Tuesday, September 10

MGMs Sopranos III

Ann Blyth is the third and final entry in the trio of postings on MGMs Sopranos.  She follows Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell which is also what she did at the great studio.  One thing that sets her apart from the other two is that she performed in more dramas than they did.  In fact, Blyth made more dramas than she did musicals.  Despite a gorgeous singing voice, her musicals weren't as popular as the others' were.  She actually came in at the tail end of MGM's triumphant musical years.  Still, we were lucky to have had her.
She would only make 35 films although that was more than Grayson at 20 and Powell at 19.  She appeared to have had a lot of drive for the limelight when she was a child and at the same time gave up the movie career when she was just 28.  I think the latter was fairly easy for her because she was incredibly devoted to her family.  They came first along with her Catholicism.

As a child in Manhattan she quickly acquired a pedigree as a performer.  She attended Manhattan's Professional Children's School and as her soprano voice was discovered at an early age, she enjoyed performing with the New York's Children's Opera Company.  She also discovered acting while performing on radio  soap operas.  One thing that radio certainly didn't do for her was showcase her youthful beauty.  She was then and she is now at 85 a beautiful woman and there wasn't a movie she ever made that wasn't more glamorous because of Ann Blyth appearing in it.

She gained further acclaim by appearing on Broadway as Paul Lukas' daughter in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine.  It was a job she kept for two years, quite an accomplishment, I think, for a girl in her early teens.  She could act, she could sing, her head was beautiful on the outside and not too big on the inside.  What's not to like here?  Universal-International director Henry Koster apparently agreed when he caught her performance while Rhine was on tour in L.A.  A screen test followed and the powers of the day decided she was studio material and they signed her up.

If that's the good news, the bad is that it was Universal-International, not exactly the hot spot of the Hollywood factories.  Their product in those days didn't set anyone's head to turning and they never seemed to know how to showcase most of their actors in any serious way.  Blyth's first four films there are utterly forgettable.  Two costarred studio goofball Donald O'Connor and it may be that there were hopes that the two of them would be another Mickey and Judy, big stars at the studio that one day Blyth would call home.

Just down the street at Warner Brothers they were talking about her.  Some genius saw something in this fresh-faced, rather wholesome young girl that would enable her to play an ungrateful, scheming bitch of a daughter to sweet Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.  What no one knew at the time was that Blyth would play Veda with such force and conviction that she would garner a supporting actress Oscar nomination.  (Take that Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell.)

There will come a time that you will hear more from me on Mildred Pierce, part-soaper, part film noir but all high-stepping drama that is so much fun I could hyperventilate while watching it.  I don't know if being gay comes into play here or not.  What do you think?  To know that sweet Ann Blyth was playing mean to a mean Joan Crawford playing sweet kind of gives a diehard movie fan goosebumps.  I don't question in the slightest the Academy's wisdom (omg, could lightning strike me?) in giving these two women Oscar nominations (with Crawford winning).   Here, take a quick look:

She was to be reunited with another Pierce costar, Zachary Scott, in a good little mystery, Danger Signal.  While enjoying some winter fun, she was involved in a sledding accident and broke her back.  She was replaced in the film and was more or less out of commission for the next 18 months and had to wear a back brace.  U-I, not one to let their contractees lay about no matter the cause, put Blyth into a small role in the gritty prison drama, Brute Force.  She played Burt Lancaster's invalid girlfriend in a wheelchair.

You'll perhaps notice Blyth hasn't started singing in the movies yet.  It wasn't all drama, however.  She would again do comedies but unfortunately, at least in my not-so-humble opinion, I can't think of a good one.  One made with William Powell made a bit of a splash but considering it was called Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, I think you can see why she was in the fix she was in.  I have wondered if her comedies or the lack of making any good ones might have smudged her career somewhat. 

Her dramas were usually noteworthy stories and she performed well in all but most of them were either outright B-movies or the studio didn't back them or the public didn't take to them.  In dramas she was toughening it out with Mickey Rooney in Killer McCoy, was a suspected murderess in Thunder on the Hill and was an adopted teenager searching for her birth mother in On Our Very Own.  I think the latter was the first time I'd ever seen Ann Blyth in a film.  I would have been a mere babe but I vaguely remembered it for years.  I have since seen it again, and while a little over wrought emotionally, it's a film and performance I enjoyed.  She would also play the Bette Davis role of Regina Giddens at a younger age in Another Part of the Forest, a prequel to The Little Foxes, a role chock-full of worthy drama.

Her musical career at MGM began with The Great Caruso in 1951.  It would be the best musical she ever did and in my opinion the second best role she ever had.  Playing opposite studio bad boy Mario Lanza in the title role, she was smashing singing The Loveliest Night of the Year to him as they danced. 

Then it was back to dramas and in the case of the next one, a costume drama, The World In His Arms, where she played a Russian countess to future Guns of Navarone costars, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn, as naval men.  She was decorative in the time-traveler fantasy I'll Never Forget You with Tyrone Power and did good work paired with Robert Mitchum in the Korean War drama, One Minute to Zero, and then she was back in the big ships alongside Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger in the rousing All the Brothers Were Valiant.

When three lovely sopranos are at the same studio, it would not be unusual for all to costar with the same boy singers also at the studio or even boy singers not at the same studio.  But the only common costar that all three of our sopranos had was Howard Keel.  He would appear opposite Blyth in Rose Marie.  She was an orphan in a coon's skin cap who, of course, blossomed into a swan before the end credits and Keel was a mountie who fancied her.  They reunited for Kismet, this time playing father and daughter.  She was partnered with Vic Damone and adorned in all those baubles, bangles and beads, Blyth looked breath-taking.

She would also sing in a troubled production of The Student Prince.  It had lots of problems attached to it, not the least of which is it didn't bring in any princely sum.  Rose Marie and Kismet didn't either.  Any of these roles could have been played by Jane Powell or Kathryn Grayson as well, and they might have but at various points before the start of the third musical, both had left the studio.  Operettas, particularly, and musicals, in general, had lost their appeal.

Unlike Grayson and Powell, who were singing actresses, Blyth was a most reliable dramatic actress and her career could have gone on if she'd wanted.  But she didn't.  However, she had one final film to give us.  You may not think of Ann Blyth as one of Paul Newman's costars, but she was... early in his career.  They would play together in The Helen Morgan Story

Morgan was a 1920s torch singer and actress.  She would make famous the role of Julie in Broadway's Show Boat.  She was also a raging alcoholic who would die of cirrhosis at age 41.  A couple of years earlier Susan Hayward was a sensation playing a similar real-life person, Lillian Roth, in I'll Cry Tomorrow.  No doubt, in typical Hollywood style, they wanted to repeat the success.  Unfortunately it didn't work.  I don't know why.  It seemed like a good enough film to me although I was probably blinded by the beauty of the two leads.

Oddly, Blyth's singing voice was dubbed by a popular singer of the day, Gogi Grant.  And while Grant was good, I don't know why Blyth's own voice wasn't used.  It's true she was a soprano, but her voice also had a smoky, husky sound to it occasionally.  And that sound was certainly Morgan's.  What was wrong with Blyth singing the part?  Maybe it annoyed her so much that she said buhbye to the movies.

She was married to a doctor (a brother of singer Dennis Day) for just a month shy of 54 years.  They had five children together.  The little girl who had so much ambition was able to walk away and never really look back.

She still has a radiant smile and that lovely face always projects a look of joy.  I have always loved her voice and that includes her speaking voice.   And while her career has been a little lacklustre perhaps, she will forever be remembered for playing-- if you don't mind-- Daughter Dearest.  It's a performance we should remember.

Review of The Family

1 comment:

  1. Great scene in the clip. You're gay?