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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Screen Star Life Savers

One of cinema's favorite heroes, John Wayne, saves the day and rides off 
into the sunset with Natalie Wood and Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers.

We often come to worship our film heroes with very little impetus. Our great admiration is born of a strange combination of respect and envy. Whatever it is that draws us to our favorite movie star-- her glamour and class, his strength and swagger-- one has to admit that the resulting awe is comparatively ridiculous in the wider scheme of things. Especially coming on the heels of the recent ten year anniversary of the Twin Towers devastation, where innocent citizens lost their lives and even more brave men and women in the police force and fire department risked their lives to try to save them, the vanity of screen hero adoration seems a bit shameful. Movie stars are just people after all... But our need to both hold them up and tear them down remains perhaps the most fascinating thing about the great facade that is Hollywood. Our love for them is always there, for whatever reason, and in the end it is our gratitude for the personal sacrificing of their souls on the silver screen that demands our steadfast devotion. Their work, therefore, is to be commended. Yet, there are some stars who have proved above and beyond their contemporaries that they deserve the title of "Hero" not for their outstanding cinematic efforts, but for the actions they performed behind the scenes. In these moments, when appearing at their most human and most brave, certain men and women have done more than enrich the public heart through entertainment; they have even saved lives.

Ginger Roger's (left) adherence to the controversial religion of Christian Science may have raised a few cynical eyebrows in her lifetime, and still in ours, but whatever the outside opinion, her faith served her well throughout her many years. Perhaps beyond anything else, it was Ginger's own core strength that made her so sturdy and reliable when those around her needed someone to lean on. Heaven knows, she certainly nursed more than one husband through a peculiar ailment and made a believer out of him. One can only imagine that mantras like "Every problem has a solution," and "This too shall pass," continually played in Ginger's head. She never seemed to lose her composure under pressure or give in to feelings of defeat or depression. If something had to be done, in her hands, one could trust that it would be done. This incomprehensible resilience would come in handy to many but to one woman in particular. When traveling in Rio (of course) with husband of the time Jacques Bergerac, Ginger would come into the acquaintance of upcoming actress Elaine Stewart. The two hit it off right away, so Ginger was deeply upset when she learned from the morning paper that Elaine had been taken seriously ill with acute appendicitis and was being hospitalized. It was even more shocking to her when a strange Brazilian gentleman informed her that Elaine had been asking for her in particular. After all, Ginger had only just met the girl and was far from being a close friend or family member. Nonetheless, despite being perplexed, Ginger went to Elaine, who in her frail condition seemed to be hanging on by a thread. Undeterred, Ginger leaned in and whispered to Elaine to stay positive and maintain a grateful heart. She encouraged her to stare at the ceiling and fill it with thoughts of all that Elaine was thankful for in her life, hoping to encourage her to have the will to live. After offering more words of faith, Ginger departed from the slightly alleviated patient. The next day, Ginger returned, and the very shocked doctor explained that Elaine had almost completely recuperated. It turns out that Ginger had made her previous visit during a very critical hour. Had Elaine not made it past that very hour, she would have died. It was Ginger's words that had carried her through. Elaine thenceforward considered Ginger to be her guardian angel.

Veronica Lake (right), despite her now well known feisty demeanor, was also a bashful and easily intimidated ingenue when she was just starting out in the business. Never fully certain that she wanted to be an actress, she already felt like an outsider when making the rounds as an extra with the other more obviously ambitious girls. Yet, Ronni was no shrinking violet, and she held her own and stayed true to who she was when thrown into the melting pot of hopeful young starlets. She certainly never thought she would make it big, but she was grateful when she was given opportunities in the business, and her discerning myopic eye easily zeroed in on people that she found to be truly helpful to her or genuinely hardworking and talented on their own. One such man who impressed her and won her respect was director John Farrow who worked with Ronni on Sorority House. Though "worked with" is probably too strong a phrase, since the two had little contact. Nonetheless, when she wrapped, Veronica decided to give John a token of her esteem- a Catholic medal. John was stunned, probably not having noticed the small girl amongst the other lovelies, but he accepted the gift willingly. Years later, the two would reunite, at which point Veronica was one of Hollywood's favorite sexpots. She didn't remember her small act of kindness to John, but he certainly did. He told her that the medal she had gifted him had actually saved his life. While fighting in WWII, he had been shot, but the medal had stopped the bullet! It turned out that a small act of kindness had gone a long way, and the pipsqueak beauty had become a savior to the war-weathered filmmaker.

Lon Chaney (left) was considered a silent saint to many. While he remained a mysterious man in the press, those who knew and worked with him were often touched by his far-reaching generosity and selflessness. A man of integrity, he could easily sniff out the like quality in others, and such people could always count on him for a hand in desperate times. His equal empathy for the underdog also created in him a sort of unexpected avenger. He always stuck up for his leading ladies when he felt they were being mistreated or manhandled, as Loretta Young and Joan Crawford could attest. But, he expected no gratitude for these acts. He simply stepped in, performed a selfless act, and then seemed to slip out again like a ghost. This was a characteristic always present in him, it seems, for examples of it can be found long before he ever reached stardom and started concocting his public persona. Sometime around 1915, when Lon was still struggling to get any work he could get his hands on, he like many had to take the the Pacific Electric cars up to the studios. On one particular day, there was a serious accident when a truck ran right into two of the rail cars. As a result, the truck passenger's left leg was severed. Without any hesitation, Lon, who was riding on one of the cars, ripped the shirt from his very body to help bandage and stop the bleeding of the injured man, who certainly would have died had it not been for the timely help. During a period of history when actors were frowned upon and ostracized in the early Hollywood community, this small act of heroism helped to change more than a few minds. For now, a nameless actor was a hero to one man, but in time he would be a great hero to many.

One of Moviedom's favorite onscreen couples was too one of Hollywood's best pair of friends. Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor became thick as thieves during the filming of A Place in the Sun (right), and while Liz may have preferred an offscreen romance as well, Monty's sexual preferences relegated their relationship to a platonic one. (Though rumor has it they did have a game or two of tonsil hockey). The pairing made sense. As two of the most beautiful people to ever grace the silver screen, they simply looked good together, and the deep and abiding love and respect that they had for each other endured until the end of Monty's life. Even Richard Burton was jealous of it. While the pals' union was prematurely severed with Monty's death, things were almost brought to an even more abrupt end much sooner. After attending a late night party at Liz's, with the likes of Rock Hudson and Liz's (at the time) husband Michael Wilding, a very tired Monty jumped into his car to make the trek home. Another of Monty's lifelong friends, Kevin McCarthy, was ahead of him in his own car, leading the way down the hill to make sure that Monty got home ok. In his rear view mirror, Kevin witnessed Monty lose control of his vehicle and run straight into a telephone pole. 

Monty filming Raintree County with Liz post-crash.

As quickly as he could, Kevin raced back up to Liz's house for help, and immediately Elizabeth rushed down the hill to her friend, who lay beneath the dashboard, semi-conscious, his face half torn off, and covered in blood. Realizing that he was choking, she jammed her hand down his throat to remove his obstructing knocked out teeth, clearing his air passage and saving his life. Rock joined in, helping to pull Monty from the car as they awaited the ambulance. Liz insisted on riding to the hospital with her battered friend. Thanks to her, Monty did not die that night crumpled up in his car. He even gave her his two front teeth as souvenirs! However, he would suffer the consequences of the wreck for his remaining days. His handsome visage was irreparably marred, and the physical pain he experienced led to an even further dependence on chemical substitutes for alleviation. So, while this wreck didn't directly kill him, it helped to end his life further down the line. At this point in time, Liz was not willing to let him go. Had she always had him under her wing, perhaps she could have saved him in the long run. After Liz's own passing this past March, one hopes that the two are finally together again.