Friday, June 7

The Quintessential Disney Mother

Lovely Dorothy McGuire is the only actress to show up in three of my 50 Favorite Movies... A Summer Place, Old Yeller and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.  While I loved those stories and likely still would have had she not been in them, there is no doubt that she added immensely to my delight at seeing them.  The truth is she really turned me on.  No, no, not that way but her presence I always found luminous.  She had such a kind face and spoke so softly and with such care and concern that I always thought she was speaking to only me.  I never caught her acting.

Somewhere during the height of her fame (roughly from about 1954 to 1960) she was referred to as the quintessential Disney mother.  I assume Disney said that because she made three films for them (Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson and Summer Magic).  I suspect Vera Miles made that many for Mickey and Company but McGuire brought a simply decency and quiet joy to her mother parts and one always felt her movie children were the best cared for and most loved.  Not to dismiss Disney's contribution here but McGuire played some fine mamas for other studios as well.  Perhaps she's the quintessential movie mother.  She did lots of other fine work, as well... when there were no children present.

If I had done postings on my 100 favorite films instead of 50, I suspect two or three more of  McGuire's films would show up.  I was pretty jazzed about seeing her movies.  I recall once a brief interview with her (perhaps in Parade Magazine) where she was ballyhooing something (I don't think a film) and was asked if she had retired and she said I suppose I have.  I was disappointed. 

Born in 1916 in Omaha, her early interest in acting was encouraged by her parents.  Before long she was in the esteemed Omaha Community Playhouse (still in existence today) along with fellow members Henry Fonda and Joshua Logan (recently highlighted in these pages).  Her special talents were soon recognized and she was spirited off to Broadway and shortly thereafter Hollywood beckoned.

I believe the first film I ever saw her in was the tense The Spiral Staircase (1945), though not at its initial release, thank you very much.  She was a mute servant who becomes the intended victim for a killer living in the same large home in which she is residing.  My emotions kicked up... how could anyone want to kill sweet Dorothy McGuire?

It's odd to say that I have yet to see her first two films, Claudia and The Enchanted Cottage nor did I catch a remake Claudia and David made after Staircase.  In there too is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I know I did see but it must have passed under the radar.  Most if not all of these films are said to contain indelible McGuire performances.  One day...

Young love with Guy Madison

In 1946 came Till the End of Time, a popular wartime romantic weepie with a wildly popular title tune. She was a widow romancing a hot young Guy Madison, home and adrift from the war. And in an early role himself was a young Robert Mitchum as his buddy.

Her only Oscar nomination came from Gentleman's Agreement, her second assignment under her Brooklyn director, Elia Kazan.  It is a beautifully written piece about a reporter pretending to be Jewish in order to cover a story on anti-Semitism.  A spirited cast headed by Gregory Peck, John Garfield, Oscar winner (for this film) Celeste Holm and Anne Revere elevated the film to Academy Award- winning best picture.

This same year, 1947, along with Peck and actor Mel Ferrer, she opened the La Jolla Playhouse in California and starred in a goodly number of the plays presented there.  It, too, is still active today.

I Want You (1951) never took hold of the public's imagination as I thought it should have.  It presented McGuire in a rare, darker cinematic moment showing flaws, unleashing stubbornness and scorn for various characters played by Dana Andrews, Farley Granger, Mildred Dunnock and Robert Keith.  It was a good film about a family adjusting to the early Korean War. 

In 1954 she made an unusual film for her, Make Haste to Live, a B-film but a highly dramatic tale of a mother being stalked by an ex-boyfriend.  Stephen McNally was frightening as the stalker and Mary Murphy terrific as her daughter.  

Then came the time when the light shone brightly.  Whether it was working for good directors or with top costars or saying the words of especially good writers or maybe just good fortune or timing, she made some very fine films.  In 1954 came Three Coins in the Fountain, pure romantic silliness.  No matter that the story of three women trying to find husbands had been done a million times before, the public flocked to it.  A super popular title song, enchanting Rome locations and a cast including Clifton Webb, Jean Peters, Louis Jourdan, Rossano Brazzi and Maggie McNamara certainly helped.

Trial (1955) was a hard look at a scumbag attorney (Arthur Kennedy) working at selling out his young Mexican boy client to support a Communist agenda, a headline-grabbing subject at the time.  She was the lawyer's secretary bent on exposing him with the help of defense attorney Glenn Ford.

Next up was the highly-acclaimed Friendly Persuasion, directed by the masterful William Wyler and costarring Gary Cooper.  They were the Birdwells, a rambunctious Quaker family constantly upsetting McGuire, the matriarch and conscience of the family.  I have read in one biography or another that she was difficult during the making of this film... not that I believe it.  Stop.  Here's another McGuire film aided by an incredibly popular title tune.

The next three films, the ones on my favorites list outlined in the opening paragraph, I have discussed in detail on their own.  But for clarity, they are again Old Yeller, A Summer Place and my favorite of all of McGuire's films, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

As Cora in my favorite McGuire film

In 1959, just before she filmed A Summer Place, McGuire made her only misstep during this fruitful work period and that was in This Earth Is Mine.  It is a California wine vineyard story concerning a family patriarch, Claude Rains, who believes in arranged marriages to preserve and increase his holdings.  McGuire is the iron-willed daughter who refuses to budge when things go wrong.  It wasn't a nice character and perhaps this is one reason why the film did so poorly.  I thought she acted it quite well and I was, of course, entranced by such an unusually dark performance from her.  Despite the presence of Jean Simmons and Rock Hudson, the film died on the vine.

After the latter she returned to Disney for Swiss Family Robinson. the old chestnut about a family stranded on a deserted island and happily making a go of it.  Her Yeller sons, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, joined James MacArthur as a third son and John Mills as the father-husband in one of the truly fun Disney romps.

Susan Slade (1981) was a bit of an also-ran made to capitalize on the immense popularity of young Warner Brothers' stars, Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens.  Soap opera all the way, it featured a rather fetching McGuire as the mother of a teenage girl who has an illegitimate child after her fiance unexpectedly dies.  Highly-dated, sometimes laughable... I loved it... my true guilty pleasure among McGuire's films.

In 1963 she made Summer Magic, this time playing the mother of a teenage Hayley Mills nearing the end of her Disney years.  It was homespun fluff, not the most popular of Disney films.  The formidable Burl Ives was around and the entire cast sang.  Was there nothing my Dorothy couldn't do?

She made a few more films but as her big-screen career came to a slow halt, she, like so many others, took up television.  She appeared in some series guest parts and accomplished a few television movies or miniseries including the epic Rich Man, Poor Man

I hadn't heard of her in quite some time when I was looking over my DVD movie database and realized how many of her films I owned.  I was a little surprised... and shouldn't have been.  Since I love reading actors' autobiographies almost as much as seeing them in films, I decided to write to her.  Now listen, no matter how much I go gaga over some of these actors and their work, I could count on one hand the ones I've ever written to.  But McGuire became one of those because I wanted to ask her if she'd considered writing an autobiography and said how much I would like to read about her life, especially in films.

I heard from her very quickly, which certainly piqued my interest, but in the end it was simply an autographed picture.  The dog looks like a distant cousin to the title star of Old Yeller.  I have seen the photo on the internet so it must have been the standard one sent out to us gushing fans.

I wasn't gushing when she died in late 2001 at age 85 in my old hometown, Santa Monica.  But I was pleased to read that she had a good life, happy in a long marriage... and of course, doncha know, a devoted mother.

The Caddy

No comments:

Post a Comment