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Wednesday, November 16, 2011


All they needed was a good father figure: the Dead End Kids pose during  
Angels with Dirty Faces. Jim Cagney rarely played family guy roles, and
his relationship with these characters is perhaps the closest he ever

As much as we love our dear stars, they too make mistakes. Despite their grand, seemingly impenetrable reputations, they are in fact fallible, flawed, dare I say, "human." Even some of the celebrities I adore the most have at times exhibited such uncharacteristic and "off" behavior that it sort of left me doing the dumb dog look-- the ol' head tilted, one eyebrow up, "huh?" kinda thing. While occassional, deviant star behavior hasn't turned me against anyone, the consternation at the discrepancy between the perfect individual I had imagined and their imperfect actions does make an impact. At the very least, it reveals another level to the idol, which in turn only makes him or her more fascinating. Just when you think you have someone figured out, you realize you don't. Here is a cluster of out-of-character moves some of my favorite screen stars have made. After getting over the original irked feeling I received upon these discoveries, I was left trying to wrap my brain around them, and eventually I was able to conclude what I felt to be the source of their surprising, quirky moves. To err is devine...


Perhaps of all the guffaws I've encountered, this one most particularly made me go, "Who? What? Why?!" James Cagney (right) came from a big, gregarious and supportive family. A warm and nurturing man himself, it only made sense that he want to become a father and pass on the same familial tidings to his own young brood. Well, apparently the will was there but the follow-through was weak. Jim had wanted children for some time, but discovered that he was sterile, so to fulfill his parental destiny he and wife Frances adopted two children, son Jim, Jr. in 1940, followed shortly by daughter Casey. While the outcome is not as notorious as the Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest episode, it was far from a happy ending. See, Junior and Casey didn't even live in the same house as Jim and Frances! They had their own cottage out back, where they were mostly looked after by their own housekeeper. Jim was always kind to them and saw them when he could, but since he was a busy man focused on his work, he rarely had time to indulge full-time in a father-child relationship. Frances would claim that they built the house simply so the children would not be in the way while Jim learned his lines and prepared for the next day's shoot. He needed quiet and the space to focus and craft his characters. Obviously, one can understand that Jim was a busy man who was very dedicated to his art, but he too was a homebody. He never really went out unless to meet his buddies in the "Irish Mafia," so a normal domestic style would seem in keeping with his personality. It doesn't add up. So, what's the deal Jimbo? Why even adopt the kids if you don't want a real family?

DIAGNOSIS: The jury is still out on this one, but there are hints into the peculiar nature of Jim's home life. The only apparent glitch in the Cagney family system that raised a red flag was the relationship between his mother and siblings vs. his wife. Apparently, Frances aka "Willie" never fully got along with the rest of the Cagney clan. One suspects that this was because she and matriarch Carrie Cagney were both strong women vying for Jim's attention. When family get-togethers were had, Jim was always happy to go, but Willie was rarely invited, and when she was, she still didn't attend. Being the driving force behind Jim and his career, on paper it seems like Willie was a controlling, dominating woman-- albeit a devoted one. There is no argument that she deeply loved Jim, and indeed it was her suggestion that they even adopt in the first place. Unfortunately, she soon found that parenting wasn't her style. It is remembered by friends that Jim was always closer to the children than Willie. It is also recalled that Willie had a bit of a temper-- a trait which neighbors would witness from time to time-- while Jim always remained level and calm. For Willie, Jim came first, and clearly, the kids were a distant second. Perhaps, it was truly Willie who liked her space? Perhaps she convinced Jim that it would be better if the kids lived out back in their own house and left them to themselves? But then, it seems cruel to simply blame "the wife." Who knows... Since Jim was always kind to neighborhood kids and his pals' children, he clearly wasn't some emotionless monster. Whatever the cause of the odd decision, the result was not good. Both Junior and Casey became emotionally estranged from their adoptive parents as a result of their detached upbringing.


Every movie lover has their number one favorite: the star that he or she thinks hung the moon. If one lives outside of Hollywood, the chances of seeing this personality in person are slim to none, so there are very few places one can turn for fanatic satisfaction: the theater, the movie magazine, or... the fan letter. As film personalities in the early days of cinema slowly turned into those glowing figures that we now know as movie stars, the desire to reach out and touch one became, well, Paramount in an avid viewer's mind. The need to make contact with or forge a connection with someone valued as larger than life could be an obsession to some, and soon enough random guys and gals began picking up their pens to write gushing letters to all the Gods and Goddesses on Mt. Olympus. Some were ridiculous, others erotic, some crazy, but most were just honest indications from a grateful public that one's screen work was affecting lives. It is always difficult to go out on a limb and open your heart to someone, especially someone you admire, but every day hundreds of people took the chance and crossed their fingers that their favorite "One" would respond to them with some token of him or herself: a photo, an autograph, or even a reply! In all his years, Lon Chaney (left in The Blackbird), who was one of the biggest and most worshipped of all film personalities, rarely ever answered his fan mail. He could often be seen toting his latest large bag of fan letters to the nearest dumpster bin, thus depositing numerous broken hearts into his "high-priced secretary." Why the cold shoulder Lon? Don't you love the fans that love you?

DIAGNOSIS: This one is fairly understandable when you break it down. Considering the number of fan letters Lon was certain to have gotten in a week, plus the amount of time he spent working, it is doubtful that he had any real time to go through his numerous letters. Nor did any other star for that matter. Taking exception to people like Mae West, Joan Crawford, or John Wayne, who lived for their fans, very few celebrities actually took the time to sit down and sift through their fan mail and send personal responses. Occassionally, one may respond to a letter here or there, but let's face it: the majority of autographed pictures sent from the studios were signed by an assistant, not the star himself. In addition, Lon was never in the business for the adulation. It was a job. Pure and simple. He publicly stated that he believed performers should pay more attention to their work and less to their fan mail, which he considered an inaccurate measuring stick for one's popularity. While he certainly respected the fans that kept food on his table, he was always uncomfortable with fantaticism. His dark brown eyes were notorious for boring holes into strangers with a pondering, "All right bub, what's the agenda?" He didn't want to either feed into the idea that he was extraordinary nor play the celebrity game of inflated egos begging for attention. He wanted too to maintain his station as the man of mystery, not just as a publicity coup, but because he sincerely wished for a private life away from the set. When the director yelled "cut," that's just what he did: cut and run. So, while it may make one chafe that he wasn't more attentive to his fans, you can't really blame him either. In person, he was always warm and pleasant, but he didn't suffer fools gladly and he even moreso tried to prevent himself from looking like one.


In the same vein as Lon and his fan mail was Cary Grant's (right) reaction to his live fans. A strange phenomenon occurred later in Cary's career when he was accosted by a salivating worshiper. When asked for his John Hancock, he would ask for 25 cents. Eh? What's that? Yeah, I know. I had the same reaction. Why in God's name would a man who had more money than God ask for 25 God darned cents? It seems inconceivable that the man who was so light-hearted, charismatic, and often goofy in his films could be such a miser. In fact, it became a bit of a running joke in Hollywood that he was, for lack of a better word, a cheapskate. In effect, he was in life what comedian Jack Benny played on screen. Of course, there is no harm in knowing the value of a dollar, and in fact it's an admirable quality, but the whole concept of charging fans seems to be a bit overkill. One wonders what happened to the people that didn't happen to have a quarter on them. Did they just glumly skulk away? Were there revolts? Tears? Tirades?! The contrast between the witty, warm and caring pal that Hollywood friends recall and the man who would make such a demand of his fans-- who equally adored him-- seems a pill too hard to swallow. What's the deal Cary? Are you as cold-hearted as all that? Should we change your name to Ebenezer Grant?

DIAGNOSIS: From the lips of Eva Marie Saint: "He felt if you put a price tag around your neck, people appreciated you more." What few seem to realize about Cary is that he wasn't born the suave, polished dominant male force he appeared to be on the screen. His childhood memories were as bleak and cold as the chilly British air that used to freeze him to his bones. Little Archie Leach would lose his mother when she was placed in a mental facility for her chronic depression. He was then abandoned by his father when he found a new wife and family. Lonely, hungry and with no desire to finish school, Archie just wanted to escape, which he did when he joined a vaudeville troupe and hooked a ship to the US of A in 1920. After more struggles in the acting world, his determination to make something of himself and shake away the melancholy of his past paid off. After being handpicked by Mae West for a plum role in her first major film She Done Him Wrong, the new Cary Grant took off professionally and never looked back. But, his impoverished childhood always haunted him, and while he was secretly very charitable, he too had a reputation for being tight with a penny. Yet, while Eva's assessment can thus be considered accurate-- that Cary wanted to both maintain his position and prove his worth, while making a bit of a profit-- he too, I believe, used this tactic as a form of protection. Proud of his accomplishments, but always insecure of himself, he would once quip: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. I want to be Cary Grant." He wasn't joking. Public attention, while appreciated, also made him uncomfortable, as if sooner or later the fans were going to catch on that he was just a hack in a fancy suit. Thus, the 25 cent deversion tactic became a way to keep the wolves at bay. Hell, I woulda paid it. He was worth much more!


Katharine Hepburn (left) was considered by many in the film industry, and outside it as well, to be a person of considerable loyalty and strength. The number of times she was called upon to help a friend, a random acquaintance, or even a complete stranger are numerous, a fact that I have recorded in past blogs (see example here ). Her optimistic spirit and sturdy, level-head made her the typical Taurus-gal, which may explain why, while others came and went, lost their careers, or succumbed to mental or physical ailments, Kate always seemed to be as happy and healthy as a horse-- or rather stubborn bull. There too are accounts of her coming off a bit haughty, which is a characteristic she put to brilliant use in films such as Stage Door and The Philadelphia Story. She could rub a more sensitive person the wrong way, merely because she was a bit distant-- flinty. While on the screen she let her emotions unravel, in life she seemed to lead with her head not her heart. She was a woman of wit and gumption, not warmth and tears. Yet the lives she touched and the impact she made is extraordinary, which makes the memories of Ginger Rogers seem so peculiar. Apparently, the two had a bit of a competition going on, although both would deny it. As the top female stars at RKO during their mutual reign, the press made much of their alleged clash of egos, but how factual this rivalry was is debatable. However, while Kate kept mum, Ginger did let loose a couple tales of "off" Kate behavior. One episode recalled Kate kicking Ginger in the shin during a screen test for Mary of Scotland. Another account has Kate tossing a glass of water at Ginger's new mink coat to see whether or not it was "genuine" fur. Ginger expressed no hate at these deeds, but rather consternation. Why the hate, Kate? What did lil' Ginger Snapper ever do to you?

DIAGNOSIS: I think this one comes down to a simple and unfortunate misunderstanding. As Kate is one of my all time favorites, it is natural for me to want to jump to her defense, but I don't think such a inclination is unfounded. Proof in her past shows that she truly was a woman of good character and selflessness. Thus, the strange Ginger fiasco remains a pickle. However, I think it can be traced back to the original incident on Mary of Scotland. At the time, Ginger (right) was sick of playing the same roles over and over and wanted to prove that her talents went beyond her taps. So, she finagled a "fake" audition for the role of Elizabeth Tudor in the film opposite Kate. Ginger was known for her pranks, and with the help of director John Ford, she planned to come do the screen test in makeup under the alias Lady Ainsley in order to convince producer Pandro Berman that she was right for the part.When she hit the set, no one recognized her, except of course Ford and Kate-- who would be doing her "audition" scene with her and had been let in on the scheme. Ginger could sense that Kate wasn't happy, and when they started going through their dialogue, suddenly Kate let out: "Who do you think you're fooling?" and kicked Ginger beneath the table. As this came out of nowhere, I can only imagine that Kate felt that Ginger's shenanigan was devised merely to cause trouble and unnecessarily slow production. She probably thought the whole thing was a gag and was unaware that Ginger was serious about obtaining the role, a theory that Ginger's elaborate wardrobe and fake name encouraged. A pro, such a waste of time certainly miffed Kate, though perhaps she overreacted when showing Ginger where she stood. Ginger didn't get the role, needless to say, and Elizabeth was played by Florence Eldridge.

The RKO divas size each other up in Stage Door.

However, with this bad blood already between them, Kate must have formed the opinion that Ginger was an attention-hungry wise-ass, more interested in fame and games than doing good work. This would explain why she took pleasure in the second event. Ginger had stopped beneath George Stevens's office window on the lot to say "hello" and show off her new coat when Kate jokingly tossed out the water, probably thinking it funny that the superficial diva's silly new coat was in jeopardy-- though as a real mink it obviously went unharmed. The humor did not translate. Ginger made a few efforts over the years to get Kate to warm up to her, though the two would never be friends. Yet, over time, it appears that Kate did soften, perhaps finally realizing that Ginger was a good egg and not the miscreant she had originally thought her to be. When Ginger beat her out for the Oscar, winning for Kitty Foyle against Kate's comeback role in The Philadelphia Story, Kate sent a nice letter of congratulations, and publicly stated that she thought Ginger's performance had been great. Perhaps this event alone proved to her that Ginger was indeed a serious actress. Yet, it may just be a good, ol' fashioned cat fight, which, sadly, all females engage in at one time or another. After all, the two were polar opposites playing the same game: they both were engaged to Howard Hughes at different points, starred in films to equal acclaim, and perhaps just rubbed each other the wrong way. Since Kate never let us in on her side, and we only have Ginger's recollections to go by, it also leaves the question of how trustworthy our narrator is. After all, despite the fact that Ginger was a naturally sweet and well-liked person, no party is completely innocent in a feud. She quite possible could have done something equally out of character to peeve Kate off. In the end, it doesn't really matter since both women walked away equal winners, box office champions, and eternal film idols. The history of film would be lacking without either them, and at least their confrontations make said history more interesting.

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