Tuesday, September 2

Jim and Paula

Who are they? Jim and Paula who? Well, all you sixties' movie fans know the answer right off, don't you? You youngins may be a bit flummoxed. They are Jim Hutton and Paula Prentiss and for a while, at the dawning of the sixties, they were the go-to comedy couple and quite popular. Her first four films costarred him. For awhile they were regarded as a new screen team. Together, it was said they could be the new William Powell and Myrna Loy... and indeed, I was probably not alone in seeing them as Nick and Nora Charles. Both were so adept at physical comedy and could deliver the most droll lines. Hutton, it was said, could fill the shoes of Jimmy Stewart and Prentiss seemed a natural successor to Rosalind Russell.

She was attending prestigious Northwestern University drama school and was virtually hijacked from classes by a talent scout and put under contract to MGM. He was in Germany working in an Army stage production when director Douglas Sirk took notice and hired him for a small part in his production of A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1958). After another film or two and some television, Hutton, too, became a part of the MGM family... the tall part of the family. He was 6'5" tall and Prentiss was 5'10". It seemed like destiny that they were paired together.

Jim Hutton was born in Binghamton, NY, his father died while the boy was still an infant.  He got into all kinds of mischief during his teen years, most of which ended when he developed an interest in writing.  That culminated in his employment at a local newspaper and then to Syracuse University as a journalism major.  But it was also there that  a desire to try acting overtook him.  He dropped out of school and into Greenwich Village where he, more or less, bummed around.  Then, with nothing else going on, he joined the army and wound up in Germany and his serendipitous meeting with Sirk.

Prentiss, born to a college professor and his wife, was the elder of two girls and always the tallest girl in school.  She would blossom into a lovely, comical stork of a young woman.  By the time she entered Northwestern, she was determined to study drama and see what there was for her.  She met future husband, Richard Benjamin, while she was there.  When she was plucked out of the university and given that MGM contract, her head was spinning too much to realize what was happening.

Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton, MGMs tallest newcomers, loaded for bear and comedy, were signed for Where the Boys Are (1960). One wonders whether they or Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton or popular songbird Connie Francis, also making her movie debut, knew what they were in for.  The story of the onslaught of horny students in Fort Lauderdale during Easter vacation was a big hit.  In California, teens like me acted pretty much the same way at our version of Fort Lauderdale, Balboa Island, where I am sure many of us were asked not to return.

The rather brilliant pairing of Hutton and Prentiss escaped no one's notice, not the studio bosses, the critics or the public, and the duo hardly caught their breath before filming began on The Honeymoon Machine (1961), containing a rare Steve McQueen comedy performance, about Navy personnel planning a casino robbery.  It was no Oscar winner but I thought it was an amusing couple of hours. 

Prentiss and Hutton were constantly in movie news.  They sponsored some products together, they were paired as Oscar presenters, and there were two more movies in their futures. In 1961 they seemed like an afterthought in Bachelor in Paradise, a super stupid Bob Hope-Lana Turner attempt at sex comedy.  And finally there was The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962), another weak comedy but for the first time they were top-billed.

These latter three were certainly not mega-hits and as the leads in Lieutenant, they didn't ring anyone's chimes so it was likely decided to see what each could do without the other.  So much for resurrecting Powell and Loy.

Hutton traded in Prentiss for Jane Fonda in 1962s Period of Adjustment, a better-than-you-think comedy about a scrappy honeymoon couple who are staying with friends whose marriage is collapsing.  Neither Hutton nor Prentiss was quite finished with Connie Francis and that's too bad because the singer's three films after Boys were simply horrible.  Hutton made Looking for Love (1964) with her and Prentiss Follow the Boys (1963).

In 1964 Prentiss arguably had her best role as Rock Hudson's overbearing girlfriend in Man's Favorite Sport? but I thought the film was another stinker.  She had a small part as Tom Tryon's wife in the all-star war drama, In Harm's Way (1965).  That same year she was one of a gaggle of goofy women in What's New, Pussycat?  Along with Romy Schneider, Capucine and Ursula Andress, Prentiss was a suicidal kook. 

Paula, top left, with Pussycat crew

Hmmmm.  One day on that set, not in character, she climbed the ropes to the catwalk and threatened to jump.  What happened?  Did she feel inferior to those European beauties she was working with?  Was Hollywood closing in on her?  It's long been said that being plucked out of the university and thrusted into movie stardom may have been too much for her.  Or maybe it was that MGM rather forced her and Benjamin to marry... not that they wouldn't have... but the moral clauses in contracts of the day may have sped things up too quickly for her.  She was hospitalized with a mental breakdown.  

She dropped from the scene for a couple of years and then appeared alongside her husband in a well-made but short-lived TV series called He and She.

She worked only sporadically from then on.  Most of her films are largely unknown or rather lacklustre.  The one exception was the spooky 1975 The Stepford Wives.  She and costar Katharine Ross have one thing in common for sure... both are in longterm marriages (Ross to Sam Elliott), not what one expects in Hollywood. 

In 1965 Hutton made a cockamamie western, The Hallelujah Trail, the too-cutesy Never Too Late as Connie Stevens' husband and Major Dundee.  It contained a good but costarring western role for Hutton in a troubled Sam Peckinpah production.  It seems 1965 was not a very good year for Prentiss or Hutton.

He had a significant part in Cary Grant's final film, the comedy Walk, Don't Run, perhaps the most viewed of his films on television today.  But with it basically came the end of a film career.  It didn't help that he was in two of John Wayne's worst films, The Green Berets and The Hellfighters, both 1968. 

Like others from this uncertain decade, the 60s, that early promise vanished.  Hutton sauntered into television, mainly in guest-star parts although he did make his own series, Ellery Queen, which I remember as being pretty good.

In 1979 Hutton complained of not feeling well.  A visit to the doctor revealed he had liver cancer and only six months to live.  He only made it eight weeks, too early to realize the success of his son, Timothy, who would win an Oscar for his first film, Ordinary People (1980).  Jim Hutton was just 45.

The Benjamins... married 53 years

I have never forgotten this pair from Where the Boys Are.  They were fun in their other films together, even if the films didn't quite measure up, and several movies without the other, too.

I wish Prentiss would write a book.  I'd sure love her to fill in the missing details.

Rambling Reporter

1 comment:

  1. Richard Benjamin? TEEN! TEEN! What an irritating voice.