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Thursday, June 23, 2011


The ultimate film about the entertainment "cat" race, Stage Door:
Kate Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers.

Clawing your way to the top of the entertainment ladder is no easy feat. After completing the seemingly insurmountable task, which not all are able to do, one can either be left with a deluded feeling of euphoria, which erases all memory of the aforementioned climb, or one can continue to bear the cuts, bruises, and war wounds of his battle, which serve as daily reminders of his lengthy diligence and hard work. The former group can at times get lost in the twisted web of fame and fortune, drifting into the annoying abyss of entitlement and egotism. This outcome is rarely good. The latter group, however, usually maintains a devout gratitude for their good fortune and thus a dignified sort of humility. This creates a better path, one possessing clear-headedness, good business sense, and a compassion for the underdog. In the history of Hollywood, there are several tales of various stars sticking their necks out for other struggling artists-- using their "clout" as it were-- to help someone in a position from which they themselves have fortunately evolved. These instances of professional aid are at times minute, but the effect is always profound to the object in need, who will forever remember a small moment of kindness that-- if he or she was really lucky-- changed everything.

When Lucille Ball was still making the rounds at various studios, she landed a contract at RKO, where she primarily wound up in featured roles and bit parts. Despite the fact that, as far as the studio was concerned, she was just another one of the dime a dozen hopefuls, she was able to ingratiate herself to different people on the lot by being forever professional, completely willing, and incredibly funny. Hard work was not something that she ever had a problem with. Perhaps fellow nose-to-the-grindstone actress Katharine Hepburn took note of this. The two didn't have much a friendship, for Kate was higher on the acting echelon and being primed for stardom (in constant competition with another RKO leading lady, Ginger Rogers), but the duo would come into direct contact one fateful day-- which, coincidentally, could have been catastrophic for Lucy. Lucy was in the makeup chair, being prepped for yet another publicity photo to help test/boost her appeal, when all of a sudden, she was unceremoniously ushered away to make room for Hepburn, who was being readied for her daily shoot on Mary of Scotland (in wardrobe, left). Hepburn, through no fault of her own, took precedence over Lucy's cosmetic needs: Mary was a huge project for the studio. Lucy, pursing her lips, made her way into the next room, only to realize that she had left her tooth caps behind. Trying not to make a fuss or disturb "the Queen," Lucy tried to flag down the beautician who was working on Kate. She waved her arms at him through a dividing window, but to no avail. Though he saw her, he directly snubbed her flailing and continued with his work. Insulted, her temper grew red-hot, until she threw a steaming coffee pot at him! Unfortunately, the pot hit the table only to splatter all over Kate and her regalia. Lucy's eyes surely bulged as she began to panic! With Kate's dress dirtied with brown coffee spots, the shooting for the day couldn't be done and the studio was out thousands of dollars. Yet, when the top dogs came for blood, Kate stood by Lucy and refused to blame her for the incident. She used what little power she had to diffuse the situation instead of engaging in the expected diva-temper-tantrum. Lucy was also aided by Lela Rogers, Ginger's mother, who had been giving her acting lessons at the studio's behest. Lela believed that Lucy was one of the more promising young hopefuls and made this known to the enraged higher ups. Because of these two ladies, Lucy's job was saved-- temporarily. Interestingly, though her time at RKO would not last, she was there long enough to appear in Stage Door with both Hepburn and Rogers.

After RKO, Lucy would have help from another lady of the screen. Struggling to find work, and being told over and over again that her time was past-- that there was nowhere for a woman in her thirties to go in her career but down-- Lucy was having trouble holding onto her dream. Her self-confidence was at a bottom low, which was effecting her mentally and physically. She had even developed a stutter. Out of nowhere, she couldn't get through the most normal of sentences without breaking into stunted syllables. Just as suddenly, Olivia de Havilland (right) entered the picture. The two were not pals, barely having exchanged more than the usual "Hello, how are yous" at various parties and social affairs, but for some reason Olivia had taken a liking to Lucy. Perhaps she saw in the woman a another version of herself-- a fellow female fighter. As such, when word reached her that the funny, bubbly red head was on a downward spiral, she stepped in. She told her agent, Kurt Frings, to take Lucy on as a client and help to turn her career around. She just knew that the girl had "it" and only needed the right project to reach the stardom she deserved. Since no one said "No" to O de H-- a lesson Jack Warner learned all too well-- Frings agreed and added the stunned Lucy to his roster of clients. In a whirl, Lucy was still a nervous wreck when she began shooting on her first Frings induced project, Lover Come Back, opposite George Brent. Yet, she pulled it together, and once the cameras started rolling, she lost the stutter and regained her swagger. She remained eternally grateful to Olivia for her helping hand. It didn't turn out to be Lucy's big break, but it did help her get one step closer to success and kept her afloat during a confusing and back-breaking time.

Husband Desi Arnaz had also received a little help in his early career from none other than fellow crooner Bing Crosby. With Bing (left), judging from various accounts, you either loved him or hated him. Desi was one of the lucky ones who caught him on a good night. A very good night. Desi was a struggling musician touring with Xavier Cugat and his band, for which he played the guitar. Their itinerary eventually took the troupe to Saratoga, where Bing happened to be in attendance. Bing must have been impressed with Desi's playing, because he gleefully introduced himself-- in Spanish no less-- to the starstruck young man. Very friendly, and perhaps aided by a little too much liquor, "Bing-o" got congenial quickly and started asking the tongue-tied Cuban what he was earning for his talents. Desi responded with the sad truth: a measly $30/week. Bing, who knew Xavier, suddenly became Desi's champion. "That cheap bastard!" he roared. "Come on! Let's get you a raise!" He took Desi by the arm and the two marched right up to Cugat. Bing demanded that Cugat up the ante on Desi's paycheck. After being placed on the spot by such a huge superstar, Cugat was forced to agree... With one stipulation: that Bing perform a song with the band that night. Bing agreed, and Desi got his raise. Soon enough, ol' Dizzy had the money and confidence to tour with his own band, which inched him closer to Hollywood and his soul mate, Lucy.

In 1943, Van Johnson was just another struggling actor. Minor roles and extra work were the daily grind, until through a stroke of luck, he found himself cast in a supporting role in a major motion picture: A Guy Named Joe. Van was ecstatic! This could be his big break-- the opportunity of a lifetime. Enjoying his good fortune, he was out driving with friends Keenan and Eve Wynn (Van's future wife, but that's another story) when he was broadsided by another car. It was a serious accident, which left him badly injured. Very badly: a metal plate had to be put in his head! (In his future film work, you can see the noticeable scar). This tragedy couldn't have come at a worse time. His role as Ted Randall in the upcoming film was in jeopardy, for he needed extensive time to recuperate. Victor Fleming was put in the unfortunate position of looking for a replacement, until two angels came out of the wings. Both Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy were impressed with Van and believed he was perfect for the role, and they went to bat for him (all three in the finished film, right). Through much persuasion, they convinced Victor and the studio to postpone until Van was completely healed, promising that his performance would help to make the picture a hit. The big wigs surprisingly listened. It turns out that Van, despite the conflicting evidence, was a lucky man, and the film helped to skyrocket him to Stardom. His accident turned out to be a pain and a pleasure, for due to his injury, he was unable to serve in the military during WWII. As one of the few fellas left at home while other stars went off to battle, his capable leading man potential made him a top box-office star. Thanks to Irene and Spence, he had had his breakthrough and would never look back.

Sometimes, the scuffle for a fellow comrade becomes more than a professional courtesy. It's personal. This is something that Betsy Blair knew all too well. Married to the triple threat actor/dancer/singer Gene Kelly, her own career took a back-seat to his, especially after he found success in Hollywood with his breakout role in For Me and My Gal. Betsy didn't mind. She was fine with playing the role of the supportive spouse and loving mother and putting her own career on hold (see happy family, left). A talented actress and dancer herself, she did make the intermittent film but never achieved the same success or notoriety as her husband. At least, not the same kind of notoriety. During the "red scare," Betsy found herself the focus of the HUAC witch hunts. Though not a communist, her leftist politics, outspoken position on African American rights, and her part in the SAG anti-discrimination committee landed her on the blacklist. Her husband, Gene, who was equally liberally minded if not as outspoken, was safe from the same attack because of his growing box-office appeal. Seeing his wife so mistreated and outcast was difficult, to say the least. Her sadness enraged him, particularly when the role of Clara in Marty-- which he thought she would be perfect for-- was kept out of reach due to the current political tide. Tired of seeing his wife held down, Gene marched into studio head Dore Schary's office and gave him an ultimatum: let Betsy off the hook and give her the role, or Gene would simply stop coming to work! This was a bold move and could have quite easily gotten him into legal trouble for breach of contract, or worse, fired and blacklisted himself. However, Gene Kelly's name on the marquee meant guaranteed money, so Dore took the bait. Betsy landed the role of a lifetime in Marty, which would be the most memorable of her career, and received an Oscar nomination for her heart-wrenching performance. Sadly, this would prove to be one of the last happy moments in the Gene-Betsy marriage, which finally collapsed under the tension two years later. Yet, however the relationship may have ended, Betsy would always speak admiringly of her first husband, his courage, and the bold move that deepened her love and respect for him.

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