Saturday, July 14, 2018

Joan's Best Buddy

When I interviewed the late Sherwood Schwartz for my book on Joan Davis, he told me that the star's favorite TV sidekick (her "Ethel Mertz") was actress Geraldine Carr, who played Joan Stevens' buddy Mabel. That made me wonder why Miss Carr did not appear in the later episodes of I Married Joan filmed. The sad answer, as some research disclosed, was that she died in a car crash on September 2, 1954, while the series was still in production.

The recurring TV role was a career break for the up-and-coming actress, whose previous credits included supporting roles in The Sniper (1952), as Arthur Franz's unsympathetic supervisor, and in The Long, Long Trailer (1954). Miss Carr made two guest appearances on I Married Joan, in non-recurring parts, before being cast as neighbor Mabel. Seen frequently during Season Two, she was contracted for regular appearances the following year, until tragedy struck. She was 40 years old at the time her life was so abruptly cut short.

For many reasons, I'm glad that I Married Joan is currently enjoying a revival on the Decades cable channel; one is the opportunity to appreciate the work of gifted performers no longer with us. For more on this underappreciated comedy series and its cast, please see my book Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Girl Called Jeff

Born July 10, 1921, (Miss) Jeff Donnell somehow persuaded studio executives to keep her boyish nickname when she came to Hollywood. (Her given name was Jean Marie.) Making her film debut in My Sister Eileen (1942), she went on to a fine career as a character actress. While she rarely had the opportunity to play substantive roles in top-quality films, she worked steadily throughout the 1940s and beyond.

One of her best-known roles was as the wife of comedian George Gobel on his 1950s television series. TV continued to be a source of steady work for Donnell, who made guest appearances in Mister Ed, Perry Mason, Barnaby Jones, and many other popular shows. In the 1980s, she had a recurring role as Stella, maid to the wealthy Quartermaine family, on the daytime soap General Hospital. She passed away from a heart ailment in 1988.

Would anyone out there like to read a book about her?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Maltin's Movie Memories

"Leonard Maltin has a new book." That's probably as much review as Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom (GoodKnight Books) needs from the likes of me. But I can and will say a little more about this delightful collection of essays and interviews aimed squarely at the hearts of readers who love the movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Here, Maltin goes back to the earliest days of his career, as a starstruck teenager interviewing his silver screen heroes for Film Fan Monthly. In those sessions, and even more so the later ones that follow, you sense the subjects' pleasure at being questioned by someone who knows their work inside and out. Director John Cromwell offers fascinating memories from his film Of Human Bondage, working with a young and hungry Bette Davis. But it's not only the giants and the masterpieces that merit space. I loved the interview with Paul Wurtzel, whose father Sol ran Fox's B movie factory in tbe 30s --and apparently worked himself into a frenzy doing it.

It's a safe bet that almost any reader can identify one or two favorite chapters here. I especially enjoyed "Act Three: Television," which examines how veteran performers like Buster Keaton and Lillian Gish extended their careers by embracing the new medium. Who'd've guessed that, of all people, Johnny Crawford, kid star of The Rifleman, was a silent movie buff thrilled to learn that crew members and actors from that era could often be found on his own set?

As I mentioned here before, I was pretty bummed when Maltin's annual movie guide ceased publication after so many years. I'm thrilled that he continues to share his knowledge through this irresistible new book.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dorothy Baxter, Meet Ann Romano

The best role on Hazel was, of course, the sometimes maddening yet always endearing maid played by Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning Shirley Booth. Next in line was Don DeFore, as the boss with whom she regularly butted heads. That sometimes left co-star Whitney Blake, as the mistress of the household, bringing up the rear. "I have had to build the character," the actress told TV Guide in 1963."No one knew anything about Dorothy -- not even Ted Key, the cartoonist who created Hazel ... It's hard to create a role with so few lines." Nevertheless, she made herself a key element of a show viewers embraced. Of Hazel's popularity, she said, "We make people happy. We don't deal with deep problems. People tell me it's refreshing to see our show, that they never miss it because they feel good afterwards."

Written out of the series in 1965, Miss Blake continued to act periodically, but also brought to light other gifts. She hosted a local talk show, Boutique, on Los Angeles' KCBS-TV. And in 1975, she attained new recognition as co-creator of the CBS sitcom One Day at a Time. It depicted family life quite differently than Hazel. The premise -- a divorced woman raising children -- came from her own experience. Not only had she been a child of divorce, but she went on to be a single mother to her own kids (including daughter Meredith Baxter) after splitting from her first husband.

It was a situation that TV up until then had mostly ignored. "This country swarms with divorced women having to be both mother and father to their children," she told the Los Angeles Times' Cecil Smith in 1975. "But as far is television is concerned, they don't exist." Blake and her third husband Allan Manings, who was then producing Good Times, successfully pitched the concept to Norman Lear. The result was a hit show that ran nine years. 

Whitney Blake died of esophageal cancer in 2002, but she is remembered for the way she helped depict family life on classic TV -- both as actress and writer. For more on Hazel and its cast, please see my book Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On a Claire Day

Sometimes it seems as if author Derek Sculthorpe can write a book in the time it takes me to run to the post office, or decide what to have for dinner. But you know what really gets my goat? Sculthorpe, who's now released four books about the ladies and gentlemen of film noir, isn't just fast, he's good. Very good.

His latest, Claire Trevor: The Life and Films of the Queen of Noir (McFarland), is an intriguing study of the actress whose finely etched performances were integral to such classics as Key Largo and Murder, My Sweet. Sculthorpe takes us behind the scenes of Trevor's films and introduces us to a smart, self-aware woman who managed her career with care and savvy. (Itching to escape from a B-movie rut in the 1930s, the actress said of her studio's bread-and-butter pictures, "I know all about why they are necessary. I just don't want to be in them!")  He also calls our attention to some noteworthy Trevor performances you may have missed.

You might be wary of meeting some of the tough, ruthless dames Claire Trevor played onscreen. But you'll enjoy getting to know the real Miss Trevor in this compelling, rigorously researched yet readable book.

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mistress of Mean: Cathy Lewis of "Hazel"

Cathy Lewis as Hazel's best nemesis.
As many actors and actresses learned over Shirley Booth's long career, it wasn't easy to hold your own in scenes with the star of Broadway, film, and the hit TV comedy Hazel (1961-66). One clearly up to the task was Cathy Lewis (1916-1968), the recurring guest player who created the memorably haughty character of Deirdre Thompson, George Baxter's sister. Deirdre was not a very likable lady; she looked down her nose at Hazel for being a domestic, coldly snubbed any attempt at familiarity, and told her sister-in-law Dorothy, "Why you and George persist in keeping that woman, I'll never understand!"
Cathy (left) and Marie Wilson in My Friend Irma.

Before coming to Hazel, Cathy Lewis was one of radio's most highly respected and versatile actresses. As she told an interviewer in 1952, "It isn't an easy medium, either. It takes less time, perhaps, than television, but don't let anyone fool you that you just read words off a page of script. Projecting a strong characterization into [a] microphone with the voice alone is hard work all the way." Her biggest claim to fame was the role of Jane Stacy on My Friend Irma, the level-headed, somewhat sardonic pal of the harebrained lead character played by Marie Wilson. That job helped her transition into television in the 1950s, where her other roles included the female lead in an unsuccessful video adaptation of radio's Fibber McGee and Molly.

Sadly, Cathy's life was cut short not long after Hazel came to an end, when she died of cancer in 1968, only 51 years old. Like Shirley Booth, she was quite a trouper. Mean as Deirdre was to poor Hazel, it's a safe bet Miss Booth knew full well what a valuable contribution this fine actress made to her classic television series. You can read more about Hazel and its cast in my book Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Gale at a TVparty!

I'm thrilled by TVparty's review of Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record, which calls the book "a real page-turner," adding, "Tucker specializes in the kind of exhaustive research that results in compelling storytelling."

Go here to read the full review, then here or here to get your own copy.