The death this weekend of Jane Withers – the last surviving box-office star of 1930s Hollywood – reminds me that I have been largely apathetic about the Fox “B” films that made the spunky little girl a household name. But it was the first movie she made after leaving Fox in 1942 that attracted my attention during research for my latest book.
That film was Johnny Doughboy, which was actually a step down for the then-16-year-old Withers. It was a production of Republic Pictures – the most prestigious of Poverty Row studios, but still a Poverty Row studio. Twentieth Century-Fox and Withers parted by mutual consent after eight years because Fox (as with Withers’ more famous contemporary, Shirley Temple) didn’t know how to handle her inevitably awkward transition from adolescent to adulthood. Republic thought it could, and the “B” company better known for Westerns and serials inked Withers to a three-year, three-pictures-per-year contract while publicizing her as quite a get.
Because Withers yearned to play grown-up roles rather than hoydens, Republic commissioned a script to take advantage of the circumstances of her presence. Movie star? Check. Sweet sixteen? Check. Wanting to be taken seriously? Check. Named for the famous Great War song but set during World War II, Johnny Doughboy adds up to an appealing mix of comedy and music – and to a modern viewer cursed by hindsight, sadness at a supporting cast full of former child stars who, unlike Withers, were no longer wanted in the movies – and knew it.
Withers (1926-2021) capably handles a dual role, as a headstrong movie star who flees Hollywood to find love and as a look-alike girl mistakenly petitioned by the “20 Minus Club” to star in their proposed variety show. The fictionalized club members include singer Bobby Breen, “Our Gang” standouts George “Spanky” McFarland and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, comic brats Butch and Buddy, ex-moppets Baby Sandy and Cora Sue Collins, and former Skippy and Sooky actor Robert Coogan (Jackie’s brother). The “20 Minus” kids are depicted as so painfully self-aware that their big number, shown in rehearsal, is titled “All Done, All Through.” They sing of life becoming “a bitter cup” as soon as “they don’t pick your option up” (which in Baby Sandy’s case, means “going back to kindergarten”). Alfalfa assumes the screechy high voice he used in “Our Gang” song sequences, with somehow the same front tooth missing as in his salad days. The whole thing is fascinating yet unsettling.
Meanwhile, the movie-star Withers – who declares, “I may not look like Hedy Lamarr, but I feel like Veronica Lake!” – develops a crush on a tweedy playwright played by Henry Wilcoxon, who tries to let her down easy. His bowing out stirs her re-romance by an erstwhile juvenile actor played by film newcomer Patrick Brook. Although Withers had been kissed in at least two previous pictures, Brook’s buss of her was proclaimed by Republic as her first. Plucked from the star-making Los Angeles-based stage revue Meet the People, Brook landed the movie role with the help of Withers, a longtime friend. He dressed as a messenger boy who presented a singing telegram to Johnny Doughboy director John H. Auer, who was so impressed he asked the young man to take a screen test.
Among the “has-beens,” Breen was a particularly anticipated presence, as the former RKO headliner had not appeared on screen since 1939. His kiddie soprano had disappeared into something considered not quite presentable, and even his speaking voice came out as if time-compressed – thus he was given no song solos in Johnny Doughboy. This was Breen’s final film, although he re-established his show-business career as a nightclub singer and talent agent. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on McFarland’s film career (two more features), but Alfalfa Switzer soldiered on as an actor until his death in 1959.
As for Cora Sue Collins, the little girl who appeared in scores of 1930s films (most notably at MGM), her cameo in Johnny Doughboy came as her acting career was starting (voluntarily) to wind down. Earlier this year, Collins recalled her kinship with Withers and her contemporaries.
“I know Jane very well. She was a very close friend. … I knew everybody in Johnny Doughboy, Bobby Breen and all of them,” Collins told me.
“… The majority of [former child actors] wanted to continue with their careers. I wasn’t at all interested in continuing. But it was very difficult for them. They were at the awkward age when they were neither fish nor fowl. There were very few parts written for that in-between age. For some, it truly was an awkward age. Now, Shirley [Temple] never changed; she was a beautiful person. But the majority of those people had great difficulty trying to get parts.”
Johnny Doughboy (which circulates online if you know where to look) managed to give its star a career boost. “Jane Withers is burning her bridges behind her,” said the New York Times in a positive review. Withers “carries most of the load like a real trouper,” the Film Daily complimented. “The script calls upon her to do many things, and she does all of them well.” The same young men who watched her grow up on screen for seven years were seeing Withers glammed-up – and appreciated it. “I’ve never had so much fan mail in my life,” Withers glowed in a 1943 interview, “and it’s all Johnny Doughboy and most all of it from soldiers and sailors and marines.”
Withers followed Johnny Doughboy with a juicy dramatic part in The North Star (United Artists, 1943) and reappeared at Republic in the 1944 musical My Best Gal (opposite Jimmy Lydon, still with us at age 98). Withers’ descent in Hollywood was much slower, and more voluntary, than the “20 Minus” kids. In 1947, she retired from acting for marriage and a family, but audiences saw her rally with a prominent role in Giant (1956) and a long stint as the Josephine the Plumber in 1960s and ’70s TV cleanser commercials. By all accounts, off screen she was a kind, gentle person of great faith.
If you know Withers only for her “Josephine” ads, she wouldn’t have minded. But there was so much more to her, and she deserves to be remembered.
Author interview with Cora Sue Collins, March 4, 2021.
“At the Palace,” New York Times, May 6, 1943.
“Gamin Grows Up,” Newspaper Enterprise Association interview, cited from the (Butte) Montana Standard, April 4, 1943. Newspapers.com
“Reviews of the New Films: Johnny Doughboy,” Film Daily, December 24, 1942.
“They Do Such Strange Things,” syndicated article, cited from Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, September 30, 1942. Newspapers.com
Three years ago, I put out a call on this blog for the whereabouts of Irene Dare, the juvenile figure skater who performed in RKO and Monogram musicals of the late 1930s and early ’40s.
I have my answer.
Irene, a “lost” player who death has (at this writing) gone undocumented on the Internet Movie Database and similar websites, died on May 29, 2020, in Pacifica, California. She was 89.
I have members of her family to thank for spotting this blog and helping me fill in the details of Irene’s post-skating and post-acting life. Skating fans of the ‘30s and ‘40s got to know Irene for her precocious stylings before live audiences. But film buffs remember her as the little girl who danced in RKO’s Breaking the Ice (1938, starring boy soprano Bobby Breen) and Everything’s on Ice (aka Frolics on Ice, 1939, with Edgar Kennedy); and Monogram’s Silver Skates (1943, co-starring Kenny Baker, Patricia Morison, and adult skating star Belita).
Recent chats with two of Irene’s five children reveal a woman who endured sometimes difficult times after her retirement from professional skating. But she raised a family – often on her own – and lived life (and saw its end) in her own way.
“She really didn’t talk about (her show-business career) too much to other people,” her son Will Shockley said from his home in northern California.
Irene retired from professional skating in the early 1950s, he said. “After she made her movies, she did [skating] appearances here and there professionally. But she skated up until she was 65 or 70 years old, and she was g-o-o-d, too. Every day after work, on the way home before she retired, she would stop off to go skating.”
“I remember her walking around the house on her hands even in the 1950s,” her son John Shockley said in a separate phone interview. “She stayed in pretty good shape.”
Irene was busy raising her family during the 1950s into the ‘70s. One of her two husbands, Sentell Shockley, was a professional speed skater.
“What she took away from acting was her love of reading,” Will Shockley said of his mother. “She was such an avid reader of everything, she just loved books … and she got that from reading scripts. At the studios, she would leave school in the morning around 11 o’clock and would read her script for the next day, and she did that every day.
“Bobby Breen, she really didn’t care for; she thought he was kind of an arrogant guy. Edgar Kennedy was a real professional; she really liked him. Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball, she really liked them; she would hang out at their houses.”
Even one of Irene’s most famous ice contemporaries, Olympic champion and Hollywood star Sonja Henie, was a mentor. “Sonja Henie was a really lovely person,” Will said. “My mother picked up a lot of skating tips from her. My mother was Norwegian (in ancestry}, and they really hit it off that way.”
In 1938, Irene – so the family story goes – was approached about the opportunity to play a part in the mega-hit Gone With the Wind. (The role of Bonnie Blue Butler, daughter of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, who were portrayed by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, would have been suited for someone about Irene’s age.)
“She told me … she tried out for the part,” Will Shockley said. “But her mother turned it down. … (Irene) was kind of upset about that; she really liked Clark Gable.”
Born Irene Davidson in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Valentine’s Day of 1931, Irene moved West with her family at a young age. During her professional skating years as Irene Dare, she lived in the Los Angeles area with her mother, while her father, a newspaper engraver, resided in the San Francisco area with Irene’s three siblings. Irene moved to San Francisco to graduate from public school. She married for the first time, but the union did not last.
Eventually, with five children to raise, she took a job as a cocktail waitress. “The last place she wanted to be,” Will said.
“The job she really loved to do, and that she retired from, was running the newborn intensive care unit for Children’s Hospital up here in the Bay Area,” Will said.
Irene worked at the hospital for more than 20 years, he said. By 1966, she had divorced for a second time and was raising her family on her own.
“I remember, as kids, we would feel sorry for ourselves because we couldn’t get this or that,” Will said. “She would have us come in for lunch and make us help feed the babies. (Her attitude was,) ‘When your life is hard, I want you to think about this. Coming into this world, have to fight to stay alive.’ … That’s something I always carried with me.”
“She was tough,” Will said. “She had four boys to raise, these big monsters, (but) she wouldn’t back down from anything until the day she died. … You didn’t want her mad at you.”
“If you pushed her, she would push back,” John Shockley said.
Around age 65, Irene had to stop skating after she broke both ankles in a freak accident that began when she stepped into a pothole, Will said. A longtime smoker, she suffered from COPD, and her health worsened.
At the end, Will said, “she didn’t want to stay in the hospital, she wanted to die at home. … She died quietly in her sleep. She said, ‘I want to go my way,’ and that’s what happened.
”She was a talented person her whole life. Perseverance would have been her middle name.”
April 19, 1935, was a big day on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. At least it was for Cora Sue Collins. A child actress under contract to the world’s most glamorous movie company, she received special attention on that day from studio chief Louis B. Mayer.
Collins, who has just turned 94, delights in recalling her one-of-a-kind “seventh” birthday party, which attracted names big and small from all over the MGM space. Among the many guests were Jean Harlow (fresh from shooting a scene opposite Clark Gable in China Seas), Mickey Rooney, Jackie Cooper and Jean Hersholt.
“L.B. Mayer gave May Robson, who was a very famous actress whose birthday was April 19 … a birthday party” to share with Collins, Cora Sue said in a recent Zoom interview. “She was turning 77 and I was turning 8. And Mr. Mayer said, ‘It would be better for publicity if we’d say that I was just going to be 7.’
“… The party was unbelievable. It was not an invitation, it was a command performance from Mr. Mayer, so everybody came. … The biggest stars in the business, the biggest producers and directors. … They gave me this … great, big, hand-carved autograph book with a wooden cover and a wooden back [she gets out book to show to the Zoom camera] … It has a little plaque saying, ‘From May Robson, April 19, 1935.’ Anyway, the autographs in here are absolutely amazing because they are the biggest names in Hollywood. And nowhere has there been a collection of such big names as this, because they were rarely in one place at one time. …”
Collins performed with – and often portrayed pre-adolescent versions of – stars such as Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Myrna Loy, Frances Dee, Merle Oberon and Fay Wray. Garbo’s hand-picked choice to play her title character as a child in Queen Christina (1933), Collins appeared with the enigmatic superstar, and March, in Anna Karenina (1935). Collins and Garbo remained friends until the latter’s death.
Although life as a child star was difficult for her, Collins cherishes memories from a film career that began in 1932. Here are highlights from our interview:
On acting at such a young age: “I did not enjoy my childhood. I worked six days a week, we worked from Monday through Saturday in those days, and I started to work when I was 3. And [speaking sarcastically] they were so generous, kind. They gave me an hour off at the age of 3. … So I wasn’t worried about my career at all [when older]. I couldn’t wait to stop acting.
“I would say the majority of [other child actors from her generation] wanted to continue with their careers [as they became older]; I wasn’t at all interested in continuing. But it was very difficult for them. They were at the awkward age when they were neither fish nor fowl. There were very few parts written for that in-between age. For some, it truly was an awkward age. Now, Shirley [Temple] never changed; she was a beautiful person. But the majority of those people had great difficulty trying to get parts.”
As a teenager, Collins moved back into the acting spotlight in 1942-43 in the stage comedy “Junior Miss.” “My first [stage] experience was a month in New York on Broadway before going on the road. It was wonderful, every night was something different. They had offered me a run-of-the-play contract … for a year. I loved it, loved every minute of it. But then I was ready to move on.”
On being known as a good “crier”: “I did a film called The Strange Case of Clara Deane. My mother [in the film] was supposed to leave me, as a child, at an orphanage. We were getting ready to do the first scene, and my [real] mother would read the script to me the night before, cover to cover, set directions, everything. So on the set, they said, ‘Camera, action,’ and two huge men dressed as policemen grabbed my mother, who was just standing there, and dragged her off the set. And the director [then] said, ‘Cry.’ … So I cried.”
Why was she so often cast as a younger version of characters played by leading ladies? “I must have a very common face, because they made me up to look like anybody. And I played so many of them as a child and I played so many of them as their children, and I had accents and whatnot. I was good at accents because I had a great acting instructor [Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s then-wife] who became a very close friend of my mother. And Miss Dillon was a wonderful coach.”
On Garbo: “I’ll tell you how I met her. I was 5 years old. For an audition, we were on one of those huge soundstages [at MGM], and [I was] standing in front of this huge velvet drape, with little girls, [lined up] tall to small. And finally, I was standing alone on this very big stage. Finally, this woman came up, and she spoke with an accent and we chatted for a while. [Later,] my mother came to get me and said, ‘That was Garbo; you got the job.’ We became friends, and she [Garbo] would invite me to tea in her dressing room. I can remember it so well. … She was a lovely woman but a very private person, but that was her prerogative. If she didn’t want to know someone, she wouldn’t know someone. She shouldn’t be forced to get to know people. And look how strong a star she was with L.B. Mayer, and [she] had him twirled around her finger.”
On Judy Garland: “The very first picture I played [at Universal in 1932] in called The Unexpected Father. And I met this girl whose name was Judy Gumm at that time, and I didn’t know until many years later, when a friend of mine was interviewing her about an autobiography, or something she had written about herself. And she said I stole a part from her. … Judy had been signed … to play my part, but they wanted a younger child. …
“ It was amazing I got the job, and the first day I got a starring part with Zasu Pitts and Slim Summervile, who were the Lucy and Desi of their era … . And the first day of shooting, I was supposed to say something, and then Miss Pitts was supposed to say something, and I would answer, but she flubbed her line, I said – I didn’t know any better – ‘Oh no, Miss Pitts, you were supposed to say this and then I say such-and-such and the camera dollies to a two-shot ….’ She said, ‘That’s it’ … and walked off the set. I didn’t know why. Then she came back – she was really wonderful, by the way – with an enormous pillow strapped to her derriere, and stretched out over the director’s chair and told the director to spank her because if a 3-year-old could know her lines better than me, I will never set foot on a soundstage again without knowing my lines. … Years and years later, 25 years later, we were friends … she was introducing me to some friends of hers, and she said [about me], ‘She is the reason I can star on Broadway today; she’s the reason I know my lines.’ ”
On working for major studio versus minor studios: “As a child, I don’t think I realized much of a difference because MGM loaned me out so much. … [We] have records where I did three films on the same day, a scene from one and a scene from the other. I didn’t pay any attention to it. I did what I had to do. … MGM was a monopoly. All the major film stars to the directors to … you name it, [Mayer] owned them. It was different.”
One of Collins’ roles in “B” fare was as the daughter of Stephen Foster, played by Douglass Montgomery, in the 1935 Mascot Pictures musical “Harmony Lane.” “I have such a funny story to tell you. I have three children – boy, girl, girl – and the oldest girl was named Melinda. And somehow or other, I heard that Harmony Lane was going to be on television. I asked, “Would you like to see Mommy working as a child?” And they said, ‘Oh, yes,’ because my children had never seen any of my films. So here Melinda and me were, sitting in front of the TV. … As you know, Stephen Foster was an alcoholic. When it ended, Melinda turned to me and said, with tears in her eyes, “I didn’t know Granddaddy was an alcoholic!” I said, ‘No, Mommy was just working!’”
Collins, who retired from show business and raised a family, on being one of the last acting survivors from her era: “I had hated my childhood, I would never talk about it, never enjoy it. [And I would think,] ‘Why do I remember those incidents? Why can’t I suppress them?’ But now I love talking about my childhood and reliving memories.
“I think I’ve been very lucky. I had the most wonderful friendships. Together on the lot, the MGM actors and actresses became my friends. Not long ago, a journalist asked me, ‘Weren’t you intimidated by these big stars?’ I said, ‘No, they were my friends, my neighbors.’ Now if you had introduced me to a famous baseball player, I would have been catatonic … in awe!”
It’s taken five years to put together, but my book Hollywood Musicals You Missed: 70 Noteworthy Films of the 1930s is now available. Like my previous effort, Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era, it’s a look at some less-heralded films, this time grouped by themes that reflected trends in the Depression-era American movie musical.
There is a chapter on early musicals worth re-evaluation, including extensive entries on the rarely viewed Are You There? (1930), Beatrice Lillie’s disastrous talkie starring debut, and It’s Great to Be Alive (1933), Fox’s quirky mix of musical, romantic comedy, science fiction, and gender role reversal. Other sections of the book deal with early “hillbilly” musicals, singing cowboy Westerns (among Gene Autry’s sci-fi-tinged The Phantom Empire and the all-“little people” sagebrusher The Terror of Tiny Town), songwriter tributes, opera-singer vehicles, and swing’s intro to film. We also look at some of the less-inspired 1930s efforts by some of Hollywood’s biggest musical stars.
Here’s a happy 131st birthday to Jack Mulhall, a jaunty, popular Hollywood player of the silent era who, by accidents of technology and timing, became a virtual non-entity in the talkies.
For every James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Spencer Tracy whose stage-honed dialogue skills made them into almost-instant Hollywood stars after the transition to sound, there were many others who were forced to adapt to the change. Reginald Denny, for example, had to drop the American characters he played in silents in favor of those that suited his British accent; his billing declined slightly, but he continued a lucrative career. John Gilbert had a perfectly suitable voice that did not match his he-man image, but he was derailed by personal concerns, as was Clara Bow.
And then there were actors like Mulhall, whose precipitous drop in the motion-picture hierarchy led him from starring roles in big-studio talkies in 1930 to bit parts at the majors (and occasional Poverty Row leads) within a year or two, and then, as the ‘30s neared their end, pretty much just bits.
Mulhall’s career mirrored that of a fellow player at Warner Bros.-First National, Monte Blue. Both men had built their screen careers since the mid-‘teens (Mulhall at the old Biograph studio, where he claimed to be the first actor with a weekly salary in three figures) and were aging into their early 40s as sound came in. They were precisely the highly experienced, high-salaried talents whom studios sought to clear from their contract rosters as folks like Cagney and Tracy came West to settle in.
“Jack Mulhall still wears that wholesome Irish smile – the kind that never grows old or never wears off,” a writer from Missouri said – sadly, in retrospect — of the New York state native in a report on a 1928 First National silent comedy, The Butter and Egg Man (which co-starred another eventual casualty of sound, Greta Nissen).
Mulhall continued to land quality assignments at the dawn of the talkies, including an unusual dual role in Dark Streets (1929), in which he portrayed twins: a cop and a crook. That film is lost, but Mulhall can be seen opposite Alice White in the musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Loretta Young in the crime saga Road to Paradise (1930), and Mae Clarke in RKO’s The Fall Guy (1930). That Mulhall was significantly older than any of those female co-stars was not complained about by the filmgoing public, as Mulhall photographed somewhat younger than his middle age.
Still, Mulhall’s First National contract was not reviewed in June 1930. In a fan-magazine blurb about his farewell to FN, Colleen Moore, Dorothy Mackaill, Milton Sills, and Corinne Griffith were also mentioned as newly freed. Griffith had retired, the writing on the wall, and poor Sills, career-vulnerable at age 48, would drop dead of a heart attack that August.
Mulhall inked a new deal with RKO, which lasted for The Fall Guy and no more. More ominously, he went on to “little major” Columbia, where he made now-long-forgotten features such as For the Love o’ Lil (1930) and Lover Come Back (1931), top-billed in the latter with the declining Betty Bronson and rising Constance Cummings). At the end of 1931, you could see Mulhall headlining with his erstwhile FN co-star, Patsy Ruth Miller, in Night Beat, but this crime story was an indie, from producer Ralph M. Like’s on-the-cheap Action Pictures.
From there on out, Mulhall would be alternating between have and have-not companies, with prominent roles for the latter – as late as 1936, he headlined as criminologist Craig Kennedy in the marathon (15 chapter!) science-fiction serial The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand for Weiss Productions. Four years before, Mulhall had also delved into the realm of the fantastic film as the prospective son-in-law of a death ray-creating mad scientist in Murder at Dawn (Big 4 Films, 1932).
As time passed, when most folks saw Mulhall, he was playing various uncredited reporters, photographers, clerks, and henchmen for precious little time and rarely for screen credit at Paramount (his most frequent employer in the ‘30s) and other majors.
Mulhall suffered some damage to his personal reputation in 1933, when he was ordered to pay a $50 fine imposed in court after he was found guilty of assault and battery. The charge stemmed from an incident in which the actor and a friend, both reportedly having imbibed a bit, broke into an apartment looking for a fight and had a tussle with the husband and wife therein.
“Are you a Russian?” one of the victims recounted Mulhall asking, inexplicably. It turned out the two men had the apartment house correct for the solving of their real or imagined grievance, but not the right apartment.
Times grew especially harsh in 1935. Mulhall and his wife of 13 years separated, and he filed for bankruptcy the same week. That same year, he supported young Lon Chaney, Jr. (newly rechristened from his original Creighton Chaney) in a gangster quickie, The Shadow of Silk Lennox. Mulhall had acted with Chaney’s famous father and could have served as a cautionary tale to the junior Chaney, who himself went on to work in increasingly thankless roles until his own death.
There were plenty of other silent stars hanging around the picture business, but few of them had been near the top as recently as Mulhall. In 1936, he was given an unusual forum for a bit player: a bylined, first-person story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine that was headlined “They Don’t Retire in Hollywood.”
Acknowledging peaks and valleys in his career, Mulhall wrote: “I’m back in harness again, in my fourth comeback, after piling up and losing several sizable fortunes. Ten years ago I had $1 million, two $6,000 automobiles, a $65,000 home in Beverly Hills, and a contract for 52 weeks at $3,250 a week.
“In one year I saw my last antique piece go: you never can save one stick – when the toboggan gets underway.”
Not long after the story appeared, Mulhall attracted the attention of popular movie columnist Jimmie Fidler, who noted that he still heard audiences break into applause for the old-time star whenever he appeared on screen. “From all evidence, he will again scale the heights,” Fidler opined hopefully.
It didn’t happen, although Mulhall never stopped trying. Television came in, so he got seen – however briefly — on Dragnet, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Playhouse 90. Mulhall turned up in the Best Picture Oscar winner Around the World in Eighty Days and the shot-for-peanuts monster flick The She-Creature, both in the same year (1956) that he also found work as a greeter for a Sunset Strip restaurant.
The Internet Movie Database lists Mulhall’s screen finale as a 1959 sci-fi thriller, The Atomic Submarine.
At age 91, Jack Mulhall died of heart failure on June 1, 1979, at the Motion Picture Country Home, where he had resided since 1977. Among his survivors was the wife who had separated from him 44 years before.
“It hasn’t been a rosy path out here for me, for anyone else, either, who has hit the chutes,” his Times obituary quoted Mulhall as saying during what must have been many introspective periods. But he said he always had “the old feeling, always an unmistakable one, that I am definitely on the road back.”
“At the Strand Next Week,” Chillicothe (Missouri) Constitution-Leader, December 29, 1928.
“The Orchid Bids Farewell to the Screen,” Talking Screen, June 1930.
“Pair Get in the Right House But the Wrong Boudoir,” Associated Press report, cited from the Baltimore Sun, August 7, 1933.
“Jack Mulhall Fined,” International News Service report, cited from Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald, September 3, 1933.
“Jack Mulhall Files Bankruptcy Petition,” International News Service report, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 17, 1935.
“They Don’t Retire in Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1936.
“Jack Mulhall, 91, Movie, Stage, TV Actor, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1979.
How much do I love Turner Classic Movies? A lot, as I have written here. But as delighted as I was to finally have non-commercial-interrupted Golden Age movies piped through my TV set via TCM, the real revelation in small-screen film-watching was my first exposure to TCM’s predecessor in the classics-on-cable field … TNT.
Turner Network Television, as it was called more frequently than now, debuted 30 years ago this week, on October 3, 1988. I have a special affinity for TNT, as its infancy aligned to certain significant events in my personal life.
Even with all the cheesy advertisements breaking up its programs, who among us couldn’t love TNT? With its need for programming came the first real emptying of the Ted Turner-controlled film vault, with hundreds of long-unseen pre-1960 MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO gems suddenly available in our living rooms. I never thought I’d get to pose questions like “Can you believe TNT is showing Show of Shows at 4 a.m. Monday?” Of course, I had to ask these questions to myself, as there were no movie message boards or blogs in the late 1980s, nor did anyone within earshot in Flint, Michigan, know what Show of Shows was.
Here’s where the personal stuff comes in: I had to get married to get TNT.
In 1989, I was living in an apartment complex with an in-house cable menu of about 15 channels, so … no go. My then-fiancée lived in an apartment complex with no TNT but with access to AMC (née American Movie Classics), which was frequently showing rarities from Paramount and Universal.
My wife-to-be was no movie watcher (she still isn’t), but I knew she was right for me when she agreed to allow me to time-tape Night World and Love Comes Along at 5 in the morning on her home VCR. (I also knew she was Ms. Right after I dared to show her Freaks and she didn’t run from the room screaming at the climax.)
You think this isn’t significant? Try finding Night World and Love Comes Along on TV at all anymore.
Anyway, we got married and it was all worth it. We moved to an apartment complex that offered both TNT and AMC. Happy ending. Great times. The marriage was pretty good, too, as I recall.
TNT showed reruns of rarely viewed TV shows such as Medical Center and Mr. Novak and produced its own new programming, but its bread-and-better fare was old movies – many, many of which I saw for the first time on that channel. These would have to be taped on VHS, for collectability purposes and because then, as now on TCM, some of the older rarities were aired at times inconvenient for sleep.
One of these was the early musical The Singing Fool, which I wrote about last week. I was so excited to see it show up on TNT that I couldn’t trust my VCR to go on and off as programmed. So, at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, August 10, 1990, I shuffled out of bed, turned on TNT and my VCR by hand and taped the movie … while editing out the commercials.
(This is how good it was for early talkie buffs in 1990: The Singing Fool was airing at the same time as The Pay-Off (a 1930 Lowell Sherman crime drama from RKO) on AMC and Night Nurse (WB 1931, Barbara Stanwyck) on The Movie Channel.)
Seeing The Singing Fool – even with all of its awkward silence-to-sound-and-back-again transitions and schmaltzy father-son scenes between Al Jolson and little Davey Lee – was nearly the highlight of my week. Would’ve been, too … had my first child not been born two days before.
“Is Gladys Brockwell going to be one of the new stars?” The Los Angeles Times posed this question to its readers on August 5, 1928. And with good reason: Brockwell’s performance was the highlight of Warner Bros.’ new crime drama, Lights of New York.
Well, that and the sound. Lights of New York was Hollywood’s first all-talking feature-length picture, and audiences forgave the flimsy plotting and the technologically imposed, claustrophobic recording and camera work to hear dialogue that they heretofore could only read from an intertitle.
Initially intended as a short subject, Lights of New York was elongated to a feature-length 57 minutes, With a final negative cost of $23,000, it grossed an astounding $1.2 million and, groused WB scenarist (and future Fox studio boss) Darryl Zanuck, “turned the whole g–damn tide” toward the permanence of talkies.
Gladys Brockwell – born 124 years ago today — had become one of the first actors to benefit from the sound revolution. But less than a year after the release of Lights of New York – and less than 11 months after the Times speculated on her promising future — she was dead. The Twenties hadn’t even finished Roaring.
Brockwell was 33 – no youngster – when she played the moll, loyal “for more years than she cared to admit,” of a bootlegging nightclub owner (Wheeler Oakman) in Lights of New York. This was a film that was derided – in 1928! — for its primitive technique, including several unintentionally humorous moments having to do with character groupings (to suit the stationary, hidden microphone) and slow-paced, hackneyed dialogue (co-written by future WB “woo-woo” comic Hugh Herbert). “Take him for … a ride!” the chief villain unconvincingly orders his minions to dispatch a fall guy.
Anyone who thinks Singin’ in the Rain exaggerates the hazards of the transition to sound needs to see how much stranger truth was than fiction.
The hapless fall guy and his girlfriend are played by Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, whose respective film careers came to screeching halts once patrons had voices to match to their faces. Fellow Lights players Oakman, Eugene Pallette, Tom Dugan, Robert Elliott and Mary Carr adjusted to sound and kept on working, and so, at first, did Brockwell. Audiences heard her final-reel speech (after the moll has done away with her lover) – “I’m not afraid. I’ve lived … and I’ve loved … and I’ve lost!” – and they were ready for more.
She was ready, too. Brockwell was not a new star, just one newly returned to the firmament. Introduced to pictures while not yet in her 20s, the Brooklyn native rose in stature by playing the “siren heroine” type.
“In the early days of pictures, Miss Brockwell ranked among the favorites,” stated one newspaper feature. “ … Largely on account of her sincerity, she was one of the most popular actresses of the film colony. If she liked a person, it didn’t matter about his or her worldly standing or possessions. Once, Gladys lost a very big contract with a powerful picture company because she criticised [sic] to the face a movie magnate who had been overworking his extra people.”
The failure of an early marriage was a setback in her personal life, but Brockwell expanded her professional repertoire by playing costume parts in Oliver Twist (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). One of her most prestigious roles was as Nana, the abusive older sister of the prostitute heroine played by Janet Gaynor, in Fox’s popular drama 7th Heaven (1927). All three of the above films, as well as Lights of New York, are available in full on DVD. (One of Brockwell’s fellow cast members in 7th Heaven, Albert Gran, died under unlikely circumstances, as did the subject here.)
Once 7th Heaven and Lights of New York were done, Brockwell signed to perform in no fewer than eight upcoming films, at least five with all or partial dialogue, the L.A. Times reported. The newspaper thus thought it a good idea to ask this conqueror of the Devil Microphone about her triumph.
“Do you know you can have stage fright before the microphone? It’s true,” Brockwell replied. “I have felt my knees shaking more when I faced the microphone than ever in days of the stage. … There isn’t any music [played] on the sets to set the tempo as in the silent films, but there is the music within us and the music of the players’ voices and emotions.”
Brockwell found time to parody her own recovered image as a star in a Vitaphone short subject, Hollywood Bound (1928). She appears as the glamorous seducer of a rube (James Bradbury Jr.) who is shown winning a contest granting him an acting contract at a Hollywood studio. (It can be seen as part of this DVD collection.)
After Lights of New York, Brockwell was seen in quick succession in two late-1928 releases, and there would be five more in theaters during 1929. The last of them, Universal’s courtroom drama The Drake Case, debuted in September … but Brockwell had been gone two months by then.
The end was a shock to all. On June 27, 1929, Brockwell was a passenger in a new roadster driven by Thomas Stanley Brennan, a Los Angeles advertising representative, when it went over a 75-foot embankment off the Ventura Highway near Calabasas, California. Brockwell’s body was crushed, and one particularly vivid newspaper wire-service account said she had suffered fractures of the skull, pelvis and jaws, with “a jagged ten-inch gash in her right side, caused by broken glass.”
The car “turned over three times after striking the bottom” below the embankment, the L.A. Times noted helpfully in the first of a series of articles during what turned out to be a death watch. As the auto had neared a sharp curve while at a high rate of speed, the story said, Brennan “failed to take the newness of the car into account … and the machine leaped over the edge.”
Both victims were unconscious at the site, but Brennan soon awoke to tell investigators that a cinder had blown into his eye just as his car was approaching the curve. Brockwell reportedly emerged from her stupor long enough to claim she had been at the wheel, but officials noted her “semiconscious state at the time of the questioning.”
At one point, physicians told the press that Brockwell might recover, but after four blood transfusions, she died on July 2, 1929. The immediately stated cause was peritonitis, caused by an intestinal puncture.
Brockwell’s passing seemed to be just as well, accounts implied, for her face had been paralyzed by the severing of a nerve, and her career before the camera would have been halted. A coroner’s jury ruled that Brennan had indeed been at the wheel of the car and that the accident was indeed caused by the temporary blindness caused by the cinder.
There was a postscript to Brockwell’s fatal accident. On February 11, 1949, a car skidded across a bridge in Los Angeles, smashed through a concrete barrier, and dropped 35 feet to an alleyway below. The driver was severely injured, but his passenger died at the scene. The passenger’s name was Thomas Stanley Brennan, and he’d been an ad man in L.A. back in the summer of 1929.
“New Film Royalty May Arise,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1928.
Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).
“Gladys Brockwell, Star of Films, Dying After Machine Plunges Over 75-Foot Bank,” United Press report, cited from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Evening News, June 28, 1929.
“Actress Crushed by Auto,” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1929.
“Film Actress Near Death,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1929.
“Actress Has Fair Chance to Recover,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1929.
“Plunge Injuries Fatal to Gladys Brockwell,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1929.
“Gladys Brockwell Dies of Injuries,” Associated Press report, cited from Owensboro (Kentucky) Messenger, July 3, 1929.
“Last Rites of Actress Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1929.
“Gladys Brockwell Is Mourned,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1929.
“Rider Killed as Car Drops From Bridge,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1949.
To most film fans, Walter Pidgeon will be best remembered for his stolid acting in classics such as How Green Was My Valley, Forbidden Planet and, to cite just one of his many pairings with Greer Garson at MGM, Mrs. Miniver. But as we mark his 121st birthday on September 23, I’ll admit that I think of him first as a baritone in early musicals, both comedies and operettas.
A native of New Brunswick, Pidgeon (1897-1984) came to the United States after World War I service with his native Canada. He went into banking initially but gained a footing on stage and in silent pictures. When talkies came in, Pidgeon – who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music – found himself in demand for singing parts.
Pidgeon sang in such Warner Bros.-First National songfests as Bride of the Regiment (1930, opposite Vivienne Segal); Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930, with Claudia Dell); Viennese Nights (1930, Segal again), and Kiss Me Again (1931, Bernice Claire). He also appeared in, but did not sing in, Warners’ The Hot Heiress (1931) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). By 1931, Warner Bros. had no use for Pidgeon’s baritone, as musicals were out of vogue.
Pidgeon also sang in Universal’s first talkie, Melody of Love (1928), which may or may not be a musical. (Someone will have to find it, and see it, before we know for sure.)
Pidgeon endured a downturn in his film career and returned to New York for a spell in the 1930s, but as we know, he rebounded very nicely.
I’m planning to write more about Bernice Claire and Kiss Me Again soon, so consider this a teaser of sorts …