Category Archives: Summer Under the Stars

Weird and Wonderful Tales from the Editorial Department: Meet Joe Martin

9780813174259Senior Editing Supervisor Ila McEntire loves a good story, and she’s in the right job to read some great ones. She delighted our staff recently by sharing the tale of an editorial mystery that arose while she was working on Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood by Sherri Snyder. Ila’s story was so much fun, we wanted to share it with you.

It all started with a photo caption . . .

and Joe Martin

Barbara La Marr with Ramon Novarro and Joe Martin in TRIFLING WOMEN (formerly BLACK ORCHIDS). From the collections of the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

 

While editing our forthcoming biography of silent film star Barbara La Marr, I came across this photo and this (slightly edited) caption: “Barbara La Marr with Ramon Novarro and Joe Martin in TRIFLING WOMEN (1922).” It’s my job to make sure the photos match the captions, and I only see two people in this photo—Barbara and Ramon. “Where the heck is Joe Martin?” I thought.

JoeMEET JOE MARTIN. An orangutan who happened to be a silent film star. During this particular film’s production he attacked a (human) costar who antagonized him after fifteen grueling hours onset. It took six men to rescue the victim, who came away from the altercation with some broken bones and a nasty bite on his hand; he never worked with Joe Martin again. Joe was usually gentle, and he adored the film’s leading lady (Barbara La Marr).

Our Director of Editing, Design, and Production, David Cobb, had never heard of Joe Marin either, and we discovered (by Googling) that there’s a controversy as to his species —some folks say chimp, some say orangutan. (Our author says orangutan, so I’m obliged to agree.)

But the IMBD page identifies him as a chimp. I don’t know whose flag to follow, but he looks like an orangutan in the photo to me!


Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood will be available in November, 2017.

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Summer under the Stars: Joan Fontaine

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Olivia de Havilland publicity photo, circa 1940. Photo via Wikipedia

Today is the 100th birthday of Olivia de Haviland, the last surviving star of Gone with the Wind. Her younger sister was Joan Fontaine, one of the great Hollywood leading ladies of the 1940s. Only 15 months apart, they were the only pair of siblings to win lead acting Oscars.

 

Fontaine’s performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the Oscar-winning 1940 film, lifted her into the top ranks of dramatic actresses. She followed up that success in 1941 with Hitchcock’s Suspicion, for which she won the Best Actress Academy Award.

In Conversations with Classic Film Stars, James Bawden’s interview with Fontaine demonstrates that despite being one of the brightest stars in the film industry at the time, a life in Hollywood wasn’t always sensational and glamorous. Fontaine also elaborates on her long-standing feud with her sister Olivia.

Setting the Scene

I first met Joan Fontaine at a Toronto hotel where she was peddling her tell-all 1979 autobiography No Bed of Roses. There was a second interview in 1987 in an L.A. screening room when Fontaine was promoting her appearance in the TV documentary The RKO Story. And a few years later she appeared on a panel with Tommy Tune and Stanley Kramer for The Movie Channel and we lunched afterward.

The Interview

BAWDEN: Why did you decide to become an actress?

FONTAINE: I needed a job. My sister (Olivia De Havilland) was doing nicely at Warners, so I became Joan Burfield for RKO and had a bit part in Katharine Hepburn’s movie Quality Street (1937).

BAWDEN: What happened?

FONTAINE: I bombed at RKO. They made me Fred Astaire’s leading lady in Damsel in Distress (1937) only because first choice Jessie Matthews had to bow out due to schedule changes. I remember walking along a path and Fred dancing around me. I was truly awful!

BAWDEN: But you managed to get into some big pictures.

FONTAINE: In bit roles. George Cukor hired me as the insignificant ninny who is part of The Women (1939). I really only had a telephone scene to strut my stuff and George lit it as carefully as Norma Shearer’s close ups. And I met Joan Crawford on that set and I continued to get Xmas cards from her until she passed. Both Paulette Goddard and I had tiny parts. When MGM re-released it in 1946, we were elevated to top star billing! And I had a bit as Doug Fairbanks, Jr.’s sweetheart in Gunga Din (1939). I remember, after a day of shooting, I looked out the window and saw Doug and his current flame, Marlene Dietrich, off to some grand soiree all dressed up and I sighed. Because that kind of glamour always eluded me.

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Joan Fontaine (right) shies away from Judith Anderson in Rebecca, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1940. Courtesy of Selznick International and United Artists.

BAWDEN: What do you remember of the making of Rebecca?

 

FONTAINE: How miserable I was. Larry Olivier had tested with his wife, Viv Leigh, but (producer) David Selznick said it was too early after (his) Gone With the Wind. In fact scenes from Gone With the Wind were being done at the same time as we started. I also know Loretta Young and Maggie Sullavan had tested, but both were considered too American. Finally David said, “I guess it will have to be you,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement.
The best thing is that David was so busy with the last minute details of Gone with the Wind that he stayed away for long periods of time, which was unusual for him. Hitch (director Alfred Hitchcock) simply refused to discuss characterization. Occasionally they’d met for a great blow up. One of the scenes had the young lovers meeting in the hotel lift. David came on set and told Hitch to do it again because he’d paid for the construction of a great breakfast room and he wanted to show it off. Hitch did as told–this was his first movie (in America) and he had no clout.

Larry and Judith Anderson were very mean to me, but I now see this only increased my performance because I had nothing else to fall back on, no technique. Oscar night I was in a hissy fit. I didn’t want to win, I was only 23. David insisted I would, but he was wrong. Ginger Rogers walked away with it that year. And as it turned out, Rebecca was the only David Selznick movie I would ever star in.

BAWDEN: But he promptly loaned you and Hitch out to RKO for Suspicion and you won the Oscar.

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Joan Fontaine suspects husband Cary Grant is trying to kill her in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. She won the 1941 Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Courtesy of RKO and United Artists Television.

FONTAINE: Hitch was angry David demanded so much off the top for us that there wasn’t an adequate budget for production.  At the time I was very contemptuous of Cary Grant. I thought he was only interested in himself. Re-watching the film, I see how he threw whole scenes to me. He seemed aloof at the time, but he never was the gregarious sort. I loved knowing Nigel Bruce — so warm, so winning. Hitch kept mumbling all the time it didn’t look at all like England. But neither did Rebecca, really! This time I got the Oscar. It changed my life. It changed my relationship with David, too.

 

BAWDEN: Explain.

FONTAINE: After Rebecca, he went out of production for three whole years. He started a lavish remake of Jane Eyre. I’d be Jane. Another Selznick director, Bob Stevenson, would direct it. Orson Welles was signed. David did all sorts of market tests and finally concluded the public would confuse it with Rebecca, so he sold the whole thing, sets, scripts, cast, crew to Darryl Zanuck who had a huge success. People always ask me did Orson interfere? Well, he certainly tried to! But Bob was a guy who knew movies inside out. And there was our cinematographer George Barnes, who had trained Greg Toland.

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Joan Fontaine with Orson Welles in Jane Eyre (1944). Courtesy of 20th Century-Fox.

BAWDEN: But you are too pretty to play Jane!

 

FONTAINE: Kind sir! This was Hollywood after all. I first met little Elizabeth Taylor on that set, all about 10 years old, Dresden china features. It’s one of my faves to this day.

BAWDEN: how did your relationship with Selznick evolve?

FONTAINE: He sold my services to the biggest bidder and pocketed the profits.  I wanted to only do a picture a year. David needed money to pay for all his failed ventures. I think he’d pay me $2,000 weekly for 10 weeks and get up to $150,000 for my services. You do the math. I didn’t much want to do This Above All (1942), but it was with Ty Power, who was the biggest leading man around at the time and it was a good picture to make for wartime audiences.

BAWDEN: Then you played a 12-year old in The Constant Nymph (1943).

FONTAINE: A few years back, Turner Classic Movies arranged a screening for me. I watched in awe. I was really good and then I staggered into the sunlight in desperate search of a gin and tonic. This was the movie that really started the Joan-Olivia feud. I was at Olivie’s home studio. I’d gotten the assignment after director Teddy Goulding had turned her down as too mature. I did not know that at the time. Teddy was a magician. He drew from me emotions I never knew I had and also from Alexis Smith, who was only 24 at the time and playing a frosty beauty of 35.

BAWDEN: You brought it up so I have to ask about your famous feud with your sister.

FONTAINE: It takes two to feud. I know how Livvie was shocked the night in 1942 I won an Oscar over her. But I’ve always tried to make amends. She was shocked when our mother (Lillian Fontaine) started acting–she played Ray Milland’s landlady in The Lost Weekend (1945). I’m always shocking her, but she doesn’t ever shock me. We’re so close in birth terms, we’re more like twins and twins do quarrel on occasion, right?

[. . .]

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Fontaine publicity photo, circa 1943. Photo via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: You once said Ivy (1947) was your favorite film.

 

FONTAINE: Why not! I Get to poison the cast, which is an actress’ s dream. Bill Cameron Menzies, who designed Gone With the Wind, designed it and the sets are fantastic. And we later did a sort of modern day version called Born To Be Bad (1950), which is another favorite.

[. . .]

BAWDEN: At MGM you were the loveliest Rowena in Ivanhoe (1952).

FONTAINE: That got me going at MGM and I later made Until They Sail (1957)  I was 40 by then, playing the frumpy sister who never married. Paul Newman told me he’d grown up on my movies, but Paul was only eight years younger! And I had a 20th Century-Fox period with Island in the Sun, Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea and Tender is the Night.

BAWDEN: I remember Island in the Sun (1957 ) was considered highly controversial.

FONTAINE: I played Harry Belafonte’s lover but we were not allowed to touch hands, let alone kiss. One day I casually brushed against his arm and alarm bells went off with the censor, who considered it racial and we had to re-shoot the scene. But I much preferred Voyage because I fell into the fish tank and got eaten by Peter Lorre’s shark. I was the older wife in A Certain Smile (1958) and everybody at 20th said how big a star Christine Carere was going to be. Nobody ever heard from her again!

[. . .]

 

AFTERWORD

Joan Fontaine’s final screen appearance was in a made-for-TV movie, Good King Wenceslas (1994) for cable’s The Family Channel. She died in her sleep in her home in Carmel, CA, on December 15, 2013. She was ninety-six.

Happy Birthday, Keye Luke!

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Keye Luke in TV’s Anna and the King (1972). Courtesy of CBS.

Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was never a very hospitable time for Asian American actors, who were seldom called upon to play the lead in any movie—not even those featuring Asian characters.

But Keye Luke, born on June 18, 1904 in China, came to America as a child and went on to have a long run of success in film and TV. Best known as detective Charlie Chan’s “No. 1 son” in the popular Chan series of the 1930s, Luke also had a running role as the assistant to Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) in the follow-up to the Dr. Kildare series of movies at MGM. Then, in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-75), Luke was the memorable Master Po, mentor to David Carradine’s Kwai Chong Caine.

To celebrate Luke’s long, influential career, we’re sharing excerpts from his interviews with James Bawden and Ron Miller from their recent release Conversations with Classic Film Stars: 

The Interview

BAWDEN: How did you get to Hollywood?

LUKE: I was born in 1904 in Guangzhou, China, near Canton and my dad owned an art shop. Growing up I was always painting away, but we moved to Seattle when I was very young. I started out as a local Seattle artist, specializing in murals. I helped on some of the original murals in Grauman’s Chinese theater, working on faux Chinese murals. And I had a gig drawing the art for the King Kong press book in 1933.

MILLER: While you were working in the publicity department at RKO in the early 1930s, I understand you almost had a chance to play a romantic lead in a big new musical. True or false?

LUKE: True. The producers of Flying Down to Rio (1933) wanted to follow it up with a new musical teaming Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to be set in Shanghai. Anna May Wong was set as the second female lead, but they couldn’t find a Chinese leading man for her. Then they remembered this guy who was working in the publicity department: Me. They called me to their office and told me I would be co-starring with Anna May Wong. It was like a bolt out of the blue. I was planning to go to New York to study at the Art Students League, then go to Paris and complete my art education. I knew nothing about being an actor.

MILLER: So what happened?

LUKE: The film was cancelled when the producer was fired. But I was given a consolation prize: I made my “acting” debut in a Leon Errol comedy short subject. I played his Japanese gardener in a scene where I mowed his rug with a lawn mower. I considered it a silly whim and returned to my art work without any regrets.

MILLER: Why did you move from RKO to MGM right after that?

LUKE: Frank Whitbeck, my former boss at Fox, had moved to MGM as advertising director and he asked me to come in for a job interview. That’s when I learned MGM wasn’t interested in my portfolio. They had heard about my near miss at RKO and asked me to test for a role at MGM.  Fortunately, it turned out all right. I got the part — and I started right out at the top.

BAWDEN: So you wound up making your feature film debut in The Painted Veil with the legendary Greta Garbo in 1934.

LUKE: I had the small part of Shay Key Fong (a young Chinese doctor who assisted Herbert Marshall, playing a doctor battling a cholera epidemic.) But I didn’t get billing.

MILLER: Was your test so good that you beat out the real professional actors who were trying for the part?

LUKE: There were very few Chinese actors in Hollywood in those days, so I was practically a pioneer. I don’t think I had any competition for the part.

BAWDEN: What was Garbo like?

LUKE: As if I really met her! She was a true beauty from the neck up. But her body was stocky, her feet long. We rehearsed our dialogue scene (together). She was very kind to me and just moved on. The camera was her best friend. In close ups, she was exquisite. George Brent (one of the two male leads) was after her from the beginning.

BAWDEN: Describe L.A. in 1934.

LUKE: I never went into the big department stores. L.A. was segregated, but not formally. One never saw blacks on Wilshire Boulevard. Parts of the city I avoided–all white areas like Beverly Hills. Even after working with somebody like a big Caucasian actor, I’d be ignored if we met on the street. Asians were invisible, you see. We knew our place: One step back. That’s why the Charlie Chan films were so important. They deflated a lot of the current racial myths. But even the Chan films had rules. Charlie never touched a white woman except as a handshake. I’d never have a white girl friend, not that I wanted one in pictures. Whenever a young, personable “Chinaman” was needed, I’d get the job. But in films like The Casino Murder Case (1935), Oil For the Lamps of China (1935), King of Burlesque (1935), I’m very much in the background and often not listed in credits.

BAWDEN: How did you get into the Charlie Chan movies?

LUKE: The Fox casting director saw my work in The Painted Veil and was looking for a non-threatening Asian actor. At first they wanted to hire a Caucasian, but nobody knew how to act the part, which was of a callow teenager trying to learn the detective business from his dad. I did a test with Warner Oland (who had acted with Luke in The Painted Veil) and he said “hire the kid” and I eventually did a slew of them. In 1935, I did Charlie Chan in Paris and Charlie Chan in Shanghai. In 1936 I was in Charlie Chan At The Circus, Charlie Chan At the Race Track and Charlie Chan at The Opera. which I think the best one of them all. In 1937, I did Charlie Chan at The Olympics, Charlie Chan On Broadway and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo.

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Keye Luke (left) with Warner Oland in Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936). Courtesy of 20th Century-Fox.

[. . .]

BAWDEN: You also played Kato in two Green Hornet serials?

LUKE: I was the chauffeur and they asked me to adopt a Filipino accent, which I obliged, but it was awful. The (first) serial was made super quickly and Universal decided on a second, which was equally popular. But they only had rights to these two stories. Gordon Jones had the lead, a nice guy who wound up in Abbott and Costello stuff.

BAWDEN: In 1940’s Phantom Of Chinatown, you were the first Asian actor to play an Asian detective in a Hollywood film.

LUKE: Boris Karloff’s career really took off and he didn’t want to do any more Monogram Wongs. So they called me in, not as a replacement, but as a bustling new character, Jimmy Lee Wong, a generation younger than Boris’s character. Grant Withers was still the detective and he was mad as a hornet that they didn’t make his character the new lead. The girl was the wonderfully named Lotus Long, who acted under several names. She played Tokyo Rose in that Bogey movie (Tokyo Joe) and suffered from that. She was part Hawaiian and Chinese. The story we had was written by George Waggner, who later directed the first Wolf Man film, but the production values were lower than low and the series was discontinued.

[. . .]

MILLER: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember you and some other Chinese-American actors playing Japanese characters during World War II.

LUKE: That’s true. The best for me was the part of a Japanese spy in Across the Pacific with Humphrey Bogart. Of course, he found me out, we had a fight and he threw me overboard!

BAWDEN: But after the war, I guess parts were scarce and you did what you had to do to survive.

LUKE: That meant TV. I was in multiple episodes of Terry and the Pirates (1953) and The New Adventures of China Smith (1953), not as a regular, but different characters. I even played a Japanese in South Sea Woman (1953)—had to, needed that paycheck, which was $100. I’m uncredited. I was uncredited in Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955). The Chinese acting community in L.A. was still tiny. I’m also unbilled in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). I’m an older man at the Yokohama Travel Office. I was a waiter on December Bride (1954) and a professor on Meet Mr. McNutley (1954). Gale Storm remembered me from a day job on My Little Margie and got me on The Gale Storm Show (1957) several times. I was on several times as a suspect on Perry Mason and several times as the same character on Kentucky Jones (1964). With a little help from my friends, I kept going.

[. . .]

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Keye Luke as Master Po in Kung Fu. Photo via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: You finally hit Broadway with Flower Drum Song. which you played for almost two years in New York and two years on the road.

LUKE: I remember being in Toronto in the road show of that one. Oscar Hammerstein, who was very nice, auditioned and picked me. Dick Rodgers was not quite so nice. I didn’t get the role in the movie. [Producer] Ross Hunter picked Benson Fong! In a way I felt relieved. There was now a growing community of Chinese actors. We started competing with each other. Previously Philip Ahn and I had divided up the work.

BAWDEN: How do you do it? You’re in Anna and the King and also doing two other series: Kung Fu and the cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Chan-Klan.

LUKE: Well, I finally got to play Charlie, so how could I turn that down? I’m only voicing the cartoon, so I do that on weekends. Then I split my time between Anna and Kung Fu. I don’t have big parts. On Anna, I’m Siamese, but what the heck! It’s a good paying job. My only concern is we have no music rights so Yul Brynner will not burst into song. The first day he bellowed, “That’s not my throne!” And he was right. They sold his golden throne during the great movie auction. They really had to rummage and they discovered Rex Harrison’s throne from the 1946 movie and Yul has to do with that.

On Kung Fu, I’m in scenes with David Carradine. Knew his dad (John Carradine) at Fox. I think the son eccentric, but has great possibilities as an actor. So I think I’ll continue a little longer at the game.

MILLER: (Years later) You’ve had some juicy roles lately, like the old shopkeeper who sells
the “mogwai” in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and a Chinese crime boss on TV’s Miami Vice. And I’m happy to discover you still have one of the most imposing voices in Hollywood. How do you maintain that quality?

LUKE: I practice opera to keep my voice in shape—and I’m currently memorizing all the great Shakespearean roles as a mental exercise.

MILLER: You have such a rich history in Hollywood, do you often look back on those years as almost a fantasy life?

LUKE: I don’t live in the past, but I glory in the past. I think it’s beautiful and the memories are golden and fragrant. But I’m more interested in life today. I find it’s still miraculous and full of wonders.

Afterword

Keye Luke continued to work busily in both television and films until the end of his life. Among the TV shows: Quincy, Hunter, Vega$, How the West Was Won and such flicks as Won Ton Ton, Just You and Me, Kid and his final, Woody Allen’s Alice (1990). He died January 12, 1991, aged eighty-six, at his daughter’s home in Whittier, CA.


If you’re looking for more astounding behind-the-scenes stories from the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, look no further than Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller.

Summer Under the Stars: Bob Hope

Bob Hope, one of Hollywood’s greatest and most beloved entertainers, could do it all—sing, act and dance—but what he loved most was comedy, and he went on to make an entire nation laugh for generations.

One of his greatest fans was author Ron Miller who, during his 22 years as a TV columnist, had many opportunities to chat with the star of stage and screen. In our recent release, Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era, Miller includes an illuminating compilation of his various talks with the acclaimed entertainer.

To commemorate what would have been Bob Hope’s 113th birthday, we’re sharing an excerpt from his interview:

Setting the Scene

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Publicity photo, circa 1940. Photo via Wikipedia.

Born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, Bob Hope immigrated to the U.S. from London as a child. He began his show business career in vaudeville which helped develop his skills as a joke teller and master of ceremonies. He appeared on Broadway and in movie shorts as a comic actor. In 1938 he became the star of his own radio show, The Pepsodent Show, and the rapid delivery of his comic lines garnered popularity and made him an overnight sensation. That same year he was signed to Paramount Pictures and made his feature film debut in The Big Broadcast of 1938 with W.C. Fields.

 

He went on to star in a number of films, most notably The Road to Singapore (1940) with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, which launched a series of “road” movies. He hosted the Academy Awards ceremonies 18 times, and became one of the most popular USO entertainers with a number of overseas tours to combat zones during WWII and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The Interview

MILLER: You’re such an iconic symbol of America around the world that it’s often hard to believe you came here as an immigrant from England. Tell me about it.

HOPE: My uncle, Frank Hope, came over first. Then we all got on the boat–in steerage–and took off. I was four years old. They wanted to vaccinate me at Ellis Island, but I wouldn’t let them. I ran all over the place. I think I was a little mischievous.

MILLER: Your dad was a stonemason. Was he a good one?

HOPE: There’s a bridge in Cleveland with a sign saying “Built by Harry Hope.” It connects the east side with the west side. It’s still standing, so I guess he was good enough.

MILLER: I’ve read a good deal about how tough it was at first for you becoming a success in show business. What was the turning point for you?

HOPE: I always go back to 1928 when I was standing in front of the Woods Theater building in Chicago. I couldn’t book a date. I was getting $10 a show in those days and stood there looking over at Henrisi’s Restaurant, which had an open window. I could see them eating in there and I’m starving. And I was thinking, “I’ve got to go back to Cleveland, get my laundry done and get a fresh start.”  That’s when a guy I knew, Charlie Cooley, says, “Hey, what’re you doing?”

He took me upstairs to a booker who got me one day at the West Inglewood Theater for $25, which was more money than I’d ever made. From that booking, I got a booking at the Stratford, where they were using a permanent M.C. for shows and pictures. I stayed there six months. When I came out of there, I could do anything.

[. . .]

MILLER: Your biggest break up to then came when you were signed to play one of the leading roles in the Broadway show Roberta by Jerome Kern. I imagine you were doing pretty well with the ladies by that time, too.

HOPE: I felt like I had every girl in New York. I was running around with every girl in the chorus, all these beautiful dames. But one night, my pal George Murphy, talked me into catching the act of what he called “a real good-looking singer” over at the Vogue Club. Her name was Dolores Reade. It was love at first sight. I just kept going back again and again to see her act.

MILLER: So you started going out?

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Bob Hope (right), Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in the Road to Morocco (1942). Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

HOPE: Pretty soon I was just sitting in the car with her in front of her hotel and talking. That was fatal. One night she finally had time off and attended a performance of Roberta. I was shocked to see her walk right by my dressing room after the show, completely ignoring me. She wouldn’t even stop and talk to me.

MILLER: What was that about?

HOPE: She was so embarrassed because she didn’t know I was one of the stars of the show. She thought I was just a chorus boy.

MILLER: I guess she got over it.

HOPE: Well, we were married soon afterward.

MILLER: Between 1934 and 1938, you made eight movie short subjects, but things didn’t really boom for you until you were signed by Paramount. Your first feature was The Big Broadcast of 1938 and it gave you your signature song, Thanks For the Memory, which won the Best Song Oscar. Tell me about that.

HOPE: The whole thing was an accident. Paramount wanted Jack Benny for the part in the movie, but he was 43 and thought he was too old to play the juvenile lead in a picture. And I don’t think he wanted to be second-billed to W.C. Fields.  So, he turned down the part and Paramount had to find somebody else.

I was then working on Broadway in The Ziegfeld Follies. In that show, I introduced the song I Can’t Get Started. Everybody thinks it was Bunny Berrigan’s song because he cut the record. But I introduced it, singing it to a beautiful redhead who turned out to be Eve Arden. Anyway, the movie director Mitch Leisen saw me in the show and was impressed that I could sing as well as do light comedy.

MILLER: Are you telling me Jack Benny might have wound up singing Thanks For the Memory instead of you?

HOPE: I don’t think they intended him to sing anything because Jack didn’t sing much. I think Leisen probably decided to add the song for the two juvenile leads to sing once they signed Shirley Ross and me.

MILLER: When did you learn you were going to sing it?

HOPE: When I arrived at Paramount on September 7, 1937, I went over to the music department and they asked if I wanted to hear the new song I was going to sing. I said, “Sure,” and they played me Thanks for the Memory. I loved it right away, but I took it home and played it for Dolores and she said, “I don’t think that’s much!” I think she was a little hasty.

MILLER: When the song won the Oscar, it went to the composers, Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, but it became your theme song. How did that come about?

HOPE: I began my radio show for Pepsodent (toothpaste) in September of 1938 and I needed a theme song. It hadn’t won the Oscar yet, but it was the automatic choice for me.

MILLER: You’ve told me before that you’ve sung it on every radio show since, every TV show, in just about every live performance and even in another movie (Thanks for the Memory, 1938). But you’ve almost always changed the lyrics to suit the times. How did the composers react to that?

HOPE: They loved it. After all, they got royalties every time it was played — and still do.

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Hope entertains soldiers during WWII. Photo via Wikipedia.

[. . .]

MILLER: One of the primary reasons why you’re so widely loved today must be the tremendous time you put in entertaining the troops. But you did take some flak for doing it during the really unpopular war in Vietnam and defending our being there.

HOPE: If I hadn’t gone over there, I’d have felt pretty awful. Those kids needed shows more than anyone else because they were just sitting around wondering what the hell was going on. It was a miserable, miserable situation. There was nothing different about Vietnam when it came to entertaining troops. I was doing the same thing there I was doing in other places. I wasn’t running for office or anything.

MILLER: Lots of people thought the Academy Awards would have to shut down once you stopped hosting the ceremony. Do you miss that job?

HOPE: No, not really. I did it for so long.

[. . .]

MILLER: Of all the pictures you’ve made, which is your favorite?

HOPE: If The Paleface is on, I’ll take a look at it. And I really like The Seven Little Foys.

[. . .]

MILLER: At this stage of your life, it must be very rewarding to feel the genuine love the public has for you.

HOPE: I sure do appreciate that. I feel that from people I meet. I imagine it comes from the things we did like entertaining the troops all those years. Most people had relatives or knew someone who was over there.  I’ve had some wonderful things happen that make me feel good about my life. Like the time when I had this bad eye problem and it looked as if I might have to lose an eye. And this young Marine said, “I’ll give him one of my eyes.”

MILLER: If you had it to do all over again, would you do anything differently?

HOPE: No. I couldn’t be that lucky all over again.

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Bob Hope had a lot of projects on the burner in his final years, including a final “Road” movie with Bing Crosby which was canceled once Crosby died. His final starring role in a feature film was in 1972’s Cancel My Reservation, but he did star in a final made-for-TV movie, 1986’s A Masterpiece of Murder, playing an over-the-hill private eye. Hope had wanted to live to be one hundred — and he did. He died in his sleep at his home in Toluca Lake on July 27, 2003. He was one hundred years old.

A Summer Under the Stars

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Cool summer nights, on a blanket, under the stars – there’s no better setting to watch a classic film. Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era is out now, and it is sure to help you bring these big-time silver screen stars back to life. With rare interviews from big stars like Margaret Hamilton. If ever an actor was defined by a single role—and loved for it through the ages—it was Margaret Hamilton, whose cackling voice and sharp features are vivid memories to generations of movie fans who remember her as the Wicked Witch of the 1939 movie classic, The Wizard of Oz. Hamilton was a veteran of Broadway theater, radio, and television as well as the movies, where she specialized in character roles. She might even have been remembered, if for nothing else, as Cora from the Maxwell House coffee TV ads she did in the late 1970s.

Setting the Scene

Meeting Margaret Hamilton was a real thrill for an old Wizard of Oz fan. It happened in January 1972. Hamilton was busy stealing scenes from Jean Simmons in the road company of A Little Night Music in Toronto, and I arranged an interview with her between shows. When I walked into the lobby of the King Edward Hotel for lunch with her, I suppose I was expecting someone who cackled and had a broom waiting in her parking space. Instead, I was greeted by a beautifully coiffed matron in a Chanel suit. Not once was she recognized by the other diners as one of cinema’s best-ever villainesses.

The Interview

BAWDEN: Does it bother you that everywhere you go you’re—

HAMILTON: The Wicked Witch of the West? Well, I wouldn’t get any work at my Hamilton_Wicked Witchage if I didn’t have that great movie as my signature piece. I mean nobody asks me about Mountain Justice [1937], The Gay Vagabond [1941], or Breaking the Ice [1938]. Why would they? But to have one film that’s still seen more than thirty years later? Well, it’s astounding.

BAWDEN: I keep hearing you were not first choice for the role.

HAMILTON: Mervyn LeRoy, who produced it, asked me to come in and test in full makeup. I worked with the designers on what I thought was a particularly foul-looking costume. I just thought of Halloween. I suggested the pointed hat and I found an old broomstick in a corner. Then I read in the trades a week later Gale Sondergaard had waltzed in and wowed them with a particularly glamorous interpretation. And she even announced she’d gotten it. I just shrugged and kept on working on my character studies. Then I was at a football game with my little son and Mervyn spotted me and ran over and said, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere. You got it! Report Monday for costume and makeup tests.” He offered me six weeks at $1,000 a week, which was manna for me. It eventually stretched out to twenty-three weeks. I asked him what had happened to Gale and Mervyn said, “Too pretty. We needed somebody who could scare the pants off children.”

BAWDEN: But the making of that movie wasn’t your fondest experience, was it?

HAMILTON: Working on it almost killed me. Buddy Ebsen, who was the original Tin Man, was rushed to the hospital and replaced by Jack Haley. The cause was paint poisoning and he was there for an awfully long time.

Supporting actors were not well regarded in those days. In one scene, I had to drop six feet through a trapdoor with the colored smoke all around me, and it was a close-up so there was no double. I was told to bend my knees and I’d land simply, but suddenly I was in flames. Somebody had prematurely touched the fire button. I was on fire! My broomstick went right up! My hat was on fire! I had to be hospitalized for second-degree burns for a month. MGM grudgingly paid the bills, but my face was seared, I had third-degree burns on one hand. I was in agony. My agent said if I sued I’d never work in this town again.

When I returned, I was told I’d be suspended in the air with a long pipe emitting smoke below me. I said no and they said I was a sissy and brought in the stand-in and she saddled up and the whole gadget exploded. She was badly wounded and spent months in the hospital.

BAWDEN: But surely there must be happy moments?

HAMILTON: Well, working with Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger was heavenly. They kidded Judy [Garland] like crazy to keep her perky. Those Munchkins were Margaret Hamilton-Mae Westsomething else—a bad lot, I say, but they were afraid of me and kept their distance.

Watching Judy Garland perform was lovely. She had such energy. I didn’t realize it was all the Benzedrine she was being force-fed. They worked Judy to the bone. Saturdays, too, right up to the dawn breaking on Sunday morning. You know Judy was only sixteen and she was about to graduate from Hollywood High and I helped her pick the dress, but she had to do a cross-promotional Oz tour and only got back the day before her last day at high school.

I had my lovely little son, Meserve, with me one day in the commissary and [MGM studio boss] Louis B. Mayer waddles over and offered him a kiddie contract. “Don’t you dare!” I shouted and he ran off. I’d seen, up front, the awful things Hollywood did to little children.

Take a stopwatch and you’ll see I’m only around for less than fifteen minutes. It took an awful lot of effort to get those fifteen minutes. I became the real star of it because children always love to be frightened nearly to death. And little tots still recognize me on the street today. They point at me and shiver and laugh. It’s quite a compliment to think I still look a bit like that. . . .

BAWDEN: Were there any of the big stars you truly enjoyed working with?

HAMILTON: Oh, Carole Lombard would be right at the top of any list. I have to explain the star pecking order in those days. The stars had huge dressing rooms—many were suites complete with kitchens and even bedrooms—and portable ones on location. They were insulated from the rest of us. We were ensconced in a holding pen. I’d read, study my lines. But interaction was rare. With Carole, she came over and sat with us. She would be taking the lay of the land. She’d get her makeup done right there. An all right dame. And her mastery of screwball comedy was supreme. She was so lithe with a comedy line even Freddie March had trouble keeping up. I ran the drugstore in Warsaw, Vermont, in that one.

Eddie Robinson was the same way in A Slight Case of Murder [1938]. A sheer delight, very erudite. Bespectacled between the scenes. On camera, a whirling dervish, very competitive.

The year I did Wizard of Oz I also had a part in Babes in Arms with Judy Garland. The way Busby Berkeley mistreated her was awful. And Judy’s mom let him get away with this abuse. I was the aunt of one of the kids, name of Martha Steele, whom I loved. Judy asked me to sit with her in her dressing room. That way the mom couldn’t have a temper tantrum. I smuggled her in cookies because she was kept on a starvation diet. I told Busby off once about his foul language. He couldn’t really direct people. He could only devise those geometric shapes.

Years later during Judy’s Carnegie Hall triumphs I went backstage and she didn’t recognize me or Ray Bolger. He was in tears, saying she was on something. I did a Merv Griffin Show with her and her speech was slurred. I realized the sweet little teenager I’d known was long gone. . .

BAWDEN: In My Little Chickadee [1940] you had to contend with W. C. Fields and Mae West. How did that go?Margaret Hamilton

HAMILTON: Bill Fields walked in the first day, reeking of liquor. He came over and apologized to me. Understand, I was in awe of his talents. I said, “Mr. Fields, on you it smells like eau de cologne,” and he brightened up. A very sweet egomaniac. Ditto Mae West, who looked like an overstuffed mannequin. She said to me, “Margaret, can I help it if every man on this set is crazy in love with me?” Well, the love was one-sided, I can tell you. She was forty-eight and needed special lighting to wash out her creases. And Bill was constantly changing lines and she’d protest to director Eddie Cline, who told me he now knew how a wrestling referee felt.

Everyone seems to have seen this one, but it was considered a disappointment when first released. Mr. Fields never used bad language, although he was sorely tried when Miss West was in one of her moods. She kept saying, “I’m a solo performer. Please tell Bill that next time you find him awake.” Like all comics he’d try out a bit of business and then spend days refining it. He simply tried to add to his performance and she to hers. Mae would say, “Bill! Enough!” and waddle away and he’d mope for the rest of the afternoon. Thinking of that scene where he gets into bed with a billy goat still makes me laugh. But Mae wanted it out as being unrefined. . . .

What I want to explain is how grateful I’ve been. I could have spent all these years teaching kindergarten. I used to go out to junior grades to say hello, and all the kids would ask me to cackle. Which I always did at full throttle, and the little nippers would be cowering in their seats. We even had a few moist accidents. I’ve played hundreds of characters and I’m still up for more. Preston Sturges called me a “miniaturist” and that’s pretty wonderful as far as I’m concerned.

Afterword

Margaret Hamilton acted until 1982, when she played guest roles on two CBS series—Nurse and Lou Grant. She died of a heart attack, aged eighty-two, in Salisbury, Connecticut, on May 16, 1985. Predictably, the obituaries’ headlines all mentioned The Wizard of Oz.