Tuesday, April 16

Fifties Femmes

We know my romance with the movies started in the 1950s.  Remember that... it could be a quiz question one day.  I suspect I went to a movie at least every Saturday for the entire decade.  I would go to matinees and see double features.  Who remembers that?  In my one-horse town, we even had drive-in theaters that showed three movies for one price.

Suffice it to say I saw a lot of movies.  I saw most of the big films with name stars, often movies that were too adult for me and I certainly didn't always understand everything at the time.  I did do some catching up.

I also saw tons of B pictures and they blossomed in that decade as far as I'm concerned.  Some of these films starred actors and actresses who would never really gain a strong foothold in Hollywood.  Or if they did stay for a while, they were never on top of Mt. Olympus.  Funny, but some of them were really quite decent actors, maybe even good actors.  Usually they were very good-looking.  So why didn't they make it?  Likely that answer is as varied as there are adonises and fetching lasses to sally forth.

Don't forget (if you knew) the fifties were loaded with monster movies, B westerns, women's prison films, kids bee-bopping around the jukebox, animal hijinks and the like. They were rarely what you might call good, but if you were a kid then, some really stayed with you.

Three days ago I got two DVDs for films I haven't seen since 1957 and 1960 when they were first released.  One of them had just come out new on DVD and surprisingly the other one had been out for awhile.  Frankly, I was pretty startled to think either one would be on DVD.  Someone thought that there would be people interested in either one of these films other than me?  Really?

The first is 1957's She Devil starring Mari Blanchard.  You remember her, don't you?  Uh-huh.  Well, I do.  I fell madly, crazy in teen lust with her.  People referred to her as a femme fatale and I likely had to ask someone what that meant.  She was very femme and few fataled any better than the alluring Ms. B.

She Devil is about a woman who is dying of tuberculosis and two doctors who have a serum they want to try on her.  It's never been done on a human before.  Can you feel your heart beating right now?  OMG.  The two doctors, played by Maverick's Jack Kelly and Albert Dekker, live together.  Hmmm.  Well, ok, there is also a lab in their palatial home where one feverishly pounds out a serum that will cure any disease or injury through a process of adaptation.  The cure will adapt to its environment and all will work out. 

Oh yeah?  Well, Ms. Blanchard's TB is soon history and she determines to live, live, really live.  She sits in front of a mirror and her dark hair turns a shimmering blonde (I have never forgotten this, viewed three or four times in the film) and then she starts to murder people who get in her way.  Great stuff.

It was directed by Kurt Neumann and I sat in those darkened theaters in the 50s watching a number of his films including Carnival Story, Circus of Love, They Were So Young, Mohawk, The Deerslayer and The Fly... B-gems one and all. 

Mari Blanchard, whether blonde or brunette, was stunning to look at.  She had big shoulders, a sassy walk and an even more sassy mouth.  We know how I feel about my tough babes.  She Devil was her finest hour altho I loved her in Destry, Black Horse Canyon, The Veils of Bagdad and The Return of Jack Slade.  Didn't you?

For someone as stunning looking as she was and likely eager to become a bigger star, she kept a decidedly low profile.  Unfortunately she died of cancer at 47 and it all was ended.

We got two for the price of one in 1960s Why Must I Die? with Terry Moore (who produced) and Debra Paget.  Both were bigger stars than Mari Blanchard and both made a few bigger movies.  But by the time of this film's release, both actresses were virtually on their way out.

This is a woman's prison film in which Paget murders Moore's employer and Moore gets nabbed for the crime.  Moore gets a death sentence but Paget ends up in the same prison for another crime.  The last half is about whether or not Paget will confess to the crime in time to save Moore from the electric chair.  My lips are sealed but think too much about it and your heart beat could escalate again so be careful.

Why Must I Die? was directed by the reliable Roy Del Ruth.  It was his final film in a prolific but generally uninspiring career, most of which was spent at Warner Bros.  He was more or less part of the B team, those contract directors who could crank 'em out and never caused any trouble.  He did a lot of lightweight fare, quite a number of musicals, often starring Doris Day.

For most of her career I would call Terry Moore a starlet.  Of the three actresses profiled here, she's the only one who was Oscar-nominated (for Come Back Little Sheba).  She was never a favorite of mine although she fancied herself as a sex kitten and her pouty acting sometimes got my attention, especially in Peyton Place and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef.  She was a hoot in the gorilla caper Mighty Joe Young and turned in an edgy performance as Fredric March's rebellious daughter in Man on a Tightrope

As is often the case with sexy starlets, her personal life garnered more attention than her films.  There was an explosion of sexy photos, especially those cone-shaped bras in tight sweaters.  She was forever photographed with one up-and-coming actor after another and had a number of marriages, including one, she says, with the bashful billionaire himself, Howard Hughes.  Moore is still alive and looking pretty good.

Debra Paget was arguably the best actress of the three... she was a triple threat with acting, singing and dancing.  Under contract to 20th Century Fox for most of her short career, she really never ascended beyond B movies.  Her exotic good looks resulted in several Indian maiden roles (which she handled with aplomb) and harem girl and island princess hokum.  In the latter category, she amply decorated such movies as Bird of Paradise, Anne of the Indies, Prince Valiant, Princess of the Nile and Omar Khayyam.

The westerns were more highly regarded.  As Sonseeahray in 1950s Broken Arrow, she was James Stewart's woman who gives up her life to save his.  And in White Feather (1955) she was Appearing Day, in love with a Caucasian Indian agent who is trying to bring about peace.  Both films were sympathetic to Indians.  She donned the Indian garb again for a brief appearance in 1956s The Last Hunt, an exciting tale of buffalo hunters.

One of Paget's best roles was in 1952s Stars and Stripes Forever, the story of composer/conductor and march king, John Phillip Sousa starring Clifton Webb and Robert Wagner.  Her role in the bio was fictional but did allow her to show off her musical skills. Prince Valiant and White Feather would also costar Wagner. 

The year 1956 provided some press coverage for her starting with the role of Elvis Presley's love interest in his first film role in Love Me Tender.  Then she showed up in the star-studded cast of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, as Lillia, the water girl, her most famous movie.

Her appearance in White Feather may have been her Hollywood undoing.  She was still under contract to Fox and White Feather was made by another studio and she made it without their consent.  I don't get how the other studio could have legally used her, but it did. 

Her career, such as it was, hit the skids with Why Must I Die? and horror films and then television guest roles.  She came from a family of siblings who acted, headed by a mother ambitious for them to succeed.  Paget had two very brief Hollywood marriages (to singer-dancer David Street and director Budd Boetticher) and then she married a Chinese millionaire and quit Hollywood.  Vanished would be a more accurate term, although she is still alive.

My enjoyment at the movies has not always been about Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn and those high on the pedestal.  There were many Mari Blanchards, Terry Moores and Debra Pagets who kept me coming back for more.

Dancing Girls II

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