TNT and me

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“The Show of Shows,” a 1929 Warner Bros. studio revue, was among the hundreds of seldom-viewed movies that found new life after TNT debuted in 1988.

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.

I learned to time middle-of-the-night bottle feedings to select TNT screenings … The Hollywood Revue of 1929The Thirteenth ChairThe Great Divide … and, yeah, Show of Shows. As I rocked my first boy — and, not long after, my second — to sleep with the black-and-white images flickering in the background, I wanted to think, “Someday, son, maybe you’ll enjoy watching Betty Compson and Lawrence Gray as much as I do.”

Yeah, great times. The movies were pretty good, too, as I recall.

Edwina Booth: Lost in the jungle

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The gears of Hollywood publicity moved quickly for Edwina Booth as the 1931 release of “Trader Horn” approached — but the life of the promising young actress soon soured.

Among all of the Hollywood stories of broken dreams, one of the saddest is that of a beautiful young blonde — born 114 years ago today — against whose ambition for stardom the fates cruelly conspired.

She was born, and died, as Constance Woodruff, but if you know of her, it is as Edwina Booth, who won what she thought was the role of a lifetime in the MGM super-production Trader Horn (1931). The physical and emotional suffering that followed made that accomplishment hollow – and Booth’s demise the province of urban legend.

Constance, a demure girl from a Mormon family in Utah, came to Los Angeles in 1925 and landed a couple of minor picture parts. Then she got noticed – as an “extra girl” beating out hundreds of aspirants to co-star as the African jungle’s “White Goddess” in Trader Horn – the much-ballyhooed film version of the best-selling book.

Multitudes clamored to see the “Goddess” who, in the story, is sought by the titular white trader (played by action star Harry Carey) and his young companion (portrayed by Duncan Renaldo). Unfortunately, journeying to Africa for many months of location shooting was part of the “dream” assignment.

Booth endured poor treatment by the studio, which, she would allege, ordered her to sunbathe nude on the deck of the ship on its way to the jungle and failed to provide her with protective clothing during the long stay in the wild, with its thorny brush and insect hordes.

Shooting was delayed even longer – leading to nearly a year total, including most of 1929 – as sound equipment, deemed necessary because of the industry transition to talking films, had to be shipped to the crew. Director W.S. Van Dyke and his charges didn’t return to the U.S. until early 1930, and Van Dyke had shot so much footage that the film would not be readied for its premiere until May 1931.

Booth received the requisite publicity push – the film was a huge popular success — but she could enjoy nothing during her abbreviated period as a star. Within weeks after her return to America, and even before Trader Horn opened, there were rumors – perhaps even encouraged by MGM for publicity’s sake – about her weakened condition via a jungle germ that threatened to claim her life within months. In the fall of 1930, a fan-magazine sob sister printed a dramatic interview with Booth about her harrowing experience:

“The worst was not sleeping … not more than ten minutes at a time all those months,” Booth said.  “And since I’ve been home, it’s the same. I wake up, thinking I’m back, thinking I hear the drums, and the hyenas sleeping and the natives chanting. Did you know that when any of the village people are sick, they take them out and abandon them in the forest to die? We saw that happen. …

“But I’m much better. I can sleep an hour at a time now. I’m ready to go back to work whenever they need me. It was terrible – and wonderful, too.”

Then things turned really terrible. Booth endured an alienation-of-affection accusation from the wife of her Trader Horn co-star Duncan Renaldo. And she did get sick … very sick. Booth had come down with malaria and dysentery while in Africa.

Contrary to legend, Booth did not return to obscurity immediately. She actually ground out four Poverty Row films after Trader Horn. The Vanishing Legion (1931) and The Last of the Mohicans (1932) were low-budget serials that reteamed Booth with Harry Carey. The Midnight Patrol (1932) was a routine murder mystery with Mary Nolan (another too-soon Hollywood casualty) down the cast list. Trapped in Tia Juana (1932) matched Booth with Renaldo again, but by then Booth was ready to retire to her sickbed.

And there she stayed … for more than five years, her career done before it had really started. Booth collected a mere $35,000 in a $1 million lawsuit against MGM that was settled out of court in 1936.

Her family took care of Booth, who popped in and out of the news throughout the 1930s as newspapers recorded her ups and downs. In 1936, she was judged well enough to walk on her own for the first time in many months. By 1938, she was forced to leave her beloved Utah to return to Los Angeles for more treatment. Her father told a wire-service reporter that “she suffers slight relapses at intervals in the long fight against the illness.”

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In 1936, the recovering Edwina Booth (with her doctor) posed optimistically for the newspaper camera.

Booth recovered enough to marry twice more (she had divorced her first husband in the early 1930s). Constance took back her birth name, and she lived quietly with her third husband. Their lives centered on their work in an LDS temple, and most of Connie’s friends during her twilight years knew nothing of her life as Edwina.

Meanwhile, many folks thought that Edwina Booth had died back in the ’30s. The misinformation continued as late as 1987, when Katharine Hepburn repeated the claim of Booth’s early death in her book “The Making of ‘The African Queen.’”

On May 18, 1991, the truth came permanently to light after Edwina Booth/Constance Woodruff passed on, at age 86 in a convalescent hospital in Long Beach, California. Her husband had perished seven years before, so it was left to the actress’s brother to report her death to the news media.

“Her death has been wrongly reported so many times …,” Booth Woodruff told the Los Angeles Times. “But this time she really did die.”

 

SOURCES

“Hollywood Sub-Stories: Hidden Away, Edwina Booth Still Is Haunted by the Horrors She Saw,” Motion Picture Classic, September 1930.

“Edwina Booth Continues Health Battle,” United Press report, cited from Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, October 4, 1938.

“Edwina Booth: White Goddess of Classic Film Trader Horn,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1991.

(The most complete account of Edwina Booth’s life can be found in a series of stories from 2006 by D. Robert Carter for the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Look here and at related links.)

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Edwina Booth as she looked during her brief peak of stardom.