Friday, August 5

Almost Famous II

Here we are, back again with three more actresses from the 1940s who certainly enrichened a few films with their luminous presences but who, for one reason or another, never ascended to the top of Mt. Olympus.  Each one I enjoyed in one film or another for years. Let's see who they are:

Nina Foch was someone I saw around the Hollywood area from time to time for years and we even attended the same party once. Her Hollywood days were pretty much behind her and she was teaching acting with apparently a long list of folks waiting to sit at her feet and soak up her thespian pearls.  Of the three women highlighted here, she definitely had the brightest and certainly longest career, and yet, like the others, despite a few leading female roles, it never really came together for her. 

Foch (rhymes with gosh) was born in the Netherlands in 1924 to a Dutch composer and an American former actress who encouraged her daughter in the arts.  She became a pretty good pianist while still in her teens and indulged in some painting and sculpting.  After a move to New York City, she became enraptured with acting.  She attended the esteemed American Academy of Dramatic Arts and managed to study with teaching greats, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg.  She was featured in a number of Broadway plays and in one of them was discovered by Columbia Pictures who put her under contract at age 19.

Her earliest work at the studio was in horror films and a few decent film noirs.  An ice cool, sophisticated blonde with a sincerity that transcended the world of make-believe, she inexplicably languished in B films while at the studio.  Perhaps she wasn't pretty enough for them.  She gained some momentum appearing opposite Cornel Wilde in A Song to Remember (1945) and that same year enjoyed, arguably, her best showcasing role, and the lead, in My Name is Julia Ross, a woman-in-peril noir.  She was excellent as William Holden's leading lady in The Dark Past (1948) and as George Raft's costar in Johnny Allegro (1949), her last film under her Columbia contract.  The studio didn't appear to know what to do with her and in truth, she was a far better actress than some of the ones the studio had under contract.  But in those days, if your name wasn't Rita Hayworth, Columbia didn't pay much attention.

She had already made a leap into television and continued to find work on Broadway.  In those days, the film community took a dim view of work in other mediums, particularly the little tube, and it may be why she never again rose beyond featured roles.  Luckily, a number of them were in big productions, starting with the Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) as an aggressive art patron who has a yen for Gene Kelly, only to lose him to Leslie Caron.  A year later she was sixth-billed as Marie Antoinette in my favorite
swordplay saga, Scaramouche.  

She snagged a supporting Oscar nomination (a gift, in my opinion) as a grieving secretary in the all-star Executive Suite (1954).  Two years later she had a small role as Bithiah who discovers the baby Moses floating down the river in The Ten Commandments (1956). She was way down in the cast of Spartacus (1960) as the manipulative Helena who encourages the arena fights to the death. She left films until the early 1970s but never made another truly great one.  I did enjoy her in the all-star AIDS drama, It's My Party (1996) and as Jessica Lange's mother in the poorly-received Hush two years later.

In the 1950s she was married to future Inside the Actor's Studio host, James Lipton, the first of Foch's three husbands.  She taught for four decades at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts and also taught at the American Film Institute. She considered teaching the most rewarding thing she'd ever done. She died in Los Angeles in 2008 at age 84 of a blood disorder.

Ella Raines is all but forgotten today but in the 40s she was an outspoken, no-nonsense, film noir femme fatale who never met a man she didn't try to tame or eliminate. As a young lad, I found her audaciousness mesmerizing.  I could never look at another actor in any scene she was in.  

Born in Washington in 1920, she had an unremarkable childhood and didn't develop a passion for acting until she attended college. She appeared in one play after another and busted with pride when a teacher told her she had a big stage career awaiting her. While shining in a New York play, movie director Howard Hawks saw her and signed her to a personal contract with a company he had such started with actor Charles Boyer. Raines was their only client.

Her career started with a bang.  Her debut as Randolph Scott's love interest in Hawks' war drama, Corvette K-225 (1943) caused a lot of chatter.  Wow, who's that?!?!  While she would just make 22 films, she certainly started out in some fine films.  She was already showing her gutsy side as one of the Bataan nurses in Cry Havoc (1943).  

Without a doubt 1944 was her best year with four bravura and quite different performances in three genres.  First up was Phantom Lady, a B+ noir about a secretary out to prove her boss didn't murder his wife. Many consider it Raines' best role.  She took to comedy like a duck to water in director Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero. Raines plays the oft-puzzled girlfriend of Eddie Bracken, a wimpy soldier discharged before ever seeing action because of having hay fever but returns home with great tales 
of bravado.  Looking more beautiful than ever and rarely more wilful, Tall in the Saddle put Raines opposite a young John Wayne and the fireworks were cinematic magic.  An acting force known as Charles Laughton personally requested Raines for his leading lady in the murder mystery, The Suspect.  It seemed she could do no wrong.

Raines turned it on in three noirs... The Web and Brute Force, both 1947, and Impact (1949).  Her usual moody attitude made her a perfect noir actress but also seemed to pigeon-hole her into B movies.  She began making films at Universal (never a step up in those days) and even worse, Republic Pictures.  However, the modern-day western, The Walking Hills, again with Randolph Scott, about a search for gold in the desert, was a treat I didn't see coming.  In 1950 she made another B, The Second Face, a worthy drama about a plain Jane whose life turns out differently than she expected after plastic surgery following a car crash.

While her later career certainly didn't have the glitz that it had in the beginning, the truth is that after she gave birth to two daughters, motherhood and family life became her sole interest.  She had been married and divorced from a childhood sweetheart and from flying ace Robin Olds.  Their long marriage saw them as high society members in good standing.  Raines died of lung cancer in 1988 in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 67.

Phyllis Thaxter was about as far from an Ella Raines type as an actress could be. She began playing the devoted spouse or partner early on and never seemed to be able to shake it.  I wonder if she really wanted to. Wholesome was her calling card and decency was her game in real life and in reel life she almost never varied from it. I always liked her.  She rather restored one's faith in humanity.

Born in 1919 in charming Portland, Maine, to a future Maine Supreme Court Justice and a former Shakespearean actress, Thaxter was appearing in repertory theater while still a teenager.  She was eager to give Broadway a try and it didn't take long for The Great White Way to create a path for her.  She probably fell a little bit in love with one costar, Montgomery Clift, whose closeness caused speculation they would marry. 

She took over the title role in Claudia when Dorothy McGuire left to go to Hollywood and when Thaxter finished the role, she, too, left for sunnier shores.  MGM took her on and immediately paired her with its sunniest star, Van Johnson, in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), a huge crowd-pleaser.  She had already decided that there was something about film-making she didn't like and thought she should return to the stage.  She later said she regretted not doing it.  The studio gave her the only top-billed role in her career in the film noir Bewitched (1945).  It was a dual role with one good and one evil sister. On the evil side, who knew we'd never see it again?

She enjoyed two wholesome daughter roles in westerns... Sea of Grass (1947) and Blood on the Moon (1948), and had a fine part as psycho Robert Ryan's girlfriend in Act of Violence, both 1948. Despite the success of the latter, Thaxter and MGM parted company.  She hired on at WB, a clear case of a duck out of water. She was patience personified as the loving wife of John Garfield in 1950s The Breaking Point as he cheats with Patricia Neal.  All three loved making this film.  She was certainly overshadowed by Burt Lancaster in Jim Thorpe: All American, the first film I recall seeing her in.  She had as starring role opposite James Cagney in 1951s Come Fill the Cup, a very good look at alcohol recovery.  

She had an unusual role as a resistance fighter in 1952s Operation Secret opposite Cornel Wilde and Karl Malden and was a special target of Ida Lupino's brutal warden in Women's Prison (1955).   Her career then certainly stalled when Thaxter came down with a form of infantile paralysis.  WB let her go.  If movies were out, it certainly didn't keep her off television, her bread and butter for years to come.

Thaxter was married for 18 years to CBS and later MGM head honcho, James Aubrey, and then 46 years to football player and coach, Gilbert Lea.  She would return to the movies for one last film in 1978 as Clark Kent's adoptive mother in Superman.  It is probably the film she is most remembered for.  She died in Orlando, Florida, in 2012 at age 92 from complications of Alzheimer's.

Next posting:
Boy Crooner

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