Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Fred MacMurray Blogathon: The Collaborations of Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert

After the success of It Happened One Night (1934), Claudette Colbert became the biggest actress under contract to Paramount Pictures. Although the film had been made at Columbia, its popularity did not escape the attention of Paramount's executives, who decided to capitalize on Colbert's newfound fame as a comedienne. The studio promptly commissioned screenwriter Claude Binyon to create another romantic comedy for the actress. The result was The Gilded Lily (1935), the story of a stenographer who becomes a member of café society and must choose between an Englishman and a reporter.

Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert
The Gilded Lily
While the part of the Englishman was perfectly suited for Ray Milland, there was some difficulty casting the role of the reporter. Paramount initially wanted Franchot Tone, but MGM refused to loan him out. Cary Grant was then considered, but his light cockney accent made him «not American enough» to play a New York reporter. It was at this point that Wesley Ruggles, the director of The Gilded Lily, heard from his brother, actor Charlie Ruggles, of a tall, handsome young man he thought had «something». The young man was 26-year-old Fred MacMurray, who Charlie had recently worked with on Friends of Mr. Sweeney (1934). Accepting his brother's suggestion, Ruggles watched the film was agreed that Fred had «an imposing screen presence despite his rawness.»

Ruggles wanted to give Fred a chance, but The Gilded Lily was supposed to be a high-profile film, and the studio expected a bigger star to appear opposite their number-one leading lady. The director then tried to enlist the support of Colbert, who had casting approval, behind Fred. He asked her to watch a screening of Grand Old Girl (1935) and this convinced Colbert of Fred's suitability for the role. She appealed on his behalf with the Paramount front office and, after much insistence, the studio finally cast Fred. When the newcomer learned that he had been assigned to The Gilded Lily, and that Colbert had requested him as her leading man, Fred felt like «all air had been let out of me».

Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert
The Gilded Lily
The day Fred met Claudette on the set he «felt all empty and hollow inside and weak in the knees. I felt drained. My mouth was dry and I was hyperventilating. I pratically collapsed.» But she understood and immediately tried to put her inexperienced co-star at ease. The love scene was especially hard for Fred. «We had a big emotional scene,» he later recalled. «Kissing Claudette before the crew, the props and the electricians had me so embarrassed I didn't know what I was doing [...] Claudette rumpled my hair and kidded me, and finally I made it.» Fred would always credit Colbert with giving him the push and the confidence to do a credible job despite his nerves.

Depression-era audiences were delighted with The Gilded Lily, which was placed on the National Board of Review's list of the ten best films of 1935. Paramount, of course, wanted to cash in on the successful teaming with more, but they also wanted to exploit the chemistry between Fred and Claudette in the fan magazines by fostering the idea that they were a romantic item off screen as well as on. Although Claudette had recently divorced her first husband, Fred was engaged to Lillian Lamont, whom he would eventually marry in 1936. He later said that Colbert was «a little rich for my blood romantically, though as a friend and a co-worker, she was A-number one.»

Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray
The Bride Comes Home
With no chance of building a romance between them in real life, Paramount continued to pair Fred and Claudette romantically on film. Their second picture together was The Bride Comes Home (1935), again written by Binyon and directed by Ruggles. It told the story of a penniless socialite (Colbert) who finds work as an assistant to a magazine editor (MacMurray). Like its predecessor, The Bride Comes Homes was a big hit, turning Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray into one of the most profitable teams in Hollywood.

The duo was next cast in Maid of Salem (1937), their only dramatic picture together. Set during the Salem witch trials in 1692, the film was about a young woman (Colbert) sentenced to death on suspicion of witchcraft, but saved by a dashing adventurer (MacMurray), with whom she had been having an affair. Maid of Salem was a critical and commercial failure, and both stars were disappointed with the outcome. Fred, for instance, always felt that he was miscast, recalling with a laugh, «I was the Irish cavalier. I can remember one review after the picture came out that said, 'At any minute we expected Fred MacMurray to take a saxophone out from under his cape.'»

The failure of Maid of Salem made it obvious that Fred and Claudette were better suited to comedies. As such, Paramount again hired Claude Binyon to pen a vehicle for the two stars. He came up with No Time For Love (1943), the story of a magazine photographer (Colbert) assigned to take pictures of a tunnel construction site. While there, she falls in love with a cocky sandhog (MacMurray), after saving him from a fatal accident. Director Mitchell Leisen remembered the film as a «happy collaboration,» saying, «Fred and Claudette worked so wonderfully together. Many times when I was setting up the next scene, they'd go off in a corner and work it up themselves. They'd show me how they wanted to do it and it would be just right [...] they were talented natural performers and I wanted them to do it in a way that was comfortable for them.» No Time For Love was a great success among fans and critics alike, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction/Interior Decoration (Black-and-White).

Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert in a
publicity still for 
Pratically Yours
The fifth Colbert-MacMurray collaboration was Practically Yours (1944), which reunited them with Leisen. Fred played a Navy pilot who is presumed dead after crashing his plane into a Japanese carrier. The footage of the crash and his «final» reminiscence of walking in Central Park with «Piggy» and «kissing her on the nose» are sent back home and he becomes a national hero. Due to a typographical error, everybody thinks that «Piggy» was «Peggy» (Colbert), a girl who worked in his office, when in fact «Piggy» was his dog.

Neither Fred nor Claudette thought that they were right for their parts in Practically Yours. One day during the making of the film, he took her aside and complained, «Claudette, the trouble with his picture is that we're both goddamn old for it!» He was right; their characters should have been in their twenties when in fact Claudette was forty-one and Fred was thirty-six. They were both ready to make the transition to more mature roles.

Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert
The Egg and I
Fred and Claudette followed Pratically Yours with The Egg and I (1947), based on the eponymous bestselling memoir by Betty MacDonald. They played a married couple who decide to leave the city and move to the country to become chicken farmers. Of course, they have the inevitable problems of adjusting to country life and fitting in. «Claudette and I worked darn hard,» Fred would later recall. «It wasn't easy for her getting all dirtied up, sliding off roofs and what not, but she was a wonderful sport, as always.» Co-starring Marjorie Main, The Egg and I was a massive critical and financial success, becoming one of the biggest moneymakers of 1947 and one of biggest box office hits of Fred and Claudette's careers.

Their seventh and final picture together was Family Honeymoon (1949), directed by their old friend, Claude Binyon. Colbert played a widow with three children who falls in love with a botany professor (MacMurray). They get married, but find it hard to consummate their wedding vows when her children end up accompanying them on their honeymoon. Family Honeymoon opened to a lukewarm reception, which the two stars saw as an acknowledgement that perhaps the Colbert-MacMurray teaming had become outdated as Hollywood prepared to enter a new age.

Fred and Claudette had a lovely time making Family Honeymoon, but indeed they realized that their teaming was running out of gas. «We had been getting together fourteen years,» Fred said, «and by 1949 Claudette knew as well as I did that things run their good and proper course and then they are simply over. We had a long run, and a rewarding one, and there are no complaints to offer in retrospect.» Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert would never work together again, but he always regarded her as a friend and essential to his career as an actor. «I'll never forget how kind Claudette was,» he recalled many years later. «She was so positive, so kind-hearted, and so unselfish with other players [...] Her work with me in The Gilded Lily set the pace for my future work [...].»

This post is my contribution to The Fred MacMurray Blogathon, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. To view all entries to the blogathon, click HERE.

Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty by Bernard K. Dick (University Press of Mississippi, 2008)
Fred MacMurray: A Biography by Charles Tranberg (BearManor Media, 2014)

Saturday, 25 August 2018

The Second Van Johnson Blogathon: The Partnership of Van Johnson & June Allyson

In 1940, an aspiring young actor named Van Johnson was hired by director-playwright George Abbott as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in the successful Broadway musical Pal Joey. Next door to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where Pal Joey was playing, Ethel Merman was starring in the Cole Porter hit Panama Hattie. In the cast of the neighboring show was another young hopeful, June Allyson, who was understudying Betty Hutton in the Porter musical. One day, Van happened to meet June at the apartment of a mutual friend and, by all accounts, the two quickly became «soulmates».

Van Johnson and June Havoc in Pal Joey
Van and June were both avid movie fans and they both had dreams of someday becoming actors. Whereas Van idolized Spencer Tracy — with whom he would later co-star in the hits A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) — June thought Margaret Sullavan was the screen's greatest actress and tried to emulate her. Sometimes in private the two young aspirants would act out scenes they had seen. Then they would critique each other's performances and try the scene again. «We kidded and talked about what we would do when we were motion picture celebrities,» June recalled, «how perhaps we'd even play in a picture together.»

Before being cast in Pal Joey, Van had already experienced Hollywood life. He had been hired by RKO to reprise his role as a chorus boy in the film adaptation of George Marion Jr.'s Broadway musical Too Many Girls. Directed by George Abbott, the film starred Lucille Ball, who became Van's lifelong friend. Back in New York, an enthusiastic Van told June about the time he had spent in Hollywood making Too Many Girls (1940), but confessed that he worried he did not photograph well. «I reminded him that not all actors looked like Robert Taylor,» June said.

After his stint in Too Many Girls, Van was signed to a six-month contract by Warner Bros. and cast in the crime drama Murder in the Big House (1942). Although he received some good notices for his performance as a cub reporter, the film was widely dismissed by critics. Van soon learned that his contract would not be renewed, which led him to believe that he was «finished» in Hollywood. Just as he was about to move back to New York for good, however, he was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In less than a year, Van became one of the most popular young actors in America, playing important roles in such films as The Human Comedy (1943) and the aforementioned A Guy Named Joe.

Gloria De Haven, Van Johnson and June
Allyson in Two Girls and a Sailor
With Van rapidly becoming the nation's sweetheart, MGM executives decided to cast him in the musical Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) opposite their newest acquistion, June Allyson. The 27-year-old had arrived in Hollywood the previous year and put under contract at the urging of Metro's musical supervisor, Arthur Freed. Given small roles in Best Foot Forward (1943) and Thousands Cheer (1943), June was presented as an «overnight sensation,» with the studio attempting to portray her as an ingenue.

Directed by Richard Thorpe, Two Girls and a Sailor tells the story of two singing sisters (June Allyson and Gloria De Haven) who are helped by a anonymous wealthy admirer (Van Johnson) to open a canteen to entertain members of the armed forces. It featured a host of celebrity performers, including band leaders Harry James and Xavier Cugat, pianist José Iturbi, singers Lena Horne and Helen Forrest, and comedians Jimmy Durante and Gracie Allen. Designed as «pure escapism», Two Girls and a Sailor proved a great success among wartime audiences, turning Van Johnson and June Allyson into the quintessential boy and girl-next-door.

Given the success of their screen pairing, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer decided that Van and June should date and even tried to stir up an offscreen romance between them. But there was a reason behind Mayer's sudden interest in Van's love life. At the time, rumors about the actor's homosexuality were circulating around Hollywood, which Mayer found worrying. As with many people of his era, the MGM boss believed that homosexuality was psychological aberration that could be successfully treated, especially by a «good woman.» As such, he ordered every available, beautiful woman on the lot (June included) thrown at Van in an effort to establish his «heterosexual bona fides.» Van did take June to a series of premieres and official studio functions, but no romance ever developed between them.

Van Johnson and June Allyson in High Barbaree
Following separate appearances in the star-studded musical Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Van and June were cast in High Barbaree (1947), based on the eponymous novel by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall. In the picture, Van plays a U.S. Navy pilot lying adrift somewhere in the South Pacific after being shot down by the Japanese. June, of course, is his childhood sweetheart, now a Navy nurse serving aboard a ship in the Pacific Theater.

The initial script of High Barbaree retained the novel's original ending, in which the two lovers die in a Romeo and Juliet-like conclusion. However, after a preview screening audience reacted negatively to seeing Van's character in heaven, a new ending was shot, showing both lovers surviving and being happily reunited. Unlike its predecessor, High Barbaree was not a success, with critics lamenting its contrived storyline and sentimental clichés.

After High Barbaree, Van and June were paired in The Bride Goes Wild (1948), helmed by veteran director Norman Taurog. Van stars as a beloved children's author who actually dislikes kids, while June plays a «prim and proper» illustrator who ends up falling in love with him. The two friends had great fun making this picture. Apparently, they clowned around so much on the set that Taurog once had to call off filming for the day. The Bride Goes Wild was a great hit, although some reviewers objected to the film's heavy-handed slapstick, reminiscent of the farcical Mack Sennett.

Van Johnson and June Allyson in
Too Young to Kiss
Van and June's next project was Too Young to Kiss (1951), written by the Academy Award-nominated duo Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. In her first movie since the birth of her son, Richard Powell Jr., June starred as a stuggling concert pianist who disguises herself as a thirteen-year-old, in order to get an audition with a prodigy-minded impresario, played by Van (in a role originally intended for Robert Taylor). Too Young to Kiss was a solid success upon release, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction. For her performance in the film, June received a Golden Globe for Best Actress  Motion Picture Comedy or Musical.

Hoping to recoupe the financial losses of his message films, Dore Schary, the new head of production at MGM, cast Van and June in their sixth movie together, the crime musical comedy Remains to Be Seen (1953). Based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, it told the story of a singer (Allyson) and her apartment manager (Johnson) as they get mixed up in a creepy Park Avenue murder. Remains to Be Seen was a critical and commercial failure and marked the end of Van and June's big screen partnership.

The two old friends did reunite on the small screen on three different occasions. In 1968, they appeared in a episode of NBC's The Name of the Game (1968-1971), titled «High on a Rainbow». Ten years later, they were featured as a married couple in a segment of ABC's hit comedy The Love Boat (1977-1986) called «On Her Own Two Feet». Finally, Van and June guest starred in an episode of CBS's Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), starring Angela Lanbsury, who had appeared in Remains to Be Seen. Van played an eccentric inventor embroiled in the murder of his former employer, while June played his former co-worker, for whom he feels a great deal of affection. Although this was the final joint appearance of «America's sweethearts» on screen, they remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

June Allyson and Van Johnson in Remains to Be Seen

This post is my contribution to The Second Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letter to Old Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Una Merkel: The Actress with Sassy Wit and Southern Charm by Larry Sean Kinder (BearManor Media, 2016)
Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
High Barbaree at the American Film Institute Catalog

Monday, 13 August 2018

Summer in Old Hollywood

Ginger Rogers sunbathing in 1936 (Side note: I LOVE her shoes!)

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart with their son, Steven (early 1950s)

Ava Gardner in Phillip Island, Australia during the making of On the Beach (1959)

Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum in Trinidad and Tobago during the filming of Fire Down Below (1957)

Natalie Wood and Steve Rowland at the Thalians Beach Ball in Malibu, California (July 1956)

Henry Fonda at the Atlantic Beach Club (1936)

Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks at Catalina Beach in 1929

Diane Ellis and Carole Lombard at the beach in 1929

Rock Hudson at the pool (1950s)

Audrey Hepburn in Monaco during the making of Monte Carlo Baby (1951)

Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan in their pool (1940)

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant poolside at their Santa Monica beach house (1935)

I hope you are having an amazing summer!