Category Archives: bio
There are only a handful of actors with personalities so unique they’re remembered long after the rest of the cast is forgotten. Thelma Ritter was one, Marjorie Main another. These women brought to the screen elements of themselves whether it be a plain speaking tower of common sense or a boisterous, good-natured, fun-loving matron, the fact that audiences sensed the realness of their performances not only endeared them in the public eye, but established them in a class by themselves. Ruth Gordon was one of these specialists that created memorable characterizations and like the others, developed a strong cult following.
Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, the daughter of a sea-captain, young Ruth witnessed a performance by Hazel Dawn in a stage production of The Pink Lady, was bitten by the show-biz bug and began to aspire for a life on the stage. She convinced her father to take her to New York in 1914 where she enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, appearing later that year in Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up as Nibs, one of the lost boys, to a very favorable review by Alexander Woolcott, an influential critic who became one of Ruth’s close friends and mentor.
By 1916 she began appearing as an extra in silent films in Ft. Lee N.J., never straying far from New York where she continued working on stage in a variety of Broadway productions. It was in one of these shows where she met and married actor Gregory Kelly in 1921. Gordon was typecast in “beautiful but dumb” roles in the early 20s and it was not until her husband’s death in 1927 from heart disease did she start to get offers for roles with more substance. She grew as an artist tremendously in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the restoration comedy The Country Wife at London’s Old Vic that eventually made it to Broadway, and in Henrik Ibsen’s A Dolls House during the 1930s.
She began appearing in supporting roles on film in the very early 40s beginning with Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet with Edward G. Robinson and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (as Mary Todd Lincoln) with Raymond Massey both in 1940. She appeared alongside Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Two Faced Woman 1941 and the following year with Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic, then Errol Flynn in Edge of Darkness. It was in 1942 that Ruth married her second husband Garson Kanin, a writer, 16 years her junior. Together they collaborated on screenplays for the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films Adams Rib 1949 and Pat and Mike 1952, both directed by George Cukor. They were nominated for Academy Awards in the category of Best Original Screenplay for both films as well as for A Double Life in 1947 with Ronald Coleman and Shelley Winters. Hepburn, Tracy, the Kanin’s and George Cukor became close friends during this period and remained so for the rest of their lives.
The Actress 1953 was Ruth’s film adaptation of her own autobiographical play that featured Jean Simmons portraying Ruth and Spencer Tracy in the role of her father. It was also directed by Cukor. During the 1950s Ruth returned to the Broadway stage where she was nominated for a Tony for Best Leading Actress as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s classic The Matchmaker (that would later become Hello Dolly!) a role she reprised in the U.K., Scotland and Germany.
It wasn’t until 1965 that Ruth found herself in front of the cameras again playing Natalie Wood’s deliciously confused mother, “the dealer”, in Inside Daisy Clover, with Christopher Plummer, Robert Redford and Roddy McDowell. The film, developed from a book by Gavin Lambert was supposed to be an exposé on Hollywood’s dirty secrets regarding mental health, power brokering and homosexuality, bombed at the box office despite its capable cast but later gained a cult following from TV and home video sales. Never-the-less Gordon won a Golden Globe for her supporting role and was nominated for an Academy Award. Also the film is generally recognized for one of the early depictions of a gay or bisexual character in American cinema who is not ashamed of his sexuality and who does not commit suicide.
In Rosemary’s Baby 1968, a psychological horror film about witchcraft and sorcery in modern-day Manhattan, written and directed by Roman Polanski, was based on the bestselling 1967 novel by Ira Levin. The cast included Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ralph Bellamy and Charles Grodin. As Minnie Castevet, Gordon’s role as a neighbor who has more on her mind than caring for Mia Farrow’s character during her first pregnancy won Ruth her first Academy Award at age 72.
In 1969 Gordon appeared in Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice, the third in a trilogy of psychological thrillers produced by Robert Aldrich, the first being What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the second Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. In 1970 she appeared in Where’s Poppa?, a comedy directed by Carl Reiner that starred George Segal.
In 1971 Gordon appeared with Bud Cort in what I consider her greatest, most nuanced and heartfelt performance. Harold and Maude is black comedy at its finest. Its existential elements combined with the strong performance of the young lead and Gordon’s free wheeling personality make it hard to resist. The plot concerns a young man Harold (Cort) who is obsessed with death, drives a hearse and attends funerals of strangers much to the chagrin of his socialite mother. He meets 79-year-old Maude who shares Harold’s hobby of attending funerals. He is entranced by her quirky outlook on life, which is bright and excessively carefree in contrast with his own morbidity. The pair form a bond, and Maude slowly shows Harold the pleasures of art and music (Harold is taught to play banjo), and teaches him how to “make the most of his time on earth”. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother determines, much against Harold’s wishes, to find him a wife to settle down with. One by one, Harold frightens and horrifies each of his appointed dates by appearing to commit gruesome acts such as self-immolation, self-mutilation, and seppuku. As his relationship with Maude deepens he overcomes many obstacles to keep the light supplied by Maude burning bright. Panned by the critics upon release, Harold and Maude eventually found a cult following like many of Ruth Gordon’s films and in 1983 started to turn a profit. Harold and Maude and Adams Rib were 2 of her films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the United States Library of Congress.
Her film career began to wind down but not before she made two films with Clint Eastwood, Every Which Way but Loose 1978 and Any Which Way You Can 1980. She was no stranger to television. Throughout the 70s and 80s she appeared in Rhoda, Love Boat, Kojak, Newhart and Taxi (where she received an Emmy) and also hosted Saturday Night Live.
Ruth Gordon was also a prolific writer, authoring numerous plays, movie scripts and penning 2 autobiographies titled My Side; An Autobiography and Ruth Gordon; An Open Book.
Her aspirations for a career on the stage developed into a life she never could have imagined. Ruth Gordon was a woman of substance whose excellence of work helped expand the role of women in the entertainment industry. She died after suffering a stroke in Edgartown, Massachusetts and left behind a legacy of memorable roles and writings to be cherished by future generations.
This doe-eyed, delicate figure of impossible loveliness learned early in life how to be tough. The daughter of a banker and a Dutch baroness, Audrey Hepburn-Ruston was abandoned by her Nazi father at age six leaving her, her mother and two half-brothers to fend for themselves. Without him they did alright for themselves with young Audrey beginning her education at a posh girls school in southeast England in 1935. With the threat of war drawing closer, her mother decided to send her children to their grandfather’s house at Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1939, believing they would be safe in a politically neutral country. The Nazis invaded Arnhem anyway and Audrey changed her name to Edda van Heemstra fearing her English sounding name would result in confinement or deportation. While with her grandfather, she studied ballet at the Arnhem Conservatory and became a proficient ballerina, often performing in secret recitals to raise money for the Dutch resistance.
When the allies landed on D-Day, the village of Arnhem was heavily shelled due to Nazi occupation and as retaliation, the Nazis blocked all the re-supply routes leading into Arnhem leaving its residents exposed to the elements and without any food. Villagers literally starved and froze to death in the streets. Audrey along with many of the survivors started pulverizing tulip bulbs to make flour for biscuits and cakes. By the time the trucks finally arrived with food an emaciated Audrey was already suffering with acute anemia, respiratory problems and edema.
After the war’s end Hepburn left the Arnhem Conservatory and moved to Amsterdam where she took ballet lessons with Sonia Gaskell. She made a short tourism film for KLM Airlines before reuniting with her mother in London. Gaskell gave Hepburn a letter of recommendation for the Ballet Rambert so she could continue to study dance. It was during this time she dropped “Ruston” from her name. Eventually Hepburn asked Rambert about her future as a dancer and was assured she could continue to working as a dancer and make a good living but her relatively tall height and the malnutrition she suffered during the war would prevent her from becoming a prima ballerina. Trusting her teachers assessment it was then she decided to become an actress.
She began as a chorus girl in London’s West End, took elocution lessons and did part-time modeling until a scout from Paramount Pictures noticed her and recommended she sign up with casting offices at England’s movie studios. She began to get bit parts in motion pictures in a string of 1951 films most notably The Lavender Hill Mob. While she was filming Monte Carlo Baby 51, the French novelist Colette visited the set and thought Hepburn would be perfect for the main character of Gigi that was being mounted for the stage from Colette’s book and offered her the role. Hepburn accepted. Gigi opened in November of that year at the Fulton Theatre and ran for over 200 performances winning Miss Hepburn a Theatre World Award.
Her first starring role was in Paramount’s Roman Holiday 53 shot on location in Italy playing a princess who escapes from her guardians and falls in love with American newsman Gregory Peck. The producers had originally wanted Elizabeth Taylor for the role but after director William Wyler saw Hepburn’s screen-test, he was so enchanted by her wistful charm and innocence that he cast her in the lead. Hepburn was so good in the role that Peck insisted they share equal billing and they got along so well during the film’s production they remained close friends until her death. Hepburn won a Best Actress Oscar, a Best Actress BAFTA and a Golden Globe from her first major film. She signed a seven picture deal with Paramount with twelve months off between pictures so she could continue with her stage work. She returned to New York to work on Broadway in Gigi for 8 months.
Her next film was the romantic comedy Sabrina 54, starring Humphrey Bogart, Hepburn and William Holden with Billy Wilder as director. All was not well on the set. Bogart was unhappy about not being first choice for the role of Linus (Cary Grant declined the role) and complained bitterly about Hepburn’s inexperience. He also made no attempt to hide his contempt for Wilder and Holden and made everyone miserable. Then there was the bitch Edith Head who was brought in to design the costumes and got her nose out of joint when she learned that Hepburn would personally choose her own ensembles and gowns from French designer Hubert de Givenchy. Head refused to share equal billing and insisted that Givenchy’s name be left out of the credits and the studio obliged. When she won the Academy Award for Best Costumes she did not give Givenchy any credit for his work in her acceptance speech. Despite all the problems and attitudes during filming none of it showed in the finished product and Sabrina was very well received by the public and became the recipient of 6 Oscar nominations. Hepburn and Holden entered into a brief but passionate affair during production that was widely reported in the press, an affair he later professed to never get over. The film also began a lifelong association between Hepburn and Givenchy.
In 1954 Hepburn appeared in a Broadway production of Jean Girauduox’s Ondine, co-starring opposite actor/writer/producer Mel Ferrer who she later married, a tumultuous relationship that would last for the next 15 years. Hepburn went on to win a Tony for her performance in Ondine the same year she won an Academy Award for Roman Holiday making her one of 3 actresses to win Best Actress Oscar and a Best Actress Tony the same year, the other 2 being Shirley Booth and Ellen Burstyn. By the mid-50s Hepburn was not only one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, she was also a major fashion icon. Her sense of style was both admired and imitated and would remain so the rest of her life.
She made a string of succesful films War and Peace 56, with Mel Ferrer and Henry Fonda, Funny Face 57, with Fred Astaire and the wonderful Kay Thompson, Love in the Afternoon 57, with Gary Cooper and Maurice Chevalier finishing up the decade with The Nun’s Story 59 with Peter Finch where she was nominated for a 3rd Best Actress Academy Award and won another BAFTA for her portrayal of Sister Luke. Hepburn spent time in convents and endless hours talking with nuns to try to bring some truth to the role and it paid off…Film in Review said…”her performance will forever silence those who have thought her less an actress than a symbol of the sophisticated child/woman. Her portrayal of Sister Luke is one of the great performances of the screen.”
In 1960 after having given birth to son Sean following 2 miscarriages, Hepburn began work on the role that would forever become synonymous with her name…Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s 61, loosely based on a short story by Truman Capote with diva actor George Peppard and Patricia Neal. Capote was not thrilled with Hepburn in the role of a kooky hooker and had wanted Marilyn Monroe. Never-the-less the film resonated with audiences and she received another Best Actress Oscar nomination. Following Tiffany’s Hepburn appeared in The Children’s Hour 61 with Shirley MacLaine about 2 teachers at a girls school accused by one of the students of being lesbians. In Charade 63 a suspense-thriller, Hepburn teamed with Cary Grant where they chase a fortune that was stolen by her murdered husband. Grant was thrilled working with Hepburn and said “all I want for Christmas is another picture with Audrey Hepburn”, unfortunately it never happened.
The controversy surrounding Hepburn being cast in the title role of My Fair Lady 64 was fodder for the Hollywood tabloids. Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison had performed the roles on Broadway and many felt they deserved their roles in the screen adaptation as well. Harrison was signed to reprise his role but Jack Warner who had paid $5 million for the movie rights felt that Andrews was too much of an unknown in Hollywood and didn’t trust her to carry the picture. Warner’s decision in favor of Hepburn freed Andrews to begin work on Mary Poppins. As a singer Hepburn was adequate but no Judy Garland so her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon for all of her songs but one; “Just You Wait” was her actual voice. No expense was spared in bringing the highly anticipated musical to the screen and it ended up costing over $17 million. A feast for the eyes with dazzling costumes and sets created by genius Cecil Beaton, My Fair Lady won 8 Academy Awards and though Hepburn’s performance was praised by critics she was ignored by the Oscar nominating committee.
Julie Andrews won Best Actress Oscar that year for Mary Poppins and the first person she thanked in her acceptance speech (with enough sarcasm to make the audience twitch uncomfortably) was Jack Warner. Hepburn followed up with the heist comedy How to Steal a Million 66, with Peter O’Toole, the winning and perceptive Two For the Road 67, directed by Stanley Donnen co-starring Albert Finney and the edgy thriller Wait Until Dark 67 with Richard Crenna and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
She divorced Ferrer in 1968 and after 24 films in 15 years, retired from the screen in order to spend more quality time with her family. Hepburn married Andrea Dotti in 1969 and spawned another son Luca. They divorced in 1982 and after that, partnered with Robert Wolders in a relationship that lasted until her death. She returned to the screen in 1976 with Sean Connery in Robin and Marian, in Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline 79, They All Laughed 81, directed by Peter Bogdanovich with Ben Gazzara and John Ritter. Her last appearance before the camera was in the PBS documentary Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn that won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement, awarded posthumously. My favorite Hepburn films are Two for the Road, Charade, Wait Until Dark, Sabrina, The Nun’s Story and My Fair Lady.
In 1988 Audrey Hepburn was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Grateful for her own good fortune after enduring German occupation as a child, Hepburn dedicated the rest of her life helping the impoverished children in the poorest nations. Through UNICEF she brought food, clean water and vaccines to populations in Somalia, Sudan, Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Ethiopia and El Salvador doing field work and meeting with heads of governments to find solutions as well as holding countless news conferences to educate the public on the plight of these children.
It was during one of these UNICEF trips that Hepburn began to get abdominal pains and after several consultations with doctors in Switzerland, Los Angeles and New York she was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer that was treated with chemotherapy but it was too little too late. Audrey Hepburn died in her sleep at her home in Switzerland at 65.
Audrey Hepburn’s legacy has endured long after her death. She was one of the few entertainers to win an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy (for recording a series of childrens fairy tales.) The American Film Institute ranked her third among the Greatest Female Stars of All Time , was given a tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center and awarded several honors posthumously including the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. She remains an inspiration for others, an enduring icon of elegance, taste and humor continuing to touch millions of people helping them to hope, to dream and to laugh.
Animation today is light years away from its humble beginnings and has become so sophisticated that it can be mistaken for live action as evidenced in last years The Illusionist, where simple things like glittering chorus girl shoes or feathers in the wind look so real that its unreal. Animation is now and has always been a field of visual delights so it is with a great deal of affection for the genre that I look at one of the ground breaking pioneers of American animation and Walt Disney’s bitter rival; Max Fleischer.
A Polish Jew born in Kraków, Fleischer’s family emigrated to the U.S. in 1887 and settled in New York City. After high school he got a job as an errand boy for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle eventually working his way into a cartoonist position. In 1912 he became art editor for Popular Science magazine and began experimenting with animation by devising a concept to simplify the process of animating movement by tracing frames of live action film. He was granted a patent on his new system in 1915 that Fleischer named Rotoscope and with it created his first animated series, Out of the Inkwell, where he literally created the characters of Koko the Clown and Fitz the dog by his own hand and pen out of an inkwell before the audience’s eyes. Fleischer produced the Inkwell films under Bray Studios until 1921 when he and his brother Dave established Fleischer Studios that operated under the Paramount Studio umbrella, to produce cartoons and short subjects. They also partnered with a group headed by Lee DeForest to form Red Seal Pictures Corporation, becoming owners in 36 theaters scattered along the east coast.
Fleischer invented “follow the bouncing ball” for his Sound Car-Toons where he added synchronized sound to animation that encouraged movie audiences to engage in a sing-a-long before the start of the feature film, using the Phonofilm sound-on-film device developed by his business partner Lee DeForest in 1927. This happened months before Walt Disney released Steamboat Willie 1928, which is often mistaken as the first cartoon to synchronize sound with animation.
Fleischer also made two 20 minute educational features, one explaining Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the other Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution both using a combination of animated special F/X and live action. Several of his cartoons had soundtracks featuring live or rotoscoped images of leading jazz musicians such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. His respectful use of black performers was daring at a time when depictions of blacks on-screen, including cartoons, was denigrating and stereotypical.
Over these few years Out of the Inkwell series was renamed Inkwell Imps and that name was replaced with Talkartoon in 1929. Fitz the dog was renamed Bimbo and it was decided he needed a girl friend so Fleischer designed a sexy, curvy poodle-human hybrid with floppy ears who would later be named Betty Boop. Her debut was in Dizzy Dishes 1930 and she was an immediate sensation. By 1931 her floppy ears had evolved into hoop earrings and her transformation into a human girl was complete. Betty Boop was ultra feminine with a slinky walk, Mae West-like gestures and her skimpy, form-fitting dress created such a stir that by the time she appeared in Minnie the Moocher 1932, she had created a permanent niche for herself in film and the hearts of audiences. With the success of Betty Boop, Fleischer had become one of the country’s 2 premier animation producers, the other one being Walt Disney and while Betty Boop was wildly popular, she was no match for the international fame that Disney gained with Mickey Mouse.
Fleischer cartoons were very different from Disney in concept, design and execution. His approach was sophisticated and urbane, focused on surrealism with the action often taking place in gritty, squalid settings whose characters were imbued with adult psychological elements and a healthy dose of sexuality. Using jazz music in his cartoons kept his conviction of showing a multi-cultural America strong and intact. Disney on the other hand was focused entirely on the surface elements of his animations with simple storylines and non-threatening characters that appealed to everyone.
In 1933 Fleischer secured the rights to comic strip character Popeye and he was introduced in the Betty Boop short Popeye the Sailor the same year. The enforcement of the Hay’s Code in 1934 made Fleischer tone down the sexual elements of Betty Boop and he responded by covering up her nearly naked figure with longer dresses and higher necklines but her curvaceous body and suggestive mannerisms were still very much in evidence. Popeye and his cohorts became so popular that they remained in production until 1957. Fleischer developed and patented a 3-D background effect that was a precursor to Disney’s Multiplane process. The technique involved using a diorama background in front of which the action cels were positioned and photographed, giving the imagery an unprecedented sense of depth that was used to great effect in the longer format (2-reel) Popeye features; Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor 1936 and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali-Baba’s Forty Thieves 1937. Paramount asked Fleischer to put the popular comic book and radio hero Superman into a cartoon series and with its realistic drawings set against a classic art-deco background, it became the most successful of the studio’s late period and is considered the final triumph of Fleischer’s prolific and sophisticated output.
It was around this time that Fleischer realized that feature-length animations could be a lucrative endeavor but since his studio was controlled by Paramount who also controlled the purse strings, his repeated request for money to set a project in motion was consistently denied and it was only with the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937 did they realize the value of the proposition. They now were ready to funnel money into Fleischer’s project but in order to secure a loan from Paramount he had to surrender the assets of his studio to the parent studio for 10 years.
His first feature-length animation Gulliver’s Travels in 1939 ran over budget by half a million dollars and the escalating war in Europe curtailed any chance for a foreign release. The film was unable to recoup its production costs and his 2nd release, Mr. Bugs Goes to Town 1941 premiered 2 days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and public interest in anything other than war was effectively squashed. Paramount sued him for profit loss and initiated a takeover of the Fleischer Studio, his legendary band of animators were then hired by Walt Disney.
Losing a lawsuit against Paramount who removed his name from the credits of his 2 feature-length films and his relationship with brother Dave (he’d become an executive at Paramount) beyond repair, Max Fleischer closed his studio and obtained employment as a supervisor for the technical and animation departments of the Jam Handy Organization producing training films for the Army and Navy. He left that organization in 1954 to become Production Manager for Bray Studios in New York (his original studio) coming full circle in an illustrious and ground breaking career. Due to his age and failing health, Fleischer moved into the Motion Picture Country House with his wife in 1967, a facility that provided long-term care for the elderly of the industry where he died in 1972 after suffering a heart attack.
Max Fleischer was a true visionary whose ideas were years ahead of their time and if I was given the choice between watching his work or Disney’s, I’d choose Fleischer without hesitation.
An Austrian Jew, Hedy Lamarr began her marginal film career as a script girl to director/actor Max Reinhardt, (who claimed she was the most beautiful woman in Europe) in Berlin and gradually gained enough confidence to accept small roles until she made a giant splash in the notorious Czechoslovak film Ecstasy 1933 in which she did several scenes completely nude. At 19 years of age she married her first husband 13 years her senior (the first of 6) Friedrich Mandl, a rich Viennese arms manufacturer who was so controlling over her that he insisted she accompany him to daily meetings with technicians and business partners in an effort to make sure she didn’t stray but Lamarr who was mathematically talented, took on the challenge and learned everything she could about military technology. It was Mandl’s insistence on dealing with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, who were frequent guests at their home, that led Lamarr to concoct a plan to escape the increasing oppression of her marriage. She hired a personal maid who looked like her, drugged her, put on her uniform and fled the home, eventually ending up in London where by chance she met Louis B. Mayer who wasted no time in putting her under contract and shipped her off to the United States to work at MGM.
The studio publicity department hailed her as the new Garbo but as Lamarr was to find out, those shoes were too big to fill. Her American film debut was in Algiers 1933 with Charles Boyer and her next big films were Boom Town 1940 with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Tortilla Flat 1942 with Spencer Tracy and Sampson and Delilah 1949. Though these films became classics, Lamarr failed to connect with American audiences and her career quietly slipped away.
In 1941 war was looming on the horizon and with the help of her math skills and neighbor George Antheil, an avant-guard composer, Lamarr designed a new kind of guidance system for torpedos that she named “frequency hopping”. Using piano rolls installed in torpedos and their transmitters that constantly changed between 88 frequencies making radio guided weaponry harder for enemies to detect or jam. She figured out mathmatically that continually changing frequencies could not be jammed and her new device provided autonomous control of heavy-duty weaponry. Lamarr, using her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey, and Antheil applied for and were awarded a patent for the device. They marketed their product to the U.S. Navy but the technology was turned down although it was employed in 1962 by U.S. military ships during the Cuban missile crisis well after Lamarr’s patent had expired.
During the 1950’s Sylvania re-discovered frequency hopping, re-named it “spread spectrum” and from there her technology formed the backbone that makes today’s wireless communication possible including phones and internet. It took several decades for Lamarr’s invention to bear fruit but eventually it became the standard, having numerous military and civilian applications around the world. It is also a key component used in the U. S. governments $25 billion Milstar system that controls all the inter-continental missiles in the U.S. weapons arsenal.
Surprisingly Lamarr never made a dime from her device but late in life was awarded the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) Award for her contribution that the entire planet benefitted from. Her only remark was “it’s about time.”
Over the course of her film career she estimated she made and spent some $30 million and as she got older and retired to Florida had to rely on her actors pension to keep afloat. She was arrested twice for shoplifting small sundry items but charges in both cases were eventually dropped. She penned an autobiography Ecstasy and Me in 1966 but turned around and sued the publisher claiming that it contained revolting, disgusting anecdotes that were fabricated by her ghost writer Leo Guild. She ended up suing Mel Brooks over using a variation of her name (Hedley Lamarr) as a running gag in Blazing Saddles 1974 claiming it infringed on her Right of Publicity which grants rights for celebrities to control the use of their name as an aspect of their identity. They settled out of court.
Hedy Lamarr wasn’t a particularly skilled actress but was able to use her brain to benefit the human race in ways she could have never imagined. So the next time you pick up your iPad, turn on your computer or use your cell phone to talk or text, think about the idea that these devices evolved from. You have Hedy Lamarr to thank for it. As for filling Garbo’s shoes, it’s a safe bet that Lamarr left behind her own pair to fill.
Born in Wichita, Kansas the daughter of a freed slave turned preacher and spiritual singer mother, Hattie McDaniel, one of 13 children, grew up to become one of the most controversial and historic figures of film. Her family moved west to Denver where McDaniel graduated from East High School that eventually claimed an impressive list of show business alumni; Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Paul Whiteman, Judy Collins, Don Cheadle, Sidney Sheldon and Pam Grier as well as a few world-class athletes.
McDaniel who was heavily influenced by her mother’s musical ability became a singer/ songwriter and toured regionally with Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a black musical ensemble, singing with them on KOA radio where she earned the distinction as the first black woman to sing over the air waves. During this time three of her siblings, brother Sam and sisters Etta and Orlena moved to Los Angeles while Hattie went to Chicago to record her own music with OKEH Records and Paramount Recordings from 1927-1929. The stock market crash put an end to that and McDaniel was unable to find work except as a washroom attendant and waitress in Milwaukee. She reunited with her siblings by moving to Los Angeles in 1931 taking a job as a maid. Sam worked at radio station KNX and got his sister a spot as Hi-Hat Hattie, a bossy maid who often forgot her place that became a hit among listeners but McDaniel’s salary was so low she had to continue working as a maid.
Her first film appearances (un-credited) came in 1932 in The Golden West then later that year was cast in I’m No Angel as one of Mae West’s personal attendants. In the early 30s she took many film roles where she was just one of many singers in a chorus. In 1934 she became a card-carrying member of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and began to get screen credit. She was put under contract with Fox to work in The Little Colonel 1935 with Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. She went on to work as Katharine Hepburn’s maid in Alice Adams and China Seas with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable ( her first of several with him) the same year. In the screen adaptation of the ground breaking Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein musical Showboat 1936, starring Irene Dunne, Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson, McDaniel sang with Dunne and Robeson as well, where the two sang special material written especially for the film by the team of Kern/Hammerstein.
During the 30s McDaniel wisely befriended many of Hollywood’s top actors; Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Ronald Reagan, Olivia De Havilland and Clark Gable who went to bat for her, insisting she be cast in their films and from then on McDaniel never lacked work.
Hollywood was not color blind and relegated black performers to strictly subservient roles where they played maids, butlers and dim wits that were superstitious and un-educated. McDaniel infused her subservient roles with a bombastic personality that she enhanced with impeccable comic timing but despite all her hard work she was not without her detractors. The NAACP charged her with degrading herself and her race to which she responded “I would rather play a maid and make $700 than be a real one for $7.” The NAACP’s remarks started a contentious debate over whether McDaniel was a trial blazer or merely perpetuating racial stereotypes. It wasn’t like she had a choice, roles for black actors in anything that wasn’t already established were non-existent.
When casting for Gone with the Wind 1939 commenced, the competition for who would play Scarlett O’Hara’s maid, Mammy, was fierce. McDaniel thought she didn’t stand a chance to be cast but at Clark Gable’s insistence, she showed up for a reading dressed in a real maid uniform and won the role. Her scenes in GWTW won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress making her the first black actress ever to be nominated although southern audiences were not keen on McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy, saying the character was too familiar with her white employers. Never-the-less she went on to win the Oscar and graciously stepped into Hollywood history. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and genuine causing Louella Parsons and many others to burst into tears.
McDaniel didn’t attend the world premiere of GWTW that took place in Atlanta because the segregation laws of the time would have prevented her from sitting with her white co-stars in the theater and she would have to stay in a third-rate black hotel. An enraged Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta opening but McDaniel gently persuaded him to go. She did however show up for the Hollywood premiere where no one would tell her where to sit and with whom.
When McDaniel started making good money she, along with other black movie folks like Louise Beavers and Ethel Waters, bought homes in the spacious and tidy neighborhood known as West Adam Heights, nicknamed “Sugar Hill”. McDaniel’s house was a white, sprawling two-story 17 room house complete with servants quarters, service porch and library. The black residents fixed up their homes and minded their own business until some of the whites still living in the area tried to invoke a long forgotten covenant clause from 1902 that excluded non-whites from buying property in the neighborhood. It was McDaniel who organized the black residents to take the neighborhood to court and was successful in overturning the racist legality and in doing so, saved their pride and homes.
McDaniel was no slouch when it came to community service. During World War 2 she was Chairman of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee that provided entertainment for soldiers at military bases. She made countless appearances entertaining troops with the USO and worked tirelessly to raise funds by selling war bonds. She was also a member of American Women’s Voluntary Services. Within the black community McDaniel was known as a generous giver, often feeding and lending money to friends and strangers without reservation. She joined an NBC radio broadcast to raise funds for the Red Cross to help many blacks who were displaced by the Ohio river flood in winter of 1937.
She returned to radio in the mid 40s as the character Beulah when her movie roles started to dry up and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with breast cancer that eventually claimed her life in 1952. McDaniel left behind a legacy that is celebrated in a number of ways. In 1994 actress/singer Karla Burns launched a one woman show in honor of McDaniel titled Hi-Hat Hattie. American Movie Classics brought her life to film in Beyond Tara, The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel that “showed the struggles and triumphs as McDaniel, in spite of racism and adversity, knocked down the door of segregation in Hollywood and made her presence known” was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and won an Emmy. Every black actress who has won an Academy Award has thanked McDaniel. When Mo’Nique won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Precious at the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony, she paid homage to McDaniel in her acceptance speech thanking her “for enduring all she had to so I wouldn’t have to.” Mo’Nique also wore an updated replica of same blue dress (complete with gardenia’s in her hair) worn by McDaniel to the ceremony in 1940. In 2009 Mo’Nique announced she had aquired the rights to Hattie McDaniel’s life story and would star in a movie about her life. The USPS honored her memory by issuing a stamp bearing her likeness in 2006.
McDaniel appeared in over 300 films but received credit for only 80. She can be seen in Saratoga 1937, Stella Dallas 1937, Mad Miss Manton 1938, They Died With their Boots On 1941, Thank Your Lucky Stars 1943 and in Disney’s Song of the South 1946.
Upon her death it was her expressed wish to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery that would become the final resting place for the many stars she counted as friends but her request was denied because the cemetery had a white’s only policy and her remains were laid to rest at Rosedale Cemetery, her second choice, where she lies today. When ownership in Hollywood Cemetery changed hands the new owner changed the name to Forever Hollywood. He attempted to right the wrong and asked her family for permission to bury McDaniel free of charge according to her original wish but that request was understandably denied. Hollywood Forever honored the family’s wishes and instead of a re-internment, honored her memory by installing a cenotaph for McDaniel that over looks the lake.
Born the daughter of a cattleman and member of the Montana legislature, her mother an accomplished musician, Myrna Williams made her first public appearance on stage at age 12 as a dancer. Her mother’s health became a concern and her husband sent her to La Jolla, California to recover from pneumonia with young Myrna in tow. They both enjoyed their new surroundings and urged the father to join them but he resisted, preferring country life although he did, at her mothers urging, invest heavily in California real estate. Myrna’s father owned a large tract of land that he sold (at great profit) to Charlie Chaplin so he could build his own movie studio.
Upon her father’s death from a flu epidemic in 1918, Myrna, her mother and baby brother moved permanently to southern California settling in Culver City. Myrna was enrolled in an exclusive Holmby Hills school for girls that didn’t last long because her aspirations for a career in film was not encouraged. She then enrolled in Venice High School where she began appearing in stage productions and studied dance. In 1921 sculptor Harry Winebrenner used Myrna as a model for a statue he named “Spiritual” that was eventually installed in front of Venice High School where it remained for most of the 20th century only being removed once to be cast in bronze (because of vandalism) and returned to its original site, this time protected by thorny rose bushes. The statue can be seen in the opening sequence of Grease 1978.
At 18, Myrna worked at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood and in her off time made the rounds of studio casting departments finding work in bit parts then moved on to more substantial roles usually playing exotic women, vamps and femme fatale’s. In 1925 she was awarded a contract with Warner Bros. who changed her last name from Williams to Loy.
Warner’s relegated her more of the same roles, occasionally elevating her to leading lady status as in Manhattan Melodrama 1934 with Clark Gable, but Loy felt her career was on the fast track to mediocrity until director W.S. Van Dyke over at MGM decided to offer her the role of Nora Charles in his light-hearted treatment of Dashille Hammett’s mystery novel, The Thin Man 1934, with William Powell as her leading man. Their pairing on screen was magical. Loy’s effervescent portrayal of a big city socialite whose mission was to keep her hard partying husband (Powell) focused enough to solve intriguing murder mysteries was a major hit with audiences. The duo perfectly complimented each others characters to the extent that many movie goers thought the two were actually married in real life. Over the next 15 years Loy and Powell teamed for 6 Thin Man sequels. During this time she appeared in other notable films, Test Pilot and Too Hot to Handle both 1938 with Clark Gable, and in the romantic comedy Third Finger, Left Hand 1940 with Melvyn Douglas.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Loy took a leave of absence from movie making and concentrated on working for the Red Cross and selling war bonds. She became an outspoken critic of Adolph Hitler and was so vitriolic that she was the only Hollywood star to end up on his blacklist.
She returned to filmmaking after the war with The Thin Man Goes Home 1945 and the following year gave what she considered her best screen performance in the classic The Best Years of Our Lives about men returning home to their families from the war. In David O. Selznick’s The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer 1947 Loy starred alongside Cary Grant and a teenage Shirley Temple and appeared with Grant the following year in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse. In 1950 she starred opposite Clifton Webb in Cheaper By the Dozen but with the emergence of a new crop of leading ladies, Joanne Woodward, Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood to name a few, Loy’s career went into decline.
Active in the Democratic Party her entire life, Loy was never at a loss to speak on political issues and campaigned to bring justice to black actors who were portrayed unfairly by the movie industry as second class citizens. In 1948 she became a member of the U.S. National Commission of UNESCO and later became co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. She was married 4 times but remained childless.
Appearing in over 150 films during the course of her carrer, tributes to Loy’s achievements as an actress and screen personality were many. Aside from having buildings and theaters named for her in Hollywood and her native Montana, her hand and footprints in cement and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame she was honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for her important screen contributions in 1988. Never nominated for an Academy Award, Loy was issued a special honorary Oscar in 1991.
Loy suffered from breast cancer and had two mastectomies one in 1975, the other in 79. She died while undergoing surgery in New York City in December 1993. She was 88 years old.
A gorgeous actress born of Russian immigrant parents in San Fransisco and one of the few who made a successful transition from child to adult actor, Natalie Wood enjoyed a 30+ year film career dotted with some exceptional performances in important films but mostly consisted of superficial roles where she got by on looks alone. Never-the-less Wood enjoyed a full and lively career teaming with some of Hollywood’s top talent to make films that resonated with audiences.
Wood began her career at 4 years of age in the romantic fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir 1947 with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison and later that year in Miracle on 34th Street that became one of the enduring Christmas classics. She was 14 when she appeared in The Star 1952 with Bette Davis but it was the role of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause 1955 with James Dean, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper that caused audiences and critics alike to marvel at her understated yet powerful performance that would not be seen again until she appeared in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass 1961 with Warren Beatty and Sandy Dennis, in the role of Deanie Loomis, a love struck, emotionally unstable girl. Wood was honored with Oscar nominations for both films but lost to Jo Van Fleet and Sophia Loren respectively.
United Artists and Mirisch Pictures joined forces releasing the screen adaptation of the ground breaking Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical West Side Story 1961, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise starring Wood in the central role of Maria with Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Wood tried her own singing but the music was too technical for her untrained voice and her musical numbers ended up being dubbed by Marni Nixon. Big budget Hollywood musicals had fallen by the wayside by the early 60s because of the expense of production and changing social values yet West Side Story went on to win 10 Academy Award’s.
Wood accepted the lead in Gypsy 1962 directed by Mervyn LeRoy where she did her own singing. Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a 2nd act vaudeville performer who became a world-famous stripper despite the misfortune of having a stage mother from hell. The role of the mother was originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman who petitioned for the film role but was declined in favor of Rosalind Russell whose singing voice was less than spectacular but she gamely rose to the challenge. Merman described the refusal as one of the most heartbreaking of her career and it was a bad decision because Merman would have made what turned out be a tepid film great although Wood’s strip scenes are marvelous.
In 1963 she starred in the romantic comedy Love With the Proper Stranger with Steve McQueen and Tom Bosley where she was nominated for another Academy Award for Best Actress but lost to Patricia Neal. In the lightweight sex comedy Sex and the Single Girl 1964, Wood played Helen Gurley Brown (who authored the book of the same name) and starred opposite Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall in one of the highest grossing films that year. She appeared opposite Robert Redford in Inside Daisy Clover 1965 a film about a young singer who gets too much too soon and has a nervous breakdown and again with Redford in This Property is Condemned 1966. Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice 1969 a wonderful, quirky sex comedy directed by Paul Mazursky, starred Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon.
Wood’s film work and range of emotion left many critics unmoved and in 1966 she was awarded the Harvard Lampoon’s Award for The Worst Actress of the Year. Wood was the first performer to actually show up to receive it demonstrating she had a sense of humor about the craft of acting and herself. She also turned down lead roles in what became excellent films, Bonnie and Clyde 1967, Goodbye Columbus 1969, The Towering Inferno 1974 and The Great Gatsby 1974.
Wood was an old school movie star, willing to meet the demands made of her and looking pretty goddamned good doing it too. She dated hundreds of gorgeous men set up by the various Studios which means they pimped her out as a “beard” for some closeted gay actors but she did manage short relationships with Elvis Presley, politician Jerry Brown, actors Michael Cain, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper but it was actor Robert Wagner that she fell hopelessly in love with. They married when she turned 19 in 1957. All was not paradise and they divorced in 1962. In 1969 she married British producer Richard Gregson and spawned a daughter. They divorced in 1972 and Wood resumed her relationship with Wagner. They married a 2nd time later that year, spawning another daughter in 1973 and remained together until her death.
Natalie Wood battled personal demons in one way or another throughout her life and spent a good deal of her adult years in analysis, much like Marilyn Monroe. In fact Wood and Monroe’s lives were eerily similar. Both were sex symbols, both were married 3 times, both were tortured souls and both suffered equally mysterious, untimely deaths.
On November 29th 1981 Wood, her husband Wagner and actor Christopher Walken (Wood’s leading man in Brainstorm 1981) took off for a holiday off the coast of Santa Catalina Island on the Wagner’s yacht “Splendour”. After drinking and partying all day by the time night fell, tensions between Wagner and Walken had reached a breaking point and they got into a shouting match over Wood’s career that turned violent and the 2 had to be restrained by the ship’s captain. Wood went to bed. According to the police report, she got up in the middle of the night intent on leaving the boat and slipped into the dinghy to row ashore. She didn’t make it. Her body was found the next day floating face down wearing a thin nightgown under a red down jacket. Drowned at 43. Statements given by everyone aboard apparently satisfied the police as well as the California courts and her death was ruled “accidental”. Wagner and Walken have never spoken publically on the events of that night although Wagner did address it in his autobiography last year, “Pieces of My Heart: A Life, in which his statement was very different from the statement he originally gave police in 1981. He also said it would be the last time he would address the issue. Natalie’s sister Lana Wood thinks that due to her sisters paralyzing fear of deep, dark water it was highly unlikely that she would venture out on her own from the safety of the yacht in the middle of the night. She also claims that Wagner has never given her straight answers to point-blank questions concerning Wood’s death. Lana and the ships captain are now petitioning the California courts to re-open the case for further investigation.
UPDATE: 11.17.11 The L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept.has assigned 2 full time homicide detectives to a new investigation on the death of Natalie Wood, all due to a book written by the Splendour’s captain, Dennis Davern and Marti Rulli. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.
This radio and stage actress was a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater before embarking on a film career that would unfairly relegate her to unsympathetic supporting roles despite her classical training and powerful screen presence. Mercedes McCambridge’s bitter, unflinching and severe characterizations were not only memorable but helped shape new parameters that would define supporting players, male and female, for future generations.
Winning an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in 1949 for her first film, All the King’s Men, she was also given a Globe as Most Promising Newcomer. Her next big film was the offbeat western, Johnny Guitar 1954, where she battled on-screen and off with Joan Crawford. It was reported that in the middle of the night, Crawford in a drunken rage grabbed all of McCambridge’s costumes and threw them out of the car window along a 10 mile stretch of an Arizona highway. In Johnny Guitar, when McCambridge looks up at Crawford and says “I’m going to kill you” you believe her. She had a meaty role in Giant 1956 with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, playing Hudson’s sister Luz, a racist, controlling, unforgiving bitch that is considered by many her most definitive performance. She worked with Rock Hudson again the next year in the forgettable A Farewell to Arms. In A Touch of Evil 1958, directed by and starring her old friend Orson Welles, McCambridge played a hoodlum in an uncredited role. She had another showy role, playing a confused but well-meaning mother (daughter played by Elizabeth Taylor) who was the object of Katharine Hepburn’s unrelenting scorn in Suddenly, Last Summer 1959.
McCambridge battled alcoholism most of her adult life and it took many years for her to reach sobriety. During that time she rarely committed to film or TV work although she did Cimarron 1961 with Glenn Ford and reunited with an old friend from her Mercury theater days, Agnes Moorehead, for an episode of Bewitched late in the decade. In 1971 she was the voice of the devil in The Exorcist and ended up having to sue to get screen credit. Aside from film work, McCambridge also toured the country in stage adaptations of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Mousetrap and Madwoman of Chaillot.
McCambridge retired in 1981 and wrote The Quality of Mercy, An Autobiography. She was married and divorced twice. Her retirement was marked with tragedy in 1987 when her only son shot and killed his wife and 2 daughters then committed suicide. She died of natural causes in La Jolla, California.
Handsome, strong, highly disciplined and well-respected with a voice that could melt butter, Gregory Peck sustained a 50+ year career that linked him not only with many of Hollywood’s most gifted leading ladies, actors and directors, it provided him the opportunity to work in many films that were destined to become American classics.
Born in San Diego, Eldred Gregory Peck was sent to military school at an early age then enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley as a pre-med student. While there he developed an interest in acting and joined the drama department, appearing in 5 plays during his senior year. After earning a B.A. in English, he dropped his first name and headed to New York to study acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner taking additional classes with Martha Graham to learn dance and movement where he incurred a painful back injury that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In 1942, Peck appeared in a trio of plays that were panned by the critics but garnered favorable reviews for him which resulted in an invitation to Hollywood.
Back in California, with the country fully engaged in WW2, Peck’s back injury exempted him from military duty allowing him to actively work when most of Hollywood’s leading men were away serving in the Armed Forces.
His screen debut came in the form of a largely forgettable war picture Days of Glory 1944 but was followed up with Keys of the Kingdom the same year with Peck in the role of a missionary taking an assignment in China brought him his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor. In 1945 he was cast alongside Greer Garson in Valley of Decision, then with Ingrid Bergman in the unforgettable Hitchcock thriller Spellbound. All throughout the 40s Peck showed his acting prowess in classics such as The Yearling 46, Gentlemen’s Agreement 47 and Twelve O’Clock High 49 being honored with Oscar nominations for Best Actor in all three.
William Wyler paired Peck with Audrey Hepburn in 1953s sparkling romantic comedy Roman Holiday in which Hepburn won a Best Actress Oscar and the chemistry they shared on-screen transferred to their personal lives by remaining close friends until her death in 1993.
Due to Peck’s size and confidence as an actor he seldom used stunt doubles or stand ins and often did his own fighting. In 1961 he made the chilling Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam. During a fight scene he put Mitchum out of commission for a week with one punch. Peck, Mitchum and Balsam all appeared in the 1991 remake of the same film.
Gregory Peck, after years of rich and diverse roles in memorable films finally won a Best Actor Oscar in 1962 in what is possibly one of the finest films ever made, the screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird. In it Peck plays Atticus Finch, an Alabama lawyer in the 1930s who chooses to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Finch’s innate sense of decency, inner strength and high morality changes the lives of all those around him including his 2 motherless children. He made How the West Was Won the same year and continued making movies for the rest of the decade but his career was definitely on a slow downhill slide. In 1976 Peck played the frustrated father of the devil child Damien in The Omen with Lee Remick and followed that up in 78 with an adaptation of Ira Levins novel The Boys from Brazil with Laurence Olivier.
A lifelong Democrat and one of the leading citizens of Hollywood, Peck was active in a variety of charitable, liberal political and film industry causes. In 1965 he became a member of the National Council of the Arts, the following year he was elected chairman of the American Cancer Society. From 1967 to 69 he served as chairman of the board of trustees at the American Film Institute and from 1967 to 1970 Peck served as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He was the recipient of the Medal of Freedom and the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and was recognized for lifetime achievement by the American Film Institute by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1990 and by both the Kennedy Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1991.
Gregory Peck was married twice and produced 5 children one of whom committed suicide in1975. He died in his sleep from bronchopneumonia with his second wife Veronique at his side. His eulogy was given by Brock Peters who played Tom Robinson, the character Atticus Finch defended in To Kill a Mockingbird.
This well dressed, comedic character actor holds a special place in film history. In an industry that was and still is notoriously homophobic, Pangborn refused to hide and brought the screen its first positive images of homosexuality that blended seamlessly with the social parameters defined by films of that era.
Pangborn began his film career by doing shorts for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach appearing in one of the “Our Gang” serials. His appearance alongside W.C. Fields in International House 1933 brought him attention and was cast in Flying Down to Rio with Delores Del Rio, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers the same year. Although Pangborn’s roles were essentially the same, that of an intelligent, sophisticated, fussy, energetic character who was always employed and prone to becoming flustered, his film work was always fresh and indelible. Pangborn’s comic timing, rapid fire delivery of dialogue and priceless facial expressions made him a delight to watch.
Pangborn’s refusal to play straight resonated with audiences who were not only entertained by his antics but were being shown that homosexuals did fit into the fabric of life and could be strong, contributing members of society but it did little to erase the stigma faced by homosexuals in real life. Some film historians argue that he was the Steppin Fetchit of homosexuality, nothing more than a caricature of an entire group of people with no basis in reality while others consider him an early trail blazer.
After Flying Down to Rio, Pangborn appeared in many of Hollywood’s most prestigious films working with Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door 1937 where he cultivated lasting relationships with 2 of its stars namely Lucille Ball and Eve Arden. He worked with Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm 1938, the great and wonderful director Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels 1941 with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake and Palm Beach Story 1942 with McCrea and Caludette Colbert. He was cast alongside Bette Davis in Now Voyager 1942 and returned to work with W.C. Fields 2 more times in The Bank Dick 1940 and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break 1941.
After his film roles became scarce Pangborn went to work on TV appearing in a variety of shows most notably with Red Skelton and was the very first announcer on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show. His last film appearance was in 1957 in the much maligned The Story of Mankind that has over the years become a cult classic.
Franklin Pangborn was an original much like Thelma Ritter and Marjorie Main who was unafraid to show himself to the world. His life straddled 2 centuries and he died at the end of July 1958 following cancer surgery. Imdb.com records his last public performance on April 22, 1958 as a character on the Red Skelton Show.