Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Born Today May 3: Bing Crosby (Not So Silent Edition)


Born Harry Crosby Jr. in Tacoma, Washington; he was three when his parents moved the family to Spokane, where he grew up.  He acquired his nickname of Bing at the age of seven, when an older neighborhood boy started calling him "Bingo from Bingville" after a local popular satirical columnist's serials in a newspaper.  This morphed into Bing and stuck.  In 1917 he took a job at the local auditorium and was enthralled by the acts he was able to see there free of charge--amongst them Al Jolson.  He was bitten by the professional music bug and had gained a love of the stage.  He graduated from high school in 1920. Obviously he is such a towering figure in the 20th century American consciousness, there is no point to go into his full history.  He is commemorated here only because he, by 1928, had managed to help pen a tune that made it into a very, very early musical (a small part actually silent in nature), The Singing Fool in 1928, ironically starring Al Jolson.  The rest is history, of course.  Crosby died on October 14, 1977 just outside Madrid in Spain after an enjoyable game of golf.  He had been battling illnesses and injury since around 1974.  For more see his Wikipedia entry below. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, CA. next to his first wife Dixie; his grave marker mistakes the correct year of his birth.

IMDb (note that Internet Movie Database also gets his birthday wrong by the day)

Monday, May 2, 2016

Born Today May 2: Hedda Hopper


Born Elda Furry in Hollidaysville, Pennsylvania to a "Pennsylvania Dutch" (German) family that was staunchly German Baptist Brethren; an influence that would stay with her all her life, especially in role as a notorious Gossip Columnist.  She had six siblings and the family resided in Altoona as of Elda's third birthday.  Before transforming into the columnist that she became (in)famous for, she had quite a long acting career. This started in New York City, where she had relocated in order to break in chorus line work on Broadway.  She did manage to get parts in this capacity, but was not very good at it and was famously fired by the renowned Broadway big-wig the Shubert Brothers.  She eventually found work in a staged matinee where she met it's owner DeWolf Hopper, whom she would later marry and have her only child with--famed Perry Mason actor William Hopper.  She began then to hone her acting skills and was eventually awarded a lead role in a touring stage production of The Country Boy.  It was at the time of her marriage to DeWolf Hopper that she changed her first name to Hedda, as her real first name was too similar to several of his previous 5 wives!  It was also at this time that she started acting in motion pictures.  The first film that she appeared in was in 1916, The Battle of Hearts, and was billed under her birth name.  The next two films in which she appeared, both in 1917, she was, for some reason, billed as "Elda Millar" (her mother's maiden name was Miller, why the change in spelling is a mystery).  It wasn't until the next year that she was finally billed under married name in Virtuous Wives, when she was credited as "Mrs. DeWolf Hopper."  From then on, she was credited as Hedda Hopper.  Her first partial sound film came in 1927 with an uncredited role in the huge production that was Wings; however there was no dialog in sound, only sound effects and a soundtrack by Western Electric Sound System.  It would be fully two years later before she would appear in another sound film, with many appearances in late silents in between.  That came with her role in Girls Gone Wild (1929) (a most unfortunate title since the schmuck that was filming girls on spring break in the 90's called his series the same thing!).  The film was in full mono sound provided by MovieTone.  Though she continued to appear steadily in films right up through the year 1940 (and would, indeed, accept a few scant roles right up to the year she died); her acting career started to slip in the mid-1930's.  She began to look for alternative sources of earned income.  Hopper was known as a notorious gossip, so when the Los Angeles Times offered her the opportunity to write a Hollywood gossip column, she naturally jumped at it.  Thus she began the career that she is most known for.  Her first column appeared in the Valentine's Day edition of the paper in 1938, and things took off from there. She became quite the vicious writer, and was reportedly quite vicious person in actual life.  She started a rivalry with Louella Parsons, who had arguably created the role of the film columnist, and with whom Hopper had been friendly with when she was acting.  The column would soon lead her to radio, where she had a spot on Hollywood romance and scandalous divorces.  Her strict religious upbringing "informed" her politics, about which she was very vocal; she was an unrepentant Republican.  Her darkest moments in the political arena came in the era of communist scares in Hollywood, when she basically came up with name after name, with no evidence, to hand over the Hollywood Blacklist.  She was also a very strong supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had origins in congressional committees going back to the 1910's and created the Hollywood Blacklist.  It was also closely associated in the popular mind and in the press with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the infamous Junior Senator from Wisconsin--though he never had anything officially to do with the committee, and, indeed, had never served in the House of Representatives.  Future disgraced president Richard Nixon however, did serve on the committee; being that he was from California, Hopper was a supporter.  Hedda Hopper died on February 1, 1966 of double pneumonia at the age of 80.  Her body was sent back to her home state for burial.  Her last acting role came earlier that same year, when she played the role of "Hedda, the Mad Hatter" in in a musical television adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor and Sammy Davis Jr.  Hopper had long been known for her very large hats. She is buried Rose Hill Cemetery in Altoona, Penn. where she grew up.  Her grave marker states that she born in 1890, which does not match her birth certificate.  She was succeeded in death in 1970 by her only child William. Just as side note:  she was recently played by the great Helen Mirren in the 2015 release Trumbo, about blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, assayed by the equally great Bryan Cranston (an interesting recently published article about her in the 1960's in Variety can be found here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Born Today May 1: Leila Hyams


Born in New York City into a vaudeville family on May Day, she was named after her performing mother--who was also a successful dramatic stage actress.  Both of her parents went on to appear in films in their own right, often together, ironically continuing to work in film after their daughter had retired from the profession.  As is the case with children born into the vaudeville life, "little Leila" appeared as a child on stage with her parents. When older, as a teenager, she began a modeling career; appearing in series of widely published newspaper advertisements, which got the attention of Hollywood.  She appeared in her first film, Sandra, in 1924 at the age of 19.  Although her appearances in silent film number well into double digits, it was her work in early talkies of the 1930's that she is most remembered for.  Her most famous role came in Tod Browning's 1932 controversial horror drama Freaks, as the wise-cracking Venus.  As with most actors born into vaudeville childhood stage appearances, she was easily a hit in sound film; the first film to have any sort of sound that she appeared in came in 1928 with the partial silent Land of the Silver Fox, a Rin Tin Tin feature. He first fully mono sound film came with her very next film appearance, also in 1928, in Alias Jimmy Valentine, starring Lionel Barrymore. After appearing in more than 50 films, fully 21 of which are from the 1920's, she decided to retire from acting in 1936; however she remained in the Hollywood circle until death from a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 72 in Bel Air. She was cremated and her ashes scattered.  

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Born Today February 18: Edward Arnold


Born Gunther Edward Arnold Schneider in New York City to German immigrant parents; he went to school at the East Side Settlement House.  His interest in acting came at an early age and he made his stage debut at the age of 12 in The Merchant Of Venice, playing the role of Lorenzo.  He made his professional stage debut in 1907.  After this, he found work as an extra with Essanay Studios after it's move from Chicago westward.  Many of these roles do not show up in his list of credits.  He first credited role, and on IMDb it looks like his first film role, came in 1916 with The Misleading Lady.  By 1917 he was getting lead roles in silent films.  His last credited role in a silent film came in 1920 with The Cost.  The last silent film in which appeared was simply as an extra in the huge cast of Victor Sjöström's He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney Sr. Arnold then left the motion picture industry for the stage; he would not return until well into the talking era.  He made his film return in 1932 in the short Murder in the Pullman and from then on had steady work, becoming one of Hollywood's most recognizable character actors.  His specialties became characters that were either authoritarian figures or rogues.  In the 1947 he became the star of his own radio show Mr. President, which ran through 1953.  He also got into television work in the 1950's.  In addition to his acting career, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1940 through 1942; and he was co-founder of I Am An American Foundation. He worked right up until the time of death at the age of 66; in all he would appear in more than 150 films.  His last time in front a camera came as the host of the television program Strange Stories the year of his death. He passed away suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage on the 23rd of April 1956 in Encino, California.  He is  buried in the catholic San Fernando Mission Cemetery in the Mission Hills part of Los Angeles.  He grave marker somewhat comically states, "He's not dead--He's just away."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Born Today February 17: Mary Brian


Mary Brain was born Louise Byrdie Dantzler in Corsicana, Texas.  Unfortunately, her father died when she was just a month old and the family moved to Dallas.  In the early 1920's the family relocated to Long Beach, California; where here mother hoped to get her into the motion picture industry.  She was entered into a beauty contest there at the age of 16.  One of the judges was movie star Esther Ralston.  She did not win the $25 dollar first prize, but Ralston, feeling sorry for her, arranged a consolation prize:  an interview with director Herbert Brenon, who was casting for his upcoming production of Peter Pan (1924).  He liked her in the tests for the main part of Wendy Moira Angela Darling; and loved that she was an unknown.  She was put under contract with Paramount Pictures; it was at this time that the studio changed her name to Mary Brian.  She then had very steady work throughout the 1920's.  The studio had put out that she was two years younger than she actually was, and she was eventually dubbed "the sweetest girl in pictures."  By the mid-1920's she had become so popular that Paramount was even willing to loan her out to MGM; which they did for the film Brown Of Harvard (1926).  That same year, along with a host of other young Hollywood luminaries, she was named one of that year's WAMPAS Baby Stars.  During her time with Paramount, she starred in over 40 films.  Her first speaking role came in 1928 with Varsity, a partial silent that had a few talking sequences, with sound by Western Electric (it amongst the long list of lost films, unfortunately). Her first full sound talkie came in 1929 with Black Waters.  Also in 1929, she would have a major role in one the earliest, and most influential, talking westerns, The Virginian, opposite rising star Gary Cooper. The last film that she made in the 1920's was The Marriage Playgrounda return to the partial silent format, with only a few speaking lines.  By the early 1930's, her contract with Paramount was up and she went into freelance mode, unusual for the time. She also got stage experience by performing live vaudeville in New York.  This allowed her to make a successful transition into speaking roles; something that was highly unusual for silent stars that did not start out on the live stage before appearing in films.  She went on to have steady work in film all during the 1930's.  By the early 1940's, she was involved in stage work that took her around the world.  She was also involved in entertaining troops in both the Pacific and Europe live during WWII; she spent Christmas of 1944 with American troops fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.  After this, her acting career began to wane some.  The last full length film that she appeared in was Dragnet in 1947.  In the 1950's she transitioned to television, having a major role as Janet Archer in Meet Corliss Archer (1954-1955), the last acting role that she would have.  After the show was canceled, she quit acting to work with her second husband George Tomasini's work as film editor for Alfred Hitchcock.  Personally, she devoted her time to her lifelong love of portrait painting.  She lived to the age of 96, passing away from natural causes on the 30th of December in 2002 in Del Mar, CA.  She is buried under her married name "Mary Brian Tomasini" Forest Lawn Memorial Park, next to her husband George, who had passed away in 1964.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Born Today February 16: Chester Morris


Born John Chester Brooks Morris to acting parents:  his father a Broadway actor and his mother a successful comedian, in New York City.  As a child, he became very interested in magic tricks, and was a self-taught top amateur magician by adulthood.  He began his acting career at the age of 15. After dropping out of school; he went straight to Broadway; acting opposite of Lionel Barrymore in The Copperhead.  He made his film debut the following year in An Amateur Orphan, which starred Gladys Leslie (the film is now considered lost). Though he appeared in 3 more films between the years 1919 and 1925; his film acting career did not actually take off until the year 1929--having spent his time in the 1920's on the stage.  When he did return to films, his acting was immediately noticed.  His performance in the early all talking Alibi (1929) earned him a nomination for an Academy Award in the the Best Actor category.  His next film, Fast Life, also an all talking film, is also, unfortunately lost.  In all, the four films that he made in in 1929 was early talkies, though Woman Trap, had a silent version.  He had become so popular in film as such a fast pace, he even appeared in the Hollywood extravaganza The Show of Shows; representing both Broadway and Hollywood at the same time. Because of this, he appears in not one, but two skits in the musical.  By the mid 1930's, his Hollywood star began to fade and he found himself accepting lead roles in B-pictures.  He wound up in the serial part of "Boston Blackie" and made several films in that role; even playing the role on the radio in the 1940's.  During World War II, he performed numerous magical skits to entertain troops at USO shows.  The 1950's found him making television appearances on a steady and regular basis, with his first appearance coming as a magician in 1950 on a show called Cameo.  He even made it into one 1950's cult horror film, playing a mad doctor who had magical powers of transformative hypnosis.  He went on acting in television right up until the time of his death.  His last role was "Pop Weaver" in The Great White Hope in 1970, starring James Earl Jones (the film was released after his death).  Before filming began, he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer.  After filming wrapped, he joined a stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial in New Hope, Penn.  On the 11th of September, when he didn't show up for a luncheon date with the producer of the play, Lee R. Yopp; Yopp went to his hotel room, only to find the actor dead on of the floor from a overdose of barbiturates.  His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered over a river in Germany.

As Dr. Carlo Lombardi in The She-Creature (1956)

Friday, February 12, 2016

Born Today February 12: Wallace Ford (Not So Silent Edition)


Born Samuel Jones Grundy in Bolton, England into a working class family; at the age of 3 he was placed with an aunt and uncle because his family low fortunes would not allow them to keep children.  They in turn could not keep him and several other children; so they were placed in an orphanage.  At the age of 7, he got caught up in a program by the British Empire to help populate the Canadian territories.  They did this by shipping orphans from the UK to foster homes in the wilderness there.  He was adopted into a family in Manitoba, but they did not treat him well and he subsequently ran away several times.  He was then passed from foster home to foster home, until he ran away permanently at the age of 11 and joined a touring vaudeville act called "The Winnipeg Kiddies."  This is where is acting career began.  In 1914, when he was 16, he and another kid around the same age named Wallace Ford, decided to travel south, illegally, to the US to seek their fortunes.  Ford, however, was killed when he fell from the train they were hitching a ride on, and was run over by it's wheels.  Gundy then decided to assume his companions name; this is where is came by his stage name.  In the US, he served in the Calvary during World War I and continued in vaudeville.  In 1919, he landed a role in major play in Chicago that wound up being a packed house success; the play then made a successful debut on Broadway.  He then went on to star in many successful Broadway productions throughout the 1920's; after which he made his way out to Hollywood.  His film debut came in 1929 with a bit part in an early talkie, Married in Hollywood; even the poster touted "All Talking."  It wasn't very long before he got noticed.  By 1931, he was in a film with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford:  Possessed.  In 1932, he got a role in a very early film noir starring Jean Harlow:  The Beast of the City.  He had the staring role Tod Browning's infamous Freaks, also in 1932.  By the 1940's he had transformed into a character actor who would go on to make appearances on television--with one notable performance on The Andy Griffith Show.  His last role came in 1965 in A Patch of Blue, as "Ole' Pa."  Following the death of the wife in 1966, to whom he had been married since 1922, he checked himself into living facility for retired actors of film and television; the facility included a hospital.  He died there a few months later of heart failure.  He is buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Born Today February 10: Lon Chaney Jr.


The man who would become a major fixture in the Universal Horror canon, was actually born Creighton Tull Chaney, the son of his a very famous actor father Lon Chaney, who was a horror icon in silent films.  Creighton's mother was a singer who traveled with road shows with her young son.  His childhood was a difficult one.  His parents divorced in 1913, when he was only 7, after a much publicized suicide attempt by his mother in Hollywood.  He then bounced around from various homes and boarding schools, until his father remarried and was able to provide a home for him.  Chaney openly discouraged his young son from going into show business; even telling him that he was too tall to be an actor.  Nonetheless, he did let his son play a bit part in one of his movies in 1922, when "Chaney Jr." was 16 as "Hands of a Boy;"  the film was The Trap (it can be seen at Internet Archive) and was produced by Universal.  This would be the only silent film that he appeared in; and the only time that he came close to getting any sort of acting approval from his father.  The next film that he would have a role in came in 1931, and only as a extra, in The Galloping Ghost--credited under his birth name.  During this hiatus he worked private industry, had gotten married and started a family In 1930, his father died from a battle of throat and lung cancer.  History records that Creighton had been told his mother had died when he was a boy;  and that it was only after his father's death that he found out otherwise.  After the death of his father, he pursued acting full time; but wound up in only bit parts and uncredited roles for most of the 1930's.  By the late 1930's, he was being billed as Lon Chaney Jr.  In 1939, he got his break through role in Of Mice And Men in the role of Lennie Small.  His very next role, in One Million B.C. (1940), with it's heavy makeup job, got him a much coveted contract with Universal.   While he continued to make other types of movies, principally westerns, the studio started to look at him as a actor following his father's legacy of accepting roles requiring heavy makeup.  Well, we all know where this is going....in 1941 to  The Wolf Man! Chaney was type-cast by the part and appeared in many an horror film from then on.  Lon Chaney Jr. died on the 12th of July from various ailments: he had been suffering from Beriberi (a drinkers vitamin B1 deficiency) and liver failure; he finally succumbed to heart failure in San Clemente, CA.  His body was donated to science for medical research.  For years, it was reported that his liver and lungs were kept in specimen jars, as examples of what extreme smoking and alcohol abuse does to human organs.  He has no grave site and no memorial marking his passing.  

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Born Today February 6: Ramon Novarro


Born Jose' Ramón Gil Samaniego in Durango, Mexico to a well off family (his father was a prominent dentist there); the family fled the Mexican Revolution in 1913 and relocated in the Los Angeles area here in the U.S.  His mother, Leonor, was said to be of prominent mixed ancestry and a descendant from the Aztec royal house.  His father's side of the family were pure Castilian.  As a young man in the L.A. area, he decided to study ballet.  By 1917 he had gotten the attention of the movie industry.  He made his motion debut in 1916 in Cecil B. DeMille's epic Joan the Woman as a starving peasant.  By the next year he had steady work in various extra roles; supplementing his income by working as a singing waiter.  By the 1920's, he as being promoted by MGM as a "Latin Lover" type--even as a rival of Rudolph Valentino.  This was done at the urging director Rex Ingram and his wife Alice Terry; early Hollywood friends of Ramon.  It was Terry who suggested that he change his name to "Novarro," though the name had no familial connection and he had plenty of prominent names that he could use that did.  His break through role came in Scaramouche in 1923; a film directed by Rex Ingram.  The film also starred Alice Terry.  By 1925, he had full blown, and well known, leading man status; playing the lead role in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ--his revealing costume causing quite the stir.  After Valentino's untimely demise in 1926, only Novarro was left as Hollywood's Latin Lover.  Oddly he did not make any films in 1926, opting instead for the stage (his work on the stage, is undoubtedly what allowed him to make the transition to talking films).  The Flying Fleet (1929), was his first partial sound film, with the soundtrack and sound effects being provided by Movie Tone.  His next film, the rather infamous The Pagan, in which he plays a "half-caste Pacific islander" who refuses the Christianity of his white father, had a specialized synchronized full musical soundtrack, also by Movie Tone--one of the first of it's kind.  His next role Devil-May Care, based on a French drama, was his first full sound talking film; sound provided by Western Electric.  It also featured on full scene in early 2 strip technicolor.  This would be the last film that he made in the 1920's.  During this time, and through the early 1930's he had prominent roles opposite the greatest leading ladies of their time, including:  Myrna Loy, Greta Garbo, & Lupe Velez; becoming one of the highest paid actors in town.  After his contract with MGM expired in 1935, he made fewer and fewer films; largely retreating from public life.  He developed a drinking problem that was the result of his homosexuality being at odds with his strict Catholic upbringing.  Supposedly, Louis B. Mayer tried on more than one occasion to arrange for a "lavender marriage," the term used for men and women (largely actors) who were gay that marry each other out of convenience; Novarro was having none of it.  Things only got worse for him, when he, and Lupe Velez, Dolores del Rio and James Cagney were all accused of promoting communism in California after they attended a special screening of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Que viva México!.  Fortunately for Novarro, he had used some the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was paid as a leading man to invest smartly in real estate around Hollywood.  His own personal residence as designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  From this he was able to maintain quite an easy lifestyle, working in acting when he felt like it.  It also allowed him to keep a comfortable low profile.  Throughout the rest of his life, he acted sporadically in films and later television, until his horrific death on 30 October in 1968.  Two young men, one a minor and one not (ages 17 and 22)--brothers Tom and Paul Ferguson--were hired by Novarro from an agency for the purposes of sex.  Apparently they thought the actor kept $5000 hidden behind a portrait.  They tied him up and beat him incessantly, demanding to know where the money was (one of them would later deny this part of the story).  Novarro died from asphyxiation on his own blood.  The brothers left the house with the $20 dollars that the actor had in his bath robe.  They were caught, tried and convicted and spent several years in jail, before being released in the 1970's (they were both rearrested several times, and one of them, committed suicide).  Novarro was buried by his sibling under his stage name at the Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles as "Beloved Brother."