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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

MENTAL MONTAGE: Random Act(or)s of Kindness

The eternal Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, defends Olivia De Havilland's 
Maid Marian.

Our movie stars are our heroes. Whether fighting for true love, knocking the bad guys around, or even saving the world, they always come out on top, making us believe in our heart of hearts that somehow everything is going to be all right. Of course, after the director yells cut, these actors and actresses are brought back to earth with the rest of us, and their colossal onscreen efforts, more often than not, stand in sharp contrast to the normal, every day lives they lead. Thus, it is comforting to hear that someone we all admire is actually deserving of our admiration beyond the bounds of performance. The following stories introduce a slew of good deeds by our celebrity immortals, who in some way or other went above and beyond for their common man.

A little kindness goes a long way, so when a larger-than-life figure delivers a dose of goodness, it seems to speak in louder volumes than when the rest of us do it. There are certain individuals who used their power for good with regard to those beneath them on the totem pole. Par example: Robert Mitchum. The tough guy with a poet's heart (right) was always looking out for the little guy. When RKO cracked down on budgets and cut out donuts and coffee on the set for the cast and crew of 1951's His Kind of Woman, Bob was irked. He thought it was only fair that those who worked hard for the studio should-- at the very least-- get a good breakfast. Bob was known for being a hard worker and a punctual one, but he used his clout to needle the studio by coming to set late every morning after this. His reason? He was using studio time to shop for coffee and donuts for everyone on the set. It meant a lot to every one he worked with, and with the schedule lagging behind because of this minor heroism, the studio finally caved and returned donuts and coffee to the menu. Bob showed up for work on time from then on out.

Ingrid Bergman also lent a hand to a female co-star. Rhonda Fleming (left) worked with Ingrid during Spellbound, her first motion picture, with Hitchcock no less. Needless to say, she was a bit nervous, but she had no need to be. When she met the beautiful and illustrious Ingrid for the first time, Ingrid came up to her, shook her hand and said, "At last! Eyeball to eyeball!" Both of the women were tall, with Ingrid being 5'10" and Rhonda being 5'8", and the former was glad to not be hovering over the ingenue. They had few scenes together, but Rhonda got a chance to talk to Ingrid between takes. She confided that her young husband was overseas fighting in the second World War. Not long after, Ingrid would travel abroad to entertain the troops. When she landed in Germany, she made sure to look up Rhonda's husband and introduce herself, which was a real treat to him. She called Rhonda to tell her that her man was healthy and happy. It meant a lot to the young actress, and she worshipped Ingrid even more after that.

These helping hands on the professional level also extend to casting. More than one actor has aided a fellow struggling performer by insisting that he or she be given a certain role. Star of the Month Groucho Marx was instrumental in giving Marilyn Monroe her first big break. When casting began for Love Happy, the final of the Marx Brothers' films, three ingenues were brought in to audition for the role of the sexy client who comes knocking on Detective Sam Grunion's door (see right). The scene was brief, but it needed an eye-catching girl. So, the three women paraded in front of Groucho one at a time, and producer Lester Cowan asked which he preferred. Groucho replied, "You've gotta be kidding! How can you choose anyone else but that girl?!" He was of course, referring to Marilyn. He saw a potential in her, along with her extreme beauty, and gave her a major boost in her career. It was not the role of a lifetime, nor the one that would bring her notoriety, but with it she was able to increase her experience and her fan following. With Marilyn, it seems she was destined for fame, but without Groucho, who knows what would've happened?

Leslie Howard also had an opinion or two when it came time to cast The Petrified Forest (left) with Bette Davis. He had performed in the stage version with Humphrey Bogart on Broadway, and the two became good friends. Leslie was a bigger star at this point, but he was impressed with Bogie's talent and believed that his career would really take off if only given the chance. Initially, Warner Bros. didn't want Bogart to resume his role in the screen adaptation of the play, but Leslie used his star power to insist. In fact, he refused to appear in the film himself should Bogie be denied his rightful place opposite him. Humphrey indeed got the part, and though it was the later The Maltese Falcon that would push him over the edge into cinematic legend, he was forever grateful to his friend for this small favor. In fact, he would name his daughter Leslie Howard Bogart as a thank you.

Margaret Sullavan was equally instrumental in helping a young Jimmy Stewart in his early career. The two had met and dated briefly when Jimmy was stage-managing one of Margaret's plays. While she soon after rose to stardom via Only Yesterday and So Red the Rose, Jimmy was still feebly trying to make a name for himself. She never forgot the good-humored boy, though. So, when an opening came up for a male lead in Next Time We Love, she hand-picked him as her costar. The studio almost immediately reneged on the deal after seeing his inexperience in the dailies. Margaret fought for him though and rehearsed with him privately each night, (much as Barbara Stanwyck would do with the young William Holden during Golden Boy). Jimmy improved quickly and audiences responded to the pair. Margaret once again insisted on Jimmy when they re-teamed for The Shop Worn Angel. The film was such a hit, that MGM finally had to admit that they had quite the asset on their hands. Jimmy's star would continue rising thanks to performances in You Can't Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but Jimmy might never have 'Gone to Hollywood' had it not been for one of his biggest fans and best friends-- many gossiped that the two were engaged in a lifelong, unconsummated love affair. Their four films together remain classics, including the most memorable, The Shop Around the Corner (right).

Not all of these gifts remain in the acting circle; sometimes the goodness these performers did extended far beyond the confines of the movie set. In fact, in certain cases the personal stances they made had moral implications. For example, when Grace Kelly was dining at The Stork Club in New York in the early '50s, she couldn't help but overhear a ruckus that was taking place in the restaurant. Apparently, the notorious and talented Josephine Baker was being denied entre due to her skin color. Grace was outraged! She rose from her chair, walked over to the commotion, grabbed Josephine by the hand, and stormed out, vowing never to return! Josephine, who was normally much more extroverted, (see left), was quite shocked to see the iconically placid ice queen playing the raging heroine! Grace proved to be an ally, and from that night on the strangers would indeed became good friends. Grace never did return to The Stork Club, and when Josephine died of a stroke in 1975, Grace continued her generosity by paying for her funeral expenses and arranging for her to be buried close by in Monaco.

John Garfield is often cited as the pre-method "method" actor, paving the way for Marlon Brando, Maureen Stapleton, and Eli Wallach with his raw intensity and honesty. These qualities followed him off the soundstage. Often playing edgy, hard-knock characters who yet maintained an uncanny likability, he was a bad boy that audiences embraced, much as they had James Cagney's anger fueled characterizations. The world that Garfield was raging against was the same one viewers existed in all the time in the real world. They trusted him, believing he would never let them down. They weren't wrong. When John (right) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a witness, his career was put in jeapardy if he refused to "name names." However, just as in his films, John was no rat. He kept his lips sealed, refusing to throw any friends he had under the bus. Though he himself was not a communist, he believed that in America everyone should be entitled to the freedom of thought at the very least. He said, in effect, "No one likes a snitch." His career started to decline after this action, and he would pass away not much later in New York due to a heart attack, though many would claim it was HUAC and his treatment by the industry afterward that killed him. The legend of his acting and his courage has enabled him to have the last laugh.

There too are legitimate heroes and lifesavers in the world of cinema. John Gilbert was a swashbuckling lover onscreen, often saving actresses like Eleanor Boardman (left in Bardelys the Magnificent) or Norma Shearer from danger. However, in reality, it would be his own daughter, Leatrice Gilbert (Fountain) whose life he would legitimately save. John had divorced from Leatrice Joy in 1925 shortly after baby Leatrice was born. It left him brokenhearted. Because John was still in love with his ex-wife, it was often difficult for him to be around her, which put a great deal of distance between him and his daughter. However, he was always watching. One day, when living with her mother near the beach, Leatrice ventured out too far in the waves and began to drown. Before she knew what was happening, she was pulled back onto the beach. As she regained consciousness and got her bearings, she soon realized that the handsome rescuer looking down at her was her own father! John scolded her for swimming out too far, sent her back home to her mother, and disappeared almost like a dream. The man who had seemed so distant was in fact her guardian angel.

Finally, Lon Chaney was the soldier of pain for nearly the entire world. The underdogs, the hardened criminals with aching hearts, and the forgotten men were all represented by him (see his dark side, right, in The Blackbird). No one understood sorrow like Lon, and no one fought so hard to give his performances the vitality and brutality of the hard truth. Though very secretive in his private life, those who befriended and worked with him got to catch a glimpse of the kind and decent man behind the myth. Whether preparing Christmas cards for the entire lot or seeing to it that work always ended at five-- even if production was put behind schedule-- just to give the extras another paid day of work, he won the respect of many he met. It would have fooled many fans, whom were often left quaking in their boots, to know what a gentleman and gentle man he truly was. But Lon knew the power of his dark image and used it. For example, one day someone happened to pass him on the lot and saw that he was picking up a nest of fallen birds. Lon cupped the chirping creatures delicately in his hands and placed them gently back into their tree. When he saw that he was being watched he said, "Whatever you do, don't tell anyone. Everyone thinks I'm so hard-broiled, I'll never live it down!"

One more accurate example of heroism occurred when Lon was just starting out at Universal with Carl Laemmle. At this time, the many actors were sharing dressing rooms, which were small and cramped-- far from the lavish star apartments they would later become. In fact, at one point he and Jean Hersholt shared a dressing room! Universal City was like a happy home for these thespians. A unique and independent movie town, everybody knew everybody else. They were like family. It was not all fun and games however. Lon once passed the dressing room of a young actress, whom he must have heard weeping in pain. Upon investigation, he discovered that the girl was suffering the consequences of a botched abortion. The details of the occurrence are quite fuzzy, primarily because whatever happened, Lon kept a secret-- he was not one to gossip, particularly about the sad case of a troubled young girl-- but it is known that he saved her life. The girl had allegedly had an affair with a prominent, unnamed director, become pregnant, and tried to self-induce the abortion. Lon arrived in the nick of time, picked her up, and carried her to the studio hospital. Had he not been passing at that moment and offered his services to the distressed stranger, whose life was literally slipping away, she may have become yet another one of Hollywood tragedies. (Lon shows his softer side, left, with a gorgeous Joan Crawford in The Unknown).

Whether extending a hand to a friend in need or giving a boost to a complete stranger, these few stars proved themselves to be worthy of the iconic heroism often bestowed upon them by fans. Few knew about the behind-the-scenes gestures that made them flesh and blood champions, choosing instead to worship these golden idols for their cinematic performances. Both sides of the coin are admirable, but the aforementioned little bits of information make the magic they produced on the screen shine much more brightly. Perhaps the elusive "it" factor people can see echoing out from the eyes of their favorite personalities often has a great deal to do with the genuine goodness within.


  1. Fans of John Garfield might be interested in checking out music video of a folk song about him from the 1980s, "Ballad of John Garfield," that was posted at following youtube link:

  2. Great post, as always! I've decided to feature a different blogger every month and you're going to be my first one! Thought you should know!

  3. Thanks so much Sally!!! Trust me, I know it is hard to keep up the reading. It's hard enough even trying to find time to write. I am honored to be your first featured blogger. You are the sweetest ;). Thanks, as always, for reading and contributing your thoughts. Have a great week!!!