Friday, January 27

Gloria Grahame

In The Great Movie Stars (St. Martin's Press, 1972), David Shipman refers to her as the best of the 1940's screen floozies.  I think he was wrong on the decade (she reigned supreme in the 1950's) but he is spot on with the sentiment.  She was usually cast as a tramp, the neighborhood nympho, at least the other woman; sometimes she was a moll, which is a bit apart from the other designations but they could all feast at the table.

Nobody was a better floozie.  We needed floozies in films just like we needed pharmacists, rich playboys, nurses, teachers and detectives.  They helped create the drama and the conflict.  Sometimes they had a heart of gold and though aligned with the bad guys, they would help out the good guys.  Sometimes they were just merciless tramps.  Whatever it was, she had the face, the curves, the poutiness, the attitude, the tarnish and let it be said, the smart mouth.  (If you've learned nothing else in these postings, you know I have a yen for the smart-mouthed actress.)

Some would say she was just a great actress, some would say it was typecasting, hissing that she often mixed reel life with real life.  I have heard the stories again and again about her personal life.  She is the subject of two biographies, one of which I dearly loved, and is mentioned in countless biographies and autobiographies and scores of Hollywood journals.  A few of the satellites in the real life say some of the stories are not true, often manufactured by those who did not like her.  Others would say the stories were true, all right.  Whatever is the truth the stories and some temperament took her down.

Gloria Grahame has every right to be included in a book called The Great Movie Stars.  She was a great movie star, she could act most people off the screen.  If for nothing else, she will forever be remembered as one of the iconic film noir actresses having made seven in that genre.  She is probably most recognizable, however, for a role that was her most unusual, a singing country bumpkin, in a large-scale musical that she truly despised.

She came on the Hollywood scene with some ease.  She was born in Pasadena in 1925 and her British-born mother was a former actress who had become a drama coach.  Gloria was no doubt her favorite student.  She was discovered by Louis B. Mayer (yes, Himself) in New York in a play.  An MGM contract followed but she did her notable work elsewhere.

She didn't have a lot to do in RKO's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life but her inclusion in it keeps her in the public eye to this day.  Jimmy Stewart personally requested her services and he would work with her again in something that could have been called It's a Wonderful Circus Life.  (Hmmm, wonder what?  Just keep eating your Cracker Jacks... we'll get there, we'll get there.)

While at RKO she also made the first of her noir roles, that of a singer in a dumpy bar in 1947 in the anti-Semitic drama Crossfire with the three Roberts... Young, Mitchum and Ryan.  She also garnered her first supporting Oscar nomination.  In 1949 she was again a singer, this time competing with Maureen O'Hara for Melvyn Douglas, in A Woman's Secret. What is most notable about this film is she married its director, Nicholas (Rebel Without a Cause) Ray, after divorcing actor Stanley Clements.

Humphrey Bogart wanted his wife Lauren Bacall to costar with him for the fifth time in Ray's 1950 In a Lonely Place, but Ray had other ideas and cast his own wife.  Gloria and Bogie should have made five more films together, so good are they as cynical lovers in a film noir about her suspecting him of murdering a waitress.

Around this time she also made Macao, which her husband partially directed, and which costarred Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum was a family friend of sorts... his brother John (also an actor) was married to Grahame's sister Joy.  Grahame had an attitude while making this film.  She was fifth billed in a nothing role and making the film caused her to lose out on a more important film she wanted to make.  And while Macao is a bit of a camp classic today, it was unsuccessful at the time and in fact not released until 1952.  It was perhaps the start of her reputation on film sets.

Ah yes, 1952, Gloria Grahame's banner year.  (Mine, too, for it is the year movies blasted into my consciousness.  And Gloria was part of that.)  Macao was released and so were three more films, all garnering her critical acclaim.  In Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, she was Angel, the elephant girl.  She was a redhead for this film and her fiery qualities were in check except on the screen as she sparred with Betty Hutton is some wonderfully bitchy dialogue.  DeMille hired her after Lucille Ball had to quit due to pregnancy.  She had to perform her own stunts with the elephants including a memorable one where an elephant's foot is steadied above her face as she lay on the floor.  The autocratic DeMille found her a dream to work with.  The film won Oscar's best picture.

Next came a fabulous noirish film, Sudden Fear, where she conspires with Jack Palance to kill his wife Joan Crawford.  She and Crawford tangled over several things including Grahame's wardrobe and her affair with Palance in real life. 

Next up was The Bad and the Beautiful.  She was blonde again as the coquettishly driven wife of a novelist, who gets her come-uppance when she dies in a plane crash with a lover she's taken.  She was as fresh and girlish in rustling dresses as she's ever been, 180 degrees in appearance and general demeanor than she'd been in other roles.. but you'll note still of questionable moral fiber.  And she won a supporting Oscar for it.  I have been ok with her win because I've always been in her corner as an actress, but this was not her best work.  It was to come next. 

Gestapo-like Fritz Lang directed her finest performance in 1953's The Big Heat as a gangster's moll who ends up getting boiling coffee thrown in her face. They did not get along.  She was not the best at take after take and coworkers had begun complaining that she couldn't give the same performance more than once.  She wouldn't stand in the same place, she added bits of business, she didn't take direction well. 

As a singer in "The Naked Alibi"
What had happened to her?  Had the Oscar gone to her head?  Acting was serious business to her but had she forgotten that it was a collaborative effort?  Didn't she realize that getting a bad reputation in Hollywood is the same as in any small town?  Didn't she know she could be drummed out of the corps?  

Some said she had gotten finicky about her looks and others said it was way past being that simple.  I always thought she was enormously attractive (and later seductive when I understood what that meant), whether a blonde, brunette or redhead... and she had been them all.  But she had great issues with her teeth and more so her upper lip and she began having surgery on them and then more and more surgery.  And some of the jobs were botched, in her opinion.  Others thought she got, if you will, a stiff upper lip, that it made her speak awkwardly.  She apparently had taken to sticking tissue inside her upper lip so that it would be extended.  (Poor thing, BBB, she was.  Born before botox.)  People on her sets would notice her odd behavior and they would either avoid her and she would suspect they were talking about her.

Her world unraveled even more when Nicholas Ray came home one day and allegedly found her, um, in flagrante delicto with her teenage stepson Tony, who was Nick's son from a former relationship.  She has been quoted as saying that since it was not her natural son, it was not incest and the utter impropriety of the whole thing apparently escaped her notice.  She became the talk of the town (and that town has always talked) and it was further inflamed because there were those that thought she was involved with her own son by Ray, Timmy.  Perhaps it was because Timmy and Tony are similar names.

She and Ray divorced.  She married radio and TV writer Cy Howard and had a daughter Paulette by him.  They argued fiercely while she continued to work in such films as Human Desire (again, interestingly, with director Fritz Lang and also Glenn Ford), the under-rated noir Naked Alibi (where she played another saloon singer and her singing again dubbed but this time in a voice so laughingly not her own), the excellent The Good Die Young, the not-so-good The Cobweb, Not As a Stranger (her third with Mitchum) and others.  In all she was a faithless wife or girlfriend at some level.

Then came Oklahoma (1955).  Celeste Holm had played Ado Annie to great acclaim on the stage and it may have been assumed she would get the movie role but composer Richard Rodgers was adamant it should be played by Gloria Grahame.  Really?  She couldn't sing, she rarely did comedy, she was a dramatic actress usually playing a tart, in slinky dresses and with a tough demeanor.  Annie is a goofball in gingham, innocent, and she sings.  Sorta.  Of course while Ado Annie was simple and has an aw-shucks, golly-gee nature, she also knows something she does want very badly.  Uh-huh.  That.  Ah, maybe that's what Rodgers saw in Gloria.  Ultimately she was inticed by the salary.

Oklahoma never saw Oklahoma.  It was filmed entirely in Arizona and on Hollywood sound stages.  And the ghosts of those stages probably still echo the sounds of grimaces and agitation from her coworkers.  Director Fred Zinnemann became exasperated with her mainly over the complaints of others and her songs.  Gloria was  tone deaf and could never cut it as a singer but they weren't looking for a fabulous singer in that role.  It was ok that her songs (I'm Just a Girl Who Cain't Say No and All Er Nothin') were kind of talk-singing.  But she was so bad that even that didn't work and what one eventually hears is more a testament to superb editing than anything else. 

She had most of her scenes with Gene Nelson and Eddie Albert and they became incensed with her unactorly behavior.  At least one of them walked off the set until someone talked to her about hitting her marks and no more upstaging them and no more adding business that detracted from their performances.  They were worn out over her obsession with her looks.  She was also on the phone arguing with Cy Howard making her often unavailable for the call to the set.

A funny aside.  When watching the film during the singing of the title song by most of the cast, notice how Gloria, standing on the porch with Gene Nelson, there is a quick edit and she disappears.

When Oklahoma finished, so essentially was she.  She had gotten the reputation of being difficult and even a little loony.  Her phone didn't ring much.  Nearly all of the rest of her work was inferior.

Hollywood had not forgotten her unsavory personal life and if things weren't bad enough, after she divorced Howard, she married Tony Ray... yes, yes, that same former stepson, now a grown man although years younger than she.  Now Nick Ray, her former husband, was her father-in-law.  Whoa, can you imagine Thanksgiving dinner?  And then she and Tony had two sons, Tony Jr. and James.  Try and explain these relationships.  Have you gotten out a pencil and paper?  Well to sweeten the pot some, she and Tony were married for 14 years and she never made it past four years with any of her other husbands.

She had a long battle with cancer and a great deal of it a very unpleasant story and it was detailed in a book called Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (Grove Press, 1987).  She died in 1981.

I will always remember her as a terrific actress.  She brought a skill and an honesty and an enigmatic quality to the screen.  And that skill is all I really care about in the actors and actresses I admire.  If I were to consider their personal lives very much, I would never have appreciated a John Wayne or a Jane Fonda or scores of others.  I just want them to knock my socks off on the screen and Gloria Grahame did just that.

I was discussing that very thing with my partner one day in 1989 on Maui.  We were having some drinks at a hotel.  That very day I had finished (the oddly titled) Suicide Blonde by Vincent Curcio (Morrow, 1989), a biography on her that I loved so much I wanted to start it all over again.  My partner was asking me why I was so taken with her.  In the middle of my explanation, a stranger walked up to our table.  I was sure his demeanor was one I had seen in any number of Grahame's film noir movies.  He looked serious, a bit grim, and said, looking me squarely in the eyes, "What are you saying?"

I said, "Excuse me," trying not to look miffed at the intrusion.

"Are you talking about Gloria Grahame?"  As my eyes brightened, he added, "Because she's my mother."

What's the likelihood?  My temples pulsated, my eyes brightened.  "She was one of my favorite actresses," I quickly enthused, "and I just finished a book on her and I was telling my friend about it."  His body relaxed, his face softened.  Maybe that was a slight smile. 
"Which son are you?"

"I'm Tony Ray Jr.  Sorry to have bothered you, but you... um... you understand..."

"Yes, I do," I said and he walked away.  He later nodded to me as he left.

NEXT POSTING:  Notes on Oscar Nominations


  1. Loved your stuff on this actress. What a fun read. The pic you posted of her in Naked Alibi reminded me of one of my favorites...Susan Hayward.

    Where were you having drinks when you met one of her sons. What a trip!

    Keith C.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Love the dialogue. I really liked Susan Hayward, too. Very much. I'll do a post on her one day soon. The Mana-Kai on Kihei, Maui, is where I met Gloria Grahame's son.

    2. What a heartwarming story. She was beyond a great actress. I'M more than sure she was as great of a human being.She is MAGICAL.

  2. What a lovely story. It brought tears to my eyes.She had that MAGICAL presence that defines greatness in a Movie Star.

  3. Crazy small world story. I was friends with Tony jr in Malibu in the early 80s and had no idea who his parents were I just know he is a great guy and really loved surfing may explain Hawaii

    1. Hey looking for tony jr ( we were inseperable in our teens he lived at my house and I lived at his house