dinah top brat, I find a lot of Virginia’s other work more interesting. Just at MGM, I find the previously mentioned Patsy Sanderson from BAD LITTLE ANGEL, Jubie Davis from GOLD RUSH MAISIE and Virginia Johansen from BARNACLE BILL to be Ginny’s finest moments.

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TB: Well, that’s all the time we have today. Again I want to thank ginnyfan for being a guest and discussing THE PHILADELPHIA STORY as well as some of Virginia Weidler’s other films. Please make sure to visit the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VirginiaWeidlerRemembranceSociety

Q-and-A with ginnyfan, part 1

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TB: In this column, I am chatting with ginnyfan from the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society. I have been wanting to talk about THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, ever since I realized it is TCM’s most-played classic film. Why do you think this film holds up so well?

GF: Screwball comedies on screen depend on action and timing, I think, and the film always has something going on. While the Philip Barry play had been a huge Broadway hit, the screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart really tightens up the action. Stewart, in the cause of simplicity, removed brother Sandy Lord from the scene and made C.K. Dexter Haven the actual planner of the fiasco that ensues.

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TB: I haven’t read the play and wasn’t aware one of the main characters had been dropped. What do you think playing Dinah means in terms of Virginia Weidler’s legacy?

GF: As far as Virginia’s legacy goes, the role as Stewart simplified it is meant for her talents. I find it hard to imagine anyone else on the MGM lot playing that role. Believe it or not, though, from my reading of the original play, Virginia’s part would have been more central to the plot if Stewart hadn’t changed it. In the play, Sandy Lord really had invited the reporters to the wedding and Dinah invited Dexter to lunch at the house to get him in on things. Dinah’s final line of, “I did it all!” make much more sense if we know that Dinah invited Dex to horn in on the wedding.  

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TB: I agree that nobody else on the MGM lot at the time would have been as well suited to playing Dinah as she was. So since you are suggesting that Dinah is a bit of a buttinski or a cupid-type character, how should audiences react to her?

GF: The Dinah of the film is a young girl who doesn’t quite get everything that’s going on, but gets enough of it to know that what is scheduled to happen (Tracy marrying George) just shouldn’t be. She’s smart enough to know that George is kind of an empty suit and that if she liked Dexter then Tracy sure should like Dexter, too.

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TB: Yes, good point. I believe there was a recent showing of this film in Hollywood/Los Angeles. Can you provide details about it? 

GF: It was a part of the TCM Film Festival and played at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where it premiered seventy five years ago. Ileana Douglas and Madeleine Stowe were the presenters, and I am told that Virginia was cheered each time she hit the screen. Believe it or not, despite being ginnyfan, I have never personally seen a Ginnyfilm on a big screen. I certainly hope to one day.

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TB: It’s great how TCM was able to facilitate the 75th anniversary screening. Okay, when we come back, I am going to ask you tell us more about the film’s Broadway origins, and how Virginia was cast as Dinah…