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Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Two big Hollywood stars would meet Bette Davis back 
when she was an innocent ingenue... But that 
Bette didn't last for long.

Believe it or not, when Bette Davis first arrived in Hollywood, she was a much more demure figure than history recalls. An insecure, uncomplaining worker, she gave her all for long hours in ridiculous projects in order to make a good impression and hopefully carve out a niche for herself. With her self-esteem at a low, she would need time, experience, and box-office clout before she transformed into the demanding diva we all know and love. Also not popularly known is the fact that Bette remained a virgin until her wedding day-- a fact she proudly proclaimed in later life... before listing the names of her following lovers. Thus, young, unmarried, innocent Bette stood out like a sore thumb in her early days of Hollywood. Unaccustomed to men and unaccustomed to the business, she had a thing or two to learn. One evening, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. thought he would help her out.

On New Years Eve of 1931, Bette was attending a posh Hollywood party being thrown by Lois Wilson. She had hoped to meet some important people, schmooze, etc, but as shy as she was, she spent most of the night in a corner by herself. Doug (left), clearly drunk at this point, noticed the delicate, doe-eyed, cream-puff and swaggered over to her. In her eye-catching gown, with decolletage on display, Doug must have noticed the strange inconsistency between her shut-off demeanor and her come-hither gown. Clearly, this was a girl hoping for attention yet unable to play the Hollywood game-- i.e. use her sexuality to gain control. Thus, reaching into her dress and groping one of her breasts, he offered the following advice: "You should use ice on your breasts the way my wife does." His wife of the time, incidentally, was Joan Crawford. He then stumbled away. Bette was mortified! She rushed home in tears, terrified of this new place called Hollywood and its questionable inhabitants. She quickly wed her first husband, Ham Nelson-- a much more bashful fellow-- in an attempt at normalcy, but Doug's slurred words must have had some effect. Though she never had a penchant for ice, she got the underlying message, and slowly came out of her cocoon and became one Hell of a bulldozing butterfly. One wonders if she ever thanked Doug for the tip? One wonders if (sober) he even remembered giving it???

There are a lot of stories regarding the competitive relationship that Bette shared with Joan Crawford, which came to life fully in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? While Bette always craved Joan's star appeal, Joan always envied Bette's talent. Their conflicting egos would make the shooting of this particular film a tense affair. Coincidentally, it was their only collaboration. But, Bette actually had a more profound rivalry and deep-rooted hate-fest going with Miriam Hopkins (right). Interestingly, these two ladies crossed paths long before Bette's Hollywood days when both were members of George Cukor's theater company in New York in 1928. At the time, Miriam was the leading lady and Bette a mere featured ingenue. The tables turned and the mini-degrees of separation continued when Bette starred in Jezebel, a role that Miriam had brought to life on the stage. Bette then had an affair with Anatole Litvak, Miriam's husband, who directed her in The Sisters. By 1939, when the two ladies starred together in The Old Maid, there was definitely some animosity. Bette wanted to play both of the lead roles herself, as a dual force phenomenon, but failed to convince production. Miriam was cast opposite her instead. Afterward, Bette would recall Miriam as being a great actress but a "total bitch." Of course, Bette conveniently forgot her tryst with Anatole, which was a major factor in Miriam's hatred. On the set, the ladies continuously tried to out-do each other, as they later would in Old Acquaintance. Bette would conspire with the director and keep Miriam out of the loop; Miriam would over-act and position herself so that Bette couldn't steal the frame. When it came time for Bette's character in Old Acquaintance to shake the daylights out of Miriam's character, there was little acting involved. Yet, because the two had such history together, it made their performances opposite each other much more intricate and believable. Some frenemies go waaaaaaaay back.

Two other Hollywood ladies were 'old acquaintances,' but in their case, there was genuine friendship. Back in 1922, Mae Clarke (left) was dancing with a slew of other hopeful young women on the stages of The New Amsterdam Theatre in New York as a part of the illustrious "Ziegfeld's Follies." Her roommate and fellow high-kicker during this time? Barbara Stanwyck. The two were close friends with mutual aspirations toward fame, fortune, and getting the Hell out of a compromising lifestyle. At the time, they were living above a laundry with a third roomie, Walda, trying to eek by. Later they all moved to the Knickerbocker. In Barbara's memory: "I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat." Happily, both Mae and Babs would shimmy their way out of NYC and come to mutual acclaim in Hollywood. Barbara's personal ambition was a little stronger than Mae's, so she would enjoy a lengthier and more memorable career, though Mae's roles as gangsters' molls also give her a safe place in cinematic history. Certainly, when the two pals crossed paths in Hollywood, years after their youthful, scantily-clad beginnings, they must have shared a laugh about the old days and how far they had come. Despite the pain of those years, Barbara always remembered them with fondness, most probably because of the bonds and alliances she shared with so many young women experiencing and trying to survive the same circumstances.

When Veronica Lake came to Hollywood at sixteen, she had mixed emotions. On the one hand, she was in a place where dreams allegedly came true and where some of her screen-heroes came to life. On the other hand, she wasn't sure about all this acting jazz and wasn't too happy about her mother's plans to push her into the spotlight. Her experience in Tinsel Town would go down in history as one of the most tragic examples of the monster celebrity machine, but there were too some good days. One of these days occurred when Ronni and the family-- including her mother, stepfather, and cousin-- first pulled into Los Angeles in 1938. Famished after a long trip, they stopped to eat at a drive-in burger joint. Suddenly, another car pulled beside them. Casually glancing at the driver next-door, Ronni's jaw hit the floor when she saw that it was one of her idols: Anne Shirley (right)!!! She tried to play it cool, but she was overcome with excitement. Ronni watched Anne scarf down a burger with as much attention as she gave to any of her films, then sighed as the starlet drove away. Funnily enough, Ronni would later work with Anne in Sorority House, although Ronni played a measly extra in the film. Ronni never had the courage to tell Anne about their shared lunch, but she did muster the strength to introduce herself and express her gratitude at being able to work with, or at least near, her. Anne was a doll, and wished Ronni much luck in her career. The wish came true when Ronni became the peek-a-boo girl of the movies.

Carroll Baker's career-changing trek to Los Angeles was equally illuminating. When in flight for her first meeting with George Stevens regarding a possible role in Giant-- one she inevitably got-- Carroll was killing time with a little reading. She had just wed Jack Garfein, and in order to become more accustomed to and appreciative of her husband's religious life, she had brought The History of the Jews along for the ride. As her eyes flicked from page to page, she heard a voice: "What's a shiksa like you doing reading The History of the Jews?" Carroll looked up and her eyes bulged. It was Danny Kaye (left)!!! Not only that, but he was flying with famed director Mervyn LeRoy! The two men shared chuckles over her choice in literature and then got to talking. When she mentioned the Giant offer, Mervyn wished her luck, but Danny offered a warning: "Go back!" Concerned for the young girl, after having endured his share of sleaziness and back-stabbing in Hollywood, Danny continued with the fatherly advice, urging Carroll that Tinsel Town wasn't "for everyone." Carroll took the information to heart, but at a young age, she had already encountered more than a few harsh life lessons and felt ready to take the plunge regardless. After some personal hurdles, she certainly may have wondered whether she should have taken Danny's advice, but in the end she conquered both her demons and Hollywood, becoming one of the most memorable performers of the "Method" generation.

Some celebrity meetings are less exciting, if only because at the time, the mutual stars don't know that they're stars: they're children. When Louise Brooks (right) was growing up in Cherryvale, KS, she was already sporting her notorious Buster Brown haircut and exploring the world of dance, but she lacked all other indications of her later splendor-- save maybe her "devilish" personality and an early fascination with films. At the age of four, she was just a young-un, enjoying her youth, playing with neighborhood kids, and getting into the usual bits of trouble. Of course, her childhood was not an easy one, including familial tensions and a tragic experience of sexual abuse that would definitely shape her protective, defiant demeanor. While part of the neighborhood band of kids, she somehow still seemed on her own, separate, and a bit puzzling to her contemporaries-- one of whom was Vivian Vance, the lady later known as Ethel Mertz on "I Love Lucy." At the time, Vivian's last name was still "Jones." She and her sister Venus lived across the street from "Lulu" and they were all close chums, though the sisters often had trouble keeping up with Louise's never-ending energy. They also knew not to come between Louise and her fudge. No one, but NO ONE, ate Louise's fudge. In later years, few would even think to put Vivian and Louise in the same category, but in their youths, Venus would recall that Louise's passion for dancing mixed well with Viv's already well-honed comedy skills. Who knew that the Queen of the Silent Screen was once BFFs with the Princess of the TV set?

Vivian Vance... reminiscing about her Cherryvale and 
"Brooksie" days?

1 comment:

  1. Great interweaving of anecdotes! But "give Jayar a good paste in the jaw" has now been added to my list of "tasks to perform when time travel is invented."