Friday, March 7

Suzan Ball

She and I discovered movies the same year... 1952.  Of course my discovery came in candy-stained seats at Peoria's Beverly Theater and hers was on the silver screen courtesy of Universal-International.  My romance with the movies, however, lasted a lot longer than hers.

Suzan Ball only made eight movies.  The first two were in minor, uncredited roles and then as a leading performer in the other half dozen.  Her career came to a sad end in the summer of 1955, a mere three years after she blazed her trail.  A few days earlier handsome actor Robert Francis had died in a plane crash and a month later James Dean would perish in a car crash.  It's fair to say some lights were dimmed in 1955 Hollywood.

Ball is barely remembered today for her films.  She is more likely recalled for being the second cousin of Lucille Ball and for marrying actor Richard Long (later Barbara Stanwyck's son Jarrod Barkeley in The Big Valley) and for her death.

Like her more famous relative, Ball was born in Jamestown, NY.  She wanted to be in the movies for as long as she could remember.  Cousin Lucy must have sparked something in Suzan on that score.  She had a love of singing and dreamed of parlaying that into something resembling a job.  She could scarcely believe it when her parents moved the family to North Hollywood when she was 13 and just around the corner from Universal.

She appeared with chorales and in operettas in high school and landed on a TV show where bandleader Mel Baker spotted her and used her as his vocalist for three years.  Like many a young aspiring performer of the time, Ball moved into a large and well-appointed boarding house in the hills above LaBrea referred to as The House of the Seven Garbos.  There she would be befriended by Universal contract actress Mary Castle who thought Ball's dark, exotic looks would fit in perfectly.  Universal took one look at the young woman and signed her immediately.  Her screen test opposite enthusiastic Scott Brady proved she could act, too.

Ball was surprised at the interest the studio took in her as the buildup began.  They sent her out on publicity junkets for films she was not in.  They got her picture in every movie magazine.  She went on studio-arranged dates with actors her equal in the looks department so they could be photographed.  (One thing that could be said for Universal, they sure hired the beautiful people.)  There was always the whir of a camera shutter when Suzan Ball was around.  For whatever reasons, they opted for her to get her feet wet in adventure films.  She would play countesses, island natives, Indian maidens.  Today, all her films would be regarded as programmers, B-films, less than stellar.  Sometimes B-films become B-films only in hindsight.  A great number of them was certainly thought of as A-films when they were being made.  Sometimes the studios intentionally made a B-film which occasionally became an A-film as word-of-mouth became strong.  With Universal the total output was B, which is why I, as a young kid, bloody loved that studio.  Westerns, pirate movies, sword fights, great derring-do... are you kidding? 

And one day, there she was.  The film was Untamed Frontier, a sassy western in the distant image of the much more successful, Duel in the Sun, about a cattle baron v.s. those who want to take away his property.  Ball was a dance hall temptress who is blackmailing Scott Brady, the younger brother in the family that included Shelley Winters and Joseph Cotten.  One thing we all quickly figured out, this woman was gorgeous in Technicolor.

With Scott Brady

Ball and Brady began an affair which lasted through the end of their next film, a swashbuckling affair called Yankee Buccaneer.  Here she was a Spanish countess caught in the cross hairs between Brady and super hunk, Jeff Chandler.  She and Chandler became good buddies on the lot, always had good things to say about one another, and would work together two more times.  Today Yankee Buccaneer stands as hackneyed foolishness but I drooled in my buttered popcorn at the time.

The affair with Brady would end when Ball met Anthony Quinn
on the set of her next picture, City Beneath the Sea, costarring Robert Ryan and Mala Powers.  With that title, guess what two divers find after donning their tanks and hopping overboard?  Ball would get a chance to sing (Handle with Care) as a waterfront cafe singer.  Here, have a look:

More important than the film itself is the love affair.  Ball flipped head over heels for the serial-cheater, Quinn, notwithstanding his long marriage to Katherine DeMille.  Neither Ball nor Quinn seemed to care who knew and the press got right in there, snarling and tearing for meaty bits of scandal.  Universal would tell her to back off and she would say you back off.  It's not known whether the randy Quinn promised her a house with the white picket fence but by all accounts Ball fell hard under the spell of the actor's famed passion and dominance.

With Anthony Quinn

Universal must have gone all schizoid when they paired the lovers immediately in another film.  Never let it be said a movie studio is beyond capitalizing on a little scandal if they think it will sell tickets.  East of Sumatra was actually one of Ball's two best roles, although, again, today I suspect it's not a big request at Netflix.  Jeff Chandler joined the lovers in a melodrama about an American mining tin in the tropics and the native chief who wants to stop him.  Ball was Minyora, infatuated with both men.  By the time the shooting was over, so was the year-long relationship with Quinn.

But something else, a lot more sinister, had just begun.  The script called for the actress to perform a dance.  Quinn was not in the scene but was watching off-camera.  It has been said she may have been showing off a little for him when she took a terrible fall, injuring her knee on cement.  Ball was always regarded as a trooper... never complained, just went ahead and did what needed to be done.  In this case, she ignored her injury.

While on a trip in Massachusetts's Berkshire Mountains on another publicity junket, the car in which Ball was a passenger was sideswiped and she hit the same knee on the window crank handle, a circumstance she also ignored. 

On her return to Hollywood she became re-acquainted with a coworker, Richard Long.  They had met a couple of years earlier but without sparks.  Now that would change.

At the same time she again joined Chandler, this time in a cavalry v.s. Indian oater, War Arrow.  She played a Seminole chief's headstrong daughter who wants Chandler.  Oh who didn't?  Well, one other who did was Maureen O'Hara, back at the fort, no stranger to tempestuousness herself.  The two women made this rather worn story its only fun.

During War Arrow Ball complained of great pain in her leg.  She finally sought a doctor who discovered tumors.  Whatever advice they provided, she chose again to ignore.  She was involved in another car accident as well, aggravating her condition.  Despite spending a great deal of time on crutches, she and Long planned a wedding at the same time her doctors advised her she was malignancy-free.  The accident-prone actress then slipped on water on her kitchen floor and broke the same leg.  During her hospital stay, her diagnosis was not only reversed but Ball was told her leg must be amputated.  It was a lot to take in but she made the decision to do it.

She saw the career going down the tube and Long taking a hike, but he stayed and they married.  She marched down the aisle with an artificial leg.  Universal stayed behind her all the way and she was hired to play Victor Mature's strong-minded wife, Black Shawl, in Chief Crazy Horse.  It was now 1955.  The film is an above-average western, told from the Indians' point of view, and Ball delivered her best performance.  She was not able to perform any walking scenes so a double was brought in, but she handled all the rest.  This film is the most viewed of her work today.

With husband Richard Long

Public sympathy was strong and the Longs decided to take their show on the road.  Their nightclub act was quite popular for the brief time it lasted.  The public was eager to see in person the brave actress with only one leg.

When they returned home, they went into an episode of a TV series and she collapsed during filming.  Rushed to the hospital, it was revealed the cancer had now spread to her lungs.  Everyone knew her time was short.  Due to the medicine she was taking, it's been said her personality changed and the always sweet, good-natured woman became a total horror.  Long was apparently beside himself with grief as was a nurse who attended to Ball and with whom she had become good friends.  Perhaps it didn't matter to Ball that her husband and nurse became involved in a brief affair. 

What was perhaps more fascinating is that on the night the actress succumbed to cancer, in a semi-conscious state, with Long by her side, she whispered Tony.  It would seem an obvious reference to Quinn and Long was apparently haunted by the experience for years afterward.

I can still see her and hear her voice to this day.  She was always fiery on the screen and so beautiful to behold.  It was too short a stay.  She was only 21 years old.  One wonders what Suzan Ball could have become.

This is for you, Carlo.

The Directors

1 comment:

  1. I just saw Your article and I am a little emotioned for your kindness. I'd like to write more often and speak of no matter what. Actually I am writing my fourth book, but I am still making researches, because it develops in ancient Rome.I believe it will take a long time before it's over. My first one is a long letter to my friend with whom I lived 23 years. He died in 2008. When I read it after its publication I realized that there were many other things I might have said about us, so I wrote my second book under a fictional look, I mean part of it is true and part fictional. Then the third one is totally fictional and it's about three friends during the fifties and early sixties. Part of it is set in USA, because one of the characters is an American reporter. That's why I asked if You read Italian. I should have appreciated your comments very much. Well I don't want to bother You any longer. Thanks for Your patience. Forgive me for my mistakes. CIao (chee-ha- ho). It means bye bye. Carlo