Friday, October 21

No Sale: Girl Singers with Brief Movie Careers

As singers these four certainly hit the heights of fame with voices that soared on radio, with Big Bands, in supper clubs and concerts and certainly as popular recording artists.  It seemed a natural path to make a stab as actresses and yet when these four did just that, Hollywood's attention was brief. One captured an Oscar nomination and another appeared in one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time and yet... no sale.  

Dinah Shore
ended her performing career with her best gig... as a warm and gracious TV talk show hostess, almost exclusively interviewing a gaggle of her pals and other entertainment glitterati. TV, in fact, had been home to her for many years, most of her years as it turned out, which began with her 15-minute show in 1951 and then becoming the first woman to have a variety gig, The Chevy Show. She was a good-looking blonde during her TV years but a rather dowdy-looking brunette during her big singing years and her rather blah movie years. 

I've always considered that hair color as perhaps being at the crossroads of her foibles and successes.  She didn't have leading lady prettiness when she was before the movie cameras nor did she show any signs of becoming a good actress.  To be completely frank, I never regarded her as much of a singer either although there were a couple of songs (Blues in the Night, Buttons and Bows) where she wasn't bad. She was most definitely one of those who continued singing long after she shouldn't have.

She never lost her southern belle charm nor manners. Born in Tennessee in 1916, she contracted polio at 18 months but went on to be an active cheerleader in high school.  She was still a teenager when she decided she wanted to be a performer one day.  Pursuing singing and acting lessons, she wound up singing on a Nashville radio station.  She graduated from Vanderbilt University where she majored in sociology.  By the late 30s Shore was in New York, again singing on the radio and making her first recordings with bandleader Xavier Cugat.  She soon acquired her own radio show and worked for several years with comedian Eddie Cantor.

She took up the movies by playing herself in three of those all-star musical extravaganzas, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Follow the Boys (1944) and Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).  She made three more films starting with an awkward outing in Danny Kaye's film debut, Up in Arms (1944) and likely already had the suits wondering what they'd gotten themselves into.  Then came the gold rush western, Belle of the Yukon (1944) in which she supported stripper Gypsy Rose Lee who had the title role.  That was certainly two steps back. Finally there was the horribly-titled Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (1952), her movie swan song.  It was a blessing.

She met B-movie heartthrob George Montgomery at the Hollywood Canteen and married him in 1943.  The union lasted for 20 years and weathered an early-50s gossip-fest that whispered about Shore giving birth to a multi-racial child.  Quite possibly true, it never got much further than whispers for years but it was around the time she turned blonde and headed off to television.

Shore had a six-year relationship in the 1970s with then-boytoy Burt Reynolds which gathered a lot of press.  She died in 1994 in Beverly Hills at age 77 after a brief bout with cancer. 


Peggy Lee was a singer, a legendary one, who completely captured my attention and who had the makings of being a damned good actress and yet she appeared in only four films.  

She was born in 1920 North Dakota to an alcoholic railroad agent. Her mother died when she was four and she spent years being physically abused by her stepmother. She found solace in music and said she knew as a little girl that she would grow up to be a singer.  She was only 14 when she began singing on the radio in her home state.  After high school graduation, she went with a friend to Los Angeles and landed a supper club gig but life in the Golden State wasn't so golden and she returned to North Dakota and became a vocalist with a band.

In 1941 and by now living in New York, bandleader Benny Goodman heard her singing These Foolish Things and hired her on the spot to replace Helen Forrest in his orchestra.  Their two-year professional relationship and her sultry voice with its impeccable rhythmic timing and minimalist style shot Lee to the top of her profession. She made her first film, Stage Door Canteen (1943), in a specialty number with the band. She left Goodman that same year when she married the band's lead guitarist, Dave Barbour.  Her only child came from this union.

She would go on to win many awards and be the subject of many a tribute.  Professionally she was considered the epitome of pop jazz sophistication and one of the best interpreters of music ever and a prolific songwriter.  If she had a cross to bear it would be that she was not the easiest person in the world to get along with.  She could play the Grand Dame card when she wanted and she usually wanted, especially when one considers she insisted on being billed as Miss Peggy Lee.  She had tempestuous, headline-grabbing marriages to B movie actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin. Neither enjoyed being Mr. Lee. 

She played herself in Mr. Music (1950), a rare Bing Crosby dud but handled herself well in another dud, the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer, with a corny Danny Thomas. It's surprising anyone requested her acting services again but thankfully Jack Webb did. He was starring in and directing Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), a Depression-era, speakeasy music fest and wanted Lee for the part of the alcoholic singer roughed up by Edmond O'Brien.  Her tender scenes in a mental institution certainly are responsible for her Oscar nomination.  She wrote movie theme songs (Johnny Guitar, among them) and wrote the music for and gave voice to a character in the animated Lady and the Tramp.  She had a monster song hit with
Fever in the late 1950s and it became her signature tune.

In much of her adult life she suffered one illness after another although she usually espoused the show-must-go-on mantra.  In some of her final club work, she performed in a wheelchair.  She had a debilitating stroke in 1998 and died in 2002 from complications of diabetes and a heart attack at her Bel-Air, California home.  She was 81.

Rosemary Clooney was always a very, very fine songstress but I must confess that I absolutely adored her singing late in her life when her voice became as husky as her frame.  I recall that honey mixed with bourbon sound as I sat in a beanbag in front of a fire whiling the night away.

Not only was she a fabulous singer, she was a wife to Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer, a sister to kindly Nick Clooney, aunt to George Clooney and mother-in-law to Debby Boone. She was also a sister to Betty Clooney and it was as a singing sister duo that the world first heard the Clooney name.  Like Lee, Clooney had endured an alcoholic parent in her native Kentucky and a troubled childhood. Born in 1928, the eldest of the three, with a mother who traveled for work, the kids were farmed out to relatives for much of their young lives.  They were around music from an early age. Clooney first sang in public at three.  She had an aunt who had her own band.

Betty sang as well as Rosie did and they decided to become an act. After performing all over the state, bandleader Tony Pastor hired them and they traveled throughout the country. Columbia Records wanted to hire just Rosie, and Betty, who had tired of the whirlwind pace, elected to stay home and raise a family and let Rosie fly.  And fly she did.  By 1951 she had her first million-selling recording, Come on-a My House, a song she detested.

Soon it was one hit record after another, combined with radio, television and club appearances.  She would always claim that the frenetic pace of quick fame led to unleashing many personal demons.  In 1953-54, Paramount signed her to a contract and she made three fluffy, utterly forgettable musicals, The Stars Are Singing, Here Come the Girls and Red Garters.  If she was going to be a movie star, she might as well marry one.  She and Ferrer had five children but the coupling was an uncomfortable one and they divorced and remarried and divorced again.

In 1954 she made White Christmas with her life-long pal, Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen as her younger sister (actually she was older than Clooney) and Danny Kaye.  It's my favorite holiday movie which I usually watch every Christmas season.  It will keep her in the public eye as a movie actress.  The truth is she didn't like making movies at all, saying I think acting is the most thankless profession in the world.  This same year she played herself in a musical segment of her husband's film Deep in My Heart.  Forty years later she would have a bit part in her final film, Radioland Murders.

In the 1960s she was plagued with relationship, money and drug problems. Rock and roll moved her off the record charts. Addicted to sleeping pills, she gained much weight and ended up in a mental hospital. She wrote a thoughtful and very candid autobiography, got well, got married again and re-established a singing career. Clooney died from complications of lung cancer in Beverly Hills at age 74 in 2002.

Patti Page was so sweet that she could only have done so well in the sugary 1950s.  It may also have something to do with why she didn't do so well in Hollywood... she was way too saccharine for that den of devils.  As a pop recording artist she was the best-selling female singer of the 50s and her Tennessee Waltz one of the most successful and popular songs of the 20th century. Hit after hit after hit may explain why she was called The Singing Rage

Born into a poverty-stricken, railroad family of 11 children in 1927 Oklahoma, she began singing very young, sometimes for friends and always around the house.  While working in the office of a local radio station she was coaxed into singing and for a short while had her own 15-minute program.  That led to a band engagement which took her all over the U.S.  At the end of the Big Band era, she performed with the Benny Goodman orchestra.  Her clear, melodic voice caught on fire with the public although critics often found her too bland and later her choice of material too corny.

Nonetheless, she signed with Mercury Records and the hits kept coming... Old Cape Cod, Detour, Cross Over the Bridge, Allegheny Moon, Mockin' Bird Hill, With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming, I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine and the very silly but immensely popular How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?  (There was barking.) She was the first person to ever record The Sound of Music. There was a lot of country in her pop songs (and even some jazz) and she is certainly one of the first crossover artists.  She became one of the first singers (if not the first) to overdub her own songs (done originally because there was no money for backup singers).  Her last big hit was the title song from the film Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

She hosted several shows in the early days of television and while she did clubs (and later played Carnegie Hall), she was mainly a recording artist.  Everyone knew Patti Page and the lyrics to most of her songs. Her second husband, former choreographer
Charles O'Curran, fresh off a divorce from Betty Hutton, thought Page should try the movies.  She was certainly pretty enough but either her acting or the parts were rather lackluster and she would only make three films.

She was a peripheral character in, by far, her best film, 1960s Elmer Gantry.  Playing a sweet gospel singer was no great stretch for Page but holding her own against the acting chops of Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones, Arthur Kennedy and Dean Jagger must have been intimidating.  She was rushed into her only starring role in the comic book-inspired Dondi (1961), opposite Hollywood's most boring actor, David Janssen.  It may not be the worst movie ever made but it's close.  Finally, there was Boys' Night Out (1962), a tepid sex romp starring Kim Novak and James Garner in which Page is barely remembered.  She did get to sing the title song.  So much for an acting career.  
In her later life, she worked where she could (Branson, Missouri among them) and showed up at benefits, concerts and tributes, such a PBS special on music from her heyday.  With her third husband she went into the maple syrup-producing business in New Hampshire. She passed away near San Diego, California, in 2003 at age 85 from heart and lung disease.

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