Friday, July 8

Dennis Morgan

Who?  Who is he?  Don't feel too bad if you don't know.  I suspect most of you don't although I would happily be wrong if that's not the case.  While he was an accomplished dramatic actor and an especially fine singer, his best film was a comedy and he only made a handful of good films out of 59.  Oddly, he was the highest-paid male actor at Warner Bros during the 1940s and that is really saying something considering that studio boasted such talents as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and John Garfield.  And Dennis Morgan was just about the best-looking actor around.  So, what's missing here? Why is he not as well-known as those coworkers?

There are perhaps several answers. One is that he was a man who put family first. What a concept!  His only marriage lasted 61 years and produced three children. He himself said it's not the easiest thing in the world to be a success in Hollywood and still be an ordinary husband and father. Imagine a movie star using the word ordinary as something to ascribe to.  The family was also very religious and it must be a challenge for such folks to make a go of it in Sodom and Gomorrah, California.

I suspect he was also a little too clean-cut for the likes of Warner Bros.  Studio bigwigs may have chafed at the hassles they involved themselves in with other stars but it was the kinds of dealings they were used to. Morgan seemed to be to Warner's what Robert Taylor was to MGM... capable and popular but compliant and colorless by some standards.  Oddly, Morgan first started out at MGM, in my mind his kind of place, but they didn't know what to do with him.

He wanted to be a singer and an actor from the earliest days he could remember.  Born in Wisconsin in 1908, he never misplaced his wholesome Midwestern values.  He has long been regarded as being Irish, a notion he fostered because he loved the Irish, but he was actually a Swede on his father's side and a Scot on his mother's.  He also did a popular Irish-themed movie and a contingent of the male actors at WB were Irish, so he fell right in step.

He worked with his father for a spell as a supplier to northern Wisconsin lumber camps but his zest for life was supplied by his music-loving mother and an aunt who became his voice coach.  He acquired a beautifully-trained tenor voice.  

He met his future wife, Lillian, in high school. Each declared it was love at first sight. They attended the same college and appeared in school plays together.  He began appearing in musical productions wherever and whenever he could.  He had some radio gigs and performed in some light opera performances around the midwest. It was in one of these performances that an opera singer, knocked out by his talent and looks, declared that she could get him an audition in Hollywood and she did.

It looked good that first year, 1936, when he appeared in a huge musical number of A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody for MGM's golden production of The Great Ziegfeld. Morgan famously sings the song while walking down the white stairs of a revolving wedding cake.  He looked good enough to eat, handsome and elegant, and then the public was informed his singing was dubbed by Allan Jones.  I wish I knew why.  After a bit the same year in the Jean Harlow-Cary Grant-starrer, Suzy, Morgan worked in one piece of rubbish after another at MGM.  To the studio's immense discredit, they didn't much know what to do with Grant either.

Soon Morgan was out at MGM, he moseyed over to Paramount who also didn't know what to do with him.  Oddly, once he went to WB, they, too, were at a loss.  At each studio it's not that he didn't appear on the screen but rather appeared in a lot of junk.

Things changed in 1941 and is often the case, his stock went up when he was loaned out to another studio, in this instance, RKO. Ginger Rogers wanted to hang up her dancing shoes and do a drama.  Kitty Foyle would win her an Oscar for the role as a young, lower-middle-class girl who falls in love with two men, one of them her wealthy boss.  That role went to Morgan and all of a sudden his name was bandied about.  I thought it was an ideal role for him while finding both the film and Rogers' performance a bit overrated.

Now WB woke up and seemed to put him in everything they could. Without question he became a popular leading man to nearly every big female star on the lot.  All his female stars thought well of Dennis Morgan. Merle Oberon and Rita Hayworth (not WB stars) appeared as rivals for him in Affectionately Yours (1941), where his comedic talent was wonderfully displayed.  

Wings for the Eagle (1942) brought Morgan together with two costars who would become frequent costars and life-long friends, Ann Sheridan and Jack Carson.  The slight story concerned a love triangle during the war but Morgan and Sheridan were a popular pair with the public so of course the studio wanted to team them again.

First up was Casablanca (1942).  Yes, yes, that Casablanca, the one with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  It was supposed to be Morgan, Sheridan and Ronald Reagan.  Morgan, Sheridan and Carson would appear together in Shine On Harvest Moon (1943) and One More Tomorrow (1946).  Moon was a songfest about real-life vaudevillians Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth and was a big success, with help from the title song.  I liked Tomorrow and its splendid WB cast but the story of a playboy involved with two women was not so popular.

One of Morgan's best films was the sister drama, The Hard Way (1943).  I recently reviewed it and you can catch up here in case you missed it.  Of course, I guess this paragraph makes the opening paragraph a lie.  If you read that review, then you have, you really, really have heard of Dennis Morgan.  I know we'll all get through this.

At this point, WB was already thinking of Morgan and Carson as a team.  The studio saw the success of Hope and Crosby at Paramount and of course wanted to duplicate it.  They didn't but it was a fun journey and the timing and rapport of the two friends was most apparent.  They made 11 films together... now that's a team. Besides the already-mentioned Wings for the Eagle, Shine On Harvest Moon, One More Tomorrow and The Hard Way, there was The Time, the Place and the Girl (1946), Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), Two Guys from Texas (1948) and It's a Great Feeling (1949), which was Doris Day's debut. They also lent their names to two of those all-star extravaganzas where the studio brings its roster of stars together in cameos, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Hollywood Canteen (1944) and a smaller film where they also had cameos, Always Together (1947).

The best of friends, Morgan (l) and Carson

Morgan was always billed over Carson... leading man and sidekick. They did dramas, comedies, musicals... some stories ended tragically and some happily.  Regardless, these two pulled it off and became best friends in real life.  Some of those later films were rather mindless but it was always a pleasure seeing them together. 

Morgan understandably got the singing lead in the studio's 1943 version of The Desert Song.  Of course he managed a few war films, like all actors of the era. The most famous, arguably, are Captain of the Clouds (1942), where he battled with Cagney, and God Is My Co-Pilot (1945), about a man whose dreams of being a fighter pilot are dashed when he's assigned transport duties. 

Canoodling Eleanor Parker

There was another wartime film that had a romance at its center, The Very Thought of You (1944).  It was wildly popular and owes its success to several things.  It has a delightful story that is admittedly a little dated today.  It has Eleanor Parker at the height of her youthful beauty and immense charm, a most perfect partner for Morgan.  And of course there was Morgan himself. Despite his numerous talents, there is no doubt a man with that face and that voice should be holding a beautiful woman in his arms. And if this isn't enough, again, there's another popular title song. 

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) has to hold the honor of being Morgan's best movie... certainly the most famous.  Every American Christmas will find it on the tube more than once.  And with good reason... it's just about as perfect a comedy as a film of the 1940s could be.  Barbara Stanwyck starred as a food writer who's been hoodwinking her public on her domestic diva skills and now is being faced with the truth at a Christmas dinner in her home. Morgan is a soldier who will be the recipient of her homespun skills. Stanwyck was an actress I incredibly adored and while we're all used to her in dramas, she was perfection itself in comedies. See The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire or this one if you think I'm spinning tales.  She was not a WB employee but the studio wisely hired her as often as they could.  One of her great skills as an actress was in making the other actors do their best as well and that is precisely why this is such a great Morgan role.  He knew he owed her one.

With Stanywyck in his best film

My Wild Irish Rose (1947) was the biography of an Irish tenor who became the toast of New York.  No one could deny that Morgan wasn't about the most Irish at the studio and this film certainly helped perpetuate that myth.  On the other hand, Morgan knew how to give that Irish lilt to his big voice and the film became a big hit with the public. Beautiful Arlene Dahl in her first starring role helped one of those formulaic musical biographies to the top of the heap. 

Whatever it was, it was Morgan's last high-profile film.  He would last work in A Love Boat television episode in 1980 while his movie projects were far below his capabilities.  A western, Raton Pass (1951), with Patricia Neal and Steve Cochran, was embarrassingly melodramatic.  How he and Virginia Mayo survived making a film with the title of Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951) is beyond me but they tried it unsuccessfully again four years later in Pearl of the South Pacific.  It had come to this.

And why had it?  From the studio's standpoint, he was being paid too much money for what they got in return.  If they thought the public stopped coming to his films in droves, he might have wanted them to remember who assigned these turkeys to him.  Some of them likely would have failed no matter who was in them.  From Morgan's point of view, some of the fun had gone out of movie acting.  He enjoyed singing more than acting and knew that he could happily pursue that in other media.  

Jack Carson died of cancer in 1963 at age 52.  Morgan was inconsolable.  He became a traveling spokesman for the American Cancer Society.  For the rest of his life he would be a champion of causes, giving his time, energy and money to those issues that interested him, particularly ones involving children. At the same time, Morgan had been a rancher for years.  He had a spread in Madeira County (near Fresno, California) and he dearly loved life there.

He never forgot Wisconsin or his hometown and would perform there as often as he could, especially in his later years.

Dennis Morgan died of a heart attack in Fresno at age 85 in 1994.

He was a fine actor, a very good singer and easy on the eyes.  More importantly he has always been regarded as one of the most likable stars that Hollywood has ever known. The town always referred to the Morgans as the Hollywood Family Next Door.

Next posting:
A 1963 Oscar winner

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I'm a devoted Dennis Morgan fan and collector.