Category Archives: Film

Behind the Screen

Film has become an integral part of American life.brianton_cover
Though the face of the film industry continues to change, it is undeniable that films and television continue to impact lives and culture. With the approach of the 69th Annual DGA awards, it is a time to celebrate some of the best among this year’s productions and, more importantly, the directors behind them. This year’s list of directors includes many first-time nominees, making it clear that the stage has been set for the recognition of new talent.

In addition to celebrating directorial achievements, the DGA (Directors Guild of America) helps to protect the rights of directors and to promote diversity within the film industry. However, in the earlier days of Hollywood, the film industry wasn’t always so welcoming.

One of the most famous (or, more appropriately, infamous) incidents in American film history is the Hollywood blacklist. In this time of directing giants, the looming reality of the Cold War led to an era of paranoia and tension within the film industry as actors and directors alike faced accusations about their connections to communism and communist sympathies. Countless actors and directors lost their careers due to the blacklist, but within the American tradition, there is one incident that stands out among the rest: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting.

In Hollywood Divided: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist, Kevin Brianton dives into the facts and myths surrounding that famous meeting which would go on to obtain something of a mythic status in the American memory. A large part of its fame, unfortunately, comes from the misinformation surrounding it, but how exactly did this information come to be? And what is the truth of this historical moment which would prove to have a lasting impact on the film industry? Part of this uncertainty can be attributed to ways in which time often obscures memory, but it might also be connected to Mankiewicz’s directing career, which was beginning to decline. As Brianton mentions in his book, in reference to a speech that Mankiewicz gave recounting the events of the SDG meeting, “When Mankiewicz had finished, the Master of Ceremonies, Carl Reiner, joked that Mankiewicz’s speech had the same problem as Cleopatra–it went on for too long. Makiewicz would be sure to enliven his future accounts of the meeting.”

In the following excerpt, Brianton draws on SDG minute records to provide an inside look at one of the many tense (and true) moments of the 1950 meeting:

Daves began, “I did not sign the petition. I wish I had. I am a Republican too, Mr DeMille … I resent beyond belief the things that you said as you summarized the twenty-five men.” Daves said he agreed with Wellman about the basic unfairness of the campaign. When he had received a phone call about recalling Mankiewicz, he told the caller he wanted to hear Mankiewicz’s side of the story. Looking up at the board members sitting on the dais, Daves said,

“All of us here look before us and see seated at this Board of Directors table dear friends, and the men who signed this telegram are some of my very dearest friends in this town. Mabel [Walker Willebrandt] is a very dear friend of mine. I can go right down the list … their kids play with my kids. We are as close as people can be, and I love a lot of people sitting at the table. This has nothing to do with personal acrimony at all, nor toward the men who signed the recall. It merely has to do with the faction and the attack that was made … [in] what I consider a completely undemocratic manner, and one which was so secretive by nature that I was shocked.” Daves said, “The next thing I knew I received a ballot, and it said, ‘This is a ballot to recall Joe Mankiewicz. Sign here – yes.’ There was nothing more. It was not yes and no. I was more deeply shocked.”

Perhaps drawing on his distant legal training at Standford, where he graduated as a lawyer but never had the opportunity to use the degree, Daves then presented damning evidence against DeMille. He said the recall committee deliberately misled the membership by pretending to be acting on behalf of the entire SDG board rather than a committee attempting to recall Mankiewicz. He said, “[Mankiewicz] is not a personal friend of mine. I am fighting for him here, because I feel our rights and our freedom have been violently hit by what has happened.” He discussed the telegram that appeared to be mailed from the board of directors in support of the recall: “It said twelve times, ‘The Board of Directors this,’ and ‘The Board of Directors that.’” Daves called the exercise “an abuse of privilege.”


  Before the storm, Cecil B. DeMille, Gloria Swanson, and Billy Wilder enjoyed working together on Sunset Boulevard (1950), which was released just before the October 22 SDG meeting. Wilder would become a strident opponent of DeMille over his treatment of Mankiewicz. (Photofest)

Mankiewicz was passed a note saying that some directors were leaving the room to provide updates to the journalists milling around outside the room. Mankiewicz was furious: “Now, good God, gentlemen, can’t we act like adult men? When you go home … tomorrow, remember that America is created on the system of sitting around an old stove in the grocery store and talking things over, and then going in a booth and voting the way you feel. Now we are here to talk. Let’s talk and let’s mind our own business.” Mankiewicz then called on another one of the anti-recall signatories H. C. Potter to speak. Henry Codman Potter was known for films such as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Second Chorus (1940) and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). He had studied drama at Yale University, before carving out his career in the cinema. Describing himself as an SDG member older than Mr DeMille and also “an American, as good as Mr DeMille,” Potter demanded an inquiry into the “shameful thing of the recall.” It was another short speech, but it was the first such demand for an investigation of the recall faction, which would grow louder as the meeting progressed.

Photographer To The Stars


Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Photo by Gianni Bozzacchi, author of My Life in Focus.

Once again we find ourselves in the heart of awards season, and while much attention is given to the flood of images coming from the red carpet, little thought is given to the men and women who dedicate themselves to capturing the glitz and glamor of Hollywood’s budding starlets and leading men.

In My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, Gianni Bozzacchi gives his firsthand account of life gazing at some of Hollywood’s biggest stars through the lens of a camera. This honest and lively memoir also reveals private moments in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor—to whom Bozzacchi was personal photographer, friend, and confidant—and features dozens of photographs capturing unguarded moments between the two.9780813168746

Bozzacchi gives a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, with all of its seductive charms and quirks. He tells of racing sports cars with Steve McQueen on the set of Le Mans, of fielding marriage proposals from Coco Chanel, and of photographing a shy young actor by the name of Al Pacino. His unique ability to put his subjects at ease, and his commitment to photographing celebrities as individuals allowed Bozzacchi to capture stunning images of some of the biggest stars of the twentieth century, including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, and the royal family of Monaco.

In the the following excerpt from My Life in Focus, Bozzacchi discusses the artistry behind one of his most iconic images, which he shot with the intention to dispel rumors that Elizabeth Taylor was losing her famously beautiful looks:

Of all the photos I’d taken, how many revealed the artist in me? I was always photographing for reasons dictated to me by others. The artist always came last, if he even came into the picture at all. Above all, you had to satisfy the objectives of the photo shoot—whether it was publicity, a poster, or a piece of clothing that needed selling. Generally, the subject was a star or someone important. Then there was the context. Was it for a magazine? Or a poster? In which case, the subject had to be to one side of the  image, because there’d be words on the other. As the photographer, you came last. If you did manage to infuse a little artistry into the photo, great. But my experience had taught me that nourishing such hopes was invariably in conflict with the aim of the image.

A true artist is free to express him- or herself completely, with no conflicts or compromises. Many of my photos were not like that. I enjoyed more freedom than a set photographer, but I had limits all the same. On set, for example, I couldn’t control the lights because that was up to the director of photography. My only choice was what angle I chose to shoot from. The clothes were chosen by the director in collaboration with the costume designer. The makeup artist decided the hairstyle and makeup of whatever star I was photographing. Sure, there were a few occasions when I was able to make my own decisions and express myself. But most of the time, I had to repress myself.

But there was one shot that really did express the artist in me. I was still burned up by the fact that someone had destroyed Elizabeth’s image. As her personal photographer, it was up to me to fix the damage. The idea that Elizabeth had suddenly become fat and ugly was absurd. Just look at that photo of her running out of her dressing room […] No one could say I’d touched anything up. That photo was as true as it gets. And technically, it was almost impossible. Just before taking it, I’d seen Elizabeth go from the set to her dressing room. Once the set floodlights had been switched off, the light was very different, very soft, beautiful. I liked the way it bathed Elizabeth’s figure and wanted to be able to photograph her in that light before they put the floods back on. Using a flash was out of the question because it can destroy any atmosphere. I measured the relative aperture. The stop was on 2, so the focus would be very tight. The speed was one-fifteenth of a second, which, technically, means it should be impossible to freeze a subject in motion. But I was convinced I could pull it off.


Bozzacchi’s iconic photo, signed by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth came out of the dressing room running, which made everything even harder. With no time to plan, I shot without thinking. As she ran toward me, I dropped to my knees and leaned backward at the same speed that she was advancing, snapping off three shots. My movement compensated hers, creating a sense of immobility, even though Elizabeth was actually still running. There was no pose, no tricks, and the way her top wrapped around her body highlighted how well proportioned she was. And how beautiful.

Many great photographers have photographed Elizabeth during her career. Why, then, does talk always turn back to me? Why not Richard Avedon or Lord Snowdon? Maybe because I never photographed only the woman, the wife, the actress or star—I also managed to photograph her as a fully authentic individual. I brought her to life. I never immortalized an immobile and inexpressive star. And I never lurked in the bushes with a zoom lens like Galella. A photographer has to be in touch with his feelings, which I believe is what made the difference between that photo and all the others. Richard [Burton] liked it so much that he wrote a prose poem to go with it:

She is like the tide, she comes and she goes, she runs to me as in this stupendous photographic image. In my poor and tormented youth, I had always dreamed of this woman. And now, when this dream occasionally returns, I extend my arm, and she is here . . . by my side. If you have not met or known her, you have lost much in life.


5 Forgotten Films of Joseph E. Levine

Levine (center), pictured with his wife Rosalie and Howard Koch of Paramount

From the middle of January to the end of February, Hollywood finds itself in the midst of Oscar season, a time when the recent achievements of various actors, directors, and many others involved in the film business are celebrated widely. It is also be a time when the history of Hollywood is remembered for all its many characters. One such character was Joseph E. Levine, one of the most prolific producers of the middle twentieth century.

UKY05 Showman of the Screen Selected.inddBorn into the slums of Boston’s West End, Levine became a true American success story. His showmanship, boundless energy, and a fondness for both risk-taking and profanity made him one of the most recognizable personalities in show business. But despite being—by his own dubious accounting—involved in nearly five hundred films over the course of his life, Levine is barely remembered today. Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Production, a new biography by award-winning film writer A. T. McKenna, reveals the streetwise hustler, hawker, name-dropper and capricious and contradictory promoter who excited audiences and forever changed modern movie marketing. While he worked on films as notable as The Graduate (1967) and as notorious as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), he also produced many films that are now mostly forgotten. Presented here are just five, but there are many more.

The Oscar: Hollywood has always loved a story about itself (as recent critical favorite La La Land demonstrates) but rare is the film in which the Academy Awards themselves constitute a plot point. The Oscar (1966) goes against that trend to present the story of Frankie Fane, a self-absorbed actor who attempts to secure a Best Actor win after an unexpected nomination. Although it was, in fact, nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design), it was also labeled as one of the worst films of the year and ensured that Tony Bennett (who saw his film debut in it) would never play a dramatic role again.

Mad Monster Party?: The Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town) have been a staple of American culture since their debut in the 1960s, but did you know that they also (in conjunction with Levine) released a monster mash theatrical film? In the traditional stop-motion style of their best known features, Mad Monster Party? sees Baron Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff, in his last work in the Frankenstein mythos) summon the monsters of the world (among them Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon) to his castle to inform them of his discovery of the secret of total destruction. Shenanigans ensue, in typical Rankin/Bass fashion, and the film has since attained a cult status.

The Day of the Dolphin: In this 1973 film, George C. Scott plays a scientist who trains dolphins to speak English. After two of his dolphins are stolen, he learns of a plot to use them to assassinate the President of the United States by placing a mine on the hull of the President’s yacht, and must race against time to stop it. Although the film was met with critical ambivalence and weak box office returns, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Sound.

Magic: Many remember The Princess Bride, but few know that its writer William Goldman also wrote Magic, a 1978 film in which Anthony Hopkins played a failed magician who turns to ventriloquism but soon finds himself killing friends and enemies at the will of his dummy. Originally, Gene Wilder was chosen to play the lead, but Levine refused on the grounds that he was making a serious movie, and the appearance of a comedian in the lead role would detract from that. Although widely praised on its release, the film has since passed into relative obscurity.

Tattoo:  The last film ever produced by Levine, Tattoo (1981) told the story of a disturbed tattoo artist (Bruce Dern) who becomes obsessed with a model and kidnaps her with the intent of making her into a canvas for his art. Although its promotional materials (which featured a woman’s legs covered in tattoos and bound by cloth) were met with uproar by some, the film failed to make any dent in the critical or commercial landscape.

More film stories as well as many anecdotes about Levine’s life (including details about his feuds with George C. Scott and Peter O’Toole, among others) can be found in Showman of The Screen by A.T. McKenna.


Spartacus - 1960

Happy 100th Birthday to Kirk Douglas!

One of the original leading men, Kirk Douglas came along in the final days of the major studio system, and he was one of the first box office stars to take charge of his own destiny by  becoming involved in the production and marketing of the films in which he appeared.

He was a vital force in such classics as Out of the Past (1947), Champion (1949), Detective Story (1951), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Lust for Life (1956). He formed his own company, Bryna, and made such major films as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964).

Along the way, he distinguished himself in a number of westerns, including The Big Sky (1952), Man without a Star (1955), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and The War Wagon (1967), while also tackling several action roles in historical period pictures like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Ulysses (1955), and The Vikings (1958).

conversations_with_classic_film_stars_coverRenowned for his support of liberal causes, Douglas is often credited with helping break down the dreaded Hollywood anti-Communist “blacklist” by hiring blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (who also celebrates a birthday today!) to write the screenplay for Spartacus.
In a conversation with Douglas in conjunction with Draw!, a 1984 HBO TV western, Ronald Miller asked the iconic actor about his work with other leading actors and actresses, antiheroes, and working within the studio system. You can find a full transcript of their conversation in Conversations with Classic Film Stars—a perfect gift for the film buff this holiday season.

In the excerpt below, Miller and Douglas discuss the unique art of filmmaking, and its pitfalls, as well as Douglas’s involvement in the Oscar-winning, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Excerpted from Conversations with Classic Film Stars:

Miller: You’ve worked with every kind of movie director and you don’t have a reputation for getting into disputes with them, but you are known for demanding a collaborative atmosphere on the set. Explain that.

Douglas: I’ve worked with [Joseph] Mankiewicz, [Howard] Hawks, [Elia] Kazan, [William] Wyler, [Billy] Wilder. I’ve been very fortunate. All of them work differently. I’ve even directed a couple of pictures, so I have respect for the work. But no matter what anyone says, it’s a collaborative art form. No matter how much one person is a binding force, it’s still a collaboration.

I think the problem today is that we’ve been contaminated by the European concept of the auteur system. I’ve had movies where I bought the book, developed the script, and cast the whole picture, but then the director walks in and says, “It must be a John Smith film!” I think sometimes we emphasize that too much.

Miller: Though you’ve avoided big hassles with your directors, you’ve had a few disputes with studio managements, haven’t you?

Douglas: Let me give you an example of that: Lonely Are the Brave. You need the proper selling of a picture like that. I thought Universal just threw it away. They didn’t give it a chance. They took it out of circulation. Then there were all those great reviews and people said, “Where’s the picture?” Their ego prevented them from making a different campaign for the picture. The longer I’m in this business, the more amazed I am that a movie can be made, good or bad.

Miller: You’ve taken lots of chances in your career, but I imagine one of your greatest frustrations was not being able to play McMurphy on the big screen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after acquiring the rights to the book from Ken Kesey and playing the part on the stage in New York.

douglas-kirk_03Douglas: It was way ahead of its time. When I took it to Broadway, the critics didn’t know what to make of it. The audience loved it, but it didn’t do very well. I tried for nearly twelve years to make it as a movie. I took it to every studio. But they wouldn’t do it, even with a limited budget. Finally, I went into partnership with my son, Michael, and we were able to find somebody outside of the industry to put up the money and we made a little picture that I never predicted would be a hit. So it did over $200 million! Nobody knows what will really be successful.

Miller: What do you think of Michael as a producer?

Douglas: I told him, “Michael, you’re the kind of producer I’d like to work with because you give everything to the other person even when you’re in the movie.” He did that in Romancing the Stone [1984]. He focused all the attention on the girl [Kathleen Turner]. I haven’t been that generous. I’ve been a producer, but I find a product like Spartacus or The Vikings or Seven Days in May or Paths of Glory and somehow there always seems to be a good part for me.


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Happy Birthday, Uncle Fester!


Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, 1966. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Arguably one of the greatest and most memorable of the silent movie child stars, Jackie Coogan (October 26, 1914 – March 1, 1984) had a life that could rival any Hollywood movie. As a child, he was already performing on stage when discovered by Charlie Chaplin at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Chaplin noticed the kid was a natural born mimic and cast him — at age five — in a small part in A Day’s Pleasure (1919). The boy glowed on camera, so Chaplin put him into his 1921 feature film The Kid and Jackie became an overnight sensation in one of Chaplin’s biggest hits.

Coogan became the first child star to get the full product marketing treatment. Dolls, figurines, whistles, recordings and even a brand of peanut butter bore his image, usually wearing a large cap and a sad-eyed expression. The marketing boom for Shirley Temple a decade later was modeled on the Coogan experience.

He also revolutionized legal treatment of the earnings of child stars. After Coogan discovered his mother and stepfather had usurped most of his earnings — an estimated $4 million, worth about $50 million in today‘s dollars — the then 24-year-old Coogan successfully sued them. The court case led to passage of the California Child Actors Bill, now commonly known as “the Coogan act,” which requires that a child actor’s employer must set aside 15 percent of his or her earnings in a trust account, and also set standards for work hour limitations and schooling for child actors.

Once he grew out of the juvenile phase of his career, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, Coogan resumed his acting career, this time mostly in the new world of television. He appeared in a number of other TV roles, but is best remembered by baby boomers as Uncle Fester, the ghoulishly funny character in ABC’s The Addams Family from 1964-66. He appeared in many small roles in movies, including Elvis Presley’s Girl Happy (1965) and John Wayne’s Cahill, U.S. Marshal (1973). His final screen appearance in a movie was in 1984’s The Prey.

In honor of the star’s birthday,  we’re sharing an excerpt from Ron Miller’s interview from the release Conversations with Classic Film Stars:

Setting the Scene


Jackie Coogan with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921). Courtesy of Thames Television.

My chat with Jackie Coogan took place in April of 1968 while he was playing the role of Boss Finley in a production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth in the round at Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, CA. I joined him in his dressing room and we talked between his turns on stage with co-star Shelley Winters. Our time was limited because he was doing his own makeup, which he did quietly and expertly while we talked,.


Coogan was then a little heavy, had a receding hairline and was dressed in a bathrobe over a pair of polka dot shorts. He had a good many furrows and creases, but his face still retained the look of that sad-eyed little boy adopted by Chaplin’s Little Tramp in The Kid. He was warm and friendly and often seemed to speak of the famous movie child as if he had been someone else that he just happened to know.

In the middle of our chat, Shelley Winters came into his dressing room, heavily made up for her role as a dissipated former movie star, and remarked to me, “So, you’re interviewing him? Well, that’s good. He’s a hell  of an actor!”

Coming from the two-time Academy Award winning actress, I thought it was a pretty good testament to Coogan’s enduring star quality.

The Interview

MILLER: The author Irvin S. Cobb once described you as “the blithest spirit that ever gave unending joy to countless millions.”  How did it feel to be adored by “countless millions”?

COOGAN: (Chuckling) Maybe that’s why Lloyds of London insured me for $250,000 whenever I went on a trip. Stars were different then. There was no television, no radio. When a star showed up, the people turned out to see him — by the thousands.

MILLER: When you became a star, movies were silent, so there was no language barrier and people all over the world could see and appreciate what you did on screen. As a little boy, did you realize you were world famous?

COOGAN: When I was around nine, I was taken on a trip to Europe. It wasn’t like a normal kid’s trip to Europe. I met heads of state. I was “received” by royalty. I exchanged photos with Benito Mussolini. I kissed the Pope’s ring. Everywhere I went, I was mobbed by fans. I can remember being in a car in Paris when the mob nearly killed me. They picked up the whole car with us in it and paraded us down the street on their shoulders.

MILLER: What about back home in America? Could you go out and do things in public that a regular kid could do?

COOGAN: Once I made the mistake of going shopping with my mother. People recognized me and right away there was a huge group of people all over us. We finally had to be rescued by the police.

MILLER: How did this all begin? How young were you when you made your show business debut?


Jackie Coogan (second from left) as Uncle Fester in the 1977 TV special Halloween with The Addams Family. Also shown: Carolyn Jones (left) as Morticia, Ted Cassidy (third from left) as Lurch, and John Astin as Gomez. Courtesy of NBC.

COOGAN: My parents were in show business and I made my movie debut at 18 months of age in an unbilled part in a picture called Skinner’s Baby. I was still an infant. My dad (John Henry “Jack” Coogan) was a dancer and I’d gone on stage with him many times.

MILLER: The legend is that you were dancing The Shimmy on stage at the Orpheum in L.A. when Charlie Chaplin, who was in the audience, saw you and thought he detected a special appeal in you. In fact, in his autobiography, Chaplin said your mugging to the audience might have been obnoxious in another child, but that you were “charming and the audience thoroughly enjoyed it.”  I guess that was your lucky day because his decision to build The Kid around you made you a star overnight. How do you remember him?

COOGAN: Chaplin was very nice to me. He would just sit down with me and say what he wanted me to do and I’d do it. If Chaplin didn’t feel right about filming, he just wouldn’t film and I’d go play ball.

MILLER: After The Kid, you did a lot of famous juvenile parts in films like Peck’s Bad Boy and Oliver Twist, but you also did a lot of popular pictures that are forgotten today.

COOGAN: They made some crazy stuff. When I got my first haircut, it made headlines –and MGM made a movie about it — Johnny Get Your Hair Cut (1927).

MILLER: When the talkies arrived, you were older, but were still appearing in some classic kid stories, like Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931). Then the roles stopped coming so regularly. How did you feel when you realized you weren’t as “hot” as you’d been as a little boy?

COOGAN: There was nothing to be sorry about. I had as complete a life as any boy could have had. I was never bitter about it.

MILLER: I know you had a terrible ordeal in 1935 with the auto crash.


COOGAN: My father, my best friend and two of my dad’s friends were returning from a dove hunt in Mexico when our car was forced over a cliff by another car near San Diego. I was the only survivor.

MILLER: As if that weren’t enough, you then turned 21 and learned that your mother and her new husband had used up almost all the money you had made in the movies.

COOGAN: They even cut off my $6.25 a week allowance. I sued and finally collected what was left. It gave me a serious distrust of “jurisprudence and politics.”

Conversations_With_Classic_Film_Stars_CoverMILLER: How are things for you today?

COOGAN: I have four children from my four marriages and a horde of good memories. I’m financially stable and my wife and I live permanently in Palm Springs. I’ve got damned little hair left, but I’ve been letting what’s left of it grow out for this role. I’ve put on some weight, so some people might mistake me for an out of work Sumo wrestler.

MILLER: I think you’re well-regarded as a very good character actor these days.

COOGAN: I’m probably only known by people old enough to remember The Kid or all those kids who watched The Addams Family. That’s all right. I’m happy doing these character parts. I won’t say I can do anything that comes my way, but I could never quit this business. When I lay off, I get way too jumpy.


Jackie Coogan was married four times — first to Betty Grable (1937-39) before she became a major star. His fourth marriage — to Dorothea “Dodie” Hanson — was the lasting one, from 1953 until Coogan’s death from a heart attack in 1984. The greatest child star of the silent era is honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame on Vine Street near Hollywood Boulevard.

Martha Raye: A Big Talent with a Big Mouth


Martha Raye publicity photo, early 1940s. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Loud, brash and bawdy, multi-talented performer Martha Raye (1916-1994) was known as one of the world’s best comediennes. She sang, danced, and joked her way into the spotlight of the entertainment world with a career that spanned seven decades and encompassed everything from vaudeville to television commercials to entertaining U.S. troops.

Her career began when she joined the family act at age three on the tough vaudeville circuit. Determined to have a better life, she taught herself to sing and dance, mimicking the voice of Ethel Merman. Raye got her big break when she caught the attention of a film director as she kidded with audience members Joe E. Lewis and Jimmy Durante during an engagement at the Trocadero in Hollywood.

In the late 1930s, Raye appeared in a number of films, and the press heralded her as a “stridently funny comedienne with a Mammoth Cave mouth.” From there her career soared. She landed a role in Charlie Chaplain’s film Monsieur Verdoux, and the New York Post commented that Raye was the only one who could hold her own with the comic master. By the 1950s she hosted her own highly rated television show, reaching millions with her clowning.

Behind the huge smile and raucous laugh, though, there was a darker side to Martha Raye. She found solace from her insecurities and a frenzied schedule in the use of drugs and alcohol. Her seven rocky marriages, the last to a man 33 years her junior whom she had known less than two weeks, fueled headlines and gossip columns. Particularly painful was her turbulent relationship with her only daughter, Melodye.

Despite her personal instability, Raye’s enduring love affair with the American military never wavered. She was passionately committed to entertaining troops abroad during World War II, and she worked tirelessly as both entertainer and nurse in the remote jungles of Vietnam. Bob Hope commented that “she was Florence Nightingale, Dear Abby, and the only singer who could be heard over the artillery fire.” The Green Berets designated her an honorary lieutenant colonel, and she later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After her death in 1994, “Colonel Maggie” became the only civilian laid to rest among the Green Berets at the Fort Bragg military cemetery.

In honor of the talented artist, who passed away 22 years ago today, here’s an excerpt from Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye, the first full-fledged biography that explores Raye’s life and career with candor and insight:

martha-raye-coverThe hourlong Martha Raye Show debuted on December 26, 1953, under Nat Hiken’s direction with Norman Lear as writer. Herb Ross choreographed for Martha as well as for the Martha Raye Dancers. Rocky Graziano returned as a regular. Actress Irene Dunne appeared on the show, as did singer Perry Como, comedic duo Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and Maggie’s old friend from vaudeville days, Donald O’Connor. The guest list was studded with names that attracted viewers who were amused by Maggie’s rollicking humor and boisterous energy.

With her gorgeous legs and thighs molded in the fishnet stockings that had become a kind of trademark for her, Maggie pranced tirelessly around the set. Torch songs, rhythm numbers, blues — Maggie did them all with equal skill. “That Old Black Magic” and “Blues in the Night” were favorites of her fans. She continued to close each show with a fervent thank-you to the nuns who staffed St. Francis Hospital at the time of her recent collapse. “Good night, Sisters.”

Never had Nick been more accurate than when he had predicted, five years previously, that television would be the medium in which Maggie was destined for success.

[. . .]

Although Maggie and Nick had fought violently for nine years, Maggie confided to acquaintances that since their divorce they got along beautifully. What she did not confide was that if Nick displayed any affection for their daughter, complimented her appearance, or praised her for her grades, Maggie flew into a rage. Nick invariably retreated in the face of what seemed to him to be such unjustified anger. He did not grasp the reason for this jealousy. But it was clear that his praise for the excellence of his daughter’s schoolwork touched a nerve because Maggie had never attended school. She felt inferior to her mother, because of Peggy’s superior knowledge, and now could not bear that her only child — as much as she loved the girl -– would also grow up to be superior to her. “There’s only one star in this family, and that’s me,” she frequently would declare to her daughter, and even to Nick, who knew her so well, as a scarcely veiled reminder that his support was entirely dependent upon her talent.