Tuesday, October 13

Alexis Smith

Statuesque has often been used to describe her and it is an appropriate appellation.  Her height of 5'9" certainly was helpful as was that hair piled high upon her lovely head.  On the screen or off, she was never a slouch in the wardrobe department either, more than filling out those big-girl shoulder pads.  A smoky, husky voice suggested an air of seduction.  She had a demeanor that smacked of aristocracy, a manner that could be dismissive and a look that said I dare you.  I knew she was my kind of actress from the moment I saw her.  

Yes, it worked for me but I am not so sure it always worked for her until later in her career.  She was the leading lady to some of Hollywood's top leading men (Grant, Gable, Flynn, Bogart) and was often a second lead, often losing the man to another woman.  Her aloof, glacial manner kept her in unsympathetic roles for much of her career in the 1940s.  As such, she doesn't come out on the top of the pile of the well-regarded actresses of the period, certainly not at her own studio. 

She was born in British Columbia in 1921 but moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was still a small child.  She attended Hollywood High School and at 13 performed in a ballet at the Hollywood Bowl.  It wouldn't have taken much to open her eyes to the acting community.  It worked out fairly easily for her as well.  While performing in a play in community college, she was discovered by a Warner Bros talent scout and signed to a standard seven-year contract.

Warners loved to tag its actresses with often non-sensical little nicknames.  Smith was The Dynamite Girl.  I doubt that she lived up to that one but she was a trouper, it seems, at every level.  Troublesome though she often was on screen, off screen she was quite popular with the brass and the crew alike. 

After brief and uncredited appearances in a few films, she lit up the screen opposite Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray in 1941s Dive Bomber.  She was featured in a subplot of the war story as a woman involved with both leading men.  It is most noteworthy because it's the film on which she met her future husband, Craig Stevens.  She would work with Stevens again in the same year's Steel Against the Sky, a decent B effort about bridge builders.

Smith and Flynn were paired for the second time in the popular boxing biopic, 1942s Gentleman Jim (Corbett).  She was gorgeous as his love interest.  One of her standard roles, the haughty other woman, came about for the first time in The Constant Nymph (1943) with Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine. 

The year 1944 proved an interesting one for Smith.  She was the devoted wife in The Adventures of Mark Twain, although the focus was on Fredric March in the title role.  She made a delightful wartime comedy, The Doughgirls, about hotel room shortages and the mayhem involving too many people in one room.  She costarred with Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman, Jack Carson and Eve Arden,  Warners comrades with whom she would share the screen a number of times.  Also in that crowded room was Craig Stevens.

The Stevens' with Ann Sheridan in "The Doughgirls"

Stevens, who would one day gain his greatest popularity as TV's Peter Gunn, and Smith were married in 1944 and would remain married for 49 years. They had no children which allowed them to travel a great deal and to work together in regional plays.  They appeared to always be very devoted to one another and there was never a hint of impropriety although there was some curiosity which stemmed from the fact that both were gay.

She was part of the decade's flourishing lesbian actresses but she flew more under the radar than some of the others.  Of course, the marriage helped and that was the point.  Smith was not especially out and probably conducted her gay affairs with a chosen friend or coworker or employee.  That's often how it was done then.  More than likely she didn't connect so much with the gay community and had her moments with her discreet liaisons and went home to dinner with her husband.  Whatever they did, it certainly appeared to work for them... I mean, 49 years.

Some would say the two films Smith made with Bogart were two of the actor's lesser works, although I liked them both.  They were Conflict (1945) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), two noirs wherein Bogie had wife issues while icy, detached Smith is waiting in the wings. 

She was involved with famous musicians in two films.  In Rhapsody in Blue (1945), she lost Robert Alda playing George Gershwin to sweet-faced Joan Leslie.  One of her most famous roles was playing Linda Porter, Cole's lesbian wife in Night and Day (1946), although there wasn't a hint of gay in this popular but sanitized and highly fictional biography.  Watch it and tell me you don't see statuesque. 

I was quite taken with 1946's One More Tomorrow, a comedy-drama in which Smith, at the height of haughty, steals Dennis Morgan away from the woman he really loves, Ann Sheridan.  Wyman and Carson joined in as well.   Smith would make two more films with Flynn, both westerns, San Antonio (1945) and Montana (1950), both B efforts.  I never thought she was a good fit as a western heroine... I saw too much Park Avenue.

Toward the end of her stay at Warners, she was loaned to MGM to play Clark Gable's strong-willed estranged spouse in the gambling house drama, Any Number Can Play (1949).  What a good match they were.  The following year she was top-billed in a good little B crime-thriller, Undercover Girl, costarring Scott Brady and Richard Egan.

Smith said her favorite film was 1951s Here Comes the Groom with Wyman and Bing Crosby.  What made her so good in comedies was that she played them rather, if you will, straight.  Crosby turns her from a sparrow into a swan and the results were Smith at her best.  One of my favorite Smith roles was 1952s thriller, Split Second, where a vicious killer and his cronies hold a group captive at an atomic bomb site.  Smith and Jan Sterling got top honors as two sassy dames.

I just recently saw for the first time 1954s The Sleeping Tiger about a London shrink who takes a convict into his home and attempts to rehabilitate him.  Smith plays the lonely shrink's wife who  employs her own form of rehabilitation.  Dirk Bogarde couldn't offer enough flattery of his American costar.  As it turned out, it became Smith's last leading movie role.

She began accepting more television roles and acted in some plays, both with and without her husband.  Everyone did a fine job in 1957s Beau James, the story of flamboyant New York City mayor Jimmy Walker with Bob Hope in one of his best roles, Smith as his wife and Vera Miles as his girlfriend.  In 1959s The Young Philadelphians, Paul Newman is a ambitious young attorney and Smith is an older woman who aids him in some of his ambitions.  Unfortunately, she broke her back while filming a horseback riding sequence.  Then she disappeared from films until the mid-70s.

I was one of the lucky ones to see her headline Follies on Broadway in 1971.  Costarring with Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson, John McMartin and Yvonne deCarlo, it was a singing/dancing extravaganza about a reunion of former chorus girls at a theater that is about to be demolished.  Smith's musical talents were solid enough to win her a Tony for best actress in a musical and to make the cover of Time magazine.  In 1973 she did a Broadway revival of The Women, costarring Myrna Loy, Rhonda Fleming, Dorothy Loudon and Kim Hunter.  What I would have given to have been in that audience.

In 1975 she returned to films in Once Is Not Enough, playing Kirk Douglas' lesbian wife, enjoying a couple of eye-popping scenes with Melina Mercouri.  Her character could easily have been lesbian in the same year's The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane but Jodie Foster dispatched her before we could really find out.  I saw each film because I missed her and duly noted aging had not changed the glamorpuss one iota.

She acquired a warmth for her next two films, something she rarely displayed in any of her films of the 1940s.  She was a wealthy horse owner and a good foil for Walter Matthau in Casey's Shadow (1978) and was Burt Lancaster's former flame in Tough Guys (1986).  Unfortunately neither film fared too well.  In between she did a long road tour playing the lead in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

She returned to her acting roots playing a socialite in a small role in The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer but by the time it was released in 1993, Alexis Smith had passed away in Los Angeles of cancer, one day after her 72nd birthday.  Craig Stevens passed away in 2000 at age 81.

I always regarded her as a wonderful actress, utterly watchable and captivating.  I found it a little sad that she didn't rise to the ranks as some of her Warner Bros cohorts.  Here are her thoughts on the subjectIn those days I was fresh out of high school and delighted to be a movie star.  Films were pretty much escapist entertainment.  Besides, I was pretty much a utility girl at Warners.  Anything Ann Sheridan or Ida Lupino or Jane Wyman didn't want to do, I sort of fell heir to.    You know, people frequently feel it's a shame Warners typecast me but I don't believe that.   I believe I typecast myself.  I wasn't creative.  Certain creative people, John Garfield, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, didn't allow Warners to do that to them

Next posting:
One of those 20th Century Foxes

No comments:

Post a Comment